A Hemlock Glade, The Houses of Healing, Two Towers and a Beacon: Tolkien in East Yorkshire, Part 1
“Lordynges, there is in Yorkshire, as I gesse,
A mersshy contree called Holdernesse...”
The Holderness Coastline - showing the Lost Towns of Holderness
from a book by T. Sheppard
Although Tolkien’s time in East Yorkshire has been examined before, it is my contention that there are reasons why previous accounts only provide a partial picture. Carpenter(1) seems very sketchy on Tolkien’s time in the area, and has since been proved to have made some errors of dating. John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War (2003), undertook considerable original research when he was looking into Tolkien’s period in Holderness, but I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that he has admitted that he only spent one day on the ground visiting East Yorkshire’s Tolkien locations. Of course his work was also more broadly focussed on the whole of Tolkien’s World War One period than a specific look at just Tolkien’s time in Yorkshire. In contrast, Phil Mathison who wrote Tolkien in East Yorkshire knows Holderness extremely well, but he confided that he has not read Tolkien's fiction. This talk is written from the viewpoint of a reader with a deeper knowledge of Tolkien’s fiction than Mathison, coupled with an attempt to follow Tolkien’s actual footsteps in more detail than was possible for John Garth. This is a work-in-progress, so it isn’t meant to be the final word on the subject. Hopefully, it will shed a little light on Tolkien’s period in Holderness.
Holderness is still a forgotten, hidden and neglected part of the country in 2015, as it was when Tolkien was stationed there almost 100 years go, but he would have been aware of its existence before he arrived. Tolkien had studied Chaucer at both school and university, so he would have known the above lines, which are the first two from “The Summoner’s Tale” in Chaucer’s epic work: The Canterbury Tales. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain they are the earliest reference to Holderness in English Literature. Since Chaucer’s time extensive drainage of Holderness has been undertaken, so when Tolkien arrived it was no longer quite the mersshy contree of Chaucer’s time. Many people who have read about Tolkien’s life probably have a fairly accurate image of Oxford in their minds, and Birmingham is also quite a well-known English city. However, images of East Yorkshire are far less widespread. It is for this reason I am including plenty of illustrations in an attempt to give you a more accurate idea of the places Tolkien came to knew.
Nineteenth-Century Map of some villages near Roos, showing Danthorpe (N of Burton Pidsea), Hilston (top right) & South Frodingham (bottom right)
Once Tolkien was stationed in East Yorkshire he was living for the first time in his life in an area in which an extremely high proportion of the surviving place-names are Scandinavian or Anglian in origin. This would have appealed to the philologist in Tolkien. Locations with which Tolkien became acquainted in East Yorkshire include Thirtle Bridge, the army camp in which he was based. Thirtle derives from the Old Norse of Thorkell, which is a shortened form of Thorketil. The first element comes from the Norse God Thor, and the second “ketill” is from cauldron (2). Danthorpe, which is a few miles north-west of Roos means village of the Danes (3), and Hilston, which is even closer to Roos means Hildof’s farm. Hildof is believed to be a Scandinavian and Anglian hybrid (4). Finally, Frodingham south of Roos is derived from “the settlement of Frodo’s people," sorry I mean “the settlement of Froda’s people!”(5)
Of course, Tolkien came from the West Midlands where smaller divisions of counties were referred to as hundreds, which date from the late Saxon period. However, Holderness is a division of East Yorkshire, which was known as a wapentake until quite late into the C19th. This is a term also used in several other northern counties. It was this word Tolkien appropriated for his weapontake, which he transformed from its original meaning to refer to the mustering of armed warriors in Rohan. East Yorkshire stretches all the way to York, but the Holderness area, as can be seen on the map at the very top of this post is the much smaller area to the east of the River Hull and south of the Yorkshire Wolds.
In 1916 Tolkien participated in the Battle of the Somme, but contracted trench fever, and was invalided home on 9th November(6). He was hospitalised at Edgbaston from which he travelled on occasion to Great Haywood to see Edith, but at the end of February 1917 he was transferred to Harrogate, and after a medical examination was sent to join the 3rd Reserve Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, near Withernsea (7). Tolkien actually arrived in Hornsea by train from Hull on 19th April (8). Hornsea is 17 miles to the north-west of Withernsea, and Tolkien seems to have spent some time initially at Hornsea Musketry Camp. Edith, and her cousin Jennie Grove, took lodgings in Hornsea, presumably to be close to him.
1 Bank Terrace, Hornsea
Blue Plaque on 1 Bank Terrace. Note Jennie is the correct spelling, and she was Edith's cousin, not Tolkien's
An aerial photo of Hornsea looking north towards Bridlington Bay. Note the flat surrounding countryside. Photo (c) 2015 Tony Kirwan
Hornsea is perhaps the most picturesque location at which Tolkien stayed in East Yorkshire. This is largely provided by the natural wonder which is the tree-lined Hornsea Mere – the largest natural freshwater lake in Yorkshire. Hornsea Mere belonged to the Strickland-Constable family whose seat of Wassand Hall lies on the western fringes of the Mere (not visible on this photo).
Margaret Strickland-Constable (nee Pakenham) several years before 1917
Margaret Strickland-Constable, the wife of the contemporary incumbent, was in charge of the hospital in which Tolkien would later be a patient. Her diaries offer glimpses of life at an Officers’ Hospital, but are also an invaluable record of various Zeppelin raids on the east coast during the war, and inexperienced English pilots losing their planes in the mere (9). One morning she awoke to discover 6 planes half-submerged in Hornsea Mere! There will be more of Mrs Strickland-Constable later.
A British De Havilland DH6 plane on the beach at Hornsea taken in c.1918
Incidentally the suffix ‘sea’ in East Yorkshire locations, such as Hornsea, Skipsea, Withernsea and Kilnsea does not refer to their proximity to the sea, but to their locations adjacent to freshwater lakes left behind after the last Ice Age. Over recent centuries most of these have either been swallowed up by the eroding coastline, or have silted up, and only the largest at Hornsea is still present today. Of course if Hornsea was near The Burren, or Stoneyhurst College then a claim would have been made that the sea of trees after the Battle of the Hornburg would never have been called Huorns if Tolkien hadn’t known Hornsea. Sea of huorns, Hornsea! – never mind!
Although the musketry camp is assigned to Hornsea, it was actually a 52-acre site based at Rolston, a small hamlet a mile to the south (10). When Tolkien was actually transferred permanently from the Musketry Camp 13 miles south-east to Thirtle Bridge Army Camp, Edith moved out of her lodgings in Hornsea. Phil Mathison has discovered that her final letter from there was dated the 1st of June 1917 (11). For 6 weeks her residence is unknown, and as there is no extant correspondence, the suggestion is that for this brief period they did not need to correspond as they were able to either live together, or lived in very close proximity.
(to be continued)
1. Carpenter, Humphrey, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (George Allen & Unwin, 1977), pp. 95-8.
2. Website: www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Thirtle
3. Kent, G.H.R. (ed.), A History of the County of York, East Riding, Vol. Vii. Holderness: Middle & North Divisions, (Oxford: OUP), p.57.
4. Ibid, p.50.
5. Allison, K.J. (ed.), A History of the County of York, East Riding, Vol. V. Holderness: Southern Part, (Oxford: OUP), p.85.
6. Scull, Christina & Hammond, Wayne, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Chronology, (HarperCollins, 2006), p.95.
7. Garth, John, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, (HarperCollins, 2003), p.234.
8. Mathison, Phil, Tolkien in East Yorkshire, 1917-1918: An Illustrated Tour, (Newport: Dead Good, 2015), p.34.
9. Chichester-Constable, Margaret, Diaries, The Treasure House, Beverley.
10. Mathison, p.53.
11. Mathison, p.34.