A particular area of specialisation at Mary Evans is animals - perhaps curious since we are a historical picture library. But Mary herself was a great animal lover, with a lifelong fondness for dogs and she recognised that animals are part of the past too. Certainly, the popularity of some of our doggy-related posts on this blog has proved that animal history is perennially of interest.
Mary's love of animals spilled over into her collecting to the point that her house once boasted a room known, quite simply,as 'Mary's Dog Room' - filled floor to ceiling with dog-related books and ephemera. She also had a world-class collection of editions of Anna Sewell's classic, 'Black Beauty', which we now hold at the library.
Which leads us to one section of our animal material; a fantastic collection of books by the illustrator and sporting artist, Cecil Aldin.
Aldin (1870-1935) was one of the best-loved and most prolific book illustrators working during the so-called 'Golden Age of Illustration', which spanned the late 19th and early 20th century. Like most commercial artists of the time, he could turn his hand to most subjects, designing posters, advertisements, nursery friezes, toys and a range of china for Royal Doulton on top of his work illustrating a prolific number of books and magazines. Overall, it was Aldin's own interests that began to dominate his artistic output. A keen huntsman (we should point out this was one area on which Mary and Aldin would have disagreed), he became well-known for his equine or hunting scenes and his dog pictures too. Unsurprisingly, he illustrated an edition of 'Black Beauty' which we have a copy of here in the library. We have scores of the delightful children's books he wrote and illustrated based on the antics of mischievous puppies, as well as more autobiographical works which feature finely drawn portraits of some of the canine characters making up Aldin's extensive menagerie at home, among them a bull terrier named Cracker, Micky the wolfhound and a Sealyham terrier, Woggles.
Aldin was also a regular contributor to many of the weekly illustrated magazines we now hold here in our archive having his first illustration published in The Graphic in 1891 and thereafter contributing regularly to such prestigious titles as The Illustrated London News, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and The Sketch, who he drew an illustration for each week during the early 1930s portraying the naughty but endearing Woggles.
It is significant that there is very little evidence of the usually prolific Aldin's work in these magazines during the Great War period but Aldin had more pressing responsibilities during these years which left him with little time to devote to art.
In February 1914, aged almost 44, Aldin was elected joint-Master of the South Berks Hunt together with his friend Eric Palmer. Palmer soon left to join a cavalry regiment leaving Aldin in sole charge. Hunting was an integral part of country life offering employment and livelihood to a large number of people and so when war broke out in August that year, the War Office asked all Masters to carry on though packs were significantly depleted and the best horses were often commandeered for Army purposes. In many cases, hunting women took the lead and became temporary Masters in the absence of men. In his autobiography, 'Time I Was Dead,' Aldin describes how he managed to hold the pack together, 'but very much reduced until the Armistice,' going on the remark, 'those four years of war-time were sad years for every family in England; my own was no exception. Many of us have never recovered from the losses of that dreadful period, though somehow or other at the time we all had to keep a straight upper lip and carry on.'
Though he does not go into further details about his own personal tragedy, in fact Aldin lost his only son, Dudley, who had been in France for six months as a second-lieutenant with the Royal Engineers. He was killed at Vimy Ridge on the night of 15 May 1916 aged just 19. Aldin's single, faltering words in his biography was the closest he ever got to admitting his grief over this devastating loss in public. Aldin's contribution to the war effort perhaps helped him to cope.
He became a Remount Purchasing Officer, responsible for buying horses for war purposes, a role which he was ideally suited to, having contacts in the hunting world. During the first few days of war, Aldin admitted to having, 'very little sleep and some very long days' in order to reach the quota of horses demanded of him by the War Office. He recalled too that it was, 'necessary to use a good deal of diplomacy and firmness in enforcing purchase,' though the fact that hunters from his own stables were the first to go made it easier to ask the same of friends and acquaintances in the hunting fraternity.
Not all horses gathered were in their prime and soon, it became clear that many of them needed care, conditioning, housing and often, breaking in, before they could be deemed suitable for military use. The existing number of Army Remount Depots was not nearly enough to accommodate the growing number of horses and soon Captain Aldin, as he became, was travelling up to sixty miles a day around Berkshire in his role as Remount Officer, overseeing the care, exercise and feeding of up to 500 horses at various stables including Hawthorn Hill racecourse, Hardwicke House in Oxfordshire, Temple House in Marlow and Holyport Riding School. Aldin was also responsible for the employment of stable hands to manage and care for the horses, and found himself underwhelmed by the quality and inexperience of men sent to him from the local infantry depot. He once found a 'weedy-looking recruit shaking with fear' in a gangway between a line of two dozen gun horses jostling and squealing in anticipation of their morning feed, who admitted, 'I've never seen a horse close to before sir. I'm a tailor's cutter by trade!"
Aldin's wife Rita and his daughter Gwen, were already helping out at the Purley Remount stables and Aldin soon began to promote the employment of women at his depots, a suggestion which was met with cynicism by the War Office at first but was soon justified.
In his biography he describes the rapid conversion of the stables under his charge to female managment:
'At first they had only quiet R2s (small riding horses) under their charge, but as time went on and their horses were often better "done" and more quickly made fit for issue, more and more of my depots were placed entirely under woman control. After the first few months of this organisation, I had more applications from hunting women for work than I could find places for. A system of probationers on a week's trial became necessary which, if successful, entitled them to become stablewomen and riders. I had very few failures - no instances of slacking over work at either stables or exercise - my difficulty and the difficulty of my head women being chiefly to watch that their "strappers"* did not overwork and make themselves ill.'
* "strappers" - the opposite of "slackers" - a term used to describe men who shirked their war duties.
Aldin was impressed by his female army of workers who, despite being, 'slight little things,' would walk a mile or two to the nearest railway station to pick up forty or fity gun-horses of LD2s (light draft gunners) and bring them back to the depot tied four or five abreast, each led by a small girl. Many girls in fact were so small they had to stand on a bucket or box to groom their charges. Others, presumably those who relished a challenge, specifically asked to be allocated to the most difficult cases - mules that kicked and bit for example or frisky horses that would buck for 'half an hour on end whenever a saddle was put on him.'
Inevitably, these women-run stables attracted the attention of the press. In December 1915 issue, both The Tatler and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News ran photos of Berkshire stables under Aldin's command. The Tatler, under the title, 'Our Women in War Time - Cutting the Cackle and Coming to the 'Osses,' gave the piece a high society spin and applauded,
'the ladies of Berkshire who, under the "generalship" of Mr. Cecil Aldin, M.F.H., South Berks, are conditioning army remounts at one of the depots in Berkshire. Miss Iris Ford and her sister, who are very well known in London and in Bucks, will be observed in the picture. All the work from "stables" to exercise is done by well-known hunting ladies under the supervision of a "head lad," who is also a lady...The work is done on very businesslike lines and is very hard, the hours being 7 a.m. to 6.30p.m.'
At one point, there were over one hundred women under Aldin's charged engaged in doing stable work. Although many other remount establishments later employed women, Cecil Aldin was the first to do so. He may be best-known for his art and enchanting animal pictures, but this brief period away from his day job when the war required his services and his enlightened championing of women's abilities boosted the war effort, deserves our recognition.
Extracts taken from: 'Time I Was Dead' by Cecil Aldin and The Tatler, Oct-Dec 1915, part of the archive here at Mary Evans Picture Library.
Further reading on Cecil Aldin - 'Cecil Aldin - Story of a Sporting Artist' by Roy Heron (Webb & Bower, 1981)
A selection of pictures by Cecil Aldin and of the Army Remount Depot here (many more online)