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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
At Home in Thanet


HAVING concluded a review of his work as a civil engineer, it only remains to refer briefly to his life at home. Three houses during the past forty years would appear to possess a sufficiently good title to call for some mention as having been for several years "home”: 39, Finchley Road, St. John’s Wood, facing the Swiss Cottage, from 1854 to 1865; during the greater part of which time and until the construction of the St. John’s Wood Branch of the Metropolitan Railway, it bordered upon green fields and country lanes; Whiteness, Kingsgate, in Thanet, from 1863 to 1896; and 11, Prince of Wales Terrace, Kensington, from 1863 to 1896; but it is only proposed to refer his home life as spent at one of these—the one the most enjoyed, and the one in which he died.

It was during the early autumn of the year 1859, while paying a Saturday to Monday visit to an old friend, Mr. John Dangerfield, a London solicitor, who owned one of the few houses at Kingsgate, built on a portion of the site of the once stately mansion of Henry, Lord Holland, that my father became enchanted with the wide range of sea view from the higher ground some half a mile 1 nland, and resolved to secure it and build a country home.

“What a glorious site this would be for a country house,” he exclaimed to his host, as they walked by the spot in question on the afternoon of Sunday,-October 9th, 1859.

“Who would think of building a house in this exposed place,” remarked the host, more in the tone of a counter exclamation than a query.

“I would, if I had the chance,” was the prompt reply.

“Well,” observed the host, “the farm is for sale, so you hive the chance.”

Upon returning from the walk the particulars of sale were obtained and examined, and George Hill Farm was, as stated, advertised for sale by auction at the “White Hart Hotel,” Margate, at a near date. A business appointment at Newport, Monmouthshire, on the following day, prevented the fulfilment of his wish to immediately negotiate for the acquisition of the land, but upon his return to town on Wednesday, October 12th, he drove straight to the office of the solicitors for the property, concluded the bargain, and paid the requisite ten per cent, of the purchase money. This expeditious transaction in securing some fifty acres of bleak farm land, to which some twenty acres more have since been added, on a portion of which he had resolved to build a house, and lay out a garden, is mentioned as illustrating his quickness in forming a decision, and it may be said that an equally characteristic trait was his willingness to abide by the consequences of a judgment when once expressed.

The first impressions conveyed to his mind by the wide range and beauty of the sea view, and the thoughts of what might, with such natural advantages given, be done in the way of arboriculture to improve Nature’s picture—thoughts which found expression in the remark, “what a glorious site for a country house ”— were strangely different from those left upon the mind of the poet Gray, who was a visitor to the same spot in 1766. Of the particular occasion of the poet’s visit we know little except that he was the guest of the Rev. William Robinson, of Denton, but he has recorded the displeasure which he felt at viewing the numerous sham ruins erected by Lord Holland in the vicinity of his house, and this may have been enough in his judgment to spoil all other surroundings. But the discrepancy between the two impressions, both quickly formed and expressed, seems to possess a certain :nterest from the fact that, although a long interval of time had elapsed, there had been but little change in the natural features of the locality between the two visits. A few more yards of coast line had succumbed to the incessant buffeting by the sea, and a few more trees had been planted and grown up to break the monotony of the continuous undulating corn-fields, while the locality had been rendered the more easy of access to Londoners by the extension of the South-Eastern Railway Company’s system to Ramsgate and Margate. But with these changes, and all allowance for “the season’s difference,” the two opinions remain in strange contrast to each other.

Gray, after due time for reflection, wrote of the amenities of Kingsgate :—

“Old and abandoned by each venal friend
Hore Holland form’d the pious resolution
To smuggle a few years, and strive to mend
A broken character and constitution.

On this congenial spot he fix’d his choice
(Earl Godwin trembled for his-neighbouring sand.)
Here sea-gull? scream and cormorants rejoice,
And mariners though shipwreck’d, dread to land.”

The “congenial spot” so ironically described is still fortunately enjoyed by the sea-gulls, as their presence in considerable numbers throughout the year skimming along the coast-line and uttering their harsh, weird cries as they catch sight of floating morsels of food, or tiny fish venturing dangerously near the surface, sufficiently testifies, and occasionally cormorants may still be seen to alight on the edges of the rocks when the tide is low, and outstretch their wings to dry in the same manner as their better known cousins in St. James’s Park; but the mariner’s risk of shipwreck has happily been reduced to a minimum by the several lightships furnished by the Trinity House of Deptford Strond, which mark by their hulls in the day lime, and their variously timed occurring lights at night, the great sea highway leading to and from the Thames; while the North Foreland Lighthouse, in comparison to which the lightships seem but satellites, stands out as a “pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.’'

“And the great ships sail outward and return,
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells;
And ever joyful as they see it burn,
They wave their silent welcomes and farewells.”

The Shipwrecked mariner’s “dread to land” is an allusion to the barbarism of the inhabitants, of whom there was certainly good cause for alarm in the eighteenth century, for Lewis, in his History of the Isle of Thanet, 1736 (p. 34), informs us that “the seamen here are generally reputed excellent sailors, and show themselves very dexterous and bold in going off to ships in distress. It is a thousand pities that they and the country people are so apt to pilfer stranded ships, and abuse those who have already suffered so much. This they themselves call by the name of Paultring, since nothing sure can be more vile and base than, under pretence of assisting the distressed masters, and saving theirs and the merchant’s goods, to convert them to their own use by making what they call Guile-shares

The same authority writes of Kingsgate as “a pleasant little Vill, and consisting mostly of fishermen’s houses, who get their living here by fishing, going off to ships in distress, or carrying them fresh provisions, beer, &c., when they pass this way on their return from a voyage, which they call by the name of Foying  But of late it is pretty much deserted.”

But the poet’s irony is not yet exhausted, for he continues:— •

“Here reign the blustering North and blighting East,
No tree is heard to whisper, bird to sing,
Yet Nature could not furnish out the feast,
Art he invokes, new horrors yet to bring.

Here mould’ring fanes and battlements arise,
Turrets and arches nodding to their fall,
Unpeopled monastries delude our eyes,
And mimic desolation covers all.”

The blustering North and blighting East still reign, and reign supreme in their season, and as to the latter wind, a resident may safely copy in his diary during the late sprng for some days in advance the entry ascribed to an American, “Lat. same, Long, same, Wind same.”

But the condition of things referred to in the second line of the verse were clearly capable of being changed by human agency, and much pleasure was realised in planting numerous trees and shrubs that they might be “heard to whisper and birds to sing ” In close proximity to the house. Early in the spring of i860 the services of Mr. Masters, of Canterbury, a skilful landscape gardener, were requisitioned to lay out the garden, and for the encouragement of bird life, or as the late Professor Owen expressed it, “refreshment for the orchestra,” a fountain with a shallow basin was provided at which they might drink and take their morning tub.

During the summer months, especially in dry seasons, this fountain has been thronged for years with the various species of bird life in the island. The partridge, whose life is yearly becoming more precarious and his venue more restricted in this neighbourhood, will venture there in the early morning, and the coy woodpigeon at intervals during the day, after carefully reconnoitring the scene to satisfy herself that no danger is likely to attend her hurried drink. Perhaps the birds which convey to an observer the impression of deriving the greatest amount of pleasure from the proffered facilities for a bath, are starlings and wagtails, but all the passerine tribe, both residents, and summer visitors to the locality, come ceaselessly throughout the day.

For thirty-three years the late owner had the pleasure of watching the gradual growth of the garden he had made, and from time to lime extended, at first visiting it in the summer months, but in recent years as frequently as professional engagements would permit, and each year as it brought an increase of growth brought with it also an additional interest in the home.

It was here on August 7th, 1888, a day of brilliant sunshine, and wholly in keeping with the occasion, he celebrated his Golden Wedding-Day, and it was not until seven years later that symptoms of failing health in his beloved life-partner first pointed to a coming dissolution of the long and happy alliance, and during the following year, 1896, they both passed peaceably away in the home they had made and been so long permitted to enjoy, death dividing them but for the short space of six months.

The energy of purpose and devotion to work which had characterised his long professional career, and which showed but little sign of having become impaired by any of the infirmities which a life of fourscore years proverbially brings in its train, was maintained during leisure hours in painting in his study at the foot of the garden, and several of his pictures in the opinion of qualified critics bear evidence of a strong artistic talent.

With this short allusion to the country home, the author feels that his attempt to review this long career, however imperfectly performed, should close, but it is hoped that enough has been written in the pages of this small book to satisfy the reader that the life was one of the many, which have little by little but continuously, been assisting in the great progress of the country during the sixty years of Her Majesty’s glorious reign, and that it has been of some marked and permanent service to mankind—as the result of an unremitting dedication both of time and talent in carrying into practical effect the aim of the Civil Engineering profession, as expressed in the words of their charter of 1824, “The Art of Directing the Great Sources of Power in Nature for the Use and Convenience of Man.”


 

 


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