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.The 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.
Here it is. I hope you enjoy it…
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.”
- 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.
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.
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) : Kate 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?