Archive Adventures

1 Mar

I’ve visited a few different archives lately to branch out and find some context for my research, as well as looking further into Maurice himself.

What I’m loving right now is that different strands of my research are starting to link up, so I’m feeling that I’m on the right track and that I’m following the right paths. Last week I spent a few days in Oxford. I wanted to visit the Pitt Rivers to take photographs to start to think more into the second part of my thesis- how Maurice constructed his exhibition. Peering into the cases and poking through the drawers I found a series of objects given to the collection by Powell Cotton. He was another collector known to Maurice, and his display at his museum at Quex Park was very similar. These other exhibitions by contemporaries and acquaintances are very useful comparisons.

After filling in many forms and swearing an oath never to bring fire and flame into the library, I got my reader’s ticket for the Bodleian library and was able to look at their archive for Colonial Kenya. I chose three names of people that Maurice knew and followed their stories through their letters and papers. Cara Buxton has fascinated me ever since I read her name in Maurice’s diaries and found out she was a female adventurer, pioneer and huntress in an otherwise male dominated society. I see her almost as the female equivalent to Maurice- she was from a noble family in Norfolk, she never married, and she lived a life of her own making in Kenya. Her letters to her nephew at Eton give a great insight into her life. She built her own house in Kericho saying:

“I live with a spirit level in my pocket and dream about corrugated iron. I saw so badly, it’s most awful fun, really about the greatest fun I’ve ever had- Tho’ I am happy in a tent, I don’t much care if the house is never finished”.

Most fascinating was her account of trying to sail back to England during WW1. Her ship was chased by a German submarine in the Mediterranean and had to go zig-zagging around until an allied destroyer saved them. For safety, it then joined a convoy of ships, and she watched as one of them was sunk in front of her.

I also looked at another Buxton of the same family who led a noted life in Kenya- Clarence Victor Buxton. His archive related to government in Kenya, and many of his papers were marked classified and top secret. Most interesting was his call for action during the Mau Mau rebellions of the 1950s when several attacks were made on this property.

Remember I said about stories linking up? Another archive I looked at in Oxford was that of Edward Powys Cobb, another friend of Maurice in Kenya. He sailed back to England on the same ship as Cara Buxton in 1915 and his daughter Dorothy describes:

“I got bits of meat and bent nails from the kitchen and long pieces of string. These we let over the stern of the ship to make the sharks jump for the meat. Then a Miss Buxton came and saw what we were doing. She was a noted shot in Kenya. She said “I will get my gun and have a pot at these sharks”. This she did.”

Powys Cobb also had dealings with Clarence Buxton during the management of his estates. When these names all link up it helps me to imagine a sense of community amongst the British settlers in Kenya, and I see how they responded collectively to the problems they faced.

I’ve also spent a few days at Chester Records Office this week. As usual, I underestimated the amount of time I would need to go through the archive there, and I have probably spent too much time noting everything that interests me rather than focusing on just taking what I need. 

I’ve found some useful scribbles from Maurice showing that whilst he was “stuck” at Tatton during WW2 he spent quite a lot of time re-ordering and tinkering with the display of his collection. I’d also wondered about the specimens he donated to Liverpool Museum- were they numerous, varied, good quality?etc. From his lists it seems that he donated only poor quality heads or duplicates, or specimens that weren’t his to begin with. Furthermore, it seems he might only have donated these because Manchester Museum had reached a capacity and was unable to take more large specimens due to space restrictions. Maurice didn’t seem happy about this, and offered the museum £1000 if they would expand into the University dental building next door to make a bigger natural history gallery.

In the Tatton archive I had seen some balance sheets relating to Maurice’s finances in Kenya. These were interesting as I was under the impression that Maurice was in quite a lot of financial trouble towards the end of his life and I wanted to find some facts. There were more of the same at Chester, and they certainly painted a picture of Maurice being in distress. In 1953 the Westminster Bank wrote to him urging him to make a “substantial and permanent” reduction in his overdraft, which stood at £250,000. An inflation calculator tells me that this would be something like £5.9 million in today’s money. In response, Maurice is forced to sell his land at Iringa in Tanganyika, his textile factory Nakuru and many farms and cottages from Tatton. He had already sold his large tea estate at Jamji. He writes that he has resigned from most of his societies, that he is asking Lord Stamford at Dunham to buy up a lot of his local land, and that he is inquiring about the possibility of the National Trust taking over Tatton.

I didn’t know that Maurice had approached the National Trust so soon. In 1953 he writes to the Trust:

“I am beginning to feel that if my conditions do not soon iprove, I’ll have to consider doing something very drastic about it as the rates, taxes and upkeep of this home are very big. I believe Lord Derby is demolishing part of Knowsley”.

Letter back and forth show that meetings had been held to consider the National Trust taking the estate and allowing Maurice and his chosen heirs to live on there meanwhile. Maurice wrote to Lord Derby who seemed to be faced with similar financial pressures. Derby advised him that demolishing wouldn’t be the best option as it came with lots of costs, and that meanwhile he should sell all his farms and his books, which were currently fetching good prices. Many lots of Egerton books were sent to auction in the 1950s, and in 1954 45 lots of Knutsford properties were auctioned, raising £30,750. All of this didn’t keep the bank satisfied, and they wrote again to request more urgent action. I’m not surprised that Maurice spent the last years of his life in Kenya without coming home. But it is very sad to see the pressures of keeping Tatton, and how close he came to losing his grip on it during his lifetime. The newspaper headlines at his death wondering “who will inherit Maurice’s millions?” would have had very different headlines if they had known the truth.

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