Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “osterley”

The past in the present

Sam and I watched The Dark Knight Rises last night, the third in the Batman trilogy. Great film, as good as, maybe better than, numbers one and two. I was keen to see the interiors from Osterley House  which we saw when we were there in October. What I didn’t realise was that the exteriors of Wayne Manor were shot at a completely different location, at Wollaton Hall near Nottingham. I checked it out on the web, and was struck by another coincidence. It is quite close to where Mabel Butler’s father was born and spent his early years, in Risley. So while my mother’s father grew up near Osterley in the early 1900s, his mother’s father grew up near Wollaton in the mid 1800s. Though I feel fairly sure there was no connection between Ephraim Butler, born March 27, 1837 in the picturesque village of Risley, Nottinghamshire, and the great house of Wollaton. In the 1800s and early 1900s such great houses could only be experienced by the rich, the elite of society. My mother’s ancestors were far from such. But in the world of today all of us can experience such amazing places, preserved for future generations to enjoy, whether by visiting, or through the camera lens of the entertainments of our time.


Osterley Estate


We found ourselves at Osterley on the last day of the season, Wednesday 30 October 2013. It was a chilly autumn day, but the sun was shining in a blue sky. We had driven up from Gatwick via the M25 and through the outer suburbs of south west London toward Hounslow, where we had joined the slow traffic moving along Wellington Road (where my great grandmother lived before she died in 1946), then turning into the Great West Road (A4) toward London city. I thought of the letter Mum received from John Weston in 1972, which I have at home in my files, where he describes the Great West Road, “opened in 1922”. When we lived in England in the early 70s the M25 had yet to be built, there was no M4 (which could be called the “Greater West Road”) and the A4 had nothing like the volume of traffic it has now, a four lane highway leading out of London toward the west country.

A sign to Osterley directed us up a small suburban street which ended in another street encircling the great estate. We drove through the gates and left the streets of London behind, entering another world. The long drive led through fields of green, cows grazing peacefully, dark and quiet woods beyond the meadows. The house and its estate are owned by the National Trust now, since they were given to the state after the Second World War by the then Earl of Jersey. The house is not visible from the city streets. The avenue of oaks by which we entered the estate is not the main drive up to the house, which enters from the other side of the park. We parked the car beside the fields and wandered through a copse of trees which screens the house from the outside world, autumn leaves and wet underfoot. Emerging we skirted a lake and caught sight of the columned portico of this grand house that is Osterley.

It was, as I mentioned, the last day of the season. Now, as in its previous glory days, Osterley House is largely closed down for a part of the year, and on the day we came there was a distinct feeling that everything was winding up for the coming winter. Osterley has never been a permanent residence, at least not since the present grand edifice was built in the mid eighteenth century on the foundations of a previous tudor mansion that had stood there since the Middle Ages. The Child family, who came into possession of the house in the early 1700s as repayment of a debt, were immensely rich and rebuilt the older house which was falling into disrepair, but made the new residence a showpiece of architectural and design excellence. No expense was spared in the rebuilding and redecoration, but it was created largely for entertainment purposes, although they used it as their country residence in the warmer months. Of course there was a “skeleton staff” of more than twenty servants and workers in residence all through the year and for them it was their home. But the owners had another house in London, in Berkeley Square, and it was only when the trees were in full leaf and the grass was green and lush that they relocated to Osterley. The house eventually came into the Jersey family through various marriages, but after the Great War it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain because of the huge costs. It remained in the family until after WWII but now it belongs to the nation.

The garden parties which became famous in the late 1800s were really long weekends when the family invited guests to enjoy their summer residence with them. They were socialite affairs, for the successful and aristocratic, and many famous people came to mingle and gossip with the English elite. It was the height of the Victorian era and Britain ruled the world. The garden parties continued into the twentieth century, at least until the war broke out in 1914. In those first decades of the 1900s my grandfather was growing up in the villages nearby, first Heston, and later Lampton, which stand next to each other on the western and south-western perimeter of the great estate. Now these villages have been swallowed up into the London suburban sprawl. It is a very different scene now to a century ago.

For us, Osterley was a pleasant glimpse into another world. We walked through the house, stopping to listen to National Trust guides who told us stories about the rooms and their furnishings, and the people who once lived here. The glory of the former days is preserved as a museum, a reminder of how life was at one time for the rich and famous of English society. The gardens and estate around are as beautiful now as they were then. But it was hard for me to transport myself back a hundred years to when my grandfather grew up in this area, and imagine what it was like for him running over the fields or through the woods chasing rabbits, or how it could ever have been that his mother Mabel Simmonds could have attended one those famous garden parties.


Garden party at Osterley 1908

osterleygardenpartyI found this picture on the web. It is a print which was for sale on ebay. It depicts a garden party at Osterley in 1908, a few years before Uncle Jack (John Simmonds, my mother’s uncle) was born. Some seventy five years later I met him in Brisbane and he told me about the garden parties he had been to at Osterley with his mum when he was a little boy. Could she have been an invited guest? Seems far-fetched, but truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. The caption under the picture reads “A meeting place of all society: Lady Jersey’s garden party.” More likely that Mabel was a servant, but why would she have taken Jack there? Questions without answers.

Osterley Park 1920

ImageThe Park is but nine miles from Hyde Park Corner, and the District Railway has planted a station just outside its walls, but in ordinary times, when one steps across the road, and passes through the lodge doors, the roar and traffic  of the city might be a hundred miles away. The tall elms fling their shadows across the paths, the cattle graze tranquilly in the long grass, the water fowl splash and dive in the lakes, just as they may have done when Sir Thomas Gresham disturbed them with his oil and paper mills. During the late war, part of the Park was used as a motor instruction camp, but that is now deserted.

Over all hangs the blue transparent haze known to artists as peculiar to the valley of the Thames, which enriches and softens the luxuriant vegetation of the surrounding country. The red towers of the house with their white angles, and the stone balustrades of the roof, appear above the dark spreading cedars. Up the old walls climb fragrant magnolia and smooth ampelopsis, and along one whole side of the house runs a marvellous wisteria which tries, with soft green tendrils and purple tassels, to clamber into the windows and peep at the tapestries within. Farther away flourish golden yew and many another variegated shrub, while the passing weeks of spring and summer are marked with the glowing masses of rhododendron, the pure white and rich odour of the giant syringa, and the blossoming of pinks and roses.

As Sunday evening draws in, the peals of distant church bells are the only sounds which come to break the quiet of a home near the town and yet, seemingly, so secluded from the world; then these cease and the song of nightingales alone disturbs the slumbers of Osterley Park.

M. E. Jersey, Osterley Park and its Memories, 1920

Mabel and Osterley

A question that has fascinated me is how Mabel Simmonds, formerly Butler, of Heston, Middlesex, wife of a market gardener and carman before WWI, could have been invited to garden parties at the spectacular Osterley House, which was so close to where the young family lived, but so far removed from the life they lived. Mabel was probably around 30 when she and her husband moved to Heston, from Surrey where they had been living, and where their first son, my grandfather, was born. In the years that followed their arrival they had 4 more children – Frederick (1908), John (1911), James (1913) and Mary (1916). In 1923 my grandfather left for Australia, and a few years later his brother John went out to join him. James died in 1928, as did their father. Mabel was by then 52 years old, with two of her children still at home with her, Frederick, who was 20 and Mary, who was 12. They lived at 1, The Circle, Lampton. Mabel had been together with her husband, George, for 23 years when she became a widow. She remained a widow until she died in 1946, and though Mary married and moved on, Frederick remained with her until she died. After Mabel’s death both Frederick and Mary (with her family) left for Australia.

The thing that stands out as I have tried to get a picture of this family’s life through the few documents I have been able to track down on the internet, is the relative lowly status of the family. They were an ordinary bunch, living in ordinary circumstances. But Osterley is not an ordinary house. It is a stately home, and the people who lived there were aristocracy.The owners of the house were the Earl and Countess of Jersey, but who were they I wonder? The people who were invited to Osterley for the famous “Saturday to Monday parties” (see previous blog), were prominent people in society, writers (like Henry James), politicians, explorers (like Ernest Shackleton). But Mabel Simmonds lived in another world, in the village next to Osterley. In Victorian and Edwardian England these worlds did meet of course, but surely not at garden parties, unless the one was in service to the other. They were not equals.

The answer to the riddle must surely lie in her earlier life. Mabel was 29 when she had her first child, my grandfather, George. But though she lived in Surrey then and worked as a laundress, and had previously been a nurse in London, she had grown up in Bristol, where she was a member of the famous Butler family. The Butlers of Bristol had humble origins further north in England. The father of the family, Joseph Frearson Butler, came from a little village called Risley, between Derby and Nottingham. He married a local girl, Sarah Theobold, when she was 15, and together they had 14 children. Sarah died when she was 48, in 1850 (from exhaustion I imagine!). Her youngest was only 3 years old. Joseph remarried and moved to Bristol, where his son lived.

Bristol had become the centre of a Butler family empire, not because of Joseph, but because of his first born son, William, who was born in 1819. As a young man he had moved south, and worked for the great engineer, Brunel, in his railway building projects. Railways required sleepers, and these were wooden, but wooden sleepers required preservation to prevent them rotting away. The product that was used for this purpose (creosote) was made from tar, and there was a tar works in Bristol which William ended up managing, in connection with Brunel’s engineering works. Apparently a fire almost destroyed the tar works in 1863, and William, 44 years of age, was able to buy the plant from the owners. He built the business up again and became one of Bristol’s most successful businessmen, and presumably extremely wealthy.

My great great grandfather Ephraim, Mabel’s dad, was one of William’s younger brothers. He was born in 1837, also up north, so he was 18 years younger than William. Ephraim must have also moved south, for in 1863, the same year that William took over the Tar Works, he married a girl called Jane Coombs, in Bristol. I assume Ephraim ended up working for his older brother, though I have no definite evidence of this. Ephraim and Jane seem to have had two daughters, Sarah, born in 1865, and Mabel, born in 1876. There may have been other children in between, I have no record. But within a few years of Mabel’s birth, both Ephraim and Jane were dead, and the girls were left as orphans.

William Butler had a whole lot of children. His first son he named William, and when Sarah and Mabel lost their parents, this William junior was already in his late twenties, married to Esther, with three children of their own: Mary, William (the third!) and Joseph. William took his younger cousin, Mabel, into his home where she grew up, together with his children (her “cousins once removed”). William junior by this time was managing the Tar Works, and the family was prosperous. They had servants and a governess. His son, William, who was the same age as Mabel, in his turn later took over the company, William Butler and Co. Mary, who was 5 or 6 years older than Mabel, was like her “big sister”. Mabel’s real sister, Sarah, lived in Gloucester with other relatives.

What kind of relationship Mabel had with her cousins is impossible to know, but there is no reason to think it was a bad one. Although Mabel travelled a different journey to them in life, she would surely have remained in contact. They were her closest family in many ways, even if they were rich and she was poor. By the time she was a young mother, in the years leading up to the Great War, her cousin (once removed), William (the third), was also in his 30s and running the successful business in Bristol. It is easy to imagine that such a prominent member of Bristol society should be invited to Osterley, though exactly who he knew and what his connection was to the great house and its owners is hard to know.

Mabel lived in Heston village, close by Osterley. She was like a sister to William. When he was at Osterley it was only natural that he should call on her, and why not ask her along to the parties at the big house? John (Jack), her third son, was a happy little lad. He could come too. Jack was 3 when WWI broke out. Perhaps it was those happy years before the Great War that he first visited the majestic house with his mother. Uncle Jack was old when I met him, a man who smiled easily, his face tanned and wrinkled from a lifetime in the Australian sun. But he remembered with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle those garden parties at Osterley, from another age and another world.

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