This story about the Durnford sisters was taken from Devon Characters and Strange Events by Sabine Baring-Gould.
THE ALPHINGTON PONIES
DURING the forties of last century, every visitor to Torquay noticed two young ladies of very singular appearance. Their residence was in one of the two thatched cottages on the left of Tor Abbey Avenue, looking seaward, very near the Torgate of the avenue. Their chief places of promenade were the Strand and Victoria Parade, but they were often seen in other parts of the town. Bad weather was the only thing that kept them from frequenting their usual beat. They were two Misses Durnford, and their costume was peculiar. The style varied only in tone and colour. Their shoes were generally green, but sometimes red. They were by no means bad-looking girls when young, but they were so berouged as to present the appearance of painted dolls. Their brown hair worn in curls was fastened with blue ribbon, and they wore felt or straw hats, usually tall in the crown and curled up at the sides. About their throats they had very broad frilled or lace collars that fell down over their backs and breasts a long way but in summer their necks were bare, and adorned with chains of coral or bead. Their gowns were short, so short indeed as to display about the ankles a good deal more than was necessary of certain heavily-frilled cotton investitures of their lower limbs. In winter over their gowns were worn check jackets of a “loud” pattern reaching to their knees, and of a different colour from their gowns, and with lace cuffs. They were never seen, winter or summer, without their sunshades. The only variation to the jacket was a gay-coloured shawl crossed over the bosom and tied behind at the waist. The sisters dressed exactly alike, and were so much alike in face as to appear to be twins. They were remarkably good walkers, kept perfectly in step, were always arm in arm, and spoke to no one but each other.
They lived with their mother, and kept no servant. All the work of the house was done by the three, so that in the morning they made no appearance in the town ; only in the afternoon had they assumed their war-paint, when, about 3 p.m., they sallied forth ; but, however highly they rouged and powdered, and however strange was their dress, they carried back home no captured hearts. Indeed, the visitors to Torquay looked upon them with some contempt as not being in society and not dressing in the fashion ; only some of the residents felt for them in their solitude some compassion.
They were the daughters of a Colonel Durnford, and had lived at Alphington. The mother was of an inferior social rank. They had a brother, a major in the Army, 10th Regiment, who was much annoyed at their singularity of costume, and offered to increase their allowance if they would discontinue it; but this they refused to do.
When they first they came to Torquay, they drove a pair pretty ponies they had brought with them from Alphington; but their allowance being reduced, and being in straitened circumstances, they had to dispose of ponies and carriage. By an easy transfer the name of Alphington Ponies passed on from the beasts to their former owners.
As they were not well off, they occasionally got into debt, and were summoned before the Court of Requests; and could be impertinent even to the judge. On one occasion, when he had made an order for payment, one of them said, “Oh, Mr. Praed, we cannot pay now ; but my sister is about to be married to the Duke of Wellington, and then we shall be in funds and be able to pay for all we have had and are likely to want !” Once the two visited a shop and gave an order, but, instead of paying, flourished what appeared to be the half of a £5 note, saying, that when they had received the other half, they would be pleased to call and discharge the debt. But the tradesman was not to be taken in, and declined to execute the order. Indeed, the Torquay shopkeepers were very shy of them, and insisted on the money being handed over the counter before they would serve the ladies with the goods that they required.
They made no acquaintances in Torquay or in the neighbourhood, nor did any friends come from a distance to stay with them. They would now and then take a book out of the circulating library, but seemed to have no literary tastes, and no special pursuits. There was a look of intelligence, however, in their eyes, and the expression of their faces was decidedly amiable and pleasing.
They received very few letters; those that did arrive probably contained remittances of money and were eagerly taken in at the door, but there was sometimes a difficulty about finding the money to pay for the postage. It is to be feared that the butcher was obdurate, and that often they had to go without meat. Fish, however, was cheap.
A gentleman writes: “Mr. Garrow’s house, The Braddons, was on my father’s hands to let. One day the gardener, Tosse, came in hot haste to father and complained that the Alphington Ponies kept coming into the grounds and picking the flowers, that when remonstrated with they declared that they were related to the owner, and had permission. ‘ Well,’ said father, ‘the next time you see them entering the gate run down and tell me.’ In a few days Tosse hastened to say that the ladies were again there. Father hurried up to the grounds, where he found them flower-picking. Without the least ceremony he insisted on their leaving the grounds at once. They began the same story to him of their relationship to the owner, adding thereto, that they were cousins of the Duke of Wellington. ‘Come,’ said father, ‘I can believe one person can go mad to any extent in any direction whatever, but the improbability of two persons going mad in identically the same direction and manner at the same time is a little too much for my credulity. Ladies, I beg you to proceed.’ And proceed they did.”
After some years they moved to Exeter, and took lodgings in St. Sidwell’s parish. For a while they continued to dress in the same strange fashion ; but they came into some money, and then were able to indulge in trinkets, to which they had always a liking, but which previously they could not afford to purchase. At a large fancy ball, given in Exeter, two young Oxonians dressed up to represent these ladies; they entered the ballroom solemnly, arm in arm, with their parasols spread, paced round the room, and finished their perambulation with a waltz together. This caused much amusement; but several ladies felt that it was not in good taste, and might wound the poor crazy Misses Durnford. This, however, was not the case. So far from being offended at being caricatured, they were vastly pleased, accepting this as the highest flattery. Were not princesses and queens also represented at the ball ? Why, then, not they?
One public ball they did attend together, at which, amongst others, were Lady Rolle and Mr. Palk, son of the then Sir Lawrence Palk. Owing to their conspicuous , attire, they drew on them the attention of Lady Rolle, who challenged Mr. Palk to ask one of the sisters for a dance, and offered him a set of gold and diamond shirt studs if he could prevail on either of them to be his partner. Mr. Palk accepted the challenge, but on asking for a dance was met in each case by the reply,
“I never dance except my sister be also dancing.”
Mr. Palk then gallantly offered to dance with both sisters at once, or in succession. He won and wore the studs. A gentleman writes: “In their early days they made themselves conspicuous by introducing the bloomer arrangement in the nether latitude.” This, as you may well suppose, was regarded as a scandal; but these ladies, who were never known to speak to any one, or to each other out of doors, went on their way quite unruffled. Years and years after this, you may imagine my surprise at meeting them in Exeter, old and grey, but the same singular silent pair. Then, after an interval of a year or two, only one appeared. I assure you, it gave me pain to look at that poor lonely, very lonely soul ; but it was not for long. Kind Heaven took her also, and so a tiny ripple was made, and there was an end of the Alphington Ponies.”
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