Friday, 29 December 2017

Henry Gosse finds Sandhurst in Torquay, his home for the next thirty years

As a boy growing up in Paignton, I knew that the railway from Newton Abbot to Kingswear had been built a hundred years before, but not that it had been completed in sections. The line ran to a terminus in Torquay (now called Torre) until it continued to Paignton in 1859 and on to Kingswear in 1864 [1].

It was to the old Torquay station that Philip Henry Gosse, the famous Natural Historian, came in 1857 and he then set off for St Marychurch, an area that he knew from an earlier visit to the town. He had decided to move away from London after the death of his wife, to continue his researches on marine life; his young son, Edmund, being his constant companion. In his first biography of his father [2], Edmund writes:

[St Marychurch] had just been seized with a building craze, and new villas, each in its separate garden, were rising on all hands. [Henry] Gosse hired a horse, and rode round the neighbourhood to see what he could find to suit him, and at last he discovered, near the top of the Torquay Road, what he thought was the exact place.

It was not an attractive object to the romantic eye. It is impossible to conceive anything much more dispiriting that this brand-new little house, unpapered, undried, standing in ghastly whiteness in the middle of a square enclosure of raw “garden,” that is to say of ploughed field, laid out with gravel walks, beds without a flower or leaf, and a “lawn” of fat red loam guiltless of one blade of grass. Two great rough pollard elms, originally part of a hedge which had run across the site of the lawn, were the only objects that relieved the monotony of the inchoate place, which spread out, vague and uncomely, “like the red outline of beginning Adam.” By taking the house in this condition, however, it was a cheap purchase, and my father felt that it would be a pleasure to discipline all this formlessness into beauty and fertility. He never repented of his choice, nor ever expressed, through more than thirty years, the wish that he had gone elsewhere. The Devonshire red loam is wonderfully stubborn, and for many seasons the place retained the obloquy of its newness. But at length the grass became velvety on the lawn, trees grew up and hid the unmossed limestone walls in which no vegetation can force a footing, and the little place grew bowery and secluded. It was on September 23, 1857, that the family settled in this house – named Sandhurst, by the builder, in mere wantonness of nomenclature – and this became their home.

Sandhurst is still there, although modified by extensions, and we held a Blue Plaque ceremony for Henry in the garden (see below). It was Henry Gosse’s home for the rest of his life and he died there in 1888. He had re-married in 1860 and his widow, Eliza, continued to live at Sandhurst, but Edmund had moved to London to work at the British Museum in 1867. Edmund’s views on life, and on religion, were different to those of Henry and this caused many difficulties for them both, although Nellie Gosse, Edmund’s wife, acted as a go-between during visits to Sandhurst, and she and her children were loved by Henry and Eliza.

Edmund writes of a final carriage ride that he took with Henry to Cockington and the scene described must have been very close to the spot shown in the photograph above, with the road (then a small lane) passing under the railway line to Paignton that had been completed nearly thirty years before [2]:

My father, with the pathetic look in his eyes, the mortal pallor on his cheeks, scarcely spoke, and seemed to observe nothing. But, as we turned to drive back down a steep lane of overhanging branches, the pale vista of the sea burst upon us, silvery blue in the yellow light of afternoon. Something in the beauty of the scene raised the sunken brain, and with a little of the old declamatory animation in head and hand, he began to recite the well-known passage in the fourth book of Paradise Lost

Now came still evening on, and twilight grey
Had in her sober livery all things clad.

He pursued the quotation through three or four lines, and then, in the middle of a sentence, the music broke, his head fell once more upon his breast, and for him the splendid memory, the self-sustaining intellect which had guided the body so long, were to be its companions on earth no more.

As an admirer of Philip Henry Gosse, I find Edmund’s account very moving and it is sad that they were never fully reconciled, although they were able to enjoy each other's company rather more in Henry's last years. The trip to Cockington was in July 1888 and it was the last drive out that Henry took, as his final illness had immobilised him. At the end there was little pain and he died on 23 August 1888, being buried on 27 August in unconsecrated ground in Torquay Cemetery. Eliza, who lived to be 87, was buried in the same grave on 18 October 1900 and I have visited it to pay my respects.

[1] C.R.Potts (1991) The Newton Abbot to Kingswear Railway (1844-1988). Wallingford, The Oakwood Press.

[2] Edmund Gosse (1890) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry
Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

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