In search of a Rare Bird

A lifetime can be absorbed seeking elusive glimpses of something rare. The search often disappoints. More deeply etched in memory are the unexpected, fleeting moments of connection with a world slipping beyond our grasp.

Our younger son set sail for the battlefields of Europe and wanted to seek out connections with his own bloodline. He stood at The Somme and took a photograph of Hill 60 where Lt Colonel Steven James Lindsay Hardie had received mention in dispatches while serving with the Machine Gunners. We were last connected genetically with the Colonel in the early years of the nineteenth century but there was a strong family loyalty and I met him at the midpoint of the century that now stretches between the two of them standing, gazing across The Somme.

Fifty years after leaving the fields of slaughter Steven Hardie sent his chauffeur to collect our family for a day trip to his country house. How the arrangements for the day were confirmed mystifies me now - we lived in a small upstairs flat with no phone, no car. My father sat in the front of the Bentley beside Murray, who had been the Lt-Colonel’s batman through the Great War. My older sister and I glided to the Perthshire estate on the sand coloured, leather back seat beside Mum. As I write I am straining to see if Mum was hatted for the occasion, but I cannot picture it. Perhaps the weather was relaxed enough to allow her to sport a summer dress. Recently she has confided how much she fretted over what one did with a chauffeur when your tiny home was up a dingy, brown stairwell with no backdoor for him.  A concern that has never troubled me.

Our invitation was for lunch and I have the vaguest memories of a wood-panelled dining room, but much is family folklore. I was two years old and the photograph from the day records me, perched on a bench outside Ballathie beside a crusty gentleman and clutching a flower from his herbaceous border.

After lunch I went missing and a search party was sent out. Eventually my embarrassed mother found me back at the dining table and, unusually for her, tore into me. Perhaps she was rather overwhelmed by the occasion and dreaded her girls causing any inconvenience. Allegedly, I faced her down by asking when tea would be served. Unknown to Mum, Colonel Hardie was close behind and overheard my request. In contrast to Mum’s crossness he simply stated that in that case he’d better phone the housekeeper and dialled Mrs Crichton on the internal phone system that he had installed on arrival at Ballathie in the 1930s.

I recall this story with a smile. This millionaire businessman was willing to see to my request and provide me with a tomato sandwich even though I paid scant attention to his fleet of cars, herds of prize winning cattle, Huguenot silver, Persian carpets or Canalettos. I know now that Turner’s ‘City of Utrecht’ hung in the hall, but I didn’t give it a glance.

Who was this man whose life I am recalling, whose wartime at The Somme connects with our son’s sense of history?

Last linked with our twig of the family tree two centuries ago Steven Hardie was born in Paisley, the son of a maths teacher. He studied accounting and was one of a cohort of Scottish accountants engaged by Deloittes, travelling to New York in 1908 and later to London before joining his Uncle in an accountancy firm in Glasgow. When war was declared he volunteered for the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders fighting in France and Italy. He ascended through the ranks of the Machine Gunners before returning to the accountancy firm after the armistice.

He had a flare for creating entrepreneurial opportunities and profited from the scrap metal industry. With his business partners, Hardie successfully raised the German fleet that had been scuttled at Scapa Flow. He rose to the position of chairman of the British Oxygen Company and after previous failed companies his arrival with the new metal-cutting abilities of oxyacetylene they raised the fleet and sold the metal to the highest bidder. In the early 1930s those most desperate for metal were willing to pay and he profited from the rebuilding of the German navy. I can only wonder how that sat on his conscience.

My mosaic picture of him blends with games of monopoly – a house near Mayfair, dabbling in railways, a farm in Rhodesia, an Australian sheep station. I knew that he had been married, but understood that their relationship had been brief. The family rumour was that Maie was one of the ‘Gin-Nicholsons’ – the dynasty of politicians and founders of Marylebone Cricket Club who had prospered through the first era when gin was fashionable. The records office, however, reveals a different tale and leaves unanswered questions as to how and why the ruse lived on. Born Mary Nicholson she was the daughter of a Scottish father and Canadian-born mother. An only child, Mary’s father died when she was a toddler and they moved to live with her aunt – who was, by then, married to Hardie’s Uncle William. Steven not only moved into his Uncle’s shoes in the firm, but also married the girl brought up in his home. They had twenty years together but remained childless and she died soon after they moved to Ballathie. It has been rumoured that her husband held her passionate love of dogs responsible for both of those events.

For fifty years Maie Hardie has fluttered in the back reaches of this story, a slightly inconsequential, bland character with little relevance. Something lured me to dig deeper and recently I have delved for Maie Nicholson Hardie. Born to an assistant manager in a linen factory it appears that she received a significant inheritance from her maternal grandfather, a land agent in Ottawa. By the 1911 census she had changed her name to Maie, Burmese for emerald. She adored the theatre and the advent of motion pictures, revelling in 1920s London. She had an enviable wardrobe which she donated to Perth theatre on her death. As I colour in a few more pixels in each attempt to picture Maie I am building a sense of her colour, vitality and joie de vivre. One day in the public library while following her travels aboard various liners I stumbled upon a photograph of Maie Nicholson Hardie – in the records of the Royal Aero Club marking her achievement of an Aviator’s Certificate awarded on 9th October 1934 flying a Gypsy Moth.

In October 1938 she was unwell on her return from Canada and the local newspaper reports that she was unable to open the village fete early the following summer on account of poor health. Her death certificate states that she died from oesophageal carcinoma in July 1939. I wonder if she had read du Maurier’s Rebecca published the previous year.

In my searching, Maie has become my rare bird. A bird that I want to see with more clarity, become acquainted with, but one that has left negligible traces.

Returning to my original project World War 2 found the Lt-Colonel wealthy, childless and a widower. He seems to have been surrounded with elderly and dying relatives, his name appearing on numerous death certificates as witness to events. He continued to be involved in his farms and varied business interests, but in 1945 shocked the neighbouring landowning gentry by joining the Socialist Party.

As an experienced businessman and reportedly friendly with Churchill and other headline figures he was appointed overseer of the nationalisation of the iron and steel industry in 1950. The newspapers of the time hold reports of Vesting Day on 15th February 1951 and steel workers sent cards to one another. Politics can be fickle, governments change. After his appointment was made by the labour administration, Churchill was soon back in power. Following a disagreement with Sandys, the cabinet minister for procurement and also Churchill’s son-in-law, Hardie stepped down from the position. Hansards records Churchill’s speech and has to be read as political rhetoric between two men that had respect for each other. He lambasted Hardie likening him to ‘Herr Krupp a Nazi Socialist’  and describing him as ‘One of those rare birds, a socialist millionaire’.