His memorial looks out over Norwich - but who was Ralph Hale Mottram?
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
He once described his life as “nothing very spectacular. It is what I wished to do with my life and I have done it.”
A typical quote from a modest man of Norfolk…the boy from the bank who grew into a literary lion while engaged in a wide range of public duties.
The rich and the poor, the old and the young…RH Mottram reached out to help many people.
In 1953 – Coronation Year – Norwich elected him as Lord Mayor, which was a compliment he valued as highly as the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature, bestowed upon him 20 years previously.
The Mottrams had been hereditary freeman of Norwich ever since John Mottram, a woolcomber, was admitted to the Guildhall in 1620.
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Ralph Hale Mottram was born in 1883 above Gurney’s Bank – the big Georgian bank house which became Barclays – in Norwich where his father, James, was the resident chief clerk.
It could have been taken for granted that he would follow his father into the world of banking and for a while he did… but young Ralph had a passion for writing.
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Encouraged by the author John Galsworthy who, along with his wife Ada, was a friend of the family, Ralph had been writing ever since he was a lad.
When his father retired from the bank in 1902 the family moved to the lofty and leafy suburbs of Bracondale.
In his book From the Window Seat he wrote: “The house that mother and Aunt Maria Clark had so well chosen was 21 Bracondale. It cost some £1,200.”
He wrote of the wonderful views across the city and beyond from the “sky parlour” built in the house by “old Mr Blake, the builder” who lived there saying: “It was the finest window seat I had ever had…”
His poetry, some was written under the name J Marjoram, was moving and beautiful…and young Ralph decided a life in banking was not for him. “I had a vocation. It just happened to be the wrong on. Father’s shoes did not fit.”
Then war was declared in 1914 and he volunteered for the Norfolk Regiment. He was a good horse rider, having been taught by his mother to ride with the cavalry when they exercised their horses on Mousehold Heath.
Ralph, who spoke fluent French having spent a year in Lausanne in 1899 finishing his education, was commissioned as an officer and fought amid the blood and mud in the hellish front line at Ypres where the life expectancy of a front-line officer was about six weeks. He was one of the fortunate ones and went on to be appointed as an Army liaison officer handling compensation claims with French and Belgium landowners and was not demobbed until 1919.
He returned to work in the bank while embarking on a book based on his experiences in the war.
The Spanish Farm told the tale of a father and daughter trying to survive as the war raged around them in the Flanders battlefields. John Galsworthy wrote a preface without charge and it was published to great acclaim in 1924.
This was a best-seller. It would change his life.
Ralph was honoured by being awarded the Hawthornden Prize – the top literary award of the day. Books Sixty-Four, Ninety Four and The Crime at Vanderlynden’s followed and were translated in many different languages to complete the trilogy.
A popular film Roses of Picardy, based on his book, followed in 1927 and Ralph finally had the confidence to leave the bank to become a full-time writer, working from his home in Poplar Avenue, Eaton.
Our Mr Dormer, a historical novel founded on his own family’s long connection with Gurney’s also grew into a trilogy and there were a succession of Easthampton novels derived from their author’s love of the life and history of his native city of Norwich and county of Norfolk.
He estimated he wrote about one thousand words a day, on ruled foolscap with an old-fashioned steel-nibbed pen, working from early morning, four days a week and over the following 40 years turned out a huge amount of work - novels, books on Norfolk and Norwich, autobiographies, short stores and moving poems.
Ralph wrote more than 60 books. On all subjects. Fact, fiction and poetry.
And then there was his public life…how the people loved and respected RH who always had time for others.
Founder member of the Norwich Society – established in the 1920s to protect and preserve the city’s built heritage – he was its secretary for 20 years.
A magistrate during the 1930s, 40 and 50s, the Liberal Party put him forward as Lord Mayor and he was elected in 1953 and was the city’s first citizen during a year of celebration. The dawn of a new era.
Trustee and a member of many different charities and organisations, he was in constant demand as a public speaker. He modestly attributed his writing to the fact that he had “the gift of the gab.”
And it was said that he ever called a meeting…it would be over in an hour.
In 1966 the University of East Anglia, which he had helped to promote and encourage, awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.
Married to Margaret for 52 years, they had two sons and a daughter. Following her death in 1970. He went to live with his daughter Sophia at King’s Lynn and that is where he died in April of 1971. He was 87.
Three years before his death The Spanish Farm was turned into a television drama series by the BBC and just two days before he died the manuscript of another book. The Victorians as They Really Were was delivered to his publishers.
Following his death a civic service was held at his place of worship, the Octagon Chapel, and he is buried at the family plot in the beautiful Rosary Cemetery where he was a trustee.
He once said: “I knew, when I was four years old, exactly where I could be buried.”
Try to track down some of his books. There is also a fine piece about him in the book Buried at the Rosary by Nick Williams published in 2012 which is an excellent read.
We have much to thank RH Mottram for.