Ernest Heasman at Nedneprah, East Common

Memories of my artist father and musician mother

Hilda Strickland, nee Heasman, was born in 1912 at 21 East Common (Nedneprah – Harpenden in reverse), when her father was 38, shortly after he became more seriously afflicted with acute deafness. She was about 15 when he died in 1927. This account in our archives (BF 20.9) may have been written for the Society around the time when an exhibition of Ernest Heasman’s paintings was mounted in Harpenden Further Education Centre in June 1973, with the assistance of Pat Wilson (founder member of the Local History Society in 1973).

Linette O’Sullivan tells us her mother Hilda was living in Hastings, Sussex when she died in 1991. She also writes that her father’s younger brother Arthur Herbert Strickland was a senior entomologist at Rothamsted. He lived in Wheathampstead.

See also Linette’s comment below.


Ernest Heasman – Self-portrait

The first 12 years of my life were magical because my whole existence was coloured by the presence of my father. He understood children in such a way that is was impossible not to feel his love and to feel safe whatever happened. His sense of humour never failed, even at the worst of times, fancies or otherwise. I think this humour was a defence mechanism against the affliction of deafness which must have been devastating to a man of his personality. Basically extrovert and highly sociable, he loved human nature and sharing; people and animals were a constant source of his philosophical outlook on life.

He was already to help anyone in trouble. No call was ever refused. I can recall an artist colleague turning up from London at 8 o’clock in the morning in great distress over ‘wife trouble’. My father cooked him a breakfast and spent the whole morning talking to him in the studio finally sending him back to London reinforced.

His deafness did not become acute until the age of 35; before this he was regarded as wonderful company and was remembered by colleagues long after his death as being the best of companions. He took the onset of acute deafness with courage but, deep down, he suffered great depression and loss of confidence in himself. He became more solitary in his habits; his reading became more important to him and his work more imaginative. His children were always one of his greatest outlets. His love for his wife had always been very unselfish and protective to the last degree, especially early on in their marriage. He was 10 years older than she was. I do not think she understood what he was suffering by being ‘cut off’ so to speak; if he felt left out, as he so often must have done, he never let it show.


Nedneprah – 21 East Common, Harpenden

No. 21 East Common was our second house at Harpenden. For a short while we lived in a house further down the row, where my sister was born (1909). We moved to 21 just before I was born in 1912. He then had a proper Studio (upstairs, right of the stairs). The main bedroom was left of stairs and there were two bedrooms and a bathroom at the back. One bedroom was often damp and all sorts of things were done to cure it. EH said it was built of the worst bricks in Harpenden. This room and the kitchen below were additions to the house built not long before we took it over. We paid 15 shillings (75p) a week rent. There was a bicycle shed and a coal shed at the back. The Music Room (below the Studio) was our lounge and also was used for pupils. It was very homely. A Bechstein Grand and later an upright when finances forced the sale of the Grand, stood in one corner, a music case with shelves all marked alphabetically, in the other. A roaring fire in winter, sketches on the walls, a deep blue Wilton carpet and some very comfortable chairs. The walls were papered half way up in Morris paper with a deep blue motif and the top left plain for pictures. We had a Queen Anne desk, Sheraton table for cards and some Trafalgar chairs. My father loved antiques and had very good taste. My mother cared nothing for furniture or such-like. So long as she had a piano and a bed she was satisfied. We never went anywhere for holidays unless she had access to a decent piano – even when camping at Waterend, she had the use of a superb Grand daily for four hours in Waterend farmhouse, then owned by the Capon family who seemed to like us. We went very often and let our home on East Common.

LRAM students

The back (newer) kitchen was always rather terrifying to me as it was built over a well. The old kitchen behind the dining room had an ancient range in it which we used for putting Wellingtons and garden boots on and covered with a curtain. This room was often used as a bedroom when we had LRAM students living in (for a year’s stretch) as they were put upstairs and we were put downstairs. Later on, after my father’s death, before we left, we had paying guests, always from Rothamsted Experimental Station, so again we were put downstairs to sleep. We had numerous cats and always one dog. The cats slept in this kitchen and usually on my feet if we were there.

The Sitting room (dining room) on the right of the stairs under the main bedroom was the most used room. We had a large table with leaves, two armchairs, a bookcase all the way up one wall and some very good antique chairs which we treated rather roughly. However they have survived to this day and though done up once and re-covered are still in use.

When meals were not being served, EH used to bring his cartoons downstairs and spread them out to work on this table. We had a roaring coal fire in winter and though he also had one in his Studio, this table was nicer to work on than the bench he had in the Studio which was often dotted with masses of tacks (put round pieces of glass when they were being painted) which tore paper unless removed. The Studio was a magic place for me and I spent hours there. The predominant smell was beeswax and acetic acid and charcoal. It was untidy and full of paper to draw on. One side had cartoons in a wooden frame fixed to the wall.

There was an old copper in the kitchen, built in the corner. I suppose we boiled clothes in it but I can only remember having a bath in it sometimes instead of upstairs where there was a rather dangerous geyser. I was frightened of the copper as the bottom was often a bit too hot.

It was this copper and my fourth birthday which are my first memories of 21. I was given a tiny bicycle with a fixed wheel made by Mr Ogglesby of Southdown. At the same time (c.1916) we were billeted by soldiers who slept on the floor of the back kitchen. They all wished me a “Happy Birthday” which rather stuck in my mind. I rode the bike for some years until it was much too small for me and had to be discarded.

Hilda’s parents

I do not remember my mother being at the breakfast table; I think my father used to take her something in bed, and see to us before we went to Montessori School, my brother aged 2½ and myself 4. My sister attended private lessons with other children nearby. At bedtime it was usually my father who did the duties, baths etc and he often used to make us little sugar cakes if we went quietly. His mother used to make the same cakes for him. I think they were little sugar and butter mixtures – very small. When we were smaller he used to wash the nappies for my mother who was afraid for her hands. Being a pianist she could not stand them getting dry or rough. But he would not be seen doing it and used to bolt upstairs if anyone came to the back door. He often used to take a turn with an old woman who was hired to take us to the Montessori School in Manland Avenue. If she did not come he would come with us carrying us both on his bicycle, one on the crossbar, the other on the carrier, or if wet or cold, in a large pram – the latter not often as I think really there was a limit to his shattered dignity.

41 High Street – formerly Harpenden Music School

My mother usually left home about 9 am and was not seen again until about 7 pm. Either she was teaching at St George’s or at her School of Music in the High Street behind the pond opposite the Cock Inn. One wonders when on earth Father got any work done, but he did, shutting himself up sometimes until the small hours. He was a handy cook in a simple way and we never had domestic help regularly or if we did, he refused to have them after lunch so he often did the suppers. There were occasions when we had good help – Clara, Agnes, Nurse Day – and then he would disappear for several days, only emerging from the Studio for a meal when necessary.

Sleeping to the sound of music

The evenings at 21 were a hive of activity; my mother always practised for 4 to 6 hours a day in the holidays and 4 hours in term times, sometimes late at night, and my father worked. I used to go to sleep to the sound of Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov, etc in practice. It got to be a sort of thumping tempo so that I knew every note of all the music and later, at concerts, used to suffer agonies in case there was a wrong note. When there were Musical Evenings it was marvellous, but for some reason or other I used to weep in bed, especially when listening to Chopin, and to this day when I hear Chopin I have to struggle not to cry.

The next-door neighbours (at ‘The Nest’, No.22), a Mr and Mrs Borders, were distinctly distant. They were not music lovers and they were also very respectable and tidy so I am sure they suffered somewhat from the constant flow of visitors. Also they were disapproving of the children (theirs were grown up) who rode bikes up and down the garden, out of the front gate, round the top of the common and back down Cravells Road into the back garden having races. We played cricket just outside the front on the common. There was a lot of unspoken feeling but we managed to keep away from them as much as possible.

Many visitors and students

I think my father loved his home and hated being away from it even for a night. There were not many times when we were alone (en famille); there was always someone staying with us – friends or pupils. How we all got in can only be explained by the fact that all the children were forced to sleep in one room. (When we got older, our one ambition was to have a room of our own. It became almost an obsession!) I remember Lennox Berkeley (later Sir Lennox Berkeley) baby-sitting while mother and father were out. He came to us for a short while after leaving St George’s, where he was very unhappy and my mother championed his desire to take up music whilst his parents were horrified at the idea. In later years I have often spoken to old students (who often stayed a year to take their LRAM in return for keeping an eye on the children: my mother had great successes with these students) and asked them how they stood the atmosphere and the food. All said: “It was marvellous being with you all. Your mother was such a wonderful teacher and lived on the crest of a wave, giving concerts and so on and encouraging everyone to take part. Your father was the kindest man ever known. As for the food, well one can’t remember being starved at all.” The School of Music was thriving and pupils also came to No. 21 for private coaching and lessons.

In their early married life, my father devoted himself to helping my mother to find herself as a musician. Intensely musical himself, he understood all about it and my mother’s performing abilities were greatly helped by this attitude. He never faltered in his support and I think sometimes my mother was not aware of how much he gave up to help her.

No. 21 was very cold in winter but marvellous in the summer. The garden was a mess except at the front where some effort was made to keep it tidy for the benefit of the constant stream of visitors. The man next door was a fanatical gardener so eventually he took over the back garden and all we had to do was keep a hedge clipped, tend some rhubarb and weed the garden path. EH always stuck an old dust-bin over the rhubarb each year to encourage early growth.

Love of nature

Heasman watercolour – Harpenden Common on a windy day – one of many sketches of the view from Nedneprah

Walking was a favourite hobby and we often went long distances to get some bluebells or see the dragon-flies on some pond or see a birds nest. If we got tired father carried us on his shoulders in turns. EH took great comfort from nature. My mother was impervious to it. She was born within sound of Bow Bells and was a true Londoner, but she loved Harpenden because EH loved it and it was her home. She used to get a bit ‘worked up’ with having a very quick temper and being extremely active, almost unrestful in her ways, but EH never retaliated. He was very patient.

Once, my father insisted on having the living room redecorated in a marvellous blue wallpaper which he had seen in London (probably very expensive). He always went for the best regardless of cost. The workmen (Mr Curl and son) took a couple of days and no-one went near them. When it was finished, EH took one look at it and said: “Oh, it is awful. Take it off again. I can’t live with that! But it is such a lovely colour”. My mother was horrified but off it came and we went back to the old cream top and wallpaper below.

EH always worked in any old trousers, a cream Holland jacket and carpet slippers. But he was very particular about his best clothes for going out or when visitors came. He had his suits and shirts made in London. He always wore a cap not a hat. He earned a good salary until the 1914 war came. After that, things really did get tight and my mother gradually took over the earning rights as EH opted out, taking less and less interest in finances which he really disliked.

Good education for the children

Both my mother and my father were agreed on one point – the children must have a good education. Neither of my parents had had any education to speak of. He left school at 12 and my mother hardly went to school at all. She was always moving about with her mother who had been deserted by her father before she was born. There were three older girls who spoilt the baby. She was very delicate as a child and not expected to live after 7 years old. (She lived to be 92). Her mother was around 40 when she was born and I think my father also was born when his mother was 40 or over. Both raised the school fees for us whatever the sacrifice.

I think the things that stick out a mile after all these years for me are that my father made our home a loving home (I can’t say this for my mother – she had few home-making abilities) and that he valued the simple things of life. So did we – or should I say this for myself? My sister and brother never spoke to me much about our lives at no.21 and both left England in their thirties.

We had practically no toys, only books and drawing paper, or we played cricket or rounders. EH gave us reams of paper and paints and pencils and we covered them with our efforts, or we thumped the piano if we ever got the chance to get near it, which was not often.

No-one was turned away

I think EH’s friends valued his simple approach to life, also the attitude he had of accepting anything that happened without complaint. Time did not rule him at all. If people wanted to stay in our home, he took them in and they were never turned away. EH had a heart of gold. But my mother resented the disturbances at times. No doubt she wanted peace after being out so much. But if she did have a quiet day, she got restless and soon started to stir things up again.

We always had animals – dogs, cats etc. EH loved them because he did not have to hear them to be in contact. They were always devoted to him. He detested cruelty of any kind to animals or human beings come to that. I expect he would have been a Conscientious Objector in the Great War but the question never arose as far as I can gather because he was too deaf to be called up.

Design for a Pleasure Park – an example of Heasman’s childlike fantasies

I think it is possible that my mother would have been happier without children; they got in her way, interfered with her work and were a drag. We felt this and I think my father may have realised this. All this probably increased our love and devotion to him. He loved us deeply and never made us feel a nuisance. He understood children completely, possibly because there was a streak of genius in his nature and therefore also a childish attitude to life entwined with a very strong responsible tendency in general. He could be relied upon to understand.

Shepherd Arnold – slide of watercolour sketch by Ernest Heasman

We were all subject to his philanthropy from time to time – the old shepherd and the tramps occupying the kitchen, all passed on to others that there would be bread and cheese and tea at 21 if they called. Sometimes they were asked to stay and be sketched. They never objected or bothered us, departing as soon as he was finished with the drawing.

Our worst experience was when he insisted on having two East End children from London for two weeks’ holiday. They were absolute devils – at least the elder was – Albert, aged ten. I was detailed to keep him from bullying his rather sickly younger brother, Frank. My worst moment came when I found Albert banging Frankie’s head again the Queen Anne desk with such ferocity that Frankie was almost unconscious. Albert was very funny, really, when he was not being a killer. He refused to eat scrambled eggs as he said we were deceiving him “Them’s not eggs,” he said and insisted on boiled eggs or nothing. After the murderous incident with Frankie, even my father had to accept that the experiment was not much of a success. Albert needed the East End. He existed on bread and marge, kippers and strong tea. Even the egg he was given instead of the scrambled one was regarded with suspicion. I suspect he really had never seen one before.

My father made a point of reading the classics to us. We used to get a bit impatient at times as we had the usual children’s liking for the bizarre – or just the common or garden rubbish of children’s magazines. After a long time we were allowed the Children’s Own. The Schoolgirls’ Own was forbidden. He forbade us to have it in the house. This was the only time I remember my father thwarting us. He read the Bible to us a lot and made it so real for me it was always my favourite. A girl who lived near us in Cravells Road had the Schoolgirls’ Own every week so we often read it but never brought it to 21 out of respect to EH.

Singing on Sunday evenings

Father played all kinds of card games with us and took me at any rate to see silent films which enraptured us both. He did not need to hear to enjoy them. Every Sunday evening, he sang hymns to us. We chose the ones we wanted and mother played the piano or he sang some of his favourite songs he had sung as a performer many years before. We gradually came to realise that he was unable to hear the piano accompaniment but watched my mother’s hands. We never stopped asking him to sing, up to the time of his last illness. I can remember my mother working on a piece of music for a concert and my father wanting to hear it. The only way he could do this was to put his forehead against the keyboard and listen through the bones of his head. It was heart-rending. He sent for a heavy hearing aid and it was a little help but he often forgot to turn it off and it would whistle away until someone drew his attention to it. It was usually in his pocket.

The owner of No.21 was Miss Aldridge, I think. She lived some way away. Once a year she used to come and inspect the house. A general cleanup and tidy up took place before her arrival. We all feared she might turn us out. Probably all imagined. Anyway we had a seven year lease if I remember rightly, at 15/- per week which remained until the first 7 year lease was finished when it went up to £1.

Open view of Harpenden Common from East Common

The view from the house was magnificent and not impeded by small trees and shrubs as it is now. Sheep used to graze on the common and many times we forgot to close our front gate and woke up in the morning to find they had gone round the front garden and eaten anything in sight except some rather strong-smelling tansy-like flowers which they couldn’t stomach.

A muffin-man used to come by once a week, ringing a bell. He carried his muffins on his head in a tray balanced on a thick cap.

We never had any alcohol in the home (neither of my parents drank anything alcoholic at all) except on Boxing Day when a bottle of port appeared especially for the benefit of the postman who came in for a drink.

Because of the musical life my mother led, we mixed with all classes of people, wealthy and otherwise. She had pupils from Cravells Road and from West Common. She also did a lot of this work with wealthy people which she loved. I very rarely had any new clothes; all were cast-offs from these sources. My sister was smaller than I was so nothing she had fitted me. I do remember being a bit embarrassed when going to the school party at St George’s because I was the youngest there and the Headmaster, Mr Grant, always opened the dancing with the youngest member. I hoped to escape this as I had on a dress which had once belonged to another girl there. I went through with it, but it was a bitter experience and I never forgot it!

Comments about this page

  • I was very interested to read the above memoir. My grandmother (nee Grace Naomi Woods) lived with the Heasmans when she was 15 and learned and taught piano with Mrs Heasman. She also met my grandfather and future husband, Donald Merrett, at their house in Harpenden. He was a photographer and photographed Mr Heasman’s work. I have some old photos (not very good condition) of Mary, Hilda and John.

    My greatgrandfather was chairman of Harpenden Horticultural Society.


    By Angela Garfield (16/10/2019)
  • I read with great interest Memories of my artist father and musician mother by my mother Hilda Strickland on the society’s website.  Thank you very much for making these fascinating memories available to us.

    By Linette O'Sullivan (03/02/2019)
  • Ernest and Anna Heasman are my grandparents. I am the daughter of their son John who was born in 1911.  My parents emigrated to Australia in 1948 when I was two so I never met Hilda (or Aunty Sigs as we called her). I met Anna when I was young when she came to visit us in Melbourne. 

    The story written by Hilda has been wonderful to read as my Dad rarely talked about his childhood. However I knew that he loved Ernest very deeply but did not get along with Anna very well. I was told by my Aunt Mary, Hilda’s older sister, also known as Bim, that all the three children adored their father Ernest but found their mother quite distant.

    I am thrilled to have found Hilda’s story. Thank you. 

    Patricia Margaret Heasman, born 26.6.1946 in Surrey.

    By Trish Fulford (30/06/2018)

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