By John Eden
I have just been on a short break down to Arundel in West Sussex via the Surrey Hills which is classified as an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” right on the doorstep of Croydon, it is in my opinion some of the best English countryside you will ever find, yet I wonder how many Croydonians realise this or have been there.
Seeing the sign approaching “Surrey Hills” it reminded me of “Suffragettes” and “California” a connection I shall explain.
Some five years ago, while working at Ruskin House in Croydon, I use to have my lunch and often my evening meal in the “Skylark” the Wetherspoon Pub in South End, one part of the Pub is lined with bookshelves, containing many old books, one of the oldest I found had an inscription inside from a Mother to her Daughter, it was a Christmas present and dated 1845. One of the books I flicked through, the “Fowler” by Beatice Harraden published in 1899, had a reference in the novel to a “Grantham School for Girls”, coming from Grantham myself, I did not know if this was a fictional or real school that may have existed once in my hometown, I could find no reference to it in Google. The Grantham and Kesteven Girls High School is not fictional “Famous” for having my Auntie as a pupil and equally famous for having the future and imfamous Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher (Nee Roberts) as a pupil.
Beatrice Harraden author of “The Fowler” I found out had been quite a famous suffragette, mainly as a contributor to many of their journals, and wrote novels, with their cause as its theme. her most famous book of 1893 is “Ships that pass in the Night” which ran through many editions, I picked one up while on holiday, in Hay on Wye in 2007, a twentieth edition published in 1900.
Croydon had a very strong women’s movement in the ninetieth and early twentieth century by all accounts, as there were three separate movements, in Croydon in 1912, each having offices, two were in George Street and one was in the area of the present Green Dragon pub.
Now the maybe not so “tenuous” link between the “Surrey Hills” and “California”. One of Harraden’s short stories that I read called ” Hilda Stafford and The Remittance Man (Two Californian Stories) (1897) the author had spent sometime in America, the story might be part about herself or someone she knew. In the latter part of the ninetieth century as the story tells, some young Englishmen junior clerks in the City of London and similar types, were avid readers of Wild West novels, and dreamt of the life of a Cattle Rancher instead of the nine till five life of a clerk,commuting into the City from places like Croydon and it seemed quite a few turned this dream into reality, the novel goes on to show that the dream for most becomes a nightmare.
The young men had answered ads in national papers of land for sale in Southern California, each had bought themselves many acres of land which turned out to be very barren, most of them failed to make it work,some returned to England, some even died in the attempt, like the character in the novel, who had brought his fiancé to share the life, she absolutely hated it, it was a landscape to her that seemed to be nothing but dust and rocks, dried out river beds in the summer and flash floods in the winter, it was one of these floods that destroyed the ranch and lead to the death of her fiance, she remarked before his death that she longed to return to England, and at the weekends walk again in the “Surrey Hills” she got her wish.