By Haydon Luke – previously published in The Pett Parish Monthly News
Just over 100 years ago, on 21st August 1920, a child was born in a London house – a child destined to become one of the best-known children in English Literature.
Christopher Robin Milne was born at 11 Mallord Street, Chelsea, London, on 21 August 1920, to author Alan Alexander Milne and Daphne (née de Sélincourt). Christopher Milne speculated that he was an only child because “he had been a long time coming.”
Most people are familiar with the Winnie the Pooh books, Christopher Robin, Ashdown Forest and the outline of the lives of the real people. Some will have seen the 2017 film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” which explored his relationship with his father. But few know of the more local Hastings and Guestling connection. I only found out recently when a local acquaintance sent me an enquiry. My acquaintance had been reading the poem (Buckingham Palace) and wondering about the Alice who features in it. You’ll remember it begins:
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
My acquaintance thought at first that Alice must be another child and that she might be buried in Guestling churchyard. Did I know? He initially thought she might be the same Alice as in Alice in Wonderland but I knew that wasn’t true. He then wondered whether Alice was perhaps Christopher Robin’s sister but that wasn’t a goer either since A A Milne and his wife only had the one child. Also, Alice is clearly not a child if she “is marrying one of the guard” and her view that “A soldier’s life is terrible hard,” is clearly the voice of adult experience. So who is she?
Alice was in fact Christopher Robin’s nanny. When he wrote his memoirs (The Enchanted Places, Methuen, 1974) as an adult, Christopher dedicated them to his nanny, saying how he had “adored” her. He wrote, “Alice to millions, but Nou to me”.
From a very early age, Milne was cared for by his young nanny, Olive Rand, until May 1930, when he entered boarding school. Milne called her Nou, and stated “Apart from her fortnight’s holiday every September, we had not been out of each other’s sight for more than a few hours at a time“, and “we lived together in a large nursery on the top floor.”
So, having established that Alice and Olive are one and the same person, where now?
During the time Olive was Christopher’s nanny the family’s time was split between London and Sussex and another thread from the poem becomes clear. Christopher’s biographer tells us that at Mallord Street Olive’s ‘young man’ would come calling. His name was Alf Brockwell, he was good fun and, no doubt with more than half an eye on Olive, enjoyed playing with Christopher and other visiting children. He would sometimes come in uniform since he was in the Territorial Army and had served in WW1 (“A soldier’s life is terrible hard, Says Alice”). And, yes reader, after Christopher’s departure to boarding school in 1930, Olive and Alf were married. At first they lived in Croydon but then moved to Three Oaks and to a cottage they named Vespers – an echo of Milne’s poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers. The Milnes furnished it for them as a wedding present.
And that is where they lived out their lives. Alf was a Post Office electrical engineer and Olive kept house. They offered bed and breakfast holidays to visitors, grew fruit and veg and, according to Shirley Harrison, “filled the garden with statues of the children they were too late to have themselves.” (Harrison, Shirley, The Life and Times of the Real Winnie-the-Pooh, Pelican Publishing Co., USA, 2011).
Olive died in 1978 at the age of 83 and she and Alf are buried in the Churchyard of St Lawrence at Guestling tucked away in the far corner adjacent to the carpark.
By Haydon Luke