Call no man happy till you know his end.
Herodotus, The Histories, (440 BC)
The final chapter of this three-part trajectory of the life of my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton is, like most traditional stories, written to be read in a linear, chronological fashion. In the first part (see Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour) we saw how Herbert conquered the London stage and found his aristocratic bride. In the second (see The Lady and the Cowboy), we learned more about this relationship – which was not all it seemed – and about Herbert’s twin loves, namely America and racehorses. And now we arrive at the last act, where we will be able to judge Herbert’s life (if we so desire) in its entirety.
But the piecing together of this life story was anything but linear. If plotted out mathematically it would be a series of loops circling in on themselves, then out again, some wide, some tight. What I started with was the surprise find of a Rotary photograph of a young and handsome Herbert Sleath, then I moved straight on to applying for Herbert’s death certificate. After all, when someone dies at age 50 (even in 1921), there is always the questions of Why? and From what? This is not just to satisfy morbid curiosity: as I have discovered previously through my research, death often casts a backward shadow over life. To wit, the number of my London ancestors who died in late middle-age of bronchitis-related infections. (It is not necessary to be a medical practitioner to realise that this would have been to a large part due to the polluted air in the industrial working class suburbs of South London).
But to continue the story of Herbert Sleath-Skelton we must return to where we left off: when Herbert was a sprightly man-about-town, and the classic Edwardian gent. Throughout the 1910s, Herbert and his successful actress wife Ellis Jeffreys were to continue living in their rural idyll at Dormy Cottage, in Woking, and acting (often together) on the London stage. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. Several months later, when Herbert no doubt felt uncomfortable continuing in his present career while young men all around him left to do their duty (including his step-son, George Curzon), Herbert obtained a temporary commission as a lieutenant in the armoured car division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (conscription did not start until 1916, and then only to age 40). A grainy photograph from The Sketch in August 1915 shows Herbert in his uniform beside his armoured car, still looking relatively young and gallant at age 44.
Herbert Sleath-Skelton in August 1915
Herbert was to leave the Royal Navy Air Service shortly after this photograph was taken. This was due to the fact that the armoured car units were about to be handed over from the air force (then part of the navy) to the army, and it would seem that Herbert had to apply for a new commission. However, to complicate things further, Herbert had suffered a nervous collapse while under heavy shell fire at Loos in September 1915, and thus was also in need of a period of rest and recuperation.
Herbert eventually took up his new post in March 2016, but records show that his three month initial probationary period in the army did not go as intended. By June of that year, his behaviour was described by the Brigadier General as unsatisfactory: He (Herbert) seems to be careless and inefficient, and has shown no signs of improvement, although this was pointed out on several occasions. There has been great difficulty in getting him to understand the simplest orders, or obtaining any information from him about his section. His returns were often inaccurate and he had no idea how to select his N.C.O.s or organise his section. This certainly does not fit in with the portrait of Herbert that other records have helped to build up, and very much points to the fact that he was probably already suffering from the illness which was to kill him five years later.
Tellingly, it is also around this time that Herbert and Ellis’s lives seem to begin to diverge. Even though they were to keep the same official address at Dormy Cottage in Woking up until Herbert’s death (although typically Herbert also lists other addresses during the years from 1915 until his death), Ellis does not appear to be as involved in his life as much as previously (she is still acting on the stage throughout the war), and it is up to Herbert’s younger sister, Maude Beatrice, to intervene on her brother’s behalf when the War Office clamps down on Herbert’s further requests for sick leave and a pension at the time when his worsening illness makes him unfit for service. In addition, Herbert’s will (which was contested), written in July 1916, makes no mention of Ellis, but leaves all of his relatively meagre estate to his sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, making this the fourth inheritance she would receive in her lifetime (see The Fortunate Widow).
Finding the folder full of correspondence between Herbert, Maude and the War Office in the National Archives at Kew was somewhat of a breakthrough for me. I had first become aware of Herbert’s unusual death in 2012, and it wasn’t until slightly later that detailed records from the First World War began to be accessible to the general public. Every year, more and more of these documents became available for consultation, illuminating past mysteries with a few scraps of yellowing paper. And from the correspondence to which I was privy, I was finally able to create the link between Herbert’s old life on the stage to his last debilitating years.
From Herbert (and later Maude’s) letters to the War Office, Herbert’s physical and mental decline from 1915 onwards becomes more and more evident. Although he was put on sick leave again in the summer of 1916, he had to suffer the ignominy of ongoing medical tests and doctor’s reports (every three months) in order to continue being eligible for his army pay. At the end of 1916, he was described by a medical doctor as: Suffering from the effect of shell shock. He is an extremely nervous condition. Knee jerks are absent but there is a marked tremor of the tongue and fingers. He suffers from insomnia and has marked tachycardia (rapid heartbeat).
The following month, Herbert wrote to the War Office to ask if he could be officially invalided out of the army so that he would be able to take up civilian work (in order to have an income to live on). This letter is heart-breaking to read as Herbert’s writing had become more and more ‘jaggy’ and uneven, obviously the result of tremors in his hand. In addition, Herbert’s mental capacities also appear to be diminished as the letter rambles on rather illogically and is not consistent intellectually with his past endeavours as a successful actor-manager and astute businessman. Something was obviously very, very wrong.
And this is where two strands of my research start to meet and curl around each other in a most satisfying, although macabre, way. In 2012 I had been rather shocked to discover that Herbert had died in 1921 (at the age of 50) in an institution with the grim-sounding name of Holloway Sanatorium. Not only that, but the cause of death was given as General Paralysis of the Insane. In other words: late stage syphilis which had affected the brain. This was a disease that was not an uncommon cause of death in the pre-penicillin days, and actually merits its own Wikipedia page, here.
Another quick online search connected this disease to the institution: Holloway San was not quite the Swiss-type sanatorium I had imagined, but was a private ‘hospital for the insane’. Located in upmarket Virginia Water, Surrey, it had first opened its medieval-looking doors (albeit to the middle-classes) in 1885, offering a wide range of up-market facilities. Surprisingly, it survived for almost a full century as a lunatic asylum, later mental hospital (take your pick from either of these terribly un-PC names!), being taken over by the newly-formed NHS in 1948, although still continuing to care for some of the old, pre-war patients.
Holloway Sanatorium then (1884) and now (as Virginia Park)
This magnificent Victorian gothic building, was the brainchild – along with nearby Holloway College – of the wealthy philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune selling dubious cures for all-ills. In the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit of its benefactor, Holloway San was designed as an institution to cure those who wanted to help themselves. In other words, for fee-paying middle-class professionals who needed to ‘get better’ in order to take up the reins of their profession again. These patients were originally not expected to stay for longer than 12 months, and only curable cases were deemed to be accepted into the asylum. But these rules appear to have become more flexible over time, and thus by 1920, patients like Herbert, while less common, were not rejected.
I was lucky in that my initial research into Holloway Sanatorium led me to the case notes (currently being digitalised) of the asylum’s patients, most of which are held in the Surrey History Centre in Woking (others being kept at the Wellcome Library in London). And it was at the history centre, on a sunny day in early September 2012 that I was finally able to read the doctors’ reports on Herbert, detailing the eighteen months he had spent in the hospital up until his death. It had taken me three months to organise my visit, mainly due to the fact that that the period (1920-21) was not covered by the 100 year access rights, and thus I had to obtain special permission to view the records. My enquiries were handled by the extremely helpful head archivist, Julian Pooley, who is a passionate believer in the importance of local and social history, with a particular interest in Surrey’s mental hospitals and how such documents can help current mental health professionals. See a description of this research here.
Once I was able to ascertain by documentation that there were no living relatives of Herbert – I did fleetingly think of his step-grandson, Earl Howe, sitting in the House of Lords, but banished that thought as quickly as it had appeared – then I was able to either view the records in situ or pay to have a copy of Herbert’s case notes sent to me. I chose the former, which Julian Pooley agreed would give me the most ‘authentic’ experience. And by looking at the particular case notes’ book as a whole, I was able to compare Herbert’s situation with those of the other patients. It was not a pretty picture.
Example of a female patient’s case notes (c) Wellcome Museum
Although Holloway Sanatorium was one of the first asylums to take photographs of the inmates, and as such has been the interest of researchers in this field, there were disappointingly no images of Herbert. However, after reading the doctors’ notes, this did not surprise me. Herbert was obviously one of the more ‘difficult’ patients at the institution described on entry to the asylum (on 22nd April 1920) as: violent and abusive, struggles, kicks and bites when touched. A fortnight later he was: Still raving and abusive. Almost impossible to examine. Speech very inarticulate. Stammering and slurring of consonants very marked. Says that he is colonel of the First Rifle Guards and that he is very rich, that he is going to have various people arrested and shot etc. etc. Cannot concentrate his attention on any one subject. And the following week the examining doctor writes: At times the patient is quiet and agreeable but more often is garrulous and self-centred. Cannot carry on a rational conversation.
As I sat in the comfortable and light Surry History Centre, and transcribed Herbert’s case notes on that beautiful late summer’s afternoon, I felt all sorts of conflicting emotions. Not only was there terrible sadness at the way this successful man had fallen so low, but there was unexpected anger at the seemingly off-hand way the doctors had described Herbert. Example: Nothing to note except that he is inactive, has gained several pounds in weight, and seems to be settling down to the demented stage. There was also frustration at the fact that anything he said had not been taken seriously, such as the idea that he was (or had been) rich. Example: considers he is a very wealthy man, which is a delusion. And of course the horrified embarrassment at reading: History of incontinence of the faeces on 2 or 3 occasions.
Half-way through the day’s research, I went out for a much needed break, and walked out from the centre of the town to the exclusive suburb of St John’s, where Dormy Cottage was located. The stroll along Jackman’s Lane emphasised the still semi-rural location of the house which – although surrounded by mature hedges and trees, and thus difficult to see in its entirety – looked like the kind of place I had spent my childhood dreaming about owning one day. (With a recent million pound selling price, this is alas, to stay a fantasy).
Dormy Cottage, Jackson’s Lane, St John’s, Woking
Sorting through my scribbled notes on the crowded train back to London that evening, I reflected on Ellis’s role in all of these proceedings. Why were there no details of visits or letters from her as there had been in other patients’ case histories? (This was the sort of thing that the different case notes had brought to my attention, illustrating the importance of viewing records in situ). Why, when admitted to the asylum was there this official statement: Has been in private care in Brighton. Mrs Mary Kate Bang, nurse, Brighton Pier Hotel, states patient has been ill for 3 years following shell shock: has had fits of epileptic character? It was becoming clear that Ellis had rejected her husband in his illness, as had presumably all the others who had been close to this once popular man. And when Herbert died in September 1921 (his last days at the asylum make harrowing reading), there were no death notices or obituaries in any contemporary newspapers, as there would be for Ellis twenty years later.
Although it is a well-known fact that many soldiers contracted syphilis during the First World War*, it would appear from his symptoms (of third degree syphilis) that Herbert had had the disease prior to this period. Had Ellis been aware of this while they were living their supposedly dream life at Dormy Cottage (see The Lady and the Cowboy)? Or did Herbert’s illness only begin to be evident during his military service, and thus exacerbated by the shell shock he received at Loos? And what (astute readers may cry) of Ellis’s confession in her divorce that her ex-husband, the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon, had syphilis. Had he in fact passed the disease onto her, and she in turn had unwittingly given it to Herbert? Would she even be aware of this possibility – and if so, did she blame herself?
*An estimated 5% of troops were infected, although the disease was often concealed by servicemen as it was punished as a military crime. In addition, any illness not caused by military service resulted in docked payments (hence Herbert’s focus on the shell shock theory). However, some historians point to the fact that a number of men actually tried to catch venereal disease so that they could leave the horror of the trenches.
Curzon had died the year before Herbert, at the age of 53, from Syncope (fainting) and Myocarditis, alongside Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. The former diagnosis may in fact be an indicator of tertiary syphilis, a disease which has always confused medical practitioners due to its reputation as ‘the great imitator’ i.e. many of its characteristics are shared with other illnesses.
The informer of the death was his son, George Penn Curzon, who was by then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and resident at Dormy Cottage. As already mentioned, Herbert’s wife, Ellis Jeffreys, was not listed as a beneficiary in his 1916 will (which was unsuccessfully contested in the high court), but Herbert did leave £100 to both his step-children, indicating that he had most likely been close to them. As a stepmother myself, I know that although often a fraught relationship, it can be a very enriching experience, and without children of his own Herbert may have enjoyed having the company of young people to create a more traditional family atmosphere at Dormy Cottage.
Whatever I may think of Herbert, it is still extremely sad to think that his family life unravelled so quickly over five years. However, with so much more stigma surrounding both sexually transmitted diseases and mental illness in those days, it is perhaps unsurprising that Herbert’s friends and relations washed their hands off him in his final years, leaving him to rot in Holloway San. Without family visits (interference?), it would have been easier for the medical staff just to dismiss him as another ‘madman’ who had to be ‘drugged up’ and kept away from the ‘normal’ life of the asylum. But perhaps this is unfair of me to judge these doctors so harshly as Herbert was certainly not an easy patient. And if those looking after him had never known him as the healthy, successful man he had once been, then it may have been harder to show compassion, particularly if he had been violent towards them.
For several months after viewing Herbert’s case notes, I tried to arrange a date to visit the old Holloway Sanatorium. Although it is now a private housing complex (described by the estate agents as: Spooky Sanatorium to Luxury Living), it was initially still open to the public several days a year through an arrangement with English Heritage in return for grant aid given. Previous to that, in the intervening years since the NHS had packed up and left, the place had become neglected and vandalised – although before it became too dilapidated it had been used by film companies whenever the Gothic country house look was needed. Not only did this include TV series, such as Inspector Morse, but more excitingly, rock videos of the period, the best of which (in terms of showcasing the asylum) is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure, and Bonnie Tyler’s magnificant Total Eclipse of the Heart. (Among several of the other videos that were made was the very un-PC Ozzie Osborne song Bark at the Moon, which, given Herbert’s Case notes, had me in tears of outrage).
Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart (filmed at Holloway San)
But in 1994, just when it looked as if the old sanatorium would need to be demolished, the property developers Octagon made a successful bid to restore the Grade 1 listed building to its former glory, eventually bringing in a team of specialists to complete the work to standards acceptable by English Heritage. Although most of it was transformed into private apartments, and what Octagon described as ‘extensive on-site leisure activities’, on set days every month visitors had always been able to view the parts of the building that English Heritage had subsidised (although it was clear this was grudgingly accepted by the residents, and public visits are sadly no longer allowed). Access included the entrance hall and stairway, staircase to (and including) the grand hall, as well as the chapel in the grounds (if open).
As luck would have it, I ended up arriving by train from Waterloo on one of the coldest February days I have ever experienced. From the small station at the upmarket commuting enclave of Virginia Water – the UK’s most expensive area! – it took me less than five minutes to reach the security gates of what was now named Virginia Park.
Gated entrance to Virginia Park (with Stop sign and porter’s lodge)
Once I was vetted by the porter and allowed into the grounds, a strange feeling began to creep over me. On the surface everything seemed very quiet and peaceful, but that there was also something slightly menacing about the place. A Stepford-Wives feel seem to cling to the posh housing estate that had bloomed up in the grounds around the main building since it had been redeveloped, but still it was not hard to imagine how the old asylum would have originally appeared without all the twee stone houses dotted around like uprooted ersatz lodge houses.
As I approached the entrance to the main building (in all its Victorian Gothic splendour) and the wonderful spectacle of the frozen fountain, a couple of expensive cars glided past, making me feel as if I had somehow strayed on private property – although in a sense that is probably what most visitors felt when they came for one of Virginia Park’s infrequent open days. But ‘open day’ was a bit of a misnomer as it was very much a do-it-yourself affair, which on that February day suited me fine. I simply wanted to be left alone to try to imagine what life might have been like for the inmates of the asylum.
Frozen Fountain at Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
Before I took the steps to the entrance, I paused at the fountain and glanced up at the main building, trying to take in the whole scope of the red-brick façade. I soon had the queer sensation that the Puginesque central tower was moving slightly towards me. It was an oppressive feeling and I wondered how the patients had felt when they had arrived at the entrance and had seen the (then ivy-covered) building hovering over them like an overly watchful nurse. I walked slowly up the wide flight of steps, trying to imagine how a recalcitrant patient might have been led stumbling towards the entrance door by a doctor or a distressed relative.
Entrance to Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
Once inside the building, I realised that no amount of reading about the place – or watching the slightly surreal early 80s rock videos that were filmed there – is preparation enough for the gothic splendour of the interior, replete with medieval bestiary paintings and Gothic arches and the rich dark colours of the paintwork. It struck me that this was not quite the calming environment that certain patients might have wished for, or even needed. Every section of the wall was covered with mythical beasts sprouting tongues or tails, or bat-like wings, or fins and weird bulging eyes, and all of them looked more malevolent than the last. But there was also another accompanying feeling: that of having strayed into a monastery or a pre-reformation church, which in itself was balm to the modern soul, weary of life in the 21st century. And perhaps it might have had a similar effect on those who had also been forced to retreat from the demands of their own lives.
Detail from wall painting, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
After the bright entrance hall, the Great Hall was a dark and gloomy place – even once I had managed to locate the light switches! It reminded me of the Victorian village church I had attended as a child, with its hammerbeam roof and stained glass windows. And it was in this huge room that I began to feel something of both the oppressiveness and opulence of the place – like a long stay at a country hotel from which it was impossible to escape. There was a sadness in the dark and dusty corners that did not go away, even when a shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. I stayed there for a while, absorbing the atmosphere, thinking about Herbert and all the others who had passed through the space where I stood: some to return to their families, others to live out the rest of their days there, perhaps still believing they were simply the long-term guests of the benevolent local aristocracy.
Staircase to the Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)
Before I reluctantly left the building I noticed that there were one or two quotations painted on the walls in the Great Hall, set in between the portraits of various kings and queens, and Victorian statesmen. And there, in Gothic lettering, was the quote from the Greek historian, Herodotus, which made me think about Herbert and his tragic demise.
Call no man happy till you know his end.
To be continued next month in The Living and the Dead.
The Incidental Genealogist, February 2018