The Explanatory Letter of Margaret Hoskyn
One day, by some happy chance, a packet of old letters fell into my hands. They were written by my great-uncle Nicholas Loney in the Philippine Islands and cover – with a few gaps – a period of sixteen years, from 1852 to 1868.
They are written on the frailest, flimsiest possible transparent paper and are all in an incredibly fine and beautiful hand. After I had read the letters I thought that others might enjoy reading about life in the Philippines a century ago, which is the reason for this book.
Manila, Corregidor, Cavite and Panay are familiar names today, but they were very little known when Nicholas went there in 1852. It would appear that he stayed there in search of his health, although how he came to choose that remote archipelago is not clear. It was then under Spanish rule and a wild romantic place enough. Some references about him have appeared in occasional Philippine papers, but before presenting this let me draw upon the more picturesque if sometimes less relevant found of family legend and personal memory.
Most of the letters are written to “Nanny” his favourite sister, whom I remember as a very old lady who used to wear a lace cap and sit in an armchair on one side of the big bay window of a room in her house in Southampton, England, opposite her husband, great-uncle Charles, who wore an embroidered skullcap and a long white beard. They were both frighteningly old, as people sometime seemed to be when I was a child. Aunt Nanny had made a sort of hero and saint of “Nick,” her gay and adventurous brother, and I wish now that I’d asked her more about him.
In one of this letters, Nicholas speaks of his small god-daughter Annie Loney Ker. She and her sister Florence I knew well. They were staid Edwardian maiden ladies who wore blouses with high boned collars and their hair done in a high roll off the forehead. Their appearance then completely belied their fantastic and adventurous youth when their father, Nicholas’ partner, sent them to England on a sailing ship at the ages of four and five, respectively. They started off in charge of a Chinese amah but she died on the long voyage, so the little girls were looked after by the sailors who cut down their own clothes to make sailor suits for Annie and Florence, and taught them to dance the hornpipe.
Admiral Loney, Nicholas’ father and the recipient of some of the letters, lived first of all at Plymouth and later in a Cornish village called Antony. There I have been shown the old tree under which it was his custom to sit and read the newspaper to the village folk and talk with them of happenings in the world outside. Another pleasing, if less useful, habit of the Admiral when he was very old was to take a daily walk with two of his daughters. Sophie and Harriet, himself in full regalia – cocked hat, knee-breeches and all – to visit two old ladies to each of whom he would propose marriage in the most courtly old-world manner, falling on one frail and rheumaticky knee to do so. Apparently he continued to thrive on refusals.
The Loneys were a large family: Harriet, Sophie, Lizzie (my grandmother), Nanny and Mary, who when married went to live at Croft, a farm near Salcombe in Devonshire, often mentioned in the letters; and the boys, Robert, Henry, John, Peter and Nicholas himself. Robert joined Nicholas in the Philippines after he left the Navy and they seem to have made a show of it in trading together, in spite of the fact that Robert “objected to all Spaniards” (a sentiment divined and cordially reciprocated by them) and refused to learn their language.
As one reads the letters with their easy and intimate charm, a clear picture of Nicholas Loney emerges and one comes to know and love this lonely man. That he was a scholar was evident. He quotes effortlessly in old French from Montaigne and other letters are full of quite spontaneous literary and classical allusions. He felt deeply his self-imposed exile in “this forgotten dot of the universe” where he had scarcely anyone with whom to talk to his own language save after some years the eccentric Higgin who came from England to join him, but who does not seem to have proved the companion Nicholas had hoped for. Exactly where Nicholas acquired his learning does not appear. Perhaps from the Plymouth grammar school, which must have provided his only education, for the Loneys were a large family and not well off.
If I did not possess the original letters with their f’s instead of double s’s and their exquisite penmanship on paper now all but crumbling, I should find it hard indeed to believe from their modern idiom that they were written so long ago. I must own to having had the impression that “The Admirable Crichton” was a character created by Sir James Barrie until I encountered him in one of Nicholas’ letters and subsequently found out that, actually, he lived in the 16th century. Expressions like “a lot of old beggar women kicking up a row on the stairs” have little archaic flavor and the sentence “if remittances are squared up O.K.” written in 1859 is unexpected, to say the least.
The genial accounts of his household and pets are among the happiest passages of Nicholas’ letters and reflect a love and understanding of animals which some of his neighbours may have found a little odd. Though as for oddness, coming as he did from a prosaic country like England where one’s cook was usually called Ellen or Mrs. Smithers, Nicholas must have found it not a little odd to have a cook called “Ignatius of the Kings” and a houseboy called Athanasius, ”a mild good-looking youth, and no relation,” he assures us, “to him of the Creed.”
Nicholas was something of a traveller, having been in South America, New Zealand and Singapore before he settled in Iloilo as H.B.M.’s Vice-Consul in 1856. He married a French woman named Leontine, whom he met on one of his voyages and who, family tradition tells, was very beautiful, but there is a gap in the letters between 1859 and 1866 so that we hear nothing of their meeting nor of the early years of their marriage but are confronted in the last letters with the accomplished fact and a mention of two small children.
It seems that Leontine was not inconsolable for after Nicholas’ death she married a Mr. Ross, of whom Nicholas remarks in one of his letters that “one could leave one’s interests in his hands without any misgivings,” so one hopes that he looked well after Leontine and her two children.
Nicholas grew to love the islands and to believe in their future which he did so much to assure. Nevertheless, he often found the loneliness almost unbearable and constantly expressed a desire to go back to England. He writes nostalgically of the walks at Croft in Devon which he longed to take again “with Father and the girls,” but which he never did take owing to his death from fever in the Philippines at the premature age of forty-one.
The following was the inscription on the monument erected to him in the cemetery for foreigners at Iloilo:
“In memory of Nicholas Loney of Plymouth, England. Late H.B.M.’s Vice Consul at this Port, who died 22nd April 1869, aged 41 years. This monument is erected by his numerous friends: British, Spaniards, foreigners and natives, as a slight testimony of the esteem and regard in which his memory will ever be held by all who knew him.”
My thanks are due to Mr. Charles Johnman of the English Departmnet of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, for his help in annotating these letters; to the Rev. Father McManus of the Catholic Presbitery in Boksburg, Transvaal, for translating the French passages; and to Mr. Enrique Jorda, conductor of the Capetown Municipal Orchestra, for clarifying and translating the Spanish phrases used by my great-uncle.