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.
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
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
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
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 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
[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.
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.
We 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.
||Diana Cragoe (L)
Gertrude O’Gorman (R)
||Diana Cragoe (L)
Gertrude O’Gorman (C)
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.
Eventually 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.
We passed groups of men like these carrying the crude wine in goatskins; we also
saw them carrying loads of grapes in huge tall baskets.
We 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.
Suddenly 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.
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.
We did not actually go over these roads
today, but they give a very good idea of the
scenery and the cultivation terraces.