Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From John Andrews:
In May of this year a beech tree that was over one hundred and forty years old was cut down in the garden of the block of flats on the edge of Hampstead Heath in which I have lived for over a decade. Before it was cut down I spent ten autumns watching tiny birds cling on to their perches as the wind caught the tree’s highest branches in the gales of the equinox. I grew to love its inky black veined silhouette that burnt into the midwinter dusk. It was the tallest of the trees in the garden, taller than the huge London plane that now holds that crown but shorter than the pair of black poplars that had pre-deceased it some summers before. It was an ageing and sick tree but still worthy of the Tree Preservation Order that I and some other residents had managed to secure for it when some here, anxious that a falling limb could kill or maim, sought to have it cut down five years ago. I used to walk under it late at night when the only sound in the small narrow strip of woodland upon whose edge it stood would be the screech of an owl or the blood curdling cold bark of a fox, my Scottish Terrier straining every sinew on his leash. Pushing aside the fencing that had been erected around the tree I would stand under its canopy. There was something about the beech that I could not pin down, it spoke across all the seasons and especially so in the dead of night but not in a language I could interpret. It was as if every time I visited it it would tell me another of the secrets it kept in the most distant and indecipherable of whispers.
Earlier in the year when I was planting a winter jasmine in the lee of the back wall of the old squash court, built at the same time of the block that stands on the same line as the beech tree, my shovel hit something hard. At first I thought it had to be part of the foundations of the squash court, a concrete footing perhaps, but as I dug down there was a layer of sand. An inch below this was a perfectly square terrazzo floor tile. I dug along a bit more and there was another one with a stack of four more directly underneath it. I dug them out, wiped them down and propped them up. I wondered where they had come from, I wondered why they had been buried with such care and who had taken the care to do so. I placed two or three of them under the nearby tap so that they would be washed during the course of the spring and the summer each evening when I came down to water the vegetable garden.
The block in which I live has not always stood here. It was built in 1933, speculatively by a Rear-Admiral who hired the architect William Bryce Binnie¹, most famous for his work on Highbury’s East Stand, to design a mansion block along the lines of an ocean liner in which light would spill into every room. It is a brick and concrete building rendered in white, often described as art-deco in style, with 38 flats and a broad mix of residents. The year we moved in there were still two people living here who had moved in when it was first built. Neither came out of their flats, one lived behind a permanently drawn curtain and both were sadly dead by the end of that first year, taking a crucial part of the oral history of our block with them. But there are other residents who are long-standing, several of whom have been here for decades and still know many of the old stories. Such is the compelling nature of the location and such is the charm and seclusion of the garden that those who come tend to stay if they can.
The block itself was preceded by two houses — the first of which, ‘Ivy Cottage’, was erected some time very early in the nineteenth century as the residence of Charles Matthews (1776-1835), son of a theological bookseller on the Strand who grew up to become a celebrated comedian and actor, nicknamed ‘The Hogarth of the English Stage’. Allegedly the inspiration for the character Alfred Jingle in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, his cottage ‘rose not unlike a country vicarage in the midst of green lawns and flower- beds’². After Matthews’s death Ivy Cottage was bought by James Shoolbred, a draper who established a department store in Tottenham Court Road selling drapery and furniture. With the considerable profits from this venture Shoolbred expanded Ivy Cottage, building a 16-bedroom gothic mansion alongside it. In 1860 — by which time it had been bought by William Ford, a local solicitor — the dwelling was re-christened Brookfield House³.
In search of photographs of ‘Brookfield’ I have long collected postcards, mostly late night purchases on eBay or chance market finds, of views of Highgate Ponds and the land behind on which our block was built, taken from nearby Parliament Hill. In one, a postcard that was sent to a Miss Gibbs in Wood Green at 3.30pm on March 1st 1890, you can see an image of Brookfield House poking through the trees of the narrow strip of woodland that stands between the lawn here and Highgate Pond No. 1. Along its gable end is a ghostly façade of windows darkened by the distance of time. Through it stare no faces although the house feels full of eyes. It is shrouded by trees. Amongst them at that time would have been a small beech sapling.
My collecting of postcards led me deeper into Brookfield’s past. One afternoon I stumbled across two blogs, the first entitled ‘Lost Hospitals of London’⁴, that included links to an archive of copies of The British Journal of Nursing, and the second ‘The Long, Long Trail (Researching Soldiers of the British Army in the Great War)’⁵. Amongst a list of First World War auxiliary military hospitals on the latter was ‘Queen Alexandra’s Hospital (Q.A.H) for Officers, Millfield Lane, Highgate N’. The records showed that Q.A.H was based at Brookfield House and was one of hundreds of London houses that were converted into hospitals for the wounded between 1914 and 1918. According to Herbert J. Paterson, the Honorary Surgeon to the London Temperance Hospital, Brookfield’s location was key for by the Heath ‘the air was cleaner and more conducive to healing, thus avoiding the need for amputations’. Thus, the Army Council accepted the Hospital in March 1915 where its medical character was described as ‘Military’. Strict time was kept by a clock loaned from The Silent Electric Clock Co of 192 Goswell Road. Food was described by The British Journal of Nursing as being ‘appetising and served on pretty china’. Onto the house was built an annex so designed that the maximum amount of eight hours sunshine would flood into each of the bedrooms. These each had their own sets of French windows that opened onto a terrace, where beds could be wheeled out into the open air. The rooms themselves had electric lighting and each a bell that could easily be reached by a patient, which when pressed would silently hoist a small red flag to attract the attention of the nurses passing by in the corridor outside. Privacy for each patient was ensured by a red paper ticket being hung outside the door whilst a blue paper one indicated that the patient was asleep.
As summer neared its end large cracks and fissures appeared in the lawn surrounding our block. Long in nature and following the lines of the drainage system in some places, they went down several feet. In one, protruding from the soil about a foot down, I could clearly see a shard of fine white bone china. From the depth at which it lay it must have been deposited there some years before and successive lawns sown over the top of it. I pulled the shard out and holding it I was immediately transported to midsummers long before, and in particular to June 1915 when Queen Alexandra, by then the Queen Mother, visited the hospital opened in her name and stayed for an hour and a half, talking to the patients and the staff. According to accounts on ‘Lost Hospitals of London’, ‘the garden was at its best, with trees providing a feast of colour – lilacs, pink and white, horse chestnuts, copper beeches and laburnums – and a peaceful environment’.
In that idyll would have stood a burgeoning young beech tree under which tea would most probably have been drunk from white cups of ‘pretty china’.
All through the autumn I mourned the loss of our old beech. Each night before bed when I walked the dog around and through the garden, the gaping hole it had left behind seemed even more apparent, marked by a scar of absence against the London night sky. There was a disquiet in the shadows, an eeriness not felt in previous years which upset my dog. He whined on certain paths and stopped fast on others. And then one day in late October when the first of the real rains came I sat at my desk and as the gardens below became obscured by a squall I searched again on my laptop and discovered in the online section of the local paper a reference to one of Queen Alexandra’s patients, an Officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers whose ‘death’ had been misreported in The Times on 5th August 1916, ‘Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers, officially reported dead of wounds, wishes to inform his friends that he is recovering from his wounds at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate, N’⁶.
Robert Graves was one of 839 officers treated at the Q.A.H over the course of its service during the first war. Overseen by a matron called Miss Sinzininex, only eight of those patients succumbed to their wounds. Was it they who stalked me as I walked on the edge of the wood in the dead of night? Or was it those who had survived? Their recoveries aided gently by the sound of the wind in the leaves, by the shade afforded by the expansive canopies and by the company of the birds who lived amongst them. I could not tell, so strange had the atmosphere there suddenly become. All I knew was that the cutting down of the beech had disturbed something. I swore that at times I could hear hurried footsteps on a clean tiled floor.
As the time neared to decide which tree should replace the felled beech, someone here had the idea to send a request to the council that rather than one of the trees they recommended be planted, none of which had a relationship with the location as such, a copper beech be chosen. A tree that would relate to those that had once stood in the grounds of Ivy Cottage, Brookfield House and Queen Alexandra Hospital. And so on 11th November around a newly planted copper beech sapling a small gathering of residents stood and Graves’ poem ‘1915’⁷ was read out aloud by one of them. Since that moment there is no longer disquiet in the shadows at midnight. A tree stands, with a century and more of life ahead of it. Once again the garden is a place where one can feel secure, a night sanctuary. A place of reflection at the end of each day. A century after the guns fell silent so did 839 cries of objection to the felling of one tree.
1. London Deco Flats (www.londondecoflats.co.uk/), Claire Bennie
2. Old and New London: Volume 5: Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin. London 1878
3. Streets of Highgate (Camden History Society 2007)
4. Lost Hospitals of London: https://ezitis.myzan.co.uk
5. The Long, Long Trail (Researching Soldiers of the British Army in the Great War): www.longlongtrail.co.uk
6. Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-Bye to All That (1895-1929) by Jean Moorcroft-Wilson – Bloomsbury 2018
7. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive (www.1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk)
(Taken from Lost Hospitals of London):
‘The Queen Alexandra Hospital closed its doors on 23rd July 1919. A concert and entertainment was held at 9 O’Clock in the evening with the music supplied by the string band of H.M. 1st Life Guards. This was followed by dancing in the Princess Victoria Ward until the early hours of the morning. The patients presented Mr & Mrs Paterson with a 200 Yr-Old oak dining table, while Matron Miss Mary Sinzininex received a set of furs. The hospital building was demolished in 1934 (1933) and an apartment block now occupies the site’.
NB: According to a report in The British Journal of Nursing published on December 29th 1917 a Christmas magazine was produced and published by the staff and patients of Q.A.H which included a detailed history of the hospital. Should anyone ever chance upon a copy of the magazine I would love to see it.
John Andrews undertakes MCing duties at our Caught by the River Calder event, which takes place in Hebden Bridge on March 30th. More info/tickets here.