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Victorian life at Hawkshead, North Mymms

Photograph of the rear of Hawkshead House in the 1980s Image from the former NMLHS
The rear of Hawkshead House in the 1980s
Image from the former NMLHS, from the Images of North Mymms collection

In this piece, Sonia Addis-Smith nee Porter traces her family tree back to Hawkshead House, North Mymms through letters she discovered which recorded life in the parish between 1858 and 1864. Many of the letters Sonia found were to and from family members who had settled in New Zealand.

"I scarcely think we shall remain in this home after our lease is up - it is very damp for one thing, and we have no one near worthy of the name of neighbour, as their hospitality has never extended beyond a call."

A complaint from Marianne, the twenty year old daughter of the owner of Hawkshead House at North Mymms, in April 1860.

Marianne did appreciate some aspects of her surroundings:

"I very much enjoy my riding still, particularly when Papa goes out with me.... It is still very cold, only now and then we have a day which feels like Spring - the lanes though begin to look pretty with the little violets and primroses, wood anemones, &c, peeping out."

This is from one of thirty-six surviving letters sent from Hawkshead House (now part of the Royal Veterinary College campus) to relatives in New Zealand in the period between 1858 and 1864. Marianne was then youngest daughter of David Charles Porter who leased Hawkshead during this period. She was part of his first family of nine children, and during his time at Hawkshead with his second wife, he increased his family to the round dozen.

In 1850 and 1851, three of Marianne's brothers had joined the new settlement on the Canterbury Plains, New Zealand, in the shadow of the Southern Alps of the South Island. Here, they took up early grazing rights on 25,000 acres in the foothills of the mountains, which became Castle Hill Sheep Run in the area now named Porter's Pass.

They were later joined in New Zealand by their sister, Ellen, who came with David Charles on a visit in 1854, and decided to stay on as housekeeper to her brother David, then surveying around Wanganui in the North Island. Brother and sister were both soon married and busy producing the usual large Victorian families. "Jane Biddis [family servant] and I", wrote Marianne, "often have a talk about Master David and Miss Ellen, and of course wonder about all the fresh Porters and Powells."

The sense of distance separating the family was acute - letters usually taking about twelve weeks or longer en route. In early 1862, Marianne wrote from Hawkshead to David at Wanganui:

"We have been awaiting anxiously the last few days the arrival of letters from you and the Canterbury people, but have not yet received them".

In May the same year she wrote to her sister Ellen:

"I trust you have got safely through your confinement and are doing well - how tiresome it is that you are all such a long way off that we can never meet and talk and see you and all your belongings. God grant that we may see each other again even in this world. I always live in hope and expectation of doing so.... I am so pleased to have dear Teddie home. [her younger brother, Edmund], for tho' of course like most boys he is rather a tease and fidget, still he is very sensible and companionable. It is much less lonely for me.
"Teddie's great hobby just now is making a collection of birds eggs. We go for such nesting expeditions - I find crinoline most inconvenient, it just pops out one's dresses to get caught up in the bushes....."

Marianne's married sister, Frances (Fanny) also commented on crinoline in 1863:

"I don't know to what extent your colonial servants wear crinoline, but here to such a size that they knock down small children, turn over kettles, fire irons, fenders and chairs, and if you complain - "I didn't do, 'twas only my crinerlin." As to legs, it is useless to say you see their garters and knees for they all wear worked drawers. Fancy a housemaid with rosetted slippers and open worked stockings, because "gentlemen see their legs so on the stairs".

As was common at the time, Fanny was continually complaining about her servants.

Marianne involved herself to some extent in community life at North Mymms. In 1858 she wrote:

"I am very happy at home and am getting quite interested in the schools - I have a class on Sundays and I have commenced lately taking one on a Thursday too. I am sure it is a very good thing for myself, and I hope it may be of some use to the children, the worst is that when I go away to stay - which I often do, some where or other, I feel so sorry to leave it all."

Marianne was frequently away on visits to her married sister and other relatives in Surrey. This was partly because she had some difficulty in living with her stepmother, Elizabeth (or Bessie), daughter of Thomas Scruby, a Veterinary Surgeon of Royston. According to Fanny, she had a "Tartaric temper", was always suffering from headaches, and "stuffs her little boys so dreadfully". However, what neither step-daughter could really forgive was that she "had some little blow up with" and consequently dismissed, their servant Jane, who had been with the family since at least 1841, in their childhood days at Garratt's Hall, Banstead, in Surrey. Jane did not disappear completely from their lives, as she was by then married to David Charles's groom, Charles Biddis, and was living in a cottage nearby. The household had five servants at Hawkshead in the 1861 census: groom, cook, nurse, kitchen maid, and housemaid.

Several letters mention the boxes of household goods sent by David Charles and family to those in New Zealand, where many such items were difficult and expensive to find at the time. The first was in May 1858, when David Charles sent a complete list of contents, including such things as: boots, candlesticks, china, work baskets, children's frocks, lengths of material (partly made up into skirts and "bodies"), plaid shawls, stays, petticoats and chemises, children's hats, woollen jerseys, nightgowns, pocket knives, Burns' poems and other books, photographs, bonnets, ribbons, parasols, toilet soap, boxes of haberdashery, etc. Bessie sent long-winded "instructions" about these, especially the materials and styles for dressmaking.

Such domestic pre-occupations of the women were in contrast to the life led by David Charles, who was inordinately fond of shooting, and in May 1858, in his first letter from Hawkshead, he writes with great satisfaction to his son David: "I am in hopes of having very comfortable shooting this next Season close round home, both Pheasant and Partridge." And in November, Marianne writes:

"Papa says I am to tell about his shooting - a few weeks ago he had about eight guns go out with him (guns and men) and shot 20 brace of pheasants, besides hares and rabbits, that was in the large wood .... There is to be another grand day next Saturday at the large wood. Papa really seems to thoroughly enjoy the shooting."

In November 1861, David Charles was again boasting about his massacre of the North Mymms wildlife and then talks about his gun:

"Our best day at the Pheasants was 34 brace, the next 14 brace, besides hares and rabbits.... I still shoot with my favourite little double, although breech loaders are coming very much into vogue."

In December 1863, he was still conservatively bucking the trend:

"Breech loaders are becoming all the go amongst sportsmen, but I yet keep to the old fashion, although sometimes in a party of 6 or 7 I am the only muzzle loader. I find I can always maintain the reputation of the Old Gun throughout the day."

His wife, Bessie, wrote in 1863:

"I mean to have his Carte de Visite [small studio photograph] taken in Shooting Costume this Autumn .... It is to include his favourite little double gun, which I think stands next in his affections to his wife and family."

In 1862, David Charles introduced an interesting fashion note into his letter to his son:

"Knickerbockers are evidently in the ascendant in Wanganui as well as in London. They are also much used by men for shooting. Several that I shot with last year came out in them and this year will see me ditto. I mean to try one pair as I fancy I shall have all the cleanliness of gaiters without the tightness of the breeches. You see we but little think what any of us may come to."

The following year he confessed:

"Last Winter I came out in a black suit with knickerbockers instead of the ordinary breeches. I told my Tailor he had cut them rather full, but he only laughed and said I must have them as they are worn, and he soaped me over by saying that his Father in Law makes them for many of the shooting Nobility and I had just their cut."

[The only photograph I have seen of David Charles, shows him with his gun over his shoulder, and wearing this same black knickerbocker suit, with baggy trousers to just below the knee, and gaiters protecting his calves.]

Photograph of Dr Drage Image from the Peter Miller collection
Photograph of Dr Drage
Image from the Peter Miller collection

In October 1862, David Charles had what he described as "a slight accident with one of my eyes"; explained more fully by Marianne:

"It took place just 3 weeks ago at the first Grand Battue at the pheasants. Eight gentlemen set out in the morning including Papa and Teddy.... Fancy our dismay at seeing poor Papa come home about 3 o'clock bleeding, and his right eye quite a sight. We sent for Dr Drage, and on examination found he was shot in no less than eleven places - about the chest, head, ears and two shots had gone through the eyelid - the eyeball was grazed a little and two shots have lodged, Dr Drage thinks, behind the eyeball - it is a great mercy indeed it is no worse than it is. Now the eye looks well again and the only inconvenience now felt is a little dimness in the vision of that eye, which the Doctor hopes will right itself in time. Mr Gibbs was the unfortunate shooter, he shot at a pheasant through the leaves rather low down, not knowing Papa was in the same direction. Mr G. was as you may suppose dreadfully cut up at his unfortunate bang - it was truly unfortunate, as it was the first day that poor Papa had gone out with his legs quite well and comfortable since he was thrown out of the dogcart, and had his legs run over by the cart when the horse bolted."

The accident did not dampen David Charles's enthusiasm for shooting:

"Some people fancied I should be too nervous to shoot again, but I never found it make the least difference, and I went out again before I could more than half see to shoot".

Despite his protestations to the contrary, there were some effects on his health, as Edmund remarked:

"Those two accidents that Papa met with last year really seem to have made him 5 or 6 years older, he has lost much of his former activity, and he looks so thoroughly bleached, in fact, quite the Old Gentleman".

The letters make numerous references to the New Zealand Wars and David's role as Captain of a Company of Rifle Volunteers, and that of Ellen's in-laws, who were involved in the Militia.

In 1861 David Charles sent his son a new rifle and revolver, the rifle being the "same pattern served out to our Volunteers by Government", and with which David won shooting prizes, which made his father "feel quite proud of my Captain son's skill with his rifle."

He also sent David a sword which is "just such as is used by Officers of our Volunteers", and "two small books, one about bayonet exercise and one about infantry sword exercise", along with his advice about drill.

As local actions in the war became more fierce and the small groups of white settlers on the outskirts of Wanganui feared for their safety, so David Charles's opinions became more hardened towards the Maoris. They moved from the mild: "I hope the Maoris will see the benefit of peace rather than war" in 1861; through: "the Maoris must have a severe lesson before they will be convinced of the superiority of the civilised man ...." in mid 1863; to the more extreme view later the same year:

"If such is the dreadful necessity, they must be shot down as you would mad dogs and murderers as long as they behave as such, for at present it appears that you cannot overcome them by love and habits of peace, so it must be by force so that they fear the white man and his laws ...."

A letter of November 1863 presaged the end of the family's time at Hawkshead:

"I shall not have any shooting here next year, as we shall positively leave next Lady Day (Mar: 25). Hawkshead is a very damp place and I think does not suit the family well."

David Charles Porter died in 1879, aged 77, at his London town-house near Regent's Park, 15 Park Place (now 29 Park Road), where he had spent his childhood. This house was one of "several hundred" built by his father, David Porter, a builder and developer of Georgian Marylebone, who had begun life as a Chimney Sweep and worked as a reformer to this trade, before taking up a second career as a builder on the Portman Estate.

His son, David Charles, was able to lead a comfortable life, leasing large houses in the country, while travelling regularly into London to manage the numerous properties bequeathed to him by his father.

These were all on 99-year leases, after which they reverted to the Ground Landlord, the Portman Estate. This may be why David Charles funded four of his children to begin a new life in New Zealand, where they founded a large Porter clan which still flourishes there today.

Marianne later married Frederick Edward Sandys of Thames Ditton, near Kingston in Surrey, had children of her own and became deeply involved in the Church and social life of that village.

Her elder sister, Frances (Fanny), had married a Solicitor named William Mann Trollope, partner in a West End law firm and Town Clerk of Westminster for forty years. Ted, or Edmund Vernon Porter, was the youngest of David Charles's children by his first marriage, and the only son from that family to remain in England; during the Hawkshead period he finished his schooling and was apprenticed to the Thetford agricultural engineering firm of Burrell; he became a civil engineer, who married and had four children.

The Porter brothers in New Zealand were: Joshua, a solicitor, all of whose children sadly died of Tuberculosis; David, a surveyor, who had eleven children; and Alfred, a farm manager, who had seven. Their sister Ellen at Wanganui, married a widowed merchant, Thomas Powell, and also had eight children.

The three children from the second marriage, all born at Hawkshead, were: Percy, an artist; Guy, a doctor who spent some years in New Zealand; and Edith, who also went to New Zealand and married there. Many hundreds of descendants of these English and New Zealand families have now been traced, of whom this writer is one.

by Sonia Addis-Smith, nee Porter 

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