Thursday, 26 May 2011

Sydenham & The King’s Speech

At the Academy Awards this year (2011) “The King’s Speech” won four Oscars including best film, and best leading actor for Colin Firth as George VI. The film tells the story of how speech therapist Lionel Logue helped Prince Albert, later George VI, overcome a speech defect that made public speaking difficult and embarrassing. A book, “The King’s Speech: how one man saved the British Monarchy”* has also recently been published. The man who saved the monarchy was Lionel Logue, and he lived on Sydenham Hill.

Logue was an Australian, born in Adelaide in 1880. He and his wife Myrtle paid a brief visit to England in about 1910, leaving their youngest son, Laurie Paris Logue, in the care of Myrtle’s mother. The trip was partly funded by Lionel’s uncle Paris Nesbit, a cousin of Edith Nesbit author of “The Railway Children”. While in England Lionel and Myrtle visited Edit at Well Hall, Eltham (she had previously lived in Lewisham and Grove Park).

In 1924 Lionel and his family came to live permanently in England. Shortly after they arrived Lionel leased a consulting room in Harley Street and set up in practice as a speech therapist. Apparently he charged higher fees for his wealthy patients to subsidise the poorer ones.

Lionel, Myrtle and their three sons moved to Beechgrove, 111 Sydenham Hill in 1932. The house was large and imposing; when it was put up for auction in 1921 it was described as having “10 bed and dressing rooms, two bath rooms, four reception rooms, electric light, ‘phone, 4½ acres with tennis lawn, woodland etc”. In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1941 Lionel said the house "had 25 rooms and 5 bathrooms”. The house was clearly extended during the inter-war years.

According to Myrtle, the house became “a calling point” for visiting Australians, and Australian servicemen were billeted there during the war. One recalls: “…three of us went to a doctor and Mrs Logue. She was a wonderful lady and he was a wonderful person... a speech therapist helping the King. He was quite a fellow. They lived down at Sydenham and we hopped in the tram… spent quite a few nights with them… that was when we first heard the air raid sirens go and hustled down into the basement of the house to wait till the all clear”. Logue served as an air raid warden during the war.

Although there was an oft repeated rumour that George VI visited a house on Sydenham Hill for speech therapy it seemed unlikely that a reigning monarch would deign to travel to south London for such purposes. However, from their first meeting Logue insisted that any treatment would only work if he and the future king met on equal terms. This meant that all sessions would take place either in Logue’s consulting rooms or his home. Although Lionel was highly discrete about his dealings with George VI, Myrtle was less so and on one occasion she told an interviewer that “His Majesty frequently comes to our house [in Sydenham] – he is so charming”.

During the war Beechgrove, like so many other houses, was proving difficult to maintain. Lionel wrote: “Beechgrove has been terribly hard to keep going as there is no labour”. They had to get a sheep to keep the lawn under control.

Myrtle died on 22nd June 1945. Lionel lived at Beechgrove for a further two years but the house was too large and held too many memories. He sold the Beechgrove in April 1947 and moved to a flat in Knightsbridge. He died on 12th April 1953.

Sydenham’s links with “The King’s Speech” do not end there; Michael Gambon (George V) lived in Sunderland Road during the 1970s and Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill) still lives in this area.

*“The King's Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi (Quercus, 2011)

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