Saturday, September 12, 2020

Copper Mines and Soap Kettles: Money and the Making of Mystery Writer Margaret Erskine (1901-1984)

Landed wealth was such a common feature of between-the-wars British mystery that ever since, despite periodic efforts to delimit this formalization, between-the-wars British mystery and "country house mystery" frequently have been considered virtually synonymous.  (See the 2001 film Gosford Park and its reviews, for example.)  Sometimes we will find some parvenu crashing the country house gates who is "new money"--meaning that they are descended from some pushing nineteenth-century commoner who made a fortune not in land but rather something exquisitely undignified like patent cough medicine or corn plasters. (It's the latter, I believe, in Agatha Christie's After the Funeral.)  But whether it's about old money or new, how many British mystery writers actually had much experience personally with what they were writing?  Not that many, I think.  Most of them were solidly, if not always virtuously, middle class.

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.

Until now, biographical information on Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), who wrote 21 Septimus Finch detective novels between 1938 and 1977 (all but the first of them between 1947 and 1977), has been sparse.  She does have a Wikipedia entry, which tells us that she was born on May 2, 1901 and died on July 9, 1984; that she was born in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada and raised in Devon, England; that her parents were Thomas Wetherby Williams and Elizabeth Erskine; that she was privately educated; and that she was a member of the Crime Writers Association (though not the Detection Club).  Happily I am able to add a good deal to this rather limited biography.  

Through Margaret's father, Thomas Wetherby Williams, who was born in England in 1854, Margaret was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron from Llanidan on the isle of Anglesey in Wales.  (Her father was a civil engineer, while her paternal grandfather, also named Thomas Williams, was simply what was known as a gentleman, a "proprietor of mines.")  Like my own Evans ancestors (it will surprise no one to learn), Margaret Erskine's paternal ancestry was predominantly Welsh, although mine were Quakers who left Wales for Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century.  Thomas Williams, on the other hand, stayed in Wales--and made a mint in so doing.  

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

Williams, a lawyer, became the managing partner of the Parys Copper Mine on the Isle of Anglesey, which during the 1780s was the largest copper mine in Europe, employing 1200 people.  (The mine finally closed in 1904, leaving a pockmarked alien landscape.)  Copper from the mine was used to sheath the ships of the British navy's men of war (and apparently the ships of other countries as well).  Unhappily Williams' copper was also used to make trinkets to trade in Africa for enslaved humans, who were sold to plantations in the West Indies.  Out of his own financial interest, Williams opposed the abolition of slavery after he became a member of parliament.  No William Wilberforce like conversion for him!

In 1788, Williams bought the Temple Mills near Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire and began using the mills for smelting copper from his mines.  He built a great mansion in the area, which he predictably called Temple House, and became, unfortunately (see above), Marlow's M.P.  Temple House was demolished around 1922.  Coincidentally my Buffington ancestors came from Great Marlow, but Richard Buffington left the mother country for the colony of Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century, so you can't pin this on him.  Besides he was a devout Baptist and opposed slavery.

Williams' descendant Thomas Williams, Margaret Erskine's paternal grandfather, married Louisa Thomas, who was the daughter of Charles Thomas, a wealthy soap manufacturer of Bristol who came originally from Carmenthenshire, Wales.  When he died in 1909 his estate was valued at, in modern worth, around 15 million U. S. dollars.  That's a lot of bubbles!

formerly the Christopher Thomas and Brothers Soap and Candle Works, which
Margaret Erskine's great-grandfather Charles Thomas managed in the late 19th century

Margaret Erskine's father was, as I have mentioned, a civil engineer; and I presume it was in connection with work that he moved for a time out to Kingston, Ontario, where in 1898 he married Elizabeth Erskine, whom Margaret later claimed was descended from a martial lowland Scots family that was "connected to the Stuarts."  Could Margaret Erskine the author have been claiming a relationship to Margaret Erskine, the favorite mistress of King James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots?  Sounds like it, especially since she adopted the same name for her pseudonym.

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!)
The 1900 to let notice described Widey Court as

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."

The notice termed Widey Court a "historic mansion," most justifiably.  King Charles I stayed for a time at Widey Court during the English Civil War (hence the addition of "court" to its name).  From the house he issued a proclamation calling on Plymouth to surrender to the Royalist forces commanded by the King's nephew Prince Maurice.  The ballroom of the manor house was used as a care ward for casualties during the siege of the city, and the King Charles' suite of rooms were carefully preserved by later owners. 

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
The Erskines had left Widey Court over two decades earlier, when the great mansion was put up for sale.  The house and  its grounds were described in 1921 as 

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.....

The house itself consisted of, on the ground floor, an outer hall, an inner hall, corridor, two conservatories, a drawing room, a dining room, a morning room, a library, a billiard room with entrance from the library, cloak room, lavatory, water closet, main and secondary staircases, servery, servants' hall, kitchen, scullery, larder, pantry, boot hole, store room, and a laundry composing three rooms and servants' water closets

The first floor had eight bedrooms, three dressing rooms, a bathroom, a water closet, day and night nurseries, a housemaid's room and a linen room, while the attic had eight additional bedrooms, a box room and a storeroom.  There were cellars in the basement for wine, coal and wood.  All totaled, there were 21 bedrooms, which, like in classic English mysteries, seem to have been severely under supported by bathrooms.

On the grounds there were stables and a harness room with loft, a coach house, dairy and dog kennel, flower and vegetable gardens, a tennis lawn and summer house, a rookery and extensive woodland paths.  

Widey Court, probably around time of 1921 sale

Like modern pupils at the school, Margaret Erskine received her education at Widey Court, where in 1910 her father employed as her governess native Englishwoman Ada Annie Mckenzie, a former music teacher and daughter of sail maker and Royal Navy quartermaster Murdo Mackenzie and sister of Arthur Murdo Mackenzie, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who perished in the Great War.  Born in 1881, Ada grew up in the town of Stoke not far from Widey Court.  With a father from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (Ballalan, on the Isle of Lewis) and a mother from Cornwall, Ada presumably had a powerful Celtic imagination.

Margaret Erskine later recalled, "I was brought up in an old country house in Devonshire, complete with a ghost who had his being in the nursery wing.  I was educated by a governess but, like the mock turtle in Alice, with extras'."  These extras included "the vast resources of her father's library."  It isn't hard to see how Margaret developed a vivid imagination in this atmosphere.

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


                                                                      *******

Why did Margaret Erskine, then well into her Thirties, start writing detective fiction in 1937?  Mystery scholar Ellen Nehr, writing shortly after Erskine's death in 1984 (it's not clear Nehr knew that Erskine was dead), claimed that Margaret Erskine once asserted that she had done so as a form of revolt against her high-toned family.  Nehr noted that Erskine specialized in "eccentric British families with long-held secrets, social pretensions, and heads of household with streaks of cunning," though she added disparagingly that Erskine "wrote the same book...twenty-one times."  

the poor thing will catch her death
running round half-naked like that 
--or my name ain't Ommanney!
Of course this is the same charge that has been leveled against mystery master Ross Macdonald, for example.  Yet whether you like Erskine or not, I think that, having learned something of his family history, you can see why she wrote what she wrote.  Erskine definitely wrote what she knew.  And a lot of mystery fans in both the US and UK enjoyed both her milieu and her mysteries.  In the US, where she particularly benefited from the Gothic craze of the Sixties and Seventies (you recall all those pretty ladies fearfully wandering around mansion grounds at midnight in their white nightgowns), she was reprinted in paperback in multiple editions.  Yet this misleading, as Erskine's books are more true detective novels than Gothics, despite the trappings.

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.

Applicants from this uncomplaining class, sadly "unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials," had to be "gentlewomen of good education, between 60 and 75 years of age."  I'm reminded of Dorothy Bowers 1941 detective novel Fear and Miss Betony and its memorably named Toplady Endowed Homes for Decayed Gentlewomen, which looks dubiously upon daughters of greengrocers (however well-educated).  

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

Earlier in her life Margaret Erskine was known to have been active as a volunteer with the Women's Royal Voluntary Services and the Friends of Guy's Hospital; perhaps she was familiar, in such a capacity, with The Ladies' Home as well.  Interestingly one of the inhabitants of the Ladies' Home in the Thirties was the twice widowed Marian Laura Hampson Simpson (1846-1937), a daughter of Mercer Hampton Simpson, the celebrated Victorian-era impresario of Birmingham's highly-regarded Theatre Royal.  Marian Simpson successively married two Anglo-Indian army officers, John Gannon, by whom she had a son who predeceased her, and Edmund Pipon Ommanney (1841-1910), who came from a distinguished family of army and navy officers and was a grandson of Sir Francis Molyneux Ommanney.  Was there ever someone named Molyneux who wasn't from the upper class?  A relative of Edmund's, Manaton Collingwood Ommanney (Those are some handles!) was rather gruesomely slain in 1857 at the siege of Lucknow during what was then known as the Sepoy Mutiny.

Mrs. E. P. Ommanney, as she was known after her second marriage, died at The Ladies Home at the age of 91 in 1937, by which time Erskine was, I believe, living in London.  (Widey Court had been out of her father's hands at least since 1921.)  Had Erskine known her?  I ask, because one of her detective novels, set in Devon, was titled, in the United States, Old Mrs. Ommanney Is Dead (1955).  In England the title was changed to the more hackneyed Fatal Relations, perhaps because "Ommanney" surely was not that common a surname? 

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
Ironically Ommanney became familiar to American watchers of reality television though Cat Ommanney, once one of the fabled Real Housewives of D. C.  Reality TV stars being our modern gentry, I suppose.  Yes, Cat's ex, Charles Ommanney, an award-winning photo journalist who covered the White House, is a relation of THE Ommanneys (Are there any others?), as this New York Timearticle points out.  Charles whimsically noted that once, had "you Googled Ommanney, you would have discovered three centuries of naval admirals all going back to his great, great great grandfather.  Now you find rumors about the marriage breakup and snarky tattling on the show."

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.

Sadly, the dignified structure, so long beneficently devoted to elder care, became derelict about a quarter century after the author's death, after the care home closed.  In 2013 residents of St. John's Wood complained of "squatters who had turned the five storeys [of the house] into a giant marijuana nursery."  Plans were afoot, at least before Covid struck, to put the building again into use as a senior care center, but these plans entail demolishing all but the building's facade.  If you want to see the house where Margaret Erskine died, better schedule a day trip!

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.

4 comments:

  1. "her education at Widey Court where in 1910 her father employed as her governess native Englishwoman Ada Annie Mckenzie,,,, daughter of ... Murdo Mackenzie and sister of Arthur Murdo Mackenzie..."
    Are you sure Miss McKenzie was a "native Englishwoman"? Her surname and a brother and father named Murdo are proof of Scottish ancestry. The naval connexion may have meant she was raised in or near Plymouth, but Scottishness is a persistent trait.
    One of the blights of London is that expensive buildings like 41 Abbey Road rise in value so much that they are - or were - Covid19 might change it - worth buying as investments and neglecting. Given that old buildings can't be knocked down unless they become derelict (their owners can be required to build exact replicas if they are nebglected, but the regulations are seldom enforced) they might be even more valuable left to decay.
    Bishops' Avenue - known as Billionaires' Row - in Hampstead is notorious for this, but there are other similarly neglected properties in St. John's Wood.
    Margaret Erskine may have been living off capital rather than income, or perhaps - like Jane Austen - she was dependent on brothers who inherited wealth, but she doesn't sound like an obvious candidate for Greathead Lodge if it still served "ladies who have been reduced by reverses of fortune to a state of penury and privation" when she moved in.
    The inspiration for Greathed Lodge was probably the Charterhouse, founded in 1611 for "gentlemen by descent and in poverty, soldiers that have borne arms by sea or land, merchants decayed by piracy or shipwreck, or servants in household to the King or Queens Majesty" and which did not admit women until 2018.

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    1. I don't believe that 41 Abbey Road was still for indigent gentlewomen by 1984. I cant see why Erskine her books still selling would have been indigent then. Hope the house survives!

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  2. Well, Ada was born in England, but I would be happy to go with British. This was the first time I recall encountering ”Murdo.”

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    1. I'm guessing Ada, with a Scottish father and a Cornish mother had what people would call a "Celtic imagination." You can certainly see it in Erskine's books. Of course she had Scottish and Welsh ancestors in addition to her governess, a great house and a well-stocked library!

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