June 10, 2007
Humphrey Francis Ellis MBE
Famous people on our doorstep.
Humphrey F Ellis was born in the Hermitage at Metheringham on 17 July 1907. His father was the village doctor between 1894 and 1914. Humphrey went on to gain a “First” in Classics at Oxford University in 1930 and from there went on to Marlborough College to teach. Whilst here he wrote articles for Punch Magazine and in 1933 he was offered a post with the magazine as a staff writer. He became best known as a comic writer creating the ineffectual schoolmaster A.J. Wentworth whose fictional diaries were first published in the Punch magazine.
Having then become Literary and Deputy Editor for the magazine in 1949 “The Papers of A.J. Wentworth B.A.” were published in book form. He held the position of Deputy Editor until 1953 when he resigned under protest at the appointment of Malcolm Muggeridge as the editor of Punch. Ellis’s works continued to be published in Punch but his works proved to be more lucrative in the United States. At one time the Wentworth stories were read out by actor Arthur Lowe (of “Dad’s Army” fame) on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Arthur Lowe went on to play Wentworth in a BBC Sitcom called AJ Wentworth BA in 1982 but only six episodes were produced.
Humphrey also wrote an article for Reader’s Digest (published in 1956) which tells the story of another of our characters, Amos Cooling, who lived in Metheringham during the early parts of the twentieth century and was the Groom / Gardener for Humphrey’s father Doctor Ellis.
A picture of Amos is shown (left) outside Metheringham Post Office as he talks to an old lady in a bath-chair. Amos was the grand-father of Gerald Rush who lives on Dunston Road and his brother Reg (who now lives in Norfolk) and who has kindly given permission for this story to be re-produced and it goes as follows
The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met
By H.F. Ellis
Staff writer for Punch
IT IS ALL of 40 years since I waved good-bye to the square, stocky, bearded figure standing rather forlornly by the gate at the bottom of the drive. Yet his image is perfectly clear. Others who peopled those far-off days are dim, unsubstantial wraiths, without form or lineaments. Amos Cooling, my father's gardener and groom, remains in memory unchangeably real and solid.
In retrospect I seem to have spent the best part of my childhood years watching Amos toiling in our garden. He dug with splendid energy. He would spit accurately into the palm of each hand, rub them together and, a good adhesive grip thus secured, drive the blade down with a thud that made the earth tremble. Whether he was remarkably strong I do not know, but to a small boy he seemed so; and like many short, broad men he was proud of his muscles. "Let me get my stren'th at it," he was fond of saying.
"Will I be as strong as you when I grow up, Cooling?"
"Lord bless yer heart on yer!" he would reply - a favourite phrase of his used to express affection, and perhaps in this case to conceal grave doubt.
He had other attractions for a small boy. He had small bright eyes that gleamed at you with mock ferocity out of his whiskery face, and he could wink with astonishing speed and gravity, making you feel you shared some tremendous secret.
But it was as my father's groom that Amos Cooling really showed his quality.
Two o'clock in the morning of a bitter January day. The clatter and scrunch of a horse's hoofs on the gravel and a long pull at the surgery bell. Father would wrap an old dressing gown about him and creak downstairs to see what the trouble was. Telephones and motor cars were for the few in those early days of the century and calls for aid, whatever the hour, must be made on horseback or bicycle; or sometimes a breathless runner would come pounding up the drive.
"Hello, Jem. What is it?"
"It's old Mrs. Cartwright, Doctor. She's took poorly."
"What's the trouble?" Father would ask. But Jem, likely as not, would know nothing about that. "They didn't say," he'd answer. "Only to come quick."
If the patient lived some distance away, as patients who feel the need to see their doctor in the middle of the night almost invariably do, Father pulled on a rope that hung beside the surgery door. This, by an ingenious system of wires and pulleys, clanged a bell in the cottage beyond the stables where Amos lived.
t was Amos's pride always to be ready, perched up patient and immobile in the little cart, and by the time Father hurried out clutching his old black medical bag the faithful groom had the look of a man who had been there all night.
Off they would go, clip-clopping through the flat Lincolnshire fens, with only the feeble glow of two oil lamps to illuminate the narrow dirt road and the dark waters of the ditch that ran alongside. For warmth they had across their knees a heavy rug, smelling strongly of horse. They would talk a little - unhurriedly, as men who have the night before them - of local matters perhaps of the next meeting of the neighbouring hunt. Never of discomfort or the biting wind or the lateness of the hour.
Father may have thought his own thoughts on these subjects but had too much sense to try and share them with his placid companion. For to the old groom time and weather had nothing to do with it; he was taking the Doctor to a case and that was that. He would be astounded at the suggestion that he might complain. It was what he had been sent into the world to do.
Once Father had a call at five o'clock in the morning and, as he had got back from another case at four and this new emergency meant a journey of less than a mile, he decided to walk rather than disturb old Amos again. He dressed, crept quietly downstairs and out into the faint morning light - and there was the pony in the shafts and old Cooling sitting motionless and dignified. He offered no explanation of his presence. "You'd better tug the old bell a bit sharper next time else I mightn't 'ear you," was all he said.
Every case, Father used to say, was to Amos a matter of life and death. It would have shocked him to know that when Father at last climbed the narrow stairs to Mrs Cartwright's bedroom he very likely found the old lady fast asleep, cured of her indigestion and inclined to be querulous at being woken up.
So this chastening aspect of a doctor's profession was carefully concealed form Amos. As far as he was concerned, when Father reappeared muttering under his breath, another life had been saved and the next thing to do was to get home without delay in case a second call came in. In other words Amos knew the secret of contentment: he took his job seriously.
Amos kept his two roles of groom and gardener severely apart. As groom, top-hatted, gaitered and somehow formidable in his dark blue coat with two silver buttons at the back, he was aloof, respectful. He would tuck a rug round our knees as if we were royalty and had no connection with the brats he had chased off his seed beds an hour before. But once his groomish trappings were off and he had retired in corduroy trousers and battered old hat to the kitchen garden, he became just a kindly old man.
Sometimes in his capacity as gardener he would become huffed over some order and give notice. "I'll be keeping on as groom, mind," he would tell Father - usually adding, "So I'll tide ye over in the garden meantime." For the next few days it had to be understood that he was working in the garden only to oblige.
Amos had little schooling, no striking personal advantages. But there was a quality about him. He had fidelity and dignity. He spoke to children as people, not as pets or idiots. Servility was as foreign to him as false pride. As groom he touched hi shat to my father and his friends because that was part of the job; as gardener he straightened his back when spoken to because that was manners. But he was never obsequious. If anyone had ever spoken to him in a contemptuous or overbearing manner he would have come back at the offender good and sharp, probably quoting something annihilating out of the Bible.
The ability to serve others without loss of self-respect and without self-asserting arrogance is not so common a virtue that one readily forgets it. Amos Cooling had the art of being, in the best senses of the term, a good servant.
This article first printed in the Reader's Digest, 1956. Reproduced here with kind permission of the Ellis Family.