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Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne and Miss Roberts at The Nook in Bodinnick

MISS ROBERTS 1877-1961

In Daphne’s autobiography “Growing Pains – The Shaping of a Writer” she recalls lodging with Miss Roberts at The Nook in Bodinnick during the writing of her first novel “The Loving Spirit” - the story of Jane Slade of Polruan who became Janet Coombe of Plyn.  The Nook was opposite Ferryside, the holiday home purchased by the du Maurier family.

1929. “The last day of September came.  In a couple of days everyone, including M and Angela, would have gone. The house was to be shut up and it was arranged that I should lodge with Miss Roberts at The Nook, the cottage opposite.  I could keep my bedroom at Ferryside open so as to write there during the day.  But I would sleep, eat and live at The Nook, dear Bingo with me.  No bathroom – Miss Roberts would fill a hip-bath with hot water every morning – and the “usual office” was up the garden path.  Who cared?  I’d be on my own.  And Miss Roberts, cheerful, smiling, gave Bingo and me a warm welcome, the first of many which would follow through the years to come.  Dear Miss Roberts, who never looked askance at my shorts, or trousers, or muddy sea-boots, who struggled upstairs each morning with her can of hot water, who pretended not to notice when, disliking sausages for supper, I furtively threw them on the sitting-room fire where they crackled loudly, and whose pleasant tittle-tattle of village gossip, invariably without malice, proved so entertaining.

I had soon settled down to a routine.  Work in the morning, across to Miss Roberts’ for lunch, then a pull down-harbour in ‘Annabelle Lee’ in the afternoon or a tramp with Bingo.  A cup of tea at The Nook, and back to work at Ferryside until it was time to pack up for the evening and go back for supper at Miss Roberts’.  Lamplight and candles in the sitting-room, alone in privacy, with Miss Roberts “dishing” my sups in the kitchen alongside, after which she would retire early to bed, and I would stretch myself on the small hard-backed sofa to read”.

November 1929
Daphne leaves Fowey for Cannon Hall in Hampstead.
“Well, I was determined it would not be for long.  Poor Bingo seemed to know, as I packed my suitcase.  But Miss Roberts was going to look after him, so I had no worries on that score. And it seemed altogether right that I should leave on a wet, dismal day, the trees dank and lifeless; even Miss Roberts’ macaw Rob, perched as usual on the sea-wall, sat with his fine head humped between bedraggled feathers.”

Return to Fowey - 1930
“Once I arrived in Fowey, although it was dark, I saw the harbour thick with shipping, and the dark water gleaming, and Adams met me, and at the door of The Nook was Bingo crazy with joy.  Nothing changed since I left, the same identical piece of soap in the dish, surely the same candle.  All as before. This was what I needed to reassure me.  I snuggled down under my blankets in the mornings, hearing the rain against the window, and when a smiling Miss Roberts knocked on the door and brought in my can of hot water she said, “Why not stay where you are, Miss Daphne?  After all there is nothing for you to get up for, is there?”
Nothing to get up for….. And she had been bustling around since six.”

Back to London
“But oh dear, it was going to be the usual wrench leaving Miss Roberts and Bingo, where I had been happily installed since the family went back in October. And Miss Roberts was so brave. One evening she spilt a kettle of boiling water over her legs, scalding them terribly, and I would have known nothing about it but for the fact that she called to me from the kitchen, “I am afraid your supper may be a little late, Miss Daphne,” and I went to her, and she was sitting there with long strips of skin falling from her knees”.

Miss Roberts was christened Kate on 27 July 1877, the daughter of Paul and Mary Roberts of Stenalees, St Austell. In the 1881 census Kate aged 3, her father Paul 36 a china clay labourer, mother Mary 35, and siblings Horetta 12, Edith 10, Jeremiah 2, Jane 11 months and step-sister Bessie Nankivell 13 were living at Rescorla, a small village in the heart of clay country, near St Austell.

Aged 13 in 1891 Kate was a live-in domestic servant for John Brenton, a butcher at Bugle with his wife Mary and five children.  They also had a lodger Harry Parsons 21, a china clay labourer. He married Kate’s sister Edith Roberts in 1893.
In the National Register taken on 29 September 1939 Miss Roberts is recorded at The Nook, Bodinnick.  Her date of birth is 27 May 1877.   Her occupation is the same as all women who did not have paid employment (irrespective of class) – unpaid domestic duties – and it states she was retired.

Kate’s brother Jeremiah Roberts married Jane Coombe on 19 May 1903. Jane was the daughter of Samuel Coombe, a clay labourer and Abigail Udy who lived at Rosevear, St Austell.  Jane died in 1935 aged 58.   Did Miss Roberts tell Daphne about her family and is this where the name came from for the heroine of The Loving Spirit?

When Daphne’s son Kits Browning was asked about this he replied: “Yes I think the use of Coombe for the Jane Slade character could well have been because of Miss Roberts’ sister-in-law.  Not necessarily on purpose but the name probably sunk into her subconscious and she remembered it.  I know that she used to say that was how she thought of names for characters.”

Kate Roberts died at the age of 84 on 13 October 1961. By then she was living at Ye Old Cottage, East Looe.  Her brother Jeremiah, a retired foreman at the China Clay Works, was the executor of her Will.  She left effects totalling £4716 13s 6d.   Jeremiah died in 1966.

Linda R Cooke
July 2016

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