I started writing for the papers when I was barely turned fifteen and since 1899 I have been a constant contributor to the local press. When I began, provincial dailies were the big thing, and ‘The Cornish Chronicle’ had one of the largest distributions in the south west. When eastern Cornwall had no daily of its own, I doubt if the sale of all the London newspapers amounted to a few thousand copies a day there. The Chronicle, a small, twelve-paged sheet, begun in Launceston, was transferred to Looe in the summer of 1901. I contributed to it, and in 1903, when 19 years old, I joined the staff officially as a junior reporter. The provincial paper was then very different from its successor to-day. Political news was the mainstay, and far less attention was paid to theatrical, sporting, and personal chat than now. In those days people followed politics seriously, and did not make them merely the pastime of an idle hour.
In my time, I have made the journalism rounds of stories so far-fetched that they would either have you drop the paper at a glimpse of the article and remain in laughter for several minutes or dismiss the journalism as desperate headline-grabbing sensationalism. However, nothing quite prepared me for the story I was asked to cover in the winter of 1919, certainly one of the strangest I have ever come across.
The story I was asked to report on related to a set of mysterious events that had caused considerable upset in the lives of Florence Duttine, a Dorsetshire woman whose family had lived in “Thomas Hardy country” for many generations. My first impressions was that she was a warm and spirited woman who made every effort to convince me that she was not one to make up fanciful stories. Indeed, she was described by those who knew her as “honest” and “down-to-earth”, and by another as “one who never put her status before her duty; which, for the most part, was benefaction”.
“I wish my father had left me the Abbey,” said Mrs Duttine. “Such, a grand old place; I feel proud to belong to the family who have lived there for so many generations. I could understand it if father had left it to Harold; men can’t bear to let the family name fall into oblivion, and a Duttine has lived at St Matthew’s for centuries. It would be an ideal life, full of occupation and enjoyment, and plenty to do each day — servants to interview, improvements to arrange and my husband Sidney would have delighted in it.”
Sadly this was not to be, as, for reasons unknown to Florence and her brother, her father had omitted them from his will.
In the winter of 1917, Florence and her three-year old daughter went to stay with her niece and nephew in Cornwall. An old and apparently charming house, with a quaint cave that stretched from the cellar down to the sea. It had been mentioned to her as a suitable place in which they could remain for however long they required. She agreed to take it, and they were installed with two maids and a nurse. But there were unhappy times ahead:
“I have certainly tried to forget it, but I can’t. The cold and sombre sea-girt house and the eerie, repulsive spectres that nightly wander through its gloomy, crumbling walls are photographed on my mind, never to be wiped out.”
“Every time I hear the sound of a bell or a certain tone of footstep or the click of a closing door my mind is sent back to that awful place—”