Unofficial Histories

8 Apr

I’m hoping to go to the unofficial histories conference at MMU this summer. I didn’t submit an abstract for it as I wasn’t sure how my research fitted the theme, but I’ve been thinking more lately about the stories we tell about the past, and how they develop and warp over time.

I was first drawn to Maurice Egerton by the stories we tell about him at Tatton. These are usually short sentances that convey the key aspects of his life, told to visitors by the Room Stewards or by information boards in the Maurice Egerton Exhibition Room. We focus on the most interesting or unusual factors to grab their interest and present Maurice as interesting and unique.

I often wondered how these stories started, and if they have been embellished by staff over time as part of their repertoire of knowledge on the house. Part of my research will be about stripping the stories back to basics and re-establishing the facts, and perhaps working through the complicated haze surrounding ‘legend’ and ‘reality’.

Just for fun, and to introduce you to Maurice a bit better, these are some of the stories we tell about him…

– Maurice was the youngest of three brothers. His elder brothers both died in childhood, and as a result his mother smothered him and wouldn’t let him go away to school. He later travelled so extensively to get away from his mother. (Possibly true, although I think I’ve seen an account somewhere that he did go to school. His mother lived at Tatton well into old age, and Maurice spent much of the year travelling rather than residing with her. When he was at Tatton he seemed to live in a different part of the house to his mother)

-He never married, but he did bring women home to introduce to his parents. His mother wouldn’t let him marry as she didn’t think any of the women were good enough. (I would like to find evidence (names!) for this, but suspect there is none. It is likely that he felt some antipathy towards his mother as he makes no mention of her death in his diaries and did not travel home for her funeral as he did his fathers).

He did propose marriage to one lady, and he built his Kenyan home the ‘Castle’ for her. When she saw it, she laughed at him and said she would never live there. After that, he turned away from women, and wouldn’t have them on his land. When he visited tenants their wives had to be absent. (Again, very unlikely. He didn’t build the castle until late in his life, so it was unlikely he intended it to be a marital home. There are also accounts of him welcoming and entertaining female visitors at Tatton, and it is unlikely he was so severe a ‘woman-hater’ as to threaten to shoot any that wandered onto his land!)

-He established boys clubs and encouraged them to visit Tatton. He had no interest in girls. He was cross when a black boy joined in a boxing match with his boys club, and wouldn’t let them box again afterwards. (It is a fact that he encouraged boys clubs and not girls, but this could be because he was a batchelor and it would have been against his character and against propriety for him to take girls out for the day. Because he never married and only undulged boys there is an underlying and unspoken suggestion that he might have been homosexual. I don’t think I will find any account of this, other than speculation from the evidence. His attitude to race would be a product of his Imperialist upbringing)

When he died, his body was brought back to England but his heart was buried in Africa. (Or was it the other way around? Anyway, the story is unlikely as bodies would need to be buried fairly quickly in Africa. I have seen Maurice’s grave at Rostherne church, but I’ve also heard that he has a grave in Nairobi. I would love to find that too)

It will be a lot of fun stripping these stories back down to their source. Hopefully I can build back up a more accurate picture of Maurice, and create more stories for us to tell at Tatton.

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