Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Introducing Dorothy and the South Downs..

Dorothy Gwynne had no idea and certainly no intention that anyone excepting herself, should ever read her diaries. Many diarists have written in the expectation or knowledge that their diaries would be published. Because Dorothy writes as she sees things, about everyone and everything around her, you can be with her in her Victorian childhood, and as she grows, as she views the world around her, as she marvels at the myriad developments through the most remarkable period of social and technological change.

Dorothy was born at Folkington Manor in Sussex on 28th October, 1877, the youngest of the three daughters of James and May Gwynne, and second youngest of their seven surviving children. Her father, however, was no squire 'to the manor born', and, but for the Great Irish Famine, she might well have been born the daughter of a spade-maker in Bushmills, County Antrim.

The family fortunes had been made by James' father, John Gwynne, a chancer journeyman spademaker from Londonderry, who, at the age of twenty-one in 1823, was taken on by William Anderson, the owner of a spade mill in Bushmills, who was only to be rewarded by his journeyman - in traditional Irish fashion - abducting his sixteen year old daughter Agnes that same year, the two escaping on the Belfast-Liverpool packet boat. William, in the manner of Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, enlisted the help of his brother, Henry, a cotton merchant in Liverpool. Uncle Henry organised the marriage of John and Agnes, and they returned in respectable manner to Bushmills.

William Anderson's sons, being already engaged in other businesses, he handed over the spade mill to John and Agnes. James was the second of their five sons, born in 1832. By the time of the Hungry 'Forties, business was bad enough for John to appropriate a twenty-pound birth gift sent to his youngest son, Henry, by his uncle, to invest in the business, and this coincided withthe start of the Victoria Channel project in Belfast in 1839, which lasted for ten years and enabled the building of large ships at the Harland and Wolff shipyard. John again seized his opportunity, entrepreneur as he was, when the Government ordered public works during the Great Famine and required quantities of spades and agricultural implements for digging of roads and drainage projects.

The spade mill was not quite the simple business that it sounds: in Ireland there were 177 different kinds of spades, varying from area to area and for different purposes. They had to last for more than one generation and had to be of use with bare feet. Blacksmithing skills were necessary, but a watermill required a knowledge of mechanical engineering and hydraulics. As the Victorian passion for drainage of fens, bogs and water-logged lands got underway during the 1840s, John Gwynne and his sons, turned their minds to the possibilities of drainage pumps. The connection or trigger for this was an uncle of Agnes who lived in New Orleans, where the cotton auctions were held in order to purchase raw cotton to send on to Liverpool to his brother Henry. Drainage pumps were, of course, essential to New Orleans, and the Gwynnes were able to purchase the patent rights for the British Empire, of the American centrifugal pump, first patented in 1815. John Gwynne, his second son, James, and two youngest sons, John and Henry, set off for a new life in London - the eldes son, William, had emigrated to America in 1843, and the third, George, to Australia - and the use of the Gwynne centrifugal pump to power the spectacular main fountain at the Great Exhibition of 1851, announced the success of Gwynne Pumps.

Dorothy never met her grandfather, John Gwynne, who died in 1856 and whose remains were appropriately entombed in the Victorian necropolis of Kensal Green. Her childhood diaries record visits to her grandmother, Agnes, but no remnant of the giddy sixteen-year-old girl, was discernible in that respectable Presbyterian figure.

Dolly's childhood was a magical one. She always knew it, of course, and was very reluctant to leave it: nothing could ever be so wonderful as the enchantment she found in it. The miserable childhood may haunt you, may make you strive to better yourself, but the urge to recapture a perfect childhood is to grasp at thistledown, walk with ghosts and be drawn to tragedy.

It was always certain that she was so much part of the place where she was born that she would never want to leave it. As Kipling, who lived not far away, in the Sussex Weald, and who was, much later, a frequent visitor to Folkington, understood

God gives all men all earth to love,
But, since man's heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all,
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground - in a fair ground -
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

The Manor of Folkington, nestles at the foot of the South Downs, at the very beginning of them, by Eastbourne. Even now, if you go along Folkington Lane from the busy road from Polegate to Lewes, it all seems a world away: tall trees and dells, horses in the fields, a man hedging and ditching. The main avenue to the Manor house is closed, when in Dorothy's day it would have been open to welcome visiting carriages. The houses of the estate workers are still standing and I imagine the smoke winding up from the chimneys, the open doors and the welcome the village wives gave to the small Dolly and her smaller brother, Roland, when they visited to be given a Sussex hotcake from the griddle on the range.

Further down the lane, round a bend, is the church of St. Peter. In the far corner of the churchyard, in the wall, is the stone marking Dorothy's grave, the lichen almost obscuring the inscription. Next to it, the black memorial to her brother, Sir Roland Gwynne D.S.O., is, in contrast, pristine and clear. Further along the wall are memorials to their sister, noted musician, Violet Gordon Woodhouse, bohemian in death as in life, mentioning both her husband, Gordon, and the first of her menage a cinq, Lord Barrington, and another to their brother, Rupert Gwynne M.P. The latter reminds me of an extraordinary episode described in a diary entry by Dorothy in 1924, when she stood outside the church with Rupert's mistress, while his funeral was conducted inside, with his widow and the rest of the family. The grave of his daughter, Elizabeth David, - now the most famous member of the Gwynne family - is in front of Dorothy's, and postcards of this stone are on sale inside this little downland church with its wooden tower. This day, however, is Dorothy's birthday, her one hundred and thirty second, and she is the one to be remembered with some flowers.

Opposite the church is the Rectory, a 19th century house, red-brick and in the Dutch style. Now, alas, there is no Rector living there, supplementing his meagre stipend from the Glebe land. When Dolly was a child and for many a long year before and beyond, Mr. Walsh was the Rector and Mrs. Johnson, his housekeeper. The rosy-faced Rectory and its untutored garden seem asleep now and I almost know that if I went through the gate and front door, Mr. Walsh, a classical scholar, would be composing his next soporific sermon in his library. Dolly would often go behind the Rectory, through the Glebe and up Badger's Bank to the Downs. Going past the Rectory now, they have shut the road through the woods...

You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes...

That country known as the South Downs stretches for fifty to sixty miles from Petersfield in Hampshire to the west to Beachy Head - Beau Chef [beautiful headland] as the Normans named it - the highest sea cliff in England at 575 feet. The contours of the open, rolling Downs: 'Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs' as Kipling called them, have been painted best by Eric Ravilious, with their combes and denes, holts and hangars, the hanging beech woods in the clefts of the hills.

When the Weald was an uninhabited wildwood, the Downs were extensively populated as the barrows, hill forts, encampments and tumuli testify. The Romans called the forest of the Weald Sylva Anderida and the Saxons knew it as Andreaswald. there were wolves, deer and wild boar, and, in Norman times, pannage for 34,000 pigs. Due to the lack of navigable waterways the heart of the county remained undeveloped and unsettled until the demand for timber in Tudor times, so the populace of the Sussex coast looked to the Downs, the sea and the Continent for their living, a people set apart.

there was never water in sufficient quantity for irrigation, but the Downs were perfect for grazing sheep. From around the mid 18th Century the Southdown breed became famous for the quality of their wool and the distinctive flavour of Southdown mutton, which came fro the grass enriched with thyme. In the 19th Century these short-woolled and attractive sheep still covered the Downs, but after 1945 were replaced by Leicesters and cross-breeds in no way resembling them; now there are only a thousand Southdowns left in the country.

the age-old sheep-and-corn farming, where the sheep fertilised the flinty chalk soil of the Downs when they were folded up at night, gradually disappeared. The co-operative system of small farmers and shepherds was destroyed over time by government-driven changes in land occupation: by the General Enclosure Act of 1801, support given to the larger farmers and other landowners extending their holdings. During the Napoleonic Wars, when the price of wheat rose dramatically, much of the Downs were plouged up, and then left to recover as pasture when prices fell in 1815.

James Gwynne bought the estates of Folkington and Wootton precisely at the point when the Great Agricultural Depression was beginning. It seemed a good time to buy large estates when many were coming on to the market and prices were good, but who could have anticipated that this agricultural depression would last for sixty-five years unti lthe Second World War? He had the typical Victorian aspirations of an artisan who became an industrialist: to become 'gentry' as a squire of the shires. His brother, John, was very much more the pragmatic Forsyte of the family, concentrating on his pump business and buying property in the suburbs.

James' aspirations were also shaped by his Irish origin and experiences. Dorothy was vaguely aware of having an aunt in Ireland but her father never vouchsafed the story of his early life there to her. Her brother Nevile probably knew the greater part of the story of James' Irish antecedents; Rupert and Roland much later...they all secured and enclosed this knowledge from the rest of the family and later generations. James ensured that the conflicts within himself multiplied into myriad family conflicts down the years and the decades. there are entries in the diaries which unwittingly testify that James' experience of the Irish Famine in his youth, tortured him throughout his life. Ulster did not escape from the death, starvation and disease of the Famine, although the linen trade made it slightly less hideous than in other counties of Ireland.

In his book The Spirit of the Downs, Arthur Beckett evokes them as they were in Dorothy's prime:

The Downland country always has a varied charm. In spring, when green with young
vegetation; in summer when thickly covered with flowers and heavily perfumed with the
Breath of wild thyme; in autumn when milk-white mists creep up the valleys to fill the
Hollows and cap the winter when the steeps are white with snow, through
which only the black furze bushes and the thorns push the tops of their prickly branches
or when the hills are hard on a 'bleak and kindles morning' or at night when the wild
wind sweeps over the hill tops and rushes headlong into the hollows, howling and
shrieking weirdly and the spirits of the ancient Saxon dead seem to have left their
sepulchres to join in the moaning of the wind that whistles above their lonely barrows.


Please note: Dorothy kept her diary every day from
this first extract, after a false start with two entries in May.
So, she is just a few days over ten years' old when these extracts
begin. These are selected entries, annotated by me but I have
retained her childhood spelling.

Wednesday, November 2nd 1887

This morning I went out for a little because it was raining. I got some evergreens for our room I put my frog and toad in my new ackquaram that La [their nurse] gave me. In the evening La and Roland saw a rat in the corservvetry [conservatory]. I did my lessons very badly today I had some lessons to do in the afternoon. Roland is writing his diary on a sheet of paper. I am writing in the nursery.

Thursday, November 3rd 1887

This morning I did not go out because it was rought and rainy. Last night Boy's [brother Rupert] tuter came his name is Mr. Mount-Fury. [Montefiore] I did my lessons rather well three for music. Roland and I have begun a song separately.

Saturday, November 5th 1887

This morning I went out-doors with Roland. It is a lovely day. We were out nearly all the morning. We dusted our brackens. Mama, Dada, Bunnie and Boy went hunting the meat [meet] was at Frog Firle. In the afternoon Mrs. Padington came to call here; in the evening Roland and Maud had a delightful romp in the passig.

Dusting brackens was a very Victorian pastime: evergreen indoor plants were very much in vogue and Dolly and Roland kept ferns in the nursery. They were expected to keep these clean and cupboards tidy. Maud was a nursemaid.

Frog Firle is a hamlet on the South Downs on the road from Alfriston to Seaford.

Sunday, November 6th 1887

This morning I went to church. It rained but cleared up very nicely. We had a little walk after church. Little Blackwell made fases nearly all the servis. I think I staired him out of countence [countenance] at last. I mean little Blackwell. In the evening I sat up to late dinner. Robson and Mrs. came to tea in the nursery. In the evening I went to church. It was a lovely star-light night. Mr. Beale came to late dinner.

Mr. Beale 'Bealy' was the secretary for the estates. He had a higher status and was better educated than any other employee, demonstrated by the fact that he frequently came to 'late dinner' with the family. He was also much loved for his loyalty and his enthusiastic joining in of games with the children.

Monday, November 7th 1887

Mama, Dada, and Bunnie [Aunt Kate, Mama's sister] went out hunting the meat was at Polegate. I was going to run but it was so very wet and stormy and Mama thought I had better not go so she excused me my run. In the morning I read to Roland 'Somebody'. We had a squble. In the evening Roland Maud and I had a romp in the passiges. I did my lessons rather well I had three for music and reading.

Dolly was supposed to get some exercise by running with the hunt, which she would have done encumbered by coat, hat, dress and petticoats; if it were wet she would have ended up very muddy indeed!

Wednesday, November 9th 1887

This morning I went out with mama and Roland, we went to Polegate we got the letters [from the Post Office] it is a very rainy day. It was only drisling when we went out when we came back it was very much raining. Dada and Boy went hunting the meat was at Ringmer. I had a holaday to wind wool and so did Bobo [sister Violet]. Miss Godfrey [their governess] helped Bunnie to mend the dining room carpet. I did my music and got 2 marks for it. In the evening Roland and I had a splendid romp in the passidges.

Thursday, November 10th 1887

It was rather a dull day it rained every now and then. I did my lessons rather badly 2 for music 2 for reading. A man came to take photographs of the place. Mama and Bobo went to the singing class in Luice. [Lewes]

Bobo at 17, was already considered a musical genius at the piano and this was part of her musical education, to which Mama was devoted. May Gwynne also sang and played the piano and organ.

Friday, November 11th 1887

This morning I went out with Mama and Roland, we went to Ticknor's Lodge and then we went round to Robinson's Lodge. It is rather a nice day. I did my lessons rather badly 0 for music 2 for reading. I wrote to Mrs. Hunt instead of my sum. I wrote to Gwenny it is her birthday today. In the afternoon I went out with Maud and Roland we went up the dell throw [through] the kitching garden into the farm garden and their we picked a lot of vilots. [violets] We went to the poltry yard, the Turkeys were fiting [fighting] their. Mrs. Watson found a pigon nearly died she took it into the farm. I hope it will live. In the evening Edith Hirens came to tea in the schoolroom, after tea their was a church practice. Mama invited Robinson to tea in the sirvents hall because his wife was away she was coming back in the evening he said.

The church practice was for the choir.

Saturday, November 12th 1887

This morning I went out with Dada and Boy, we went up to the farm. It is rather a dull day. In the afternoon I went out with Maud and Roland. I took my hoop Roland took his but he cannot bole his. Maud helped him he tumbled down and cut his knee. In the evening Maud Roland and I had a romp in the passidge.

Hoops were bowled along by means of a stick, and could be made of wood or metal. In Scotland the hoop is called a gird and the stick, a cleet. It is a game which has been played since antiquity.

Sunday, November 13th 1887

This morning I went to church, Jill [sister Eva] did not go to church. We went for a walk up the frunt avenyou; it is a very dull day. The Watsons were invited to tea they said they would come. In the evening I went to church. Mama spoke to little Blackwell about the fases he makes he said he did not know he did I think he mus have known.

Tuesday, November 15th 1887

This morning I weent out with Boy and Roland we went by his rabbits and down by Shiples [Shipley's] to meat Miss Godfrey and Bobo. It is a lovely day. Dada and Bunnie have gone hunting the meat is at Newhaven barn. I did my lessons rather well 1 for music and I forget how menny for reading. In the afternoon we went to the carpenters shop and the blacksmiths shop. We saw Robinson just by Beckinfield place, then we fed Boy's rabbits and he went in to his lessons. Roland and I stoped out doors we went up the back garden to get some flowers to make a cross for Godmama's grave. I have not quite finished it yet. In the evening I had my hed washed and so did Roland and Bunnie Mama had hers washed in the morning and Jill had hers washed last night.

The carpenter's shop and the blacksmith's shop were both on the Folkington estate and the craftsmen were employed full-time for the estates of Folkington and Wootton.

Boy [Rupert] 14 years old, was a pupil at Shrewsbury School and had a home tutor.

Dolly always notes when she has her 'head' washed - this is always the expression rather than 'hair'. She had short hair as a child but her mother, aunt and sisters had long hair. This was not washed often, perhaps once a quarter, the theory being that the natural oils should be left in the hair, and personal maids would brush the hair thoroughly in the morning and at night.

Both Dolly and Bunnie used to make the wreaths for graves: they put moss on to a framework, probably of willow or wire, to provide a bed for attaching the evergreens and flowers.

Wednesday, November 16th 1887

This morning I went out with Dada and Boy, they went out to cut up a tree Roland and I stoped out a little while with our hoops. Bunnie and Bobo walked into Eastbourne and La went to Polegate to meet them. [They came back by train] It is a lovely frosty day. I had my sum excused I did my lessons rather well, 3 for music, 2 for reading. In the afternoon Boy, Roland and I went down by where the tree was being cut down by Shipley's. Boy got on the root and sat their and threwed mud at me and Roland we were below and threw mud at Boy. Boy won. In the evening Roland and I had a game in the passige.

Thursday, November 17th 1887

This morning I went out with Roland and we potered about Mama and Bobo went to their singing class at Lewis. It is a lovely frosty day. I did my lessons rather well 2 for music 2 for reading. In the afternoon La went to Polegate she brought me this red ink. Maud Roland and I went to take our reathe and cross to the churchyard. Maud brought Roland a pencle she brought some biscuits and jame. Mrs. Hart sent me a night dress bag and Jill a bag for her needlework and an apren. In the evening I had a game with Roland.

Friday, November 18th 1887

This morning I did not go out. It rained and it was so very misty. I did my lessons very well 3 for music and 3 for reading. I read to Roland in the consirvetry 'Taken or Left' and I finished it in the afternoon, then I read to Maud 'Dick the Salor'. In the evening their was a practic. In the morning I wrote to Mrs. Hart instead of my copy and dectaison. [dictation] Dada stamped it for me. In the evening I had a game with Roland as usal.

'Taken or Left' by Mrs. O.F. Walton, a book published by the Religious Tract Society which went into many editions.

'Dick the Sailor: A Tale of the Days of Nelson and Wellington' by H.B. Paul, 1866.