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Conrad Fulke O'Brien-ffrench. Artist and Spy.

The early years.

"The beauty of Villa Torlonia had but one true conveyance and that was the soul of the beholder. It could not be caught by words alone. Deep in the woods in a land as yet undisturbed......."
                                                                              Conrad dm p11

Villa Torlonia


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)


The ffrenches were never to be dissuaded by the prospect of attendant danger if their mind was set, a trait Conrad inherited with aces. 


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)


This 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 GardensBrighton. 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.


When 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 LakeSaskatchewan. 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.


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