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Anna Glyn in Ceylon

2004/02 p5


Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century the most important family in Ewell was the Glyns, headed by the baronets, of whom Sir George, 1804–1883, was the most dominant: he was the vicar as well as being the head of this wealthy family. Anna Lydia Glyn was the first of Sir George’s children by his second wife and was born in 1860. She was a lively, adventurous, high spirited girl who enjoyed foreign travel and liked to write up her experiences in journals and letters home. She had sufficient skill as a writer to be able to have two novels published. Some of her unpublished writing has survived in the Glyn papers that were acquired by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council after the death of the last of the Glyns of Ewell, Margaret, in 1946. The most important papers have now been transferred to the Surrey History Centre at Woking, but copies were made for local reference at Bourne Hall Library.


In 1892 Anna toured Egypt and the Holy Land and a transcription of her letters home describing her adventures was published by Nonsuch Antiquarian Society in 1982 as Occasional Paper 13.


Some letters and journals have also survived from a trip Anna made with her brother Gervas and a manservant Farrant in 1893 to Australia and Ceylon. These have recently been re-typed by Barbara Abdy to make them easier to read and an archive copy has been deposited at Bourne Hall. The records available start towards the end of their period in Australia with their departure from Sydney in the SS Parramatta for Melbourne, where they spent some days before making the voyage to Colombo, Ceylon.


It was typical of Anna Glyn that she insisted on being taken close to a bush fire and walked along a road with trees burning on either side. Her vivid description included a passage: ‘The finest sight is a tree that is fairly alight, like a gigantic torch, with cascades of golden sparks falling incessantly from it like a waterfall of flame and beating any artificial fireworks in the world’.


The journal gives an amusing picture of her fellow passengers on the voyage to Ceylon and the games they played in which Anna was an enthusiastic participant.


They stayed for about two months in Ceylon with their base in Kandy, from which they explored a large part of the island by a variety of means of transport including trains, horse-drawn wagonettes and rickshaws. There are detailed descriptions of visits to Buddhist temples, cocoa plantations and tea gardens. They were presumably equipped with letters of introduction to British residents, for there are frequent references to meeting them and being entertained by them. The journal gives notes on their ascent of Mount Pedro (Pidurutalagala, 8274ft), the top summit of Ceylon: ‘The whole mountain is covered by thick jungle except a small clearing on the top for the view. The trees are not large but have curious knotted and twisted stems with all the foliage on the top. There is great variety of effect in foliage as spring and autumn here are simultaneous and continue more or less all the year round, so that you get the unusual contrast frequently of bright spring foliage with red autumnal tints in Virginia creepers. Other trees again have a crown of white blossoms. In the mountain clefts where run little clear brown streams are groups of tree ferns’.


On 1st May 1893 Anna began her return journey to England in the SS Bengal and, again, there is a lively account of life on board before their arrival at Tilbury on May 25th.


Anna Glyn had a good eye for interesting details and an ability to find the right words to portray them. Her notes would have been a useful source of background information for a novel that she proposed to write with a Ceylon setting. It is sad that she was unable to complete the work: she died on 12 December 1895, aged 35, from heart failure after having 11 teeth extracted under chloroform.


Although an account of a visit to Ceylon is hardly local history, it provides such a fascinating insight into the character of Anna Glyn and the way in which the English well-to-do travelled and behaved in Victorian times, as well as glimpses of British administration, that it deserves to be made available at least as a clearly typed archive copy and for members to be made aware of its existence.


Further reading:

Abdy, Charles, The Glyns of Ewell (Privately, 1994).


Charles Abdy

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