Edwardian Society in Sidmouth

From ‘The South Devon Coast’ by Charles G. Harper. 1907. (Abridged)

Before Torquay, Teignmouth, Exmouth, and other places had begun to develop, Sidmouth was a place of fashion, and the signs of that early favour are still abundantly evident in the town, which is largely a place of those prim-frontaged, white-faced houses we associate with the early years of the nineteenth century. It belongs, in fact, to the next period following that of Lyme Regis, and has just reached the point of being very quaint and old-world and interesting, as we and ours will have become in the course of another century.

Sidmouth

And now, in this town which ought to be jealously preserved as a precious specimen of what the watering place of close upon a century ago was like, the restless evidences of our own time are becoming plentiful; older houses giving way to new, of the pretentious character so well suited to the age, and in red brick and terra-cotta.

Why, confound the purblind, batlike stupidity of it ! red brick is not wanted at Sidmouth, where the cliffs are the very reddest of all Devon. We need not give the old builders of white-faced Sidmouth any credit for artistic perceptions, for they could not choose but build in the fashion of their age, but, by chance, they did exactly the right thing here, and in midst of this richest red of the cliffs, this emerald green of the exquisite foliage, this yellow of the beach, deep blue of the sea, and cerulean blue above, planted their terraces and isolated squares of cool, contrasting whiteness. It was a white period, if you come to consider it, a time of book-muslin and simplicity, both natural and affected, and although Sidmouth was fashionable it was not flamboyant.

Sidmouth is in these days recovering something of its own. Not perhaps precisely in the same way, for the days of early nineteenth-century aristocratic fashion can never again be repeated on this earth. But a new vogue has come to it, and it is as exclusive in its new way as it was in the old; if not, indeed, more exclusive. More exclusive, more moneyed, not at all well-born, jewelled up to the eyes, and only wanting the final touch of being ringed through the nose. Oddly enough, it is a world quite apart from the little town; hidden from it, for the most part, in the hotels of the place. Most gorgeous and expensive hotels, standing in extensive grounds of their own, and all linked together in a business amalgamation, with the object of keeping up prices and shutting out competition.

It is not easy to see for what purpose the patrons of these places come to Sidmouth, unless to come down to breakfast dressed as though one were going to a ball, and dressing thrice a day and sitting in the grounds all day long be objects sufficient. From this point of view, Sidmouth town is a kind of dependence to the hotels, an accidental, little known, unessential hem or fringe, where one cannot wear ball-dresses and tiaras without exciting unpleasant criticism.

Bullion without birth, money without manners are in process of revolutionising some aspects of Sidmouth, and it is quite in accord with the general trend of things that the newest, the largest, the reddest, and the most insistent of the hotels should have shoved a great hulking shoulder up against the pretty, rambling, white-faced cottage in Woolacombe Glen*, where some earliest infant months of Queen Victoria were passed, and that it should have exploited the association by calling itself the “Victoria.”

Sidmouth_Ladram

Ladram Bay is reached either by cliff-top or along that tiring beach; or, greatly to be recommended above all other courses, by boat from Sidmouth, one of whose boatmen, with the pachydermatous hands that would scarce feel any effect from rowing fifty miles, will take you there if you give him a chance.

Ladram Bay was undoubtedly made expressly for picnics. There cannot be the least question of it. Geologists write profound things about the raised beach and the pebbles Triassic, Silurian, or what not jargon that compose it, but Nature most certainly in prophetic mood designed beach, natural arch, and caves for lunch and laughter, and as a romantic background for flirtations.

*Harper frequently referred to “Woolacombe” Glen and cottage in chapter 6 but the actual name was Woolbrook, after the stream, or brook, that flows through the glen. Curiously, he got that name almost right as “Woolabrook”. There is a Woolacombe Bay on the North Devon coast and a Woolcombe Lane off present-day Temple Street in another part of Sidmouth. Was it there in 1907?

Whatever the reason for his confusion, “Woolacombe” took root in Harper’s mind and made it all the way to print. Perhaps nobody else in the production line knew enough about Sidmouth to stop it. Woolbrook cottage, with additions, is now the Royal Glen Hotel.

The postcard of Sidmouth Esplanade probably dates from around the time it was sent – 1908 – but the registration number in the left corner shows the photograph was taken in 1887. The cream coloured York Hotel at left was built in 1807 and has since annexed neighbouring buildings to become today’s Royal York and Faulkner.

The senders of both cards gave their impressions of local weather.
From Sidmouth in January 1908 “We must be nearing the North Pole”.
From Ladram Bay in August 1907 (late summer) “The wind is a bit cold, but the waves are lovely”.

 

Advertisements

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.”

640px-Esher02

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.

Appledore, North Devon.

Earlier this month (7th) I posted a short item about the Old Tower at Lynmouth and quoted from a book called The North Devon Coast by Edwardian travel writer Charles G. Harper. This is such an interesting book, written in a comparatively ‘modern’ style for the period, that I’ll dip into it from time to time as matching images are added to ‘the collection’.

Appledore

Appledore, situated on rising and woody ground on the banks of the Torridge, is a pretty and picturesque old hamlet, with a considerable coasting trade of its own. Salmon-fishing is to be had here from May to September, and plenty of barges are still built in the old shipyards at the water’s edge.
[Tuck’s Oilette postcard c.1906. From a painting by H.B. Wimbush]

Harper wasn’t in the business of selling postcards, or picturesque old hamlets, so he told it as he saw it.

Appledore (whose name has really nothing to do with apples, but derives from two words meaning “water-pool”) stands at the very entrance to the Torridge estuary. On the opposite side is Instow.
Appledore is a decayed port; a fishing village long past its prime. Time was when its ship-owners waxed rich in what the natives still call the “Noofunlan’ Trade,” but that was long ago, and it is scarce possible even the hoariest inhabitant recollects those times. But the buildings, the quays are reminiscent; the whole place mumbles, quite plainly in the imaginative ear, “Has Been.”
This is, however, by no means to hint that Appledore is poor, or moribund. Vessels are repaired in its docks, a quarry is in full blast on the hillside, and the fishermen fare out to sea in pursuit of the salmon and cod. The less adventurous gather the edible seaweed known to epicures as “laver,” or at low water ravish the tenacious cockle and mussel from their lairs.
But, in general, Appledore has resignedly stood still since the “Noofunlan'” trade ceased, and remains very much what it was at the time of its ceasing: only something the worse for wear. Bideford may exchange cobbles for macadam, and even, in choice spots, wood pavement, but Appledore’s lanes, which are of the dirtiest, the steepest and most rugged description, still retain their ancient knobbly character. In short Appledore is a curiosity, and one not in any immediate likelihood of being reformed out of that status, for it is at the very end of things. So its white-washed cottages will long, no doubt, continue to give a specious and illusory character for cleanliness to it, as seen across the river from Instow; and “Factory Ope,” “Drang,” and other queerly named lanes will survive for generations yet to come.
‘The North Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1908.

Here’s a link to modern Appledore.

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.

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.

panama_hotel

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.

panama_colon

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.

panama_hospital