This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.
And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.
To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then
Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.
Louis MacNeice, Soap Suds, 1961
Soap Suds by Louis MacNeice (pictured above) was a poem that I did not come across until long after I’d left school. In many ways, I’m glad of that. It meant I’d never had to over-analyse each line and was left to work out the meaning of the verses for myself. It had, in any case, always struck me as odd to be told what a poet was attempting to symbolise by their use of so-and-so device or allusion. I had a feeling that most poets did not realise themselves exactly what their work was about – certainly not at the point of creation – and to have done so would have been anathema to their art.
Today, over twenty years later, I find every line of this poem to be exquisite (which is why I’ve reproduced it in its entirety). The uncanny feeling it creates can only be experienced if the poem is read to the end, with the final verse having a particularly unsettling effect. It reminds me of the frisson I experienced when I first read part of The Witnesses (or The Two) by W.H. Auden*, reproduced in my copy of Richard Adam’s Watership Down. Possibly I wasn’t the only child to be introduced to Auden that way, and I can still remember the thrill when, at around the age of ten, I read the following lines:
When the green field comes off like a lid
Revealing what was much better hid:
And look, behind you without a sound
The woods have come up and are standing round
In deadly crescent.
*It’s no coincidence that Auden and MacNeice were part of the same group of modernist poets who strove to break away from the structured, romantic poetry of the 19th century (sometimes called the Thirties poets or the Auden group). The two writers were also friends, collaborating on Letters from Iceland, which loosely documents their travels through the country.
Soapsuds also makes me think of the time when I went with our primary school class to spend a week in an old mansion called Glaisnock House which had been converted into an outdoor centre. A few days before leaving on our trip we were given a list of items to bring with us, and I remember going into Ayr with my mother to look for a toilet bag in Boots in the High Street. (Having never been away on my own before, I’d never needed such a thing). As I had to fill the bag with some basic toiletries, I picked out a particularly strong-smelling, bright yellow bar of lemon soap to put into my new plastic soapbox.
Now whenever I catch a whiff of lemon fragrance, memories come back of that school trip to the spooky old house hidden in the Ayrshire countryside. Despite the spartan and rather military domestic arrangements at Glaisnock House, left over from its time as an agricultural boarding school (a concept which was both exciting and frightening after years of reading my mother’s outdated boarding school novels), that week away was one of the highlights of my final year at primary school. Living together so close like that, our class learned a great about each other and ourselves, and although we did not realise it at the time, we were mentally preparing ourselves for our imminent move away from the protective atmosphere of our village school to the large secondary school in town.
Glaisnock House (c) Robert Watson, Creative Commons, 2006
Thus when I read recently of the demise of Glaisnock after the unexpected death of its new Chinese owner (who’d wanted to turn it into a cultural centre), I was saddened both for the mansion and other houses that had shared a similar fate by dint of their size and the expense of purchasing and running them*. As the historian David Olusogo illustrated in the latter episodes of his recent BBC series A House Through Time (see My Family Houses Through Time: Part 1), there is often a common pattern to the histories of larger houses. These usually move from being single (family) to multiple occupancy or even being used as small schools and institutions along the way, and if not too big, through late 20th century gentrification back to being owned by one family again. Unfortunately, in the post-war move to modernise and rebuild towns and cities, many serviceable homes were destroyed, declared as ‘slums’ by medical officers, without much thought given to how they could be made inhabitable in the future – and how desirable they might one day become.
*As mentioned previously, many of these large houses – sometimes ‘the big house’ in a community where the feudal owners once lived – ended up being taken over by charitable institutions after the second world war (often in lieu of prohibitive inheritance tax) when political and economic changes in society made it impossible for one family to carry on living in such a place. Over the years, these houses and their adjoining estates have morphed into museums, art galleries and parks – that is if they weren’t torn down or sold on to developers.
In the course of my family research, I’ve been delighted to see that some old family homes still exist, while others were destroyed by bombing raids in World War Two, or pulled down as part of neighbourhood clearances. Anyone looking at a London family history has to contend with these 20th century disappearances, although this also serves to heighten the surprise and delight felt whenever a survivor is located. Perhaps even more poignant are the stories of houses that almost didn’t make it, yet were saved by far-sighted developers (not necessarily in a good way) or individuals.
While the fate of Glaisnock House lies in the balance, other large houses (some with connections to my own family) have eventually been turned into hotels and upmarket housing developments, or used as offices. While this does not always guarantee longevity – to wit James William Skelton’s villa, Westle House, in Morland Road, Croydon, whose sad demise I chronicled in The Stories Which Connect Us – a building needs to have a purpose if it is to have a future.
Westle House, Morland Road, Croydon, awaiting demolition
The Bristol townhouse which featured in A House Through Time, although a relatively large private dwelling house, has survived by virtue of being an upmarket period property family home in a desirable area. James William’s 1860s home, Westle House once deemed admirably situate, facing Morland Park in Morland Road, Croydon, might have followed the same path had it attracted the same sort of homebuyers. But given that the once semi-rural location and large garden has disappeared, and the road (once a country lane) which passes the house is now a very busy one in the midst of a vast area of housing, anyone with the kind of money to invest in such a large property would be more likely to choose one located in a London suburb or farther out into the countryside.
Like many of these original satellite villages around London which became home to the wealthier inhabitants of the capital who wanted to have a country home of sorts while still being able to access the city, they have been engulfed by the encroaching suburbs. Any last remaining grand houses with large gardens have thus become anomalies. However, in neighbourhoods which, although close to London, have maintained an air of gentility or are within green belt areas, this type of housing might still survive – particularly if clustered together in an up-market enclave. This is certainly the case in Dulwich where James William’s later home, Carlton House, was situated.
Houses in Dulwich Wood Avenue today
This house was one of a row of mid-Victorian villas in Dulwich Wood Road (formerly The Avenue) where James William, who married later in life, lived with his young family Although little is known about the fate of that particular house (apart from the fact that it was at the end of the street which was hit by a bomb in WW2), the villa next door was inhabited by James William’s brother-in-law and their family. It was this neighbouring house, called Homedale that was eventually used as a military hospital in the First World War after being previously used as a private girls’ school which also took in a number of boarders. I described the houses in Dulwich Wood Road in more detail in a previous post about James William’s eldest child, Stanley Sleath-Skelton (see Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship).
Homedale, Dulwich Wood Avenue, as a WW1 military hospital
Those who have been following my story from the beginning may recall that James William Skelton was my great-great grandfather’s first son with his first wife – the family that I think of as ‘lost’. What has fascinated me about this branch of the Skelton family is the fact that most of them became a lot more successful than the second, much less well-off family James Skelton had with his much younger second wife (from which I descend). For this reason, there is a great deal more information about the ‘lost Skelton family’ in the archives, with documents pertaining to their various voyages and business deals, as well as complex wills and newspaper articles.
James William Skelton became a very wealthy mahogany merchant in the 1850s and 60s, spending many years in Belize (then British Honduras). He also fathered a half-Belizean daughter, Louisa Arabella, who sadly died at age twenty-one from tuberculosis when she came back to live with her father and his new family in Carlton House. I’ve written about James William in detail (see A Tale of Exploitation) as his story is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a self-made Victorian man, albeit tinged with the shadows of colonial exploitation.
It is chiefly due to the wealth he amassed from the selling of rainforest timber that his three children were able to have the kind of lifestyle which allowed them access to an Oxbridge education (via Eton) as well as some rather grand houses. One of those was Pennyhill Park in Surrey – formerly the country home of the Floersheim family, into which James William’s daughter married. Being a young woman in the 1870s and 80s meant that her brothers’ type of education was denied her, but Maude Beatrice Sleath-Skelton (who would have been home-educated) mingled with the ‘right’ sort of young men and eventually married Cecil Louis Floersheim, a literary barrister who was passionate about natural history. It was Cecil who turned the orangery at Pennyhill into a butterfly house (sadly long gone) and had his favourite dogs buried on the estate in a pet cemetery (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).
Pennyhill Park as a luxury spa hotel today
I had a strange feeling when I went to visit Pennyhill Park with my cousin’s wife one summer day, knowing that distant relatives whose lives I’d rigorously researched over the years had once filled the house with their larger than life personalities (see The Fortunate Widow). I can only imagine how uncomfortable it would have been had I actually had more than just a tenuous connection, through marriage, to the Floersheim family. There is something rather disquieting about wandering around a private space (which is still public to some degree), unable to get farther – both physically and psychologically – than the threshold in the lobby, but at the same time feeling that somehow one should be allowed to step inside and wander around at will. Of course I could have dined in the hotel restaurant or even stayed there overnight, but I knew right away that it wasn’t really my kind of hotel. In the end, I treated Beverley to an overpriced drink by the formal pond, watching the wedding guests cavorting around in all their finery, and trying to imagine what the Floersheims would have made of all the 21st century upgrades to the house.
The original house entrance, now the reception area, Pennyhill Park
But perhaps the saddest building I visited on my search for the grand houses where my lost London family lived was another place that had both a private and public space. And this was not a home in the traditional sense – but the large Victorian asylum where James William’s youngest child lived out his last few months, while being described by the doctors of the time as ‘raving’ (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall).
Herbert Sleath was the stage name of Herbert Sleath-Skelton, who was born at Carlton House in Dulwich in 1871 – four years before his half-sister Louisa Arabella died there. His father’s wealth meant he was able to pursue a career as an actor-manager, aided by theatrical connections on his mother’s side of the family. But his charmed life would come prematurely to an end when he contracted syphilis at some point in his thirties or early forties. When the disease eventually attacked his brain, he was removed to the Royal Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey, an impressive neo-gothic building with the air of a large country hotel about it.
The old Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water
Of course, this sanatorium for the middle classes was meant to mimic the sort of country house many of the inmates would have been used to visiting. Rooms were decorated with fashionable contemporary furniture and the main hall was painted with great attention to detail – although the gothic beasts which crawl across the walls and round the staircase must have been rather discomfiting for some of the residents.
Details on the main staircase, Holloway Sanatorium
I was lucky to visit the main hall and staircase before it was closed to the public. Similar to my experience in Pennyhill Park, the old asylum was a strange public-private sphere that made me feel I did not quite belong there. Public visits to the very private grounds and the main hall had originally been allowed on set days per month on account of the fact that Historic England had carried out some of the conservation work on the building for the developers, including restoring the paintings in the staircase and main hall. But it was clear to me that ‘outsiders’ were not particularly welcome in the exclusive Virginia Park development.
However, it is true to say that had the building not been saved when it did then the restoration project might have been unsustainable. Sadly, after a brief spell as a film and video location in the 1980s (most notably for Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart), Holloway Sanatorium had begun to be broken into and vandalised. In a terrible breach of privacy, old patient records had even been found discarded there, detailing the lives of the inmates and their conditions.
Perhaps we can only hope that, although far from stockbroker belt Surrey, Glaisnock House in Ayrshire might also be saved from the wrecking ball. Just as in Holloway Sanatorium, vandals have started invading the building and destroying much of what they find there. It is sad for me to think of the old building being so neglected. I remember the rows of pegs in the downstairs cloakrooms for our coats, and the place at the side door where we left our dirty wellingtons. Then there was the large noisy dining room where we ate everything that was served to us, hungry from our excursions around the estate; the ‘rumpus room’ where we could play music and let off steam. Outside were the woods where we looked for bugs and constructed an assault course and the fields where we searched for wild flowers and ran cross-country races.
It was the last time we would really be children together, and although so long ago now, those memories can still be conjured up with a bar of lemon soap from which I can make my own soap suds.
The Incidental Genealogist, July 2020