SYKEFIELD, Westcotes Drive

(formerly the home of Frederick William Harris)
A commentary by Miss Mary Neilson

The Westcotes Estate, formerly in the possession of the Ruding family since 1558, was sold, in 1821, to Thomas Freer, Clerk of the Peace, with office in New Street. His son sold it in 1843 to Joseph Harris, the last owner.

The mansion known as Westcotes, was sited in the area now occupied by Cranmer Street, and it was the home of Joseph Harris until 1886 when much of the estate was sold and the house demolished.

The eldest son, Joseph, had taken Holy Orders and was Vicar of Sheepy. The second son, Samuel, a solicitor with his father, had a growing family for which he built “Westcotes Grange” in the mid 1870’s (since the l920’s a maternity hospital, now a psychiatric assessment unit).

Then a ‘smaller’ house was built for the youngest son, William, who, though qualified as a solicitor, never practised as he was almost totally deaf. He never married and lived at Sykefield till his death.

The Grange was lived in until just before the First World War by Samuel, one surviving son and four unmarried daughters. This son also remained a bachelor and moved into Sykefield on selling The Grange, so this house was for the greater part of its existence the home of an uncle and nephew.

The nephew was my uncle. He occupied Sykefield for almost thirty years. I was a regular visitor from the late twenties when I accompanied my parents on their annual visit, until the late forties when I left for war service in India.

The house was built to meet the needs of my great-uncle who, being deaf, had an almost phobic fear of fire or burglary. It was to delay the spread of the former (should it have occurred) that he ordered the teak staircase which was such a great feature of the house. The teak is supposed to have come straight from Burma and is the slowest burning wood there is.

Similarly, the tiny leaded French windows were partitioned with very solid bars. It was impossible even on a hot summer’s day to put your arm out above the elbow. Although this may have been protection against an intruder it meant that in spite of the slow-burning teak staircase, you were trapped inside should there have been a fire!

There were special times in the year for visiting my uncle at Sykefield to help him to consume certain delicacies! My mother often went in May when the asparagus was best. This had been transplanted from Westcotes Grange and was exceptionally succulent. The produce of the greenhouses was at its best in August - green figs with pink insides, and on alternate years peaches or nectarines – never both together! My uncle picked these himself after tea and before the ‘dressing’ gong. If more were ripe than could be eaten that evening or at the latest for breakfast next morning, a basket was tastefully arranged and despatched to Canon Raby at the Vicarage of The Martyrs. These were usually delivered by ‘Ellingworth’ who served the family for over sixty years, starting as a groom aged eighteen at The Grange and eventually becoming coachman.

During the 1914-18 War he worked in a munitions factory in Leicester, returning to Mr Harris, who still had two horses, in the 1920’s. He lived on (in the lodge to Sykefield) until he and his master were both in their eighties. No-one thought of his leaving or retiring. He fetched the evening and Sunday papers, took out “Tim” the brindle cairn terrier for ‘walkies’, cleaned shoes and did other odd jobs. Latterly, as a widower he was given his meals in the kitchen at Sykefield.

The last time my uncle came downstairs was to see Ellingworth, who had called. My uncle was adamant that Ellingworth could not be expected to mount those slippery stairs!

Up to the end of the First World War there were pigs in the piggeries outside where the small ground floor rooms have now been added. They included a large quantity of iron work, which was removed in 1940 together with the beautiful wrought iron gates at the foot of the drive, to aid the war effort.

The rose garden was my uncle’s special pride. Here again he liked to pick his own blooms and snip off dead-heads in the leisured hour or two between tea and dinner.

As long as I can remember my parents went to Sykefield early in August to play tennis, eat peaches, and my father, to ride. At that time there was a paddock where the poplar trees form a boundary with the houses backing on the garden. My first visit was not until my mid-teens when I was judged mature enough to come down to dinner in the evening.

It was nine o clock or thereabouts when we retired to the library for coffee and liqueurs. I was allowed one small cup of weak coffee (no liqueur!) and then Elizabeth came to the door and called me by name. I was bidden to rise instantly, say goodnight, and expected to follow her upstairs.

At that time (the late twenties) Sykefield was lit by gas and candles only. It was with candles that latterly my uncle would see me to my room, the first on the right at the top of the stairs, known as the “Blue Room”.

The telephone made a late entry into Sykefield – it was installed in the Library. I recall being reprimanded for seeking to answer a call and being told “If you are required you will be sent for, such urgency demonstrates a vulgar curiosity.”

Looking back with detachment, life at Sykefield was before all things ordered and peaceful. There was never any uncertainty. The times of rising and retiring, the meal times were fixed immutably. If changes were made, they were announced well in advance. Sunday lunch-time was occasionally moved because Cook needed to get a particular ‘bus to Nottingham for an afternoon off. Dinner in summer was half an hour later to allow more time for tennis.

Comparatively late on in his life my uncle acquired a ‘wireless’ or, as we now call it, a radio. He woke from his siesta to listen to the Bournemouth concerts in mid-afternoon on Sunday, and followed ‘Evensong’ with a prayer book long after his neuritis made it too painful for him to sit through a church service.

One night a week in winter he changed his dinner hour, to the undisguised amusement of his domestic staff to whom he had confessed a partiality for “Gert and Daisy”, the comic chorus girls. Familiar as he was with the Music Halls of the nineties, they recalled his youth. “Fancy, Miss”, a housemaid said to me, “the Master likes Gert and Daisy!” My mother was not surprised.

In those days “The Week’s Good Cause” was always on a Sunday evening after the Service. From the time he had a radio he also listened to that programme with unfailing regularity and, with equal regularity (unless on a rare occasion he disapproved of “the cause”) he contributed most generously to it.

One summer his sight was threatened and he had, on doctor’s orders, to give up smoking. His sight was, in fact, so badly affected that his reading and writing were very restricted. It was that year that he called on me to write out the cheques in response to the appeals – duly signing them himself. Posted early on Monday morning, he expected an acknowledgement by Thursday at least. If this did not arrive, I was instructed to write and ask if his donation had arrived, and if he did not hear from them by a certain date, he would stop payment on his cheque.

My uncle died in 1950 at Sykefield, and I am sure he would approve of it now being used for social needs in the community.

This commentary on life at Sykefield was provided by Miss Mary G C Neilson, grand-daughter of Samuel Harris of The Grange, and a niece of Frederick William Harris, now living in Edinburgh.

© T R Plant, 1990


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