Remembering Malta Cottage and Ada Reeve
Malta Cottage, Halletts Shute, Norton, Freshwater, was once a small thatched cottage, but had been enlarged several times over its lifetime, particularly at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1912, at the height of her fame, Ada Reeve, an actress, singer and comedienne, bought the cottage, modernised it and added another wing. This house was later incorporated into the Savoy Holiday Camp in 1937 and became known as The Mansion.
Ada Reeve, actress, singer and comedienne (1874–1966). Ada bought Malta Cottage in 1912 and lived there during WW1. (Left, postcard by J. Beagles & Co., London; right, plate from Ada’s autobiography)
Ada Reeve was born in East London in 1874 and was the eldest child of a minor theatrical family. Her father was an actor and her mother had been a dancer. Ada was just four years old when she made her theatrical debut in the pantomime Red Riding Hood. Throughout the rest of her childhood she performed in many pantomimes and stage plays. When she was 14, her father became ill and she began working longer hours as a music-hall performer to support her parents and 11 brothers and sisters. She found immediate success as a comedienne and singer. By the time she was 23 she was performing to packed houses in Britain and abroad, including Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, South Africa and India.
Ada married an actor in 1894 and had two daughters but the marriage turned sour and they divorced in 1900. In 1902 she married Wilfred Cotton, a manager and actor from Birmingham. They purchased Malta Cottage in Norton, Isle of Wight, in September 1912 for around £2,000. At that time it was still a thatched cottage, in parts over 400 years old. Ada explained with regret in her autobiography (Take it for a Fact, published in 1954) that she had the roof stripped and tiled, and the original stone-flagged kitchen floored with parquet and turned into a billiard room. She added a new wing with up-to-date kitchen and pantry and a roof-garden overhead. A spacious balcony ran around the first floor, giving views over the Solent. The extensive alterations cost £3,000 and it wasn’t until autumn 1913 that the house was ready to move into with Wilfred and her two teenage daughters. Ada loved the house and described it as one of the greatest joys of her life.
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During WW1, Ada used her fame to raise funds to help those affected by the war, putting on variety shows in aid of ‘Our Blinded Heroes’, the Red Cross and other good causes. She also entertained injured troops in the military hospitals and camps.
When in London, she sang at the Anzac Buffet. She felt sorry for the Australian and New Zealand soldiers suffering from their injuries in a hospital ward far from friends and relatives. She wanted to give the men better memories of their time in England, so she suggested that convalescent Anzacs, in batches of not more than ten at a time, should be sent down to Malta Cottage to rest and recuperate for two or three weeks before sailing for home. Ada had not forgotten the hardships of her early life and being the main breadwinner for her large family. Now that she could afford to have a more comfortable home life, she was pleased to be able to share it with those who were less privileged.
The first half dozen soldiers to arrive at Malta Cottage had each lost a limb at Gallipoli. One of these was Private Louis Murphy, known as ‘Spud’. He had left Sydney with the 1st Battalion and was a bandsman and stretcher-bearer. On his return to Australia, he wrote a letter to the Sydney Sun in appreciation of his time at Malta Cottage:
‘We were met by motor-car at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, and were driven to Miss Reeve’s beautiful home, Malta Cottage. What a welcome we received! We were their guests for 15 days, and had the time of our lives. They even had the barber up from the village every morning to shave us. In the very beautiful grounds, which comprise a glorious flower-garden, bowling-green, and tennis and croquet lawns, we were as happy as bees. Life was indeed all honey. The whole family gave themselves up to our happiness and enjoyment while we were under their roof. Every night Ada sang to us all our favourite songs. Every day she whisked us round the Island in an open touring car. Oh, we had a gay, lovely life at Malta Cottage, and it was worth while going through Gallipoli for the joy of it all.’
An account in the Isle of Wight County Press for 18th September 1915 describes Ada’s performance at Yarmouth Castle for the sailors stationed there:
‘MISS ADA REEVE ENTERTAINS THE SAILORS.—There was another delightful concert at the Sailors’ Club at the Castle on Wednesday for the sailors on the station and their wives and families. Miss Ada Reeve, with a professional gentleman friend, and four wounded Australians who are staying with her at Malta Cottage, attended, and a very enjoyable time was spent. Miss Ada Reeve sang a number of songs, much to the delight of the audience, and her friend and one of the wounded Australians were amongst those who contributed to the programme in the most entertaining way.’
Ada also toured foreign lands, including Egypt, India and Australia, to help raise the spirits of the Allied troops. Her concerts were gratefully received and she became known as ‘Anzac Ada’ and ‘the Soldiers’ Friend’.
Being such a global star, Ada was not often at home after the war and she first let Malta Cottage and then sold it in July 1920. The house had several more owners, including the 2nd Viscount Rothermere, before being purchased by the Savoy Hotel and Holiday Camp in 1937.
In 1953, at the age of 79, Ada was on holiday on the Isle of Wight and went back to see the house. Her autobiography describes this visit: ‘Now it is a holiday camp for working-class people. The lovely grounds are dotted with small huts accommodating two or three persons each, and the fountain where I was photographed in the centre of a group of ‘Diggers’ is now dry. It was sad in a way to see my beautiful home disfigured; and yet I feel that the tradition of Malta Cottage is being carried on, since it is giving pleasure to many people who would not otherwise have a chance of seeing these delightful surroundings.’
The Mansion at the entrance to the Savoy Holiday Camp, c. 1985.
The holiday camp-style holidays of the 1940s to 1960s gradually declined in popularity as travel abroad became less expensive, and from 2006 the move was made to convert the old holiday camp site to a four-star luxury self-catering village. The old chalets were gradually replaced with luxury ‘New England’-style houses and bungalows. In 2009, the Savoy Holiday Camp was renamed the West Bay Club. Malta Cottage and its coach house didn’t fit into the new club setup and the old buildings were deteriorating. In 2012, an application was made to demolish Malta Cottage and its various extensions known as ‘The Mansion’. A heritage assessment was carried out on the buildings but since Malta Cottage had been altered many times during its lifetime and lacked architectural coherence, it was not considered worth saving. In 2014, it was replaced with seven New England-style houses.
The ‘New England’-style houses that have replaced The Mansion (formerly Malta Cottage); West Bay Club, Norton. (Photo taken April 2015)