I was born on the 29th of May, 1904 at 7.00 p.m. at Newton Hall, Newton on the Moor, Felton, Northumberland, the home of my mothers’ parents, the Widdringtons. This was not an auspicious occasion, or one that called for any rejoicing or pleasure the reason being that there was already a girl in the family born exactly a year and a day previously – but she happened to be the result of a short and passionate union of my father with the wife of a fellow Officer in his regiment. After six months living with her, he got bored with this not-very-stimulating woman and left her expecting his child. Her husband said he would take her back if my father took the child. My mother, with enormous generosity, agreed to take it and on May 28th, 1903, Rosemary was born to Mrs. Aline Forrester of Willey Park, Shropshire. Exactly a year and a day later I came into the world as the token of my parents’ reconciliation.
My mother did not like girls, always wishing she were a boy with all their special advantages. Obviously, had I been a boy, I might have been more welcome. At a fairly early age, I was told that my mother had actually cursed me for being a girl, which knowledge was a heavy handicap to my growing up! My sister, Diana, was born two and one-half years later. We already had two brothers, John and Joe, born in December 1899 and February 1901. So my brothers would be frequently with our parents, while Diana and I were left upstairs in the nursery.
My gender was just one complication surrounding my birth: I was born at the wrong time, as well! My father had rented Inverary Castle from his cousin, the Duke of Argyll, and was due to go up there with all the family in the early summer for the salmon fishing. The Duke was a cousin through a previous marriage having married a Cresswell daughter. Anyway, the present Duke never let his fishing, and it was a gesture of great friendliness that he had let it to my father. In an effort to hasten development, the Nurse gave me too strong a feed, which at once made me very ill. In fact, at one point when she was walking up and down the bedroom with the ceaselessly crying infant, my grandmother rather despairingly said “Isn’t that child dead yet?” Well, I survived. At six weeks old we went up to Inverary, with all the rest of the family.
There have been Cresswells and Widdringtons established for some hundreds of years – at least since the 15th century in the Cresswells’ case – in Northumberland, on the east coast at the south end of Druridge Bay. This long sandy bay boasts fishing villages at each end: Hauxley to the north and Cresswell to the south. A peele tower at Cresswell was the earliest building, a defence against marauding Danes. A substantial stone house was erected later. The Scots presented other danger from the north, so it is not surprising that Northumbrians had a reputation of a rather warlike nature, living under such threats!
I know nothing of the Cresswell family history during the following few hundred years, not until 1820. By this time the Cresswell family had grown very prosperous and owned considerable acreage. The Cresswell of the day married a Miss Baker, owner of a large property in London, part of which now comprises Baker Street. With her fortune, Cresswell built a large and splendid Palladian mansion. But to do this, he first pulled down the old stone house. Because he had demolished the old “family roof tree”, an old wife in Cresswell village laid a curse on him and his family, that “no eldest son should ever inherit”. This curse has worked itself out. He outlived all his sons; a grandson inheritor did not live beyond about 40. My own brother John who, as an Officer in the Royal Navy, had survived the 1914-1918 war, was drowned, aged 20, under circumstances never discovered. And my father died at 45 of sclerosis of the liver. But he was so embittered by the action of my mother through her lawyer of preventing him from seeing the children in her care, that he disinherited all of the family. More about that legacy later. It was decided to sell the Cresswell property, as there was no one to live in the great mansion. No buyers came forward until the Newcastle Council which bought the house and its adjacent land for £100,000. Underneath this land was one of the largest coal fields in the county, which yielded a sizeable income in royalties. The Coal Board paid £900,000 for these royalties, so the sale of the Cresswell estate amounted to just £1,000,000. The property at Harehope, in the north of the county, comprised several large farms, a long stretch of trout and salmon river, and moorland and woods for grouse and pheasant shooting. The heirs to the Cresswell fortune, the Wranghams, went to Harehope. The ancient peele tower remains down near the sea, inhabited by hundreds of pigeons – and a ghost!
The Widdringtons have a different kind of story. At a date and for what services I do not know, the reigning Widdrington was made a baron. The family lived in an old castle with extensive lands surrounding it. But in 1745, there was the Derwentwater Rebellion to put the young Prince Charles Stuart on the throne. Many aristocrats and landowners joined in this rebellion, which unfortunately they lost. Those implicated suffered severe punishment: Lord Widdrington being offered the choice of keeping his life but forfeiting all his land and castle, or losing his life and keeping titles and lands for his heirs. It is not surprising that he chose to keep his life! So his property was dispersed and the castle pulled down. Its stones were used for buildings in the village and on farms. However, Widdrington is still a village with its church, and Widdrington is still a station on the main London to Edinburgh railway line and the station for Cresswell.
Sadly there are now no Cresswells at Cresswell or Widdringtons at Widdrington.
But during my lifetime, our early lives followed the pattern of all upper class and aristocratic families of that time, namely that the children’s area was the nursery, ruled and dominated by nannies, with attendant nursery maids. Usually a cook dealt with all the nursery meals. There was, of course, no bathroom in the nursery wing, and I well remember the tin bath in front of the nursery fire, and the nursery maid filling it from large, and I expect very heavy, copper cans. I can also still picture our night nursery, with the nanny’s bed between Diana’s cot and mine.
Diana’s life seemed easier than mine. I was fed up when Diana was always in the pram and I had to walk, after a certain age. She was early on a very independent person and not crushed, as I was, by a strict, disciplining nanny. One afternoon Diana disappeared and could not be found either in the house or garden. Then one of the gardeners was seen holding her hand and walking with her down the drive. He said he had seen her walking down the road in the direction of the village. When he asked her where she was going, she said, “to look for Simon!” Simon was the son of friends who lived a few miles away, and who used to come often to play with our two brothers. Diana had taken a fancy to him! She wasn’t too upset at being brought back, and punishment for walking off alone was avoided through relief at finding her safe and sound.
I can’t have been more than five or six years old when my piercing screams brought my mother rushing up to the nursery. The nanny of the day had threatened me if I did not stop doing whatever it was I was doing that annoyed her: “The Bogey man will come for you.” And in at the nursery door there suddenly appeared a black faced man waving claw-like hands at me, and making awful grimaces. I shrieked with terror at this apparition, and there must have been consternation in the nursery when mother arrived, but all I remember was the immediate disappearance of the black man and my mother storming at the nanny, who was sacked on the spot; I expect the footman accomplice was let go then also. Ida Shotton, the daughter of my grandparent’s coachman, who I think must have been put in charge of us after this, told me many years later, when I visited her and her husband in their cottage near Eglingham, that she and some other of the servants wondered how “little Miss Cynthia could keep her reason” because of the treatment by this awful nanny!
Not far from our house, a fair sized pond had been made for the winter sport of Curling. This required very strong thick ice and was a favourite sport of the men. Our winters usually provided enough prolonged cold weather to produce the required strength of ice. Then in summer, one day when the boys and I were down at the curling pond sailing boats, it came on to rain very suddenly. The three boys (Simon was one of them) all ran off towards the house, leaving me alone yelling at them to wait. Over towards the hills a large rainbow formed, and for some extraordinary reason I became terrified of it, imagining it was some sort of angelic being appearing out of the heavens. Given my belief in a supernatural world, this vivid rainbow must have seemed like a manifestation of it. A nameless terror seemed to clutch at my heart.
At this time someone was giving us religious teaching, and telling us the Bible stories, particularly the New Testament ones. These stories made the deepest imaginable impression on me, and I also loved the children’s hymns we were taught at the same time. In my despairing unhappiness, getting no love from my mother and not much kindness from the nanny, I would comfort myself by saying “Jesus loves me”, and in a way wrap myself around in this knowledge. I have since stressed on my son in law, the late Bishop of Hereford, that these “childish” hymns should not be eliminated, as adults do not know what comfort they can be giving to some lonely child.
My brothers were both destined for the Royal Navy and I well remember the day in 1912 that John, about 12 years old, was due to leave for Osborne. We happened to be in the nursery to say goodbye and I was crying because he was going away. I can remember John too suppressing tears! It was a long journey from North Northumberland to Osborne in the Isle of Wight. First one had to get to Alnwick about six miles away, then by train to Newcastle, then to London changing stations in London … then to Southampton, then across the sea to the Isle of Wight. Actually a night would be spent in London. My brother Joe did not follow John to Osborne, for reasons of health, but joined by the special entry system, of public school first, then joining a ship from there.
Joe went to Gresham’s school, Holt in Norfolk and it so happened that when he was due to join his ship, we were in the middle of the general strike . There were no trains of course, so Joe managed to be taken on-board one of the many coastal ships that sailed from Amble harbour, and in this way reached Tilbury.
I have very little memory of my childhood as a whole, for instance how we spent our days or what sort of games we played. Only isolated incidents stand out as vivid memories. For instance, I remember looking out of the nursery window one day and seeing my mother talking to an organ grinder, with a monkey dressed in jacket and pants, sitting on the organ. My mother was giving the monkey a large slice of melon, and I can remember thinking “Why can’t we have melon?” because the hothouse melons would be strictly grown for grown ups. But it is interesting to conjecture how an organ-grinder, walking of course, could have found his way up to our house, which was at the end of long drives both to the back and the front. And I can only suppose that someone in one of our nearby villages had told him of a lady who was very fond of animals who lived in a big house.
I remember great happiness – and unhappiness – in my childhood. During unhappy times, I felt scolded, lonely, unwanted. For reasons I have never been able to discover, I was endlessly in trouble and being punished – mostly by spanking on the bottom. I can only remember myself as endlessly singing and dancing, and this must have got on the nanny’s nerves.
Memories are dim now, but I do not forget the world of fairies. As far back as I can remember, gnomes and elfin people were completely real to me. One night after we had been put to bed, I was looking up at the ceiling when from the top of the window a little elfin woman stepped out and walked rather hurriedly along the top of the wall, then disappeared out of the top of the door. Dressed in a dress and coloured apron, she wore her hair drawn back. Naturally I never told anyone about this, but every night I used to keep awake hoping to see her again. She never did come back but I can see her now.