My family gathers in exciting anticipation of Christmas. Tantalising turkey dinner punctuated with perfect presents. There’s 31 of us this year, including 4 of the 7 great-grandchildren, all celebrating with mum in our Gold Coast family home of 56 years. Beneath our feet, stirring to be noticed, are foundations of an earlier home with a peerage past including a connection to Ireland’s 1916 Rising of a century ago.
To me she was the reclusive cat lady next door, prowling her overgrown garden behind a high, dark fence. She was old and stooped, probably an alcoholic. When I was a toddler, Mrs Schuchard took my mother into her confidence and revealed a small hand gun and ancient scabbard normally kept in the bank vault. She was born Constance Rosamond Tattersall Philpott in 1901, her friends called her Bobbie. For 20 years her father was the associate of the Chief Justice of Queensland, and before that, a global travelling companion for sons of the English rich.
Bobbie grew up a privileged socialite, hosting parties in her family’s stately home “Ingestre”. When her mother passed away, the town-centre estate was subdivided, 3 of the blocks sold to my family, and the remaining 2 hosting a small cottage built for Mrs Schuchard in her quiet retirement. Her husband had been a decorated Australian officer in the First World War. He left her within a year or two of their marriage. She kept his name for the rest of her life none the less. Hand-made bricks and lost pennies in the garden of our family home are reminders of “Ingestre” to this day.
Her grandfather served in Queensland’s First Parliament in 1860 in the Queensland Legislative Council. Her great-granduncle was William Wood, 1st Baron Hatherley, Gladstone’s first Liberal Lord Chancellor. He was a Lord Mayor of London, a role also filled by Bobbie’s great-great-grandfather Sir Matthew Wood, 1st Baronet.
A cousin of Bobbie’s was Field Marshall Sir Henry Evelyn Wood V.C. who served in the Crimean, Zulu, and First Boer wars, winning his Victoria Cross in the Indian Mutiny. But it’s another cousin who brings history close to home this year.
Kitty O’Shea’s (pictured) decade-long secret adultery with Irish independence leader Charles Stewart Parnell led to a widely publicized divorce and his political downfall. Katharine had acted as liaison between Parnell and Gladstone during negotiations for the First Irish Home Rule Bill. But the scandal played a major role in dooming Home Rule, leading to the 1916 Rising and the Irish Civil War itself. All this thanks to a cousin of the lady beneath my feet.
Mrs Schuchard passed away in 1976, the same year as Agatha Christie. She left up to 23 cats which, according to the terms of her will, were all euthanised. The old cat lady was a mystery, and today a great page-turner for Christmas.