Bram van Stockum (standing in back) and
his wife and two first-born children, Hilda and
As a naval officer, based on the records and letters that survive, Bram had four distinct phases:
1. His exploits at the Naval Institute and awards he won as a sailor around that time, during the period 1904-1906.
2. His voyage as a father to the Dutch East Indies, accepting commissions there from the Dutch Navy, as described in the log of his voyage to Java, 1908-1910.
3. World War I responsibilities as commander of the port of Ymuiden, which provides access to Amsterdam via a canal, 1914-1919.
4. A commission by the Queen to investigate the origins of the Saramacca River in Surinam (Netherlands Guiana, north of Brazil on the Caribbean coast), in the 1920s.
Hilda van Stockum said: "My parents were not ordinary, which caused them both a great deal of suffering.”
Bram as a Child, 1864-1906
Dirk Johannes van Stockum, Bram’s father, was a notary – a combination of a British solicitor and an accountant. He was taciturn, correct and dull. He did not communicate with his children except to spank them when they transgressed. Bram does not seem to have cared for his father very much, though Bram said he always felt sorry for his father when he spanked him. It really did hurt his father more than himself, he said, especially as Bram took the precaution of stuffing straw into his breeches.
Dirk van Stockum and his wife, nee Sophia Clara Emilia Lastdrager, left behind nine children -- five girls and four boys including Bram. “The girls were pretty and clever, and the boys had genius," says Hilda van Stockum.
For example, Bram’s brother Willem became a doctor who “would have gone far if he had not had an unaccommodating and caustic tongue.” Another brother, Dirk Jr., became a notary like his father. The third brother Jo went traveling.
The fourth boy, Abraham, was my grandfather. They called him Bram for short. He was born on July 3, 1864 in a little village in the west of Holland called Lisse, a place with a great history of elegant gardens and great estates, an area hardly touched by the industrial age. The main economic engine was the growth of the cultivation of tulips and other flowers.
Bram’s father died in mid-1908 after Bram’s first baby, my mother Hilda, was born. Bram and his wife Olga went with their tiny baby to Java.
Bram had joined the Dutch Navy to get away. Mom says: “I think he hated his boarding school and escaped so often that they sent him to the Naval Institute. He hated that as well, but either he didn’t get an opportunity to run away or he didn’t try because he wanted to go to sea.”
Bram was a rebel all his life. It was a time of intellectual probing and protest, a questioning of everything hitherto accepted. At catechism Bram did not last long. He and his three brothers were sent home with a note from the Dutch Reform minister to their mother: “Although well behaved, the brothers are no longer welcome in the class because they ask too many questions,” said the teacher. It did not increase Bram’s respect for theology and he soon called himself an atheist.
Hilda and her two younger brothers would sit for long hours listening to Bram’s tales of how he climbed the village steeple and, looking down from the top, clasping the weather vane, saw two old ladies holding up their aprons to catch him.
He was a tough inventive boy, always busy. As a child, his mother had to bribe him to read a book. Later he developed a love of literature. He built a hut in his father’s favorite tree that was not discovered till the leaves fell. Then, says Mom, “there was the devil to pay.” My Mom goes on:
He made a sailing carriage out of a disused baby buggy, in which he went sailing along the streets. It frightened the horses into bolting, so the burgomaster forbade him to use it on public roads. He had to sail it in the meadow, at one end of which there was a canal. Once Bram left his little sister in the carriage, anchored it and went to fetch something. Just as he was coming back a gust of wind uprooted the anchor and blew the carriage full tilt towards the canal. He said he had never in his life run so fast, but he managed to overtake the carriage and stop it before it rolled into the canal with his little sister.
Another story from Hilda::
My father’s talents were all on the engineering side, although there were van Stockum relatives who ran a bookstore in the Hague and both employed, and were related by marriage to, Vincent van Gogh and his cousin Theo. Bram objected to having art imposed on him on a free Saturday afternoon when he had a million more interesting things to do. His friends were of the same opinion and they decided to try to persuade the teacher to quit. It was really disgraceful, though my father loved to tell us all the tricks they played on the poor man until their end was achieved. [Look for examples in HvS mss.]
Bram was very good at breaking windows—he had a sling shot that caused many casualties until his aim improved over time. Tradespeople would present his mother with a list of broken windows and his mother would call Bram.
“Now tell me, which ones did you break?” she’d ask. My Mom reports:
To most of them he would confess but woe if some luckless tradesman had erroneously attributed a broken window to my father. Then Bram’s indignation knew no bounds and his mother would refuse to pay for it.
“My boy never lies,” she said. It was quite true, and sometimes I have wished that he had shown a less rigorous regard for truth. His respect for truth could shatter the most routine social occasions. If I remonstrated with Bram and told him that he had hurt someone’s feelings, he was always very surprised.
“I thought people were above such pettiness,” he would say.
Perhaps Bram was sent to boarding school because his family needed a rest, but he was not there long. He once told Hilda that he would not like to repeat only two periods in his life -- the years at boarding school and the years at the Naval Institute. From boarding school he simply ran away, and that settled that. But the Institute he had to put up with.
Twice Bram nearly lost the chance to become an officer.
The Explosion (c. 1904). As a student at the Institute he wanted to test the power of steam (then still a fairly unknown quantity). He put a sealed tin full of water in the stove. The resulting explosion was so great that no one then would believe he had not used dynamite. All the witnesses however, testified to only water and this saved him from being dismissed, as it had been a scientific experiment and not an act of vandalism.
Years later, when he was a Navy Captain, he met one of his superiors at the Institute, who was now retired.
“Well, van Stockum,” he said. “As it does not matter any more, won’t you confess to me that you did use an explosive that time?” He was amazed to hear that it had really only been water.
The Naval Exercise at den Helder (c. 1905). The second time Bram jeopardized his future was at the mock naval exercises at den Helder. He was given an “enemy” warship which had to navigate entry into the port during a mock naval battle. Den Helder is at the most Northern tip of Holland, where there are many sandbanks. It was really impossible for the “enemy ship” to break through the “Dutch” defenses. The searchlights picked out everything moving in the navigable waters. Bram was angry because the game was stacked against the “enemy” ship, which made it less instructive.
This was a challenge that Bram could not refuse. He was determined to get through. He searched among the waters considered not navigable, and therefore not covered by the searchlights. He found a stretch of water that might just be deep enough to let his ship through. He plumbed it and it would just about fit, without an inch to spare. He took the terrible risk of bringing this destroyer through this narrow inlet, plumbing the depth all the time. He said that he had his heart in his mouth as the plumber called out the depths in rapid succession.
If he had stranded the valuable ship on a sand bank it would have meant disgrace, and he knew it. But his calculations were correct and they just made it. It was the first time an “enemy” ship had won in those maneuvers. The whole town of den Helder was full of father’s praise.
My grandmother Olga Boissevain, then a young girl, was staying with her sister Hilda, whose husband was also a naval officer. So the first time my mother met my father, he was the hero of the hour. It was then, my Mom thinks, that she first fell in love with him.
How Bram Won the Silver Set. Another story that Bram’s children loved to hear from him was how he won the little silver milk and sugar set that stood on our sideboard. It attests to his muscular strength. He was going to go to the races on the river Maas in the south of Holland and decided to sail there from den Helder along the north sea coastline above Rotterdam, entering by Ymuiden and so, by inland waters to the river. Unfortunately, soon after he set out on his slender sailboat with one mate, a storm arose. To his horror he found that some of the reefing tackle was jammed, so he could not reef any of the sails. The little boat flew with dizzying speed over the waves of the North Sea, the tiller held firm by my father’s strong hands.
“Can you swim?” he asked his mate.
“Like a brick, sir,” grinned the sailor.
He had, as usual, complete faith in my father. Bram said that their lives were in fact saved by the fact that he couldn’t reef his sails.
“We went faster than the waves,” he said. “If one of the waves had caught up with us as we shot into the harbor of Ymuiden we’d have been done for… they were mountainous. But we were well ahead.
The people of Ymuiden could not believe it. “You come from the wrong direction,” they said. “You cannot have come from the sea.”
Well, the next day the wind had abated but all the sailboats had partly reefed sails except my father’s, so he won the race with ease.
Bram much regretted the passing of the sailing ships. He said steamships made a dull mechanical job out of what once had been an exciting craft.
The Rice Cooker Invention. One morning my mother Olga was called to the living room by a pitying servant.
“Isn’t it a shame of the poor master?” she said. Two enormous mounds of rice had been poured on the living room carpet and several of mother’s best pots had holes bored into them. Olga burst out laughing.
“The master isn’t mad,” she said. “ He is merely inventing a rice cooker because I can never get the rice to his taste.” The rice cooker materialized into a beautiful gray enamel set of pans that fitted into each other, the inner one being perforated like a colander. It made beautiful steamed vegetables as well as rice done to perfection, but it was not a commercial success and our attic hung full of unsold items.
Bram’s Night-Owl Habits and Logical Brain. Bram’s wife would sometimes be wakened by my father in the middle of the night, and told to go for a walk with him… he had to tell her about his newest invention. He was a night bird, his brain worked best after 10 o’clock at night.
“He was tremendously logical,” Olga said. “He developed my ability to think. There was one thing about him, if he saw he was wrong he’d admit it roundly and act on it. But I had to convince him. It took me three weeks of solid argument to get him to see that it wasn’t right for him to keep his little daughter awake all night and let her sleep in the daytime, like himself. When he finally saw it, there was no more trouble.”
The Guided-Missile Invention and How It Was Ended. Bram must have invented one of the first guided missiles. His wife’s description of it sounded horrible to ears not used to modern weapons. You could shoot it off from Amsterdam harbor and the thing would go unmanned to an enemy harbor and blow it up. Bram was in his first flush of inventive triumph and it took his wife long evenings of argument till he was convinced that it was a wicked device and destroyed it.
The Depth Regulator for Mines. Bram developed a very successful invention, a depth regulator for mines. It ensured that the mines were neither on top of the water, where they would be seen, nor at the bottom of the bay, where they would not be struck by a hostile ship. However, the invention was stolen from him.
The Dutch government did not want it, but the Danish government did. The trouble was that when it came to paying up for the invention the Danish government produced a document which was supposed to prove that a dead Danish inventor had already patented the invention. It was a clumsy forgery, because the document contained pieces of machinery not existing at the time the patent was supposed to have been taken out. However, Bram was not able to appear in court at the time, being on duty at sea, and his friend, who was appearing in court on his behalf, did not spot this.
So Bram was never paid.
Torpedo Regulator. Mom remembers Bram bending over his blueprints with the eager face of a little boy constructing an erector set. There was also a torpedo regulator he invented and it was considered a long time by the Dutch government. Bram was always buying patents and he constantly had to go to exercises testing his inventions. The Dutch government had first option on them, naturally; some were adopted, but not so that we noticed it made much difference financially.
The Effect of His Inventions on the Home. Bram’s home was full of unexpected devices, like a clothespin to balance a lampshade or a corkscrew driven into a door to pull it where it stuck. He had arranged the drawer of his desk so that you could only open them by pulling the two outside knobs together. That was beyond the span of little arms and made his desk safe from children. He hated locks.
I do realize the advantages an artist has over an inventor. An artist can create without having to spend a lot of money.
Marriage. Bram did not marry till he was over 40, which may explain why his children got on with him so well. He might have been our grandfather. He was an exciting parent to have.
My mother’s love for me and my two younger brothers was almost a passion, but my father was God then. He had made a special saddle just for me behind the handlebars of his bicycle and would take me riding. I remember the wind blowing into my face and the delicious thrill of danger combined with the safe feeling of my father’s arms about me.
We also had a game: I would stand on what seemed a dizzying high wall and he would hold out his arms. I was to jump into them and trust him to catch me. I learned to do it, and he never missed catching me.
The Poverty of My Parents’ Early Married Life. Bram had married on the strength of the money his depth-regulator for mines would bring him (like Dickens’s Micawber, Bram always saw riches just around the corner) and he and Olga had therefore rather a thin time of it at first. My father had done more than marry on this fortune, he had also piled up debts. Hilda comments:
My mother and my father carried the feeling of riches and luxury into the poorest conditions. Even when she could not pay the milkman there was always money for a movie. But that was later--there were no movies when my mother married--and my father never cared for them. I do not remember ever seeing him in a movie, though he was very fond of the gramophone and I always bought records for him on his birthday or at St. Nicholas. Calli Curci was his favorite singer, and Caruso came second. Whenever I hear the Italian operas, especially Carmen or Cavallerie Rusticana, I think of my father.
Bram had a habit of anticipating fortune and regaling his family with stories of what he was going to do when it fell into his lap. These stories may have helped make Bram’s wife content with her comparative poverty. For example, my father described a house he was going to build—its key feature was a private little railway conducting us from the entrance of the driveway to the front door.
Bram was an inventor and most of his spare cash (and some that wasn’t spare) went to patents. His wife was glad that he never made money with his inventions, though he was always expecting to. She shuddered to think what our lives would have been like if he had been rich. Only poverty put some limit to his enterprises.
Bram’s Playhouse. Bram once had enough money to give his daughter Hilda her heart’s desire, a little playhouse in the garden. What Hilda wanted was a tiny little house, an exact copy of a real house, like her grandmother Emily had at Drafna, in her garden, for the grandchildren. It had imitation brick walls, a real doorbell and foot scraper, and windows with imitation flowerpots on them. But my father was thinking more of a new invention of his, a door which could open both ways. Hilda writes:
It had two handles, and whether you pulled the right or the left one, it opened. The one window on the house also opened both ways. My father thought this a great advantage, but nobody else did and it was grief to me… for it made it most unlike a real house. It was also much too big and lacked the charm of my grandmother’s little house. On the other hand, we could play in it and were allowed to sleep in it sometimes. So it did give me a lot of pleasure.
 Bram’s exploits as a boy gave his daughter Hilda material for some of her children’s books, especially for Andries,which is about her father as a boy. There is also a scene with a bell tower in A Day on Skates
 Bram’s brother-in-law Han de Booy was not impressed by the general state of the van Stockum household, as is indicated by diary entries in 1912 and 1916.