|The monumental neoclassical Temple House, home of Margaret Erskine's |
flinty ancestor, copper baron Thomas Williams of Llanidan (1737-1802)
razed in the Roaring Twenties
One definite exception to this rule, who represented old money (or sufficiently old, anyway), is Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, a landed gentleman and the son of a baronet (and later one himself), who wrote classic crime fiction as Henry Wade. Another, representing new money (or comparatively new, anyway), is Margaret Erskine, a descendant of extremely wealthy copper mine owners and soap manufacturers from the Georgian and Victorian Ages.
Thomas Williams of Llanidan was a figure of note in Britain's industrial revolution. Befitting any such figure worth his salt--or copper--Williams was denounced by Matthew Boulton, business partner of James Watt, as "the despotick sovereign of the copper trade" and a "perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word [who] will screw damn hard when he has got anybody in his vice." Of the mine owners of Cornwall, who were being ground by Williams, Boulton wrote colorfully, "They would not have consented to be kicked and piss'd on by me as they have by [Williams and his partner]." Sounds like Boulton was pretty envious!
|ruined windmill at the former Parys Copper Mine, Anglesey, Wales, |
which closed in 1904--this was the source of Thomas Williams' fortune
|formerly the Christopher Thomas and Brothers Soap and Candle Works, which|
Margaret Erskine's great-grandfather Charles Thomas managed in the late 19th century
Not long after Margaret's birth, her father returned to England with her (and presumably her mother, though I don't know this), settling three miles from the city of Plymouth, Devon at a great manor house, Widey Court. The mansion, which had been offered to let for a term of five or ten years, recently had been "thoroughly renovated and modernized," according to a 1900 newspaper notice.
Located near Widey Court were the villages of Crownhill and Eggbuckland. The former was originally known as Knackersknowle, and I can't help wishing that it had retained this splendid olde English name. With Knackersknowle, Eggbuckland and Widey Court, I couldn't think of a better setting for a vintage English mystery!
|St. Edwards' Church, Eggbuckland|
(fifteenth century, with additions,
including the clock!)
beautifully situated in a well-timbered lawn on rising ground, with highly picturesque views. Fine timber trees shelter the house, which has a southern aspect, and the Dartmoor hills are in the background. On the ground floor are an entrance hall and billiard room, spacious dining room and drawing room communicating with a conservatory 68 feet in length, a breakfast room, and library. On the the first floor are a morning room, a bed room, and two dressing rooms; eight other excellent bed rooms in two galleries; and eight good attics; eight stall-stables, double coach-house, laundry, etc., with the higher lodge and two other cottages, a large walled garden, paddock of four acres, with shippen for cows, and lawn tennis court.
"The parish church of Egg Buckland is less than a mile," the notice added, and "hunting and fishing are to be had in the immediate neighborhood."
Sadly, this history was not enough to save the house. Requisitioned during the Second World War and left in a derelict state, Widey Court was demolished in 1954, long after Margaret Erskine had departed from the vicinity. Evidently the contents, incredibly it seems to me, were destroyed, including even the King's bed. Apparently no plans or photographs of the mansion were made at the time. One individual rescued a couple of fragments from a marble fireplace. A rather unattractive school, built in 1963 and named for the manor, stands on the cite today.
|marble fragment salvaged from the 1954 demolition|
of Widey Court
Commanding a South aspect and a sheltered site at an elevation of about 330 feet above sea level standing in a beautifully timbered miniature park and approached by two carriage drives above a mile long, guarded by two picturesque lodges and embracing an area of about 53 acres.....
|Widey Court, probably around time of 1921 sale|
Actually there are said to have been two ghosts who haunted Widey Court: a proverbial lady in white and a Cavalier soldier. Supposedly the latter sat down at dinner next to a woman guest and rudely never spoke to her during the entire time. Perhaps he wasn't the bookish sort and stayed out of the library.
|Widey Court in its pastoral heyday--it was later town down in 1954, |
with not even King Charles's bed being rescued for posterity
|the poor thing will catch her death|
running round half-naked like that
--or my name ain't Ommanney!
Nehr might have added as well that above all Erskine, like the Gothic writers, wrote about great mansions. (Donald Westlake famously said that Gothic novels are about a girl who gets a house.) These mansions appear over and over in her books and are one of the things I, who have long been fascinated with old houses, find engaging about Erskine.
Perhaps in crafting her mysteries the author was recreating parts of her past in her novels. She died at the age of 83 on August 10, 1984 (not July 9) at Greathead Lodge, a senior care home in St. John's Wood, London, long after the golden ages of the detective novel and the great country houses had passed. Greathed Lodge was named for Mrs. Mary Greathed, who founded "The Ladies' Home" there in 1859. The property formerly had been a single family dwelling, the residence of one Alexander Tod, Esquire (excluding the wings, which were added later).
An 1867 article on The Ladies' Home explained that the institution was opened
for the benefit of a very suffering, uncomplaining, and unfortunately numerous class: namely, ladies who have been reduced by reverses of fortune to a state of penury and privation; and who, unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials, are yet more unwilling than any other class to make their distresses known.
|Greathed Lodge (formerly The Ladies Home), unoccupied today, at 41 Abbey Road|
where Margaret Erskine passed away in 1984, one of the last of Britain's
Golden Age mystery writers
|dashing Charles Ommanney whom |
George W. Bush nicknamed "Lion King"
on account of his hair--his most dangerous ground,
however, was on Real Housewives of DC
The Ladies Home could have served as the inspiration for the house in Erskine's detective novel No. 9 Belmont Square (1963), one of several I shall review here soon.
There are a couple of Margaret Erskine's former residences which are still standing, very much so indeed: one at 16 St. James' Gardens in Holland Park and another at 58 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge.
At the latter location you can get a lovely one bedroom one bath flat for only 650 pounds a week! It may not be Temple House or Widey Court, but it sure ain't slumming.