Dawlish; an Author’s Pilgrimage.

 

The Author

The Author at Dawlish

One of the  true joys of writing narrative  non-fiction is visiting all the places associated with the story. Of  course the research for  my book,  The Water Doctor’s Daughters,  took me to Paris (such a chore..ha ha)  Hastings and St Leonards,  Malvern and Cheltenham.  Accompanied  by my  partner Rob;  who is also my chauffeur and  photographer  I also spent time in Oxford and Worcester, reading journals and newspapers and tracing the lives of all those involved.

However, one place  we had not made a pilgrimage to until recently was Dawlish, on the south coast of Devon. It was to this small town that  the girls’ maternal uncle, the Reverend John Rashdall,  retired  in 1864.

Dr James  Marsden

Dr James Marsden

 

 

The Rev. John Rashdall

The Rev. John Rashdall

He became the much loved  vicar of St Gregory’s Anglican church. It was Rashdall who Dr James Loftus Marsden  had  sent to Paris to investigate when rumours that his  daughters were being ill-treated by their governess arose in 1853.  Rashdall also testified at the Paris trials in 1855, after the governess, Mlle Doudet,  was tried over the deaths of two of the five young  girls.

Some years later  (1864) the  Marsden girls’ brother James sought refuge at the vicarage with his uncle and Godfather after he was court-martialed and dismissed from the  Royal Navy  for drunkenness .  And it was here that Rashdall died suddenly  in 1869, still lamenting his part in the tragedy that befell his  beloved nieces.  Rashdall’s widow Emily donated the church’s fine stone pulpit in his memory.

Pulpit dedicated to the memory of the Rev. John Rashdall.

Pulpit dedicated to the memory of the Rev. John Rashdall.

St Gregory’s is open every morning from 9.30am until 11.30am.

Lines from John Betjeman’s poem, ‘Dawlish’  came to mind when we left the churchyard to explore the sea-front;

Red cliffs rising where the wet sands run,

Gulls reflecting in the sharp spring sun;

The sea-front rail line designed by Brunel provides passengers with spectacular coastal views.

The sea-front rail line designed by Brunel provides passengers with spectacular coastal views.

Rob and I  reflected too, as we stood on the pedestrian overpass admiring the view while waiting for a train to emerge from the railway station.   We chatted  about the journey we have  been on since I stumbled upon the story of the water-doctor’s family several years ago.   The town is famous for this  train  line (designed by Isambard Brunel) which  hugs the shore so tightly.  No doubt the surviving Marsden sisters (Emily, Rosa and Alice) travelled on it while visiting their aunt and uncle and  their young Rashdall cousins.  Next visit I’m going to ride on it myself.

Editor Des dreams of going to sea!

A delightful view of Dawlish. Who is that bear?

 

Fortunately the great engineer preserved access to the seafront via an aqueduct.Afterwards we received a very warm reception at the local library. I was amused to read that  in 1802 Jane Austen spent an extended holiday in the town , though she wrote of the  ‘…particularly pitiful and wretched library.’  Well, things have certainly  changed for the better!  There is also an interesting museum. It doesn’t open  for the year until May 1st but  as I approached, the door miraculously opened.  I  was ushered in to speak to one of the volunteers about the Rev. Rashdall.   Once again  I was met by great interest in the story behind the Water Doctor’s Daughters, and the  book’s connection to Dawlish.  We are hoping to collaborate in raising awareness of  John Rashdall and his place in the history of the town.

I found the whole experience of visiting Dawlish very moving.  Perhaps I should close this piece by returning to St Gregory’s. After the Reverend Rashdall’s death, local parishioners  and  those from his earlier  congregations in Exeter, London and Malvern,  subscribed towards  a marble tomb for a man revered as a peacemaker.  Of course his body was interred in the churchyard  long before it was completed, and to the dismay of his widow, members of the ‘high’ and ‘low’ church factions   began to squabble  over his  plot.  The high  or ‘Romish’  faction turned it into a bower of flowers centred by a moss covered cross which the austere  ‘Protestants’  considered unseemly, and promptly  destroyed. Emily Rashdall was so upset  by the dispute that she  soon sold off the contents of the vicarage and moved her family to Cheltenham.  Ironically, the grave is now surrounded by rank weeds and stinging nettles.  I suspect the evangelistic  Rashdall considers this a fitting penance for having (certainly in his own mind)  badly let down his nieces after they were sent to Paris with their governess in 1852.’

The Water Doctor’s Daughters is available through major UK bookstores and on-line sites world-wide.  It is also available as an ebook.

WDDBookCover

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ AN ARTICLE  ABOUT CHARLES DICKENS AND THE MARSDEN CASE, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

8 Comments
  1. I noticed that Editor Des got in one of the frames yet again. That boy’s such an exhibitionist!

    • Pauline

      Yes, I was most annoyed. Dr Bob said he could Photoshop him out but I was in a bit of a hurry. At least the wretched waifs weren’t in the shot!

  2. Hi Pauline. I’ve only been to Dawlish a couple of times and haven’t seen the church. I will make a point of going back there now.

    • Pauline

      It’s a few minutes walk from the centre of town, which is probably why you missed it. The staff at the Tourist Office will give you a free street map.x

  3. Pauline, I have enjoyed reading your post over the last few months. I am anxious to read The Water Doctor’s Daughter but it has not yet been released here in the States – at least I have not been able to find it yet. Hope you and Rob are happy and well.

    • Hello Gail,

      Glad you are enjoying my little stories. The book is to be released in Australia in May, but I’m not sure about the US. Will probably be on Amazon US shortly.

      Meanwhile it’s available at http://www.bookdepository.co.uk , which includes free postage worldwide.

      Rob and I are are having a very busy but exciting time here in England. Was so lovely to see Caroline and Bill at the launch..all the way from Wales! We hope to catch up with them again soon in Marlow. Are you planning any more trips over here??

  4. Oooooo, it looks lovely! 🙂

    xx

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