Tolkien at the Lickeys
Article by Maggie Burns 2012
The first time we read of Tolkien going to the Lickeys, it was at a sad time in his life. In April 1904 Mabel went into hospital, seriously ill with diabetes. Her 1903 Christmas letter quoted in Tolkien’s biography suggests she had already developed the disease then. At that time doctors recognized the symptoms of diabetes but there was no effective treatment; people who developed the chronic form could expect to live for a couple of years at most. Tolkien’s younger brother Hilary stayed with his grandparents in King’s Heath, Birmingham; Ronald (J. R. R.) Tolkien was sent to stay with his aunt’s fiancé Edwin Neave in Brighton. He had been ill himself, so the family may have thought the sea air would help him.
When Mabel had recovered a little she was discharged from hospital, and went to stay in the postmaster’s cottage near the Oratory Retreat at Rednal. Tolkien and his brother came to join her there in June, Ronald was twelve and Hilary only ten. She described them in a letter as ‘weak white ghosts’ when she met them at the station but goes on to say that they are now very well; and have been: ‘Bilberry-gathering – Tea in Hay – Kite-flying with Fr. Francis – sketching – Tree Climbing…’ Father Francis Morgan, a priest from the Oratory, often came to see them in Rednal. In those days the cottage was known as ‘Woodside’, Tolkien wrote a letter to Father Francis with the address and some of the letter in a picture code.
As Mabel’s health had improved during the summer her sons may have hoped that she would be all right. Her husband had died in 1896; if she died the boys would be orphans, although they were part of a large family and had many aunts, uncles and cousins. Sadly Mabel’s health deteriorated, she went into a coma and died in November 1904. Her older sister, May Incledon, and Father Francis were with her when she died. Mabel had appointed Father Francis to be the Tolkien brothers’ guardian.
Tolkien’s later visits to the Lickeys were happier. In 1909 he stayed at a cottage in Rednal for part of the summer holidays to study for the Oxford scholarship exams which he would take in the autumn. Later that year he went for a cycle ride with his girlfriend, Edith Bratt, who lived in the same lodging house in Edgbaston. They had tea at the same cottage. Tolkien was supposed to spend all his time studying, so he and Edith kept their friendship secret. They took care to set off separately, and arrive home separately. But… the lady who had given them tea mentioned their visit to the caretaker at the Oratory Retreat, who told the cook at the Oratory in Birmingham, who told Father Francis. And he told Tolkien that he and Edith should not see one another again, and moved the Tolkien brothers to another lodging house. Edith decided to go and stay with friends in Cheltenham. Eventually in February 1910 after they had been seen together again Father Francis forbade Tolkien to communicate with Edith at all until he came of age in three years time.
The Tolkien brothers often went to the Incledons in Barnt Green for a big Christmas family gathering; Tolkien’s grandmother wrote in one letter to Hilary - who was working in Scotland that year - that Tolkien had had them all practising a Christmas play he had written! It is not possible to identify the house, as it was called ‘The Cottage’ however from Tolkien’s drawing it was quite large. He also made drawings on Bilberry Hill looking towards King’s Norton, and of foxgloves in the woods, when he visited in summer.
And there was a happy resolution of the story with Edith. On his 21st birthday, 3 January 1913, Tolkien wrote to Edith from Barnt Green asking her to marry him. She replied that she had got engaged to someone else! However Ronald must have had great skills of persuasion – a week later he travelled to Cheltenham and persuaded her to change her mind. He wrote in a poem that they were like ‘two fair trees… utterly entwined…’ Edith and Ronald got married in March 1916. They had many children and grandchildren, and were only parted by Edith’s death in November 1971.