Ashfield, Torquay

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Ashfield in about 1900. This view is the back of the house. The Conservatory is on the extreme right and is labelled in the Ordnance map below

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Ashfield in Torquay was the childhood home of Agatha Christie. She lived there from her birth until the time of her marriage and then intermittently thereafter. She reluctantly sold it in 1940 and in 1962 it was demolished and replaced with a small estate of houses. A blue plaque marks the top left corner of the two acre property which was Ashfield.

Agatha Christie loved this house and even in old age she remembered it fondly. She made the following comments in her autobiography.

"I remember, I remember the house where I was born. I go back to that always in my mind. Ashfield. How much that means. When I dream I hardly ever dream of Greenway or Winterbrook. It is always Ashfield, the old familiar setting where one’s life first functioned… How well I know every detail there: the frayed red curtain leading to the kitchen, the sunflower brass fender in the hall grate, the Turkey carpet on the stairs, the big shabby schoolroom with its dark blue and gold embossed wallpaper."[1]

Ashfield and the Miller family[edit]

Ordnance Map 1880 of Devon showing Ashfield (centre)
Agatha and Frederick outside the greenhouse which was called K. K. They are at the extreme left of the picture above

The Ordnance map[2] to the right shows Ashfield surrounded by similar villa houses each in their own one or two acre gardens. Ashfield was a large early Victorian house whose entrance carriage drive ran from Barton Road not far from the Blue Plaque. It wound through the front garden up to the house. The photo of the house above is from the back which shows the glass external conservatory on the right. This conservatory is marked on the map.

The photo of Frederick (Agatha’s father) shows him seated on the extreme left of the back of the house. The greenhouse which Agatha said “adjoined the house on one side” and was called K. K.[3] can be seen to the left of him. The garden in the background in this photo is the main garden and stretches south east toward the neighbouring property of “St Marys”. The photo below of Clara (Agatha’s mother) shows her standing in the middle of the back of the house just in front of the verandah.

Mrs Brown's advertisement for the sale of Ashfield in 1880

Agatha’s father was Frederick Alvah Miller (1847-1901) and her mother was Clara Boehmer. He was an American, born and raised in New York. His father Nathaniel had amassed a fortune through a partnership in a milling firm. Nathaniel came to England and married Clara’s aunt. When he died in 1869 he left the bulk of his fortune, in a complicated series of Trusts, to Frederick, his only child but he also left Clara a small sum. Because of his inheritance Frederick did not need an occupation so he was involved in many social pursuits and was regarded as "a gentleman".[4]

In 1878 he married Clara a year later their first child Margaret (Madge) arrived and in 1880 their only son Louis Montant (Monty) was born. Frederick needed to return to America for a short time so he asked Clara to look for a house. She bought Ashfield with some of her inheritance from Nathaniel Miller. Agatha records her mother’s recollections of this event in her autobiography.

"My mother, whom we always claimed was clairvoyant replied that they could always sell it again. Perhaps she saw dimly her family living in that house for many years ahead. “I loved that house as soon as I got into it”, she insisted. 'It’s got a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere.'

The house was owned by some people called Brown who were Quakers and when my mother hesitatingly condoled with Mrs Brown on having to leave the house they had lived in so many years the lady said gently: “I am happy to think of thee and thy children living here, my dear.” It was, my mother said, like a blessing".[5]

The advertisement for Ashfield that Mrs Brown put in the newspaper in 1880 is shown. It describes the many rooms of the house and gives an outline of the garden with its beautiful trees and fine views.[6]

Agatha at Ashfield[edit]

Agatha's baptismal certificate
Agatha standing in front of the verandah at the back of Ashfield in the same location as Clara
Clara standing in front of the verandah at the back of the house. (centre of picture shown above)

Agatha was born at Ashfield in 1890. Her Baptismal Certificate (which is shown on the right) records that she was living here with her parents Frederick and Clara. The vicar that performed the ceremony was Rev Henry William Majendie who was Rector of All Saints Church, Torre until 1900. He was also the one responsible for the erection of the new church[7] that Frederick Miller helped to construct by giving a generous donation in his infant daughter’s name.[8] The baptismal font that he used to christen Agatha is in the present All Saints Church.

In her autobiography Agatha gives an account of her life at Ashfield and some descriptions of the house. The following include the relevant reports to enable a more detailed picture of the property to be made. Her earliest memories are of the nursery and her nanny who she calls “Nursie”. She says:

"The outstanding figure in my life was Nursie. And round myself and Nursie was our own special world, The Nursery. I can see the wallpaper now – mauve irises climbing up the walls in an endless pattern. I used to lie in bed looking at it in the firelight or the subdued light of Nursie’s oil lamp on the table."[9]

She also remembers from an early age their cook Jane who remained with the family for forty years. Jane Rowe is shown in the Census form below as the cook living with the Millers in 1901. Agatha said:

"One other person of importance in the house was Jane our cook, who ruled the kitchen with a calm superiority of a queen. She came to my mother when she was a slim girl of nineteen promoted from being a kitchen maid.[10] Jane cooked five-course dinners for seven or eight people as a matter of daily routine. For grand dinner parties of twelve or more each contained alternatives – two soups, two fish courses etc" [11]

Rental notice by Frederick for Ashfield in 1890
Census of 1901 for Ashfield

Agatha described some of the rooms on the ground floor of the house. She said.

"Downstairs there was the drawing-room crowded to repletion with marquetry furniture and Dresden china and perpetually shrouded in gloom because of the conservatory erected outside. The drawing-room was only used for parties. Next to the drawing-room was the morning room where almost invariably a sewing woman was ensconced…

In the dining-room Grannie passed her life in Victorian contentment. The furniture was of heavy mahogany with a central table and chairs all round it. The windows were thickly draped with Nottingham lace. Grannie sat either at the table, in a huge leather backed carver’s chair writing letters or else in a big velvet armchair by the fireplace. The tables, sofa and some of the chairs were taken up with books."[12]

She describes the external Conservatory which can be seen in the photo of Ashfield above and in a close view below.

"The conservatory, a grandiloquent erection, containing pots of begonias, geraniums, tiered stands of every kind of fern, and several large palm trees."[13] These palm trees can be seen in the photo below.

She also describes the greenhouse called K. K.which can be seen in the above photo on the far left. She said it "adjoined the house on one side".

"This small greenhouse called I don’t know K. K. (or possibly Kai Kai?) was bereft of plants and housed instead croquet mallets, hoops, balls, broken garden chairs, old painted iron tables, a decayed tennis net and Matilde"[14] (a rocking horse).

The Garden at Ashfield[edit]

The Conservatory on the right of the back of the house showing the palm trees which were described by Agatha.

Agatha is particularly fond of the garden and described it in depth. Some of the features she outlines can be seen in the Ordnance map above.

"There was a kitchen garden, bounded by a high wall which abutted on the road. This was uninteresting to me except as a provider of raspberries and green apples, both of which I ate in large quantities.

Then came the garden proper – a stretch of lawn running downhill and studded with certain interesting entities. The ilex, the cedar, the Wellingtonia (excitingly tall). Two fir trees ….. the turpentine tree which exuded a sticky strong smelling gum which I collected carefully in leaves and which was very precious balm. Finally the crowning glory the beech tree – the biggest tree in the garden with a pleasant shedding of beechnuts which I ate with relish. There was a copper beech too but this for some reason never counted in my tree world.

Thirdly, there was the wood. In my imagination it looked and indeed still looms as large as the New Forest. Mainly composed of Ash trees it had a path winding through it. The wood had everything that is connected with woods. Mystery, terror, secret delight, inaccessibility and distance.

The path through the woods led out onto the tennis or croquet lawn at the top of a high bank in front of the dining room window."[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography", p. 530.
  2. ^ SW England OS 25 inch 1873-1888
  3. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 58
  4. ^ Hundle Judith “The Getaway Guide to Agatha Christie's England”, pp. 3-6. Online reference
  5. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 19.
  6. ^ The Times (London) October 9, 1880, Issue 30008, p.15.
  7. ^ “An historical survey of Torquay from the earliest times”, p. 235. Online referenc
  8. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 48.
  9. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 27.
  10. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 28.
  11. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 29.
  12. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 40.
  13. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 58.
  14. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 58.
  15. ^ Agatha Christie, 2010 “An Autobiography”, p. 22.