Uncle Jack remembers Osterley
The only one of the Simmonds boys that I ever knew was John (Jack), my grandfather’s brother, who must have been in his 70s when I met him one sunny day in Brisbane – could it have been in the 80s?. I can’t remember how we came to meet him, where we met him, or why. I was with Mum, but why we were in Brisbane I don’t know. My impression even now is of a cheerful man, enthusiastic, smiling. He talked a lot and he laughed a lot. It was then that I learnt that he had come out to Australia to join his big brother, George, in 1926, when he was only 15 years old. I can imagine the letters that had come back to England from George the adventurer, by then a stockman in the wild Queensland outback, spending his days on horseback chasing cattle, his nights sleeping under the stars in the bush. It must have conjured up exciting images in the mind of young Jack. There is no doubt that the world was different then, life was harder and perhaps people were tougher, but it must have been a wrench just the same for their mother Mabel to relinquish another of her sons to the distant colony of Australia. James was only 10 and Mary still a little girl of 7. Fred was also still at home, 18 years old when Jack headed off for the far side of the world.
A few memories stand out in my mind of what Uncle Jack said of his early years. One was of poaching with his dad in the woods around Osterley House, which was near their home. Osterley must surely have had a gamekeeper, so there must have been an element of excitement to any poaching that was done, specially for a young boy. Jack was only 3 when the war broke out, and surely his memories of poaching with his dad were not before that. When his dad moved back home for good in 1919 he was 8 so his memories of nightly trips to rabbit traps on the Osterley estate must have come from the years after the war. Whatever the case, he related the story with glee in his eyes, and I got the impression even then that Jack was an adventurous spirit, like his big brother George, the grandfather I never knew.
The other of Jack’s recollections that caught my attention was his memory of garden parties at Osterley House. I thought little of it then, but I have often found myself wondering what it could mean. Jack said that he remembered going to such parties at the big house with his mother (see note below). I assumed at the time that this meant his mother must have been a housemaid there, but that doesn’t add up. Mabel would have been in her thirties, and married with 4 children. She surely would not have been a housemaid at Osterley in such circumstances. I hope to get to Osterley at some stage and get a feel for the place, and I will write about it then. Jack mentioned a set of Dickens novels that his mother, or he, received as a gift from some notable person who they met there. He also mentioned that many famous people came to garden parties at Osterley, and Ernest Shackleton was one that came to his memory.
Who, exactly, did Mabel know at Osterley, why was she there, and when was this? Was it before, during or after the war, or all of the above? Could it be that the choice of Heston as a home for the family was somehow steered by these connections? And what did father George think of it all? After all, his involvement with Osterley was as a poacher on the estate, which seems in stark contrast to Mabel’s as a guest of Osterley’s garden parties.
During the late 19th century it was the scene of much entertaining, notably at ‘the Osterley Saturday-to-Monday parties’ started by the Earl and Countess of Jersey in the eighties. These were largely attended by prominent Conservatives and also by several writers who have left descriptions of Osterley in their works. Among these was Henry James, who depicted it as ‘Summer soft’ in The Lesson of the Master. During the First World War part of the park was used as a motorinstruction camp and the whole property became a Home Guard school in the Second.