Life at Holly Bowers

Some memories of Holly Bowers by F Tennyson Jesse (from Joanna Colenbrander, "A Portrait of Fryn", Andre Deutsch, 1984).

"At Holly Bowers the family consisted of Granny and Grandpapa (Helen and Henry James); the two bachelor uncles Somers and Squire; Auntie Margaret; and Stella (Fryn’s older sister).

As Grandpapa was a Cornishman, there was a dish of mashed potatoes browned on the top, and there was Cornish cream for the porridge, and kidneys, bacon, liver and fish, as well as eggs done any way the person wanted. On Sunday there was crystallized fruit to follow the mid-day dinner.

The garden was the next best thing at Chislehurst. The river Chisle ran through the bluebell wood, and there were lawns, greenhouses with peaches, a walled vegetable-garden, and bowers of holly which prickled but were good for playing hide-and-seek. There were gardeners and maids galore. The butler, Foot, struck Fryn as amazingly shambling and ancient, and she was told that he had the effrontery to propose marriage to Ethel, who had naturally scorned him. [Neither feature in the list of servants in either 1891 or 1901]

Granny dressed in shiny silk and an endless variety of lace caps with different coloured ribbons. Her head nodded a little, her face was large and sallow, and she had truly beautiful hands with splendid rings upon them. Fryn recorded that “her manner was always severe to me, but it did not hurt me for I did not love her. Her temper was appalling, and I remember her picking up a dish of stew once and throwing it at Foot”.

Uncle Somers was Fryn’s godfather, and every Christmas he gave her one of the Andrew Lang Fairy Books illustrated by HG Ford, till she had them all. He worked at the Bar occasionally, but he and Uncle Squire spent most of their days riding or playing golf or squash.

Auntie Margaret was a superb rider, played tennis well, and golf. Upon her fell the burden of Granny’s irascible temper, and her own temper suffered. She was always knitting scarves for the “boys” – as they were called – and golf stockings with fancy borders, and they expected no less.

There were wonderful stories of Grandpapa, who had come up from Stratton in Cornwall as a very young man. He had met Granny, who was helping two aunts to teach at a private school in Abingdon, had become engaged to her, and had gone to London to earn his living as an apprentice with the firm of Cory Wright, the coal merchants. As he rose in the firm, he became known as St James the Just. He had travelled all over the world and retired when he had made a quarter of a million pounds – a staggering sum in those days. He wanted to enjoy his wealth at leisure and, when not touring the Continent or crossing the Atlantic, spent every day on the golf links of Camden House, where the Empress Eugenie had lived. He was a figure of awe to Fryn, who vaguely confused him with God the Father, and was dumb-struck in his presence. The only liberty he permitted her, when he came down to breakfast each day, smelling faintly of eau-de-Cologne, was to pull out his clean handkerchief and gravely let her take a sniff at it.

There were three bathrooms, and the children bathed in the one where Ethel sewed, next to the napery cupboard. The bath had a heavy mahogany lid, and they gave themselves delicious tremors by begging her to shut the lid while they were in it. Fryn longed to bathe just once in Grandpapa’s bathroom, but never did. It had a kind of Grecian portico over the bath itself, and by pressing buttons, you could turn on a wave or a spray; very alluring to the imagination.

The rooms were sumptuous, with huge fires in winter. The walls were covered with pictures in gilt frames. In the vast drawing room Granny used to hear the Catechism from Fryn and Stella on Sunday mornings, and Fryn was filled with a dull sense of injury that she always asked Stella the more difficult questions so that she herself never got a chance to show that they were perfectly within her scope.

In 1897 Holly Bowers was in a state of excitement, for Auntie Margaret was going to have her twenty-first birthday and Granny was giving a ball for her. A huge marquee was put up, with a sprung floor for dancing. It covered the croquet lawn and was hung inside with yellow satin.

After Henry’s death in 1903, Helen became subject to increasing tantrums, and eventually bed-ridden. However the family remained at Holly Bowers for the next 26 years until 1929, when Helen died. Squires was already dead by then, and Somers, Margaret and Stella moved to a large flat at Albert Hall Mansions. 1935 Somers collapsed after a days shooting and died later in hospital from a coronary thrombosis and Stella died in 1942."