Knock, Murderer, Knock! is a Golden Age murder mystery novel written in 1938 by Olive Shimwell using the pseudo name Harriet Rutland. Shinwell, born in 1901, only daughter of a prosperous builder, lived in one of the cottages on site in St. Ann’s Hill Hydropathic Establishment with her husband for a number of years in the mid-1930’s. Her husband, John Shimwell, was a microbiologist and became the Head Brewer for Beamish and Crawford.
Shimwell/Rutland wrote three murder mystery novels, the first of which, Knock, Murderer, Knock! was set in a hydropathic residence that is based on St. Ann’s Hill but transposed to a location in Devon called Presteignton Hydro. The novel is witty and acerbic, full of snobbery and caustic comments, a little romance and plenty of murders by a most unusual murder weapon!
I, taking quite a lot of the descriptions as fact, have compiled a list of my ten favorite “facts” from the novel about St. Ann’s Hill. Needless to say, there is no way that any of these can be confirmed but it is highly probable that at least some of them are!
Bachelor’s Walk – According to the author there was a level strip of gavel eighty yards long, at one end stood a wooden garden set which was painted green, and the other end was a stone urn planter set painted red. From the seat to the urn and back was one-hundred and sixty yards, do these elven times and a mile was covered. There was also a scale plan of the path pinned to the notice board in the hall with a kind-of ready-reckoner for the quarter, half and three-quarter mile, similar to the “Healthy Heart” routes that are scattered throughout various public walks in the county.
Possible location, the gravel path, for Bachelor’s Walk on the terrace St Anne’s Hill, photo from National Library of Ireland, the Lawerence Collection
Residents had their own song about the Hydro which was sung at every event, theatre or musical evening.
“Oh the Hy-dro, the Hy-dro, the Hy-dro, the Hy-hy-dro,
Oh when I’m at the Hy-dro, I’m happy as can be.
We all live at the Hy-dro, the Hy-dro, the Hy-hy-dro,
We all live at the Hy-dro like one big fam-i-ly.”
There was also a second verse:
“And when you see a pretty nurse,
You tell the doctor, you’re feeling worse;
But never do you feel so ill,
As when you read the doctor’s bill;
It gives you such a terrible pain
That you swear you’ll never come back again:
You’ll never, never, never, never, never, never, never,
Never come back to the Hydro again!”.
According to the author the Hydro was a fashionable meeting-place and matrimonial bureau once upon a time, a little bit like the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking locations, that had recently become a hotel for middle-aged or elderly people who had either sold their homes or passed them onto their own adult children, and sought greater comfort, which was combined with less expense in the Hydro’s special residential terms.
A wedding breakfast, depicted in 1897. (Photo by Alamy)
” In the daytime the drawing room at the Hydro was as depressing as only a period room can be.”
According to Rutland visitors to the Hydro found the asethic at the Hydro old-fashioned and fusty. The style was what their grandmothers would have called French and which at the time the book was set, the style was more commonly known as Victorian. The walls were enamelled white but were “deformed by raised, gilded mouldings which contorted themselves into serpemtinous whorls and curlices. As if this were not adornment enough, they were hung with huge German engravings in ornate gilded frames. In these, Victoria, Queen of England, sat at her coronation, stood at her marriage, reclined with her children, opened the Great Exhibition and posed for The Secret of England’s Greatness with an open Bible in her hand.”
Rutland also mentions, a couple of times, that the Hydro was full of knick-knacks and what-nots, plant pots and plant stands that were crammed into every nook and cranny and were routinely rotated across corridors or drawing rooms or dressing rooms.
Close up of decorations on the wall in the dining room, National Library of Ireland, National Library of Ireland, The Lawerence Photograph Collection
St. Ann’s, Dining Room, Blarney, Co. Cork, National Library of Ireland, The Lawerence Photograph Collection
There were dormitory-styled bedrooms in the attic for the housemaids who stayed late and had to work early the next morning. Some housemaids had to stay up until the last resident went to bed and no matter what this time was had to rise the following morning at 6am without fail.
The author also mentions in passing how the maids would regularly “swap corridors” amongst themselves in an effort to end up with the easiest part of the hotel to be responsible for.
A typical servant bedroom at Merryn Allingham Country House Living – A Servant’s Life | Merryn Allingham
The period in which the novel is set, the mid-1930’s, the Hydro, according to the author, had become rather shabby but retained an air of genteel chic. And while the residential parts of the Hydro were in need of a spruce-up the treatment side of the establishment was full of the latest new technologies and equipment. Doctors stayed, on average, for approximately two years in the role of Resident Physican, and by all accounts, new applicants to the role were enticed with the promise of new technology which was duly purchased and installed for them.
Bedrooms were allocated in strict accordance with propriety which ensured that unmarried women were accommodated in an upstairs wing known by the servants, rather wittily, as “Spinster’s Walk”. It was here that the “unmarried women, guests or widows, real or grass, slept.” A grass widow is parted from their husbands by golf or similar obsessional activities, so it is amusing to see that somethings never change!
The rooms which guests and residents considered to be prime were on the ground floor, the best of these had French windows leading directly out onto the terrace and commanded magnificent views across the formal gardens.
The Hydro was known to all, staff and visitors, as THE Hydro! Obviously, it was the only and best Hydro in existence.
Similar to most restaurants these days, the table by the window was considered to be “the” best in the dining room and was allocated to guests based on their length of stay. On each table in the dining room there was a bottle of Vichy or Evian water, which would be in keeping with the original ethos of hydropathy ethics, an old-fashioned cruet (which is a container for salt, pepper, oil, or vinegar for use at a dining table), a medicine-bottle (specific contents unclarified) and a box of digestive tablets.
If a new arrival at the Hydro was so mistaken as to think that each table was alike and seated themselves at this prime window table then they would have been “greeted with a silence so charged with unmistakable emotion, he would turn and seat himself at one of the ill-lit tables in the less attractive part of the room.”
Without a doubt this is my favorite thing that I learnt from this murder novel, and if true it just makes me smile. Once a month, each and every month, the resident physician in charge of the Hydro, the Doctor, would host a Complaints Day, where he would hear from anyone in the Hydro who had a grievance, either real or imaginary.
“He would hear that the library was stuffy, and the drawing-room draughty; that the bedrooms were not fit for dogs to sleep in; that a chambermaid had been insolent; that the housekeeper was inefficient; that it was useless to have a wireless set that was always out of order; that the deckchairs were always sopping wet and why couldn’t someone take them out of the rain; that the gardener ought to supply flowers for the bedrooms; there was a croquet mallet missing and it might be found in someone’s bedroom; that the teapots were all chipped and no wonder, since the Hydro must be the only hotel in the British Isles that did not have metal ones; that there had been a slug in the cabbage.”
And if that was not enough the staff were also able to make their complaints.
“He would hear that the gardener would not dig enough vegetables for the chef; that if the chef more fruit must bottle, ‘e more bottles must ‘ave; that some b-, h’m, somebody had wheeled a bath-chair over a flower-bed; that the bath-attendant had sworn horribly at the electrician; that the electrician had sworn even more horribly at the bath-attendant; that if certain people in the Hydro didn’t stop interfering with the wireless, they must put up with the consequences; that the deck-chairs walked outside on their own legs whenever it rained, after they had been carefully put away; that the gardener wouldn’t be dictated to by that old Admiral who didn’t know a Worcester Pearman from one of his walking sticks; that the kitchens, store-rooms, potting sheds and greenhouses need enlarging; that there weren’t enough flower-pots, fuses, saucepans, tables, trays, dusters, towels, buckets…and so on.”
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