Talk at the Grayshott & Hindhead Literary Festival, September 1998

Flora Thompson arrived in this village a hundred years ago – to the month in fact, in September 1898 – to take up a new job which she hoped would, as she put it, 'prove to be a permanency'.

Those of you who have read Lark Rise to Candleford will remember that at the end of that trilogy we find her leaving her job at the post office in Candleford Green. She says she was 'driven on by well-meant advice from without and from the restless longing of youth to see and experience the whole of life, and that she then disappeared from the country scene.' As far as we can judge, this happened in the autumn of 1897, when she was coming up for her 21st birthday.

We're not quite sure where she disappeared to for the next year, but in September of 1898, as I say, she arrived here.

How do we know this? Well, she tells us so in a sequel to Lark Rise to Candleford which she wrote and then never published – a book called Heatherley. The first chapter of Heatherley is called Laura goes farther, and begins 'One hot September afternoon near the end of the last century a girl of about twenty walked without knowing it over the border into Hampshire from one of its neighbouring counties.'

Heatherley was her name for Grayshott, in Hampshire, in the same way that Lark Rise was her name for Juniper Hill and Candleford Green her name for Fringford, both in Oxfordshire. And Laura, of course, was her name for herself – Flora.

She obviously felt more comfortable writing in the third person about the life of Laura, rather than in the first person about herself. Anyone who has tried to write something autobiographical can probably sympathise with this.

Also, she was over 60 years old when she wrote these books – and you try thinking back 50 years or so (those of you that are old enough) and see what detail you can remember!

Her books are really quite remarkable for the things she does remember, and her descriptions of ordinary rural life at the time of her childhood are thought to be some of the best available. But if we try to relate her work to known historical facts, we can sometimes find ourselves on shaky ground.

In her lifetime, she was quite open about this. For example she said that her town of Candleford was based on the characteristics of three local towns: Banbury, Bicester and Buckingham; and that Candleford Green, as she puts it, 'is not Fringford, and very few of the characters are Fringford people, though there is a little of Fringford in it, with far more of a village in Surrey.'

A village in Surrey? – interesting to consider which village that might be. Grayshott is on the border with Surrey, but I can't recognise Grayshott in Candleford Green. Anybody care to take that on as a research project? – I am confining myself to her time in East Hampshire.

So we know that she cheated, by merging places and people together for the sake of a good story in this way, and who can blame her. But, as a local historian, I was interested to know how accurately she would identify in Heatherley the people and places around her here, in Grayshott, at the turn of the century. To what extent could we rely on her work to add to our own store of knowledge about the area?

And I'd like to share with you some of my results.

Let's start with her arrival in the village. She tells us she walked from the station, Haslemere station that is, and says she 'emerged from the deep, tree-shaded lane which led up from the little town in the dip, came out upon open heath, and for the first time in her life saw heather growing….

'From where she stood she could see, far away on the horizon, a long wavy line of dim blue hills which to her, used as she was to a land of flat fields, appeared mountains….

'She stood as long as she dared upon the edge of the heath, breathing long breaths and gazing upon the scene with the delight of a discoverer; then with a buoyant floating-upon-air feeling, passed on uphill towards the knot of red roofs which soon appeared among pine trees.'

Now if you stand today at High Pitfold, at the top of that tree-shaded lane which leads up from Haslemere, you will no longer see open heath, or the long wavy line of the South Downs which Flora said she saw from there. All you will see is houses and trees.

But it's important to realise that we are talking of a hundred years ago – and not many years before that, neither Grayshott nor Hindhead existed as villages. They are not old-established communities like some of the others around here – like Headley for example which is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The whole area of what is now Grayshott and Hindhead was just one big expanse of open heathland – and the territory of some notorious gangs of ruffians to boot.

Things started to change when the railway arrived at Haslemere in 1859 – but the first shop was not built in Grayshott until 1877, and the first house on Hindhead not until 1884 – only fourteen years before Flora arrived.

But Flora's is not the only record we have of the scene she saw that first day. The archives of Haslemere Museum tell us that Octavia Hill, the co-founder of The National Trust, had been taken up the same track nine years earlier (in 1889), and that she literally gasped with delight when she saw the view – fairly good corroboration that it really was a spectacular view at the time.

And corroboration is what I am looking for when trying to pin down the truths in Flora's book.

I had a number of sources which I could use to check up on her. One of these was the diary of Winifred Storr, aged 12½, of Hindhead. Again from the archives of Haslemere Museum, we have this wonderful day-by-day account of young Winifred's life in the years 1898 and 1899.

I looked at the entries for September 1898, when Flora said she had arrived 'one hot afternoon' and found: — "Tuesday 20th Sept 1898 Exquisite day, hot again! Mother, Auntie Sue and the two Miss Aylings went for a bike ride, and Sue strained her ankle so badly that she had to be brought home in a fly! Our little new Kodak came, Father has given us it." So further corroboration with Flora – it was a hot September that year – as well as some further background to other things which were happening at the time – the appearance of bicycles and Kodak cameras.

Flora came to work at the post office in Grayshott because they needed a trained telegraph operator, which she was by that time. She says the machine was 'newly installed' – we actually know from local press reports that Grayshott had had one for the past eight years, but certainly there was a training job to be done. Flora tells us that the previous operator had resigned, and the remaining assistant was not yet qualified to operate the machine.

The assistant's name, according to Flora, was Alma Stedman. Her actual name was Annie Symonds – so here we have another pseudonym, but at least the initials are right. Flora describes her as 'a pretty, blue-eyed, sweet-natured girl of eighteen whose home was in the village.' She was, says Flora, 'good and sincere, untouched by the world and its problems and yet no fool, with inborn good taste and a sense of humour, and was one of those rare persons who are happy and contented and wish for no change in their lives.' She had a 'bright, sunshiny nature,' whereas Flora, 'as people told her, was too much inclined to look on the dark side of life.' When 'Alma' saw her brooding, she had 'pretty, innocent ways of trying to cheer her which, though often simple to silliness, would usually raise a smile.'

Was Flora's recollection of Annie accurate? Who better to ask than Annie's daughters who still live locally. And they are happy to confirm that their mother was exactly the character Flora describes.

Who else does she write about? Well, her employer the postmaster for one, whom she refers to as Mr Hertford. His real name was Walter Chapman, but he had been born in Hertfordshire, so perhaps that's why she chose this pseudonym for him.

Flora tells us of several melodramatic events relating to him, ending in him murdering his wife shortly after Flora left the village. I've met people who've read this in Heatherley and assumed it to be a touch of dramatic licence on Flora's part, but sadly it was all too true. Walter Chapman did indeed stab his wife Emily to death on the morning of Monday 29th July 1901. At his subsequent trial he was found guilty but insane, and sent to Broadmoor for the rest of his life.

We can probably assume that many of the other pieces of information which Flora gives us concerning him were also true, including his firing a revolver just outside her bedroom one night. She was a lodger with them in the post office at the time because other lodgings were hard to find on her salary, but she says that 'after that night of terror … she had removed herself and her belongings' from the post office in less than a week.

She moved in with a family to whom she gives the surname Parkhurst. As with nearly all the people she mentions, we can be fairly certain this wasn't their real name. Interestingly, in a previous draft of the book we noticed she'd called them the Chivers family, and I wondered if this time we had caught her out and discovered a proper name – but unfortunately I can't find a record of Chivers or Parkhursts in Grayshott at the time. Perhaps when the details of the 1901 census are released early in 2002, I'll have more luck. [I did – the family was the Levetts – but, more to the point, Flora wasn't there at the time of the census in March 1901! – see later]

She says they 'belonged to an obscure dissenting sect which had no meeting place nearer than that in a market town seven miles distant.' I have a feeling that she may have been referring to Primitive Methodists, who had a chapel in Petersfield at the time, but so far I've not been able to prove it.

The house they lived in was described by Flora as a house which had been 'built by a speculating builder with the idea of attracting a superior type of purchaser or tenant; but as it had a very small garden and was closely neighboured by a group of poor cottages, he had for some time been unable either to sell or let it. It had then been let to two working-class families, one occupying the rooms on one side of the house and the other those on the other side, and with one of these [that's the Parkhursts] it had been agreed that Laura should rent their front room upstairs. It was a fair sized room with two windows, one of them with a view of the heath with, in the distance, the long wavy line of blue hills she had seen on the day she reached Heatherley'.

If anyone can tell me where that house might be, do let me know. I imagine it still exists, though without the view of hills and heather now. [I found from the 1901 census that it was The Ferns in The Avenue, Grayshott – which still exists]

Some of her other contacts are easier to discover. Hindhead was filled with eminent Victorians at the time – here to take advantage of the hilltop air, which at that time was declared to be as pure as that of the Alps.

[And here, as an aside, I can thoroughly recommend a book called The Hilltop Writers, written by Bob Trotter, in which he documents the lives of no fewer than 65 recognised writers who were living around the Hindhead area at the time – well researched, and with an excellent index]

These eminent gentlemen came down to Flora's post office in Grayshott to send off their telegrams by wire. Remember this was an era before the telephone had come into general use, and much of the business we would now do on the phone was then done over the telegraph.

Imagine Flora's thoughts when she suddenly found herself face to face with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, probably the most famous author of the day. She describes how 'scarcely a day passed without his bursting like a breeze into the post office, almost filling it with his fine presence and the deep tones of his jovial voice. As he went through the village he had a kindly greeting for all, rich and poor, known and unknown alike. He was probably the most popular man in the neighbourhood.'

He had moved to the area, like so many others, to take advantage of the supposed health-giving properties of the air. In his case, it was his wife's health that was the cause for concern, since she had contracted tuberculosis. While living here, at Undershaw just by the Hindhead cross-roads, he wrote most of his Brigadier Gerard stories and, in order to earn some money, resuscitated Sherlock Holmes from his premature death at the Reichenbach Falls. Among the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes you'll find one called The Lonely Cyclist which is set along the Hindhead to Farnham road.

Soon after she arrived, Flora also saw 'a tall man on a crutch with a forked red beard and quick, searching eyes' surrounded by a group of younger men 'who appeared to be drinking in his every syllable.' This was George Bernard Shaw, who was living in Pitfold House at the time, having rented it in June of that year from the Beveridges, both to spend his honeymoon and to convalesce from a badly infected foot. Apparently, as soon as the foot improved he threw away his crutches and took to his bicycle again. But being rather accident-prone, he'd fallen off and sprained his ankle, which was why, when Flora saw him, he was on his crutch again! [And my thanks to Bob Trotter's book for that piece of information.]

Later that year he moved closer to the village centre and rented the building which now houses St Edmund's School, just a couple of hundred yards from Grayshott Village Hall [where I was speaking in 1998].

Flora mentions at least two more writers who were famous at the time, but have since slipped from the best-seller lists. One was Grant Allen, who had caused quite a storm of protest in the press and elsewhere when he published The Woman Who Did and The British Barbarians, his so-called 'Hilltop Novels,' while living here in 1895. Flora says of him: 'Everybody who knew the author by sight, or even the outside of the house he lived in, felt a burning desire to read his book, and copies were bought and handed round until practically everyone of mature age in the village had read and passed judgement on it. But some who had secretly enjoyed reading his novel seemed quite disappointed when the pother it had caused died down and the author still walked at large, apparently unperturbed by the storm he had raised.' Sadly Grant Allen died of TB in 1899, before he was able to shock the world any further.

The other writer was Richard Le Gallienne, mentioned by Flora as 'the young poet whose work was then held in high esteem in literary circles,' and who 'raced about the parish at all hours on his bicycle with his halo of long, fair hair uncovered and his almost feminine slightness and grace set off by a white silk shirt, big artist's bow tie and velvet knickerbockers.' He was then in his early thirties, had 'found' Hindhead on the recommendation of Grant Allen, and was living in Kingswood Firs, just above Waggoners Wells, at the time Flora saw him. He had published one of his more famous works, The Quest of the Golden Girl, a year previously but, as Flora says, because of the other 'locally revered figures' such as Tennyson for whom 'the whole neighbourhood felt an almost proprietary interest, this new young poet, who actually lived at Heatherley, was little regarded locally.'

All these famous writers used Flora's post office, and she tells us that as a result of seeing them all and listening to their brilliant conversations, she 'destroyed her own scraps of writing, saying to herself as they smouldered to tinder that that was the end of a foolish idea.' I wonder what scraps of hers we lost?

At the time, she mentions walking out with the local newspaper reporter. She tells us, 'he would even have risked losing an item of news for the sake of a talk with her.' They shared experiences such as a primrosing expedition on Good Friday, an August Bank Holiday tramp over the moors, with stewed whortleberries and cream for tea at a wayside inn, and it had been in his company, after a thunderstorm, that Laura, for the only time in her life, had seen rose and mauve mountain-tints on the hills. She tells us also that they had once shared a rather gruesome experience: 'After sitting side by side on the top bar of a sluice at the lakes laughing and talking for an hour one summer evening they had learned the next day that immediately after they left, the body of a drowned man had been taken from the water.' [And in the Haslemere Herald of 12th May 1900 we read: 'There is an element of mystery surrounding the death of a labourer named Albert Pannell, aged 35, whose body last week was found in Waggoners Wells']

It is almost certainly the reporter of the Haslemere Herald with whom she was sitting there. His name was William Austen Sillick, and he made a reputation for himself in later years as someone who became an enthusiastic compiler of notes on the eminent people of the area, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw and the like. In Haslemere Museum today, there is a lovingly gathered collection of newspaper cuttings and jottings of his, and a notebook in which he recorded information specifically about the personalities, famous and otherwise, who lived in and around Grayshott.

How ironic, then, that it includes no mention of the young girl he had walked out with on the heaths and sat with by Waggoners Wells. No mention of the future author of Lark Rise to Candleford. But how was he to know then that the young postmistress he befriended would also become a household name one day, and sit on the bookshelves along with Doyle and Shaw?

While these men are easy enough to identify in her book, some of her other contacts are less easy to pin down.

For example Mr Foreshaw, the retired big-game hunter with whom she said she went to tea each Sunday afternoon. That made tongues wag in Victorian Grayshott, she tells us. She also says that he died while she was still in the village, and that it was the first time in her life that she had felt such a sense of personal loss – people she had known had died and she had felt sorry, she says, but none of them had been near to her; she had never before faced the great dark, silent abyss which lies between the dead and the living.

She tells us he was buried locally, so in trying to find out who he might have been, I searched the burial registers of the surrounding parishes to see what elderly men who might fit his description had died during the 2½ or so years that Flora was here. Surprisingly few actually. In fact the only possibility seemed to be a John Volckman who died on 10th August 1900 aged 63 and was buried in Headley churchyard.

A note in the register says he was a 'stranger at Grayshott'. A look at his will confirmed that this John Volckman was a bachelor, as was Flora's Mr Foreshaw, and that he had a sister, as did her Mr Foreshaw. More than that we cannot say. I have not managed to uncover any further details about him. But if he was her Mr Foreshaw, then I can tell you exactly where in Headley churchyard he is buried and where we would have found Flora – most likely on Sunday 19th August 1900, on the first free day she would have had after his funeral – when she tells us she went to lay fresh red roses at his grave.

Another of the 'strange old men' who she says she was accused of meeting alone was the herdsman she calls Bob Pikesley.

He lived with his sister, she tells us, in a house 'so tucked away between two hills that it was possible to pass within a hundred yards of it without suspecting its existence. It was a narrow thatched cottage with outbuildings in a valley so narrow that their three fields were ribbonlike in length and breadth. As Bob said, you could throw a stone from one hill to another right over the chimney and never know that a house was there.'

Sounds like Whitmore Vale to me. If you walk down the road in Grayshott by the side of the Co-op and carry straight on when it becomes a track, you'll find yourself at the top end of Whitmore Vale. Have a look for yourselves and see what you think.

Flora tells us bits and pieces about Bob and his sister, but nothing that could positively identify them – until she lets slip later in the book that she'd heard that the sister 'had nursed her old mother through her last illness and looked after the house and dairy, then both she and 'Bob' had died 'in that influenza epidemic, as they called it, just after the war. Both down with it at the same time and nobody to look after them.'

That would be in the epidemic after the First World War – so once again I searched the local burial records, this time looking for a brother and sister who might have been buried within a few days of each other, in late 1918 or early 1919. I didn't find a brother and sister, but I did find a husband and wife, Albert Alderton and his wife Emily, who died within 6 days of each other of 'flue & pneumonia' in February 1919 according to the Headley register. He was 51 and she was 47 – and yes, they lived in Whitmore Vale. To add to this evidence, the Rector's notes also state that Emily had been looking after her mother during a long illness just before she died. Were they Flora's 'Pikesleys'? My guess is that they were the basis for her characters. But once again, she has added either her own invention, or more possibly someone else's characteristics, to theirs.

But perhaps the most interesting character Flora met in Heatherley was the young man she calls Richard Brownlow. She tells us how he walked into her post office one winter's day, and seemed to form an instant rapport with her. He lived in London, she tells us, worked for a cable company, and came to the Grayshott area to visit relatives – sometimes bringing his sister with him.

Either the area or Flora attracted him back several times, it seems, and she appeared to be hitting it off with him rather well. Then suddenly it all ended – he came to tell her of his sister's diagnosis of TB, and to say that he had to look after her and wasn't likely to be able to visit Grayshott much more in the future.

Then he rather startled Flora by saying to her, 'I can never marry, you know that, don't you?' Flora says she stiffened inwardly at this, thinking, 'Good Heavens, surely he doesn't think I want him to marry me!'

We can only imagine where the truth really lay, but it was the end of the romance. Within three years Flora was married to John Thompson, and Richard Brownlow was a forgotten dream – until one day, many years later when her youngest son showed her, as she recalls, 'one of his technical journals for her to look at the illustration of a new liner which had just been launched, and there, on turning the page, she read an account of a presentation to Richard on his retirement from the service of the cable company.'

She goes on to describe the gist of the article, and the picture of him which accompanied it, and she noted that he had remained a bachelor.

The challenge for me then was to find the technical journal which contained this article, and so identify the real Richard Brownlow.

I decided to try first the most obvious cable company that might have employed him, Cable & Wireless. They let me look through their old house magazines, and in the issue dated April 1937, there I found an article and a picture much as Flora described. It was of a William Elwes.

Had I found Richard? Some things in the article didn't seem to fit – not the least that he appeared to have been posted in Madras at the time he should have been meeting Flora in Grayshott!

But he looked too good a match in other ways for me to ignore entirely, and by searching through his Will, I traced descendants of his sister, whose name was Lilian. She had survived to marry Col. John Josselyn and bear children, and I was able to contact a granddaughter of hers.

I asked this granddaughter to read Heatherley, and she was immediately struck by Flora's description of 'Richard' first entering her post office. "That's Uncle Bill!" she said. She also told me that he had come home for long periods of leave, and therefore the Madras posting didn't prevent him from being 'Richard Brownlow.' Also that his sister was devoted to him, and that they did go around together as Flora said.

But there were other parts of the story which didn't fit. For one thing, Lilian was tall and elegant with blue eyes, not as Flora had described Richard's sister. She had also never suffered from tuberculosis, and would never have considered doing anything so menial as working for a living as Flora had suggested Richard's sister did. The family at that time, on the admission of today's generation, were 'a bit snobbish.'

She told me that 'Uncle Bill' had been known as a 'bit of a flirt,' and was in demand with the ladies – but apparently always had to get the approval of his sister before starting anything serious! And this might be the key to our conundrum. Flora, it seems, is unlikely to have been regarded as sufficiently 'top drawer' for the Elwes family at the time, and if Bill's flirting with her began to look as if it was getting beyond a casual affair, Lilian may well have decided to put a stop to it. If so, then the excuse of his sister being ill as the reason for Bill pulling out could have been fabricated, either by Flora or by Bill, to save face.

So Flora was never to become Mrs Elwes, and I wonder if she had whether Flora Elwes would have given us Lark Rise to Candleford? I think it doubtful, so perhaps we should be thankful to Lilian.

Flora left Grayshott shortly after losing Richard (or Bill), but it was not by her choice. She was effectively made redundant when another telegraph office opened in September 1900 at Hindhead, very much closer to all those eminent men who had largely been using her services. On the following day, she tells us, 'the number of telegrams sent and received at Heatherley went down by 80%,' and this is confirmed by the local press. Her services were no longer needed, and she says that 'as soon as arrangements could be made she left Heatherley.'

Quite when this was I'm not sure. She mentions being in Grayshott when Queen Victoria died in January 1901, some four months later – and elsewhere she mentions leaving Grayshott in the summer. But she was certainly gone by the time the postmaster murdered his wife at the end of July 1901 [and now we know she had gone by the census date of 30th March 1901].

So, somewhere between September 1900 and July 1901 she left Grayshott, and found employment elsewhere – we believe in Bournemouth, where her future husband was already working [but we also now know from the 1901 census that she first went to Yateley, and that her future husband John Thompson was working temporarily nearby at Aldershot at the time – so we assume that this is where and when they met].

They married in 1903, settled down in Bournemouth and had children. And that might have been the end of her connection with this part of the world had her husband not applied for promotion in 1916 and been accepted as postmaster at Liphook, just down the road from Grayshott.

So Flora came back again to her old haunts, and stayed in this area for another twelve years before finally following her husband on another promotion move to Dartmouth in Devon. From there in 1938 she submitted the manuscript of Lark Rise to Oxford University Press – they accepted it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But here in Grayshott is the place where she says her adult life began, where she passed through what she called her 'Sinister Street' years, and went on to face the world as a more mature person.

The village has grown a bit since her time, but I think she would still recognise it a hundred years on. Most of the older tile-hung buildings are still there, including Victoria Terrace in Crossways Road where she used the library facilities at 'Madam Lillywhite's'; and she would know the Fox and Pelican which opened in 1899, where she bought her 'immense ninepenny dinners'; and St Luke's church, which was being built and also opened while she was here.

And although we in Grayshott allowed her old post office to be pulled down in 1986, and have no plaques on walls (we have now, in 2007!) for her as they have in Liphook, Devon and Oxfordshire, we are still proud of our association with her.

John Owen Smith
September 1998

For further information see On the Trail of Flora Thompson, by John Owen Smith

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