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Oh it’s getting so cold again, must get the firewood sorted before snow and rain begins to fall in earnest. I do miss a man around the house…

The summer’s over for the rest of the year. Last Sunday I celebrated its final demise with much mirth. I fancied a little hike with the ladies from the office and I also invited Irene along. She is very shy in company, but we had such jolly time, especially when we all descended upon a fairly decent looking pub, much to the dismay of the old regulars who don’t think giggling girls and women have anything to do in their realm, let alone ask for tea and cards! Ha! Shame on them for spending the Lord’s day in the pub! Jolly good fun for us indeed.

So we took the tram to West Park and walked over to Meanwood. It was a bit chilly, but we all kept a good pace and sang merry songs and stopped to have a chat with local people every once in a while. We even got a loaf of bread as a gift from an apple-faced baker on the way! We must have been an unusual sight!

Meanwood is a very interesting place if one is into high society gossip or politics even, as the famous Oates family resides there and has done for a while now. Colonel Kitson housekeeper joined us for the last mile of our walk and gave us a high-spirited tour of the area! What a gregarious lady! I know I talk much, but Ms Grey…. my word!

It all began when affluent local landholder Edward Oates got interested in expanding his estate in Meanwoodside. This was before I was born, but I do know that he lived in St Anne’s Hill in Leeds with his wife, who was also from a rather rich local family. Ms Grey explained that he soon developed an obsession about transforming Meanwoodside and spent all his days walking between his family living near Kirkstall Grange and his ambitious landscape projects at his Meanwood estate. His plan was to create a fine house surrounded by its own park and what he called an ‘American Garden‘. He constructed ponds and weirs and dams and most people thought he was crazy to do so, because the beck water he was using was coming straight from the Adel tanneries and mills. He continued to expand on his plans by seeking additional water sources and solutions to clear the water up. He was also an avid gardener and he turned that estate into paradise by the end of his life in 1865.

I was still a little girl, just learning to make sense of letters on my patient father’s knees when the exotic adventures of his son, Francis Oates, were published in his diary. My darling late brother and I were hunting for big game around the Victoria Falls (which, much to Cook’s dismay, was the larder sink) and kept asking Papa to read us his exploits instead of Nurse’s silly tales at bedtimes. Francis travelled in South America collecting specimens, birds, and insects for the Royal Geographical Society and he was one of the first European explorers to see the Victoria Falls from the Zambesi. I’ll never forget the title: Matabele Land and the Victoria Falls: A Naturalist’s Wandering in the Interior of South Africa. A marvellous book with beautiful images of exotic birds and plants to capture a child’s imagination.

His brother William was also a naturalist, but they moved away from Meanwoodside and went to live in London. They did make frequent visits though with their children Lawrence and Bryan. You might know now where this story is heading… That’s right, Lawrence grew up to be Captain Oates who is now mourned by the nation. For those who live under a rock: Captain Oates, this upright English gentleman, joined Scott‘s fatal expedition to the South Pole this year. They reached the Pole, but the return journey turned into a disaster. The weather closed in on them and Lawrence was hindered by severe frostbite. He realised he would not make it home and did not want to jeopardise the others’ chances of survival. On his thirty second birthday he resigned himself to a snowy grave and left the tent saying: ‘I am just going outside and I may be some time.’

While this branch of the family still lives in London, Captain Oates’s uncle, the third Oates brother, managed the Meanwoodside estate until his death in 1902. His name was Charles and he was a barrister in Leeds. He lived with his widowed mother in Meanwood and never married. Since his death, Lt Col Edwin Kitson has been leasing the property. This is where the story gets really interesting. Not because of Colonel Kitson, although he is a character, but Charles Oates.

Apparently Charles Oates was a life-long friend of a very interesting man whom I meant to write about for long now. Edward Carpenter is an eccentric of the best kind – he’s an idealist and, some say, an anarchist. He wears Indian sandals barefoot even in winter, which he makes himself, living on his small estate near Sheffield. They say he’s never married and lives alone with his butler. He came to Leeds first, abandoning a religious education and life in Cambridge, because he wanted to teach workers and miners in the so-called University Extension. Through Charles Oates, he was introduced to the Ford family in Adel, for whom I have nothing but admiration. I must write about them too, some time. Edward Carpenter has dabbled in everything, writes music, poetry and philosophy and he is involved in every movement that is aimed at bettering humanity. A very active hermit, he is!

I actually met him! It was may Day in 1897 when thousands of people were marching down Leeds. My grandmother, God bless her memory, just called him and his mate Mattison ‘raggedy anarchist types’, and quickly ushered me inside before I could get lost in the chaos of the march. The crowd was an awful sight, mostly hungry, cold mothers holding babies and walking in stern silence when they weren’t singing. I will never forget their faces. I felt, as a young girl, privileged, and undeservedly so, for the very first time. Edward Carpenter and another young man knocked on the door of my auntie’s house we were visiting at and asked for a glass of water. Carpenter was a very polite, handsome man, with kind eyes – I didn’t believe my grandmother! How could this man be an anarchist?

I remember the little exchange that filled my young heart with so much compassion and passion in a second. I turned to Grandmama and asked what the women were singing outside. Before she could told me off for such petulence, he turned in my direction, took his hat off and looked straight into my eyes. ‘England Arise!’, that’s what they’re singing. Do you like it Miss?’. I told him I did indeed, to which he said ‘I wrote it,’ and he handed me a copy of sheet music, which I still have. This is how I learned his name, and ever since then I’ve been following all his exploits with interest. Like back in the days, when Papa was reading about the Zambesi, I was struck by admiration for a larger-than-life figure! He’s much older now, but still very active. I’ll write again, if he ever comes to Leeds to give a talk, because I’ll be there, that’s certain.

Anyway, we were exhausted when we got back to Leeds that Sunday and I went to bed with a strong conviction that I shall re-read Carpenter’s Towards Democracy in bed. However, sleep got the better of me and I had to turn down the light and rejuvenate my old bones for the day in the office on Monday. I’m sure happy to have my own copy, so that I can re-read it any time – any time I’m awake, that is. Haha!

Resources:

David Hall, Far Headingley: Weetwood and West Park, Far Headingley Village Society, 2000

Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, Verso, 2008.

Celebrating LGBT History Month 2012, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery showcased Edward Carpenter’s life and Leeds connections, including original Emily Ford sketches and Carpenter’s lecture notes held in the Leeds University Library Special Collections. Parallel to the special display, Matt Smith visual artist ‘queered’ the Gallery’s permanent collection with an intervention entitled ‘Other Stories’ in the permanent exhibition space. The beautiful exhibition catalogue is available at the Gallery shop.

Lavender’s hike was a bit wintry. Have a look at Meanwoodside when the daffodils bloom. Picture taken from the wonderful Leodis.net:

There is a permanent exhibit dedicated to Frank Oates at The Oates Museum at Selborne in Hampshire.

In March 2012, Captain Oates’s memory was honoured in Leeds by a blue plaque near his family’s former home in Meanwood.

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