The Woman at Belmont House
By David E P Dennis
There is a house in Belmont Road that was the residence of someone, saucy, tricky, amazing, brave, and maybe a spy. Belmont Road itself is not wonderful – broken surfaces, scabby-walled – but Belmont House itself is a List II residence designed in 1835 by Joseph Kay (who also designed Pelham Place). Newly refurbished, it is worth today around one million pounds. It has wonderful views over Old Hastings and the Country Park from its balconies, tower and French windows with venetian blinds and a separate cottage in the grounds. In this white splendour once lived the lover of Trotsky.
CREDIT: Samara Jayne Martin
Clare Frewen Sheridan no later than 1921
CREDIT: Bertram Park
Our mystery woman, otherwise known as Consuelo Frewen, a cousin of Winston Churchill, was born in 1885 at Brede Place, Brede Village. She was named Clare by her English father Moreton, owner of Brede Place since 1616, and his rich American wife, Clara Jerome. Despite this background of luxury and extensive landownership, Clare was a communist who had a gift for sculpting heads.
She knew people in the Communist Party, and when the Soviet Trade Delegation came to London in 1920, she was invited to carve the heads of prominent revolutionaries. Winston Churchill was seemingly horrified – he was bolshie against Bolshevism. Like a secret shadow she avoided a visa ban and travelled via Stockholm, Sweden into Estonia and on to Moscow where she ‘did’ Lenin in marble and then Trotsky in bed, so it was hinted by Trotsky’s secretary, and also rendered him in marble.
She was cold-shouldered out of England to America where she had an affair with Charlie Chaplin, who was under investigation for ‘un-American activities’. People claimed they were engaged. She then altered her life from sculpture to journalism and travelled to Mexico.
She had married Richard Sheridan in 1910, who was then killed at the Battle of Loos, but she kept his name, and everyone called her Clare Sheridan. In 1923 she took her brother back to Soviet Russia and made him drive her around in a motorbike and sidecar across the south of Russia to Constantinople (now Istanbul), and then she unaccountably moved from the Bosphorus Straits to Algeria and built a house on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
You can read more about her life in Ann Kramer’s fascinating guide to Sussex Women published by Snake River Press, but let us see what happened to a couple of the people she encountered.
Leon Trotsky, March 1918
Lev Davidovich Bronstein became known by his nom de guerre Leon Trotsky. He was born in 1879 and he died in 1940. He is perhaps more famous for his assassination than his political skills. Most people think that someone crept into his room in Mexico with an ice axe and plunged the ‘pick’ sharp end into his brain, but this is not true. The assassin used the blunt end – the ‘adze’ – and so Trotsky was not killed outright. He struggled with his assailant, Spanish-born NKVD agent Ramón Mercader and spat on him. Mercader had made a mess of the job and it took another complete day before Trotsky died of shock and blood loss. Mercader was arrested, served 19 years in prison in Mexico, and was given the Order of Lenin medal by Stalin.
Englishman Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London in 1889. He was accused of being a communist mainly because he had campaigned for more help for Soviet Russia in the Second World War, and yes, he did meet Soviet diplomats in Los Angeles. The FBI launched an official investigation early in 1947 and Chaplin declined to take American citizenship.
In the deep covert background to all this, it is remarkable who was making the accusations. It was George Orwell, of 1984 fame. He was acting out his own Big Brother dystopian nightmare. Orwell had given the ‘Orwell List’ of 35 suspected communists to the CIA-linked British Information Research Department – the notorious IRD. Orwell also accused black singer Paul Robeson of being ‘anti-white’, which ‘Official Secret’ was released in 2003.
CREDIT: Samara Jayne Martin
What else was there to discover about Clare Sheridan? Well despite the possibility that Winston Churchill and MI6 were running Clare Sheridan as their ‘agent superspy’, MI5 (maybe not kept in the know) were also watching her and they wrote on her file:
“She has conducted herself in a disloyal manner in various foreign countries, adopting a consistently anti-British attitude”.
Well, if she were an MI6 spy then she would, wouldn’t she! So, after giving up journalism and concentrating on sculpture, during which career she spent some time on an ‘Indian’ First Nation reservation learning about totem pole carving, she settled in Hastings.
As she sat in the sunny garden of Belmont House, looking across to the view of the Fire Hills, maybe she mused that she had Tinkered with people’s hearts, Tailored her life of ‘possible’ espionage, Soldiered on after the death of her husband and Sailored across the Bosphorus. In Hastings, she was finally ‘in from the cold’.
She passed away on 31st May 1970 at the age of 84, after a truly remarkable life and is buried in the churchyard of St George’s Brede, with its stunning views towards Hastings.
If you sat down right now and wrote to MI6 at Vauxhall Cross, asking “Was she really working for you back then?” they might send you this reply – “Dear Sir or Madam, we couldn’t possibly comment. But if you are interested in what we have to offer, there are vacancies…”
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