Down by the Laganside
The big house was just visible through the trees that lined the long sweeping driveway. It looked magnificent sitting on top of the hillside that swept down to the river Lagan. ”Hey, Danny, this is some place, no shortage of a few bob here, who lives here, what have we to do here?” The questions tumbled out of my mouth as the old Ford van came to a halt.
“ It’s none of your business my bucko,” Danny retorted, “just keep your mind on the job when we go in.” “Ok you’re the boss Danny,” I said, “Aye and make sure you remember that the next time I tell you to do something. Now get out of the van and up to the house, I’ve a wee message to do before we start. By the way, we’ll be working here for a week or so,” said Danny the electrician I was apprenticed to. “How long will you be and what do I tell the boss if he arrives before you’re back, and what do I tell the people in the big house if they ask where you are?” I asked. “The doctor that delivered you at birth must have used a question mark instead of forceps you ask that many questions. Look, I won’t be long, I got a red hot tip for the 2.30 race at York, straight from the horse’s mouth it can’t be beat according to yer man in the pub last night. I have to find a bookies and get a few shillings on it. If the boss happens to come, tell him I’m away to get some stuff to start the job.
Now get out and up to the house, one of us needs to be on the job before eleven o’ clock. Take your toolbox with you it’ll help you look the part. I shouldn’t be more than half an hour before I’m back,” he said. I lifted my toolbox from the back of the van, hoisted it on my shoulder and started up the gravel drive towards the house. Danny’s parting words were: “Be sure and go around to the back door, as tradesmen that’s the entrance we use.”
The van hopped and bucked back down the road and I shouted:“ I see you’re still using the kangaroo petrol Danny.”
“I’ll kangaroo you when I get back,” he roared. It was another three months before Danny mastered how to use the clutch properly. The winding gravel drive gave the first indication that age and neglect had taken a stranglehold on this property. Once in days gone by it would have been lined with the carriages and limousines of the gentry and the lords of industry. Now it was a network of potholes joined together by puddles of rainwater, making it almost impossible to leave or enter the house via the driveway without getting your feet wet. The drive was longer than I thought and I rested my heavy toolbox on one of the few sandbars in this river of rainwater and viewed the big house through the eye of a tradesman, well, an apprentice tradesman. The once white painted mansion was now a yellowy shade of cream, flaked, blistered and pockmarked with the passage of time. Previous colour schemes were easily identified as I drew closer. Dampness filled the air. I supposed a combination of the nearby river and the overgrown trees prevented the sun from caressing the old house with its lifesaving restorative heat. Decay and neglect was to be seen everywhere, nowhere more so than the in the huge gardens that surrounded the house. Gardens that once hosted gatherings of the local gentry, adorned the pages of gardening magazines, as well as winning many prizes. Now, weeds grew unchecked, almost waist high in places. Neglect for whatever reason was everywhere in abundance. Soon it would have a death grip on the grand old house that would be impossible to break. This area had once been a virgin site in the forest and now nature was busily undertaking the task of reclaiming what man had once taken from her.
I duly reported to the back door and pulled on the rusty chain that was connected to the large highly polished ship’s bell with the name ‘Clyde Valley’ engraved on it. I thought it strange that this bell was in pristine condition and the rest of house was so neglected. I yanked the chain several more times in quick succession, creating a volume of sound that vibrated and echoed through the surrounding trees. After several rings, an old lady dressed in black from head to toe except for a white frilly collar opened the door. “Where is the fire young man?” she asked angrily. “There isn’t one,” I replied, “Exactly,” she said and continued: “In this house, we ring the bell once. Do you understand? What is your business here anyway?”
“I’m the electrician, I’m here to fix your electrics.” “You would appear to be a little on the young side for such a responsible job,” she commented. I could feel the heatrise from my neck, just like a kettle filled with water and heated on the gas stove, over my ears and into the roots of my red hair until my face was as red as the heart of a coal fire. With difficulty, I replied: “Well I’m the apprentice electrician, the real electrician will be here shortly.” She took great pleasure from my discomfort and smiled, saying:” Well Mr Apprentice Electrician, I suppose you wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea, or do you tradesmen prefer to drink your tea out of a blackened tin can?”
“No, I mean yes, a cup would be smashing Mam, we don’t have a blackened tin can, I bring my tea in a flask. “She led the way into the kitchen that was the size of the whole downstairs area of our house and beckoned me to follow. “Sit down there and warm yourself, I’ll go make us a pot of tea,” pointing to the large rocking chair that hugged the big black Stanley range. I had never ever sat in a rocking chair before and I suppose I behaved like a child enjoying the new experience as I rocked back and forward almost gleefully. My eyes scanned the kitchen from the pulley-type clothes drying-racks suspended from the high ceiling to the numerous pots and pans of all sizes stacked neatly underneath the largest table I had ever seen. My eyes focused on two objects high on the wall opposite the range. One was an oblong box made of wood about eighteen inches square, with a glass face painted red, and on the glass were twenty five plain glass circles the size of a penny with black numerals from 1 to 25. Beside it were twenty-five small brass bells, each one suspended from an individual bracket and arranged in five rows of five, again numbered 1 to 25.
So engrossed was I in the box and bells I did not hear the old woman return with a tea cosy covering a silver tea pot, a milk jug and sugar bowl of the same metal, two fine bone china cups and saucers, a china plate, with half a dozen fruit scones on a silver tray. “High tea,” I thought to myself. I knew about these fine things as my Aunt Laura often served tea like this whenever I visited her. Perhaps she was trying to make a gentleman out of me. The only difference being Aunt Laura’s tray would have carried a few buns and a big sponge cake as well as the scones. No matter, beggars can’t be choosers as the saying goes. “I’m Mrs Bishop, but you can call me Alice, I’m the housekeeper.” “I’m pleased to meet you Alice,” said I struggling to get out of the rocking chair to stand up and shake her hand. “I’m George but my friends call me Geordie.”
“Well, I hope we can be friends Geordie, now drink your tea before it gets cold and try a couple of those buttered scones freshly made this morning.” We munched, slurped and talked between mouthfuls of fruit scone and tea, each scone covered in a thick layer of good country butter. I was still intrigued by the box and the bells on the wall.” Alice, what are those two things and what are they for” I asked. “The bells are there from the time the house was built and the box was installed about fifty years ago to replace the bells. It was the latest tool in communication in its time. There are sixteen bedrooms, five sitting or drawing rooms, a dining room, a billiard room, the master’s den and a function room in this house. Each room had a number that corresponded to the
number underneath the bell. Each bell was attached by string to a bell pull. When the bell chimed, a maid was dispatched to the room in question. The box is a series of small electric bulbs that replaced the bells, bell push buttons and electric wires replaced the bell pulls and string. When the light came on behind any number, it also triggered a buzzing sound to attract our attention. In those days before and after the Great War, we had a house full of serving girls and maids and one of these girls would respond to the light or the bell chime. Do you know, once upon a time I was one of those girls myself,” she smiled.
“I began my service in this house in 1898 as a kitchen maid at the age of fourteen and I’ve been here ever since.” “Sixty-two years Alice, that’s a long time in one job, should you not be retired by now?” I asked.
“Why would I retire, retire and do what I ask you? No Geordie I intend to work until I die. Do you know that I have done every job in this house and ended up as housekeeper and companion to the mistress of the house” I could hear the pride in her voice.“I met and married my late husband, Charlie, in the little church we had on the estate. He was the head gardener, a very responsible post. A handsome man was my Charlie in those days. We married in June 1914 and the Master let us have one of the small tied cottages on the estate. Geordie, we were so happy for those few short married months. Then that tragic war started and everything began to fall apart. The Master, Mr Williams, his eldest son James and my Charlie were among the first to join up to do their duty for King and Country. We all waved like mad and blew kisses as they crowded along the ship’s rails dressed up to the nines in their khaki uniforms. As the Liverpool Boat gave three blasts of its horn, the gathered bands played and we sang ‘God Save the King’, ‘Rule Britannia’, and ‘The Sash’ until the boat was just a speck in the distance steaming down the Lough on the 28th January 1915. Geordie, I remember it like it was yesterday. That was the last time I set eyes on my Charlie.” Tears streaked her cheeks. “They were all killed, slaughtered at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Thousands of brave men from Ulster slaughtered, cut down in the prime of life, buried in a strange land where they don’t speak the language. I’m telling you it was a sad day in this house, aye in many another house in this wee Province of ours. Sure the telegram boys nearly burned the rubber of their bicycle tyres they had so many telegrams to deliver.
It was the beginning of the end for this house you could say. John, the remaining son, went to the Front and returned after the war but he wasn’t the same man, a Major, a hero, with a chest full of medals and ribbons, suffering severe depression and drinking like a fish. He spent months in hospital after the war but his bouts of depression were regular visitors and the whiskey and gin bottles were emptied with monotonous regularity. The Mistress had looked after the business during the war years until John was discharged from hospital. She supervised the full-time return to their normal engineering business work after years as a munitions factory. The profits were not as good but we were at peace. The family fortune had beenbuilt on the manufacturing, supply and maintenance of machinery used in the linen industry. The company was a major player in the industry at that time. As per the conditions of his father’s will, John, the only living son, inherited all the family property, business and a small fortune in cash. When he was released from hospital, he took over the running of the company from his mother. I thought the Mistress made a big mistake handing everything over lock, stock and barrel to Master John. His industrial inexperience and fluctuating mental health led him to make many poor decisions, both business and personal, particularly during the financial crash and recession of the late Twenties and early Thirties. It was John’s mounting gambling debts, his bad investments and general neglect of the business brought the family to its knees. John was found drowned in 1937 in the river just beyond the weir at the big chestnut tree where the river bends. Can you see where I mean Geordie?”
“I see it Alice. Some believe that the loss of the family business and fortune caused him to jump, others believe the balance of his mind was upset. God only knows what happened”
“The Master had been heavily involved with Lord Carson and others during the period prior to Home Rule. His industrial connections and fortune greatly assisted the 1912 gunrunners and made the purchase of the guns possible. Young Master John was on the political fringes during the lead-up to Partition, I think he was only tolerated because he was his father’s son as well as the wealth and industrial position of the family. The Mistress was elected to the new Parliament after Partition and remained a Member of Parliament until she reached her 75th birthday in 1945. Her Parliamentary salary, along with rent paid by the Americans who occupied the property from 1941 to 1946 helped keep the wolf from the door. The last fourteen years have financially speaking been very difficult. I’m all that remains of a staff that once numbered twelve, nine inside and three outside the house. The house during these years has gradually fallen into a serious state of disrepair, only the very essential jobs are carried out. That is why you are here today young man.”
“Alice, would it be possible to show me around the house,” I asked. “I will indeed, Geordie, if you promise to remember a few things before we start.”
“I will but what is it I should promise to remember?” I enquired. “That houses are like humans,” she began “and the first thing that fades with age is their beauty, the next thing is that the body begins to decay, but the soul of a person and a house always remains constant and unchanging.”
I pondered this without any great understanding but agreed to her conditions.“ “Come on then, on your feet. There is no time like the present, let’s take the grand tour,” she said.
“This estate has belonged to the Williams family since 1825. It once stretched all the way to Lisburn on both sides of the river and down to where the Kings Bridge stands today. Over the years, large tracts of land have been sold or given to the State to make a park. The present house was built in 1850 and the Master and Mistress came to live here when they married in 1894, Young masters James and John were born in 1895 and 1896 respectively. Those were happy, happy days in this house while those two young men were growing up. The house and the woods rang with their laughter. This house and the Master were at the centre of the political intrigue at that time, with many important comings and goings, secret meetings with Mr Carson, Mr Andrews and others, Mr Churchill himself stayed here once. The Christmas and New Year parties were lavish and spectacular. I especially remember the Grand Ball to celebrate Partition and the founding of our wee State. Anybody who was anybody in the Six Counties was here that night, dancing and singing to welcome in the new dawn for Ulster. God save Ulster,” she uttered.
I gazed in awe at the white marble central staircase, worn in places by the shuffle of feet for over one hundred years. “The French doors at the top open onto a balcony that encircles the first floor,” she said.
We swept up and down the great staircase, she and I, a spring now in her step. Suspended from the 35 foot high ceiling was a massive and magnificent chandelier complete with perhaps a hundred bulbs that lighted the whole hall and stairway area. I noticed the dust and cobwebs and immediately it lost its glory, as I realised that I would probably have to clean it! We continued our tour of the ground floor, through large drawing and sitting rooms that were all filled with furniture of a bygone age and retained the appearance of a regal lifestyle. All the rooms had many things in common, namely the large black marble fireplaces that Santa would have had no problem descending. In each of them, the roaring, spitting and hissing log fires of yesteryear were now a miserly shovel of coal glimmering in the small grate, not generating enough heat for the here and now, never mind the future. Large windows poured natural light into the rooms by the bucketful, sash cords no longer raised or lowered the windows, and terminal rot was evident in them all. The hardwood floors shone like mirrors reflecting the light, although the carpet runners were threadbare in places. None of the neglect and decay could hide the craftsmanship that had gone into the construction or the fact that this was still a very beautiful house. Alice was young again, reliving her memories, as we entered the banquet hall. I commented on the large attached glasshouse that gave panoramic views of the river Lagan.
“Conservatory not glasshouse, if you please Geordie.” “I stand corrected, Alice,” I said. There was a style and grandeur paraded in this banquet hall where famous and very important people had graced the room.
“Geordie, did you know that Thomas Andrews who designed the Titanic was a frequent visitor and Count John McCormick once sang standing at that very piano? Come on, we’ll go upstairs now,” she urged. The white staircase danced with colour as the large leaded light window filtered the outside sunshine and a large overhanging tree branch periodically interrupted the sunlight, energising the dancing pools of colour. I imagined the young belles of society, as they would flicker up and down the staircase just like those coloursand crash into the arms of waiting admirers, gathered in the hall under the chandelier. “There are sixteen bedrooms on this floor complete with bathrooms. Each room has French type doors that open onto the balcony. Six times around the balcony measures almost a mile. Guests could have their constitutional walk without ever leaving the house. The French doors also led to a lot of shenanigans among guests after lights out,” she laughed. “Every bedroom was prepared as if awaiting the arrival of guests at any moment,” she continued. The huge rooms were adorned with green and white marble fireplaces, gilt-edged mirrors and paintings of seascapes and landscapes, beautiful hand carved wooden doors and high ceilings with perfectly preserved ornate plaster work. The expensive embossed wallpaper, although faded, still radiated style and quality.
The final door on the landing she opened with reverence. Behind the door was a time capsule of children’s toys from sixty years ago. “These toys were to have been passed on to the children of James and John. This is their nursery room,” she whispered. “That damned war put an end to that idea. My Mistress never entered this room since the day James was killed at the Somme and no natural light has lit this room since that fateful day.” “Now Geordie for the piece-de-resistance.” We climbed a narrow wooden staircase into a small attic with a glass door that opened onto a decked area which resembled the deck of a ship, complete with railings and a swivel mounted brass telescope and a high custom- built captain’s chair. Compared to the rest of the house, this area, like the brass bell at the front door, was in pristine condition. The view was breathtaking down the Lagan Valley to the sea and, with the aid of the telescope, I was able to watch ships steam down Belfast Lough and fall off the horizon. “This was the Master’s favourite place in all the house and the Mistress always demanded that it be kept as he left it in 1915 when he went to war.”Alice and I sat on the wooden bench high above the valley and savoured the moment, enjoying the view, the silence and the warm sunshine.
“Alice, were you ever jealous of the lifestyle enjoyed by your employers and their guests?” “Glory be boy, where did that come from? Why would I be jealous? I’ve been here over sixty years, all of them filled with happy memories except for the war years. Sure, don’t I live in a grand house, and enjoy the fine gardens and surroundings that they enjoy and they paid me a good steady weekly age into the bargain for doing so. It didn’t cost me a penny to live here and I have had the run of the place. Master Geordie, you would do well to remember the old saying ‘a place for everyone and everyone in their place’ and you won’t go far wrong in this life. Sure, I would do it all again if I had the chance,” she said. I contemplated what she had said and smiled at the logic in her reply. “ Thank you, Alice, for sharing this house, its history and its memories with me. I really enjoyed it. By the way, where is the Mistress today?” She started giggling before replying: “ She is on her honeymoon. She got married last week on her 90th birthday. She married new money, he got the Mistress and this piece of history. Needs must, you know Geordie, how else could she afford to pay for the repair of our beautiful old house?” I was shocked and it showed on my face, “Alice, most couples I know get married in their twenties because they are in love.”
Then I too started giggling along with Alice. “Geordie, Geordie, where the hell are you? I’m back.
That bloody bookies didn’t open until twelve o’clock”! “That’s my boss, Danny the electrician, calling me
Alice, I have to go”. “We’ll have other tours, Geordie, and I’ll introduce you
to the Mistress when she returns in the middle of the week. You’ll like her and, more important, I know she’ll like you,” she said as I shouted: “ I’m up here Danny, I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Oh one more thing, Geordie, before you go. Tell Mr Danny, the boss electrician man, that there is no cursing allowed in this house or any place on the property and we don’t approve of gambling either!”