Imagine being just shy of four years old and left on the doorstep of a house bigger than any you had ever seen before: a giant’s house! an ogre’s castle!
My earliest memory of Silverlands, the Actors’ Orphanage, is arriving in a black taxi from Chertsey Station in Surrey with my sister Susannah, then aged seven, and being handed over to a forbidding man called Commander Aggitter on that doorstep by our actress mother, Joan White. I can recall no tears shed, no hugs or kisses goodbye, just the feeling of being dwarfed by the huge front entryway, the high ceilings and the very large people. Perhaps there’s a remembered whiff of Je Reviens perfume as our mother walked down the six stone steps and into the waiting taxi without a backward glance. We watched it disappear down the oh-so-long driveway. An older boy was summoned to take our small belongings upstairs to one of the rooms on the first floor.
I suppose later that day we were introduced to the matron and to Mrs. Aggitter, and eventually, probably at the next meal, to the other children. But I don’t remember that. I don’t remember the time of day, or what the weather was (grey, I expect); I just remember the big-ness of it all.
It was very near the end of 1946, just days before my fourth birthday, when Susannah and I went to live at Silverlands on Holloway Hill, just outside the town of Chertsey. I was to remain there for all my childhood. I flew to America at the age of sixteen and a half, out from under the Orphanage’s care at last, never to return.
My husband John and I have crossed the Atlantic to visit my mother and to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday with her and my sister. My mother, after sixty-five years in the theatre, had recently moved into Denville Hall, a retirement home for elderly thespians just north of London, run by The Actors’ Charitable Trust.
We were met at Heathrow Airport in the early hours of a grey Tuesday morning by a former actor turned car-for-hire driver, an acquaintance of Mother’s, who drove us at a rather alarming speed through the house-packed suburbs of London. He talked non-stop in his flat London accent and, after an interminable time and the passing of several recognisable landmarks more than once, I, who was not a stranger to the far western reaches of the city, came to the conclusion that he was deliberately taking us the long way round to Northwood. This was probably on Mother’s instructions so that we wouldn’t arrive too early and inconvenience her. We were to stop at Denville Hall for a night before taking Mother on to Spain and my sister’s village of Bedar. There, two days later, her eighty-fifth birthday would be celebrated with plenty of liquid libation, with her as the centre of attention.
The car finally turned on to the circular driveway of a charming old house surrounded by spacious lawns. Our driver pulled up to the front door, got out and pushed the front door bell. We staggered after him, exhausted by our flight, the early morning ride through London’s drearier suburbs and his endless nattering. The door was opened and, as we crossed the threshold, my early life flashed before me.
Mother bustled forward to greet us with a loud “Here you are, darlings,” and as I kissed her cheek I noticed, over her plump shoulder, three large, framed publicity photographs lined up on an ornately inlaid credenza in the front hall.
There they were, the three doges of my childhood: Sir Noël Coward, Lord Olivier and, as he has now been dubbed, the Baron of Richmond Hill – but, as he always will be to me, just plain Richard Attenborough.
“Well, of course,” I said to myself.
We murmured “hallo” and other greetings to the various retired ladies and gentlemen of the stage who would be spending the rest of their lives with my mother. We were served tea and biscuits in a drawing room decorated with theatrical posters of bygone hits and flops. We then went upstairs to inspect Mother’s room and to deposit our overnight bags in the guest suite.
Mother took the elevator, and because it was too small for three, John and I said we would walk up the stairs. Over the half landing hung a large oil portrait of a handsome, brown-haired gentleman in Elizabethan costume.
‘Who’s that?’ asked John.
‘I dunno, probably Olivier,’ I muttered, climbing on up.
Then I stopped in my tracks. No, it bloody well wasn’t Olivier – that portrait had hung in the front hall at Silverlands for all my childhood! That man had watched us sneak downstairs on our way to raiding the larder; he had seen us gather to hang tattle-tales on the Sneak’s Chair over the front stairway’s highest balustrade; he had been there when someone played Father Christmas and handed out empty gift-wrapped packages to we children for publicity photos at Christmastime; he had observed the showy arrivals and departures of our theatrical relatives on visiting Sundays, and the disappointment of those children like Norma whose parents never came; and he had witnessed some of us lined up from time to time on ‘Adoption Parade’. My sister and I were spared that humiliation, but my friend Terry Mac was paraded out time after time, yet never chosen. If the man in that portrait could talk, what stories he could tell!
My curiosity was piqued. We dutifully inspected Mother’s new abode and deposited our luggage in the guest suite, which was equipped with at least four ‘Help I’ve fallen and can’t get up’ buttons, several ‘Positively No Smoking’ signs, and some fine examples of wonderfully complex plumbing.
Later that day, I met with the director of the home, Mrs. Moira Miller and, after discussing Mother’s needs for her well being, I asked what she knew of the portrait on the stairs. She became quite animated and told me that she had had it researched as it had interested her, too. It was, she learned, of an actor named William Terriss and had been painted in about 1890. He was wearing his costume for Romeo and Juliet. Terriss had often worked in actor/manager Sir Henry Irving’s Company — Irving had been the first President of the Actors’ Orphanage — before forming his own band of players.
On December 16, 1897, as he was entering the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on Maiden Lane to prepare for the evening's performance of "Secret Service," he was stabbed to death by a deranged and disgruntled action, Richard Archer Prince.
“Interesting,” I said, remembering that I had grown up with a boy named Terriss, “but where did it come from?”
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘well, you see the Actors’ Charitable Trust ran an orphanage somewhere in Surrey for the destitute children of actors and actresses. When they closed the orphanage in 1959, they had some of the rather nicer furnishings put into storage. Then, when they decided in 1965 to take over managing Denville Hall, this home for the elderly members of the profession, they brought these furnishings out of storage and put them here. That portrait came from there.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I went there! I was sure I knew that portrait. I lived at the Actors’ Orphanage from 1947 until 1959. In fact, I stayed on in Chertsey after the orphanage closed to finish my O-levels at school, and I watched the movers take everything out of the house.”
Her mouth fell open. I could see that she, like everyone else who ever knew of it, assumed that the children at the Actors’ Orphanage had all been truly orphans. Surely they couldn’t possibly be the children of respectable, fairly well-to-do, educated members of the profession like my mother!
Her curiosity piqued now, Mrs. Miller asked if I would like to walk around the ground-floor rooms and see if I recognised any pieces of furniture.
“Yes, I would,” I said, and so we did.
The grand piano in the drawing room was the same one on which my room-mate Janet had practised The Moonlight Sonata endlessly forty years before, and where some of us, who were less proficient, had hammered out Chopsticks. On the wall in the same room hung a large photograph of the then Princess Elizabeth in her wedding dress, with its long train arranged to fall artfully down the steps. That used to hang in the room where the big wooden wireless set was kept and where, for years every Christmas Day, we gathered to listen to the King’s, and later the Queen’s, speech. In another sitting room was a portrait of that same lady, now Queen of the realm, with her corgis. That photograph had had pride of place over the magnificent oak and marble front hall fireplace at Silverlands, just across from where the portrait of William Terriss once hung. Along the passage, in the residents’ library, were the same glass-fronted bookcases that had stood in the long downstairs corridor outside the dining room and the assembly room at Silverlands.
In one had been kept our sweet rations, doled out in meagre portions for good behaviour after church on Sundays. In the other had been books; the only titles I could recall were a complete set of Hugh Lofting’s The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle. Those books were not used to improve our minds, but to improve our posture and to imprint our transgressions upon our souls; for following the too-frequent punishments of bare-bottom caning, we were often instructed to fill a cardboard box with a dozen or so of these books and stand holding them on our heads outside the headmaster’s office until he said, “Enough.”
I asked Mrs. Miller if there was a bust of Sir Gerald du Maurier anywhere around.
She said she hadn’t seen one but it might be in the attic; would I like to look?
“No, that’s all right,” I said. “I just wondered. Janet and I had to dust Sir Gerald every Saturday morning and we got to know him rather too well.” I didn’t tell her that we used to pick our noses and stuff our own snot up Sir Gerald’s nasal cavities.
As we walked around, I spotted furniture and pictures that seemed familiar, and we chatted about life, with its twists and turns. I thought about how my life might have turned out if I hadn’t been at Silverlands for all those years.
My sister had only had the benefit of Silverlands for less than four years before, with our mother’s encouragement, she had moved to London and trained for the theatre. After four more years, she followed Mother to America. Her childhood was a series of stops and starts, beginning with life at home with our father, whom she had adored.
Sue was to follow in our mother’s footsteps, not just in the theatre, but also in that she relinquished her four children, at very young ages, into the care of others. Our mother’s grandmother had done the same, abandoning my grandfather and his sisters when they were only eight, six and four, to the care of five maiden aunts. I know it was Silverlands that gave me the sense of family and roots that has enabled me to avoid following this family trait and guide my daughters to adulthood.
For my mother ‘The wheel is come full circle’: she would now be spending her last years amongst these furnishings of my childhood – which should have been familiar to her too, but were not.
Mrs. Miller had met my mother on a number of occasions before Mother moved in and, because my mother was who she was, a respected veteran of sixty-five years in the theatre as an actress, director and teacher, Mrs. Miller probably could not conceive of how such a charming old lady could have put her children in an orphanage. But she did, and therein is my story.
Judy Staber's new memoir, "Silverlands: Growing up at the Actors' Orphanage," is available through www.thetroybookmakers.com, and will soon be available from her website,