The Days of My Life, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 1


Danish origin of the Haggards — Early history in Herts and Norfolk — H. R. H.‘s father and mother — His birth at Bradenham, Norfolk — Early characteristics — First school — Garsington Rectory, Oxon, and Farmer Quatermain — Lively times at Dunkirk — Adventure at Treport — Cologne — His uncle Fowle.

There has always been a tradition in my family that we sprang from a certain Sir Andrew Ogard, or Agard, or Haggard (I believe his name is spelt in all three ways in a single contemporaneous document), a Danish gentleman of the famous Guildenstjerne family whose seat was at Aagaard in Jutland.

About a year ago I visited this place while I was making researches for my book, “Rural Denmark.” It is a wild, wind-swept plain dotted with tumuli dating from unknown times. There by the old manor house stand the moated ruins of the castle which was burnt in the Peasant’s War, I believe when Sir Andrew’s elder brother was its lord. Here the Guildenstjerne family remained for generations and in the neighbouring church their arms, which are practically the same as those we bear today, are everywhere to be seen.

This Sir Andrew was a very remarkable man. He appears to have come from Denmark with nothing and to have died possessed of manors in eleven English counties, besides much money and the Danish estate which he seems to have inherited.2 Also he distinguished himself greatly in the French wars of the time of Henry VI, where he held high command under the Duke of Bedford, whose executor he subsequently became. Moreover, he did not neglect his spiritual welfare, since, together with his father-inlaw, Sir John Clifton, he erected one of the towers of Wymondham Church, in which he is buried on the north side of the high altar, and bequeathed to the said church “a piece of the True Cross and a piece of the Thorns of the Crown.”

2 See Carthew’s History of West and East Bradenham, pp. 87–89.

I regret to have to add that there is at present no actual proof of the descent of my family from this Sir Andrew. Among the other manors that he possessed, however, was that of Rye in Hertfordshire, where our arms are still to be seen over the gateway of Rye House, which he appears to have built, that afterwards became famous in connection with the celebrated Rye House Plot.

The Haggard family reappears at Ware within a few miles of the Rye House in the year 1561, in the person of a churchwarden and freeholder of the town, which suggests that he was a citizen of some importance. At Ware they remained for about 150 years. To this I can testify, for once finding myself in that town with an hour to spare I went through the registers, in which the name of Haggard occurs frequently. One member of the family, I recollect, had caused a number of his children to be baptised on the same day, Oct. 28, 1688, though whether this was because he suddenly became reconciled to the Church after a period of alienation, or is to be accounted for by a quarrel with the clergyman, I cannot tell. Or had the civil wars anything to do with the matter?

Subsequently the family moved to Old Ford House, St. Mary Stratford-le-Bow, where, I believe, they owned property which, if they had kept it, would have made them very rich today.

I recollect my father telling me a story of how one of them, I think it must have been John Haggard who died in 1776, my great, great, great-grandfather, sold the Bow property and moved to Bennington in Hertfordshire because of a burglary that took place at his house which seems to have frightened him very much. His son, William Henry, settled in Norwich, and is buried in St. John’s Maddermarket in that city. His only son, also named William Henry, my great-grandfather, after living a while at Knebworth, Herts, bought Bradenham Hall in this county of Norfolk. It would seem, oddly enough, that Bradenham once belonged to old Sir Andrew Ogard, or Agard, in right of his wife, but whether this circumstance had or had not anything to do with its purchase by my great-grandfather I cannot say.

His son, William Haggard, like some others of the family, was concerned in banking in Russia, and in 1816 married a Russian lady, the eldest daughter and co-heiress of James Meybohm of St. Petersburg. My father, William Meybohm Rider Haggard, was the eldest child of this union. He was born at St. Petersburg April 19, 1817, and in 1844 married my mother, Ella, the elder daughter and co-heiress of Bazett Doveton, of the Bombay Civil Service, who was born at Bombay in June 1819.

I am the eighth child of the family of ten — seven sons and three daughters — who were born to my father and mother. As it chanced I first saw the light (on June 22, 1856), not at Bradenham Hall, which at the time was let, but at the Wood Farm on that property whither, on her return from France, my mother retired to be confined. A few years ago I visited the room in which the interesting event took place. It is a typical farmhouse upper chamber, very pleasant in its way, and to the fact of my appearance there I have always been inclined, rather fancifully perhaps, to attribute the strong agricultural tastes which I believe I alone of my family possess.

Here I will tell you a little story which shows how untrustworthy even contemporary evidence may be. On the occasion of this visit I was accompanied by a friend, Sir Frederick Wilson, and his niece, who were anxious to see my birthplace. Now near to the Wood Farm at Bradenham stands another farm, which for some unknown reason I had got into my head to be the real spot, and as such I showed it to my friends. When I had finished a farmer, the late James Adcock, who was standing by and who remembered the event, ejaculated:

“What be you a-talking of, Mr. Rider? You weren’t born there at all, you were born yinder.”

“Of course,” I said, “I remember,” and led the way to the Wood Farm with every confidence, where I showed the window of the birth-chamber.

As I was doing so an old lady thrust her head out of the said window and called out:

“Whatever be you a-talking of, Mr. Rider? You weren’t born in this ’ere room, you were born in that room yinder.”

Then amidst general laughter I retired discomfited. Such, I repeat, is often the value of even contemporary evidence, although it is true that in this case James Adcock and the old lady were the real contemporary witnesses, since a man can scarcely be expected to remember the room in which he was born.

It seems that I was a whimsical child. At least Hocking, my mother’s maid, a handsome, vigorous, black-eyed, raw-boned Cornishwoman who spent most of her active life in the service of the family, informed me in after years that nothing would induce me to go to sleep unless a clean napkin in a certain way was placed under my head, which napkin I called “an ear.” To this day I have dim recollections of crying bitterly until this “ear” was brought to me. Also I was stupid. Indeed, although she always indignantly denied the story in after years, I remember when I was about seven my dear mother declaring that I was as heavy as lead in body and mind.

I fear that I was more or less of a dunderhead at lessons. Even my letters presented difficulties to me, and I well recollect a few years later being put through an examination by my future brother-inlaw, the Rev. Charles Maddison Green, with the object of ascertaining what amount of knowledge I had acquired at a day school in London, where we then were living at 24 Leinster Square.

The results of this examination were so appalling that when he was apprised of them my indignant father burst into the room where I sat resigned to fate, and, in a voice like to that of an angry bull, roared out at me that I was “only fit to be a greengrocer.” Even then I wondered why this affront should be put upon a useful trade. After the row was over I went for a walk with my brother Andrew who was two years older than myself and who, it appeared, had assisted at my discomfiture from behind a door. Just where Leinster Square opens into a main street, I think it is Westbourne Grove — at any rate in those days Whiteley had a single little shop not far off at which my mother used to deal — there is, or was, a fruit and vegetable store with no glass in the window. My brother stood contemplating it for a long while. At last he said:

“I say, old fellow, when you become a greengrocer, I hope you’ll let me have oranges cheap!”

To this day I have never quite forgiven Andrew for that most heartless remark.

After all it was not perhaps strange that I did not learn much at these London day schools — for I went to two of them. The first I left suddenly. It was managed by the head master and an usher whose names I have long forgotten. The usher was a lanky, red-haired, pale-faced man whom we all hated because of his violent temper and injustice. On one occasion when his back was turned to the class to which I belonged, that I presume was the lowest, I amused myself and my companions by shaking my little fists at him, whereon they laughed. The usher wheeled round and asked why we were laughing, when some mean boy piped out:

“Please, sir, because Haggard is shaking his fists at you.”

He called me to him and I perceived that he was trembling with rage.

“You young brute!” he said. “I’ll see you in your grave before you shake your fists at me again.”

Then he doubled his own and, striking me first on one side of the head and then on the other, knocked me all the way down the long room and finally over a chair into a heap of slates in a corner, where I lay a while almost senseless. I recovered and went home. Here my eldest sister Ella, noticing my bruised and dazed condition, cross-examined me until I told her the truth. An interview followed between my father and the master of the school, which resulted in a dismissal of the usher and my departure. Afterwards I met that usher in the Park somewhere near the Row, and so great was my fear of him that I never stopped running till I reached the Marble Arch.

After this my father sent me to a second day school where the pupils were supposed to receive a sound business education.

Then came the examination that I have mentioned at the hands of my brother-inlaw. As a result I was despatched to the Rev. Mr. Graham, who took in two or three small boys (at that time I must have been nine or ten years of age) at Garsington Rectory near Oxford.

The Rectory, long ago pulled down, was a low grey house that once had served as a place of refuge in time of plague for the Fellows of one of the Oxford colleges. Twice, if not three times, in the course of my after life I have revisited this spot; the last occasion being about two years ago. Except that the Rectory has been rebuilt the place remains just the same. There is the old seventeenth-century dovecote and the shell of the ancient pollard elm, in the hollow trunk of which I used to play with a child of my own age, Mrs. Graham’s little sister Blanche, who was as fair in colouring as one of her name should be. I believe that she has now been dead many years.

Quite near to the Rectory and not far from the pretty church, through the chancel door of which once I saw a donkey thrust its head and burst into violent brays in the midst of Mr. Graham’s sermon, stood a farm-house. The farmer, a long, lank man who wore a smart frock, was very kind to me — I found his grave in the churchyard when last I was there. He was called Quatermain, a name that I used in “King Solomon’s Mines” and other books in after years. After looking at this farm and the tree nearby which bore walnuts bigger and finer than any that grow nowadays, I went to the new Rectory and there saw working in the garden a tall, thin old man, who reminded me strangely of one whom I remembered over thirty years before.

“Is your name Quatermain?” I asked.

He answered that it was. Further inquiry revealed the fact that he was a younger brother of my old friend, whom I was able to describe to him so accurately that he exclaimed in delight:

“That’s him! Why, you do bring him back from the dead, and he gone so long no one don’t think of him no more.”

To this Garsington period of my childhood I find some allusions in letters received from the wife of my tutor, Mrs. Graham. Like so many ladies’ epistles they are undated, but I gather from internal evidence that they were written in the year 1886, a quarter of a century ago. I quote only those passages which give Mrs. Graham’s recollections of me as I appeared to her in or about the year 1866. She says, talking of one of my books, “I could scarcely realize that the little quiet gentle boy who used to drive with me about the Garsington lanes could have written such a very clever book.” In this letter she adds an amusing passage: “I was told the other day that you had never been abroad yourself but had married a Zulu lady and got all your information from her.”

I suppose it was before I went to Mr. Graham’s that we all migrated abroad for a certain period. Probably this was in order that we might economise, though what economy my father can have found in dragging a tumultuous family about the Continent I cannot conceive. Or perhaps I used to join them during the holidays.

One of the places in which we settled temporarily was Dunkirk, where we used to have lively times. Several of my elder brothers, particularly Jack and Andrew, and I, together with some other English boys, among whom were the sons of the late Professor Andrew Crosse, the scientist, formed ourselves into a band and fought the French boys of a neighbouring lycee. These youths outnumbered us by far, but what we lacked in numbers we made up for by the ferocity of our attack. One of our stratagems was to stretch a rope across the street, over which the little Frenchmen, as they gambolled joyously out of school, tripped and tumbled. Then, from some neighbouring court where we lay in wait, we raised our British war-cry and fell upon them. How those battles raged! To this day I can hear the yells of “Cochons d’Anglais!” and the answering shouts of “Yah! Froggie, allez a votre maman!” as we hit and kicked and wallowed in the mire.

At last I think the police interfered on the complaints of parents, and we were deprived of this particular joy.

Another foreign adventure that I remember, though I must have been much older then, took place at Treport. There had been a great gale, and notices were put up forbidding anyone to bathe because of the dangerous current which set in during and after such storms. Needless to say, I found in these notices a distinct incentive to disobedience. Was a British boy to be deterred from bathing by French notices? Never! So I took my younger brother Arthur, and going some way up the beach, where I thought we should not be observed, we undressed and plunged into the breakers. I had the sense, I recollect, to tell him not to get out of his depth, but for my part I swam through or over the enormous waves and disported myself beyond them. When I tried to return, however, I found myself in difficulties. The current was taking me out to sea. Oh! what a fight was that — had I not been a good swimmer I could not have lived through it.

I set out for the shore husbanding my strength and got among the huge rollers, fighting my way inch by inch against the tide or undertow. I went under once and struggled up again. I went under a second time, and, rising, once more faced that dreadful undertow. I was nearly done, and seemed to make no progress at all. My brother Arthur was within hailing distance of me, and I thought of calling to him. Then — for my mind kept quite clear all this time — I reflected that as there was no one within sight to whom he could go or shout for assistance, he would certainly try to help me himself, with the result that we should both be drowned. So I held my tongue and fought on. Just as everything was coming to an end — for the breakers broke over me continually — my foot struck upon something, I suppose it was a point of rock, and on this something I rested a while. Then, waiting a favourable opportunity, I made a last desperate effort and struggled to the shore, where I fell down exhausted.

As I lay there panting, some coastguards, or whatever they are called, who had observed what was happening through their spy-glasses, arrived at a run and very properly expressed their views in the most strenuous language. Recovering myself at length I sat up and said in my best or worst French:

Si je noye, qu’est ce que cela vous fait?

The answer, that even then struck me as very appropriate, was to the effect that my individual fate did not matter twopence to them, but “how about the reputation of Treport as a bathing-place?”

I do not recollect that I dilated upon this little adventure to my relatives, and I am not sure that even my brother, who was four years younger than myself, ever realised how serious had been the crisis.

I suppose that it must have been earlier than this — for as to all these youthful experiences my memory is hazy — that we stayed for a while at Coblentz. I remember being taken on a trip up the Rhine that I might study the scenery, and retiring to the cabin to read a story-book. Missing me, my father descended and dragged me out by the scruff of the neck, exclaiming loudly, to the vast amusement of the other passengers:

“I have paid five thalers for you to improve your mind by absorbing the beauties of nature, and absorb them you shall!”

Of Coblentz I recall little except the different colours of the waters of the Moselle and the Rhine. What remains fixed in my memory, however, is the scene of our departure thence by boat. In those days my father wore some false teeth, and, when the steamer was about to start, it was discovered that these teeth were still reposing in a glass upon his dressing-table a mile or more away.

A tumult followed and in the end Hocking, my mother’s maid, whom I have already mentioned, was despatched to fetch them in spite of the remonstrances of the captain. Off she went like a racehorse, and then ensued a most exciting time. The captain shouted and rang his bell, the steam whistle blew, and my father shouted also, much more loudly than the captain, whilst I and the remainder of the family giggled in the background. A crisis supervened. The captain would wait no longer and ordered the sailors to cast off. My father in commanding tones ordered them to do nothing of the sort. The steam whistle sent up one continual scream. At last the ropes were loosed, when suddenly bounding down the street that led to the quay, her dress well above her knees and waving the false teeth in her hand, appeared Hocking. Then the captain and my father congratulated each other with a courtly flourish, the latter arranged the false teeth in their proper home, the boat started and peace reigned for a little while.

I think that it was at Cologne that we had a supper party, a considerable affair — for wherever we went there seemed to be a large number of people whom we knew. Among them was an aunt of mine, Mrs. Fowle, my father’s sister, who is still living today at a great age, although her husband, the Rev. Mr. Fowle, who was then with her, has long been dead. To her I am indebted for the following story of which personally I have no recollection. It appears that when the preliminary party or whatever it may have been was over, and at the appointed time the company trooped in to supper, they were astonished to find a single small boy, to wit myself, seated at the end of the table and just finishing an excellent meal.

“Rider,” said my father in tones of thunder, “what are you doing here? Explain, sir! Explain!”

“Please, father,” I answered in a mild voice, “I knew that when you all came in there would be no room for me, so I had my supper first.”

My uncle Fowle was a very humorous man, and the following is an instance of his readiness. While in France an excited Frenchman rushed up to him at a railway station ejaculating, “Mouton — Monsieur Moutain, n’est-ce pas?”

“Non,” replied my uncle quietly, “Poulet, moi — Poulet!

When at last he was dying on a certain Christmas Eve, the servants were sent for and filed past his bed bidding him farewell. When it came to the cook’s turn, that worthy person, losing her head in the solemnity of the moment, bobbed a curtsey and said in a cheerful voice:

“A merry Christmas to you, sir — I wish you a merry Christmas.”

It is reported that a twinkle of the old humour came into my uncle’s eye, and a faint smile flickered on his face. The tale is of a sort that he would have delighted to tell.

One more story:

Somewhere about the year 1868, my brother Andrew and I were staying at Brinsop Rectory with my uncle and aunt Fowle. He was a generous man, and, when we boys departed after such visits, used to present us with what he called an “honorarium,” or in other words a tip. On this occasion, however, no “honorarium” was forthcoming, but in place of it he gave us a sealed envelope which we were strictly charged not to open until we reached a certain station on the line. To this day I can see the pair of us fingering the envelope in the railway carriage in the happy certainty that Uncle Fowle had surpassed himself by presenting us with what the thin feel of the paper within assured us was a 5 pound note!

The station was reached at last and we tore open the envelope. From it emerged a sheet of blue paper on which were inscribed two texts, those beginning with: “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” and “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” We stared at each other blankly, for the state of our finances was such that we had counted on that tip and did not quite appreciate this kind of holy joke.

Oddly enough this piece of blue paper has chanced to survive all the wanderings of my life; as I write I hold it in my hand. Would that I had acted more closely upon the advice which it conveys!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55