Portsmouth, Home of Great Writing Part II: Rudyard Kipling

In the second of an exclusive series on Portsmouth’s fecund literary heritage, author and historian Matt Wingett discusses the impact of the city on the writer who won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rudyard Kipling grew up from the age of five to the age of eleven at Lorne Lodge in Campbell Road, as he says ‘in the extreme suburbs of Southsea, next to a Portsmouth unchanged in most particulars since Trafalgar’. Kipling mentions Walter Besant’s novel By Celia’s Arbor (1878) – discussed last issue – as he tries to give a sense of the place.

Kipling’s parents were Anglo­-Indians who sent him and his sister back to Britain for schooling. He was placed with a strict and severely religious woman, a Mrs Holloway and her husband, an old captain who used to take him to the dockyard and show him the ships.

Kipling recalls that the old captain had once been ‘entangled in a harpoon-line while whale-fishing, and dragged down till he miraculously freed himself. But the line had scarred his ankle for life—a dry, black scar, which I used to look at with horrified interest.’

It is interesting to think of the scene towards the end of Captains Courageous, Kipling’s great rite of passage novel in which a young spoiled boy falls overboard on a sea journey and builds a relationship with a fisherman who shows him how to behave with honour and integrity. The fisherman is dragged beneath the waves towards the novel’s ending, and one cannot help but compare him to the kind old captain who lived with Kipling at Lorne Lodge.

To Kipling’s distress, the captain died in real life, leaving him with ‘the Woman’, Mrs Holloway, whose religious fervour led her to treat him terribly.

He writes movingly of his lodging in Something of Myself:

It was an establishment run with the full vigour of the Evangelical as revealed to the Woman. I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it in all its terrors—I and whatever luckless little slavey might be in the house, whom severe rationing had led to steal food. Once I saw the Woman beat such a girl who picked up the kitchen poker and threatened retaliation. Myself I was regularly beaten. The Woman had an only son of twelve or thirteen as religious as she. I was a real joy to him, for when his mother had finished with me for the day he (we slept in the same room) took me on and roasted the other side.

If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (specially when he wants to go to sleep) he will contradict himself very satisfactorily. If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life is not easy. I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture—religious as well as scientific. Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.

But my ignorance was my salvation. I was made to read without explanation, under the usual fear of punishment. And on a day that I remember it came to me that ‘reading’ was not ‘the Cat lay on the Mat,’ but a means to everything that would make me happy. So I read all that came within my reach. As soon as my pleasure in this was known, deprivation from reading was added to my punishments. I then read by stealth and the more earnestly.


Kipling was sent numerous books by his parents once they were told he had learned to read, and he recalls a visitor gave him a book that even had a line in it that read ‘Farewell rewards and fairies’, a line that was to inspire the title of one of his children’s books, Rewards and Fairies.  Just so with other stories that he freely concedes laid the foundation for The Jungle Books.

Mrs Holloway’s son joined in with the mistreatment whenever he could.  One Sunday Kipling recalls that he left church smiling and the boy asked him why.  Kipling recalls that he said he didn’t know why and the boy replied that he must know why – one isn’t happy for no reason. Kipling’s answer was related to the Woman – and he was once again soundly beaten for lying.

Moments of happiness were few and far between.  He would occasionally visit distant relatives of the Woman, who were kind to him – until she realised how much he enjoyed it. And he recalls learning stories from servants at the lodge and a happy memory of seeing the sun go down over Littlehampton Sands.

Once a year for a month he would also escape to his uncle’s house, at the The Grange, North End Road, Fulham.  His uncle was none other than the great artist Sir Edward Burne Jones, who was friends with a man Kipling called ‘Uncle Topsy.’ This man was the great social reformer, writer and artist William Morris, now perhaps most widely known by the general public for his wallpaper designs.  It was here that Kipling would be surrounded by creative people, by wood shavings and the smell of oil paints.  He wrote of it:


Often the Uncle, who had a ‘golden voice,’ would assist in our evening play, though mostly he worked at black and white in the middle of our riots. He was never idle. We made a draped chair in the hall serve for the seat of ‘Norna of the Fitful Head ‘ and addressed her questions till the Uncle got inside the rugs and gave us answers which thrilled us with delightful shivers, in a voice deeper than all the boots in the world. And once he descended in broad daylight with a tube of ‘Mummy Brown’ in his hand, saying that he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs and we must bury it accordingly. So we all went out and helped—according to the rites of Mizraim and Memphis, I hope—and—to this day I could drive a spade within a foot of where that tube lies.


At bedtime one hastened along the passages, where unfinished cartoons lay against the walls. The Uncle often painted in their eyes first, leaving the rest in charcoal—a most effective presentation. Hence our speed to our own top-landing, where we could hang over the stairs and listen to the loveliest sound in the world—deep-voiced men laughing together over dinner.


It was a jumble of delights and emotions culminating in being allowed to blow the big organ in the studio for the beloved Aunt, while the Uncle worked, or ‘Uncle Topsy’ came in full of some business of picture-frames or stained glass or general denunciations. Then it was hard to keep the little lead weight on its string below the chalk mark, and if the organ ran out in squeals the beloved Aunt would be sorry. Never, never angry!


As a rule Morris took no notice of anything outside what was in his mind at the moment. But I remember one amazing exception. My cousin Margaret and I, then about eight, were in the nursery eating pork-dripping on brown bread, which is a dish for the Gods, when we heard ‘Uncle Topsy’ in the hall calling, as he usually did, for ‘Ned’ or ‘Georgie.’ The matter was outside our world. So we were the more impressed when, not finding the grown-ups, he came in and said he would tell us a story. We settled ourselves under the table which we used for a toboggan-slide and he, gravely as ever, climbed on to our big rocking-horse. There, slowly surging back and forth while the poor beast creaked, he told us a tale full of fascinating horrors, about a man who was condemned to dream bad dreams. One of them took the shape of a cow’s tail waving from a heap of dried fish. He went away as abruptly as he had come. Long afterwards, when I was old enough to know a maker’s pains, it dawned on me that we must have heard the Saga of Burnt Njal, which was then interesting him. In default of grown-ups, and pressed by need to pass the story between his teeth and clarify it, he had used us.


But on a certain day—one tried to fend off the thought of it—the delicious dream would end, and one would return to the House of Desolation, and for the next two or three mornings there cry on waking up. Hence more punishments and cross-examinations.


In ‘the House of Desolation’, Kipling used his imagination as his defence.  He recalls, having received a copy of Robinson Crusoe from his parents, he withdrew to the basement and made a completely different world for himself away from the cruelties outlined above.


My apparatus was a coconut shell strung on a red cord, a tin trunk, and a piece of packing-case which kept off any other world. Thus fenced about, everything inside the fence was quite real, but mixed with the smell of damp cupboards. If the bit of board fell, I had to begin the magic all over again. I have learned since from children who play much alone that this rule of ‘beginning again in a pretend game’ is not uncommon. The magic, you see, lies in the ring or fence that you take refuge in.


Later on, Kipling’s eyes began to fail and his school reports reflected his malady. His reports got worse and worse, to such an extent that he one day threw his school report away. When the deceit was uncovered, he was soundly beaten for it and made to walk to school through the streets of Portsmouth the next day with the word ‘Liar’ written on a placard hung around his neck.

By now, he was in a bad way, and he recalls that some sort of nervous breakdown followed in which he was even more afraid of the shadows than he was of the Woman.  A doctor was called by an Aunt, who declared him half blind and prescribed glasses for him. The Woman regarded this as showing off, and she then segregated Kipling from his sister as a punishment – at least that is how Kipling tells it.

Eventually, these bleak years came to an end.  When Kipling was eleven or twelve, his mother finally came to Portsmouth to visit her son. She reached down to hug him after not having seen him for six years, and he ducked to avoid the blow he expected to receive from her. Suffice to say, she moved him away from the house in no time.

It is often said that out of adversity great writers are born.  Asked why he never reported what was going on he replied that there were two main reasons. The first was that the young tend to accept what is going on around them as normal. The second was that he knew what might come his way if he was not clear of the house before he made his complaints.

Beyond that, he also writes of something else to do with the psychological effect of the place:


In the long run these things, and many more of the like, drained me of any capacity for real, personal hate for the rest of my days. So close must any life-filling passion lie to its opposite. ‘Who having known the Diamond will concern himself with glass?’


Kipling is almost transcendent of his suffering.

One cannot but help wonder whether the strict rules and courtesy, the rigid sense of hierarchy, of honour, of implacable hatred and danger that one reads in the Jungle Books are not a direct result of what he learned not in India where he would later return, but in a house in Southsea where life was never easy. Of the old bear Baloo and his kindness, one also cannot help but think of The Captain.

And when one considers the message in the lines of his most famous poem, “If”:


If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,


with its final line:


And – which is more – you’ll be a man my son


We can perhaps imagine how some of that adversity in Portsmouth may have fed into that work.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.