Content Warning: This article includes a depiction of slavery, used by abolitionists.
Poppy was born Joan Holdsworth on 11th September 1891 and had an idyllic childhood in Devon. She was the youngest of four surviving children: Arthur, Evie, Toby and Joan. She hated her name so her brother Toby, who was her partner in mischief, rechristened her ‘Poppy’ in the nursery sink and from then on that was what family and friends called her. CHTL wrote to her saying how he longed to call her ‘Poppy’ rather than the formal ‘Miss Holdsworth’ or ‘Joan’, as that meant he had entered into the circle of her closest friends and family:
“Now look here Poppy!...I am going to call you Poppy. I have been wanting to for years.”
An earlier letter, from 25th February 1917
As a child Poppy had a very comfortable life on her father’s estate in Devon. The Holdsworths had been one of the most prominent families in Dartmouth and been involved in the Newfoundland fishing trade.
Mr Arthur Holdsworth’s tenants spoke of him with sincere affection. He enjoyed hunting and shooting but was always considerate of his tenants interests and it was "always a pleasure to farmers to see 'the squire' come over their land to shoot or follow the hounds".
The Holdsworth’s overseas interests meant that Poppy's father travelled frequently to Newfoundland and Norway, He loved the sea and was totally at home sailing long distances across the Atlantic and through the North Sea. There would be great excitement when Father would return safely from one of his long sea voyages, especially because his bags would contain gifts for his family, such as traditional Norwegian costumes for his daughters. He always had his sketch book handy and captured the stunning Norwegian fjords in exquisite water colours.
Arthur Holdsworth was the first Councillor for Stokenham when local County Councils were formed and remained so until ill-health forced him to retire at the age of 80. He was a Justice of the Peace and a Church warden. He was an ‘old fashioned’ Conservative and in a political election "he was a stubborn fighter and a hard hitter, but he never intentionally made an enemy, and would meet opponents with good feeling and friendship". Here was a man after CHTL’s heart – a straight talker, standing up for what he believed in but not wishing to make enemies, treating everyone with respect and good humour. He had been an adventurer from a young age and, just like CHTL, couldn’t sit back and not be active as he was easily bored. Best of all he loved his sport and relished a good time out in the fields with horse and hounds or shotgun: he was a great host, making sure that his guests enjoyed good sport and were well fed and watered afterwards.
Hunting was a family affair and with Arthur’s sons away at school or in the army, his wife and daughters frequently accompanied him. This early development of sporting interests did a lot to enhance Poppy’s qualities as the ideal spouse for CHTL; they rounded her character and gave her an interesting depth compared to the more frivolous single ladies of the time. Appreciating outdoor pursuits also made the sport addict CHTL more appealing to Poppy. It is said that often a man will marry someone that reminds him of his mother; Poppy married someone who reminded her of her father!
Poppy’s mother, Florence Anne (nee Cropper) was from a very affluent family. Her father, Edward Cropper had bought a vast imposing mansion called ‘Swaylands’ near Penshurst Place in Kent. There are photos of 14 elaborately dressed footmen waiting beside a carriage outside the grand entrance to Swaylands. The Cropper family had made an enormous fortune in the North of England, trading in the East Indies, on the railways, in telegraphy and quarrying, amongst various other highly lucrative enterprises.
Poppy had two very impressive great grandfathers on her mother's side.
James Cropper (1773 – 1840) was a Quaker and an anti-slavery campaigner. No guest at Cropper’s house could fail to understand just how passionate James was about the abolition of slavery; his dinner service was emblazoned with pictures of slaves in irons with hard-hitting captions such as: "Am I not a man/woman and a brother/ sister?" and "The people of the land have used oppression and exercised robbery and have vexed the poor and needy".
The other was Lord Chief Justice Sir Thomas Denman, 1st Baron Denman PC KC (23 July 1779 – 26 September 1854). He was a British lawyer, judge and politician; served as Lord Chief Justice between 1832 and 1850 and made his name defending the Luddites. The Luddites were English textile workers who protested against labour-saving machinery introduced during the Industrial Revolution from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms threatened to replace the highly skilled workers with less skilled, low wage labourers, leaving them without work.
Lord Denham was also a strong campaigner for the abolition of slavery, hence he had a connection with James Cropper.
Interestingly, Lord Denham was involved in quashing the conviction for sedition of Daniel O’Connell (O’Connell v the Queen, in 1844). Daniel O’Connell was the Irish political leader who campaigned for Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Act of Union which united Great Britain and Ireland. He was admired by CHTL’s great uncle, William Lucas VI, who went to O’Connell meetings in England. O’Connell had held a series of ’Monster Meetings’ in Ireland with crowds of over 100,000, campaigning for the repeal of the Act of Union. The British government banned these meetings so O’Connell was arrested, charged with conspiracy and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £2,000.
Thanks to Lord Denham, and others in the House of Lords, who quashed the conviction and severely criticised the unfairness of the trial, O’Connell was released after three months. Lord Denham, like the Quaker Lucas’ and the Croppers believed in standing up for what he considered to be fair and just. Standing up for O’Connell was a risky thing to do as O’Connell was hated by many in the ruling classes and Denman stood to fall out of favour for defending him. Denham would not stand by and see an injustice done; no matter who he upset by speaking out. Source
So there was wealth but also a social conscience present in Florence Cropper’s childhood. Florence never lost her sense of responsibility towards those less fortunate and would regularly engage in helping the poor and sick around the Widdicombe estate in Devon.
Mrs Holdsworth was held in high affectionate respect throughout the parish of Stokenham, where her name was a household one, known for her high Christian character and kindly deeds. Without ostentation she visited the homes of the poor, relieving distress. Her special interest was in the children and the aged poor, who learned to love the kindly lady, not for her gifts, but for her sympathy and consolation in times of distress and sickness, and her care for those who required assistance in time of need.
During the war she took a lively interest in patriotic movements, and took an active part in the ladies’ working parties in the parish, being the means of sending large parcels of warm clothing and nursing requirements to various war centres. All good work whether in connection with the church to which she was attached or other connexions, commanded her support and interest.
Kingsbridge Gazette, February 13th, 1920
Poppy grew up with this same sense of wanting to quietly do what she could to alleviate the suffering of others. She was very active in helping her mother do things like visiting the sick and distributing blankets to the poorest in the community as the days grew colder and winter set in.
The Cropper sisters were not conventional Victorian ladies. In the family photograph album there are the more formal pictures of lines of tight-laced relatives, but there are also photos of the girls posed standing on various branches of a tree.
Arthur and Florence
It was possibly the fun side of the very plain looking, 16 year old Miss Cropper that attracted the much older Mr Holdsworth to woo her as his bride - but more likely that she came with a very generous dowry which kept the Widdicombe estate afloat a lot longer than it would have done if it was purely left to Mr Holdsworth’s talent for spending rather than earning money!
Poppy’s parents married on July 1st 1873, less than a week after Florence’s seventeenth birthday. Mr and Mrs Holdsworth were for the most part a happy couple who shared a love for the outdoors, a sense of fun and a great love for their children. There are lots of pictures of them out hunting together and a delightful very untypical Victorian picture of them holding a very serious looking infant (Poppy’s sister Evie), struggling with a parasol and both laughing. However Poppy was aware that her father had at one time had an affair with the Parson’s wife. This was discreetly covered up as was the usual practice when these indiscretions occurred in Victorian Britain.
A praying dog and a well-dressed donkey
Poppy loved her animals, especially Balaam the donkey, Molly her pony, Mrs McTab her cat and various dogs including Tinker who she taught to say his prayers.
Balaam the donkey, wore a straw bonnet, decorated with flowers complete with two holes cut for his ears. He once notoriously consumed the whole of a very fine fruit cake that had been left on the nursery veranda for tea! Tinker was so well trained that Poppy could take him to the village shop tell him to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ outside and Tinker would. On a couple of occasions Poppy returned home forgetting that she’d been to the shop with Tinker and had to go back to fetch him. Every time the obedient little dog would be sat in the same place outside the shop.
Poppy trained her cat Mrs McTab to live in peace with her pet rabbit. Her great love for animals stretched to on one occasion rescuing an orphaned otter pup. Her family despaired of the nursery turning into a zoo!
When Poppy’s father got bored running his estate he would go into the nursery where Poppy was having her lessons with the children’s governess and whisk Poppy off to go riding or hunting.
In later life Poppy regretted having missed out on what she felt was a good education and avidly read history books to try and make up for some of the gaps in her knowledge. Her love of history meant that: she left copious notes on items giving names of owners and dates; she kept boxes full of letters and memorabilia, including the letters that CHTL had written to her from Ireland.
Fond memories and beloved siblings
The Devonshire‘s coast was where Poppy’s heart was. She loved nothing more than walking along the beaches at Torcross and Slapton Sands. It was here that she and her sister Evie saw their first banana being unloaded off one of the boats: something these Devonshire lasses must have found very exciting and exotic. It was a story that stayed cemented into her memory and she repeated it endlessly in her later years when her memory began to slowly fail. Another memory that stuck with her was the sighting of a Golden Oriole, a rare bird and the wonder of its beautiful yellow plumage was a marvel that she never forgot.
Poppy and her brother Toby (christened officially as John) would often get up to mischief. On one occasion when their older brother, Atty, was out in South Africa fighting the Boers with CHTL (ironically in another War of Independence from the British Empire) they crept into the vegetable garden and, in naıve childlike support for their adored older brother, carved ‘Kruger is an old fool’ on one of the small marrows. (Kruger was the leader of the Boers, who were fighting the British and their big brother!). Their ‘crime’ was not discovered until the autumn and produce was collected and displayed in the parish church for the annual Harvest Festival. During the service some vegetables slipped and there for all to see in large letters was the distinct phrase ‘Kruger is an old fool’ emblazoned on a marrow!
Atty, being much older, was the big brother any small girl would dream of having: he was very handsome, a soldier in a smart uniform, and he teased and spoilt his little sister. Poppy adored him. She wrote to him when he went away in the army and was very excited when a letter from him arrived:
I think the photos are very good only really you ought to try & take more trouble to conceal your great fat legs & undergarments, all my friends in the regiment are quite shocked to think that I have a sister who allows herself to be photographed in such position well!
How are all the pets I suppose Mrs Mactab has had lots of kittens, I hear the night nursery has become a sort of small zoo, I don’t think its at all a healthy kind of idea. I hope the draining has been properly looked into, as you know that is just the way these dreadful diseases originate…
Well you must write me a really long letter next time & try & write smaller & cross your Ts & dot your i’s nicely
ever your big bro Atty
A letter to Poppy from her older brother Atty
Later on, as Poppy grew up into a young woman, Atty would advise her on the latest fashions. He was the ideal big brother. As a keen sportsman, Atty threw himself into the hunting, shooting but most of all fishing that went on around the Widdicombe estate. Fishing was his passion and it was Atty’s rods that were passed on to CHTL.
Atty was in the same regiment as CHTL serving together as far back as 1900, and no doubt as kindred fun-loving spirits they were drawn together and soon became firm friends. Atty invited CHTL (or CHTL invited himself) down to Widdicombe to go shooting and hunting. CHTL struck up a friendship with both Poppy’s parents, especially Mrs Holdsworth who was probably charmed and amused by the dashing young officer and his quick wit. Mrs Holdsworth wrote to CHTL when he was in the trenches and sent him generous parcels.
A tragic loss
Poppy’s idyllic home life was shattered when, like so many families in Europe and beyond at that time, the family suffered the loss of a son and brother in World War I. Atty died of the wounds he received in the first fifteen minutes of the Battle of Somme on the 1st July 1916.
The Holdsworth family were devastated over Atty’s death. CHTL wrote to Mrs Holdsworth trying hard to cheer her up. CHTL had been a much liked visitor to Widdicombe House in Devon when Atty had been alive. Five months after Atty’s death, when CHTL was temporarily stationed in England he came to visit the Holdsworth family arriving on the 23rd January and leaving on the 26th January. Perhaps it was seeing Poppy again after some time that made CHTL begin to consider Poppy as someone more significant to him than just his friend’s funny little sister. There was an eleven year age gap between CHTL and Poppy but now CHTL recognised that Poppy had grown up. Since his time in South Africa CHTL had had the reputation of someone who was ‘fighting Cupid’. He wrote: “I have been in love several times since I left off wearing Eaton Collars, and am grateful for the experience as it has added to my power of discrimination”. Poppy was the “gel” for him and at last he succumbed to Cupid! His original intention may have been to console Mrs Holdsworth, but soon he was side-tracked into seeking her daughter’s hand in marriage.
"One of the worst rebuffs I ever had in my life"
CHTL impulsively proposed to Poppy on the 24th January. However the confident CHTL was shocked when he got “one of the worst rebuffs I have ever had in my life”. He wrote to Poppy on 3rd February saying that he felt “a beast” – and that if she knew him better she would know that he was “selfish enough not to have asked you merely out of pity because of poor Atty”. He didn’t want to lose her as a friend and still wanted to invite himself down to Widdicombe.
Poor Poppy was struggling not only with her own grief at her brother’s death but also with the over whelming heart-break that her parents were slowly being consumed by. Furthermore she had a low opinion of herself and couldn’t believe that this very handsome officer - whom she’d probably secretly admired for years - could actually find her attractive. She immediately jumped to the conclusion that his proposal was merely because CHTL felt sorry for her, having seen her pain at losing her dearly loved brother.
CHTL was not a man to give up; he was used to giving orders and people immediately doing as he said. He was not used to being turned down flat! Gradually he began to win Poppy round. For Poppy this was a passionate love affair; for CHTL this was an agreeable match which would be the comfort that he longed for and needed in the bleak times ahead back in the trenches. He’d seen other men draw immense strength and pleasure from receiving letters from loved ones and from studying photos of their ‘gels’ back home. The war was dragging on, the slaughter was appalling and he needed something pure and untainted by the stink of the trenches to help him continue to focus on the positives to carry him through. He was also getting older, heading towards his forties and the bachelor life was losing its shine.
Poppy was shy but she had a feisty, fun-loving side. She was very caring, loved animals and enjoyed the sporting life. CHTL could also see that she was very loyal, devoted to her parents and family – qualities that would make a good officer’s wife. He openly admitted that he was very selfish, despite - or maybe because - he was one of ten children, he wanted life and people to revolve around him and what he wanted.
Agreeing to let "it abide for a bit”, CHTL told Poppy that she couldn’t put him off. She was the bride he was determined to win. However he was totally honest with her telling her that she’d “be getting very much the worst of the bargain”, hoping that it will be a long time before she found that out. He told her that she’d need to stand up to him but that at the very last moment she’d have to give in. He was not “very loveable” but urged her “do try your hardest”!
A quiet affection
A few weeks before their wedding in October of that year, in a letter to Poppy CHTL recalled the day he proposed: “I don’t look on January 24th as a mistake as I got one of the worst rebuffs I have ever had in my life, that day, and so tried to forget it. The best day was early March when you came up to town, then the world began to change a bit.”
CHTL became truly smitten with his new fiancee. The passion he’d tried hard to resist was there, although it was to be kept safely behind closed doors. CHTL could not cope with any outward signs of affection in public:
“I am certainly not a demonstrative person but the very reverse. When I am particularly stand offish in public I am trying to conceal any form of demonstration from purely a selfish point of view, I only consider what people will think of me not you.”
An earlier letter, from 21st September 1917
Hence in photos there is always a good distance between them. This was purely a physical distance for public show; there was a lot of love and affection displayed only when they were alone together where CHTL felt most comfortable and free to be truly himself.
It wasn’t just CHTL who had the sense of humour, Poppy gave as good as she got when it came to teasing. She took full advantage of the fact that CHTL hated the name 'Cuthbert': “can you swallow that name” CHTL writes, the first time he signs himself “Cuthbert” rather than the more formal “C H Tindall Lucas”. Eventually he just signed his letters to Poppy with ‘C’.
CHTL had longed to call ‘Miss Joan Holdsworth’ ‘Poppy’ but soon shortened that to ‘Pops’. ‘Pip’ made an appearance in CHTL’s letters possibly as a joke which then stuck: “Dear old Pip, I’m afraid you occasionally do get the Pip*, but that will be alright when the war is over and we get a good holiday with no work to do.” (8th April 1918). 'My Darling/dear old Pip', was the most common form of address CHTL used in his letters to Poppy, but at times he called her ‘My old Grumps’ or ‘old duck’.
*It wasn’t until the 19th century that people who were annoyed or dispirited began to be described simply as having ’got the pip’. An example can be found in High and Low, a novel by the English author Henry Coke (1845). Source
Poppy was never going to be a doormat and CHTL was pleased that she wasn’t. Light-heartedly he teased her: “I’ve no doubt I did marry you because you looked as though you wouldn’t give me much trouble, but I made a fat mistake.”
When CHTL had to return to the Front, Poppy was no doubt in quite a state worrying that just as she had begun to give her heart to CHTL she might well lose him in the mud of Flanders along with dear Atty. CHTL probably felt quite good that he had captured Poppy’s heart so fully that it was in danger of being broken if he didn’t return. Not that he wanted to cause poor Poppy any more grief than she was suffering at the loss of her beloved Atty, but her love gave him added impetus to survive: “Buck up & stop sniffing, old girl. I shall look after myself so you need not worry about me." (13th March 1917)
When it came to the wedding, CHTL’s surprising shyness meant that he wanted “a quiet out of the way little church so that we shant get a crowd” (11th Oct 1917). However the wedding took place in St Mary’s in Hitchin on October 24th 1917. A church right in the middle of the busy market town. Everything had to happen quickly as there was the constant fear that CHTL might suddenly be recalled to France. Things were on a knife-edge in France; the Battle of Passchendaele was in full swing, and yet somehow CHTL managed to get leave for the nuptials. He worked hard to keep in his superior’s good books and was obviously able to pull a few strings to get the required time off.
There was no reception. Instead the immediate families lunched at the Sun hotel in Hitchin.
The honeymoon began with a few nights in “a very nice suite of rooms at the Sloane Gate Hotel” in London and ended in the wilds of Scotland in a very private cottage far away from the maddening crowd and in surroundings much more suited to both CHTL and Poppy’s love of country life. CHTL had confessed to Poppy that he was “no fisherman but there’s no harm in trying as you can teach me.” (10th October 1917). Poppy may well have wished that her new husband hadn’t mastered the art of fishing, as later on that very hobby meant that he was exposed to being easily abducted.
The war years rarely saw the newly weds together. After a few weeks living together in Occupied Germany at the end of the war, where they both enjoy fishing, CHTL was posted to Ireland and Poppy, having fallen pregnant, returned to England.