Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Finding Annie Drummond

Ivor Gurney might finally be receiving the recognition he deserves: Chosen Press’ Philip Lancaster is working on a complete edition of his poems with Tim Kendall; BBC Radio 3 will feature his music in their Composer of the Week series next year; and in November Pamela Blevins publishes a dual biography of the poet-composer and Marion Scott, Gurney’s greatest advocate and among the most influential and respected women of he generation. Here Pamela writes about tracing Gurney's lost love, Annie Drummond:

When I began writing about Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott, I had no idea that parts of their stories had roots in my native Massachusetts. Ivor’s lost love Annie Drummond had emigrated there in 1921 and Marion was descended from the earliest settlers in Salem, a place best known to the world for the witch hunts and trials of 1692. I’d like to say that my dogged research led me to this information but the truth is I stumbled on it more by accident than design.

The first inkling of these connections came in 1989 when I was working in the Gurney Archive in Gloucester. I came across a brief note from Drummond’s mother to Marion informing her Annie had emigrated to the United States, where she married and was living in South Natick, Massachusetts, practically in my backyard.

Once I returned home I was able to trace Annie very easily even though I only had two pieces of information: her married name and an address. All I had to do was visit the Office of Vital Statistics in Boston. Even in those days before computers, Massachusetts had a marvellous system of public records that was incredibly easy to use and efficient. Within 15 minutes I had found details of Annie’s birth, marriage and death.

At the time of her death in 1959, Annie and her husband, James McKay, were living in Wellesley, a suburb west of Boston. That information led me to Annie’s friends and neighbours and through them I was able to locate her daughter Peggy Ann in California. Soon Peggy Ann and I had the first of many conversations. She had known nothing of her mother’s relationship with Ivor Gurney but she had seen his name and wondered who he was. I had the answer.

After Annie’s death, she had found an old leather suitcase of her mother’s “most treasured possessions” hidden away in a cupboard. Among the random memories of a lifetime, Peggy Ann found two items that puzzled her: a copy of Poems of To-Day inscribed to Annie by Ivor and a copy of the score of his Western Playland, a work he had dedicated to Annie although that was not clear from the dedication which reads “To Hawthornden”, one of Gurney’s names for her. Gurney had met Annie in 1917 when he was a patient at the Edinburgh War Hospital. He fell in love with her and she seemed to share his feelings but something went wrong and the relationship failed. But Gurney never forgot Annie and continued to write poems dedicated to her along with the Western Playland. Even during his asylum years he tried to contact her; thus the letter from Annie’s mother.

Peggy Ann shared the story of her mother’s life with me and kindly sent me copies of photographs and documents relating to her mother’s past. Sadly, Annie Drummond McKay’s life was marked by tragedy and her last years bore a resemblance to Ivor Gurney’s. Shortly after her arrival in Massachusetts nearly all of her belongings were destroyed in a fire. She managed to save the book Gurney had given her along with her nursing certificates. Annie and her husband married in 1922 and had a son John in 1924. He was playing in the front garden of their home when a run-away truck crashed into the McKay’s property killing their only child. Peggy Ann was born in the early 1930s when her parents were both in their 40s.

Friends remembered Annie as a talented, “lovely-looking woman” whose artistic nature found expression in the beautiful gardens she and her husband created around their home. Both were avid birdwatchers. Her husband was the head carpenter at Wellesley College and Annie was active in her adopted community, enjoying memberships in various organisations and winning local fame for her special cakes and desserts. But then something started to go wrong. By the early 1950s, friends began to notice a dramatic change in Annie. She was becoming increasingly withdrawn and seemed to be “losing touch with reality”. The last eight years of her life were agonising for her family and friends as she slowly slipped into a world of her own. By 1958, she had taken to wandering from her home. Her condition deteriorated and her family reluctantly had her hospitalized in a facility for the mentally ill where she died on 21 May 1959.

The story of Marion Scott’s American heritage reads like a page in a history book but I will save it for another time. Let’s just say it involves wigwams, the family witch, slave trading, cinnamon, hemp, Russia, and Whistler, the artist.


Anonymous said...

It is ironic that Annie Drummond lived the last years of her life in an asylum for the mentally ill as did her "love" Ivor Gurney.

I wonder however whether it was "mental illness" or what would now be diagnosed as Alzheimers.

Boydell and Brewer said...

Pam Blevins answers: Annie Drummond suffered from Arteriosclerosis - hardening of the arteries - according to her death certificate. A family friend recalled Annie’s later years (during the 1950s) as “agonizing”. She had “lost touch with reality” and was already withdrawn some years before she was hospitalized. Eventually, Annie reached the point where she didn’t recognize people or confused them with others, recognizing her daughter’s friend but not her daughter, for example. She had also taken to wandering away from her home at night so it became necessary to place her in a facility for her own safety. At that time the state hospitals in Massachusetts offered about the only option so she was placed at the Medfield facility. Unfortunately in those days and until fairly recently the Massachusetts state hospitals all had a Dickensian reputation with the exception of Medfield. She was fortunate in that regard. Another factor to consider is that Annie and her husband suffered a devastating loss when their young son, their only child at the time, was killed by a runaway vehicle in front of their home (they were in their 40s and he was the joy of their lives). Some believe that the trauma of the boy’s death played a role in Annie’s condition, explained her withdrawal and decline. It could well be that the death of her son and the onset of the Arteriosclerosis were indeed the factors in her final illness.

Pam Blevins