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Harry Rose-Ransom on Nona Ransom, Shunryu Suzuki's British Quaker English teacher in the early 30s

Nona Ransom main page

See The Twelve Days of England  - written in 2000 after I met Harry Rose

note: I think I scanned this from Harry's letter long ago and then I ran it through a spell check recently surely changing some spelling that he intended. I haven't checked it in detail to see if there are any mistakes from the scanning or spellcheck but upon first glance I note that it read that she was born in 1837 which must be a scan reading of 1887. So if you notice anything else, please let me know. DC [ Thanks.

Letter from Harry Ransom-Rose sent to DC in February of 1996 answering a list of questions I'd sent him. The questions are not included. Maybe I have them somewhere but the answers seem sufficient.

5, Sherwood Court, Seymour Place, LONDON W1H STH. England.

Dear Mr. Chadwick,

I enclose herewith my written responses to your questionnaire on Nona Ransom. I have done my best to give you the information for which you have asked, though, on reflection, since your purpose is to write about Suzuki, you may find that the facts I have provided will not materially assist you with your project. There was doubtlessly a link between Nona and Suzuki and I am sure she would have been touched at the thought that she had been a "very important person " in Suzuki's life and, indeed, had "an important influence" on him. Unfortunately, I do not seem to have substantiated this opinion with any material evidence.

As I have explained in the answers to your questions, Nona was a person who collected events in which people as individuals gave a substance to the occasion. She was not one to whom the individual was the event. I hope that I am not being unkind to her memory. She may have been an event to Suzuki, but I suspect that Suzuki was part of an occasion for her. In the years I have known her, she would often describe situations in which personalities appeared from time to time and if I were to ask about a particular individual to whom she would refer, she would offer a picture without depth. One would long to ask why, how, when, what and a similar series of questions.. She liked discovering but balked at enquiring, primarily of her own thoughts.

I have also included a few photographs, two of which are of Suzuki, one at age of 20 and the other at 60. You have probably got those. The others may be of interest. Any you do not want, you may return to me in due course.

I enjoyed the two books you sent. Thank you very much for them. I look forward to reading the drafts of your biography of Suzuki. Please let me know if there is any further information you may find useful from my sources.

Yours sincerely,

Harry Ransom Rose


1. Maria Nona Ransom was born in Bedford, England on 5th. October, 1887.

 2. Her parents, Edwin and Amy Ransom, both derived from Quaker stock. Edwin Ransom's family is documented from about the mid‑17th. century while that of Amy is equally well documented over the same period of time.

3. Nona was the last of nine children, hence the Latin origin of her name. The eldest of these was a girl and the next seven were boys. Not a great deal is known in detail about the childhood of the nine, but it appears that the family was sufficiently well endowed to provide for both private and formal education, in a Quaker setting, to a socially acceptable standard. Thereafter, the male members of the family were encouraged make their own way in life and were assisted to take up training and further education in directions they felt most suited to their interests. All the young men made their several ways to Canada or the United States The eldest child, Amabel, traveled but eventually returned to, and remained in, England. Nona, as in  the case of the others and following the initial stages of her education, took up her training in t he field which interested her, which was teaching, under the aegis of the then well known Froebel Institute.

4. Nona grew to be a tall and rather handsome lady with an open and striking face. She dressed in the fashion of her times, with elegance and taste, perhaps in contrast to the perceived view of the simplicity associated with a Quakerly background. In her later years, she was more concerned with comfort than effect.

5. Directness and an honesty of expression; characteristics which can be seen to derive from the certainties of conviction, which latter attribute is not wholly conducive to social intercourse, especially in circumstances of differing convictions.

6. I cannot recollect her having any hobbies. In retrospect, I believe her interests centered on the manifestation of discovery which the nature of travel offers. She traveled widely and met a large number of people in various parts of the world. More specifically, she demonstrated an interest in the visual arts and was attracted to the formal disciplines of design. In this context, she often expressed a liking for the traditional Japanese form of the art, the influence of which was significant in Europe at the turn of the century.

7. This can not be answered in any but a general sense. Thus, I can say that she enjoyed the security of a convention she could accept, and was less likely to be sympathetic to an unconventional view or one which did not conform to her understanding of what she considered to be right or wrong. As I have already noted above, her attitudes tended to derive from the kind of convictions which a faith provides, rather than ones which evolve from philosophical or abstract contemplation. That is not to say that she lacked compassion, but that she was a little short on tolerance. She was brought up in a country and era which brooked no doubt about the primacy of Britain in any field of endeavour in the world. It was not so much an arrogance, as an indisputable fact of her time and place and was thus a conviction. Her family encouraged her to be self assured and confident and all she had to do was to find out how the rest of the world was managing. As for dislikes, I suppose such things, events and behaviour which she felt to be unseemly, of which there must have been a substantial number.

8. Nona was 37 years old when she first went abroad to live and that was in 1924. Her formal education in the early period of her life covered several years at a Quaker school at Sidcot in Somerset, Bedford High School and spells in Belgium and France at Lycees and Convent Schools, culminating with the teacher's training course at the Bedford Froebel Training College. At the end of her course she joined the staff of the College and took charge of its Preparatory School section. Between the ages of 27 and 37, Nona was employed as form mistress of the Preparatory Department of the Edinburgh Academy, in Scotland. Presumably it was the combined accumulation of teaching experience and a growing desire to emulate her brothers' travels and lives abroad, which finally stimulated her to apply for a teacher's post at the Tientsin Grammar School in northern China. Socio‑economic factors would undoubtedly have affected her decision in the choice of destination.

9. The Grammar School at Tientsin was the only English school financed and maintained by the British community as an integral part of its Concession in the treaty port, which consisted of a .number of foreign concessions, each with their own civil and military authorities. Thus, there were  French, Japanese and, prior to the First World War, German, Russian, Austrian, Italian and even U.S. interests and concessions. All these privileges, which stemmed from foreign intervention at the Boxer Rising, were negated at the end of the Second W.W. In 1924, the British Concession was effectively sovereign British territory and the Grammar School, which had very recently been designed and built in resplendent Greco‑paladian style, complete with Doric columns, was becoming an important centre of education. It had several hundred pupils, who derived from over 30 nationalities, all of whom were taught in English, on a curriculum based on the Cambridge University overseas certificate. The school was well staffed, there were no specific pressures and there was adequate time available for extra‑curricular activities and holiday breaks throughout the year. Social life was active and varied and people who had particular reasons to avail themselves of the relative safety of the foreign enclaves, and the money to ensure a less uncertain life, tended to gravitate to such groupings. Rich Chinese merchants or politicos would invest in contacts and those who could smooth a way into more useful circles, through perhaps, tuition in language and social etiquette. Nona was well placed to teach English as a language and as a cultural pattern of social behaviour. She had opportunities to give private tuition of this kind, to the family of the then President of China, Li Yuan Hung. Shortly after the Emperor and his wife had to leave Peking in 1925, they were housed by the Japanese in their Concession in Tientsin, and Nona was invited by the then Japanese Consul, Yoshida, to undertake the informal duties of companion and English teacher to the ex‑Empress. Yoshida's own children were at that time pupils at the Grammar School, which was how the link was effected. Nona retained contact with Pu‑Yi and Wan Jung, both directly until 1931, when they left for Manchuria, and indirectly until after the war, in the mid‑forties.

10, 11 and 12.  Answered largely at 9 above. Nona was, of course, formally contracted to undertake her duties as teacher at the Grammar School, from 1924 to 1927, when she took three years off to live and work in Japan. During the three years before she went to Japan, she was informally known as a Companion and English teacher to the ex‑Manchu Emperor and his wife. The performance of such functions was invariably undertaken in the social framework of meals, evening gatherings and week‑ends. From what I have heard, Nona's relationship, particularly with Wan Jung, was friendly and informal. Nona's duties at the Grammar School were, as I have intimated, not onerous and the cachet of her known association with the Manchu family, would undoubtedly have enhanced her reputation, in any context. There is no evidence that Nona received any financial benefit from her work with Pu Yi and Wan Jung, but she was the recipient of some personal marks of appreciation and favour, in the form of messages, signed photographs and gifts.

13/14. Nona went to Japan in 1927 because she had wanted to see the country for some years. Her contacts with the Yoshidas had, as it were, prepared the ground for her through reports of her relationship with the Manchus and others. During the three year, Nona stayed in Japan she taught English at the following three establishments in Tokyo: The Buddhist University, Komazawa, The Menís' Normal Training College, with demonstration lessons at the attached Boys' Middle School, and The Peeresses School. Also there is a note in one of her papers to the effect that she had been a "Teacher of the English Language and Foreign Etiquette, under the Imperial Household", in Japan. During the summer holiday periods in 1928 and 1929, she visited Korea and what was then known as Formosa. In Korea she stayed at several Monasteries, accompanied by a Japanese student from the Buddhist University, who acted as her interpreter. I think she did something similar in Formosa. I would presume that her time in Japan introduced her to aspects of Buddhist philosophy and experience and it was at that time that she had got to know Suzuki and indeed others, such as Jiro Kano, who was, I understand, the founder of modern Judo.

 15. Nona spoke of Suzuki on a number of occasions over the years, but not in any depth or detail. She clearly admired him as a clear exponent of Buddhism and I think she felt him to be the epitome of Buddhist practice. She always referred to Japan with affection in the later stage of her life, perhaps in reflection of the evidently happy times she had spent there. Nostalgia affects us all from time to time. But perhaps Japan was, if one can so describe it, Nona's apogee. In the six years of her arrival in the far east, she felt that she had achieved more than she had expected to do. She had been accepted at a high social level, got to know people with some influence and was even broadcasting in English on the Japanese radio. And this, in the disciplined stability of a hierarchical structure where any social sense of insecurity was discouraged. It was an ambience she understood.

16. I have a collection of letters which Nona wrote to me over many years and while some of these may contain comments on her various journeys, they are generally of a personal nature and are not available for reference or publication. To my knowledge, she never had any writings published but she did make one or two radio programs on China and Japan, for the British Broadcasting Corporation in London, in 1960. The copyright for these is vested in the BBC, but perhaps you could approach them for transcripts and permission to use extracts as relevant.

17. Nona returned to Tientsin to her post at the Grammar School, in 1930 at the age of 43 and remained there until 1940, when she returned to England.

18. I do not know the answer to that. It is possible that she took her three years to Japan as an agreed sabbatical. Or, she may have felt that she needed the greater security of a more permanent job, with an income that would, and did, allow her to travel widely. 

19. See 17.

20.During the ten year period until 1940, Nona undertook duties as form‑mistress at the first of the six‑upper‑school classes. She was also the School's art teacher. Her personality was such that she had little difficulty in evoking the appropriate level of respect from groups of early teenagers. One should add that in those times, this was not a problem of any significance. Generally children used to take schooling seriously and parents were responsibly cooperative in supporting teachers in their inculcation of a sense of discipline. She followed the required curricula in the subjects of English and Art, and added to interest by reference to her own experience where this was apposite. By all accounts, she was well liked by pupils and staff colleagues. Her practice of wearing pince-nez enhanced an impression of austerity  which  her straight‑backed height engendered.

21. As mentioned above, Nona continued to see Pu‑Yi and Wan Jung until their departure for Manchuria in 1931, to be enthroned as Emperor and Empress of that country, under the aegis of the Japanese. After that time she received sporadic messages and greetings from them of a personal nature.

 22. Nona had, since her first arrival in China, had several opportunities to travel to various parts of the world, usually in school vacation times. She would always visit her dispersed family in the States and Canada and usually make a round trip of it by returning to England on such occasions. She  returned to England in 1940, after‑the European war had started and just before the Pacific war was to start.

23. Because of the war.

24. I have already referred to her Quaker antecedents. In that sense she was involved with the Society of Friends for the whole of her life. In the last stages of her life, she went to live in accommodation provided by the Quaker Meeting House at Cirencester. For the decades between her schooling and her retirement to Cirencester her relationship with the Quakers was tenuous. Certainly her thoughts had been conditioned from the earliest of days, but the practice of remaining in regular contact with members of a Meeting, or attending at any gatherings while in England or abroad, was not something she felt strongly about.

25. There is no evidence of any extant correspondence between Suzuki and Nona in my archives.

26. I have no knowledge of any correspondence, though I suppose they must have communicated a few times.

 27. No, I have no recollection of Nona being upset about anything to do with Suzuki. When she alluded to him, she always spoke of him with affection and respect. I do not know how Suzuki learnt of Nona's death, but I can speculate. Nona died on the 4th. February 1969, a fact I reported in the London newspaper The Daily Telegraph, on  the 8th. February. It would not seem unlikely that Grahame Petchey who was, I believe working with the British Council at that time in Tokyo, would have had access to copies of English newspapers and would have seen the notice. I have a tape of a message sent by Grahame and Pauline Petchey to Nona in October of 1968,in which he mentions the fact that Suzuki was as "bad as ever" in his attention to written correspondence. This was barely four months before Nona's death, and it is possible that she never responded to Petchey's tape.

28. She would occasionally refer to such subjects as part of a conversation. She has never to my knowledge, written papers or notes on any religious subject. Nona was not a person who engaged in study and research in any field. She acquired information in a trawl of personal experience through travel, and sieved it through the net of her conditioned beliefs. Possibly we all do that, but many people, even instinctively, would perhaps analyze the "catch" in greater depth and ask questions.

29. I can think of none who would have known Nona well enough, to still be living. I do not know how well Petchey knew her, but if he also knew Suzuki, he would probably fill a few gaps. I have never met him.

30. Nona died of emphysema on the date I have quoted above, in her sleep at Cirencester, in her 82nd. year. She died with a photograph of Wan Jung by her side.

31. Nona did not leave many papers. There were some photographs and some accounts of her travels. I was in close contact with her for over 35 years, until her death, and most of her writings consisted of a voluminous correspondence between herself and me. There are several hundreds of letters, but they are all personal and their contents cannot be made available.

32. It is possible that the Friends at Cirencester may have some papers left to them by Nona. It may be sensible to enquire, but I should be surprised if they did have anything. I recollect having two photographs framed of Pu‑Yi and Wan Jung at Nona's request, which were, with appropriate subscriptions, given by her to the Elders of the Meeting House, so that the pictures could be displayed in the entrance hall. They were not very enthusiastic about the proposal but hung them on a wall until Nona died, when they were taken down. That says something about both Quakers and Nona.

33. One thing strikes me as curious, Nona spent a total of almost 20 years in China and Japan (she spent another 3 years in China after the war) and she never learnt either the Chinese or Japanese languages.

34 and 35. I was born in China in 1924 of German and Russian stock. Nona became my guardian when my parents went their separate ways during my early adolescence. I went to the Grammar School at Tientsin from an early age and was eventually sent to school in England before the war. I read Philosophy at Oxford, became a Pilot on heavy bombers in the Royal Air Force during the war, dropping un‑Quakerly bombs on Germans, then read Economics at the London School of Economics, spent some years in industry, then the British Colonial Service in Africa and spent the last 20 years with the BBC, before retiring. My last years have been spent enjoying my four grandchildren and, their Grandmother having died 20 years ago, marrying again during the last 12 years.

36. The only person I can identify who went to Japan with Nona, before the war, was a British Army Officer called David Barrow, the son of an Army General, who was killed towards the end of the war in Europe. I had met him and also his Father in England. I believe David had met Suzuki. There was no direct relative of Nona's in China or Japan in her lifetime.

3rd February 1996.

Copyright. Harry Ransom‑Rose. 1996

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