Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Old Mill Hillians Rugby Football Club

While the majority of Reggie's ancestors came to America well before its War of Independence, his grandfather Darling emigrated to this country in 1905.  Born Francis Ambrose Longbottom Darling, Reggie's grandfather was a schoolboy of fourteen when he left England, the land of his forebears, to spend the rest of his days in America.

Francis A. L. Darling was not what one typically thinks of when considering the masses of humanity that emigrated to this country at the beginning of the last century.  He came from a comfortably off, upper-middle-class English family and arrived as a first-class passenger on the ship he sailed in on.  Francis was sent to live with relatives in Massachusetts because his father had been killed in a freak accident while riding in a hansom cab in London, and his mother was considered incapable of raising Francis and his sister Nanette on her own due to a propensity to dipsomania, which became chronic with the shock of her husband's untimely death.  Or so the story goes.  Interestingly, Francis' mother was also named Frances (pronounced identically but spelled differently), but was known as Fanny, which caused me and my siblings no end of amusement growing up, since her maiden name was Longbottom.

Prior to moving to this country, Grandfather Darling attended Mill Hill School in London, an all boy's public school (it has since gone co-ed).  He finished his secondary school education in America, where he attended the Mount Herman School for Boys (as it was then known), followed by Yale, and then the Union Theological Seminary.  As I have written in a previous post, Grandfather Darling was a man of the cloth and spent the better part of his career as a minister leading a large and robust congregation of the faithful in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Dr. and Mrs. Frank A. Darling, circa 1938

At some point after moving to America, Francis A. L. Darling legally changed his name to Frank A. Darling, masculinizing his first name and dropping his second middle name.  When I asked him as a boy why he did this, he told me that it was because it sounded more American to him, and he wanted to fit in in his adopted country.  However, given what I have subsequently learned about his rather tumultuous adult relationship with his mother, who ultimately went certifiably mad, I believe his real motive was to sever such a direct connection to the woman whom he believed to have abandoned him as a boy, when he was sent off to live in this country with no prospect of ever returning to England.  He clearly had issues with this, and with her.  And I think I would have issues, too, if I had been sent off as a boy of fourteen by my mother to live with distant relatives in a foreign land, never to return.

Frank Darling was a great clothes horse for most of his life and also a great pack rat.  It was a family joke that it was virtually impossible to get him to part with something once he had acquired it, clothing in particular.  When he died in the mid 1970s he left behind an astonishing amount of clothes and related accessories that he had accumulated over fifty or more years.  If I remember correctly, and it has been some time now, I think there were more than sixty suits in his closets, over forty sport jackets, and seventy or so pairs of trousers.  Plus there was an equally jaw-dropping number of shirts, ties, shoes, hats, etc.  Included in this mass of clothing were such oddities as a pith helmet (to our knowledge he had never been to such a place that required the use of one), his running shoes from when he was on the Yale track team, and a blazer from the Mill Hill School.

While most of my grandfather's clothing was sent to a nearby college's theater department, my mother--who was given the task of sorting through and packing up his clothes--put aside several of the more interesting pieces for me and my brother, Frecky.  The frock coat and collapsable silk top hat that I got are long gone, but I have managed to hold on to my grandfather's Mill Hill blazer.

Made out of chocolate brown wool with stitched binding in the same color, the blazer has silver buttons and the school's crest on the breast pocket, along with the letters OMRFC.  The maker's label is so frayed that it is impossible to read who made it.  Inside the blazer's breast pocket I found this card, written in my grandmother's handwriting, that explained what OMRFC stood for:

"Old Millhillians Rugby Football Club."  I have always found it amusing that my grandfather, who, according to my grandmother did not play rugby at Mill Hill, owned this blazer.  Clearly he had fond associations of the school, for he bought the blazer twenty or more years after he would have graduated from it, had he stayed in England.  But how is it that he came to own this particular one, with the OMRFC letters upon it?

When I inherited the blazer it did not fit me.  I was able to wear it for a time, though, after I had the body taken in and the sleeves lengthened.  However, with the thickening that middle age has brought upon me the blazer no longer fits me, and it mostly hangs in a closet.  That is, when Boy doesn't wear it, as the blazer fits his more youthful figure, and he goes about in it from time to time.  But it is a rather fragile garment, having been made over eighty years ago, and Boy only wears it infrequently, on special occasions.

My grandfather's blazer is a treasured possession of mine, and something that I will never part with so long as I remain sentient.  I value it because it is a vivid connection with him, and one that is intensified by knowing that he not only owned it, but wore it, too.  The blazer was something that my grandfather valued sufficiently to seek out and buy on a return trip to England, and then kept (along with a lot of other clothes) for more than fifty years.  While I also own a number of other things that I inherited from him (bits of silver, cufflinks, and such), none of them resonate with me in quite the same way.

Tell me, do you have something that you inherited that you also treasure?


  1. Dear Reggie, What an intriguing story. At one point I began to wonder if this was all remarkably similar to the tale of Mrs. Imelda Marcos's shoes after her fall from grace [although I understand that she is doing/has done a come back, as they say].

    Antique clothes are, of course, the height of fashion now, particularly so in recession torn Brtain where the possession of money no longer is. I think that Boy in the blazer must look frightfully Brideshead and I do hope that he is also able to sport a suitable scarf and teddy bear.

    As for something inherited and treasured, then one must answer all of one's furniture. To have bought it, as I am sure you well appreciate, is very nouveau riche as opposed to the more acceptable ancien riche!

  2. Reggie --

    Let me take a half-swing at your question by describing what's in my city dressing room, which also contains my home computer.

    There's a Charleston high-boy from The Battery and a small chest of drawers from Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill. On one wall, there's an all-too-cluttered John Henry Belter rosewood desk from Fifth Avenue; its top is covered with silver tobacco boxes from New Amsterdam; on the fold-down desktop there's an 18th century inkwell that belonged to the Penns ("liberated" during the Revolution) and a leather correspondence folder that belonged to my g-g-grandfather. (There are also assorted silver desk items, all engraved with initials, crests, mottoes, etc.) In the corner there are a half dozen walking sticks and an old metal tube that contains the construction drawings for a house on Washington Square. On the bookshelf, there are family Bibles and diaries dating back to the 18th century, as well as first editions of books written by friends and relatives. (Woodhouse is there, too, along with motley other things.) On one wall, there is a painting of a ship in New York harbor c. 1840 -- part of a fleet that sailed back and forth between Europe, India and the United States. Beside it there are silhouettes and sketches of long-dead relations, and a photograph of my g-grandmother in the dress she wore on the day she was presented to the Widow of Windsor. And on the window sill -- the one thing I would grab in the event of a fire -- a cast iron train that belonged to my grandfather.

    (I would add: I have a ridiculous number of family things, here and in the country, the consequence of having habitually preferred objects to cash when estates were settled. Some of these things are valuable, some not. The one thing I value most in the city is worth almost nothing -- but to me it's priceless.)

    P.S. Boy should obviously have someone make a perfect copy of that jacket.

  3. I must show this to my best friend Christopher. He wears his school jacket to important events (like my daughter's Christening) and he also, for some reason, owns a pith helmet.
    It is like he is from another time, though he is only 47.

    Thank you for sharing more of your family history with us.

  4. What a great story and jacket! I have all of my grandfather's cufflinks which I love to wear, as well as his watch (which is a bit too 'fancy' to wear very often). It's great having this bit of one's heritage about.

  5. Believe it or not, I have my father's olive drab Army pants from Korea (well, from Ft. Riley, KS, as he was still in OCS when the war ended). I still wear them, lol!

  6. The tailoring is just wonderful. I wish more people paid attention to such detailing these days. I had never really thought about making notes about articles of clothing until my mother recently gave me an envelope containing my great-great-grandmother's wedding handkerchief. My grandmother had written a note about it on the envelope. I think I will add one of my own before passing it on.

  7. When FD's closet was emptied it took over an hour and a half just to remove the handkerchiefs that were stashed in the pockets - over 90 simple white cotton squares!

  8. I've been blessed to inherit several pieces of furniture and a bit of jewelry, but one of my favorites is a small walnut chair, which was made especially for my grandfather to sit in during his grandfather's funeral. My grandfather would have been about two at the time at the time of my great-great's death. I find it heartbreaking that such a young child would not be permitted to curl up in his mother's lap but instead expected to sit up (and sit still, I'm sure) like a gentleman! Today, the chair is on our den hearth, a happy reminder of my wonderful grandfather.

  9. um, a buncha stuff?:). Seriously, I wore a silver lame dress of my grandmother's, with a jeweled star at the hip, in HIGH SCHOOL! What was my mother thinking to let me have that? Probably just trying to keep me quiet. Which was hard:).

  10. Oh Reggie, you have struck another scholastic chord with me. My father was an enthusiastic member of the Old Millhillians Rugby Club and kept many friends from his schooldays. They were marvellous chaps as I remember them. By far the most interesting was Derek Hill who worked in the family firm HIggs & Hill that built LIBERTY's in Regent St, and Dartmouth Royal Naval College. His wife, Martha Wentworth HIll was a native of Maine and went to Vassar. I was terrifically proud to have as my godmother. (Incidentally when Pa visited her parents in America, Martha's father ticked him off for the loud checks of his sports jacket! Oops.)

    I never saw an OMRC blazer but one of my sister has father's old brown velvet cap with an extravagant, somewhat tarnished, tassel. Presumably he was capped for playing in the First XV.

  11. I have my mother's leather book strap. They simple had a leather sort of leash with a buckle to carry the books to and from school. I love it for the simplicity.
    A "button hook" from my Mom, her Father had a shoe store and the ladies need this to hook the buttons on their shoes and the men's spats.

  12. Edith Hope: Thank you for your comment. Reggie has not inherited much in the way of furniture yet, since what is left of his ancestor's furnishings that hasn't already gone to his older siblings (who were in line ahead of Reggie when it came to doling out such things) remains firmly in the hands of his stepmother, who has survived his father for almost twenty years. Since she does not appear to be inclined to let it out of her grasp any time soon, Reggie has had to buy his own furniture. But he doesn't really mind all that much, since he has his own taste and rather prefers buying and living with what he likes rather than being held hostage to the taste of his forebears, which he admits was not always superlative. MD got rid of at least four houses worth of (mostly) good quality 19th furniture and goods she inherited over the years, far preferring the then more fashionable Scandinavian modern that she was enamored with at the time. While Reggie would have indeed liked to have his pick of the furniture she inherited, it was long gone before he had a say in such matters. So it goes.

    Ancient: It sounds to Reggie that you live amongst a treasure trove, indeed. But then that doesn't surprise him one bit.

  13. I have had the great fortune to live only miles away from my grandparents - them in Old Town Alexandria and me in Kalorama Triangle - and learn so much about their previous lives meeting at the CIA in the 60's, living in CT, Michigan, and returning to Alexandria to restore a 19th century row house on a historic cobble stone street.

    Throughout their lives they have held to the ideals of buying quality classic clothing. As a result I have inherited two pieces I wear with some frequency:

    1. A Camel Hair Duffle Coat from the Olde Georgetown Shop: My grandfather can't remember if it was procured while he was at Lawrenceville or during his days at Bard, but when I wear it on cold days I imagine him wearing it on ivy covered campuses up North. The authentic horn toggles are very nice as well.

    2. A Tartan Shawl Collar Dinner Jacket from The Brethren: Bought in the 80's when working on a special NASA project for the Administration, to be worn at the rounds of holiday parties in the District, only to learn that his colleague, a superior, that he would attend the events with had the same jacket and as a result got to pull the trump card on who wore it for fear of looking like the hired help - albeit in plaid.

    As a result I now wear it to an annual party at the City Tavern Club each holiday season.

    While there are a handful of other wonderful things I've been gifted, these two definitely stand out given the context of this essay.

  14. As an avid rugger I say nothing is more proper and masculine than that jacket. It is what Ralph' Rugby line wishes to be but never will.
    @Rose, that cap is a treasure beyond measure. We still talk of players being "capped" but we never actually do it. Hold on to that...
    And to think, all the teams I ever played for hold to the tradition of running a Zulu, but not the cap.


  15. Yes. My grandfather's 1957 Bulova watch. Every time I wind it up - twice a day- I think of him.

  16. I think the Man looks dapper as hell in this jacket-that idea of having one tailored like it to wear is great. why don't you install it somewhere at Darlington- a guest room on a wonderful vintage mannequin? or Reggie may find it gauche but-I have been intrigued by the framed clothes I occasionally see. a billiard cloth to mount it on-fillets (of course). I have loads of things past down a few handmade things my great great grandmother had in her trousseau especially a cotton embroidered,cutwork, nightgown.

  17. DaniBP: Your friend does sound dapper, indeed!

    ArchitectDesign: Perhaps you might consider doing a post on your grandfather's cufflinks and watch?

    Patsy: Wearing one's parent's or grandparent's clothing is, indeed, a vivid connection.

    Janet: The notes left with such garments are a wonderful connection with the past owner(s), and provide useful context for future generations. I would not have known much about my grandfather's blazer without my Granny Darling's note.

    Sister: I forgot about all those handkerchiefs! I only recently threw out the last one of his (beautifully monogrammed I might add) that I had left when it ripped to shreds after years of use by both him and me.

    T&CMom: What a dear little chair that must be.

    LPC: You must have been a sensation in that dress!

    Rose: Not only Sherborne, but Mill Hill too? Remarkable!

    PVE: Would you please consider doing a post about your mother's book strap? I'd love to see one...

  18. The posting has made me reflect on things from the past. Just two weeks ago, I helped my parents empty their attic. Because they can't bend in such a narrow attic space, I handed down boxes and we moved them to a more convenient spot so that my parents could sort through them. Yesterday my mom sorted through old pictures and told me how "Uncle Bud" doesn't have any surviving children or grandchildren. She said it made her sad to think no one will remember him. I reminded her that when his wife died,some twenty years after he died, I inherited a locket that has no value except to keep our memories of him alive. The locket shows a picture of him on one side and on the other he is waving out the window at his wife! My 17-year-old daughter loves this locket though she never met Bud, but remembers Esther's sloppy kisses.

    They were a sweet old couple. Any time years after his death when Aunt Esther spoke of him she would get tears in her eyes. Aunt Esther married Uncle Bud in 1941 after he had raised two girls on his own. In 1928, his first wife died in child birth delivering a boy who also didn't survive the delivery. Bud himself was called Buddy as a boy and wasn't given his official name of Waldo until he was 4.

    Anyway, this locket keeps our memories alive of our loving Aunt Esther and also of Uncle Bud and his two strange daughters and how life can turn out completely different than what you expect it to be.

    Regie, you are wonderful!

  19. DAM: You are fortunate, indeed, to live near to such stylish and generous grandparents.

    Brohammas: I first came upon you on Easy and Elegant. Thank you for your comment, much appreciated!

    Voicetalk: That is a treasure!

    LA: How lovely! Have you ever worn the nightgown?

    janfaw: That is a lovely story, and a beautiful comment. Thank you very much.

  20. You can imagine my delight upon discovering your blog and, more importantly, your posting on your Old Mill Hillian grandfather. We are indeed fortunate to be members of the same club (gasp!), as my grandfather graduated from there in 1892 and promptly enrolled in the Royal Nautical Training College in order to train as a sailor. You can imagine my great grandparents chagrin at that turn of events, as Mill Hill was founded to educate the children of Congregational ministers, and, it was hoped, to crank out more!
    My grandfather, Bernard Hilary Thomson, who emigrated to San Francisco in 1918, went on to have a career as an hotelier in Kyoto and later as an innovator in the world cruise business with Cunard & Thomas Cook & Sons. He was a sartorially resplendent individual, who despite his 40+ year residency in the U.S. continued to have all his clothes (including his underpants) made by his tailors, Beale & Inman on Bond Street. I was fortunate to inherit his tie collection when I was just embarking on my 'career' as a Harvard clubman in the early '70s. And I thought I was lucky until I read about your blazer. For that you will pay,!

  21. Dear digammaclub: Thank you for your comment, which Reggie found very interesting and well-written. Your grandfather sounds a most accomplished chap, indeed! I was not aware of the Congregational minister connection of Mill Hill, and have learned something accordingly. In fact, I knew almost nothing of the school prior to researching this post. RD

  22. Thanks for your kind reply to my post. I am happy to fallen into your sphere. I assume, having consulted Debrett's, young Pompey might well be addressed as the Master of Darlington, or perhaps that time has already passed by him, alas. I was reminded of a delightful anecdote concerning Mill Hill School my grandfather related in the memoirs he produced for his grandchildren which was aptly entitled "More Scribbles".
    He attended there along with his two older brothers, Clement and Bruce. They were eponymously referred to as Thomson major, Thomson minor & Thomson tertius. When the eldest matriculated to Trinity College, Oxford the remaining brothers were reassigned to the major and minor positions. When the second son unfortunately drowned whilst on summer holiday at the Isle of Wight, my grandfather unexpectedly succeeded to the superior position. It was an anachronistic and harmless custom, quite charming in its own way.
    I was curious if such a thing was still possible in the latter half of the 20th century, so I contacted my cousins, all of whom are Old Marlburians of my vintage. Sadly, they sniggered at the suggestion of such an old-fashioned tradition, particularly as it might have easily applied to them. However, I then contacted my godson, an Old Etonian of a much newer vintage, and he assured me that custom remains in force there, an institution that clearly values simple, logical systems for identifying its scholars. Ad astra per aspera, I always say!

  23. Dear digimmaclub: Thank you, again, for your posting, again. As you shall soon read I spent a year at Sherborne School in England in the mid-1970s, and the custom you note of major/minor, etc. was in full force there then, too. I'm still not quite sure how its came to be that graduates of said school are known as "Old Shirburnians" but they are. Since when did and "e" become an "i" and an "o" a "u" I wonder? Yours, Reggie

  24. Dear digimmaclub: I see from reading your profile that your favorite book is Alec Waugh"s "The Loom of Youth" which takes place at Sherborne School, and the resulting scandal of which meant that his younger brother, Evelyn, attended elsewhere. But then, you knew that, didn't you?

  25. I can't believe it took me so long to get around to reading 'The Loom of Youth' by Alec Waugh. I had forgotten that it was purportedly based on his reminiscenses of Sherborne, and that it caused such a problem for Evelyn later. I can't remember where he ended up. I think the unflattering portrait he painted of the public school in general was probably more shocking than the homoerotic aspect, which seems very mild mannered by today's standards.

    For some reason I have read or reread a veritable slew of books concerning boarding school life this past year. Perhaps it's just a case of nostalgia concerning my own rather halcyon experience going away to school at such a tender age. Contrary to many of my fellow alums, I do look back upon it with nearly unmitigated pleasure. I am excited to read your post concerning Sherborne. A 'compare & contrast' between your experiences there and your St. Grottlesex alma mater would be intriguing. As far as those rather eccentric alumni group names go, I think we should be glad we didn't attend!
    - Show quoted text -

  26. I took the liberty of sharing the photograph of your Mill Hill R.C. blazer with my ninety-two year old father, who was positively smitten with the piping on the lapel and sleeves. I found this unusual, as he is a retired university professor given to going about in thread bare tweed jackets whose elbows have been patched more than once and a skateboarding helmet (a purely prophylactic measure should he take a tumble in the garden or retrieving the mail & newspaper). Of course, he lives in Northern California where such an eccentric outfit is not exactly remarkable. Actually, he is a very intelligent person whose doctor expects him to live happily beyond his centennial barring any unforeseen accidents, such as a fall (evidently the #1 killer of the elderly). I find his kit, although somewhat maddening, emblematic of the general family tendency to sensibleness, which keeps us all living to ripe old ages generation after generation.

    But I digress. What I really wanted to relay to you was another wonderful fact associated with Mill Hill School, of which my father reminded me. Evidently the School is and always has been renowned for its intellectual atmosphere from the earliest days of its founding in the 1820s. That is why my great grandfather, J. Radford Thomson, M.A., who held the rather ponderous position of Professor of Moral Philosphy at the University of London, agreed to serve as its chaplain. That and the fact that he got a break on his three sons' tuition, I imagine.

    During that time the School employed the brilliant Scottish lexicographer, Sir James Murray, who had also been hired to finish the ongoing stalled production of the Oxford English Dictionary. Does this ring a bell? If it does then you probably read Simon Winchester's provocative tome called 'The Professor and the Madman' about the astonishing arrangement between the Professor and an incarcerated U.S. Civil War surgeon and their amazing collaboration. Coming from a family for whom the OED ranks shelf space right up there with the Bible & P.G. Wodehouse, I found the tale so riveting I read the book straight through.

    But I had forgotten that Professor Murray had constructed his famous scriptorium on the grounds of Mill Hill. It was essentially a tin roofed shed that contained thousands upon thousands of pigeon holes used to sort the material for the dictionary, over 10,000 of which had been submitted from Broadmoor, the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, home of the aforementioned doctor. Evidently it still stands today, if somewhat imperfectly maintained on the school grounds. That sounds like a good reason for a 'field trip' or 'pilgrimage' if you prefer, when next in London. With that tidbit I promise I will not alight again upon this wonderfully evocative post. I feel as though you wrote it just for me. But then isn't that what a good blog is supposed to do?

  27. Dear digammaclub: Thank you for your most fascinating comment, it is greatly appreciated. I am aware of the book you write of, and, in fact, own a copy of it that I rushed out and purchased after reading its review in the NYT several years back. I must retrieve it from the shelf where it sits and add it to my groaning pile of bedside reading. I thank you for the reminder -- RD


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