1930: A perspective on Henry Kingsley's brief time in Cuckfield

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

HENRY KINGSLEY AT CUCKFIELD

By Mary Mc Leod (Sussex County Magazine March 1930)


The literary supplement of the Times tells us that in 1875 the solitary pair removed to a cottage in Sussex. The writer alludes to Henry Kingsley and his wife. They came to “Attrees” in Cuckfield High-Street in 1875, Henry dying in 1876, and being buried in Cuckfield parish churchyard by the vicar, Mr Maberly, on May 29th.


The photographs are of this house in which he and his wife lived. Attrees is obviously a 15th century house built of oak and lath and plaster. It has no specially outstanding feature now, whatever there may have been in earlier times. A huge Sussex fireplace in a small kitchen living room, out of which goes a very narrow stairway, shut off by an old oak door above the first step, was built up, and made into a Victorian fireplace with a small grate. The fireplace in the other sitting room has been obviously updated to provide a modern comfort as far as might be. The other rooms are remarkable mainly for the oak beamed walls and ceilings, and the crookedness of floors, walls and ceilings - making one wonder if one is not on board ship in rough weather.


The family who lived in the house originally (Attree by name) is first mentioned in 1332, and Thomas Attree whose name is perpetuated in the little house, was churchwarden in 1680. He married an Anne Warden in 1681. The name “Attree” is not uncommon in Sussex, I believe, and seems to indicate that the owner dwelt “At Tree”. Probably some fine old Oak gave its name to this particular “Attrees”, though there is no sign of it now.

The present inhabitant (Mrs Avery) allowed me to take the photographs and told me all she knew about the life of the Kingsley while they lived in Cuckfield. It was not very much: but the few details one hears make one feel very sad for the poor, sick genius, obviously waiting for the end in what peace the “complete social ostracism” had left him and his wife.


Another old inhabitant of Cuckfield, Mr Askew, of Church Street, remembers him well. He describes him as living the life of a recluse, but spending much time in walking. One can picture the poor lonely man walking, walking, walking– Looking into the distance with eyes that saw nothing of the Sussex beauty before him; feverishly trying, perhaps, to arrange his thoughts for work.


For he continued to write. Indeed he employed an amanuensis (as a private secretary was then called), a big dark young woman, called Barbara Allen. Whether anything written in those last months was ever published, I do not know: but he wrote– or caused his amanuensis to write. For the rest he seems to have spent most of his time gazing out of a window in the sitting room looking onto the street, and was often seen there. As you face the house the window to the right of the porch was - Mrs Avery asserts -put in by the Kingsleys. Perhaps this was to allow him to watch what little was passing in the street in those old peaceful times. The sun leaves the front of the house early in the morning, so his window would be in shadow, like himself. But he had some pretty old cottages (Maltmans by name) with the sun on them on the opposite side of the way to look at. I like to feel he had something pleasant to gaze upon, nearby.


His wife was much taller then her “little ape-like husband”, my informant told me. When one remembers that Henry Kingsley was a well-known athlete and oar at the University, this description makes one wonder. But that is what I was told he was like by one who often saw him. Mrs Kingsley was, apparently, “very full of women's rights”. As she died only two years ago, she lived to exercise one of them I suppose


It is a sad picture of the last few months of this genius, waiting for the end–this “little apelike man”, with two big hearty women, sitting in his window, dictating to Miss Barbara Allen, and walking for miles about the countryside all alone.


In spite of the complete social ostracism, I can discover no traces whatever of anything about his life that was not respectable. There was some indignation shown at the idea of any irregular habits. He painted–apparently the whole trio painted–in oils, decorating the house with appalling little figures reminiscent of the beginning of the too utterly too, too period, when you walk down Piccadilly with Poppy or a lily in your medieval hand. As far as I could gather, Kingsley himself, his wife, and his amanuensis all set to work in spare time– and a sad lot of it there must have been–and painted little classical figures, in a style not unlike Kate Greenaway's, all over the house. Some seem to have been plastered over now, but in the room, the photograph which was taken, are three small panels over the mantel. Little oil painted ladies, yellow with years now, dancing dignified steps in full skirts that must have tripped up in two minutes.


Another memory Mrs Avery has of a white image in a corner of the larger of the two sitting rooms. It always she said, caught her eye as she passed the house on her way to school as a child. I asked if it were a Saint or Madonna. She could not say. It was just a white image and she always took note of it.

In 1926, Canon Wilson (the present vicar of Cuckfield) had a letter from a Mr Arthur French, of 14, Dene Street, East Kew, Victoria, Australia, to say that he had seen in a copy of the Melbourne Argus that Henry Kingsley's grave was in a crazy, broken down condition, and offering some money to put up something permanent and, having admiring memories of his books, “Geoffrey Hamlyn”, “Ravenshoe” and others. The vicar was obliged to let this gentleman know that he had nothing to do with the management of the churchyard; but added that he was sure that, given a sum of money for the purpose, a suitable monument would be erected by the proper authorities. He got no reply.


Mrs Kingsley is not buried with her husband. She left Cuckfield after his death, and from whatever reason it may be seen, she was not brought from the sea to rest beside her Henry.


The grave is large enough–it is rather pathetic to see how large, with the poor little wooden cross in one corner of it. Plenty of room for her, but she did not come.


Whatever he did to be ostracised I hope the mercy he meted out to his own fictitious rascals–and there are many in his wonderful, human, most lovable books -was meted out to him. In my own mind I have no doubt upon the point.

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