I'm lucky to have many fascinating National Trust houses within easy distance and one of my favourites is Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.
Berrington is a pretty 18th century house, with Capability Brown designed grounds, set amongst beautiful rolling hills and commanding impressive views. I try to visit frequently and always find something new.
View from the gardens
A great way to do research
My last trip, however, was some time ago and research for my next book, While I Was Waiting, which is partly set in World War 1. In one of the oval bedrooms, the Trust had created an 'experience room', designed to reflect the ambience of an evening during the Great War years. The idea being to sit, read archive materials, or simply soak up the atmosphere. Over the fireplace was a photograph of several strapping young men, dressed for the hunt and mounted on some magnificent horses. In the background was the unmistakable portico of Berrington House. It was a very moving image. Here's why.
The Rodney family, having lived at Berrington for 95 years, sold the house to a Frederick Cawley MP, a wealthy Lancashire cotton finisher. He happened to own the patent for a pure black dye. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, sales of black crepe rocketed and made Cawley an incredibly rich man. Thirteen years later, the wholesale slaughter in World War 1 again created huge demand for mourning clothes but this was to prove a tragically ironic success for the Cawley family.
From restoring the property to a family tragedy
Frederick Cawley, wife, daughter and four sons moved into Berrington and immediately set about a programme of refurbishment and improvement. The Victorian fireplaces were replaced with more appropriate Georgian ones and the house had electricity supplied by a generator. Progress indeed – some parts of Herefordshire still lacked electricity as late as the 1950s!
Success seemed assured when Frederick Cawley was made a baronet in 1906. However, with the outbreak of war, tragedy struck the family. Only a few months into the war, the third son Stephen died in action at Nery during the retreat from Mons. He was 34 and by all accounts a brilliant young officer. The family, still reeling from the shock, had barely begun to recover when the following year the second son Harold died at Gallipoli. But the horror continued, with the death of the youngest son Oswald in 1918, just three months before the Armistice.
You can hardly bear to think how a mother ever recovers from losing three of her children, even when given in service of their country. And indeed, members of the family recall that Lady Cawley was never really the same after this triple blow.
While sitting in the fug and gloom of the 'experience room,' it was interesting to read the accounts from fellow officers of how the men died. They speak of a 'wonderful strength of mind', of 'marvellous nerve', of a 'glorious and gallant death' when the truth must have been far less romantic. Perhaps some comfort though, to a mother grieving for three sons she pushed out into the world and which rewarded her with death on a monumentally mechanised and industrial scale.
This post, in its original form, appeared on my website a few years ago. It prompted a response from Charles Cawley who added this fascinating and poignant detail:
"The tragedy goes further. Harold Cawley MP blew the whistle on Churchill by writing uncensored letters to his father, who was in Lloyd George's cabinet.
As a consequence, he left the general staff and went straight to the front line. The inevitable happened. It is more than possible that he knew exactly what he was doing and this was an act of virtual suicide. Although not proven, it is highly likely that this brought the withdrawal from mass slaughter forwards by a few days or even weeks.
I have a copy of his letter. His father, very much a Samuel Smiles character, bought a copy of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He played this famous anti war film in memoram on a 9.5mm baby projector. All that money and 'success' left him with such profound grief. In his age he used to walk down the long drive to the south lodge to check the gates were locked. I suspect he wished to be alone to think."
Although I used a little of what I found out for While I Was Waiting, the tragic story of the lost brothers isn't at its centre. Something about their loss resonated deeply, however. Maybe a sequel is called for?