Minnie and the King’s Christmas Speech
Minnie Louise Haskins was born at Warmley House, just outside of Bristol on 12 May 1875. Minnie, the oldest sister of 3, was bought up as a Nonconformist in the Wesleyan tradition.
After her father’s death, she spent much time supporting her mother, but eventually made it to University College, Bristol, the forerunner of Bristol University. Highly recommended for her natural teaching ability, she accepted a post in Lambeth in 1903 doing church work in support of the poor. Social work there led her into the welfare of young women in industrial work.
Soon, she was invited to become a missionary worker in India, serving between 1906 and 1912. There she learned to speak Tamil. She returned home by 1913, and took up midwifery training in London. In January 1914 she went back to India, but caught a fever and returned to England in 1915.
After recovery, she managed a women’s hostel for munitions workers in Woolwich. Then she took a post as a factory welfare worker at Silvertown, East London.
After the war Minnie studied at the London School of Economics from 1918-1920. After her studies she joined the staff at LSE first in the Social Science department as an assistant before becoming a tutor in 1934. Minnie became a leading tutor and a national authority on the subject of industrial welfare.
Her sister Bessie had taught in Syria after WW1 and specialised in French and German; she later became headteacher at Kensington High School for Girls, then opened a prep-school with her sister, Edith, at Bexhill.
An opportunity arose to rent large premises in Crowborough, where Bessie and Minnie established the Brooklands Pre-Preparatory School for young boys and girls and in 1927 Minnie and her two sisters moved into Brooklands, Ghyll Road (then New Road).
Bessie was the school principal. The school usually accommodated around 15 boarders and 5 local day attendees. The parents of most pupils were colonial administrators, diplomats, and overseas clergy.
Minnie continued to teach at the LSE until her retirement in September 1939 but, whenever possible she assisted her sisters at Brooklands by taking lessons, cooking, and supervising boarders, a practice that she continued into her retirement.
Brooklands, since demolished and rebuilt as flats, was originally a substantial Victorian 3-storey redbrick house, with ample gardens and a meadow. Brooklands was a successful school for many years until it was sold on – continuing as a prep-school – in 1954. Minnie had eventually purchased the freehold in 1944.
Though she was mainly an academic, Minnie enjoyed writing poetry. In 1908 she wrote the poem ‘The Gate of the Year’. The Gate of the Year was published as part of a volume entitled The Desert. Other publications include Through Beds of Stone (1928) and A Few People (1932).
On Christmas Day 1939, King George V1 made his first Christmas speech against the backdrop of World War II. Ahead of his closing lines, in which he paid tribute to the fighting services of Britain and its allies, he spoke of the uncertainty of the year ahead – would it bring peace, or continued struggle?
Offering a message of encouragement, the king concluded his speech with the following lines.
“ I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’”
He added, “May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”
The response to the broadcast was extraordinary. Thousands contacted the BBC to find out the identity of the author. Newspapers here and abroad, having received advance copies of the speech, were already attempting to track down the author.
On the 9pm Boxing Day news, the BBC announced that the author had not been traced and was assumed dead. Later, a man phoned the Corporation to say he had permission from his sister to reveal that she was the author. Then, on its midnight news bulletin, the BBC stated that the sought for writer was a Miss M.L.Haskins of Crowborough, in Sussex, who had written her now renowned lines some years earlier as an introduction to some verses.
News of Miss Haskins and her whereabouts spread rapidly. By early the next morning the world’s press descended on a house called Brooklands in Ghyll Road to try and find out more about M.L. Haskins.
To global surprise, the king’s unknown poetess turned out to be a shy, softly spoken, retired university lecturer with greying hair and steel-rimmed spectacles. Aged 64, she lived with her two younger sisters, also unmarried, in a large house which they ran as a school for young children.
Within days she was famous, and before the end of the war more than 50 000 copies of The Desert had been sold, and the Gate of the Year has since been quoted by royalty, politicians, presidents, headmasters and religious and business leaders.
Minnie Louise Haskins had led a fairly unremarkable but dedicated life as a teacher, missionary worker, academic and factory welfare pioneer, as well as a poet and novelist. One minute of a king’s speech had made her famous the world over.
The Gate of the Year is amongst the most quoted poetic works of the twentieth century, and its words are engraved on the entrance to the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle and was read out at The Queen Mother’s funeral on Tuesday 9 April .
In October 1954 when the school closed, Bessie, Edith and Minnie moved out of Brooklands to a property now called Overhill, in London Road near Crowborough Cross. Bessie died on 23 March 1954, aged 71; Edith died on 10 April 1970, aged 85. Minnie died 3 February 1957, aged 81 in the Kent & Sussex Hospital, Tunbridge Wells, in 1957.
References: This article has been based on information provided by local historian John Hackworth.