May Tyssen-Amherst and the Crocodile in the Well

(Part 1)

Steamer arriving at Port Said. Tuck's Oilette Postcard

Steamer arriving at Port Said (Tuck's Oilette Postcard)

Can I ever forget the moment when I first saw the sun rise over Egypt, the long low line of the sandy coast, the tall Damietta lighthouse, the rough stone breakwater which protects the entrance to the Suez Canal all lit up in the glow of the dawn? It was to me the dawning of a ‘wonder world’.

Self portrait of May Tyssen-Amherst

Self portrait by May Tyssen-Amherst

These are the words of Mary Rothes Tyssen-Amherst, known to her family as May. They are taken from an unpublished twenty-nine page document, entitled ‘A Few Egyptian Memories’ and it is this on which much of this paper is based. The illustrations have been gathered from family photograph albums, and May’s own sketchbook dated 1873/4.

May was born in 1857; she was the eldest of the seven daughters of William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst. The Tyssen-Amhersts were an extremely wealthy family. Their Tyssen ancestors had been Flemish traders and had acquired large estates in both Hackney and Norfolk.

Her father, William, had been educated at Eton and had just left Christchurch when his parents died within a year of each other. He was untrained in any form of management and at once delegated the boring and time-consuming business of running his estates. In 1856, at the age of twenty-one, and just six months after the death of his father, William married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Mitford of Hunmanby Hall, Yorkshire.

He gained not only a wife, but also a father-in-law who had a passion for Egypt and all things Egyptian. As his own interest in Egypt grew, William set about building up an Egyptian collection with all the unfettered enthusiasm of youth, combined with unlimited funds. It is likely that William looked to his father-in-law for support and advice.

William had other interests too, and immediately after his marriage he began the long and painstaking process of acquiring an extensive collection of books which reflected one of his greatest interests; the history of printing. Over time his library catalogue listed many important books, but maybe the most brilliant gems of the collection were his seventeen Caxtons.

However, the lure of the East was strong enough to tear William regularly from his library, probably encouraged by Margaret's father, Admiral Robert Mitford, who appears to have been on excellent terms with the Khedive Mahomet Ali. In her memoirs May mentions this relationship when describing a visit to Alexandria. This provides an intriguing family mystery.

Another drive along the sea-shore by a very bad road full of deep ruts and holes, took us to Cleopatra’s needles. There were two of them. One obelisk was standing, the other was had fallen down and was partly covered with sand and rubbish.

Cleopatra's needles sketched by David Roberts

Cleopatra's Needles by David Roberts

This is the site as drawn by David Roberts when he had arrived in Egypt some thirty-three years earlier.

One of the needles was of particular interest to May.

This needle belonged to us, so we looked at it with great interest. It was given by Mahomet Ali to my grandfather, after he had fitted out for him the first Egyptian man-of-war. He also gave him his portrait, a sword, and a rosary and many other things, which are in our museum at home.
We longed to be able to take the needle away, but the trouble and expense were too great – there was no possible apparatus to move it and no ship that would carry it; but after all it has reached England and now stands on the Thames Embankment, where other people besides ourselves may see and admire it.

The remarkable story of the journey of Cleopatra’s Needle to its present position on the Embankment, is well documented. However, any part that Admiral Mitford played in the fitting out of Egyptian corvettes is not, nor have I discovered so far any record of the needle being given to him as a reward. So many questions remain unanswered. However, there is little doubt that the Amhersts always found themselves welcomed in Egypt and this may in part have been due to the Admiral.

Didlington Hall had been the Tyssen-Amherst’s country home since 1843. This originally had been a compact Georgian house, however it was soon extended by William’s father, William George Tyssen-Daniel. It soon even contained its own museum, which in due course became the perfect place to house a rapidly growing Egyptian collection.

Egyptian artefacts at Didlington Hall

Egyptian artefacts in the Old Museum at Didlington Hall

Seven Sekhmet statues stood outside the wing, which housed the museum. There was one statue for each of William’s seven daughters. These had been part of Dr John Lee’s collection at Hartwell House, acquired by William in 1865. These statues originally stood in the Temple of Mut at Karnac, and were probably brought to Europe by Belzoni, or slightly later by one of his assistants. Now they can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

From an early age May would have spent time in the museum, surrounded by cabinets and shelves increasingly packed with Egyptian objects. Incidentally, it was this particular collection, which some years later course inspired an interest in Egyptology in Howard Carter. As a boy he spent a good deal of time in the museum, while his artist father, Samuel Carter, was employed elsewhere in the house.

When the Amherst collection, catalogued by Howard Carter, came to be sold by Sotheby’s in 1921, it was the third largest private collection in England.

May appears to have been fascinated by the contents of the museum, and by the family discussions about Egypt. It is likely that it was this enthusiasm, which inspired her parents to take her with them to Egypt at an unusually early age. Her first visit was during the winter season of 1871, when she would have been just fourteen.

(See Part 2)