Dying far from home

2008-11-22 00:00

Earlier this year, during a visit to England, I stayed for five days in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. It is a pleasant town on the south coast of the island and rises steeply from the shore in a series of broad terraces, with some very steep streets.

The town no longer has a railway, but when it did, the topography of the place required the station to be on one of the upper levels, some distance from the centre of the town and the seafront. In Ventnor’s heyday as a holiday resort in Victorian and Edwardian times cabs, carts and early motorcars taking visitors from the station down the hill into town must have done a roaring trade.

On an exploratory walk through the town, I saw a building which had once been quite a large shop, but is now the Ventnor Heritage Museum. I walked in and spent an interesting hour learning all sorts of things about Ventnor.

For the past 12 years, I have been involved in the project for the conservation of Bishop John William Colenso’s house at Bishopstowe, six kilometres east of Pietermaritzburg, and so have come to know something about the Colenso family. One of the things I know was that their second daughter, Frances Ellen, died in Ventnor at the age of 38 and was buried there.

She was an author in her own right and went to England to assist Reverend Sir George Cox in writing a biography of her late father, the bishop, and to seek medical treatment for tuberculosis.

It was thought that she had contracted the disease in 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War from a young officer whom she helped to nurse during the last days of his life. By the time she arrived in England in 1886 to help George Cox she was seriously ill and soon after that she went to the Isle of Wight where she died the following year. One of her friends who was with her at the last was Esther Clarke, sister of the young officer.

At the Ventnor Heritage Museum, I mentioned Colenso’s story to the very knowledgeable elderly man (probably a volunteer) who was in charge that day and asked him what sort of places would have been available in 1887 for people trying to regain their health in the comparatively mild climate of Ventnor.

His reply was surprising to me. There was no doubt, he said, where such a person as Colenso would have gone. In fact it was obvious why she would have come to Ventnor rather than any other coastal town. The very first National Hospital for Chest Diseases had been established there in 1868 and so Colenso was going to the most modern facility for treatment.

The hospital only closed in 1964, by which time TB was no longer the dreaded killer it had once been. The medication to cure it could be given as easily in Manchester or Glasgow as in Ventnor or the Alpine places which had also been the sites of “sanitoria for consumptives”.

When I asked where the hospital had been situated, my informant told me that the Ventnor Botanical Gardens now occupies the site.

I had intended to visit the gardens and so the next day I was walking about in the very place where Colenso had spent the last few months of her life. It is south facing, in an area of extensive ancient landslips, and so the cliff shelf gives it some protection. It is even suitable for the outdoor growing of some tropical and sub-tropical plants.

As with so many places having a sombre past, there are claims that this one is haunted. It is said that sounds of weeping and groaning are heard at night, and ghostly nurses are seen walking among the trees. These stories are no doubt encouraged by those who want to attract visitors to Ventnor — they add interest to the tourist brochures. It is, however, quite beautiful enough without having to attract the ghost hunting brigade.

The English Channel stretches into the distance. Close by are cliffs whiter than, and just as impressive as, the ones at Dover. Colenso died in a beautiful place, but she must often have yearned for the different beauty of her home at Bishopstowe.

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