The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre

Roger Ackerley died in 1929. At his funeral, the obituary in The Times states, ‘Nearly a thousand business men from all over the British Isles as well as from the Continent attended the funeral at Richmond Cemetery yesterday, and the wreaths were so numerous that four men were especially engaged to load and unload them.’

Why so famous? Roger Ackerley was known as the Banana King, and with his partner Arthur Stockley was the founder of Elder and Fyffe’s fruit importing company. He was a man’s man with an eye for the women, ‘a little plump partridge’ as he would describe a type who pleased him. He liked sharing risque jokes with his male friends, and enjoyed the good things in life; food, wine and of course women.

What wasn’t generally known about him was that he had a secret family tucked away, his ‘secret orchard’ as he described it in a letter to his son Joe, to be opened only after his death.

Joe Ackerley’s account of this was written in his autobiography published in 1969, entitled, My Father and Myself. I read it some years ago, and while finding it interesting and well written, thought it was much more about ‘myself’ than ‘my father.’ Joe was far more involved in his own tortured sexuality and his search for the ‘Ideal (boy) Friend’ than in his father’s doings. He frequently castigates himself for not taking enough interest at the time.

I was delighted, therefore, in my recent reading, to find in Carlos Gebler’s book about his father, a strong recommendation for a book that helped him to research and structure his own book. The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre was published in 1975 and is a fascinating account of life within that ‘secret orchard’ and a pretty harsh life it was too. Diana Petre’s book was praised by The Observer and The Sunday Times, but never had the wide reach of J R Ackerley’s book. And it is a great pity. Dare I say, it is better written, more heart breaking and full of fascinating detail. While it is interesting enough to read about how to chat up a guardsman in a pub (if you are  well-off man) for me the total abnegation of any responsibility by the mother, the harsh and ignorant care by an ‘Aunt,’ a miserly old woman, interspersed with occasional visits from ‘Uncle Bodger’ (Roger Ackerley) showering largesse and then disappearing for many months had more interest and relevance.

Ackerley’s life went something like this. As a tall handsome sixteen-year old guardsman he was the protegee of Count de Gallatin who set him up on a pony breeding farm. He escaped from the Count in marriage to Louise who died after two years, but whose family gave him a 2000 pound a year income for many years. He then spotted Netta on a cross channel ferry and hooked up with her. To his annoyance she got pregnant and had a son. They did not marry for many years, because he told her he did not want to compromise the legacy from Louise’s parents. To Netta who had been an actress, but was a simple, according to Joe Ackerley, vacuous woman, he had three children. This did not prevent him from turning his fancy to Muriel of the Secret Orchard.

When Muriel was nineteen she had a still born boy, by the time she was twenty she was again pregnant with twins, both girls.

And then, to bring everything to a head, thirteen months after the birth of the twins, she was pregnant again. This was the last straw and Roger was furious.

What was Muriel to do? Obviously Roger wanted her on tap, but was not prepared to take any responsibility for prevention of pregnancy. The twins had been very large and she almost gave died giving birth to them.

Among Muriel’s advisers-who were they?- someone must have surely pointed out that if she didn’t make herself more available to Roger and stop drowning herself in nappies and motherhood she might well lose him altogether-and then where would she and her children be?

This pregnancy was Diana, and from the time she was born in 1912 her mother left her and her sisters and did not return until 1922. Diana always hated her mother. The girls never found out Uncle was their father until after he died.

The girls had very little education and so little to eat they developed rickets.

When Roger Ackerley died of syphilis, he was staying in a hotel and cared for by Muriel (plus a large staff) who was staying in a nearby hotel, hiding the nature of their relationship to the bitter end.

The story of Diana’s relentless search for her mother’s origins is fascinating and the account at the end of the book of the attempt to dispose of her mother’s ashes amusing and satisfying.

A wonderful book and enraging example of the powerlessness of women.

(The favourite perfume of both Muriel and Netta was Guerlain’s Jicky. Guess who bought it for them. Grrrrr!)

Highly recommended.

11 thoughts on “The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre

  1. OK – you’ve made this a must-read. Like you I read “My Father and Myself”and read and watched the other Ackerleys. Just been reading more about his war service – including his getting injured by the shards of a shattered whiskey bottle on the Somme. (Don’t know if it was empty.)

    Also how he took a stand against homophobia in WW2:

    In November 1942, he wrote to the editor of The Spectator about the suffering and unjust legal treatment of homosexuals:

    “During the course of the legal proceedings against twenty men recently concluded at Abergavenny, one youth of nineteen committed suicide on the railway lines, and two others attempted unsuccessfully to do away with themselves by hanging and poison, to avoid the shame of exposure. The reports from which these facts are gathered were published on August 23rd and November 8th in the newspaper referred to above. It would be interesting to know whether public opinion today regards such suffering as merited, and the savage sentences, up to and including ten years’ penal servitude, allowed by the law and imposed by the judge, as the most enlightened method of dealing with this matter”.

    From: The Letters of J. R. Ackerley, ed. Neville Braybrooke (1975)

    That seems courageous.

    But most of all – curious about the hidden lives of people. Was just reading about the music hall star Nora Delany who on a tour of Australia claimed to be Lady Maxwell, the wife of journalist William Maxwell. She appears to have created a whole life fantasy around a marriage that did not happen including herbaceous borders and greyhounds. Trouble with reading and with the intertubes – one damn thing always leads to another.

    Thanks for the review.

      1. Have collected a whole raft of stuff but it would take some true biographical detection to figure out what she and Maxwell were up to. The later life is easier – my aunt was her housekeeper. I even visited the house as a child. There’s another fascinating story lurking in the details of her father and other assorted relations too. Few actual facts beyond the bare outline so it needs a novelist’s skill.

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