A Van Gogh in Lincoln
Everyone knows about famous Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother Theo, but not so many are aware that they had another brother, Cor, who worked in Lincoln during the late 1880s. Chris Schoeman unfolds his story.
Cor was born on 17th May 1867 in the North Brabant town of Zundert, in a family of three brothers and three sisters who later also lived in Etten-Leur, Helvoirt and Nuenen in the province, following calls to their father, Theodorus van Gogh, as Protestant minister. Cor attended the Hogere Burgerschool in Breda, later worked as an apprentice at the Begemann engineering factory in Helmond and then had a stint in Breda at Mannsbach & Cie, manufacturing steam boilers and locomotives.
Restless by nature like his brother Vincent, he left the Netherlands in 1887 with a testimonial from the Dutch Reformed Church of Nuenen in his pocket to seek employment in the industrial town of Lincoln.
He found a city at the forefront of major industries manufacturing diesel-engine locomotives, steam loaders and similar heavy machinery, with large scale terraced housing including Pelham Street, where he spent his last year. Cor’s correspondence reveals that he was employed at Ruston, Proctor & Co on the waterfront, one of the largest engineering firms in England, with 1,600 employees. Its products included the 1885 Ruston Proctor Locomotive No. 5, two of which were delivered to the Kimberley Diamond Mine in South Africa.
Initially Cor lived some distance from the factory (it is unknown exactly where), though he later moved to 5 Pelham Street near the Town Square. Just to the north of his lodging lay Lincoln Castle and the prominent Cathedral. In a letter of 16th October 1888 to Theo he praises the beauty of the latter: ‘If you ever come here you will enjoy the cathedral, I think. It is a beautiful building.’ Also, during his stay, the old Victoria Pub on 1 Pelham Street was a popular gathering place.
Cor himself admitted that he was ‘a poor letter writer’, but correspondence between his mother Anna and her children ensured that all of them were aware of what was going on in one another’s lives. From snow-covered Nuenen in March 1888, Anna wrote to Theo that Cor was pleased about earning extra money by working overtime at the factory, and that a small parcel of letters from Cor included a photograph of Lincoln. A tailor had made him a new suit, that Cor described as ‘sturdy and good’.
At the time, Vincent – then living in Arles in the south of France – remarked to Theo on Cor’s strong physique (he had ‘grown bigger and stronger’ than both of them) and that his knowledge of machinery seemed to assure him of future success.
In the letter to Theo, Cor described his accommodation arrangements, that he had moved to a boarding house in Pelham Street to be closer to the factory where he worked. He shared a bedroom and lounge with his previous housemate named Joy, who was also a colleague at the factory. Cor seemed to have been happy enough with his lodging, but did complain about the weather – and Sundays: ‘It is Sunday morning. Outside, it is anything but inviting, it is cold and misty. Sundays here are quite unpleasant. Everything is closed, coffee shops, shops, everything – apart from the innumerable churches and chapels that people attend excessively.’
Cor also writes about life in the factory: ‘We are experiencing tremendous pressure at the factory; I have good work though, and when I am not working with someone else, I do all the fitting up by myself. The week before last I delivered a machine for an exhibition in Holland. Various beautiful machines will also be manufactured here for the Paris exhibition. There is an outside chance that they may send me along too. In the next week I will have my portrait done and I will send you a copy [shown in this article].’
From the letter it seems that Theo was about to travel to Glasgow. ‘Will something still come of your going to Glasgow? The train from the South to Scotland goes past here, so I will probably see you then. How is Vincent? I never hear anything from him any more, except that he would have been going to Algiers or that he is perhaps there.’
In a letter dated 6th March 1889 to his sister Willemien, Cor complained about the routine nature of his work and the long hours. He was also getting weary of Lincoln. At the time Willemien had been reading Charles’ Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, and Cor remarked that he had bought it in Lincoln a while before and enjoyed reading it. He was also hoping to visit Theo and his wife Johanna in Paris the next month.
Despite some complaints about Lincoln, Cor must have felt at home in the surrounding Lincolnshire Wolds. As in his home Brabant, the farmers of the region cultivated crops such as wheat, oats, barley, potatoes and sugar beet, while cattle and sheep grazed in the fields beyond. There were also the windmills, so deeply reminiscent of his motherland and spread across the wide Lincolnshire landscape. At one stage there were an estimated 500 mills in the region, and in Lincoln itself, along Mill Road, Cor would pass the old Ellis Mill, dating back to 1798.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in South Africa, gold had been discovered on the Witwatersrand. Like many other foreigners, Cor would leave for the Transvaal to work on the gold mines. Following a brief stay with Theo and his wife in Paris, he boarded the Union Company steamship Tartar on 23rd August 1889 at Southampton on his voyage to the Cape.
In Johannesburg on the Witwatersrand, he maintained heavy mining machinery for the Cornucopia Gold Mining Company before switching to the Netherlands Railways Company (NZASM), later transferring to Pretoria. While in Johannesburg, he received the news of Vincent’s death on 27th July 1890, and a mere six months later heard that Theo had also died on 25th January 1891.
Cor spent the last ten years of his life in the Transvaal. During the Anglo Boer War, he joined the Boer commandos in the Free State in March 1900, but plagued by bouts of fever ended up in a makeshift Red Cross hospital in Brandfort in the early part of April. On the 12th of that month, during a fever attack, he took his fate into his own hands and shot himself, the Transvaal Red Cross recording that ‘During fever [he] took his own life’. While his older brothers lie buried side by side in Europe, Cor’s grave is on the windswept plains of the Free State, with not even a gravestone to indicate his final resting place.