With the Centenary of publication of Bram Stokers “Dracula” in May 1897, Jonathan Catton who used to work for Thurrock Borough Council’s Thurrock Museum, based in Grays, investigated the connection.
Many of the locals know the story of Dracula and its connection to him. In fact, a house named ‘Carfax’ (to which Count Dracula was supposedly transported in 50 boxes of earth from his Transylvanian Castle), was still standing up to the late 1980’s, in High Road, close to the Thames Board Mills factory site. However, this ‘Carfax’ house was a red-bricked and tiled building built probably in December 1900, some three years after the publication in May 1897 of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. A sales catalogue for 1920 describes it as a ‘Modern house’. This hardly fits the description of Jonathan Harker, the solicitors clerk arranging the house sale for his client Dracula: “The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say to medieval times”. So, are there any other contenders for Dracula’s Carfax House?
The only ‘large’ and ‘old’ house in the village is in fact ‘Purfleet House’, built in 1791 by Samuel Whitbread of brewing fame, who purchased a large part of Purfleet and lived here at that time. The house is set in the remains of what appears to be the nearest part to the river, of an exhausted chalk quarry, to the north and rear of the house were gardens with paths and grottoes which appear to be a feature of attractions available to the Victorian tourist in the village. Access was available by key from the head gardener, possibly for a small donation!
The house was built with a detached Chapel of Ease for the Whitbread family, so Jonathan Harker’s description of the house which includes, “..is close to an old chapel or church,” fits in nicely with the description.
Stone wall and Landscape Settings
Finally, a description is made of the settings around the house; “It contains in all some 20 acres, quite surrounded by solid stone walls….. There are many trees on it, which makes it look gloomy, and there is a deep, dark looking lake, evidently fed by some springs, as the water is clear and flows away in a fair-sized stream.”. Photographs of Edwardian date show heavily wooded areas, within and around the old chalk quarries of 16th century origin. By Victorian times, they had re-seeded and have mature trees and bushes growing in and around the steep cliff faces of the redundant quarries.
A small section of stone wall survives near to the site of Purfleet House. However, after it was sold in 1920 and during its part-demolition, much material was recycled into the current St. Stephen’s Church, which now stands in the grounds. Perhaps more of this wall existed originally around the house. Here also were to be found the pleasant paths leading up to beacon hill and the site of an Admiralty experimental light house station and panoramic views of the Thames valley, to the west London and the east to Gravesend in Kent, which were much used and appreciated by the visitors to Victorian Purfleet.
The mention of a ‘lake’ would also fit into this area. Chalk extraction, which had been undertaken for several hundred years in the area had probably cut down into the lower levels of chalk and into a water table, in the same way as the appropriately named modern “Lakeside” Shopping Centre, sited in the bottom of the Tunnel Cement chalk quarry has, with its own lake.
Finally, close by is the Mardyke stream which, having risen in the Bulphan fens, flows finally into the Thames, just to the west of the village, adjacent to the Royal Gunpowder Magazines. Although not connected to chalk, it would have been flowing with clean, fresh water.
The Lunatic Asylum House
The final part of the description remarks on other buildings nearby to ‘Carfax’, “…. There are few houses close at hand, one being a large house only recently added to and formed into a private lunatic asylum. It is not however visible from the grounds.”
The Private Lunatic Asylum, I believe, could be identified as ‘Ordnance House’, the Board of Ordnances’ storekeeper’s residence. This was set within the high brick security wall of the magazine system, which proved and stored the majority of gunpowder for the Army and Sea Services from 1760 onwards. The house was constructed of brown brick, with double Portland stone used for the cornices and parapets. The entrance door had eave architraves and above was a quarter foiled fanlight, and the building was completed in 1767. As Purfleet House is set in the bottom of a chalk quarry in close proximity to the west and north of a rising cliff face, and Ordnance House is beyond and on top of the chalk hill, behind high brick security walls, they cannot be seen from each other although only some 400 yards separate them.
High Brick Walls
The story tells of the lunatic Renfield’s escape, trying to gain access to the Chapel of Carfax House. Dr. Seward saw, “a white figure scale the high wall which separates our grounds from those of the deserted house’. (Carfax). In following the escaped lunatic, Dr. Seaward describes how he, ” got a ladder myself, and crossing the wall, dropped down on the other side”. These could easily describe the solid 10′ high brick military boundaries around the gunpowder magazine.
So, there seem to be a number of buildings and landscapes which could relate to the story, but why Purfleet? Did Stoker ever visit the area?
Purfleet in Victorian times
Purfleet, I discover, was something of a Victorian leisure attraction. Easy access by train from Fenchurch Street Station to Purfleet station, opened in 1856, allowed Londoners to experience the countryside and riverside pleasures at one resort. Wingrove’s Hotel at Purfleet, on the Thames waterfront, offered bathing facilities and amongst a wide range of gastronomic offerings were special whitebait suppers, entertainments, and accommodation for overnight stays. Nearby were scenic walks along paths cut through overgrown chalk quarries, with cliff faces and ledges leading up to Beacon Hill, with its panoramic views up and down the river.
Here could be found the Admiralty Experimental Light House. Walking back down into the sleepy village a number of tea rooms offered refreshments to the tourists, some of whom had come down by train to Purfleet Station from Fenchurch St, and others on Cycle Club outings or by ferry.
It appears that while Bram Stoker was Acting Manager of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London, he and his thespian friends would often travel out on Sundays, traditionally a black day for theatres, to visit friends and attractions outside of the capital. Stoker also extensively used published material of fact and fiction to build up the storylines. The use of train and ferry timetables in his Dracula novel gives some authenticity to the chronology and accuracy of day-to-day events. So, it is quite possible that Purfleet was visited by Stoker, and he could have obtained timetables from the London Tilbury Southend Railway for travel between Fenchurch Street. and Purfleet. It is also possible that he obtained tourist guidebooks of south Essex and even of Purfleet.
Having now toured Purfleet and consulted Ordnance Survey maps, local archives including a 1920s sale catalogue of the Purfleet estate, prints and photographs in Thurrock Museum’s collections and biographies on Stoker, I feel there are too many similarities between the book and the buildings, structures and landscape at Purfleet. I suggest that Stoker did visit Purfleet which allowed him to mix elements of fact with fiction. If only the visitors’ book of the Royal Hotel at Purfleet had survived from Victorian days, perhaps my quest would have been easier?
© Jonathan Catton. Thurrock Library Service. 2020. Images: Thurrock Library Services 2020.
The Backstage Centre published this article with the kind permission of Thurrock Council