s it opens for the 2018 season, Stephen McClarence takes a look behind the door of Mr Straw’s House.
Shortly before his sudden death in 1932 (while gardening), William Straw, a prosperous grocer, hung up his brown mac and trilby in the hallway of his Edwardian home. More than 80 years later, they’re still hanging there, gazed at and puzzled over by the 10,000 visitors who edge round the house every year. Down a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, No 7 Blyth Grove (Endcliffe Villa) has become “Mr Straw’s House”, one of the National Trust’s more intriguing properties. As it launches its new season this week, this not-so-stately home is celebrating 25 years of opening to the public.
Hanging alongside William Straw’s mac and trilby are four more macs, two more trilbies and a couple of tweed caps, all in various shades of brown. They belonged to his sons, William Jnr and Walter, who shared the house after Florence, their mother, died in 1939. For unfathomable reasons, they changed little there for the rest of their lives. The 1932 calendar over the dining room fireplace is left as it was on the day their father died.
What sort of people were they? “We say the brothers were gentlemen of their time,” says Danielle Lander-Brown, the house steward. “If you knocked at the door, you might not be invited in because it wasn’t how you did things. You sent a card first.”
Though close, the Straw brothers had very different characters. A photograph of them in later life shows William Jnr, formal in an elegant Homburg, gazing austerely at the camera while Walter, a more jovial, outgoing man in a trilby, grins almost impishly.
Why did they preserve the house, a mile or so from Worksop town centre, as a time capsule, furnished and decorated more or less as it was in 1923, when the family moved in? Why did William give up his job as a London teacher to return to Worksop and look after it while his brother carried on the family business?
Was it a curious sort of mourning? Was the house intended as a shrine to their parents? Did William’s inventories of the house contents, and the labels he attached to some of them, suggest he was planning a family history museum? Or were the brothers – neither of whom ever married – just too parsimonious to update the place or throw anything away?
After Walter died in 1976, William lived on in Endcliffe Villa until 1985, five years before his own death, aged 92. A shrewd investor, he left an estate of more than £1m. He bequeathed the house contents to the National Trust, which subsequently bought the house itself and the adjoining semi, which the Straws had also owned.
The National Trust official who first unlocked the front door stood back in amazement. It was as though it had last been locked half a century earlier and the contents embalmed. Clutter lurked round every corner.
Brown-paper-wrapped pictures were stacked under the beds. Victorian faces gazed out of gilt-framed portraits. Rusty tins of slug and snail bait sat on the shelves. William’s shaving brush was left where he last used it in the bleak, chilly bathroom. A jam jar of dead maggots decayed in the kitchen.
The house was darkly decorated, the atmosphere Victorian. The rooms vibrated with silence. It was an “ordinary” house preserved thanks to extraordinary circumstances.
“This house has really been fossilised since 1932,” said the official who took me round when I first visited in 1992, before it opened. “We know the most intimate details about the brothers, but not why they lived like this – on the surface of the house. As millionaires’ houses go, this is an unusual one.”
I went back last week, as Mr Straw’s House was preparing to emerge from its winter hibernation. Most of the furniture and fittings were still shrouded in white protective covers. It looked just a bit ghostly.
“People always ask if it’s spooky here,” says Torri Crapper, the house manager, in the museum created (with shop and cafe) in the adjoining semi. “And the answer is no. Personally I don’t think it’s a sad house.”
Danielle Lander-Brown agrees: “The house has got a homely, welcoming feel; when I open the parents’ bedroom door, I always say hello.” Visitor services assistant Leon Sloman offers a proviso: “You have to be on best behaviour when you go in that bedroom.”
The three of them effectively debunk some of the myths that have grown up around the Straw brothers. One story, for instance, suggests they were total recluses, as semi-detached as their home. Not so: they were involved in Worksop public life and meetings were held at the house. It may slightly undermine the mystique of the place, but not its fascination. Though they never had a telephone, radio or television, they didn’t, in the event, draw the curtains on the 20th century after their parents died. They made home improvements, bought new carpets and lino when necessary, and had the exterior painted.
“Yes, there wasn’t a fridge or a freezer but they did have a modern cooker,” says Torri. “They weren’t making sweeping changes but they kept the house moving. We live in a very throwaway society now; we want the newest iPhone or TV.” The Straws didn’t.
Over the past 25 years, the house has been preserved rather than restored. The wallpaper is as stained and faded as it ever was, the plaster still peels. It’s not a house on Sunday-best-behaviour.
Diaries and letters have been researched, filling out the Straws’ story, and the house contents have been archived with a thoroughness that would do credit to archaeologists documenting an Egyptian tomb. Every object (there are 30,000, all cleaned over the winter closure) has been photographed and catalogued: every last soap dish, every last electric plug and tin of sliced pineapple. What in other circumstances might be casually thrown away as junk has been preserved as social history.
Isn’t there a risk, though, of breaking the intimate spell when the dust is disturbed and the cobwebs cleared? Isn’t the continuity of accumulation and neglect the house’s whole point?
“With this being a museum, there’s an expectation that we’re caring for the place forever,” says Torri. “And with that comes a need to curate. It’s about slowing down decay.
“When William Jnr bequeathed his possessions to the National Trust, it was everything, not just the furniture. It was the entire social record of the family and their life, which was typical of so many middle-class families at that time. It was pretty much an entire century of history – a century in which the world changed so radically.”
That’s now reflected in the National Trust’s approach. It avoids romanticising the story in favour of putting the Straws’ family life in its broader social context. It casts them as collectors rather than hoarders.
How, though, would William have felt about their family home being opened to the public? “I think he would have been surprised, though Walter would have found it highly hilarious,” says Torri.
She recalls her first impressions of the house. “I absolutely loved it. It felt like a treasure trove. There’s always something to discover. It’s unique in its totality. It feels as though the family has just gone out to dinner.”
And what’s the most frequent visitor reaction? Danielle thinks for a moment. ”Many visitors say how much larger and cleaner the house is than they were expecting,” she says. “And most people comment on the Izal toilet paper.”
Mr Straw’s House (01909 482380) is open until November 3, Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is by pre-booked timed ticket, with each tour of the property usually limited to four visitors.