A look at the surprising finds inside the diary of Colette Brosse, the French au-pair who stayed at the Battle of Britain House in the 60s
In September 2020, I received a communication from France. It was from a lady named Sylvie, who happened upon the website while looking for traces of her mother’s presence in Ruislip during the 60s. Little I knew then how this contact was destined to yield some of the most fascinating insight into the daily lives of those who have been at the house during that time !
Sylvie’s mother was Colette Brosse, who stayed at the mansion between 1964 and 1965. She described her year in Ruislip as “life-changing” : a year of study, work, and enjoying life at the loveliest of London’s suburbs. Colette made a lot of friends in Ruislip, such as Gordon and Zoë Long, who used to live in Ruislip a long time ago. The Longs were involved in the Chartist revival movement, and they later moved to Dodford (near Bromsgrove, Birmingham) where they were involved in a campaign that resulted in the acquisition of Rosedene, one of the original Chartist cottages, by the National Trust.
Colette Brosse returned to England later in life, this time married, with two wonderful children. Her daughter Sylvie (the girl on the left in the photo above), recalls how they spent two lovely summers visiting Gordon and Zoë Long at Bromsgrove. Gordon was a retired engineer who had worked on plane engines for Rolls Royce (or so), and she was a retired arts teacher at the time. Sylvie also recalls visiting the Battle of Britain House at least once, and thinks that this family photo is from that visit (although not 100% certain).
The story became even more fascinating when, a few months later, Sylvie contacted me again about her mother’s diary. Colette had kept a daily record of her time at the BoB House in Ruislip, and Sylvie had found it among the personal items she left behind after she passed away. And folded among the pages of her the diary, she found two intact brochures of the Battle of Britain House as a residential college :
The one-page brochure is describing what’s on offer at Ruislip College, the courses, facilities etc but also offers a description of the location – that’s not all that much different than today’s description !
The tri-fold brochure is printed in two-tone colour and has a similar content. Both items feature the work of artist Patrick Connolly, whose signature can be seen in the pictures. He has since become a wildlife artist of note, and I encourage you to see more of his work on his website patrickconnolly.co.uk . What’s more, Patrick is still thankfully around and has recently agreed to a telephone interview, where I am hoping to uncover more memories of the house from the time these drawings were made !
Following the discovery of the brochures, Sylvie has kindly taken time to translate and reflect on the memories found inside Colette’s diary. It is a fascinating window into the past. Colette speaks to us from the past through Sylvie’s words :
“My mother first arrived in England on the 5th of July 1964. She flew from Paris and traveled to Bath to stay with her longtime penfriend Mary Martin and her husband (they had been exchanging letters for ten years, since their school years!). She had very little idea of what she was going to do in England (and for how long), but she clearly wanted to spend some time there to work and improve her English. The day after she arrived, she mentions in her diary that she received a letter from one Stuart Walters (apparently a man she had met in her hometown of Nancy in the east of France), who was telling her about a job near London, “dans un manoir” (in a manor). She spends the day visiting the English countryside with the Martins.
On July 7th, she writes about replying to “Battle of Britain House”. Her first struggle with the language is slowly disappearing and all the vocabulary learnt at school is coming back. She finds the food (lamb with gravy, vegetables and mint sauce): “bizarre mais très mangeable” (..but very edible).
On July 20th, a note in her diary about Battle of Britain House: she got a reply: “je suis engagée!” (I’m hired).
On the 25th of July, she receives a letter from her mother: “je suis rassurée quant à tes occupations futures car tu t’en tireras très bien, avec chic, à la française.” (I’am relieved to know about your future occupation. You will be very good at it, with your distinctive French chic).
She traveled from Bath to London, and on to Ruislip on the 12th of August 1964. She is puzzled by her first journey on the Tube. “Accueil excellent dans un joli manoir, à la limite des bois et des champs.” (Very warm welcome in a nice manor, between the woods and the fields).
13th of August : “Promenade de reconnaissance aux alentours, le Lido, à 5 mn par les bois, est un petit lac, réserve destinée aux membres de la société d’histoire naturelle du MCC dont Mr Stanyon est président. Sir John Gordon chasse cependant sur notre domaine. J’ai entendu 2 coups de fusil, il a tué 2 lapins !” (Stroll around the neighbourhood. The Lido is five minutes away through the woods. It is a nature reserve opened to the members of the Natural History society of the MCC, of which Mr Stanyon is president. Sir John Gordon, however, hunts on our grounds. I’ve heard two gun-shots and he killed two rabbits!).
14th of August : “Fay nous fabrique un plat indien dont je reporte la recette dans mon cahier spécial. Je tiens en effet à noter quelques recettes qui peuvent être tenues pour typiquement britannique et sont cependant… excellentes. On y trouvera des plats indiens, écossais, gallois, la maison étant fort internationale. J’aurai apparemment de l’aide de Sir John Gordon car il adore cuisiner et apprécie la cuisine continentale. Toute la maison s’est mise à l’unisson. Une découverte : la bibliothèque où je vais pouvoir puiser et travailler. ” (Fay is cooking an Indian dish for us, and I’m noting down the recipe in my special notebook. I insist on noting a few recipes that can be considered as typically British, although they are… excellent. My notebook will contain recipes for Indian, Scottish, and Welsh dishes, the house being very international. I will apparently receive the help of Sir John Gordon who loves cooking and is fond of continental cuisine. All the house is lending a hand. I have discovered the library, where I can get books and work).
26th of September : “Nous avons eu une semaine de cours d’art, des peintres amateurs, quelques-uns excellents, venus travailler sous la direction de Toby. J’ai posé pour eux et obtenu un des dix portraits. Et je suis invitée dans quatre familles. Je suis allée à Ickenham, chez Gordon et Zoë Long, un couple charmant, amateurs d’art. ” (We have had a week of arts classes with amateur painters. Some of them are extremely talented and came to work under Toby’s supervision. I posed for them and got one of the ten portraits. And I am invited by four families. I went to Ickenham at Gordon and Zoë Long’s. They are a charming couple and art lovers)”
She then gives a list of some of the courses she witnessed at the BoB House, with a brief description for each :
- A course for college administrators : “sympathiques” (nice people)
- Painters with Toby Horne Shepherd: posed for them and got invited in 4 families.
- A weekend for discus-throwers: too many of them, and they were a bit rude. Graduates, local government
- Boating trip on the Lido. Nice but not very interesting.
- Builders: very intelligent, hard-working people.
- A weekend of choir-singers, mainly old ladies. Two or three singers from the Salvation Army with spectacles and bow ties. A young woman who keeps feeding a caterpillar.
- A day dedicated to social studies. English women in their fifties or sixties.
- Several courses for foremen, builders and people working in factories. They are by far the nicest people. Very polite. They laugh a lot.
- Youth leaders like Miss Richardson (a friend of the Stanyons’)
- A conference for 40 scientists and chemistry specialists. Very nice people.
- A course on the Far-East (politics and international relations) for people in the RAF and the Navy. Not nice, always late, they wouldn’t speak to anyone else.
“Food, Glorious Food !!”
There is much more in the diary, that will be translated and presented with time – each page revealing a glimpse of the Battle of Britain House in the 60s. But there was one more surprise to be had. When Sylvie looked for a recipe in an old English pastry book left to her by Colette – a family treasure – she realized that some of the names and dates in the book looked familiar :
It turns out that the book was given to Colette as a parting gift in Christmas 1965. It still bears the signatures of all of her friends and colleagues at the Battle of Britain House :
- Victor & Gwen Stanyon, the owners of the College, as well as their son Roger.
- Ian Kinnaird, the gardeners, and his wife Barbara. Sylvie remembers how her mum used to write to the Kinnairds every year around Christmas, and always received a nice card back. She wrote to them until her death.
- Edith Danby (identified as a dressmaker/seamstress)
- Len Rust (not sure about the surname)
- Mabel Willis
- Renate (?) Reeler (?),
- Millie (has been identified as the cook or housemaid)
The phrase “Food, Glorious Food !!” is of course a pop culture reference to Oliver ! the 1960 musical that also became a movie in 1969. Knowing Colette’s pleasant surprise in her first encounter with English cuisine, all this instantly makes sense !
Sylvie is looking for information about her mother’s stay in Ruislip : the day-to-day lives of students and au-pairs at the Battle of Britain House, the visitors, the owners. Perhaps, some of the people she befriended might still have memories of her, and could help put together a picture of her time there. Do you recognize or have a memory of any of the names any of the names, signatures, or situations in this post? If yes, I’d very much like to hear from you – please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org