Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Ferny Bank House of Rest for Women in Business

Back in 2010 I picked up and ran with the topic of a short piece in the Western Morning News - Holiday retreat offered women a break from urban life – and men (Peter Carroll, WMN, Nov 13th 2010) - where there seemed to be a great deal more to tell. This is the story of the Ferny Bank House of Rest for Women in Business, a holiday home for working women, founded in 1878, that operated on Babbacombe Downs in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Reviewing this now, five years later, I decided to bump the article to the present, as there's even more still to say, as well as there being a lot more sources (either that, or I've got better at finding them).

I originally focused on probably the most detailed account -  A House of Rest - in novelist Dinah Craik's 1888 essay collection Concerning Men and Other Papers, which reprints her Murray's Magazine piece about her visit to the house. However, I've since found a number of other accounts in contemporary publications, both advertorial and reviews, as well as a good deal more about some of the people involved - including a connection, one I didn't spot first time round, to an amazingly prolific writer.

Ferny Bank offered inexpensive holiday accommodation for "working women of the better class". This isn't a euphemism, but referred to what would now be called blue-collar, white-collar and service industry workers - for instance, shop assistants, millinery workers, and post office clerks. To avoid social friction, its intake had a tight class bracket - no governesses (too genteel) nor domestic servants (too low-grade) - and the Miss Skinners ran a tight ship: no alcohol, plain food, and a rule of politeness. There were simple communal bedrooms divided by curtains. It was far from austere, however; dancing, singing and charades were encouraged, as well as beach picnics, outings and boat trips ("with a boatman we can trust"). And although Christian, the Skinners made no requirement of religious observance, and banned proselytizing of any kind.

A summary in Social Notes Concerning Social Reforms, Social Requirements, Social Progress, vol. 1, 1878, page 341, describes the management lineup as:
consisting of the Rev. John Hewett, Vicar of All Saints, Babbacombe and Rural Dean; the Duchess of Sutherland, Stafford House; Miss Roberts, Florence Villa, Torquay; the Misses Skinner, Bayfield, Babbacombe.
A report in a Channel Islands newspaper expands on the list of patrons:
Among its supporters are the Duchess of Sutherland, the Countess Spencer, the Countess of Glasgow, the Countess of Sandwich, and others, and by them appear the names of some of the principal London shopkeepers.
- The Star (Saint Peter Port, England), Thursday, September 08, 1881
But the actual practical management came down to the Misses Caroline and Emily Skinner. Dinah Craik describes them as "sisters, of moderate independent fortune", and tells us that the demarcation was that
the younger Miss Skinner ... chiefly does the talking and writing and bookkeeping ; while her sister, aided by a matron and two servants, attends to all the domestic affairs.
The 1871 census shows, by the way, that their ages only differed by two years: Emily, the book-keeper, was born c.1836, and Caroline c.1834, putting them in their mid-40s when they started the House of Rest as a venture.

Ferny Bank and Wing
out-of-copyright postcard c.1911
found image from closed eBay listing
Contemporary pictures of the main house are "Ferny Bank", but there are a couple of other names associated, Ferny Hollow and Ferny Combe, whose relationship to the original isn't entirely clear. An 1887 document in the Manchester Archives, for instance, refers to "Ferny Hollow A Holiday House and House of Rest for Women in Business, by Miss C.E. Skinner, (June 1887)" (ref: M50/5/27/1) and some other accounts use the same name, suggesting "Ferry Hollow" was just an alternative name. "Ferny Combe", however, seems to have been a separate wing or building, as an undated 16-page promotional booklet refers to it separately ...

low-res found image
eBay - no reliable metadata
The House of Rest for Business Women
Ferny Bank & Ferny Combe
on Babbacombe Downs
... and the Charities Digest breakdown of expenses for 1897 refers to "donations for freehold of second house, Ferny Combe".

There are several detailed contemporary accounts in publications of the early 1880s, such as The Quiver, The Sunday Magazine, The Argosy, and Chambers's Journal:
Miss Skinner, "Bayfield," Babbacombe, as a member of the committee of Ferny Hollow House of Rest, informs us that a large and beautiful house has now been purchased, giving largely increased accommodation for visitors. This home is distinctly for business women from all parts of England, and is managed on the principle of visits to a country house rather than as an institution; its object is also to prevent illness by timely rest and change to a milder climate. Miss Skinner is able to arrange as to moderate railway fares, and in one year 570 women availed themselves of such facilities, and of the opportunity for rest amid the beauties of Devonshire. Many ladies at Torquay give garden-parties and "at-homes" to the Ferny Hollow visitors, to their great enjoyment and delight; some who are sent down for rest and change by the benevolent have not a spare shilling of their own—some are working long and hard, some are out of work from ill-health. What a blessed, peaceful, invigorating change to such it must be to leave behind crowded street and workroom and shop, to look out upon the flowers and sea and sands, and, for once, to take in their fill of nature's calm, restful loveliness amid the Devon lanes!
- page 639, The Quiver, Cassell Limited., 1888.
There is an Institution in the south of England about which we believe many of our readers may have never heard, and about which not a few of them may be the better for knowing something. We refer to what is called the House of Rest for Women in Business, at Babbacombe, in Devonshire. Pleasantly situated close to Babbacombe Downs, and surrounded by beautiful scenery, this unique establishment is under a Committee of management, consisting of the Duchess of Sutherland and other ladies, along with the Rev. John Hewett, Vicar of Babbacombe. The distinctive object of the Institution is to afford temporary rest and change of air to women engaged in business; and it is further intended rather for the prevention than the cure of sickness. It is well known that a short cessation from the cares and worries of business will often prevent a long illness; but the difficulty with many is not only to obtain the requisite opportunity for rest, but to know where to spend their short holiday. It is to meet this want that the Babbacombe Institution was organised; and it is especially intended for milliners, dressmakers, shopwomen, post-office clerks, and the like, many of whom in London and elsewhere break down for want of a rest in time. It is also available for such as desire to spend their annual holiday at the seaside, but are deterred from doing so by the discomfort of solitary and expensive lodgings. Domestic servants, however, are not included in the list of those eligible for admission to the Institution, which is thus strictly reserved for 'women in business.'
    The place is managed more on the principle of a large country house, than as an Institution, and those residing in it are treated rather as visitors than as lodgers. Pleasant intercourse and music indoors, and outdoor rambles, constitute some of the attractions. As such an Institution might be found useful elsewhere throughout the country, we may state that it is upheld partly by subscriptions, and partly by the revenue from visitors. The sum charged to visitors is twelve shillings per week. Donors, however, for each guinea which they give as a yearly subscription, are entitled to a ticket of admission for a period of three weeks. This ticket may be presented to any 'woman in business' whom the donor chooses in this way to assist, and the holder of the ticket is thereby entitled to reside in the Institution for three weeks, at the reduced rate of five shillings a week. The intending visitor, moreover, by sending a post-office order to the Rev. John Hewett, for the amount of a single railway fare to Babbacombe from the place where she resides, and a stamped and directed envelope, will receive from him a voucher for a return railway ticket; thus halving the expense of the journey. The Rules of the Institution, which may be obtained from the lady superintendent, Miss Skinner, Bayfield, Babbacombe, provide tat each visitor must bring a reference either from her employer or from her clergyman; and that no one can be admitted as a visitor who is suffering from serious illness, or who is recovering from any infectious complaint.
        Both the above Institution in particular, and the principle of its organisation in general, are, we flunk, worthy of the attention of those who have at heart the health and welfare of our 'women in business.'
- pages 211-212, Chambers's Journal, vol. 59, March 23, 1882.
The Argosy went further with a personal review by a correspondent:


THE above question is most important to any woman who has to maintain herself by her own exertions ; so many things must be considered. Expense is a great object to a working woman, and as a holiday is necessary to health, it is needful to be careful in selecting a health-giving air; and as solitude is not good for either health or spirits, she has also to look for congenial companionship.

Now let me tell you of a sea-side home which combines all these necessaries: where I spent a most delightful holiday last year, and where I am enjoying myself equally this year.

A friend who had passed a fortnight there told me of " The House of Rest for Women in Business," at Babbicombe, South Devon. She gave so glowing an account of it, and I had longed, so vainly, all my life to see Devonshire, that I wrote, as directed, to Miss Skinner. I received a most kind reply promising me a welcome; and early one morning started from a dull Northern town upon my long journey to the sunny South.

According to instructions I alighted at Torre Station. There I found some small omnibuses, and one of them conveyed me and my luggage to Babbicombe An up-hill ride of half-an-hour brought me to my destination. The omnibus stopped at a pretty, semi-detached villa of moderate size, standing back from the road, a short carriage drive leading to the entrance With rather a quaking heart I approached the door, wondering whom or what I should meet first. In the vestibule a lady, who was, I found, the matron, greeted me very cordially —a great relief to a tired traveller—and by her I was taken upstairs to a room, in which were two beds, white dimity curtains dividing the chamber in half, so that each occupant was quite in private . Each part was provided with an ottoman, one chair, a wash-hand-stand, with a looking-glass and towel rail above and a cupboard beneath.

Here I left my belongings, and went down the broad staircase to the dining-room, where I had some supper and chatted for a few minutes with the matron. Ever since I came into the house I had heard merry voices and laughter proceeding from the room opposite the dining room : the occupants were evidently enjoying some good game . The dining-room was long and large, furnished with a couch, two long tables placed T fashion, and comfortable chairs; the walls were delicately coloured in shades of green. From the two windows I often afterwards caught delightful glimpses of the sea. As I was fatigued, the matron excused me from joining the household that night; and so I took my lamp and was very glad to go to rest .

The next morning at 7.30 a bell rang for dressing, and at 7.55 a second summons brought the " visitors " (as the inmates are called) from every room. I followed the stream into the drawing-room, where prayers were read by the matron. These were very appropriate, some being specially composed for the house. A little book containing the short service was handed to each person present . After prayers I had leisure to examine the room, and was charmed with its home-like comfort and graceful elegance. The ladies who founded and furnished this delightful home did not stop at comfort and necessaries. The eye rests with pleasure upon the delicately tinted ceiling and walls, the latter hung with choice pictures, a gift from Bishop Fraser, of Manchester; the floor was carpeted with warm crimson floor cloth, easy-chairs were scattered about, and three inviting couches. The two long windows, which open upon a terrace, and overlook a pretty garden and lawn, held a stand of ferns in one, a low seat in the other. Flowers in pretty vases stood about on the large writing-table and upon the mantelpieces at either end of the long double room ; a large book-case, well stocked with interesting books, filled a recess, and was free to all. This completes, imperfectly, my first impression, and a closer acquaintance with its numerous comforts only increased my admiration. A piano has now been added, which is a great acquisition.

So much for the room; now for the occupants. These were women, twenty perhaps, varying in age from seventeen to sixty, as far as I could judge. Some looked ill, and had evidently availed themselves of a pleasant home and beautiful air to recruit exhausted energies. Most of these, I am glad to say, seemed quite restored before they said "good-bye." The rest all appeared very happy and full of enjoyment; they greeted me kindly, and assured me I should soon feel at home, as in truth I did. At breakfast, merry talk abounded, and as I was a stranger I had time to survey my neighbours. The breakfast-service was very pretty, of delicate blue and white; I afterwards heard it was a present to the house. After a substantial meal, the rest adjourned, whilst I remained with the matron, who entered my name and address, occupation,, and religion, and I then made my first week's payment. When this was done, as I found the others engaged in making their beds, I followed their example, and also arranged my things in the spaces allotted to them. It was a wet morning, and as out-door exercise was impossible, I started on a tour of inspection, and found that, on the same floor with my own bed-room, were four others, named respectively, from the colours of the walls, the Pink, Blue, Green, and Peacock rooms, and a tiny one over the entrance called the Nest. With the exception of this last and my own (the Peacock), they were all very large, each being divided by white curtains into three or four separate compartments, furnished like my own.

After dinner the rain ceased, and I accompanied four of the other visitors in a walk, and saw a little of the beauty of Devonshire. I feel that I am not capable of describing its wonderful scenery: but the remembrance of it is a perpetual delight, and I often pass a pleasant hour in looking over the photographic views I brought home, and in recalling my visits to each lovely spot .

The House of Rest stands at the end of Babbicombe Downs. A long zigzag path, which takes quite a quarter of an hour to descend, leads to Oddicombe Beach, from which, and also from Babbicombe Beach, parties of "visitors" embark for rowing. Here also are bathing machines, which, on fine days, are in great request. Another recreation is found in driving to the neighbouring places of interest, which seem endless.

Amongst so many fellow-visitors it could hardly be expected that all would be companionable, but I was agreeably surprised to find that all were friendly : everyone seemed eager to make new-comers happy and at home.

The ladies who originated the idea of establishing this home (the Misses Skinner) reside quite near, take great interest in the welfare of each inmate, and visit the house daily. Miss Skinner has written a little pamphlet, which gives a far better description than I can attempt, and can be obtained on application to the matron.

The House has been open for four or five years only, and twice during that time larger premises have been needed and taken. Even now bed-rooms have to be hired in the village. Twenty-eight inmates can be accommodated in the House. The work and trouble to these ladies is very great; answering the letters alone must be irksome. They conduct all the correspondence themselves, which not only saves the expense of a secretary, but also makes them feel better acquainted with each visitor by personal correspondence.

Visitors are received at 1s. a-week without, or 5s. a-week with, a subscriber's ticket. Subscribers of £1 yearly are entitled to one ticket to give to any woman who cannot afford to pay the 1s. Any person wishing to subscribe to this excellent work can do so, or can send donations of money, books, furniture, or indeed anything likely to be useful where so much is needed.

Every communication should be sent to Miss Skinner, at her private address, Bayfield, Babbicombe, South Devon.

The food supplied to visitors is plain, but good in quality and unlimited in quantity; milk is given with supper, no ale or other alcoholic drinks being permitted. In the evening games of various kinds are in vogue ; charades, draughts, proverbs, &c, &c.; thus not one minute in the day is dull; my only complaint was that the days were too short and too few.

If only this rambling attempt at description makes known to some of my fellow-women—especially those from the north, where it is not so well-known as in London—this well-named " House of Rest," I shall feel that I have done something to show my appreciation of the pleasure and benefit I derived from my visits, and of the kindness of the ladies who labour so devotedly for their poorer sisters.

One great advantage is that this is equally suitable as a winter and summer resort .

I have omitted to say that the visitors are composed chiefly of teachers of elementary schools, post-office clerks, and girls employed in shops, warehouses, &c. The visit is not limited to a special period; but, upon application for admission, intending visitors are requested to state, if possible, the length of time they wish to remain, in order to prevent disappointment. The beds are often bespoken weeks in advance, and as one visitor leaves in the morning, another fills her place at night. Some visitors remain only a week, others a fortnight, many a month; and some have stayed the entire winter, and then left reluctantly.

The railway fare from London or Bristol to Torre is reduced to one half by application to the Rev. John Hewett, vicar of Babbicombe ; and the return ticket is available for one month : this considerably lessens the expenses of the journey. - From The Argosy, Vol 36, 1883
All in all, I don't think the Misses Skinner would have been displeased to see that on TripAdvisor.

There's another review in T.P.'s Weekly. I won't quote it - it's largely more of the same, except for a bit of purple prose about the flowers on Babbacombe Downs - but the citation may be of interest: T.P.'s Weekly for September 21, 1906, vol. 8, page 878 (T.P.'s Travel Talk - A House of Rest for Business Woman, by One of the Visitors), showing it was still in action into the 20th century.

All of the general accounts are somewhat anodyne in not describing the usually difficult personal and health situations of the women who stayed at Ferny Bank. The author of A House of Rest, the novelist and poet Dinah Craik, is far more outspoken on this angle.

She was what might be called a conservative radical. Although largely traditionalist in her views on morality and the place of women, she strongly argued for women's rights to careers and financial independence (see Dinah Craik and the Feminine Tradition, Victorian Web) and her account is tinged with outrage at the situations of the woman visiting the House of Rest. Case studies show them to be low-paid, and often ill from occupational diseases and accidents. "D—" has neuralgia of the spine from lifting heavy cloth. "C—" is long out of work with pleurisy and an injured limb. Another tells Craik, "We all of us have something more or less wrong with our lungs." She also doesn't gloss over the temptation of such women to turn to prostitution, and the role of the House of Rest in stopping that at the vulnerable time of a rare holiday and money to spend in it:
"... this yearly holiday is to many girls their most dangerous time. Having saved up for it throughout the year, they are bent on enjoying it to the full while it lasts. They spend their money, often very recklessly; make acquaintances not always creditable; and this brief taste of the life of enjoyment makes more intolerable than ever the life of work. They loathe it, and see ever before them the one ghastly means of escaping from it which the world offers to its starving surplus women."
Anyhow, the essay is here: Concerning Men and Other Papers (London: Macmillian, 1888, Internet Archive concerningmenand00craiuoft - the essay A House of Rest is on pages 51-84).

I admit to never having heard of Dinah Maria Mulock Craik before seeing this account. She was highly prolific, and wrote about 40 novels for the popular market, most of which are on the Internet Archive. In her lifetime, however, she wasn't considered a very significant novelist; when a French reviewer compared her to George Eliot, the latter said rather nastily:
"the most ignorant journalist in England would hardly think of calling me a rival of Miss Mulock — a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture. A very excellent woman she is, I believe — but we belong to an entirely different order of writers."
Even now she's overshadowed by Eliot, who often gets the credit for one of her poems: see Did George Eliot Write This?. The snotty Eliot comment rather reflects the divide between 'literary' authors and the many popular provincial jobbing female writers; the Athenaeum reporter Miss GB Stuart mentioned a Miss Dinah Muloch [sic] possibly being at an Isle of Wight get-together that included the poet Jean Ingelow, Harriet Parr, Charlotte Mary Yonge, and Elizabeth Missing Sewell (see Harriet Parr in Shanklin).

There's another writer connected with the story: the "Miss Roberts" who was the third member of the triumvirate Committee that ran the House of Rest. The full details in the Craik article ...
the third volunteer Miss Roberts, of Torquay, well known as the author of Mademoiselle Mori
... identify her as the Welsh-born novelist and general writer Margaret Eliza Roberts (1833-1919).

Her best-known work seems indeed to be the 1860 Mademoiselle Mori ("A Tale of Modern Rome") but she was highly prolific; the extent of her authorship was largely obscured in her lifetime by pseudonymous publication, or else credits at the level of "by the author of Mademoiselle Mori". She lived variously in Italy, France and Germany (ref: Charles Dudley Warner, A Library of the World's Best Literature - Ancient and Modern - Vol.XLIII, 1902) and wrote a deal on European historical themes. Her credits - I got to nearly 40 by collating titles from various pseudonymous author directories, and correlating "by the author of" links - include:
  • Summerleigh manor; or, Brothers and sisters (1857, Google Books BK4BAAAAQAAJ)
  • The Two Mottoes (1858)
  • Mademoiselle Mori: a tale of modern Rome (1860, Internet Archive - vol 1. mademoisellemori01robe / vol 2. mademoisellemori02robe).
  • Denise (1861-3, Internet Archive - vol 1. denise01robe / vol 2 denise02robe).
  • Little People (1863, Google Books 8JUNAAAAQAAJ).
  • Sydonie's Dowry (1865 - see Europeana 014697036)
  • On the edge of the storm (1869, Google Books UI1UAAAAYAAJ).
  • Women of the Last Days of Old France (1872)
  • Madame Fontenoy (1872).
  • Tales Old and New (1872).
  • Noblesse Oblige (1876).
  • Margaret Woodward (1877).
  • Fair Else, Duke Ulrich and other Tales (1877).
  • The atelier du Lys, or, An art student in the Reign of Terror (1879, Internet Archive
  • France (1881).
  • Grammar of the French Language (1882). 
  • Blind Thyrza: Zabdiel the Gipsy and Other Tales (1882).
  • Bride Picotée (1883).
  • In the Olden Time: A Tale of the Peasant War in Germany (1883). 
  • Tempest tossed : the story of Seejungfer (1884, Internet Archive tempesttossedst00robegoog).
  • Miss Jean's niece (1884).
  • That Child (1885).
  • Hester's Venture (1886).
  • A little step-daughter (1887).
  • A child of the revolution; a novel (1887, Internet Archive achildrevolutio00robegoog).
  • The Fiddler of Lugau (1887).
  • Under a Cloud (1888).
  • Banning and blessing (1889).
  • Stephanie's Children (1890).
  • Jem Lee's waiting game (1891).
  • Lilian and Lili (1891).
  • Kinsfolk and Others (1891).
  • The secret of Madame de Monluc (1894, Internet Archive  secretofmadamede00roberich).
  • A Younger Sister (1894).
  • Niccolina Niccolini (1897).
  • Saint Catherine of Siena and her times (1906, Internet Archive saintcatherines00robegoog).
As she was such a busy writer, it's hard to see how she found time to do anything much relating to the House of Rest; perhaps her contribution was financial? She evidently had money, and wasn't bothered about advertising the fact; she appears in the 1896 The Charitable Ten Thousand - a peculiar (by modern standards) openly published directory that collectors could use to to locate potential subscribers. According to "Literary" Torquay, a piece in Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol. 50, 1918, page 306, she came to Torquay in 1866, and lived at Florence Villa, "now Claythorpe", in the Warren Road, until 1892, when she left Torquay to live in Italy.

I don't have a closure date for the House of Rest, but it's still being advertised in The Englishwoman's Year Book and Directory for 1914:
Babbacombe, TorquayHouse of Rest for Women in Business. The Misses Skinner. 5s. a week with letter; 12s. without.
According to Todd Gray's Remarkable Women of Devon,(which includes the Skinner sisters, though I haven't read beyond this snippet) Caroline died in 1918 and Emily in 1922. A portrait of them may be extant somewhere; a number of auction records a while back refer to an 1895 painting, "Caroline and Emily Skinner founders of the house of rest for business women" by the artist Ida Verner.

from The World of Women, Marguerite.
The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times
(London, England), Saturday, July 13, 1889; pg. 110
low-res image reproduced as fair use.
The house still exists. Although converted to holiday flats - Sunningdale Apartments - it's little altered externally, and the charm of the location, overlooking Oddicombe Bay opposite the present-day location of the cliff railway, is still evident.

- Ray

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