Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)
He can spar and he can “drive” and, and he’s very much alive;
He’s a chap with lots of “go” and “upper-cut” about;
He’s some science in his head; can put your “peepers” both to bed;
And his punishment’s a remedy for strut about!
Mr. Herbert Sleath, (anon) Judy magazine, 1900
The dashing Herbert Sleath, circa1900
Oh, Herbert Sleath! Where to start with the story of this most Edwardian character. Perhaps at the very beginning – a very good place to start. But as most family historians know, beginnings are often murky places in which to flounder around searching for enough pegs on which to hang a life’s narrative. Of course, this is exactly what I had to do with the story of Herbert’s elusive brother, Stanley, the child who appeared to live the most uneventful life of the three Sleath-Skelton siblings. And that is why Stanley had to share last month’s post with the story of his namesake ship (see Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship).
With Herbert, however, there is in fact a great deal of information about his years as a successful actor-manager (a very Edwardian profession), and thus it is tempting to plunge straight into the biography of the adult Herbert Sleath (he dropped the Skelton part for his stage name, and I can’t say I blame him). But perhaps by throwing myself in at the deep end – or the shallow end of Herbert’s life – I’ll be forced to come up with connections between the boy and man and think about my subject more deeply. Thus so far I have come up with three obvious ones:
- Herbert, who was born in 1870, was the middle child of three, and if psychologists are to be believed, may have been the one who took the most risks in life and felt more connected to friends and colleagues than his family.
- As a young man Herbert was sporty and gregarious, so it is fair to say that he probably made a splash (if we are to continue with this watery analogy) during his teenage years at Eton – a place where such attributes would have been highly regarded.
- According to photographs and testimonials from his acting days, he was a good-looking, relatively tall man, and so most likely had been a handsome boy/youth, further encouraging points (1) and (2) above.
Alongside his siblings, Herbert was born in Carlton House, The Avenue, Gipsy Hill – a grand, high Victorian residence near to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, which I described in last month’s post. The family then moved to a large apartment overlooking Clapham Common (the Cedars) and Herbert was sent to Cheam prep school, then Eton, with his older brother and two male cousins. Around about the time he left school, the Sleath-Skelton family moved out of London to Kings Gardens in Brighton – perhaps in part due to the failing health of Emma, Herbert’s mother. And it was here where our budding thespian became involved with a local acting group.
Kings Gardens, Brighton, today
A cringe-worthy 1900 article entitled Odd Notes on Popular Actors (from the satirical magazine, Judy) gives us more information: From his earliest youth, Mr. Herbert Sleath seems to have taken to the water like a farmyard duck. His home, for instance, is situated at Brighton, where there is naturally enough water to satisfy the most enthusiastic admirer of hydrostatics. You may take it from me that he is ardently devoted to the main – the main chance in particular. However, he never gets out of his depth, and has not been in hot water since he left school, and then only very occasionally. The school, by the way, was Eton, where, of course, he was a “wet bob”* but never a wet blanket.
*This appears to be Etonian slang for a student who is in the rowing team.
Although the ‘notes’ do not mention Herbert’s amateur dramatics in Brighton, the article does go on to say (in its own inimitable way) that: Of his first appearance on the professional stage, he has vivid recollections. It took place, years ago, in the far north, and as no tablet is erected there to his memory, he says he is quite satisfied. His fellow actors said he was “immense”. This he found quite gratifying, seeing that the part was of small dimensions and he himself does not stand over six foot in his stockings.
Of the time between school and becoming a professional actor we know very little, although an article published in The Penny Illustrated Paper in 1899 states that: Mr Sleath is a Brightonian, and in the beautiful and breezy town of “London-super-Mare” his family are well known. He was educated at Eton. He went out to New Mexico ranching, and to look after some property of his father’s. Who’s Who on the Stage (1908) gives us some further details: After leaving school he was coached for the army, but the charm of travel seized him and, being wealthy, he went to Texas and Central America and spent some time in mining and ranching.
These activities would no doubt have been in connection with James William’s company, Skelton and Schofield, which originally imported mahogany from the northern part of Belize in the second half of the 19th century (see A Tale of Exploitation) but later branched out into other business activities in the region. And in fact, transatlantic passenger records from the early 1890s show that a Herbert Sleath-Skelton travelled out by ship several times to North and Central America in the company of his father’s current business partner – George Arthur Vaughan Schofield (son of the original co-founder and 15 years older than Herbert). This was the same man who would die forty years later from his injuries after falling under a train in what appeared to be suspicious circumstances at Warren Street Underground Station, an event I chronicled in last month’s post.
Perhaps Herbert’s father, James William Skelton, was trying to involve him in the family business in some way by this move. (Herbert’s brother, Stanley, officially became a partner in 1891). It would seem that, while in Central America, Herbert was able to indulge his adventurous streak, travelling through uncharted terrain on horseback. The Penny Illustrated Paper article of 1899 mentions that: It was there (in New Mexico) he added the finishing touches to his innate love for horses. He had always been devoted to the “friend of man”, but there he almost lived and slept with horses, and learned their every mood. There is nothing he cannot now do with them, so that it is not surprising to find him the owner of several racers of the highest order, with which he has been lucky on the Turf, especially during last season.
And Odd Notes supplies us with this little gem of Herbert’s time in Central America: A few years ago Mr. Sleath was of a surveying party travelling from Belize, in the State of Honduras, to a place called Tenosique. On the way he had occasion to stop at a little spot called Peten. Here the inhabitants were keeping one of their fiestas. The inhabitants, being of an observant nature, noticed the kindly disposition that lurked in Mr. Sleath’s eyes, so asked him to subscribe towards the expenses of a local dance. To this he had no objection, although at the moment he had no money on him. The natives, it may be mentioned, had at the same time “no flies” on them, and, noticing a gold signet ring that he wore on his little finger, suggested that he should hand it over by way of sealing the bargain. This he did, and the dance was given with native music and everything “bang up”. When the dance was over the ring was redeemed for two dollars, the entire cost of the dance.
Herbert Sleath in Western look as Jim Carson in A White Man 1910
By the mid-1890s, however, Herbert had settled back down in England and had started acting in Brighton with local amateur dramatics groups The Green Room and The Strolling Players. There he was apparently successful enough to receive several offers to join professional companies. An article in the weekly theatrical newspaper, The Era, in 1899 entitled A Chat with Herbert Sleath starts out by stating that: Mr Sleath’s first connection with the stage was with The Romance of the Shopwalker, which play, after its successful run at the Vaudeville in 1896 he took on tour with Mr Weedon Grossmith (no surprise there – he was his famous actor cousin!) acting therein as well. In London he made his debut as an actor and manager in The Mariners of England at the Olympic Theatre in March, 1897. In this he played the villain, and scored heavily.
Contemporary reviews of this play describe Herbert’s role (as Captain Lebaudy and later as Lord Nelson) thus:
The treasonable Lebaudy is a character rendered with incisive force by Mr. Herbert Sleath, who reminded me of Sir Henry Irving in his early days of melodrama in town.
Mr. Sleath, as the villain in question, was over-subdued for melodrama. He quite suggested a villain in real life. By the way, his repentance in the last act and his handshaking with the hero annoyed me very much; but that was Mr. Buchanan’s fault or the fault of Charles Marlowe.
Mr Sleath, who was the original Captain Lebaudy, brings his ripe talent to bear on the part of Lord Nelson. He gives to the character the humane characteristics of the victorious sailor and all the necessary tragic intensity, while his appearance realises with extraordinary correctness the admiral’s pictures.
Although Herbert Sleath generally received positive reviews for his acting, I believe he found his niche as an actor-manager, where his business acumen could be utilised (and a profession he was to remain in until the outbreak of war). Later on in A Chat, our man himself says: Acting? Yes, I love it. I love the theatre and everything connected therewith; that is why I joined the theatre in a double capacity. Of course, his inherited wealth would have helped to pave the way for such a role, and I often wonder how his brother Stanley, the stockbroker, regarded the flash lifestyle of his younger sibling. Was he jealous of Herbert’s whirlwind social life, hobnobbing with the actors and actresses of the day? Or did he perhaps view Herbert’s exploits with disdain?
The ditty reproduced in the introduction to this post (above) in regard to Herbert’s ‘sparring’ came from an anonymous poem published in the ‘London serio-comic journal’ Judy in 1900. The ‘sparring’ referred to the fact that his little bit of sparring in the first act of the play is a bit of the real thing. This was the play What Happened to Jones at Terry’s Theatre, where typically Herbert managed the production and also took a subordinate role. The ‘poem’ continues with more insights into Herbert’s life:
He “knows” a dog, and knows a horse, and his “gees” have done the course,
And you meet him down at Henley out Regatta-ing;
In his “ducks”* on him you hap, this easy going chap –
And nothing in the world is really mattering!
*Ducks were a type of gentleman’s smart-casual sporting trousers made of a thick, white cotton.
Herbert Sleath ‘greyed up’ as The Earl of Kerhill, in A White Man 1908
Despite the awfulness of the verse, it paints a picture of a specific type – the Old Etonian who ‘does’ the season and is seen at all the right sporting events in the correct attire. It also gives more evidence of Herbert’s interests, in particular his love of horses: not only did he own several racehorses but he also gained honours as an amateur steeplechase rider. This was a passion he would share with his future wife – the ‘uppercrust’ Anglo-Irish actress, Ellis Jeffreys, and former wife (a rather scandalous thing in those days) of the younger son of Earl Howe.
The final part of this terrible poem ends by underscoring the type of attitude that such Old Etonians often had – and still do – namely a core inner belief in themselves and their abilities (which, if misplaced, can be an unhealthy trait). We do not know whether this was the case for Herbert, but the last verse leaves us in no doubt of the way his attitude to managing – usually jointly, often with Arthur Bourchier – some of the great London theatres (including the The Adelphi), was perceived by his contemporaries:
He takes a theatre on for fun, just to show you how it’s done
(Though he does the thing as well as all the rest of ‘em);
He doesn’t think he moves the earth because he plays for all he’s worth –
But –he’ll soon be romping home with all the best of ‘em!
Although to be fair to Herbert, in The Chat he does go on to say that: It is not an easy thing to take over such a theatre as The Adelphi. The responsibility almost appals one. The theatre itself is enormous, and necessitates the employment and control of a whole army of workers of all kinds. To put on an Adelphi drama wants some courage, I can tell you, and to make everything go smoothly before and behind the curtain, one is constantly at tension point. I dare say some of the papers thought it sheer impudence on my part to dare to follow in the footsteps of Gatti’s (John Maria Gatti was the Swiss owner and previous manager of the theatre), and indeed a few of the lesser sort said so.
The Adelphi c1900
Herbert was still not yet thirty at the time of this interview, so such an undertaking was no mean feat. He then goes on to defend his decision to focus on melodramatic productions by saying: When we began nearly all the big and important dailies were kind to us, while a few rather belittled our efforts and sneered at the production. They said the play was melodrama! Of course With Flying Colours is melodrama. This is the home of melodrama, and melodrama is what I intended to provide. What is Adelphi drama but melodrama in its strongest form. Our patrons, the regular Adelphi patrons, look for it, and as long as I am able I intend to supply them with the kind of piece that pleases. So a businessman through and through, (although perhaps protesting too much!).
It is also interesting to note that newspaper articles of the day point out that during August and September of 1899 there was a heatwave in London which resulted in over half the West End theatres having to close for several weeks. Not so Herbert, who kept the Adelphi open during this time, although declaring: Yes, we are doing excellent business, notwithstanding that irritating nuisance the thermometer. I think, however, the dog days are nearly over, and then our audiences will enjoy the play with greater comfort.
Something I find particularly charming – and illustrating again that Herbert seems to have had a quirky approach to business – was the fact that, during a previous long run of What Happened to Jones at The Strand Theatre (demolished in 1905) from 1898 to 1899, Herbert tracked down the names of all the ‘Jones’ in London via the London Directory and invited them to a special performance of the play. It would appear that there were 400 Jones in the audience that night, ‘laughing riotously’!
Whatever Happened to Jones at The Strand (c) arthurlloyd.co.uk
By the turn of the century, Herbert Sleath seems to have been a rising star in the theatrical world, connected to all the right people. However, most of the plays Herbert was involved with have not aged well, even if they were very popular at a time when theatre-going was more commonplace. Despite the stirrings of a late 19th century movement towards drama focused on the human condition, in particular from the continent – Ibsen, for example – homegrown Edwardian theatre often focused more on the humour and conflict caused by class and social standing (a peculiarly English obsession), or popular melodrama.
The first population census of this new century shows that Herbert was living at Latimore House in North Town, Maidenhead (his father had died the previous year, his mother two years earlier). There he has employed his father’s coach driver (George Coe) and his wife to work for him as coachman and housekeeper. The Coes appear to have been in the employ of the Sleath-Skeltons for many years – certainly since the family moved to The Cedars at Clapham Common c1877 (where they lived in one of the mews flats behind the dwellings). The Coes also moved to King’s Gardens in Brighton with the family (living in nearby Victoria Mews), and it would thus be natural for Herbert to keep them on after the death of his parents. It was probably an arrangement that suited both parties. Herbert’s father, James William, left his coachman the sum of fifty pounds when he died, the only servant detailed to have received any monies from him, indicating his appreciation of Coe’s long service (the butler and other domestics seemed to change regularly, as was common at that time).
However, there is one thing slightly puzzling about the 1901 census. While Herbert, George Coe and his wife and their youngest daughter are all listed at the address there is another name at the bottom of the list, that of Emma (or Esma) Thorne (age 5), described as an ‘adopted daughter’. Perhaps she was related to the Coes – or why else would she be placed after their names? Unless she had something to do with Herbert and the Coes were simply helping to raise her? Interestingly, the teenage Daisy Coe is said to be a ‘ladymaid’ (although if caring for a child, would have been described as a ‘nurse’). But who is she working for? – unless of course she has a position outside the house, or was just visiting her parents at the time of the census. However, I have not been able to ascertain exactly what happened to this little girl, but suspect that she may have been a grand-daughter of the Coes whom they had ‘adopted’ for various reasons. Herbert never mentions a child in later life so – unless Emma/Esma dies shortly afterwards – I do not believe she was related to him, much as I would like her to be!
Although Herbert had previously lived independently from his parents – he appeared to have shared a house (The Gables) with his brother Stanley in Lewes in the 1890s – the move to Berkshire seems to have marked a new beginning in his life. There he was not only able to indulge his passions for rowing and horse racing, but was to be near to his future wife, the actress Ellis Jeffreys, when she took over the lease of the neighbouring property (Brazilian Cottage) at the time of the disintegration of her stormy marriage to the younger son of Lord (Earl) Howe, a member of the famous Curzon-Howe family. Methinks, however, that it might not have been a coincidence that this lady ended up spending so much time in the genteel town of Maidenhead before her divorce!
Boulter’s Lock, Maidenhead, c1900
In 1904 Herbert and Minnie Gertrude Ellis Curzon (her official name) were married – a rather low-key affair on account of the fact that she was a recent divorcée. Newspapers of the day reported this rather scandalous event (Ellis had accused her husband of domestic violence – more about this next month), which had been dragged through the courts, and presumably she and Herbert wanted to keep a low profile. The wedding was held at Christ Church, Mayfair, near to where they were both living at the time, although registered at separate addresses. The bride and bridegroom’s siblings were all present at the event as witnesses, pointing to the fact that the immediate families most likely approved of the choice. A contemporary description of the wedding also mentions that several leading actors of the day attended, although the event was kept small and simple due to a recent bereavement in the bridegroom’s family. Unfortunately, I have not been able to ascertain whose death that was, but now find my imagination rushing away with me to settle on the little Emma/Esma Thorne!
Christ Church, Mayfair
Sadly (for me as a family historian), Herbert and Ellis would not go on to have any children of their own, even though they were both in their earlies thirties at the time of their marriage. But Herbert seemed to be a willing stepfather to Ellis’s two children with her first husband: Evelyn and Chambré Curzon (who would go on to be become the actor, George Curzon and father of the current Lord Howe). While Chambré was away at boarding school, little Evelyn accompanied her mother and Herbert to New York, when they starred on Broadway, and was to remain very close to Ellis throughout her life (remaining unmarried and living with her mother until Ellis’s death in the early 1940s).
Ellis Jeffreys c1900
But here is where the story starts to unwind and become entangled. Those of you who have followed my quest from the beginning will know that I have hinted at an ugly end for Herbert. As I write this I can barely bring myself to imagine how, in the space of just over a decade, the glamorous life that Herbert was leading in London and New York, as well as the time spent in the country with his dogs and horses, would unravel in such a horrible fashion. In 1899, The Penny Illustrated Paper concluded their article about Herbert with this description: Mr Sleath is popular wherever he goes, for he has a very artistic and yet a genial and buoyant personality; he is a thorough Englishman, a splendid horseman, and a good all-round sportsman. But less than twenty years later, not only would Ellis desert him, but so would his actor friends and even his own family (despite Maude Beatrice’s initial attempts to help). Those who so eagerly sipped at the overflowing cup during his nuptial celebrations at the beginning of the bright new century of progress would very soon not want to have anything to do with the wreckage of a man described by doctors as ‘raving’.
To be continued next month in The Lady and the Cowboy.
The Incidental Genealogist, November 2017