A blog written by Museum Remote Volunteer Amanda Ciccone.
We have all seen them and signed them on museum visits: a visitors book
“Loved the exhibition!”
“Greetings from (insert some far or near city)”
But did you know that, in the not-so-distant past, you might have signed a visitors book when visiting someone’s home?
A visitors book, bound in red leather with gold details, was uncovered at Epping Forest District Museum, and contains signatures from 1925 and 1926 of certain recognisable names. A short history of the book is told on its inscription page: it was used “at Hill Hall during the time of Sir Robert and Lady Hudson, and which records, among others, the Visit of Queen Mary on 29th June 1926”. The inscription also describes how the book was badly damaged in “the fire which destroyed much of the House on 18/19th April 1969…but (was) fortunately recovered”. Afterwards, the book was repaired at Wormwood Scrubs prison, where it presumably stayed until it was given to the museum.
History confirms that there was, indeed, a fire at Hill Hall in 1969, and the pages themselves show evidence of smoke damage. By then, however, Sir Robert and Lady Hudson had long been out of Hill Hall; the property had become a POW camp in WWII, and after that, a women’s prison.
Sir Robert Arundell Hudson (1864-1927) was secretary of a political organisation of the time, the National Liberal Federation. During his tenure, he saw the victory of the Liberal Party in the general election of 1906, which led to his knighthood. He married Mary (1867-1963) in 1923, which was, for both, a second marriage. Born Mary Milner, she was previously married to Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper and publishing mogul who was, in fact, a proprietor of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror.
Sir Robert and Lady Mary were newly married by the time they were accepting visitors at Hill Hall, but the marriage was not destined to be long-lasting; Sir Robert passed away in Berlin in 1927.
What do we know about the signatures themselves? Some were of politicians and military leaders & members such as Godfrey P. Collins (Liberal Party politician), Vivian Bulkeley-Johnson (amongst other professional experiences, was aide-de-camp to a Governor General of Canada and served in the Air Ministry), Bernard Freyberg (Governor-General of New Zealand), and Augustine Birrell (Liberal Party politician, and Chief Secretary for Ireland). Other interesting figures are Berkeley Levett, a witness of an event called the Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1890, and Sybil Middleton Grey, a philanthropist and Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Recognisable to mainstream culture we have Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book, along with his wife, Caroline (or “Carrie” as she calls herself in the visitors book).
What could they have been doing at Hill Hall? These meetings were likely professional as Sir Robert and many of his visitors were in the political sphere. Sir Robert’s party, though, had declined by the mid-1920s, the Conservatives occupying the majority in Parliament. Furthermore, this was the Interwar Era, a charged period characterised by major cultural shifts and evolving social attitudes towards class and the aristocracy. Also, of note, women had recently been granted the right to vote[i] and the right to run for office as a Member of Parliament[ii]. It is interesting to consider, then, how these big changes, whether or not they directly affected the lives of Sir Robert, Lady Mary and their visitors, influenced the discussions that took place at Hill Hall, or if they only provided fodder for small talk.
The visitors book itself has an intriguing trajectory, originating at a private manor-turned-prison, surviving a fire, then going to another prison, and finally landing at the museum. Its signatures document a brief period, within a new marriage, nestled between two major world wars, an impending economic depression, and cultural & societal revolutions, making this visitors book a true snapshot in time.
[i] Albeit only under certain conditions, under the Representation of the People Act of 1918. It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women and men had equal rights to vote.
[ii] Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act of 1918