Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 12 - The War Years




Alfred Sidgwick modelling as the male figures in Thomas Gotch's  The Setting-Up of the First Printing Press in Bristol, 1546, in the Castle Precincts (photo in Cecily's album)
Alfred Sidgwick modelling as the male figures in Thomas Gotch's The Setting-Up of the First Printing Press in Bristol, 1546, in the Castle Precincts (photo in Cecily's album)

The books published by Cecily Sidgwick during the War included 


Mr Broom and his Brother, 1915 (Chapman & Hall)


In Other Days, 1915 (Methuen & Co)


Salt and Savour, 1916 (published in America as Salt of the Earth, 1917) (Methuen & Co)


Anne Lulworth, 1917 (Methuen & Co)


Karen, 1918 (published in America as The Devil’s Cradle, 1918) (W. Collins Sons & Co Ltd)


By the time that In Other Days came to be published, the ‘Happy Valley’ scenario had changed dramatically, hence the title, for not only had War commenced, but the colony had also been devastated by Florence Munnings’ suicide in July 1914.  The latter was not something to be broadcast to the public, but Cecily felt that, due to the War, which might make some of the scenes depicted in the novel appear rather flippant, it was necessary to insert a preface, which read:-


“This novel was written before the War.  Many of the young men, married and single, who lived in the valley when the story was written are now away.  They have answered their country’s call to arms and the older folk do not know yet which of them will come back.  They know that one will not return, for he fell in action; they know that others are under fire or ministering to the wounded.  Some remain to wield the brush, but they can only paint in the hinterland, for a foolish artist or art student was observed industriously working a new signal station into his canvas, forgetting that not even a vestige of trouble should be given to our coast patrols in time of war, however innocent the painter’s motives may be.  Only a few paint with the old zest.  Many have to pull themselves together in order to do work worthy of their reputation.  But even this war will pass and some measure of sunshine and mirth return to the valley that meanders down to the sea.”


The resident already killed was Joey Carter Wood, who lost his life on 1st February 1915, but worse was to come.  Alec Forbes, the only son of Stanhope Forbes, (August 1916), Benjie Leader (October 1916) and Denis Garstin (1918) were all killed in the conflict, whilst Frank Heath was badly gassed and never fully recovered, albeit he was still able to produce some fine paintings.  ‘Seal’ Weatherby was also badly wounded in April 1917 and was in and out of military hospitals for many months, until being finally discharged from the Army in early 1918.  The mental wounds were even more difficult to heal than the physical ones, and he spent much of 1918 and 1919 trying to recuperate in Lamorna, often with the Heaths.


Even for those who were too old to enlist, like John Birch and Robert Hughes, it was very difficult to carry on painting with the same enthusiasm, particularly in view of the coastal sketching ban, whilst the news from the front was deeply depressing. The War was the backdrop to every discussion, prompting re-assessments of all aspects of life and art. In an effort to "do their bit", Birch and Hughes became members of a local volunteer force, guarding Newlyn harbour, and Cecily’s album contains a photograph of Birch on duty there. Birch also did some agricultural work, in view of the food shortage. Not unnaturally, the bottom dropped out of the art market during the War, and a number of artists struggled to survive financially. The multi-talented Charles Simpson, his new wife, Ruth, and young daughter, Leonora, who were to become long-term friends of the Sidgwicks, lodged for a time in 1916 with Algernon Newton’s wife at ‘Bodriggy’ in the valley. Simpson was unable to fight due to an ear injury suffered as a child, but was forced to sell 200 pictures from his studio for only £100 to survive. Algernon Newton himself returned to ‘Bodriggy’ in 1916, having been invalided out of the Army after nearly dying from double pneumonia.


In the valley, ill feeling was aroused by Harold Knight’s stance as a conscientious objector, testing even the long-standing friendship of the Birches.  Others whom he had known well turned their back on him or looked away.  When summoned before a Tribunal to explain his views, Knight indicated that he objected to combatant service, as he believed “a human being to be the highest manifestation of God on earth and to destroy even a body of a human being was to destroy part of God”.  Knight produced a letter in his support from well-known clergyman, Bernard Walke, which merely seemed to rile the Tribunal, as Walke was a renowned pacifist, who clearly had persuaded many others not to fight, but Knight had also persuaded Alfred Sidgwick to lend his support in person.  However, Alfred only felt able to say, “Mr Harold Knight, who has been a friend of mine for some years, has asked me to tell you of my conviction that his views about the War are not a mere pretext for shirking duty.  I strongly disagree with his views, on the grounds of their lack of practicality, but I am quite sure that he himself believes in them.” (Cornishman, 12/6/1918) What particularly irked the Tribunal was Knight’s inability to demonstrate that he had done anything at all for the War effort. The Tribunal felt obliged to refer his case to higher authority and the report of the hearing in all the local papers clearly resulted in such a groundswell of local feeling against Harold that Alfred Sidgwick felt obliged to write to the Western Morning News, given that his name had been mentioned, to explain that “I have no sympathy at all with the views held by Mr Knight and Mr Walke.  I regard such views as the chief danger at present to our country and civilisation.  Unless the atrocious crimes of Germany are punished in the only possible way, the world must relapse into barbarism.”  Accordingly, even this long-standing friend was lost.  When the Appeal Tribunal did hear his case on 24th June, Harold was exempted from duty, on condition that he should do agricultural work - as he had offered.  To find a farmer who would take him on, the Knights had to go to North Cornwall, where Laura relocated to be at his side, but it was an unhappy experience.


The outbreak of hostilities with Germany will have been difficult for Cecily on both a professional and a personal level.  She had made no secret of her German parentage and had constantly used German settings and German characters in many of her novels.  Furthermore, she had also published in 1908-9 two non-fiction books on Germany.  Accordingly, she was very much associated with Germany in the eyes of her public, albeit, in her portrayal of Germans and their way of life, she was not averse to levelling criticisms or employing a certain degree of mocking humour.  Now, however, she had to decide what course to adopt - did she ignore Germans and German settings altogether as being uncommercial subjects, or did she populate her novels with Germans displaying the very worst of their nation’s characteristics and lampoon them?  


There may also have been difficulties for Cecily on a personal level, certainly with some of the less well-educated locals.  Given that the Austrian oceanographer, Count Larisch, was denounced as a German spy in St Ives when charts of the coast that he had made for a book were found in his studio; that the Swedish artist, Rolf Jonsson, who had married a local girl and lived in the community for several years, was accused in Newlyn of signalling with coloured lights to the enemy, when it transpired that he had been merely walking with a torch between rooms in his home which had different coloured curtains, and that D.H.Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, had been hounded out of Zennor and the Duchy, as she was related to ‘The Red Baron’, paranoia had clearly afflicted certain sections of the local community.  Cecily was probably lucky that she was living in a small enclave, where she was well-known and well-liked, and where most people were well-educated and broad minded.


Cecily may have decided initially to steer clear of German subjects, for one of her 1915 publications, Mr. Broom and his Brother, was a complete departure, as recorded in the review in The Spectator.


“There is no moment more full of adventure than when an accomplished writer sets out on a new road. Perhaps, in Mrs. Sidgwick’s case, necessity has been the mother of invention : she could hardly expect to find an audience now for her tales of happy Anglo-German relationships, and has diverged so widely from her usual paths that the hero of her latest novel actually refuses to marry the German Princess assigned to him. She has written, to surprise us, a story which is half romantic and half detective—a story (or, rather, two loosely connected stories) all about Katavia and its splendid brother Princes, and an English doctor who makes a practice of murdering his patients, and some other terrible villains who are killed in the end. The military uniform of Katavia is white and gold, like that of Zenda; the cities are, we are sure, in the same country, and these fresh adventurers bring with them something of the familiar and delightful thrill. But, if Mrs. Sidgwick means to go on in this always welcome line of fiction, we hope that she will tell a tale even more thickly crowded with incidents and emotions, a romance even more shamelessly romantic.”


The book, however, does not appear to have been a great success, as I have found no copy, and even Herbert Thomas does not appear to have reviewed it in The Cornishman.  Accordingly, she adopted the alternative option of lampooning the Germans, drawing on her experiences in Germany in the years immediately before the War, which her husband relayed to The Daily Mail in 1917. “When you were in Germany, people talked to you about England morning, noon and night; chiefly, about its hypocrisy, decadence and greed.  You said, ‘England, my England’ to yourself, smiled blandly and listened to distorted history in amazement, wondering whether your encyclopedic host believed what he told you or was letting off spleen.  Others talked of English manners, of English education and of English literature.  Our manners were arrogant, we had no education and we had no literature.  Here and there you met someone who knew us and liked us, and that made a pleasant change.  But everyone had England on their nerves.”  (11/4/1917)  As Cecily’s mocking of German traits seemed to find an audience, she continued to produce a series of anti-German novels for the rest of the decade. 


Salt and Savour (1916), for instance, was set in the immediate pre-War period and was about an Englishwoman, Brenda, who had married into a German family.  At this time, she commented that there was throughout Germany a malevolence towards England and a desire to punish the English for perceived wrongdoings.  The following is a typical extract:-


“Brenda never argued with the family when it got epileptic about England.  You cannot argue with the insane and, after living amongst Prussians for six months, she knew that however level-headed they were in other ways, they were a people possessed as regards to England.  She still believed in the Germany she loved, for here and there she found it amongst kindly people, leading simple laborious lives.  But they did not occupy the foreground.  She detested the modern German foreground with its coarse efficiency, its brag and its malevolence.  So well informed all Germans were, so cultured, so superior to the rest of the world; and the rest of the world did not see it, but would soon be made to - especially England.”


The book captured the mood of the time perfectly. The Aberdeen Daily Press stated, "We question if Mrs Alfred Sidgwick has written anything that has struck the hour with a vibration like this novel", whilst the Sussex Daily News hailed it as "the greatest novel which the war has up to now called forth". The Pall Mall Gazette went further, "We like this book so much that we should be glad if everyone could read it to get a clear idea of what we are fighting about....Mrs Sidgwick’s pen has performed a great national service."


The novel was published in America, in 1917, under the title Salt of the Earth, a phrase used by the Kaiser in his famous speech at Potsdam, where he had said, "We are the Salt of the Earth. God has chosen us to regenerate the world. We are the apostles of Progress." The book was an enormous success there, consistently heading the lists of best selling novels for months. Having made a breakthrough in that market, Cecily ensured that, in her next novel of this type, Karen, one of the principal figures was an American, who was a consular figure in Germany before joining up when America itself entered the War. Again, it featured the English bride of a German, and contained even more venemous German characters - men who committed war crimes in Belgium and boasted of living in English country houses and of imposing indemnities that would bleed England dry, women who treated prisoners of war with barbarity, and children who were bullied and ill-treated by their elders and who committed suicide when they failed their examinations. Herbert Thomas’ increasingly jingo-istic reviews of her books of this period in The Cornishman do not make comfortable reading, but they were very difficult times.


Due to the international success of Salt and Savour, Cecily seems to have received larger payments for Karen, (which was renamed for the American market, The Devil’s Cradle), than any of her other books, possibly as an inducement to change publishers from Methuen to Collins. Whilst for her previous few books, she had been receiving a standard payment of £360, she received over £480 for Karen in August 1918 and this was followed by further payments of £163 a month later and £105 in October.


Cecily did break away from her anti-German obsession for one novel, Anne Lulworth (1917), and this also had some Cornish scenes. Indeed, a significant part of the action takes place in a property called ‘Rosmodres’, which was clearly based on Colonel and Mrs Paynter’s home, ‘Boskenna’. Its owners, the Tyrrells, were not, however, based on the Paynters, albeit Mrs Tyrrell did pass the comment that, before she arrived, the garden had been neglected for two generations and she had re-planted practically everything. Like the Paynters, the Tyrrells also owned the nearby fishing village of Menwinion Cove (Lamorna), and one scene in the novel features an entertainment there, which was clearly based on one of the evenings organised by Nick Jory. Cecily comments,



"There had been athletic sports in the afternoon, and at night an enterprising inn-keeper had arranged an open-air concert, put up a grand stand and illuminated his field with Japanese lanterns and fairy lights. After the concert the prizes were to be presented and a speech made by Major Tyrrell."



However, whilst Cecily’s novels were eminently readable and had many qualities, one can understand the sentiments behind the review of this novel in Punch:-


"Have you ever imagined yourself plunged (bodily, not mentally) into the midst of a story by some particular author? If, for example, you could get inside the covers of a Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick novel, what would you expect to find? Probably a large and pleasantly impecunious family, with one special daughter who combines great practical sense with rare personal charm. You would certainly not be startled to find her brought into contact with persons of greater social importance than her own; and you would be excusably disappointed if she did not end by securing the most eligible young male in the cast. I feel bound to add that a perusal of Anne Lulworth has left me with these convictions more firmly established than ever.


The Lulworth household, from the twins to the practical mother, is Sidgwickian to its core, though perhaps one can’t but regret that the Great Unmasking has for ever robbed them of the society of those fat and seemingly kindly Teutons who used to provide such good contrast. The Lulworths lived at Putney, and never had quite enough money for the varied calls of clothes and education and sausages for breakfast. Then Anne went on a visit to ever such a delightful big house in Cornwall, and there met the only son ... But then came the War and he was reported missing, so Anne stayed on indefinitely with his widowed mother; and the unpleasant next-of-kin (Mrs. SIDGWICK never can wholly resist the temptation of burlesquing her villains) refused to believe that she had ever been engaged to Victor, and indeed went on indulging their low-comedy spleen till the great moment, so long and confidently expected, when - But really I suppose I needn’t say what happens then. Sidgwickiana, in short, seasonable at all times, and sufficient for any number of persons."


The novel highlights a number of the petty disputes that arose in wartime, as to how best to help the war effort, and is also of interest as the Tyrrell’s land agent, Markham Flather, is, like Harold Knight, a conscientious objector. The novel is set before conscription was introduced, but, nevertheless, the man’s views are dismissed as inappropriate in the circumstances and he is widely held in contempt. Whilst the adults nevertheless outwardly behaved with decency towards him, the children plagued him by pressing upon him white feathers.


Wartime life in Lamorna was a far cry from the days of the Happy Valley.  Lamorna Birch’s letters give some indication that the Sidgwicks, with whom he continued to socialize regularly, tried to carry on as normal.  They still had breakfast every morning on the terrace outside their home, weather permitting, and still liked to play bridge in the garden on fine evenings.  He also mentioned that a number of academics came down to stay with them from London, mentioning in particular the philosopher, Ferdinand Schiller, who might be the basis for Thomas Clarendon’s academic friend in Storms and Teacups.  There were euchre sessions with the Hugheses and musical evenings at Bodriggy, where Mrs Algernon Newton entertained at the piano, but the wild parties were no more.


As Christmas 1916 approached, Cecily wrote a piece, in which she mentioned that she never wished to be anywhere but Lamorna at that time of year.  There was a soft, warm wind from the sea and the geraniums were in full flower.  “I have known Christmas Day as balmy here as I knew it in Rome”, she recalled.  Christmas lunch tended to be a communal event, held in the Hotel, with Mornie and Joan Birch being the centre of attention.  They were in Cecily’s words “the only official children in a community that never grows up” (Wormleighton).


When Charles Naper had been called up in 1916, Ella decided that she did not want to stay on her own at ‘Trewoofe House’ and so returned to her family, spending some time working in a munitions factory in Woolwich.  In April and May 1917, two of Charles’ brothers were killed in action and Ella went to stay for a while with her mother-in-law, with whom she had been reconciled, to comfort her.  When she did return to Lamorna that summer, she did not want to live in her home on her own and so stayed with the Sidgwicks at ‘Trewoofe Orchard’.  Mother-hen Cecily was in demand again.


During 1917, Thomas Gotch was approached by the Bristol businessman, Edward Robinson, with the request that he produce a painting of some historical scene from Bristol’s past that Robinson could donate to the City.  Gotch came up with the idea of the setting up of the first printing press and Alfred Sidgwick, whom Gotch referred to as ‘Sidgie’, agreed to model for the male figures, whilst his daughter, Phyllis, modelled for the female ones.  A large black and white print of the painting is in Cecily’s album, and the painting can be seen at Bristol Art Gallery.


At the end of October 1917, everyone in the area worked hard together for two ‘Our Day’ Jumble Sales held for the benefit of the Red Cross. Ethel Paynter was actively involved in both, and Cecily was clearly still on good terms with the Paynter family, as her album contains two Christmas cards for 1917 and 1918 from Colonel Paynter, then away on active service. The first Jumble Sale was held at ‘Boskenna’ on Wednesday 31st October and even the inclement weather did not stop a crowd thronging there. Whilst there is no record of Cecily having been involved in any official capacity, it would appear that she attended, as several chapters in None-Go-By record all the ups and downs of a Jumble Sale at ‘Morwenna’, with an orchestra attempting to perform in the rain. The second event was held on the Friday of the same week in the big room at the Cliff House Hotel in Lamorna. Here, Cecily was involved with the organisation of the jumble stalls, along with Ethel Paynter, Miss Joan Coulson and Mrs Wilmet Beckett, who were to live together for many years at ‘Oakhill’, after the Knights’ departure, Gertrude Duggan (Betty Paynter’s Governess, who was an amateur artist), Miss Dunstan, and Mrs Arthur Cornish. A number of artists had given paintings as prizes. "There was great excitement in the room when Dr Jago won an exquisite seascape by Mr Lamorna Birch and everyone envied him. Mr Thompson of Penberth had given a portrait of the winner of his raffle to be painted for a frame sent by Mrs Paynter. Mrs Thompson and Mr Hughes of Lamorna had both contributed charming landscapes." Charles and Heather Thompson, two former Bushey students, who first moved to Lamorna in 1903, had lived in ‘Oakhill’ for a time in 1904-5, before Charles had been appointed the first Curator at the Watts Gallery at Compton, Surrey. After ten years in that post, they had returned to West Cornwall in 1915, and now lived at ‘Chyvarrian’, above the Penberth Valley. Musical entertainment was provided at intervals and the performers included Eleanor Hughes, who played piano and violin duets with Mrs Beckett, whilst the Paynters’ butler, George Aukett, was amongst the singers. Ethel Paynter also had set up a special fund to which monetary contributions were encouraged, but Laura Knight (£2) and the Sidgwicks (£2-2) were the only contributors from the ‘artistic community’. In total, the two events raised £240.


By 1918, the years of shortages were beginning to show and Lamorna Birch passed the comment that Alfred Sidgwick was looking frail and gaunt and as if “some real old English food would do him good”.  He kept a letter that Alfred wrote to him that May.  “I have asked Farlow for a rod like yours and he is making me one.  Alas it is to cost £4-10s.  Pity I did not get it in 1914 when prices were reasonable.  The moral [of wartime life] seems to be that we ought to buy everything we want as soon as possible.  Perhaps next year rods will be unobtainable, like matches and whisky, and some other things.  The number of matches I have saved recently by getting the sun to light my fires is considerable.”  (Wormleighton) Whilst the undiminished glories of the Lamorna landscape were a far cry from the horrors of the muddy, blood-spattered fields of Flanders, it was still a battle to survive.


Deciding that they would like a change of scene, but not over-endowed with funds after the financial straits of those times, the Sidgwicks decided in March 1919 to take a cottage in Sennen, No 4 Sennen Cove, for a while as a “snug little retreat”.  The idea was for others in Lamorna, such as the Birches, the Napers and Belle Leader, to join them from time to time.  Ella Naper seems to have been particularly involved and, as the cottage was not fully furnished, she cheered up the appearance of the bedroom furniture that they took with them by painting it sky-blue and scarlet and, wearing a flame red dress, drove it to Sennen early one morning in a horse drawn cart. However, she held the reins, sat high up astride the furniture, whilst Cecily, Bell Leader and her two children sat behind the horse on the driver’s seat.  Alfred followed on his bicycle.  Next day, they found to their astonishment that their next door neighbours at Sennen were Laura and Harold Knight, who had also wanted a retreat.  John Branfield, the biographer of Charles and Ella Naper, is deeply suspicious of this ‘coincidence’ and feels that it was pre-planned by Ella and Harold, possibly with Laura’s consent.  He is of the view that Harold had been in love with Ella for some time and that, with the physical and mental torment that he had gone through, Ella was the one person who could cheer him up.  He also feels that Laura, who had become exasperated with Harold’s intransigence, recognised this.  On the other hand, it seems that the Sidgwicks were blissfully unaware of the plan and were not amused. Cecily used the Sennen cottage as the home of the heroine in The Black Knight (1920), in which she listed some of its disadvantages.  Water was not laid on, the kitchen had no larder, the coal cellar opened into the sitting room, and one could only get out of the back bedroom by coming through the front one. The latter difficulty may not have been a problem for a family, but will not have been at all convenient given the make-up of the Sidgwick party.  Alfred confided in Birch later that Sennen had “not been quite the heaven they expected”. (Wormleighton/Branfield)


In Cecily’s album, there is an undated Christmas Card from fellow writers George and Ruth Manning-Sanders, whose home was the cultural centre of Sennen and who became close friends of the Knights during their subsequent visits there. The Manning-Sanders family also became well-known to the local artistic community, as a result of the exceptional artistic talent of their daughter, Joan, who, in the late 1920s, won considerable notoriety as a child prodigy, following her success at the Royal Academy in 1928, at the age of just 14, which made her the youngest person ever to have had a work hung there. However, the extent to which Cecily was able to proffer advice to George and Ruth, who were just embarking on their literary careers, and of any friendship between the Sidgwicks and the Manning-Sanders family is unrecorded.




Particular sources:  Austin Wormleighton's biography of John Lamorna Birch and John Branfield's book on Charles and Ella Naper.