By Haydn Brown.
The North Norfolk coastal village of Overstrand was not really discovered until the late 19th-century. Before then the hamlet was quiet, sleepy and simply a remote fishing village. Even nearby Cromer was still a small but selected watering-hole; that was until the area was ‘exposed’ by the London journalist, Clement Scott, followed by its easy accessibility afforded by the railways. In August 1883 the first in a series of articles, written by Scott, were to change the face of Overstrand and Cromer when they appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Visitors soon came flocking to see for themselves this romantic haven – Poppyland, of which Scott had dreamt up and written about.
Many stayed at the Mill House, the owner of which was miller, Alfred Jermy, and his daughter, Louie; they became celebrities and Mill House became a centre for visiting literati; thus turning it into a meeting place for poets, actors, playwrights and a bohemian retreat. The poet A.C. Swinburne, together with his companion Theodore Watts-Dunton, came to stay there. During that time, it was Swinburne who, despite his problem with alcoholism, used to bathe in the sea off Sidestrand and manage to produce a number of poems about the location; these later would appear in his ‘A Midsummer Holiday’ in 1884.
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London on 5 April 1837; he was the eldest of six children born to Captain Charles Henry Swinburne (1797–1877) and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, a wealthy Northumbrian family. As a child, Swinburne was “nervous” and “frail,” but “was also fired with nervous energy and fearlessness to the point of being reckless.” He also developed a lifelong passion for the sea, hence his nickname ‘Seagull’ – for he was never to be far from a seashore. Apart from his development into an adult, his appearance along the way was described by Elizabeth Jones:
“…… that he had both the appearance and the sound of a fragile child. Red hair crowned a strangely large head that sat on the sloping shoulders of a small, wiry body. A high-pitched voice and a tendency towards nervous fits characterised a man who was nevertheless polite and popular.”
It was whilst at Oxford that Swinburne was to meet his long-lasting friend Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton. It was also from Oxford that the poet was expelled in 1860 and therefore never attained a degree.
Swinburne’s poetry, certainly in his younger days, was strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ ‘medievalism’, which often linked love and sadness; however, his early works, despite attracting some degree of enthusiasm, inspired a storm of abuse from critics. One critic denounced Swinburne as “unclean for the sake of uncleanliness”, whilst another wanted censorship of his poems for their “pagan spirit”. The popularity of an article entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ was said to have been assisted by the scandalous accounts of the poet’s lifestyle.
Rumours were rife of Swinburne’s “homosexual affairs, cannibal dinners, bestiality and patronage of flagellation brothels.” Wild outbursts brought on by his inability to control his drinking contributed to his sinking reputation. One American newspaper paper called him “a perfect leper and a mere sodomite,” whilst the famous ‘Punch’ magazine referred to his surname as “Swineborn.” It was somewhat surprising therefore that by the 1890’s Swinburne was being hailed “as the greatest living English poet,” – and Queen Victoria by 1892 had even considered him as a replacement for Tennyson, the late poet laureate! However, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone was not of the same mind and told Queen Victoria:
“I fear he is absolutely impossible. And I must own to have been astounded at the terms in which The Times (17th) described his early outrages. It is a sad pity: I have always been deeply impressed by his genius.”
But, the public’s attitude towards the poet was to change, and responsibility for this was said to have been down to his now firm-friend, Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton. When Swinburne’s drinking threatened his own life, Watts-Dunton quickly removed him from London and set up a home for them both at Putney. For the remaining thirty years of his life, Swinburne lived a calm, sober and respectable existence at ‘The Pines’, protected and seemingly controlled by his friend.
Swinburne often referred to Watts-Dunton, as his ‘Major’, a term that summed up their relationship. Swinburne would be kept to a strict regime of healthy walks and meals, polite conversation and a little writing. All visitors were vetted by Watts-Dunton, who also actively discouraged Swinburne’s past friends, together with any visits to their home in the interests of peace and quiet. Praise and persuasion were used to keep Swinburne away from his favourite drinks, and also from the latent pull of attempting to shock the reading public. Instead, Watts-Dunton encouraged the writing of descriptive poems on nature and odes to various heroes. Because of this he was criticised for a lack of insight into Swinburne’s talent. It was said of Watts-Dunton that he saved the man but killed the poet.
As for a further description of Watts-Dunton, he was described as genteel, suburban but professional; he was also said to have possessed “a genius for friendship”. Through this and his “apparent self-confidence”, he won the devotion of several men, one of which was Swinburne – it would seem that Watts-Dunton “pulled many of the strings that moved the rest.” However, a contemporary of his referred to him as a “bright-eyed, umpire-like little man.” It was also said that Watts-Dunton once hid Swinburne’s boots to prevent him from going out; certainly, he concealed chapters of the novel ‘Lesbia Brandon’ until after Swinburne was dead because he was so anxious to prevent its publication.
But, as it was, ever year the two spent time by the sea, often at Southwold; but by the September of 1883 the Overstrand was the regular destination for both men who were inspired by the romantic beauty of the imaginary Poppyland landscape, “for too long the area had been sadly neglected by romantics.” Both men, it seems, found the experience awesome.
A deserted graveyard and church tower on the poppy-covered cliffs provided another fruitful source of inspiration for the poets. It was this spot that had moved Clement Scott to write his poem ‘The Garden of Sleep’ and to name the area Poppyland. Swinburne revealed at the time that he disliked places like Cromer, preferring isolated, unspoilt areas of the coast. His appreciation of the peace and beauty of Poppyland and Overstrand was continually in evidence.
Following a short stay at Cromer’s Bath Hotel, these two friends settled into Overstrand’s Mill House; they would be the guests of Alfred Jermy and his daughter Louie Jermy. Swinburne wrote of the delights of the place when he wrote to his sister, Alice:
“The whole place is fragrant with old-fashioned flowers, sweet William and thyme and lavender and mignonette and splendid with great sunflowers.”
His enthusiasm for the picturesque cottage and its scented garden produced his poem ‘The Mill Garden’. Also, Swinburne had always enjoyed swimming, particularly when the sea was very rough, and declared at the Mill House that the bathing at Overstrand “to be far superior to that at Southwold”.
“Louie of the Blackberry Puddings”, or the “Maid of the Mill” as Jermy’s daughter was nicknamed, must have made her literary guests very welcome at the house, for they returned year after year. However, the villagers of Overstrand must also have been somewhat wary of these two strangers, but particularly Swinburne who, by this time was “the most talked about man in England.”
Towards the close of the 19th-century, owing to the influx of the rich and famous, Overstrand became known as the “village of millionaires.” Politicians and publishers bought property there, amongst them Churchill and Sir Frederick Macmillan. Clement Scott’s writing drew a host of artists to stay at the Mill House and nearby, including Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Punch artist George Du Maurier.
Louie Jermy, thrived on caring for her bohemian guests. She had aspirations towards the theatre herself that were never realised, except in terms of the many friendships she made in the theatrical world. After World War One the character of Louie’s guests was to change and she had to contend with “midnight bathes, hilarious singing and shouting, and a growing laxity of general behaviour.” In The Referee in 1919, George Sims paid tribute to her: “Miss Jermy of Poppyland has been the guardian angel of famous men. Swinburne wrote some of his finest poetry at her house.”
For Swinburne and his friend, Watts-Dunton, holidays at the Mill House was an important part of their lives, for it inspired both men to write of their experiences there. Their friendship was one firmly based on a common passion for the arts, poetry in particular, and it survived over a period of seventy years until Swinburne’s death in 1909 at the age of 72 years.
Source: Jones, Elizabeth. 1984. The Poppyland Poets. Norfolk Fair. Sep. 26-27