Chronicles: Steephill Castle – The Tobacco Baron and his Family

A new century saw new owners of Steephill Castle, when an American businessman bought the estate in 1903. John Morgan Richards set out to make his mark as a local philanthropist, opening Steephill Castle for charitable events and concerts, supporting the Congregational Church and donating the ‘Steephill Cup’ to the Rowing Club.  He drew up plans for an ‘observation tower’ to be built in Ventnor Park; he believed this would one day be as famous as the Eiffel tower, with reading rooms, a photographic gallery, a cinema hall, a superior band playing daily at fixed hours, and wireless telegraphy apparatus.  But the idea was never taken up. John died in 1918, his wife Laura in 1914, and they are buried in Ventnor Cemetery, where their elaborate monument also records the death of daughter Pearl Craigie in 1906 – she was a well known author of the time who wrote  under the name John Oliver Hobbes and is buried in Kensal Green in London.

Although notable residents, they are perhaps not always remembered as they may have wished. John Morgan Richards’ philanthropy did not rule his life. He made his fortune selling tobacco products and quack medicines such as ‘Carters’ little liver pills’, and his biggest achievement was to  make cigarette smoking popular in this country.  His obituary in the Times commented wryly: By means of vigorous advertising, and some ingenious and original methods of trade promotion, he obtained for American cigarettes a very large sale, and thus was the pioneer of a doubtful benefit which he lived to see the subject of legislation, forbidding the sale of cigarettes to children.

His wife Laura was described after her death in the local newspaper as having a heart of gold,and being the sheet anchor of many local institutions but she was a very eccentric woman.  A keen gardener, she habitually wore large hats decorated with fresh vegetables and fruits and H de Vere Stacpoole described her affectionately as occasionally eating these – one of the pictures below, dated 1914, shows her in her later years holding what is described as a beautiful grape hat. She believed she was in touch with the Old Testament prophets, and passed on their advice – and her own – to world leaders in brief telegrams such as The King of Spain. Stop war. Laura Richards.  The telegrams also included helpful gardening hints and other comments.  Baffled by a message to a sick Hampstead preacher reading Have faith in onions the postal clerk suggested that the words should be Have faith in God but it emerged that it was advice to try a poultice of onions as a cure – she later sent the same advice to Rudyard Kipling’s wife when he was seriously ill, and always believed that he owed his recovery to her.

Daughter Pearl described her mother’s odder behaviour mercilessly in letters to friends, recounting how On many a morning she came downstairs in one garment – her sole clothing – and sang the ‘Our Father’ accompanying herself on the harmonium. The Butler and footman took care to avoid the sight.

Here she describes her mother taking up painting:  The other afternoon I was reading quietly in my room when I heard dull thuds on the stairs, accompanied by the faint murmur of small oaths. There stood Robert (our Butler) with his coat off, his shirtsleeves rolled up and beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently wrestling with Something.  My first impulse was immediate flight as I thought perhaps the roof had fallen in, but Robert gasped out that this was ‘Canvas for the Missus’ . . . a huge piece of canvas, nine feet long and six feet broad, duly mounted and only awaiting the Artist”.   The finished picture of Laura’s five year old daughter Dorothy was “quite large.  Mama didn’t have room to paint more than the chin, nose and one eye. . . I observed that it was a very striking work though a trifle large. ‘Large!’ echoes Mama scornfully, ‘why any fool can do a silly little life-size head. . . .  The thing is to make if four times as big as the model.  I don’t give two snaps for a little head

It is Pearl whose reputation has survived best.  She had a difficult relationship with her mother, and rented a house in St Lawrence, which is now known as ‘Craigie Lodge’. Though her books are no longer  in print, her first, ‘Some Emotions and a Moral’ was a sensation, selling thousands of copies in a matter of weeks, and she remained a popular writer of society novels, plays and critical essays. The picture below shows  Pearl in what is probably the drawing room at Steephill Castle.  In the right of the picture is a marble bust of her father John, carved along with one of his wife Laura by sculptor Charles Birch;  the two busts are now on display in the Ventnor Heritage Museum, as part of our Steephill exhibition. They were donated to the Museum when they were discovered some years ago languishing in a barn.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Sources: The Society Collection including Fay Brown’s indexes.  Additional material from The Life and Works of Pearl Craigie‘ by Mildred Davis Harding; photograph of Pearl Cragie from Almost Fairyland by John Morgan Richards.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2017.