Thursday, September 2, 2021

Major Street in Kensington Gardens

Here's another new nugget of information about Major Cecil John Charles Street, aka mystery writers John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye.  

Now that's a view! 
John Street resided in a flat here, at Kensington Gardens Square, in the mid Twenties
the time when he launched his career as a crime writer
and, as John Rhode, wrote the early Dr. Priestley mysteries

As I discussed in my last post, John Street's 1906 marriage with his first wife, Hyacinth Maud Kirwan--"Hyacinth" was a Kirwan family name, most commonly given, in the 19th century, to the males in the family, though there were feminine exceptions like Maud--seems quickly to have proven calamitous, with Street's wife at some point undergoing confinement as a patient in a private mental home.  As late as 1939 Maud evidently was a "confirmed lunatic" (to use the lingo in Street's Miles Burton mystery A Will in the Way).  

Back in 1911 John and Maud were living together with four servants at the Regency country mansion Summerhill in Lyme Regis, although their four year old daughter Verena was residing at that time in London at flat in Hyde Park Mansions with John's 61 year old mother Caroline, indicating that her parents' home was not deemed a suitable place for a child.  I have found no evidence of John and Maud ever again living together after 1911, but I assume they did at least until 1914, when Major, then Captain, Street went off to fight on the Western Front.  Or was Maud institutionalized before then?  

Between 1914 and 1921 Street devoted himself to overseas wartime service and intelligence work, but in 1926, five years after his permanent return to England, he is living in London in a flat on Kensington Gardens Square--a very desirable residence as the character in PD James' short story would have put it--with a woman named "Eleanor Street."  This raises an interesting question: Who was Eleanor Street?  

Street's only two sisters--actually half-sisters, daughters of General John Alfred Street and his first wife, who died in India--were married women in their sixties living far away in country houses and, besides, neither pf these women was named Eleanor.  Nor does it seem that Street's daughter Verena--full name Verena Hyacinth Iris--would have been calling herself Eleanor, and in any event records indicate she was lived with her grandmother throughout her short life.  (Verena died in 1932.)  

So I presume that "Eleanor Street" was actually John's life partner Eileen Annette Waller, whom Street married in 1949, after the death of Maud, and continued to live with as her lawful spouse until his own death at age 80 in 1964.

Previously the earliest I was able to date Street's cohabitation with Eileen Waller was back to the late Thirties, when the pair were living together at The Orchard in Laddingford, Kent and seeing a great deal of expatriate American mystery writer John Dickson Carr and his English wife Clarice.  However, I had always assumed that John and Eileen had gotten together back in the Twenties.  

The mid-twenties were pivotal years for Street, as the forty-something Major, having left his war work behind him and drifted from his wife, sought, like many frustrated men (and women) before him, to achieve a new direction in midlife.  (One might call it a midlife crisis.)  Street found that new direction, beginning in 1924 when he was forty years old, in crime--crime fiction, that is.  

I wouldn't be surprised if this move was fostered by Eileen Waller, who was pretty, vivacious, relatively young (still under 30 in 1924) and came from a creative background herself.  Her grandfather was Irish poet and lyricist John Francis Waller, author of the folk song "Spinning Wheel."  I'm guessing his granddaughter was named for "Young Eileen" in the song.

I also have a notion that Eileen may have inspired the young, free-thinking, independent women who appear in Street's books at this time, like flapper April Priestley, the Doctor's own daughter, in The Paddington Mystery (1925) and, more significantly, winsome Kitty Hapgood in The House on Tollard Ridge (1929), who plans to leave her husband and at one point bravely announces: "I say that, my marriage never having meant anything to me, I see no harm in putting it aside, forgetting it...."  Possibly this bold sentiment was also reflective of Street's own attitude toward his marriage with Maud.

But why is the woman with whom Street is living in 1926 named Eleanor Street, if she indeed is Eileen Waller?  Well, I have always assumed that Eileen, in the years before their 1949 marriage when she lived with John, would have taken his surname.  After all, these were days when localities did not look kindly on purportedly "respectable" people of the opposite sexes living together outside of the blessed state of marriage.  As for the "Eleanor," well, it is similar to "Eileen."  Did the address listing simply make a mistake?  Or did Eileen fudge her first name as well?  Or could there have been yet another woman in Street's life, however briefly?  Major Street's real life mysteries continue.....

I do know that Flat 92a in Kensington Gardens Square would must have been a splendid locale in which to write!  I'm envious.  Imagine sitting down before a window overlooking that garden and writing The Paddington Mystery (though that one isn't very good), or Dr. Priestley's Quest, or The Ellerby Case or The Murders on Praed Street.  For John Street this is where his new life commenced.

Paddington Station on Praed Street, by the way, is but a mile away from Kensington Gardens Square.  Hyde Park Mansions, where Verena had lived with Street's mother, is but a ten minute walk from Paddington Station.  One hopes that the Major stayed in frequent contact with his daughter, who by 1926 would have been 20 years old.  She was only 11 years younger than Eileen.  Perhaps Verena inspired April Priestley.  Certainly Verena's fate, currently, is as mysterious as that of April Priestley, who vanished forever from the John Rhode books after 1925, after having gone on a round of visits to friends.

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