The Passionate People of Elmbridge, Past and Present

The following lecture was presented to the Royston Pike group on 16 November 2012 by Jo Tapp.

Welcome to Elmbridge! (You'll never leave)

In Agatha Christie's short story 'The Tuesday Night Club' she introduces a certain Miss Jane Marple – spinster, nosy neighbour and champion knitter. At one point the senior sleuth, in typically self-deprecating mode, says: "I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St. Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature..." Miss Marple capitalises on this knowledge in every subsequent mystery; the experience she has gained of the full spectrum of personalities and behaviours without leaving her seemingly sleepy village is continually echoed throughout the books, as she draws parallels between suspects in the current crime and a resident from dear old St. Mary Mead.

Now, Elmbridge hasn't quite racked up the same number of bodies, bottles of arsenic, kleptomaniac curates or philandering famers as St. Mary Mead (we hope), but what I want to explore is the idea that it does share that same sense of completeness, of being a world in miniature – and not just of human nature, but of human history as well. For in our small borough, which is only a few miles wide, and is often dismissed simply with adjectives like 'affluent', 'nice' and 'leafy', it is possible to survey the full march of time, from the Neanderthals to the arrival of the premier league footballers. The Roman invasions, smoke-filled Saxon times, the Reformation, Industrial Revolution, Victorian reforms, two world wars, suffragettes and sixties swingers – almost every major period of British history finds echo and evidence in Elmbridge. Now, clearly every stone and blade of grass across this country has been witness to the march of time, but Elmbridge does warrant particular historical attention. This borough occupies a decidedly middle-ground - near London, but yet not London; between urban and rural; between the capital and the coast, it has been party to highly significant events and persons via osmosis from the capital, whilst also giving birth to important events and persons of it's own. So it is that kings and queens, film stars, philosophers, MPs, poets, socialites, social reformers, and engineers all mingled in Elmbridge across the ages and made their mark on our communal history.

It is Elmbridge's fascinatingly wide-ranging human history that I want to give you a sample of this evening. Unlocking the past via its people has always been irresistible, from Plutarch's 'Lives' to Lytton Stratchey's 'Emminent Victorians', but historical biographies and family-tree hunting have certainly never been more in vogue than today. Like Miss Marple we are perhaps fascinated by the resolute constancy of human nature and behaviours, against a backdrop of vastly different settings. Glimpses of common humanity allow us to link with the distant past more closely - past triumphs, tragedies and foibles provide for us those systolic moments as described by the incorrigible Hector in Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys' – "when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours." The art of biography also often proves what Plutarch penned in his 'Life of Alexander the Great': "It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die."

The full extent of this area's illustrious past is being unlocked as a result of Elmbridge Museum's ambitious centenary project, 'The Elmbridge Hundred', which I had the good fortune to be involved with since its inception when I worked at the Museum. Elmbridge Museum turned 100 in 2009, and rather than having a bubbly and bunting-filled bow-out, we commissioned artist, writer, and historian Alistair Grant to commemorate the occasion with something a little more permanent. Alistair's solution was to focus on the life stories of significant people associated with the Borough in times past – stories which are often in danger of disappearing into the earth as memories fade and the physical landscape is developed and redeveloped and redeveloped. And so 'The Elmbridge Hundred' was born. Alistair soon had a long-list of over 750 historic figures with a tangible connection to Elmbridge, and with the help of local school students, local history societies and dedicated museum volunteers, we recorded their biographies on a gargantuan encyclopaedic website - Elmbridge's very own 'Who's Who'. Stage Two involved a selection process to decide the 100 most significant figures, prompting lively historical debate, rivalry and one or two catfights. Stage Three is currently in motion, with exciting plans to commemorate these 100 figures with a large public artwork.

But when preparing this talk I was faced with a stumbling block – how to choose figures to fill a single hour from a 750-strong list? Well, I could have taken a statistical sample, but unlike local mathmos Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing (spoiler alert!), maths was never my strong suit. I wanted to do something a little more imaginative, so I started to think about a local setting where a disparate group of historical figures could come together for an idle hour- a sort of fantasy dinner party idea. On Thames Ditton's sun-parched cricket pitch? Clinking jars in The Swan pub? Floating about the ivy-clad mausoleum beneath St Charles Borromeo's Church? Hanging around outside any number of kebab vans on a Saturday night? Eventually I settled on the theatre – a space which can conjure any scene and any character, which can hold the vasty fields of Elmbridge as well as call up any of its residents from years past. And other reasons favoured the Stage as the perfect setting. 'Unity of Place' was judged by Aristotle in his 'Poetics' as one of the three key elements of a successful play (actually a successful tragedy), and place is the one thing our geographic predecessors all share. Added to this, Elmbridge has more than earned its Equity card, boasting great thespian credentials, from Fanny Kemble to Charlie Chaplin, and from a modest little theatre on Baker Street in Weybridge in the 1700s to the great machine of the Hepworth Film Studios in Walton.

So let us raise the curtain on the tragedies, comedies, fantasies and histories of some of Elmbridge's most significant figures. They'll be no prizes at the end for anyone who guesses where the character descriptions you're about to see announcing each figure come from, but it was the same pen that wrote:

'The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name'...

Dramatis Personae

Act I, Scene I begins by summoning up 'An airy spirit':

Now, this most obviously calls out for a pioneering daredevil from Brooklands aerodrome – aviators like Tommy Sopwith, John Rhodes Cobb or Hilda Hewlett or one of the many aeronautical engineers who helped those magnificent men in their flying machines get aloft. But my fellow Elmbridge Hundred colleague Brooklands Museum director Allan Winn lectured so admirably about the subject this summer that I dare not compete So, instead, I give you another kind of airy spirit: Anna Pavlova. The Russian ballerina and inspirer of calorific desserts was the most celebrated dancer of her age, and renowned for devising the role of the Dying Swan. And in 1910, her en pointe toes graced the grounds of Esher Place, a grand mansion in the French Renaissance style, just off Lammas Lane in Esher. It was then home to Sir Edgar Vincent and his wife, the society beauty Lady Helen Venetia Vincent. The couple were lavish party-givers, entertaining the cream of Edwardian society. It was at one such occasion on a golden summer's afternoon that the journalist Marion Barker recorded the flight of our airy spirit: 'Pavlova danced like a beautiful sprite on the grass amphitheatre that Lady Helen, with her great taste, had made in the grounds. All the most well known people in society crowded there to see Pavlova fluttering about like a fairy in those beautiful see Pavlova in such a setting was a sight which will remain pictured in my memory forever.' Pavlova's ethereal and brief sojourn in Elmbridge highlights an issue that recurred when it came to selecting our Elmbridge 100 hall of fame: duration. Many panellists judged significance by how long a person had been associated with Elmbridge. Indeed, many became consumed with whether a figure was truly 'of Weybridge' or 'of Esher', often preferring a long-time local plodder to a flashy passer-by who had merely visited the area. Conversely, when the students were researching their biographies, this barely bothered them. They did not mind if John Lennon had lived in Weybridge for one day or one decade, the cool thing was he had been here. My armchair psychologist's conclusion is that this is perhaps the result of that youthful trend: celebrity-spotting – the excitement of getting an iphone pic of a personality that fixes them in perpetuity as having been in proximity to you, regardless of how fleeting their visit. But there are also other reasons why a speedy stay somewhere need not be insignificant. Momentous events, whether of personal or historic import, are simply that – mere moments in the march of time. And the happiest, most dramatic and most poignant experiences in all lives are often the most fleeting – like Pavlova's magic and ephemeral dance. In hindsight her dance also seems to capture something of the golden twilight of the traditional aristocracy that was the Edwardian age – a time of lavish lace, self-indulgent picnicking and champagne flowing in cut-glass that was to change all too sharply a few years later. Today the grand mansion of Esher Place is the headquarters of the Unite Union – as if to ram the change home with studied irony.

The King and Queen of England

Here we have an embarrassment of royals who could take the stage (I of course mean embarrassment in the quantative sense that than as a collective noun for many monarchs).

In 1537 Henry VIII acquired Oatlands Manor in Weybridge, evicting the Reade Family and transforming it into a substantial palace. It was ideally situated at the one end of his hunting playground 'The Honour of Hampton Court', with Hampton Court Palace in the middle and Nonsuch Palace at the other. Now, if there is one historical character who has been done to death (and then crucified on television by Jonathan Ryhs Meres in 'The Tudors') it is Henry VIII. However, a little local knowledge does add a certain insight into his eventful life. Henry intended Oatlands to be a palace for his latest queen, no.4, Anne of Cleves, as a means of keeping her retinue separate from his court and intrigues at Hampton Court and elsewhere. However, the airbrushed Anne of Holbein's portrait failed to mirror Anne au naturel, and Henry quickly moved on to the fifteen year-old 'bon-air and buxom' Kathryn Howard. He married Kathryn in the chapel at Oatlands on 28th July 1540. Yet, by this point Henry was forty-something, fat and unfit, making his rejection of Anne on aesthetic grounds even more hypocritical. And we know he was less fit for one because at Oatlands Palace he installed something called 'a ride way' – basically a ramp entrance at the back of the palace, which enabled him to ride straight into his personal lodgings, rather than having to dismount at the main gate and walk through the various courts. So he looked a little less like this (IMAGE) and a bit more like this (IMAGE).

From this point on Oatlands Palace became a regular stopping point on the progresses of all Tudor and Stuart monarchs, with tales of Elizabeth I shooting stags in its grounds and Charles I potting billiards inside. But the Civil War brought all such revelry to an end, and Oatlands Palace was destroyed, not because it was a symbol of monarchic oppression, but simply so that the bricks could be sold for Cromwell to pay his parliamentarian soldiers.

But this did not mark the end of the royals in Elmbridge, and to continue the theme initiated by Pavlova of short but eventful stays in the suburbs, step forward King James II. On 22nd December 1688, King James II reputedly spent his last night in England at Portmore Park in Weybridge, which had been an estate of the Catholic Norfolk family for generations. James' flight to France the next day marked the end of the so-called Glorious Revolution, secured William and Mary's position as rightful monarchs, and sealed the fate of Catholics in England for centuries to come. One can't imagine James having sweet dreams in Weybridge...

The King and Queen of France

It is not only home-grown royals who have graced Elmbridge with their presence – the last Russian Tsar exchanged St Petersburg for a stay in Elmgrove, Walton, in 1894. And the Bourbon family of France had a more profound connection. Louis-Philippe, King of France, and his queen consort Marie-Amelie Therese both ended their lives in Elmbridge rather than in gilded splendour at Versailles. Following the 1848 revolution in Paris, the Orleans monarchy were given refuge by Queen Victoria, who housed them at Claremont in Esher (an estate of which she was very fond). They and many of their relatives attended Catholic services at the nearby St. Charles Borromeo Chapel in Weybridge, and in due course, were interred in its subterranean mausoleum when they died. Many years later in 1958 their remains were returned to France, but it is surreal to think that the bones of these Gallic greats were gathering dust in Weybridge. And St Charles Borromeo chapel is itself a surreal anomaly in the local landscape – perhaps one of area's greatest hidden architectural gems (IMAGE). Just visible from Heath Road, this ivy clad and crumbling white chapel closely resembles the French Chapelle Royale at Dreux. It looks somehow fairy-tale and out-of-place, in a borough patch-worked with mostly protestant, Victorian churches (a bias that seemed to influence the religious hue of our eventual Elmbridge Hundred – only 2 British Catholics of note were selected for the Hundred). In researching the Elmbridge Hundred we ended up in many strange places – stumbling around cemeteries, industrial parks and union headquarters – but opening the creaking, creeper-cladded door into the mausoleum, and standing surrounded by the remaining sepulchral effigies brought home the potency of place; one could hear, as the appropriately French historian Jules Michelet wrote of being in an archive: 'the murmurs ... come into my ears'.

A Slave

We now travel from high to low. The Elmbridge Hundred selection process also served to show how far social attitudes and ideas of acceptability have changed in the area over time. One of the least famous but most intriguing figures to be voted into the Elmbridge Hundred was Cesar Picton. Born around 1754 in Senegal, Cesar was brought to England aged six as a slave by one Captain Parr, who gave him as a gift to Sir John Philipps of Kingston, along with a parakeet and a duck. Now, I don't know what is more abhorrent here, the idea that a human being could be reduced and objectified to the status of a present, and literally put on a par with animals, or the realisation that Captain Parr might have been responsible for introducing parakeets to Elmbridge, and torturing us all with the sounds of their early-morning of squawking! But the 18th Century was a time when slavery and human trafficking was for the most part socially acceptable – a time when figures like Samuel Dicker MP could rise to prominence in politics and in Walton society, and was able to fund the first bridge to be built across the Thames at Coway sale, on the proceeds of his slave plantations in Jamaica. Yet Cesar Picton himself became a wonderfully inspiring symbol of self-determination, and in recognition of this he was unanimously voted to join the Elmbridge Hall of Fame. The Philipps family treated him well and in 1788, following the death of Lady Elizabeth Philipps, he was given a bequest of £100. Cesar took the surname Picton and set himself up as a coal merchant. His business prospered. In 1816, he moved to Thames Ditton, where he bought a property for the large sum of £4000. Known as Picton House or Cottage, he lived there for twenty years. His will records ownership of a horse and chaise, two watches with gold chains and seals, brooches, gold rings and shirt pins, a tortoiseshell tea chest, and silver spoons and tongs, together with portraits of friends and one of himself. His house still stands today in Thames Ditton.

A Poet

Elmbridge has played host to an incredible pocketbook-full of poets over its history (Wordsworth and Coleridge both went on jaunts to Cobham; Siegfried Sassoon visited Ashley Park in Walton and his pal E.M. Forster in Weybridge; Matthew Arnold might have penned verses about Dover Beach, but it was at Pains Hill that he found happy harbour in his retirement; and Algernon Swinburne wrote poems for his bold and controversial volume 'Poems and Ballads' on the Round Hill near Esher Common). But to provide a seamless link with the locality of Thames Ditton where Cesar lived, and in view of the recent release of Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road' on the big screen, I feel obliged to put the spotlight on a restless and lesser-known beatnik poet, one Eric Wilson Barker. Barker was born in Thames Ditton in 1905. He spent his uneventful childhood here, attending the Old Church School in Church Walk. In 1921 when he was 16 his family emigrated to America and Barker spent the majority of his life in California. He lived in Carmel-by-the-Sea in Monterey County, San Rafael in Marin County, and then a small apartment on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. He worked numerous jobs, including truck dispatcher, gardener, signal tower operator in a railroad yard and caretaker. However, Barker referred to poetry as his 'real work'. In Carmel, Barker became part of the famous artists and writers colony that was founded around the poet George Sterling, and included Upton Sinclair and Nora May French, among others. Many of his poems explore the poetry he found in the workaday language and vast sublime landscapes around him – whales, trees, the changing seasons, loss and journeys. His poems are not complex or overtly shocking – at first glance they almost childlike in their simplicity, but they are, more accurately, a distillation of this business of being alive.

But Barker did return to his childhood home in 1959 (IMAGE). Whilst here he wrote to a friend stating: 'I revisited an ancient pub, The Old Harrow near Weston Green. I always remember the lines on the signboard of that Inn when I was a kid... There it was too and the old weatherworn sign with the letters a bit dim but still legible!' A few years later he immortalised this in verse with the poem 'In Thames Ditton', which is found in his 1964 collection of poetry 'Looking for Water'; it opens with the lines:

'In Thames Ditton I remembered a sign,
Rhymed and creaking in the wind,
Inviting thirst inside The Harrow'

Barker never became that famous, that's not why he was a poet, and hence he wasn't considered 'significant' enough to enter the hallowed gates of the Elmbridge Hundred. But for the school student from Notre Dame who researched and wrote his biography on our website, tracing him online all the way to the University of Syracuse's archives, it was a pretty significant assignment: Of the process Jess wrote: 'I researched a 20th century poet who grew up in my hometown, Thames Ditton... I was able to piece together facts from various sources to build up my own account of his life and work... The Elmbridge hundred project gave me an active way to study historical figures and encouraged me to read History at University.'
Barker's relative obscurity and that fact that he didn't make the Elmbridge Hundred cut is particularly amusing, in the light of what Henry Miller writes in his preface to Barker's volume 'A Ring of Willows': 'That he will never get anywhere is certain. Never will he be anything more than a poet. What a marvellous future! What luxury! Can one imagine anything more abominable – or more delicious! – than being only a poet!'

A Drunken Butler

The words on that swinging sign outside the Harrow pub read:

'Come my dear Brother,
Let's comfort each other,
Here's Rum and good Ginn,
And Brandy Within,
Cyder and twopenny fit for a King'

So it would be a shame not to mention here Christopher Villiers, first Earl of Anglesey (d. 1630) courtier to James I. (IMAGE) It seems Villiers was rather too fond of the comfort of alcohol, because in 1625 it was rumoured that he had been 'banished from the court ... the King saying he would have no drunkards of his chamber'. Villiers later lived (and died) at Ashley House in Walton.

Elmbridge's ethanol-slurping credentials are given further lubrication by beer (the wealthy brewer Harvey Christian Coombe, who resided at Cobham Park from 1807) and Guinness (Rupert Edward Cecil Lee Guinness, second Earl of Iveagh) who was given Burwood estate in Hersham by his family, and leased it to the Duchess of Wellington. Guinness subsequently created a golf club and sold land to William Whiteley to create his village.

A Son That Has killed his Father

Now this story really is the stuff of a Miss Marple mystery – 'Patricide in the Provinces'. William Whiteley left his home in Yorkshire in 1855 with £10 in his pocket, but by his untimely death in 1907 he left an estate valued at over £1 million (something like £65 million in today's money). His main business was retail. In 1863 he opened his first store in Bayswater specialising in ribbons, but it soon grew to a huge department store, patronised by Queen Victoria and supplying everything from pins to elephants (seriously!). But it seems Whiteley also ran a sideline in sleeping with shop girls and fathering illegitimate children. It certainly puts a different spin on his self-styled nickname, the 'Universal Provider'. On 24th January 1907 he was confronted by a young man, Horace George Rayner, claiming to be his son and asking for money. Whiteley believed he was being blackmailed and was about to summon the police when Rayner shot and killed him.

But with the reading of his will, a character assessment of Whiteley takes another turn. It stated that the sum of £1,000,000 was to be used to purchase freehold land ' a site for the erection thereon of buildings to be used and occupied as homes for aged and poor persons.' The two hundred and twenty-five acre Burhill Estate between Weybridge, Walton and Cobham was settled on for the site, and so began Whiteley's enduring connection with Elmbridge in the form of Whiteley Village. The will advocated that the site was to be ' as bright, cheerful and healthy spot as possible...' and the buildings were to be of 'good and substantial character and of a plain and useful design and shall be well lighted, ventilated and drained and so placed as to be protected as far as possible from the North and East winds.' He had obviously given much careful thought to the needs of the elderly.

Now, the cynics here may well judge this as a calculated move on Whiteley's part, to ensure he was remembered as an upstanding philanthropist, not a philanderer – the quintessential Victorian hypocrite. But either way, Whiteley certainly brings home the responsibility of a biographer to weigh up every element of a person's life and give them as fair a hearing as possible. Quite naturally, but perhaps unfairly, it is the shocking facts that have the keenest place in the collective memory. But we know that people are rarely all good or all bad, and that a life is never as simple as a terse epitaph or sensational headline.

A Rogue

This now makes me feel suitably chastened, because when I was creating categories by which to tag our 750 historic figures on the website, I included 'Infamous' as one of the 'occupations' – how heinously reductive! But let's have a look at some of these rogues anyway:

Maundy Gregory
Gregory was supposed to become a clergyman, but instead turned actor and then honours broker. From 1918 Gregory acted as intermediary between rich men who wanted honours, and Lloyd George's post-war government who needed money. With a baronetcy costing £40,000, Gregory soon became filthy rich. However, Labour MP Victor Grayson suspected corruption. He threatened to unmask Gregory, thinly veiling public references to him as 'a monocled dandy with offices in Whitehall'. In September 1920 Grayson disappeared. His whereabouts were never traced, but rumour abounded that Gregory had murdered him. An artist painting late one night opposite Thames Ditton Island claimed to see Grayson cross the River and enter Gregory's aptly-named bungalow, 'Vanity Fair'. Grayson was never seen again...

Leopold Redpath
Lived in Milsington House (later called Minorca House), which once stood exactly opposite Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge. In the 1840s he joined the Great Northern Railway and worked his way up the ranks to the post of Registrar. Although forbidden, he speculated in company stocks and shares, building up a great fortune. In 1856 his frauds were uncovered, amounting to some £220,000 (about £18 million in today's money). He was found guilty and transported to Australia for life.

Dick Turpin
The original dandy highwayman, he allegedly worked roads on the rural outskirts of London, south of the Thames, between 1734 and 1736. The Cottage, now on Burhill golf course in Hersham, was reputed to be his hideout, as was 'Highwayman's Cottage' in Oxshott, built in 1548. Now, most of Turpin's activities were in Nottinghamshire, so his residence in Elmbridge is unlikely, and this raises a thorny issue that The Elmbridge Hundred process encountered with another historic figure...

Julius Caesar
It is just possible that Julius Caesar visited Elmbridge in 54 BC, during his Second Invasion of Britain. Caesar landed in England (probably at Deal), accompanied by five legions and 2000 Gallic cavalry, and fought his way across country, closely pursued by British tribes. The crucial battle for the Romans lay on the banks of the Thames, but the exact location is uncertain - tantalisingly, Caesar left this point out of his account. Local legend has it that Caesar crossed the Thames at Cowey Sale, just upstream from where Walton Bridge now stands. Here Caesar encountered Cassivellaunus, King of the British Catuvellauni tribe, who defended the opposite bank with a breastwork of stakes. The discovery of stakes at Walton was taken as evidence that Julius Caesar had passed through Elmbridge. Further support was added by Caesar's own report that 'The river was passable on foot only at one place and that with difficulty' ('Commentaries on the Gallic War's, Chapter 18). Apparently Walton and Brentford were the only places where the Thames could be forded.

Over the centuries the 'Cowey Stakes' theory was passed down and romanticised. William Camden wrote in his history of Britain (with shades of Richard Attenborough): 'I am on the banks of the River Thames. Perhaps the great Caesar crossed at this place'. Daniel Defoe also mentions it in his 'Tour Through England and Wales'. However, more recent scrutiny has raised several objections to the theory. Eric Gardner (first Curator of Elmbridge Museum from 1909) noted that the river bed at Walton has moved steadily north over the years, so that its current position does not reflect the river path in Roman times. Furthermore, when some of the 'Cowey Stakes' were dredged up in 1750, they were found to run across the River, rather than lining the bank in a defensive fashion. This suggests that the stakes were either arranged in Anglo-Saxon times to form a passageway for cattle to swim through, or were the footings for a medieval bridge for cattle to walk over (Elmbridge Museum, MSS). This would explain the origin of the name 'Cowey' as 'Cow Way'.

Now, I confess that with my own ancient history bias, I was more than a little disappointed that the possibility this purple-togaed patrician got his feet wet in my stomping ground has been discredited, and even more so when our panellists decided not to vote him into the final Elmbridge Hundred for this reason. Now, I know in one sense it seems completely logical that someone who never set foot in Elmbridge like Ceasar or Dick Turpin, shouldn't be honoured with an Elmbridge Hundred gold star. But aren't legends and myths just as important as fact? One only need look at King Arthur in Cornwall and Robin Hood in Nottinghamshire to see how strong spurious and shadowy associations can be. And isn't the belief held by people in the past that Caesar was here, before new evidence was available, worth as much as our knowledge today that he wasn't? Theories can be rocked and facts disproved, but the human imagination remains resiliently fertile. I for one still like to feel there is an infinitesimal chance that the English Rubicon was crossed in Elmbridge.

Governor of the Tower

Someone who certainly made her presence felt in the area, and perhaps a surprise entry into the Hundred, was Frances Day. Platinum blonde with a penchant for feathers and skimpy knickers, Day was not 'quite the Bertram's type', to coin an Agatha Christie-ism! But on closer inspection her contributions to both culture and heritage are not to be sniffed at.

The American-born actress began in New York as a nightclub singer before achieving great popularity in the 1930s on the musical stage. The Australian impresario, Beaumont Alexander, brought her to London, changed her name to Frances Day, transformed her into a platinum blonde, sent her to elocution lessons to lose her New Jersey accent, then managed her career as one of London's first erotic cabaret stars, dancing in West End nightclubs, where she created a sensation by performing in a G-string with only an ostrich fan for cover. In 1933, she found film stardom for her sexual performance as a notorious nightclub singer in Alexander Korda's movie 'The Girl From Maxim's'. She was the first of the blonde bombshells. Her private life did not belie her appearance, and the range of her lovers is hilariously scatter-gun: Marlene Dietrich, King Edward VII, his brother Prince George, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Prince Bertil of Sweden, and Britain's Foreign Secretary and future British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. More locally, Day was responsible for saving and renovating Wayneflete Tower in Esher (IMAGE) – the last remaining outpost of the once extensive medieval residence of the then Bishop of Winchester, one of the most powerful men of his time. Day brought the Tower up to date in 1941, installing drainage, water and a lift. It is really thanks to her that this wonderful building still stands. You can just spy a glimpse of it from the train between Hersham and Esher.

A Prophet

What better place to end our short walk through Elmbridge, than with its prophetic luminaries. Now there's William Lilly who predicted the fire of London and later lived at a house called Hurst Wood in Hersham, and William Everard who in the mid-17th century along with Gerrard Winstantley led the 'True Levellers' or 'Diggers' up to St Georges Hill and later little Heath in Cobham, to work the land and demonstrate the communal freedom of the English people. However, it was Everard that styled himself a 'prophet', and others said 'he is no other than a madd man'.

So let our prophet be a true prophet: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852). Ada was the daughter of the mad, bad, dangerous to know, womanising and skull drinking poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, was by all accounts ill-used by Bryon, who only wished to marry her because she was a challenge, and once wed enjoyed flaunting his promiscuity and possibly his incestuous relationship with his sister. After their separation, Anne brought up their only child Ada to be wary of passion, to shun the arts and concentrate on the cool dispassionate sciences – they sound a little like a real-life Miss Havisham and Estella. Anne could not school Ada entirely against nature though and aged 18 Bryon's daughter had an intense relationship with her tutor and attempted to elope with him. She later married a more respectable choice, William King-Noel, Earl of Lovelace and from 1841 until her death, they lived at Sandown House in Esher.

However, her mother did succeed in making maths Ada's other passion. Ada is credited as the brains behind the first computer program. She worked with mathematician Charles Babbage on his designs for an 'analytical machine' – a machine that could calculate by itself. It was Ada who prophetically saw that symbols could be manipulated according to rules, or 'algorithms' – the basic principle of programming. In her notes to a transcript of one of Babbage's lectures she made a series of notes, including the following insight:

'[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine... Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.'

Ada wrote this in 1843, almost a hundred years before the first electronic computer. Little wonder that Babbage dubbed her 'The Enchantress of Numbers'.

Ada's imaginative leap is still remembered today. The official computer software language of the United States department of defence is called 'Ada'. March 24th is 'Ada Lovelace Day', recognising women's achievements in science and technology.

So here ends our short one-act, one-hour play, putting in the limelight just a few of the hundreds of human stories from Elmbridge past. Our Borough has been the scene of so many plots, characters and themes, that it goes to show you really never need to make anything up. I hope it also proves that you don't need to look far afield for exciting, nation-changing events, or for tender tales and tragedies. I know that the attendees of a lecture series in the name of Royston Pike don't need telling twice that local history is not the poor relation or plain younger sister to the dashing national narrative. In many ways local history is simply the national narrative made meaningful, it is the place where the grand stories become lived experiences. After all, events always have to happen somewhere, there are no imaginary, liminal spaces in history.

Working on the Elmbridge Hundred I think made most of us question what role the history of our surroundings plays for us. I think, for me at least, that it is almost like a character or acquaintance constantly in the background of our lives – sometimes jumping into the foreground, but always there. And this is why it is important to keep it alive. Is can't be just coincidence that a place without history, without layers of lives, is often described as soulless? So an appropriate place to end might be with the opening of W. G. Hoskins's seminal book 'Local History in England', where he begins with a quote from the Roman poet Horace that anthropomorphises the familiar neighbourhood:

'Ille terrarium mihi praetor omnes Angulus ridet'
'It is that corner of the world, above all others, which has a smile for me'.

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