Henry Rider Haggard was a solitary figure; a man of little or no small talk, he was at his most relaxed when discussing agricultural matters with the workers on his Ditchingham estate; then he would open up. He would perambulate the fields with his walking stick, finished off with an iron ‘spud’ made by the local blacksmith on the corner of Drapers Lane. He had few acquaintances, and his closest friends (like Andrew Lang and Rudyard Kipling) he seldom met, being immersed in rural Norfolk life. His task as the author of many tales of high adventure he kept to the privacy of his study, and to Ida Hector his secretary.
The eighth of ten children, he was born in 1856 at West Bradenham near Dereham in central Norfolk. His family was of the Norfolk gentry class, but with a hint of the exotic; the Haggard family derived its name from the founder’s Danish origins, and Henry’s grandmother was a Russian who his grandfather had met in St Petersburg during his banking career.
West Bradenham was only three miles from Wendling railway station on the Kings Lynn line, which had opened in 1848. It was not much further to Holme Hale, on the branch line from Swaffham to Thetford, which took its first passengers when he was thirteen. These lines opened up the whole railway network, with Thetford providing trains to London, Peterborough and the North. The Varsity Line ran from Cambridge and gave him easy access to Oxfords and the country rectory where he was schooled by a family friend. The education of so many sons was a considerable strain on his father’s resources however, and Henry was not a bright scholar; he was the only one of his brothers not to receive a Public School education. His father transferred the boy to Ipswich Grammar School, and thence to a crammer in London to finish his studies. It was intended that he should apply to enter the Foreign Office.
As it was far from certain that Henry would pas the exam, his father William instead packed his 19-year-old son off to Africa to serve as secretary to the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer of Heydon Hall in North Norfolk. Once there he ventured into the Transvaal, where the Boers, Zulus and British were vying for supremacy, leading to bloody warfare. The experiences of these years provided him with much of the raw material for his later work. Already in childhood he had picked up the names of acquaintances that would feature in his novels.
He returned to England in 1879 to give official reports on events in Africa. At home in Bradeneham Hall he was introduced to a school friend of his sister Mary. Within a week he was engaged to Louie Margitson; as an orphaned only child she was to inherit the estate when she came of age in October of that year. After determined opposition from some of her relatives the couple were married in Ditchingham church in 1880. They began their honeymoon by travelling to Norwich in a coach and four. They passed the Kings Head in Brooke and Poringland’s Dove before transferring to a train which took them to the Lake District. They returned to South Africa later in the year. Henry’s African adventure was curtailed by the success of the Boers, which led to the return of the Transvaal to the Dutch.
Henry Rider Haggard returned with his wife to Norfolk to live. Her family were long established at Ditchinham House; they had acquired the property in 1817. At this stage the future course of Henry’s career was still uncertain, but he already possessed (through his wife) a fine mansion which would remain his home for the rest of his life. He studied the law, intending make his way in the legal profession. In his leisure moments he began some writing, but with little success. The enormous popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1885) showed him the direction his future writing should take. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was written in six weeks and published in the same year, 1885. It was an immediate run away success. He was thereafter a prolific author and became perhaps the world’s best-selling writer of the late nineteenth century. Although some of his hand written manuscripts are preserved in the Norfolk Record Office, he preferred to dictate to his secretary rather than write his novels down himself. His lifelong interest in farming led to several non-fiction books on agriculture.
He travelled widely, going to Europe, the Americas, Egypt, New Zealand and of course South Africa. He had one son, Arthur John (Jock), who died as a boy of nine while his father was abroad. Although this dead son was never mentioned, this devastating loss overshadowed the rest of Rider Haggard’s life. He also had three daughters, among whom was the youngest, Lilias Rider Haggard, who was born after Jock’s death. She herself was the author of local books, including Norfolk Life (1943) and Norfolk Notebook (1947).
Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain novels must have enthralled me when I read them over 50 yeas ago. I have of course utterly forgotten their plots, but I have no wish to reread them. They belong to a period of my life so distant that the author himself was but a recent memory at the time. His daughters were then still living in Ditchingham. My wife’s relatives in nearby Bedingham used to work for him in the ‘Mustard Pot’, as the locals referred to Ditchingham House. For them he was ‘the master’ for whom they washed the linen and prepared the meals, not the best-selling writer.
It was a complete change from the peaceful round of changing seasons in South Norfolk to the primeval grandeur of the South African Veldt and the proud and warlike Zulu tribesemen, yet Ride Haggard’s life encompassed them both. He was made a Knight of the British Empire by King George V in the New Year’s Honours List for 1912. He died in 1925 and his remains are interred in Ditchingham church, where he was for decades the regular reader of the lesson every Sunday.