The Story of Tryphena Gunn Mitchell

Jabez Howard Gunn, better known as Howard or J. Howard, the sixth son of the Reverend John Gunn, was only ten years old when his father died. At seventeen, in 1843, Howard emigrated to America where he worked for two years in Philadelphia before apprenticing himself to a doctor in Bloomington, Indiana. After serving his apprenticeship he set up his own practice in the neighbouring town of Springville where he courted the fifteen year old Lucinda Gainey. He was allowed to marry her only on condition that he came to live in her father’s house. They married in 1853 and he lived there until his death in 1904. Howard and Lucinda had eight children, only two surviving to adulthood, John and Margaret.

Margaret was always known as Craigie. She graduated from St Mary of the Woods College, Terre Haute, Indiana. In 1875, on the eve of her twenty-first birthday, she married a railroad man, W. A. Mitchell. She kept up an active and influential interest in her college for much of her life and her two daughters, Tryphena and Alice, also graduated from there. Tryphena, born in 1877, was a studious person while her younger sister was more domestically inclined, or, to quote Alice’s grandson, while Tryphena read books her sister made cookies. Alice, he said, was a homebody type waiting to hear a horse and buggy cross the bridge as the boys came to call. Tryphena went on to library school and took up the post of librarian in Madison, Wisconsin.

Links with the home country had always been maintained and in the early 1900s Tryphena with her mother attended a Gunn family reunion in Bristol, where one branch of the family were tobacco manufacturers. To combat the American tobacco industry’s attempt to monopolise the world market for a new smoking device, the cigarette, the Gunn Tobacco Company and other companies had merged into the Imperial Tobacco Company. It was natural that the visitors would meet some of the other tobacco people in Bristol and one such was the vice-chairman of the merger. He was William Nelson Mitchell, of the Stephen Mitchell Tobacco Company, coincidentally another Mitchell but of no relation.

William and his four sons were smitten by this young lady from America and one son declared he would marry her. William, himself a widower, was equally positive that Tryphena would be his. William triumphed, marrying her in July 1910. She was warmly welcomed into the family; all accounts of the lady underline her own recollections in later years of an ideal marriage. It was a busy life, for together with her duties as hostess in her husband’s social world she had a grown-up household to supervise and soon a growing child of her own to care for. Her only son, John Howard Mitchell, was born in December 1911.

When John was thirteen another chapter in her story opened with the purchase of Halsway Manor. Several houses had been considered in the Mendips and the Cotswolds but she was drawn to the warm secluded comfort of the manor. Frederick Walker had written of a feeling of repose about the old house and had been apprehensive that future reconstruction would reduce its charm. He had no need of such fears, the skilful rebuilding of the nineteenth century had produced a harmonious exterior of gables, towers and mullioned windows combining with the mellow stonework that could not be improved upon. We owe it to the lady’s good taste that her work on the interior also did nothing to detract from that atmosphere; to this day visitors often remark on the manor’s welcoming air.

With William’s encouragement she selected panelling, plasterwork and ornamentation from other country houses that were undergoing demolition or rebuilding, using the material to transform the old house. One major reconstruction was in the lounge where the whole upper floor level had to be raised in order to accommodate the taller panelling and plaster ceiling from Standish Hall in Lancashire. This in turn made it necessary to construct steps in the upstairs corridor to the raised floors of the rooms above. She installed a chamber organ in the strengthened minstrel gallery in the hall and commissioned new plasterwork in many parts of the house. The Mitchell crest and a thistle and rose emblem were added to the Tudor ceiling in the library and the Gunn badge replaced one of the bosses in the hall roof.

During the years at Halsway Manor the transformed house saw many important guests, not the least of these being members of her American family. Her mother would visit and in 1936 her niece, Margaret Mead, with her husband Raymond, brought their three small children. This visit made a deep impression on the youngsters from whom, as adults, this story has been gleaned. It was an idyllic summer holiday and their cousin John is remembered as being full of fun and although in his twenties quite prepared to play with the children. He, sadly, was to die in World War II.

Her upbringing and education had not allowed Tryphena to be content with a life of social pleasure. She had always kept an interest in her Indiana college and continued to contribute to it for the rest of her life. She and William supported the Fairbridge Society, an organisation that helped deprived children to emigrate to under-populated Commonwealth countries and get a new start in life. The Prince of Wales Farm School at Duncan on Vancouver Island was of special interest to them and they also supported an orphanage in Kent for Fairbridge children.

In 1936 the Halsway chapter came to an end. After twenty-six years of a happy marriage, at the age of eighty-seven, William died and was buried in the churchyard in Bicknoller. The manor was sold and Tryphena moved to Severn House, near Bath. The chamber organ from the gallery in the hall was given to the Farm School at Duncan. Weighing four and a half tons and packed in ten cases the organ had an eventful journey to the docks being repacked twice, firstly because Canadian health regulations banned the use of the original packing material; then, if that were not enough, accidental exposure to damp when on the railway required a complete overhaul of the consignment.

Dedicated as the Mitchell organ in memory of Willam it continued to be used for many years. In Britain the Children Act of 1948 and subsequent measures put restrictions on child emigration and by 1975 the Fairbridge Society could make no further use of the school. The site was sold and with the permission of the eldest grandson, the organ was donated to the University of Victoria. On May 16th, 1976 it was installed in Christchurch Cathedral, Victoria. Completely rebuilt ten years later it was installed at the head of the south aisle. It is now the Cathedral’s second organ and is known as the Harrison organ, the name of the maker, although the authorities may have since agreed to a request that the original name be re-adopted.

During the pre-war years Tryphena’s son John had joined the Territorial Army. When the war began he was a lieutenant in the North Somerset Yeomanry. The regiment was sent to Palestine where John’s unit was transferred to Z Force. He served with a New Zealand Army Survey Unit through the campaigns in Greece, Crete and Egypt, first with the rank of Captain and later promoted to Major. Following the victories in Egypt his unit was stationed in Cairo. On September 2nd, 1941, on leave in Mersah Matruh, John was drowned while swimming in the sea.

After the war, having lost both husband and son, Tryphena went back to her family in Indiana, but she often returned to visit the orphanage in Kent. She lived with her sister until Alice’s death in 1961 and then moved to Carmel, California where she ended her days. She died in 1971 at the age of ninety-four. She had never forgotten her beloved William and today just two miles from Halsway Manor in Bicknoller churchyard, beneath a memorial cross, her ashes lie beside him, “united now for all time.”

Next The War Years and After