For over a dozen years, I did some work for the Publications Department of the British Museum, involved in the sale and distribution of their exhibition catalogues to the UK book trade. The Museum’s programme was slowly improving at the time, and they were beginning to produce exhibitions that were firing the general public’s imagination, although they were still a long way from repeating the truly blockbuster Tutankhamen exhibition of 1972. Then an exhibition opened which proved to be a turning point in many people’s appreciation of history. Agatha Christie and Archaeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia opened in November 2001, presenting a fascinating look at the life of one of the world's most popular writers who had also become an accomplished Egyptologist.
Agatha Christie, author of 66 novels under that name, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World's Bestselling Author of all time.
Her books have sold over 4 billion copies in 103 languages, and royalties still bring in about £2½ million a year, over thirty years since she died. Her novel, And Then There Were None, has sold over 100 million copies, making it the best-selling mystery novel ever.
Her books have become the epitome of the country house murder mystery, reflecting a lifestyle she knew well, having been born Agatha Miller in 1890 into a wealthy upper-middle-class family with an impressive estate in Devon. This was reinforced when her older sister, Madge, eleven years her senior, married James Watts, an extremely successful textile merchant in Manchester.
Watts lived at Abney Hall in Cheadle, Cheshire, a grand structure with landscaped gardens that told of the wealth of its creator, Alfred Orell, a former mayor of Stockport and cotton magnate.
Abney Hall was built in 1847 as a private home, with interiors dating from the 1850s designed and decorated by Pugin and Crace, the most fashionable interior designers of the time.
By the late 1850s, Abney Hall was ready to play host to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, during a two-day visit to Manchester, and was described as 'one of the most princely mansions in the neighbourhood'.
Subsequently, many famous people stayed at Abney including King Edward VII, Benjamin Disraeli, E.M. Forster and Gladstone.
Christie visited Abney frequently, and, not very surprisingly, she fell in love with the estate. It created a secret hide-away for the publicity-shy author, and she used the house, grounds and the nearby village of Cheadle as locations for her work. It provided a basis for Chimneys, a country house and seat of the fictional Marquesses of Caterham, in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. Many references to various places around Cheadle can be found in her books, Abney becoming Agatha's greatest inspiration for country-house life, with all the servants and grandeur which have been woven into her plots.
The descriptions of the fictional Styles, Chimneys, Stoneygates and the other houses in her stories are mostly Abney in various forms. Many references to various places around Cheadle can be found in her books. It appears as Rutherford Hall in 4.50 from Paddington, and in After the Funeral, it is described as ‘a proper old mausoleum'. It masquerades as ‘Stonygates’ in They Do It With Mirrors, where it's dismissed as a ‘sort of Gothic monstrosity, best Victorian Lavatory period' with its ‘quantities of rooms, passages, unexpected steps, back staircases, front staircases, alcoves and hidden niches'.It was Abney Hall that inspired Agatha's first novel — The Mysterious Affair at Styles — in which it vied for attention with the first appearance of her Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie spent many years at Abney and often walked around the Abney estate, quite often resting on the horizontal growing trunk of a large pine tree, now referred to as Agatha’s tree, pencilling stories later to be published.
She created her imaginary world by talking through all the characters, going over and over plots while walking in the Abney Hall estate, and her writing developed from conversations she held with her characters.
Agatha Christie's daughter, Rosalind, was born in Cheadle in 1919, and spent many of her early years with her uncle James and aunty Madge at Abney Hall.
In 1930, Agatha Christie published Murder at the Vicarage, introducing her new sleuth, Miss Marple, who was inspired by her grandmothers, but was named after Jane, a local friend who lived in Cheadle.
Agatha Christie died on 12th January 1976, aged 86, but her spirit lives on in and around Abney Hall and Cheadle.
Agatha Christie originally became interested in archaeology on a visit to the site of Ur (in modern Iraq) in 1928. It was at Ur that she met her future second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and became involved in excavation of the sites in Iraq and Syria that were to make his name.