Batcombe Lodge, Russell Road, Langdon Hills
I was recently contacted by Melanie Price who was enquiring about her Great Grandmother’s old home ‘Batcombe Lodge’ in Russell Road, Langdon Hills. The last mention she could find about it was around 1970. The house had been built by Charles Cuff and his son at the beginning of last century. It was a substantial two-storey house with eight rooms. I was able to tell her that the homes in Russell Road were demolished in the early seventies and the area became part of Mark’s Hill Nature Reserve from 1976, the official opening taking place in 1981.
Unfortunately, Melanie doesn’t have a full photo of ‘Batcombe Lodge’, but has sent a few photos. I believe ‘Batcombe Lodge’ can be seen in the background of one of these. Another clearly shows the large house ‘Nore View’ in the background.
Melanie has included a memoir written by Lilly Porter, (granddaughter of Charles and Emma Cuff), who remembered staying at ‘Batcombe Lodge’ in her childhood years. This is a very interesting read and provides an insight into life in London and the Langdon Hills Countryside early last century. I copy it below.
The Memoirs of Lillian Porter (1905-1990)
I was born on Hallowe’en 1905, six weeks before my mother’s twentieth birthday. My father was twenty-one. A little sister, Evelyn, born fifteen months later, died of meningitis at the age of five months; Victor was born in April 1909 and Herbert, (Bertie) in October 1911. By the time my mother was twenty-six she had had four children, and was a widow at thirty-one.
The earliest memories of my childhood always centered round the house of my grandparents at Langdon Hills, Essex, which was built at the beginning of the century. My grandfather, Charles Cuff, was born at Batcombe, Somerset in 1845. He and his brother had lost their mother very young, and were looked after mostly by his father’s brother’s family. They worked at a very young age helping on a farm; money was very scarce and life was hard. As soon as he had a little cash my grandfather ran away to London, and in 1867 he joined the Metropolitan Police. He married my grandmother, Emma Howse in 1872 and over the next eighteen years they had nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood. My grandfather was a very kind man and had great compassion for the poor people on his ‘beat’. Women especially had a very hard time; they were often beaten brutally by their drunken husbands. Many of the young girls were prostitutes; they did not like their trade but some had little children to feed. Grandpa was well known and respected on the streets of London, and when he retired, the flower-sellers and tinkers generally, collected and bought him a large pewter tea-service which is still in the family. Heaven knows how many must have given towards its purchase, as a penny was as much as any could spare. It always had pride of place in the parlour.
Grandpa never had much money, but he was a canny man and longed to own a house of his own one day. As the children left home he continued renting a large house in Dyott Street in W. London, and let out rooms, to men only: 5/- per wk per room. It was very hard work for Grandma, but she was used to hard work with nine children. Every penny saved went towards the dream of one day having a house in the country. At last the day arrived when Grandpa retired. They bought several acres of ground at Langdon Hills, hired a couple of builders, and Grandpa and his married son started on the house, ‘Batcombe Lodge’.
It truly was a wonderful house, with large, well-proportioned rooms; double-fronted with four large bay windows to the front. One had to go up several steps, the width of the house, to the front door which opened onto a smallish hall with a steep narrow staircase. On the right was the parlour, on the left, a large dining-room, leading to a roomy kitchen. This had a back door leading to a smaller conservatory and the enormous back garden. At the top of the stairs was a good size bedroom with a smaller one within it, intended one day to be a bathroom, and further along the landing two large front bedrooms, one having windows each end. Both had lovely views over the open country with hardly a dwelling in sight.
There was no water or gas in the house, no loo or bathroom. An enormous kitchen range was always alight and constantly being black-leaded and polished. There was a huge stove and a copper heated by wood and coal, lit for washing-day and bath-days. Outside was built a wash-house for washing ourselves, where the mangle for the clothes was kept. Every drop of water had to be hauled up in a bucket from a spring in the garden; eventually a pump was installed in a large stone sink in the kitchen which made life easier. An earth-closet was built next to the wash-house, covered with creepers, periwinkles and climbing-roses. It was spotless, and carbolic powder was the overpowering perfume. After my grandfather’s death my grandma had to empty this bucket twice-weekly and dig a large hole in the ground to bury the contents. It was extremely hard work when the ground was covered with snow or frost but I never heard her complain once.
When Grandpa was alive the gardens were well-cultivated; all home-grown vegetables and fruit. He kept chickens, free-range of course, and it was my job to wander round all the fields and hedges searching for eggs. They preferred anywhere but the obvious nest-box. We had plenty of eggs, but chicken was only cooked on high-days and holidays. Grandma sold goats’ milk to Jewish people who came to her especially for it. I used to go to a farm a mile away for 1d worth of cows’ milk. The goats’ milk fetched more money, and every penny was precious.
We had beautiful oil-lamps in the downstairs rooms but only candles in the bedrooms; I was nervous going up to bed in the dark. It was a large house, and my hand trembled on the narrow stairs and nearly put the candle out. The only part of that enchanting (to me) house I didn’t like was that narrow steep staircase. Every room in the house had a fireplace but I only remember a fire twice in a bedroom, once when I was ill and the other time when Grandma was dying. Taking coal upstairs was a chore, but we had chamber-pots in our rooms, and the toilet-bucket had to be carried down each morning.
I am sorry I have no recollection of the elder son, my Uncle Charles, as I am told he loved me dearly and was intrigued how I managed to crawl into the garden, pull out the spring onions and eat them straight from the ground, earth and all. Uncle Charles worked at an auctioneers in London and died of TB in 1908 at the age of thirty-two. Poor Grandma, her loving, kind son and her favourite child.
My two brothers and I lived in N. London with our parents in a roomy flat. We were well-cared-for and loved, but I longed always for the countryside at Langdon Hills and often stayed there. I don’t remember a lot about my life in London before the 1914 war. (I remember that part too well.) When my mother was expecting my brothers I went to Langdon Hills for several months; the second time, aged six, I attended the village school. It was here I fell flat on my face on the unfinished asphalt, a nasty accident and I bear the scars to this day. But how happy I was to be back at Batcombe Lodge. I walked four miles, five days a week, alone: a mile there, a mile home for the main mid-day meal, back to afternoon school and home again for tea, often in thick snow. We were very warmly clad and had so many clothes it was difficult walking. Besides a vest we had a chemise made of flannelette, a liberty-bodice, long petticoat, thick knickers, a thick dress and cardigan and very heavy boots; hat scarf, gloves. All this lot was washed very often; they were gluttons for hard work, – and the hours of ironing! I had beautiful sun-bonnets carefully goffered.
Not long after the second brother was born, I was sent home as Grandpa was taken ill with enteritis and he died a few weeks later at the age of sixty-six. I was heartbroken; this was the first real grief of my life. For the next few years I only went to Langdon Hills in the school holidays. The pony-cart was never used again but I still rode round the field on the back of the old pony. It broke my heart the day it had to be shot and I saw it carted away for cats’ meat. Everything else at Batcombe lodge had changed; Grandpa’s pension had died with him and Grandma only had a few savings. The other children sent a few shillings when they could manage it but the burden fell on my Auntie Maud, only fifteen years my senior, being the youngest of Grandma’s brood and the only one still living at home.
Auntie Maud was the village dressmaker. She was an extremely good dressmaker; did her own designs and patterns, beautiful embroidery and beading. It took her a whole week to make a dress for which she was paid 10/- (ten shillings). This included two fittings and sometimes she had to cycle several miles to fit a customer. I remember her so well, working at her machine in the dining-room with only a small Beatrice Stove for heat. There was money only for one fire in the house, the kitchen range. Ironing the garments was a real headache; her poor hands were blue with the cold and she suffered from chilblains. In her mid-twenties she was courted by a baker. I remember the parlour fire being lit when he came, and as long as the piano was being played they were left alone. If it stopped for any length of time, Granny would knock on the door to say ‘Isn’t it time for supper?’! Maud was head-over-heels in love, but then the baker got a new job at Westcliff, and gradually the letters stopped coming, until one day he wrote to say he had a new lady-friend. Maud was heartbroken.
Added to this Grandma had all the land around to cope with. There were many fenced-in fields around Batcombe Lodge’s gates; some old man had died years before; he had not left a will and no relative could be traced. In these cases apparently any property goes to the crown, but at that time ground was so cheap it wasn’t wanted. The grass grew and grew; a small wood soon appeared. Grandma consulted a solicitor (his wife was one of Auntie Maud’s customers) who said if Grandma paid the tithes on the land, and kept the receipts, after so many years the land would belong to her. She did not want more land, but owning it meant she could have the grass cut, the fences mended and complete privacy for Batcombe Lodge. So we really were in a world of our own.
A farmer would come twice a year and scythe the grass and take it away, and I would ride on top of the hay-cart. I got terribly bitten but enjoyed the excitement so much, tossing the hay over my friends. I itched for weeks and Grandma would dab the spots with a weak solution of bicarbonate-of-soda. Oh those old-fashioned country remedies. Every weekend we had to have a ‘clear-out’, mostly liquorice powder. I loathed it, also brimstone and treacle, and cod-liver oil. Grandma had a cure for everything; one could just not afford a doctor unless one was very ill. Our village doctor was an old man; a great character with a big compassionate heart. He really was no better-off than his patients and we had to take our own bottles and tins to get medicine and ointment. He lived to a good age and although ill himself, used to drag himself around to help people. No car of course; he walked miles; sometimes rode his horse. After his death it was many months before he was replaced.
When the war began my father, in an excess of patriotism, perhaps thinking it would be a nice break and would all be over in a few weeks, joined up almost immediately. The flat was only rented on a week’s notice, so my mother put the furniture into store and we went to Langdon Hills to live with Grandma and Auntie Maud. I had not yet had my ninth birthday, Victor was five and Bertie was three. That war altered the whole course of our lives as it did with so many thousands of people.
Life was not easy at Langdon Hills; Auntie Maud resented her sister arriving with her brood, and plainly showed it. My mother found work in a munitions factory some miles away. She had a long walk to pick up a special van that was sent for these workers early each morning. I remember how she came home frozen to the bone and crying as her frozen limbs thawed out.
Victor and I went to the village school I already knew, and Grandma looked after Bertie and had our hot lunch ready when we came home mid-day, and how we needed it! It was a difficult walk and we had a couple of hills to climb. Victor was a sensitive little boy who burst into tears at the slightest mishap; I had a job coping with him. He missed his Daddy. We were extremely fortunate with our teachers, dedicated women who loved their profession, and for the next two years we worked hard and did well. We had a little exam each term and I quickly found it is no fun in always being top of the class; your fellow pupils resent it! Discipline was very strict and the cane used, after a caution. I remember almost a ‘purr’ of delight when I was called out to be caned: ‘teacher’s pet’ getting a caning! Actually it wasn’t my hand that was hurt; it was my pride – and all for talking too much!
When my mother came home from work in the evening she took on her brood, washed, undressed and put us to bed, and always heard our ‘prayers’, mostly for Daddy. The bedroom with a smaller one within it was our quarters: Mother slept in the room with the double bed and Bertie in a little bed by her side. I shared the smaller room with Victor; it was freezing and Mother would put a hot brick wrapped in flannel in our beds. Later we got stone hot-water-bottles; I think they were more like ginger-beer bottles: very clumsy but warm. When enemy planes came over at night on their way to London, we went into the cellar under the house. Even today I remember what a terrible, dismal place it was; bitterly cold and damp and dark; only one small candle and lots of spiders. Our guns made a terrible noise and we were very frightened, but I think we were more likely to have died of pneumonia than enemy action.
My father, who was with the 3rd Cavalry Supply Column Expeditionary Force, was very soon sent to France. He wrote regularly to us, but told us nothing of real interest, as his letters were all censored. They were mostly messages for his children, but one written on 19/11/14 told of being shelled and the loss of four comrades, and talks of the enemy outnumbering the British six to one. However, it ended on an upbeat note: ‘I still think there is some chance of being home again soon, as every day seems to bring better news, and when Kitchener’s Army comes out they will soon put things straight.’ Poor Daddy; how optimistic! I do remember him coming home on leave in, I think, late Summer 1915. It was a very dark night, and there was a banging on the door at the back of the house; no-one was ever around at night, and the house was isolated. Granny took a lamp to the door, and it was Daddy! Even today I remember the thrill; he was quite exhausted with his heavy kit, but oh what joy! The two boys were asleep, and we didn’t wake them; they had their thrill next morning when they went into Mother’s room.
But alas, our joy was short. One morning I was awakened by a touch on the arm and a voice saying ‘Hush, don’t wake Victor!’ It was barely dawn but I saw Daddy in his uniform and could hear my mother sobbing. He said ‘Now I want you to be my very brave big girl and look after Mummy and the boys till I get back.’ He took me in his arms and hugged me and bent and kissed my sleeping brother. He said ‘Now you mustn’t cry; I shall soon be back. God will take care of me.’ And he was gone.
I shall never forget the next few months; there was a path down the front of the house to the letterbox. Day after day my mother would go down and stand by that box for the letter that never came. I stood up in the front bedroom and watched her; her very heart was breaking, but I had to dress and get ready for school, leaving Mother at the gate. The post was irregular, and the old postman had a hard job visiting those isolated houses: no made-up paths and the mud roads deeply rutted where the horses had drawn up heavy loads of coal. It was November before any news came: desperately ill, being shipped home to England, shell-shock. I hated God.
My mother went to London to stay with her eldest sister Kate to try to get some information as to my father’s illness; she visited him daily in hospital. We three children remained a while at Grandma’s; we loved the school, the countryside, and Grandma was an excellent cook. I remember her lovely suet puddings with different fillings, the special way she had of sousing mackerel, and the enormous aitchbone of beef which almost lasted the week, dressed up in various sauces; it always gave us a large basin of delicious dripping with gravy, which we had on toast for our tea. There was porridge for breakfast, and sometimes an egg (bacon was for a filling in one of the suet puddings). The pantry was always full: lovely chutneys, home-made wines etc. We had plenty of vegetables and a big orchard by the side of the house, so we were never short of fruit, but we seldom had oranges or bananas even when they were available; they were an unnecessary luxury. Grandma made large cakes every Wednesday and they lasted the week. There were a few shops about half-a-mile away and a lovely bake house; such delicious crusty bread. We bought it the day after it was baked; it was cheaper and not so tempting; we had big appetites.
Occasionally a gypsy would come with a rabbit for sale; it was only a few pence but it was a welcome change, and we loved rabbit-pie. Sometimes they brought my aunt pieces of lace and webbing for Auntie Maud’s dressmaking. I enjoyed their visits; some of the women were magnificently beautiful with their flashing bright eyes and long dark hair. Their expression was rather fierce as people treated them badly. They always had a baby in their arms and always asked for milk which Grandma never refused. She was sorry for them as their lives were hard, but they were loyal to their clan, and they were certainly colourful.
After a few weeks my mother, realising my father was going to be ill for a long time, felt she must move to London. She rented two rooms in Highgate and took Victor and me with her. I was ten and Victor six. Bertie was four, and it was decided by Grandma that she would look after him. She had once had a little son named Bertie and she adored my young brother, as did Auntie Maud.
So, then commenced one of the unhappiest periods of my life. We all hated the idea of London, and thought of all the pleasures we were going to miss, especially our occasional trips to the sea. We were about a mile from Laindon station, and Southend was only a few miles away. It was a charming little station and we loved the whistle of the steam-train as it chug-chugged in. How we enjoyed those trips; we always walked the mile to the end of the pier, and afterwards went to one of a group of shops underneath, where they sold shellfish meals and cups of very strong tea. (I never remember any coffee, only the coffee essence we used for flavouring.) Once, I had some cockles and was very sick for days after; I have scarcely touched shell-fish of any kind since. Before we left we would go on to see the lovely gardens at Westcliff, and play on the sands for a while; the tide went out for miles so we didn’t swim. No child in Disneyland today could enjoy themselves more than Victor and I did in those happy days. It was years before we saw the sea again.
So here we were in London in two top rooms looking down on a railway-line; we hated it. The downstairs tenants were a young couple with four tiny children. As the husband was an engineer he didn’t have to join up, so we had one man in the house, two women and six children. The first thing Mother did was to get us to school, which fortunately was very near, the next to find herself a job. As we came home for a mid-day meal (no school-dinners or milk in those days) and she visited my father often, the only job she could take was a night job, when she knew we would be in bed. She got a job with London Transport as a storekeeper, at Chalk Farm, a long way to walk alone in the darkness of the blacked-out streets. She would put Victor to bed and leave me with a penny for the gas-meter and also a candle.
Victor took a long time going to sleep and cried for his mother. Everything was so different from what we had been used to, and we felt so utterly alone. I used to make up all sorts of stories to keep Victor happy, mostly fairy stories; fortunately they came easily to me as I had a vivid imagination. I dared not light the gas too early as I had only the one penny, and dreaded the thought of the gas petering out, so kept to the candle only, as long as Victor was awake. Then enemy action started; the first time my poor mother ran all through the streets from Chalk Farm to Highgate with all the flak and searchlights around her, to be with her children. I was so pleased to see her, as Victor was petrified and I just wanted her to be with us; I didn’t want to die without her there. She had to go back to work when the ‘All Clear’ sounded; I got no more sleep.
After that experience the young parents decided they would take their children down the Underground next time, and offered to take us too. When the siren sounded they would rush upstairs, bang on the door and shout ‘Dress Victor and come downstairs!’ I had such a job rousing and dressing him; I was ten. I had to almost carry my brother on the journey to the tube-station at Tufnell Park, where we were packed like sardines into the lift. Young as I was I couldn’t help noticing that the women were much cooler than the men! It was awful when we got down to the platform, people lying around, and some crying. To start with there were no toilets and the place smelled horribly, though as time went on facilities were organised. I only remember going there three times; it was decided we were better off crouching downstairs in our house. It was pitch dark but at least we were together; I had one arm around Victor and cuddled the cat, Foch (named for the Supreme Allied Commander) with the other. The heavy guns made the poor animal tremble, and he always came to me. My anxious mother never knew what she was going to find when she came home next morning.
How we missed Batcombe Lodge and everything connected with it, including the good food. I missed my young friends at the Chapel Sunday School, and its little outings and parties. There were mostly lay-preachers each Sunday, but such kind and caring people. Every week we were given descriptive cards with scenes from the Bible; they were so colourful; I loved them. I missed very much the old cat I had known from infancy; she was continually having kittens, and my Grandma was constantly drowning them. This incident I never got used to, and wept bitterly, not so much for the kittens but for the mother cat. She used to wail piteously when she came in and found her young missing, and would search all over the house. Although in her fourteen years she had many litters she never accepted the idea that they would disappear. Her name was Cockles, and she often brought her prey into the kitchen, snakes and all. She wouldn’t eat them in bits and they still wriggled; I sat watching, my feet tucked up in horror at the sight. But I loved that old cat.
Things continued much the same until April 1917; my poor father was still in hospital. Then one night while I was in my mother’s bed a messenger arrived; she was wanted at the hospital. She came back three hours later weeping bitterly. I pretended to be asleep but as she got into bed beside me shaking with sobs, I said ‘What’s the matter, Mummy?’ She just said ‘Daddy is dead’. I turned over and said not a word; my heart was beating so rapidly I thought I was going to die. I kept thinking ‘There is going to be a funeral, and I have got to see to it. Mummy has only me in the world to help her, and I must be good and not cry’. I slipped out of bed early and went into my brother to tell him; he was eight years old, and though I begged him not to cry because of poor Mummy, he did; how he did! The noise woke my mother, she took him in her arms and they cried together.
After my father’s death, Mother continued working and the war went on. I was now at a very good County school and no longer top of the class; my fellow students were clever girls. I was in the top third (there were about thirty of us) but always bottom in Art. I never got more than 40% and this brought down my average. I was however, top in English and French, but I was truly grieved at my inability to draw and paint. I had such a deep appreciation of beautiful things and would have loved to have expressed it somehow. The fields around Langdon Hills were full of wild flowers and all kinds of lovely creatures; the trees in our woods were visited by nightingales and they were music to my ears. I had piano lessons and was competent but had no true gift.
Every summer holiday Victor and I went to Grandma and Auntie Maud. One summer I helped Edgar Watkins, my brother Bertie’s friend, take breakfast to the prisoners-of-war, who were housed in tents and huts in the grounds at Nore View, the large house on the summit of a hill. I was very impressed by its affluence, particularly the enormous drawing-room with windows each end and the largest mirror I have ever seen; it reached from ceiling to the floor. We had a bucket each filled with large jacket-potatoes and would give one to every prisoner; they were all Germans and so appreciative. Many of the men wanted to fondle me; one man wept as he said I was so like his little daughter back home. He prayed she was still alive, as the town in which she lived had been heavily bombed by the RAF. I certainly saw the other side of the conflict; these were ordinary men, just conscripts caught up in something outside their control. They didn’t have to wait too long as the war was almost finished.
Lilly subsequently spent most of her life in London; after a Pitman’s secretarial course she landed a plum job with a prestigious antiques and interior-design business where one of the partners was the son of Sir Edwin Lutyens. She unintentionally broke the heart of several ‘society’ beaux, but remained true to her engineer fiancé, with whom she had one son. During WW2 she considered sending her young boy to Billericay, where Auntie Maud was living (having finally married in her fifties a ‘lovely’ nurseryman) but he wanted to stay with his parents. One day a landmine exploded near their house in Wembley, and Lilly went into labour with her second son, three months early; he lived for 12 hrs. She had no more children. Lilly ended her days in her early 90s, in Warwickshire, where her son was a hospital consultant. Her beloved Grandmother had died in 1931, after which Maud took in a lodger who became a family friend. When Maud married in the 1940s, her brother took over Batcombe Lodge, which was subsequently left to his daughter, whom Lilly describes as ‘the last one living in the house’. The final mention of Langdon Hills comes after the account of her mother’s death in 1969.
Mother had built a bungalow on a large plot at the edge of the fields below and after Auntie Maud left Batcombe Lodge, let the former lodger live there. When this man died, two or three years after Mother, Victor went down to turn off the water and electricity, and then went back a month later to collect some of Mother’s possessions. The bungalow had been burnt to the ground! We can only think some hobos had broken in during the cold weather and stayed there for a while, as there was little coal left in the coal-shed. The insurance had not been renewed after Mother’s death; we informed the police but of course they could do nothing. I was upset as it was Mother’s holiday home, and we had had some good times there. This was the early 1970s and the Council had bought many of the large houses with extensive grounds around Langdon Hills, which they knocked down (what a waste) and replaced with matchboxes very close together. Mother’s plot was the only one left; it had cost £18 originally, and Victor was offered £3000; after some months of negotiations it was sold.