Matilda Talbot and the Hünerson family in Estonia
In the 1930s, Matilda Talbot sailed to Estonia three times to stay with the Hünerson family who welcomed her like a member of their own family. Less than a decade later, the events of World War II were to cut this relationship short, bringing heartbreak for Maltilda and her ‘Estonian family’.
Photograph of Matilda Talbot (1871-1958) and the Hünerson family in Estonia in winter 1938. (1) There is no caption with the photograph but we could surmise as follows: Matilda Talbot second from right next to Mr. Jaan Hünerson. On the left - the Hünerson girls with the youngest daughter, Öilme at the front. Far left - Helgi’s husband, Elmar Just. Eleonore Hünerson is not in the photograph and may therefore be operating the camera.
In 1934 Matilda Talbot held a celebration at Lacock Abbey to commemorate the first practical successes in photography of her grandfather, William Henry Fox Talbot, one hundred years previous.
Among those in attendance was Mrs. Eleonore Hünerson, a language mistress in the High School of Tartu and Chief Commissioner of the Estonian Girl Guides. Matilda Talbot describes her as: "A most accomplished woman, speaking fluent English, German and Russian, besides her native language of Estonian.” (2) Eleonore Hünerson also had a "cultivated singing voice" (3) which she demonstrated with some Estonian folk songs. Matilda was charmed by her first impressions of the Estonian lady and readily accepted the invitation to stay with her family.
Photograph of Matilda Talbot on-board a boat in the Baltic States in winter 1938 (4).
Travelling up the east coast of England she describes the declining industry of Newcastle's docks: "It was very sad sailing up the Tyne and seeing all the shipyards standing idle and silent. This was the peak time of unemployment and it was a most depressing sight." (5)
Despite being the only passenger, she was contented on the little ship, "sitting on deck in lovely weather, or writing letters and reading Chekov's stories" in her cabin. (6) The Russian she began learning with her assistant, Ms. Margot Fricker, many years pervious at Lacock Abbey came in handy for her trips to the Baltic States. (7) Of her first trip she wrote: “I was glad to find everybody understood Russian, for Latvian is an impossible language.” (8)
It seems that the tales by Chekov she read while on board the Baltallin were to linger on for a while in her imagination. Shortly after arriving at the railway station from the busy port of Riga, she leaves her suitcase with a gentleman described as: "An attractive old porter, who looked as if he had stepped straight out of a Russian story book. He had a peaked cap, bushy eyebrows, and a broad leather belt, […] spoke slowly in a rather soft voice and his whole manner was gentle and protective." (9)
With her luggage on board the train, she left Riga to arrive in Tartu at 4.am, where Eleonore Hünerson and her daughter, Virge, were waiting to meet her. She appears to be truly enchanted by this new place, a feeling, she explains in her book as: "Being very far away from England, and yet of being completely among friends." (10) She describes her, "pretty bedroom with a great white-tiled stove, plants in pots, and a pale blue silk eiderdown on the bed." (11) The three of them later sat down to tea in her room, which she was later to recall as: "One of the happiest moments I can ever remember". (12)
View of Tartu boats in winter which features the Kivisild (Stone Bridge) destroyed in World War II. (13)
In her book she recounts an, "abundance of excellent food" and a "real samovar which was always used at supper". (14) In contrast with the British afternoon tea, she notes that: "Nobody took milk in their tea but everybody took jam. There was a choice of jams and I always asked what kind I would like. As a matter of fact weak tea with jam in it, especially raspberry jam, is a very good drink." (15)
"One way and another," writes Matilda, "I was able to see a great deal of the country." (16) Her autobiography includes details of a memorable trip to ‘Pechora’ (17) where she visited a monastery and a church, where she attended a service. In another town, Narva, "famous for its lampreys", she is somewhat disappointed with the dish she is served: "I did not appreciate the lampreys. […] They might perhaps been better if they had been salted or smoked, but served plain they seemed to me to taste or river mud and grease, and I never want to try one again." (18)
Before leaving the Hünerson family, Matilda was able to persuade the eldest daughter Helgi, to come and visit her at Lacock. While staying at the abbey, Helgi made many acquaintances and was particularly impressed by a visit to Oxford. She also experienced the worst of British weather when a flash flood engulfed the village. During the storm, the brook burst its banks, sending water running three feet deep in some parts of the village. Matilda remembers that: "Some of the older women were very much shaken", while others were more unflappable: "Pluckily trying to clean up a bit and joking about the whole thing in a truly British fashion." (19)
Although Matilda did not have any children, she surrounded herself with young people, which through her kindness and generosity, she treated as her own. When her assistant Margot Fricker left the abbey to pursue a career, she was seldom alone, remembering: "I often had some girl as a temporary daughter." (20) During Helgi's sojourn at Lacock their friendship deepened and Matilda regarded Helgi as a daughter as well as a companion. She liked Helgi for her “intelligence” and “simplicity”, which made for, “an attractive combination”. (21) Upon bidding goodbye to Helgi, the elderly Mrs. Hennessy, said: "My dear, I shall always love your country for your sake." (22) Matilda, who was very fond of Helgi and Estonia, would have undoubtably shared these feelings.
Matilda did not need to wait long to be reunited with her 'Estonian daughter'. The following summer she visited the Hünersons again, this time experiencing a memorable steam bath "with the sweet smell of burning birch logs" in a little bath house “deep in the woods”. (23)
Her third visit to Estonia was in December 1938 as Eleonore Hünerson had recommended she experience the country in winter. (24) This time sailing on a large steamer, the Baltavia, she describes the chilly conditions, where sailors were, “cheerfully carrying cups of tea and sliding about on the icy decks” and the ship’s general appearance similar to something that, “had returned from the artic regions”. (25)
Postcard from Matilda Talbot of an Orthodox church in Tallinn, postmarked 21st December 1938. She mentions: “Our vessel thick with ice [...] looking like a ship back from the Arctic.” (26)
Staying with Helgi and her husband this time, Matilda describes the warmth of their house in contrast to the bitter conditions outside: “Though Helgi’s house was beautifully warm, [...] on the open road we met an east wind. [...] To use an Irish expression, I could only face that wind by walking backwards, glancing occasionally over my shoulder.” (27)
Fortunately, this third visit in 1938 is partially documented by some photographs. A small brown leather photograph album offered to Matilda holds a series of thumb sized prints of Estonia in winter. The simple message inside reads: “To make you want to come back. From Helgi.” (28)
The photographs are not labelled, but in a few Matilda Talbot is clearly distinguishable, sometimes in the company of some of the Hünerson family. We know that Eleonore Hünerson had four children as Matilda names them in her book: "She had four daughters, Helgi, which means the 'the bright one,' Sula, 'the thawing snow,' Virge, 'the courageous one,' and Oelma, 'the little flower.'” (29)
Matilda Talbot riding in a sledge in Estonia in winter 1938. (30)
In one photograph Matilda poses for the camera while seated in a sledge, of which she would have seen many. In her book she remarks: “Every sort of vehicle had had its wheels removed and was fixed upon runners for the winter.” (31) Another photograph features Matilda against the backdrop of a market. This could be Tallinn market, which she describes as being very large and outdoor with an abundance of produce: “Every stand and table was loaded with food, in expectation of Christmas; the vendors were muffled in thick coats with their fur caps pulled down over their ears, but mostly their hands were bare. There were piles of rabbits, poultry and fish, and everything was frozen stiff. I saw a man pick up a large eel by the head and he held it out in front of him like a walking stick.” (32)
Matilda Talbot at Tallinn Market, Estonia in winter 1938. (33)
Together, Helgi and Matilda travelled to Tartu to spend Christmas with Eleonore Hünerson and her other daughters. On Christmas Day they ate turkey and sang hymns and carols round the tree. (34) Despite the cold temperatures during her three-week stay she never caught a cold, recalling: “There is wonderful protection from hot stoves, good food, warm clothes, and most of all, in friendly and warm-heated company.” (35)
Unused 1930s postcard of winter landscape with ‘Merry Christmas’ written in Estonian. (36)
Her autobiography mentions that 1938 might be her last visit to Estonia. This was unquestionably the case, as the upheavals caused by the war would have made travel for civilians too impracticable. Moreover, these circumstances of war, in which the Hünersons were themselves caught up in, gave rise to multiple tragedy for the family.
Eleonore Hünerson escaped to West Germany with two of her daughters where she worked as Chief of the Girl Guides in the British Zone in Göttingen. In 1947 she went to England where she worked as a teacher at Ridgway School in Wimbledon. The following year however, doctors discovered she had a brain tumour. She was operated on but could not be saved, dying on 16th January 1949. She was 58 years old.
Her husband, Mr. Jaan Hünerson, their daughter Helgi (37) and her family, who had all stayed behind in Estonia, were to find themselves expelled from their homeland. (38) In 1941, Jaan Hünerson, one of Estonia's most notable and able public figures, was arrested and deported to Siberia to work in a corrective labour camp, along with Helgi and her husband, Elmar. (39) Jaan Hünerson had been Chief of Staff of the Estonian Scouts Headquarters (40) and had gone on to become the Minister of Education of the Estonian Republic." After one year in the camp he was dead. He was shot dead sometime in 1942 (41) (42) Helgi’s husband died in Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Soviet Union in 1941 (43), while Helgi died in 1989 aged 78 (44), probably also in the Soviet Union. We do not know if the rest of the family ever learned of their fate.
Of the other three girls, Sula (1915 - 2009) married, becoming Mrs. Kikerpill. She worked for an New York advertising company and lived in the United States until her death. (45) Virge (1918 - 2002) married Harry Carlo Hint. (46) She became a doctor and was Chairman of the Estonian Girl Guide Centre in Sweden in 1945, 1948, and 1957 - 1959. In the 1960s she became Chairman of the Estonian Scouting Council in Sweden. (47) No information has so far come to light about the youngest daughter Öilme Hünerson (b. 1926) (48).
Matilda, having served as a Wren during World War I, was used to the turbulence of war. Her work at Lacock Abbey, which had been requisitioned to serve as a school, and later as a home for army personnel, would have left her little time to dwell on the separation. In any event, she would have certainly have held out hope of being reunited with the family again once the war was over and she was free of her wartime responsibilities.
William Goossens. M.A., B.A.(Hons). Volunteer researcher at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
1 WSA 2664/3/1J/17BW.
2 “A Lacock neighbour, a Girls Guides Commissioner herself, had offered hospitality to Mrs. Hünerson." Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey. London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Page 233.
3 Op. cit.
4 WSA 2664/3/1J/17BW.
5 Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey, page.234.
6 Idem, page 235.
7 Matilda Talbot probably began learning Russian in the spring of 1920 on the initiative of a young lady, Ms. Margot Fricker, who had come to help out at Lacock Abbey. Idem, page 210-11
8 Idem page 235.
9 Idem, page 235.
10 Idem, page 235.
11 Idem, page 235.
12 Op. cit.
13 WSA 2664/3/1J/17BW.
14 Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey, page 236.
15 Op. cit.
16 Idem, page 237.
17 ‘Pechora’ is actually the Estonian town of Pechory.
18 Idem, page 239.
19 Idem, page 240.
20 Idem, page 214.
21 Idem, page 242.
22 Idem, page 242.
23 Idem, page 242-43.
24 Idem, page 234.
25 Idem, page 244.
26 WSA 2664/3/1B/66.
27 Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey, page 245.
28 WSA 2664/3/1J/17BW. A small leather photograph album with prints of Estonia, including pictures of the Hünerson family and Matilda Talbot.
29 Idem, page 236.
30 WSA 2664/3/1J/17BW.
31 Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey, page 244.
32 Idem, page 244.
33 WSA 2664/3/1J/17BW.
34 She recalls that most of the neighbours probably had goose for Christmas dinner and that the turkey was in her honour. Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey, page 245.
35 Idem, page 245.
36 WSA 2664/3/1B/66.
37 Helgi Just (née Hünerson) (1911-1989). Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum (Estonian Literary Museum) 'Just, Elmar'. http://www2.kirmus.ee/biblioserver/isik/index.php?id=987. Accessed 13th April 2016.
38 After the Red Army liberated the country from the Nazis, Estonia did not revert back to independence, but instead, like the other Baltic States, found itself part of the Soviet Union. Migration was controlled by directives from Moscow, whereby Estonian and other Baltic States populations were forcibly deported to Siberia. In turn, policy actively encouraged Soviets to move across to the Baltic States. These coordinated population exchanges served to quell disquiet against Soviet rule in the Baltic States and to accelerate ever closer integration with the Soviet Union.
39 Siiri, P. (Editor.) (1988) Mälestusi gaidirajalt. Toronto, Eesti Gaidide Liit. (Recollections of the guiding track, Toronto, Estonian Girl Guides.) The book gives a series of personal accounts in Estonian from guides who lived abroad during the war. The author does not mention if Helgi and Elmar Just had a family of their own, stating only that the family was deported.
40 "Under his leadership the organization received in 1923 its "Rules and Regulations which were formulated closely after the British model.” Uustalu, E. (1962) Eesti skautlus viiskümmend aastat, koguteos. Estonian scouting, 1912-1962. Eesti Skautide Liit. Hälsingborg. The final chapter, 'Estonian Scouting' written in English gives a good overview up until 1962. Page 265.
41 Op. Cit.
42 Siiri, P. (1988).
43 Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum (Estonian Literary Museum) 'Hünerson, Eleonore'. http://www2.kirmus.ee/biblioserver/isik/index.php?id=987. Accessed 8th April 2016.
44 Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum (Estonian Literary Museum) 'Just, Elmar'. http://www2.kirmus.ee/biblioserver/isik/index.php?id=987. Accessed 13th April 2016.
45 TLÜAR väliseesti isikud (Academic Library of Tallinn University: Exiles) 'Kikerpill, Sula'. http://isik.tlulib.ee/index.php?id=2999. Accessed 8th April 2016.
46 TLÜAR väliseesti isikud (Academic Library of Tallinn University: Exiles) 'Hint, Virge'. http://isik.tlulib.ee/index.php?id=2402. Accessed 8th April 2016.
47 Uustalu, E (1962), page 276.
48 Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum (Estonian Literary Museum) 'Hünerson, Eleonore'. Accessed 8th April 2016.
Siiri, P (Editor.) (1988) Mälestusi gaidirajalt. Toronto, Eesti Gaidide Liit. (Recollections of the guiding track, Toronto, Estonian Girl Guides.)
Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey. London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Uustalu, E. (1962) Eesti skautlus viiskümmend aastat, koguteos. Estonian scouting, 1912-1962. Eesti Skautide Liit. Hälsingborg, Online PDF available at http://muuseum.skaut.ee/lib/exe/fetch.php?media=skaudid:kirjavara:eesti_skautlus_viiskuemmend_aastat._koostaja_evald_uustalu._haelsingborg_1962.pdf.
Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum (Estonian Literary Museum) 'Hünerson, Eleonore'. http://www2.kirmus.ee/biblioserver/isik/index.php?id=987. Accessed 8th April 2016.
TLÜAR väliseesti isikud (Academic Library of Tallinn University: Exiles) 'Kikerpill, Sula'. http://isik.tlulib.ee/index.php?id=2999. Accessed 8th April 2016.
TLÜAR väliseesti isikud (Academic Library of Tallinn University: Exiles) 'Hint, Virge'. http://isik.tlulib.ee/index.php?id=2402. Accessed 8th April 2016. Archive resources
Thanks to Mailiis Jõgis, Director of the Estonian Guides Association for providing information from Evald Uustalu’s book, Estonian scouting, 1912-1962.