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Links with the author of Mehalah.. Sybil Brand talks to an old lady now 90, whose parents were friends of Baring Gould. Mrs Isabella Dawson née Wilson of the Old Vicarage, East Mersea.
Swinburne once compared "Mehalah", Sabine Baring Gould's Essex marshland romance, with "Wuthering Heights". Other critics thought it had more than a touch of Thomas Hardy. I've always thought the opening picture of the marshes with their sea pinks, purple sea lavender, the sea aster and the flooding tides, worthy of comparison with Hardy's description of the reddle man crossing Egdon Heath in "The Return of the Native."
Mrs Isabella Dawson, née Wilson, of the Old Vicarage, West Mersea, whom I've recently met, is a direct link with the Baring Goulds. She's 87, and was only one year old when the writer left Mersea, but her parents were regular visitors at East Mersea Rectory. It's fascinating to trace the links which brought her to this area.
Mrs Dawson's grandfather Fredk Hayman Wilson, was sent home from India when he was six to be educated in England. When he grew up he visited an uncle who had shooting at Peldon and there he met his future wife, Hannah Tiffin, born at North Farm, East Mersea. Hannah belonged to a large family (she was the twelfth child) so when the thirteenth was born her aunt, Miss Hannah Clark, adopted her.
Mrs Dawson tells me "Their wedding was kept up for a week in a marquee on the Bowling Green, a lovely open space where we used to play cricket, with a sloping mound, covered with trees and blackberry bushes at the back."
This spot is on the beach just west of East Mersea Stone. It was once, Mrs Dawson says, used for playing bowls. "Now it is just sand and shingle and not so many trees."
At Aunt Hannah Clark's death she left the former Hannah Tiffin two farms, some cottages and the Dog and Pheasant.
Mrs Dawson was born in a Grace and Favour house in Charles Square, North London. Being a building of historic interest, once lived in by Nell Gwynn, it has survived demolition and now stands alone in the square surrounded by blocks of flats.
"We had a nice square with lovely trees in front, but at the back were horrible slums." Because of these surroundings little Isabella and her brothers and sisters were sent to East Mersea with a governess for the summer.
Very often the parents joined them. "They knew the Baring Goulds well but said they didn't enjoy going to the Rectory for a meal as they were never sure whether they might be eating frogs' legs or snails!"
No doubt the Reverend Sabine acquired his taste for French cookery on his many visits to the Continent. He still kept them up while at East Mersea. In his "Further Reminiscences" Baring Gould mentions Mrs Cockrell, the wife of a prominent farmer. The Cockrells lived at East Mersea Hall and he says the name is a Huguenot name corrupted from Coquerelle. When Fred Cockrell, their son (who afterwards became Mrs Dawson's brother-in-law) was taken to church as a small boy, and ushered into one of the high square pews he said: "They put us in a horse box and shut the door."
Baring Gould wasn't in sympathy with his parishioners and neighbours in East Mersea, but he does mention an intelligent farmer named Cant he describes as a strong dissenter.
Any visitor to West Mersea entering the Union Church will see on the right-hand side of the pulpit a marble tablet to the memory of Samuel Cant: "For 51 years Deacon of this Church. Died January 1898 in his 90th year."
This was the "strong dissenter" and, as a child, Mrs Dawson knew him well. The owner of Ivy House Farm, a widow named Agnis, married her foreman, a man named Cant. Samuel was their son.
Samuel Cant's wife was an invalid confined to a red-curtained four-poster bed and the Wilson children were encouraged to play in the farmyard where she could see them.
Mr Cant was also a strong Radical living among Tory farmers. He knew his own mind. At one election his fellow farmers painted his horse and gig blue. That didn't deter him from voting. He rode behind his blue horse in his blue gig and voted yellow.
Afterwards the small child Isabella was given a tiny brush to help clean the horse's legs. She says now most of the paint wouldn't come off. It had to wear off.
I could find no mention of Mehalah as a person in "Further Reminiscences" but there was a real Mehalah in East Mersea. She was Mehalah Baker, daughter of a retired sailor who lived on a barge moored on East Mersea shore.
Mehalah's mother, a gentle woman, died and Mehalah married a soldier. After that Mrs Dawson knew no more of her, but her father went to the Isle of Man to find his second wife, a real fishwife.
She was a big woman with an enormous voice for shouting her wares: fish she got from Colne smacks and offered for sale from a barrow wheeled round Mersea. Her headgear was always a stiff shiny black hat fastened with tape under her chin.
Baring Gould does speak approvingly of one neighbour, the Rev A. Pertwee of Brightlingsea.
Mrs Dawson says of him "He was not a talker but a doer. A hospital ship stationed in the Colne had three sailors put aboard suffering from smallpox. No nurse could be found but Mr Pertwee went aboard and looked after them till they went to Colchester Hospital.
"He was unmarried and his housekeeper had quite a trouble looking after him. If a poor person came to the door he would give his meals or anything he could."
Thought to be from Essex County Standard c1967 - cutting from Heather Haward scrapbook.
Photo: Mersea Museum - Heather Haward Collection
Image ID HH01_026_001
This image is part of the Mersea Museum Collection.