The story behind the picture: Drawing & Memory, the remarkable Mrs Avis

In previous blogs I’ve looked at hand-written letters from the Preston Manor archive, and here is another with a story to tell. During the summer of 1979 Preston Manor’s curator Mr David Beevers corresponded with a Mrs Margaret Avis living in Surrey who remembered the house before it became a museum in 1933.

Mrs Avis’s letters are packed with valuable historical fact, but even better, she illustrated her letters with cartoon-like drawings. This proves the importance of drawing to memory and speaks much of the character of Mrs. Avis who I can’t help but like enormously.

Mrs Avis had family connections with Preston Manor when it was a private house belonging to the Stanford family. Four generations of her family worked there, beginning with her great-great grandfather Thomas Gorringe who was a gardener. Her grandmother, also called Margaret, was employed as a domestic worker inside the house.

Dear Old Nurse

Mrs Avis quotes Ellen Thomas-Stanford who told her, “your granny Margaret, Dear Old Nurse, was nurse to my sisters, the twins.” The twins were Diana and Lily Macdonald, Ellen’s half-sisters who were born in 1866. I don’t know the age of Mrs Avis in 1979, but she writes, “I lived in Loder Road in 1916” and “in 1924 I was nurse to two little girls in Lauriston Road,” so I am guessing her date of birth to be around 1900.

Mrs Avis flies over Preston Manor

 

This first picture works like an aerial view looking down onto the north façade of Preston Manor and, like all her illustrations, is drawn from memory.  Much of its value is in showing the position and style of two buildings that were demolished in the 1930s; the Manor’s gatehouse lodge and butler’s cottage. They are shown on either side of the iron gates that remain today. The gates were the original entrance opening to a “gravel drive to Manor.” Mrs Avis draws a car and a van on the turning circle showing its vehicular use and marks the circular “grass lawn, mounting block and stone steps” to the house. The position of trees and paths are clearly recorded, as is a “high wall with broken glass on top to stop burglars.”

Looking down onto Preston Village

Looking down on Preston Village from the past

In this picture Mrs Avis takes us further afield and we are flying above Preston Manor looking down in a westerly direction. To the left, the hilly green slope of what became the municipal Rock Gardens in 1935, a wildly drawn place with crazy-looking trees crossed by “winding path to railway line and Brighton” and bordered by a countrified “hawthorn hedge and blackberry brambles”. At the top the “rookery nest”.

In fact, an alternative name for the Rock Gardens is The Rookery named after a mansion house nearby called The Rookery, now demolished.

Above the Rookery or Rockery is the “railway line from Brighton to London” where the life of a busy rail line is depicted showing a steam train puffing smoke, its cabin and driver, train door, guard’s van, Preston Park Station and Booking Office and the subway to Claremont Road. The line is protected by a “five feet high wooden fence”. I can almost smell the coal and steam so immersed am I in the vintage world Mrs Avis depicts. I like too the quizzical expression on “cows grazing in the fields belonging to a farmer who lived in Rose Cottage Farm” and the “horses grazing in Fellingham’s field”.

The stables, cottages and small wooden gates depicted speak of the rural nature of the Preston Village of Mrs Avis’s youth. The fields are now gone and contain the late-20th century apartment blocks of Rookery Close. Today, looking at this view, you will still find many of the old farm buildings, but converted to modern use. You will also see an unsightly petrol station and storage facility and the Preston Bowls Club building of a boxy modernistic 1964 design. These buildings were, understandably, not included in the Preston Village Conservation area first designated in 1970.

Picturesque village life

A pub, a school and a bakers in Preston village

Now we are entering village life of a bygone age as Mrs Avis takes us across the road from Preston Manor where we find a “double-fronted baker’s shop and bakehouse, boot-repair shop, chemist shop, small sweets tobacco & newsagent shop, public house, village school and Rose Cottage Farm” and many small houses and gardens. The bakehouse chimney billows with smoke, as do the two chimneys on the double-gabled building enticingly labelled “lunches and teas served here”.

The neighbourhood is bordered by South Road with its railway tunnel and the “small flint stone houses” of North Road. The railway line to the west and Preston Road to the east neatly enclose the village. You could navigate using this map today.

Transcribing Mrs Avis

Valuable to future generations

Mrs Avis speaks in vivid description of the places, people and activity she knew in Preston and wider location in the 1920s and 1930s. She wrote on a variety of papers from thin pale grey writing paper, to the back of cards and scraps of waste paper she’d saved, such as the back of an auctioneer’s printed letter. Mrs Avis clearly had the waste-not habits of her age.

Her handwriting is clear to read, although its cramped loops quickly weary the modern eye. She writes in the style taught in the period before the First World War when the ‘copperplate’ calligraphy of the Victorian age lingered. To aid readability, a Preston Manor volunteer patiently hand-transcribed the Mrs Avis letters in 2016 into her own immaculate style and these too now form part of the letter archive and will be kept in perpetuity.

On 23rd July 1979 Mr Beevers wrote to thank Mrs Avis for her “long and fascinating” letters that “answered all my questions most kindly”. He added;“You are now one of the very few people who remember the Manor before 1932 and the information that you have given will be invaluable to future generations.”

As far as I know, the file of letters from Mrs Avis were stored largely unseen between 1979 and 2016 although they may have been read from time to time for research purposes. Mrs Avis was a prolific writer and keen correspondent but no letters exist after 1979. If she was born in 1900 or thereabouts, she cannot be alive now.

For me, Mrs Avis lives on at Preston Manor through the power of her example demonstrating how illustration can bring an individual’s memory of the past into sharp and shareable focus.

Leave a Reply