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History of Greenway

Part of a frieze painted around the top of the walls in the library at Greenway in 1944 when the house was requisitioned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The murals depict incidents which occurred during the journey the men took to get to Greenway. They were painted by Lt Marshall Lee.
Frieze in the Library at Greenway. | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Greenway became Agatha Christie’s beloved family holiday home in the late 1930s. Discover more about Agatha’s childhood, her world travels, how she came to purchase the property on the edge of the River Dart and how the house was used during the Second World War.

Childhood of Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie (née Miller) was born in Torquay in 1890 and grew up there in a Victorian mansion called Ashfield. As a local girl, Agatha enjoyed all aspects of an English Riviera social life: roller-skating along the pier; going to dances, dinners and balls; and bathing in the sea.

Agatha at Greenway

Agatha bought Greenway in 1938, with the proceeds of her bestselling detective novels and the sale of her childhood home in Torquay. She couldn't resist buying Greenway, a place she had known about since childhood.

'A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees - the ideal house, a dream house'

- Agatha Christie

View of the River Dart with boats on the water from the garden in spring at Greenway, Devon
View of the River Dart from Greenway's garden | © National Trust Images / Chris Lacey

Agatha's family holiday home

Agatha and her second husband, Max Mallowan, soon became very attached to the place, and used it as their holiday home. Agatha’s husband was an archaeologist so was frequently abroad completing archaeological digs including across Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Having Greenway as a base to spend time with family and friends made this a special place to return to.

Second World War at Greenway

Family time at Greenway was interrupted by the Second World War. It was first requisitioned and used to provide a safe place for child evacuees. It was used again from 1944 to 1945 by the U.S. Coast Guard.

You can see evidence of the Coast Guard's occupation of Greenway in the Library. A decorative frieze was painted by Lieutenant Marshall Lee who was a graphic artist.

Returning to Greenway

The house was unexpectedly decommissioned and returned to Agatha on Christmas Day 1945. She was pleased to see that little damage had been done but was somewhat surprised to find the 'graffiti' left in the Library.

The commander wrote to Agatha offering to have ‘the fresco’ painted out and, as her autobiography records, she hurriedly wrote back that ‘it would be an historic memorial and I was delighted to have it’.

Literary riches at Greenway

The house contains many items collected by the family including first editions of Agatha’s novels. There are also many copies of her books translated into foreign languages, which shows her worldwide appeal. The family’s large collection of over 5,000 books are mainly displayed and stored in the library.

Greenway’s global connections

Agatha Christie went on many trips abroad over her life, especially with her second husband Max Mallowan. Greenway became a treasure trove of objects from their world travels. These include objects from around what was the British Empire and archaeological remains from the couple’s expeditions to Iraq and Syria.

While Greenway was given to the National Trust in 2000, the house and collections didn’t pass into the Trust’s management for several years. We’re working to understand the original significance and provenance of much of its collection.

A tour of the British Empire

Agatha’s longest journey abroad was when she accompanied her first husband, Archie Christie, on a promotional tour ahead of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. The exhibit was intended to stimulate the economic recovery of the British Empire after the First World War.

The Christies were part of a delegation drumming up interest for the event in South Africa, Australia, the Pacific Islands and Canada in 1922. Archie was responsible for financial affairs and Agatha joined him primarily to enjoy the 10-month trip.

A dresser covered in collection items including a skull jar at Greenway in Devon
Dresser of collection items at Greenway | © National Trust Images / Nadia Mackenzie

Agatha on tour

She later recalled a typical day in Australia: ‘[Archie was] busy putting forth the claims of the British Empire, migration within the Empire, the importance of trade within the Empire, and so on and so forth, [while] I was allowed to spend a happy day sitting in the orange groves’.

According to Agatha’s autobiography, while she made the most of the natural beauty the tour offered, most of their time was dominated by the company of colonial administrators.

However, the presence of artefacts from African and Pacific Island cultures that are now found at Greenway suggests a deeper curiosity about the places she visited, whether on the 1922 tour or later travels.

On the Orient Express

Agatha travelled to West Asia regularly from the late 1920s to 1950s. The first of these trips was a solo trip to Baghdad on the Orient Express in 1928.

She went to escape the turmoil of the breakdown of her marriage to Archie, and ended up discovering inspiration for one of her best-known novels, Murder on the Orient Express. She also discovered an intense interest in the region’s history.

Travels to Iraq and Syria

Iraq was under British administration at the time, although Agatha now deliberately avoided what she had come to regard as the suffocating social life of colonial bureaucrats. Instead, she travelled as an anonymous private tourist, keen on sightseeing and shopping.

While passing through Syria, she was struck by the quality of the decorative arts and bought an elaborate chest of drawers, inset with mother-of-pearl, while in Damascus. This chest of drawers can now be seen inside Greenway House.

An interest in archaeology

Agatha’s fascination with the excavation of ancient sites led to friendships with British archaeologists active in the region. This is how she met and eventually married her second husband Max in 1930. From that time on, she joined her husband on digs, where she would both work on her novels and also clean and document their discoveries.

Unique finds weren’t allowed to leave Iraq, but so many multiples were unearthed that the couple were able to build their own collection at home. These remain at Greenway to this day and include a clay tablet with cuneiform writing excavated by Max in West Asia, which is now set into an outside wall at Greenway.

Politics and conflict

In her autobiography and writings, Agatha only referred in passing to the complex political context of these expeditions. However, violent conflicts caused by European colonial interests and differences between the people of the region determined the location and timing of the digs. These moved between Ur and Nineveh in Iraq, and Tell Halaf and Tell Brak in Syria.

During the Second World War, Britain was at war with its former Mandate of Iraq and Agatha and Max’s excavations ceased altogether.

International influences at Greenway

Greenway House is full of items Agatha collected from her years of travels around the world

Sherds and other small items found in one of Agatha and Max's archaeological dig in Syria in 1938, now found at Greenway, Devon
Sherds from an archaeological dig in Syria, at Greenway | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

Ancient temple ceramics

Agatha and Max made significant new discoveries on their digs in Syria. These ceramic pieces and other items were found in a buried temple at Tell Brak in 1938 and date from about 3500 BC.

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Contemporary views on Agatha's world

Agatha’s life spanned a period of extraordinary change in Britain’s position in the world. When she was born in 1890, the British Empire was still expanding, but by the time she died in 1976 most of its territories had gained independence.

Agatha's views on the Empire

The famous author was an eyewitness to British government abroad throughout this changing time. However, she never explicitly expressed her views on imperial rule in her biographical writings.

Similarly, her popular fiction didn’t set out to influence or comment explicitly on the question of the Empire. Often set in a plausible version of Agatha’s own world, her novels and characters still give voice to stereotypes and everyday prejudices about race, class and imperial rule.

Agatha Christie books and films today

Some language that was unremarkable in the imperial context of Agatha’s youth is unprintable today. New editions of her books have been amended and remain extremely popular.

Likewise, in the most recent film adaptations, casting and script decisions have deliberately sought to redress racial and social imbalances in their source material.

Historical context

At the same time, a century after the publication of Agatha’s first novel, the original editions are now being studied by academics as important evidence of changing attitudes to the British Empire in the 20th century.

As we deepen our understanding of Agatha’s world collections, we hope that Greenway will also offer ways to reflect on the profound global transformation she witnessed.

A tree-lined path leads to Greenway House in Devon, the white exterior Georgian house, with visitors walking outside the front.

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