Times past with Brian Gabriel

Famous Crime Writer and The Hydro by Brian Gabriel

During its time in existence, St. Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment played host to countless members of royal families, statesmen, politicians, celebrities and wealthy families from across Europe, all wishing to partake of the waters of Doctor Richard Barter’s Hydropathic Establishment which was founded in 1843. Apart from the hotel section St. Ann’s had a number of very desirable residences which were rented at the location. One of these houses was rented by a couple named Olive Maud Shimwell and her husband John Lester Shimwell. Olive was born on New Year’s Day, January 1st 1901 in Birmingham as Olive Maud Seers, a daughter to Joseph Seers a well-to-do painter and decorator and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Seers. Very little is known about her young growing-up years but by 1926 she was working as a School Teacher when she married on 14th August 1926 in Harborne, Staffordshire, John Lester Shimwell, a microbiologist and highly respected brewing scientist with a degree in biochemistry from the University of Birmingham The couple moved to Ireland in 1931, taking up residence near Blarney at St. Ann’s Hill in a house named Hillside, according to the Dent & Son papers at the University of North Carolina. John was now appointed Head Brewer and on the board of directors of Beamish & Crawford brewery in Cork. By all accounts they were well liked and integrated very easily with the other Hydro guests and were also very popular and friendly with the local inhabitants of the area. While living here and to help pass the time while her husband was at work in Cork city, Olive began to write crime/mystery novels under the pen name of Harriet Rutland. She had her first novel published in 1938 under the title, “Knock, Murderer, Knock”. It was extremely well received by both critics and public. She was hailed as a rising new star of crime fiction and she was often proclaimed to be the new Agatha Christie. She said herself that while the characters in the novel were all based on the collection of extremely eccentric occupiers of St. Ann’s Hydro, the location of the hydropathic establishment was changed to Hotel Presteignton Hydro in a totally fictional town in Devon. The change of location was also done to conceal the possible identification of some of the inhabitants of St. Ann’s, some of which could be readily recognised. The couple involved themselves with all the different events and recreations organised by The Hydro so she could watch and take note of the idiosyncrasies of her future various characters. The late Jerry O’Leary of Tram House, Blarney, informed me that while he was living in the area as a young boy, Olive Shimwell/ Harriet Rutland, on his First Holy Communion Day, presented a copy of her first novel to him which he still had in his possession. The Shimwells returned to England just as WW11 was declared in 1939. Olive gave birth to a son in October 1939. John went to work for the Whitbread Brewery in London, before eventually moving to the British Vinegar Industry in Frome Somerset. The second of Harriet Rutland’s mysteries, Bleeding Hooks, was published in 1940, and the third and last, Blue Murder, was published in November 1942. Olive apparently did not publish anything further after this. Unfortunately, their family life did not go well and Olive and John were divorced not long after her novel Blue Murder was published They were classed as ‘Golden Age Mystery’ novels from a time of classic murder mystery novels of similar patterns and styles, predominantly in the 1920s and 1930s. Even though she only wrote three books with solid stories, each novel is filled with black humour and all three have clever and intriguing plots. They were big sellers in the United Kingdom and America in their time. When she stopped writing in 1942, her books gradually fell out of popularity and she faded into obscurity until recent years when she has been rediscovered as the excellent crime writer she was. A resurgence of interest in her books is currently taking place and they are once again enjoying great popularity and are easily available. She remarried in July 1948 in Newton Abbot, Devon, where she lived out the rest of her life until she died there in 1962. Her first husband John also remarried in 1947. He and his wife had a daughter in 1948. John Lester Shimwell of Frome, Somerset was last seen alive on 5th September 1964. His body was found on the following day at The British Vinegars Research Laboratory, Welshmill, Frome, where he had been working. The above is just a very short account of a famous writer who lived for a period at The Hydro. A great many more individuals of varying degrees of fame and importance stayed in this famous place over the years of its existence and it may be of interest to take a look at some more of these in the future.

Blarney and District Historical Society Annual General Meeting takes place on Thursday 8th September at 8.00 pm in the Blarney Secondary School. Members and intending members most welcome.

An illustrated lecture takes place on Thursday 22nd September at 8.00 pm in the Secondary School titled: The Tragic Sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Speaker for the evening is Mr. Con Hayes, Secretary Lusitania Museum, Old Head Signal Tower Heritage CLG. Everybody Welcome. An Illustrated lecture takes place on Thursday 6th October at 8.00 pm in the Blarney Secondary School titled: Stories from the Big Houses in Montenotte. Speaker for the evening is local historian Brendan Goggin. Everybody welcome.

Community, Historical