I have plunged into the eighteenth century and can see I may get involved with many other contemporary enthusiasts. But I am using (or trying to) this century as a means of living more fully in the twentieth century. This is what I want to remember: don’t run away from your problems here and now, however well you write and see the past.
Jean Lucey Pratt (in 1949), A Notable Woman, ed. Simon Garfield (2015)
Last month I described my visit to the old Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey – the institution where my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton, spent his final terrible 18 months (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But what I did not mention was that, on that icy February day, I was not the only visitor taking advantage of the ex-asylum’s relatively infrequent open days.
While I was upstairs mooching around the gloomy Great Hall, with its hammerbeam roof, searching for the light switch, an unexpected group of visitors entered the room. With gasps of Oh, it’s just as I remembered! and I’d clean forgotten about that!, the three women were obviously familiar with their surroundings (including the whereabouts of the old fashioned light switches). Thrillingly, I realised that I was possibly about to come face to face with some of the people who had actually worked in the building while it still played an active role in mental health care, rather than simply housing the wealthy.
The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
Anyone who is particularly interested in the recent history of Holloway Sanatorium will soon discover that there is one relatively famous ex-employee who wrote about his time there in a very funny and irreverent way. In his book Notes From a Small Island, the British-American humourist Bill Bryson briefly mentions the period in 1973 when he worked as a janitor at the asylum, a job he obtained through knowing some of the student nurses (and where he eventually met his future wife).
He describes the institution as such: The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself. It had its own joinery shop and electricians, plumbers and painters, its own coach and coach driver. It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming-pool, a tuck shop and a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, sewing room and laundry. Once a week they showed movies in a kind of ballroom. It even had its own mortuary. The patients did all the gardening that didn’t involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate. It was a bit like a country club for crazy people. I liked it very much.
Over the years, Bryson, whose parents-in-law lived in the area, sadly watched the decline of the old sanatorium after it closed its doors in 1981. From being initially used as a set to film crime drama or rock videos (including the spooky Charlotte Sometimes, by The Cure), the buildings eventually fell into total disrepair and were repeatedly vandalised, as well as being looted for remaining ‘artefacts’, including some of the old casebooks.
In the late 1990s when Bryson returned to Virginia Water from America, fully expecting to see the old sanatorium further degraded, he was unprepared for the scene which awaited him and described it thus: So imagine my surprise when I crested a gentle slope and found a spanking new entrance knocked into the perimeter wall, a big sign welcoming me to Virginia Park and, flanking a previously unknown vista of the sanatorium building, a generous clutch of smart new executive homes behind. With mouth agape, I stumbled up a freshly asphalted road lined with houses so new that there were still stickers on the windows and the yards were seas of mud. One of the houses had been done up as a show home and, as it was a Sunday, it was busy with people having a look. Inside, I found a glossy brochure full of architects’ drawings of happy, slender people strolling around among handsome houses, listening to a chamber orchestra in the room where I formerly watched movies in the company of twitching lunatics, or swimming in an indoor pool sunk into the floor of the great Gothic hall (this was originally the dining hall, similar to the Great Hall, upstairs) where I had once played badminton and falteringly asked the young nurse from Florence Nightingale (a ward name) for a date, with a distant view, if she could possibly spare the time, of marrying me.
The (New) Swimming Pool at Virginia Park
According to the rather sumptuous accompanying prose, residents of Virginia Park could choose between several dozen detached executive homes, a scattering of townhouses and flats, or one of twenty-three grand apartments carved out of the restored san, now mysteriously renamed Crossland House (this was after Thomas Crossland, the architect). The map of the site was dotted with strange names – Connolly Mews, Chapel Square, The Piazza – that owed little to its previous existence. How much more appropriate, I thought, if they had given them names like Lobotomy Square and Electroconvulsive Court. Prices started a £350,000 (twenty years ago).
For the locally-based ex-nurses I met that day (none of whom had known Bryson or his wife), the external changes to the estate had been gradual. However, they were still unprepared for both the grandness of the interior and the coldness the place exuded, now that it was devoid of the staff and patients. And as is the nature of such encounters, we rapidly fell into conversation; while I showed them my photographs of Herbert and told them his story, they furnished me with their memories of the place – all of which seemed very positive. This was curiously very reassuring, even though they had worked there half a century after Herbert’s death. He would have been well cared for they said. It was very much a happy place.
I wanted to believe them, but had a feeling that Herbert’s condition wouldn’t have been an easy one to deal with. One of the ex-nurses later explained that during her medical training she’d once had the opportunity to discreetly observe an old lady suffering from advanced tertiary syphilis (very few of these cases existed by then due to the widespread use of penicillin from the 1940s), and she described the rather shocking limb tremors she witnessed in the patient.
I was touched at my new friends’ interest in my research, and felt quite emotional when I brought out some of the old Rotary postcards of Herbert, and they mentioned how he looked slightly like me (there is indeed a Skelton resemblance – my cousin’s oldest son could almost double for Herbert).
Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1906
Of course I pumped Nina, Beth and Helen (by now we were one first name terms) for any relevant information about their time at the hospital, and was impressed at how little they gave away about their individual patients. When we were later joined briefly by a retired male nurse from the subcontinent, the three women were rather disconcerted when he inadvertently blurted out the name of a famous actor-comedien who had once been treated at the asylum. We would never give names they said. Even now.
Afterwards, when I re-read Bill Bryson’s account of the months he spent at Holloway San, it tallied with the stories the nurses had told me of upper-crust patients (there was still a proportion of fee-paying patients up until 1974 to offset costs, some even from the pre-NHS days) wandering the estate and neighbouring town of Virginia Water in plus fours and dinner jackets, their cut glass accents allowing them to get away with a lot of mischief both in and out of the asylum. Bryson describes this scenario more generally in his book as follows:
Virginia Water is an interesting place. It was built mostly in the twenties and thirties, with two small parades of shops and, surrounding them, a dense network of private roads winding through and around the famous Wentworth Golf Course. Scattered among the trees are rambling houses, often occupied by celebrities and built in a style that might be called Ostentatious English Vernacular or perhaps Game Stab at Lutyens, with busy rooflines crowded with gables and fussy chimneypots, spacious and multiple verandas, odd-sized windows, at least one emphatic chimney breast and acres of trailing roses over a trim little porch. It felt, when I first saw it, rather like walking into the pages of a 1937 House and Garden. But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics. Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanatorium for years, and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again.
Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags or sweets, having a cup of tea or just quietly remonstrating with thin air. The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms. The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn’t act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker’s declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone. It was, and I’m still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.
While this doesn’t detract from the gravity of some of the inmates’ conditions, it does seem to demonstrate that the ethos of the place – likened by many to a prolonged stay in a country hotel – had remained throughout the years. Patients appear to have been treated with kindness and respect, and the fact that the asylum had been built in what was originally open countryside meant that there had always been little restrictions on the patients’ movements (at least those not deemed to be a danger to themselves and others, such as Herbert).
With our new-found solidarity, the ex-nurses and I approached the administrator’s office on the ground floor to enquire about access to other parts of the building – and were rather perfunctorily told that most of the old sanatorium was out of bounds, including the chapel (a badminton match was taking place there). What we had seen that day seemed like a tease, and just as I have often found with genealogical research, it felt as if the curtain was being slowly lifted on an interesting and unknown aspect of my ancestor’s life, only for it to fall abruptly back down before the entire scene could be fully absorbed. Again, it felt like moving closer to – yet simultaneously further from – the truth.
Over lunch at a local overpriced bistro full of the American wives of bankers (many who lived at Virginia Park), I got to know the three women better. They had kindly invited me to join them for their reunion meal, and after parting we agreed to keep in touch. And so it was that a year later I returned to Virginia Water with my mother in tow. This time the nurses had arranged for us all to have a guided tour with Joy Whitfield – an expert in the history of the sanatorium – from the nearby Egham museum. By then (2013), the open days had shrunk to once a year, and on the 15th of September a small group of us gathered in front of the lodge gates to meet Joy. This time we were able to visit the chapel (where Joy had incidentally been married) and learn more of the historic details of the building – such as the elaborately painted TH, JH, and TC initials on the ceiling of the grand entrance hall, standing respectively for Thomas Holloway (the Victorian benefactor), his wife Jane, and Thomas Crossland (the architect).
Ceiling in the entrance hall (initials of Jane and Thomas Holloway)
The Chapel, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
Joy had also thoughtfully brought along some of the photographs and brochures of the original fee-paying asylum from the turn of the century for us to browse through after our tour. A video (below) shows the contents of an Edwardian advertising booklet for Holloway Sanatorium. It certainly does look like it is emulating the style of a country house hotel. And in fact a contemporary account of the sanatorium states that: Dominated by the idea that a cultivated person whose mind is affected will never be cured if surrounded by vulgar idiots or grim accessories, Mr George Martin (Thomas Holloway’s brother-in-law, who later became Martin-Holloway) has endeavoured to introduce as many objects as possible to awake and stimulate the trained intelligence for the moment over-strained. In the smaller but still ample parlours and living rooms the same idea of cheerfulness and suggestiveness is carried out. It is endeavoured above all things to avoid leaving a dimmed intelligence opposite to a blank wall.
As I mentioned last month, one of the things that puzzled me about Herbert’s time as a patient at the sanatorium was the absence of his wife, Ellis Jeffreys, in his life. She is not even mentioned in the contested will of 1915, in which Herbert leaves almost everything to his wealthy sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, who would go on to be the beneficiary of three more wills before her own death in 1953 (see The Fortunate Widow). This fact has led me to surmise that the relationship had become strained several years previous to Herbert’s final illness. In addition, it would appear that neither she nor any other family member organised a funeral or an obituary for Herbert, who only twenty years earlier had been described by The Penny Illustrated Paper so: Mr Sleath is popular wherever he goes, for he has a very artistic and yet a genial and buoyant personality; he is a thorough Englishman, a splendid horseman, and a good all-round sportsman.
There is, however, plenty of evidence as to how Ellis lived out her remaining decades as a widow. After writing (or rewriting) her own will a month after Herbert died (in which she left everything to her daughter, Evelyn), she continued to live at both Dormy Cottage with Evelyn and at an address in town (30, Hill Street, S.W.7), acting on the London stage. By the 1930s, Ellis had even entered the exciting new world of cinema. So it is now possible to view Ellis as a celluloid creation, something which was denied us in the case of Herbert. And stills and promotion material from these films clearly show her aging well – a good-looking, fashionably dressed older woman, often playing the part of a mother or grandmother figure to the younger, rising stars of the period.
Ellis Jeffreys in 1936 (at age 67)
But was it galling for Ellis to be re-imagined in these roles, having once been the attractive ingénue herself, or was she just grateful to still be able to work at a job she clearly loved, and continue to be active in society at a time when most older women became invisible? Somehow I think it was most likely the latter. Ellis always comes across to me as a survivor – a strong woman who did not allow herself to be the puppet of any one man. And yet I also have this feeling that she was perhaps manipulative in her own way, using her looks and connections to create the aristocratic lifestyle she wanted for herself.
In 1933, Ellis and Evelyn finally moved out of Dormy Cottage and into a large Jacobean farmhouse in the village of Chobham in Surrey. It seems a strange move for two women who were often up in London, as the house and grounds were even bigger and the village more remote (it did not even have a train station) than their previous residence. But perhaps the property was seen as an investment opportunity for ‘little’ Evelyn: she inherited the house* on her mother’s death in 1943 (from pneumonia and heart disease), and continued to live there alone for over half a century, until her own death in 1987.
*Ellis states in her 1921 will: My two children are aware that my love for them is equal and in making this my Will I desire to leave on record that I am solely influenced by the fact that my son is now old enough and able to earn his own living. I accordingly GIVE all my property to my daughter Ellis Evelyn Isabella Curzon and APPOINT her my Executor.
Shipping records also show that throughout the 1930s Ellis and Evelyn took several trips and cruises to exotic destinations together, so perhaps Ellis was making good money through her frequent film appearances. Between 1930 and 1938 (when she retired) she appeared in no less than a dozen British films, none of which appear to have stood the test of time. And while I have enjoyed watching full-length performances of her son, the actor George Curzon (who was famous for playing the role of Sexton Blake, as well as appearing in numerous Hitchcock films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much), I have not yet had the opportunity to see his mother spring to life before me. But like many of the actors and actresses of the period, who made the transition from the stage to film later in their career, I somehow imagine that she might come across as rather shrill and hammy. Even George does not exactly seem very natural and authentic today (usually playing the same cool, aristocratic part), although this may be more due to changing fashions in acting style.
George Curzon in The Scotland Yard Mystery, 1934 (man on right)
And so the dead rise up before us again through the magic of new technology, and we can only wonder at what those who first saw these moving pictures thought of such a spectacle!
Over coffee in the now busy local bistro, I explained to the ex-nurses that my next plan was to go out to the village of Chobham and try to see Chobham Farm (where Ellis and Evelyn lived). I had printed out a map of the area from the internet and had rather naively worked out that I could walk over there (and back) before darkness set in. But my new friends sensibly thought otherwise, and Nina eventually persuaded me to let her husband drive me to Chobham – she had a service appointment with her own car at the local garage that afternoon, but knew her husband would be free, and more importantly would be on board with the plan. Nina assured me that, as a newly-retired lecturer, he was interested in a plethora of different subjects, and local and social history was one of the things he wanted to delve into further, now he had more time on his hands.
We found ‘Geoff’ (I cannot recall if this really was his name, but in my mind he is a Geoff!) at Nina’s cottage-style, book-filled home, seated by a roaring fire, reading the Guardian. Outside the large back window which overlooked the secluded garden, birds screeched and flew from bush to tree to well-stocked feeders and back again. I was fascinated at the number of feral parakeets visiting their small but wild space, and it reminded me of my experience in the ‘rewilded’ area of Nunhead Cemetry in search of the family grave (see Present at the Death). I then remembered the sad sight of Herbert’s name on the Skelton tombstone, carved into a small area on the granite (almost like an afterthought), and immediately I felt a brief connection between one area of my research and another.
When I later explained this feeling to Nina and her husband, they considered it a very apt description of the way social history can create unexpected links between people, places and events. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us opportunities to connect with living people with whom we might not otherwise come into contact. I thought about the new friends I’d made at East Coker, five years previously, when I’d started out on my quest (see In my Beginning is my End). And how all those encounters – including the ones that day in Virginia Water – had enriched me in some way, and had also (hopefully) touched the lives of others, too.
This was why I included the introductory quote from the biographer and diarist, Jean Lucey Pratt (in relation to the research for her biography into the 18th century actress, Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington). Pratt, whose edited journals were published recently as A Notable Woman, was the one of the Mass Observation diarists to be featured in all three of Simon Garfield’s edited collections featuring the cream of the archive material (namely: Our Hidden Lives, We are at War, Private Battles). It was through reading these books to discover more about wartime Britain that I fell in love with the writing of this remarkable woman, which naturally led me on to read her own diaries once they were published (see a Guardian book review here). Such is the nature of social history research!
Rather disappointingly, the trip to Chobham did not let me see much of Chobham Farm. Like many of the old country lanes around the village (which were now busy with cars), Sandpit Hall Road had no footpath or stopping place, which made it hell for pedestrians. And as most of the ex-farms* were set back from the road and hidden behind hedges, it was difficult to see much.
*Chobham Farm’s adjoining farmland was sold for 1920s housing before Ellis bought the property, although it still retained a huge garden.
Junction of Sandpit Hall Road, Chobham
We drove by the dark wooden house a couple of times, slowing down to attempt a closer look. But I soon realised I did not have to see the place: I was getting tired of ogling all the ‘porn’ properties that my wealthier ancestors had inhabited. It felt like a replacement for real world activities – for chatting with Nina, Beth and Helen about their time at Holloway Sanatorium and their views on current mental health provisions, or discussing the south-east’s parakeet invasion with ‘Geoff’. I felt as if I had a psychological thermostat (for want of a better expression) which whenever I was in danger of going too far into the land of the dead would bring me partway back to the present. I realised more than ever that I wanted to be with the living, talking about the things that matter to us now. And perhaps it was at that point when I had the intimations that I should not get too carried away with this project, but try to combine it with the things that currently interested me.
I decided then and there that I would go the following winter to Australia. I would seek out the details of the life of Ann Haydon (née Skelton), Herbert’s paternal aunt, who died of TB on the goldfields of Victoria before Herbert or his siblings were even born. This adventurous young sister of Herbert’s father (James William Skelton) is linked to the fate of her nephew by dint of sharing a ‘space’ with him on the family tombstone at Nunhead. They were the only two members of the family not be buried in the grave, yet their names were also engraved in the ugly pink granite. And in the canopy above the absurd block of stone which carried the memory of them and their immediate family, I knew that there would still be the raucous squawks of the green feral parakeets. A sound like Australia in London. Like Nunhead in Virginia Water.
The gravestone enscriptions of Ann (above) and Herbert (below)
To be continued next month in A Voyage Down Under
The Incidental Genealogist, March 2018