Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Remembering Warren Hastings

- a personal story by my father-in-law

When one is involved in the world of collecting artifacts, antiques, and other oddities, there is a tendency to meet interesting and knowledgeable people who share similar interests. I often visited antique stores in the town of Sidney (British Columbia) and on occasion I noticed a tall and distinguished gentleman who would pick up and observe objects that I was also interested in. We obviously shared similar interests. One day he happened to be in the store when I purchased a Sam Browne belt, which was in wonderful condition, it showed a lovely patina from many years of careful maintenance. I wondered if the belt was from the first world war period, I had a feeling this gentleman would know. I went over and politely asked if he might help me identify it. When I handed the belt to him he observed it closely and said he used to wear one that was very similar. I was eager to find out when he had worn one and asked him, he replied during his time with the Royal Flying Corp. We spoke for a while and he kindly invited me to visit him, where we carried on our interesting conversation. This was my introduction to Warren Hastings, a noble and kind gentleman.

I met Warren in the early 1970‘s and almost a year had passed since our first meeting, I had recently purchased a flying helmet, flying goggles and a silver cigarette case and had hoped to find out more of their history. I called Warren to ask if he might identify them for me. I went over to visit him a couple of days later and we discussed the items, he identified them as being authentic from WW1 era. During our discussion, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a lovely silver lighter with engraving upon it, it was identical to my cigarette case. He told me the story of his lighter and how it was a gift from a girl he had planned to marry, but she sadly died during the 1919 flu epidemic while caring for her mother who had contracted the virus. I could see the lighter meant a great deal to him. “How about a scotch?” he offered, “sounds wonderful” I replied! This was the beginning of a great friendship which lasted more than twenty-five years.

We would usually get together once a week and indulge in a cigar and a couple of scotches, then we would talk about things that fascinated both of us. Over the years, Warren shared many stories of his life with me, I was always enthusiastic to hear his memories. Many people attempted to interview him to record his fascinating life experiences but he was a very private man and refused to be interviewed. I was fortunate to hear his stories and be able to share them with family and friends.

Warren was once a fighter pilot during world war one, he flew Avro 504's Sopwith Pups and Camels. I have always been fascinated with aircraft and was so delighted to hear his memories of that time. One of many stories I have not forgotten from Warren was about his best friend Reggie who was shot down and killed in the first few weeks of the war, the experience was as real to him as if it had just happened. He told me of his experience of shooting down a German pilot. After he shot him down, Warren landed alongside the German pilot and helped him out of his airplane, he tried to help him and cradled him into a sitting position. The aviator reached into his pocket and showed Warren a picture of his family before he died. Seventy years later, the horror of that experience was still with him.

Returning to England in a very depressed state of mind, Warren’s father bought him a Douglas motorcycle. It was a lovely quiet running machine. Warren told me he had a most beautiful ride through the Kentish countryside which greatly revived his spirits. He became a naval architect and subsequently worked for Vospers Marine and was involved in the design of the motor patrol boats. He also came up with the idea of torpedoes being attracted to electrical switching on ships. He visited Watson Watt (“inventor of radar”) who helped him perfect the system. Warren was presented with a boarding pike from the stores of Nelson's Ship ‘Victory’ in appreciation from the Admiralty.

In the late 1930's Warren and his wife Barbara moved to British Columbia and built Hastings House” on Saltspring Island. It is now considered one of the worlds leading luxury oceanside resorts. Warren designed the Sussex-style manor and hand-crafted some of the furniture and its many characteristic features such as the adzed beams. The majority of the furniture and artifacts were brought over from England, some of the pieces date back to the sixteenth century. In the living-room area, Warren planned to build an Inglenook fireplace and contacted a craftsman who had a reputation for building excellent fireplaces. The craftsman refused the job on the basis that the fireplace would not function, and he did not want his name associated with it in case it did not. Warren said "if you build it the way I show you, then I promise not to reveal your name". When the fireplace was completed, it was such a success that the craftsman kept asking if he could bring people over to see it!


The Inglenook Fireplace at Hastings House
"British Columbia Government Photograph"

Warren was obviously still involved with the Admiralty during the war as he prepared naval drawings for them while he lived at Hastings House. During this time, Warren’s wife Barbara met an interesting lady who had recently moved to Ganges on Saltspring Island, Barbara helped her to settle in to the island life and they quickly became good friends. The two women would swim and play tennis together. One day, without any warning, Barbara’s new friend suddenly disappeared off the island, both Barbara and Warren were mystified. A month or so later Warren was visited by a mysterious man, in a dark suit and carrying a briefcase, who asked to speak with him in private. The mysterious man opened his briefcase, inside the case, to Warren’s disbelief, were his own naval drawings on film. He discovered why Barbara’s friend had suddenly vanished without a trace, she was a German spy; fortunately, Canadian officials intercepted her while she attempted to leave the country. Warren told me this was a good example of German intelligence and how efficient they were. He also told me that during the late thirties the Germans would host large parties and invite British engineers, where suitable ones would be provided with attractive escorts, which the British knew were spies. After a few drinks, the engineers would provide the girls with all sorts of clever misinformation. During one party in London, they sat at a large baronial refectory table and were provided with daggers to carve their initials on the table top. It would be most interesting if the table top has survived!

Barbara at one point became friends with another gentleman who shared her interest in horses, consequently a relationship developed between them and she left Warren. Barbara eventually became unhappy with her new partner and soon realized he was untrustworthy. During this period, Warren met Patricia and they became close friends and enjoyed each others’ companionship. Barbara told Warren that she wanted to come home and he agreed to her returning and advised her that he had met Patricia and that circumstances were not going to change with their relationship. Barbara agreed with the circumstances and moved back to Hastings House, Warren and Patricia lived in Canoe Cove. The situation was that Warren would spend weekends with Barbara at Hastings House on Saltspring Island. Patricia was in agreement with this arrangement but endured a great deal of criticism from neighbours and friends who disapproved of this lifestyle. Barbara would always stand up for Patricia and eventually the two women became very close friends.

A change came into their lives when most of their Canoe Cove property was expropriated for the installation of the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. Barbara, Patricia and Warren decided the travel back and forth to Saltspring Island had become tedious, therefore Warren sold the remainder of Canoe Cove property and the Hastings House. He bought Barbara a home in bucolic North Saanich, a home she had fallen in love with, and also purchased a small country cottage on a lovely piece of property close by. Warren refurbished the old cottage by adding on to it and redesigned it to give it a seventeenth century style so that it would suit his furnishings and artifacts. I experienced many delightful interludes talking with Warren in these lovely surroundings.

After Barbara passed away, Warren married Patricia and they shared a few happy years together before she went. Her last words to me were "please look after Warren". Still going strong and full of zest for life at age ninety-six, Warren passed his driver’s exam and continued to drive his beloved Morgan sports car. He enjoyed his life to its fullest. We continued our weekly visits with chats, a scotch (or two) and cigar. I learned so much from this fine gentleman.

I now reminisce of times past and that fateful day in the antique store - thank you Sam Browne. I shall never forget Warren’s kindred friendship.

Warren left us at the age of ninety-seven.






6 comments:

Canarybird said...

Fascinating story Michelle! So glad to see you wrote it all down at last. Looking forward to many more of these tales. Hugs xx

J said...

Michelle,
As I have said many times to your Father-in-law, he is a very lucky guy to have such a wonderfull talented Daughter-in-law. I love your photos and stories. This one resonates especially as a result of knowing (for all too short a time) Len. Please keep sharing these treasures.

John Reilly

Michelle said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I am lucky to have such a wonderful in-laws. It is my hope that they will share their amazing stories here on this blog. Michelle

Michelle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gill Bailey said...

Really enjoyed this story Mich, kep them coming! Would be fun to get some of Grandpa Les's stories on here too!

Love Gilly

Allan Holmberg said...

Thanks so much for filling in some blanks for me regarding our 'friendly neighbours'. Our family home is still near Hasting's House and I once as a boy delivered newspapers to the Hastings. Mrs. Hastings would pasture her horse across the road from our home and so I would often see her riding or driving her saloon car. I've often wondered what the the make of Mr. Hasting's open sports car was (I expect it was the Morgan you refer to). One of my favorite memories of Mr. Hastings is to see him casting with his fly rod from a rocky outcrop below his house at the end of Ganges Harbour as I walked along the beach; it inspired me to later take up the sport.

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