Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 17 - Cecily's Final Years

The Sidgwicks on their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 24th May 1933
The Sidgwicks on their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 24th May 1933



In old age, the funerals of good friends become a sad fact of life. Whilst that of Norman Garstin in 1926, which the Sidgwicks attended, was not unexpected, that of his son, Crosbie, in 1930, after a boating accident in Salcombe, will have grieved Cecily very much. Herbert Thomas captures the disbelief that accompanied the first reports of the tragedy:-


"When news was telephoned to West Cornwall that Crosbie Garstin the beloved, gifted, famous author, poet and ex-soldier, had been drowned near Salcombe, Devon, it seemed incredible. If true, it was an unspeakable loss to his friends and all who recognised him as a distinguished writer and in every way a notable son of Cornwall. Crosbie, the popular amateur actor, the breezy raconteur, the jolly sportsman, the citizen of the world; Crosbie the brave, laughing care-free soldier, the serious and conscientious artist, - surely it could not be true that the sea had claimed him for its own, and that we, as well as his stricken relatives, were bereaved. But the sad news was speedily confirmed and we can only mourn for the loss of a blithe and heroic spirit, and extend our deepest sympathies to those who were most near and dear to him; and to those who shared with him the last great adventure of his life."


Thomas, who comforted himself by remembering Crosbie’s "smiling eyes, his humorous sallies, his cordial handshake and his unfailing sincerity and friendship", recalled that the last time that he had seen him was at a gathering in London to pay tribute to their mutual friend, Dick Chirgwin, who had recently died prematurely. At the time, Crosbie had said, "It is unspeakable, unthinkable that he should have gone from us! It seems wicked, incomprehensible, but life is like that." (The Cornishman, 24/4/1930).


One of the reasons why Crosbie’s death seemed incomprehensible was that the boating accident occurred in the Salcombe estuary, rather than on the high seas, and that Crosbie’s two companions in the small dinghy that became waterlogged, as they made their way back to their yacht after a party ashore, had survived. Indeed, one of these was a woman, who had been wearing a fur coat, whilst Crosbie, who had been renowned from an early age for his swimming prowess, had perished. Furthermore, the mystery deepened when Crosbie’s body was never found, which, given the nature of the estuary, was most surprising. Nevertheless, contemporaries, such as Cecily, were forced to accept that he had drowned.


For the second time, Cecily and Alfred were required to comfort in ‘Rosemerrin’ the grieving widow of a man taken away in his prime, and there was an unpleasant incident in 1931, when both Lilian Garstin and Eleanor Hughes were defrauded by an old woman pleading poverty, which resulted in them both having to testify in court. However, the Sidgwicks may not have been, or become, as close to Lilian, as they were to Belle Leader, as Lilian made no special effort to get to Cecily’s funeral, being away in Yorkshire at the time. However, she stayed in the locality, remained a key figure in the Penzance Orchestra and subsequently became Mayor of Penzance.


The Sidgwicks’ old friend, Thomas Gotch, so long Alfred’s chess partner, made the effort to visit them one last time at ‘Trewoofe Orchard’ shortly before his death on 1st May 1931 and they, of course, attended his funeral. It was a couple of months later that Cecily clearly had some sort of attack that made her concerned about her health, as, on 16th July, she wrote some hurried instructions to Alfred concerning her funeral. She wanted him to keep things as simple as possible - no flowers, no mourning, just a plain village-made coffin and a lorry or car to convey it to the Church. She was even keen for him to discourage people from attending, saying, "Let people off going to my funeral". As a headstone, she wanted a Cornish Cross. However, the scare seems to have passed, as she was soon continuing with her writing. Nevertheless, in February 1932, she was again seriously ill, having had some form of seizure. Again, though, she made a good recovery, and continued to write.


Christmas cards in the album reveal that Cecily remained at the heart of the Lamorna community right up to her death. For instance, it contains a coastal scene in watercolour by John Birch, featuring buildings and a boat, signed ‘S.J.L.B. Xmas 1932’, and inscribed ‘My Dear Aunt Cec & Alfred, Just a new sketch to wish you every good thing for Xmas - and to send my love. Yours affly. John’. That Christmas, Charles and Ruth Simpson also sent a card addressed to ‘Aunt Cecy and Uncle Alfred’, which features Charles’ horse painting Good Going. In 1933, Stanhope Forbes also sent a Christmas card, which was a photograph of one of his works, a farmyard scene dated 1931.


It is slightly surprising that Alfred, but not Cecily, was recorded at the funeral of Ethel Paynter in February 1933. She might have been away or felt seedy again or her presence was just unrecorded. John Lamorna Birch, Charles Simpson, Charles Thompson (now living at St Buryan) and Frank and Jessica Heath were also there, along with the great and good of the district. The Cornishman reported,


"The interment took place in a spot in the gardens at Boskenna where Mrs Paynter had desired to be laid to rest in the delightful surroundings that she loved so much. She had made the woods which lie between Boskenna and the sea into a beautiful rock garden. The long procession wound its way down the narrow path through the woods, past the charming Japanese garden with the little bridges, to a corner among the daffodils and snowdrops, where a grave was prepared and lined with evergreens. Just below lay the blue waters dashing against the rocks of the little cove - above the brown leaves and brambles of the carn." (16/2/1933)


Patrick Marnham, in Wild Mary - The Life of Mary Wesley, suggests that the Colonel and Ethel had not enjoyed a happy marriage and that, having interred his wife’s ashes, he apparently turned to the mourners, rubbed his hands and said, `Well, that’s that. Now who’s for a game of bridge?’! Marnham certainly believes that, without Ethel in charge, life at Boskenna became ever more dissolute, leading ultimately to the enforced sale of the estate by the Colonel’s daughter, Betty, in 1956.


Cecily was able to enjoy her Golden Wedding Anniversary on 24th May 1933, and Alfred and herself gave a signed photograph of themselves sitting on a bench outside their home, taken on this occasion, "with love" to Ella Naper. By this juncture, the Sidgwicks were relying more and more on Ella and their overriding desire was to ensure that she benefitted from their estates sufficiently, so that she could afford a maid to enable her to be able to devote more time to her artistic endeavours. After an argument about politics that summer, which, somewhat surprisingly, suggests that Cecily at one juncture had Communist sympathies, Cecily wrote, "Dearest One, I can’t sleep without telling you how sorry I am I said a word about communism today. I don’t care about that kind of politics now. It’s dead I think. You seem to me to have altered a great deal since I first knew you. In the early days you were all for Harold [Laski], GBS [Shaw] and Co. I really can’t write about it. I don’t think anything about you today except what is affectionate and grateful for all your sweetness to us." (see John Branfield’s biography of the Napers at p.72)


A letter from Cecily addressed ‘For Alfred only’, dated 16th July 1934, indicates that she was aware that the end was nigh. It read, "Goodbye, Don’t be unhappy...Ella, the darling, will look after you, but let her off the funeral." She died on 10th August that year, after a further seizure.


Her funeral service at St Buryan Church was taken by her cousin, the Reverend Crofts, and, as she had requested, quietness and simplicity were the order of the day. Mourners included Hilda, Dick and Peter Ullman (Jeffrey being unable to attend), Stanhope and Maude Forbes, John Lamorna Birch, Charles and Ella Naper, Charles Simpson, Bertie Hughes, Frank Heath, Dochie Garstin (Norman’s widow), Phyllis Gotch (now the Marquise de Verdieres), Henry Rheam, Colonel Paynter and his daughter, Betty, Gilbert Evans, now back in Lamorna, Joan Coulson and Wilmet Beckett.


Alfred was her sole executor and her personal effects were valued at £4,384. In her 1931 letter, which she confirmed, in her last letter, as still recording her wishes, she wanted her wrist-watch, fur coat and boa and her silver toilet things to go to Ella Naper, and she wanted Laura Knight to have her golden Italian beads, as she had promised them to her and Harold Knight had painted them. Writing to Ella, after hearing the news, Laura commented, "Dear Mrs Sidgy, I think of all the great kindnesses that she did us, her hospitality and friendship...I feel so sad that she is gone, dear soul." She added, "Poor Mr Sidgy, I feel so grieved for him." However, in a subsequent letter, acknowledging the necklace, she commented that it made her feel "the meanest skunk alive" (see John Branfield’s biography of the Napers at p.72). This suggests that, whilst Cecily had always remembered Laura as a special friend to whom she had wanted to give a memento, Laura had not given her much thought in recent years. It was perhaps this feeling that led her, in her autobiography a couple of years later, to place on record that she still retained and valued the house-warming presents that Cecily had given her when they first moved in to ‘Oakhill’.


Cecily did not specify that her sister-in-law, Hilda Ullman, should have anything in particular, "because she will naturally look through all my things and do as she likes with them". However, she wanted Alfred to find some trifle, most probably a book, to be given as a memento to Joan Coulson, Wilmet Beckett and Eleanor Hughes. Her final instructions to Alfred were, "Mind you take my bedroom. You’ve been so sweet while I’ve been ill. Take care of yourself if you go to London. You are much safer at home."