Wednesday 12 July 2017

On having one's chairs at home

There is (or used to be) a saying in the north of England that someone who had their wits about them - typically an older person who might be expected to be failing mentally - had "all their chairs at home".  I've always liked the homeliness of this expression, suggesting as it does the possession of all one's mental furniture as a metaphor for continuing sanity.  For the first time in a while, I've got two rather special chairs of my own at home, and trust the pleasure of possessing them will keep dementia at bay for a few more years.  I'd like to tell you their story.

It concerns two men. The first is the Rt Hon Sir Philip Sassoon Bt GBE CMG: born in his mother's mansion (she was a Rothschild) on the Avenue de Marigny, Paris in 1888. He was a gay, Jewish baronet, millionaire, MP, Government minister, mover, shaker, top-drawer socialite, and cousin of the WW1 poet, Siegfried. The other is Reuben Ridley: born to working-class parents in Clarissa Street, Haggerston, east London in 1902.  He was a lorry driver, and my maternal grandfather.  The two men never met and had, on the face of it, nothing in common.  Except some chairs.

Sir Philip Sassoon
Sassoon lived from 1923 until his death from influenza in 1939 at Trent Park, a country house in Hertfordshire just to the north of London.  It was, according to Robert Boothby, one of the houses of the age, "a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf... Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting... while Philip
Trent Park House today
himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived..."  During WW2, the house was used as a centre to extract information from captured German officers (which activity was the subject of the Stephen Poliakoff drama Close to the Enemy, premiered last year on BBC TV) and then as a rather luxurious prisoner-of-war camp for captured German generals and staff officers.

Reuben Ridley
By rather sharp contrast, my grandfather spent all his working life as a driver and then as transport manager for a hardware wholesaler, Osmond & Matthews, of Curtain Road, Shoreditch. One day (I assume after the war) he was called to make a delivery to Trent Park House and was en passant offered a number of dining chairs from among a variety of items of furniture from the house which were being discarded.  (This may have been in preparation for the house's conversion to a teacher training college in 1947.) He agreed to take four, and took them to his house in Leyton. Where they stayed, for years. One got destroyed, somehow; but of the three that remained, one was given to me as a teenager by my grandparents for my bedroom, suitably re-covered in a jazzy 1960s material; and I inherited the other two, by default, on my grandmother's death in the 1980s. 

Sometime later, I was visited at home by a colleague from the government department in which I then worked.  He was an antiques buff, and asked about the chairs which were dotted around the house and which I had long since stopped noticing. I told him the story.  Did he think they were very old?  "Late Regency", he said, "No later than 1830."  I was suitably impressed.  Apart from a George III penny of 1806, they were the oldest things I owned, and I found a new respect for them.  But they were not much use except as bedroom chairs, and in a poorish condition. I pretty much soon forgot about them again, and for 20 years until a few months ago they were stored in our vicarage attic.

I thought of them again when, in 2016, we bought the little house on the Essex coast which is our retreat and to which we plan to retire.  I got them down from the attic.  They were predictably filthy, and in an even worse condition than I'd remembered.   But they were part of my family history and I wanted to rehabilitate them. Our neighbour recommended a local furniture restorer who came round to collect them.  We agreed that, given their condition, he would cannibalise one of them with the aim of restoring the other two.  He brought them back this week, and here they are:

To say that I am delighted with them doesn't cover it.  I am absolutely cock-a-hoop, over-the-moon - "made up" (as they say in Liverpool).  They are elegantly simple in form yet finely turned, carved and ornamented; and perhaps now almost as good as they were when they were hand-made the best part of 200 years ago.  If I am right to assume from their age, quality and such provenance as I have that they did indeed grace the grand, glittering household which Sassoon created in the 1920s, who knows who may have sat on them before me? WSC, GBS, royalty?
Yet I cannot look at them or sit on them without thinking of my Cockney grandparents and their terraced house in Leyton, one of the chairs next to the single bed in which my brother and I would lie awake, top to tail, listening to the eerie clangs and hoots from the adjacent Temple Mills marshalling yard.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if they were still being sat on in another 200 years?  Against that possibility, I am setting down what I know about them - while I still have all my chairs at home.

I would like to thank Jeremy Soames of J.Soames Upholstery of Brightlingsea, Essex for his careful and sensitive work on restoring the chairs, and to commend it to others.

The contemporary picture of Trent Park House is by JulesFoto. The estate became part of the University of Middlesex in the 1990s, and was sold to the Berkeley Housing Group in 2015. As far as I can determine it is not currently in use, though the park is excellent for dog-exercising and picnics.


  1. Soraya Salfrais12 July 2017 at 18:41

    What a most wonderful read! I attended university at Trent Park in 1984 and loved the scenic views from the mansion house.

  2. I am currently researching my family tree and believe Reuben was a brother to Arthur my grandad. According to the 1911 census my grandad who was 6 months old at the time lived in Clarissa Street with his family. I was googling the stress and came across your blog! Maria

    1. How interesting. Following the blog, I have recently been chatting to other members of the family via Facebook (cousins I don't really know personally), one of whom has also done quite a bit of work on the Ridley family tree. If you are Arthur's granddaughter and he was Reuben's brother, then you and I are second cousins. Stephen

  3. Hello second cousin! Seriously I would be really grateful if next time you're in touch with any Ridley family members if you could please ask them to look me up on Facebook as I would be interested in finding out more about my granddad Arthur's past. Kind regards, Maria

  4. I'm on FB as Maria Holden living in bexleyheath. Thanks Stephen.