Ancestral Bones

The town of Esher, in the English county of Sussex, is known today as a commuter town on the outer reaches of London’s suburban sprawl but in 1902 it was described by Charles Harper as “a pretty village” and a “charmingly rural place, with a humble old church behind an old coaching inn, and a new church, not at all humble, across the way.”


The old church of St. George in Esher, parts of which date to the 16th century.

“The old church of Esher”, he writes, “long since disused and kept locked and given over to spiders and dust, has a Royal Pew, built for the use of the Princess Charlotte and the Claremont household in 1816. It is a huge structure, in comparison with the size of the little church, and designed in the worst possible classic taste; wearing, indeed, more the appearance of an opera-box than anything else.

The authorities (whoever they may be) charge a shilling for viewing this derelict church. It is distinctly not worth the money, because the architecture is contemptible, and all the interesting monuments have been removed to the modern building, on a quite different site, across the road. …..

The reflections conjured up by an inspection of Esher old church are sad indeed, and the details of it not a little horrible to a sensitive person. There is an early nineteenth-century bone-house or above-ground vault attached to the little building, in which have been stored coffins innumerable. The coffins are gone, but many of the bony relics of poor humanity may be seen in the dusty semi-obscurity of an open archway, lying strewn among rakes and shovels. To these, when the present writer was inspecting the place, entered a fox-terrier, emerging presently with the thigh-bone of some rude forefather of the hamlet in his mouth. “Drop it!” said the churchwarden, fetching the dog a blow with his walking-stick. The dog “dropped it” accordingly, and went off, and the churchwarden kicked the bone away. I made some comment, I know not what, and the churchwarden volunteered the information that the village urchins had been used to play with these poor relics. “They’re nearly all gone now,” said he. “They used to break the windows with ’em.” And then we changed the subject for a better.
Charles G. Harper. ‘Cycle Rides Around London’, 1902.

photo from wikimedia

Note: Follow the Royal Pew link to see the present condition of the old church.

The Business of the Actor

English playwright and actor, Sir Arthur Pinero, writes about ‘The Theatre in Transition’ in 1932.

Marie Bancroft. PRG-280-1-5-179

Marie Bancroft.

As a youth I climbed one night up to the sixpenny gallery of the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch. The Bancrofts and their company were “starring” for a week in that huge house….. From my remote seat I listened to Marie Bancroft as Polly Eccles in Caste. Her lightest whisper was as audible as her loudest tones. She might, so it seemed, have been holding me by the button-hole and imparting something to me that nobody else was expected to hear. Far off as was the stage, I felt that if I had held out my hand I could have grasped hers. And I am sure that every member of the audience had exactly the same sensation.

Her method, acquired after years of training, was the method of Mrs. John Wood, now almost forgotten, of

Vintage postcard of Mrs. (Madge) Kendal, Victorian/Edwardian actress.

Mrs. (Madge) Kendal

Ellen Terry and (both happily still with us) Dame Madge Kendal and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and of many others I could cite. It was the method of the old actors and actresses generally – the ABC of their equipment. They knew that acting is an enlargement of life to be viewed from a distance, not a reproduction of nature confined to the limits of the small space of the stage. In the delivery of their dialogue they appeared to be talking as people talk in a room. But they did not make the mistake of pitching their voices as though the walls of the room were the extreme range within which their voices had to travel. In short, they had learnt, in their rough school, that the business of the actor is to act. …..

The theatre is now engaged in a struggle for existence with the films. To all appearance, the fight will be long and bitter. Nobody can say how it will end, what conventions may be sacrificed, what new features may be encountered, what new forms evolved. Those of us who love the play as we have known it must be a little fearful lest it should cease to be a medium for the serious exposition of life and character, or should be allotted only the task of dealing with subjects which may uplift the soul but certainly do not cheer it. Whether eventually the silent films conquer the talking, or the talking the silent, is not, to my mind, of great importance. What is of importance is the fact that the “pictures,” for the moment at any rate, have captured the masses who formerly were the faithful supporters of the regular theatre, and who are now content with the thrills and humour furnished by mechanical process.

Image sources:
Marie Bancroft, State Library of South Australia
Mrs. Kendal, a postcard in my collection.

Landseer Part 2 – Last Days


Self portrait

Towards the end of his life Landseer became hopelessly insane and, during his periods of violence, a dangerous homicidal maniac. Such an affection, however, had my father and mother for the friend of their young days, that they still had him to stay with us in Kent for long periods. He had necessarily to bring a large retinue with him: his own trained mental attendant; Dr. Tuke, a very celebrated Alienist [psychiatrist] in his day; and, above all, Mrs. Pritchard. The case of Mrs. Pritchard is such an instance of devoted friendship as to be worth recording. She was an elderly widow of small means, Landseer’s neighbour in St. John’s Wood; a little shrivelled, dried-up old woman. The two became firm allies, and when Landseer’s reason became hopelessly deranged, Mrs. Pritchard devoted her whole life to looking after her afflicted friend. In spite of her scanty means, she refused to accept any salary, and Landseer was like wax in her hands. In his most violent moods when the keeper and Dr. Tuke both failed to quiet him, Mrs. Pritchard had only to hold up her finger and he became calm at once. …….


Landseer in 1873, the year of his death.

My mother happened to be confined to her bed with an attack of bronchitis when Landseer’s visit came to an end, but she felt no hesitation about receiving her life-long friend in her bedroom, insane though he was, so he was shown in, Mrs. Pritchard, the faithful watch-dog, remaining on guard outside the door. Landseer thanked my mother profusely for the pleasure his visit had given him, and then added “now, will you allow an old friend of over fifty years’ standing to take a very great liberty?”
“Certainly, Lanny,” answered my mother, thinking that he was asking permission to kiss her.
“Thank you,” said Landseer, and at once sat down on her chest and remained there. He was a very heavy man, and my mother in her weak state had not sufficient strength to move him from his position. His weight was crushing her; she was quite unable to breath, and, suffering as she was from bronchitis, she began to lose consciousness, and might have been suffocated, had not the watchful Mrs. Pritchard (who, I suspect, had kept her eye constantly glued to the key-hole of the door) darted into the room and raised Landseer to his feet, soundly upbraiding him at the same time for his outrageous conduct. That was the last visit he ever paid us.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

A Busy Day at Boulters Lock

Edwardian scene at Boulters Lock on the river Thames, England.

From a vintage postcard mailed in 1907

This chaotic scene at Boulters Lock on the river Thames near Maidenhead, England, may have been photographed on Ascot Sunday, when this popular part of the river was at its busiest in the late 19th/early 20th century. You can see moving pictures, filmed in 1926, at this British Pathe site.

The first lock was built here in 1772.

National profiling

In this last of three posts about the Panama Canal, Frederic J. Haskin makes some observations on human nature.

A vintage postcard of Panama Canal.

It’s an odd thing – this transplanting a man from the temperate to the torrid zone. It affects men of different nations in different ways. It is disastrous in inverse ratio to the adaptability of the man transplanted. A German or a Dutchman goes to the Tropics and almost without a struggle yields to the demands of the new climate all his orderly daily habits. Your Dutchman in Java will, except on state occasions, wear the native dress (or undress); eat the native food; live in the native house; and, like as not, take a native woman to wife. One thing only – he will retain his schnapps. The German is only a little less adaptable, clings only a little longer to the routine of the Fatherland, but he, too, keeps his beer.


Your Englishman, on the contrary, defies the tropical sun and scorns to make any changes in his daily habit that he had not fixed upon as necessary and proper before he left his right little, tight little, island. He does, it is true, wear a pith helmet. That is due partly, perhaps, to his fear of the sun, but it is much more due to the fact that he associates it with lands where faces are not white; therefore he wears it in Egypt in the winter when it is shivery cold with the same religious devotion that he wears it in India when the mercury is running out of the top of the thermometer. Your Englishman, it is true, wears white duck clothes in the Tropics, but not the fiercest heat that old Sol ever produced could induce him for one moment to exchange his flannel underwear for cotton or to leave off his woolen hose. It is a pretty theory and not without much support, that it is this British defiance of tropical customs that has given him the mastery over Tropic peoples. And wherever goes the Briton there goes Scotch-and-soda.


The Americans steer a middle course. They dress for the heat and make themselves comfortable as possible. They consume even greater quantities of ice than they do at home, and the average American eats every day in summer enough ice to kill a score of Englishmen. At least, that’s what the Englishmen would think.

But the American in the Tropics tenaciously clings to many of his home habits, despite the changed conditions of his place of sojourn. He must have his bath, even though he talks less about it than the Englishman. He must have his three square meals a day, and breakfast must be a real breakfast. He demands screens to protect him from pestiferous insects, no less for comfort’s sake than health’s. And then he demands two other things – a soda fountain and a baseball team.

It is true that he often will indulge in a British peg of Scotch-and-soda, or in a German stein of beer, but the native drink that he takes with him to the Tropics, and one that he alone consumes, and the one that he, in season and out of season, demands, is the sweet, innocent, and non-alcoholic product of the soda fountain. How incomprehensible is this to the sons of other nations no American may ever understand.
‘The Panama Canal’, Frederick J. Haskin, Doubleday, Page & Company. 1914.


But is it Art?

Professor Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937), a ‘traditionalist’ of the Slade School of Art, was known almost as well for his sarcasm as for his paintings. Here he takes aim at ‘modern’ Art movements and their followers.


Tonks in 1922

It is interesting, on looking back on the early days of Post-Impressionism, as the new movement was called (a good title seeing that it followed Impressionism and to a certain extent was its product), to remember the attitude of the critics to these new ideas. They had not been very ready in detecting the good work that was being done in France and England in the fifty years before…….. the rule of the critics seems generally to have been very simple : all new work was bad, or at least to be suspected……

Why exactly I cannot say; but their treatment of the Post-Impressionists, and the large number of followers who arose over here [England], was very different. They were going to be well up with the hounds this time, and every new painter had a chance of becoming a genius very early in life.

After the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1911*, at the Grafton Gallery, a great many smaller exhibitions were held of the various divisions of the movement, among which were the Futurists, who, alas! now are part of the past; so that the adventurous artist and the critic had a fine time. Gradually a vocabulary was collected to enable the new ideas to be conveniently talked about, and we became familiar with such words as “plasticity,” “three-dimensional composition,” “volume,” “abstract form,” “formal design,” and so on, some of which seemed, on consideration, to be merely a new word for an old idea, others unconvincing, even supposing we understood what was intended to be expressed. But the great adventure had begun, and the critics cheered each little barque as it sailed away into the unknown…….

I am inclined to think that a new type of man altogether began to find his way at this time into the schools, one who would never have thought of trying to become an artist fifty years ago. He was tempted partly by what he found on the walls of exhibitions, feeling that he also might be able to express much that he saw there; he felt that he had no aptitude for drawing; on the other hand, he felt he had ideas, better, perhaps, than the artists he was looking at; a common enough belief among quite intelligent people this, that, if they did paint, they would find much better subjects than most artists, not realizing that it is the treatment of the subject which makes it into a work of art – or not. He saw that no great power of drawing was necessary to produce a picture of ideas, so he made the plunge – perhaps plunge is too violent a word, he sidled into art.

Fifty years ago a man would very likely begin his artist life as an illustrator, perhaps working half his time at earning what he could by drawing for papers or books, and the other half, or less, working in some school to improve his drawing. This course he certainly could not have followed if he had not had much natural ability. Today the word illustrator is a term of abuse; it is now definitely settled to have no relation to art; it is concerned with mere representation……… Who knows, perhaps in a hundred years a child who tries with his pencil to draw something he sees will be hurried off to a psycho-analyst?
‘The Vicissitudes of Art’ (Essay), Professor Henry Tonks, Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth, Limited. 1932.

*1905 for the first exhibition and 1910 for the second. See Grafton link.
Photograph of Tonks by George Charles Beresford.

Reduced circumstances

J.E.B. (Jack) Seeley, soldier, politician and industrialist, claimed in his book For Ever England (1932) that the English class system was not as rigid as it used to be. Social divisions, he believed, were narrowing and he offered this as evidence –

Before the World War the landowner, whether squire or nobleman, although he grumbled about agricultural depression, was rich and powerful. In my boyhood I remember him with a stable of six or eight carriage-horses, and later with three or four motor-cars. If he lived in a well-known hunting county, he or his sons would have eight or ten hunters [horses], in less fashionable hunting districts four or five. A butler, four footmen, and ten or twelve maid-servants was a very usual household. In my youth there were shooting parties, lasting for a week or more, of the same guests; later, before the War, and much more expensive, perpetual week-end parties. I am not describing the famous houses in London and the provinces, but the average of the countryside in rural England.

To-day, although much property has changed hands, the same families are living in the same districts, some in part of the big houses, others more fortunate in smaller houses on the same estate, doing the same county duties and rendering the same service to the community in which they live.

The carriage-horses, of course, are gone – they would have gone in any case; but instead of four big motor-cars there is one Austin or Morris. The shooting parties have come to an end; the week-end parties take the form of occasional visits from a very few real friends. The butlers, the footmen, and the ten maid-servants are replaced by possibly four maids and often one faithful butler at a reduced wage. The house in London has been sold. The boys, instead of a hunter apiece, think themselves lucky if in their short leave they can afford to hire a hunter for a week. The girls are going through courses of shorthand, typing, or cooking in London or the county town, or following commercial pursuits for a salary.

For Ever England, J.E.B. Seeley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1932.
This must have been a great consolation to working class families living in squalid overcrowded slums throughout Britain at that time. After all, life must be terribly beastly when one is down to one’s last butler (on a reduced wage) and one’s children have to find gainful employment – and let us not speak of the Austin!