George Alfred Henty who wrote as G A Henty was a Crimean War correspondent as well as a prolific author. In his day his books sold millions of copies. He wrote more than 100, and most, though not all, of his writing is for boys. The books for boys are mainly Historical Fiction covering time periods from the Punic Wars to the practically contemporary settlement by the British of countries like Argentina. Today many of his stories are seen for what they are – Imperialist – but for the most part Henty is simply reflecting the British establishment’s view of the world in Victorian times.
Henty’s connection with Canterbury is mentioned in his biography by G M Fenn entitled ‘Story of an Active Life’ published in 1907. Fenn advises that Henty came to live in Canterbury when he was five, staying for five years. Research has shown that the Henty family came to live in Canterbury in the winter of 1837/8.
Henty’s father James had had a disastrous career as a broker on the London stock exchange. The newspapers of 1827 report that he was in debt to the tune of £100000, the equivalent of at least £5 million today. This was particularly upsetting to the Henty family who, as a family of bankers based in Arundel, Sussex, had a reputation for probity to uphold. Ostracised by his own family, James Henty and his wife and children went to live with his parents-in-law James and Mary Edwards. Immediately prior to moving to Canterbury they were all living at Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, where James Edwards was a doctor. In 1837 James Edwards bought a ‘doctor’s house and practice’ in Canterbury, and James Henty’s family moved to Canterbury too. James Edwards applied in September 1838 for a position at the Kent and Canterbury hospital but seems to have been unsuccessful. G A Henty’s sister Mary had been baptised at St Mildred’s Church described as ‘of Stour Street’ on 13th May 1838, and James Edwards and his wife are shown as living in Stour Street in the 1841 census. Further research has shown that their house was on the site now occupied by Mulberry Court on Stour Street. In the 1841 census James Henty and his family are to be found in Pelham Place, Kensington, London, but James Edwards continued to live in Canterbury till about 1846.
In his first published (1867) book, a very autographical novel titled ‘Search for a Secret’ which is set in and around Canterbury, Henty gives this marvellous description of a house which is undoubtedly his grandfather’s house:-
I was not, as I have said, born in the town, but went there very young—so young that I have no remembrance of any earlier time. We lived in a large, rambling, old-fashioned house in a back lane. In a little court before it stood some lime-trees, which, if they helped to make the front darker and more dismal than it would otherwise have been, had the good effect of shutting it out from the bad company into which it had fallen. It had at one time been a place of great pretension, and belonged, doubtless, to some country magnate, and before the little houses in the narrow lane had sprung up and hemmed it in, it may have had a cheerful appearance; but, at the time I speak of, the external aspect was undeniably gloomy. But behind it was very different. There was a lawn and large garden, at the end of which the Stour flowed quietly along, and we children were never tired of watching the long streamerlike green weeds at the bottom waving gently in the current, and the trout darting here and there among them, or lying immovable, apparently watching us, until at the slightest noise or motion they would dart away too quickly for the eye to follow them.
Inside, it was a glorious home for us, with its great old-fashioned hall with dark wainscoting and large stags’ heads all round it, which seemed to be watching us children from their eyeless sockets; and its vast fireplace, with iron dogs, where, in the old days, a fire sufficient for the roasting of a whole bullock, might have been piled up; with its grand staircase, with heavy oak balustrades, lit by a great window large enough for an ordinary church; with its long passages and endless turnings and backstairs in unexpected places; with all its low, quaint rooms of every shape except square, and its closets nearly as large as rooms.
Oh, it was a delightful house! But very terrible at dusk. Then we would not have gone along alone those long, dark passages for worlds; for we knew that the bogies, and other strange things of which our old nurse told us, would be sure to be lurking and upon the watch.
It was a wonderful house for echoes, and at night we would steal from our beds and creep to the top of the grand staircase, and listen, with hushed breath, to the almost preternaturally loud tick of the old clock in the hall, which seemed to us to get louder and louder, till at last the terrors of the place would be almost too much for us, and, at the sound of some mouse running behind the wainscoting, we would scamper off to our beds, and bury our heads beneath the clothes, falling into a troubled sleep, from which we woke, with terrified starts, until the welcome approach of day, when, as the sun shone brightly in, we would pluck up courage and laugh at our night’s fright.
Further information on Henty and Canterbury can be found in issue 138 of The Henty Society Bulletin pub. July 2016.