House To Let

100_4814She comported herself with an imperiousness appropriate to the well connected memsahib she that was in her early married life half century before.

In her black riding habit and veiled top hat, Mrs. Geraldine Thomas, the last private tenant of Orgreave Hall, was often seen, well into the ninth decade of her life, determinedly venturing forth, riding side-saddle, between the shady lime tree avenues and across the level, green parkland surrounding her home. Captain Thomas had died 20 years previously, leaving her alone in the mansion, apart from the encroaching presence of sub-tenants in the periphery of the estate.

100_4819In the new, egalitarian Britain of the 1960’s, Mrs Thomas was uneasily aware that she was a living anachronism. She declined to exchange money for the horse fodder supplied to her by her farmer neighbours, and in exercising this small droit de seigneur she was making a small gesture of remembrance towards the world into which she was born, in which the duties of her tribe, to be warriors, pioneers, and leaders of men, were supported by small armies of household servants.

According to Lucy Lethbridge’s recent book “Servants: A downstairs view of 20th century Britain,” Lord Curzon, only a generation senior to Mrs Thomas, entirely accustomed as he was to having his every need accommodated by his staff, was once so baffled by the problem of how to open a window without a servant at hand that he ended up smashing it with a log. Civilised life might break down altogether without the capable hand of the paid domestic assistant.

One of the long abiding inhabitants of Orgreave remembers himself scuffing through a six inch deep layer of leaves on the floors of the fine seventeenth century house towards an audience with Mrs Thomas in the drawing room in Orgreave Hall. Whether she allowed this foliacious carpeting to accrue through her lack of facility with a broom, or out of resignation to changing times, we do not know.

In common with Lord Curzon, Mrs Thomas had strong connections with the British Imperial presence in the Indian Subcontinent. She had married in 1907, Captain Edward Hector Le Marchant Thomas, whose family’s interests in the Galleheria Coffee plantation in Ceylon, where he was born in 1867, provided them with a healthy income. His maternal grandfather, Tom Skinner, had been responsible for the construction of the Columbo – Kandy highway early in the 19th century, and had explored, and mapped, previously uncharted areas of the island. Geraldine’s own father, Colonel George Pilkington Blake, had served in the Suffolk Imperial Yeomanry during the Indian Mutiny of 1856-7. Her elder sister Adeline married Hardinge Hay Cameron, of interest not just because of his family’s own involvement in India and Ceylon, but because his mother was the famous pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. In widowhood, Adeline came to live with her sister and brother in law at Orgreave.


London children celebrate the Silver Jubilee of 1935.
From a book in my own collection.

The Lichfield Mercury of Friday 17th May 1935 pictures them in happy times, and performing roles in which I imagine them to be comfortable, leading local celebrations of the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary. Captain Thomas opened the event, hoisting the Union Jack after a few “well chosen words.” Mrs Cameron, (Adeline), presented prize money to the children who were victorious in their sports contests, and Mrs Thomas presented Jubilee cups and saucers. Each lucky child “also received oranges and sweets.”

When Adeline died in 1947,  “Burton Woman Leaves £3,009” screamed the Derby Daily Telegraph. It must have seemed a useful sum.


“Sloane Gardens House”
from “Where shall she live?”: Housing the New Working Woman in Late Victorian and Edwardian London’, in Living, Leisure and Law: Eight Building Types in England 1800-1941, ed. Geoff Brandwood.

Rising 40 and 31 years old respectively when they married, both Edward and Geraldine had already lived remarkable lives. The 1901 census finds Geraldine living in an upmarket ladies’ hostel in London. “Sloane Gardens House” was built on behalf of the Ladies’ Associated Dwellings Company and had been opened in 1888 at 52, Lower Sloane Street.  Its purpose was the accommodation of ladies who might, whilst retaining their good name, choose to pursue a career – an idea still only newly acceptable to many.  These salubrious surroundings with their library, music room, and dining room were effectively  Geraldine’s student digs.  Far from working in commerce, Geraldine was studying fine art, particularly sculpture.

A palace of delights for Christmas 1901 were illuminated in the windows of the nearby Peter Jones department store, and her Michaelmas term drew to an end.  Meanwhile, her future husband’s Boer War medal, with a creditable five clasps, denoting his service among the Ceylon Mounted Rifles in the battles of  Dreifontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Wittebergen, and Cape Colony, was being collected by his brother Jocelyn, also a decorated veteran of the conflict. Edward had been invalided to England the previous year.  A third brother, Arthur, had perished, one of over 22,000 British casualties.  The Thomas brothers, not youths but men in their 30s, had travelled from one distant corner of The Empire to another for the sake of duty and adventure, and their father did not forget that one of them never returned home.

How did “Ted” Thomas become acquainted with Miss Geraldine Blake?  Perhaps a clue lies in the following.  A fine statue, representing a trooper of the Ceylon Mounted Infantry giving the signal “enemy is in sight” was commissioned by Mr Thomas senior in memory of his son and his fallen comrades. It was unveiled in Ceylon by H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught on March 18th 1907, some six weeks after the marriage of Lieutenant Thomas to the designer of the memorial.

cmi statue Cropped-3

Geraldine Blake Thomas with the statue she designed.
Image and information courtesy of Dr Jean Ferran.

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4 Responses to House To Let

  1. Pedro says:

    Thanks for a lovely bit of history for Orgreave Hall.

    Geraldine has narrow escape?

    Mr Tom Smith Jr and Mr C Bailey, both of Main Street, Alrewas, had an alarming experience on Saturday morning during a vivid thunderstorm. The men were mowing grass in the “meadow” at the back of Ogreave Hall at 12:30 midday, when they decided to abandon the cutting owing to the storm.

    They unhooked the horses but still held them, when a terrible flash of lightning and a terrific clap of thunder followed it immediately. The men saw a thunderbolt fall into a tree near where they were standing and they were temporally deafened by shock. The tree was split down and for a few moments volumes of smoking came from the tree. They were able to keep the horses under control, and the men are now no worse for the experience. A cutting knife that C Bailey was holding was flung out of this hand.

    Lichfield Mercury 31 July 1936

    (I wonder if, in 1901 while promenading around the Serpentine, Geraldine of Sloane Gardens House ever saw the WE Harrison of Cadogan Place?)


    All this information you are digging out is just so interesting and important for local historians. I was quite upset about the dried leaves blowing into the house like her dried up memories of the glory days of Empire. I felt the same when I was living in Crakemarsh Hall, and when Geoffrey’s daughter came to stay she had to sleep in a massive ornate bed in the middle of the ballroom, with heaped up furniture all around as that was what his world had contracted to when the place was divided into flats. Eye wateringly valuable antiques C17th cabinets , Rococo gilt tables with cherubs pushing through foliage,Indian miniatures of Maharajahs , gifts to one of his forbears from his time in India , bit by bit they all went to auction to keep him going. Sad.

    You come up with some very varied subjects ! I am sure all your followers are agog as to what you are going to find next !

    Clever girl, I am so proud of you.

    Much love Ros


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