Grace Family

In the Text and Photo captions, "Grandpoods" (grandfather)  is Michael Paul Grace.
                    "Grandmoods" (grandmother) is his wife Margarita Mason Grace.            
   "Dita", or "Mother" is Michael's daughter Margarita Grace Phipps, the mother of "Peggie,"
     Dita's  daughter, Peggie Phipps Boegner, is the author of "Halcyon Days: An American Family through
                   Three  Generations". © 1986 from which these photos and excerpts have been scanned.

The Great Hall, Battle Abbey  c. 1906
"Mother was staying with Aunt Helen in Scotland when Father proposed. She answered that she wasn't sure that she wanted to get married, and he sank to his knees in the soggy bog where they were standing and said, "I won't get up until you have accepted me." And, as always, Mother accepted anything that Father asked. When Father and Mother finally decided to announce their engagement, they drove up to Beaufort Castle. The whole Phipps family was gathered on the front steps to greet them. Mother was seized by a sudden panic of shyness. She begged Father to stop, jumped out of the car, ran around the house and up the back stairs. She is referring to this incident in a charming letter which she later wrote from Battle Abbey. "All the family -- Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins -- will be here to meet my wonderful husband-to-be.  Jay Bird, you will have to be brave -- there are no back stairs at Battle Abbey."
Battle Abbey Salon 1906

Grandpoods, as we called Mother's father, was small and round, with pink cheeks, bright blue eyes, and a sparkling look. Without the slightest effort on his part he charmed everyone and made them feel that they were of the utmost importance. He lavished his affections on his four daughters and nine grandchildren. Each one of us secretly felt that he or she was his favorite.

When we were children, he spent half the year with us or we with him. He would stay at Westbury for a few weeks in the autumn, and then we would spend the winter with him in one of the Breakers' cottages in Palm Beach. In the spring, he would stop by on his way to England, and we joined him and the rest of the Michael Grace family for August and September. So for me, he was the inmost part of the family along with Mother, Father, my brothers, and my dog. I found one of his old calling cards, engraved with his name and two addresses: "Incas," Palm Beach, and Westbury House, Westbury, Long Island. So, for him also, his American family was his second home.

Dita and Nurse Annette inside the Abbey Gateway 1904

Though Grandpoods went to Florida for the winter and took a shooting moor in Scotland each summer, mostly for the sake of his sons-in-law, the place he reallv loved was Battle Abbey in Sussex. There he lived like a country squire surrounded by his family, cousins, and friends, and it was from there that he gave in marriage his two youngest daughters my mother and Aunt Glad.

I think 40 Belgrave Square in London must have been home to Grandmoods, and Battle Abbey to Grandpoods. The attractive village of Battle in Sussex consists of a broad main street leading up to the Abbey gates. The gates are flanked by two large towers with an archway between them and a high stone wall on either side. One could walk along to the top of the wall, getting a bird's-eye view of the village and the churchyard. Some steps led down to the circular rose garden and to a terraced garden sloping to the woods and farmland.

Dita about to embark on a road trip 1904

There were a lot of exciting things to do and see. If we weren't accompanying Nanny pushing Michael's pram through the lanes, we were allowed to play in the gardens. They weren't ordinary gardens -- somewhere in the shrubbery there was the opening to a tunnel that led from the Abbey to Hastings-on-the-Sea, six miles away. A monk in peril could escape to the seashore by this tunnel and set sail for France. Along with terraces, there were places made of a different stone from the rest of the walls. This was where the monks or nuns who disobeyed were walled up and left to die.

There were several phantoms on the place. A white swan sometimes visited one of the spare rooms, and on moonlit nights the ghosts of the monks murdered by Cromwell were seen slowly walking up and down the yew walk that led to the rose garden.

We were in the habit of carrying salt in our pockets to ward off any spirit. If one threw salt and made the sign of the cross, any evil spirit would have to vanish! (The rose gardens and the ghost walk have been duplicated in the Old Westbury Gardens.)

The Gates of Battle Abbey, Aunt Glad at the Wheel  c. 1906
We also enjoyed more modern amusements. Everv Wednesday we could trail after the tourists who came to see the ruins of the original Abbey, which was the chief attraction for sightseers. The roof was gone, but the walls outlined the plan of the long refectory, the cloisters, and the cells. Purple-toad ivy grew between the stones, and the close-cut grass dotted with tiny daisies made an emerald carpet. Nearby stood a small but elaborate stone and blue- enamel monument that marked the spot where King Harold fell in 1066, pierced through the heart by a Norman arrow. For two shillings, tourists were allowed into the great hall of the Abbey, an enormous two-storied baronial hall complete with banners, knights' armor, and a priest-hole hidden in the upper gallery. They also enjoyed peering in the windows of the drawing room to see the vaulted blue ceiling painted with silver stars and to watch Grandmoods and her friends having tea.
M.P.Grace and daughter Dita with the donkeycart which overturned - 1903

The Websters, who owned Battle Abbey and rented it to Grandpoods on a seven-year basis for twenty-one years, were friends and neighbors. One of their girls, called Pickles, was so pretty that even at that early age we all were under her spell. For some unknown reason, an old gypsy woman had cursed the Webster family by the sword, water, and fire. All of these curses were carried out, and only one of the children, Pickles, survived.

After the First World War when the lease for Battle Abbey had ended, Grandpoods was visiting Aunt Glad in Frant. He said that he would like to see his old home again before he died. She collected all her gasoline rations, and they drove the twenty miles to Battle Before  visiting the Abbey, which had been converted into a school, Grandpoods went into one of the small shops on the village street. Someone must have recognized him because when he came out a few minutes later, the whole village had gathered around to shake his hand and wish him well -- no greater tribute could have been paid to royalty.

Aunt Gladys and Grandpoods setting out from the Abbey in  c.  1906
During the Second World War, the Abbey was turned into a hospital for the soldiers. The patients were delighted by signs beneath the bells in the dormitories, saving "Ring twice for a mistress," In 1976, it was bought by a group of Americans who handed it over to the Historic Properties Commission (later to become English Heritage in the early 80's) and although the school continues to function, the Abbey grounds are open to visitors
 With friends at Battle Abbey, Grandmoods, seated left, Grandpoods, standing right, and Dita, centre
Grandpoods is buried in the churchyard in Battle Abbey just across from the rose garden wall. On his simple tombstone is engraved this epitaph:

Cordial Old Man
What youth was in thy years
What wisdom in thy levity
What kindness in every utterance
of that pure soul
Few of the spirits of the glorified
I'd spring to earlier at the gates
of heaven

and beneath a tombstone beside him lies his wife,
Margarita Mason Grace.


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