THE POET ALFRED TENNYSON made his home in the village of Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (‘IOW’) from 1853 until his death. His presence there attracted many Victorian cultural figures to the village either as residents or as his visitors. In 1907, fifteen years after Tennyson died, the Bishop of Winchester visited Freshwater and decided that the village needed a better church than the rather primitive one being used at the time. The Reverend AJ Robertson, who was Rector of Freshwater in 1907, made a watercolour painting of the type of church he hoped would be built. It included a thatched roof. Such a church as he had envisaged was designed by the architect Isaac Jones of Herne Hill in London, and constructed on land donated by Tennyson’s eldest son Hallam, Lord Tennyson (1852-1928). It was Hallam’s wife Lady Emily (1853-1931; née Prinsep), who gifted the new church’s porch and suggested that the church be dedicated to St Agnes.
St Agnes is the only church on the IOW to have a thatched roof. Much of the building was built using stones from what had once been the home of the scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703). The use of old stones makes some people believe that the church is older than it really is. One of the old stones has the date 1694 inscribed on it, a reminder of the origin of the stonework. The interior of the building is well lit by natural light through its many windows. The timber framed ceiling is fine as is the beautifully carved chancel screen. The screen with delicate bas-relief carvings of plants was created by the Reverend Thomas Gardner Devitt, who was curate of St Agnes between 1942 and 1946.
In brief, this thatched church is charming. In appearance, it manages to combine a feeling of mediaeval antiquity with the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was in its heyday when St Agnes was built. Seeing it was one of many delightful experiences we enjoyed whilst spending a week on the IOW.
THE PHOTOGRAPHER Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879; ‘JMC’) was born in the Garden Reach district of Calcutta (now Kolkata in West Bengal). Her father, James Pattle, was a prosperous English official in the East India Company. JMC and her six sisters, the surviving children of James and Adeline Marie Pattle, had a Bengali ancestor, Thérèse Josephe Blin de Grincourt (1768-1866) She was JMC’s maternal grandmother, a Bengali woman who had married a French man, Ambroise Pierre Antoine de l’Étang (1757-1866, whose presence in Bengal was recorded in “The India Office List 1825” as “De l’Étang, Chevalier Antoine, Knt. St Louis, assist. Stud at Poosa, 1796” (Poosa is in what is now Madhya Pradesh). They married in 1788. At that time, it was not uncommon for European men to have lasting relationships with Indian women. This is well-described in William Dalrymple’s book “White Mughals”. Later, in the 19th century, such interracial liaisons were heavily frowned upon. It was expected that ‘white’ men would only marry ‘white’ women. Incidentally, Thérèse was daughter of a French colonist and his Bengali wife.
As with her sisters, JMC was sent to France to be educated. She remained there from 1818 to 1834, when she returned to India.
In 1835, suffering from ill-health, JMC travelled to the Cape of Good Hope. This part of what is now South Africa was favoured as a place to convalesce by Europeans based in India. It was in the Cape that JMC met not only the famous astronomer and an inventor of photography Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), but also the man whom JMC would marry in 1838: Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880). Charles was in the Cape recovering from a malarial illness. A disciple of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was a reformer of law in India and education, who also invested in coffee plantations (in 1848) in Sri Lanka.
Julia and Charles married in Calcutta, where she became a prominent hostess in the city’s British Indian society. During the 1840s, she corresponded regularly with John Herschel about developments in the science and technology of photography. He sent her two dozen calotypes and daguerreotypes, which were the first photographs he had ever set eyes on. The Camerons raised eleven children: five of their own; five orphans (children of relatives); and an Irish girl named Mary Ryan (whom they found begging on Putney Heath).
The entire Cameron family relocated to England in 1845, possibly because their two older children had settled there, and Charles had retired. They settled in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. They became friendly with one of their neighbours, the poet Henry Taylor (1800-1886), who had worked in the Colonial Office under Robert William Hay (1786-1861), who might well have been related to Charles Hay Cameron’s mother. Later, the Camerons moved to East Sheen, which is closer to London than Tunbridge Wells.
It was through Henry Taylor and Julia’s sister Sara (1816-1887), who was married to Henry Thoby Prinsep (1793-1878), an official in the Indian Civil Service, that JMC was introduced to a set of noteworthy Victorian cultural figures. Henry and Sara had returned to England from India in 1835, and were living in (the now demolished) Little Holland House next to the house of the artist Lord Leighton, near Holland Park in west London. Their home became a meeting place for famous artists, as will be described later. It was here that Sara held a salon for pre-Raphaelite artists, poets, and aristocrats with an interest in artistic activities. At Sara’s home, JMC encountered, amongst other worthy cultural figures, the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892).
Tennyson rented Farringford House in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (‘IOW’) in 1853, and purchased it three years later. In 1860, after a long visit to Tennyson on the IOW, the Camerons bought a property next door to Tennyson’s and named it Dimbola after one of their (then coffee) plantations in Sri Lanka. TO BE CONTINUED
OUR CAR FERRY from Lymington docked at Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight after dark on a rainy evening in September 2022. As we drove to our friend’s house in Ventnor, we passed a building whose name, Dimbola, brought back memories of an exotic trip we made 28 years ago.
In February 1994, my wife and I spent a few days in Sri Lanka on our way back from India to London. It was our honeymoon and Sri Lanka was riven by civil war. Our host in Sri Lanka sent a car and driver to Colombo airport, which, despite its excessively high security presence, was attacked by terrorists soon after we departed for London. For several hours, we drove through the countryside after nightfall. Every few miles, we stopped at police check posts. Unlike bus passengers, who were obliged to leave their vehicles at each of these stops, we did not have to disembark. Our car was fitted with a bright lamp that the driver turned on so that the police could see his passengers without them having to leave the vehicle. It was also likely that our driver and his employers were well known to the authorities. About halfway through our long journey, we stopped at a tea stall in a village. The golden tea was fragrant and delicious. Even now, I believe that it was one of the best cups of tea I have drunk during my long life.
We continued driving through the darkened landscape. Every now and then, animals’ eyes reflected the illumination coming from the car’s headlights. It was only when we made the return trip to Colombo in daylight that I realised our driver’s great skill. The narrow road had many potholes and other defects and wound perilously up and down hillsides and close to deep ravines. Eventually, we arrived at the home of the manager of the tea plantation where we were going to spend about a week. We had met him and his wife at the home of a mutual friend, who lives in Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in south India. This kind couple, having met us only once, had invited us to stay with them in Sri Lanka.
Mr Jain, our host, had been invited by the Sri Lankan government to revitalise a failing tea plantation. Situated about 4 miles northeast of the small town of Hatton, the estate where we stayed was called Dimbula – and still is. Seeing the name Dimbola on the house on the Isle of Wight made me remember Dimbula in Sri Lanka. I wondered whether Dimbola was a name chosen at random, or whether it was in some way related to Dimbula, where we stayed in Sri Lanka.
On our first full day on the Isle of Wight, the sun shone brightly, and we decided that it was perfect weather to visit Alum Bay to see its famed coloured cliffs and views of the Needles Rocks at the western end of the Isle. To reach this place we drove back along the road we had travelled the previous night. This road runs along clifftops close to the south coast of the island and provides many exciting views. We stopped at a couple of places to enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery, and before reaching Alum Bay, we made yet another stop at Freshwater Bay. By then, we were yearning for mid-morning coffee. Not seeing anywhere open close to the seafront, we drove a little further and noticed that Dimbola has a café.
Dimbola is a two-storey Victorian house with four full height bays, each of which is beneath a roof gable. In the middle of the long southeast-facing façade there is a tall square tower topped with crenellations. This separates the bays into two pairs. The east half of the ground floor houses a second-hand bookshop, which is now closed because its owner does his business on-line only. The west half houses a café, which serves excellent coffee made from beans roasted on the Isle of Wight. Most of the rest of the ground floor and much of the first floor is a museum and its shop. I will go into more detail about this museum soon.
Almost as soon as the waiter came to take our order, I asked him about the name Dimbola. He was not sure, and suggested I asked someone at the museum. After enjoying my coffee – it was so good that we returned for more on a couple of other days – I found someone working in the museum. I told her that I was interested in the similarity of the name of the house and that of the place where we had stayed in Sri Lanka. She told me that a former owner of Dibola had been married to a man who owned coffee (and then later tea) plantations in Sri Lanka when it was British Ceylon, and that the house was named after one of them called Dimbola. I was told that the house at Freshwater Bay was named after the plantation at Dimbula, which is exactly where we stayed in February 1994.
By 1994, Dimbula was a long-established tea plantation. However, it had begun life as a coffee plantation. It had been owned by Mr Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880). A follower of the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Cameron became a barrister, having been called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1830. In 1835, he went out to India to serve on the Supreme Council of India (which had previously been known as ‘The Council of Bengal’). In 1838, he married Julia Margaret Pattle (1815-1879), whom he met in The Cape of Good Hope (now ‘South Africa’). Their marriage took place in early 1838 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In 1848, he and his family left India and lived in their homes in London’s Putney and Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. In 1875, he and Julia travelled to Sri Lanka, where Charles owned plantations. They lived there until their deaths. I will return to Mrs Cameron shortly.
The reason that Dimbula now grows tea is that during the 1870s, the market for coffee slumped. The Cameron, both in a poor state of health moved to Sri Lanka because the cost of living there was far lower than in England. During their stay in England, they spent much time at Dimbola between the years 1860 and 1875.
Interesting as was Charles Cameron’s life, that of his wife Julia was exceptionally outstanding. I had never heard of her before having coffee at Dimbola, but our art historian daughter was most excited to learn that we had stumbled upon and visited the former home of the famous photographer, Julia Cameron. TO BE CONTINUED SOON!
THE CORRIDORS LEADING to the spectacular Durbar Room in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight are lined with portraits of people born in pre-independence India, either painted or photographed during the 19th century. Most of these images depict members of the Indian aristocracy (e.g., rulers of Princely States). A few depict less exalted persons, such as craftsmen and the designer of the Durbar Room.
Maharajah Duleep Singh (1838-1893), who surrendered the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria, is portrayed in a few pictures, notably one by the famous German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). Many other paintings were created by the Austrian painter Rudolf Swoboda (1859-1914). Queen Victoria liked his painting style and commissioned him to create more than 40 portraits of Indian people. In 1886, the queen paid for him to travel to India, and gave him £300 in travelling expenses. Her instructions to the young artist were:
“The Sketches Her Majesty wishes to have – are of the various types of the different nationalities. They should consist of heads of the same size as those already done for The Queen, and also small full lengths, as well as sketches of landscapes, buildings, and other scenes. Her Majesty does not want any large pictures done at first, but thinks that perhaps you could bring away material for making them should they eventually be wished for.” (www.rct.uk/collection/403755/gulzar).
Many of these can be seen hanging in Osborne House. Amongst his many Indian portraits, there is at least one painted not in India but in England. Queen Victoria had several servants, who were born in British India and the Princely States associated with it. The best known of these ‘imported’ servants was her favourite Mohammed Abdul Karim (1863-1909), her ‘munshi’ (teacher), who helped her study Hindustani, which she learned to write competently in the Urdu script. Amongst Swoboda’s paintings of Indians hanging in Osborne House, there is one of a non-Indian, a lady from Cyprus, and another, a Cape Malay woman from Cape Town (South Africa). Why they are there, I have not yet found out, but maybe Swoboda spotted them at the Colonial Exhibition held in London in 1886.
Not all the portraits of Indians are painted. Some of them are hand-coloured photographs. A few of these photos are signed by their creators, one of which was the photographic studio of Gobind Ram and Oodey Ram in Jaipur. Along with a studio in Calcutta the Ram brothers were pioneers in photography in 19th century India. One source (www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/whats-hot/story/tryst-with-colonial-india-205124-2014-08-22) stated:
“Apparently, studio photography was practised by many Maharajas as a means of leisure, mostly using their courtesans as subjects. The Ravi Varma Studios of Calcutta and Gobind Ram-Oodey Ram Studio in Jaipur are just two examples.”
As can be seen at Osborne, these photographers also made portraits of the maharajahs and their families.
Although Queen Victoria loved Osborne House, I cannot see its appeal apart from the wonderful Durbar Room. For me, seeing this lavishly decorated hall and the collection portraits of the Indian people are the main delights of this otherwise rather gloomy residence.
OSBORNE HOUSE ON the Isle of Wight was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite residences. Apart from one room within it, I was not overly impressed by the place. That room, which alone is a very good reason to visit Osborne, is the ornate Durbar Room. Entering this vast hall is like stepping inside an exuberantly decorated Maharajah’s palace somewhere in India. It is a superb example of the Indo-Saracenic style, which is according to one definition (on Wikipedia) was:
“… a revivalist architectural style mostly used by British architects in India in the later 19th century, especially in public and government buildings in the British Raj, and the palaces of rulers of the princely states. It drew stylistic and decorative elements from native Indo-Islamic architecture, especially Mughal architecture, which the British regarded as the classic Indian style, and, less often, from Hindu temple architecture.”
The Durbar Room was built not in India but in the country that ruled it at the time. It was designed not by a British architect but by a man from British India – Ram Singh (1858-1916), who was born in Rasulpur in the Punjab (now a village in Pakistan). His skills were recognised at a young age when he was seen working in a woodcarver’s shop in Amritsar. The man who spotted his talent was Rudyard Kipling’s father, the art teacher Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911). At the time, Lockwood was the first principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Arts, Lahore (established in 1875). He enrolled Ram as a student. Ram Singh was a successful student and soon became assistant drawing master at the school and Lockwood’s protégé. The two men collaborated in many important projects including designing Aitchison College in Lahore, the Mayo School in Lahore, and both the Indian Passage and ballroom at Bagshot Park (near Windsor). The work he had done in England led to him and Lockwood Kipling being given the commission to design the Durbar Room at Osborne.
The Durbar Room was designed to accommodate large ceremonial occasions and to reflect Queen Victoria’s exalted position as Empress of India, a role created by the British Parliament in 1876. This room, completed in 1891 as an extension of Osborne House, with its riotous array of mainly Mughal-style plasterwork decorations might have served yet another purpose. By the time it was completed, Victoria had never visited India, and at the age of over 70 years was unlikely to do so (and never did). In a way, the Durbar Room brought India to Victoria, and judging by its appearance, did so very well.
THERE WAS A TIME when one could take a train from London to Portsmouth, cross the Solent by ferry to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and then take another train from Ryde to Ventnor. This was before 1966 when the station at Ventnor was closed forever. A century earlier, in 1866, this station opened to rail traffic. The closure was part of an extensive plan (devised by Dr Richard Beeching [1913-1985]) to reduce Britain’s railway mileage.
The station, the southern terminus of the isle of Wight Railway, with its associated sidings was located on the site of an old quarry. It was almost completely surrounded by high cliffs. Trains reached it from Shanklin by emerging from a 1312-yard-long tunnel running beneath St Boniface Down. It must have been dramatic emerging from the tunnel to find oneself in the space surrounded by vertiginous rocky walls.
Today, the entrance to the tunnel, through which water pipes now run, is hidden by dense foliage. Nothing remains of the tracks, and only a small part of the former station building (ticket office etc.) remains. The space once occupied by the platforms and railway lines is now occupied by an assortment of buildings, comprising an industrial estate. Trains still run between Ryde and Shanklin, but Ventnor station has all but vanished.
FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT know, a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow.
In 1851, Sir Thomas Brisbane (1773-1860), who gave his name to a city in Australia, donated a tall gnomon to the town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. In sunny conditions, this object casts a shadow on a line marked on the pavement at noon GMT (1 pm BST). Sir Thomas had spent some time in Ventnor during the mid-19th century, and sadly his daughter Eleanor Australia MakDougall Brisbane died in Ventnor in 1852 at the young age of 29.
As we are discovering during our visit to the Isle of Wight, the sun does not always shine in Ventnor (or anywhere else on the island). Recognising this problem that renders the gnomon useless when the sun is not shining, the town erected a short clock tower near to the gnomon in 1870. This clock was rebuilt in 2001. It bears a plaque commemorating Fred Blake (1924-2001), who, along with his father (Adolphus) and grandfather (James), were: “… proud to maintain this barometer for over 120 years”.
We did not see the gnomon working because of cloudy weather conditions, and the two faces of the clocks displayed different times and neither of them appeared to be working. The barometer seemed to be working. It is curious features such as the gnomon that help make towns on the English coast endlessly fascinating.
IN THE EARLY 1970s, I used to travel on the London Underground’s line from Golders Green to Euston or Warren Street, both stations being near University College London, where I was a student. Back in those days, smoking was permitted on the Underground. Each Northern line tube train had two carriages for smokers. I have never smoked, but I used to travel in the smokers’ carriages because they were usually emptier than the other ones in which smoking was forbidden. Thinking back on this, I suppose that I must have been passively smoking on the Underground. On the other hand, because there were fewer people in the smoking carriages, my chances of catching other people’s airborne germs must have been reduced.
From an early age, before I became a daily commuter, I liked travelling in the rear carriages of the Northern Line tubes. These carriages contained control panels, which the train’s guards operated to open and close the doors and to inform the driver when the train was ready to leave. As a child, I was fascinated by watching the guard at work. Actually, there was little else to watch after the tube entered the tunnel after leaving Golders Green. Incidentally, what was the rear carriage, was also the front carriage when the train changed direction on reaching the end of a line.
The Northern Line trains I have been describing were built by Metro-Cammell in 1938. By the end of the 1980s, the trains were taken out of service and newer units began operating on the Northern Line. The 1938 trains were shipped out to the Isle of Wight, where they carried passengers on the Island Line. After many years of service on the island, the sea air caused these venerable trains to corrode and deteriorate. In the early years of the 21st century, they were taken out of service.
In late October 2022, we visited the train museum at Havenstreet on the Isle of Wight. One of the exhibits is a collection of old train carriages and engines in a large shed. Amongst these exhibits is one of the former Northern Line carriages built in 1938. Visitors are permitted to enter it. I was delighted to find that the example on display was one of the rear carriages containing the guard’s control panels. Seeing these again after so many years was a curiously moving experience. I felt for a moment that I had been transported back to my childhood days, when travelling in these trains used to fill me with wonder.
NEAR THE WESTERNMOST point on the Isle of Wight, lies Alum Bay. From its pebble beach, the Needles rock formation with their light house can easily be seen. Turn your back on the Needles and you will see that the bay and its beach have a backdrop of folded cliffs. These are not any old cliffs. They are multi-coloured.
The colouration of the cliffs is caused by the presence of oxidised iron compounds formed under different conditions.
The beach from which the coloured cliffs can be seen can be reached two ways. Either by foot, using a series of staircases, or by travelling on a spectacular set of chairs suspended from cables: a sort of funicular. I recommend descending by foot to enjoy the views at leisure and returning using the chair lift. However, descending on the latter is also said to be an exciting experience.