The Malahide Murders Concluded

On the morning of Wednesday 31 March 1926 a fire was discovered at La Mancha, a country house north of Dublin. Inside there were four members of the same family – Peter, Joseph, Annie and Alice McDonnell, and their two servants, Mary McGowan and James Clarke. They had all been murdered. Suspicion fell on their gardener, Henry McCabe, and a few days later he was arrested and charged. 

The murders attracted massive attention. Hundreds of people came out from Dublin by train, car and trap, and the Guards had difficulty in preventing them from over-running the crime scene. ‘In some instances’, reported the Irish Times, ‘young women with cameras were annoyed because they would not be allowed to secure photographic souvenirs of the grim ruin of the house of death’.

The public seemed inclined to accept the story being put about by the papers, that the McDonnells were an odd family, and that one of them, most likely Peter, had run amok and killed the others before torching the house. It also emerged that not all of La Mancha’s doors were barred and bolted: Henry McCabe had shown police to a little door at the back of the house which had been smashed open, leaving open the possibility that the killings were the work of a gang of burglars.

Superintendent O’Halloran was unconvinced. While he went on building his case against McCabe, the gardener protested his innocence, claiming that he had been at a wake the whole of the Tuesday night.

McCabe’s trial opened at Dublin Central Criminal Court on 8 November, before Justice John O’Byrne and a packed courtroom. Post-mortems of the victims had discovered traces of arsenic – not enough to kill, but too much to have been administered medicinally. That would account for their illnesses. The state pathologist thought James Clarke should have bled more from the wound to his head; it looked as though he had been moved after being killed. The pathologist reckoned that everyone was dead when the fire started. Clarke, in fact, had been dead for some days.

And so had Peter McDonnell who, it now turned out, had also been killed by a blow to the head, along with his brother Joseph and, in all probability, the three women, although their bodies were too badly charred for that to be established with any certainty. That was rather awkward for the defence theory that Peter or Joseph had gone insane and murdered their siblings. Nevertheless, McCabe’s defence lawyer, Alexander Lynn, continued to suggest that the McDonnells were to blame. Annie McDonnell had been seen on Sunday, 28 March, and witnesses reported she was in an agitated state. ‘Was it because she knew that Clarke had been murdered?’ Lynn asked the jury. ‘I suggest to you that it was, and I suggest to you that she never suspected McCabe, but that she suspected a member of her own family.’

The Wrong Trousers

But O’Halloran had done his work well, and the evidence piled up against McCabe. It transpired he hadn’t attended the family’s funeral – highly suspicious behaviour in Ireland in the 1920s. The door he was so eager to show to police as evidence of a break-in had been smashed open from the inside. There were unexplained bloodstains on his shirt and boots. He claimed to have sat in the kitchen reading the paper with Joseph McDonnell on the night before the fire, when the pathologist said Joseph was already dead. A water inspector gave evidence that on the Monday afternoon, he had called at La Mancha with a bill for water rates: the blinds were drawn, the shutters were closed, and no smoke came from the chimney. McCabe appeared from the yard and said that Joseph McDonnell was inside and that he would take the bill into him.

Most damning of all, McCabe turned out to have been wearing Peter McDonnell’s trousers on the day of the fire, with the storeroom keys in the pocket. A former housekeeper told the court that a considerable quantity of jewelry was usually kept in the house, and that the keys were always with one of the McDonnells. And a Guard testified that while McCabe was under arrest in the police barracks, he had told him, ‘It is all up with me now. I am going to Mountjoy in the morning, and it is all over the pants I have on me.’ He tried to get the Guard to go to his wife and persuade her to say the McDonnells had given them to him months before the murders.

The story that emerged in court was terrible. If the prosecution case was true, McCabe murdered James Clarke, probably with a hatchet, on the Saturday night. He gave arsenic to the others, just enough to weaken them, and over the next day or two he killed them with a blow to the head, one by one. From Monday afternoon until Tuesday evening he rifled the house while the six victims lay there. Then he poured paraffin into every room and set the house alight in an abortive effort to conceal his crimes.

At 9.10 p.m. on the evening of Saturday 13 November, after deliberating for less than an hour, the jury returned its verdict. They had sat through one of the longest trials in living memory in the Central Criminal Court, lasting six days and hearing from sixty-three witnesses, and at the end of it they found Henry McCabe guilty. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint in Mountjoy Prison on 9 December. The papers reported that a large crowd, mainly of women and including his wife, gathered outside the prison gate. When the notice of his death was posted, ‘Mrs McCabe screamed and fainted. She was taken away in a taxi-cab.’

Seven years later, a boy who was digging in a Malahide garden where McCabe had once worked, found two silver watches and a heavy gold watch-chain with a sovereign case pendant. Both watches had names inscribed on them – ‘James Clarke’ and ‘J. McD.’

The Malahide Murders

La Mancha

The scene of the crime

At 8 o’clock on the morning of 31 March 1926, Henry McCabe noticed flames coming from the upstairs rooms of La Mancha, the country house north of Dublin where he worked as a gardener. He raised the alarm and locals tried to enter the house, but the doors were bolted and barred. Two men eventually smashed a basement window and managed to climb in, to make a grisly discovery. James Clarke, one of La Mancha’s two household servants, was lying on the floor of his basement bedroom, wearing only his underclothes. His skull had been caved in.

La Mancha belonged to the McDonnell family: brothers Peter and Joseph, and their sisters Annie and Alice. As the rescuers moved further into the house they found Peter, who was lying naked and face down on the floor of the dining room, with his vest and pants thrown over him. A poker lay beside him. His body was quite cold.

Joseph was upstairs in his badly burned bedroom. The floor had given way and his body lay grotesquely with its legs dangling through the hole. The two sisters and their maid, Mary McGowan, were together in another upstairs room. They were so charred as to be almost unrecognisable, and the roof had fallen in on them, but Mary lay on the floor beside the bedroom door, as though she had been trying to get away from something. Or someone.

The McDonnells were a prosperous family of siblings in their 40s and 50s. They had moved to Malahide, a pleasant seaside town ten miles from Dublin, after selling their family business in Galway in 1920; and although they seemed quite settled, it turned out that they had recently put the house on the market. None of them was married: Alice was known to be emotionally fragile since the death of their sister eighteen months earlier, but all in all they had a reputation as nice, quiet people. La Mancha was quite isolated, standing in its own grounds of about twenty acres at the end of a 100-yard avenue.

Six deaths. The thing was baffling. There was evidence that the fire had been started deliberately in several rooms at once – there were scorched patches on the ground floor, where the flames hadn’t taken hold, and a paraffin can was lying near the back door to the house. But the fact that the windows were shuttered and the doors bolted and barred seemed to rule out an intruder.

The first theory that the police came up with was that Peter McDonnell had gone mad in the night, beaten his brother and the three women to death with the poker, and set fire to their bedrooms. Then he went down to the basement to deal with James Clarke. But Clarke woke and the two men fought. (Clarke had tufts of hair that was not his own in his fists.) In a manic frenzy McDonnell overcame his servant and smashed in his skull with the poker before staggering back to the dining room, where he either died from a heart attack or took poison in a fit of remorse.

There was evidence that the family was unstable. It was claimed that Alice McDonnell wasn’t merely fragile. She was known locally as ‘Mad Alice’, and would sometimes rush into the garden with her hair streaming behind her and scream at the top of her voice. Peter McDonnell behaved oddly at times, too: he would run round the yard in a circle and then throw himself to the ground, laughing like a schoolboy. The manservant Clarke was also strange. Over the weeks leading up to the killings he had got into the habit of talking loudly to himself, and the McDonnells’ plans to sell La Mancha seemed to be preying heavily on his mind.

The source of all these stories was the McDonnells’ gardener, Henry McCabe, who also said that the family had been struck down with a mysterious illness in the week before their deaths. The last time he had seen Annie McDonnell, he said, was in the yard of La Mancha, where she had suddenly vomited. Mary McGowan had taken to her bed, and Peter and Alice McDowell were also sick.

The officer in charge of the investigation, Superintendent O’Halloran, listened to these stories and then formulated his own version of the events at La Mancha. On 13 April 1926 Henry McCabe was arrested and charged with murder.

[to be continued]

The Last Viscount Taaffe

Taaffe Henry

Henry Taaffe, the last Viscount Taaffe

On Saturday 29 March 1919, under the headline ‘Traitor Peers’, The Times announced that four members of the House of Lords who had ‘adhered to the King’s enemies during the war’ were to lose their titles.

The names of three of these traitor peers came as no surprise. The Dukes of Cumberland, Albany and Brunswick were all high-ranking German noblemen whose British titles came to them through their descent from George III or Victoria and Albert. M.P.s had been lobbying George V to strip them of their dukedoms since 1914.

taaffe ellischau

Schloss Ellischau

The fourth name on the blacklist, though, was less well-known. Henry Taaffe, 12th Viscount Taaffe and Baron Ballymote in the Irish peerage, could trace his ancestry back to the Wild Geese, Irish soldiers who left their homeland to serve in European armies during the 17th century. An ancestor was killed fighting for the Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne; another fought beside Jan Sobieski against the Turks and became prime minister to Leopold the Good, Duke of Lorraine. The 6th Viscount Taaffe, a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, was a brigade commander in the Austrian army and was credited with introducing the potato to Silesia during a famine in 1763; the 11th Viscount, Henry’s father, held a string of political appointments to the Austrian Empire under Francis Joseph I, including Minister of the Interior.

Henry succeeded to the viscountcy (and the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire) on his father’s death in 1895. The estates in Ireland had long gone. Ballymote in Co. Sligo, a massive medieval castle which the Taaffes had surrendered to Cromwell in 1652, had been in ruins for generations. The family seat now lay in the Silver Mountains of Bohemia, where in 1769 the 6th Viscount Taaffe bought a recently reconstructed 17th-century fortress, Schloss Ellischau. The Taaffes modernised it, laid out an ‘English’ park with orchards and flowerbeds, and built a folly on a nearby hill which was said to be based on Ballymote. In 1840 the Viennese architect Heinrich Koch remodelled Ellischau once again, turning it into a vast and forbidding courtyard house with a high entrance tower and opulent state apartments.

Taaffe ruin of Ballymote in Prasivice

Folly near Ellischau, said to be inspired by Ballymote, the Taaffes’ Irish seat

In the wartime furore over the three German dukes, Viscount Taaffe almost escaped with his Irish titles intact. But in 1917, during the debate over the Titles Deprivation Bill, an anonymous correspondent wrote to The Times to point out that ‘no reference appears to have been made to the fact that an Irish peer, Viscount Taaffe, the 12th of that title, is said to be now serving, with his son, in the Austrian Army’. The writer cited with approval Elizabeth I’s command that ‘her dogs should wear no collars but her own’. That was enough; when the list of peers who were to lose their titles for bearing arms against the King was finally published in the spring of 1919, Henry Taaffe’s name had been added to those of Cumberland, Albany and Brunswick.

Taaffe enfilade

Schloss Ellischau in its heyday

Things went from bad to worse. Four weeks after being stripped of his viscountcy and barony, he learned that the newly established Austrian republic had abolished the nobility altogether, and with it his title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1918 Bohemia had become part of the new Czechoslovakia, and land reform now took away much of his Ellischau estate. Plain Mr Henry Taaffe died in debt in Vienna in 1928.

There is an odd and inconsequential postscript to this story. Unable to maintain Schloss Ellischau, in 1937 Henry’s son Richard sold up and moved to Ireland, where he became known as a brilliant if unorthodox gemologist. One day in 1945 he went into a watchmaker’s shop down by the Dublin Quays and bought a job lot of zircons, opals, garnets, low-grade emeralds and sapphires. When he got them home, one mauve stone in particular puzzled him. It turned out to be a previously unknown beryllium mineral, one of the rarest in the world. In honour of his discovery, it was named ‘taaffeite’.



Consuelo’s House

Consuelo Crowhurst

Crowhurst Place – a dream come true

In her autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Vanderbilt recalled her first sight of Crowhurst Place in Surrey. Separated from her husband,the 9th Duke of Marlborough, exiled from Blenheim and living for most of the year in London, she was looking for a small house – small by Vanderbilt standards, anyway – not too far from town, and one summer day in 1910 she found it.

‘With its high roof of Horsham stone, its walls half-timbered with silvered oak, its stone chimneys and leaded casements’, she wrote, Crowhurst ‘was a dream come true’. The owner refused to sell, but he agreed to let the house and to allow Consuelo to add to it. By the time she gave up the lease in 1921 to move to France and marry her second husband, the aviator Jacques Balsan, she had transformed Crowhurst into a vision of perfection, with roses and honeysuckle climbing in at the windows, old oak furniture ‘polished to a honeyed sheen’ and a procession of celebrities from Asquith to Lytton Strachey queuing for the chance to spend a weekend in the dream come true.

Consuelo and Jacques 1930s

Consuelo and her 2nd husband, Jacques Balsan, in the 1930s

That’s her version of events. The story of Crowhurst Place and its rebirth is a little more complicated, involving a creative genius who doesn’t even get a mention in The Glitter and the Gold.

In 1907, three years before Consuelo discovered the moated manor house, it was taken on a repairing lease by George Crawley, an English connoisseur and amateur architect. Crawley had no technical training and no ability to make architectural drawings. But according to a friend, ‘he could yet visualize his designs so vividly as to convey his impressions to intelligent draughtsmen’.

He had just designed Westbury House, a neo-Caroline mansion on Long Island, for the steel magnate John Shaffer Phipps and his British wife Margarita. He was still working for the Phipps family in New York when he took the lease on Crowhurst, then a half-derelict farmhouse with nothing much to recommend it except a timbered great hall of 1423. Over the next three years he ‘restored’ the house and then, when it was almost finished, his wife told him she couldn’t bear to live in a building project for another day and he was forced to give up the lease.

Consuelo Westbury

Westbury House, Long Island

That’s where Consuelo came in. She knew Westbury, and this may have contributed to her decision to ask Crawley to create a new service wing in 1912 and a sitting room and garden room three years later. In any case it made sense to call on Crawley who, after all, knew Crowhurst Place better than anyone living.

His reinvention of Crowhurst, what Pevsner calls his ‘crazy fairy-tale restoration’, is a joy, at once more scholarly than the romantic lyricism of Norman Shaw and the Old English movement, and less restrained than late-Victorian examples like Edward Ould’s Wightwick Manor. The tall chimneys, the gables, the half-timbering, are all new. So is the porch, which derives from the early 16th-century Guildhall at Lavenham in Suffolk. The moulded ceiling of the parlour shown here is original, as is some of the linenfold panelling, although it was moved from an upstairs room; the rest was made to match. The semi-circular oriel which lights the great hall is of teak, ‘which should last for ages’, said Martin Conway, who described the house for Country Life in 1919, soon after it was completed, and who was full of praise for the way in which its battered remains had been ‘re-endowed with a beauty far greater than was ever theirs in the day of its newness’. Almost everything about Crowshurst is invented, imagined. It really is a dream come true, and the dreamer was George Crawley.

Consuelo's parlour

Consuelo’s parlour – re-endowed with a beauty far greater than in the day of its newness

In 1922 Crawley cast his strange spell over another late-medieval manor house, Old Surrey Hall near Lingfield. (‘The architect must have been working quite cut off from reality’, said Pevsner, comparing Crawley’s work admiringly and astutely to the rhapsodies of early 20th-century composers on Tudor and folksong themes.) He died in July 1926 at the age of 62; his obituary in the Times referred in passing to his reputation as an amateur architect, but in rather poor taste the obituarist managed to devote much more space to Crawley’s nephew’s batting prowess at Lords in the Eton-Harrow match the previous Saturday.

The Last of Uptake

Last of Uptake

A few weeks ago I posted a 1939 photo of a floodlit Palladian villa on this blog, and my friend Patrick Baty commented that it reminded him of Rex Whistler’s jacket illustration of Uptake in flames. I hadn’t read The Last of Uptake? Then I must.

I always take Patrick’s recommendations seriously. Simon Harcourt-Smith’s country house novella, first published by Batsford in 1942, has been out of print for decades, but I managed to get hold of a copy and I read it at a single sitting.

Then I read it again. And again.

The literary country house deserves a blog of its own, perhaps even a book of its own. It appears as the old dark house, harbouring sinister secrets in the Jane Eyre tradition, like Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). It thrives as a conventional setting for the murder mystery: when weekend guests at Sir Hubert Handesley’s mansion in Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934) discover that Handesley has a collection of rare daggers, we all know that one of those daggers is going to end up buried in someone’s back before long. It becomes a powerful metaphor for a lost world in elegies like Waugh’s 1945 Brideshead Revisited.

There is also another kind of literary country house entirely – whimsical, fantastical, baroque in its imagining. Think of Ronald Firbank and Aubrey Beardsley remodelling Cold Comfort Farm, and you’re somewhere close. This is where the wonderful, weird world of Uptake belongs.

The Last of Uptake centres on the deteriorating relationship between two spinster sisters, Tryphena and Deborah Caudle, as Uptake, their ancestral home, falls about their ears. Its time is past. The days when their wild great-grandfather used to drive through the park behind a string of dancing circus horses ridden by apes are a distant memory. Only relics are left: Roman statues (‘some of them seemed scandalously pagan’); a set of ivory chairs from India, inlaid with ‘the more embarrassing details of some heathen ritual’; glass cases filled with outlandish decorations, ‘sapphires poised like humming-birds on branches of the slenderest enamel, jade spoons the colour of the mist outside…’ As the paint peels and the plaster falls from ceilings, Deborah nurses her hypochondria while Tryphena thinks back to her youth when she was close – very close indeed – to her late brother Adolphus.

But the star of the story is Uptake itself – decaying, marbled, swathed in sea-mist and secrets and grand guignol. The saloons and staircases, the winding alleys and grottos of its gardens, are all full of surprises: sinister dragons lurk among the bells of a lakeside Chinese pavilion; a pyramidal ice-house provokes Tryphena into imagining herself engaged ‘in some awful Egyptian rite’.

And then there are the automata. Tryphena’s wicked great-grandfather had peopled the gardens of Uptake with an army of life-size mechanical figures. Some are broken. Others have disappeared. ‘There had been a number that Tryphena’s mother had tactfully described as unsuitable; these had been removed, and were kept in a padlocked storeroom into which nobody in Tryphena’s time had dared to penetrate (she had often caught herself wondering about their exact nature and, ashamed, had turned her mind elsewhere…)’. A few, like the Dancers, are still in working order:

There began a whirring and a clicking; a hidden pipe-organ coughed twice and fell into an air of such unexpected vitality Tryphena almost jumped. A mirrored door came slowly open: through it there tripped with a stiffness scarce perceptible the Dancers… They were truly lifelike, Tryphena thought, as the gallant jerked a bow and his ballerina dipped a curtsy to her. Then they were absorbed in the dance…

The mansion’s end comes as no surprise, prefigured as it is in Whistler’s cover illustration. But when I reached the last of Uptake, I couldn’t help but regret its loss and the loss of the fragile, curious world to which it belonged.

And the author? Simon Harcourt-Smith began his career as a diplomat; The Last of Uptake was written to distract his wife during the Blitz, when she was an invalid in plaster. He floats through the pages of James Lees-Milne’s diaries (doesn’t everyone?); and wrote a clutch of other books on subjects ranging from Babylonian art to the life of Lucrezia Borgia. Otherwise, the author of one of the 20th century’s most delightful country house stories is a mystery. The Last of Uptake was serialised on BBC Radio 4 in the summer of 1977, but this exquisite book has been out of print for nearly half a century.

I really don’t understand why.

Last of Uptake back jacket

Animal Crackers

‘The proper place for lions in an island that is spared them is in heraldry.’

When the 6th Marquis of Bath stood on the steps of Longleat in 1966 to unveil England’s first drive-through safari park, there was a storm of protest. ‘Cattle, sheep and deer ought to be good enough for a Wiltshire man,’ roared an indignant Times. ‘The proper place for lions in an island that is spared them is in heraldry.’

In fact Lord Bath and his business partner, circus-owner Jimmy Chipperfield, were merely bringing their gift for exploiting a commercial opportunity to bear on a long tradition of exotic animal-keeping in England, a tradition which dated back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Records show that a pair of lions were being kept at the Tower of London in the 13th century, along with a polar bear and an elephant.

Smile! An ostrich poses for pictures at Ampthill.

The practice was popular in Edwardian England. Amateur zoologists used their country estates as settings for the display of live specimens, just as they used their baronial halls to show off the dead ones, stuff and mounted. Lionel Walter Rothschild drove around his estate at Tring Park (and occasionally, around London) in a carriage drawn by his zebras. Sir Anthony Wingfield kept a menagerie at Ampthill House in Bedfordshire; his butler supplemented his wages by photographing house-guests as they perched precariously on camels and ostriches, and selling the pictures to The Tatler. In the park at Woburn Abbey the 11th Duke of Bedford, President of the Zoological Society from 1899 to 1936, kept Père David deer and a herd of wild Mongolian horses captured in the Gobi Desert in 1900.

Mah-jongg – presiding over the Courtaulds’ household like a malignant house-elf.

Between the wars, exotic animals and birds became part of the landscape at a surprising number of country houses. Mah-jongg, Ginie Courtauld’s ring-tailed lemur, who presided over Eltham Palace like some malignant house-elf until his death in 1938, is perhaps the most famous. Rothschild’s collection at Tring Park was open to the public. Woburn was well-known: the Père Davids were saved from extinction by the Duke of Bedford’s action in acquiring them, and their descendants still roam the park. Wingfield maintained parts of his Ampthill menagerie until the outbreak of the Second World War, although he began to wind it down in the 1930s, tranferring some of the animals to nearby Whipsnade Park Zoo, which opened in 1931.

And there were new entries in the field. This was partly because rare creatures were more easily available to those with money – Ginie Courtauld bought Mah-jongg at Harrod’s – but there was also a Medici-like tendency among new country house owners to display their status by demonstrating that their wealth could command all things. Olive, Lady Baillie, the Anglo-American heiress who between 1926 and 1928 spent a fortune restoring Leeds Castle in Kent, stocked its moat with flamingoes (who flew away) and black swans, and kept a toucan, a macaw and various parrots about the place.

Where’s Daddy? Penguins at Trent Park in 1937.

‘The peculiar fascination of waterfowl is now felt by many’, declared Country Life in 1937. At Trent Park in Hertfordshire, Sir Philip Sassoon filled the lake – said to be by Repton – with scarlet ibis and pink flamingoes, who were kept in the pink (and presumably in the park) with a lavish diet of shrimp. Whenever he was at Trent, Sassoon made a point of personally feeding his small flock of king, rock-hopper and black-footed penguins. He also kept a herd of deer in the park and had his stags’ antlers gilded, because he liked the way they glittered in the sunshine.

Who’s a pretty girl, then? Lord Tredegar and friends.

Sometimes an interest in non-indigenous fauna went hand-in-hand with a marked eccentricity. In his autobiography, A Silver-Plated Spoon, the 13th Duke of Bedford recalled a visit to ‘the most extraordinary house I have ever stayed at’, Tredegar in South Wales. Lord Tredegar, as well as having a parrot, a pet owl and an unhealthy interest in black magic, kept kangaroos and other animals which he used to fend off with a stick if they ventured too close while he was walking with guests in the grounds. Tredegar’s mother ‘used to flit round the house with sticks and straws in her mouth making birds’ nests, and then sit on eggs herself and try and hatch them.’


wired stanford

Stanford Hall – wired by ferrets

The owners of country houses have rarely been quick to adopt new technologies, and electricity was no exception. Although electric light of a kind was installed at a dozen pioneering country houses in the 1880s, it was another forty years or so before it began to appear on a large scale, partly because rural remoteness usually meant the expense of a dedicated power plant, and partly because of the disruption to old and fragile interiors which was entailed in wiring up a centuries-old mansion.

The guides at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire used to tell the story of how in the 1920s Lord and Lady Braye were baffled by the prospect of having to run cables through their long ballroom without wrecking its delicate 18th-century stuccowork. Then someone had a bright idea: they prised up a floorboard at one end and dropped a dead rabbit into the void; then they prised up a floorboard at the other end and unleashed a ferret, with a string tied to his collar. When the ferret had managed to negotiate the joists and reach the rabbit, the string was used to pull through a cable and hey presto! the problem was solved.

A complicated generating system was installed in 1936 at the magnificent and massive Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, remodelled by Vanbrugh for the 4th Earl of Manchester in 1707-14. It powered 350 lighting points, eighteen electric fires and six portable radiators. An electric pump was used to circulate hot water round the central heating system; there was a large electric refrigerator; and even a small electric cooker, ‘installed for occasional use’. (No need to take modernisation too far, obviously.) Low loads of up to forty lamps were powered by a small battery; if more lamps or one of the electric fires were connected, a 7.5kW generator started up. And if that wasn’t enough, a second, 16kW generator kicked in, shutting down the first. Both plants, which were housed in a converted stable, could work simultaneously if needed, and the battery was re-charged automatically. The generators were made by R A Lister & Co.

wired kimbolton

Kimbolton Castle – eighteen electric fires and six portable radiators

The situation was obviously much easier with new houses. In 1939 an article in Country Life extolled the virtues of the all-electric house, with its own washing machine, dishwasher and room heaters – which should have some glow effect, ‘as we have not yet become accustomed to general heating as opposed to the open fire’. The writer of the article, J. V. Brittain, conceded that the absence of chimneys was odd, and admitted that it might cost a little more to heat and light an all-electric house than it would with a mixture of coal, gas and electricity. ‘But as electricity can be obtained at 1/2d. or 3/4d. a unit the extra cost will not be excessive and is considered to be more than offset by the saving in labour, the added convenience, and the cleanliness.’

But in an older house, there was always a danger than new technology would disrupt old-world charm. Fake candles were popular, both in the form of candelabra and as candle wall-brackets. Concealed lighting in bedrooms was considered acceptable, and when it came to removing ‘that chilly feeling which is generally present in winter in a spacious house’, aesthetics went out of the window along with the coal scuttle, and frankly hideous wall-mounted convector heaters were installed in medieval manors and Georgian mansions without compunction.

Zip Floors floodlit

Floors Castle floodlit – a faint flavour of vulgarity?

One of the more intriguing uses of electricity in the country house came to prominence in the lead-up to the coronation of George VI in 1937. Although ‘the commercial associations of flood-lighting have created in some minds an uneasy feeling that it may be faintly flavoured with vulgarity’ (Country Life again), there was a drive to celebrate the coronation with the 20th-century equivalent of bonfires and flares and torches – the flood-lighting on a grand scale of great houses and local landmarks throughout the countryside. ‘Bonfires, laboriously built up, exhaust their glamour in a single night; a flood-lighting installation is available for a week or a month or as long as the festivities continue.’ And anyway, where would we be without the occasional faint flavour of vulgarity?

A Sound Like ‘Zip!’


There’s a new Long Weekend blog on its way later today, discussing the uses of electricity in the 1930s country house. By way of a taster, here’s a lovely example of floodlighting from 1937 and a verse from Hilaire Belloc’s classic poem of 1893 on The Benefits of Electricity’

Awake, my Muse! Portray the pleasing sight
That meets us where they make Electric Light.
Behold the Electrician where he stands
Soot, oil, and verdigris are on his hands;
Large spots of grease defile his dirty clothes,
The while his conversation drips with oaths.
Shall such a being perish in its youth?
Alas! It is indeed the fatal truth.
In that dull brain, beneath that hair unkempt,
Familiarity has bred contempt.
We warn him of the gesture all too late:
Oh, Heartless Jove! Oh, Adamantine Fate!
Some random touch – a hand’s imprudent slip –
The Terminals – a flash – a sound like ‘Zip!’
A smell of burning fills the startled Air –
The Electrician is no longer there!

Albert Richardson

Sir Albert Richardson at home

The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.

Richardson drawings 1

Houses at Chew Magna near Bristol (1765) and Redbourn in Hertfordshire (1778) – examples of Richardson’s distinctive graphic style

Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’

Richardson Avenue House

Avenue House, Ampthill

And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.

In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

Richardson Christie's

The Avenue House Sale Catalogue

By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.

The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.

That Chance Encounter With Royalty

It could happen to any of us. You pop into the local supermarket for a loaf of bread and a case of wine – and there’s the Queen, buying a packet of hobnobs and half a dozen free-range eggs. What do you do?

Fortunately, society hostess Lady Troubridge has the answer…

This chapter is most distinctly not written for the men and women whose loyalty takes the mistaken form of crowding after our King and Queen at times when they obviously are seeking privacy and relaxation. Only loyalty can excuse this lack of discretion; but there ought not to be any need for it, surely, if we remember, as we should, how unceasingly they work for us, and how rare are their moments of enjoying the privacy every other man and woman in England can claim as a right.

The chance encounter, unsought, is another matter.

Impossible to pass them by as if one had not seen them. We are all agreed about that. But what to do?

Supposing the Royal car passes close by when you and your husband, say, are strolling in a quiet thoroughfare. He should at once take off his hat and hold it in his hand till the car has passed, and you, madam, must make the slightest of curtsies.

In a shop the recognition should be more subtle still, and it should consist of a drawing back rather than a coming forward, and quietly moving away, forbearing to stare at the Royal lady while she makes her purchases.

In any and every case, staring is wrong, and should be sternly avoided.

From Etiquette and Entertaining: To Help You on Your Social Way by Lady Troubridge (1939)