Before we left for our visit to Quebec House today, I had a debate with my Dad about whose statue could be found on the village green at Westerham as I thought it was General James Wolfe (who was born at Quebec House) and he thought it was Churchill (who lived at nearby Chartwell). In fact, when we arrived we found that both men are immortalised on the small green, which just goes to show that Westerham isn’t at all biased and pays just as much attention to both of its most celebrated residents.
So, onto Quebec House. First of all, it isn’t the biggest coincidence in the world that Wolfe of Quebec’s birthplace is called Quebec House! It was actually known as Spiers when he lived here and only changed its name later to commemorate his exploits in Canada. There could well have been a property on this plot as early as the 13th and 14th centuries, while the overmantel in the Parlour bears the crest of Henry VII (late 15th century). However, a remodelling in the 1630s created much of what you can see today, while some of the later alterations at the end of the 19th century have since been erased to return the property as close as it can be to the house of the Wolfes’ residency in the 1720s.
Quebec House was one of the earlier properties in the Trust’s portfolio and was actually the first house and collection to be gifted to the NT (in 1917). It is by no means the largest, oldest, strangest or most impressive property in the estate but it still merits a superlative all of its own in that it has the most comprehensive tour I have experienced so far! There are only five rooms downstairs (including the entrance hall) and two upstairs but it took about an hour for us to get around all seven. It certainly wasn’t dull, though, as our guide was something of an entertainer, even going so far as to treat us to a little sonata on the piano in the Drawing Room!
She was full of little gems of information about Wolfe’s life and times as well as the contents of the house. One room – the Bicentenary Room – contains lots of items that would have been part of a soldier’s kit during the Battle of Quebec, including an extremely heavy old Brown Bess musket that visitors are allowed to fire (unloaded, of course!) There are also examples of old grenades that our guide described in great detail, ending with the fact that a well-placed grenade could take out about five or six Frenchmen in one hit… and then she chuckled! Fortunately, there weren’t any French visitors in our group!
Anyone who is interested in military history could spend a long time at Quebec House poring over old documents and etchings and looking at the kit and memorabilia. There is also an exhibition and introductory video in the old Coach House, which fills you in on the details of Wolfe’s victory in Quebec. As I may have mentioned earlier in this blog, military history isn’t at the top of my list of interests (or even anywhere near the middle!) but there was still enough here to put a new slant on what I knew about Wolfe.
I have to admit I didn’t know an awful lot about him at all, except that he’d won a great victory in Quebec, and my previous interest in him was mainly limited to the fact that I’d chosen to name a wolf after him in one of my novels (I became very attached to General the wolf while writing that one!).
Prior to my visit, I did also wonder why Wolfe warranted so much attention and accolades; after all, despite a military career spanning almost 20 years (starting in his early teens), he isn’t really known for much other than the Battle of Quebec. He also died at that very battle at the age of 32 so had no time to achieve anything else. However, Quebec House certainly did its job in helping to change my opinion by the time I left. After all, it was pointed out that without the British victory in Canada, most of North America would probably be a French-speaking region today (something which would probably have horrified our guide considering her apparent admiration for those Frenchie-killing grenades!) and the face of the modern world would probably be very different. Our guide also pointed out that some of Wolfe’s strategies are still outlined in modern army training manuals today, while the flat-bottomed landing vessels so familiar to us from Second World War history were used by Wolfe almost 200 years earlier on the St Lawrence River. So I have to admit that Wolfe definitely deserves his spot alongside Churchill on Westerham’s village green.
After the victory in Canada, the famous Benjamin West painting of ‘The Death of General Wolfe’ probably played its part in his heroic status, thanks to the almost Christ-like devotion that the watchers appear to be bestowing on him. Interestingly, though, most of these watchers were not present at the actual moment of his passing and had paid 100 guineas to be included in the picture, which casts a rather different light on it! The original of the painting is in Canada and although the Trust does own one of the smaller copies made by West, it hangs at Ickworth in Suffolk and apparently they won’t let it go (boo hiss!).
Like Wordsworth’s birthplace in Cumbria, Quebec House also helps to bring to life a Georgian way of life and every Sunday a volunteer ‘Mrs Wolfe’ is ensconced in the kitchen creating some of the recipes from her genuine old recipe book. We got to taste some sponge cakes and fruit cake at the end of our tour (and, yes, I did pick a Sunday to visit for specifically this reason!!) I was just a little disappointed that our ‘Mrs Wolfe’ wasn’t dressed in period costume while creating her treats, although that might not have been all that practical considering all the energetic whisking she was doing.
There are a few other things I want to mention. Firstly, you can touch pretty much anything you like at Quebec House, which makes it very different from a lot of other Trust properties. You can even take a nap on the bed if you like. Mind you, my uncle was slightly disappointed as he takes great delight in complaining about the strict rules and regulations at most houses. He didn’t know what to do with himself when everything was fair game!
The Parlour revealed another couple of nice stories. The first is that genuine pictures of Wolfe are very rare and some of the likenesses that exist are perhaps not likenesses at all. For example, Benjamin West apparently painted Wolfe how he wanted him to look, while when a bust was being made of him after the Battle of Quebec his repatriated body was found to be in no condition to provide a death mask; instead, the bust that can be seen in the Parlour was
modelled on a servant who apparently looked a little like him! Another story involves the two old cannonballs in a display cabinet, which were bought from someone in Quebec who had dug them up in their garden. They have since been dated to Wolfe’s time so they are a valuable addition to the military memorabilia. And how did the NT find them? On Ebay, of course!
Highlights: Comprehensive tour; home-baked Georgian cakes
Refreshments: Tea, caramel and hazelnut ice cream (and of course the free cake samples from Mrs Wolfe’s kitchen)
Companion(s): Mum, Dad, Sue and Roger
NT Connections: Ickworth (which has a copy of the famous Benjamin West painting of Wolfe’s death)