Creative Connections

Above image is a photo of a postcard in Tunbridge Wells Museum

Not a lot of blogging has been going on as I recover from our little Belgian Week back in July, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been busy!  I thought I’d share a creative writing piece which was the result of a workshop organised at Tunbridge Wells Museum over the summer by local writer Caroline Auckland for the Friends of the Museum as part of Heritage Open Days 2017.creative wrtigin workshop posterThe piece was inspired by the Tunbridge ware exhibits in the Museum – I had previously discovered a link between Tunbridge ware maker Thomas Barton and the town’s refugees from Belgium.

Thomas Barton Tunbridgeware
Tunbridge ware exhibits in Tunbridge Wells Museum

Here it is.  I hope you enjoy it…

Connections

Inspired by the Thomas Barton Tunbridge ware collection in Tunbridge Wells Museum

As she stood before the cabinet containing her precious Tunbridge ware, Mary Ann Figgett wondered what her guests would be like – well, not exactly guests – they were actually lodgers – but she knew she would have to look after them, treat them like friends. So had said the written instructions she had received from Mrs Guthrie of the Mayor’s Belgian Refugees Committee: treat them like friends, put yourself in their shoes – and please serve them coffee not tea.

Three women were coming to stay, refugees from war-torn Belgium, “plucky little Belgium” whose Army and people had slowed down the German advance across Belgium, at great cost to themselves, and so protected England from invasion. She remembered the Mayor, Charles Whitbourn Emson, saying in the autumn of 1914 that, as the brave Belgians had stood up to the invader, they must all show their gratitude by helping those from that country now taking refuge in Tunbridge Wells.

Miss Figgett was used to lodgers. For many years she and her sister Lizzie had lived with their father’s sister Mary Barton, and her husband Thomas, in their house on Mount Ephraim – the quaint old house known as the Tunbridge Ware Manufactory and Repository – where in addition to working in the shop and around the house, they had helped their aunt run the apartments rented out to visitors. One family she remembered with particular fondness – Mrs Gielgud and her two little boys who with their nursemaid had spent the Easter holidays with them in 1901. They had kept in touch for a while, and she still treasured the photograph Mrs Gielgud had sent her after the birth of little Arthur John some three years later.

Aunt Mary had died in 1891 and Uncle Thomas had felt the blow keenly. He had had a stroke not long after the Gielguds’ stay, and his two nieces had nursed him until he had finally succumbed to his illness on 14th July 1903. He had left everything to Mary Ann. A kind and generous man, well-loved in the town as well as by his family, he had considered his nieces his adopted daughters, and had also been guardian to a young dressmaker, Fanny Thompson, who had lived with her widowed mother in the Gilead Terrace cottages just along Mount Ephraim. Mary Ann remembered Fanny’s wedding – she and Lizzie had been bridesmaids, and Uncle Thomas had proudly walked the bride down the aisle of Christ Church, and afterwards entertained the guests to the wedding breakfast in his own home. He had taught her much about hospitality and generosity and caring for those less fortunate than oneself.

After his death, “the Misses Barton”, as they were known by so many in the town, had stayed on at the Mount Ephraim house, and continued to make up and sell Tunbridge ware items in the shop, as well as rent out the apartments. She remembered how hard it had been to keep everything going, and when her sister Lizzie’s health began to fail they realised the time had come to move to more manageable – and hopefully modern – accommodation.

40 York Road had just nine rooms (as opposed to the fifteen of 86 Mount Ephraim) – space enough for her and Lizzie, and a couple of lodgers. But since Lizzie’s death nearly a year ago in November 1915, the house had seemed too big and very empty, and so she had decided to respond to the Mayor’s request for hospitality for some of the Belgians in the town.

There had been a Belgian family – an aunt and uncle and their half a dozen little nieces and nephews – living two doors down at number 44 the previous year. They had fled the city of Antwerp in the autumn of 1914 and told her many stories of the hardships they had suffered on their journey to England. How she had felt for the little children when they described being taken to say goodbye to their parents who were staying behind, not knowing whether they would ever see them again! They were very interested in the pieces of Tunbridge ware she still owned, and she was able to tell them that there was a connection with their home country as her uncle had always told her that the inspiration for Tunbridge Ware was similar pieces made in the town of Spa in Belgium. They told her that Spa was in the Ardennes mountains near the German border. It was the part of their country first invaded by the Germans and now under occupation. They had told her that Tunbridge Wells reminded them all of holidays they had spent in Spa, that the waters there were just like the Tunbridge Wells water : rich in iron, and just as liable to stain everything a rusty red. The similarities were comforting, but at the same time made them long more and more for home.

Mary Ann hoped that by opening her doors to some of their compatriots she could both give them some comfort in their exile and fill the emptiness in the house. One of her lady guests, Mme Sperlaeken, was, she understood, about her own age and spoke English; the other two were her unmarried daughters. This would be their seventh home in Tunbridge Wells in the two years they had been here. She was determined that they should not have to move again.

It was nearly time. Just one last thing to do, and as she placed three carefully-chosen pieces of Tunbridge ware on the table in the guests’ sitting-room, she heard female voices outside in the street. She took a deep breath, and concentrated very hard as she went to open the door:

“Bonjour Madame. Bienvenue à ma maison. Vous êtes chez vous.”

Alison MacKenzie
September 2017


Notes:

  • The first Belgian family referred to is the COOSEMANS-BOEYNAEMS family.  Read their story in this guest blogpost by Cyriel Boeynaems here
  • The Belgian town of Spa (Wikipedia link), the original spa town, produced wooden ware (“bois de Spa”) from the early 17th century.  The wooden objects were made from natural wood or from wood soaked in the ferruginous spa waters giving it a greyish or brownish tint; many of these objects were subsequently decorated in various ways, mostly with gouache but also with Indian ink, by encrusting mother-of-pearl, ivory or precious metals.  Early Tunbridge ware was also painted.

    Spa ware
    Spa ware (from the website of the Museum in Spa http://www.spavillaroyale.be/spip.php?rubrique6

Here’s a link to a film about a present day restorer and maker of Spa ware, Micheline Crouquet  http://www.spavillaroyale.be/spip.php?article304  (in French, but very visual).

  • Louise SPERLAEKEN (nee VAN DE WALLE) and her grown-up daughters Georgina and Yvonne were from rue Royale/Koninklijke straat, Ostend, and moved into 40 York Road in September 1916 according to their registration documents (held in the National Archives in Brussels).  It’s not clear when they actually arrived in Tunbridge Wells but a list of refugees from Ostend published in “De Vlaamsche Stem” on 26 September 1915 shows that Mme SPERLAEKEN was then at 26 Guildford Road.
    1915 09 26-Refugees from OSTEND_Addresses_De_Vlaamsche_stem__algemeen_Belgisch_dagblad-004-CC_BY-SPERLAEKEN_VAN HERCKE_VANDEVALLE
    From De Vlaamsche Stem (HetArchief.be)

    According to the registration documents, they also lived at numbers 8, 38 and 58 Upper Grosvenor Road, 20 and 30 Guildford Road (but no mention of 26), and 44 Lime Hill Road… Hopefully they were able to stay at Miss Figgett’s apartments until they left Tunbridge Wells.


  • Oh and finally, here’s a transcription of the 1901 Census entry for 86 Mount Ephraim (Ref RG13/752) : 1901 Census Barton Gielgud transcription-page-001Kate and Frank GIELGUD’s third child, Arthur John GIELGUD, the future Sir John GIELGUD, actor and director, was born on 14 April 1904, followed by sister Frances Eleanor in 1907.  I wonder whether they spent any other holidays in Tunbridge Wells?

*Sarah Elizabeth, known as Lizzie according to an article n the Kent & Sussex Courier which I could probably find if you would like the reference.

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Calverley Park, Calverley Grounds – and Calverley Park Grounds + a wartime Carnival

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…

lankester-percy-stamp-from-photo
LANKESTER stamp on reverse of family photo

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!

on_the_merry-go-round_at_deepwater_races_-_deepwater_nsw_c-_1910_g_robertson-cuninghame_from_the_state_library_of_new_south_wales
All the fun of the fair! (1910 New South Wales)

(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…

(3) Does anyone know anything about this band?

King’s Day, 15th November 1914

Sunday 15th November was an important date in the calendar for the Belgian Community : it was (and still is) King’s Day – la Fete du RoiKoningsdag – the King’s feast day [1] – and the day was celebrated in style in 1914 by the refugees and their hosts.

- The World's Work, 1919:Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30736306 https://archive.org/stream/worldswork38gard#page/634/mode/2up,
King Albert I by Richard Neville Speaight

The Belgian flag was flown over most of the town’s public buildings, the Belgians themselves sported ribbons in their national colours of black, gold and red, and a full account of the proceedings was given in the local press the following Friday [2].

The day began with a Mass and the singing of patriotic hymns (though no mention on this occasion of a Te Deum) at St Augustine’s Catholic Church at which the huge congregation spilled out into Hanover Road.  A special choir of Belgian refugees, including the Sisters of Mercy from Malines, was conducted by M. Denyn, and Canon Keatinge preached at length on the debt owed to the Belgian people by English Catholics whose forebears had taken refuge across the Channel during the reign of Elizabeth I.

After the service, the Belgians marched from the church to their temporary homes on Upper Grosvenor Road (at this early stage probably numbers 32 (Cintra House) and 47 (“the Belgian Hostel”), waving Belgian flags and singing their National Anthem, cheered on by crowds of local people who lined their way.

In the afternoon, the Belgian community gathered in the room lent to them for that purpose at the Constitutional Club on Calverley Road, to celebrate “their courageous King Albert”.  M. Ernest KUMPS, provisional President of the newly-formed Belgian Club Albert, expressed their thanks for the “many kind attentions” they were receiving in Tunbridge Wells, and to the Mayor and the Corporation for the telegram they had sent King Albert to mark the occasion.

The next day a grand concert was held in the Pump Room [3] on The Pantiles, organised by Mr Frank HIRD [4] in the presence of the Mayor and Mayoress. Nearly 600 people, mostly Belgians, from all parts of the district, attended, according to the Kent & Sussex Courier, which described it as “a gathering unique in the history of the town”. The entire programme was in French with performances by local artistes who kindly gave their services – there was a short play in French [5], a ballet solo (which was so enjoyed it had to be repeated), recitations, piano solos – and an imitation of farmyard animals by a Miss Parbury.

2016-08-25-11-05-32

Mr Hird received the ultimate accolade for the celebration when one of those attending shook him warmly by the hand and delared that it was “just like being at home”.

The occasion ended with the Allies’ National Anthems and was followed by refreshments : coffee, not tea – of course.


[1] King’s Day – 15th November is the feast day of both St Leopold and St Albert, and has been celebrated as King’s Day since 1866, during the reign of Leopold II.  It is not a national public holiday, but is traditionally marked with a Te Deum at the Cathedral in Brussels, and a secular ceremony at the Belgian Federal Parliament.

[2] K & S Courier, Friday 20th November 1914

[3] The Pump Room was demolished in 1964 and replaced by the lovely Union House

[4] Journalist and author Frank (Francis) HIRD was the adopted son and companion of sculptor Sir Ronald Gower of Mayo House on Mount Ephraim.  Frank Hird was well known in the town for “organising amateur entertainments in aid of good works” (Kent & Sussex Courier, July 1915).  In November 1914 he was helping out at West Hall VAD Hospital, and in October 1915 he became Secretary to the newly-opened Kingswood Park VAD Hospital.  From 1917-1918 he was a Church Army Commissioner at the Front.  Sir Ronald died in 1916 and Frank Hird in 1937.  They are buried together at St Paul’s Rusthall.

[5]”Doctoresse et Couturier” by Julien Berr de Turique, a one-act play about a female doctor and a male dressmaker, who, after a series of misunderstandings, end up married – of course.  The part of the dresssmaker was played by the Hon. Stephen Powys.