Saturday, 8 March 2014

Memories of living in a grand house

Mum and I outside the front porch
In 1947, we moved to a large house in Edgbaston, Birmingham, again with Mum as cook-housekeeper, Dad as chauffeur-gardener. Life in Birmingham gained new meaning for me in that it took on form and substance rather than a series of disjointed memories.

          The house was a large redbrick Victorian detached house with a majestic front porch jutting onto a small gravel drive. The porch led into a large hall with sweeping steps up to a landing and bedrooms. Off the hall was a dining room, a drawing room and a huge library with a garden terrace through French windows. A green baize door behind the stairs led into the kitchen and butler’s pantry and our private sitting room. On the first floor were three or four bedrooms, which I never got to see much. Our bedrooms and other spare bedrooms were on the second floor, together with some narrow stairs which led to several attics, a bit frightening for a timid seven-year-old.

          The garden, at first, was a couple of acres running rectangular from the house, easily managed by my father, whose knowledge of gardening was, of necessity, increasing daily. I’ve often wondered how he managed to land the job of gardener as he’d had no formal training. Outside the library was a paved area and a lawn which sloped down to rose beds and herbaceous borders. There was a potting shed and a greenhouse to the side, with a vegetable garden. I spent a lot of time in the garden with Dad and it was from this time that my love of gardening was born. Later, the owner of the house bought some adjoining land, forming an L-shape with the original garden. This provided extra lawns, all manner of fruit trees and a huge lily-filled pond with a path around it. And there were lots of frogs; I didn’t like them or the way they made you jump when you weren’t aware they were there. A solitary child, the gardens were my playground and blessed with a vivid imagination, I played for hours beneath a crab apple tree surrounded by masses of red, orange and yellow nasturtiums. Even then, I made up stories and enacted them.

          I remember Mr Barclay, the owner, as a pink and portly gentleman with thinning grey hair who spoke ponderously and precisely. Mum always said, with some affection, that he was a typical crusty old bachelor. He was a bit of a character too. As a result of an accident earlier, he had some trouble with his back and wore a surgical corset. He was in almost constant pain and probably to deaden this, he drank steadily throughout the day. As a consequence, he was always slightly befuddled. One evening, just after dinner, when Mum and Dad were clearing away, the phone rang.

          It was the owner’s sister. ‘Good evening, Williams,’ (male servants were always call by their surnames), she said. ‘Is my brother there?’

          ‘He’s in the library, madam. I’ll just get him for you,’ said my father. The telephone, still rare then, was situated on a large sideboard in the hall next to some ornate candlesticks. Dad knocked on the door and went into the library. ‘Your sister’s on the phone, sir,’ he said.

          Mr Barclay was dozing in the chair, as he often was, a newspaper spread over his chest, a glass of whisky on the side table. ‘Be right there, Williams.’

          Some moments later, in the kitchen where they were washing up, Mum and Dad became aware of the silence. ‘I don’t think he’s been on the phone yet,’ Mum commented.

          Dad wiped his hands on a nearby towel. ‘I’ll go and see.’

          The receiver was still lying off its hook on the sideboard and first checking that Mr Barclay’s sister was still holding on, he knocked on the door of the library. This time, at Dad’s insistence and with some help, Mr Barclay rose and went into the hall. There, in the subdued lighting, he picked up one of the candlesticks, mistaking it for the telephone. ‘Hello, hello?’ Unable to get any response, he looked at it and began shaking it. ‘Damned telephones!’

          Dad gently took the candlestick from him and replaced it with the telephone receiver. In the kitchen, he collapsed into laughter and it took some moments for Mum to be able to understand what had happened.

          I remember Mr Barclay as a kindly man who seemed to have a soft spot for me. I suppose now his conduct would be viewed as suspicious though it was all very innocent. Periodically, he’d call me into the library. He’d sit beside me on the piano stool and teach me the basic rudiments of playing the piano. It was at his insistence that I learned to play and I was allowed to practice, when he wasn’t around of course, on the grand piano in the library until we obtained a second-hand piano of our own, which somewhat surprisingly, Mum managed to play by ear.

          Or he’d talk to me about books. He loved his library, spending hours in there. Amazingly, he didn’t mind me borrowing any of his books. By this time, I was a prodigious reader, reading anything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much because books were scarce during and just after the war. I was thrilled when Mr Barclay presented me with a book written and illustrated by a friend of his who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘BB’. It was about the adventures of the last gnomes in England, the ‘Little Grey Men’ of the title. This was followed a year or so later with the sequel, ‘Down The Bright Stream,’ which he inscribed ‘To Anne from E D Barclay, March 5th, 1949.’ I loved those books, losing count of the times I read them. They’re still on my bookshelves now, dog-eared but much treasured. I was to learn, 60 years later, that BB’s real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, MBE (1905-1990).


  1. What a lovely post, Anne. I really enjoyed reading it!
    Also, I saw your letter in Writing Magazine - well done and I hope the cataracts are soon sorted.

    1. Thanks, Sally. There are plenty more memories to come, including another installment on Birmingham. I haven't seen the letter yet as I'm only reading my magazine slowly with the help of a magnifying sheet!

  2. An interesting post that I enjoyed reading.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.