The Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre
The West of England Chess Union’s annual jamboree has been held at the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre on the outskirts of Taunton for about a decade, with the host being Taunton Chess Club member, Martin Worrall, who also happens to be a technician at the centre.
I’ve often wondered about the origin of the name/s attached to the centre, though have never quite got round to enquiring about it, assuming that it was probably the surnames of a couple of town councillors – the mayor, perhaps, and some local community activist. However, this year I made a point of asking Martin about it and he drew my attention to a plaque in the corner of the foyer, which told a very different story. (see picture 1 below)
The name, in fact, refers to Mrs. Kathleen Tacchi-Morris who lived for 50 years at Long’s House, a rambling 17th century manor house in North Curry, just 5 miles east of Taunton, until her death in 1993. In their later years she and her husband had set up a trust fund to be used in the promotion of peace and harmony throughout the world. In 1999 the trust donated £1 million, together with a £2.1 million grant from the Arts Council, to create the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre.
Yet behind this bald fact lies a story of an extraordinary life lived by an extraordinary lady from an exotic family. She was born in 1899 in Johannesburg, the eldest of five children to Percy George Tacchi and his wife, Rebecca Kathleen. Although both Londoners, Percy and Rebecca met in South Africa, where Percy was working as an engineer in the goldfields and Rebecca was training to be a doctor, as there was little chance of that happening in England at the time. After they got to know each other, Percy contracted typhoid and as Rebecca nursed him back to health they fell in love and got married. Shortly after Kathleen was born the combination of life in the goldfields and the Boer War decided the young family to return to the UK.
Percy continued as an inventor, specialising in wheeled vehicles. While in South Africa he had set up a small company, Tacchi and Wright, building bicycles for the indigenous populace. Back in England he developed the first 4-cylinder motorcycle for Wilkinsons. (see picture 2 below).
By this time, Kathleen was 10 years old and attending a school from which she was expelled for organising a pupils’ strike against the excessive corporal punishment that went on there. She was then sent to a boarding school in Manchester and got expelled from there as well after just four weeks, for complaining about the treatment of girls. From then on any education was received at home and was somewhat ad hoc. They lived in semi-rural Acton at this time, where they had a house built in Nemours Road.
In the meantime four siblings arrived on the scene; in order of age they were Percy George junior, Mercia Olga, Maurice Phoebus and Ruby.
Her father was a socialist and a member of the Fabian Society, taking Kathleen to all their meetings, where she got to know many of the founding members, including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Annie Besant (future President of the Indian National Congress), Leonard & Virginia Woolf, the Pankhursts and Sidney & Beatrice Webb.
She also went to ballet lessons from an early age, before getting her first paid employment in a drapers shop in Leytonstone at 12½p per week. She spent WW1 at the Hotel Cecil, the HQ of the Air Force doing not a lot, as she confessed. After the war, most women workers had to give up their day jobs to make way for the returning soldiers and Kathleen had to scratch around for work. She phoned around numerous firms saying she’d heard they needed someone in the office, which of course they didn’t. One company challenged her by asking where did you hear that story from? Kathleen took up the challenge by going round to see the person she’s spoken to and on meeting her, gave her a job immediately. It was with a film-making company in Wardour St. and she was suddenly mixed up in the world of film people, socialising with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. She had small parts in a few films utilising her dancing skills, including Coming Through The Rye, a 1923 silent film starrng Alma Taylor and Ralph Forbes, and Men Are Not Gods (1936) directed by Alexander Korda. (see pictures 3 & 4 below).
Her film colleagues urged her to push harder for a foot up the ladder to stardom, which undoubtedly she could have done, but dancing was in her blood, not acting. Partly to escape the cinema circus and to concentrate on the dance she went to Paris in 1922 enrol at the Jacques-Dalcroze school.
Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865 – 1950) was a Swiss composer, musician and music educator who developed eurhythmics, a method of learning and experiencing music through movement. Turning the body into a well-tuned musical instrument, Dalcroze felt, was the best path for generating a solid, vibrant musical foundation. The 57 yr old composer was smitten with his young student and regularly took her to the Paris Opéra where she met the likes of Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan and Picasso, who used to do their décor. Kathleen wasn’t entirely convinced with all of Dalcroze’s techniques but was able to adapt them to her own needs. (see pictures 5 & 6 below)
On returning to England she trained groups of dancers who performed at the Hammersmith Palais and the Victoria Palace. In the early thirties there were trips to Antibes where she got mixed up in the Edward and Mrs. Simpson affair. Then in 1936 she married Walter Allan Stagg (1903 – 1984) an Equipment Officer in the RAF. They bought a house in North Curry before Stagg was posted to Malta. Kathleen quickly came to hate her lot, as her efforts to start a children’s dance school were forbidden by the rule that forces personnel should not fraternise with the locals. She gave her husband the ultimatum “Leave the forces or I will leave you – your choice”. He stayed on, Malta took an almighty pounding by the Luftwaffe throughout the war, and he went on to become one of the RAF’s top brass, being awarding the CBE in the Queen’s Coronation honours.
Kathleen went back to their house in North Curry, a village she had come to love in her short time there. She met Richard Rodham Morris (1903 – 88) who came from a long line of auctioneers and estate agents, stretching back in North Curry throughout the 19th century. They married in Exeter in 1945, much against the wishes of his wider family, who were all country Conservatives, while she was cast as a communist atheistic free-thinker. Yet the marriage worked well enough, as “Rod” was in awe of her energy and enthusiasm and just let her get on with whatever she wanted to do.
First of all she sacked all the servants at Longs House and turned over the vacated rooms and outhouses to her pet projects – initially looking after the local mothers of black children who’d been abandoned by their families and US fathers. There were also German Jewish refugees. A large barn was converted into a theatre and Lydia Sokolova from the Diaghilev ballet came down and taught ballet while Kathleen taught eurhythmics.
This went on until 1950 when her life took an unexpected twist, best told in her own words.
“It was an accident really, because I’d had three operations on my hip. I went to lecture on eurhythmics in Bradford and was staying there with friends. There was a newspaper on the breakfast table saying something about a conference on peace in Sheffield. I said “D’you know, I’d like to go to that. “Well let’s go”. I wasn’t allowed in as I hadn’t got a pass, but I waited outside. The doors opened and I could see Picasso on the platform. I thought ‘Goodness gracious me!’ So I wrote a note on the back of an old envelope in my handbag saying ‘Tacchi’s outside – please can she come in?’ I gave it to a policeman and said ‘Would you take that to Picasso?’ He said ‘Who’s Picasso?’ I said ‘He’s the second on the left.’ Picasso said ‘Of course, bring her in!’ So I went in and found myself sitting on the platform, and that was the beginning.
“The place was packed with people; well-known people, writers and all sorts. It was terrific. I said to Picasso, ‘Why aren’t the women in this as well?’ He said ‘Well do something about it’ and I said ‘All right, I will’. He said ‘Promise you will?’ I said ‘Yes’. He said ‘We’re asked to shift this whole thing to Warsaw and I can’t go. Will you go there for me?’ I said ‘I’ve only got ten shillings on me’. I sent a telegram to my husband, saying ‘I’m going to Warsaw’. He sent one back saying ‘I take a dim view of this’, but I took no notice, I just went.’ ….. When I saw the ruins of Warsaw and heard the story of their suffering, I knew that the rest of my life would be devoted to the struggle for peace.’
She founded the organisation Women for World Disarmament which she ran tirelessly until 1987.
In the 1950s her parents came down to live with her. Percy had all the space he needed for his workshops, while Rebecca died there just a few days short of her 100th birthday.
During 1987 she was involved in setting up the trust whereby, after their death, the house and grounds could become an international centre for youth, to promote peace. Also that year, she arranged for her Women for World Peace organisation to be merged with the Campaign for World Disarmament, which allowed her to retire. Rod died in January 1988 aged 85 and she died 5 years later aged 94. (see picture 7 below)
A much fuller account of her remarkable life story may be found in the book Women Remember – An Oral History (Routledge 1989) by Anne Smith, from which I have tried to extract the essence and combine it with other material available on-line. She also wrote a short autobiography entitled I Promised Picasso. Although it was never published there is a typescript version archived in the Somerset Heritage Centre, Brunel Way, Langford Mead, Norton Fitzwarren, Taunton, TA2 6SF. This is kept with her many other papers relating to her long and active life.
It’s not clear whether the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre is exactly what she had in mind when she made her original legacy plans, though it teaches dance and drama, both dear to her heart. In any case, far from being a white elephant, it is a successful venture with increasing activity year on year, with, for example, the number of technicians required to service it all up from the original 2 to 5.
She would be amused to think that the warfare that is chess is strictly of the non-violent kind, and so accords with her precepts.