Extracts from Anne Violet Fuchs’ record of her childhood.
Violet Fuchs nee Watson was born in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, in 1874. Her father, Charles Watson, was a partner in a wholesale grocery business which started by supplying foodstuffs to the miners of the gold rush. He was bought out by his partner, John Connell, and returned to live in England, going back to Australia on several occasions, during the first of which their daughter, Violet, lived with her nurse, Ann Gibb, who came from Invergordon. Violet Fuchs was the mother of Sir Vivian Fuchs, the leader of the Antarctic Expedition which crossed the South Pole in 1958.
The earlier parts of her recollections transcribed below have reference to the houses ‘Fiesole’ located near Crystal Palace, and ‘Kingslyn’ at the top of Grange Road (now demolished). The description of ‘Kingslyn’ and its grounds are of particular interest. We cannot unfortunately find space for the later parts, although they portray a colourful and interesting life.
I first remember living in a house called “Fiesole”, on the southern boundary of Crystal Palace Park. It should be pronounced in the Italian fashion, somewhat like this: FEE-AY-SO-LAY”, but the local errand-boys used to call it “Fried Sole”! This house was a temporary one, and my mother always said we left it before I was three years old. I must therefore have been just about two, (in January) when the first remembered event occurred: it was that the footman and someone else built a big snowman beneath my nursery window. I can to this day see “William” looking up and laughing as he shovelled away, and can feel my own wonder at the snow figure standing there with a pipe in its mouth. In the spring, after the snowman had melted, I remember going often with Ann into Crystal Palace Gardens; I believe that Fiesole and some other houses even communicated by garden-gates with the greater gardens. We used to sit near “the Rosery” which must have been a sort of hexagonal iron-trellised arbour on a mound of lawn. There I picked daisies thick upon the grass.
I was then sent to my grandparents in Scotland when my parents went to Australia. When they returned I joined them and my sister Ann at the Langham Hotel, London and was by this time a real little Highland lassie with no recollection of civilisation. It is from the Langham I date my first awakening to continuous life and memory. I was appalled and silenced by the noise and size and crowds. Ann (my nurse) and I stood in the hall and looked up a very big staircase, a staircase of the giants, down which all sorts of strange people were coming. Presently I saw a queen coming down! She was young and slender and tall, not a bit like the Gibb family in figure, and she had a big crown of bright golden hair. Her dress was pink, embroidered all over with pearls, her neck and arms were bare: she was rosy and smiling, and came so gaily down from far up the stair, I could only gaze at her in rapture. My sister Minnie pointed to her, and said to me “Here comes your Mamma!” I was taken aback because I thought a mamma was stout and old and grey. It was glorious, but frightening to have a mamma like this, and to have her fling her arms round me and eat me up with kisses. I did not speak a word; nor all that evening, in a great sitting-room with green velvet curtains, did I utter a single sound in answer to all the coaxings of Mother.
We then stayed for some time at the Queen’s Hotel, Upper Norwood; and while there I remember a “funny old gentlemen” made much of me, and that white arabis grew in the garden. I did not see it for years after, but when I did then I immediately knew it for “the Queens Hotel” flower, and most by its peculiar smell. In that hotel there was a white china vase in the form of a boy leaning against a tree-stump, the stump being hollow and forming a vase for flowers. In this they put my arabis, and so I learned for the first time how abominable plants can smell when they decay. The vase became slimy, and dried into dustiness, but no one washed it out. It did not occur to me to get it washed: I only became afraid of it and would not go near it any more, feeling that it was “nasty”.
Some time during this age of 3 and 4 I was taken to the great Paris Exhibition. If I knew its date it would fix my age, for I was born in 1874, and we went to the Exhibition in a Summer-time. We had, as I since know, a furnished flat in Paris. Of the Exhibition itself I remember very little. Gardens, great spaces, masses of things, a big wall hung with gold-framed pictures; but not one recognizable exhibit; the one thing clear and plain is a bath chair in which my mother was drawn about the grounds! It had a tiny seat at the bottom, in front of her feet, on which a child could sit sideways with its feet on the step; on this I sat and was drawn about, looking up at the wonderful Mamma, and feeling very grand indeed.
After we had been some time at the Queen’s Hotel, Upper Norwood, for a time unknown, my parents hired a furnished villa adjoining the Hotel, perhaps even in its grounds; it was called Ayres Villa. This was taken because of my parents’ decision to lease a house not far away, which had to be got ready and furnished. We were in Ayres Villa for six months, I believe, but I remember only one thing. I used to sit alone at a table having my dinner, and gazing straight out of a window opposite, where there must have been a distant view, at the back of the house, and not on to Church Road. Our new house, home this time, was only half-a-mile away and was leased for seven years from a Dr.Black, who had built it for himself, and built it so lavishly that afterwards he could not afford to live in it. He came from Kings Lynn, I think, at least he had evolved from that town’s name the name “Kingslyn” for his perhaps rather pretentious house. To me the house and garden were so beautiful and wonderful, and I learned to love them so romantically, that although I was torn away at twelve years old I sometimes think I should like to model even a home in Paradise on some of its features! Kingslyn stood in a garden of three and a half acres, but at first there were two or three adjoining plots unbuilt on, and open to us, which were to me confused but interesting wildernesses; we probably had in this way 5 or 6 acres, but these plots were afterwards built on and shut away. Kingslyn was a house of about 15 rooms, counting kitchen, but some of these rooms were very large, thirty or more feet long. The hall was large and square, open right up the centre of the house to the roof, where it was aired and lighted by a great “lanthorn” of stained glass. The floor of this hall, and of the passage running out of it, was of tessellated marble, white, with borders of a design in black, red, and greenish inlay. In this big hall, on this fascinating floor, stood in those first days great packing-cases gushing out straw. Noises of carpets being laid, and trampings round the gallery landing above, and rich exciting smells of dusty straw, come back to me as I picture those days. People stood unpacking these monster cases, while I stood by rapt, for it was like a treasure-hunt to the little Highland lassie who had not yet lived in anything but hotels and “furnished” dwellings since she left the ferry. All these things were ours! Marble busts, a statue, bronze figures, vases carved in alabaster, gilt tables and clocks, the many pieces of silver, the glowing dark blue and gold of the dessert service, the painted flowers and fruits, every plate different, of the “best” dinner china, the thick-set diamonds of the cut glass and the ruby of the hock-glasses and ice-plates, the pure solid sky-blue of the tea-service, which had branches of white apple-blossom painted on it as if tossed across the sky! I could never gaze enough on all these things, some meaningless to me, but all most wonderful. I think I never ceased to gaze on them through many years; often as a child I went from room to room at Kingslyn, and touched them, and wove notions round them, curious wandering fairyland notions.
There was a Mrs Jenkins who lived down Beulah Hill, a very pretty if silly and insincere creature with a very old ugly husband and four very pretty children like herself. I heartily detested this whole family, and one of my principal horrors was “going to see Mrs Jenkins.
At Kingslyn there was always a great coming and going of visitors; always people calling, people staying in the house, people coming to dinner, to lunch, to tennis; Mother and Minnie getting ready to go to dances, dinners, concerts, theatres. Sometimes I would go down with my father to the cellar, and this is the first thing I remember about him, though he was always “there” before. He would fetch up precious wines for dinner-parties; they had to be carried level in a little long basket with an opening at one end to receive the reclining bottle’s neck. In this basket the cobwebbed bottle would come upstairs in a great state, sometimes it would go to the table in the basket, sometimes the wine would be decanted by my father through a funnel with a strainer in it covered with a piece of clean white blotting-paper. The funnel let the wine into a beautiful diamond decanter with a marvellous stopper, through the facets of which I could see scores of Papas and scores of decanters all at once. My father would impress upon me the sacredness of 1840 port, and I always had to taste a tiny drop of real claret, wonderful Lafitte and Larose, to train my palate! So I learnt to despise “vin ordinaire” and to understand something of such people as Dr. Middleton in “The Egoist”.
Those were wonderful cellars for mystery and romance. They were reached by a dark twisting stone stair, and were very large and dark, and smelt of wine and of great crops of stored apples. One day a powerful odour of spirits arose into the house, but no one could go into the cellar to see ‘what was the matter’, for my father had gone to London with the key in his pocket. When he came home, it was found that the tap of the whiskey-barrel had been left running, and the cellar floors were flooded with whisky. The gardener, William Spinks, was sent down to clean it up; he returned in a decidedly fuddled condition, and said that the fumes had overcome him!
The door of the strong-room was next the door to the cellar stairs. It was an ordinary panelled door like the others, but when one opened it one found it backed by a great iron door studded with big nails, like the door of a safe. In here were documents quite uninteresting, but also all the “best” glass and china. I used to go with the parlour-maid to get it out for dinner-parties; we went in by the light of a candle, and the rich-coloured china and glowing red and white cut glass shone to me a if it were the cave of the Forty Thieves. My father would stand by with the key, and show me the thickness of the great iron door, and say: “If you got shut in there, nobody would ever hear you cry!” That had terrible charm.
The dining-room was thirty feet long, and had a parquet border round the floor, on which the chairs stood in pairs, and here I used to go “swimming”; flat on my stomach I would propel myself along and worry myself through the chairs without moving them. It was great day when some young men visitors were moved to do likewise, and stuck in the legs of the chairs.
The drawing-room was large and contained a great many fascinating things, but my chief joy was the billiard-room. This must have been a big room, for I remember it contained at one time a full-sized billiard-table, a Bechstein concert grand piano, a table large enough for six to eight people to dine at, a sofa, and a long reclining-chair. It was my delight to be allowed to get the balls out of the pockets when they went down, and to run round to replace the red ball on its spot.
The gardener’s name was William Spinks; he lived in the lodge, and was a stout stolid person with a black spade shaped beard, rather like an Assyrian image. He had a plain square wife with a nice smile, who came in to work in the house, in pink cotton dresses which seemed to account for her name of Mrs Spinks. They said he sometimes beat her, but this was just an awful surmise. He liked to mystify me. He used to bring up the coals to the nursery, and always said “Here’s some black diamonds for you!” I did not understand this and thought it odd. Now I see he must have heard of diamonds and coals both being carbon. He used to tell me very solemnly that every kind of food had some poison in it except carrots – “and that’s why carrots is indigestible!” I thought about this a great deal, but could never come to any conclusion about it. I did not like William. There seemed a slight flavour of evil about him. He always set out the beds with a row of scarlet geraniums, a row of yellow calceolaria, and a front row of blue lobelia. I think most gardeners did in his day. But the garden had other and wonderful beauties, which I shall describe later on.
Now I was nine years old, and the summer was coming. My arm was mended after an accident, and my back did not hurt any more, so I could go in the garden. It was a wonderful garden to me. The drive and front door were as it were on the side of the house, and the whole front looked over the garden to the south, and away over steeply sloping grounds of other places, over Thornton Heath which was a quite small place then, and away to a blue ridge which they called the Surrey Hills. Outside the conservatory, the drawing-room and billiard-room ran a gravelled terrace with a low stone wall at its edge. Below a slope from this was the tennis-lawn, and this was enclosed on two sides by a sea of rhododendrons, on this sloping bank and in the left side also on a bank. On the right it had a big group of stately Wellingtonias and other conifers, with ferny mossy paths beneath. The next level below was a curving gravel path, under a high sloping bank coming down from the lawn; all this bank was planted with strong roses which were pegged to the earth slope, and blossomed in great red scented blooms all along their curving stems. There was a mound-like rise below this, grass with another group of conifers, and below this the grass orchard sloped away down to the boundary, where there was a sort of dell, perhaps formerly a pond, banked in a romantic way with large rocks among which ferns grew. At least to me they were rocks; perhaps only big stones.
This was the manner of the central slopes. But on the right, from near the back of William’s lodge at the gate, right down to the fern-dell at the bottom, went a secluded wild path among thick trees, so wild that moss and white violets ran over the path, and I felt it an adventure to go there. It was not near the cultivated garden; hay-grass lay between and made it wild and wondrous. In that hay-grass was a group of tall elms, where Ann sometimes sat with me: I had to lie upon a rug, and I liked gazing up through the great dome of green. They talked of getting me a hammock, and I always believed I should be slung up high among the leaves in it; when I found one had to have them near the ground to get into, just like a bed, they became prosaic and uninteresting.
On the left side of the garden a long straight path ran down above the rhododendron bank of the lawn as far as the orchard. On its left was a queer wooden hut with windows called “the summer-house”, which no one ever entered but Ann and me. It was surrounded by quite a large shrubbery of flowering currant, and that smell still takes me back to the showery days of spring when I had to in that dull shaded place, and loved the colour and smell outside. “My garden” was a long bed at the bottom of the tennis-lawn, or rather, below the lawn, at the top of the orchard. Those orchard-trees! A huge spreading cherry, that was piled with white blossom; and a pink-blooming great apple-tree that bore wonderful little sweet crisp red apples in such profusion that the ground would be red and great baskets would be piled up, when William had stumped up a ladder and shaken the tree. The black retrievers, Neptune and Rover, liked those apples, and would bite the reddish side out of every windfall they could find. Rover was Minnie’s dog, a silky wave-coated retriever, and mine was called, though I had little control over him. He had tight black curls all over him, and a dear honest face. Rover had a passion for running away, and used to follow any boy that would throw a stone for him. It became quite a lucrative occupation in the neighbourhood to whistle Rover away and then claim a reward for bringing him back. My honest Nep never indulged in these pranks, though he was much younger. They lived in kennels in a large wire cage. There were golden pheasants in another wire enclosure. The vegetable garden was behind the house and I never went much there except when the strawberries were ripe or peaches on the wall! One other haunt I had a group of three or four fir tees at the top of the long path, which I called “my fir-house”. By lifting aside one of the great fanned branches which swept the earth, I could step into a concealed and roomy dwelling, roofed with broad branches and carpeted deeply with dry fir-needles. No plants grew there except a single straggling violet, my name-sake. It was a wonderful garden for varied joys!
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