A Knight’s Tale (16: Refugees)

In the aftermaths of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, Estonia won its independence in a War of Liberation against Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1920. As we have seen, Mabel Knight settled in Tallinn in 1922. Her sister Evelyn was to join her seven years later. From 1929 to 1940, Evie taught English to Estonians, Germans, Poles, Russians, and Finns; she may have spent periods as a tutor in Latvia and Finland.

Then came the occupation of the three small Baltic States, of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by Soviet invaders. Once more my great aunt was to leave a country at war. In her letters she writes:

‘We left Tallinn early in the morning of 26th October 1940 for Riga where we were joined by parties from Latvia and Lithuania so that we were 174 in all.

After spending a night in a hotel in Riga we left on a through train for Vladivostok and although we stopped for about an hour in Moscow we were not allowed to leave the platform. The British Ambassador, the Consul General and other consulate officials were, however, at the station to meet the train. The Soviet fed us very well in the restaurant car of the train and we had plenty to eat with a lot of caviar – black, grey, and red. The bread was rather awful and we were all very glad when we were able to eat English fare on the ship. Here again the food was excellent and we particularly appreciated the fresh fruit twice a day.

We had a stormy time while passing the Chinese coast on our way to Hong Kong, and as ours was rather a small ship I was more than glad to get my feet on terra firma. Whilst in Russian waters we had no wireless but afterwards the news was posted up daily in the dining saloon.

It seemed quite funny to be waited on by Chinese boys. They wait very well at table, quite deftly and silently; but in the kitchen and corridors there was a terrible jabber reminding of monkeys.

We were a mixed and motley crowd, as all refugees are, I suppose, and as we were allowed to leave Estonia with only 30 kilos of luggage we had to dispose of much of our wardrobe.

Some of the refugees from Lithuania were of the working class and very poor. Unfortunately most of us had retained warm blankets and clothing for when the British Consulate was closed on 4th September we were all prepared to leave for Finland – in fact some of us were down at the harbour with our luggage when the Consul received a wire from the Foreign Office telling us not to leave. This, I suppose, was because they thought we might be stranded in Finland and unable to get any further. However, we were now approaching the tropics and were all feeling the heat in our unsuitable clothing but when we reached Hong Kong we had much to be truly thankful for. We were extremely lucky.

The British Social Service of the Anglican Church at Hong Kong invited us to attend evensong and afterwards to a social evening at the Church Hall. After the service, which was taken by the Dean, we went along to the Hall where the Social Workers had put out small tables with coffee, tea, sausage rolls, cakes etc and some very interesting conversations took place with some of the English people now resident in Hong Kong and an Australian lady gave us information about Sydney and Brisbane.

The lady who was looking after the Lithuanian refugees then made a speech and explained how badly off they were. Hers was followed by another telling them how we, from Estonia, had been limited in the amount of our luggage for having expected to go to a cold climate we had only warm clothing. The result of this speech was that, in less than day the social section had collected masses of men’s and women’s clothing – hats, shoes, shirts, shorts, trousers, wrappers, summer frocks, underwear etc. – most of them as good as new. At 4 p.m. the following day the Dean, himself, arrived in a motor boat with a huge pile of parcels. I thought they would never finish unloading the motorboat. The lounge was stacked up with packages and there were simply heaps for everyone. We left Hong Kong the following morning full of gratitude for the wonderful kindness and my only regret was that I completely forgot my ambition to ride in a rickshaw.’

A Knight’s Tale (12: The Night Of The Panther)

During these last two years, Mabs received visits from an old friend of St Petersburg days and was persuaded to go to Estonia, the new state that had just obtained its independence from Russia.

English was very much in demand, and there would be plenty of pupils, so off she sailed to Reval – now Tallinn – the capital of Estonia. There she found life very interesting and thoroughly enjoyable.

From her own rooms in the centre of the capital she taught groups from the Ministry; from the Banks; and pupils from the high schools.

In the summer months balls were given on board the various English ships, such a Cumberland, York, Neptune, and other light cruisers, brightly decorated for the occasion. At Christmas there were evening parties in the snow, sleigh bells, and supper at a seaside villa. Easter was equally festive.

Many Estonians and Baltic Germans kept up some of the old Russian customs including special services in the Russian churches, with processions of priests and choristers.

In 1929, when Mabel had been in Tallinn seven years, she persuaded her younger sister, Evelyn, to join her. Evelyn did so, and her part in the saga will come later.

The global depression had reached all Europe, including Estonia, by 1931, which meant English lessons were not quite so plentiful.

In July 1932, when the eldest sister, Ethel, with her severe health problems consequent upon her revolutionary experience, was having difficulty in letting rooms in the Wimbledon house that the two of them were jointly buying, [Mabel] “decided to leave Tallinn, and turn over the teaching and my furnished room to my sister.”

After “getting things straight” in 18 Bernard Gardens SW19, she began to look for another post abroad. Nothing daunted, now aged 51, my father’s aunt accompanied an English woman and her two daughters, aged 15 and 13, joining her husband in India for six months. Mabel’s task was to prepare her charges for school in England. Her “time in India was very comfortable and the girls were not spoiled and very easy to teach”. They “even had an electric fan in the schoolroom.”

One night my intrepid great aunt joined a panther hunt. “The natives selected a good tree and made a platform in it” where she and two others “spent the night watching for the panther – gun ready. A goat was tied up near the tree as a decoy, but the panther was too wise and managed to slink away after getting the hunters’ scent.”

The six months being up, Mabel returned to England with the family.