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Susan Breeks of Helbeck

Victorian Ladies in Australia, India and Westmorland


About this book:

  • ISBN: 978 1 910237 05 2 (hardback)

  • Published March 2015

  • Price £20.00 + postage

  • 138 pages

  • Illustrated with 21 paintings, photographs and maps


About this book:
FOR over 60 years Jim and Rosemary Blackett-Ord lived at Helbeck Hall, Westmorland. They loved and cared for this historic eighteenth century building and its gardens with a devotion which protected it through the difficult years when beautiful homes were often neglected.
The author remembered seeing the house in the late 1940s on a wet and cold winter’s day. Inside chickens were running on the ground floor, wallpaper was hanging off the the walls, rain had come in nearly everywhere and the downstairs was painted dark brown and ‘battleship’ grey. She recalled: ‘It was deeply gloomy, but I consoled myself with the thought that Jim would not inherit for many years.’ He inherited the house shortly afterwards.
Rosemary’s curiosity was sparked when family papers, books, letters and maps arrived, including two well-worn leather books containing fine tissue paper carbon copies of letters, some written from India, others from Helbeck. The letters from India were written by Jim Breeks between 1868 and 1871, and those from Helbeck by his widow, Susan Breeks, between 1895 and 1901.
The story was traced further to the Denisons of Ossington Hall, and to an eighteenth century actress Elisabeth Farren, the Earls of Derby, the Hornby family and finally to General Burgoyne. All of them wrote countless letters, diaries and notebooks giving a fascinating insight into their lives.
Rosemay studied these and researched the period background. She found: ‘There is a touch of lightness in their lives and an immensely attractive attitude to life, which in many ways, was highly immoral.’ The family worked and lived in Australia, Tasmania, India and the Eden Valley. The result of Rosemary’s dedicated research is this book and its unique and wonderful insight into the history of one family over two centuries.

About the Author:

ROSEMARY Blackett-Ord was born in 1923, the daughter of E W Bovill, the distinguished historian of English country life, of the East India Company and of the Sahara Desert. In the War she joined the Wrens.
When she was twenty she fell in love and quickly become engaged to Jim Blackett-Ord. He departed almost immediately to the battle of Anzio and a German prisoner of war camp. He returned in May 1945 in a poor state of nerves which she cured by marrying him within exactly a month.
She had known from before her marriage that the Helbeck estate was to come to him as the heir to his cousins the Breeks’s. When she first set foot in Helbeck Hall she thought it cold, damp, dilapidated, lonely and haunted.
Turning over the relics that had been left behind by the Breeks family, she had found one of them to be a book of carbon copies of the letters of Susan Breeks who had lived at Helbeck in the 1890s. They became the foundation of this book.
Sadly she died quietly in her sleep, soon after her ninety-first birthday and just after the final manuscript of this book had been delivered to the publisher.

Susan Breeks (1841-1923) was the second child of Sir William Denison who took his family along when he became Governor of Van Diemen's Land, then of New South Wales and finally of Madras. Susan first met Jim Breeks (1830-72) when crossing a flooded Indian river and struggling with her wet parrot!
Jim was the second son of a yeoman farmer in Warcop, attended Appleby Grammar School and Haileybury, joined the Madras Civil Service in 1849. They married in 1863 and later lived at Ootacamund in the Nilgiris Hills where Jim was the first Commissioner. He made an anthropological collection for An Account of the Primitive Tribes and Monuments of the Nilagiris but died suddenly of a fever.
Susan completed the book on her return to Warcop with their three children. Moving to nearby Helbeck Hall in 1885 she played an active part in local life. The 'Breeks Memorial School' in Ooty, founded in 1874, continues to flourish. The Breeks Collection is now in the Madras, Calcutta and British Museums.
In 1851, Jim and Rosemary Blackett-Ord 'unexpectedly' inherited Helbeck Hall from their distant cousins, along with copies of letters by Jim Breeks from 1868-71, and by Susan from 1895-1901. Rosemary spent 60 years researching the stories of her extended family, especially the ladies, spanning Europe, the American War of Independence, Australia, Van Dieman's Land and India.
These provide a fascinating insight into the Victorian heyday of the British Empire, with links to Westmorland. Susan's letters bring an immediacy and personal touch to events, whether the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm to Brough or the Empire soldiers at Victoria's Jubilee. Rosemary died peacefully at 91, sadly before the final publication of her book. It is a fine tribute to Rosemary, Susan and their families. Mike Lea, Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, Summer 2015

Cumbria Life Book of the Month
When Rosemary ('Ro') Blackett-Ord first saw Helbeck Hall with her husband Jim in the late 1940s, it was 'deeply gloomy and I consoled myself with the thought that Jim would not inherit it for many years.' But he inherited it in 1951 and they were soon captivated by the Georgian hall with its spectacular views over the Upper Eden Valley.
In 1953 a van arrived containing 'one hundred and fifty heads and horns of game, three marble busts, a number of daguerreotypes, an elephant's ear, several elephant fee and half a dozen ancient Indian spears' – plus letters and papers which set Rosemary on a quest to tell the fascinating story of her husband's extended family, who had lived and worked in Australia, Tasmania, India and the Eden Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Jim had inherited the estate from his Breeks cousins and the letters of Susan Breeks (1841-1923) form the foundation of the book.
Rosemary, who died last year aged 91, has a great eye for detail, a no-nonsense style and a dry sense of humour. She describes how Susan's sister-in-law Liz married the eccentric Canon Weston, vicar of Crosby Ravensworth who had the church's chancel rebuilt in 1875 and commissioned gargoyles with the sculptured heads of his three wives. 'Since Liz, his third wife, was still very much alive at the time,' Rosemary notes, 'it suggests that his was perhaps not the most tactfully accommodating of natures.'
The daughter of a colonial administrator, Susan Breeks met her husband Jim – brought up in Warcop – when he was working as a civil servant in India.
Susan's letters from Helbeck, where she lived for nearly 40 years, are full of entertaining observation. After the 'Yellow Earl' Lord Lonsdale and Kaiser Wilhelm II have passed through Brough on their way to shoot grouse, she writes to her mother that the Emperor waved at a baby in their party, 'while Lord Lonsdale characteristically called to know whose was the chestnut – Dick's new horse which the groom was riding.' Mary Ingham, Cumbria Life, June 2015.

'Cold, damp, lonely and haunted' house
Rosemary Blackett-Ord died, aged 91, soon after the final manuscript for this book was sent to the publisher.
The story of Susan Breeks who lived at Helbeck Hall in the Upper Eden Valley in the late 19th century, came about after Rosemary's husband Jim Blackett-Ord 'unexpectedly' inherited the property from his Breeks cousins.
The couple moved into the 'cold, damp, lonely and haunted' house in 1951 and soon afterwards Rosemary came across a collection of family papers which prompted her to start researching the ancestral family connections.
She found letters written between 1868 and 1871 by Jim Breeks during this time in India. But the real influence for this book were the letters written from Helbeck by his widow Susan from 1895 to 1901. Allan Tunningley, Westmorland Gazette, April 2015.


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