Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship

For a week this stagnant state of things prevailed; and then, one morning, we were all interested to find another barque within a couple of miles of us. She was the Stanley Sleath of London, from ‘Frisco to London, one hundred and sixty days out. She was an iron vessel and I’ll never forget the sights she presented as she rolled her lower strakes out of the water.

Frank. T. Bullen, The Log of a Sea Waif (1899)

Grace_Harwar_SLV_AllanGreen19th C Barque, (c) Allan Green, Library of Victoria, Australia

This year I have already discussed the Sleath-Skelton family at length (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans), as well as describing the charmed life of Maude Beatrice Floersheim (née Sleath-Skelton) who married the literary barrister Cecil Floersheim (see The Fortunate Widow). Regular readers may also have become aware of another figure who is still on the sidelines of our story but about to loom large: Maude’s brother, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath. Herbert’s biography is perhaps the most fascinating one of my genealogical quest, and I intend to feature his story before the year is out. Yet I feel no picture of the Sleath-Skelton children would be complete without first mentioning Maude and Herbert’s older brother, Stanley.

While both Maude and Herbert had more than a few column inches devoted to them in their lifetime, Stanley seems to have been content to stay firmly in the background, flitting throughout the stories of his more interesting brother and sister like an uninvited guest. As the sensible older sibling of the three, Stanley was the first child to be born in the Sleath-Skelton’s new home, Carlton House, in The Avenue at Gipsy Hill (now Dulwich Wood Avenue), in South London, on March 25th, 1869. And even though the house is no longer there, enough of the original villas remain in the street to give a flavour of the neighbourhood in its heydey, when the countryside village of Gipsy Hill was sought after by those who wanted the luxury of an escape from London but also proximity to the City and West End.

However, while the popularity of Gipsy Hill began to boom when the railway station opened in 1856 (part of the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway built to bring visitors to the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham), it also resulted in less salubrious homes eventually being built: as the upper-middle classes desired more exclusivity they began to move out to other areas. Thus although many new roads were originally planned in the style of The Avenue – one of the first grand residential  streets in Gipsy Hill  – terraced housing for the new commuters eventually became a more popular alternative.

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upper-norwood-dulwich-wood-avenue-c1955_u42024

upper-norwood-dulwich-wood-avenue-1898_42650Early 20thC views of The Avenue (including nearby Crystal Palace)

Like his younger brother and sister, Stanley was baptised at the newly built Christ Church* in Gipsy Hill by the Reverend Richard Allen – a man who drew huge crowds due to his preaching skills, and who ministered at the church for over thirty years. Stanley’s uncle (on his mother’s side) and next-door neighbour, John Green, appears to have been a Church Warden at this time, and it is documented that he presented the church with a new brass lectern. Incidentally, when Lambeth Borough Council established the new Bloomfield Estate on the site of Bloomfield Hall in the 1920s – where my Skelton grandparents lived from 1938-42 – it also then came under the jurisdiction of the parish, so no doubt my father had attended Christ Church at some point, too!

*This year the church celebrates 150 years of worship – no mean feat considering that much of it was rebuilt after WW2 bombing, and then a new building was erected alongside the original after a major fire in the 1980s. (The old Victorian tower is now private apartments).

gipsy hill

I imagine that as he grew older Stanley would have retained fond memories of his formative years in Gipsy Hill: the field of cows from French’s dairy right in front of the house (the ‘meadow’ is still there – minus the cows), trips to the nearby Crystal Palace, his cousins fieldas next-door neighbours and playmates, his older teenage half-sister from British Honduras now living with the family, perhaps spoiling him rotten. Then quite soon there was Herbert, later followed by Maude Beatrice. I can almost imagine this little triumvirate as a Margaret Cameron-style photograph (instead of a stilted studio portrait) sitting together on a bench in the garden, Stanley with his arms slung proprietorially around his younger siblings.

Sadly, there are no such images of the little Sleath-Skeltons, charming or otherwise, and we can only guess what these 1870s children would have looked like. But it is not hard to picture them playing exuberantly in the garden of Carlton House, perhaps even making a tunnel through the bushes to reach their next-door cousins more easily, free from the high Victorian mores to which their parents would have had to adhere. We know about the greenery from the rental agreements of both Carlton House and Homedale House, currently in the Southwark Archives, where it is clear that the large gardens had been planted with a number of trees and bushes which the residents were expected to maintain. Interestingly, both those neighbouring houses were offered at only the annual ‘peppercorn’ ground rent of £1 for 84 years, suggesting (as rental properties) that they may have been part of a wider business arrangement between the parties concerned. Advertisements for these houses in The Times from 1862 and 1879, describe them below as such:

Fetch (3)

homedale (3)

Homedale House appears to have become a private girls school by the turn of the century, and during World War 1 was used as an auxiliary hospital for the war-wounded from Lambeth Hospital. Unfortunately the building was destroyed (along with Carlton House) during the blitz, although most of the rest of the street remains intact to this day.

whitakerslistofs00unse_0006 (3)

school

s-l1600 (4)Homedale House as a School, and Auxiliary Hospital in WW1

In 1875, when Stanley was but six, his British-Honduran half-sister Arabella Louisa died at home from renal failure (see A Tale of Exploitation) and shortly afterwards, as described in a previous post, the family moved to a grand apartment at The Cedars in Clapham Common. Was this to rid themselves of the terrible memory of Arabella’s lingering death? In any case, Stanley was soon sent away to Cheam Preparatory School with his brother and male Green cousins (Sydney and Percy), and after that went on to Eton alongside his male relatives. His future as a member of the establishment was more or less secured by this move, but at what price his childhood? We have no way of knowing whether he was happy or not at the exclusive boarding school, although many biographies of that time have shed light on some of the rituals that would go on to scar alumni in later years.

What we do know is that, like his brother and sister, Stanley would eventually marry but have no children. So there are no living descendants who might be a repository for passed-on memories and anecdotes – and those tantalising family photographs that we can only imagine. In fact, the only one of the three Sleath-Skeltons to have any children of sorts was Herbert, who had a step-son and daughter through his marriage to the actress Minnie Ellis Jefferies, the ex-wife of the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon-Howe (younger son of the 3rd Earl Howe). Only Herbert’s step-son (the actor George Curzon) went on to have a family of his own. The current Lord Curzon, Lord Howe, (Herbert’s step-grandson) sits in the House of Lords as a conservative peer, and I doubt very much whether he even knows that his (deceased) father once had a ‘colourful’ step-father!

However, one fact has come to light which, although not able to tell us more about Stanley, provides us with an interesting peek into the life of a successful Victorian merchant. For in 1873, James William Skelton applied to the Board of Trade to rename a ship after his son: the French ship Gaston which he had recently bought and newly registered at the Port of London was to be henceforth called Stanley Sleath. By this time, James William already had four children, but by naming the ship after his first born son he was perhaps also signalling that he regarded Stanley as the one who would later join him in his business ventures.

And so it came to pass that, in 1890, when Stanley was twenty-one, he officially became part of his father’s firm, Skelton and Schofield, which specialised in mahogany importing (see  A Tale of Exploitation). James William had founded the company several decades earlier with his boyhood friend, Thomas Schofield, the son of a Bermondsey custom’s official. Thomas had retired in 1888, leaving his son, George Arthur Vaughan Schofield, to take over his role. George – who was a good few years older than Stanley – had joined the firm in 1881 at the age of twenty-five, several years prior to his father’s retirement. Thus by the time Stanley was welcomed into the company, it was his father and George Schofield who were the senior partners.

The late 1890s must have been a difficult time for the Sleath-Skeltons. Although Maude Beatrice and Stanley married in 1896 and 1898, respectively, their mother Emma died on January 1st 1898 at the age of 57 from a serious bout of bronchitis which had resulted in heart failure. By then the family had moved to Kings Gardens on the seafront in Brighton (James William spending time at the Grosvenor Hotel while in London), and the two adult sons appeared to be living close by, with Stanley being listed as ‘present at the death’ on his mother’s death certificate. Two years later this role would fall to the unmarried Herbert when his seventy-three year old father succumbed to Chronic Bright’s Disease and Uremic poisoning – basically renal failure.

James William had officially retired only six months previous to his death – ill health had most likely forced the issue – and on January 1st 1900 Stanley and George Schofield were made the two senior partners, while still carrying on the business of Skelton and Schofield at 29, St Martins Lane, off Cannon Street in the City. However, by the early 20th century the craze for heavy, dark mahogany furniture was on the wane and in conjunction with the depletion of rainforest reserves, it would appear that the old business model was no longer such a viable option. Several years later, in 1906, Stanley officially left the company, to work as a stockbroker. In the 1901 census, Stanley and his wife, Annette Skirving, are recorded both as staying with the Floersheims in Kensington (they had married in 1898 at the nearby St Mary Abbotts in Kensington High Street) and at their home in Brighton. Stanley is recorded as a General Merchant in 1901, but a decade later he describes himself as simply ‘Stock Exchange’. Although George Vaughan Arthur Schofield kept the family business going for a further two decades, it appears that this was also through dealing with other Central American products, such as rubber.

Records seem to indicate that both Stanley and his old business partner began to suffer a decline in their fortunes throughout the Edwardian period – even though James William’s will shows that Stanley had inherited a large proportion of his father’s generous estate. But by 1911, Stanley and his wife Annette were listed as living in a small flat in Brighton with only one domestic, while Annette appears to be working as a dressmaker. Stanley and Annette had already been married 13 years then and no doubt realised they would remain childless, so perhaps his wife was simply looking for something to fill her hours while her husband was in London. However, James William’s will of 1900, made shortly before he died, mentions that his oldest son Stanley should receive ten thousand pounds less than his siblings due to the fact that he had recently had an advance loan of that amount. So was Stanley in debt through bad speculation or had he wanted this money to reinvigorate Skelton and Schofield once his father had finally handed over the reins?

One thing I did discover is that Stanley’s ex-business partner, George Arthur Vaughan Schofield, lost his life in rather suspicious circumstances when he fell under a tube train at Warren Street tube station in 1933 (he had been living at the Grafton Hotel in Tottenham Court Road with his adult daughter since being widowed in 1925). Although he did not die at the scene, he was taken to the nearby University College hospital where his injuries proved to be fatal – his spine and chest had been crushed.

This is a terrible way to end a life and despite the fact that there were no newspaper reports of the event or surviving documents, there had actually been a coroner’s inquest which declared the death to be ‘accidental’. (I later found out that many of the inquest records had been destroyed in order to create more space in the records office. One in every ten was kept – but in mathematical sequence, so not necessarily the most interesting ones. As the archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives pointed out, it was a short-sighted move).

i00004qgThe old Warren Street Station

George Schofield made out his will in 1926 when Skelton and Schofield was wound up and he was newly widowed, but by the time he died 8 years later he only had an estate of around £500 to give to his spinster daughter, Madeline. I often wonder if George had actually jumped into the path of the train himself for some reason (bankruptcy brought on by the Great Depression?), although of course by this time he was an elderly man and may have actually slipped or been inadvertently knocked off the crowded platform. It is strange to think that I also used this tube station most days when I worked at University College Hospital (another coincidence) in the virology lab in the mid-1980s (the first job I took after working as a probate genealogist), and I remember how much I disliked the crowded old-fashioned station with the stuffy, dusty air and the legions of mice running up and down the dark tracks.

When Stanley died in Brighton in 1948 of prostate cancer, he had also been widowed for a good few years. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a record of his wife’s death, and wonder whether she died overseas – not an uncommon event, as my family history can attest to. Annette Justine Skirving was the daughter of Colonel William Skirving and had been brought up on the Welsh-English border before her widowed mother moved to Brighton when Annette was a teenager. It was there that she began to act and no doubt met Stanley through his actor-manager brother, Herbert Sleath-Skelton, who started out treading the boards in the Sleath-Skelton’s new home town. Perhaps Stanley had also enjoyed acting in the days before his business concerns dominated his life.

However, I can’t help but think that when Stanley died alone and intestate in his house in Brighton in 1948 – his sister, the wealthy widow Maude Beatrice Floersheim never bothered to claim the sum of approximately £1,500 he left her (see The Fortunate Widow) – that his life had perhaps not quite worked out the way he had expected or wanted it to. Perhaps as the oldest son he felt the pressure of following in his father’s footsteps, despite the fact that he lived through a different economic mileu when the fruits of the Empire were beginning to shrivel up. I wonder, too, what he did with the portrait of myself as a boy that he inherited from his father, along with his watch and chain and pendants and pearl pin, (see Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun). The painting of his father as a boy is possibly the only link he had to his paternal grandfather, James Skelton, and as he is the relative we both share, this is obviously of particular interest to me.

But I’d like to leave readers on a positive note with a glorious description of the ship that was named after the infant Stanley – the Stanley Sleath. The extract which follows below comes from The Log of a Sea-Waif by Frank. T. Bullen, an account of the author’s first four years at sea on merchant ships from 1869 to 1873. Published in 1899, one section describes how, while becalmed on the Atlantic, the author’s ship, the Harrowby, came across the Stanley Sleath, whose crew had run out of fresh water due to rats drowning in the water vat and poisoning their only supply. After giving the commander of the Stanley Sleath 200 gallons of water for the return journey to London, they received in return a huge sow, two gallons of rum and a case of sugar. As Bullen points out it was the best deal made by our old man for many a day. As it turns out, the rum was packed in lime-juice bottles and only the cabin-boy knew that the skipper was imbibing for the rest of the journey!

georges gastonThe George Gaston (the Stanley Sleath?) by Louis Gamain, 1866

For a week this stagnant state of things prevailed; and then, one morning, we were all interested to find another barque within a couple of miles of us. She was the Stanley Sleath of London, from ‘Frisco to London, one hundred and sixty days out. She was an iron vessel and I’ll never forget the sights she presented as she rolled her lower strakes out of the water. Great limpets, some three inches across, yard-long barnacles, and dank festoons of weeds clothed her below the water-line from stem to stern, and how she ever made any progress at all was a mystery. She smelled just like a reef at low water; and it looked as if the fish took her for something of that nature, for she was accompanied by a perfect host of them, of all shapes and sizes, so that she rolled as if in some huge aquarium. She certainly presented a splendid field for the study of marine natural history.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2017

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