Dora and Bertrand Russell acquired their country home, then called Sunny Bank, near Porthcurno in Cornwall in March 1922. They wanted to raise John for part of the year outside the city, in a place with plenty of fresh air and space. They owned a home in London but it was a terraced house on a busy street in Chelsea. Russell decided that it would be Cornwall rather than Devon, but it was Dora who looked at various properties with a house agent, Mr. Treglown of J.A. Treglown & Sons, Marazion. She first saw Sunny Bank1 in March 1922, a house “rather stark in brown stucco and awful dark red paint, surrounded by about a quarter of an acre of rough grass and a few evergreen bushes ... It faced south and in the distance I could see the blue-grey line of the sea…” (Tamarisk Tree, p. 157). Dora and John had already settled in before Russell arrived, getting off the bus at Land’s End. Met by Dora, they walked back: “As we came in sight of it he remarked, ‘My dear, it’s just the sort of house I like’ … we had not been a month in the house before we knew that we must make it our own” (Tree, p. 158). They had taken the house initially just for the summer (Tree, p. 157). His lawyer, John J. Withers, wrote to Russell on 8 May: “I note what you say about purchasing the 86 years lease2 of Sunny Bank and from what you write it seems a good investment.” The agent, Treglown wrote on 15 May 1922 that Mrs. Gray, the owner, would accept £800. Russell later told his new lawyer Crompton Llewelyn Davies on 11 June 1929 that he had purchased the lease in 1922 and the freehold the following year.3
On 9 April Russell wrote to his friend and former lover Ottoline Morrell. He noted that the house was like one drawn by a child. Despite that “one sees vast stretches of sea from the windows, and five minutes away, one can see the Lizard and the Scilly Isles. The coast is wild and rocky, interspersed with warm valleys full of daffodils (nearly over), violets, primroses, blackthorn in blossom, and every imaginable delight.” On 11 May he wrote: “It is so lovely here—the birds sing all day—there are larks and thrushes and blackbirds and cuckoos and curlews and sea-gulls all round the house—and ships sail by, and at night one hears the sea in the distance booming on the rocks, and there is blackthorn and whitethorn, and bluebells and buttercups, and green fields and gorse moors, all without stirring from the house.” On 19 May he wrote: “The house is hideous, and the garden entirely bare. But we are going to buy it, as it suits both us and the boy [his son John], and then we shall gradually make the house tolerable and the garden lovely. We can recoup ourselves for the whole expense by always letting in August and September. If you know anybody who wants it this August and September, it is to be had—seven guineas, 8 bedrooms, 3 sitting-rooms etc.” On 17 June he informed Ottoline that “Dora Sanger has come for a fortnight, and leaves on Thursday.” Dora’s thank-you letter of 30 June noted that her “health has been greatly benefitted by the sea bathing [and] her mind stimulated by your charmed & amiable conversation.” Try as they might a visit from Ottoline did not happen that first summer. On 17 July he wrote: “this place is amazingly healthy, and has made the boy sturdy and fat, and there are things for him to do at all ages, playing on the sands, then boating, then climbing on the rocks, and all the splendour of the sea, which is a good thing to have in one’s memories of childhood—I want him to be an outdoor boy, not too precocious intellectually—he is so eager that he might easily overwork.”
On 23 May Treglown wrote that he had heard from Mrs. Gray “with a list of the articles which she” wanted “to keep…” On 7 June she accepted £80 for the furniture that she didn’t want and the Russells did. On 18 July 1922 the Russell purchased a number of furnishings for the house from Alfred Smith, Auctioneer, Penzance. Included in the list were: 1 brown corduroy chair, 1 wing chair, 2 oak beds, 2 wool mattresses, 4 feather pillows, 1 mahogany wardrobe, oak umbrella stands, coal box and shovel and a Japanese tray among other things. Dora had the house painted “white with blue and grey, to match the sea and sky and clouds” (Carn Voel, p. 7).4
They decided that the name, Sunny Bank, simply wouldn’t do and chose Carn Voel, the name of a headland at nearby Nanjizal (Tree, p. 158). In February 1923, when Tol-Pedn Motor Company was attempting to find out the details of a coal delivery, the name Sunny Bank was still in use. Their daughter, Katharine (Kate) Tait, described the house in her charming monograph: “It stands four-square, a child’s drawing of a house with a door in the middle, windows either side, three windows above and then two dormers like misplaced eyebrows.… It was built about 1912, a solid craftsman’s job with three reception, nine bedrooms and the ‘usual offices’, built to be a boarding house.… The boarders were employees of Cable and Wireless of Porthcurno (Carn Voel, pp. 1–2). The house had modern conveniences including a coal range and a bathroom (Carn Voel, p. 3). She also noted: “On the rounded back of the farthest hill, silhouetted against the sea, were three square houses in a row, and another turned at an angle … These houses my father christened Brown, Jones & Robinson and Ebenezer Stick-in-the-Mud, and they symbolized for us respectability and oddity” (My Father, p. 7).
In 1923 Russell was still hoping for a visit from Ottoline. He wrote: “It is lovely here—Dora is busy making a garden,5 and I am writing a book about Atoms.6 John flourishes exceedingly. Lucy Silcox was here for a week—very nice—I wish you could come” (29 April). On 12 May he wrote: “Life here is very much of a routine and I work all morning and after tea, while Dora makes the garden … The great difficulty here is the wind; otherwise things do splendidly. In the afternoon we go to some or other of the coast, which is extraordinarily beautiful; if it is not very cold we bathe. The air makes one feel sleepy after dinner, and so the day is gone. When I have any time to spare, I spend it playing with John, whom I love beyond all reason and measure.” Ottoline did visit that summer. After her visit he wrote on 17 July: “We have begun to eat our own peas and potatoes, which makes Dora very proud.” On 6 August he had left Cornwall as planned and wrote to Ottoline from his father-in-law’s country cottage in Surrey.
In 1924 they planned on staying at Carn Voel until the end of September. Russell had been away lecturing in America until the 7th of June. On c.30th August he told Ottoline that he had “been and still am terribly busy with the new edition of Principia Mathematica.” In fact he remained there into October writing on the 11th: “Dora is standing for Chelsea this time (I refused), and is already there—I had to stay with the children as our [London] house was let, but I go Monday … I have to work very hard to finish the introduction of the new edition of Principia Mathematica, which I can’t work at in London.” The Russells added a front porch to anchor the house, choosing a design “that owed something to Chinese inspiration” (Tree, p. 158). A quotation for the verandah of £28 was received from H. Humphrys & Sons of Treen on 19 July 1924.
In 1925 Russell arrived on 21 March. On 21 August he wrote to Ottoline: “I wrote a book on Relativity7 when we first came here, and have now written two thirds of a book on Education.”8 The following year on 11 February 1926 he told Ottoline: “We expect to go to Cornwall March 24. I long to be there—We have to come back to London next winter as I have to lecture,9 but after that we think of living in Cornwall altogether.” That summer they hired a Swiss governess, Alice Stücki, to teach John French. On 10 May he wrote: “… I am inventing a new geometry,10 and I go on steadily….” On 8 September he wrote: “I have had a very busy summer, and have just finished a long dull book on ‘Analysis of Matter’.” Ottoline was vacationing in Italy. Her 1923 trip to Cornwall had not been repeated. On 23 July 1927 Russell wrote: “We have been very busy about our school at Telegraph House,11 which unfortunately entails quarrelling with my brother, who is very hard to do business with. In the intervals I have written a popular ‘Outline of Philosophy’, chiefly for the Americans.” Too many visitors were making their way to Cornwall; he contemplated buying an aeroplane and moving to the Azores.
In 1928, the first summer after Beacon Hill school was in operation, the Russells chose to go abroad on 30 June when term ended. Russell wrote Ottoline from Cornwall on 24 August, telling her that John had got sick and he was now at Carn Voel with the children; Dora would arrive the next day. Also in 1928 Russell sent Colette (Constance Malleson) a picture of Kate jumping into the sea on 2 October. She was on tour in South Africa and told him on 2 November that she kept it on her “dressing table in the theatre.” This photograph has been reproduced in many books. In 1929 he wrote no letters to Ottoline from Cornwall.
On 4 July 1930 he told Ottoline he would arrive in Cornwall on 9 July; this was the summer that Dora was pregnant with another man’s child, Colette would visit, and his third wife, Peter, would be hired to look after the children. On 20 August he told Ottoline that he wasn’t working but that correspondence took up several hours a day. The summer of 1931 was spent at Hendaye in France. The summer of 1932 was the last one Russell spent at Carn Voel. On 14 June he wrote to Dora about their domestic staff who were split between Carn Voel and Telegraph House. At Carn Voel: “Walter stays as cook, but I need a maid. I should prefer Dorothy, if she will come when the children come.… Getting a maid here for July & August is urgent. I should like to know as soon as possible whether Dorothy can come.” On 15 June he told Ottoline that he was “enjoying having leisure to read…” On 31 August he told Ottoline that John and Kate had joined him and Peter. On 3 October he was still there with Peter; the children had left. This was the last letter Russell wrote to Ottoline from Carn Voel.
For many years in the 1920s Carn Voel was a happy holiday home. Russell enjoyed living there, writing that “the beauty of the Cornish coast is inextricably mixed in my memories with the ecstasy of watching two healthy happy children learning the joys of sea and rocks and sun and storm…. During the morning my wife and I worked while the children were in care of a nurse, and later a governess.” After lunch the family went to one of many nearby beaches.12 Then back home to a large tea and the children went to bed. Accounts show that coffee and china tea were ordered from Harrod’s in London and delivered to Cornwall. The adults had the evening to follow “their grown-up pursuits” (Auto 2: 151). Caroline Moorhead wrote: “These long summers at Carn Voel were also a time of visits from friends with other small children. On some days there were sixteen people in the house, packed into the nine small, square, brightly-painted bedrooms, buttering mounds of sandwiches for the beach picnic and sitting down to dinner at two long tables in the dining room” (p. 363).
Photographs taken show the family on the beach and in the water. There are also photographs of Russell caring for his children in the garden and reading to them on the porch.
Despite its distance from London (the house is about four miles from Land’s End), visitors frequently arrived. The first summer the visitors included J.E. Littlewood, Vera Meynell, Roger Fry, and Charles Sanger (Tree, pp. 158–160). The following years Dora listed more visitors: Frank Russell, Miles and Joan Malleson, J.B.S. and Charlotte Haldane, Ottoline Morrell, Tagore,13 Mr. and Mrs. Y.R. Chao, Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson, who had arrived by chance, C.H. Hsu, and Wittgenstein (Tree, pp. 181, 183, 207). Mrs. Chao wrote about their visit: “Arriving in England, we made a visit with the Bertrand Russells at their summer house … You can’t like a place without suitable introductions, and even introductions are not so good as old friendships. Over the hills of Land’s End, I did more hill climbing than I had ever done. We also had access to a nameless beach there, which Russell called the Inaccessible Beach,14 because the road passes a place where there was no road.” In a footnote she wondered about this sentence: “Is that what I have said, Translator?” In another footnote she noted that her children attended Radcliffe at the same time as Kate (Chao, p. 219). Dora told H.G. Wells on 20 June c.1924: “It is like a dream here today. We have just a few days now & then Chinese with babies descend upon us, after that visitors all the time.” Russell invited Gilbert Murray on 31 March to visit Sunny Bank the first summer they were there. He also invited Raymond Streatfeild in an undated letter after the name had changed to Carn Voel. Streatfeild and Littlewood had “built themselves a house not far away” (Tree, p. 158). In the letter Russell told Streatfeild that lunch is at 1 and supper at 8.
Constance (Colette) Malleson, an actress and Russell’s sometime lover, spent the last two weeks of July 1930 there. Dora was away, giving birth to her (but not Russell’s) daughter Harriet. Colette wrote to her mother, Priscilla Annesley, on 29 July: “We went on a cross-country tramp the moment I arrived. I just kicked off my shoes and away we went. The whole coast is beautiful, rocks and sea and cliffs which we both love.” Colette had a poor opinion of the house finding it “drab, drab, drab. Not one speck of imagination or taste. Quite all right, of course, for very young children’s holidays … There’s little privacy in this house, and the bathroom is a sight: the kind I’m quite used to in shabby lodgings on tour. The house is in a rough field, with a rough attempt at a garden.” She found it “very different” from Ashford Carbonell and Lynton where she and Russell had vacationed previously or even her former country cottage at Bellingdon. She and Russell spent time with the children but also alone because a nursery-governess had been employed for the summer. Although she is not named she is described as “a red-haired, freckled, impecunious Oxford undergraduate.” She was Marjorie (Peter) Spence, later Russell’s third wife.15 Russell introduced Colette to Peter as an “old friend.” Colette detected no budding romance and noted that Russell once lost his temper when Peter could not locate the children, telling her to do what she was told. There was a chauffeur, Hines. There must also have been a cook and cleaner but there is no mention of them in the letter. During the morning they worked, Russell at a “dwarf table” in the small front room and she in the back room at a “giant table”. Colette was presumably working on her autobiography After Ten Years (1931), but she may also have been writing the first draft of her novel The Coming Back (1933), a fictionalized account of her affair with Russell which she rewrote in June 1931 (letter to Leon Levenson, 20 June 1931). “In the afternoon we motor and picnic with the children.” On 28th July they took the children to see the Cutty Sark at Falmouth. They also went to the Isles of Scilly on the 23rd and 24th of July; the crossing on the Scillonian was rough. They stayed at Tregarthen’s Hotel on St. Mary’s. The hotel was founded in 1849. Its webpage lists Tennyson and royalty as famous guests but not Russell. She told her mother that Russell’s “marriage is in shreds” while she cared “for him as much as ever.” Yet, after this lovely sojourn together, Colette and Russell went their separate ways.
Kate Tait described the interior of the house quite differently from Colette. There were yellow and orange paints used as well as beautiful wallpapers of birds and flowers. The furnishings included “lovely rugs, ebony tables, gorgeous ivory ornaments, shiny silk curtains …” (Carn Voel, p. 4). Kate recollected a cook and a nanny/governess (not by name) and Matt who pumped water and his wife Daisy, the housemaid (Carn Voel, p. 5–6).16 Colette, with her disparaging remarks about the garden at Carn Voel, may not have realized how difficult it is to garden there—the winds are often strong and laden with salt from the nearby sea. Colette’s description of the inside of the house as not having taste may simply be a reflection of her own very different taste.
There was a disagreement as to when Dora became the sole owner of Carn Voel. It is not clear which version is correct. Russell wrote: “I spent the summer of 1932 at Carn Voel, which I later gave to Dora. While there I wrote Education and the Social Order” (Auto 2: 190). He never returned. He wrote to his lawyer, Crompton Llewelyn Davies, telling him that “my gift of Carn Voel to Dora, was, as she knew, on the assumption that it would be kept in the family and available for us both.” The gift also included furniture and £2,500 (letter, c. 22 June 1932). Dora wrote that the house had been hers “from the beginning” and that she rented it to Russell that summer of 1932 (Tree, p. 251). The couple was by then estranged; their finances were complicated. Russell wrote from Carn Voel on 29 April 1932: “As to my contribution of £800, £400 is rent, which I must pay anyhow, & £300 fees for John & Kate, leaving only £100 as donation to the school. Or, if you prefer it, you can take the £100 as rent for this place.” However, less than a year later Russell wrote to Dora that he had given up on the idea of living at Carn Voel “since the Cornish climate gives Peter [his third wife] rheumatism” (14 Feb. 1933). Accepting that Russell would not be returning, she wrote to enquire if he had removed “all the books etc. that you need?” (8 April 1933). On 17 October 1934 Crompton Llewelyn Davies wrote to Russell that Dora’s lawyer, F. Graham Maw “has written to me asking for the Title Deeds of Carn Voel and any other documents which we hold on behalf of Dora. I have those Title Deeds and must hand them over.” After Dora’s death in 1986, at Kate's invitation the Russell archivist Kenneth Blackwell went to the house and returned with books and papers that had belonged to Russell.
Kate Tait, in her book about Carn Voel, called it her mother’s house. Over the following decades following Russell’s departure Dora kept a flat in London and often rented out Carn Voel. “One tenant … took it upon himself to cut a hole through the hedge to give access from the front gate to the lawn” (Carn Voel, p. 23). Over the years “the house, of course, suffered as it was bound to do” (Carn Voel, p. 28).
Dora wrote about Carn Voel in the third volume of her autobiography, even naming a chapter, no. 11, to “Cornwall and Family Life” (Challenge). After splitting her life between London and Cornwall for decades she gave up her London flat and lived full-time with her son John in Cornwall (pp. 254, 257). “For John, as for me, Cornwall gives breathing space, a room for himself where he can type, play the accordion, or idly compose on the piano, giving as we found, pleasure not annoyance to passing neighbours. And for me to be at home in far Cornwall and my hands in its soil has ever been a source of renewal and a refuge from despair” (Challenge, p. 258).
It was my good fortune to get to know Kate during her many visits to McMaster University during the 1980s. The first time I saw Kate she was giving a talk about her parents at McMaster; I was appalled at the intrusive nature of the questions from the audience but Kate handled her answers with aplomb. I was very impressed by her quiet command of the situation. At one point, she came to stay for a long period to edit her correspondence with her father. She took an apartment near mine. We both enjoyed walking and we spent time on the Bruce Trail, a long-distance hiking trail which runs along the escarpment from the Bruce Peninsula to Niagara. In May 1986 her mother died and she had to return to Carn Voel to deal with the estate and look after her brother John. He died not long after in December 1987 while returning from London where he sat in the House of Lords. John rented a room in Twickenham when attending sessions of the Lords. Kate found she loved living in her childhood home and decided to stay on. She had visited her mother there over the years, bringing her children for visits. John’s children had also spent time there as did her sister Harriet’s children.
I first visited her there in 1988. It was not my first visit to Cornwall but I had never been that far west before. Renovations were barely underway—the house was the same as it had been for decades. Dora had not kept it up partly because of financial reasons but also because she always had far more interesting things to do in her life. All that Dora had accomplished was rewiring and a bathroom update (Carn Voel, p. 28). Kate’s son Andrew had joined her and was helping out. The house was still located in a very rural setting even though many decades had passed since the Russells first arrived. A potato field was adjacent; each day a local farmer took his cows down the road past the house and into a grazing field. The main floor had a kitchen and scullery; John’s room was still covered in yellow residue from years of cigarette smoke. I climbed to the top floor of the house which has wonderful views of the sea, walked the cliff paths with Kate, visited Sennen, and went to see “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Minack Theatre carved out of the cliffs overlooking the water. It had opened in 1932, the last year Russell was there. The colour of the water along this part of the Cornish coast is an amazingly beautiful turquoise—very distracting for play watching.
I returned in 1992. The house had undergone major renovations. The main floor had been turned into a self-contained flat which had been sold to generate the funds for the work required. The two upper floors were modernized and were now a comfortable place for Kate and Andrew to live. Their two black cats, Top Cat and Lap Cat, were still there, entertaining as ever. Again we walked the cliff paths passing by the fishing village of Penberth. It was a joy to spend time in this beautiful landscape. As we walked, memories came back to Kate about her happy Cornish childhood and she told me many family stories. I vaguely remember a story about the difficulty of getting to a beach (the cliffs are high and steep) and something about a car. I don’t remember if the stories were told in 1988 or 1992 or both. I suppose a true Russell scholar would have returned to her room and jotted down all the stories—but I didn’t and these stories have faded away over time. Some stories, perhaps those told to me, perhaps different ones are in her books. During this visit we also drove to the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Gallery in St. Ives, to St. Michael’s Mount where we had a Cornish cream tea, and to the village of Mousehole. We spent some time in Penzance where Kate lent me money to buy a necklace. In 1995 Kate sent me a small print of a watercolour drawing of Carn Voel done by Andrew. I put it in a frame and it brings back lovely memories of Carn Voel each time I look at it.
On 5 September 1996 Kate emailed me that she had, with the financial assistance of her former husband, purchased the ground floor flat where her son Andrew relocated. She concluded her monograph: “I count myself lucky to live year round where I have always wanted to be, enjoying both the quiet solitude of winter and the lively social life of summer” (Carn Voel, p. 33). She lived there until her death in 2021. The house will hopefully continue to be owned by her family.
© Sheila Turcon, 2021
Buwei Yang Chao, Autobiography of a Chinese Woman Put into English by her Husband. New York: The John Day Company, an Asia Press Book, 1947.
Lisa Joyner, “Revealed: The 20 Most Popular House Names in the UK”, House Beautiful UK, posted online 17 Sept. 2021.
Caroline Moorehead, Bertrand Russell: A Life. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.
Bertrand Russell. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1914–1944, vol. 2. London: Allen & Unwin, 1968.
Dora Russell. The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love. New York: Putnam, 1975.
Dora Russell. The Tamarisk Tree: Challenge to the Cold War. London: Virago, 1985.
Katharine Tait. Carn Voel: My Mother’s House. Newmill: Patten Press, 1998.
Katharine Tait. My Father Bertrand Russell. London: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Emails: correspondence with Katharine Tait.
Archival correspondence: Ottoline Morrell, Constance Malleson, Dora Sanger, J.A. Treglown, John J. Withers, Dora Russell, Gilbert Murray, Raymond Streatfeild, Crompton Llewelyn Davies, Leon Leveson.
- 1. In 2021 Sunny Bank was number 15 on a list of the most popular house names in the UK.
- 2. This meant the lease would have ended in 2008.
- 3. Russell’s friend J.E. Littlewood had offered Russell £200 to help purchase the house on 23 May 1922. It is not known if this offer was accepted.
- 4. When I visited in 1988 the house itself was grey and the window sills very faded blue. On my second visit in 1992 the house was sparkling white with bright blue sills.
- 5. There is an two-page invoice from John Waterer Sons & Crisp Ltd., from Twyford in Berkshire, the following year, 25 September 1924, for plants, including asters, geraniums, hollyhocks, irises, lupins, and roses. When I told Kate Tait that I had found this invoice she asked me to send her a copy. She commented: “It was an amazing garden in those days: lawn and flowers in front, veg on side and soft fruit on the other, not to mention all the huge hedge plants. Nowadays I am proud to have two flowerbeds, many herbs and abundance of rhubarb—this year our pathetic little apple tree yielded a whole colander full of apples” (email, 24 Oct. 2015).
- 6. The ABC of Atoms, 1923.
- 7. The ABC of Relativity (1925).
- 8. On Education, Especially in Childhood (1926).
- 9. “The Problems of Philosophy”, twenty lectures given to the British Institute for Philosophical Studies, 25 October 1926 to 21 March 1927; twenty lectures on “Mind and Matter” to the British Institute for Philosophical Studies, 6 October 1926 to 16 March 1927.
- 10. The Analysis of Matter (1927), chapters 28-9.
- 11. The house was owned by Russell’s brother, Frank, who was having financial difficulties; the school would be named Beacon Hill.
- 12. The beach to the east of Porthcurno beach is called Pedn Vounder. It is on the other side of the distinctive headland, Logan Rock. Kate also mentioned they often went to St. Leven beach (My Father, pp. 25–6). For a link to a list of all the beaches see Sources.
- 13. Kate remembered that he wore sandals without socks, Carn Voel, p. 9.
- 14. Kate identified this beach as Pedn Vounder, Carn Voel, p. 11.
- 15. Peter signed a page in Colette’s album as “Marjorie Spence (Pence)” along with Russell, Kate, and John.
- 16. Rusell listed the names of servants at Carn Voel and Telegraph Hill on 14 June 1932. Matt and Daisy were not on the list. Hines, the chauffeur when Colette was there in 1930, was being “dismissed at the end of term.”