Mary Noel Streatfeild (whose surname is pronounced STRET-field)
was born on Christmas Eve 1895.
Noel's father, William Champion Streatfeild, was at that time
curate to his own father, the Rector of Frant. He had previously
been curate to another Rector, Henry Venn, and had married Henry's
daughter, Janet. Noel was their second child: her older sister
was called Ruth.
On her father's side, Noel's great-great-grandmother was Elizabeth
Fry, the prison reformer. On her mother's side, ancestors included
the Rev Henry Venn, founder of the Church Missionary Society,
and the Rev John Venn, who, as a leader of the Clapham Sect, campaigned
for the abolition of slavery.
Noel was less than two years old when William was appointed Vicar
of Amberley, in Sussex. After moving to Sussex, William and Janet
had three more children: Barbara, William (Bill) and Joyce.
Ruth, suffered from asthma and was sent to live with her Streatfeild
grandparents for four years, rather than in the damp Amberley
Vicarage. Ruth - and Noel when she was visiting her grandparents
- was looked after by Grand-Nannie. Grand-Nannie had looked after
William and his siblings when they were children, and was semi-retired,
but always willing to tell the stories of family life which Noel
loved. "All the loyal, kind-hearted old nurses she put in
her stories, were a tribute to Grand-Nannie" (Bull,
Separated from her elder sister, Noel "quickly discovered
the solitary pleasures of day-dreams and stories" (Bull,
1984:12). She spent a great deal of time alone in the garden,
reading by the fire, and being read aloud to by her father. "She
had freedom, solitude, and endless leisure." (Bull,
1984:16). These may have been the happiest years of her childhood.
In 1902, when Noel was six, the family moved to St Leonard's
on the south coast. As the climate was better than Amberley,
Ruth was allowed to come home; but Joyce, who had been delicate
since birth, died of tuberculosis shortly after the move.
Click to enlarge.
The new parish (St Peter's church) was larger than Amberley,
so William was kept very busy. A deeply spiritual man, "[the]
more that was asked of him, the more he was ready to give"
(Bull, 1984:20). Although
he was a loving father, his children sometimes felt "more
remote from him than his parishoners" (Ruth Gervis [Streatfeild],
quoted in Bull, 1984:20).
The children also found the religious observances expected of
them to be rather draining. Although they presumably shared his
Christian faith, they did not share his fervour, but they were
unable to disappoint their father by telling him their feelings.
Janet was also kept busy with parish duties. She avoided the
running of church functions, leaving this to other parish ladies,
but "for causes that were close to her heart, she was prepared
to work tirelessly. She was a regular visitor at the local hospital
and the workhouse; and by delivering parish magazines, she kept
an eye on many of the poorer homes" (Bull,
1984:20-21). She also cherished the vicarage garden, and read
aloud to her children for at least an hour every night - the works
of Dickens and Jane Austen, as well as novels such as Treasure
Island, King Solomon's Mines and The Prisoner
Noel adored her father, but had a more difficult relationship
with her mother. Similarly, she got on well with her elder sister,
Ruth, but rather less well with Barbara. She also felt that she
was the least attractive of the children, and the least intelligent.
Ruth and Noel were sent to the Hastings and St Leonard's Ladies'
College, and Noel gained a reputation as a disruptive pupil. Being
naughty gained her a level of attention that would not otherwise
have been possible for someone who, placed between two clever
and attractive sisters, was generally at the bottom of her class.
Noel also chafed at many of the social limitations that were placed
on middle-class families - inability for the girls to go out alone,
restrictions placed on making friends, etc.
When she was fourteen, Noel started a class magazine, writing
most of the content herself. It was very popular until, after
six months, the headmistress found out about it, and forbade Noel
to continue with it. In retaliation, Noel started the Little Grey
Bows Society, the aim of which was to be rude to the teachers.
When one of the members reported the society, Willian and Janet
were asked to removed Noel from the school at the end of term.
Coincidentally, at this time William was appointed Vicar of Eastbourne,
so Noel would have had to leave the school at the end of term
The family moved to Eastbourne in February 1911, where William
was instituted at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin and
also became a Rural Dean. He was very popular in the parish -
even years after his death, he was still being referred to as
"the best Vicar Eastbourne ever had" (Bull,
The girls were sent to Laleham school, which was smaller than
the Ladies' College, and with more relaxed discipline. Due to
the years she had wasted being disruptive, Noel was a backward
student, and as there were no exams to pass, she was able to drift
through, without learning much. She also felt plain and badly
dressed: most of her clothes were hand-me-downs from Ruth, who
had a much slimmer figure.
On a number of occasions, the Streatfeild girls were involved
in running children's plays, to raise money for the church. Dissatisfied
with the available plays, Noel began to write her own, and the
children loved acting in them.
The Streatfeild children scarcely ever saw professional theatre,
but every year they were taken to see a performance by Lila Field's
Little Wonders - a group of twenty children performing "a
hotch-potch of singing, dancing, and revue sketches ... [Ruth
and Noel] sat through the shows in a trance of happiness, their
eyes glued to the stage, and for weeks afterwards they talked
and dreamed about those marvellous children" (Bull,
1984:48). In 1913, the Little Wonders had a new star: Edris Stannis
- later to be known as Ninette de Valios - peformed the Dying
Swan. Noel had been aware of - and excited by - the growing popularity
of ballet, but this was her first opportunity to see it performed,
and she was enchanted.
When she was seventeen, Noel left school and enrolled in a course
at the Eastbourne School of Domestic Economy. She also began to
have an active social life, with dances, and parties, and young
men. However, this was 1913, and war was just around the corner.