Suits You, Sir!

Late 19th century view of Aguilas
Late 19th century view of Aguilas

The port town of Aguilas has long been a favourite with ex-patriots from the British Isles. Indeed, 67 years ago, on October 22nd 1954, the Coventry Evening Telegraph informed its readers that Aguilas in Murcia, Spain, was the “home from home” for the oddest collection of Britons this side of Suez”.

Indeed, during the first half of the twentieth century, Aguilas certainly did have its fair share of eccentric British characters. The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and for long periods before this, an ingenious, if rather ruthless, single Englishwoman claimed to own much of the land and many of the properties in the town. As a consequence, Aguilas’ fishermen and many of the town’s businesses, paid the woman the appropriate tolls and taxes she requested. In reality, however, there was no documentary evidence whatsoever to support the lady’s entirely fanciful claims.

In 1902, a rich British aristocrat, called Hugo Pakenham Borthwick (known as Don Hugo by the locals), arrived in Aguilas. Hugo built himself a palatial home on Fraile Island, just by the harbour and lived in some style with two housekeepers and legions of pets and animals. Don Hugo certainly believed in acquiring possessions by the dozen. He had a partiality for ibises (large wading birds) and looked after twelve of them. When an ibis died, it was buried in a dedicated ibis cemetery, which was tended to by Don Hugo himself. Hugo also had twelve dogs, countless parrots and allegedly always slept with a revolver under his pillow. During the First World War, he may well have spied on local German shipping for the British. When he walked through the town of Aguilas, the affluent Englishman always seemed to be dressed in exactly the same suit. Why would such a rich man only have one suit? The answer to this conundrum was given when an Aguilas resident eventually gained access to Don Hugo’s home (for unexplained reasons). Hugo did in fact have twelve suits, all of which were identical and he would wear one of these suits during his many walks through the town of Aguilas.

The legendarily eccentric Don Hugo adopted a son, who received a boarding school education in England and eventually inherited all his father’s financial assets and properties in Aguilas. Precisely what happened to Don Hugo is unclear (at least according to the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 1954!), but he certainly became one of the great eccentric British characters forever associated with the Murcian port of Aguilas.

Ding Dong Dell, Artist in a Bell!

In theory, a large bell in a small room  should have been hard to miss!  (Photo by Raimond Spekking)
In theory, a large bell in a small room should have been hard to miss! (Photo by Raimond Spekking)

During 1937, various British journals and newspapers slightly changed the words of the 16th century Elizabethan nursery rhyme “Ding Dong Dell, Pussy’s in the Well” to “Ding Dong Dell, Artist in a Bell” to reflect the unfortunate accident which befell Dora Gordon, who was a British artist engaged in painting various Murcian street scenes during the period of the Spanish Civil War.

Dora’s Murcian paintings were due to be exhibited at the swish Lefevre Art Gallery in London. At some point in late 1936, or early 1937, she clambered up a tall building in Murcia in order to obtain a clear view of the bustling street scene below. British newspapers weren’t clear as to whether Dora was in Murcia City, Cartagena, or one of the other larger Murcian conurbations, when the accident happened. At any rate, Dora Gordon began to sketch Murcian street scenes from what she later described as a small oval room, when she was deafened and battered into unconsciousness by the sound and vibrations of an enormous church bell. Rather bizarrely, Dora Gordon had, in fact, found her way inside a large church bell, rather than an oval room.

It took Dora Gordon some time to recover from the injuries inflicted by the bell. The Nottingham Journal of March 12th 1937 described the incident as an ‘ordeal for an artist’. Nevertheless, Dora’s exhibition went ahead at the Lefevre Gallery, where her paintings were exhibited alongside those of her husband, Godfrey Gordon, who was also a well-known British artist of the 1930’s.