Who was George Mills?

Once again I'm straying across the Atlantic, ending up this time in sunny Florida. So the above book cover showing three English cricket-playing schoolboys seems incongruous to say the least.

He lives a long way from Budleigh Salterton, but Sam Williams, a Fifth grade teacher at Madison Street Academy of Visual and Performing Arts in Ocala, Florida, pictured above, is beginning to feel that he knows our town almost as well as I know Brewster and Cape Cod. And it's all thanks to the internet.

For I learnt via Google that Sam is seeking information about former Budleigh resident George Mills, a well-connected author of children's books published in the 1930s who retired here and died in 1972. King Willow which appeared in 1933 was his first literary success, and was republished in the 1950s.

To coincide with Budleigh Salterton's first Literary Festival http://www.budlitfest.org.uk/ , an interesting exhibition of authors associated with the town was staged a couple of years ago, but the name of George Mills was absent from it. Nor is he mentioned in the Otter Valley Associations's excellent online OVApedia http://www.ovapedia.org.uk/index.php?page=ovapedia

Sam has discovered, however, from combing archives of the London Times and finding mention of their names in tournaments in Devon and Sussex that George Mills and his spinster sisters Agnes and Violet were members of the Budleigh Salterton Croquet Club http://www.budleighcroquet.co.uk/.

Harrow School, one of England's leading independent schools, where George Mills was a pupil

Born in Bude, Cornwall, in 1896, George Mills was educated at Harrow School which he left in 1912, and after service in World War I taught in various preparatory schools, an experience on which he drew to write King Willow and similar books with titles like Meredith and Co and Minor and Major between 1933 and 1939.

Sam Williams has produced not only a detailed biography of George Mills at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mills_(writer) but a website tracking his own efforts to cast light on this little-known author's life and works. And it all started, superficially at least, thanks to a chance phrase in a BBC TV sitcom that he happened to be watching at home in Florida in February 2010. Clearly he has an attentive and enquiring mind which must surely be appreciated by the pupils in his school.

He admits also that there may be a personal element in his search. "I suppose the fact that my paternal grandmother hailed from Manchester, but denied all ties to her country of origin after emigrating here, may make my quest for George Mills something like a diving into my own heritage," he tells me.

Click on http://www.whoisgeorgemills.com/2010/03/who-is-george-mills-journey-begins.html and you may find yourself as absorbed as this Floridan literary detective clearly is by the search for yet another writer with Budleigh Salterton links.

I was so impressed by Sam's diligent research into his subject that I was pleased to help him out by sending him this photo of Greyfriars, the house in Westfield Road where George Mills lived with sisters Agnes and Violet.

And yesterday afternoon Annie and I spent time at St Peter's Burial Ground searching for the Mills family grave. Maybe the sea mist had something to do with it, but our search was in vain. However I did have the pleasure of meeting a charming and informative 80-year-old local man who was visiting the many graves of his own family members, and who remembered that George Mills and his sisters were croquet-players. It may be that the Croquet Club as well as the Literary Festival organisers will be pleased to learn about the Mills family.

Meredith and Co by George Mills, was published by Oxford University Press in 1933

Maybe I wanted to make amends for the way in which Sam's courteous requests for information have been disregarded by certain individuals in the UK whom he has approached. "It's particularly disappointing to encounter such unprofessional behavior regarding research assistance from my educational colleagues, all of whom should know far better," he complains on his website. "Shame on Eaton House Schools, Magdalen College School, and the Independent Association of Prep Schools!"

And perhaps also I sympathise with Sam Williams' somewhat existentialist thoughts expressed in yesterday's email from him as another decade slipped away into the void.

Minor and Major, the last in the trilogy of schoolboy books, was published by Harrap in 1939

"When all is said and done, though, I think my true attraction to the Mills clan stems from something far more personal than even my desire to rekindle a relationship with the lost land of my ancestry. I feel broken hearted that the literary works of George Mills [and his brother, Arthur, and sister-in-law, Lady Dorothy Mills] had all but faded into obscurity. Despite having been published and at times acclaimed authors, all of the family members are at best little-known today.

Former Budleigh Salterton resident and author of children's books George Mills

As a man finding himself now on the far side of fifty years, I look at the legacy I, myself, am leaving. The Mills clan certainly made far greater contributions to posterity than I ever have, and yet they are all all but forgotten except for my own efforts on their behalf. Many of their own living, distant family members have admittedly forgotten them completely, or strangely want nothing to do with them being remembered at all. It all makes me wonder about the place I've carved out for myself in this world - a place far less notable than the Mills family members - and how I'll be either remembered or forgotten in the future. It can be a sobering thought to know that no one may care enough to keep one's memory alive.

Well, isn't that an interesting collection of thoughts upon which to dwell as the old year passes into the new? It's actually been a great deal of fun researching the Mills family, and indirectly the Walpoles, Aclands, Hobarts, Ramsays, etc., and I hope to keep coming across new leads that can keep my research going!"

It always gave me great satisfaction during my working life to help out such researchers. And I'm happy to continue this approach as it becomes easier and more fascinating by the minute to explore the world and the past, thanks to the amazing power of the internet.


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