Paris Singer and the Romance of Redcliffe

On the seafront at Paignton, a short distance from Oldway Mansion -photographs of which featured in my previous post on Paris Singer and Isadora Duncan – there looms the distinctive shape of the Redcliffe Hotel. Although the Singer family’s association with Oldway is well-known, Paris Singer’s ownership of Redcliffe and the surrounding area is often overlooked. Today’s post will focus attention on this.


Col. Robert Smith, the architect and first resident of Redcliffe

Singer was not responsible for the construction of Redcliffe. This honour belonged to Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), a gifted artist and architect who served in India with the Bengal Engineers. He retired from the army in 1832, spent some years in Italy with his wife and young family, before returning to England in 1850. Although born in France, he had brought up in Bideford and had a sister still living in Torquay, which is presumably why he chose to settle in Devon. He designed Redcliffe himself in 1852 and the mansion was built  in stages between 1855 and 1864.

It was a magnificent building, with 23 bedrooms, a conservatory, billiard room, and an underground plunge bath by the sea that was reached by a subterranean tunnel from the house.  Redcliffe Castle, as it was called, sat in five acres of gardens that were filled with rare plants Smith had collected from around the world.


Redcliffe around 1880, showing the Eastern influence


Another photo from around the same time, this time looking from the sands to the NE


The octagonal tower in 2009, showing the decorative emblems

It was an enormous building for an elderly man to live in alone, but Smith also built himself a vast chateau near Nice in France. He did not have long to enjoy either property, dying on 16 September 1873. Redcliffe passed to his estranged son, Lieutenant Robert Claude Smith of the Bombay Calvary, but financial problems forced him to sell the house and all its contents in 1877.

At this time Paris Singer was, of course, only ten years old, and his vast fortune was administered by trustees. The Redcliffe Estate was an attractive buy, because it allowed the trustees to extend Singer’s Fernham estate all the way to the seafront, linking it with other land purchases between Oldway Road and Marldon. After buying Redcliffe, the trustees erected the sea wall that runs along Preston Beach, as well as laying out Marine Drive.

Paris Singer married Lillie Graham in 1887 and ten years later the Paignton Echo records the couple hosting a fundraising bazaar for the local Methodist Church at Redcliffe Towers. During this time the house was rarely occupied, and only opened during the summer months for events such as bazaars and flower shows. In January 1900 Singer had the building converted into a convalescent hospital for soldiers wounded in the Boer War. According to the Paignton Echo, this was done on behalf of Paris by his brother Washington Singer. Paris Singer’s real interest lay in developing the sea front, and in 1904 plans were drawn up for fourteen houses to be built along the front of Preston Green, with another seven houses in the grounds of the Redcliffe itself. (below)


Singer had sold Redcliffe Towers in 1902, and two years later it opened as the 100-bedroom Hotel Redcliffe, touted as ‘The Finest Health Resort in Devon.’ With its opulent, eastern furnishings, oak panelling, stables, electric lighting and panoramic views of Torbay, it offered luxurious accomodation and dining for Paignton’s growing number of visitors.

Singer’s grand plans for the sea front were never implemented, and in February 1913 he sold Preston Green to the local council. He retained a small patch of land adjacent to Redcliffe on which he had earlier built an aircraft hangar for storing his two Avro seaplanes. Two months after the sale, Isadora Duncan’s two children drowned in the Seine. The lovers finally separated in 1917.


Paris Singer (1867-1932), owner of Redcliffe from 1887 to 1902


One of Singer’s seaplanes in flight, with Redcliffe in the background

After the end of the First World War, the seaplanes were used as a visitor attraction, with pilots such as Captain R.L. Truelove offering flights around the bay for the price of 25 shillings. Maybe readers with aeronautical expertise can tell me whether the plane above is an Avro 501, 504 or 510?


Paris Singer in the cockpit of one of his planes


Two of the planes on the beach near the hangar – a cafe now occupies the site.

In 1919 Paignton Council paid Paris Singer £650 for the hangar, as they wished to develop Preston Green as a pleasure ground. During the early 1920s the area was laid out with bathing huts, tennis courts and a promenade. The hangar was leased out to an aerial mapping firm, but was eventually demolished just before World War Two and replaced with a beach cafe.


The view today from inside the Redcliffe Hotel, looking across the bay towards Torquay

Stones of evil: Stonehenge through the ages

A couple of days ago I finished reading Bryan Cooper’s novel Stones of Evil (1974), which follows the experiences of a stone worker, Haril, in ancient Britain five thousand years ago. A skilled craftsman with expertise in working with flint, he finds himself among the workmen constructing Stonehenge under the direction of high priest Vardon. Initially impressed by the scale of the project and the quality of the stone, he becomes troubled at Vardon’s cruelty, especially after the priest switches his allegiance from the Sun God to the Dark One….

It’s not the sort of novel I tend to read, but I came across it in a junk shop and was intrigued by the idea of a horror tale being set in ancient Britain. Along the way, Haril meets a variety of individuals and tribes, including families from the dark ‘forest people’, groups of roaming hunters, and a religious caste that might be the precursor of the druids. The story itself provides yet another theory regarding the origins of Stonehenge, and Haril’s concluding thoughts are certainly true: ‘For the rest of time perhaps, people would come and stare silently at the ruins, wondering what had led men to build it in the first place.’


‘Stonhing’ in a print from 1575


William Stukeley’s ‘Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids’ (London, 1740) recognised that Stonehenge was built in alignment with celestial bodies


Stonehenge as imagined in Francis Grose, ‘Antiquities of England and Wales’ (1773-6.)
Theories connecting the stone circle to Arthurian legend (above top, 1575) and Druidic practices (above, 1776) continue to the present day, alongside fanciful suggestions about UFO landing strips, sacred energy transmitters, ancient racecourses, healing temples or the tomb of Boadicea.


John Britton, ‘The Beauties of Wiltshire’ (1801-25)
John Britton – who worked with Pugin – was one of the first to publish sober and accurate delineations of antiquities.


Stonehenge as it appeared when I visited in September 2013


A fanciful image of Avebury stone circle, about 25 miles north of Stonehenge, from the spooky TV series ‘Children of the Stones’ (1977)
Although it was set in Avebury rather than Stonehenge, the seven episode HTV series Children of the Stones made use of many theories that had been applied to Stonehenge: Druidic rites, folk magic and advanced astronomy were fused with a plot about time-loops, supernovas and psychic control.


Perhaps the threat posed by the ancient stones might actually be more mundane
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of summer, and traditionally attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Stonehenge to witness the sunrise.

Early Birds: Du Maurier’s Precursors

The terrifying concept of wild birds turning upon humans was presented to cinema audiences in 1963 with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story, The Birds, first published in 1952. The idea was not entirely new, however, and in today’s post I’m going to focus on two earlier novels: Melville Davisson Post’s The Revolt of the Birds (1927)  and Frank Baker’s The Birds (1936.)


Dust jacket of the first edition


The binding, blind-stamped with gilt images of birds in flight

West Virginian lawyer and author Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930) is perhaps best remembered now as a crime writer, and the creator of such brilliant detectives as Uncle Abner, Randolph Mason, Colonel Braxton and Sir Henry Marquis of Scotland Yard. A qualified lawyer, he had travelled in Europe and beyond, and his prolific output reflects both his wide experiences and love of the great outdoors. The Revolt of the Birds was published in New York by Appleton in 1927, three years before Post died following a fall from his horse. 

The Revolt of the Birds is set in the China Sea, and – rather like an M.R. James ghost story – is relayed through an anonymous narrator as he listens to Bennett, a seaman with the notorious Wu Fan Shipping Company. The two men are seated in a warehouse bar in Hong Kong. Bennett, an Englishman, has a copy of The Times and The Passing of Arthur which shows ‘quaint pictures of the three queens, who came in the legend, in a mystic barge to take Arthur to Avalon.’ When they start discussing whether or not such a thing could ever happen, the conversation shifts to strange happenings in the Orient and Bennett begins to tell his tale – about Arthur Hudson, his unhappy affair with an English girl, his dreams of a mysterious ‘slender, dark-haired girl’ who always appears with a flock of birds around her or beside her, and his quest to find this girl in the islands of the China Sea….  The Revolt of the Birds differs from Du Maurier’s story in one very significant point – the intention of the birds towards the humans – but it introduced the idea of a large number of birds acting together in concert against the laws of nature.

There had been some precedents for this idea – Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), for example, features sustained attacks on Cornish folk from an array of wild animals, including birds and moths. The disturbing suggestion that individual birds might work together in order to carry out an organised mass attack also appeared in Philip Macdonald’s short-story ‘Our Feathered Friends’ which was published in Lady Cynthia Asquith’s anthology When Churchyards Yawn (London: Hutchinson, 1931.) Macdonald actually worked as a screenwriter on Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) – also an adaptation of a Du Maurier story – and ‘Our Feathered Friends’ was reprinted in the anthology
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night (New York: Random House, 1961.)Five years after Macdonald’s story, author Frank Baker (1908-82) published his full-length novel The Birds, exploring the possibility of birds carrying out a sustained war of terror against mankind.


The Birds (London: Peter Davies, 1936) dust jacket
There is no reason to doubt the claim of Daphne du Maurier that she was completely unaware of the existence of Baker’s novel when she came to write her own story with the same title. Apart from the basic concept, the two texts have little in common, and she actually drew her inspiration from something she witnessed near her Cornish home at Menabilly House. near Fowey. She was able to rent Menabilly from 1943 until 1969 because of the success of the book and film Rebecca, but she had known the area since the late 1920s when the family began taking holidays there, and was friendly with many of the locals. One day, while walking across to Menabilly Barton farm from her house, she saw a farmer named Tommy Dunn out ploughing in his field above Polridmouth Beach. Above his head, seagulls were swooping and diving, and she began to wonder what might happen if they suddenly began to attack….
She went home and began to develop this idea, turning Tommy Dunn into Nat Hocken, and suggesting that the birds become aggressive after a harsh winter with little food. Seagulls are the first to start attacking, but they are soon joined by birds of prey and finally even small birds. The setting is clearly rural, the characters are limited to Nat’s family and neighbours, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of wartime Britain with its fears about coastal invasion and German air raids.The story was first published in Good Housekeeping magazine in October 1952, with the text broken up into fragments and printed between pages 54 and 132, interspersed with sections of other short stories and juxtaposed with dozens of housekeeping tips and adverts: “Bread stays good longer when protected with ‘Mycoban,'” “Childcraft: America’s Famous (14-volume) Child Guidance Plan” or “Jell-O Salads: Like to add a touch of glamour to dinner tonight?” This homely material seems incongruous with the grim subject matter of Du Maurier’s story, which the editors clearly regarded as potentially unpalatable – the tagline proclaimed: ‘The Editors present this, not as the most popular, but perhaps as the Most Distinguished Short Story of the Year.’
Reading the story within the context of ‘good housekeeping’ tips does, however, draw attention to the prominence of domestic and familial concerns.  Nat is a former soldier who was injured during the war and receives a disability pension, but works part time on local farms doing light work in order to provide for his wife and two young children, Jill and Johnny. When the bird attacks begin, he uses his handyman skills to protect his family, boarding up windows and setting up barbed wire barriers, while his (unnamed) wife deals with the housekeeping matters: ‘It’s shopping day tomorrow, you know that. I don’t keep uncooked food about. Butcher doesn’t call till the day after.’ (Fridges were still a rarity in Britain in the early 1960s.) To distract the children from the horror, she makes them an early supper: ‘Something for a treat – toasted cheese, eh? Something we all like?’ Little details such as the need to stock up on candles, or heating up left-overs for the children, would resonate with the magazine’s readers, perhaps prompting them to think about how well they would cope in such circumstances.


1952 artwork by Seymour Mednick
The story was reprinted in Du Maurier’s collection, The Apple Tree: a short novel and several long stories (London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.) Editions of the anthology published after the movie were issued under the title of The Birds to capitalize on the publicity.


Comparison of the 1952 and 1963 covers
Hitchcock – who had made film adaptations of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940) – spotted the story and included it in his anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: my Favorites in Suspense (New York: Random House, 1959) as well as securing the film rights. He was reminded of the story after reading newspaper reports of bird attacks in the Californian press in April 1960 and August 1961 and within a few weeks had commissioned Evan Hunter to write a screenplay – but one that retained only the title and basic concept of Du Maurier’s story.  Apart from the obvious switch from Cornwall to California, the changes are too numerous to mention; it is only really in the siege scenes in the house where Du Maurier’s story can be recognised, although here and there little echoes of phrases and events recur. Other elements – such as the attack on a woman in a telephone booth, and the intrusion of an unusual female into the relationship between the male hero and his widowed mother – can be traced back to Baker’s novel.
In 1962, when Baker heard that a film was being made of The Birds without any apparent reference to his story, he wrote to both Hitchcock and Du Maurier to protest.  The director never replied, but Du Maurier responded with great sympathy; anyone who has read her letters will be aware of the tender solicitude she often showed towards her correspondents, answering questions in detail and almost acting as an ”agony aunt’ towards many of the lonely souls who contacted her. 


In the wake of the film, Frank Baker’s novel was reissued in 1964 as a Panther paperback

Baker heavily revised the text of his novel for the 1964 edition but only a fraction of these changes were implemented by Panther.

A new edition was published by Valancourt Press in 2013 which incorporates all of Baker’s original revisions, and comes with a nine page introduction by Ken Mogg, who runs ‘The MacGuffin’ webpage devoted to Hitchcock scholarship. Those wishing to know more about Baker’s life should read Paul Newman’s biography, The Man Who Unleashed The Birds: Frank Baker and his Circle (Abraxas Editions, 2010.)

Dr Beeching and Thorverton Railway Station

Fifty years ago today, on 16 February 1965, Dr Richard Beeching delivered his second report on the state of British railways.

His reform programme had begun in 1963 with the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways (above), while this second report, a 100-page document entitled Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, developed his initial argument that the future of rail lay with high-volume traffic on core routes – thus sealing the fate of hundreds of lightly-used passenger services. Although the former chairman of British Rail insisted that ‘This report is not a prelude to closures on a grand scale’, the Beeching Plan eventually led to the loss of  a quarter of the rail network and the closure of over 2,000 stations.

Thorverton was one of the stations that was closed, although Beeching was not entirely to blame for this. According to a note on p.133 of The Reshaping of British Railways (1963), its closure – and that of the entire Exeter-Dulverton line (p.129) – was already ‘under Consideration….before the Formulation of the Report.’ Beeching had been commissioned to draw up the report in response to increasing financial losses on the railway network – a sign that the 1955 Modernisation Plan was not working.

By that time, trains had been steaming through Thorverton for seventy years. The Exe Valley branch line, running from Exeter St Davids to Tiverton – through Stoke Canon, Brampford Speke, Thorverton, Up Exe and Cadeleigh – had opened in 1885 and formed part of the Great Western Railway.

Thorverton was a passing place and therefore the station had two platforms, with a siding connected to Thorverton Mill. The northbound platform had a wooden shelter – the station was heavily used by passengers due to the village being over a mile from the main road – while the southbound side was the location for the main buildings and goods yard. The station master had a house to the north of the station.


An Exeter bound train at Thorverton Station on 8 June 1963. I have a copy of this print, but no photographer to credit. Does anyone have more details?
Passenger trains stopped running on the Exe Valley line on 7 October 1963, and freight traffic ceased on 4 May 1964. The line was formally closed on 30 November 1966 and the station building converted into a private house – renamed ‘Beeching’s Way’ – which was  extended using stone from the demolished goods shed.

The negative effects of ‘Beeching’s Axe’ are easy to see – the loss of rail services meant that many rural communities became isolated, forcing the closure of shops and other businesses, as well as the migration of villagers who found it impossible to commute to work. Replacement bus services were inadequate from the outset, and were often withdrawn shortly afterwards. Many small town and villages went into terminal decline from which they never recovered.

Some of his opinions were valid – the financial losses were unsustainable, and the duplication of routes inefficient – but more careful consideration might have reduced some of the long-term damage to rural communities. As it turns out, the rising costs (financial and ecological) of a massive increase in car usage have shattered 1960s optimism about the rosy future of British motoring. The expense of keeping and running a car, along with the appalling congestion of major routes, are tending to reverse Beeching’s predictions as commuters abandon their cars and take to the trains again. The Exe Valley Line may have gone for good, but in the near future entirely new rail stations will  be opening at Marsh Barton and Cranbrook. Will they still be operating in 85 years time? Or will the 21st century raise up another Dr Beeching to reassess their economic viability? Time will tell.

Carte-de-visite of the week #4                      Walter Mudford’s Modern Girl

A familiarity with different periods of Victorian costume is a skill that collectors of CDVs rapidly acquire. In the absence of dates or other identifying data, dress and hair styles provide valuable clues about when a photograph was taken, and may even help indicate the location. Anyone who takes a serious interest in these images soon learns to recognise features such as bustles and bodices, chignons and chemisettes, mutton-chop sleeves and polonaise skirts.

Occasionally one comes across a portrait, however, in which the sitter appears to inhabit a different time period from the one in which they lived. An apparent anachronism of dress, a startlingly novel hairstyle, or perhaps an informal pose or facial expression that feels more akin to a modern ‘selfie’ – any little feature like this can jolt the reader into looking more carefully at the carte and questioning what they know.

This was the case for me with this particular portrait, which was taken in a studio about nine miles from where I am writing this. At first glance, the young woman’s hairstyle and neckline looked remarkably modern: it is possible that her hair is long at the back – bobbed hair would have been extremely rare before the 1920s – but I remain struck by the unusual cut, the metal necklet and plain, smooth outfit.

What clues can be used to date the portrait? A little digging through the Tiverton census records was enough to provide a rough outline of the photographer’s life.

Walter Mudford (1851-1936) was one of six children belonging to William and Mary Mudford, who lived at 50 Fore Street, Tiverton. William is described in the 1861 census as a basket-maker and dealer in china, glass and fishing tackle; his eldest son William was also selling fishing tackle in 1861, but ten years later Walter – now aged 19 – gave his occupation as basket maker.

Walter Henry Mudford first appears as a photographer in the 1878 Harrod’s Directory for Devon. The 1881 census reveals that, although still living with his parents, he employed two other men in his photographic business.  Thirty years later it had become very much a family business. Working at the photographic studio at 10 Fore Street in 1911 were Walter, now 59, assisted by his wife Emily, 23-year old daughter Kathleen and 19-year old niece Gladys.

Employment in a photographic studio provided reasonable opportunities for women in the 19th century, and not always at a junior level: the wife of Disdéri, the great populariser of the carte-de-visite, was one of the earliest women to run her own professional studio, while some of the finest art photographers in both Britain and America were women – one thinks of names such as Lady Clementina Hawarden, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Käsebier and Anne Brigman. Theirs was a very different line of work from that undertaken by Kathleen and Gladys Mudford, who would have obliged to work long hours for a wage of only a few pounds a week. I suspect the young lady who sat for this portrait led a rather different life.

It was easier for men to progress up the career ladder, and in the same census (1911) we find Walter’s 19-year old son Harry giving his occupation as a factory dyer. When his father died on 2 August 1936, he was a chemist. The family business is long gone now, and the site of the Mudford studio is now occupied by a branch of Oxfam.