Lionel James (1868-1948) and
Ethel de Pearsall Clabburn (1879-1960)

Biographical Notes by John Barnard
Updated 26 Oct 2022 [in progress]

My mother's parents were Lionel and Ethel (née Clabburn) James.

Lionel James (known as "Leo") was the youngest of the four children of George Coulson James (1828-1875), a London solicitor, and Susannah Elizabeth Rosher (c.1830-1902). He was born on 11 July 1868, but was only seven when his father died.

Lionel James

Like both his elder brothers, Lionel was a Queen's Scholar at Westminster School, where he was admitted in 1882 [LJ-11]. By 1886 he had followed his oldest brother Bobby (nearly six years his senior) to become School Captain and the next year he followed him up to Christ Church, Oxford on a Scholarship. There he took First Class Honours in Classical Moderations (1889) and Second Class Honours in Literae Humaniores (1891) [LJ-13]. He was a member of the Conservative Chatham Club, succeeding no less a personage than Disraeli's nephew Coningsby as Secretary in 1890. He also played half-back [LJ-12] for the college Association Football Club, which won the Inter-Collegiate Challenge Cup ("Cuppers") in both 1890 and 1891 - the winners' medals awarded to him still survive [LJ-18].

In 1892, aged 24, he became a Classics master at Radley College, the Public School near Oxford, where he took charge of the Sixth and Upper Fifth Forms [LJ-12]. In 1906 he was appointed as Headmaster of Monmouth Grammar School, and in 1919 he unsuccessfully applied for the Headmastership of his old school, Westminster [LJ-28], finally retiring from Monmouth in 1928.

In his retirement he published a school prayer book ("Jubilate Deo", OUP 1932 [LJ-9]) and a biography of William Sewell, a former headmaster of Radley ("A Forgotten Genius", Faber & Faber 1945 [LJ-17]). He died on 28 April 1948.

Ethel de Pearsall Clabburn (12 Apr 1879 - 29 Feb 1960) was the eldest child of Arthur Edward Clabburn, and Rosey de Pearsall. When her father died in 1901, she was 22, and had five younger brothers and sisters aged between 6 and 20. Family tradition has it that their mother had something of a drink problem and was quite unequal to the demands of single parenthood; the responsibility therefore fell on Ethel to ensure that they were all provided for. She took a job as Matron at Monmouth Grammar School, and was already in post there when, in 1906, the 38-year-old unmarried Lionel James arrived to take up his appointment as Headmaster. 

Romance and Marriage

My mother related a story that Ethel had decided she would just stay on for a year to "see the new headmaster in"; nevertheless it was fully six years before their romance blossomed into marriage. In a wonderful letter to his brother Bobby [LJ-1], which is peppered with Greek quotations, he comments that, on arrival at Monmouth, he had been obliged, as a bachelor, to entrust the charge of the School House to the matron:

"[T]here was an obvious danger, and I registered mentally a solemn vow that I would be proof against it. It's taken six years to make me break it – but it's broken now."

He also describes how it was Bobby's daughter Mollie (then six years old) who had first awakened his warm feeling toward Ethel on a visit, something which is borne out in Mollie's own reminiscences. He relates how he had come to his proposal to Ethel

"by very slow stages & deliberate conviction ... and it is on the deliberate conviction that I can meet no nobler woman or better mistress of the School House that I have plighted troth. ... It has all worked in an irresistible chain, and I am gloriously happy."

Lionel's sister Edie was markedly less enthusiastic about the match, and in her letter to Bobby [LJ-2] (written the same day as Lionel's) she expresses concern at the possibility that Lionel might be taking on financial responsibility for Ethel's younger siblings. 

[Letters from Edith James describing the wedding [LJ-3], to be added]

[Letter from Ethel to Henry, 1912 [LJ-4], to be added]

[Letter from Ethel to Edith James, 1913 [LJ-15], to be added]

Children soon followed, all born at the School House in Monmouth - Hilary in 1914, Trevenen in 1915, Robert in 1916 and twin girls Pascha and Margaret in 1919 (my mother thought that there had also been a miscarriage between Bob and the twins), leaving five under the age of five.


Moyses in summer 1941In October 1927, Lionel and Ethel purchased a 300-year-old farmhouse called Moyses, about a mile and half outside the village of Five Ashes in Sussex, and following Lionel's retirement from Monmouth early the following year, they moved there with their family. The house came with several acres of land, including an oak wood, but at that time had no electricity or mains drainage. Their youngest daughter Margaret remembered [MTJ/1] that the house was particularly cold during their first winter, and lit only by candles and oil-lamps, but a generator was installed after about six months, and a telephone with number Mayfield 75.

The children were still quite young (between 8 and 13), and despite Lionel's failure to secure the Headmastership of his old school, Westminster, in 1919, all three boys were sent there to be educated. Pac and Mog attended the Catholic girls school in the nearby village of Mayfield. Mayfield School still remains in the grounds of a restored 14th-century archbishop's palace and continues to be run by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, an order of nuns. The choice of a Catholic school for an otherwise Church-of-England family was probably prompted simply by geographical convenience, though it might also have been influenced by Ethel's own attendance at a Catholic school in Brighton.

Moyes in October 2015 The outside appearance of Moyses is little changed to this day, though its name is now Oak Hill. It is located on the north side of the A267 between Five Ashes and Mayfield, close to the junction with Meres Lane. When Jim Harrisson and I made an unannounced visit in October 2015, the then occupant, Rev. Di Blackden (who lived there herself for more than 40 years) recalled a similar visit about 15 years earlier from Jim's mother Mog, when she had been told in no uncertain terms that the present dining room (right of the front door) really ought to be a study, as it had been for Mog's father! She also showed us a small collection of title deeds, including the contract and conveyance for the sale of the house in October 1941. The sum paid for the house, including over 9 acres of land in nearby fields was £3,500. It's interesting to note, in these days of greater equality of property rights in marriage, that the documents mention only Lionel as "absolute owner" of the property, and bear only his signature.

Trevabyn, Barcombe Heights, Paignton, DevonOn selling Moyses, Lionel and Ethel moved to Paignton in Devon, where they gave the name Trevabyn (in honour of the ancestral James family farm at St Hilary in Cornwall) to their house on Barcombe Heights.

The Barn, 32 New Road, EsherAfter the War they returned to the Home Counties, purchasing The Barn at 32 New Road, Esher, Surrey KT10 9NU.

Burial and Memorial Bench

Lionel and Ethel's grave at St Margaret's, BuxtedBoth Lionel and Ethel are buried in the churchyard of St Margaret the Queen in the village of Buxted in Sussex, which is a few miles west of Moyses, their first retirement home. It is also the church at which my parents were married (my mother Pac was Lionel and Ethel's elder twin daughter). Their grave is unmarked, but it can be identified from a plan of the graveyard in the church vestry. It is located in a corner plot against the north-east wall, and is enclosed by a low granite surround; it is possible that there was originally an urn or something actually on the grave which identified the occupants, though this has disappeared. Plaque on the memorial bench at BuxtedLionel and Ethel's five children placed a wooden bench with a memorial plaque in the churchyard. The Greek quotation at the bottom (transliterated as Agape panta elpizei) is from the famous passage in Chapter 13 of St Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians: Love hopeth all things. I'm not sure quite when the bench was installed (possibly as early as the early 1960s) but some occasional maintenance work was done on it up until the early 1990s by Ian Harrisson, their daughter Mog's husband. It was still in situ against the church wall in October 2015, and in reasonable condition.

Jim Harrisson and John Barnard on the memorial bench, October 2015

Children and Descendants

Lionel and Ethel's five children were all given the old family name of Trevenen, from Lionel's Cornish ancestry, as a middle name, and it has been perpetuated among many of their descendants, as can be seen on the family tree [Printable PDF]. Password-restricted access

Hil never married, but in the mid 1950s a relationship with a married woman, Ann Benton (née Dick, later Barnes), led to the birth of a son, Toby Benton (23 Aug 1956 - 19 May 2017). Though Toby was originally registered as the son of Ann's then husband, David Benton, his strong resemblance to Hil both physically and in character, made his true parenthood increasingly obvious. He had relatively little contact with Hil, but remained close to his mother and three half-siblings. Hil's sister Margaret maintained contact with him until shortly before her death in 2002, when she passed this responsibility on to her youngest son Brian, and Toby occasionally met up with some of his James family cousins. Toby struggled with mental health issues for most of his adult life, though his insights into the inadequacies of the systems for treatment led him to campaign for improvement , and he briefly served as a Director of the Lambeth branch of the mental health charity Mind in 1993-94 [Companies House Register of Directors]. Toby died of a heart attack at his flat in Brixton, aged 60, on 19 May 2017.

Hil also had some mental health problems, for which he received intermittent treatment. Around 1980 he moved from London to his ancestral west Cornwall with a young German artist companion, Elisabeth Maier, with whom he lived happily for some ten years in Mousehole and later Penzance. On 27 March 1990, aged 75, he collapsed with a heart attack while walking with her on the Parade in Penzance, and died in her arms.