Agatha Christie at Abney Hall
by Ian O'Brien, 2014
For anyone on SK8 history that didn't see this article written in November last year.......
Agatha Christie and Abney hall.
‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding,’ she wrote, ‘is an indulgence of my own, since it recalls to me,
Greenway House is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public and is said to have inspired three of her stories. But Abney Hall, owned by her brother-in-law Sir James Watts, who married her elder sister Margaret - “Madge” - in 1902, cast a spell that Christie never forgot. She was 70 when she recalled the ‘superb and wonderful’ Christmas hospitality at Abney Hall in the foreword of what she described as ‘her book of Christmas fare’.
Although Agatha Christie was born in Torquay and her home from 1938 until her death in 1976 overlooked the River Dart - her fame plays a significant part in the local tourist industry - it was not Devon but Cheadle that fired her imagination as a young girl and set her on course to write 66 novels in a remarkable career lasting more than half a century.
This is an article written by Ray King for ‘Cheshire Life’ magazine that sums up Agatha Christie’s childhood at Abney.......
Agatha Christie’s father passed away after a series of heart attacks in 1901 when Agatha was 11 years old, it was after his death that both Agatha and her mother spent time periodically at Abney Hall to which had a significant effect on her, enough to give her inspiration in a number of her novels.
Agatha had strong connections to Cheadle, her older sister Margaret, otherwise known as 'Madge' was married to James Watts, owner of Abney Hall and a big name in the textile industry, he ran a huge textile warehouse on Portland Street, Manchester which is now the Brittania Hotel. Agatha wasn’t able to attend school, but her mother was determined that she should be reading by the age of eight, however, Agatha managed that by the age of five having taught herself.
I can’t think of a better time to write about a small but important part of Cheadle SK8 concerning a person who has created her place in history as an author selling between 2 and 4 billion copies of her crime fiction books and has just had another remake of one of her best sellers, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ that will be showcased at hundreds of cinemas across the country on 3rd November, including Parrs Wood, literally down the road from Abney hall where she stayed on a number of occasions. She, of course, is Agatha Christie, the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. very pleasurably, the Christmases of my youth. After my father’s death, my mother and I always spent Christmas with my brother-in-law’s family in the north of England - and what superb Christmases they were for a child to remember! Abney Hall had everything! The garden boasted a waterfall, a stream, and a tunnel under the drive! The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions. I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry!
‘The boys of the family and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat most on Christmas Day. Oyster soup and turbot went down without undue zest, but then came roast turkey, boiled turkey and an enormous sirloin of beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had plum pudding, mince pies, trifle and every kind of dessert.
‘During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were, sick!
How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy! What a day of delight from ‘Stockings’ in bed in the morning, church and all the Christmas hymns, Christmas dinner, presents, and the final lighting of the Christmas tree! And how deep my gratitude to the kind and hospitable hostess who must have worked so hard to make Christmas Day a wonderful memory for me still in my old age. So let me dedicate this book to the memory of Abney Hall, its kindness and its hospitality. And a happy Christmas to all who read this book.”
There is no trace of Christie’s legacy at Abney Hall; no blue plaque. Yet the influence of Watts, Madge and the house itself was to be profound. It was Madge who first challenged Agatha, 11 years her junior, to write a story in the genre of Gaston Leroux’s classic 1908 detective adventure, The Mystery of the Yellow Room – and eight years later, she did.
Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1916, ‘borrowed’ much of its country house setting from Abney Hall and introduced the enduring character of Hercule Poirot to the world of detective fiction. Abney Hall has also been closely linked with other stories. Vanessa Allen, in her 2004 book Agatha Christie: A Readers’ Companion, wrote: “Abney became Agatha’s greatest inspiration for country house life, with all the servants and grandeur which have been woven into her plots. The descriptions of the fictional Styles, Chimneys, Stoneygates and the other houses in her stories are mostly Abney in various forms.”
In her autobiography, published the year after her death, Christie revealed that the basic idea for what avid fans regard as her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was first given to her by her brother-in-law James Watts of Abney Hall. In a conversation one day he suggested a novel in which the criminal would be a Dr Watson-type character – the narrator of the story. Agatha considered it to be ‘a remarkably original thought’.
Abney Hall, where she wrote a second book, After the Funeral, is also said to have provided a private sanctuary for Agatha Christie after her eleven-day ‘disappearance’ in 1926, following a nervous breakdown in the wake of her mother’s death and the failure of her marriage. She had gone missing from home, sparking a huge police hunt and media circus, only to turn up, having apparently lost her memory, in a Harrogate hotel.
Abney Hall was sold to the former Cheadle and Gatley urban district council in 1959 for the princely sum of £14,000 and became Cheadle town hall. When local government was reorganised in 1974 and the area became part of the enlarged Stockport Metropolitan Borough, the hall’s historical pieces were removed to the town’s museums. Bought by the property firm Bruntwood in 1983, Abney Hall today houses commercial offices and is set in a public park.
Incidentally, there has been some speculation as to how the name ‘Marple’ came about as in Agatha’s novels and one of the popular thoughts was that whilst she was visiting from Torquay to stay at Abney Hall her train stopped at Marple station in which Agatha noticed the station name which stayed with her. However, I came across another piece of information....