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Saturday 30 January 2010


All those 62 granchildren of William Gurney conjure some riotous images of Victorian festive family gatherings at his house. Particularly after hs wife died, Brodie gradually took to the role of family patriarch, holding court at his home in Denmark Hill, South London. 

Denmark Hill House (now demolished)
scene of unforgettable Christmas parties

Rather wonderfully, a description by my great grandfather William Henry Gurney Salter (who was one of those grandchilden) survives of Christmasses in the William Gurney household, and of Christmas 1848 in particular:

"No one who was at the Christmas parties can ever forget them. The parents and children of the different families came trooping in about two o'clock, and each was welcomed with a  present, given with a few kindly words by the grandfather in his library. The presents were really well chosen - a toy, or a magic lantern, or an electrical machine, or a book, so well suited to the receiver that he often found it on eof his chief sources of pleasure in the following year. 

"Then there was a great dinner for the seniors, the large community of cousins who were not old enough amusing themselves with games in the hall or the nursery meanwhile. After the young ones had gone home, there was in many years a little family masque, the poetry for which was contributed mostly by my  uncle Jameson and my uncle Henry Gurney. It turned on the events of the year within the family and in the world without.

"The first that I can recall was in 1848. I remember that, no doubt, because I had a part to play [presumably in the masque]. In that year there had been two weddings, - my uncle Henry Gurney's and my aunt Maria Grey's - and the "six babies", as they have ever since been called, had arrived. ... It was therefore an eventful year, and Father Christmas extended a welcome to the new-comers with more ceremony and more fun than usual. Later in the evening there was generally a game of Blind Man's Buff for the boys in the hall, while the girls sat on the stair and gave the applause."

The garden at Denmark Hill House
which is now part of Ruskin Park, Camberwell

William also recalled other occasions:

"In the summer too there was always a cousins' party to celebrate the birthday of two of them. The garden was large and diversified. Immediately under the windows of the house was a long terrace walk from which the lawn sloped gradually downwars for a considerable distance. At the bottom of it were two of the finest cedars I have ever seen, so rich in foliage below as well as above that their lowest branches resting on the ground formed an almost impenetrable hiding place for us boys and also for the bowls when they strayed too far.

"We cousins used to meet in considerable numbers and so frequently that we knew one another almost as well as if we were brothers and sisters. Until there were nearly fifty of us it was the rule that a Christian name given in one family should not be used in another.

"Besides playing bowls and rounders and other ordinary games on the lawn and in the field, we had free range of the garden, though with reasonable restrictions about the fruit. The fields had great attractions. On one side was a long row of tall trees, rich in birds nests, on the other side was a pleasant shady walk fringed with gooseberry bushes,  with which we were allowed to do our worst, and in the fields themselves was a pond.

"Those of my cousins who remember the house, the garden, and the delightful life there, will I sure gladly tell their children more of it than I have been able, even imperfectly, to relate."

The Portico, Ruskin Park, Camberwell -
all that remains of Demark Hill House

William Gurney led a very public life as a staunch Christian and a Baptist campaigner. William Salter's record  some sixty years later of Gurney's private family life is shot through with genuine warmth and affectionate memory, which trigger similar memories of my own grandfather and our high days and holidays in his country home and garden. Let William have one last word:

"Our grandfather's sympathetic nature led him to follow with real interest the incidents of the lives of his friends, and especially of his children and grandchildren. We boys always took leave of him before going back to school, and we found the interview not only comforting to our pockets but in every way pleasant. He could look at things from a boy's point of view to the last and was tolerant of practical jokes, even booby traps, so that we did not shrink from the serious counsel which he never failed to give."

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