The Villa Torlonia, a former ducal residence of imposing terraces and sunken gardens, was the idyll where Conrad lived his first eight years. His grandfather, Acheson Ffrench, had once visited the area while
on the Grand Tour in 1834. Conrad remembers stories of Brigands terrorizing the local populace told to him by his grandfather
over the large kitchen grate. An entry in his grandfather’s diary reads:
"Well, thank God. I have passed the most dangerous road today without molestation. Before I started
from Rome numerous friends endeavoured to dissuade me from making the journey on
foot owing to the likely attack from brigands....." (DM p. 9)
ffrenches were never to be dissuaded by the prospect of attendant danger if their mind was set, a trait Conrad inherited with
His father, Harry, was in his element. He became an
active participant in Roman Society. The Villa Torlonia was the scene of many lavish parties and was visited by the great
and good of Rome and "princes of the Church and members of foreign nobility" (DM p. 10).
Conrad’s mother, on the other hand, was not a wholehearted participant in these events.
She wished for peace and tranquility and the opportunity to enjoy these romantic environs with her beloved husband. But there
were times when these two worlds coincided and Conrad recalls blissful summer evenings when the scented air was filled with
strains of piano music from the drawing room.
“I could hear my
father at the piano within, his touch strong and resonant. Having finished a Schumann arabesque he would accompany my mother
in some Mendelssohn songs, her voice not strong but true." (DM p. 11)
rarefied and essentially privileged lifestyle contrasted darkly with the spectacle of the beggars in their abjection and the
sight of overburdened beasts being driven mercilessly by "ignorant peasants" along the sunken road of the Grotto Ferret overlooked
to the north. These earliest recollections illustrate, perhaps, the beginnings of Conrad’s ethical life-view and the
societal orbit which was to make him such a consummate master of infiltration and intelligence gathering: Conrad was to play
the role of wealthy playboy and sportsman. These early impressions and experiences already prefigure the realm he was to inhabit
for King and country.
This idyllic life was to end when, for the sake of their
children's education, the ffrenches moved to Florence. They lived in a house called the Piazza della Indipendenza close to an elementary
school run by a Mr Begg. Conrad’s education began with tutored tours of Florence’s
galleries and Cathedral. However, as his brother, Rollo, was coming of school age, this formative interlude was
soon over. There followed the inevitable return to Britain so
that Conrad and Rollo, now 8 and 9 respectively, could begin their studies in earnest. The family moved into a large house
in Sussex Square Gardens, Brighton. Their school, the Rostellan, was just across the square. Soon afterward, Winnifred
Ffrench, a devout Protestant, decided to have Conrad’s infant sister, Yvonne, baptized into this faith. The upshot was
that his father left. Conrad was never to know the full reasons for the departure, but he tells of his father becoming very
angry – he “picked up his hat and walked out of the house never to return." During these upheavals Conrad looked
to Rollo for support. Soon he was to join him at The Wick Prepatory School in neighbouring Hove. Conrad, never the
natural academic, did badly and suffered emotionally because of it. Rollo, who was the opposite and enjoyed success in his
studies, helped Conrad, who, in turn, grew more devoted to him.
The family moved again – to Montpellier Hall in Brighton, a property owned
by an aunt, which, although not as grand as the Square, was large and comfortable. It was here that Conrad met Mr Nye, a retired
coal merchant who lived next door. Mr Nye was Master and huntsman of the Brighton Foot Beagles. "It was then,” Conrad
writes, “I awoke to the instinct of the hunt." He was soon a member of the hunting fraternity and wore his hunt button
with pride on his new tweed jacket. His early teens were caught up in country pursuits and soon he had his own dog –
a Cocker Spaniel, Nell – a ferret, Tino, and, later, Boxer – a Springer Spaniel. He followed his new interests
with a passion; he had truly found a role he felt at home in.
Rollo left the Wick school, he was sent as a boarder to Wellington College. Conrad, however, did not follow him. Instead of an academic boarding school, Conrad went to Bradley Court an Agricultural College in the Forest of Dean nearGloucester. In his second year, he became a junior member of the Ledbury Fox Hounds, the
Master being none other than his mothers’ cousin, George Thursby. Conrad was an enthusiastic huntsman and it became
an abiding pastime throughout his life. The hunt scene was the exclusive territory of the established order in Britain. Stewart Menzies was a keen huntsman and, to some extent, ran his secret service from atop a hunter
in the field. What more private a place can one imagine for secrets to be exchanged?
Just after his sixteenth birthday, Conrad was summoned to the Headmaster’s office. Rollo was dead.
An accident during a game of football at Wellington had cost him his life. It was a devastating blow. He left Bradley and
began to study practical farming nearby in the Evesham Valley. Conrad’s mother moved to Folkestone, and while visiting her at Easter 1910, Conrad was out on the cliffs
one day chasing rabbits with Nell when he met a retired Canadian Rancher from Buffalo Lake, Saskatchewan. He told Conrad about the wild frontier and suggested joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The spark of adventure
was ignited. And, thus, in the April of 1910, and aged just seventeen, Conrad boarded the liner Empress of Britain for Quebec and thence overland to Buffalo Lake and a new life in the Mounties.