Rowntree homepage

  Family History Homepage

George Rowntree

The Reminiscences of George Rowntree
1855 -1940

written during the winter of 1935-36



My father was much before his time in granting two weeks, less one day, holiday each year. Market day was so busy that the holiday was curtailed by a day to provide what staff was then thought necessary for market days.

My holidays, sometimes with one or more members of the family, gave me the opportunity of visiting the English Lakes, Westt of Scotland, Ireland, North Wales, and so I got a " wander-lust" for further travels. The pleasure of holidays depends largely on your companions and I cannot mention the Pyrenees without thinking of James Henry Rowntree, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for flowers and butterflies made the holidays for me such as they could never have been otherwise. The Cirque de Gavarinie, a glorious circle of high mountain crags with water or ice constantly in evidence from our bedroom window, or again to Brittany and Normandy with the same company, where we saw the Breton Fishermen setting off for the day or the week's fishing, with fine nets for sardines, and the priest giving them a send-off in the early morning, with the prayer, "Help, Lord, Thy sea is so vast and our barque is so small."

Nor, again, can I think of Switzerland without associating the names of Joseph Rowntree, John Wilhelm Rowntree and his wife, Duncan Naish and others. On one occasion we were on the Lake of I.ucerne in light holiday costume. The clouds suddenly lifted from the summit of Pilatus, and four of the party, without further preparation, jumped off the steamboat at the first call, Joseph Rowntree asking us whether we were quite mad. The mountain railway, then driven by steam, took us so far and then paused for a drink, then began to drop backwards, and for a few moments we thought possibly J.R. was right ; however, with many halts and grunts we ploughed on through tunnels and round awkward corners until at last we reached the summit. To attempt to describe the view would be folly. You can think of the finest sunset you have ever seen, of a grand mountain thunderstorm with the echoes resounding, of the finest views of mountain peaks, of a perfect rainbow in the valley below us ; imagine that you had them all on one day and you can, in a measure, realise what a young man felt as he saw for the first time the grandeur of the scene. "We must see the sun set," and so we missed the last train down, and the last boat along the lake. The brightness of the sunset quickly resolved itself into the darkness of the mountain gorges, and on arriving at the foot we found ourselves five miles from Lucerne, where one of our party, Dr. Pierce's wife, was waiting our return. However, partly on foot and later in a trap (our ears caught the sound of a horse and trap, with jingling bells, coming along the road ; we bribed the driver to give us a lift) we reached our journey's end about midnight.

One autumn, during a holiday in Switzerland, Granny and I were staying at the Hotel Wagen, Lucerne; the roofs opposite the hotel were packed closely with swallows on their way to the Sunny South; the next morning the swallows had gone ; in their attempt to fly over the St. Gothard they were caught in a snowstorm and fell down on the ground. The porters at Goeschencn Station shovelled the snow off the lines, and with the snow were fallen swallows. These were put gently with some snow into the trucks. In thirty minutes the train emerged from the tunnel at Arola: the swallows spread their wings and flew south to Italy.

Early one morning, having had coffee at midnight, a party of four left the Hotel with a guide, lantern in hand, to ascend the Pitzblas mountain. It was a perfect night, the stars shone without any twinkle, as our starting point was over 5,000 feet above sea level. A small tarn, quiet, peaceful and black, reflected the stars perfectly. On we walked until our guide turned off the road on to a path through a Wood ; with a gradual ascent we got through the \wood, by which time the morning light showed the outline of the mountains. It was then 3 o'clock; being June, the sky showed signs of dawn, then, in the perfect stillness of the early morting, the out1ine of the snow was aglow with a golden line along the mountain tops quickly turning to silver, then the lower hills were lighted and morning had come. Up we went until we were walking, alpenstocks in hand, through a snowfield. On the right was the Pitzblas, on the left a precipitous cliff. All was still until, in one moment, a strain of music came to us from the perpendicular cliff. No sign of life, no sound of voices, could we discover; on we tramped, uphill all 'the time; the sound vanished and for half an hour the music was a mystery , until we met a group of musicians, who had been to the summit of the mountain to welcome the sunrise with a blast of trumpets; and we had heard the echo. The view from the summit was grand ; we got out our ordnance maps to name some of the peaks. No single mountain could we name; each seemed in its wrong place. We appealed to our guide, who told us that our maps were wrong. This we did not accept; was it possible that we had been brought up the wrong mountain ? Dr. Pierce, one of our party, tackled the guide, who at last acknowledged that he had brought us up the Rotondura; he craved our forgiveness, offered to take us up the other mountain, and, in the end, gave us the time of our lives, shooting down long fields of snow, "little man," as we used to call it at school when we went down the slide in the playground one behind the other.

Many of my holidays have left little impression; e.g. I went with Fred to Ireland in the late seventies. What I recollect is :
That we crossed in a paddle boat.
That I was glad to get off at the quay.
That travelling third class at that time was no joke.

The compartments were separated from each other by a wood partition, which went about half way to the ceiling. There were no cushions, and that reminds me, a hungry-looking man got into our carriage. He had not been in long before he asked us if "we had any objection to his getting under the seat until the Ticket Collector had gone past." We declined any responsibility. Then, "when the train stops, I'll just get out through the window" (the door was locked) "and stand down until the Ticket Collector has passed our carriage." This he did, and the skill with which he climbed up from the ground and through the window suggested that it was not the first time that he had done a similar trick. Once inside again, a collection was made, and a ticket to Tralee given to him. When the train stopped at the next junction, one of the passengers took him into the refreshment room and stood him some drink. The fellow told us that he had just come out of Dublin Gaol; he had had no food that morning and the drink simply made him a beast. All the passengers in the compartment climbed over thc division and left him. After a while, I heard a sound of the door of the compartment, being opened, and there was this man leaning on the open door, ready to swing out. I climbed over the partition, seized him by the collar of his coat and 1aid him down on his back on the floor , telling him that he would be killing himself. He opened his eyes, looked at me and then quietly said, "You think more of my life than I do,"

and so we left him to snore. The last I saw of him was still on the floor of the carriage snoring, while the Ticket Collector with a roll of newspapers, was laying about his head to try and wake him.

My recollection of Killarney is of a place given over to beggars who pester you all the way round, preventing the possibility of seeing the beauties of the Vale of Avoca or anything else. At another town, Bantry, my recollection is mud in the streets, and pigs going in at the front doors of some houses. But, further south, we were repaid when we got to Glengariffe. It was worth all we had gone through.

I cannot date the visit, but it must be over fifty years ago. No doubt things are different now.

In 1884 , Dr. Flint, our family doctor, being away, I was fortunate in being examined by Dr. Middleton, our medical man for the time being; ; he declared there were seeds of consumption and I was ordered off to Arcachon to spend four weeks, or more, if necessary , in the pine forests in the South of France. My father, no doubt very wisely, agreed to my going.

The country there was reclaimed land; the sands which covered a large area were planted with thousands of pine trees. These grew to be capable of supplying as much resin as the world needed, and an industry was carried on, the pine trees being tapped, the drippings running into pots like good-sized plant pots. These, in their turn, were tipped into covered channels, which conveyed the resin into large vats, to be cleared as required. A small health resort grew up on the shore, with its casino and other attractions. Just off the coast were large oyster beds, to which women rowed boats daily to collect the oysters. Within a short distance inland, cattle were reared by the peasants. There were no hedges between properties, but dykes with plenty of water separated the various owners' grounds. The herdsmen and herdswomen looked very picturesque, with cap and coat of sheepskin and gaiters of sheepskin round the calf of the leg. These herdsmen spent their time tending their herds by walking on stilts, with a stick like a crutch to be used as a walking stick or put behind and used as a seat. Provided with these the folk could stride across the dykes and look after their herds.

I duly reported myself to the Doctor on arrival, who shrugged his shoulders and said, "No sign of consumption." However, I was not for turning back home: reported myself in a fortnight; still no signs of any consumption. I then wrote to Jas. Henry Rowntree, who came out to meet me, and, as the report of the Doctor was still "quite clear" , we went for two weeks into the Pyrenees. This is fifty-one years ago. I wish it were practicable to visit lac d 'Oo again, a wild lake up in the mountains with mist nearly down to the water's edge. This added to the weirdness of the lake, as we listened to huge avalanches of snow and stones that came rattling down the mountain, though quite out of sight, owing to the mist. The village d 'Oo was very primitive; a rough cobblestone narrow road led up to the Inn. The front door step was the half of a millstone. Inside the house were sounds of talking, no lights of any kind, except one candle ; when the Innkeeper came to the door he could speak no French. Fortunately, his brother-in-law, a French cure, was staying there. He gave up the guest room to us and waited on us for all our needs. He found the window was the simplest way of getting rid of the slops. The smoke from the fire on the hearth found its way up to a hole in the ceiling. The old oak door, hung on wrought iron hinges with fleur-de-lys design, gave evidence, to the cure's satisfaction, that the revolution had never come up to the village d 'Oo ; I persuaded him to take down the door and give me the fleur-de-lys hinge. The cure also called our attention to some wood carving with words much more like Latin than anything else, his explanation being that the people had come from Italy and retained more of the Latin characteristics-than either French, Basque or Spanish. The grandeur of the Pyrenees was best seen from the Terrace at Pau, whence you look on the great range of mountains, with only one or two peaks along the whole length. Napoleon is reported by Charles Kingsley to have said that he would have to plane down the Pyrenees before he could conquer Spain.

From village d'Oo we went to Cauterets, where the only Bull Ring in France was kept open for the Empress of France, A great day's walk took us along a fine road up the Pyrenees, which ended in our getting beds at the Cirque de Gavarne. Imagine our starting with spring ,well advanced, swallow-tail butterflies enjoying the sunshine, and finishing at the Inn, where the oil was frozen in the castors and J.H.R. appeared with his blanket over his shoulders to keep him warm. The Cirque itself was a huge crescent of rock cliff with its back to Spain, defying any advances from France. The whole Cirque was covered with icicles coming over the top of the mountain, which, in later spring, was a series of waterfalls. A visit to Lourdes showed us the stream and the painting of the young maiden whose life was changed by what she saw and heard at the grotto. Strange as it appeared to us, there were the walking sticks, crutches and wooden legs hung up at the entrance to the grotto, where to this day people visit with faith that their ailments will be cured. The town itself is given up to shops selling souvenirs, conveyances offering cheap drives and candles to be placed at the feet of the portrait of the maiden . "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" ; and so we passed on, leaving the various Bagneres to be visited on our next journey, which is still to come.

Reminiscences of my holidays would be very incomplete without mentioning my last visit to Switzerland, when Malcolm and Nina took me with them in October 1934. For all three it was our first experience of an aeroplane. We flew from Croydon to Le Bourget and back. In going, we rose to a height of 5000 feet, and found ourselves in glorious sunshine, looking down on a sea of white clouds all round; when there was a break in the clouds we saw right down to the Steamboats on the sea and the motor cars on the roads in France, looking like ladybirds crawling about. Our speed got up to 90 miles per hour on the outward and 110 on the return journey. As a first experience of an aeroplane, it was exciting and enjoyable every minute of the time. From Le Bourget we went by car to Paris and thence by rail. It was very interesting seeing the new buildings at Geneva for the League of Nations, but the glory of the views from the Swiss mountains, especially from the Rochers de Nez, was magnificent. To have a clear day, so that we saw from the Oberland in the north to Mont Blanc in the west and the Dents du Midi and other mountains in the foreground, was never to be forgotten. It will stand out in my memory as one of the finest Swiss holidays that I have ever enjoyed.

Next Chapter