Vera's Early Life

Early Life

Presumably Vera and George Milligen spent their early years living with their mother Violet but I don't know where. Hopefully the children had some contact with their father, but I don't know how much. A story told about her in a TV programme made late in Vera's life, said she had been brought up in a 'big English house surrounded by horses and ponies'. Hopefully the location will be made clear when the 1921 census is published.

The family photo below, which is thought to date from 1916-1918, shows Vera and George.

George and Vera
Family photo of Vera and George Milligen [15]

Given that John Milligen was a wealthy shipowner, I suspect that both children were sent to boarding schools from an early age. The earliest information I could find about Vera's schooling was from 1927, by which time she would have been fifteen. She may well have gone to a 'prep school' beforehand.

George became a very successful and innovative farmer in East Anglia, and a well-known, but reclusive, collector of cars and other mechanical items. You can find a lot more information about George HERE. After his death, most of his huge collection was auctioned by Bonhams on 3 September 2004 and you can learn about the sale HERE.

Heathfield School

Vera attended the Anglo-Catholic Heathfield School in Ascot from 1927 to 1930. The choice of school is interesting. John Milligen was a Belfast Freemason and, almost certainly, a Protestant. Was the choice of school influenced by Vera's mother?

Heathfield School, which is still thriving, is a boarding school for girls that opened in 1899 in an Italianate building that, according to the school website, was once the home of 'The Paravacini Family' - though I have been unable to find out who they were - possibly Italian diplomats. The school currently takes girls from 11-18 years old and, with term fees running at £12,650 or more, are able to keep out the riff-raff - poor riff-raff anyway. Copies of the Heathfield Magazine from the 1930s are available online and give an interesting perspective on class differences and attitudes of those times.

Whatever you may think of the English public school system, it provided, and I believe still does provide, a wonderfully broad education for the privileged few that receive it. I am well aware that I am showing my prejudices here and admit that I was a huge fan of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film 'If ....' which starred Malcolm McDowell. My views have not mellowed with age.

School
Heathfield School in 2021 per the school Facebook page [72]

In 1927, fifteen-year-old Vera was in Form IV - and in Form IVa later that year. By July she was in the school's 2nd Cricket XI. In October, five of the pupils were taken to Reading to see a performance by the famous French pianist, conductor and music teacher Alfred Cortot. During the Autumn term Vera was one of twelve pupils to be confirmed by the Bishop of Buckingham. [131]

In 1928, Vera was in Form IVa and later in Form V. This year she was a member of the 3rd Lacrosse team, and later promoted to the 2nd team where she earned a 'badge' - presumably some kind of award for good performance. She kept her place in the 2nd Cricket XI and got a badge for that as well.

In 1929, Vera was in Form V, and in Michaelmas Term moved to Form VI and was listed as a prefect.

In 1930, Vera was still a prefect in Form VI. In the Summer she was successful in a French examination Le grand Concours, and received a certificate. She also played a minor part, as one of six 'Halberdiers', in an Elizabethan Masque called 'The Arraignment of Paris'. A halberd is a nasty-looking axe-cum-pike weapon of a type still in use by Vatican Swiss Guards.

Swiss Guards
Swiss Guards carrying halberds on duty at The Vatican [132]

Vera was 'sporty', but not exclusively so. She played '1st Home', one of three attacking positions, in the Lacrosse First XII - a position not for the meek, and at a time when little or no protective gear was worn. She had also become Captain of the Cricket First XI.

Vera was also an accomplished pianist and performed in the school concert, playing 2nd piano in an arrangement of Listz's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major. Having just listened to a version of this recorded by Lang Lang, I can see why they arranged it for two pianos. She then played a prelude by Scriabin - the programme doesn't say which one - and Schumann's Novellette in D Major. Vera was clearly up for a challenge! She got a final mention in the school magazine for 1930 where it says For those interested, Nina Gartman is studying in Paris with Marcel Ciampi, and Vera Milligen is under Madame Stuart de Baker of the Paris Conservatoire. Whether Vera was also studying in Paris is unclear.

Eleanor Beatrice Wyatt, the founder of the school, retired at the end of 1930 due to ill health. The edition of the school magazine published in January 1931 listed the members of the School Council. These included: the Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; The Lord Bishop of Buckingham; Sir Samuel Hoare - then the Secretary of State for India; and Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. The Princess was a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria who had married Prince Aribert of Anhalt. Contemporary sources suggest he was either bisexual or homosexual; in any case the marriage was annulled and the unfortunate Princess seems to have spent the rest of her life doing 'good works' - one being serving on the School Council.

In 1931, Vera spent a weekend at the school in November, according to the school magazine, so must have left by then or it would not have been remarked upon.

In 1932, Vera is reported to have given a piano recital at the school on 6 November and is described as 'former pupil'; she would have been nineteen years old. The magazine tells us what she played and includes an enthusiastic review.

Concert Programme:

  • Chorale 'Mortify us by Thy Grace' - Bach-Hess
  • Prelude and Fugue in C minor from the '48' - Bach
  • No. 2 Bunte Blatter - Schumann
  • Etude F minor - Chopin
  • Impromptu F major - Chopin
  • Scherzo in B flat minor - Chopin
  • Rhapsodie C major - Ernst von Dohnányi

Among the many and varied events of the musical season, one of outstanding interest was the Piano Recital given by Miss Vera Milligen, a former pupil of the School.

In her rendering of an exacting programme including Bach's 'C minor Prelude and Fugue', Schumann's 'Bunte Blatter', Chopin's 'B flat minor Scherzo' and 'Impromptu in F sharp major', and the 'Rhapsodie in C' by Dohnanyi, Miss Milligen easily eclipsed all her previous efforts, and astonished her audience by the great advance she had made in authority, technique and interpretative strength. She has a keen sense of style, and proved herself equally well at home in the idiom of Bach and in Chopin and Dohnanyi. To some, possibly, her playing of the Gipsy strains of the latter composer suggested greater refinement than is actually to be found in music of so impulsive a nature. But the singular purity of her tone, the absence of anything in the nature of emotionalism, her modest yet dignified stage assurance reflected honour on her teacher, Miss Anne Rutherford.

The young pianist received a clamorous reception, and, in response to a graceful and fitting tribute to the merit of her work by the Lady Warden, she repeated the Bach "Prelude and Fugue" by way of an encore.

I wonder whether we should read anything into 'absence of anything in the nature of emotionalism'?

Motoring Accident in 1934

The first reference I could find to Vera in the press was sadly an unhappy one. In 1934, at the age of 22, she was the driver of a car involved in a fatal accident. An inquest was held at Worthing Town Hall on 28 April 1934 on the death of Evelyn May Ellis, the daughter of a local policeman. The verdict was Accidental Death - with a rider that the jury considered that the car was being driven in a dangerous manner. Miss Ellis had been on a cycle and Vera had been driving 'a large blue Daimler saloon car at 40 miles per hour' if some witnesses are to be believed.

Cutting
Cutting from 'Worthing Gazette' 29 August 1934 [70]

Interestingly there was a report in 'The Belfast Newsletter' a month later reporting that Vera had been found not guilty of manslaughter, but guilty of 'driving in a dangerous manner' for which she was fined £10, had her licence endorsed and had to pay £11 costs. It may or may not be a coincidence that this was reported in Belfast. Vera may have been known there as John Milligen's daughter creating local interest, or it could have just been a syndicated story as it also appeared in 'The Gloucester Citizen' and 'The Hartlepool Daily Mail'. Vera's address at this time was noted as Ashley Court, Queen's Gate, London.

Cutting
Cutting from 'The Belfast Newsletter' 15 September 1934 [16]
Queen's Gate
View along Queen's Gate in 2020 - Ashley Court seems to have been renamed [2]

Given the car, it seems that John Milligen was certainly looking after his second family! Whether Vera was living with her mother or had her own accommodation I don't know.


Vera must have had a real attachment to Heathfield School as she was back there in 1935 to watch a Lacrosse Match and 'stayed for tea' according to the school magazine.

Cutting
Cutting from 'Heathfield Magazine Lent 1935' [17]

Choice of Career

So far we have a picture of a young lady born into a wealthy family and given a top-rate education. She was a talented musician and had excelled in sport. It seems that her father had made sure she had money, somewhere decent to live, and a car. She could probably have married someone from her own class and led a very comfortable and stress-free life. The only bad thing that we know happened to her was the car accident.

At some point soon after finishing at Heathfield, Vera must have decided to ignore the plans I am sure her family had made for her and plot her own course through life. If we are to believe a story related by TV presenter Jack Hargreaves many years later, she decided to 'run away and join the circus'.

Before reading further, I suggest you view the video extract from the TV programme by Hargreaves and draw your own conclusions. It is accessible HERE .

I found out a little about Vera's prowess with horses in a notice in the 'Tamworth Herald' that said she had been a prize winner in 'Dressage and High School' at Olympia in 1939.

Cutting
Cutting from 'The Tamworth Herald' 4 August 1945 [50]

Marriage

In July 1939, five years after the car accident, Vera married Alexander Dennis (Tex) McLeod. I have a feeling that she only went into the theatre and rodeo work as a result of encouragement by Tex. Having said that, she clearly had a way with animals acquired long before meeting him. I wonder whether she kept a diary or notes about her life? It would be interesting to read if so.

The next page tells the story of Vera's life with Tex.