Tiddington House, Stratford-upon-Avon, George Bernard Shaw & Billy Reed
In the early 1960s I used to cycle to work in Stratford. It was a pleasant ride through open country for the most part, but about a mile from Stratford I would pass a few large houses. The first was an early Victorian pile called Kissing Tree House, where J.B. Priestley lived. The next house was Avoncliffe, a huge old stone mansion built in the 1870s that had once belonged to a member of the Flower family but was now the home of Peter Hall and Leslie Caron. Most mornings the glamorous couple came roaring out of the drive in Hall’s green Jag. The next was a beautiful, late Georgian building called, Tiddington House, which in the early 1960s looked rather dilapidated, overgrown, and uncared for. Thirty odd years earlier it had been the prestigious home of Sir Edward Elgar.
As mentioned earlier, throughout his earlier life Elgar had struggled financially (always kept afloat by Alice), but by 1928 he was at last beginning to reap the benefits of his musical genius. Apart from a recent, and very welcome legacy of £7,000 left him by a relative he also received a retainer of £500 a year from HMV which, when added to his small private income of £200 a year from his late wife’s inheritance, he found himself quite well off. Added to that there were also an increasing number of conducting fees, and at last some performance and recording royalties. Elgar decided it was time for him, and his beloved dogs, to move into a house that suited not only his income, but also his new title of Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order which had been bestowed upon him in the New Year’s Honours List. Sir Edward Elgar, KC, wanted to show off a bit.
Tiddington House belonged to Sir Gerard and Lady Muntz of Ullenhall (a small village a few miles outside Stratford) and it would seem Elgar only agreed to lease the property as a result of Lady Muntz personally inviting Elgar’s two dogs inside to view; and if Elgar’s dogs were happy so was he. Mina, the Cairn terrier, and Marco, the Spaniel obviously approved, with Sir Edward (with the help of his daughter, Carice),moving into the furnished property during the Easter Holidays of 1928.
The house was built of brick, cement rendered, and painted white, with an impressive entrance porch. To the left of the porch was a giant magnolia tree. The inside consisted, on the ground floor, of a large dining room, morning room, study, and drawing room, which housed Elgar’s grand piano. A wide oak staircase led from a panelled hallway to four bedrooms and two bathrooms on the first floor, with a second staircase leading to four large attic rooms. A large kitchen was situated in the basement. Four and half acres of garden surrounded the house, with lawns, paddocks, and orchards meandering down to a large river frontage. To the north-western side of the house there was a courtyard with stables, and a garage for Elgar’s 1924 Lea-Francis motor car. There was also a brick built boathouse.
Billy Reed, the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, remembered there were always fishing rods at the ready in the boathouse, with a very smart rowing boat used to ferry guests into Stratford for dinner at the Swans Nest Hotel. There is a lovely photograph of a very relaxed — and bare footed — Sir Edward in a straw hat happily rowing himself along the Avon, looking every inch like Mr Toad.
Elgar, an accomplished Shakespearean scholar, had, upon settling in Stratford, written to William Bridges-Adams, the new director of the Memorial Theatre (now, since the fire of 1926, operating out of the cinema in Greenhill Street) asking if he might write some incidental music. There is no record of a reply to Elgar’s request, and the idea, and missed opportunity, remains one of those tantalising “what ifs” of musical history.
The composer entertained often during his tenancy of the property, with many of Billy Reed’s fellow LSO players among his guests. Elgar’s life long friend, the architect Troyte Griffith (the 7th Enigma Variation) often visited, as did the Worcester Cathedral organist, Ivor Atkins. The young, and rather shy conductor, Adrian Boult, made several visits, as did, of course, Elgar’s old friend, and champion, George Bernard Shaw.
After a hectic day of fishing, boating, and music making, with either picnics at the river’s edge, or long lunches in front of a blazing log fire, Elgar would get his chauffer-cum-butler Dick Mountford to either row, or drive, his guests into town where they would go and see a play, or watch the latest Chaplin comedy, at the cinema.
Sir Edward did write some music at Tiddington, most notably the incidental music for Bertram P. Mathews’ play Beau Brummel which was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham on November 5th 1928, with the orchestra conducted by Elgar. He may also have composed a few sketches for his newly commissioned 3rd Symphony whilst at Tiddington, and GBS did encourage him to get stuck into work, saying how “…he had feared that he may never complete another play again, but that he had done so (The Apple Cart) was proof there was life in the old dog yet. It’s your turn now. Cap it with a symphony!”
It must have been quite a sight to have glimpsed Elgar and GBS together in the gardens of Tiddington House, with the elegant ram-rod straight figure of Elgar instructing GBS on the finer points of constructing, and burning, a bonfire, with the even taller GBS lecturing England’s most famous composer on the merits of socialism.
Another, even more charming image of the two elder statesmen of the arts must surely be that of Sir Edward and Shaw sitting either end of the long dining table at Tiddington, napkins tucked into their shirt collars, with Marco and Mina — also bibbed and tuckered — sitting in chairs on either side of the table, with Dick serving Elgar’s favourite dish of bangers and mash from a silver platter. One can imagine the famous raised eyebrow of Shaw as he observed this daily ritual.
Elgar often took the train from Stratford to London — easy and frequent in those days — to see West End shows, and in 1929 — with Shaw — he went to see Jerome Kern’s Show Boat starring Paul Robeson. Elgar loved the show, and Robeson’s performance, and a few weeks later confided to Gracie Fields (at the HMV Abbey Road studios) how he wished he could write such “ tinkling tunes.”
After Elgar left Tiddington House in 1929 it remained empty for some time, finally being sold by Lady Muntz to the Stratford estate agent Winter & Dawe. In the spring of 1931 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Wedd, and it remained in their family until 1964 when it was sold to developers, who demolished it the same year to make way for eight ‘Georgian’ style detached houses which now line what is known as Beeches Walk. Most of the original wall is still there, as is the magnolia tree, and the boat house.
Edward Elgar: A Creative Life — Jerrold Northrop Moore (Oxford 1984); Elgar As I Knew Him — W.H. Reed (Victor Gollance Ltd 1978); An Elgar Companion — Edited by Christopher Redwood (Sequoia Publishing & Moorland Publishing 1982); Elgar Lived Here — Pauline Collett (Thames Publishing 1981); Elgar: An Illustrated Life — Simon Mundy (Omnibus Press 1984); Plotting Gigantic Worx: The Story of Elgar’s Apostles Trilogy- Michael Foster (The Worcestershire Press 1995, 2003); The Cambridge Companion to Elgar — Edited by Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton (Cambridge University Press 2004); Elgar in Love — Kevin Allen (Published by the Author, 2000); The Elgar-Atkins Friendship — E. Wulston Atkins (David & Charles 1984)…