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An English Padlock

“Be to her virtues very kind;

And to her indulgencies a little blind”.

 

As a child in the house where I grew up, I always longed for there to be a secret room. I used to dream about opening a door I’d never seen before and finding evidence of a lost life; the books and belongings of some previous inhabitant. The house where we lived was really wonderful. Built over three stories it was one of those very square and symmetrical white stucco-fronted houses in Notting Hill, constructed in the Victorian property boom around 1847.

Notting Hill House

Our house in Notting Hill

What always disappointed me was the arrangement of the house. Basically the ground and first floors consisted of a large room at the front, a large room at the back and a staircase in the centre, the plan being split into three roughly equal parts. No rambling corridors, no secret passages or strange turns to negotiate. I was sometimes lucky enough to visit the country houses of my parents’ friends. There would be, and I think there is still for me, no greater pleasure than getting lost inside a house. I am always drawing plans and visualising layouts and I love that fog of befuddlement brought on by losing your way indoors. The trick becomes all the more fantastic when the house you are lost in is not very large, as in the case of a house I know near Holkam in Norfolk. The building is on an L shaped plan but with a spiral staircase at the corner where the two wings meet. This means that as you are made naturally giddy by your ascent you fail to notice which wing of the house you are in when you reach the top of each flight of stairs. When you look out of one window and expect to see the garden, instead you see the lane.

This sense of longing for a mystery in my own childhood home was very strong. There was however one unusual feature of the house which did fascinate me and send my imagination off into a dreamlike state, and that was the glass in the widows. Like many early Victorian houses the windows were large. The original panes of glass remained in-tact on the ground floor of our house. Untouched by the blitz, they had that slight wobble when you gazed through them to the street beyond. It was not the presence of Victorian glass that interested me as a boy, but what had happened to the glass. It was covered in very fine scratches. At first you would think they were just the marks of age, but looking more closely, there was some design to them and even some very faint calligraphy.

 So you see

I would stare at the glass for hours trying to make out what was drawn and written on it and who might have done such a thing. On winter Sunday afternoons when the cooking made the windows steam up the marks were revealed like a photographic plate developing. There were swirls and curves, games of noughts and crosses, little sums and lists of numbers, like shopping lists, and then there was the writing. A ghostly and beautiful copperplate hand, sometimes clear and sometimes completely illegible writing what appeared to be nonsense. Things like “Let’s put the kettle on..Then we’ll all have tea” and things I could never make out “….so gained the….” and “…so you see my darling…”

Why were these marks there and who made them? I longed to know and in fact to this day it remains a mystery. We think they were written by a woman or a girl, and with a diamond to cut into the glass. The most legible sentence of all was this:

“Be to her virtues very kind;

And to her indulgencies a little blind”.

I always thought that this was an original piece of writing rather than a quotation.  I also always assumed it to be a message or perhaps a plea of forgiveness for some misdemeanour – perhaps writing and playing noughts and crosses on the window in the first place. With that in mind I thought it likely perhaps to be the work of a teenager than someone more mature.

We no longer live in the house and I hope that the glass is still there. Some time ago I decided to type what I could remember of the writings into a search engine and see what happened and to my astonishment I found this:

“Be to her virtues very kind ;
Be to her faults a little blind ;
Let all her ways be unconfin’d ;
And clap your Padlock — on her mind”.

It is from a poem by Mathew Prior called An English Padlock and the words seem to me to have changed their meaning radically by the addition of the last line! The mystery takes a sinister turn, although its relevance is still a delightful mystery. With all that, how could I not have a natural interest in house history.

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Ben Taggart Designer and founder of Archistory

Paul Murray House Historian

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