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The Whittalls in Winter

Leaves from a family album

Yolande Whittall looks back at 1930s life in Moda, across the strait from the domes and minarets of Istanbul. In Grandmother Whittall’s garden, where the snow fell deep and crisp, tobogganing parties were laid on for the children. In the kitchen Christmas puddings were stirred, and shooting parties provided the wherewithall for woodcock pie…

Great-grandfather first made Moda his home when he settled in Constantinople in 1873 and founded JW Whittall & Co. Thus it became home to our grandparents and our parents, and then to us, too.

He built a large stone house which overlooked the sea to the skyline of old Stamboul, pierced and scalloped by minaret and mosque dome. He travelled to and from his office in a rowing boat. Later he journeyed to England to be knighted by Queen Victoria.

Great-grandfather’s descendants joined the firm and built houses in Moda of stone or wood. As children we romped through their gardens, some of which tumbled down to the sea. Many foreign traders lived in Moda in those days, the largest foreign community probably being the British. They brought football to Turkey and built a church in Moda. They also introduced the Christmas tree.

One summertime treat was to be rowed in the dark under the cliffs to catch crabs among the rocks by dazzling them with a carbide lamp. There was rowing and sailing in Moda Bey and across the bay, and swimming from the sandy beach of Kalamış.

In a good year for snow, there would be tobogganing. My father was born on November 11, 1896 and small guests at his birthday parties would be entertained with toboggan races down the road that sloped to Moda Pier. Fortunately no one tobogganed into the sea.

On my father’s eighth birthday, my grandfather gave him a gun and, two months later, in January 1905, took him and his younger brother to Alemdağ. Here my grandfather had built a house which in winter was used as a shooting box. It was painted red and called the Red House. The 15-mile journey from Moda, in a covered talika in pouring rain, took six hours because of the mud, and they arrived after dark. Next morning they awoke to find the countryside white with snow and the water in the house frozen. It snowed all day and night, until it lay some two feet deep. The woodcock, meanwhile, had flown to the coast. Grandfather determined to follow them, walking to Domali, a village on the Black Sea shore – nor an exercise for novices.

Two straw-filled panniers were slung over a horse. A child was put in each, wrapped in the straw, and two villagers led the horse to Moda, where the boys were reunited with their mother. Grandfather returned later, laden with four roe deer, two wild boar, 30 woodcock, three pheasant and one duck. The bekçi, or nightwatchman, walked round the house, winter and summer, beating the hours on a stone with a big stick. Grandfather lent him a few gold pounds to buy land when he went to his village to dispose of the harvest. There he died. In the spring, a small boy dressed in peasant clothes came to the house. Grandfather asked him what he wanted. ” I have come to repay my father’s debt to you,” he replied proudly. “I have no money, but I can work.”

His name was Kamil. He worked as assistant gardener, then as assistant cook, and rose to the rank of butler, in a boiled shirt. He ended his career as a broker in the family business, having bought a house and married a town girl far above his village status.

There were parties with a Christmas tree at the Kadıköy Institute, and as the Orthodox Christmas came later, the choir from the Greek Church joined the British community in carol singing.

After the First World War, because the roads to Alemdağ had deteriorated, Grandfather hired a lonely house, deep in a valley behind the Çamlica Hills, three miles in land from the Bosphorus’s eastern shore. He named it Greenroads.

Here Grandmother loved to come, collecting mushrooms, gathering wild flowers and making arrangements of dried flowers for the winter. In the sitting-room and kitchen, in open fireplaces, great logs of oak and beech burnt day and night.

Turkeys from upcountry would be brought to Moda, and in the spring, as they gobbled and fluttered and strutted along the streets, Grandmother would rush out and bargain with the drover as she chose two or three for fattening for the following Christmas.

On March 1, 1929, and for several days after, ice floes from Romania and Russia choked the Bosphorus for the first time since 1862. A man walked across the Straits from Europe to Asia.

As children, we would be taken down to the kitchen where Kamil’s nephew, Osman, that most excellent of excellent cooks, would give us a large spoon and we stirred the Christmas pudding and made our wishes. Puddings were also made for people like the Miss Lynes, daughters of the first custodian of the Crimean Cemetery. After Christmas they returned not only the pudding bowls but also the paper and string in which they had been wrapped.

Grandmother’s family was spread around the world and she would have written her letters to them before breakfast. Osman would come upstairs in the early mornings to discuss, in Greek, the day’s work and meals. From a recipe of my grandmother’s, Osman made a woodcock pie, unparalleled in the world of game pies, to be served at Christmas lunch between the soup and the turkey, with a woodcock’s little head and long beak stuck at each end.

At the end of Mektep Sokak in Moda is a small bakkal, a grocer’s shop. It was run by Halim and Seher. He had been Sir James Whittall’s gardener and she had worked with the family as a maid. Halim had once been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Eventually their nephew or adopted son took over and, with his wife and two daughters, lived above the shop. Once, in their tiny salon, they gave a luncheon party for members of the Whittall family still living in Moda. Today any of us on a visit is welcomed with hugs and kisses and invited in for tea or coffee. Seher was there to greet me this year, but Halim had died.

Today the only reminders of old Moda are the terebinth trees which hang forlornly over the cliffs, dwarfed and frowned upon by rows of flats which look down into their privacy.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 19

Buy the issue
Issue 19, 1999 Forgotten Riches
£12.00 / $15.33 / €14.20
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Buy the issue
Issue 19, 1999 Forgotten Riches
£12.00 / $15.33 / 495.16 TL
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