A one horse town

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St. Bathans, 1879. Photo by Burton Brothers of Dunedin from the Te Papa collection.

St. Bathans, in the Central Otago district of New Zealand’s South Island, was one of the towns that sprang into life after the discovery of gold there in 1862 and it soon held a population of 2000. By the time this photograph was taken, it seems the “rush” was over. A sign painted beside the window of the Montezuma Hotel advertises a “Horse for Hire”.

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Note – “horse”. Singular. One only.

On the left of the photograph is the Vulcan Hotel, a typical “tin” accommodation house for travelers in the ’60s and ’70s. It comes from what the English novelist, Anthony Trollope, called the “corrugated iron period” of New Zealand architecture.

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Writing about his winter visit to the region in 1872, he observed –
Corrugated iron does not make picturesque houses. It is very portable; very easily shaped; capable of quick construction; and it keeps out the rain. It is, however, subject to drawbacks. The rooms formed of it of course are small, and every word uttered in the house can be heard throughout it, as throughout a shed put up without divisions. And yet the owners and frequenters of these iron domiciles seem never to be aware of the fact. As I lay in bed in one of these metal inns on the road, I was constrained to hear the private conversation of my host and hostess who had retired for the night.

“So this is Mr Anthony Trollope,” said the host. The hostess assented, but I could gather clearly from her voice that she was thinking much more of her back hair than of her visitor.

“Well,” said the host, “he must be a — fool to come travelling in this country in such weather as this.” Perhaps, after all, the host was aware of the peculiarity of his house, and thought it well that I should know his opinion. He could not have spoken any words with which at that moment I should have been more prone to agree.

Several websites will tell you that the Vulcan Hotel was built of mud brick in 1882 and was previously known as the Ballarat, yet here is photographic proof that it was known as the Vulcan before that date. The brick version, now a Category 1 historic building reputed to be haunted, is still in business and attracting tourists and ghost hunters.

The permanent population of St Bathans today is 6 to 10, depending on your source. No figures are available for the number of horses.

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Dartmouth Castle

It’s time we heard from my favourite Edwardian travel writer again. Charles G. Harper can always be relied on for a droll observation or caustic comment. This post finds him in Dartmouth, Devon.

The little coach that runs daily from Dartmouth to Kingsbridge has a steep climb up out of Dartmouth. Here the pedestrian certainly has the advantage, for, tracing his coastwise way round through the woods of Warfleet creek, where a disused limekiln by the waterside looks very like an ancient defensible tower, he comes at last upon the strangely grouped church of St. Petrox, the Castle, and the abandoned modern battery, all standing in a position of romantic beauty, where the sea dashes in violence upon the dark rocks.

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The “garrison” of Dartmouth Castle in these days is generally a sergeant of garrison artillery retired from active service, or in some condition of military suspended animation not readily to be understood by a logically minded civilian. It is a situation worthy of comic opera : in which you perceive the War Office erecting batteries for defending the entrance to the harbour, and then, having completed them, furnishing the works with obsolete muzzle-loaders, capable of impressing no one save the most ignorant of persons. Then, these popguns having been demonstrated useless, even to the least instructed, they are removed at great expense, and their places left empty : it having occurred in the meanwhile to the wiseacres ruling the Army that, in any case, under modern conditions, a hostile fleet would be able to keep well off shore and to throw shells into Dartmouth, without coming in range of any ordnance ever likely to be placed at the castle.

So the sergeant-in-charge, who lives here with his wife and family, and is apparently given free quarters and no pay, on the implied condition that he makes what he can out of tips given by tourists, is not burdened with military responsibilities.

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The present incumbent appears to have developed strong antiquarian tastes, is learned in the local military operations of Cromwell’s era, and a successful seeker after old-time cannonballs and other relics of strange, unsettled times.

You cannot choose but explore the interior of the Castle, for as you approach there is, although you may not suspect it, an Eye noting the fact. The Eye is the sergeant’s, and there is that way about old soldiers which admits of no denial when he proposes that he shall show you over. You are shepherded from one little room to another, peer from what the sergeant calls the “embershaws” (by which he means embrasures), and then, offering the expected tribute for seeing very little, depart.
‘The South Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall Ltd, 1907.

Cultural vandals

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Kilpeck Church

Leominster, Pembridge, Weobly, Eardisland; all have exquisite churches dating from the twelfth, thirteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Kilpeck, on the other side of the river [Wye], has another, which, although one of the smallest in England, is one of our richest examples of Anglo-Norman Romanesque architecture.

Unfortunately, Victorian prudes defaced many of the quaint corbels that encircle the outside of the building*, but that is nothing to what happened at Shobdon when, in 1753, the second Lord Bateman pulled down a church which was at least the equal of Kilpeck, and probably grander. He did this not only in order that he might indulge his taste in ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic,’ but also that he might have some ruins as features in his park, a form of absurdity then very fashionable.

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Kilpeck Church

We read in one of Horace Walpole’s letters of the same year to Richard Bentley: ‘A little way from the town are the ruins of Llantony Priory: there remains a pretty old gateway, which G. Selwyn has begged, to erect on the top of his mountain, and it will have a charming effect.’ Walpole himself was, of course, the arch-priest of this kind of vandalism, but the high-water mark of stupidity and insincerity was probably reached by ‘one of the most notorious debauchees of the age,’ who added a church spire to a country cottage in order that there should be a point of focus in the vista from his windows.

The noble Bateman has left us the present Shobdon church, which, though dedicated nominally to the Almighty, was more certainly intended for the greater glory of his lordship. It certainly helps to perpetuate his memory.

I am surprised that his lordship allowed the fine old Norman font to remain in the church, but perhaps he thought of it as ‘a feature,’ as he certainly regarded the carved doors and tympana of the old church when he re-erected them on the summit of a windswept hill. There, exposed to frost and rain, these carvings, in soft stone designed for the interior of a building, have slowly mouldered so that they are now but ghosts of their former glory.
‘Coming Down the Wye,’ Robert Gibbings. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1942.

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Llanthony Priory

*Gibbings’ assertion of an attack by Victorian prudes may be a mistaken impression. In fact, the carvings at Kilpeck are known for their remarkable state of preservation.

Temple Church

The Temple at the gate of the City [of London] lies in the historic Square Mile but is not of it. As the City belongs to itself, like a kingdom within a kingdom, so it is with the Temple, the sanctuary of the legal world. It owns the land it stands on, it governs itself, it gives the police no trouble, and it allows us all to enjoy its beautiful domain.

It was the home of the Templars who formed themselves into an Order of Chivalry 800 years ago to guard the Holy Tomb and protect the pilgrims. It was granted to the knights of St John in 1324, and in turn they left it to the lawyers, who hold it in perpetuity. It is now the home of two Inns, Inner and Middle Temple, the rough dividing line being Middle Temple Lane, which runs from Fleet Street to the Thames Embankment. The Inner Temple Gateway stands close by and leads us to the famous church.

Temple churchExcept for St. Bartholomew’s and St John’s in the Tower, Temple Church is the oldest in London, the finest of the five round churches left in England from the days of the Crusaders, who built them in the style of the church they loved in Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre. Only a few steps from Fleet Street, this little round church has looked much as it is since the day it was consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem [in 1185]. Half a century more and the choir [Chancel] was added to the nave (the Oblong to the Round), and through all the changing centuries these walls have stood while all around has changed.

The porch has been refashioned and has one round and two pointed arches, but the doorway within it is a gem of Norman building, with a fine array of recessed shafts and mouldings and the flower of Norman ornament is in its lovely decoration… In it hangs a massive door about 400 years old, covered with scrolled hinges and ironwork ornament; it swings to our touch yet weighs two tons and a half, and is opened by a key which weighs five pounds.

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Round church at Cambridge

It opens on to a forest of clustered columns and an arcade of pointed arches circling round us in the nave……. The mosaic of red and blue glass shining in the triple east window is a delightful vista from the west doorway.

A small Norman doorway leads to a stairway at the top of which is a tiny cell in the thickness of the wall, four feet long and under three feet wide, lit by two slits in the stone. It is said to have been a place for solitary confinement in the days when the Templars were extremely strict. Here refractory brothers were confined in chains and fetters, and it is said that Brother Walter le Batcheler, who bore the standard for King Richard into Jerusalem, was here starved to death for disobedience to the Master of the Temple. [The crime was embezzlement and the year was 1301].

But it is on the floor of the Round that the eye of every visitor falls. Here lies an impressive array of Templars [in stone], perhaps the best preserved collection anywhere. Most of them wear chain mail and coats, with shields and swords, as on their crusades.

Under the floor are the remains of a 13th century chapel.
‘London’, Arthur Mee. Hodder & Stoughton, 1937.

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Little Maplestead Church in Essex, one of four medieval English round churches still in use today. The fourth is in Northampton.

London’s Temple Church was badly damaged by fire during World War II and its restoration lasted until 1958. The conical roof seen in the first postcard above was a Victorian addition and was not replaced.

The new college

Dartmouth as a port of call for liners died hard, but the last line of steamships, the Donald Currie service [Castle Line] to the Cape, went, and now it is divided between being a favourite yachting station and the home of the new Royal Naval College, which, transferred from its picturesque and makeshift old home aboard the Britannia and Hindostan, now crowns the hill and nobly dominates the whole of Dartmouth in the great range of buildings overlooking the Dart.

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The Hindostan, left, and Britannia c. 1900.

The ferryman who puts us across the Dart is full of information and as full of regrets about the Britannia and Hindostan, the new Naval College, and the changed conditions of seafaring life, but with a sardonic smile he thinks the cadets will learn their business as well ashore as they have done afloat. “Why not?” he asks.
“They don’t want no sailors nowadays. There was a time when a sailor was never without his marlinespike an’ mallet. Now they’re all bloody Dagoes and Dutchies in the merchant sarvice, an’ engineers and stoke-hole men, with cold chisels, ‘stead of knives, in the Navy. For a sailor – when there were sailors, mind you – to be without his knife, why, he might every bit as well up’n give his cap’n a clump auver th’yed, so he might. An’ up there” – he jerked so contemptuous a thumb over his shoulder that it was almost a wonder the new flagstaff on the new central tower did not wilt – “up there them young juicers is fed up with ‘lectricity ‘n things no Godfearing sailorman in my time never heerd of.”

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The new Naval College c. 1905, the year that it opened.

Although it is designed in the Paltry Picturesque Eclectic Renaissance or Doll’s House style, with ornamental fripperies and fandangalums galore, the Naval College has the noblest of aspects, seen from down the harbour, or across the Dart from Old Rock Ferry. Planted on the wooded summit of Mount Boone, the long range of buildings, backed by dark trees, sets just that crown and finish upon Dartmouth which suffices to raise the scenic character of the place from beauty to nobility.
‘The South Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper, 1907.

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The Royal Naval College and Dartmouth “from down the harbour”.

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c. 1925.

Updated 22nd March 2019

The training ship system originated during the Crimean War, when the two-decker Illustrious was used for training seamen for the Royal Navy. The superior type of sailor it produced encouraged an extension of the scheme to officer training, for which purpose the three-decker Britannia, lying near by in Hasler Creek, Portsmouth, was acquired as a sort of annexe. Moral objections to Portsmouth as a resort for cadets on shore leave eventually secured the removal of Britannia to Portland, where the social atmosphere was more congenial to parents if not consequently to their sons. Wind and tide compelled the final move to the sheltered waters of the River Dart in 1863.

Extra accommodation, necessitated by the increasing number of boys wanting to be naval officers, was provided by an old teak-built two-decker, the Hindustani [sic], moored astern* of Britannia and joined to her by a gangway. Some shore installations were added, mainly recreational. Then Britannia herself was replaced by a bigger ship taking the same name, the former Prince of Wales [in 1869].
‘Scott of the Antarctic’, Reginald Pound, 1966.

*As you can see in the photograph above, Hindustan was moored ahead of the ‘new’ Britannia, not astern.

The Laird of Abbotsford

[Sir Walter] Scott was now [1810] in receipt of £1,300 a year as clerk of session, and when the lease of Ashestiel ran out in May 1811, he felt justified in purchasing, for £4,000, a farm on the banks of the Tweed above Gala-foot. This farm, then known as Clarty Hole, became Abbotsford, so called because these lands had belonged of old to the great Abbey of Melrose; and in his own mind Scott became henceforth the Laird of Abbotsford.

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During [1817] the existing house of Abbotsford had been building, and Scott had added to his estate the lands of Toftfield, at a price of £10,000. He was then thought to be consolidating a large fortune, for the annual profits of his novels alone had, for several years, been not less than the cost of Toftfield.

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The house of Abbotsford was not completed and finally rid of carpenters and upholsterers until Christmas 1824; but the first time I saw it was in 1818, and from that time onwards Scott’s hospitality was extended freely, not only to the proprietors and tenants of the surrounding district but to a never-ending succession of visitors who came to Abbotsford as pilgrims. In the seven or eight brilliant seasons when his prosperity was at its height, he entertained under his roof as many persons of distinction in rank, in politics, in art, in literature, and in science as the most princely nobleman of his age ever did in the like space of time.

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Scott’s diary from November 1825 shows clear forebodings of the collapse of the [publishing] houses of Constable and Ballantyne. In December Scott borrowed £10,000 on the lands of Abbotsford, and advanced that sum to the struggling houses; on January 16, 1826, their ruin, and Scott’s with them, was complete.
On May 15 Lady Scott died, after a short illness, at Abbotsford. “I think,” writes Scott in his diary, “my heart will break.”

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An expedition to Paris in October, to gather materials for his “Life of Napoleon,” was a seasonable relief. The “Life of Buonaparte” was published in June 1827, and secured high praise from many…… It realised £18,000 for the creditors, and, had health been spared him, Scott must soon have freed himself from all encumberances.
‘Life of Sir Walter Scott,’ John Gibson Lockhart, published 1837/’38 in seven volumes.

Sir Walter Scott, author of such classic novels as ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Ivanhoe’, died at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832.

Profits from the ‘Life’ were donated by Lockhart, his son-in-law, to the creditors.

Abbotsford (“just a short train ride from Edinburgh”) is now in the care of a charitable trust and still attracts thousands of “pilgrims” every year.

The Old Curiosity Shop

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Retracing our steps….we shortly arrive at Portsmouth Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At No. 14 will be found (for a short time only) a small old-fashioned house, on the front of which is painted an inscription, “The Old Curiosity Shop, Immortalised by Charles Dickens,” now occupied by Mr. H. Poole, dealer in wastepaper. This is said to be the house assigned by the novelist for the residence of Little Nell and her grandfather, with whose pathetic history we are all familiar—

“One of those receptacles for old and curious things, which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town, and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust.”

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It cannot, however, be regarded as absolutely certain that this particular house was the author’s intended “local habitation” for one of the best-known and loved of his creations. The tale itself concludes with a reference to Kit’s uncertainty as to the whereabouts of the place:—

“The old house had long ago been pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place. At first he would draw with his stick a square upon the ground to show them where it used to stand. But he soon became uncertain of the spot, and could only say it was thereabouts, he thought, and that these alterations were confusing.”

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[A lady, personally acquainted with the great novelist, has informed the author that she was once taken by Mr. Dickens to No. 10 Green Street (approaching Leicester Square from the east)—at the corner of Green and Castle Streets, behind the National Gallery—the business of curiosity-dealing being then and there carried on. Mr. Dickens himself localised this house as the home of little Nell, pointing out an inner room—divided from the shop by a glass partition—as her bedroom. The premises are now rebuilt.]
‘Rambles in Dickens Land’, Robert Allbut, S.T. Freemantle. 1899.

Images top to bottom:
1. This old photograph reproduced on a postcard may have been made in the 1870s.
2. New tenants Gill & Durrant, successors to H. Poole photographed c.1912-1914. The shop was threatened with demolition at the time Allbut wrote that it would be there “for a short time only”. It was saved, but Mr. Poole had already moved to new premises.
3. Another tenant – who needs to fix that roof urgently! Could be early 1920s. I think the lady in the doorway is dressed in Victorian style for maximum Dickensian effect.

The old shop today is surrounded by the brick and glass of the London School of Economics and in need of more maintenance. Modern opinion agrees with Allbut that it had no connection to Dickens. In fact Steve Draper claims in this post that it was rebranded in 1868, when it was a bookshop, to increase trade.

That dicussion is a distraction from the building’s real historic value. Here is a 17th (some say 16th) century structure that has survived the Great Fire of London and the bombs of two world wars. Surely that deserves better than a Grade II listing.