John Galsworthy, Coombe and the Forsyte Saga
On 1st March 1968, part of Gloucester Road (the section north of the Coombe Road/Coombe Lane juction) was renamed Galsworthy Road. This was after the writer John Galsworthy, but came at the same time as the great success of the TV adaption of his most famous work the Forsyte Saga. [Also, Soame’s Walk, off Trap’s Lane was named after a main character in ‘Man of Property’].
Galsworthy’s connections with Coombe
John Galsworthy was born on Kingston Hill in November 1867 and spent his childhood there until 1886. He died in Hampstead on 21st January 1933 from a stroke, having been suffering from a brain tumour. He had been too ill to collect the Nobel Prize for Literature which he was awarded in 1932.
The connection of Galsworthy with Coombe is actually due to the author’s father, also John Galsworthy, who built large houses on the estate formerly owned by the Duke of Cambridge, off Grange Road. He was a churchwarden at St John the Baptist, Kingston Vale and his wife was a Surbitonian. The houses he built were Coombe Warren (1868, later renamed Coombe Court, demolished 1931), Coombe Leigh (1873, later Coombe Ridge, now Holy Cross Preparatory School) and Coombe Croft (1878, now Rokeby Preparatory School) and the Galsworthy family lived in each of them for a time. John Galsworthy the author was born in another large house called Parkfield, which is now a nursing home called Galsworthy House. Coombe Warren was the inspiration for ‘Robin Hood’ – the house built by Soames in the Forsyte Saga.
‘The Forsyte Saga’, TV Adaptation, 1967-68
The Forsyte Saga TV show was 26 episodes long, and the last major serial to be filmed in black and white by the BBC. Its original run was on BBC2, from 7th January 1967 to 1st July 1967, but it gained huge popularity in 1968 when it was repeated on BBC1 at 7:25pm on Sundays. Kingston History Centre volunteer Dan said it “had the nation in thrall, with a stellar cast!” and my mum said “I saw the TV series (years ago) and found it very sad and tragic then”. The final episode shown in 1968 had 18 million viewers tuning in (compare that to Strictly Come Dancing Final 2015 which gained 12 million viewers). The series went on to be shown around the world and was the first BBC TV series to be sold to the Soviet Union. It is estimated that it had a worldwide audience of 160 million people.
The Forsyte Saga, paperback edition published 1970
In preparation for writing this blog, I read the trilogy which includes ‘The Man of Property’ (first published 1906), ‘In Chancery’ (first published 1920) and ‘To Let’ (first published 1921). It’s available to loan from Surbiton Library and I well recommend it. The Saga is part one of three which form the Forsyte Chronicles.
The three novels tell the story of Old Jolyon, his son Jolly and nephew Soames, and their children. It is poetically written, from the point of view of the individual characters, how they relate to each other and the world.
A major theme is the concept of ‘property’, in relation to a physical house and also between a husband and wife. When you enter a relationship, and particularly a marriage, do you in some ways take on the ownership of your partner and they you? Can you have expectations on them? Can you judge them as you would yourself? Or do you remain as individuals who just happen to be co-habiting? The novels (and my own reflections) expose that marriage is, at least in part, an outward showing of unity to society, but that within it, both parties remain in some sense strangers to one another (and maybe even themselves), as the concept of ‘self’ is always transitional.
There are no real heroes, but rather each character and their motivations are presented as conflicted and ambiguous. The division between right and wrong and how personal desires can influence or change your moral outlook is explored through different generations of the Forsyte family as they negotiate an ever changing world (The Boer War, motor cars). I felt that it was a moving and honest presentation of human nature.
Death is ever present in the Saga and this really struck a chord with me having recently lost a beloved grandparent. The deaths of various characters are portrayed skilfully and poignantly. Some deaths are anticipated but the last moment is always sudden, always heart breaking. To die an old man is just as painful as to die a youth, despite what the living might say to console ourselves. Galsworthy captured beautifully the feeling of loneliness that one must feel in the moment of death, a final goodbye to yourself, whether worn through old age, through sickness or tragedy. The Saga helped me explore my grief but also made me quite sad at times.
Butters, S (2013) ‘That Famous Place’ A History of Kingston upon Thames Kingston University Press
Galsworthy, J (1970) The Forsyte Saga: Part 1 Penguin Books Ltd
The Nobel Foundation (1932) John Galsworthy – Biographical Available here.
Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (undated) John Galsworthy in Coombe [leaflet available at Kingston History Centre]