The Laconia Incident

Hi everyone.

We have spent a most undecided month, first turning to one place and then to another. However, today we have really finished fixing everything up and we sail on the “Laconia” for the West Indies and South America on Jan 19th from Southampton. It is a big Cunarder so should be comfortable. We go straight to Madeira, St Vincent, Martinique, Tobago and the Barbadoes, Trinidad, La Guayra (Venezuela) and the Panama Canal, then up to Jamaica, Havanna, the Bahamas and Bermuda. The Laconia then returns to England but we are going to stay a month in Jamaica and then cross to America, either to New Orleans or Palm Beach in Florida.

This is the opening section of the letter that Ethel North, Lady Winifred Burghclere’s maid and companion, wrote to my grandmother in December 1928. It is the letter I am currently typing up and researching for my proposed book My Dear Elsie and is another example of an “innocent” looking letter that ends up packing quite a punch.

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The letter that Ethel wrote to my grandmother in 1928

When I looked up the RMS Laconia, expecting to find nothing more than details of a palatial cruise liner, complete with swimming pool and piano lounge, I discovered something called “the Laconia incident”. This turned out to be one of the most controversial and tragic incidents of the Second World War although I had never even heard about it.

The Laconia made her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1922, six years before Ethel’s letter was written. When WWII broke out in 1939, the cruiser was commandeered by the British Government as a troop ship and fitted with guns. In September 1942, she was on her way from Egypt to Britain with around 2,700 people on board among which were 1800 Italian POWs and 80 civilians including women and children who were mainly the families of servicemen.

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A menu from the Laconia dated December 25th 1937 (CC)

Just off the coast of West Africa, the Laconia was detected by a German U-boat which, given that Britain was at war with Germany, proceeded to torpedo the ship. Several hundred people on the Laconia were killed instantly and around 2,000 survivors ended up in the shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

What happened next is a remarkable example of man’s “humanity” to man, given that this was war-time and all bets were off. The commander of the German U-boat, a man named Werner Hartenstein, decided to act on his own initiative, regardless of how badly it would go down at German HQ and began to mount a rescue operation to save as many of the survivors in the sea as possible. How his crew felt about this is anyone’s guess, given that only a few hours before they had been instructed to fire torpedoes at the same people.

With the rescue mission well underway and his submarine still on the surface of the water, Hartenstein requested assistance from other shipping in the area. As a result, a small convoy of German U-boats with life boats containing survivors and flying under the banner of the Red Cross, was able to make its way towards the French rescue ships that had set out to meet them from Senegal.

Unfortunately, news of the convoy reached a nearby American airfield. A B-24 bomber pilot who, either because he didn’t see the Red Cross banner or saw it and chose to ignore it, spotted the convoy and asked for orders. The Airfield commander, Captain Robert Richardson, decided to give the command to bomb both the U-boats and the life boats. As a result, Hartenstein was forced to order many of the survivors he had rescued to be thrown back into the sea so that he could perform a crash dive to protect his submarine and crew. A total of 1,113 survivors were eventually rescued, but 1,619 died, most of whom were the Italian POWs that had been kept in the hold of the ship. Altogether, of the 2,725 passengers that had embarked from Cape Town, only 1,500 survived.

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A postcard of the Laconia c. 1921 (CC)

As a result of what later become known as “the Laconia incident”, German authorities issued instructions to all U-boat commanders not to rescue survivors in the future. Hartenstein himself was killed six months later when his U-boat came under fire from Allied Forces while Captain Richardson was never prosecuted but went on to serve a long career in the US Air Force and lived until he was 92.

In 2004, the acclaimed TV dramatist Alan Bleasdale heard about the story of the Laconia and became fascinated by it, especially when he discovered that many of the sailors who had been on board the ship came from his home city of Liverpool. He decided to write a play entitled The Sinking of the Laconia and this aired on the BBC in 2011.

By a strange coincidence, Bleasdale’s play was shown again on the BBC in May 2018, just a couple of weeks after I had found out about “the Laconia incident” myself. I watched it with some trepidation, partly because I’m not comfortable watching dramas about incidents where real people have been killed (I’ve never watched the film Titanic for that reason) and also because I thought it would be pretty harrowing. It was, but it was also extremely well done, very gripping (even though I knew the ending) and really made me think about what the poet Wilfred Owen described as “War, and the pity of War.”

It also made me think a lot about who the good and bad guys were in this whole tragic incident. Of course, it helped that the role of the German U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein was played by an extremely handsome German actor and the American Airfield commander was not, but the play does have a great deal to say about the ethics of war.

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The DVD cover of Alan Bleasdale’s drama

If you are interested in finding out more about The Laconia Incident, I can highly recommend the following links which include some very moving testimonies from those who were on board and survived.

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/02/alan-bleasdale-uboat-sinking-laconia

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8241545/The-Sinking-of-the-Laconia-BBC-Two-preview.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1344460/U-boat-skipper-ruthlessly-torpedoed-British-ship-defied-Hitler-rescue-survivors.html

Of course, whether Ethel and Lady Burghclere actually got to sail on the Laconia and visit all those places that Ethel lists at the beginning of her letter is another story. You will have to keep following this blog (or wait for my book to get published!) to find out.

 

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Back To The Drawing Board

Hi everyone.

A very belated Happy New Year. If I had left this blog post much longer, I would have probably been sending you New Year greetings for 2019 instead of 2018.

I must admit it has been quite a struggle to keep going with the Ethel letters since all the excitement last autumn of having the project featured as a double page spread in The Mail on Sunday newspaper. It was difficult accepting that once again, despite the extensive coverage in the paper and the reporter’s tremendous enthusiasm for the letters, I still don’t have even a sniff of a book deal for My Dear Elsie. So it’s back to the drawing board. Again.

The letter I have just finished typing up and researching was quite short by Ethel’s standards and looked very innocuous at first glance. However, it turned out to be absolutely packed with interesting information, so much so that my explanatory end-notes are longer than the actual letter itself.

Ethel wrote this letter to my grandmother in August 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere were staying at Cowden Castle, the remains of a 14th century castle near the village of Dollar in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. By the time Ethel and Lady Burghclere were visitors there, the castle had become the site of a mansion house built by wealthy land-owner John Christie.

John Christie’s grave in Muckhart churchyard (CC)

I was interested to discover that John Christie’s daughter Ella Christie, who had inherited the property on her father’s death and was managing the estate at the time of Ethel’s visit, was quite a character. She was an explorer and travel writer, as well as the first Western woman to have met the Dalai Lama. Sadly there is no mention of her in the letter as I can’t help feeling that she and Ethel would have had a lot in common.

Ella Christie was also responsible for supervising the construction at Cowden Castle of what has been described as “the best Japanese garden in the Western world”. Although the mansion house was demolished in 1952, the Japanese garden (laid out between 1907 and 1930) was preserved and eventually re-opened to the public in 2016. If you would like to find out more about it, there is some very useful information about the garden and also about Ella Christie at www.cowdengarden.com

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Japanese garden at Cowden Castle (Copyright: Sara Stewart)

According to Ethel’s letter, the reason why she and Lady Burghclere were staying at Cowden was because they were on “the usual round of Scotch visits” and were due to have gone to stay with Lord Haldane at his home in the Scottish town of Auchterarder next. However, they had been “put off” because he was seriously ill and in fact his Lordship died just a few days after Ethel’s letter was written.

I must confess to never having heard of Lord Haldane but when I did some research on him, it turns out that he was quite a player. (It never fails to amaze me how Ethel seems able to interact with the leading figures of the day just as if she was interacting with her father’s customers in his butcher’s shop!)

Lord Haldane (CC)

Lord Haldane was a politician, a lawyer, an educationalist and a philosopher. He had been Lord Chancellor from 1885-1910, Secretary of State for war (during which time he implemented some very important military reforms including the establishment of the British Expeditionary Force), one of the founders of the London School of Economics, and Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. In his obituary, The Times described him as “one of the most powerful, subtle and encyclopaedic intellects ever devoted to the public service of his country.”

During my research, I came across this cartoon from a 1909 edition of Punch. It depicts Lord Haldane at a meeting of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s cabinet discussing what became known as the People’s Budget. Lord Haldane is on the back row (far left) and next to him is Winston Churchill who is being hugged by David Lloyd George. It’s incredible to think that a close friend of my grandmother’s moved in such circles.

Meeting of Asquith’s Cabinet (CC)

The third paragraph of Ethel’s letter bemoans the fact that she and Lady Burghclere were not going to be able to stay at the Lake House that year. Milford Lake House, as it was then known, was situated in the grounds of Highclere Castle (the main location for the filming of the popular television series Downton Abbey) and later became the residence of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon. Ethel was clearly not impressed by this change of location.

We have not been given the Lake House this year, so the Dowager Lady Carnarvon has lent us Teversal Manor near Mansfield instead. It will seem very ugly country after the Lake.

The village of Teversal is about five miles from the town of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, a county in central England. Teversal Manor had been inherited by Lady Burghclere’s step-mother Elsie after the death of her husband (the 4th Earl of Carnarvon) and is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the fictional Wragby Hall in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the notorious novel by DH Lawrence.

Teversal Manor Garden (Alan Heardman CC)

The property remained in the Carnarvon family until Elsie’s death, a few months after Ethel’s letter was written, after which it was sold to a local mining company. It seems likely then that Ethel and Lady Burghclere were among the last visitors to Teversal Manor while it still belonged to the Carnarvon family and judging by the size of it (the property was put on the market for £1million in 2013) they must have been rattling around like two peas in a pod.

This letter is also the one which contains what is possibly my favourite “Ethel-ism” from the whole collection and I can still remember how surprised and amused I was when I discovered who Ethel was talking about here.

Miss Evelyn got married against Lady B’s wishes last month. As far as we can judge, a very unsatisfactory young man whose only living is an occasional book.

Miss Evelyn is, of course, Lady Burghclere’s youngest daughter but the “very unsatisfactory young man” that Ethel refers to was in fact Evelyn Waugh, now considered to be one of the most influential and widely read English novelists of the 20th century. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.

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Blue Plaque erected at Golders Green in 1993 (CC)

Finally, this letter also mentions Lady Burghclere’s daughter Mary and the fact that she has now divorced her husband but is about to marry again.

Mrs Hope-Morley divorced Mr H-M in June. She left him on a deed of separation 18 months ago and at the beginning of this year, went off to South America and is still there with a young man until the decree nisi is made absolute and she can marry him. So altogether we have had a nasty time since our return from abroad.

This “young man” was Captain Alan Hugh Hillgarth and Mary did indeed marry him (in 1929) although they divorced some years later. It transpires that Captain Hillgarth wasn’t just your average suitor. He was a British diplomat, novelist, and spy who had left active service in 1922 and was now pursuing a career as a writer of adventure novels. He had also embarked on a series of real-life adventures including becoming military advisor to the Spanish Foreign Legion, sailing to Florida, searching for gold in the Andes and writing a musical comedy. As I have said in my end-notes, you can probably see the attraction!

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Cover of Alan Hillgarth biography by Duff Hart-Davis

So, a very innocuous looking letter but one which turned out to be full of fascinating information and some great examples of Ethel not being afraid to express her opinions, especially where protecting Lady Burghclere was concerned.

There is also the first hint in this letter that the relationship between mistress and servant may be about to take a new direction.

I spent part of my holiday at Bognor with the rest of the family during those lovely, hot weeks at the beginning of July. I still have another week to take but don’t know about that yet. Holidays cut up in this fashion are not as satisfactory as a clear month but it now seems the only thing to do. I don’t like leaving her [Lady Burghclere] all alone for such a long time.

But more of that in future blog posts. Meanwhile, that drawing board is calling so I need to get back to it, while also trying to type up and research the rest of the letters.

Have a really good 2018, what is still left of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mail on Sunday

Hi everyone.

In my last post, I promised I would reveal news of probably the most exciting thing that has happened with Ethel North’s letters to my grandmother, ever since I began working, over seven years ago now, on trying to get them published as a book, and now I can.

The Mail on Sunday, which is one of the UK’s most prestigious Sunday newspapers, ran a double-page feature about the letters and my proposed book, in the paper today. Their chief reporter contacted me, completely out of the blue, about ten days ago and asked if I would be willing to allow them to do a feature based on the letters. Of course, I said ‘Yes’ and after a few phone calls, many emails, a lengthy interview and a visit from a photographer, the feature appeared in the paper.

I am very pleased indeed with how it looks and I am hoping that the exposure in such a high profile publication will spark off more interest in the letters and possibly even bring about that much-sought-after book deal, especially as The Mail on Sunday article really emphasises the Downton Abbey connection.

You can view the feature online if you follow the link below and in the meantime, I promise to keep you up to speed with any further developments.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5027699/Below-stairs-gossip-amorous-princes-revealed.html#comments

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Jerusalem Jaunts

Hi everyone.

I hope this finds you fit and well, whichever part of the world you are in.

I have some news. It is probably the most exciting thing to have happened since I began this journey, over seven years ago, of trying to get Ethel North’s letters to Lady Burghclere published as a non-fiction book and I shall be revealing much more very shortly, so watch this space!

Meanwhile, I have been making steady progress (as it used to say on my school reports) with typing up Ethel’s letters, and researching and writing the footnotes. At the moment, I am immersed in the letter she sent to my grandmother from the Holy Land, which she visited with Lady Burghclere in March 1928.

This letter was written from Government House, the High Commissioner’s Residence, in Jerusalem and is probably the longest letter in the entire collection. (There are about 80 letters and postcards altogether and they cover the fourteen years that Ethel was employed as lady’s maid and companion to Lady Winifred Burghclere, the elder sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, or ‘Lady B’ as Ethel refers to her in the letters.)

“We have had such an interesting week. We left Cairo on the night train and got to Jerusalem about 9am next day. Although we are staying at the above place [Government House], we have our own car and Dragoman which makes us quite independent.”

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The first page of Ethel’s letter from Jerusalem, March 1928

The Jerusalem letter is a particularly challenging one to work on because it is full of Biblical place names and references, most of which need to be researched. Fortunately, I used to be a Religious Education teacher before I became a writer and I also have a degree in Biblical Studies, so it is probably not quite as difficult a challenge for me as it would be for anyone else.

There is no doubt that Ethel was a very religious person and she is clearly moved, in a spiritual sense, by everything she sees. Her poetic descriptions of her surroundings are also a delight to read.

“The calm of Galilee on a perfect spring morning is like no other calm except the desert and I think it is greater and sweeter, a less passionate calm. As one sails on the Sea of Galilee, it is as if one draws near to the Son of God, remembering all the time that on those quiet waters, as still as glass and hedged about by thickets of wild oleanders and lilies, the miraculous feet had walked.”  

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              Sea of Galilee with Tiberias in the background                     Photo Credit: Israel_photo_gallery (CC)

I also find it fascinating that Ethel never seems to doubt that any of the places they visit are definitely the actual places where the characters from the Bible lived and worked.

” And so we came to the little town of Nazareth. We had lunch (brought with us) just outside the town and left the car, as the streets are not possible for anything but walking or riding on a donkey. We visited the home of the Virgin Mary and the workshop of Joseph and then just outside the town, what is now called the ‘Well of the Virgin’. It is certain that Mary must have come here for her water day by day and no doubt the child Jesus in his early days must have come with her, as do the children of today. “

Ethel and Lady Burghclere certainly covered a lot of ground on this trip, including visiting Tiberias and Nazareth, as well as many places in between, on just one day. The next day they travelled to Damascus.

“We left Tiberias for Damascus very early in the morning as it is a day’s journey through the Lebanon Mountains. We crossed the River Jordan for the last time, so I took photos and two bottles of the water. We made a very long ascent as at Tiberias, we were a thousand feet below sea level and Damascus is up four thousand feet. The scenery changed as we went further into Syria and became a wilderness of barren, stony mountains. But it was a delicious drive.”

Once again, Ethel shows a “poetic” style of writing in her description of Damascus.

“Damascus, where I now am, is an oriental city and viewed from the mountains above, is like a pearl set round with emeralds. It is a city that is ethereally lovely, exquisitely eastern and almost mystic in its fragile grace.”

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The postcard Ethel sent from Damascus

The Jerusalem letter ends with them staying at the Continental Hotel in Beirut or ‘Beyrout’ as Ethel calls it.

“Here I am at the end of the journey. We were snow-blocked in the Lebanon Mountains coming from Damascus to Beyrout, so had to abandon our car and take the little mountain train until the road got clear. We then picked up another car which brought us down to Beyrout and will take us to Haifa tomorrow.  Everywhere here is very luxurious in vegetation. The flavours of the oranges and bananas are wonderful. I shall never have such fruit to eat again. The town of Beyrout we do not care for much but the surroundings are beautiful.”

The trip to Jerusalem and its surrounding area seems to have had quite a profound effect on Ethel and she ends the letter by saying this.

“I am so sorry that these long days in the fresh air and sunshine, with the road all to ourselves, must soon cease. How beautiful it has all been! A pilgrimage and a revelation which will always be a living and perpetual memory.”

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Ethel’s postcard showing Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

There are just two postcards left to type up from this trip and then the pair of them are back in Scotland and London for the rest of 1928, before going to Rome in 1929 for what would sadly turn out to be their final major excursion abroad.

So the end is in sight!

That’s all for now but I will be back soon with some very good news indeed, I hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farewell To Egypt

Hi everyone.

So that was summer, then. Of course, with such dreadful weather-related events happening in other parts of the world, those of us in the UK shouldn’t really be moaning about the damp conditions but it does feel very autumnal now and my central heating has already been cranked back into action.

I must admit to having lost some of my recent enthusiasm for typing up Ethel’s letters as other stuff seems to be demanding my attention. However, I’m determined not to leave too long a gap before I continue with them and as I only have three more letters left to transcribe and research before being able to start a new section of the book, hopefully that will motivate me. I do want to write one more blog post on the Egypt letters though before I leave them and move onto the Holy Land.

After all the excitement of seeing the Tutankhamun excavations and artefacts with Howard Carter as their guide, Ethel and Lady Burghclere return to Cairo again but this time they stay at The Residency. This is the term used for the official residence of the Governor General or High Commissioner in a Commonwealth country and the incumbent High Commissioner for Egypt in 1928 was Sir George Lloyd, an associate of Lady Burghclere’s half-brother Aubrey Herbert.

According to Ethel’s letter, Princess Mary (King George V’s daughter) and her husband Lord Lascelles were also due to arrive at The Residency in March 1928 for a month’s private holiday, shortly after Ethel and Lady Burghclere had left for Jerusalem. In one of the newspaper reports about Princess Mary’s visit, The Residency is described as: “A large white building with great, spacious rooms, looking out over the Nile, only about 50 yards away. There is a lovely garden and a broad stone terrace, where it is delightful to sit under an awning and watch the sailing boats drift past. The pyramids too, can be seen in the distance and nearer, the magnificent red and purple bougainvilleas climbing over the white garden walls of The Residency in glorious sunshine.”

It may have been a holiday but apparently Princess Mary still found time to attend a regimental dinner and inspect a large rally of Girl Guides as well as visit the bazaars, pyramids and other sights!

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Princess Mary in 1926 Photo: Wikipedia

Princess Mary was not the only royalty in Egypt around that time as the Crown Prince of Italy (Umberto II), who went on to become the last ever king of Italy, was also on a visit there. As mentioned in a previous post, he stayed at the same hotel as Ethel and Lady Burghclere when they were in Cairo the first time round. I discovered some wonderful black and white footage from his visit on the internet which is well worth a look, although sadly there is no sign of Ethel or Lady Burghclere.

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/crown-prince-of-Italy

The letter that Ethel wrote to my grandmother from The Residency is probably one of my favourites in the whole collection. I remember reading it before I had read any others and I was immediately captivated by Ethel’s wonderful and incredibly evocative descriptions. For a woman who was born above a butcher’s shop in the back streets of Leicester, in the heart of industrial England at the end of the 19th century, she could really write. Here are a couple of examples of her poetic prose:

It was a full moon and the sky was ablaze with stars. The Nile lay below us like a gleaming silver girdle clasped round a sleeping forest of palms, cypresses and minarets, stretching beyond the desert. It gave, particularly in the evening, a sense of illimitable distance and somehow the riddle of human destiny wove itself into the consciousness of the hour and made all life seem larger.

It’s all simply wonderful. There were days, windless days, when the Nile was as a dream and the Arabian mountains dreamlike in the glittering distance. When the voices of the children, mingling with the antiquary of the wheel under the blazing blue, had the sounds of unearthly things. When the stillness of the palms overshadowing the brown towers carried with it a sense of marvel. Eternal summer! How wonderful it is. Always the sun and the brilliant blue or indigo where the mountain edge cuts into it.

I was also very struck by the fact that Ethel thought nothing at all of going out into the desert on her own to ride, with just a dragoman (an interpreter and guide employed to help European Embassy staff) for company. I’m not sure I could have done that, even in 1928.

I can never tell anyone how much I loved being there. My happiest hours were from 4 until 6.30pm when I used to ride in the desert alone, except for my dragoman. I used to start out in the sunshine and then return as the first stars lighted the heavens. I have decided the desert is the most fascinating of all things.

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Ethel riding in the desert with her dragoman, February 1928

As I’ve said before, I do feel that Ethel’s letters from Egypt are the real jewel in the whole collection and hopefully the extracts I have included in my last four posts have given you a flavour of them.

Now it’s back to typing up the rest of the collection.

 

Close Encounters With Tutankhamun

Hi everyone.

I hope this finds you fit and well.

I have been busily working away, typing up the letters that Ethel wrote to my grandmother from her time with Lady Burghclere in Egypt and thought I would bring you a blog post or two before I move onto the ones she sent from the Holy Land.

As mentioned before, I do have a real sense of urgency to get the letters typed up, especially as I came to a major decision recently. After years of saying that I would never “self-publish” any of my books, I have now changed my mind, for all sorts of reasons. You can find out what these reasons are in a post I wrote last month for my writing blog.

https://melissalawrencewriter.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/self-publish-and-be-damned.html

Of course, self-publishing My Dear Elsie, the proposed book of Ethel’s letters, is a lot more complicated than self-publishing any of my children’s books. This is because I don’t own the copyright to the content of the letters, only the letters themselves. I’ve written a blog post on my writing blog about this issue too, if you’d like to take a look.

https://melissalawrencewriter.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/

But back to Egypt. There is no doubt in my mind that Ethel’s letters from Egypt are probably the USP of the whole book as they are so closely linked to one of the most incredible and fascinating historical events of the 20th century, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Although Ethel and Lady Burghclere didn’t visit the tomb until six years later, they still saw many of the Tutankhamun treasures in the original setting and their constant guide and companion was none other than the discoverer of the tomb, Howard Carter himself.

Here is Ethel’s description of encountering Tutankhamun’s coffin for the first time:

The great outer case is made of a lovely pink stone called Quartzite or something like that. It has a little crystal in it. It is a tremendous coffin. I believe the lid weighed several tons when they took it off. They have put a glass cover in place of it so that they can see the mummy which is enclosed in its last gold case. It is exactly the same as the two outer cases in the museum but in its real setting, how wonderful!

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Middle coffin of Tutankhamun by A.Parrott (CC)

Next she describes Tutankhamun’s funerary chest:

We passed through this chamber and came to the chamber in which stood the funerary chest or Canopic Jar. Personally I thought this the most beautiful thing of all, made of translucent alabaster and exquisitely inlaid with blue lapis-lazuli. Again the goddesses guard the corners and one above. It is the loveliest of things.

Tutankhamun Canopic Jars

Tutankhamun Canopic Jars by Jon Bodsworth (CC)

Finally, I have included this extract from her letter describing returning to the hotel in the evening after an incredible day spent in Tutankhamun’s tomb with just Howard Carter and Lady Burgchlere for company:

And then the evening in the Valley of the Kings. How can I describe it! The great solitude and silence. The watching hills above and the fathomless sands beneath. High above us circled the birds of prey. The only other inhabitants of the Valley besides us three, to keep company with the dead Pharaohs, were two ravens which I thought might have been Elijah!

As we returned slowly down the Valley in the swiftly changing and exquisitely lovely light, when the earth began to reflect itself in the sky and the stars began to appear almost before the last rays of the sun sank on the horizon, how true in such a place as this are the words of the Psalmist. “When I consider thy heavens, the works of thy fingers, the sun, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?”

It was a never to be forgotten day, not only as a sightseeing one but the consciousness of the infinity of God, for one felt encompassed with divinity.

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Area around the tombs in the Valley of the Kings by Nowic (CC)

If you are interested in finding out more about the discovery of Tutankhamun, I highly recommend that you visit the Griffith Institute Archive where you can view for free the complete records of the ten year excavation which were deposited there shortly after Howard Carter’s death by his niece, Miss Phyllis Walker. It contains some wonderful material including Carter’s journals, maps and drawings, as well as the photos that the photographer Harry Burton took of the excavations.

http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/discoveringtut/

Howard Carter’s House

Hi everyone.

Since my last blog post Off To Egypt (Not Literally) I have uncovered some interesting items about Howard Carter’s house which I thought I would share with you. (Yes I know. Two blog posts in one week. I’m spoiling you.)

As I mentioned in that post, I am now typing up and researching the letters and postcards that Ethel wrote to my grandmother from Egpyt when she and Lady Burghclere visited there in 1928. It seems that the main purpose of their visit was to meet up with and support archaeologist Howard Carter following his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb six years earlier.

This is an extract from one of the postcards that Ethel wrote from Egypt:

“Had lunch with Mr Carter at his little house and then spent the rest of the time in the Valley of the Kings and most of that in the tomb of Tutankhamun and the laboratory where the things are being fixed up. Hope to have time for a detailed letter soon.”

This “little house” was built for Howard Carter at Thebes, now the modern city of Luxor, by his patron and friend Lord Carnarvon (Lady Burghclere’s brother) in 1910 and used bricks sent over from England. Carter designed the house himself and it was always known as “Carter’s Castle” which was an ironic reference to Lord Carnarvon’s home, Highclere Castle. I have it on very good authority that it was Lady Almina (Lord Carnarvon’s wife) who was responsible for the ideas behind the wiring of the house.

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Howard Carter’s House at Luxor Photo credit: Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz

The house was reopened as a museum in 2009 and there is an extremely interesting blog post by renowned Egyptologist and author Jane Akshar about her involvement in the grand opening ceremony which was attended by several dignitaries including the present Lord and Lady Carnarvon, as well as members of the Carter family. Jane has posted some great photos that she took at the event which really give you an insight into what the house was like when Carter lived there.

http://luxor-news.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/opening-of-carter-dig-house-luxor-egypt.html

I also came across a post by Lady Carnarvon herself about the Carter house which is well worth a look. She tells us that Lord Carnarvon (the 5th Earl) often stayed at the house rather than at his hotel as it was nearer to the dig sites. He even built a darkroom at the back of the house so that he could process his photographs. Some of these photographs may be some of the ones that Lady Carnarvon has kindly shared in this post.

https://www.ladycarnarvon.com/tutankhamun/

Finally, just to make sure that the house was still in existence today, I did a bit more research and found a post on Egypt Today, the news website of the nation’s oldest and bestselling English-language social affairs magazine. Again there are some excellent photos including ones of Howard Carter’s original tools and his typewriter. Even more interesting was finding out from this post that work is being done to corroborate a new theory that there may be more to discover behind the walls of the burial chamber and treasury of the tomb of Tutankhamun than was first thought. The plot thickens!

http://www.egypttoday.com/Article/9/3090/In-The-Footsteps-Of-Egyptologist-Howard-Carter

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Lord Carnarvon at Howard Carter’s house Photo credit: Harry Burton

 

Off To Egypt (Not Literally)

Hi everyone.

I seem to start every blog post I write at the moment with an apology for not having blogged recently and this one is no exception. But I am back and still in the land of the living (no thanks to the whole menopause malarkey!) and off to Egypt. Not literally, sadly, although to be fair that doesn’t really bother me as I definitely don’t have the desire for travel that Ethel and Lady Burghclere clearly had.

After over five months of not working on My Dear Elsie for all sorts of reasons, I suddenly felt a real sense of urgency to crack on with it. I’m now determined to get all the rest of Ethel’s letters and postcards typed up as soon as possible and the end-notes for each one researched and written. It feels really important to at least have a manuscript of the book in existence in case anything happens to me. After all, with everything that’s been going on in the world recently, it does make you a lot more aware of the fragility of life.

But on to happier topics! The section of the book I’ve now started typing up contains Ethel’s letters and postcards sent to my grandmother Elsie from January 1928 to March 1928 when Ethel and Lady Burghclere travelled to Egypt and the Holy Land. The reason for this trip may well be explained by this quote from an earlier letter that Ethel wrote to my grandmother:

“Now comes along Mr Howard Carter who has been lecturing in America this last few months. He has heard from the Egyptian government who want him to return, offering everything, but apparently he reads between the lines that they mean him to work under them. This in a sense he does not want to do but as he doesn’t want a thing out of the tomb and as he has difficulty to get the money out of Almina, Lady Carnarvon – why not? So what he really wants is Lady B to go out to him. He says she will have more influence than anyone else. He finds it a great drawback or did last year in not having any members of the family out there to back him up. Lady B is seriously contemplating same and in that case if I can choose, what shall I say? Egypt or America! Could anyone find a more difficult choice?”

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The front of the postcard that Ethel sent from the ship SS Mooltan on the way to Egypt

In many ways, the letters and postcards written from Egypt are among some of the most fascinating and interesting in the whole collection. In particular, the letters that Ethel writes after she and Lady Burghclere are shown round the Tutankhamun excavations and relics by Howard Carter himself are amazing. Some of her descriptions are wonderful to read and really help to bring the whole experience alive.

Here is a little taster of one of the letters that I’ve picked out for you:

You would not believe the marvellous workmanship unless you actually saw it. Hundreds and hundreds of things, even to a beautiful ostrich feather fan such as they carry today. There is a dummy on which his [Tutankhamun’s] clothes were made, his slippers and a little gold charm he wore round his neck fashioned in a copy of his favourite dog. A most beautiful thing, really. I must not stop now to tell you all the wonderful things I saw but I hope I shall remember them to tell you later.”

Ethel starts writing this letter from the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo and while I was doing some research on the Semiramis, I came across an excellent website based around a book by the journalist Andrew Humphreys called Grand Hotels of Egypt and its follow-up On the Nile. If you’re interested in finding out more, the website can be found at http://grandhotelsegypt.com

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The back of the postcard that Ethel sent from the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo

I left a comment on one of the blog posts and as a result, a very nice lady from Nashville in the USA contacted me showing great enthusiasm for and interest in My Dear Elsie. This has encouraged me even more to get on with the book. She also very kindly provided me with some extremely useful information on the famous Vanderbilt family as in an earlier letter from 1925, Ethel mentions that she and Lady Burghclere are going to stay with the Vanderbilts when they get to New York.

So I promise that by the time I blog again, I will have made progress!

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The front of the postcard that Ethel sent from the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo

 

Tutankhamun On The Telly (2)

Hi everyone.

Here I am again with my second blog post about the recent ITV drama series Tutankhamun. If you’ve not read my first post on the topic, here is the link to it:

https://ladyburghclereandethel.com/2016/11/24/tutankhamun-on-the-telly-1/

As I mentioned in my first post, I found the series to be somewhat careless with the truth or at least the truth as it is presented in the letters that Ethel North (Lord Carnarvon’s elder sister’s maid) wrote to my grandmother. And here is why.

Howard Carter, the famous archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, came over in the series as very serious and “po-faced”. Definitely not the sort of guy you’d choose as an amusing dinner party guest. However, in one of Ethel’s letters, she paints quite a different portrait when she describes to my grandmother a journey that she undertook with her mistress Lady Burghclere (Lord Carnarvon’s sister), Howard Carter and the Crown Prince of Italy during a visit to Egypt in February 1928.

Lady B, Mr Howard Carter and self were in a carriage together and we had to drive through streets lined with troops and have rousing cheers. Mr Carter made lots of jokes and so I was bound to see the funny side but I want no more trips with royalty.

howard_carter

Howard Carter in 1924. Photo credit: Chicago Daily News (CC)

On the other hand, the series seemed to have no problem at all with the idea that Howard Carter was able to find time during his hugely important archaeological work to jump into bed with two women (although not at the same time as even ITV didn’t go that far) one of whom was the daughter of an Earl. I must admit I found the supposed affair between Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn completely unbelievable. Of course, if it had been Lady Burghclere’s youngest daughter, also called Evelyn, as opposed to Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, that might have been a fraction more likely. Evelyn was a “bit of a one” where men were concerned and in one of her letters to my grandmother, Ethel has this to say about Lady B’s youngest daughter.

Wicked Miss E. left her husband a fortnight ago to go off with another young man, worse off than her husband and she has only been married a year. They have got her away from the young man now and she is going with Sir Geoffrey and Lady Fry to Venice for a while…Personally I don’t think it any use. She’ll do the same thing again I’m sure…These girls [Lady Burghclere’s daughters] were never meant for marriage. 

And don’t get me started on Howard Carter’s moustache. It could have had a series all to itself. In the scene in Tutankhamun where Carter (played by the actor Max Irons) is staring into the ante-chamber of the tomb to view all the treasures, his moustache takes up practically the whole TV screen. That amused me almost as much as the rather surprising (and completely unnecessary in my opinion) scene where the famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, whom I vaguely remember learning about at school, comes out of a cave to greet Carter wearing absolutely nothing at all! At least when he was on his deathbed after the fatal mosquito bite, Lord Carnarvon (played by Sam Neill) had the decency to wear a fetching pair of what looked like Marks and Spencer pyjamas.

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Howard Carter’s House, Luxor. Ethel and Lady Burghclere had lunch there and Ethel describes it as “the most delightful of small houses”. Photo credit: Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz (CC)

Other elements of the series that I had problems with included the clunky dialogue such as Evelyn saying to Carter “Some people lose things all the time” in reference to Tutankahmun’s “lost” tomb. I was also amused by the sight of Carter’s bare back in one of the bedroom scenes which looked like it had been smothered in half a ton of baby oil and had never been exposed to the harsh Egyptian sun in its life. And as for the fleeting glimpses we received of Lord Carnarvon’s wife Lady Almina, who in real life was a considerable force to be reckoned with, she looked more like she was on her way to Ascot for the day, rather than going to try and rescue her ailing husband.

However for me, the most disappointing aspect of the whole series was the way in which the fabulous treasures and relics of Tutankhamun were portrayed. After all, those incredible finds were what the whole story was really about. I would have thought that in these days of CGI, the producers could have come up with something a little more spectacular to get across to the viewers what the “wonderful things” were that Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and Evelyn saw when they first entered the young Pharaoh’s tomb after it had remained sealed for such an unprecedented length of time.

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The moment Howard Carter opens the tomb. Photo credit: Harry Burton (CC)

In the fifteen page letter that Ethel North wrote to my grandmother from Egypt in 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere were shown round the Tutankhamun treasures in the museum at Cairo and the excavation site in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter himself, her lengthy and detailed descriptions of what she saw make fascinating reading. Here she describes going into the tomb.

We waited a little whilst the steel gates were taken down and then we were in the Tomb. The outer chamber first, now clear of the objects it once held. About 4 steps down and we were in the Chamber where the sarcophagus with the mummy is. All looked as though it had just been found. The gold was so shining that Mr C said it wanted toning down with a little powder.

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The Mask of Tutankhamun. Photo Credit: Erik Hooymans (CC)

The great outer case is made of a lovely pink stone, quartzite or some name like that. It has a little crystal in it. It is a tremendous coffin. I believe the lid weighed several tons…At each corner of the stone are the four Goddesses, exquisitely graceful with wings outspread. At the north end are the golden oars for the king to row himself across the underworld. The walls of the tomb were painted with vignettes and inscriptions. These are not plain to see as the wonderful gold panels that formed the shrine are at present propped up against them. Such long panels of pure sheet gold and inlaid panels of brilliant blue faience [Egyptian self-glazing ceramic]. The extraordinary thing is, one feels at once that one is in the presence of the dead and yet 3,000 years have passed.

La tombe de TOUTANKHAMON

Wooden bust of Tutankhamun found in the tomb. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera (CC)

Of course, it’s very easy to criticise something and often less easy to find something positive to say about it. There were some parts of the Tutankhamun series that I enjoyed such as the (intentionally) amusing character of Herbert Winlock from the New York Metropolitan Museum and even I felt moved by the moment when Howard Carter shouted  “It’s an entrance” while all the Egyptian workers stood round clapping and cheering. Also, the South African scenery where the series was filmed was a spectacular and quite convincing substitute for the Valley of the Kings.

My overall view of the drama is that it was an enjoyable piece of hokum but it has also done me a favour. Quite a number of people who watched Tutankhamun have been asking me how I’m getting on with My Dear Elsie (the book I’m writing about Ethel’s letters) so that has spurred me on to try and finish it. In fact I’m going to go and work on it right now. So thanks ITV.  I owe you one!

Tutankhamun On The Telly (1)

Hi everyone.

Well, it wasn’t the “kind autumn” I’d been hoping for after the “cruel summer” I referred to in my last post! Just as I was beginning to feel I’d turned a corner, I was ill again (or maybe just totally exhausted after the less than agreeable year I’ve had) and ended up having to go AWOL for a whole month. Now I’m working round the clock in an effort to catch up but also trying hard not to overdo things  so that I don’t become ill again.

While I was out of action, I didn’t do any work at all on My Dear Elsie but I did watch all four episodes of a new ITV drama called Tutankhamun which launched on UK television on 16th October. I was very interested to see this because the premise for the drama was the story of the discovery in 1922 of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun’s tomb by the archaeologist Howard Carter and his famous patron Lord Carnarvon.

carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon at Howard Carter’s home on the Theban West Bank. Photo credit: Harry Burton

In case you are wondering what this has to do with my proposed book and this website/blog, Lord Carnarvon (or the 5th Earl of Carnarvon) was the brother of Lady Winifred Burghclere. As you will know if you have read the static pages on this website, my grandmother’s close friend Ethel North was Lady Burghclere’s lady’s maid and travelling companion for many years, including those covered by the discovery of the tomb. In the letters and postcards that Ethel sent to my grandmother while she was employed by Lady Burghclere (and on which My Dear Elsie is based), there are many references to Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s discovery. In particular, there is a fascinating fifteen page letter that Ethel wrote in 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere visited Egypt and were shown round the Tutankhamun excavations and relics by Howard Carter himself.

As for the drama series, I must admit that I watched most of it either laughing out loud or shouting “That would never have happened!” at the television. It did cheer me up, which was probably what I needed, but not for the right reasons! I’m not a big fan of biopics at the best of times but when you feel you know the characters that are being portrayed and have some insight into the background to the story, it’s difficult to keep a straight face at some of the more preposterous elements.

I suppose I should have been alerted to the fact that the series was going to play somewhat fast and loose with the probable truth by the advert for a well-known supermarket which preceded the opening titles. It described the product it was promoting as a “fantasy drama”. Although I hate to be critical of a fellow scribe’s work, I can’t help feeling that the writer Guy Burt had been given a brief by whoever commissioned the series to “sex it up”. Literally at times! I thought this was unnecessary really, given that it is already a cracking story. But then I suppose he was writing a drama series for ITV and not a documentary for BBC4!

In fact there are so many things from Tutankhamun that I’d like to comment on and link to some quotes from Ethel’s letters that I think I shall have to stop for now and write a second blog post as soon as I can. So watch this space and providing I can stay standing, I’ll be back very shortly.

howard_carter_und_lord_carnarvon_1922

Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in 1922. Photo credit: Howard Carter and Arthur Mace