Memories of Turkey - Dora Crowley (nee McVittie), 1986
My earliest memories of the 1914-1918 war (I was born in 1908) were of my mother telling me in the grocers by our garden gate that I would not be able to have any sweets as there was a war on. I also remember my mother saying that the worst shortage was being without soap, so when the second world war broke out I hoarded soap. Another memory was seeing a dog fight between Turkish planes and a British one which was brought down and my mother crying.
The house where I was born in Boudjah, one of the two villages near Smyrna where the British lived. The other was Bournabat. We had a lovely garden in an olive grove of very old trees. My mother was a very keen gardener. In the corner of our garden was the Konak (Police Station) and during the war the police often used to beat Greeks who had tried to avoid military service. These poor men used to howl loudly and our mother used to send us out of hearing to the other end of the garden. On one occasion a prisoner dug through the wall of the Konak and escaped into our garden at night and my father, hearing the noise of this man being chased, went into the garden holding an oil lamp and was surrounded by soldiers pointing guns at him. However he managed to explain and they allowed him to go back, very frightened, into the house.
Periodically the police used to catch the British at the railway station as they were enemy aliens and imprison them. My father used to talk himself out of it by saying that he was chief of the fire brigade in Smyrna (which was true) and that if they put him in prison the town would certainly burn down one day. So they would let him go but he was afraid of being caught on the return journey so he would go and hide on the roof of the Spartali’s magnificent house on the quay. The Spartalis were an elderly rich Armenian couple. They had a house in Smyrna and one in Boudjah with a huge garden full of greenhouses, ponds, statues, and of course, vineyards. I used to go and play with their granddaughter, Bice, who lived with them as her parents were divorced. While my father was hiding at the Spartalis my mother remained alone with us children and one Greek maid. On one such occasion we saw a magnificently dressed Turk coming up the drive. The maid and her friend immediately started screaming that he was coming to murder us so my mother sent her in to hide and went out on the verandah with us children hanging on to her and, speaking a little Turkish, asked the man what he wanted. It was difficult to find out as he spoke no Greek but in the end she found out that all he wanted was some roses from the verandah to stick in the turban round his fez. Mother hastily gave them to him much relieved.
At the end of the 1914-1918 war the British prisoners of war from the Koutelamara campaign were repatriated through Smyrna. Most of them had dysentery and had been very badly treated by the Turks. We entertained a number of the officers at tennis parties. I remember they could not understand why they could not have baths after tennis. My mother explained that water was scarce and only obtainable from the well at the bottom of the garden which we used as a refrigerator by lowering bottles and butter in a bucket. However the British officers were not deterred and drew up several bucketfuls of water, carried them up to the bathroom and got their showers. The poor Tommies were not entertained by “gentlefolk” like ourselves. The only people who looked after them and the sick were the Petites Soeurs de Charitee, the Catholic nuns who did much good in the village. My mother did express some concern about this. These nuns used to come round in pairs, always in pairs, to collect money for their good works. I have always thought well of Catholic nuns since then.
Just after the war a number of Australian troops came to Smyrna from the Greek islands. One officer drove a high four in hand carriage with mules and turned them in front of our house with great expertise.
During the war my uncle Theodore Weber (Theo), who had been educated in Berlin and was to all intends and purposes a German was sent to Smyrna as German Consul. This made bad feelings in the family as my mother having married a Scot was British. She disliked aunt Nelly (Theo’s wife) intensely and father was annoyed with uncle Theo because he did not help financially with grandmother who was his mother. Their daughter Traute (Gertrude) used to arrive at our house on horseback with two army officers (German) which used to annoy my mother. She, having married a Scotsman, became, as so often happens, more British than the British and feelings between families were decidedly cool. I can remember my mother shedding tears of emotion when, later on, in England, she was listening to a royal wedding on the wireless.
Antecedents and Backgrounds
My greatgrandfather, John Theodore Wolters was a small farmer and missionary from a Moravian sect. He was sent out to Turkey to convert the Jews. (He was German). His first wife was a Circassian girl whom he had converted to Christianity. She was murdered in a pogrom against Christians. They had one daughter. Later, he was lonely and wanted to marry again but there were no suitable ladies in Turkey at the time. He consulted a friend, a clergyman, in Scotland who had several unmarried daughters. He went but was refused by his first choice. However, another sister, Elizabeth Galloway, accepted him. She was my greatgrandmother. This couple were much loved and respected by the villagers of Boudjah. They lived in a large house above the village which was later burnt down, I think. Later they lived lower down the road near my grandmother’s small house by the Greek church. The strange thing is that these two old people died on the same day. This is carved on the memorial locket left me by my mother. No explanation was ever given me except that it was not due to war, murder or accident. This couple had six children; two sons, Frederick and an un-named, unmentioned one who went to the bad, and four daughters Eugenia, Bella, Mary (some confusion here, I thought she was Dora and that I was called after her) and Margaret. Eugenia was my grandmother and Bella lived next to us in Boudjah and ran a school in her large house.
Aunt Bella helped my mother by sending in the midday meal for us when my father was dismissed from the tobacco company he had gone out to Turkey with. Mary ? (Dora) married and went out to Canada. I do not know her name but George had a small photo of her cabin, which I have mislaid. Margaret lived with Eugenia - she was a bit simple. Frederick married and had three daughters and a son who died as a child. Hilda and Amy worked as teachers for the Church Missionary Society and were driven out of Jerusalem in the 1914-18 war and took up residence in Basle as companions to an old lady. I have received most of the family details from them when John and I once looked them up out of curiosity. The third daughter Mrs Carpenter, now a widow, married a clergyman and my mother, George and I once spent a holiday with them in Guernsey. She had two daughters and various sons. I remember I liked one of the girls, I think either Violet or Doris. They lived near London, Chislehurst, I think. This family is younger than my mother, Uncle Theo and us because Eugenia was older than Theodore.
My grandmother married a learned schoolmaster and amateur archaeologist called George Weber. He was a Frenchman despite his name, but had taken German nationality after the Franco-Prussian war when his native provinces were ceded to Germany. I hardly remember him, only seeing him ill propped up with a chair and pillows in bed. My grandparents had two children, Theodore, who was educated in Berlin, married a German and became to all intents and purposes German, and my mother Emily Caroline who, because of her marriage became British.
As I have said, my father Francis McVittie came out to Turkey with a job in a tobacco company. A rather raw lad with a Lancashire accent enjoyed the company of my grandfather as he too was interested in archaeology and they used to excavate together in Ephesus which was then largely unexplored. Whatever work they did was always covered by sand the following season. My father started courting my mother, a very reserved and unworldly girl. He always said that the most he saw of her when he called was the top of her head as she was always bent over some embroidery. I think they did their courting on the way to church where my father sang in the choir and my mother played the organ. The church in Boudjah was non-denominational and was known as the English Church. My mother’s family were all buried in the churchyard.
I do not know much about my father’s family which he said came from the Lowlands of Scotland. He lived in Lancashire. I know he had an older brother, George, who died of drink, and another brother, Miller, of whom he was very fond, but they quarrelled and never saw each other afterwards. My father was a difficult man. He also had two sisters who lived in Blackpool. He visited them when he came to England and mother was very shocked by the way they lived. I think they also drank. Probably because of this weakness in the family my father was a teetotaller for years.
My mother’s father was George Weber and he came from Alsace-Lorraine. The inscription on his tombstone - see photo - mentions his place of birth but one needs good eyesight to read it. He taught in a girl’s school in Smyrna but ’tho he was known as a ‘savant’ he could not keep order and had to have another teacher in the classroom to do it for him.
Father and mother were married in the small church of Boudjah. There is only one photograph of them after the wedding. Mother was very handsome and she is wearing a beautiful dress of some light flowing material and a large Edwardian hat with roses. She does not seem to have had an elaborate white wedding but I know she had bridesmaids, two, I think, but I cannot remember their names. They went on their honeymoon to Corfu which mother remembers as a very beautiful place. I wonder what she would think of it now. She was a very intelligent and serious young woman. I don’t know how she was educated but she was always a great reader. She always longed to travel but did not have much opportunity in her life as neither her parents or husband were well off. Her aunt, Bella, took her on a holiday on one occasion to the Caucasus and she remembered it with delight. I am not even sure if she had ever been to Constantinople but I think she had.
My parents lived in a very pleasant house in Boudjah. We three children were born in this house - see photos. After leaving the tobacco company father was out of a job for a long time. Eventually he opened a large shop in Smyrna where he sold anything required by the large British community from furniture and bicycles to shoes and comics, all imported from England. I remember I was allowed to pick up any comics from the window where they were displayed. My parents had three children, George Cunliffe McVittie, Wilfred Wolters McVittie and me Dora Elsie McVittie. The name Cunliffe was my maternal grandmother’s - so my father told me. I think Elsie was the name of my father’s favourite sister, who died. She was always known as ‘Jimmy’, why I don’t know - so I was called Jimmy for years.
Childhood in Turkey
Life in Boudjah was very pleasant. We only had morning lessons. We played tennis in the afternoons in summer on our own hard court. Picnics and donkey rides were frequent. When at kindergarten age I had governesses, Mlle. Adele, who was much loved and Mlle Marthe, who was not. Both were Swiss. Also Katie Higginbotham who first read me Longfellow’s Hiawatha and interested me in poetry. The governesses taught me sewing and fine white embroidery as well as French-drawn thread work and fistou, also lacemaking, torchon.
As soon as I was old enough I went up to town (Smyrna) by train with my brothers to Mr Fry. He was the vicar of the English Church and he taught eight of us in a small hall at the ‘Point’ near the station. We were very lucky in Mr Fry as he was a very able teacher and took my brothers to university standard examinations. Besides us there were two girls, Maudie, Elliot whose father ran the railway, and May Walker. Then there were three more, Mr Fry’s daughter Joan and two boys Freddie Rees, of a wealthy family in Boudjah, and a Whittall - I can’t remember. All three were younger than we three girls and much younger than my brothers. Mrs Fry was a very able artist. I remember at an exhibition of her work a large painting of dancing dervishes. There was another artist, Mrs Bliss, a water colourist, and she gave me painting lessons. I have a painting by her of the avenue of cypresses in Gordon’s garden, near us, in Boudjah where Byron was supposed to have walked up and down and composed Childe Harold.
I went to Mr Fry three times a week and twice a week to a French lady in Smyrna who taught me French grammar and composition and also certain unimportant subjects in French, Histoire Ancienne and Histoire Naturelle. Also, once a week, I went to a mad Russian woman who taught me the piano and who did not tell my mother that I was hopelessly unmusical, as my English teacher did when later I went to school in England and was then allowed to give up the piano, which I hated. It was suggested kindly that I would have been better occupied working for Matric. To return to Turkey. By this time the ‘Store’ must have been doing quite well as I do not remember my parents being particularly hard up. They entertained quite a lot, giving dances and tennis parties and, of course, parties for us children.
My father was a rather mean man, as Scots are supposed to be. Probably he felt more careful after his early years of poverty. As I reached teenage I must have been rather precocious and flirtatious and I seemed to attract older men. One of my ‘admirers’ was Robert Urquhart, the British vice consul who later dealt very well with the situation in Smyrna when the revolution occurred and the fire. Another was Arthur Higginbotham, the brother of my former governess. My mother did not approve of Arthur and she thought his parents ‘common’ and uneducated although she approved of Katy. Arthur got on very well with the Greek peasants and he befriended my brother Wilfrid who was quiet and retiring and used to take him shooting in the hills and for long walks. Mother was a bit snobbish and did not think that we should mix with the Greek peasants. I was not allowed to spend too much time with our maid, Kiriacoula, who I loved. She was later murdered by the Turks at the time of the revolution.
The peasants were great story-tellers which we children which we children enjoyed; and also their songs. I was never allowed to be taken into the interior of Asia Minor as it was thought to be unsafe with brigands etc. and my parents were not wealthy enough to travel abroad. I can only remember a seaside holiday at a place called Lydia where they were lilies growing in the sand dunes and where mother changed our hotel because it smelled of drains. There was another seaside holiday where father taught me to swim in the beautifully clean sea. He was very gentle with me as I was afraid of the sea but he taught my brothers by throwing them in at the end of a rope off the pier.
To return to my flirtations. The navy, which called at Smyrna at intervals, was another source of fun and dance parties. Smyrna was then an important international port and the navy’s visits caused much excitement socially. My own special admirer was a midshipman called Alan Burnett on Ajax. He invited me to tea on board but I said I could not come without my mother. It must have been quite a shock to him to have to entertain her as well as me. I was naturally flattered by the attentions of older men but when Arthur was seen by a Greek nanny kissing me on a balcony covered with wisteria and in the moonlight and passed on this news through someone else to my mother it was decided that it was time I was taken away from such influences, being too young. I was fourteen.
My parents decided we should all go to England for a holiday and settle George at Edinburgh University. Both my brothers had passed their Higher School Certificate by then. This was 1922.
THE TURKISH REVOLUTION
We were staying at Birkenhead near Liverpool with a business friend of my father’s whom we had entertained at Boudjah. He lived alone in a very large house. The one day, 1922 I think, the Turkish revolution broke out and we were horrified to see posters everywhere “Smyrna Burning”. Gradually the news came through that my father’s store had burnt and that he was jobless and ruined. My friend Winnie Missir wrote to me after she escaped to Malta and described how they managed to get to the warship along the quay with sailors armed with revolvers helping them. The British Consul was on holiday so it was our friend Robert Urquhart who had to decide when to advise the British subjects to leave. Kemal Ataturk’s forces advanced on Smyrna from the interior driving the Greeks before them. After the 1914-1918 war the Allies decided, in their wisdom, to let the Greeks occupy parts of Asia Minor. My parents always said this was the height of folly and that Lloyd George was to blame, and so it turned out.
When the Turkish forces reached Smyrna, killing and murdering Greeks on the way, they drove the rest into the sea off the quay in Smyrna. Hundreds of bodies could be seen lying there. Our government gave orders that none but British subjects was to be taken on board our warships. It must have been awful. Thanks to Bob Urquhart all British subjects were saved except an old couple of unknown origin in our village who were killed. My grandmother Eugenia Weber and Aunt Margaret, being German subjects, were left behind and remained in their small house in Boudjah and gradually a number of Greek villagers took refuge with them as they were terrified of the approaching Turks and thought my grandmother would protect them. When the Turks reached the village they banged on the door, an European house, and demanded money. Grandmother would not open the door but collected what money she could find and opened the shutters of a window on the street (which was about eight feet above the street) and handed out the money, which the soldiers grabbed. They also grabbed her hand and pretended they would cut it off, but they didn’t and in the end went off through the village laughing. Some days later a friend of my mother’s, Amy Joly, who was safely on board a British warship was overcome with thoughts of poor Eugenia left alone in Boudjah with only Margaret and determined to land and make her way to Boudjah and find her. When we heard of this brave action we children took back all the things we had said and thought about her. We had thought her a tiresome chatterbox. She had lived in Bournabat (now Bornova) which was the other village (a ‘posher’ one) where the British lived. She found my ‘Nenee’, safe though very frightened, and stayed with them instead of going to Greece, Malta or Alexandria where the British subjects were unloaded without money, clothes or possessions.
Amy Joly wrote to us to tell us about my grandmother being safe and well. It is sad that none of us ever saw her or Aunt Margaret again as my father had lost everything but the house in Boudjah which he could not sell for anything much as all the Europeans had gone and the Turks did not like European houses. In the end I think he sold it for practically nothing. We in England at least had our suitcases of clothes with us which was more than the other British had. It was now very hard for my parents. The insurance would pay nothing as it was an “act of war” and not fire which caused the loss. Finally my father got a job with Save the Children and much later he built up an Oriental carpet importing business in New St. Bishopsgate, London. When the government suddenly put a tax on the import of Oriental carpets he built up a carpet mending business for insurance companies. In those days when everybody had open fires valuable carpets and rugs were always getting burned. He gathered a staff of expert carpet menders who used to sit on one floor of his office building mending beautiful carpets. As he had a Scottish name and most of the carpet mending firms were Armenians he used to get more business as the insurance companies thought he was more likely to be honest.
We had at last left Birkenhead. Our friend must have been glad to see the back of us. We found a small house at Wallasey. Later when my father got the Save the Children job we went down south. We had entertained a Mr Treloar, well known in the City, in Boudjah, and he invited us to occupy his house in Caterham, Surrey, while his wife was staying in Switzerland as she had T.B. Later we moved to another very small house in Caterham and later still to a small semi-detached house in Purley which was all we could afford. We bought it from a couple called Bluett. Mr Bluett was a well known expert on Chinese antique china. My parents remained friendly with them. I remember the house was papered with William Morris wallpapers. We had never had wallpapers in Turkey and I thought them rather odd and dark. By this time George was settling in in Edinburgh University - this was one reason why we had come to England - but now father could no longer afford the fees and George managed to get funds from the Carnegie Trust to see him through the University. He was lucky to get them but afterwards when he was working he had to pay the money back. Wilfrid had an even harder time. He lived at home and got a job whilst attending King’s College London where he took his degree. My parents decided that I should go to a private school as in those days the State schools were looked down upon. I went to Eothen School in Caterham and used to travel by train from Purley. I loved school and although I had never done Latin and I found maths difficult I was much more fluent in French than most English girls of my age and I was very interested in history and well in advance of my age group in literature - I suppose because I had been well taught and had read a lot. Also, I was in the tennis team which was good because I was hopeless at other games and athletics.
When I left school, Miss Pye my headmistress, encouraged my parents to send me to London University and for a year I went to University College to read History. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had at school and soon realised that a woman had to be very clever to get a good degree. By then I had met Kitty Crowley who was doing Librarianship at U.C.L. and, through her, John. So I gave up College and got engaged to him. I didn’t think it fair that my father should be paying all my fees when John came most evenings so I was not doing enough work. I had always wanted to teach teenagers, not very young children, so, in a way I was sorry not to finish University but, also, having a practical side, I wished I had done something like dressmaking or catering. However, it was too late now as women, in those days, didn’t work outside the house, once married. So, gardening became my engrossing interest.
A young Dora McVittie at a Tennis Party in Smyrna. I don’t know the date. Dora is sitting on the ground at the front. Her eldest brother George McVittie is the tall one back right and next to him with a hat on is Bill McVittie, her other older brother. The other people are identified courtesy of Marian Verkerk, 2010:
The three young women sitting on the bench are my mother Hilda Missir (married to Henry de Jongh Jr. and eldest daughter of Charles and Julia Heller Missir), Elsie Missir (third of the Missir girls, my mother’s sister married to Eugene Allioti, also a Smyrna family). The person in the black dress I cannot identify. The fourth on the bench is Winnie Missir (second Missir daughter later married to Harold Parkinson – known by friends and family as Parkie - who came to Smyrna from England after the fire working for a tobacco company) - click here for further photos from the Missir archive:
The tennis club could be the one next to the De Jongh house in Boudjah, though there were alternative locations in the city as this picture has few clues in the background.
Text kindly submitted by Naomi Crowley, grand-daughter of Dora Crowley, who was 14 or 15 when she left Smyrna and who died in 1999 at the age of 92.
Click here to read the contents of a letter written to Dora Crowley from one of her friends concerning the events during the Great Fire of Smyrna.
Click here to return to George McVittie’s autobiograpical sketch.