Friday 23 April 2021

D H Lawrence, Shipley Hall, and a sad irony: Sue Purkiss

 When I was a child, we lived on the edge of a quite large town called Ilkeston, which is in Derbyshire, and which used to be a mining town. At that time the nearest pits had closed down, but there were still quite a few miners who still worked down the pit, but now had to travel. Probably the biggest employer was Stanton Ironworks, where one of my grandfathers had once worked. I'm reminded of Stanton often, because wherever you go in this country, if you look down you will see a draincover which is stamped Stanton PLC. There's a particularly pretty one at the Bristol dockyard where the SS Great Britain is moored.

Anyway, on Sundays we often used to go for a walk in Shipley Wood. There was a rather stately entrance on Heanor Road, and then you walked along a wide driveway, with trees on either side. To the left there were interesting dips, or holes, with a thick layer of dead leaves at the bottom. I don't know what had caused them - perhaps subsidence: more of that later. Whatever their origin, they were great for playing. You could hurtle down into them, or you could play hide and seek - they were excellent. In the spring, there were masses of bluebells, and we would take bunches home and put them in jamjars. I was always a little worried by the fierce signs up all over the place saying: NCB (National Coal Board): TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED! But nobody else seemed to bother and nobody ever got arrested.

If you carried on along the driveway, there would soon be a sharp change in the scenery, from sylvan to industrial. For this was the site of Shipley Colliery. It was no longer in use, but everything was still there: the winding gear, black and stark against the sky; a dark slagheap; and a gloomy reservoir. This must have been securely fenced off, because you never saw anyone there. It was ugly, lifeless, a place to walk quickly past.

The road carried on, past a rather nice looking house which had once been a lodge, and then up a hill. To the left, my mother told us, was the site of Shipley Hall. There was nothing left of it now, she said, but she remembered that when she was a child, there were garden parties or summer fetes there, and she had been to one. They were probably held for the miners' families: there's a description of something similar in Women In Love, by D H Lawrence; as I recall it, there's a double drowning in an ornamental lake shortly after it.

Shipley Hall

He may have pictured the scene at Shipley Hall itself, becuse Lawrence came from Eastwood, just a few miles away. He certainly used it as the setting for Connie and Clifford's house in Lady Chatterley's Lover: like the Miller Mundys, who owned Shipley, Clifford Chatterley was a mine owner. Once, when I was older, I was with my parents walking near the site of the hall, and we met an old man who remembered Lawrence. He shook his head and said disapprovingly, "He were a dutty bugger, he were. He put a lot of people from round here in his books, and they didn't like it."

Lawrence wasn't always overly complimentary about the locals, either. In Lady C's Lover, he says: 

'This country had a grim will of its own, and the people had guts. Connie wondered what else they had: certainly neither eyes nor minds. The people were as haggard, shapeless and dreary as the countryside, and as unfriendly. Only there was something in their deep-mouthed slurring of the dialect, and the thresh-thresh of their hob-nailed pit-boots as they trailed home in gangs on the asphalt from work, that was terrible and a bit mysterious.'

So, yes - thanks for that, Dave. Perhaps that's why he's not as popular round Ilkeston as, say, Hardy is in Dorset, or Jane Austen in Bath and Hampshire. Or perhaps it's just that his books, despite their many remarkable qualities, have gone out of fashion.

But the main reason Shipley Hall has always interested me is because of the sad irony of its ending. The hall, and the Miller Mundys, had been associated with coal mining since the 18th century. They knew about it, and they had been careful to ensure that no tunnelling took place underneath the house. In the early twentieth century, they were said, by the standards of the time, to have been good owners - hence, perhaps, the garden parties for the local children. But in the early twenties, the house, the land and the mine were sold to Shipley Colliery Company. The company decided to mine the rich seams of coal underneath the house. They planned to do it carefully, but then came the General Strike, and all work stopped. As a result, uneven subsidence damaged the house, and eventually it had to be knocked down.

The thought haunts me that this once-gracious house was destroyed by the very industry which had created the wealth of the family who had owned it. Perhaps this is because it echoes a bigger truth: that we have plundered our planet - for coal, and many other things - and are only just realising that in delving for wealth, we are in danger of destroying our home.

To end on a happier note: in Lawrence's novel, Clifford, looking at the wood, says to Connie: '"I want this wood perfect... untouched...Except for us, it would go... it would be gone already, like the rest of the forest. (He believes it to be a remnant of Sherwood.) One must preserve some of the old England!"'

But he got that wrong. The landowners did go, but the land - and the wood - have been preserved. The scars of industry have been cleared away, and the estate is now Shipley Country Park - a beautiful open space for the descendants of those 'shapeless and dreary' common people. (Of whom, incidentally, DHL was originally one.) Let's hope it's a lesson learned. 


Susan Price said...

"The thought haunts me that this once-gracious house was destroyed by the very industry which had created the wealth of the family who had owned it. Perhaps this is because it echoes a bigger truth: that we have plundered our planet - for coal, and many other things - and are only just realising that in delving for wealth, we are in danger of destroying our home."

I think you're exactly right.

I never thought I would stand up for Lawrence, who I've never liked much, but his description of the 'shapeless, dreary, unfriendly' locals was put into the mouth of an aristocratic woman who knows nothing of them. It's perhaps meant to tell us about her rather than them.
Or, then again, it could just be Lawrence ratting on his own again.

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm afraid I think he was at best ambivalent about where he came from - though I think he has many great qualities as a writer - particularly in the short stories and poems. He did really look at things and see them with an extraordinary intensity of focus, so that he makes the reader see things afresh too. And his views of the people he came from were obviously slewed by his feelings towards his beloved mother and his much less beloved father.

Carol Drinkwater said...

This is such a fine piece, Sue, thank you. I agree with Susan and would have picked out those same astute lines, same observation. We are indeed plundering the gifts of the earth and consuming them greedily with little thought to the consequences. I love your use of the house as a metaphor for this, our planet, our home.
In defence of DHL, just a little bit, if I may. He travelled extensively during a time when most didn't, couldn't. His eyes must have been opened by his long sojourns in Italy, for example, where the light dazzled and the fruits were succulent. It must have been hard not to look back to home and compare it unfavourably and, as you say, biased by the emotional baggage he was carrying.