So many potential blogposts are racing around my head that nothing has been written down for months. Today I came across an interesting connection and thought I’d write it up here while I remember.
In preparation for a talk I shall be giving in Ghent, Belgium, next month, I have been looking at the Belgian artists and musicians who were in Tunbridge Wells during the First World War, and the homes they lived in whilst here.
Searches in the British Newspaper Archive and of Censuses on Ancestry.co.uk showed that this address was occupied in 1901 by retired surgeon, Dr George ABBOT [sic], and his wife Edith, an “ex-drawing teacher” who were also “of 2 Rusthall Park”. By 1911 they were living at the latter address, but their name was still linked to the Upper Grosvenor Road house as is evidenced, I believe, by this advertisement from the
only a month before the DAVELUY-ENSOR family moved in. I wonder whether they rented all the available rooms or just the flat?
And who was Dr George ABBOT? His obituary in the Kent & Sussex Courier of 16 January 1925 revealed him to be a well-known and highly-respected local resident, retired ophthalmic surgeon, former Town Councillor, and (in some people’s eyes) property speculator, who was also
the founder of an eye and ear dispensary for the poor at Sheffield House on The Pantiles which led eventually to the establishment of the Eye and Ear Hospital of which he was Hon. Surgeon 1878-1896;
the instigator of Technical Classes in the basement of the hospital in 1890 which eventually grew to such an extent that the Technical Institute was opened at the foot of Mount Sion before being taken over by the Borough Council and moving to new premises first in Calverley Road and then, in 1902, Monson Road;
a geologist and founder of the Tunbridge Wells Natural History Society in the early 1880s, and later the South-Eastern Union of Scientific Societies;
and most of all, through the Natural History Society, responsible for the establishment and endowment of the local Museum, then at 18 Crescent Road (1).
“Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery was created by the Tunbridge Wells Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1885, founded by Dr George Abbott. The Museum
In 1922, a portrait of him painted by Charles Tattershall DODD was presented to the Borough in recognition of his public services.
His artist wife was the daughter of pioneering photographer Henry Peach ROBINSON (1830-1901). (2)
I’m not sure what the relevance is to the Belgian refugees, other than that Dr ABBOTT was one of their landlords, but I rather like the idea that there is a connection between the founder of the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery and this part of the town’s history.
And maybe the ABBOTT family’s artistic connections made them the perfect landlords for the family of another artist…
Or perhaps it was just coincidence!
Note : There will be an illustrated talk about Tunbridge Wells Museum and its Collection by Dr Ian Beavis, the Museum’s Research Curator, on Tuesday 27 February, 2 – 3pm Discover more about the history of the Museum and its key collections in this fascinating talk. The Museum holds collections of regional and national importance including outstanding collections of art, natural history, archaeology, photography, craft, toys and much more.
£3 (Friends of the Museum) and £4 (Non-Friends) (payable by cash only on the day)
Booking essential, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) In the premises which had been the office of the local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) 1910-1918 and the NUWSS-run War Relief Clothing Depot 1914-1917 – another coincidence!
Local history is a minefield! Luckily there are experts on hand, and I had cause to be most grateful to one of them this week when I muddled up parks with Calverley in their names.
In June 1915, despite reservations from some quarters – in particular objections to “masquerading in the streets in wartime” (1) – Tunbridge Wells Charity Carnival went ahead, raising money for local Hospitals, the Surgical Aid Society and the Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund of the National Fire Brigades’ Union. There was the usual early evening procession through the town (2), and – a new departure that year – afternoon attractions in the Calverley Park Grounds.
Aha, I assumed, clearly the present-day Calverley Grounds. But no – those didn’t exist until 1921, and in 1915 were still the grounds of then Calverley Hotel (now Hotel du Vin).
The clue is in the “the” – it seems the grounds referred to are those belonging to Decimus Burton’s Calverley Park development.
So now I know!
“You are not going to have a Carnival in a War-time?”
“Rather! If anything we would have two Carnivals, because many of our good boys who have gone to the Front are in the Hospitals, and if we cannot support the Hospitals, the Hospitals cannot help them when they return home wounded.”
Mr Edward SKILLEN, Hon. Chairman and Treasurer, quoted in The Courier newspaper
My interest in this event stems from the fact that Belgian refugees were involved in the day’s fun.
There was a open air Whist Drive organised by Mrs E. KEMPSELL in which 200 players took part. Among the winners was Mrs NEEVES – the “Highest Lady playing as a Gentleman”.
A Baby Show attracted 50 entries. There were two categories – Infants under 1 year, and Infants under 2 years – and it seems some “particularly healthy-looking and lusty infants were on exhibition”. Winners were the babies of Mrs REYNOLDS, 13 Nursery Road, High Brooms; Mrs RICHARDS, 4 Upper Street, Denny Bottom; Mrs EDGAR, 7 York Road; and Mrs KNIGHT, 55 Beulah Road. The babies were all photographed by well-known local photographer Percy LANKESTER. If any of these babies are still alive now they would be 102-104 years old… I wonder…
There was a series of Old English Sports which was apparently “highly diverting”: Boxing (Blindfold), Skipping and Running were the sports on offer. The men ran 100 yards, the women and girls only 50… and the Married Men’s 100yds was won by Belgian refugee Richard VAN HAUWEGHEM, one of the wounded soldiers convalescing in Tunbridge Wells who would re-join the Belgian Army in 1916.
During the afternoon, musical entertainment was provided by the Ceylon Band (3). And two Belgian vocalists also entertained the crowds: the afore-mentioned Mr VAN HAUWEGHEM, and the President of the Club Albert, Ernest KUMPS, who would himself join the Army later that year.
For the younger carnival-goers there were “swings, roundabouts etc.” – I wonder what the “etc.” referred to?
The weather remained fair until the end when a “heavy downpour of rain…caused the crowd to very quickly disperse”.
The Kent & Sussex Courier of 13th August 1915 reported the dispersal of the £53.5s.6d profit : £10 to the General Hospital, 8 guineas to the Surgical Aid Society, 6 guineas to the Eye and Ear Hospital, £5 to the Fire Brigades’ Widows and Orphans, 4 guineas to the Nursing Institution, 1 guinea to the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, and a 3 guinea Honorarium to the Secretary. (Note: adds up to a total of only £37.19s – the Courier must have missed some off the list…)
Not as much raised as in previous years, apparently, but a very successful day nonetheless.
How I would love to recreate this event! But a modern-day Health and Safety nightmare, I suspect – particularly the Blindfold Boxing!
(1) All “quotations” are from the Kent & Sussex Courier of 11 June 1915
(2) The procession went from Grosvenor Bridge along Camden Road, Calverley Road, Crescent Road, Mount Pleasant Road, Monson Road, Calverley Road, Grosvenor Road, Mount Ephraim, London Road and High Street to the Calverley Park Grounds…
Recently I have had cause to revisit the diaries of Lady MATTHEWS which are kept in the Imperial War Museum in London, and were written particularly with her young children in mind – Stephen and Esther were 3 and 2 respectively when war broke out, and she wanted to leave them a record of what life was like at the time. The youngest, Bryan, her “war baby” as she called him, was born in 1917.
Annette Amelia MATTHEWS nee KITSON was the second wife of Sir John Bromhead MATTHEWS KC, who in 1914 was was Chairman of the County Bench, and they were both involved with social work in the area. Lady Matthews was also an early feminist, and was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), serving as a Vice-President of the local branch and working in its War Relief Clothing Depot in their premises at 18 Crescent Road during the War.
The Kent & Sussex Courier of 4th September 1914 announced the opening of the Depot for the collection and distribution of ‘new and partly-worn articles of clothing suitable for convalescent soldiers or their wives and families’. By late October, the newspaper was reporting that ‘at the request of the Mayor, the Committee of the Clothing Depot of the NUWSS at 18 Crescent Road (a department of the Mayor’s scheme for the relief of distress) has also undertaken the collection and distribution of clothes for refugees, in addition to the collection and distribution for convalescent soldiers and civilians’.
Lady Matthews first records the presence of Belgian refugees in the town on Sunday 4th October, and soon she is writing of their visits to Crescent Road, and the stories they have to tell.
Below are transcriptions of the relevant entries. The stories speak for themselves. I may well add some comments in due course.
Note : other than the young couple Lady Matthews met in February 1915 following their marriage, and about whom I have written in a previous post (and therefore don’t include here) I haven’t (yet) been able to identify any of those she mentions.
Can you help? Kunt u mij helpen? Pourriez-vous m’aider a le faire? Thank you…
Lady MATTHEWS writes…
In early November 1914, young man from Tournai came to the Clothing Depot :
He was 21, of service age, & therefore sent out of Belgium by his parents. He was too shortsighted for service in his army – he would have been sent to the harvest fields in Germany, had he been caught. He told me how he & his family hid in a cellar while the Germans entered Tournai. Only 800 soldiers (french) opposed them, but these sufficed to hold up the Germans for the necessary 24 hours, tho’ it meant death or imprisonment to practically all the 800. The Germans immediately drink all the wine they find, & the burgomaster was taken in a motor to Brussels by an officer with a revolver but so drunk the officer’s head lay on the burgomaster’s shoulder. At Brussels the burgomaster was asked told to sign a paper stating that the inhabitants of Tournai had fired on the Germans. He refused, but he was not shot, as he expected to be. In Tournai, the Germans burned 10 houses out of mere malice.
On Saturday 21st November 1914, it was the turn of a couple from Louvain :
A young Belgian, an automobile mechanic & his wife came in for clothes to our clothing Depôt this week. His history was quite a common one among refugees. He lived near Louvain & fled to Antwerp. When the bombardment began, this family had to quit owing to military orders. They took refuge in Ostend and lived in a bathing machine for three weeks, husband wife & two children with one blanket between them. The rain came through the roof, & they had but bread & water to eat & drink. Then Ostend became a threatened mark & they left again, and came over to England, where the man says they are ‘very happy’. We made him comfortable with overcoat, gloves, a suit, etc, & the wife also.
Wednesday 25th November 1914 :
This morning I was in our clothing Depôt & dealt with a Belgian, a musical artist who has lost his only son in the War. His wife had lost her reason, & he did not even know where she is.
Another man came in, with his family. He had lived at the ill-fated Malines, where now only a dozen houses are standing. His home is destroyed, and he & his wife & children fled to Bruges, Antwerp, Ostend, & so to England.
One Sunday in November, Lady Matthews entertained ‘a Belgian barrister and his dainty little wife’ to tea :
Neither can talk English. They have a villa near Knocke on the Belgian Sea Coast, & a flat in Antwerp. On Aug 4th they were at Namur with Madame’s parents. They endeavoured to persuade their parents to leave Namur. Madame’s father refused. Madame and her husband reluctantly left, & went to Knocke. They were warned to leave their villa about Aug 18th, in a hurry. They left with each a small valise in their summer clothes & went to Ostend. There an English gunboat consented to take them across. The transit took 24 hours, owing to difficulties & cautions regarding mines. They made their way from Chatham to London, where for 3 months they managed to live in a Boarding house on the few pounds they had in an available Bank. Their income depends on shares in a Factory which is now a heap of ruins. Their villa, left with unlocked doors, & unshuttered windows, must be looted, if not burnt by bombardment from the English monitors. Of the parents, & the little sister, remaining at Namur, they have not heard one single word since parting from them. And Namur was severely bombarded in August.
M. & Madame get each 7/- a week f. the English Government for food. The hostels are full of common people, & life is most difficult for differing classes in such close quarters. We are trying to get some classes up so that by teaching they may earn a little, & a generous old gentleman is paying for some nice rooms where they are.
The Bread of Exile is bitter indeed.
After February 1915, there seem to be no more mentions of the Clothing Depot or the Belgian refugees. Maybe Lady Matthews stopped working there? The Depot closed in December 1917 as the Belgians no longer had need of it and it was felt that the people of Tunbridge Wells could no longer be expected to give away clothes ‘so lavishly’ in face of the national demand for economy. During the years it was open, 11,000 garments had been ‘dealt with’. (Kent & Sussex Courier, 14th December 1917)
Private Papers of Lady Matthews – content description on IWM website : Extremely interesting illustrated four volume ms diary (111pp, 140pp, 172pp, and 132pp) written between August 1914 and November 1918 as a record of the First World War for her young children, with a particular focus on Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where she was living at the time, and including descriptions of: rising food prices; rumours over the progress of the war; the good levels of morale of the British and the atmosphere in Britain; the changes to Tunbridge Wells with the influx of soldiers to the town; helping the Red Cross with sewing clothes for wounded men; helping in the soldiers’ canteen; the blackout and Zeppelin raids; soldiers billeted in Tunbridge Wells; the introduction and administration of rationing; women at work in restaurants and as tram conductors (January 1916); wounded men arriving in Kent; seeing the film ‘Battle of the Somme’, and her reaction to it (4 September 1916); the difficulties in finding servants; the progress of the suffrage movement and the enfranchisement of women (26 August 1917); the Spanish Influenza pandemic (July and October 1918); celebrations on Armistice day; and her hopes for the peace (30 November 1918)….In circa 1924 Lady Matthews added brief notes to the text, correcting rumours she had reported and comparing the food prices to those of the 1920s.