Literary Links, Discover Sir George Newnes…On Our Shelves!

To celebrate the life of Charles Kingsley a few years ago we traced the local links between him and PG Wodehouse via Rudyard Kipling and H H Munro (aka Saki). However, these are not the only Literary Links in North Devon.

On this day in 1851 George Newnes was born in Matlock, Derbyshire, the youngest of six children of Thomas, a Congregational Minister, and Sarah Newnes. After completing his schooling, he became a warehouseman, before moving to Manchester where he started his publishing career.

North Devon Journal 16th June 1910 page 2

In October 1881, he began publishing Tit-Bits newspaper selling out all of his original 5,000 print run. Over the next few years his circulation increased to around 850,000 this led him to greater success and a larger audience when he established The Review of Reviews, The Westminster Gazette and The Strand Magazine. His career went from strength to strength and in 1885 he was asked to stand for election as MP for the Liberals in Newmarket which he won with a comfortable margin.

Two years later he and his wife Priscilla, visited friends, Sir Thomas and Lady Hewitt, at their house in Lynton. This would be the beginning of his association with Lynton and North Devon. “The first fruits of his association with Lynton were found in the construction of the Cliff Railway – a railway which at that period was unique. The road connecting Lynton with Lynmouth is of a severe gradient, and it was because he saw the distress caused to the horses in climbing the hill that Sir George looked about for a readier means of communication. The result was a Cliff Railway that is a triumph of engineering ingenuity.” [NDJ 16th June 1910 page 2]

The Cliff Railway scheme had been in the pipeline for some time before the Newnes’ first visit to the area but had foundered for various reasons until he came along. It was his funds and impetus which saw the Cliff Railway become a reality, using local architect and builder Bob Jones. The Cliff Railway was primarily used to transport goods and heavy items, including cars, but was soon used as a means of transporting people between Lynton and Lynmouth. It has been in almost constant use ever since and more recently has been used to improve communications of another sort when super-fast internet cabling was laid next to the tracks.

Cliff Railway [Birchall Bx3-045]

In the early year whenever he and Priscilla visited, they would rent a house to stay in but in 1890 he purchased Hollerday Hill and began the process of building his own countryside hideaway. The house itself was built between 1893 and 1895 at an estimated cost of £20,000 “With Beautifully laid out surrounding grounds comprising about 400 acres” [NDJ 7th August 1913]. He again turned to the services of Bob Jones as architect and builder for the house which was built in the Elizabethan style and had “21 bedrooms, bathrooms, principal and secondary staircases, a spacious lounge hall, four receptions rooms, and a billiard room.” [NDJ 7th August 1913]. Over the years the house would see many a rich and famous visitor stay there including, Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in September 1902.

Following his death, the house would eventually be put up for sale by his son, Frank. However, the sale was interrupted when the house was destroyed by fire in 1913. “That Hollerday House was deliberately set on fire on Monday night was not the slightest doubt is entertained, and there is a strong suspicion that the crime was the work of Suffragists. The mansion having been unoccupied and unfurnished for some time, no fires had been lit in any of the rooms for some months.” [NDJ 7th August 1913]

After funding and building both the Cliff Railway and his own house on Hollerday Hill, Sir George as he had become, turned his attention to another Railway which would link Lynton with Barnstaple. Sir George, was the Chairman of the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway Company from the beginning and they used local, Barnstaple man, Charles Edward Roberts Chanter, as their solicitor. Chanter’s brother, Frank was the company’s engineer. Both Charles and Frank were also very involved with the North Devon Athenaeum along with their father, John Roberts Chanter. Charles was one of our first Trustees, while John Roberts was one of our first Directors. Frank was not only one of our Directors but also acted as Honorary Secretary to the Board and Honorary Librarian for a time when Haslehurst Greaves left his post under a cloud.

Building of the Railway started sometime after the 27th June 1895 when an act allowing the railway to be built was passed. The honour of cutting the first sod was given to Lady Newnes and the railway was completed in 1898. It was officially opened with great fanfare on 11th May 1898. Chanter had been elected as Mayor for Barnstaple the previous November with the knowledge he would be called upon to oversee the opening in Barnstaple. Both Chanter and Newnes were to play significant part in the opening day celebrations with large crowds at Lynton and Barnstaple stations and speeches being given at many of the stations along the route.

Opening of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway 11th May 1898 [Birchall Bx 3-025]

In Bratton Fleming, the Chair of the Parish Council, Rev. P J Wodehouse was the man called upon to give the address. A few years later Newnes’ Tit-Bits and later on The Strand Magazine would publish works by Wodehouse’s nephew, P.G. Wodehouse who would often spend school holidays with is aunts and uncles.

Bratton Fleming Station, Lynton & Barnstaple Railway 11th May 1898 [Birchall Bx3-030]

When the train arrived in Lynton the celebrations were no less extravagant or auspicious with the foundation stone of Lynton’s new town hall being laid by Mrs Jeune and Lady Newnes just one part of the official events. The day finished “Through the generosity of Sir George Newnes, a fireworks display on Hollerday Hill at night formed a memorable conclusion to the day’s festivities. The display was the most elaborate and expensive ever known in North Devon.” [NDJ 12th May 1898 page 8]

The Town Hall was another of Sir George Newnes’ gifts to Lynton and Lynmouth. The Town Hall was completed in 1900 and opened on 15th August. He was also responsible for laying out the cricket pitch and building a pavilion, starting a badminton club in the Town Hall, paid towards the golf links at Caffins Down and in 1909, gave land adjoining the esplanade in Lynmouth for pleasure grounds. He was also a supporter of both the local Rifle Club and the Boy Scouts. [NDJ 16th June 1910 page 2]

In 1903 he was approached by his friend, Bob Jones and members of the local Congregationalist Chapel to see if he would give a donation to the building of a new chapel in Lee Road to replace the old one on Sinai Hill. Sir George’s response was to pay for the whole project with a larger budget to boot! Unsurprisingly, Bob Jones was the architect for the new Chapel which opened in 1904.

North Devon Journal 12th May 1898 page 8

In 1909 Sir George, who had had been diagnosed with diabetes, was advised by his doctor to rest, so naturally he chose to come down to his house in North Devon. He died at Hollerday House on 9th June 1910. His funeral was held on the 13th June in Lynton and was attended by many friends and family as well as representatives of his many publications. Amongst those who attended his funeral was another well-known local man, Sir Francis Carruthers Gould. Gould was an assistant editor for the Westminster Gazette to which he would also contribute political caricatures and cartoons. Gould had also collaborated with another local and Westminster Gazette contributor, Hector H Munro (aka Saki) on the Westminster Alice which was published by the Gazette in 1902.

Sir George Newnes was laid to rest in the cemetery in Lee Road in the closet corner to his beloved Hollerday Hill.

Further Reading:

There are several articles in the North Devon Journal and the North Devon Herald covering the Cliff Railway, Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, Lynton Town Hall and Sir George Newnes. There are also several books about Lynton and Lynmouth which include chapters on Newnes and the Railways, including An Illustrated History of Lynton and Lynmouth by John Travis [D900/LYN/TRA] and Lynton and Lynmouth: Glimpses of the Past by John Travis [D900/LYN/TRA]. We also have copies of The Strand Magazine and The Westminster Alice by H.H. Munro and F.C. Gould [D823/MUN] as well as books on Derbyshire, where Newnes was born and other areas of Britain associated with him in our general section of our Library Collection. You can search for many of these items on our online catalogue.

…Barum Athena

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