Eliza Brightwen

Dedicated to the memory of Roy Abbott
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The Tulip Tree

Eliza's Pets

Mrs Brightwen's Last Will and Testament.

Mrs Brightwen's Funeral.

Take a Tour around Eliza's Grove

Elderslie, Magpie Road, Bushey Heath.The Grove Estate, approximately 170 acres, was purchased by George and Eliza Brightwen. George Brightwen was a banker employed by the London Discount Company. Prior to purchasing The Grove they had rented a house since 1863 in Bushey Heath, called `Elderslie' with an acre of garden, owned by John Kelk who occupied Bentley Priory. The Brightwen's had originally moved out of London in the summer months for the country air, as Eliza Brightwen suffered for most of her life with acute bodily illness and fatigue which was aggravated by mental distress. 

Soon after purchasing The Grove, the house was completely remodeled. George Brightwen employed the services of a Mr Brightwen Binyon, A.R.I.B.A. to redesign the house. The following description of The Grove house was printed in The Edgware Recorder on the 14th March 1891:-

The Grove House

`The building is what is called a timber-framed house, with two projecting gables at either end of the main building, so that the main roof between these gables stands back several feet. 
On this recessed portion of the building, the chief centre of the elevation has been centred and there have been introduced some very beautiful terra cotta, representing the four cardinal and the three Christian virtues, all designed specially for this work by Mr Walter Lonsdale, and modelled by Mons. Kremer. Charity, which is the greatest, is placed in the centre, and is represented by a female caressing an infant. Faith bears a chalice, and Hope on a throne holding a bridle, and on either side standing figures, an artisan and a writer, implying that Temperance should moderate both word and deed. 
Fortitude is armed with a sword, and is supported by a solder and a fisherman, denoting that courage is needed both in warfare and peaceful pursuits, both by land and by water. Justice holds a balance, and is supported by a king and a councillor, indicating the legislative and executive functions that should be guided by her. Prudence bears the emblem of a serpent and a dove, the exercise of this virtue at home and aboard being symbolized by the supporting figures of a merchant and a traveller.

The eaves above the before-named figure project about two feet, the space under filled with a deep covered freize, in white Parian cement which, is covered with beautifully modelled conventional scroll work on either side of a centre panel, containing the Brightwen crest. The other portions of the building are covered with light timber framing, filled in with Portland cement, rough cast, of a bluish-gray tint. At the west end of the building is a large conservatory with rock-work and fernery, with drip and fountain in a recess at the back. This is designed in character with the house, and can be entered from the drawing room. Much regard has been paid to the combination of colour in the treatment of this structure, which has resulted in an extremely harmonious whole, and viewed as a work of art or a domestic dwelling, we do not know that there is any house in the neighbourhood which is at all similar in style.'

Eliza Brightwen, Edmond Gosse & Family.The following extraction has been taken from the introduction to Eliza Brightwen, The Life and Thoughts of a Naturalist written by her nephew Edmond Gosse

`For most of the time Eliza Brightwen had little opportunity of enjoying the amenities of the house or gardens. Her nervous system broke down completely, and on several occasions her death appeared to be imminent. After she had been many years in this suffering condition, George, her husband, became ill, and her anxiety for him acted upon her as a stimulant. As he grew more helpless she roused her faculties to wait upon his needs, and in her alarm her own sufferings diminished. On the 15th of February 1883 George Brightwen died of angina pectoris, and his widow was left to inhabit The Grove alone. It was feared by her physicians that the excitement and distress involved in her bereavement would be fatal to the surviving invalid, but this was not the case. On the contrary, fresh responsibilities and a sense of freedom combined to rouse the faculties of the sufferer, and unconsciously she began to recover an interest in life and a happy curiosity in the movement of natural objects. It is now that her real existence began, and the change is strikingly seen in the very different tone of the diary when it is resumed in 1892.

It should perhaps be stated, lest there may be any ambiguity about the matter, that during the worst years of her ill-health Mrs Brightwen's mental condition was never in the slightest degree clouded. Indeed, it was almost to be regretted that her lucidity of thought and power of self-analysis continued to be so acute that they greatly added to her torment. What was definitely her disease could not be discovered, and it remained a mystery to the last. She grew so weak that she would faint four or five times a day, and pant for her breath as though she were dying. She could not travel; she could scarcely stir from room to room, or move herself even an inch one way or the other without excruciating pain. This was combined with utmost languor, weariness and depression of spirits. Even after 1883 Mrs Brightwen was still liable to recurrences to these very puzzling and alarming attacks, but they never again paralysed her intellectual life as they had done from 1872 to 1882, and they even were, for long and happy periods, no more than a subject of apprehension and a cause for care.

Mrs Brightwen then, in the solitude of her new life, turned for consolation to the silent society about her. As her physical strength increased she ventured to explore her lawns and shrubberies; she dared still further, into her woods and meadows; she wandered around her lake, and even, in a broad boat, upon it; she actually quitted her domain and explored the densely-wooded common that hemmed it in upon two sides. She discovered in herself a remarkable gift of natural magic, which enabled her to win the confidence of beasts and birds, and perhaps, so she thought at least, of bees and butterflies. Nor did she confine herself to living creatures; she actively dissected and examined the dead; she extended her observations to the vegetable and the mineral world. Her pets increased till they formed almost a menagerie, and her specimens until a billiard-room was transformed into a crowded museum.

All this was done, from 1884 to 1889, without any definite intention further than that of satisfying a growing desire on the part of the eager naturalist. Her hours were adapted to her employments. Going into no society, she was able to rise at five in the morning by going to bed at nine in the evening, since her best investigations were carried through at early dawn. Notes of what she had seen and what she had done began to cumber a series of portfolios. It was then that it occurred to a member of her family who was accustomed to the making of books that the results of all this purely original work, carried out within limits so strictly defined, and owing nothing to previous literature, might, simply recorded, not fail of some welcome from the public. He laid the plan of a small volume before Mrs Brightwen, who, entirely unaccustomed to the art of writing, shrank from it at first in modest certainty of failure.

The idea, however, that she should record some of her adventures as a naturalist sank into her mind, and her family counsellor was soon pleased to observe that she was acting on his suggestion. Some chapters were presently submitted to him, and although the form of them was artless, the matter seemed delightful. Mrs Brightwen's modesty was equal to her ardour; she had none of the senseless vanity of the amateur; she saw that authorship, like any other trade, has to be learned, and she set herself assiduously to the task of arranging phrases, balancing sentences and building paragraphs. She was now in her sixtieth year, an age at which a new art is not easily learned, but her success has proved that she mastered at least all such elements of writing as are essential.

Her earliest volume, Wild Nature Won by Kindness, was offered very timidly to Mr Fisher Unwin, and, to the unbounded joy of the author, was immediately accepted. Every stage in the production of the little book was an ecstasy and an agony to the writer, whose fluctuations of hope and fear were amusing to witness.

Those who have been disenchanted by the chances of `literature,' and realise how frequent failure is, might well dread disappointment for so sensitive a novice. But Wild Nature Won by Kindness appeared at a fortunate moment. There was an impatience against the mechanical books of `chesnuts' about animals produced, for a few pounds, by people who did not know a hawk from a hand-saw, and the public were tired of such vain repetitions. All the stories in Mrs Brightwen's book were new, were true, had occurred under her personal observation, and were told with perfect naivete. Wild Nature was welcomed by the press with unanimous approval, and the `Saturday Review,' which was giving special attention to the study of Natural History, even made the little book a peg on which to hang an appeal for a revised and refreshed disposition of popular zoology. So welcomed, the volume slipped at once into favour of a very wide circle of readers.

This event, the sudden and surprising success of her first book, revolutionised the life of Mrs Brightwen. It gave her compact and defined interests, it spurred her on to fresh investigations, it introduced her to a host of friends. Her breakfast-table became loaded with the letters of strangers from all parts of England. She loved letter-writing, and she had plenty of leisure; she answered all her unknown friends, and more followed in their wake. We are never satisfied, even the most sensible of us; and Mrs Brightwen, who had always lamented that so few people cared about her, from 1890 onwards complained that she was crushed by the rising tide of her correspondence. It was burdensome, no doubt, to be invaded by so many inquiries; to be asked to take care of a chameleon while its mistress went abroad; to find a home for a badger which has lost its character by killing a neighbour's hens; to prescribe for a nightingale which had permanently lost its appetite; to explain the best way to send a live stag-beetle from Kent to Cumberland. Under such inflictions Mrs Brightwen would loudly and humorously mourn, and under the appeals for human sympathy and the less sentimental but even more insidious appeals for human coin. Yet I think that she would have mourned much more bitterly if she had been forced to go back to the old isolation, to the indifferent silence and apathy.

Occupied as she now was, and still very frequently troubled by ill-health, it was an immense comfort to her to have her hands supported by two close friends, who now and henceforth resided with her. One of these, Miss Jenkins was her elder; the other, Miss Verini, belonged to the younger generation, and was able, and devotedly willing, to expend her energies in shielding her friend as much as possible from needless disturbance and fatigue. It was also Mrs Brightwen's good fortune in securing as her Land Steward and factotum Mr John W.Odell, himself an accomplished botanist, who entered warmly into all Mrs Brightwen's interests as a naturalist and devoted his energies untiringly to her service.

The following extraction, written by Mr John Odell forms part of the introduction to The Life and Thoughts of a Naturalist.

`Mrs Brightwen's interest in Natural History was so very broad that it is extremely difficult to say in which department she shone the most, so that perhaps I shall better jot down my impressions under three headings of bird life, insect life and plant life. Before doing so I may point out what, after many years close association and observation, was very evident to me, that in all departments there was the same underlying motive in her research work; it was to thoroughly work out the life history of the bird, insect or plant that for the time was occupying her attention. Biology was something more than a mere acquaintance with few groups of life; it meant to Mrs Brightwen the whole history of her subject, and to acquire this no work was too tedious or trouble too great. Observations, experiments, cultures, drawings involving tedious and painstaking detail, and finally finished water-coloured paintings, were all means to an end. And when after weeks, and sometimes months, the end was attained, and the life history of some species made absolutely clear, then it was made simple to her readers by the explicit and clear, descriptive powers so well known to readers of her works on Natural History. As a naturalist Mrs Brightwen never cared for making large collections; the mere collecting and labelling with long technical names had no fascination for her. What she always aimed at was to have definite selections of typical forms, especially in the domain of Botany.'

Bird Life.

`To Mrs Brightwen birds were a perpetual pleasure. Her greatest interest in bird life was carefully to watch the pairing and nesting of lesser known birds that frequented the gardens and plantations of The Grove. One in particular, the lesser spotted woodpecker, she watched for several seasons before its breeding place in the gardens was found. Owls, too, interested her very much. The notes of the young owls she learned thoroughly, and one season in particular I spent many evenings with her in the gloaming watching the young brown owls with the field-glass. Winter feeding of the birds gave her a great insight into the habits and traits of otherwise shy birds, as then, and to a lesser extent at all times a large collection of birds were to be seen in front of the windows, in size ranging from a pheasant to the tiny tits; even the puny water-birds were enticed on to the lawn and under the tulip tree. 

Mrs Brightwen's interest in the birds was in no degree lessened by her keen interest in their anatomy. For many years all dead birds found on the estate were brought to the house, and then how carefully the head of the bird would be severed, boiled! And finally bleached.'

Insect Life.

`My impressions of Mrs Brightwen as an entomologist is somewhat limited but yet peculiar; insect life and my work with the trees and fruit were directly opposed to one another. I was for destroying as much as possible, and with the alternation of generations and other orderly sequence of insect life I had little sympathy. It was, however, as a coleopterist that I remember her, and as a consequence beetles both great and small were treated in the garden with reverence. Occasionally someone would find a rare specimen, and then would ensure on Mrs Brightwen's part a careful study of its habits. Here, as with other departments of Natural History, mere collecting of specimens was not indulged in; what arrived at was to study the life history and character of the species captured, and few things I know gave such pleasure as to receive a rare beetle from any of her friends. I was always enjoined when on my holidays to send any beetles home I came across. In this way Mrs Brightwen received beetles from the channel Isles, the scilly Isles, and some of the islands on the west coast of Scotland. In the grounds of The Grove she had a happy hunting-ground for the coleoptera, and few large stones or pieces of decaying wood were passed by without being turned over for specimens.'

Plant Life.

`It was in connection with plant life that I saw most of Mrs Brightwen as a naturalist. Her knowledge of plants was very wide, and the foundation for that knowledge was laid in her girlhood days, when she made a thorough and critical study of the British Flora, so that in after life any new plant was immediately placed in its proper order and class when seen. Her knowledge, too, of cryptogamic plants was peculiar; fungi, mosses and liverworts were an open book to her. How egerly she watched for the fruiting of liverworts; one in particular, the little pellia. Two or three years in April she found this in fruit first. `A feather in her cap,' she used to say, since I was always on the lookout to find it for her. She had a wonderful knowledge of the Orchidaceae, and a profound respect for the work of the late Mr Charles Darwin; with her collection of orchids many experiments of Mr Darwin were verified and repeated. The movements of the pollinia of such genera as Catasetum and Cycnoches were a never-failing source of interest to her. The propulsive power of the former genus, and the mechanism by which the pollinia are ejected, was fully investigated in the conservatory, and when these curious orchids were in flower her visitors were shown their wonders and the whole process demonstrated. Mrs Brightwen got together a large collection of Cypripedeae, and would demonstrate very clearly the wonderful modification these orchids had undergone; as flowers pure and simple Mrs Brightwen did not care for orchids, but to her they were a wonderful family of plants, showing that adaptation to environment so marked their aerial growth and so modified for the visits of insects. Of late years two studies in particular occupied what time she could devote to plant life. One was a collection of tree seedlings. Many were collected to illustrate the development of various trees, and many left to grow in the grounds, so their character and growth could be noted in due course. 

The other group in which she was interested was that little known and strange group of organisms, the Mycetozoa. The Grove, with its old woodland walks and numerous tree stumps, offered a wide field for the investigation of these low forms of life, and Mrs Brightwen worked out the full story of some of them. She would mark the movements of the swarm spores, noting their rate of movement and the creeping of the Amaeboia-like body, and finally would successfully collect the tiny spore cane (sporange), making frequently some delicate little sketch of the organism. 

Stemonitis fusca in its various stages was investigated in the wine-cellar, growing on an old piece of oak wood. I must not omit a brief reference to Mrs Brightwen's interest in vegetable physiology. The experiments described in her Glimpses into Plant Life were nearly all performed and verified before given to her readers, and as her assistant in this work I have a lively recollection of the thoroughness and accuracy that was demanded before the work was passed. More particularly do I remember the work on pollination; the patience and care bestowed on the visits of insects to some of the flowers described was wonderful. So, too, do I remember the good-humour and fun she would exhibit when some lumbering bumble-bee would fail to do as he was wanted. And there was the secret of Mrs Brightwen's success as a naturalist, for with all her intense interest in Nature she always saw the humorous side of things, and never failed to get, if not information, some fun out of the work in hand.'

I remember hearing Sir William Flower remark, with amusing archness, what a pity it was that so much was already known about the phenomena of Natural History, since it deprived Mrs Brightwen of the credit she deserved as a discoverer. But a discoverer she was, although it might be unfortunately true that in a scientific sense she mainly `discovered' what had already been known for a century. As regards her own mind, and her own attitude in approaching others, she was wholly original and independent. 

A trifling anecdote among a hundred may illustrate Mrs Brightwen's mobility of temperament, and also her essential vitality. She was over seventy years of age, and was lying in deep suffering and gloom on the sofa in her drawing room, when it was announced to her that the long-lost brood of her wild ducks had returned of their own free will and were at that moment walking in Indian file up the field below the farm. She instantly sprang to her feet, slipped out of the room, floated across the lawn, and laying her hand lightly on a stone vase beside the balustrade, leaped upon the parapet, from which she could command a broad view of the meadow. The action was that of a young girl of sixteen, and it was performed by an old lady who a moment before the most woe-begone of invalids.

With the success of her book Wild Nature Won by Kindness, Eliza Brightwen went on to write 5 more nature books More about Wild Nature, Rambles With Nature Students, Inmates in my House and Garden, Glimpses into Plant Life, and Quiet Hours With Nature. She also wrote many articles for The Girls Own Paper and Nature Notes, of which many can be found in the book Last Hours With Nature written posthumously and published in 1908. 

Many of the photographs used to illustrate Eliza Brightwen's books were taken by her coachman James Leversuch, James and his family lived over the coach house/stables as can be seen from the entry for The Grove on the1891 Census:-

James Leversuch & Family.Housemaids in Working ClothesHousemaids in Sunday Best.

The Grove
Eliza Brightwen Head aged 60 Living on own means
Mary A Jenkins Visitor aged 61  
A Verini Visitor aged 36  
Philip Gosse Nephew aged 11  
Frank F Boxall Servant aged 28 Under gardener Domestic
Benjamin Cox Servant aged 39 Butler
Eliza Benney Servant aged 45 Cook
Sarah Pugh Servant aged 41 Housemaid
Eva Butler Servant aged 20 Housemaid
Henrrietta Howard Servant aged 18 Housemaid
Robert Everett Visitor aged 46 accountant

Arthur Brown Head aged 29 Farm Servant
Mary Brown Wife aged 30  
Albert Brown Son aged 2  
Fredrick Brown Son aged 9 months  


Maria Fletcher Head aged 36 Widow
Martha Fletcher Daughter aged 13 School/Teacher
Sydney Fletcher Son aged 6 Scholar
2 Borders:      
A Cathrinoii   aged 22 Gardener
I Burjin   aged 20 Farm Labourer


Grove Farm
John Odell Head aged 33 Land Steward
Eliza Odell Wife aged 33  
Florence Odell Daughter aged 8 Scholar 
Fredrick Odell Son aged 5 Scholar
Ellen Odell Daughter aged 4  
Ernest Odell Son aged 1  
Sarah Rayner Servant aged 14 Domestic Servant

James Leversuch Head, Widower aged 54 Groom, Coachman
Rebecca A Lynn Niece aged 14 Domestic servant
George Childs Lodger aged 23 Groom
Walter Morris Lodger aged 16 Stable Boy

Another of Eliza Brightwens virtues was her caring thoughts and deeds for people less fortunate than her. She had her gardeners grow a mass of flowers that were sent into many of London's hospitals. The heads of roses were gathered to make pot-pourri sewn in muslin bags that were given out to the poor and sick. She would invite workers up from the London's factory's to spend a day with her at The Grove. Many of these events are detailed in Eliza's diary's, of which I include these extracts:-

Jan 10th 1893.- That poor man Woodhouse came yesterday at eight a.m. to begin the work I had promised him. He was sent from the house to the farm, and the bailiff set him to chop wood. After a time something led him to ask. "Have you had any breakfast?" "No, I hadn't anything to eat at home." Just to think what the poor suffer. He had to walk two miles through a cold thaw, came to the house where, no doubt, some good odours of servants' breakfast greeted him; cold and hungry as he is, he is sent away and quietly begins work. How should I have borne that? Badly, I am sure, feeling ill-used and cross. Well, the bailiff gave him a good breakfast, and he is to have all his meals at the house here, so he will do well.

Jan 16th 1893.- This has been a day of snow and mist, rain and wind; much happy indoor work has been done. Our work for the Zenana Mission is all packed and sent off; two parcels for the poor women was sent off; and twenty-two small albums were sent to the seashell mission; eleven dozen scent-bags were cut out ready for a poor women to make.

Jan 20th 1893.- I feel intensely the desire to do more for the poor, but how can I reach them? I am physically unable to go into the slums. I do give money far and wide. I try not to lose a minute in working to make things for others. But oh! The mass of misery in our large towns, especially London, fills me with heart sorrow. A goodly sum earned by my book and given to our clergyman here is doing blessed work, getting boots for children, paying back rent, bringing fires into cold rooms, cheering my poor brethren. How glad I am! What blessed interest for my money! But what can I do for London? I have prayed to be guided. A bale of flannel bought cheaply, then cut into garments and given to poor women to make up ready to give away seems to give one of the best ways of investing money, as it helps the one who makes up the clothes and those who receive them. It is easy to say the poor should make their own clothes, but even if they can get the material their time is taken up at the wash-tub, and mending, and cooking. How can a poor mother make all the clothes for five or six children, her husband and herself? I know I could not, and yet we often think a poor, uneducated woman is able to do what we cannot. I think the quiet, patient, plodding life of the poor is incredible. There is no change from day to day, no fresh books to give a change of thought. The husband comes in, tired and depressed, eats his supper and goes to bed. What is there for the poor wife but a daily round of cheerless duties? Oh, I do feel sorry for them and do not wonder they enjoy spending an evening here in my pretty rooms, hearing sweet music, seeing the conservatory lighted up. It must seem, as they graphically say, "Just like 'eaven."

Feb 4th 1893.- We had a very happy party last night. Twelve quite poor men and their wives came at half-past seven and stayed till ten o'clock. The drawing room lustres with their fifty-two candle were lighted; the conservatory was lovely, hung with red Chinese lanterns amongst the foliage; dozens of little night-lights in the green moss looked like glow-worms, and the fountain played and made a pleasant sound. After this had been seen and enjoyed we sang a hymn to let our guest hear how nicely it sounded under the glass roof. By this time supper was ready and we went into the dining room, where the guests found hot meat-pie, cold beef and mashed potato, puddings, blac-mages, tarts and cake, and full justice was done to the good things. How well poor people behave! 

June 7th 1893.- I am now in the midst of my summer work of entertaining hundreds of people of various kinds. It is a pretty sight to see eighty or a hundred people sitting in a great circle around me on the lawn singing hymns.

July 6th 1894.- We had a party of ninety-two poor, very poor, mothers from Chelsea last Tuesday. It was pleasant to see their happiness and to know that they would go home cheered and refreshed with endless new ideas to brighten their dull home lives. I gave them my usual lecture in the museum, explaining all my Palestine things. It was not an easy duty. The heat was intense and eight or nine babies seemed bent on drowning my voice; I'm afraid I almost justified Herod in the murder of the innocents! Noise cannot be the torture to poor people that it is to me, for the mothers complacently allowed the children to squall on as if it was music to their ears. At last it was time for their tea and I was released.

Eliza Brightwen's diaries continue until 1895 and, according to the epilogue written by Edmund Gosse, her life continued to proceed on exactly the same lines of piety, activity and monotony, ardour, languor and kindness. There was no very striking change in any of her conditions; as regards her health she used, with her accustomed humour, to compare it to a cup in a picture, always falling yet never fallen. 

I would like to close with an instance of her humility and humour. When her books began to be objects of a wide personal curiosity, Mrs. Brightwen was written to by the editors of Who's Who, with an enclosure of the customary form and a request that she would fill it up and return it. In reply she thanked them for the compliment, but earnestly begged to be excused from such publicity, which she deprecated with all of her powers. The form she retained, and she sent it to her chief literary confidant, filled it as follows:-

Name and Title.
Aunt Lizzie. A lover of Nature, protector of everything in fur and feathers.
Present Position. An aged widow, at the head of a place much too large for her bodily powers.
Birth, Parentage

and Marriage.

Born in the North Country, soon to become an orphan, And them married twenty-eight years.
Educated at.  The shrine of Nature by no end of clever teachers.
Academical Distinctions. Dame Nature does not bestow outward and visible honours, but she gives keen eyes, sharpened wits and ever-increasing pleasure.
Career. I haven't careered much. Once went down in a diving bell, declined a balloon, and prefer generally to keep on the surface of the earth.
Decorated for. Always put on my best dress for the reception of E.G.
(Edmond Gosse)
Publications. A great deal of rubbish of various kinds.
Recreations. Searching for beetles and everything that flies and hops.
Address. At home everywhere in the world of Nature.
Clubs. I believe I belong to the Stanmore Cricket Club.

In the early months of 1906 there came a genuine alteration, and she was attacked by a fatal disease, which perhaps had been long dormant.

She preserved her love of natural history to the very last, in the intervals of excruciating pain. Eight days before her death, having received by post a rare beetle from South Africa, alive, she made the latest of her neatly finished drawings. In her dying moments she was attended by those wild creatures, who had long been accustomed to her presence. Two squirrels were gambolling and struggling on the toilet table, and a robin was seated on the edge of her cup. Her last conscious moments were brightened by the sudden cry of the cuckoo, calling from the boughs of the great tulip tree opposite her bedroom window. She died peacefully on the 5th of May 1906, in her seventy-sixth year. She was buried in the churchyard of Stanmore, beside her husband, in the presence of a vast concourse of persons, most of them her village friends and recipients of the untiring bounty. Edmund Gosse