Tag Archives: Pennyhill Park

My Family Houses Through Time: Part 2

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

LOUIS MACNEICE

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 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:
Unpleasant.
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, collabarating 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 also 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 thrilling 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,_Cumnock_-_geograph.org.uk_-_207078Glaisnock 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 museuems, 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 suprise 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 HOUSEWestle 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.

gh-house-2Houses 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).

s-l1600 (4)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 cemetry (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).

P1040040 (2)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.

P1040054 (2)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.

1411 (2)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 acrosss the walls and round the staircase must have been rather discomfiting for some of the residents.

Holloway San Ceiling

1405 (2)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; 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

 

 

 

 

 

On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot

These shared our walks, but left when we would roam

Too long, to welcome us returning home.

Friends here before us, friends who on the way

Have passed us, have you nothing now to say?

Cecil Floersheim, On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot in Collected Poems (1936)

Sometimes it’s just a small thing that sends you off on one particular area of genealogical research. When I first returned to my family history project, it was the photograph of my father as an evacuee in East Coker during the war (see East Coker) which was the catalyst for my current quest. In the case of Cecil Floersheim (the husband of my ancestor, Maude Beatrice Sleath-Skelton – see The Fortunate Widow), it was the poem entitled On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot in Cecil’s 1936 posthumous collection of poetry which intrigued me, sparking as it did a memory of an almost forgotten incident from my childhood.

I was lucky to grow up in the quiet green enclave of Alloway in Ayrshire (birthplace of the poet Robert Burns, in whose cottage I once worked during the long summer between school and university). A nature-loving child, I had my pick of woods, rivers, and parkland to explore: surrounding the village were a number of 18th and 19th century houses and estates, many of which were open to the public by the 1960s and 70s, in part due to crippling inheritance tax which had forced landed families across Britain to sell off their estates. The unusual names of these parks – Rozelle, Belleisle, Cambusdoon – only added to their allure, and as I explored their damp grounds, filled with the exotic vegetation that thrived in the west coast climate, I was drawn to searching for hidden clues about the families who’d previously lived there.

P1040684 (3)In Rozelle (with my sister) shortly after it became a public park

As a pre-digital child who spent every spare moment outdoors and the rest curled up with an adventure book, I had always fantasised about having my own private estate where I could roam and explore at will. I imagined walking or horseriding around the woodland paths, dogs at my side. Or fishing from the banks of my very own river. And on these explorations I undertook into the old great estates of Alloway (sometimes with friends, sometimes alone) my greatest thrill was entering the parts that were out of bounds to the public. It was only there, I reasoned, that I would be able to uncover the mysteries of the place that the public side strove to conceal.

It was one such day in early spring, while exploring the banks of the river Doon at the estate on Cambusdoon (see Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun), that I came across a curious group of stones jutting out of the long grass at uneven angles, partly concealed by a tangle of vegetation. As I scrambled over a fallen tree and clambered through a clump of bamboo to take a closer look at what I thought was part of an overgrown rock garden, a strange horror overtook me. These were no ornamental stones, but tiny doll-sized graves. And a closer look revealed something even more uncanny: the ages of the long-dead occupants, carved into the weathered and lichen-covered surfaces, corresponded roughly to my own.

For one sickening moment I thought that a whole family of Victorian siblings must have died together from something incurable and contagious – perhaps from one of those old-fashioned diseases that we had recently been vaccinated against at school. But it was only when I began to properly decipher these these oddly-named gravestones that I realised these were not children who had been buried here. No person would have ever had such a stange epitah, even a beloved younger child. I suddenly understood that these were, in fact, the miniature graves of household pets. And it seemed to me then as if the surrounding woods sighed in relief and drew back slightly at the knowledge.

P1040639 (3)This pet cemetery was almost as intriguing – and certainly less frightening – than the idea of a group of children buried away out of sight in the woods. At that age I had no idea that people erected tombstones for their dead pets. Having never had an animal until we got Jet (photo on left), my very much living dog (my father being against caged animals, or cats which might kill birds), I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen when he died.     

For wealthy landowners (such as the Floersheims), creating a pet cemetery on the family estate made a lot of sense. Not only would their dogs have been an integral part of their lives, in particular on shooting and hunting trips, but they had the space and money to indulge in such a whim. And while many of these miniature cemeteries have been bulldozed away, there are still a number of them dotted around the country. The most famous of these is perhaps the pet cemetery at Hyde Park, which features in many articles on the subject of ‘hidden London’. Although it is not generally open to the public, there is an upcoming tour in October (2017), the details of which can be found here.

So when I discovered that the Floersheim family had once owned Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, Surrey, (now a luxury spa), at around the same time that I came across Cecil Floersheim’s poem On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot, I began to wonder if the verse referred to a pet cemetery on that very estate.

Cecil’s poetry anthology, published posthumously in 1936, includes his verses which were privately published and distributed to his friends throughout his middle years. When he died unexpectedly at sea in 1936 at the age of sixty-five (an event I chronicled in last month’s chapter), he had already drawn up a short and succint will, mostly leaving everything to his wife, my ancestor Maude Beatrice. (This was the same will that harped on about the excesses of socialistic mis-government, making me think that he was perhaps not a very pleasant chap).

Written in 1931, Cecil’s will also states that his close friend and fellow barrister, St. John Welles Lucas of 5, Pump Court, Inner Temple, should be his literary executor, and bequeathed him two thousand pounds to publish his collected works of verse, at his discretion. St. John, however, unfortunately died in 1934, two years before his good friend, so it is unclear who did indeed organise the publication of his anthology by Chatto & Windus in 1936. The blurb on the inside cover provides details we already know about Cecil’s life and death, and then goes on to state: For many years Cecil Floersheim’s poems have been known and appreciated by his friends, a few of whom possess the privately printed volumes published in 1911, 1932 and 1934; these with some recent additions are now published in a Collected Edition.

As to be expected, Cecil does not appear to have been influenced by modernism (no doubt he would have something disparaging to say on that subject, too), and as such his poems come across as a dated pastiche of the romantics. However, I am not a literary critic and will leave it up to the reader to decide for him or herself the merit of the verses contained in this volume and others, copies of which can be picked up online from a few pounds – unless of course you would like the one signed by a certain Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst (who had also recently published her own collection of poetry)  – and then it is a cool $175!

*Combridges, a publisher from Hove (where Maude has family connections) published some of Cecil’s poetry privately in 1932 and 1934, in addition they put out their own collected works in 1938 (Vita Sackville-West had one of these copies).

P1060935 (2)

Through reading Cecil’s poetry it is clear that he had a real love and appreciation of the natural world, both at home and abroad, and in particular a deep attachment to the English countryside around the South Downs in Sussex (near to where the Sleath-Skeltons lived). Although Cecil had been born in London and grew up at the family homes at 11 Hyde Park Street and 12 Cadogan Square, in 1901 the Floersheims inherited Pennyhill Park, in Bagshot, Surrey, from Louis Schott, a wealthy childless friend and business partner of Cecil’s father, who was also a successful German banker from Frankfurt.

Like Louis Floersheim, Schott had also become a naturalised British citizen four years after arriving in London, and I discovered that the original documents detailing the two Louis’ application for citizenship were tantalisingly kept at the National Archives. So one wet November morning I travelled out to Kew with the official pieces of paper needed to register as a reader, and which would allow me to access the naturalisation papers on-site (now available online). I was curious to discover what the connection was between the two men. Were they in fact related, as some internet searches seemed to suggest?

Although I have never been able to discover if there was a familial connection, it would appear that the two Louis’ were roughly the same age, so may have simply been friends. In addition, both were from Frankfurt-am-Main and worked together in the early 1860s as merchants at 17 Moorgate Street in the City of London. Business reports from later in the century show that together with their friend, Julius Beer, they set up private banks (Floersheim and Co. and Beer and Co.) and had numerous successful business ventures (in part due to their continental connections, particularly the Jewish Frankfurt banking families), which allowed them to accumulate great wealth. Writing in The First Lady of Fleet Street, a biography of the 19th century newspaper editor Rachel Beer (née Sassoon), Julius’ daughter-in-law, the biographers Eliat Negev and Yehuda Koren state that: Though he had no family in London, Julius was not alone in the city – two of his friends, Louis Floersheim and Louis Schott, had settled there as well. In Frankfurt, the Floersheims specialised in English haberdashery and hardware, while the Shotts dealt in English tulle and lace. Together, the three young men would become business partners in various successful enterprises. And in addition to cooperating professionally, they would remain close friends, sharing trials and tragedies as the years passed.

While I can find no evidence of the Floersheim and Schott family businesses mentioned above (presumably these records are in Frankfurt), there are plenty of documents which are testament to the successful lives of these three entrepreneurs, who arrived in London in the 1850s in their late teens/early twenties. Although the two Louis’ became naturalised British citizens after the required four years in the UK, Julius Beer did not – perhaps because he was often out of the country on business trips, not least to America with the banker Frédéric Emile d’Erlanger (whose son would  be one of Louis Floersheim’s executors) in order to lend money for the Confederate cause. However, this did not appear to be a set-back as by the time he died at the early age of 43 he had amassed a fortune through his interests in railways, telegraphs, and mining (among other things), not to mention his ownership of the Observer newspaper.

Interestingly enough, the requests for British citizenship made by Floersheim and Schott are almost identical in wording – perhaps not surprising as they both used the same immigration agent. In addition, the two Louis’ give the name of the same four referees: all British citizens and business associates who could vouch for the veracity of the applications. For both men, citizenship was connected to their business and social standing, and Louis Floersheim stated on his form in 1861 that: This memorial of Louis Floersheim further showeth and puts forth, that your memorialist finding it desirable for his mercantile as well as for his social position to become a denizen of that country which he has fully adopted as his future abode, hereby prayeth and applies for the grant of a certificate of naturalisation.

Out of the three Frankfurt men, Julius Beer is the one most people have probably heard of, despite the fact that he died relatively young. The Beer family mausoleum at Highgate cemetry is regarded as one of the highlights of a visit to the Western Cemetry (now by guided tour only – but take a virtual tour here).

imagesBIBK4MIZReports suggest that, as a self-made German-Jewish financier, he was never accepted into the higher echelons of Victorian society, despite his wealth and exclusive West London addresses. Thus he attempted to compensate for this exclusion with a grand and ornate family mausoleum (on left), designed by John Oldrid Scott. (Although it was originally erected for his young daughter Ava, who died in 1876 at the age of 8 from scarlet fever, Beer and his wife were buried there several years later).

However, I am rather sceptical about this version of Julius Beer’s life story: once a piece of information finds its way into print, it tends to be repeated, and thus becomes the standard line (adrift from the original source). Since all of Victorian London was awash with self-made men, many of German-Jewish origin, I cannot quite believe that Beer had as much of an inferiority complex as was made out. It would also appear to be part of the Julius Beer myth that he had arrived in the UK as a penniless immigrant, although evidence would point to the fact that, like his friends Schott and Floersheim, he came from a middle-class family with mercantile connections.

Like Beer, both Schott and Floersheim had the best London addresses. When Louis Floersheim bought the leasehold of 12 Cadogan Square in 1887 (in addition to owning 11 Hyde Park Street), he paid £13,750 for the new 6 storey-townhouse, which included an adjoining coach house and stable. The house remained in the Floersheim family until the 1920s, then was bought by Patrick Bowes-Lyon, uncle to the Queen Mother. After the war, like many of thse town houses, the rules of the Cadogan Estate were relaxed to allow multi-occupancy in the square, and today there are several flats in what would have been one family house (which incidentally needed 12 servants).

 

P1040061 (2)12 Cadogan Square, West London

In 1891, when Cecil was at Oxford studying modern history, the census finds the Floersheim family at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, guests of Louis Schott. Pennyhill Park was name of the country residence Schott had bought ten years previously at auction, on the death of the original owner and builder, industrialist and engineer, James Hodges. And it was this house and the adjoining estate that the three Floersheim children (Cecil, Walter and Ethel) were to inherit in 1901 (along with £5000 each) when Louis Schott died without issue*, although it appears that the whole family used it as a country residence until it was sold twenty years later.

*Schott’s brother, Philip, was deceased, but he had a sister, Flora, who had married the French architect William Bouwens van der Boijen. And it was to Flora and her children that he left the bulk of his savings. 

Pennyhill Park had been built fifty years previously in the popular mid-Victorian neo-Gothic style, and throughout the years that Hodges had lived there the grounds had been planted with exotic and ornamental trees and hedges. In the pre-auction particulars for the house in June 1880, after Hodge’s death, the estate is described in wonderful detail: There are two ornamental lodges, from which the drives to the house are either past a bank of grand rhododendrons and thuja hedges, or past alternative species of deodera and Portland laurels of great size and beauty. Natural undulations of the ground, with years of care and a large expenditure on the part of the late owner, have resulted in forming a residential estate of an exceptionally desirable character. The grounds and park, beautfully laid out to form terraces, lawns and lovely walks, are everywhere enriched with beds of rhododendrons now in bloom, hollies, specimens of American and other plants and rare coniferae, such as are seldom to be seen. The lake of two acres, the fernery, archery ground, Jenkins-hill, specimen walk and lawn tennis or bowling green, are all attractive features in this delightful place, which should be visited by those seeking a residential estate. There are excellent stabling, large kitchen gardens and cottages. The area of the whole is over 100 acres. Adjoining the estate are farm-buildings and about 9 acres held by lease from the crown.

bagshot-pennyhill-park-1906_57177The holly hedge (sadly no more) at Pennyhill Park c1906 (c) Francis Frith Collection

After purchasing the house, Louis Schott added a fashionable large and ornate orangery* with a 40 foot-high domed roof in the grounds. However, in 1903, shortly after inheriting the estate, the Floersheims went further, building a large Bath stone extension to the house in neo-Tudor style (a reaction to the Victorian Gothic style that was by then falling out of fashion), indicating that Pennyhill Park was important residence for the family. But with no heirs to follow them, the Floersheims sold the estate in the 1920s, after the house was used as a rest home for serving officers during the first world war. The current hotel’s website has an excellent page detailing the history of Pennyhill Park (including old photographs) here.

*I was recently contacted by a family historian with an interest in the Floersheims through Cecil’s mother’s relatives (the Baddeley family), and who had read some of Cecil’s articles published in entomological journals between 1910  and 1917 in which he mentioned a butterfly house at Pennyhill Park. Possibly this was a new use for Schott’s orangery (which was unfortunately demolished in the 1970s).

 

bagshot-pennyhill-park-1907_58593_largePennyhill Park c1909 (old and new houses) (c) Francis Frith Collection

And so what about the dogs’ graves, my original point of entry to this story ? As luck (or persistence) would have it, the Bagshot village website helped me to track down someone who remembered Pennyhill Park in its country house days. Of course, my first question was about the dogs’ graves – I felt sure that there had to have been a pet cemetery on the estate. A few weeks later my contact, Darcy, replied to say: I knew the house as a child with its spectacular, beautiful gardens and when it changed into a hotel. In its early days the hotel had riding stables within the grounds and I helped with the horses. I discovered the graves  by chance in undergrowth. As I remember, there were about five or six graves and there was one with a cross and larger than the rest. I went to Pennyhill some years ago and managed to find the spot but building work had taken place and they had been disturbed. But I did manage to find two and take photographs. The inscriptions are as follows: In memory of Spot and Flop, 1913; Peter MCMVII.  

Pennyhill Park first became  a hotel around 1973, so my guess is that around about the same time as I was discovering the animal graves in amongst the Japanese knotweed and bamboo by the banks of the river Doon, the older Darcy experienced a similar thrill at finding the pets’ graves in the vegetation at Pennyhill Park. In addition to this, Darcy also sent me a copy of the 1879 ordnance survey map on which the location of the graves was marked. As is the way with old maps (even a photocopy of one), the intricate details of the drawings and handwritten notes conjure up a forgotten world that seems almost possible to enter – as long as one has a copy of the map.

P1060938 (2)Pennyhill Park c1879 (dogs’ graves location in yellow)

And so  it was that one sunny June day I set off with my cousin’s wife, Beverley, through the Range-rover crowded roads of Royal Berkshire towards the Surrey border – and Pennyhill Park. Ironically, my cousin had recently just treated himself to the very same type of car as a midlife present, and we decided to borrow it for our trip to the fancy spa hotel, joking that we would need to ‘fit in’ with all the other visitors.

P1040040 (2)Pennyhill Park (main building) today

Beverley is a very practical yet easy-going person, and the ideal companion to take to explore the grounds of a 21st century spa hotel with only the copy of an 1879 map to guide us! When I explained to her that the original house had been knocked down in the 1930s, leaving only the Floersheim’s neo-Tudor extension from 1903 (not yet shown on the map), she did not even roll her eyes or ask why I had not also sensibly printed out a current map, but enthusiastically trekked around the grounds with me, searching for the lake (which unfortunately we could not find) and kitchen garden (since built over).

bagshot-pennyhill-park-lake-and-boathouse-1909_61376The boating lake at Pennyhill Park c1909 (c) Francis Frith Collection

Later as we sipped our expensive drinks at the ornamental pond on the terrace, watching the wedding guests milling around in their shiny new clothes (and feeling slightly drab in our simple summer skirts), I think we both knew that there would not be any dogs’ graves to visit. If truth be told, I found the rarified atmosphere of the place rather stultifying, even though all the staff we encountered that day were nothing less than helpful and friendly – to the point of photo-copying some documents pertaining to the history of the house for me to take away.

Several moths afterwards I discovered an on-line review by an American visitor in 2013 which encapsulated some of my feelings about Pennyhill Park: This is a strangely soulless place, built into what was a famous country house, that used to be surrounded by wonderful gardens, an impressive glass greenhouse and a lovely little home farm with walks, orchards,  a lake, and a landscaped stream running through it all. Some of this remains, but the magical feeling has gone out of it, as the brightly lit car park has arrived along with the ubiquitous golf course, the rhododendrons on the driveway pruned back to sensible and the lake shore encroached on by housing developments.

P1040042 (2)Preparations for an outdoor wedding ceremony at Pennyhill Park

But it wasn’t just the fact that the place had obviously changed so much, particularly with the recent very moden-looking spa extensions and new entrance hall. I had to face facts that I was not the kind of person who went to an expensive spa hotel, even for one drink. And wandering freely around the grounds (in search of the lost places from 1879) had proved to be more difficult than we had first thought, in part because of the golf course (one reason  why we could not find the lake), but also because we both had the feeling that somehow we were trespassing on private land – even though as middle-aged women in mid-length flowery skirts and sensible sandals we more or less fitted the demographics of the clientele, and no-one would have thought to question our presence in the grounds.

P1040054 (2)The original house entrance, now the reception area, Pennyhill Park

I think we were both relieved to eventually be setting off down the one remaining approach road back towards the A30 and the promise of a family barbeque in the garden at Tilehurst. At that moment, I wanted to be back in the living world of real and immediate relatives – ones who burnt sausages and knew that buying a black Range Rover with a cream leather interior was a posey thing to do, but went ahead and did it anyrate. Ironically, my cousin’s ‘new’ house actually contained part of the landscaped garden of an old estate. This was due to the fact that when the houses were built in the 1980s there were too many protected trees to build more than a few homes, and so the small housing estate, tucked away off the main road, was embedded into the existing Victorian parkland, each house having relatively large and mature, secluded gardens.

P1040032Old woodland walks in my cousin’s garden, Tilehurst

If I could time travel, would I have chosen to meet the Floersheims that summer Sunday afternoon, reveal myself to them as I wandered around their grounds? No doubt I would have been sent packing – an intruder from another time who would perhaps have infuriated Cecil as he saw how much his fears of socialistic mis-government had come to pass. Perhaps it was this feeling that still persisted through the generations – we had come so far, and yet . . .

And perhaps it is this which makes these old family country house hotels so appealing, especially for staging important family events  such as christenings and weddings. Professional photographs advertising Pennyhill Park (and similar houses) as upmarket venues for nuptials invariably show couples gliding down ornate staircases with oil paintings of supposed ‘ancestors’ on the walls around them. It is as if the idea of having an old family country seat is imbedded in our subconscious desires – the primal home to which all of us long to return. And perhaps most of our family history quests (including my own) are really only just a search for this mythical lost place.

pennyhill-park-hotel-main-staircase (2)The staircase at Pennyhill Park. Who is on the wall?

Next month . . . the curious tale of the Kipling connection.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2017