Marble Hill House – What happened to the house after the last private owners left?

Marble Hill House – What happened to the house after the last private owners left?

Last week I wrote about Marble Hill House, the beautiful Palladian villa built for Henrietta Howard in the first half of the 18th century. After her death, it passed to her nephew and then her great-niece before being rented out to a succession of tenants (including Mrs Fitzherbert, the mistress of George IV). I’m very pleased to be able to give you Penelope Williams’ (no relation) account of what happened after that.

Last Private Owners

The last private owners of the house were General Jonathan Peel and his wife Lady Alice Peel.  They lived there for 62 years – longer than anyone else.  General Jonathan Peel was the brother of Sir Robert Peel, a Prime Minister, and today famous as the founder of the Metropolitan Police Force. 

General Jonathan Peel was also a politician and was MP for Norwich and Huntingdonshire.  He served as a secretary of state in the war office and was famous for breeding race horses.  His horse Orlando won the Derby in 1844.1

The coach house built by General Peel

Failure to Sell the House and Plans for Redevelopment

When his widow Lady Alice died in 1887 her heirs were unable to sell the house and it was left empty for more than 14 years.  When the house could not be sold to a private individual it was marketed as a development opportunity. 

Why did no-one want to buy the house as a private home?  There were many reasons. The house may have been seen as at risk from flooding and the building up the embankment would have been a considerable expense.  The size of the house was also a problem.  It was too big for an ordinary family and too small for a grand house.  The landed gentry were gradually becoming poorer.  Agriculture which had supported the large country house was in decline because of competition from the United States.  Taxes were increasing.  Death duties were first introduced in 1894 along with other legislation. 

The house is on higher ground than it seems but the grounds still flood

Country Life Illustrated contained an article in July 1900 lamenting Marble Hill’s dilapidated air: –

“The gardens and groves are a very tangle, as the house has stood untenanted since the stable clock stopped one morning at half past nine, 14 years ago.”2

Unbeknown to them the house had actually been sold two years before in 1898 to William Cunard, a member of the famous shipping family, and his three sons for redevelopment.1 

In June 1901 the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser reported that: –

“Marble Hill at Twickenham is soon to pass to the hands of the builders, and the home of Pope’s Chloe will become a street of suburban villas.”3  [Chloe was Pope’s name for Henrietta Howard.]

By the summer of 1901 infrastructure works had begun.  Machinery and building materials were on site and roads and sewers under construction. 

This was a time of rapid urbanisation particularly in London.  St Margarets station was opened in 1876 and that meant substantial building in the area near Marble Hill, which was developing as a commuter suburb. Many estates were being bought up for housing.  The Cunard family had also purchased Lebanon House and Orleans House to the west of Marble Hill.  The nearby Cambridge Estate had recently been built upon. 

The view from Richmond Hill

There were however a lot of objections to the redevelopment proposals, both locally and nationally.  This was partly because Marble Hill was a key part of the famous view from Richmond Hill.4   Richmond at the time was a place where many Londoners would to go for day trips and excursions on the river.  Marble Hill would have been well known as the home of Henrietta Howard, Lady Suffolk who also had a role in Sir Walter Scott’s popular novel – The Heart of Midlothian.  He describes the splendid avenue of trees leading to the river walk. 5

The view from the top of Richmond Hill had been much admired for many years and had been an inspiration to many well-known writers and artists:  artists such as JWM Turner who had lived nearby in Sandycoombe Road and Joshua Reynolds who had lived in Wick House at the top of the hill in 1788.7 

There is a memorable description by Sir Walter Scott in The Heart of Midlothian and a well-known sonnet by Wordsworth written in praise of the nightingales which used to sing there.   This is from Sir Walter Scott. 

“A huge sea of verdure with crossing and interesting promontories of massive and tufted groves, tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seem to wander unrestrained, and unbounded, through rich pastures. The Thames, here turreted with villas and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were accessories, and bore on his bosom a hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole.”

There are three pictures of the view in the house today – in the Tetrastyle Hall and the Breakfast Parlour. 

A View from Richmond Hill by Thomas Christopher Hofland (1777–1843) hanging in the Tetrasyle Hall

Although the house itself was no longer visible from the top of the hill, the woodlands on the estate were a key feature situated as they were on the bend of the river.  The debates were centred on protecting the Middlesex side of the river as Lord Dysart, of Ham House, had agreed to protect the property on the Surrey bank in return for an agreement on use of Lammas lands at Ham.5

After a long campaign, Parliament in 1902 passed the Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act. 9   This still protects the view to this day. 

View from Richmond Hill

On 19 July 1901 a conference was organised to discuss what could be done about the Marble Hill Estate.  The conference was attended by representatives of local authorities and preservation societies including London, Surrey and Middlesex councils, the Richmond Corporation, the Teddington Urban District Council and other charities and individuals.  Following the conference these organisations got together a total sum of £72,000 to buy the estate from the Cunard family.  The Cunards would have made more money if they had developed the estate but the huge public opposition would have influenced their decision to sell.  The London County Council put up half the money and agreed to take on the future care and maintenance of the estate.10

Marble Hill Park opens in 1903

The park was first opened to the public in 1903.  Before the opening, the LCC carried out some remedial works to the grounds and cleared away all signs of the infrastructure works. But the house remained closed, apart from the ground floor where there was a tea room.  You can still see signs of the original counter on the floor in the Tetrastyle Hall.  The housekeeper’s room which is now the entrance and shop was used as a changing room for the teams playing cricket or football in the park.  It was approached from the outside by way of the toilet block.  A service wing including Henrietta’s china room was demolished in 1909 as it was in poor repair. 

The first floor was turned into a flat for the Park Superintendent.  The dressing room and Miss Hotham’s bedchamber were partitioned creating an extra bedroom and a bathroom leading off the kitchen which occupied the ante chamber. 1

In 1916 during the first world war Marble Hill was a recruiting station.

Sheep were grazed on the lawn until the 1930s. 

The opening ceremony took place during a prolonged thunderstorm according to the Surrey Comet and had to be delayed by an hour and half.11

House first opens to the Public 1966

The whole house was not opened to the general public until 1966.  This was as a historic house museum opened by the GLC which replaced the LCC in 1965.12   Why was it not open to the public before? 

When the house came into the ownership of the council in the early Twentieth Century there was very little interest in historic houses.  A wave of destruction began in the early 1900s but most people were not that concerned at the losses because many saw the houses merely as a symbol of the old order which was then in decline. During the first half of the 20th century many historic houses were lost.  It was not until later, after the second world war, that more people began to recognise their value.13   Evelyn Waugh, whose Brideshead Revisited has been seen as a lament for the lost age of the country house, writing in his introduction to the 1959 second edition of the novel said:

“It was impossible to foresee in the Spring of 1944 the present cult of the English Country House.  It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and despoliation like the monasteries in the Sixteenth Century.  So, I piled it on rather with passionate sincerity.  Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures re-arranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain.” 

The National Trust was formed in 1898 as a charity primarily for the preservation of landscapes of outstanding beauty or interest.  It was only later that this included historic houses.  After the war many country house owners were struggling.  The Marquess of Bath had a big success when, in 1947, he became one of the first to open up his house at Longleat to the public.  He did this to help pay death duties on his estate.  The resurgence in interest could have led the GLC to decide to open up Marble Hill.14

The Daily Telegraph Architectural Correspondent writing in the Daily Telegraph on the day of the house opening 14 July 1966 stated that “The survival of the house at that time probably a result more of chance than policy.”  12

The very first guide to the house was put together by the newly formed Georgian Group in 1939, just before the second world war.  Then they recommended:

“submitting it to a thorough and careful restoration so as to render every part of it available for the use, enjoyment and instruction both of the general public, and of the student of architecture and interior decoration”. 

In 1951 the whole of the second floor had to be gutted because of dry rot.  Some of the architectural features were moved to the lower floors at that time. 

When the GLC first took over, they carried out a major restoration with the aim of bringing the house back to the original Eighteenth century design.  The most significant alterations to the appearance of the house outside were to the South Front including reducing the length of the windows back to their original on the first floor and removing the cast iron balconies, which were thought to have been put in sometime early in the Nineteenth century.  The restoration took two years and cost £48,830.  The aim at this time was that the house would be used for lectures and meetings of cultural societies.  Appropriate antique furnishings and paintings were acquired.  The first exhibition was entitled The Countess of Suffolk and Friends, an exhibition of paintings. 

The Daily Telegraph architectural correspondent writing about the opening compared the restoration to that of the Grand Trianon at Versailles.  But the correspondent in the Glasgow Herald 15 wrote that the only drawback was the difficulty of imagining Lady Suffolk’s daily life there – while praising the restoration of the Great Room on the first floor “all white and gold with its cube of 24 feet lamented the cool blank rooms which resisted habitation”. 

In 1986, with the abolition of the GLC, the house passed into the ownership of English Heritage, who look after it today.  Over time the house has been filled with eighteenth century paintings and furniture so that today we can really imagine Henrietta Howard living here and entertaining her wide literary, political and social circle in its rooms. 


1 Marble Hill House and Its Owners – Marie Draper and WA Eden

2 Country Life Illustrated – 24 February 1900

3 Wigan Observer and District Advertiser – 19 June 1901

4 Gentlewoman – Saturday 9 August 1890

5 Marble Hill – The Heart of the View from Marble Hill – Julius Bryant

6 London Evening Standard – Monday 1 June 1903

7 Richmond Hill and Marble Hill – DS Macoll – The Architectural Review 1901-07 Volume 10

Issue 56

8 The Architectural Review Volume 34 (July – December 1913)

9 Hansard – Richmond, Petersham and Ham and Open Spaces Act 1902

10 Opening of Marble Hill Twickenham – 30 May 1903 – London County Council

11 Surrey Comet – 3 June 1903

12 Daily Telegraph – Peter Fleetwood- Hesketh -17 July 1966

13 Wikipedia – Destruction of Country Houses in Twentieth Century Britain

14 How to Fund Stately Homes in the Twenty-first Century – CNN Style

15 Glasgow Herald – 15 August 1966

The Twelve Days of Christmas.

I’m delighted to welcome Carol McGrath back to my blog with her post on Medieval Christmases.


Before the Reformation of the 1530s Christmas Eve, the last day of Advent, would have been a day of fasting until after noon on Christmas Eve when fish dishes were served. The real feasting began on Christmas Day. The Yule log was traditionally dragged to the hearth where it burned throughout the twelve days of Christmas. People believed if it went out bad luck could occur during the following year.

They believed that between Christmas and Twelfth night the power of the new-born Christ would outrank that of ghosts and spirits and ensure good luck rather than bad. Medieval people were in general superstitious.

The first day of Christmas was 25th December when everybody attended Church before tucking into a traditional dinner. In London the Worshipful Company of Butchers marched with drummers in a colourful procession to present a boar’s head to the Lord Mayor. This ceremony dates back to 1343. Hospitality was the rule of the season when people visited family and friends and ate and drank as much as they could afford. Christmas Day was a time for feasting, dancing and watching plays and this continued throughout the season until Twelfth Night, the twelfth day of Christmas.

The second day of Christmas, 26th December, was St Stephen’s Day. St Stephen was the patron saint of horses. It was a day for charity when leftovers were given to the poor as almsgiving. Carols were sung. Good King Wenceslas originated in the medieval period but the words we know today are Victorian.

The 27th was another day of feasting with two or three courses served with a lavish selection of dishes. It was the feast of St John the Evangelist and in commemoration of St John who miraculously recovered from drinking poisoned wine, wine was consumed in huge quantities on this day. Wine was a potent delight for poor people who were used to drinking ale throughout the year. Wine was expensive and regarded as a gentleman’s drink. Often children would carry a wassail bowl from house to house with seasonal greetings hoping it would be generously replenished.

The 28th December reflected the Feast of Holy Innocents, the massacre of the innocents by King Herod. It was appropriately called Childermass. In great houses the twelve days of feasting were not presided over by the master of the household but rather by the Lord of Misrule or Master of Merry Disports. He took control of Christmas revelry and his train might include heralds, musicians and fools in fancy dress. They were at their most popular in fourteenth century England and during the early Tudor era. Boy Bishops were appointed in abbeys on 6th December and held office until Holy Innocents Day.

The fifth day of Christmas, 29th December was the anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop, Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. It was marked by a pilgrimage along the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral when pilgrims would pray for healing and miracles at St Thomas’s Shrine. They might purchase a pilgrim badge. For those not on pilgrimage the season continued to be a season of honest pastimes such as mummers’ plays, pageants, masques and music. Hunting was popular during the season and in 1564 when the Thames froze over people played football and skated on the ice.

The 30th of December was traditionally a day of making music. Most carols are anonymous, their words and music passed down by oral tradition. The first carols in English were translated or composed by Francisian friars in the thirteenth century as aids to learning about the scriptures. The earliest carols by English composers date from the fifteenth century.

The 31st December, the seventh day of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, was a full day of revelry, a day of games and sporting activities. Board games such as chess, backgammon and dice and cards were popular. Huge sums might be lost or won. The Lord of Misrule might organise Hide and Seek and Hood Man Blind.

New Year’s Day marked the liturgical New Year. However the date did not change on documents until 25th March, Lady Day, when the legal New Year began. Lovers exchanged nutmegs glazed with egg whites to spice their drinks. New Year’s Day was called The Feast of Fools. It was a time to reflect on the past year and resolve to do better in the New Year. A knight might make the vow of the peacock by placing his hand on a roasted bird and renew his vow of chivalry.

Morris Men or Mumming

Picture 5 The 2nd January was a traditional day for mumming. Nativity plays were performed in churchyards, streets or market places, acted by monks or by groups of masked mummers. These were generally spoken in Latin. Cycles of mystery plays became famous. The Coventry Cycle dates from 1392 but there were others such as The Wakefield, York and Chester collections. The word mummers means ‘masked actors’.

Let us jump to the 5th January, Epiphany Eve and twelfth night of Christmas. This was a time of celebration involving feasts, games and more plays. This night marks the culmination of the Yuletide Season. At court there would be a sumptuous banquet and an enormous cake was baked containing dried fruit, flour, honey and spices. Inside the cake was a coin or bean to be offered to guests as they arrived. The lucky recipient would be king or queen of the bean and hoisted shoulder high to chalk crosses on the ceiling beams. The chalk marks were intended to ward off cursed devils, sprites, and other crawling things from conjuring charms.

Finally, Christmas ends. Some thought it bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after midnight on Twelfth Night. After that the power of the Christ child would no longer hold sway. If greenery was not put outside again the tree spirits might bring disaster to the household during the coming year. When the Yule log was finally allowed to burn out, people would save a piece of it to light the next year’s log. They might keep some of the ashes in the house to protect against fire, lightning and toothache!!!!!

Carol McGrath Author

Following her first degree in Russian Studies, English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast, followed by an English MPhil from University of London.  She is the author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. Her seventh historical novel, The Stone Rose, published by the Headline Group, set during the High Middle Ages features Isabella of France. Carol also writes Historical Non-Fiction for Pen & Sword. Tudor Sex and Sexuality was published on 30th January 2022. She is currently writing a novel about The Anarchy titled The Stolen Crown to be published May 2023 and is already available on Amazon pre-order.

Visit her website:

Journal of the Covid Years: Christmas special

In the first half of this year, each week I published my beloved’s diaries from the covid lockdown of two years earlier. The diaries covered February 2020, when the word “coronavirus” first entered our consciousness, to July 2020, when we could finally go to a café or get our hair cut.

After July we stopped publishing the diaries. The succeeding weeks were a time of increasing normality. Life got easier and we felt that we had been through the fire and survived. But there were clouds on the horizon. On 13 September, we had a new rule that we could only meet six people out of doors.  By October, London was placed in “Tier 2”, meaning no indoor mixing. In November we got a “circuit breaker”. But there was still Christmas to look forward to.

This is the story of the Christmas that wasn’t and how miserable people were. It covers the time when there were regular parties in Downing Street. Since then, apologists for the party-goers have suggested that their behaviour was not different from what everyone else was doing. It’s possible that, two years on, we will see more re-writing of history. Time, I think, to remind ourselves what really happened.

Saturday 19 December 2020

London is now back in Tier 3. The main difference is that the café outside tables have gone. So I’m perched on this bench in York House Gardens, with a take away coffee. The bench is actually too wet to be comfortable, but needs must.

The news is bad. Lots and lots of stuff about the dangers of family gatherings at Christmas. I’ve had it pretty good, with my large flat and longstanding marriage and secure income. I like to think of myself as strong, resilient. Suddenly, I feel sorry for myself. The prospect of seeing Mike [my son] for Christmas is what has kept us going. Tom took to Facebook to mention the days and days he hasn’t left the house. On not seeing people for Christmas, the words “fuck right off” featured.

This unexpected rant actually garnered a lot of support. Dozens of comments expressing sympathy and telling him, in clear terms, to get out more.  Last Tuesday, I dragged him out at 8.30pm, to walk around the block admiring our neighbour’s Christmas lights. People have put a lot of effort into lights this year, to ward off the evil spirits.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Saturday morning now seems a different world, when I was wondering about what to pack for going to Mike’s and wrapping the last of the presents.

The first indication that something was wrong was when I came out of Tesco at 3.40 pm on Saturday, to hear someone exclaim excitedly into their phone: “Have you heard the news?”

When I stepped into the house, Tom was grim faced. “Come and listen to the announcement. It was meant to have started at 4pm”.  What?? London is now in Tier 4, and we’re not allowed to leave. No one is allowed into your home at Christmas, unless they are in your support bubble. And absolutely don’t go to the Cotswolds to see your son.

Massive googling, to find the website and all possible loopholes. Mike could come to London and could go around the park with us (not advised, but permitted). Otherwise?

As always in these circumstances, there is a tendency to fixate on the details. What should we do about the £200 of meat we had ordered from our local butcher – the goose, the beef, the chipolatas, the bacon.  We had planned to pick it up on Christmas Eve and take it with us, for three days of feasting.

Many hurried inconclusive calls. Should we drive up straight away? Or find a pub somewhere between us for a (cold, outdoor) meal on Tuesday or Wednesday? Or could he come to London for a socially distanced walk in the park. Or – shock horror – come to our house, come inside and eat a meal with us?

Yesterday, these options narrowed to three: all drive to a pub in Wiltshire (Mike’s Option 1); or Mike to drive to us for a socially distanced walk (Mike’s Option 2); or Mike to drive to us and eat a meal with us (Tom’s option).

Tom didn’t really want to go to a pub, as he doesn’t much like pubs at the best of times, and he would be constantly worrying that a policeman was putting his car number plate into a computer. To tell the truth, I wasn’t that keen either, as finding a suitable pub was beyond me, and even if we did, the patio heater would be not only immoral but inadequate. Mike, meanwhile, worried that coming into our house would fail the Sun test (what would look bad if it were in the Sun). Army officer drives from low infection area to Plague City and does what we have been specifically told not to do (have a meal with family).

God, life is bad enough without a family argument. I put my foot down. Mike and G are driving up to us on Tuesday (which is against advice, but actually legal). They will pick up the goose and presents. We are going for a walk – me with Mike; Tom with G – and then we’ll swap. If they want to come in the house to have a cup of tea and warm up, that’s fine. I’ve bought a Christmas log, just in case. But if they decide not to, we’ll respect their decision. End of.

I phoned Jenny, who also has a story of family rows. The original plan was that her two sons, and her sons’ girlfriends, would all come to hers. When I rang, Jenny was trying to decide which son would be in her support bubble. Christmas 2020 – choose your favourite child.

By 6pm yesterday, Tom and I were exhausted by the stress of it all. I cooked a stew, which we wolfed down, without tasting it. We plonked ourselves down in front of Prom, which shut out reality for a blessed 1 hour 30 minutes. Unfortunately, reality returned once I was in bed. I took a valerian and slept – adequately.

Today has flashes of sunlight. Tom and I walked to Syon House along the river, including a stretch we didn’t know. After all this time, we are still finding new places. Perhaps we are stronger than we think, and can cope with three more months of no contact?

Thames near Syon House, December 2020

Have just heard news that France has closed the Dover-Calais crossing, even to trucks. My original plan was to stock up on fruit and veg next week. Will bring that forward.

Monday 21 December

Today my first task was to go the butchers. Our ultra-cheerful butcher was almost in tears. “I’ve had 75 people cancel so far this morning, and they are being such dicks about it. I’ve got several thousand pounds of unsold meat and it is only 9am”.  He was so grateful that I paid for and took away the goose, he let me off the beef.

Then to Richmond, which was deserted. Closed shops – depression everywhere. A homeless guy asked me what was going on. Walked straight into Tesco, and bought fruit and veg.

Jenny has been full of suggestions for a Christmas roast. “Why don’t you cook the beef yourself? Or have a duck? That’s small.” The butcher said I could have my pick. But I haven’t the energy to roast meat. That says special occasion, company, family. And I’ll need to do all the trimmings, which will look sad and inadequate. All I want right now is something comforting and familiar and full of winter vegetables.

If Covid is spread by tears, it’s had a lot of opportunities. Friends of ours are cut off from their children. And children are cut off from their parents – particularly awful for one friend whose mother has gone into hospital to remove a brain tumour. She hasn’t come out – complications apparently. “I might never see her again,” she said.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Fantastic news. Yesterday Mike, Gilly and Morley (their dog) drove to see us. We walked along the river, up through the terrace gardens to King Henry’s Mound. I walked with Mike; Tom and Gilly walked behind us. At the view point, Tom and I sat on one bench, Mike and Gilly on another, and I handed round paté paninis and smoked salmon bagels. On the way back, we swapped. I talked to Gilly and Tom talked to Mike.

Then, when we got to the park, Tom brought out two chairs and a table, which we put up by a bench. I supplied best china, tea and chocolate log. Mike brought homemade mince pies. He has been making mince meat and overdid the quantities. “I’ve got enough for 75 pies – I’ll take them round the patch [garrison housing where he works]ninstead of a Christmas card”. They were delicious and we polished off eight. They were quite small.

I asked Tom to take a picture: our Christmas tea, in the park, with mud and wellies. The defining image of Xmas 2020. “For God’s sake, don’t put it on Facebook”, Mike worried. “We could get into trouble”.

Criminal behaviour

We were lucky, hitting a window in the normal rain and cold. Even glimmerings of sunlight. The saddest bit was saying goodbye. The official line is – see you at Easter. I even looked up when Easter is: 4 April. Seems like a long time.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

I spent this morning ringing friends. Laura talked about her son and his wife who will declare bankruptcy in the New Year. Dan talked about cancelling his trip to South Africa: “My father’s quite upset about not seeing me”.  I mentioned my steps towards retirement. “It’s important to have plans,” Dan told me, “or you can lose your sense of self.”  Well, my plans were staying with Mike for Christmas and going to an exhibition on 20 January. Look what happened there. Otherwise, Tom has booked for the ballet on our wedding anniversary: 24 June. That is the date to watch.

Boxing Day, Saturday 26 December 2020

“How are you?” people ask each other on the phone. To which the usual answer is “up and down”.

Let’s start with the Christmas ups. Breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Opening our presents over a Whatsapp video call, which worked much, much better than I thought it would. So lots of ooing and aahing over heated coasters, dulce de leche etc. The theme of the day was warm, fluffy and squishy. Tom gave me a matching cashmere scarf and beret and a microwave hot water bottle. I gave him sheepskin slippers and a super deluxe pillow.

Following Jenny’s instructions to “make an effort with Christmas dinner”, I felt I’d made just the right amount of effort: avocado orange; lamb tagine; and Christmas pudding (which was no effort at all – three minutes in the microwave). So full did we feel that all we had for supper was the rest of the Christmas pudding, with a satsuma.

Three minutes in the microwave

Before dinner we had a short walk in the park, where lots of people were sharing flasks of coffee. This did not used to be a Christmas tradition. Then afterwards, we read our new books and Tom suggested listening to the Queen’s Speech. This is Tom we are talking about, committed Republican. The broadcast was pure schmaltz, in a “we are all in it together and will get through it” sort of way (cue: picture of NHS choir, holding candles). And somehow it made us feel better. Then a film Mike recommended, from Pixar – Arthur Christmas. We laughed a lot.

I phoned Beth, who like us, had a present opening video call. But unlike us, the presents were still with her parents. They had to open them for her.   

The down bits? Mainly at night. I slept badly Christmas Eve night. And by 9pm I was falling asleep in front of the telly. I only just managed the cheery Christmas video call with Mike, which involved more upbeat energy than I could quite muster. I took our three existing hot water bottles, plus the new one, to bed and zonked out almost immediately.

Nor could I bear to look at the news. I told Tom that if Johnson finally got an EU deal I would be so relieved that I would be prepared to say “Well done Boris”. So there, I’ve said. Well done. Chaos averted, if rather late and with so little preparation.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Usually, I love the empty days after Christmas, when nothing is expected and it’s socially acceptable to lounge on the sofa eating too much Christmas cake. I’ve been following the traditions – reading round ups of 2020; going for undemanding walks; watching Christmas films. But I haven’t sunk into the experience with the same abandon. There is a hollow feeling. Is this all there is? Will real life sweep us along in its tide, as before – or are we stuck in this muddy eddy forever?

Yesterday I took my bike to Richmond Park to see Dan – despite warnings from Tom that we should now be staying in and seeing no-one. Somewhere, in the mud before the Bog Gate, my pedal jammed – making me late, and anxious, as I kept dropping phone, and key, and gloves and helmet, and failing to get it together. In the end it was fine. I met Dan by the Sheen Gate, wrapped up in full ski gear, as we gazed over muddy tracks and icy muddles into the bleak midwinter.

Dan had recovered from the shock of cancelling his trip and was back to phlegmatism. We sat at opposite ends of a bench which had been icy but was now turning damp, trying to keep our feet out of the puddle. At least in my disorganisation, I had had managed a flask of coffee.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of staying with their own thoughts”, Dan said. “A fast-paced life is great, but you can embrace a slow life too. Don’t be frightened of slow.”  We talked about failures in Government. I squeaked, at fast pace, about how the state should do more, quicker. Dan shrugged and suggested that it would all come around in the end. He then gave my bike a hard stare, at which it started working just fine.  I got home only six minutes late.

The Thames was definitely running high

I have never seen the Crane with so much water in it. And the Thames is running faster than at any time since the floods. Mike keeps sending me pictures of the Cotswold Water Park, where ditches have become streams and streams are rapidly turning into lakes. Yesterday they woke to snow and today is a blizzard. Covid, floods, lorry queues: which to worry about first? Or should I take Dan’s advice and assume it will all work out in the end?

The long (and accident prone) road to motor regulation

I thought that we might take a break from 19th century history this week and look at something from around a hundred years ago.

My wife, Tammy Goriely, has been doing some work on the regulation of self-driving cars and this has inspired her to look at how driving was regulated in the past.

The growth of motoring in Britain

The first motor car to appear on British roads was a Panhard et Levassor which the Hon. Evelyn Ellis imported into Britain in June 1895. He obviously started a fashion: by the end of the year there were 14 or 15 cars on the roads – a figure which had increased dramatically by 1900 to over 700.

The first motor cars were restricted to a walking pace by the notorious Red Flag Act (the Locomotive Act of 1865) which required a person carrying a red flag to walk in front of any self-propelled vehicles. (The law was designed to cover steam powered vehicles like fairground tractors.) ln 1896, this was replaced by a speed limit of 14 miles an hour, raised to 20 miles an hour in 1903.

By the end of the 1920s there were almost a million cars (and around a million trucks and motorcycles) in Britain. Inevitably, the number of people killed on the road became a cause for concern.

Increasing road deaths

There had always been road deaths, of course. In 1909, 1,070 people had been killed on the roads, with over half of collisions involving horse drawn vehicles. That is a very similar proportionately to the level of road deaths in 2019 (around 27 per million population).

However, increases in the number of motor vehicles on the roads led to an escalation in deaths. In 1928, almost 6,000 people died on the roads – of which over 5,000 involved collisions with motor cars.  Road deaths had reached the astonishing rate of 134 per million people.

The Royal Commission on Transport

Against this background of rapidly increasing road deaths, a Royal Commission on Transport was set up, reporting in 1929.

Sir Arthur Griffith Boscawen, former Conservative politician and Chairman of the Royal Commission

When looking at historical change, there is a natural tendency to think in terms of dramatic turning points: the change from the Tudors to the Stuarts; the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So the Royal Commission on Transport is seen as a pivotal moment in our response to the motor car. It was no such thing. It was a flawed document reflecting the situation at the time and some (often hilariously mistaken) notions of how road transport would develop. Some of its recommendations stuck, such as compulsory insurance and a Highway Code. Others were later reversed (such as its rejection of speed limits and driving tests). 

Speed limits

The big problem in 1929 was that the 20 miles an hour speed limit set in the Motor Car Act 1903 was widely disregarded. Nor did people abide by the 10 or 12 miles an hour limits imposed in many towns and villages.

Enforcing speed limits placed a considerable burden on the police. It had also led to clashes between the police and upper-class motorists. As the Police Journal put it in 1928: “with the general advent of the motor car, the police have been put in the position of disciplining the general public, to an extent almost unprecedented.”

Motoring organisations called for an end to speed limits. In 1927, 92% of the 100,000 AA members who replied to a questionnaire favoured abolition. Motoring organisations argued that the real problem was not speed or the technical inadequacies of steering and brakes but “road hogs”. This Toad of Toad Hall character crops up in all discussions of early motoring as the villain of the piece.

The Commission accepted the motoring organisations’ arguments. They recommended removing all speed limits. Speed limits were to be replaced by greater penalties for dangerous driving by the small minority of motorists who caused problems.

Many in London disagreed. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police advocated a 35 mile an hour limit in London. Metropolitan Magistrates commented:

The suggestion, in plain language, amounts to this: that individuals for their personal benefit should be allowed to drive through the streets of the Metropolis at a speed often exceeding the rate of an express train.

The 1930 Road Traffic Act abolished the 20 miles an hour speed limit. However, local authorities could apply to the Minister of Transport for a speed limit on a particularly dangerous stretch of road.

Following the 1930 Act, fatalities continued to climb, reaching a peak of 7,155 in 1934. The Government rowed back. The Road Traffic Act 1934 imposed a 30 mile an hour limit for built up areas.  

Highway Code

The Commission noted the antagonism between drivers and members of the public. To introduce a new spirit of co-operation between road users, the Commission recommended a new “Code of Customs”, to be drawn up the Ministry.

We are confident that everybody on the road will play the game, but the rules of the game must be settled first.

The Commission attached “very great importance” to such a code and suggested that every licence holder should be given a free copy. Thus Toad was to be sent firmly back to Toad Hall!

Driving licences and tests

In 1929, you could obtain a driving licence by paying 5 shillings and showing identification. The only requirement was to be over 17 (or 14 for motorcycles). As the Commission commented: “there is nothing to prevent a totally blind man obtaining a licence if he applies for one.” Action was clearly needed so the Commission recommended that applicants should make a declaration that they were not suffering from a disease or disability. That should sort it!

Many countries had introduced compulsory driving tests, but the AA and RAC were opposed, commenting that tests were of “very doubtful practical utility and the source of considerable expense”. Rather the chief requisite was road sense, “which can only be acquired on the road itself”. The Commission agreed: “with regards to knowledge and experience, no test could be effective.”

Again, when faced with further escalations in road deaths, the Ministry of Transport reversed the policy. Driving tests for new drivers were introduced by the Road Traffic Act 1934, with the first compulsory tests taking place in June 1935.

Compulsory insurance

The Royal Commission most important idea was to recommend compulsory insurance against personal injury to third parties. During oral evidence, the Chairman pressed representatives for the Ministry of Transport on the issue, noting that motor car ownership was changing. As he put it, “People of little means buy cars, possibly on the hire purchase system, and they may do an enormous amount of damage.” The price of cars was falling rapidly, with new mass-produced models such as the Austin Seven and Morris Minor. Moreover, there was now a thriving market in second-hand cars. Motoring was (to his horror) within the reach of the middle-classes.

A 1928 Morris Minor (possibly bought by ‘people of modest means’ who didn’t deserve cars)

The Chairman cited the case of a boy crippled for life who was awarded substantial damages but the driver “could not find a penny”. Civil servants were sent to enquire how compulsory motor insurance worked in other jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, Denmark and New Zealand. The Commission was particularly impressed by the New Zealand Act and suggested something similar.

Other ideas

There were many other ideas to improve traffic. Some had long-term effects. For example, the Commission called for standardising road signs, to replace signs erected by private individuals. They also increased the age for a motorcycle licence from 14 to 16.

Other ideas, however, were rejected out of hand. One was for speed “humps”, to “alter the level of the roads in dangerous places to compel motorists to slow down”. The Commission thought the idea risible. It was “universally condemned”. Uneven road surfaces were bad enough, so why would anyone deliberately make the surface worse?

Technology to the rescue

The most exciting part of the Commission’s work were visits to busy crossings in Manchester and Wolverhampton to see the new “automatic signal lights”. Red lights turned to green, with “the changeover worked automatically by an electrical contrivance”. Similar devices were soon to be erected in London, at Baker Street and Albert Gate. The Commission noted that they would save considerable police resources.

Then, as now, automation and new technology were seen as the answer to dangerous roads. As Tammy wrestles with the regulation of self-driving cars, she can’t help but wonder if history is repeating itself or if the Law Commissions’ Automated Vehicles: Joint Report (January 2022) will be viewed as a significant improvement on the 1929 Royal Commission.


This is a cruelly edited (by me) version of a draft paper I am trying to persuade Tammy to publish somewhere where it will be properly appreciated. The photograph of a 1928 Morris Minor is by Malcolm Asquith and used with permission.

The seal of the confessional

The second of two guest posts this week (three if you count Tammy’s regular journal entry on Thursday). This time it’s Anna Legat talking about one of the key issues in her new novel, Broken.

Father Joseph is one of the two main protagonists of my domestic noir thriller, Broken. He is a catholic priest who receives disturbing confessions from a psychopathic killer he nicknames the Prophet. There is very little contrition in the Prophet’s confessions. Instead of remorse, there is triumph and self-righteousness. The Prophet is boasting about murdering innocent women, safe in the knowledge that his deeds will forever remain between him, Father Joseph and God, because that’s what the seal of confession is all about.

This is sheer torture for Father Joseph. He is bound to protect a secret so vile that it makes him re-evaluate his faith and question his calling. But his moral dilemmas and internal demons aside, will he be able to act – to actually stop the killer? That could mean breaking the holy seal of confession.

The institution of confession is as old as the Catholic Church. Its principle is straightforward: you confess your sins to God (via your priest), you regret them with all your heart, you are given a penance and finally – the cherry on top – you receive an absolution. That means that the slate is wiped clean and you are free to go and sin again, or preferably show self-restraint and resist the temptation of sin.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformation rejected the idea of confession. Historically, confession has been a fantastic tool for the Church to gather intelligence about the shady dealings of kings and nobles, and to use that knowledge to gain influence and wealth. Knowing other people’s secrets can be very useful indeed when one is not afraid to exploit that knowledge for one’s own ends. The absolution of sins was also a very profitable proposition as it often came at a hefty price to the penitent. To prevent the misappropriation of the knowledge acquired through the confessional box, the clergy was bound by the seal of confession. Thus, no priest (if he wishes to remain ordained) can break that seal and tell a living soul what he hears in confession. Even if it is a preventable crime.   

I would like to share a short extract from Broken to illustrate Father Joseph’s torment.

“I am not claustrophobic and am well accustomed to the confined space the confession box has to offer. It has been my second home for thirty-odd years. Sometimes I refer to it as my holiday home because I normally dwell here for hours on end in anticipation of holidays. Christmas and Easter are my high seasons. That’s when the penitents come to unburden themselves. They whisper their transgressions into my ear – God’s ear theoretically, but let’s not split hairs. I grant them absolution so that they can go out into the world with their consciences clear. They will sin again and be back to recite their wrongdoings in the privacy of my wooden box. I will be here for them and we will go the whole hog all over again: confession, contrition, absolution and a few Hail Marys for their penance. I will mumble my chant of absolution in Latin, as you do when you are a catholic priest. I will sing to them the melodious incantation of Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. It’s an uplifting moment – magical. It’s like the beating of the drums in the night. The penitents’ sins release their souls from darkness, and, so cleansed, my penitents walk away, light-hearted and hopeful, promising to be good, and meaning every word of it.

Except for that one man – the Prophet.

He doesn’t mean any of it.

I can’t absolve him without true remorse on his part, and he has none. He is proud of what he has done and what he will continue to do. He comes to me to brag about it. He knows I won’t give him absolution, but he keeps coming back. It isn’t absolution he is after. It’s something else. I fear his purpose is to torture me: to taint me with his insanity and seduce me to the side of evil. He has made me into his accomplice – a silent partner in crime. That’s because I cannot betray him. He knows he is protected by the seal of confession. I will sooner gag on what I know than speak of it to any living soul. It is between the monster and me. God is in on it too, I suppose. He is listening through me, and then He does nothing. I’d think it shouldn’t be hard for God to strike the man dead on the spot. But no. God chooses to love the man and lets him perpetuate his evil. Does God love the man’s victims less than He loves him? It’s a blasphemous idea and I banish it from my thoughts. I hope God knows something I don’t, and I submit to His will. We let the man walk away unscathed.

‘I’m only a humble tool in God’s hands, Father, doing His will.’ The man’s voice is no more than a low whisper, a tapping and hissing of consonants and only an intimation of vowels between them. He is careful not to raise his voice and give me an idea of his pitch and tone. He has bleached his speech free of accent. I may know him, but I wouldn’t recognise his voice if we spoke outside the confessional. He has made sure of that. His breath is infused with mint. He always chews gum so that I can’t smell his breath. He wears gloves and a beanie. It comes down to the bridge of his nose. I can’t see his eyes. His beard veils his lips. I don’t tell him this, but he doesn’t really have to go to such lengths to conceal his identity. I don’t want to know it. I am bound to secrecy and so I don’t wish to discover who he is. My resolve would be tested beyond endurance if I did.

‘I’ll be back,’ he says like he is the second coming of Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avenger of the innocent. He thinks he is. He definitely fancies himself a holy man. That is why I call him the Prophet. ‘You can sleep in peace, Father. Happy Easter.’ He crosses himself, pulls himself up to his feet and leaves.”

Broken by Anna Legat

Broken was published by SpellBound Books on 15th April.

Anna Legat

Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications in New Zealand. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

To find out more:

A Medieval Love Triangle

A Medieval Love Triangle

A guest post this week from Carol McGrath whose latest novel, The Stone Rose, is published on 21 April.

Isabella of France, the protagonist of my new novel, The Stone Rose, left her homeland in 1308 on 7th February, aged twelve. She had married Edward II of England in Boulogne in January. Edward was twenty-three and certainly, despite a reputation given him by later Historians, was not adverse to women. He already had fathered a boy named Adam by a woman unknown to History. It has been thought, too, that later he had a sexual relationship with his eldest niece, Eleanor de Clare. This was suggested as possible by Historian, Kathryn Warner. Edward and Isabella did have a successful partnership for many years despite the fact Edward was predominantly a lover of men and probably bisexual.

Piers Gaveston, the third party in this love triangle, was a nobleman from South Western France, Gascony. In 1307 he was married to one of the King’s other nieces, Eleanor’s sister, Margaret. There are three Clare girls in this story. Edward had known Piers at least since he was sixteen and he was infatuated with the dashing Gaveston. Edward’s and Isabella’s marriage was a political match designed to consolidate peace between France and England and it never mattered what the personal desires of Edward and Isabella were. Edward scandalised his kingdom and his barons were furious when he appointed his best friend whom he called his ‘brother’ and who was possibly his lover as regent of England during his absence abroad. Edward’s first cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, for instance, would have been more appropriate.

Edward might have been enchanted by the exceedingly pretty, educated Isabella who was exceptionally well-connected but for some years after their marriage he paid her little attention. She was, after all, very young and he was eccentric. He enjoyed the company of carpenters, blacksmiths and fishermen. He liked to thatch and dig ditches. His other hobbies were swimming and rowing. Isabella must have found these rather odd pursuits for a king. This was the medieval era after all. Equally, Edward was cultured and loved books, music and poetry as did Isabella. Writing this part of the book, I felt the Piers’, Edward’s and Isabella’s relationship was that of a young court, often extravagant and at odds with their elders. They were, within the pages of my novel, behaving as a charmed circle.  We do not actually know how Isabella really saw Piers Gaveston and the royal marriage may have been initially consummated once to make it legal and binding. Given Isabella’s youth it was unlikely they had much of a sex life. Most girls of the nobility did not produce children before they were sixteen. Yet, Edward and Isabella would have passed time in each other’s company hunting, feasting and during Christmas and Easter courts.

Isabella arrived in England into a swirling maelstrom of conflict between her husband, who was utterly infatuated with Piers, and his barons. This created a crisis that threatened to bring the country to the brink of civil war. Amongst those waiting for the royal wedding in Dover that February, amongst the great lords and ladies, was of course Piers. Edward had eyes for none other. Piers has been described by various contemporary chroniclers. He is said to have been ‘graceful and agile in body, sharp-witted, refined in manners and sufficiently well-versed in military matters.’ Others said he was ‘haughty and supercilious’ but also ‘very magnificent, liberal and well-bred.’ He was a man of ‘big ideas’ and he was ‘haughty and puffed up.’ Edward adored him and this clearly went to Piers’ head. Poor Isabella! When Edward arrived in Dover he hugged and kissed his friend but this was a tactile age when kissing was common as a greeting amongst men.

The real trouble was Edward ignored the other barons. It is assumed Isabella hated Gaveston but there is no actual evidence she did. Much later, Isabella did loath Hugh Despenser but this was a very different situation. Piers never threatened Isabella or her queenship. Nor was she ever insulted by him. However, Gaveston did poke fun at the nobility. It is hard to get a sense of Isabella’s personality in the early years of her marriage. She was young for politics and too young to begin a family. We have no glimpse of her correspondence from these years either. Edward was generous to Isabella without doubt and there is no evidence of neglect. Piers was prominent at her coronation. It was extravagant and it was written in the chronicles that at the banquet following the coronation Edward payed more attention to Piers than to Isabella.

 After the coronation almost all the English barons led by the Earl of Lincoln demanded Piers’ exile. Gaveston was banished but recalled after the Earl of Lincoln’s death. Edward made Piers Earl of Cornwall. The difficult situation continued with further banishments and further threats of civil war over Gaveston’s influence on Edward, until in 1312 Piers was captured by his enemies and taken from his castle of Scarborough to Wallingford. Edward thought the Earl of Pembroke would ensure his friend’s safety on this journey south and Parliament would make a decision about his future, probably exile again. Yet, when he reached Deddington, he was kidnapped by Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, an enemy Piers had frequently mocked as the Black Dog of Arden. Piers was thrown into a dungeon at Warwick Castle, given a ridiculous trial and told he was to die. He was run though by a sword and beheaded on Blacklow Hill on the road to Kennilworth, his body left there to  be discovered later by travelling clerics.

Warwick Castle

Isabella was four months pregnant at this time and in the North with Edward. The royal couple heard the news near Hull. Edward never ever forgave Piers’ murder but how Isabella reacted cannot be known. She most likely did her best to comfort Edward.

I found it fascinating to translate these events into a novel, to play with their emotions, second guess these and create living, breathing historical persons and portray all three, Edward, Isabella and Piers fairly. Read The Stone Rose to find out how I wrote this first part of Isabella’s queenship, a love triangle, as a work of fiction which I hope has integrity.

About the Carol McGrath

Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

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