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Monday 4th October 1954

Our last full day here, as we sail at midnight tomorrow. I felt I had a lot to do as I had had to waste so much valuable time in resting and keeping quiet owing to the heat and Madeira fever.

British Consulate

The padre had told me that all the early records of English families, births, marriages, deaths etc were not kept at the church as I had expected, but at the British Consulate. I wanted to see all I could, so directly after breakfast I made my way there. It is just next to the Tourismo in the Central Plaza.

The Consul, Mr Fladgate, was on leave in England, but I was shown to the office of the Vice Consul, Mr Boileau. He was most kind and interested when I told him of my Phelps relationship, and immediately opened the safes and dug out huge leather bound tomes, in which the entries go back well over 150 years. He found the entry of the birth of my Aunt Janey in 1842, amongst others, which was a great thrill. She died in 1926, and I had lived with her during the last few years of her life.

Mr Boileau smilingly warned me that he was obliged to make a charge of 2/- for every register opened, but at the end of our most friendly chat, when I asked the damage, he said he could not possibly think of charging anything to a relative of the Phelpses. He then suggested that I should go and call on Mr Noël Cossart, the head of the wine firm of Cossart, Gordon & Co., and told me that Mr Crossart has a wonderful collection of early records of English families in Madeira, and he would be able to tell me more about the early history of the Phelps family and time than anyone else.

Mr Noël Crossart

Accordingly I made my way to the establishment, which was only a few yards away, in the same block. It is entered under an archway which leads to a cobbled courtyard, with very high cream washed buildings all around. There are a number of wooden outside stair cases and balconies, all draped with creepers, and it was very hot and most picturesque. A Madeiran employee in blue dungarees came up, and I asked for Mr Noël Cossart. The man showed me up one of the staircases into a huge dim cool room, smelling of wine, so dark after the glare outside that I was almost blinded for a few minutes. There was a long bar across one end, and tables and chairs, made of cut down barrels, grouped about. Everything was old ancient dark wood, and impregnated with the fumes of wine.

In a moment or two Mr Cossart appeared. He was most charming, and seemed genuinely excited to meet a Phelps descendant. He gave me a tiny glass of some exquisisite wine, and went to get out some of his collections of old records. He has apparently made a most careful study of the subject, and turned up the most amazing items for me; old wine lists and invoices going back 150 years, letters and notes etc. I could have spent hours browsing through them.

The name of Phelps appeared over and over again from 1786 onwards, and I made quick notes as we turned over the pages. The Phelpses had been the leading English family in Madeira for so many years that they became known as the “Phelpses of Madeira". A Phelps (my father’s family) married a Vizard of Dursley (my mother’s family) in the early years of the last century, and on a tablet in the church at Dursley, Gloucestershire, he is mentioned as “… Phelps of Madeira”. The Phelps family originally came from Dursley, and went to Madeira as vine growers and wine merchants in the 18th century.

During Aunt Janey’s their position was such that they had the entertaining of all foreign royalty etc. visiting the island, and Aunt Janey told me that as a child she remembers being taken to the drawing room after dinner and sitting on the knee of Emperor Napoleon! It was in order to help the women on their great vineyard estates, that Aunt Janey’s eldest sister Elizabeth, started the little embroidery school, from which has now grown the industry which is the greatest source of revenue to the island; greater even than the wine trade. During the time I lived with Aunt Janey, I remember her showing me the big folio of original drawings made by Great Aunt Elizabeth. What became of these at Aunt Janey’s death I do not know, alas.

In going through the old records with Mr Cossart I was able to tell him many items which I had been told by Aunt Janey, and these he entered amongst his notes. One of these early notes was to the effect that in the first half of the last century the whole island was in a bad state from lack of trees, and that many trees had brought in and planted by the activity of “an English Lady”. I was able to tell Mr Cossart that this lady was Mrs Joseph Phelps (Aunt Janey’s mother, nee Elizabeth Dickinson 1797- 1876.) I also told him that Great-great-aunt Elizabeth used to procure seedlings of various trees, and when the family and guests went out picnicking in the mountains each member of the party was given a seedling tree, and asked to plant it at the picnic spot. For many years after the resultant clumps of trees were known as “Mrs Phelps’s Picnic Places.”

When I told Mr Cossart this he thought a moment, then said, “Yes, of course, I remember years ago hearing mention of Mrs Phelps’ picnic places, but never knew what the name implied.”

I longed to spend hours going through all the folios of records, but had promised to meet Janet at 11:30. Before I left, Mr Cossart took me round some of the old buildings and wine stores. The main buildings were divided by a narrow cobbled alleyway, only about 10 – 12 feet wide, open to the sky. Mr Cossart told me that this used to be one of the main streets of Funchal in the early days. The buildings used to be monastic, and the alleyway was spanned at one point by a little building at first floor level, which used to be a chapel. It is now only a store room and passage between the upper parts of the building.

We went through acres of vaults where the air almost made me drunk. I remarked on this to Mr Cossart, who smiled and said he did not notice it as he was always in it, “But if you really want to smell something, come in here,” and he unlocked a smaller darker vault, roof high with casks in which the oldest wines of all were stored. I took a couple of sniffs then exclaimed “Sorry, I’ve got to get out of here, or you have to be carrying me out,” and retreated hastily into the courtyard. The smell of the wine was marvellous, but completely overpowering. Mr Cossart pointed out one smaller cask that had been originally laid down in1795! It has been “topped up” at intervals since, I believe, but the original wine is still there, and in superb condition.

Madeira wines are the only ones which never deteriorate with age, and this is believed to be due to the fact that they are subjected to heat during the maturing process. They are kept at a temperature of 100ºF for eight months; this is now done artificially, but it originated in the early days when quantities of Madeira wine were sent to the East Indies in sailing ships. The voyage took eight months, and the average heat in the hold was 100ºF This was found to have such a remarkable effect on their maturing qualities also giving them a distinctive bouquet that this has become a regulation process with all Madeira wines.

At the hotel I had asked the wine steward for a bottle of something really special, and he produced a Malvoisie 1905. It was exquisite, almost a liqueur, and only cost the equivalent of 10/-.

Most of the woodwork in the wine vaults were enormous old timbers from sailing ships, and the huge storage vats, which must have been 12-15 feet in diameter and towered, cone shaped, into the darkness overhead, were of satin wood, a rich golden colour and silky to the touch.

In a corner sat a very old man at a small table. On the table were a number of blocks of wood, about six inches long, tapering down from 3” at one end to about 2 “ or 1.5” at the other, Behind him hung a mass of what appeared to be narrow strips of leather, which he was binding over and round the blocks of wood.

I asked what he was doing.

“He is making bungs for the big casks, “Mr Cossart explained, “and those strips are not leather, but the outer fibre of banana trees.”

He went on to say that the old man was 86, and had been in the firm’s employ for over 70 years. He was long past active work, but was so attached to the firm that he would not take his dismissal with the pension offered, so had been given this quiet, but highly skilled job, at which no one could equal him. These fibre covered bungs are more efficient than any other type, on account of the slightly compressible nature of the thick covering of banana fibre, which makes a perfect fit.

Before leaving, Mr Cossart told me to call on Mrs Farra the head of the largest embroidery firm in the island, assuring me that she would be delighted to meet a descendant of the founders of the industry.

It was hard to tear myself away from this most interesting place, and from Mr Cossart’s friendly and most interesting company, but time had flown and I knew that Janet was waiting for me.

We met and had coffee, then went to the cathedral, which Janet seemed to find a lot more interesting than she had anticipated. I told her I wanted to call on Mrs Farra, so we made our way to the embroidery establishment.

[Aunt Frances subsequently sent Mr Cossart her Notes on the Family of Phelps of Maderia. NGH]

Mrs Farra

Mrs Farra is English, young, attractive and a real enthusiast about her firm. She seemed really thrilled when I introduced myself, and called her husband (who I think is Portuguese) also another gentleman, a member of the firm, who was writing a brochure on the history of the embroidery industry in Madeira. He again I was able to give them some details of the Phelps’s history, which seemed to please them very much.

Mrs Farra took Janet and I all over their huge establishment, where we saw every process, from the draughtsmen who design the patterns, the pricking out of the transfers, the gauge by which every stitch is recorded for pricing purposes, the piles of work newly brought in from the women’s cottages, filthy dirty and crumpled, the laundries where it is washed, the huge ironing rooms, where scores of women work with electric irons plugged to overhead cables, the cutting girls who snip out the open work at incredible speed, to the final racks on which the exquisite finished articles are place ready for sale or export.

I told Mrs Farra of the folio of original designs which Aunt Janey had had, and described one or two as nearly as I could remember after all these years. Mrs Farra recognised my description at once, and said that is one of the old original designs which is still in use, a vine leaf with grapes, and gave me a charming table mat in that design, as a souvenir. I was really delighted with it.

[I was presented with a letter giving a history of the Madeira Embroidery Industry.]

As it was lunch time by now Mrs Farra drove Janet back to the Savoy in her own car, and Mr Farra took me to the Miramar in his. They are obviously extremely wealthy, but a most unassuming and delightful couple. They seemed to be most popular with all their employees, judging by the smiles that followed Mrs Farra everywhere, and all the working conditions in their factory were excellent. The great roofs were light and cool and everywhere was well ventilated and spotlessly clean, and all the women and girls looked happy.

Cabo Girão

In the afternoon four of us, Diana, Gertrude O’Gorman, Mr Deeks, and I hired a car and went out to Cabo Girão, the second highest sea cliff in the world.

Câmara de LobosWe set off along the exquisite coast road westwards, over which we had gone in the dark on Saturday night, to the village of Câmara de Lobos.

The village lies in a little bay and is extremely picturesque.

Many artists, including Sir Winston Churchill, come here for the sake of the beauty, and glorious colourings of the sea, red roofed houses, and mountains.
group Diana Cragoe (L)
Gertrude O’Gorman (R)
group Diana Cragoe (L)
Gertrude O’Gorman (C)
Self (R)

Beyond Câmara de Lobos the road wound crazily in and out of huge ravines cutting down from the mountains inland. At times we were quite a long way inland before the ravines were narrow enough to bridge. The cultivation terraces, many of them not containing more than a few square yards of soil, clung dizzily up the sides of the mountains. How the people ever get to these tiny cultivation areas is a mystery. On looking up at a huge mountainside almost overhead, the dry stone retaining walls of the terraces look like the stone roves of the Cotswolds; like stone tiles almost overlapping each other.

Swinging round a violent curve we saw ahead what appeared to be the road shooting up almost vertically over a forest covered crag, the top of the road appearing as a horizon line between the trees far up in the sky. We were fairly well broken in to violent road conditions by this time, but I voiced the feelings of the party when I observed firmly: “If that’s our road going up there, this is where I get out and walk!”

Fortunately our road swung away to the left at the foot of that frightful incline, and climbed at a rather more reasonable gradient round the foot of the crag. We thought afterwards that that cutting though the forest might have been a timber chute.

View over Fauchal Bay from the top of Cabo GirãoCabo GiraoEventually we came out on top of Cabo Girão. It is a stupendous cliff, 1804 feet sheer down to the sea, with the most breath taking views along the coast, right beyond Funchal and round the bay, and vast basin of mountains behind.

The usual crowd of urchins materialised, and one in particular was the most devastatingly persistent little horror we had met anywhere. He was under our feet at every step reiterating “Escudo, Escudo, Escudo,” in an utterly expressionless voice, then coughed all over me as I was changing a film.

Grande Curral

men carrying crude wine in goatskinsWe passed groups of men like these carrying the crude wine in goatskins; we also saw them carrying loads of grapes in huge tall baskets.
View from Pico dos BarcelosWe could not spend very long at Cabo Girão as we also wanted to see Grande Curral [Curral das Freiras], a village at the bottom of a crater. We retraced our route as far as Câmara de Lobos, then cut up into the interior via S. Martinho and Pico dos Barcelos, and S. Antonio. The road twisted madly up the ravines, and the views were absolutely incredible. This road was far more primitive and unfrequented than the one over which we had gone one the previous run, though the surface and construction were in very good condition.

The mountains got higher and craggier, and the afternoon was getting late, till at last we seemed to be clinging to the edge of a vast black pit with towering bare rocks all around, behind which the sun was sinking.

Grande CurralSuddenly the car stopped, and the driver remarked” Finish here, no more road,” and how right he was. The road stopped abruptly on a small open area of not than a few square yards, and on getting out, we saw that we were on the very edge of a huge dark abyss which yawned below. Creeping cautiously to the edge of the little platform we looked over, and there, more than a thousand feet below, were scattered houses and a church.

 

A terrifying footpath, hardly more than a goat track, led down from our platform, and this is the only means of approach to the village. All produce, food, commodities, building materials etc. have to be carried on men’s shoulders up and down. A pile of planks and tiles were lying near the car, waiting to be carried down. We asked in amazement why people should ever have chosen to live in such a position, and were told that the bottom of the crater, and the cultivation terraces up the sides, form the richest growing area in the whole island. This is, of course, on account of the volcanic nature of the soil.

An English man once walked down to the village and back again. He was a strong walker, but it took him three hours, and he was utterly exhausted by the time he got up again; yet the inhabitants of the village think nothing of it, even carrying heavy loads.

We spent the evening at the Savoy with Janet, who is staying on another week.

SceneryTerracesWe did not actually go over these roads today, but they give a very good idea of the scenery and the cultivation terraces.

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