My father acquired a flat in London to which he took his daughter Rosemary with Mrs. Gaskill – “Nana” – to look after her and be his housekeeper. I cannot remember when Nana appeared but it must have been when the boys had outgrown nursery life and were in need of lessons. She came from the highlands of Scotland and from a background totally different from what she found at Harehope. Where she came from, the Scots were a very unclass-conscious people. I remember her always quite separate from the hierarchy of servants which prevailed at Harehope and all other such homes of the gentry. Because of this characteristic, she was eminently suitable to be in charge of my Father’s establishment there in London with his daughter Rosemary.
As I look back on the terms of my parents’ Deed of Separation, I see how disgracefully ill advised my mother was at this crisis of her life. My father was one of the wealthiest men in Northumberland, owning two very large estates, Cresswell and Harehope. And yet my mother was given a comparatively small allowance, and no provision at all was made for the two daughters, of whom she had sole custody. My father had sole custody of John, but because of Joe’s ill health my mother was given charge of him. By the terms of this Deed, my father was forbidden ever to see his daughters again, which I am thankful is a situation not allowed today. I longed to see my father, and as I grew older, used to think how I could raise the money for the train fare to London. I knew his address and was quite certain he would be glad to see me. I have subsequently been told by Nana that if I had managed to do this, my father would have been so thrilled that a daughter of his had had such enterprise, he would have changed his will and left everything to me. Alas, that I could never find the money to go see him. It was not surprising that I wanted so badly to go to my father – the refrain of my childhood was that my father was the most evil man in the world, and I was exactly like him. So the family was torn apart, and neither side was the better or happier for it.
From this time on, the difference in the life style between my half sister Rosemary and myself could not have been more marked. Far from hiding away his love child, my father was really very proud of her, as she was an exceptionally pretty child. She grew up amongst the children of London’s high society and eventually went to Heathfield School. In the meantime, I was at the village school in Newton, and my companions were the children of all the estate employees.
In 1914, with rumours of imminent war, the my mother, Diana, Joe and Doris Waller returned from France — as it happened only just in time to get last trains and boats to England. But they came home with an addition to the family, a little girl of 9, called Mary Eliot. While living down at Cavalaire, my mother had made friends with Lady Eliot, the owner of Bonporteau, a large chateau nearby. Lady Eliot had been living with two of her grandsons and her granddaughter, Mary, who were children of a third son living in Australia with a wife and several more children. Mary, who was really very young for her age, became a close friend of Diana, and subsequently my mother offered to bring her back to England, and look after her education here.
We lived then mostly at Newton with the grandparents and from here my mother rented a house in Bamburgh. My brother Joe, far from well, was with us as his father still declined to cope with him. My mother left Harehope, and rented a house – I simply can’t remember where – but it was intensely cold. It was also here that we went to Church and from here that I have the memory of the hymns that meant so much to me. Once more, I was sent to the village school “as punishment” and once more thoroughly enjoyed myself there.
Joe and I were always great friends, in spite of the three years difference in our ages; I was always ready to join him in any of his activities. He had been given a pedal car, and we had marvellous times together, rushing at great speed down the very curvy paths from the top of Bamburgh Castle to the bottom. We invariably upset at the bottom, flying out of our seats, with shrieks of excitement. I can’t think why we were never badly hurt during these thrills – neither were we ever stopped.
My father had never understood about Joe’s internal disorders and was really very unkind to him. So it must have been about this time that my mother got a specialist’s medical advice and was told that a complete change was necessary, to get away from an atmosphere that was only aggravating the trouble. So with Dora Waller as governess, Diana, and a lady’s maid, they went off to Cavalaire on the Riviera.
Mother was now without a home. With very great generosity my grandfather Widdrington made over to her the house that was the centre of a property they had near the coast, Hauxley Hall. It was a fair-sized stone house, the earliest part about 200 years old, which had been the original house belonging to the surrounding farm. I do not know when the Widdringtons acquired this property, which consisted not only of the village, farm buildings and much farmland, but extended down to the sea and another village entirely occupied by fishermen, their main catch being salmon. Opposite the fishing village, a few miles from the coast was Coqué Island with its lighthouse.
As the tenant of the farm was living in the Hall, my grandfather built a new, good-sized farmhouse for him, and the Hall was made ready for my mother’s occupation. No structural alterations were necessary, except for a bathroom and lavatory in what was to be the children’s part of the house, all the old original part. There were two good sized bedrooms on the first floor and one smaller bedroom. One first floor bedroom was allocated to Joe and any friend he had to stay, and the other to Diana and Mary, while I had the third, small single one.
The additions to the old, original farmhouse comprised a hall, from which the spiral staircase led to an upper floor, and a door led out into the garden facing east. Two large rooms had been added with their front south-facing walls built as bows, taking in nearly the whole wall. Facing the garden, the room on the right was the drawing room, while down a passage was a similar room, used as our schoolroom. On the floor above there was a wide landing and two bedrooms over the drawing room and schoolroom with the bow wall continuing to the top of the house. One of these rooms was my mother’s and the other a guest room. A bathroom had been built between them. On the landing there was also one fair-sized guest room, facing over the garden, and two dressing rooms, one of which was occupied by Dora Waller. Central heating had been put in, and the whole house was lit by acetylene gas.
Part of my brother Joe’s treatment was that he should be out of doors as much as possible. A large summerhouse was built near the house, which was his bedroom and sitting room, although he kept his clothes and things in the room in the main house.
My mother had left meticulous instructions for the decorations and alterations for the whole house, and they had been most beautifully carried out. I have no memories of when furnishing and carpeting and curtaining occurred, but I know that it was not long after the family got back from France that we all moved in.
It didn’t seem to take long for everyone to get settled into this new home, and a routine of lessons was begun. No one was allowed to use the gas in the bedrooms, and we used to collect our oil lamps from the hall, to light our way upstairs. It says a lot for our carefulness that never once was there a fire accident. The acetylene gas was produced by means of a primitive sort of contraption in a small room which was part of the building surrounding the back yard, and our old gardener, Bell, used to deal with it every morning. It wasn’t till long after the end of World War II that electricity was finally installed.
I don’t know how long I stayed at Rhiwlas in 1914 while mother, Diana and Joe were in France, but then we went on down to Barmouth, then a flourishing holiday resort much favoured by the families of Cheshire and Lancashire. We stayed at the Cors y geddol Hotel, just re furbished and modernised; it is still there. I remember very happy days at Barmouth, climbing with Ida up into the hills at the back of the hotel and going down to the shore. We went straight back to Newton from Barmouth and I can remember the atmosphere of solemn faces, and the word “War” seemed to be the grown ups’ concern. Also Edward Grey’s name was frequently mentioned, as he was the Widdringtons’ son in law and foreign secretary. ¬
Then the family arrived home from France. Diana and Mary had become inseparable friends. My beloved Ida had got married, much to my great distress, so I had lost my precious protective friend. Eventually my mother had a car and chauffeur, so my days amongst horses and carriages were over. With none of my usual comforters, I felt very isolated and alone.
Fortunately Joe was happy to have me as a companion, and he found me both useful and helpful for his various projects. We used to bicycle over to the ship yard in Amble harbour. I loved that harbour, and there were always tramp steamers and trawlers, as well as fishing boats in what was a very busy harbour. At the ship’s shop with its mixture of tarry smells we would get our string and hooks and other tackle we needed for our fishing. We spent a lot of time down on the shore, laying lines to catch dabs and plaice. Our bait was lug worms, of which there was a plentiful supply under the sand near where we laid our lines. Impaling the worms on to the hooks was a tricky and fiddling job, at which I rather excelled. It was certainly a rewarding one when at the next low tide we came down to examine the lines and collected the fish we had caught. We had noticed that occasionally all our bait had been eaten off and no fish caught; starfish were the culprits. So one day we collected a whole pile of starfish and buried them in the dry sand near the dunes. I felt most terribly guilty at having been so cruel to these starfish; and, of course, we did not tell the grown ups what we had done, as we guessed we should get a terrible “slating” on cruelty to animals, this being one of my mother’s life long crusades. Actually, I can’t think that a starfish has much of a sensory system.
Just before Christmas, mother organised first aid classes to be held in a small isolation hospital situated on the sand dunes between Hauxley and Amble. We children were taken to be the “patients” used as models, and I remember my outrage at being undressed by a lot of totally strange women and appearing naked – a situation reserved strictly for the bathroom only.
There happened to be a big scare on during these months that the Germans were planning an invasion along our coast. So as well as the first aid and nursing preparations, a possible necessity, trenches were being dug all along the coast. I remember very well how frightened I used to feel at night sometimes as a result of all this talk and the urgency of the work being done.
While Diana and Mary had lessons with Dora Waller in the schoolroom, I joined Joe out in the garden room. Dora was preparing him for the entrance exam to Gresham’s School, and I believe she was a very good teacher. Joe easily passed his exams and started at Gresham’s in January 1915. But there was I, more than three years younger, sharing some of these lessons with Joe! Naturally it was impossible for me to keep up, and I cannot remember how much time was given to me separately. Anyway, what I do remember is that I was considered slow and stupid. Marks were allocated to all of us on the result of the work at the end of the week, and pocket money was assessed on the number of marks. Needless to say, my pocket money was always by far the least of everybody’s.
It had been decided that I, too, should be sent to a boarding school in January. Mother and Dora wanted to do serious war work, and Mother had applied to take a detachment of V.A.D.s [Voluntary Aid Detachments] over to France. She happened to be a trained nurse, and was a fluent French speaker.