Thursday, 28 September 2017

Agnes M Bald – ‘loopy’ or lonely?

One of Mum’s memories of childhood is that her aunt ‘Nan’ was ‘a bit loopy’.

Nan (actually Agnes Miriam Bald) was a younger sister of Mum’s mother Evelyn. She busied herself with writing poems and songs. She was a spinster who lived with her mother and looked after her nieces when they were in Worthing as ‘foreign students’ in the 1920s and 30s.

I had wondered what psychological problems Nan had. She didn’t look unusual so perhaps she was autistic or suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. Although she was treated as someone who needed support, she effectively looked after her nieces which implies some ability to function independently.

'Nan' in Worthing about 1930,
after the publication of Pencil Poems.

Then there was Jessie... 

Jessie was another aunt, two years older than Nan. She was apparently ‘even loopier’. She was so difficult to live with that she lived alone. Again, although Mum’s childhood memory was that Miriam was in need of help, she was able to live independently.

I have finally got a copy of Agnes Bald's Pencil Poems published in 1926. It makes an interesting read. India is mentioned along with her pets and impressions of her life. There is a poem about my mother 'Joan' and her sister 'Maya'. Amongst others, 'Tommy' and 'Peter' are mentioned but I don't know who they are.

Reading it gave me the impression that part of her 'loopy' disposition may have come from being one of the many young women at the time who had a husband or boyfriend who died in WWI. Nan’s sister Jessie may have also been a victim of such circumstances. As far as I am aware neither were engaged, and certainly neither married, yet as their life went on they both seemed to imagine that men were ‘after them’.

Some of Nan’s poems seem to be reflections on Sunday sermons. Her parents were regular churchgoers and staunch Baptists. As a child in India, she would have attended the Union Church in Darjeeling, where her father was one-time treasurer.  On their retirement to Worthing, they were regulars at the Worthing Baptist Church. Nan was obviously familiar with the Bible and there are several references to it in the poems. Other poems seem to be self-encouraging.

Her father and many of his generation liked to write ditties so the form was one she would have grown up with. The local weekly newspaper in Darjeeling, Darjeeling Advertiser (all copies of which are now apparently lost) carried this kind of poem also. The contributions of one such writer, tea-planter J A Keble,  were gathered in his book Darjeeling Ditties (1908).

Pencil Poems indicates that Nan had lived a total of 10 years in India, almost half her life to that point. She clearly missed her life there and was melancholy at the thought that she may never have the opportunity to return. This prediction proved correct. Much of her writing also includes a sense of despair at her own circumstances (which are never explicitly spelt out) and this is contrasted with self-talk to ‘be strong’ or ’carry on’.

Her childhood home, Tukvar Tea Estate about 1914.
Left to right: Nan, her father Claud, Mother, sisters Jessie
and Evelyn and brother-in-law Fred Marsh.
Her dog 'Ruffles' also features in the book.

Her father, Claud Bald had died in 1924 and his will made provision for the support of his wife and his two unmarried daughters. Both daughters were provided with a life-ling allowance which seems to have lasted just long enough to sustain them. Bald seems to have anticipated that they would never marry.

One of the stories about the sisters, apart from a general view that they were ‘eccentric’ was that they both imagined that ‘men were after them’; an apprehension which grew stronger as they aged. 

When Nan’s mother died in 1935, it was the married siblings, Evelyn, Wylie and the youngest Ruth who worked out how to finalize the estate. The two unmarried siblings were provided for with a specified amount from which they could draw an income. Whatever else may be true about them, their father would have felt obliged to provide for them as they were not married.

What I had not considered was that he would have known that prospects for them to marry were significantly lowered after World War I.

Now ‘loopy’ is not a sufficient explanation of their circumstances and ‘eccentric’ is kinder but not revealing either. Jessie was certainly isolated and may well have been quarrelsome but this does not mean she was ‘disabled’ in the usual sense. 

Although Nan was living in England when her book was published it is likely that her father Claud used his networks in publishing to support the endeavour even though he had died before the publication date. He had published several works in his long career as a tea planter in India.

Nan was born at Tukvar Tea Estate near Darjeeling town and spent her earliest years there, but as was the custom she was sent ‘home’ to Britain for education. Exactly where she went is not clear but she and her siblings were probably sent to boarding schools in Scotland and during holidays stayed with families who may or may not have been known to their parents.

A brief chronology of her life runs as follows. It is likely that her life was similar to her sister Miriam but there is almost no direct evidence of Miriam’s activities except that she was born at Badamtam Tea Estate, Darjeeling and died in 1954 in Dorset.

Chronology for Agnes Miriam Bald

24 February 1894 - Born at Tukvar Tea Estate, Darjeeling, India.

4 March 1898 – Birth of her sister Ruth Stewart Bald at Tukvar.

1901 - She was a scholar with her sister Jessie boarding in Argyll, Scotland.

2 Apr 1911 - She was living in Islington, London, England but returned to India.

1914-1918 – First World War.

23 Jun 1919 -Arrives in London, England with her parents.

August 1922 – Visit of her eldest sister Mrs Evelyn Marsh with her two young daughters, Joan 18 months and ‘Maya’ 3 years.

31 Dec 1924 - Death of her father Claude Bald (1853–1924) at Worthing.

Early 1926 – Publication of Pencil Poems.

18 Aug 1935 - Death of Mother Margaret (to whom her book was dedicated) at Worthing.

In the 1930 - 1940s – Secretary to Worthing branch of the Lord's Day Observance Society, foundation member and secretary to the Worthing branches of the Women’s International Fellowship, Protestant Alliance and Women’s World Day of Prayer.

4 May 1950 – Death in Worthing.

Mother and siblings about 1905.
Brother Wylie standing.
Seated left to right:
Ruth, Margaret (her mother), 'Nan', Jessie and Evelyn.

The next post describes more of Nan’s writing with a few examples from Pencil Poems to illustrate her preoccupations and mood.

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