Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The writer, the cancer-merchant, his eccentric wife, and the faux castle

Pearl Craigie, frontispiece,
The Life of John Oliver Hobbes
A knight's leap to Steephill, Isle of Wight, via a bishop's move - that is, The Bishop's Move, a forgotten comedy of manners co-written by John Oliver Hobbes and Murray Carson, that I found while Googling for literature-chess connections.

This led me to investigate John Oliver Hobbes - another author whose many works I'm sure I'll never get around to more than skimming - who turns out to be the American-born English author Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie, a successful and highly prolific novelist and playwright who wrote between 1892 and 1906. She might well have become better known if her career hadn't been curtailed by her sudden death from apparently undiagnosed heart disease, at the age of 38, while staying overnight in London en route to a holiday in Scotland. Craigie - born Richards, but married for a short time to Reginald Walpole Craigie - had converted to Catholicism in 1897, to the surprise of her Calvinist family, and a number of her works have a Catholic philosophical slant. The Internet Archive has a large selection of her books (search on creator:"John Oliver Hobbes") as well as The life of John Oliver Hobbes : told in her correspondence with numerous friends (pub. J Murray, New York, 1911), understandably hagiographic given its compilation by her father, the Boston-born merchant John Morgan Richards.

John Morgan Richards, frontispiece,
With John Bull and Jonathan
If Craigie's creativity is admirable, in contrast her father's probably deserves him a private circle in Hell as an advertising pioneer and entrepreneur who directed his talents to marketing quack patent medicines (such as Carter's Little Liver Pills and Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People 1) as well as being the chief commercial populariser of cigarettes in the UK: 2

His best known business achievement was the introduction of the cigarette into popular use in 1877. Except by foreigners and a few travellers who had acquired the habit on the continent, the now universal cigarette was then little used in England, though well known in America. By means of vigorous advertising, and some ingenious and original methods of trade promotion, he obtained for American cigarettes a very large sale, and thus was the pioneer of a doubtful benefit which he lived to see the subject of legislation, forbidding the sale of cigarettes to children.
- John Morgan Richards, Obituary, The Times, Monday, Aug 12, 1918

Steephill Castle, c. 1910 - Wikimedia Commons
The Isle of Wight connection, anyhow, is that Richards' line of business was lucrative enough for him to move to the fashionable St Lawrence Undercliff in the Isle of Wight and in 1903 buy the now-demolished Steephill Castle - a small Regency mansion with castellated architectural conceits - of which he was the last private owner. See The Forgotten Castle (David Paul, originally in Wight Life, August/September 1973) for a history, from its heyday as an exclusive residence that saw royal guests such as the Empress of Austria, via declining years as a hotel run by the Holiday Friendship As­sociation, to eventual demolition in the 60s, when it was discovered that the
staircases, ceiling and wall panelling, all thought to be oak, proved to be a clever imitation in deal wood. Also, the wonderful ornate carvings were found to be plaster mouldings.
It's an ironic coincidence that the mansion of a cigarette tycoon should have been virtually next door to the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, another notable and now-demolished Victorian feature of the Undercliff. Established in 1869 by Sir Arthur Hassall as the National Cottage Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, it took advantage of the same moist, mild microclimate that made the area appealing for rural villas. It closed in 1964, made obsolete by drug treatment of TB, and is now the site of the Ventnor Botanic Garden. There are some nice postcards showing the hospital and Castle in their woodland surroundings at ventnor.shalfleet.net. I particularly like this one: whatever one might think of the aethetics, the location was stunning.  See Ventnor - good for lungs and plants for more about the hospital and garden.

The privately-published Steephill Castle, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, the residence of John Morgan Richards, Esq.; a handbook and a history (John B Marsh, 1907, Internet Archive steephillcastlev00mars) is a guide to Steephill Castle and its environs in the early 1900s, when Richards wrote his rather pontificating memoir, With John Bull and Jonathan. Reminiscences of sixty years of an American's life in England and in the United States (pub. D. Appleton, New York, 1906, Internet Archive withjohnbullandj00richrich). It doesn't mention the eccentricities of his wife Laura, which included being in direct touch with Old Testament prophets, wearing a hat decorated with fresh vegetables, and sending telegrams to world leaders with advice such as "The King of Spain. Stop war. Laura Richards".

Pearl Craigie, meanwhile, spent a deal of time in the area writing at her own Isle of Wight retreat in the adjacent St Lawrence Lodge (later Craigie Lodge). Her father's vanity Handbook's intent was to be
of chief interest to the Friends, and Guests — Past, Present and Future, of the genial Host and Hostess of the Castle, which is "the Gem of the Undercliff".
but her death turned it, in mid-writing by John B Marsh, into an elegy for an era that was ending. Until his death, Richards continued to be feted as a model capitalist. In 1914 he wrote the privately-circulated Almost Fairyland, probably his least objectionable venture, an account of his own association with the Isle of Wight. He's not generally remembered. Craigie is well commemorated and documented in a modern biography, Air-bird in the Water: The Life and Works of Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes) (Mildred Davis Harding, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1996, ISBN 0838636489).

Update, April 2014: Almost Fairyland is now online. See my review, Almost Fairyland.

1. See George Fulford and Victorian Patent Medicine Men: Quack Mercenaries or Smilesian Entrepreneurs? (Lori Loeb, CBMH/BHCM, Volume 16: 1999, pp.125-45). The Liver Pills were a laxative, the Pink Pills a harmless iron preparation, but both were sold with grandiose claims. Pink Pills had an especial line in scammy advertorial in news format, supposedly testimonial material - A Cardiff Miracle and such like - from people who had been at death's door before taking a course of the pills.
2. To a lesser extent they had been around for a couple of decades. As I mentioned last year, there are cigarette smokers in Dickens' 1857 Little Dorrit (Gutenberg EText-No. 963), though it's actually anachronistic for the book's 1820s setting, since they didn't catch on until popularised by soldiers coming back from the Crimea with the habit. Richards' "ingenious and original" method of trade promotion, as described in With John Bull and Jonathan, was to recruit chemists as outlets, paying for a tobacco dealing license for any chemist prepared to place his American cigarettes on their counters.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. I was going to say that I like the eccentric mother, Laura ("you can't build a castle on a pat of butter"; indeed!), but I found, on page 43 of the linked biography that Pearl was:

    "dreadfully pounded and beaten" as a little girl, usually with the heel of Mama's shoe

    ... so I don't think I like her after all.

    For a really good laugh, go to page 45 and read the description of Laura that starts, "Mama lately has taken to Art..."