The Tale of Beatrix Potter

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Self-portrait with Beatrix at Lingholm, Keswick, Rupert Potter with a decorative mount by Beatrix Potter, 1898

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London boasts the world’s largest collection of drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and photographs belonging to the highly successful children’s author Beatrix Potter. Best known for her creation of the much loved Peter Rabbit, Potter was also a natural scientist and conservationist and is credited with preserving much of the land that is now part of the Lake District National Park.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 in Kensington, London. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832-1914) was a barrister and her mother, Helen Leech (1839-1932) was the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. Her cousins on her mother’s side are reportedly related to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Beatrix and her brother Walter Bertram, who was born in 1872, spent much of their time playing in the countryside – Kensington was a semi-rural area at the time – and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, a hedgehog and some bats. Both of their parents were artistic and enjoyed exploring nature, particularly their father who was a keen photographer. Rupert Potter had been elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869. Beatrix was one of her father’s favourite subjects to photograph and he also taught her how to use his heavy camera.

The Potter family became rather prosperous after inheriting money from the cotton trade. Rupert also invested in the stock market and was particularly wealthy by the 1890s. The family were able to afford governesses for their daughter that, whilst provided her with a good education, meant Beatrix was often kept away from her parents. Being educated at home also meant she did not have much social interaction with children her own age. As a result, she had a rather lonely childhood.

Beatrix relished the hours she spent with her brother in the countryside. The family annually visited Dalguise, a settlement in Perthshire, Scotland, which allowed the children the opportunity to roam freely. It was here that they acquired many of their pets, often secretly in paper bags until their schoolroom was full of a menagerie of animals.

Like their mother, who was a watercolourist, Beatrix and Bertram were interested in art as well as animals, often painting and drawing the animals they had smuggled into the house. When Bertram left for boarding school, Beatrix spent lonely days studying the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy of Arts and drawing the exhibits at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

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Still life drawing, 1879

Since she was eight, Beatrix had been filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants. Noting her love of drawing, her parents enrolled her at the National Art Training School in 1878, which she attended until 1883, where she learnt about still life and perspective. Despite the training, Beatrix preferred to draw the plants and specimens that she had developed a preference for as a child. Insects were of particular interest to Beatrix and she taught herself to be an amateur entomologist. Using her brother’s microscope, she studied various creatures in detail and learnt how to prepare slides of the specimens she collected.

Beatrix had an eye for detail and was determined to be able to draw living creatures as accurately as possible. Scientific accuracy was key to her style of drawing, which she produced with a fine, dry brush. Her many hours studying insects under the microscope are evident in some of her famous illustrated storybooks.

Flowers were a typical subject for girls to study, therefore, it is no surprise that many of Beatrix’s sketchbooks contain drawings of plants and flowers. Her grandmother gave her a copy of John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, and she spent hours carefully copying the illustrations. She painstakingly tried to accurately depict flowers so that they could easily be identified from her drawings. The “careful botanical studies of my youth” helped Beatrix create realistic fantasy worlds for anthropomorphic characters in later life. Geraniums are abundant in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories feature carnations, fuchsia, foxgloves, waterlilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons.

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Examples of fungi – Yellow Grisette (Amanita Crocea) and Scarlet Fly Cap (Amanita Muscaria, 1897

During her 20s, Beatrix also became interested in fungi, which she collected and drew as she did with insects and flowers. Her fascination, however, stretched further than making detailed drawings and led her to write a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. Unfortunately, as a woman, Beatrix was unable to present the paper to official bodies and was rebuffed by William Turner Thuselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on account of her gender and amateur status. Fortunately, her uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915), as vice-chancellor of the University of London was able to present Beatrix’s paper to the Linnean Society in 1897 on her behalf. The Linnean Society of London was dedicated to the study of natural history and evolution, and, in 1997, issued a posthumous apology to Beatrix for the sexism she experienced in attempting to submit her research.

As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix used her drawing talents to produce Christmas and greeting cards. Many of these designs involved mice and rabbits, which attracted the attention of the greetings card company, Hildesheimer and Faulkner, who commissioned several drawings from her to illustrate verses by the author and lyricist Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), a friend of her father, also made observations about Beatrix’s artistic talents.

Whenever Beatrix holidayed in Scotland, she drew cards or illustrated letters to send to her friends. She had remained in contact with one of her former governesses, Annie Carter Moore, and often sent drawings and cards to her children, particularly Noel who was often unwell. Since she wrote to Noel regularly, she ran out of things to tell him and began writing stories instead, for instance, a tale about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter”.

In 1900, Beatrix revised her story of the four rabbits and sent it to several publishing houses. Unfortunately, it was rejected but her friend Hardwicke Rawnsley (1815-1920), an Anglican priest in Westmorland, had great faith in her work and resubmitted it to the publishers. Frederick Warne & Co, who had previously dismissed Beatrix’s work, agreed to publish the “bunny book”, as it was then known. Originally, Beatrix’s illustrations were black and white but the company persuaded her to add colour. Thus, on 2nd October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, marking the beginning of a long relationship between Beatrix and the publishers.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by Beatrix’s pet rabbit Peter Piper, who she made up stories about to entertain the poorly Noel Moore. As time went on, she introduced other characters to the stories and her former governess proposed the suggestion that they would make great book characters. After revising the tale several times, the final story followed the mischievous Peter who sneaked into the garden of Mr McGregor to steal some of the gardener’s lettuces. Whilst Peter was snacking, Mr McGregor spotted him, so the young rabbit ran away but soon discovered he was hopelessly lost. Eventually, Peter found his way out of the garden and home to his mother, having learnt a valuable lesson.

When publication began in October 1902, 8,000 copies of the book were produced, however, by November, a further 12,000 were printed followed by another 8,200 in December. Beatrix Potter was astonished at the popularity of her story. “The public must be fond of rabbits!” It is now considered one of the most popular children’s stories of all time, having sold over 40 million copies worldwide.

The following year, Frederick Warne & Co published two more of Beatrix’s stories based on characters she had invented for Noel and his siblings. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published in August 1903, tells the story of a naughty squirrel and his family who travelled to Owl Island to collect some nuts. Squirrel Nutkin taunted the resident Old Brown Owl with silly songs and riddles, however, Old Brown ignored him. Eventually, Old Brown was so fed up with the silly squirrel that he pounced upon Squirrel Nutkin who was lucky to survive, albeit with a little of his tail missing.

The Tailor of Gloucester, published in October 1903, involved a nasty cat called Simpkin who was sent out by the tailor to buy food and fabric. While the cat was away, the tailor discovered a family of mice that had been trapped under some teacups by Simkin. The tailor released them, much to the disgust of Simpkin on his return. Unfortunately, the tailor then fell ill and was unable to finish his work. Grateful for saving their lives, the mice returned during the night and finished the tailor’s work while he recovered in bed.

Beatrix Potter continued to publish two or three books a year up until the First World War. Although they were written less frequently, she continued to write after the war, amassing a total of 23 by 1930.

The year 1904 saw the publication of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny is a sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit in which Peter returns to Mr McGregor’s garden with his cousin Benjamin to retrieve the clothes he left there when he made his hasty exit. The Tale of Two Bad Mice was inspired by the two mice Beatrix rescued from her cousin’s trap, who she named Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca. In the story, these naughty mice wrecked the interior of a little girl’s dollhouse. Feeling sorry for what they had done, Hunca Munca vowed to sweep the floor of the dollhouse every morning, whilst Tom Thumb put a sixpence in the doll’s stocking on Christmas Eve.

The much-loved Mrs Tiggy-Winkle appeared in 1905, as did The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The Tail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was slightly different from Beatrix Potter’s previous books in that the main character was a human. Lucie, a young girl staying in the countryside, happened across a hedgehog dressed up as a washerwoman. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle did not speak but her eyes went “twinkle, twinkle” whilst she went about her housework. At the end of the story, some people think Lucie fell asleep and dreamt the whole thing, however, the narrator knows better. The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Panon the other hand, involves two anthropomorphic characters: a cat called Ribby and a dog called Duchess.

Jeremy Fisher is another well-known character, who appeared in 1906 along with Miss Moppet and a fierce bad rabbit. The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher is about a frog who lived in a “slippy-sloppy” house at the edge of a pond. Jeremy vowed that if he caught five minnows in the pond he would invite his friends for tea, however, fishing with a rod was much harder than he expected and he went home empty-handed. Nonetheless, he still invited his friends for tea: Sir Isaac Newton the newt and Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise.

The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was written at the request of the publishers who wanted a truly bad rabbit, not like Peter who seemed too good despite his adventures. The unnamed bad rabbit attacked a good rabbit eating a carrot but was spotted by a hunter who mistook him for a bird. As a result, the fierce bad rabbit was shot at, causing him to lose his tail and whiskers. The Story of Miss Moppet is about another naughty character, a cat, who decided to tease a mouse, “which is not at all nice of Miss Moppet.” She tied the mouse in a handkerchief and threw it around, not realising that it had a hole through which the mouse could escape.

Miss Moppet may have been the sister of Tom Kitten and Mittens who appear in The Tale of Tom KittenTheir mother, Tabitha Twitchit, invited her friends to tea and instructed her children to make themselves presentable. Tom, however, had other ideas and proceeded to make mayhem. Tom Kitten was the only book published in 1907, however, two followed the next year.

the_tale_of_jemima_puddle-duck_coverThe Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck features two of Beatrix Potter’s well-known characters: Jemima, a domestic Aylesbury duck and Mr Tod, a fox. Jemima wanted somewhere safe to lay her eggs where the farmer’s wife would not take them and Mr Tod, dressed as a charming gentleman, suggested she use his shed. Of course, Mr Tod had an alternative motive and began to prepare a feast in which Jemima would be the main dish. Fortunately, other animals on the farm found out Mr Tod’s plans and rescued Jemima.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding is a story that involves several characters. Tom Kitten was still up to his old tricks, pestering his mother Tabitha Twitchit and her Cousin Ribby. Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, two rats that lived under the floorboards, decided to teach the kitten a lesson. After catching the young Tom, the rats attempted to bake Tom in a pudding. Fortunately, he was found before he could be eaten.

In 1909, Beatrix revisited her first story about Peter Rabbit and its sequel featuring Benjamin Bunny. Using elements from the original plot, Beatrix published The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, who were the children of Benjamin Bunny and his cousin Flopsy. The young bunnies, six in total, fell asleep while raiding a sack of vegetables and were captured by Mr McGregor. Fortunately, Thomasina Tittlemouse, a woodmouse, was able to free the bunnies before they could come to any harm.

Peter Rabbit and other popular characters also appear in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, a story about a village shop. Ginger, a yellow tomcat, and Pickles, a terrier, were kind animals who let their customers purchase goods on unlimited credit, however, they soon found themselves penniless as a result. Forced to close the shop, it took a kind-hearted villager, Sally Henny-penny, to help them reopen and convince the customers to pay with real money.

Thomasina Tittlemouse, who was the heroine of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, received a story of her own in 1910. The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse is a story about housekeeping, which reflects Beatrix Potter’s own sense of tidiness and hatred of insect infestations. Mrs Tittlemouse’s friends and the occasional arachnid were forever messing up her home but she was always determined to make it neat and tidy again.

In 1911, Beatrix Potter attempted to please her American fans by writing The Tale of Timmy Tiptoewhich featured a squirrel called Timmy and a chipmunk called Chippy Hackee. Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen chipmunks, which are indigenous to North America, except for in books, therefore, her illustrations received a lot of criticism. Fortunately, she was able to redeem herself the following year with a story about a previous character, The Tale of Mr Tod

The Tale of Pigling Bland was the last book published before the outbreak of the First World War. Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, was fed up with her eight troublemaking children and decided to make them leave home. Pigling Bland and his brother Alexander decided to try their luck in the market but, due to Alexander’s bad behaviour, they found themselves in a lot of trouble.

After a break of four years, Beatrix Potter was back on the publishing scene with Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, which opened with a rhyme about a mouse named Appley Dapply. “Appley Dapply has little sharp eyes, And Appley Dapply is so fond of pies!” The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse followed in 1918, which was loosely based on Aesop’s fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Beatrix Potter disappeared from the publishing scene for a few more years, reappearing in 1922 with another book of rhymes. Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes began with a rhyme about the titular rabbit but also included popular songs, such as Three Blind Mice.

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The Owl and the Pussy Cat

In 1930, Frederick Warne & Co published Beatrix’s final tale, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Despite it being her last story, it was one of the first Beatrix had written, having begun it in 1883. It was intended as a prequel to Edward Lear’s (1812-88) poem The Owl and the Pussycat, for which she later produced illustrations in 1897.

Beatrix was inspired by the “Piggy-wig” who lived in “the land where the Bong-Tree grows.” He had a “ring at the end of his nose”, which the Owl and the Pussycat used as their wedding ring. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson explained how, in Beatrix Potter’s imagination, the Piggy-wig came to be there. Little Pig Robinson was sent to the market by his aunts Miss Porcas and Miss Dorcas but was kidnapped by a sailor who planned to cook and feed the poor pig to his men. With the help of the ship’s cat, Little Pig Robinson managed to escape on a rowing boat and made his way to “the land where the Bong-Tree grows”, where he later met the Owl and the Pussycat.

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Hill Top Farm

Despite producing so many books, Beatrix Potter’s life was much more than writing and illustrating. In 1905, the son of the publishing company founder, Norman Dalziel Warne (1868-1905) proposed marriage, which she readily accepted despite the protestations of her family. Unfortunately, Norman passed away a month later from pernicious anaemia, leaving Beatrix devastated. To distract herself from grief, Beatrix focused on renovating Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey near Windermere, which she had bought with her income. Due to her duties in London – both to her parents and the publishing company – Beatrix could not live there permanently, so employed a tenant farmer, John Cannon.

During her visits to Hill Top Farm, Beatrix taught herself the techniques of fell farming and raising livestock, such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep. Needing to protect the boundaries of her farm, Beatrix sought advice from the solicitors W.H. Heelis & Son, who advised her to purchase Castle Farm, a pasture adjacent to Hill Top Farm, which would provide her with a further 20 acres of land. By 1909, the purchase had been made and Beatrix had grown close to William Heelis, who later proposed marriage in 1912. Despite her family disapproving of the match because he was “only a country solicitor”, they married on 15th October 1913 in Kensington and moved into the newly renovated Castle Cottage on Castle Farm.

After marriage, Beatrix felt she could finally settle down and began to focus more on sheep farming than writing. In 1923, she purchased Troutbeck Park where she became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder. During this time, however, her eyesight began to deteriorate, which meant any stories she wrote had to be pieced together through illustrations she had done in the past. Beatrix and William remained childless throughout their thirty-year marriage but had many nieces who enjoyed her stories.

As well as farming, Beatrix Potter was a keen conservationist, inspired by her old friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who had co-founded the National Trust (for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty). Beatrix made it her ambition to preserve the Lake District’s unique landscape, of which a quarter is now owned by the National Trust. She used her income to purchase and save properties and preserve farmland. Beatrix served as the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until they could afford to purchase the land from her.

When Beatrix Potter passed away from complications due to pneumonia and heart disease on 22nd December 1943, she left nearly all her property to the National Trust. This included over 4000 acres of land, sixteen farms, many cottages and herds of cows and sheep. This has been, to date, the largest gift to the National Trust and enabled the Lake District to be preserved.

Beatrix also left many of her original illustrations and books to the National Trust, which are on display at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria – the same building that used to house her husband’s law office. The largest public collection of her drawings and letters, however, can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Beatrix Potter’s books are instantly recognised by her distinctive illustrations, however, she never thought of herself as much of an artist. “I can’t invent: I only copy.” Many of the scenes in her tales were based on places she had visited, such as South Devon, which featured in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. She conceived the storyline while staying in Devon with her family in 1883. The tale takes place in a “pretty little town of Stymouth”, which Beatrix invented by mixing together scenes from the South Devon towns of Sidmouth and Teignmouth and Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny was inspired by Fawe Park on the edge of Lake Derwentwater where the Potter’s stayed in 1903. Beatrix spent the holiday drawing the kitchen garden, greenhouse and potting shed, which she imagined a rabbit (or a certain Bunny) would find appealing.

After the sudden death of her fiance in 1905, Beatrix briefly found solace in Gwaynynog, Wales, with her two pet rabbits: Josey and Mopsie. Here she spent time relaxing and drawing in the “prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes”, which became the setting for The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.

The 17th-century farmhouse at Hill Top became the setting of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The kitchen, which contained old fashioned chairs and an oak dresser, provided the backdrop for scenes in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

Beatrix Potter’s tales and characters live on through reprints and branded merchandise. New generations have been introduced to characters, such as Peter Rabbit, through animated films, the latest released in 2018. When she died, Beatrix had some unfinished stories, which have now been published. The Sly Old Cat was written in 1906 but not published until 1971. Two years later, the unfinished Tale of Tuppeny was completed with illustrations by Marie Angel. Finally, Beatrix’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, whose publication was disrupted due to the outbreak of World War One, was published in 2016 with illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake (b.1932).

2016JG9836_jpg_dsBeatrix Potter never thought she would become famous. She was surprised with the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and thought it was only popular because people liked rabbits and not because she was a talented illustrator and storyteller. Whilst Beatrix Potter is a worldwide name due to her many books, her involvement with the National Trust and the preservation of the Lake District is not as widely known. At the time of her death, women had only recently been given the right to vote and it would be some time before women were credited with their important achievements. As a result, Beatrix’s generous donation to the National Trust was only known in small circles until more recently.

Next time you see the naughty Peter Rabbit, take a moment to not only appreciate the illustration but to remember the woman who gave him life.

Eastbury Manor House

A hidden gem

Hidden in the heart of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is one of the very few surviving Elizabethan gentry houses. With a history of over 450 years, Eastbury Manor House is set in tranquil gardens on land that once belonged to Barking Abbey, established in 666 CE. Today, it is a peaceful place for visitors to explore, enjoy a snack in the Kitchen and discover an extraordinary history.

Records of Eastbury date back to the twelfth century in which the land was recorded as a demesne of Barking Abbey. The Manor House, however, was not built until after Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) Second Suppression Act in 1539, which dissolved all large monasteries and religious houses. Initially, the Crown sold the land to Sir William Denham in 1545, however, it was later sold in 1556 to Clement Sysley (d.1578), the man responsible for the construction of the house.

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Eastbury Manor is set up as a museum with information boards, photos, illustrations and hands-on activities aimed at younger visitors. The majority of this, which can be found in the East and Central Attics, tells the story of Eastbury Manor’s development, beginning with Sysley’s purchase until the present day. Unfortunately, no portraits – if there ever were any – have survived of Clement Sysley or Sisley, and the only information about the man has been gathered from legal documents.

Sysley, who was granted a coat of arms in circa 1566, appears to have been a wealthy man of Yorkshire descent who obtained the majority of his money from two wealthy marriages. His second wife, Maud, died in 1562 before work on the manor house could begin but, almost immediately, Sysley entered marriage with Anne Argall (c.1545-1610), the only daughter of a royal tax and land administrator, Thomas Argall – yet another wealthy connection.

Work on the Eastbury Manor, or “Estbery Hall” as Sysley called it, began in 1566 but was not completed until 1573. Sysley moved in with his third wife and children whilst leasing other parts of the estate to farmers. The Sysley family also owned their own cattle and horses and employed at least eight servants to help with the running of the house. Unfortunately, Sysley could only enjoy his new home for five years because he died in 1578, leaving the manor and his debts to his wife and four children.

During the Tudor period, women had very little rights, therefore, Sysley had left the manor to his son Thomas for when he came of age. Meanwhile, Anne remarried in order to resolve the growing debt problem with which she had been lumbered. Her new husband Augustine Steward’s (d.1597) wealth brought the family financial security as well as a guardian for Thomas who was only 14 at the time. Unfortunately, Clement Sysley had so many debts; some were still outstanding on Thomas’ 21st birthday. After much persuasion, Augustine Steward took charge of Eastbury in return for paying substantial debts and annuities.

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After Steward’s death, the house passed to Anne and Augustine’s youngest surviving child, also called Augustine (b.1584). Like his step-brother Thomas, he was only a teenager at the time and had to wait until he reached the age of 21 or got married to gain his full inheritance. At the age of 19, Augustine married Elizabeth Barnham (d.1620) and thus became the wealthy owner of Eastbury Manor.

The Steward claim to fame is the connection with Augustine’s cousin on his mother’s side, Samuel Argall (c1572-1626). Argall, the Deputy Governor of Virginia, was also the naval officer who commanded the ship that sailed the kidnapped Pocahontas (1596-1617) to England. Augustine eventually moved to Virginia to join his cousin, leaving his wife and children behind.

In 1629, Eastbury Manor was sold to William Knightly who then sold it onto the goldsmith Sir Thomas Vyner (1588-1665) in 1650. Vyner was a wealthy businessman and politician who served as the Lord Mayor of London between the years 1653 and 1654. The manor was then passed down the Vyner Baronetcy followed by a range of different families. Not all the owners lived at the manor and various tenants looked after the land. By the time World War One broke out in 1914, Eastbury Manor House was in a derelict condition.

In danger of demolition, the National Trust bought Eastbury Manor House in 1918 and, after Barking became a borough in 1931, the council turned it into a museum.

”It is the earnest wish of the Council of the Borough of Barking that the opening of Eastbury Manor House as a Museum will further stimulate the interest of the people of Barking in the history of their town and increase, by the gift of greater knowledge, the pride that is engendered in the hearts of all of us who live within its boundaries.

We are proud of Barking. We hope that the preservation of its records in our museum, records that will give us an intimate picture of those who lived and worked here before us, may prove an inspiration.”
– Mr. W.J James, Mayor of Barking

During the Second World War, the manor was used as an ARP platform and a nursery for children whose mother’s were involved in war work, something that also continued for a few years afterwards. Eventually, on 28th May 1954, Eastbury Manor House received a Grade 1 listing from Historic England for its exceptional historical and architectural interest, an honour that is only bestowed upon 2.5% of buildings.

After extensive restoration work between 2001 and 2006, Eastbury Manor House reopened as a museum once again, also becoming an idyllic venue for weddings, corporate functions and special events.

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Whilst the name Clement Sysley may not mean anything to people today, Eastbury Manor may have had a significant role in a major event in English history.

“A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was first contriv’d …”
– Daniel Defoe, 1724

The house referred to by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), an English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy, famous for writing Robinson Crusoe, is none other than Eastbury Manor House. At this time, the Seward’s were the owners of the house but they had rented it out to Alderman John Moore (1620-1702) and his Catholic wife Maria. Despite John’s death, Maria remained at Eastbury with her daughter, also called Maria, who married Lewis Tresham, the cousin of the infamous Robert Catesby (1572-1605), the leader of a group of English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Most people know the story about Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) who was discovered under the Houses of Parliament with several barrels of gunpowder but what cannot be proved is whether or not the plotters met at Eastbury Manor to discuss their plans. The plot was discovered after Lewis Tresham’s sister Mary received a letter about the scheme. Mary was married to William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (1575-1622) who was able to inform Parliament “they shall receive a terrible blow … and yet they shall not see who hurts them”. Thus, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled.

Whether or not Eastbury was the meeting place of the plotters, it makes a good story, which can be read in more detail in the East Attic. Also in the attic rooms are the histories of the Manor’s owners, information about life in Tudor times, a series of maps that show how the land has developed over time, and the opportunity for children to dress up as Tudor ladies and gentlemen.

Very little remains of the original furnishing of Eastbury Manor, however, elements of Tudor architecture still remain. The East Chamber, for example, which would have once been divided into bedrooms and dressing rooms, contains the only fireplace in the manor with its original stone surround. Now painted white, the fireplace is decorated with Tudor roses and acanthus leaves.

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Described by the twentieth-century architectural scholar, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), Eastbury Manor is a ‘very valuable medium-sized Elizabethan Manor House’, built according to an H-shaped compact plan, with a small inner courtyard. The facade has a striking gabled roofline and more chimneys than fireplaces. Whilst this appears similar to the original building, the interior has changed somewhat over the years.

The Great Hall on the first floor at the front of the house was once much longer than it is today. In the nineteenth century, part of the hall was partitioned off to make a space, now the reception area, where a modern staircase could be added. Originally, the hall’s fireplace would have been the central feature, however, it is now further towards the east side of the room. The original fireplace surround was sold in 1840 to the owner of Parsloes Hall, Reverend Thomas Lewis Fanshawe (1792-1858), therefore, the Great Hall is only a shadow of its former self.

Eastbury Manor House had two parlours, which were separated by a small vestibule. Appropriately named “Summer Parlour” and “Winter Parlour”, these were used by the family at different times of the year; presumably, the Winter Parlour at the rear of the house was warmer. Parlours were a typical feature in Tudor buildings and were used for a range of activities. The Sisley family and subsequent owners may have used these rooms to entertain guests, however, they may have also used them for more private purposes, such as writing letters, reading, embroidering or playing musical instruments. Similarly to the Great Hall, the fireplaces of both parlours were sold to Reverend Fanshawe.

Upstairs in the “Painted Chamber”, the fireplaces have also been sold, however, remains of paintwork on the walls are being carefully preserved. The paintings were not part of Clement Sysley’s original plan and were added later by John Moore at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Whilst only a fragment of the frescoes survive, their presence helps visitors to imagine what living in the manor may have felt like.

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The tea room “Eastbury Kitchen”, which serves freshly prepared lunches, homemade cakes, scones and refreshments during the house’s opening times, is set in Eastbury Manor’s original kitchen. Situated in the western wing of the house along with the buttery where barrels of food and drink were stored, the kitchen was easily accessible from the servant quarter. Meals would have been cooked over the huge hearth but, unfortunately, the room has lost all its other original fittings.

The two turrets at Eastbury Manor contain staircases, which would have been the only means of getting to the upper floors of the house – the front staircase and lift being installed much later. The spiral staircase on the east side of the building was for the Sysley family’s private use, however, the original stairs had completely collapsed by 1834. On the west side of the house, the servants’ staircase is still fully intact. Built from Tudor oak, the creaky stairs were constructed around a central newel post, which itself was made from three tree trunks so that it could stretch from the ground floor to the roof, thus providing access to all floors of the house. Visitors are welcome to climb the twisting staircase to the observation tower at the very top, approximately 16.5 metres or 52 feet above the ground. From here, the original family would have been able to see for miles, however, today the slightly murky windows reveal a view blocked by modern houses.

Although Eastbury would have been a sizeable portion of land, Sysley included two private gardens for his family on either side of the house. On the west side of the house near the kitchen is the vegetable and herb garden. Not only were herbs used in cooking as they are today, but they were also important ingredients in Tudor medicine. Most women knew how to make these remedies and in the 17th century, the physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) wrote The Complete Herbal, which explained the common usages of plants.

Whereas modern medicine is based on science, Tudor medicine was approached on a more spiritual level. Many believed God had placed every plant on Earth for human benefit. Each plant supposedly had a signature clue on its leaves, roots or flowers to reveal how it ought to be used. Ginger root, for example, was thought to look like intestines and was therefore used to cure ailments of the stomach.

Ginger is not among the plants in the garden today, however, a number of the current herbs had distinct purposes in the past. Lavender, for example, was used for curing headaches, and mint for stomach aches. Yarrow was used in ointments to reduce inflammation and comfrey was believed to “knit” wounds closed.

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On the east side is a walled garden, which supposedly increased the temperature of the soil slightly, making a microclimate where a range of unusual plants could grow. As well as growing plants, the walled garden was the perfect place to keep bees. Still visible today are a number of bee boles (recesses in the wall) in which skeps (straw or wicker beehives) were placed. Beekeeping was a popular Tudor pastime, which provided the family with honey to eat and wax for candles.

“The octopus, spreading it’s tentacles across the countryside…”
– England and the Octopus, 1928

Since October 2018, a new exhibition Eastbury Saved tells the story of the house between 1883 and 1918, when it was purchased by the National Trust. Due to its derelict state, Eastbury Manor House was at risk of being condemend; the building was uninhabitable and the farms were gradually being sold to develop new houses.

Politicans and locals held differing opinions about Eastbury’s future. Some saw it as a vital part of local heritage, whereas, others thought the money needed to restore the house was better off being used for something else.

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Newly developed associations, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) as well as the National Trust, were determined to campaign for heritage and landscape. Eventually, funds were raised for the building to be purchased and saved from demolition.

Formed in 1927, the Ferguson Gang was formed who helped to raise funds for the National Trust. Influenced by British architect Clough Williams-Ellis’ (1883-1978) publication England and the Octopus, which denounced insensitive building and ugly developments, the Gang raised £4500 to help the National Trust preserve many buildings, including Eastbury Manor House. A little bit of information is provided in the exhibition about the anonymous gang of women who took on unusual, mock-Cockney pseudonyms, such as, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Kate O’Brien the Nark, Red Biddy, The Bloody Beershop, and Shot Biddy.

Eastbury Manor House is open to visitors on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays between February and December. National Trust and SPAB members can visit for free, as can people living in the borough, otherwise, a small fee is required (£5.20 adults, £2.60 concessions). As well as being an historical place of interest, the National Trust provides various events throughout the year, such as Easter egg hunts, Shakespeare plays, Christmas crafts and carol concerts, such as one given annually by the Kingsley Choral Group.

Having been saved from demolition, it is worth taking the time to visit Eastbury Manor House, one of the only surviving buildings constructed during the Elizabethan-era. Although it may not have a significant past, it helps to shape the history of an area on the outskirts of London and explores the lives of the people who once lived there.

More information about visiting can be found on their website: http://eastburymanorhouse.org.uk/visit-us

Simeon Visits Rainham Hall

A historic house with a difference

44410791_1941816782551260_493275576606392320_nThere is no stopping Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please); he has got his taste for adventure and is determined to explore. Simeon has now experienced his first National Trust property and is eager to tell everybody about it. Situated in Rainham, Essex, next to St Helen and St Giles Church, is a three storey brown and red-bricked Grade II listed building. Built in the 18th century, Rainham Hall has been open to the public for three years and Simeon thought it was about time he visited it for himself.

With 3-acres of public garden and the cosy Stables Cafe, located in the old stable and coach house, Rainham Hall is a pleasant, quiet place for individuals and families to visit. The house, which had fallen into disrepair shortly after the Second World War, has been refurbished and is safe for all to enter. Sadly, a lot of the house’s history and records have been lost, however, Simeon managed to discover many interesting things.

 

Rainham Hall was built in 1729 by the merchant Captain John Harle (1688-1742) who wished to settle down on land after years at sea. Originally hailing from South Shields, near Newcastle, Harle married a wealthy widow from Stepney, London, Mary Tibbington. Although retiring from the sea, Harle wanted to continue trading, meaning he needed to settle somewhere on the coast or by a river. Rainham, on the River Ingreborne, was the ideal place for the man.

Originally consisting of 11-acres of land, Harle purchased Rainham Wharf, where he dredged the river to clear a trade route to London. He built a house for himself and his wife next to the parish church but close enough to the river so that he could use his outbuildings for his trading company. The house was built in the Dutch domestic Queen Anne style, which was still popular at the time, despite the monarch’s death in 1714.

During the 18th-century, it was typical to use oak for wooden features in buildings, however, the staircase in the Hall is built out of the reddish-brown timber, mahogany. This may have been a cheaper option but the most likely reason for Harle’s choice was its connection with merchant ships. Mahogany was the wood used on the ships and it is thought that Harle may have taken the wood from those that had fallen into disuse.

It is thought that when Captain Harle lived in the house the colours of the walls were a mix of blueish grey, blue and dark olive green, however, the house has since had over 50 tenants and has been decorated several times. Today, the walls of the main staircase are painted a pale blue and feature a trompe-l’œil painting – a deceptive painting that appears three-dimensional. This painting dates to at least 1780, when Sarah Chambers, John Harle’s daughter-in-law, lived at the Hall. It features a Vitruvian scroll surrounded by a decorative floral pattern.

Most of the fireplaces are made from blue-grey marble and some, such as those of the upper floors, are decorated with Delft-blue tiles. This fits in well with the “blue room”, which was apparently once green. The rest of the rooms are now a mix of the different variety of paint schemes that the house has seen over the past couple of centuries.

In the entrance hall, an old dumbwaiter is hidden behind a false wall panel, which visitors can open and peer in. This would have helped staff transfer items from the cellar to the rooms above without having to struggle with the narrow staircases.

Rainham Hall remained in the Harle family until 1895, when it lay abandoned for a couple of decades. In 1917, the Hall was purchased by the property developer and art historian Colonel Herbert Hall Mulliner (1861-1924) who, although never lived there himself, made the building habitable. With knowledge of interior design, Mulliner modernised many of the rooms, moved the kitchen to the cellar and modified the stables so that they could accommodate motor cars. Today, the kitchen has been moved back to its original location, mostly due to the unsafe conditions of the cellar.

Outside the property, Colonel Mulliner installed wrought iron gates and railings, which, amazingly, were never requisitioned during the war years like most other railings in the area. In fact, it is the war years that gave Rainham Hall a significant purpose.

Unfortunately, due to the number of people who have lived in Rainham Hall, there is a lack of original furniture and the purpose of each room can only be speculated. Fortunately, there is a lot more evidence of the building’s use in the 20th century, as shown in Rainham Hall’s 2018 exhibition Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall. In 1942, the building was requisitioned by the Essex County Council to be set up as a nursery. This allowed mothers the time to go out to work while their husbands were away at war. From 1943 to 1954, the Hall became the daytime home of dozens of young children.

“There cannot be many buildings of such historical value that can boast of having hundreds of tiny feet trotting through their grand hall!”
– Nurse Dorothy, Havering Echo, 12 January 1971

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Simeon gets to know one of the Rainham Hall residents

The exhibition focuses on the memories of seven former nursery attendees, including quotes and photographs that they were able to provide. The house itself has been set out to resemble what it may have looked like to these children. Old toys are dotted about on window sills and examples of games and other playthings are located in display cabinets in various rooms.

Children of the war years would not have had much access to toys at home, therefore, coming to the nursery every day was a great treat for many. A questionnaire in one room offers visitors the chance to reminisce about the toys they remember from their own nursery. Some people may even recognise a few of the items on show.

Historic photographs show the children enjoying the gardens and going for long walks in the sunshine. The nursery could have up to 45 children at a time and it must have been difficult for the nurses to keep everyone satisfied and in check, however, the young faces all look happy and well cared for. In one of the rooms downstairs, possibly the matron’s office, a continuous film shows the children playing together in the house, dancing, acting and getting up to all sorts of mischief that only children are able to find themselves in.

The nursery’s first matron has been identified as Miss Rhoda Violet Carter (d. 1954). She was 40 years old when she took up the post, which was advertised in the Chelmsford ChronicleShe came all the way from Teesside to take up the post that paid £200 a year. The trained nursery assistants, of which there were two at a time, were given an annual salary of £135.

Matron Carter left her position in 1944 after getting married. It is not certain who took over her post but nursery attendants and local sources have been able to name a few other women involved with the running of the place. It is believed a Mrs Hart was the Matron in the late 1940s and a Mrs E. Walker in the 1950s. During the latter’s time, a Nurse Dorothy was present at the nursery. Photographs provided by the children who once attended the nursery have helped to identify another helper, Miss Esme Withers.

One room of the Hall contains photographs belonging to Roger and Janice Cunningham who both attended the nursery. This was something they discovered when they first began dating; they had been too young during the war to remember each other, however, they each have many memories of the nursery,

Roger and Janice married at the church of St Helen and St Giles, right next to Rainham Hall. A brief video shows the couple walking through the graveyard and exploring the newly opened Hall, reminiscing about their childhood. Photographs from between 1946 and 1950 show the blond-haired Janice and the boisterous Roger playing with the other children in the large garden.

The majority of the rooms in Rainham Hall have been decked out with items similar to those that may have been there during the nursery’s time. These are based on the memories of the seven nursery attendees who had been interviewed for this purpose. On the ground floor, the exhibition explains the purpose of the nursery and why it was set up. It also introduces the members of staff that are known to have worked there.

At the back of the house is the reconstructed kitchen. This, of course, was not where it would have been during the war, since Colonel Mulliner had moved it to the basement, however, it has been set out to resemble a typical kitchen from the war era. On the table are examples of magazines containing recipes, for example, Woolton Pie, and rationing instructions.

“Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato in a salad cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips,
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships.”
– The Song of Potato Pete

In one of the magazines is the children’s song The Song of Potato Pete, which was written to encourage people to eat what they could grow in their own gardens. This song is no longer known by children, or adults for that matter, but many well-known nursery rhymes were adapted to add references to life during the Second World War. Old Mother Hubbard, for example, is worried about food shortages and the woman in There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe is busy looking after the masses of children who have been evacuated to the countryside.

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“I much prefer bananas.”

Items that were obtainable during the war fill the wooden shelves on one side of the kitchen. On the counter sits a bottle of malt extract that visitors are welcome to taste; Simeon had his first, and hopefully last, morsel of the stuff.

Upstairs, more examples of items that may have been available to the children of the nursery are on display. Visitors are also introduced to clothes rationing with a list of what each child was allowed to have. It was rare for them to have more than a couple of outfits and, of course, there were no disposable nappies. These had to be boil washed and used again.

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Simeon enjoyed hearing the stories.

An audio device allows visitors to listen to parts of the interviews with the old nursery attendees. This can be listened to by holding an old-fashioned telephone up to your ear. For those hard of hearing, some of the words have been printed next to the phones and additional quotes can be found dotted around the building.

Whilst the exhibition mostly focuses on the function of the building as a nursery, the dangers and horrors of war cannot be overlooked. Being on the edge of London, Rainham had its share of bomb attacks. Sadly, many people lost their lives during this time, including children. A wall containing an old map of the area, plotted with the places bombs landed, remembers the names and families of these children. In some instances, entire families were wiped out in one blast, which goes to show how lucky many people were to survive the war.

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Sweet dreams …

Although children enjoyed attending and felt safe at Rainham Hall, there was always the risk of an air raid. Nonetheless, life had to go on as normally as possible, which for children included education, games and naps. Tiny camp beds can be found in one of the rooms on the second floor. They do not look all that comfortable – Simeon can confirm they are not – however, they sufficed for the children at the time.

Just as they are today, children were educated through play and songs, learning the alphabet with pictures, chanting “A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for carrot …” Before televisions were around, the radio provided children with stories on programmes such as Listen with Mother; “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” An old record player gives visitors the opportunity to listen to a few of these episodes.

Simeon enjoyed discovering the Rainham Hall nursery and learning a little about childhood during the war years. Unfortunately, the National Trust, who owns the property, relies on old records, of which there are very few, and the memories of people associated with the place. As a result, the exhibition lacks a concise history of the Hall and the nursery, which is a great shame because it was such an integral part of the lives of women and children during the war.

The staff at Rainham Hall encourage anyone with memories or knowledge about Rainham Hall to contact them with details. Any small piece of information is useful to help build up the history of the building and its inhabitants and, perhaps, inspire future exhibitions.

If you wish to visit the exhibition Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall, which Simeon highly recommends, you do not have much time left. The exhibition will finish on 31st December 2018 to make way for their next display in the new year. Entry to the house costs £6, although National Trust members can visit for free. The garden and cafe are accessible on days that the house is open (Wednesday – Sunday).

Simeon wishes you all a good visit.

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