History: Reginald Hine and Hitchin

PUBLISHED: 19:22 12 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:16 20 February 2013

History: Reginald Hine and Hitchin

History: Reginald Hine and Hitchin

Reginald Hine was a charismatic and universally recognised figure in Hitchin in the first half of the 20th century, and his histories of that town won national acclaim. Yet his dramatic death intrigues us to this day, as Ian St John reveals

Reginald Hine was a charismatic and universally recognised figure in Hitchin in the first half of the 20th century, and his histories of that town won national acclaim. Yet his dramatic death intrigues us to this day, as Ian St John reveals

AT10.30 on the morning of 14th April 1949, Reginald Hine, solicitor and historian, left his house of Willian Bury and drove to Hitchin Railway station. Having purchased a return ticket for the 11.12 train to Kings Cross, he ran into an acquaintance awaiting the 10.48 Cambridge train. The conducted a perfectly normal conversation when, upon the approach of the Cambridge train, Hine rose from his seat, hurried across the platform, and threw himself beneath its wheels. So ended, at the age of 66, the life of one of Hertfordshires most eminent worthies.

An eccentric life

Hine is best remembered for his 1945 Confessions of an Uncommon Attorney, an eccentrically discursive account of Hines life, and especially his years working for Hawkins and Company of Hitchin, which, he proudly reminds us, was one of the oldest firms of solicitors in the United Kingdom. Anecdotes concerning his dealings with clients provide the opportunity for digressions into local or literary history, while Hine vividly evokes the dusty recessed cupboards and becalmed attic of the firms Jacobean offices in Portmill Lane, within which he would spend as much time away from his desk as he could get away with.

But if Hine was a reluctant attorney, he was also a highly accomplished historian. Finding no solace in the law, nor in the arms of his wife, he devoted his exuberant energy to amassing information about his revered Hitchin and the Hertfordshire landscape. This passion began young: in 1910, at the age of 27, he delivered a lecture on the history of The Manor of Newnham, where he grew up, and at the time of his death he left behind 60 boxes of material for his projected history of Hertfordshire. Fortunately, he had, by then, already secured his reputation as a historian with his History of Hitchin (1929) and Hitchin Worthies (1932).

A sensitive man

Two features of Hines writing especially impress. The first is his ability to infuse life into his manuscript material. He was a warm-hearted, sensitive man, and his ability to think himself into the past must, at times, have been almost painful. Something of this feeling can be felt in his reflections on an evening visit to the River Ash, where Charles Lamb and his sister came to sail their model boats:

Where is Elia? My cry, added to that of Poet Clare, went wailing down the nightThere was not a ghost of a ghost to be seen. It was here in twilight I had come a twelvemonth before and had been driven to admit: We do not catch sight of him because we are so slow. With a kingfisher flash he skims the surface of the stream and is away.

A second quality is Hines catholicity of mind. He was an inclusive non-judgemental kind of fellow a true old English Tory. As he explained in his Hitchin Worthies, a worthy is not merely someone of notable achievements, but someone who is racy too, and there are found in his pages poachers and madmen alongside Quakers and churchmen.

So how was it that this life, so vivid and full of potential, ended beneath the wheels of the 10.48 from Cambridge? The immediate cause was a complaint of professional misconduct filed against Hine after he had broken Law Society rules by approaching both parties to a divorce case. Coming on top of previous infringements, it was quite likely that he faced being struck-off as a solicitor. To obviate this Hine had retired from legal work two weeks before his death. Whitmore, in his biography The Ghosts of Reginald Hine, believes Hine may have been travelling to London on the fated morning to appear before the Law Society though no evidence for such a hearing survives. These legal troubles fell upon a man prone to depression and who was working late into the night as he struggled to complete his Charles Lamb and His Hertfordshire as it ballooned to 400 pages. Indicative of his agitated state was the recurring image of the death-pangs of a gigantic barn owl which he shot as a young man and which, he recorded in 1944, glared at me with such ferocity of expression that its eyes will haunt me for the remainder of my days. In the week before his death he talked of an owl that speaks to me now, quite frequently.

A spiritual realm

But Hines decision to end his life should also be viewed in the context of his attitude to life itself. Hine was acutely conscious of the presence of a spiritual realm underpinning the world of appearance. The spirits of the dead were tangible to him in the manuscripts he poured over and the places he visited, and, though he only ever saw one ghost, he often spoke of the immanence of ghosts he could not quite glimpse despite his endeavours. One such was an all-night vigil he kept at St Marys church in Hitchin when, he wrote, one might expect the graves to open, the mysteries to be unsealed. But the voices recede at ones approach. However softly one may tread, each footfall thunders along the walls and resounds among the sepulchres. There is a fluttering in the air as of shy things slipping back into their places.

This sense Hine possessed of a reality where past and present comingled was most vivid to him at Minsden Chapel, whose ruins held a special fascination so much so that he arranged that his ashes be interred there.

Minsden was a place for those whose minds are in ruinsIn its deep shade, many who have been brought low by the cares of this world, or in my case by the wear and tear of my profession, have found healing, consolation, and repose. No better place could be conceived for ones last hours:

For to sink down into this cool quietness of trees, to be softly surrounded with gleaming fantasies of foliage, to dream the last dreams in this haunt ofthose sweet-minded things which live where silence is, this would be not to die but to pass deliciously from peace to peace.

For someone for whom death promised to be but a transition from a distracted, insecure, and uneasy present to a timeless realm inhabited by the shades of the people that fired his passion for history, the decision to step into the path of the Cambridge train was not, perhaps, so very hard to take.

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