Friday, July 13, 2012

Sir George Newnes - A Philanthropic Lesson for our Time.

George Newnes MP. in Vanity Fair 1894.
August 1900. A year before the publication of Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle is in Devon as one of the celebrities attending the opening of Lynton Town Hall, the gift of his friend, Sir George Newnes, to the people of Lynmouth and Lynton.

The new hall was but one of a series of projects in the area paid for by the publisher of Titbits and The Strand Magazine.

Having fallen in love with Exmoor and these twin North Devon towns, Newnes masterminded the building of the Cliff Railway and the Lynton-Barnstaple Railway, bringing commercial success to the area.

A detailed history may be read on the excellent Lynton Cliff Railway website HERE

In 1893, Newnes built his grand residence on Hollerday Hill.

When Newnes died in 1910 Hollerday House was advertised for sale in The Times, June 24, 1911. It mysteriously burned down in a fire in 1913. The full story of Newnes's beloved cliff-top home may be read, with many fascinating images HERE

George Newnes's activities in Lynton are reminiscent of the later commitment made by the architect, Clough Williams-Ellis, to the Welsh village of Portmeirion.

Williams Clough-Ellis 1932.
In 1901, as Doyle's Hound began publication, the 18-year old Williams-Ellis was up at Trinity, Cambridge, before spending two years at the Architectural Association School in London. His wondrous legacy, the mock-Italianate village of Portmeirion was begun in 1925.

Portmeirion Village.

Whilst Hollerday House is no more, the legacies of George Newnes and Williams Clough-Ellis are, in 2012, jewels of the Exmoor and Gwyneth coasts. 

Initially as a Prisoner fan, I have holidayed in Portmeirion several times and observed the gratitude evinced by locals and tourists alike for the man who created this unique, magical place. He shared something I think with those two men of the previous generation, Doyle and Newnes, who were already successful, famous, rich and well-beloved by the time Clough-Ellis qualified as an architect.

Hulda Friederichs distils the essence of such men in The Life of George Newnes (1911) :

"Kind Sir George".

"It is with Lynton and its gracious influences
that the last page of the autobiographical notes
deals. He was very near the end when he
wrote the final sentence : " The charm of the
place has grown on me so much that a short
while ago I came here to reside permanently " ;
and it was at Hollerday where he died quietly
one morning when June threw all its glory
upon the enchanting scene.

As he lay dead in the silent house high up
on the hill, every day and almost every hour
brought additional proof of the strong hold
which Sir George Newnes had on the affection
of those who knew him. His winning person-
ality had gained him friends wherever he went
and whenever he came into personal touch with
others. The servants of his own household
were devoted to him, and even the two male
nurses who had been in attendance for some
weeks before the end, and knew him only in
the last stages of mortal disease, mourned him
as one who had grown dear to them. The
occasional labourers on the estate, the men and
lads who had seen him about in the village
and the district, and to whom he had sometimes
said a friendly word in fact, the whole country-  
side was in mourning for " kind Sir George."
As the wonderful floral gifts began to arrive,
and overflowed from room to room, they spread
around his simple coffin a living pall of roses
and lilies and palm and bay. Glancing at the
messages sent with these farewell tokens you
felt that there was hardly one but had in it
the unmistakable note which only comes with
the sense of personal loss.

The colleagues and co-workers of many years,
who were still working on : a little band of
men who had served him when he first set out
on his strenuous career; a late chauffeur who
far off had heard of his death, and sent his
wreath of purple iris to " a good and much-
loved master " ; a crowd of private friends in
every station of life; and many a man and
woman whom, in his own quiet way, he had
befriended they all put that into the words
wherewith they bade him the last good-bye,
which shows that the heart is stirred, and
which no amount of mere esteem or admiration
can ever call forth.

And you had but to glance at the faces of
those who followed the coffin as it was carried
by the volunteer bearers down the winding
road which he had cut out of the desolate and
barren rock, to see that genuine sorrow had
brought them out of their busy world to
accompany on his last journey the staunch
and loyal friend, the man to whom they were
drawn by the human bonds which outlast
all other ties. It was this which gave the
funeral in the hushed and mourning village
its unique and touching character, and which,
by those who were present, will ever be remem-
bered as something finely and tenderly human.
It was the best tribute to a man much honoured
and esteemed for the services he had done to the
public, who, from the beginning to the end of
his life, possessed in an extraordinary degree the
rare quality of drawing men to him through their
affections, and of keeping friends by reason of
his own goodness and kindness of heart."

(FROM P17 OF THE Pdf On-line Text).
The whole Life may be read on-line HERE

I make no apology for the length of this eulogy for it exemplifies my theme for this post.

Newnes and Doyle made each other very rich. The two were close friends (even in the years of The Great Hiatus during which Newnes must have longed for Holmes's return). My sense is that both men had an enduring sense of something greater they were about which eclipsed such issues. Meaner men may well have had a falling out.

As it is, they got on with their busy, productive and committed lives, giving as good as they got to the benefit of the nation. I look today for 21st Century examples of this generosity of public spirit. And find it all too rare.

There is right now an Empty House called Undershaw not so very different from the love- affair that was Hollerday House. The home Conan Doyle designed for himself and lived in from 1897 until 1907 could, in the right hands, with the right vision and business plan, contribute much to cultural life, nationally and globally.

I fancy, were Newnes alive today, he would conclude, in the words of Sherlock Holmes: "I'm afraid, Watson, I shall have to Surrey. To Hindhead.
To Doyle's Undershaw."  

"Where are the benefactors of today?" said The Empty House.

Take the Untrodden Philanthropic Track to:
         The Undershaw Preservation Trust

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