An Edwardian Caernarvon woman heads out to Africa

 There’s a big difference today between Caernarfon and the small town of Bonthe on the coast of Sierra Leone, West Africa. That difference was much bigger 109 years ago in 1908, when Maida Roberts left her family home – Bronceris, on the corner of Ffordd Y Gogledd and Waterloo Port Road,  Caernarfon – to travel out to Bonthe with the man she had recently married, Dr Charles Hunter.

Maida spent a year in Bonthe with her husband, helping in his medical work, collecting samples of plants which she sent to the British Museum, and writing extensively to her sisters and father back at Bronceris about her experiences.  Life in Bonthe was by no means easy, even for privileged colonial staff and their families, but she was later to describe it to her daughter as the best year of her life.

Maida’s sister Beatrice, known to the family as Belle, kept the letters to her – along with a few to their father – and passed them down to Maida’s daughter.  (The first Maida was christened Mary Adelaide, and this was a family nickname; Dr Hunter asked that their daughter be called simply Maida.)  Years later, Maida junior transcribed all the letters before handing over the originals for safekeeping to the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  And still years after that, her son Andrew – a doctor like his father and grandfather – brought the single transcript to publisher Susan Curran, thinking that perhaps she could help him preserve the story for the family. Susan found the letters so absorbing that she grabbed the chance to publish them for a wider audience.

My Darling Belle, published this month, is the result. Maida’s letters are introduced and given a postscript by her daughter, to produce a highly readable account of an intriguing woman’s life.   They are illustrated (partly in colour) with family photos – including a number which Maida took while she was in Sierra Leone, and others of the family back in Wales – maps, old postcards, and photos from other sources which throw light on the life lived by Maida and her husband Charlie.

Belle’s replies to Maida have not survived, but Maida’s comments on them in her own letters give a lively sense of the Caernarfon life that she had left behind, with its tennis parties, horse riding and local gossip.  Belle and her other sisters sent her cakes and biscuits, magazines to read, ribbons and household supplies that she could not obtain in Sierra Leone.  And alongside accounts of the ritual ‘leopard murders’ that gripped the country at the time, food hunting expeditions into the bush and encounters with the locals, Maida recounts her attempts to reproduce her middle-class Welsh life in Africa, with her servants being pushed to create formal six-course British-style meals using nothing more than an open fire.

Sadly Dr Hunter died not long after the couple’s return to Britain. Belle went on to marry a man who had jilted her sister Kate, and Maida and her daughter returned to live in her father’s home.  She never remarried.

My Darling Belle by Maida Hunter is available now from bookshops, and direct from the Lasse Press on www.lassepress.com

 For more info. on and illustrations from the book, contact Susan Curran:  01603 665843, lassepress@gmail.com

 Andrew Bulman can be contacted on 01603 454805, bulman6@gmail.com