In order to set the scene for my next move it is necessary to climb
back three, if not four, generations up my family tree.
Joseph and Elizabeth Phelps had a large family of seven daughters and four sons. The eldest of the family, Elizabeth (1820 - 1893) was the originator of the now famous Madeira embroidery. The native workers on the Phelps estates were in a state of dire poverty, and Elizabeth (always known in the family as Bella) started a little school for the women and girls, where they were taught to work the embroideries from original designs, drawn by Bella herself. I have seen a large folio of these original drawings which was in Aunt Janey’s possession, though it unfortunately disappeared when her house and. possessions were dispersed after her death.
In the early days the embroideries were sold privately among personal
friends of the family, and later, on becoming increasingly popular, they
were entrusted to an agent in England; all proceeds going to the benefit
of the native workers. A great quantity of this embroidery was in the
possession of members of the family at the time I was born, and as, by
then, most of the older generation had passed away, all this embroidery
was sent to Mother for my use, I being by a long way the youngest female
descendant. I well remember being told that the trimmings on my childish
frocks and underwear were “real Madeira work”, though at the time it
meant little more to me than the discomfort of starched and scratchy
The Phelpses returned to settle in England towards the end of the last century, and made their home in one of the large houses facing on to Clapham Common, which was at that time one of the smartest and most exclusive residential areas. All the members of the family become very stout with advancing years, and it was a family joke that “a ton of Phelpses” went to Church every Sunday in the family coach.
Bella and the Bath
Elizabeth, the originator of the Madeira embroidery, died unmarried. Apart from her embroidery school the only thing I know about her is a story which has often been told to me with great gusto by Father and Uncle George. The story was always known as “Bella and the Bath”.
After the return of the family to England, Bella, like all the others, became very stout. One evening she retired early to her room, for the purpose of taking a bath. At that time of course, baths were always taken in the bedroom in the small hipbath of the Victorian period. Shortly after Aunt Bella had gone upstairs the family below in the drawing room were alarmed to hear cries for help, accompanied by strange knockings and bumpings. Several of the sisters ran upstairs to see what was the matter, and found Aunt Bella sitting in the bath with her feet on the floor, which was swimming with water. The bath was firmly fixed round her, like the shell of a snail, and she was only liberated by the concerted efforts of the entire family. The standard sentence descriptive of this painful incident was - “When Bella got IN to the bath, the water got OUT”.
This story was very popular round the large circle of cousins, but
when once, with youthful temerity, I ventured to mention it to Aunt
Janey, I was snubbed with the full weight of the old lady’s forceful
The eldest son, Joseph, was the father of Frank Phelps, who became at first Bishop of Grahamstown, and eventually Archbishop of South Africa.
Another brother, Willy, entered the Army. At that time the sight test
consisted merely of describing the view from the window of the
examiner’s room. Willy, like most of the family, was very short sighted,
and he knew that this test would be far beyond his capacity and that he
would certainly be rejected on that score. He therefore arranged with a
friend who entering at the same time, that the friend should go to the
examiner ahead of him, and retail to him the necessary features of the
view. When Willy’s turn came he described the view, which to him was no
more than a blur, with quite remarkable accuracy, passed triumphantly
into the Army and ended his career as a General.
From the beginning Aunt Janey’s staff had always been recruited from gentlewomen with private means, who worked on a voluntary basis, and until the 1914 - 1918 war she had never had the least difficulty in finding plenty of able assistants of this type. Towards the end of the war however, changing conditions made it more and more difficult for her to get helpers, and it was during my third term at the London school that she wrote to my parents asking if I might go and help during a temporary difficulty over Christmas.
My parents had always had the greatest regard and admiration for Aunt Janey and her work, and they agreed at once, even to taking me away from school before the end of term, Miss Phillips was terribly upset, as she was just getting me on really well, and was most anxious for me to sit for the end of term exams. Personally I did not care one way or the other; as I was not to be allowed either to go to the University, or to train as a doctor, this plan did at least postpone the issue of my going to a missionary training college. I had been taken to the Orphanage once or twice in my youth, but hardly knew Aunt Janey, and was utterly ignorant of the conditions, or what work would be required of me. If I had had the slightest inkling of what lay before me, I should have refused point-blank, even though the skies had fallen.
Aunt Janey's Orphanage
It is going to be extremely difficult for me to give a fair picture of Aunt Janey and her Orphanage. For Aunt Janey herself I have nothing but the deepest affection and admiration, but she was even more deeply rooted in the Victorian period than Mother was, though with for more excuse, as she was of my grandmother’s generation. If Mother was anchored in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the Orphanage was anchored in the ‘60’s. Conditions, which had been considered excellent when the Orphanage was founded, were continued absolutely unchanged for nearly sixty years. It is easy enough to read accounts and descriptions of life in the mid-Victorian period, but it falls to few people of the present century actually to have lived under those conditions, as I have done. The Orphanage was a complete anachronism, an oasis left untouched by the passing sands of time, a compact little entity unchanged for sixty years, and carrying on exactly the same living conditions and way of life right to the threshold of the hectic ‘twenties. Stepping into the building one could feel the curtains of the past descend around one, muffling and muting the sounds of the outer world, and shutting one off from any hint of the life and activity without. To me, who had just begun to feel the throb and excitement of life in the world, the atmosphere was stifling and annihilating; it crushed all my newly developing interests, and engulfed me in a grey round of dreary duties, in surroundings which appalled me by their drabness.
The Orphanage was conducted on strict Conventual lines, and was I believe, affiliated in some way to one of the Anglican Sisterhoods, Sundays, Saints' days, Feast Days and Fast Days were scrupulously observed, and all the children were far better versed in these observances than I was. Even the small ones knew all the Red Letter Saints Days and Black Letter Saints Days, chiefly because certain privileges were permitted on the Red Letter Days and smaller privileges on the Black Letter Days. On Sundays they all attended an extremely High Church in the vicinity, which was one their bright moments, being one of the rare occasions when they got outside the Orphanage precincts.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday were real high spots. On Good Friday no one, not even the tinies, was allowed to speak except for absolute necessities, until after the Three Hours Service. They all attended that, and loved it. Little things of five and six, would sit enthralled throughout the whole three hours, with never a whisper or a wriggle. It was a marvel to me to see them.
Talking at meals was never allowed, except at dinner on Sundays, but
on Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, talking was permitted at all meals.
These rules, harsh as they may seem from the present day point of view,
certainly had the effect of impressing the Church doctrines upon their
minds, and made the Festivals and Fasts a very real thing in their
Aunt Janey was nearing eighty when I went to the Orphanage. She was a most impressive figure, stout and heavily built, with the strong handsome features which are unmistakeably recognizable in my father’s family. Strong-minded, original, capable and autocratic, she ruled the Orphanage like a benevolent tyrant. She seldom had to assert her authority, for she was authority personified, and her tremendous personality permeated every thought and action of every person under her roof. At first I was frankly terrified of the stern old lady, and shook in my shoes when she spoke to me, as readily as the children did. But after a time I began to discover the wealth of kindliness and understanding behind the sternness of that handsome old face, and to catch the sparkle of humour in the wise old eyes, Like so many of the family, Aunt Janey had very pale, almost colourless eyes, without the dark band of colour round the iris which was such a striking and beautiful feature in the case of Auntie Dick. The owners of these pale eyes had the power of using them in a stony stare, completely annihilating to the victim on whom it was turned. This stare was known throughout the family as “the cold boiled eye”, and no brown eyed member could achieve it. Aunt Janey was the perfect exponent of the cold boiled eye, and it was a long time before I realised that there was almost invariably a twinkle behind it. As I came to know her better a deep affection developed between us which was quite remarkable in view of the tact that we were separated by two generations and nearly sixty years.
Aunt Janey had a deep feeling for the clan, and blood ties meant a
great deal to her. She seemed to understand that I had inherited the
same thing, and this link drew us very close. She seemed to take a real
delight in discovering which of the family characteristics I had
inherited, and she encouraged me in all that she found, I was given
special time off my duties for practising on the magnificent concert
grand which had come from the Carmo, and she delighted in the drawings
and watercolour sketches I did of the children in their quaint,
old-fashioned uniforms. She taught me to climb up and. down all the
intricacies of the family tree with the unhesitating agility of a
monkey, and would suddenly fire at me some searching question as to how
so and so was related to somebody else, and expect the correct answer on
the spot. But she never spared me, and any momentary stupidity on ray
part, either over genealogies or anything else, would draw the sharp
adjuration of “Think, child,” or “God has given you very good
brains - use them.”
“I knew all about that before you were born or thought of, child,” was the tart reply, “but his name was not Don Quixote,” still with the English pronunciation. As I stood speechless with confusion, she suddenly shouted, “Don Quixote, child, Don Quixote,” giving it the beautiful Spanish pronunciation, “Never let me hear you speak of Don Quixote again.”
Aunt Janey did not often raise her voice, but when she did, the effect was most alarming. If ever she needed an assistant or a messenger she would shout the one word “Child” into the void, and immediately orphans of all ages would materialize and converge upon her at the run. Similarly if from her window or other unseen vantage point, she spied anyone, child or staff alike, doing any action of which she did not approve, she would bellow “NO”, whereupon everyone within earshot, and that covered a wide area, for Aunt Janey had a voice like a bull of Bashan when she cared to use it, would freeze in their tracks, and remain immobile until the delinquent was identified.
Aunt Janey went in for a very original style of dress. She wore a coat and waistcoat of masculine cut, with a stiff collar, and a very long and voluminous skirt, all of which garments were an absolute rabbit warren of pockets. She could produce anything out of her pockets at a moment’s notice. They bulged with letters, hammers, screwdrivers, secateurs, pocket-knives, string, seed packets, garden pegs, nails and screws, and almost invariably a few squashed medlars. She had a great love of medlars and was most particular that they should not be eaten until fully “bletted”, which to the rest of the world meant rotten. The shelves in her bedroom usually held an array of shrivelled objects, which the children called, with great reason, “Miss Phelps’ rotten apples”, and these she would nibble at all odd moments. As well as the over-stuffed pockets, Aunt Janey had a number of canvas bags, which she wore tied round her waist, and which went everywhere with her. These contained a mass of papers, magazines, ancient account books, seed catalogues, skeins of bast, and all the medley of treasures that refused to go into her pockets. She had been slightly lame all her life, and therefore did not gup and down stairs more than was absolutely necessary, and despite having a houseful of orphans to run her errands, she preferred to carry all her possessions about with her as far as was possible. In order to assist her in climbing the stairs she had had a hand rail fixed on the wall and this was a contributing factor in one of the major sins which could be committed by the children. They loved to take one corner of their pinafores in each hand, and slide down the stairs with one hand on the banisters, and the other on the handrail. It was a delightful performance, but was, for some reason or other, severely frowned upon if seen.
Apart from the obvious use of the pinafores in keeping their frocks clean, and the illicit use in sliding down the stairs, these pinafores were utilised by Aunt Janey as a very original form of punishment for minor crimes. The delinquent would be made to sit cross—legged on the floor, in any convenient place, sometimes the corner of the dining room, sometimes on the bend of the staircase with her pinafore turned up These odd little figures would be found in all sorts of unexpected places, and there they had to sit until such time as Aunt Janey considered the crime to be sufficiently expiated. 0n one occasion about half a dozen of the tinies were missing at midday dinner. I had missed them from school in the morning, but had received the information that they had been sent to Miss Phelps. Dinner time arrived and still the tinies were missing. Inquiries elicited the Information that they had been sent to Miss Phelps directly after breakfast for some mass crime, and from that time onwards had never been seen again.
Aunt Janey came down to breakfast, and the small sinners had been sent up to her bedroom, After a lot of anxious discussion, one bold member of the staff ventured to knock on Aunt Janey’s door, for as she had not appeared in the middle of the morning. In accordance with her usual custom, everyone thought that some very terrible session was taking place. However on entering room, Aunt Janey was found in bed, cosily asleep, while in a dark corner sat a row of Immobile little Images, all with their pinafores over their faces, having sat there motionless since breakfast time. She had dropped off to sleep again after sitting them down, and there they had stayed, not daring to move till given permission, was very sorry for the unfortunate little scraps, and we had to pick them up and carry them downstairs, as they were so cramped that they could not stand, but the vision of the old lady happily asleep and supremely unconscious of the plight of the row of hooded midgets, was really extremely funny. As a general rule the pinafore punishment did not last more than ten of fifteen minutes, and this contretemps made history in the annals of the Orphanage.