The decade that Sir John Soane spent at Pitzhanger Manor was a decade of turbulent family life. He and his wife Margaret were troubled by wayward sons, who showed no interest in following their father’s profession, or indeed any profession. John Junior was a wastrel and George was a scoundrel, and both were a great source of worry. Indeed, Sir John (actually, Mr Soane at this time, though the locals of Ealing nicknamed him Sir John on account of his being the lord of the manor) increasingly used his home in the country as an escape from his home in the wars.
On Tuesday afternoons he would leave his office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields early and take the stage from High Holborn to Ealing, where Mrs Conduitt had already prepared the house for that evening’s workshop. An hour later the first guest would arrive (invariably Bill Wordsworth, whose pre-punctual manner earned him the soubriquet of Early Romantic). Georgie Byron was always the last, rolling-in five minutes late and two drinks heavy. They would read out their works-in-progress over a bottle or six of fine Rhenish, debate them, become outraged, challenge duels, start fist-fights, break priceless vases, kick the cat, and finally troop off to bed in a huff, and for Sir John it was such a quiet and relaxing evening that he often fell asleep in his favourite wing-backed chair.
No such tempers at this week’s workshop, but plenty of passion. Daphne Gloag has been on retreat to a burial mound and come back full of life, while Doig Simmonds has been eavesdropping a cocktail party while the past goes on around them. Peter Francis has likewise been people-watching in a station hotel, but all the transient drinkers are going nowhere, while John Hurley has shown how his sojourn from rhyming has sharpened his rhyming as he reflected on attending a sparse funeral while the gravediggers wait with shiny shovels. Meanwhile, Michael Harris’ father is less impressed with his son’s education, and the nurse on Anne Furneaux’s ward is less conciliatory to her patient, but she then introduces us to Doris who’s a wise old bird. Pat Francis has been searching for some suitable adjectives to describe the Thames, while Martin Choules has been giving an old war its post mortem.
Wednesday mornings were just as refreshing for Sir John: up with the lark for sweet coffee and Mrs Conduitt’s scrambled eggs. His houseguests would eventually stagger in, clutching their heads and bellies for fear of upsetting either. Rivalries from the night before were quite forgotten, often because the participants now had complete blackouts of the affair, which was a great boon to friendship, even if it did sometimes lead to the same poem being read out on four consecutive weeks. Soon it was back with the mail coach to the bustle and conflict of London life, but for that one night did Sir John a stately pleasure dome decree. As ‘Brian’ Byron would later pen “I say the future is a serious matter / And so – for God’s sake – hock and soda water !”