All writing © 2009-2015 by Colin Salter unless indicated otherwise. All rights reserved.
More information at

Saturday 30 May 2015


As I write, the new British government has just appointed a homophobic, karaoke-loving Conservative who voted against equal pay for women as the new Arts and Culture Secretary. I fear for the future of the arts in Britain. I’ve worked in theatre, applied arts and publishing my whole life and never earned anything approaching the national average wage. If you want to live in anything other than a cultural desert, the state MUST support the arts. Arts workers cannot otherwise afford to support the culturally enriching creative industries which bolster the nation’s mental and physical health.

I’m proud to have many artists in my family tree, past and present. I’ve celebrated the work of Austin Cooper here on many occasions, and also that of Thomas Cooper Gotch. Gotch was a cousin of my 2x great grandfather, and his daughter Phyllis followed her father into the profession.

“The Child Enthroned”: Phyllis Maureen Gotch (1882-1963) painted by her father Thomas Cooper Gotch in 1894

She had little choice. She was raised by her parents and their circle of friends in the very Bohemian atmosphere of the Newlyn group of artists in Cornwall. They were painting most of the time, and very often they were painting her. When they weren’t painting, they were putting on entertainments; and Phyllis loved to dress up, to sing and to stage colourful parties and pageants.

It’s all reminiscent of the circle surrounding George Macdonald, to whom I’m also related by marriage, about which I wrote here earlier. It must have instilled a love of imaginative story-telling in Phyllis. At the age of twenty-one she published her first book: The Romance of a Boo-Bird Chick, a morality tale in verse about the evils of gossip, which she both wrote and illustrated. A sequel followed in 1904, Tuffy and the Merboo – More Boo-Birds, in which Tuffy, a chicken, goes in search of a mate and finds love with a mer-boo, half fish and half bird.

Tuffy and the Merboo (R Brimley Johnson, London,1904), the cover and an inside page, written and illustrated by Phyllis Gotch

Phyllis too found love, three times. Her first husband was Ernest Doherty, with whom she had a daughter and lived in South Africa until his death in 1918; her second was a Frenchman, Andre, Marquis de Verdières, with whom she lived in France until their divorce; and her third, from 1936, was Jocelyn Bodilly, with whom she finally settled down back in Newlyn. (Jocelyn, a grandson of the artist Francis Bodilly, was himself descended from Gotch stock. After Phyllis’s death he served as Chief Justice of the High Court of the Western Pacific for four years, based in the Solomon Islands.)

Despite her divorce, Phyllis decided to keep the title Marquise, by which she was affectionately known for the rest of her life. In 1938, as Félise, Marquise de Verdières, she wrote a novel, Golden Hair, set in South Africa (and, one imagines from its title and setting, semi-autobiographical).

Golden Hair (John Long, London, 1938) by Phyllis Gotch writing as Félise, Marquise de Verdières

Phyllis Gotch was described by her contemporary, the artist Laura Knight, as impossible to resist. “Had she been a General,” wrote Knight in her memoir, “she could have led millions to death and glory for a hopeless cause.” In later life she used that charisma to campaign for the preservation of historic Newlyn after the Second World War.

Her political passions had earlier been aroused by the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and in 1926 she published Once I Had A Home, the extraordinary fictional autobiography of Nadejda, Lady of Honour to Their Imperial Majesties the late Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia! Nothing about the book reveals that it is a fiction; it purports to be a warning to the British people about the dangers of socialism, written by someone who has suffered under it. There is a terrific article about the book and the author in a British Library European Studies blog.

Although I don’t agree with all her politics, I am fascinated by the variety of Phyllis’s life – her lovers, her locations, her writings, her very pen-names. I too find her impossible to resist.

“My Crown and Sceptre”: Phyllis Maureen Gotch (1882-1963) painted by her father Thomas Cooper Gotch in 1891

Saturday 23 May 2015


Richard Henry Fitzherbert is an ancestor-by-marriage if there is such a thing. His second wife was Susan Castle (1824-1894), a daughter of Michael Hinton Castle (c1785-1845) of whom I have written here before, and a cousin of my great grandfather William Henry Castle (1851-1929). Like many men of his generation and social standing, Richard Fitzherbert felt it his duty to serve his nation in both a civilian and a military capacity. The latter includes a curious footnote to Britain’s military history.

Richard Henry Fitzherbert (1809-1855)

He was of an ancient Derbyshire family with seats at Somersal Herbert and Tissington in the county. Somersal Herbert Hall is a perfect timber-framed Tudor mansion, built by the Fitzherberts in 1564. But there had been Fitzherberts in Somersal for three hundred and fifty years by then.

The Somersal Fitzherberts died out at the start of the nineteenth century. The house was sold in 1806, but quickly bought back by one of the Tissington Fitzherberts. It had been enlarged in the early eighteenth century, and it was further expanded – by Richard’s father Sir Henry Fitzherbert – following Richard’s marriage to Susan in 1848. 

Somersal Herbert Hall, Derbyshire

Richard and Susan set diligently about the task of filling the extended Hall. Richard already had three young children (aged between three and six) when he took his second wife. He and Susan produced another ten over the next nineteen years. After their youngest son Anthony emigrated to New Zealand as a young man, the house passed out of Fitzherbert ownership for the last time. Today it is a private house, not open to the public.

Like all men of his status, Richard maintained a military career of sorts. He was a major in the Rifle Brigade, which sent two battalions overseas when the Crimean War broke out in 1853. I don’t know if he went with them; in 1855 he took on domestic duties when he was commissioned Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Derbyshire. But the same year he took up another Crimean appointment, as Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed British Italian Legion.

Reviewing the Italian Legion after training at Aldershot, 1856 (from the Illustrated London News)

At the start of the Crimean War, Britain feared that it might not have the military strength to fight a new campaign. The human cost was bound to be high, and so it set about enlisting foreign troops who were prepared to fight for the British cause. The Enlistment of Foreigners Act was passed in 1854, and the British German Legion, the British Italian Legion and the British Swiss Legion were formed the following year.

Collectively they were known as the British Foreign Legion, and over 14,000 international soldiers were recruited to it. It must have sent a potent symbol to Russia that Britain had such international support in addition to its formal military allies France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire. It may also have reassured the British public that not all the losses to the British side would be British.

The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854 (painted by Richard Caton Woodbridge Jr), one of many disastrous actions which made the Crimean war unpopular back home in Britain

Between January and April 1856 three battalions of the Italian Legion were shipped to a holding base on Malta, where they were to prepare for action. No doubt Richard Fitzherbert left Susan at Somersal Herbert to join his men there. But France had committed far more men than Britain to the conflict, and suffered far greater casualties, and sought a peace with Russia which was agreed by the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. None of the British Foreign Legions saw action, and no sooner had the last Italian battalion arrived in Malta than they were all disbanded. 

Richard returned to civilian life where one of his later public roles was as a magistrate in the neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire. He died in Somersal Herbert Hall in 1885; and both he and Susan, who followed him in 1894, are buried at St Peter’s Church in Somersal. With so many children, their descendants are, if you’ll pardon the expression, legion.

St Peter and St Blaise, Somersal Herbert

Saturday 16 May 2015


Read Part 1 here! Two of the earliest letters which I found in my father’s desk after his death are from a French woman who signs herself only by her initial, G. She played host to my father and a party of his fellow students during a holiday in Brittany in the summer of 1939. G.’s two letters frame the Second World War. They illustrate perfectly and harrowingly what happened between the writing of them. Here’s the first, dated 26th July 1939:

My dear friend Charles,
I was very touched by your lovely letter – and so happy to know that even in such bad times [with war imminent] you enjoyed your too short stay here. It seemed to me, nevertheless, that the pleasure was all mine, I was so pleased to be surrounded by the ardent, joyful youth of you all, and to share your faith in the things of the spirit which the severity of the times seemed to want to stifle forever.
What you told me about the patrons of the abbey didn’t surprise me – I think it’s the same thing at Pontigny. I imagine it’s because these places are frequented solely (given the price of entry) by a bourgeois and very often idle clientele. These are people from whom money conceals the great fundamental truths of life. Consequently their poems and their paintings lack vitality and finally lapse into futile touching up like les Précieuses [a 17th French style of light, conversational, romantic story-telling]. I hope you had a good and useful visit all the same.
All the household sends you best wishes. To you with all my heart, G.

My father, aged 21 and about to embark for war service in India, less than a year after his summer in Brittany 

The original letters are in French, so forgive me for any stilted translations. The second letter from G. is dated 19th June 1946. Much has happened since the first.

My dear Charles, -
Thank you very much for your letter, which touched me greatly. Not only do I remember you perfectly, and your arrival one evening with the two girls (one of whom vanished during dinner); but also, these days, I thought of you. I wondered if you had escaped unharmed from the storm, as I have often wondered, when thinking of all the beautiful young people who visited me before the war. I am happy to think that you are still in this world and, I hope, in good health. If life has kept you from cruel disappointments, perhaps it reserves some greater joys still for you. I wish you that with all my heart.
What are you doing at Oxford? I haven’t been to Paris, either during the war or since. It’s takes a lot of money to live there now. Food is rare and very expensive, and that life in slow motion in Paris that I love so much makes me long to go there. For you it would not be the same, and I hope that you’ll escape the dark tunnel of paperwork that we all struggle with, and that your wish to travel will be granted. I don’t know if I will be here this summer. I have some travel plans which I am still not sure of putting into practice. If I am here, you know that the house will be open to you at any time.
Almost miraculously we have all come out of the war, with a minimum of damage. I have two sons – the eldest, who was called up at the outbreak of the war, was seriously wounded in the Forest of Wandt. Having rejoined his regiment after his convalescence, he narrowly escaped capture in Germany. My second son, married and the father of two babies, was called up to his job (in public office). He ran the same risks that we did, but they were great.
Our peaceful Pontivy was a big military centre during the occupation. We knew every possible humiliation and harassment – you cannot imagine. Also, the Resistance was quickly set up here, where the countryside provided cover for the Maquisards. The repression enacted by the Germans, particularly by the Gestapo and the young SS, was of such cruelty and savagery that one is ashamed to know such horrors even by hear-say. We have good friends and neighbours who suffered unimaginable torture, some of them to death. We escaped that – I don’t know exactly why. We mixed with the Resistance and we were surrounded, on one side by the German Western Grand Etat Major, and on the other by influential members of the Gestapo and their clique of informers.
All that is in the past – since the day of the unexpected arrival of the American army liberated us and prevented the whole town from being blown up and reduced to cinders. It had all been prepared, but the Germans didn’t have time to put their plans into action. Still, there was plenty of destruction. Everyday life is not easy here – not to compare our difficulties with those of the big towns where people suffered, and still suffer, slow death by starvation. As you know, poor France has suffered a lot (and I say nothing of towns in our area entirely destroyed). But the people are brave, and slowly she will rise again and rebuild her ruins.
All the household sends you best wishes. To you with all my heart,

 On 1st May 2015, Pontivy celebrated the 70th anniversary of its liberation by the US Army

Saturday 9 May 2015


Earlier this year I opened a big can of worms. All his life my father kept significant correspondence  which he’d received, letters of special import sent by friends of special closeness. I found them after his death seven years ago, sorted into old brown envelopes and piled up in two drawers of his old pedestal desk. They were carefully labelled – with the names of individual correspondents, or “School”, “Oxford”, “Army”, “Senior colleagues” and so on.

I couldn’t bring myself to read them. For a start there were so many, and in so many different hands. More to the point, we were all but estranged by the time of his death, and I just didn’t want to know. But in the last couple of years I have been writing a book which deals in part with the memory of him. He’s pretty much the pantomime villain of the piece, which has been hard to write – so hard that eventually I became blocked and couldn’t write any more. It was towards the end of this writer’s block that I opened the heavy archive box which now contains all his letters, and started to read.

Charles Henry Salter at his desk, c1938

They are fascinating! They cover his entire adult life and of course show sides of him which a son never sees of his father – the non-parental side, the adult among peers, the friend of friends, the intellectual colleague. What emerges is of course a much more rounded picture of the man than the one-dimensional cartoon I have been sketching in words so far. Will I have to start writing my book all over again? I can’t un-know this new full-colour picture I now have of the man I’ve been painting in black and white.

But I realise that it’s my memory of the parent which I am writing, not a biography of the whole man. The letters provide a welcome counterpoint to my own perception of him, but they don’t negate my own experience as his son. I’m glad to have them. There are, quite apart from the personal insights into his character, many delights amongst them: many characterful correspondents and many gripping stories on their pages.

In the summer of 1939 my father was having the time of his life. He had won an unprecedented two Chancellor’s Prizes in his first year at Oxford University, and he spent the summer with a group of student friends on holiday in Brittany. It was obviously a very vivid time for him, although he never mentioned it even when I twice holidayed in Brittany myself.
Pontivy, where my father and his friends spent the summer of 1939

Dad kept letters from many of those who were there that last summer before the war, the summer he came of age. He joined the party in Brittany after spending a few days east of Paris with a French friend, Jeanne, who was also a fellow student at Oxford; and a letter from her soon afterwards sets the pre-war tone of gaiety, fantasy and youth:
To the gentle knight Charles Salter,
Beautiful sweet friend,
I am happy and reassured that you have received the magic gold ring which I sent you before you left me for Brittany. It reminds me, the arrival of the ring and its messenger (in this case the postman, which is horribly prosaic, I’m afraid) of the ring which sweet Tristan sent from Brittany to Iseult his beloved, and of the queen’s oath, and it makes me give thanks to heaven that you, sweet sire, and I did not exchange similar oaths, although I ponder with despair on the distance which separates us.
Tell Elaine of the White Hands, if she is still near you, that the love which I carry for you is still not so great that I have none left for her, and receive, sweet sire, a tender platonic kiss from
your friend

My father never felt so vigorously alive as he did that summer. He and Elaine were something of an item, and in a later letter Elaine (who was also in Brittany that summer) declares to my father that she “would rather be your mistress once than marry a thousand Bobs.” (Bob was Dad’s rival for her affections.)

In the end she did neither. And other letters from the same circle of friends show that just below the frivolous surface, war was on everyone’s mind.

Next week’s blog is about two letters from the friends’ host in Brittany, written in 1939 and 1946, which illustrate perfectly and harrowingly what happened between the writing of them.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...