George Bernard Shaw had been a guest of the Bassett-Lowkes on a number of occasions while they were at 78 Derngate so the Friends of 78 decided on a reciprocal visit to view his house and oh what a contrast to 78!
Built in 1902 as the ‘New Rectory· it was the home of Bernard Shaw from 1906 until his death in 1950. A typical Edwardian house full of an eclectic mix of furniture and lots of ‘bits and bobs’ filling every corner. The house has been arranged much as it was in Shaw’s day, evoking the feeling that the great man had just gone out for the afternoon. There is still a collection of hats inside the front door and in his study is the desk where he would write, and cut and paste the original drafts of his texts, littering the floor with scraps of paper. The Oscar he received for ‘Pygmalion’ in 1938 is on show and also a Nobel Prize for Literature is displayed at the house for the first time this year.
The Shaws always kept a flat in London but Ayot St. Lawrence was their main home. Henry and Clara Higgs came up from London as Head Gardener and Cook/Housekeeper. An under-gardener, chauffeur and two maids completed the household. He said of the house, ‘People bother me. I came here to hide away from them.’ Saying this he also entertained many guests, whilst trying not to give in to the many fans and journalists who would gather outside his gates.
It was a beautiful day for our visit so we were able to stroll in the gardens and view the famous revolving hut ‘The Retreat’ where Shaw did much of his writing of books, plays and film scripts. Also in the garden is a large bronze statue to ‘Saint Joan’ whom Shaw admired very much. His ashes are scattered around this area of the garden and around the ‘hut’ where he died.
He left Shaw’s corner to the National Trust but with no money believing that fees from visitors would fund its upkeep. Indeed it was so popular that only one year after Shaw died the police urged the National Trust to convert the large vegetable patch by the garage into a car park. The house justly deserves the popularity that it still enjoys to this day as a memorial to a great man.
First published in July 2004 in The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 30.
Author: Joy Saville
Transcribed 2018: Barbara Floyer