Rudyard Kipling fell in love with Bateman’s from the moment he saw it. It was a home, he wrote later, “in which to settle down for keeps.” Tucked away in a wooded landscape of the Sussex Weald, this 17th century house with its mullioned windows and oak beams was untouched by modernisation and change. It would provide an idyllic sanctuary for a man who had endured a lonely and unhappy childhood and it was fondly remembered by all who came to know it.
Kipling moved to the house with his American wife Carrie and their children Elsie and John. He was thirty-six and the most famous writer in the world. Their eldest daughter, six-year-old Josephine, had died of pneumonia – a tragedy from which they never fully recovered. Yet Kipling was determined that this new home should be a happy place – especially for children – and an oasis of calm in which to work. Despite the further despair to come at the death of their only son John in the First World War, Kipling always found serenity at Bateman’s.
Born to British parents in India, Kipling was sent to school in England and to a lodging house where he was often beaten. They were times of great loneliness for him. His only joyful moments were spent during holidays with his uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones and his wife in their London home. It was such a refuge that years later he brought the wrought-iron bell-pull from his uncle’s house to hang in the porch at Bateman’s. He hoped that other children would feel the same sense of happiness when they rang it.
A house full of history
Despite his fame, he was a modest man, for whom Bateman’s was a place of peace, away from the trappings of fame. Nevertheless, the house was often filled with friends and guests, from Stanley Baldwin (who was his cousin) to the writer Rider Haggard. The visitors’ book, still at the house, notes all the guests across the thirty-four years that Kipling was there.
The rooms, which he described as “untouched and unfaked”, still evoke a rich period atmosphere and most are exactly as he left them, giving a detailed insight into his character. A sense of fun was instilled from the moment a visitor stepped into the porch and saw the initials of Kipling, Carrie and the two children, that had been carved into the stonework one rainy afternoon. The large oak table in the entrance hall would be the setting for afternoon teas, piled high with bread and jam and hot-buttered scones. A painting showing a cosy room in Burne-Jones’ house was hung just inside the hall, a further reminder for Kipling of those days spent with his uncle.
The delightful oak-panelled parlour was the location for after-dinner games or was where the rug would be rolled back to play ball with the family dogs. Here, Kipling would also read extracts from his latest poems and stories to his enraptured children and guests. Like other rooms in the house, there is an Eastern flavour from displays of treasured possessions, mementoes of travels or from his time in India as a young journalist. There are blue and white dishes and vases, decorated boxes and his collection of miniature Indian, Chinese and Japanese deities that he called his “household gods”.
In the dining-room, the walls are decorated with striking 18th century Cordoba leather hangings depicting tropical birds and entwining foliage that Kipling and Carrie bought on the Isle of Wight. He was thrilled to have acquired them, saying they were “lovelier than our wildest dreams,” and they gave the room a luxuriant backdrop for the jovial entertaining the family so enjoyed. Kipling suffered from stomach ulcers in his later life and the menus were often plain and simple, but guests would always be offered good wine as compensation.
The study is a fascinating record of a writer and his work. It is just as Kipling left it, only tidier. According to his family, he was extraordinarily messy, especially when he was mulling over many drafts for a book on his ink-stained desk. The tools of his trade are all here: the ‘Good Companion’ typewriter, of which he often complained “the beastly thing simply won’t spell,” boxes of pen nibs, rubber bands and clips. In the corner is his day-bed, where he would sit and wait for inspiration. The room contains his library, an eclectic mix from poetry to Pepys, naval history to bee-keeping. Guests sometimes remarked that the books by the bed seemed carefully chosen for them.
Bateman’s is filled with mementoes and evidence of the family’s importance to Kipling. The series of bronze and plaster plaques of Mowgli from the ‘Jungle Book’ and characters from ‘Kim’ were made by Kipling’s father and intended as illustrations for the books. There are photographs of Burne-Jones at work, while other items of memorabilia show how Kipling’s children influenced him; it was for Josephine that he devised the ‘Just So’ stories. Elsie and John appear as characters in the tales ‘Rewards and Fairies’.
The Kipling Society
Kipling died in 1936 and his wife, Carrie, three years later, having bequeathed Bateman’s to the National Trust as a memorial to her husband. But it’s far from just an historic house depicting the life of its owner. Special events offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of a home that meant so much to him, performances of his prose and poetry in the garden on summer evenings, and simply the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of period rooms in a perfect rural setting.
For those who would like to discover more about Kipling and his work please visit The Kipling Society’s website. It contains a wealth of information on his literary output together with recordings and memorabilia.