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