Kipling's Sussex

(2) 'The Elms'


(by Michael Smith)



[November 26th 2003]

Arrival at Rottingdean

It would be reasonable to argue that the arrival of the Kipling family in Rottingdean on Derby Day 1897 was inevitable because Rudyard’s favourite “Aunt Georgie”, wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones had for many years a holiday home in the village. But there was no inevitability, because after Torquay he had cast his eyes further east to find a suitable spot to settle. An additional positive attraction, however, was the fact that his cousin Stanley Baldwin had some five years earlier married “Cissie” Ridsdale and so was a frequent visitor to the home of his “in-laws” close by. Thus there was a ready made proxy “family circle” by which he had set so much store. The attractive location in a charming dry valley running to 'The Gap' in the chalk cliffs, with a healthy atmosphere upon which Brighton had long prided itself, was also within easy distance of the railway which could take him to the magnetic attraction of London.

They arrived with two small girls, Josephine and Elsie, both Vermont born, and a third child was due soon. The beloved aunt vacated her house to accommodate the happy event. In his autobiography Something of Myself, published posthumously in 1937, and with a few memory lapses, Rudyard recounts the arrival in what was to become his much loved adoptive county.

Our flight from Torquay ended almost by instinct at Rottingdean where the beloved Aunt and Uncle had their holiday house, and where I had spent my very last days before sailing for India fourteen years back. In 1882 there had been but one daily bus from Brighton, which took forty minutes, and when a stranger appeared on the village green the native young would stick out their tongues at him. The Downs poured direct into the one village street and lay out eastward towards Russia Hill above Newhaven. My cousin Stanley Baldwin had married the eldest daughter of the Ridsdales out of the Dene – the big house that flanked one side of the green. My uncle’s North End House commanded the other, and a third house opposite the church was waiting to be taken according to the decrees of Fate. The Baldwin marriage, then, made us free of the joyous young brotherhood and sisterhood of the Dene and its friends.
At 'North End House'



Edward Burne-Jones bought the left-hand Prospect House in 1880 and added next door, Aubrey Cottage, soon afterwards. The two were joined to create 'North End House'. (The third house was Gothic House, now incorrectly labelled 'North End House'.) The name reflected the fact that the Burne-Jones’ London home was in North End Road in Fulham in West London. Edward Burne-Jones' studio was behind the long window in the middle. Over the years it attracted many of the well known Brotherhood. Angela Thirkell, granddaughter of Ned and Georgie Burne-Jones, lovingly described life there at the turn of the century in a charming memoir called "Three Houses". As Rudyard recalled in Something of Myself:
The Aunt and Uncle had said to us: ‘Let the child that is coming to you be born in our house’ and had effaced themselves till my son John arrived on a warm August night of ’97, under what seemed every good omen.
As Rudyard had recently been a guest of a naval friend on fleet trials he amusingly described the birth in appropriately nautical terms to his friend W.J.Harding.
Ref: t.b.d. [torpedo boat destroyer] trials. My attention is at present taken up by small craft recently launched from my own works – weight (approx) 8.957 lbs: h.p (indicated) 2.0464, consumption of fuel unrecorded but fresh supplies needed every 2 ˝ hrs. The vessel at present needs at least 15 years for full completion but at the end of that time may be an efficient addition to the Navy, for which service it is intended. Date of launch Aug.17th 1.50 a.m. No casualties. Christened John. You will understand that the new craft requires a certain amount of attention – but I trust ere long to be able to attend a t.b.d. trial.
'The Elms'

Something of Myself continues –
Meantime, we had rented by direct interposition of Fate that third house opposite the church on the green. It stood in a sort of little island behind flint walls which we then though high enough, and almost beneath some big ilex trees. It was small, none too well built, but cheap, and so suited us who still remembered a little affair at Yokohama. Then there grew up great happiness between ‘The Dene,’ ‘North End House,’ and ‘The Elms.’ One could throw a cricket-ball from any one house to the other, but, beyond turning out at 2 a.m. to help a silly foxhound puppy who had stuck in a drain, I do not remember any violent alarms and excursions other than packing farm-carts filled with mixed babies – Stanley Baldwin’s and ours – and despatching them into the safe clean heart of the motherly Downs for jam-smeared picnics. Those Downs moved me to write some verses called “Sussex.”

'The Elms' as it was in Kipling's day. The attic windows appear
as they were before the architectural efforts of 'Ambo' Poynter.

The rent for 'The Elms', a property attractively advertised as a “marine residence” was three guineas a week. Later when Rudyard suggested purchase to the owner, Mr.A.H.A.Bliss, the price quoted was so outrageous that he responded with “Obviously you think that there is a goldmine under the green.” The little affair at Yokohama was a reminder of the time when a bank collapse lost the newly-weds all their capital. 'None too well built' was substantiated by a reference to the windows jiggling in a sou’wester. Such structural shortcomings and the need for more light in the attic prompted Rudyard to ask his architect cousin Ambrose Poynter to effect improvements. His enthusiasm seems to have been misplaced for in an amusing poem called The Architect’s Alphabet all Ambo’s imperfections are revealed.

"Recessional"

Almost as soon as they arrived in Rottingdean the preparations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on June 22nd,were under way. It was more than a mere date on a calendar for it marked the culmination of an age of achievement. A glow of enthusiasm tinged with the solemnity of thanksgiving enveloped the “Great White Queen”. For Rudyard it had special significance because it had been mooted that he might pen lines suitable for the occasion. He set aside other tasks and toyed with ideas although somewhat lacking in motivation to work on a poem in which he would include the refrain 'Lest we Forget'. On an overcast Jubilee Day he and Carrie could not but hear the bells ringing from the ancient tower of St. Margaret’s. In the evening, with clearing skies, they walked up Beacon Hill to watch the bonfire responding to the signal chain which flared along the coast. A poem began to take shape in his mind, but it gave him little satisfaction.

Having received an invitation from a naval friend to board H.M.S.Pelorus at the Fleet Review and manoeuvres at Spithead he escaped the immediacy of the task, but returned refreshed by the company of sailors to return to the task. Still dissatisfied he discarded several sheets, but Sallie Norton, the daughter of his close American friend who was staying with them, sought permission to retrieve them and was immediately captivated by some of the stanzas entitled "After". She pleaded that he keep them and with the aid of Carrie and Aunt Georgie, a guest in her own house, saw them refined, reduced and re-titled "Recessional". The following morning Aunt Georgie returned to Fulham with a fresh copy of the manuscript to be forwarded to The Times that evening. The Editor, Moberly Bell published them on July 17th and they were immediately acclaimed, the leading article being particularly laudatory.
The deep sense of religious feeling and moral obligation which has coloured the whole of the Queen’s life will bring her heartily into unison with the spirit of the fine poem by Mr. Rudyard Kipling which we print this morning. There is a tendency, in these days, to rush into dithy-rambic rapture of every great exhibition of national power. It is well that we should be reminded by a poet, who more perhaps than any other living man, has been identified with the pride of Empire and with confidence in the destinies of our race, that there is a spiritual as well as material side to national greatness.
Rudyard's recent time with the fleet, which had now dispersed to far stations at the end of the Review by the Queen, and their attendance at the celebratory bonfire on Beacon Hill were reflected in some of the lines.
Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre !
As a memorable footnote to the poem it brought, years later, Dr Hubert Eaton, an American looking for inspiration for chapels to be built in his Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. He was enchanted with St. Margaret’s for he reasoned that the village church of such a poet would be perfect for his plans. He built an exact replica and since its dedication in 1941 it has been known as “The Church of the Recessional”.

Rottingdean and the Downs

The artist, William Nicholson came to the village to prepare a woodcut portrait of Kipling which was published in his first series of “twelve Portraits” by Heinemann in 1899. This convergence led to a collaboration of the two in An Almanac of Twelve Sports (1898) for which Rudyard wrote each accompanying verse. Nicholson was so taken with Rottingdean that when, later, the Vicarage came on the market he bought it and renamed it The Grange.

Inveterate travellers, the Kipling family spent months each year away, but whilst there his work came fully and easily. Much of great importance was brought to publication on his work-table in the study just to the right of the front door. He drew inspiration from the local landscape and from those who lived in it. 'The Gap' to the sea was a consistent delight, for Josephine and her friend Angela and the Baldwin children were enraptured by entering “Trunky” Thomas’s bathing machines to be launched, in heavy serge swim-suits into the chill Channel waters. After the adventure they would be drawn back up the beach over the pebbles by a windlass on the low cliff. They were also always intrigued by the appearance of “Pioneer” the stilted passenger carriage of the "Daddy-Long-Legs" railway at its pier head in Rottingdean.


"Pioneer" at the pier specially built for it. It was powered by electricity.
Rudyard and the children used to fish from the pier-head.

It was one of the most outlandish forms of transport ever devised. But when not in such service the structure provided a convenient platform from which to fish with hand lines. Rudyard enjoyed this peace, for he stationed one of his coastguard friends on the pier head to intercept those seeking an autograph. He had inscribed a number for sale for the profit of worthy causes. The beach scene was beautifully described at the start of "Brother Square-Toes" in Rewards and Fairies.
They ….. strolled over the Downs to the dull evening sea. The tide was dead low under the chalk cliffs, and the little wrinkled waves grieved along the sands up the coast to Newhaven and down the coast to long, grey Brighton, whose smoke trailed out across the channel. They walked to the Gap where the cliff is only a few feet high. A windlass for hoisting shingle from the beach below stands at the edge of it. The Coastguard cottages are a little further on, and an old ship’s figure-head of a Turk in a turban stared at them over the wall.
The story, which introduces a local smuggling family, has a few line of a little song – "Telscombe Tye" – the unpublished complete manuscript of which lies within the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex. "Brother Square-Toes" is preceded in Rewards and Fairies" by “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” where again he drew on local material. Whereas normally Kipling plucked local names and attached them to different characters in this story he describes both name and character. Ben Dudeney, a local shepherd, lived at Mill Cottage at the top of what later became Bazehill Road. He is introduced in the most practical of terms. As before, John and Elsie as Dan and Una have returned to the village to stay with Aunt Georgie.
…..and lived in a flint village on the bare windy Downs, quite thirty miles from home. They made friends with an old shepherd, called Mr.Dudeney. ….. He had a tiny cottage about half a mile from the village, where his wife made mead from thyme honey, and nursed sick lambs in front of a coal fire, while Old Jim, who was Mr.Dudeney’s sheep-dog’s father, lay at the door. ….. One afternoon when the village water-cart had made the street smell specially townified, they went to look for their shepherd as ususal, and, as usual, Old Jim crawled over the door-step and took them in charge. …. Two kestrels hung bivvering and squealing above them. A gull flapped lazily along the white edges of the cliffs. The curves of the Downs shook a little in the heat, and so did Mr.Dudeney’s distant head. They walked toward it very slowly and found themselves staring into a horse-shoe-shaped hollow a hundred feet deep, whose steep sides were laced with tangled sheep-tracks. The flock grazed on the flat at the bottom, under the charge of Young Jim. Mr Dudeney sat comfortably knitting on the edge of the slope, his crook between his knees.
After the day’s adventuring when they meet a Neolithic man and learn of his sacrifice, the return home is exquisitely described:
The Downs which looked so bare and hot when they came, were full of delicious shadow-dimples; the smell of the thyme and the salt mixed together on the south-west drift from the still sea; their eyes dazzled with the low sun, and the long grass under it looked golden. The sheep knew where their fold was, so Young Jim came back to his master, and they all four strolled home, the scabious-heads swishing about their ankles, and their shadows streaking behind them like the shadows of giants.
Josephine was a particularly lively, fair-haired girl, who enjoyed the company of other children, acting out all sorts of dramas from characters in English history. Angela Mackail, later Angela Thirkell, described the fun they had in a loving memoir. Another friend was Christabel Macnaghten, whose uncle was the squire of the nearby village of Ovingdean. Once when she had walked over Long Hill she was with Josephine and her father in the garden of 'The Elms'. Carrie wanted Josephine who went into the house and Rudyard was left with Christabel. Being a sympathetic and enquiring companion he asked her how she had liked her recent holiday in the New Forest. She responded by saying that although most of it was thoroughly enjoyable she was scared when in a wood which seemed rather menacing. Rudyard offered to write a poem for her about a ghostly wood, which he did. It became "The Way through the Woods" and was published later in “Marklake Witches” in Rewards and Fairies, but Christabel, later Lady Aberconway, rued the fact that he didn’t send her the manuscript.

Loss and War

This period of great family happiness was soon to be ended. Whereas in the early winter months of 1898 the family went to South Africa, and Rudyard was dispatched to “Khama’s Country” where the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River came into focus to be imortalised in “The Elephant’s Child”, the following winter saw a return to America, and the terrible loss of his adored eldest daughter. Never again would Rottingdean be the same place and the only memorial to her would come in a haunting stanza in “Merrow Down” in Just So Stories. Josephine was seen, in his mind’s eye, in all the beloved locations.

But work had to continue, and in the Autumn, with the Boer war in the forefront of consciousness, Alfred Harmsworth the press magnate drove down in his Panhard to enlist Rudyard’s help with the campaign to raise funds for the troops and their dependents. The resulting and immensely popular "The Absent-Minded Beggar" served its purpose. Kipling himself recited it in the village hall.

Sussex motoring...

Alfred Harmsworth’s visit triggered Rudyard's lifelong dedication to the motorcar. The visit is reported in Something of Myself:
Mr. Harmsworth has brought down one of those motor-car things. Come and try it ! It was a twenty minute trip. We returned white with dust and dizzy with noise. But the poison worked from that very hour.
The Rottingdean years saw much unpredictable and adventurous pioneer motoring. The hired “Embryo” gave way to a "Locomobile", used as a leading character in “Steam Tactics”, which was delivered to 'The Elms' on June 18th 1901. In a letter to John Phillips he wrote:
...her lines are lovely; her form is elegant; the curves of her buggy-top are alone worth the price of admission, but – as a means of propulsion she is today a nickel-plated fraud.
The locomobile was nicknamed “the Holy Terror” or “Coughing Jane”, who:
..on a trip to Crowborough lay down on a hill and dissolved into clouds of steam and oil and water. She did everything vile a motor could do and we wearily tramped the roads till we found a cottage and a kind Irishman who fed us on chicken and ham sandwiches and beer and was an angel unto us.
The car provided the means, usually, to search for the house which would remove the family from the heartache of Josphine and the insistent interest of “trippers”. No journey was wasted for each provided material for the descriptive setting for “They” in Traffics and Discoveries) His words recapture the essence of the beauty of the Sussex countryside as it was a century ago.
One view called me to another; one hilltop to its fellow, half across the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the country flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast, where you carry the beat of the tide on your left hand for fifteen level miles; and when at last I turned inland through a huddle of rounded hills and woods I had run myself clean out of my known marks. Beyond that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States, I found hidden villages, where bees, the only things awake, boomed in eighty-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches; miraculous brooks diving under stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again; tithe-barns larger than their churches, and an old smithy that cried aloud how it had once been a hall of the Knights of the Temple. Gipsies I met on a common where the gorse, brackens, and heath fought it out together up a mile of Roman road; and a little farther on I disturbed a red fox rolling dog-fashion in the naked sunlight.

As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries. I judged the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a cutting brim-full of liquid sunshine; next into a gloomy tunnel where last year’s dead leaves whispered and scuffled about my tyres. The strong hazel stuff meeting overhead had not been cut for a couple of generations as least, nor had any axe helped the moss-cankered oak and beech to spring above them. Here the road changed frankly into a carpeted ride on whose brown velvet spent primrose-clumps showed like jade, and a few sickly, white-stalked blue-bells nodded together. As the slope favoured I shut off the power and slid over the whirled leaves, expecting every moment to meet a keeper; but I only heard a jay, far off, arguing against the silence under the twilight of the trees.
This is an amazingly accurate description of the journey past Brighton and Shoreham to Worthing where the inland turn is made. The little village of Washington stands beneath Chanctonbury Ring, sadly devastated in the 1987 hurricane and no longer the eye-catching feature of before. And then to the 'ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone'. Some of the features are clearly drawn from 'Bateman’s', the house in the village of Burwash to which the Kiplings were to move. The black and white chequered tiles, the deep grate, the eagle-topped convex mirror are in the hall there, and there are slim chimneys and a dovecot too. But the ornate topiary peacocks are, I think, drawn from an elegant half-timbered house, 'Ravello' at Rusthall near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, the county next door.

No-one who has stood on the Sussex cliff top looking out over the Channel can fail to recognise his description.
There came at last a brilliant day, swept clear from the south-west, that brought the hills within hand’s reach – a day of unstable airs and high filmy clouds. ……. As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the Channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter.
In Something of Myself Kipling claims to have first approached Bateman’s by locomobile, but we know from Carrie Kipling's diary that the car had let them down and that they went via Etchingham by train. Their disappointment that the house was no longer on the market delayed matters and the same predicament presented itself. The Locomobile and the later Lanchesters gave joy and frustration in equal measure, but they served their purpose. What he didn’t make clear in “They” was that he never drove himself, although he was greatly interested in and knowledgeable about how motors worked. He always employed a chauffeur, the term appositely used from the days of steam-powered automobiles.

... and Railways

Rudyard was also an inveterate railway passenger and in January 1901 registered a story called "Railway Reform in Great Britain". It is a delightfully fanciful and humorous tale of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway transposed to the Arabian Nights.
Know, O my masters and noble persons, there was in the days of the Caliph Haroun Alrashid, a certain Afrit of little sense and great power, named Beiman Be-uql, dwelling in the city of Bagdad, who had devised brazen engines that ran on iron roads. These by the perfection of their operation, dilated the heart with wonder and the eye with amazement, for they resembled, as it were, litters drawn by fire-breathing dragons. Now the Afrit did not make benefactions for the sake of the approbation of Allah, but for money.
The towns linked in this way were given Arabian sounding names. Bagdad seems to be Brighton, but the rest are more closely linked to their derivatives. On the London line we have Tabriziz (Three Bridges), Raidill (Redhill) and Krahidin (Croydon). To the east we have Lawaz (Lewes), ‘Alisham (Hailsham) and Isbahan (Eastbourne) while to the west we have Sh’am (Shoreham) and Harundil (Arundel). The cheerful porter is included ; Then came a servant of the Afrit clad in bluish raiment, and cried; ‘With thy permission !’ and smote the legs of Giaffar from under him by means of a small wheeled cart which he wheeled in haste.

Intimations of Armageddon

Ever aware with his friend, Lord Roberts, of the danger of an onslaught from an increasingly powerful Germany, Rudyard's ideas on national defence were brought sharply into focus with the advent of the Boer War. Whilst hard at work on Kim he found time for active engagement in the founding of the Rifle Club and group of Volunteers. The establishment of a Drill Hall cum indoor range, at his own expense, and the setting out of a 900 yard range across the nearby Lustrells Vale are fully documented in an article published as a letter to the Spectator. Members from the local community are all recognisable and a dedicated band they were. He, of course, spent several months each year from 1900 taking a keen interest in the progress of the war and as a correspondent for The Friend. He found himself at odds with his “beloved aunt” over British participation and he found some other “Little Englanders” in the village, notably Blaber, the proprietor of ‘The Plough’ across the pond. When the news of the Peace Treaty arrived on June 1st 1902 Georgiana displayed a banner bearing “We have killed and taken possession” which angered most of the community. Rudyard was called and managed to calm what might have proved an ugly situation.

Escape to 'Bateman's'

With increasing intrusion of tourists brought from Brighton in the double-decker horse-bus run by the landlord of “The White Horse” escape became ever more urgent. The flint walls surrounding 'The Elms' which were then though high enough were overtopped by those on the upper deck. The second sally to 'Bateman’s' resulted in a sale agreement and at last preparations for the move could be put in place. Carrie, Elsie and John moved on September 2nd 1902, to be joined the following day by Rudyard, in their “Very Own House”.


[M.S.]