Miss Sylva Boyden, the ‘famous English airgirl’ lands in Richmond Park in 1919

As part of the Friends of Richmond Park History Project, volunteers are researching notable stories from the history of the Park. One such escapade was discovered in an old French newspaper cutting acquired by the Hearsum Collection.  It revealed that almost 100 years ago Richmond Park was the setting for a feat of pioneering skill and daring when, at the tender age of 17, Sylva Boyden became one of the first women in England (maybe even the first) to jump from a great height and use a packed parachute to land safely.

Further research revealed that Sylva had come to the Park to watch the Royal Flying Corps test a new parachute, and quickly determined to have a go herself. To get permission she lied about her age, claiming a mature 21, and giving her grandmother’s name to avoid recognition.  She clearly had a talent and made three successful balloon jumps that day with a ‘Guardian Angel’ parachute.

This redoubtable pioneer went on to become one of the first women to make parachute jumps from aircraft and become known as the ‘famous English airgirl’, interviewed by the New York Times. She appeared in RAF pageants and air shows in Britain and Europe, often as the only female participant.  During her career she made some 150 jumps, driven by the thrill of the experience, and by the desire to demonstrate the need to make life-saving parachutes compulsory equipment on aircraft.



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A poet’s prose on Richmond Park: A Woodland Life by Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas (1878–1917) is celebrated for his lyrical nature poetry, but many people may not be aware of his interest in Richmond Park as a young man.

Renewed interest in his life in recent years has seen All Roads Lead to France winning Matthew Hollis the Costa biography award in 2012, with Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography Edward Thomas: from Adlestrop to Arras following in 2015. Acclaimed nature writer, Robert MacFarlane wrote in his bestselling travelogue The Old Ways, “Of the dozens of people who feature in this book, Edward Thomas is the most important”.

Edward Thomas did not begin his literary career as a poet – that was to come later. He was born in Lambeth in 1878 and when a pupil at St Paul’s School met literary journalist James Ashcroft Noble in 1894. Noble encouraged him to pursue his ambition to be a writer and A Woodland Life, with his help, was published just a few years later in 1897, when Thomas was just 18 years old. This collection of prose includes a chapter about Richmond Park, depicting the landscape and its inhabitants on a winter’s day. It begins with this evocative opening:

“A keen frost and a grey hanging fog have numbed and silenced all life within the Park. Not a sound trembles through the heavy air. The rooks that travel over, each day at dawn, linger yet in their roosting-trees, and no sullen caw reaches us from their dark forms high up in the elms.”

Further observations of the natural life in the Park are noted in another chapter entitled A Diary in English Fields and Woods.

Thomas disliked London and he lived with his family first in Sevenoaks, Kent, and then, from 1906, in Steep, Hampshire. However, the relationship with his wife Helen and his children was a difficult one and Thomas spent long periods of time away from home.

He earned a modest living as a literary critic, essayist and biographer but was, however, critical of his own work, considering himself to be a “hack”. In 1913 he met the American poet, Robert Frost, and they became close friends, often walking together in the Gloucestershire countryside where Frost lived. Urged by Frost to turn to poetry, Thomas began to write poems in 1914. He wrote over 140 (only a handful of which he lived to see in print) between then and his untimely death at the Battle of Arras in 1917.

He captured the spirit of countryside most famously in his poem “Adlestrop”, describing an uneventful yet haunting train journey in Gloucestershire on a summer’s day a century ago. Biographer Michael Hollis writes of his work, “Thomas brought a unique eye to the English landscape at a moment when it was facing irreversible change. His work seems distinctly modern in its recognition of the interdependence of human beings and the natural world, more closely attuned to our own ecological age than that of the First World War.”

A copy of A Woodland Life is in the Hearsum Collection. You can read the chapter “A Winter’s Day in Richmond Park” together with diary entries that include references to Richmond Park in “A Diary in English Fields and Woods” here.



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A family picture comes home – to Richmond Park

There are so many interesting items in the Hearsum Collection but one painting particularly caught my eye. It is a lovely depiction of Richmond Park but, more importantly for me, it has links to Ham House, the seat of the Dysart family from the 17th century through to the 20th century (when it was passed to The National Trust) and the place where I work.

What I love most about the image is that it shows a family of the 19th century doing exactly what you will see families doing every day in the Park today.

The painting is by William Frederick Witherington (1785-1865), a British artist who was a member of the Royal Academy (1840) and exhibited there between 1811 and 1863.

Although the work is not dated, the dress of the figures in the painting and the style suggest it could be towards the middle of the 19th century when the 8th Earl of Dysart was head of the family. The costumes seem to suggest this era and also the fact that the three young men depicted in the painting are very possibly the 8th Earl and his younger brothers, Frederick and Algernon.

By 1842, the 8th Earl had become somewhat eccentric and asked Frederick and Algernon to live at Ham House and take up the management of his estates. He took up residence at 34 Norfolk Street in London where he eventually confined himself to one room with a trapdoor for food etc., to be passed through. He became known as “The Hermit of Norfolk Street”, allowing no one into the room except his brother Frederick. An incident which highlights his eccentricity was reported when his boot-maker was summoned to measure him for new boots. According to the story, “he thrust one leg out through the trapdoor, and when asked how many pairs he required, answered that he only wanted one boot, there was nothing the matter with the other one!”

Another point of uncertainty and discussion which the painting has thrown up is the church steeple depicted in the background of the painting. Those who are familiar with the Park would probably first think of St Matthias, on Richmond Hill, with a matching steeple which can be seen very clearly from various points of the Park on the Richmond side. However, research into this shows that St Matthias was not completed until 1857 when the artist would have been 72 and, although still exhibiting at this time, his body of work suggests most of it was done earlier in his life. Added to that and perhaps more of an issue is that the lay of the land is quite different.

Then there is the church in Roehampton to consider, also with a similar steeple visible from the Roehampton side of the Park, but once again the dates prove this not to be a contender as it was built around 30 years after Witherington’s death.

Having gone back to study a larger copy of the painting I believe a more likely possibility would be that we are looking behind the characters in the painting over the path from Ham Cross towards Ham. The land falls away from the higher grounds on the Pembroke Lodge side to look down towards the pond, and the path fits the bill. The obvious church, which could have been more visible in the 19th century, is the parish church of St Andrew’s. Unfortunately, St Andrew’s does not have a steeple!

The investigations continue to establish whether any of the possibilities mentioned had previous churches, or indeed steeples, on the sites or thereabout. Whatever the answer turns out to be as to the inspiration behind the painting’s vista, I feel the surrounding landscape, and particularly the size of the steeple, suggest more than a soupçon of artistic licence.

In fact I can say with some conviction that Witherington was not averse to painting church steeples out of place or where they were not! Having viewed another of his paintings held at Petworth House in West Sussex, I found out that in “Fête in Petworth Park”, painted in 1835, there is a church steeple which had indeed been built, albeit against the advice of the architect, but had fallen down long before the painting had been started.

Like so many of the items in the Collection this painting gives us not only a glimpse of the Park’s history but also links us to the present day and how we enjoy the Park now; that it is part of the Collection at all is a story in its own right, for the acquisition was no mean feat. Daniel Hearsum tells me: “In November 2012, we were alerted to the forthcoming auction of this painting by an internet search alert and on checking its provenance, registered to bid. The only problem was that the auction was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the United States and so international telephone bidding was required. On the day, we were bid up and up, not knowing how real the competition was. Nonetheless, we won and over the telephone heard an excited exclamation to the auction room, in a voice reminiscent of ET, ‘Listen everybody, It’s going home, It’s going home to Richmond Park in the United Kingdom’ – followed by loud applause. It seems our cousins in New England approve of repatriation!”

Annie Sullivan
Friends of Richmond Park History Project Volunteer
2 July 2015

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Appreciating the Park – and its fashionable Georgian gates

This charming aquatint in the Hearsum Collection, etched by Thomas Sutherland from a drawing by John Gendall, was published by Rudolph Ackermann in 1819.

It shows people enjoying Richmond Park just inside Richmond Gate. The gates and lodge were designed by John Soane to complement the Georgian additions he had made to Pembroke Lodge, and were completed in 1798. When Gendall created his drawing they would have been relatively new and as fashionable as the visitors to the Park depicted here. The illustration is a fine representation of the period – even the greyhounds look stylish with their top-hatted owner!

The gates were widened in 1896 and the height of the second set of gate piers was increased to match the height of the central piers, but otherwise little has changed in this scene. People dress very differently now and there is a stream of cars entering the gates, but the way in which the Park is appreciated is much the same.

  • ” Aquatint “Richmond Park Entrance – As seen from inside the Park”, etched by Thomas Sutherland (1819) from a drawing by John Gendall
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Bertrand Russell – the young philosopher in the Park

Nobel prize-winner Bertrand Russell was a significant figure in the history of philosophy and politics who spent most of his childhood at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. Bertrand, who became the 3rd Earl Russell, was born into one of Britain’s leading Whig families. His paternal grandfather, Lord John Russell, was Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s, and had been granted use of Pembroke Lodge as a residence by Queen Victoria. Following the death of both his parents, at the age of four young Bertrand came to live at the Lodge, to be brought up by his grandparents.

Bertrand recalls in his autobiography that when he arrived in 1876 he was ‘placed upon the high stool for tea’. The Hearsum Collection has a number of items on loan from the Russell family from this era, including that high stool.


Like visitors today, Bertrand enjoyed the gardens and elevated location of Pembroke Lodge, noting that ‘I grew accustomed to wide horizons and to an unimpeded view of the sunset. I have never since been able to live happily without both’.

Nevertheless it was a strict upbringing, not least because Bertrand’s grandmother, Lady Russell, was a woman of strong Victorian views, despising comfort and imposing a vigorous daily routine for Bertrand which required that ‘the day begin with a cold bath all the year round, followed by half an hour’s piano practice, before family prayers at eight’.

Bertrand’s time at Pembroke Lodge ended in 1890 when he left to go to Cambridge University, and then went on to become a leading philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic and political activist. Considered to be one of the founders of analytic philosophy, he went to prison for his pacifism during the First World War, and later in his life was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought’.


  • The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1872-1914, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1967
  • Ronald W. Clark: The Life of Bertrand Russell, Jonathan Cape, 1975
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Sport in the Park – where royalty and artisans are equally welcome

Richmond Park was created as an enclosed landscape where the king could indulge in his favourite sport of deer hunting, but today we have a very different view of what constitutes sport. Three 20th-century kings each had a part to play in developing the Park’s role as a venue for everyone, not just royalty and the aristocracy, to enjoy a range of sporting and leisure activities.


Queen Victoria’s reign continued for only a few days into the 20th century. Her son, Edward VII, became Ranger of the Park in 1904 and, perhaps anticipating the greater democratisation that the new century would bring, gave instructions that all parts of the park should be “more accessible than hitherto”. Most of the fencing that had been put up in the previous century to protect new plantations of trees from the deer was taken down, allowing the public (as well as the deer) greater freedom to roam in the Park than before.


The public were encouraged to play sport in the Park and, from 1915 onwards, football and cricket pitches were marked out. One of the antique postcards in The Hearsum Collection suggests that cricket was played in the Park as early as 1908, although we don’t know whether the Richmond Park Cricket Club was based in the Park itself.



However, many social fences still remained. Edward’s grandson, who had been born in the Park at White Lodge and was later to reign briefly as Edward VIII, was to help break them down. As Prince of Wales he opened the new Richmond Public Golf Course in the Park in 1923 for those local residents who could not afford membership of a private club. An item in The Hearsum Collection from The Illustrated London News shows a diagram of the new course and describes it as a place “where royalty and artisans are equally welcome”. The inauguration of a second 18-hole course by the Duke of York (later George VI), only two years later, signalled that opening up this sport of kings to everyone had proved a very popular move.

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The dog, the cookbook and the society beauty

Turn left as you enter the main gates of Pembroke Lodge gardens, look on the grassy slopes, and you will discover a headstone for a dog. “Boy”, who died in 1907, was for 13 years “a faithful and loving friend “to “GED”. We don’t know what breed of dog he was, but we do know that “GED” was Georgina (sometimes called Georgiana) Ward, Countess of Dudley, the next tenant at Pembroke Lodge after Lord John Russell and his family.

Lady Dudley, a Scottish baronet’s daughter, and the great-great grandmother of Rachel Ward, who is acclaimed in Australia as an actress and film director, was granted the Lodge as a “grace and favour” residence by Edward VII. She lived at the Lodge from 1903 and died there in 1929 at the age of 82.


A noted society beauty, at 19 she married William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, who was 29 years older, and spent over half her life as a widow. According to her obituary in the Glasgow Herald, a copy of which is in the Hearsum Collection, she took little interest in politics but corresponded with many of the crowned heads of Europe, including the German emperor. Herbert von Bismarck was one of her suitors after her husband’s death, but she never remarried.


A letter in the Collection dated 2 November 1915, from the Government’s Office of Works, refers to the proposed South African Military Hospital, built the following year near the newly-erected Cambrian Gate. The letter says this new site was preferable, given the possibility of criticism from Lady Dudley, to previous plans to build the hospital only 500 yards from Pembroke Lodge.

Lady Dudley’s supposed sensitivities seem surprising given that she served with the Red Cross during the Boer War and the First World War and had been involved in running a nursing home in Mayfair for disabled officers. But we have no reason to think she was aware of the letter and, as Gerald, the youngest of her six sons, was killed in action in October 1914, it may have been thought that being able to see the hospital would evoke painful memories.


The Hearsum Collection also has two volumes of cookery and household recipes by Lady Dudley, which include “21 ways of cooking venison”. One wonders which of her German correspondents had passed on to her the recipes for “German Beefsteak cakes” and “A German Way of Roasting Hare”.

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Lost buildings in Richmond Park: the Prime Minister’s school and a magnificent mansion


Behind the group of deer in this postcard from the Hearsum Collection (from the 1930s) are the buildings of Russell School which was originally in Richmond Park, near Petersham Gate.
The school was founded in 1851 by Lord John Russell who had been granted the lease on Pembroke Lodge by Queen Victoria in 1847 and who died there in 1878. While living at the Lodge with his family, Russell served twice as Britain’s Prime Minister.

The school was very badly damaged by a Second World War bomb in 1943 and the building was pulled down. The school moved to a new site outside the park on the other side of Petersham Road.


When Charles I created Richmond Park in the 1630s there were several existing buildings in his new royal hunting ground. One of these was a manor house at Petersham which was renamed Petersham Lodge and became accommodation for one of the park’s Deputy Keepers, Ludovic Carlell (or Carlile), a renowned playwright in his day. His wife Joan Carlile was one of the first women in England to paint professionally. A painting attributed to her, of Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart, is on display nearby at Ham House.

Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart, and her husband Sir Lionel Tollemache, took over Petersham Lodge when they became joint Keepers of Richmond Park. After Tollemache’s death the Lodge and its surrounding land were leased in 1686 to Lawrence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, whose sister Anne was married to the new king, James II. It became a private park and was subsequently landscaped. By 1692 Rochester had demolished the Lodge and replaced it with a splendid new mansion, New Park, shown here in this colour print from the Hearsum Collection. King Henry’s Mound is also visible towards the left-hand corner.


Rochester’s magnificent home lasted less than 30 years. Destroyed by fire in 1721, it was replaced by a new Petersham Lodge, built by William, Earl of Harrington (later created Viscount Petersham) in 1733. James Thomson, who is commemorated at Poet’s Corner in the grounds of Pembroke Lodge, refers to the new lodge in “Summer”, one of a set of four poems published as The Seasons: “The pendent woods that nodding hang o’er Harrington’s retreat”.

Most of what by then had become Petersham Park remained in private hands until the 1830s, when the lodge, which by then was almost derelict, was dismantled and its grounds were returned to Richmond Park.

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Richmond Park “for Walking, Boating, Punting, Picnics and Other Jollities”

A lithograph copy of this poster image from 1925 by Charles Paine is in the Hearsum Collection.

It was part of a continuing campaign to increase passenger traffic on the Underground network by persuading Londoners to use their leisure time for day trips and weekend jaunts to historic houses, museums, suburban beauty spots and parks. As early as 1908 Richmond Park was promoted as somewhere ‘for Walking, Boating, Punting, Picnics and Other Jollities’.

Such promotion included colourful images of London’s attractions, as seen in this poster by Charles Paine (1895-1967) who designed over 20 posters for London Underground in the 1920s. He was a versatile and prolific designer, having started his training in stained glass, which led him to concentrate on strong colours and simplified images.

For this image for Richmond Park Paine used the oak tree as the central motif for his bold, stylised design. No additional text was included in the final poster, which is a classic example of soft sell advertising, presenting an attractive destination without specifying a method of travel.

During the 1920s and 30s London Transport developed a strong and distinctive visual identity based on a culture of good design. It was driven by Frank Pick (1878-1941) who became the Underground’s Managing Director and later the first Chief Executive of London Transport. Pick commissioned top designers and artists, such as Graham Sutherland and Man Ray, to produce over 40 posters a year during this period, reaching a peak of stylistic quality.

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An artist in the Park

Richmond Park has been valued as a rural haven ever since it was enclosed as a royal hunting ground by Charles I in 1637. Over the years it has provided a home for all kinds of flora and fauna, most notably veteran oak trees and herds of red and fallow deer. This unique space has inspired many artists, as in this oil painting, held in the Hearsum Collection, by local artist James Isaiah Lewis, showing deer among veteran trees in the midst of the Park with White Lodge in the distance.

Lewis (c1861-1934) was a prolific local artist who specialised in views of Richmond and of the Thames. Beginning his career as a photographer’s assistant, Lewis went on to produce some delicate and detailed works in the great tradition of English landscape painting. However, as he reputedly depended on selling paintings to fund his beer-drinking life-style, the quality of his work varied considerably, and he died a poor man in Richmond in 1934. Nevertheless his better work has now gained recognition, as is evident in auction sales both in this country and abroad.

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