Category Archives: Sleath-Skeltons

The Fortunate Widow

Truest and best who made for me of old

Higher the name of woman that you hold;

Beloved, whom thro’ so many years I see

Of happiness your rarer gift to me

Cecil Floersheim, To My Wife, from Collected Poems, (1936)

When Maude Beatrice Sleath-Skelton married Cecil Louis Ferdinand Floersheim in 1896, she retained the Sleath part of her name (from her mother, Emma Sleath) but dropped the Skelton part (from her father, James William), calling herself Maude Beatrice Sleath Floersheim. I can’t say I blame her. Skelton is not the most attractive name, with its guttural Nordic sound and closeness to the ghoulish word skeleton. The short form – Skel or Skelly – is not particularly endearing either, and lends itself to a fair amount of teasing from classmates, especially during adolescent growing spurts. Despite that, I actually kept my English surname when I married my Swiss husband, as is common here, wanting to maintain personal and professional links to my former life.

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Copying my Skelton grandparents’ wedding pose from 1923 in 2005

The Sleath-Skeltons, however, lived in a time and culture where to double barrel both names was a sign of success and prosperity – telling the world that here were two relatively important families coming together. No doubt Emma wanted to pass on her deceased father’s name, associated as it was with the Sleaths’ success in building up their artificial body parts business since the 18th century (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans). And James William possibly did not need his arm twisted (no pun intended) to distance himself from his own father, James Skelton, and the disgrace of his ‘living in sin’ with the poverty-stricken single mother, Mary Ann Hawkins, a young woman the same age as his sisters.

Maude Beatrice’s brother – the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath, also plumped for the matriarchal line when he chose his stage name, his enthusiasm for acting perhaps encouraged by his connection with his mother’s step-cousins, George and Weedon Grossmith. Even Stanley Sleath-Skelton, the sensible first-born child who followed his father into the mahogany business (see A Tale of Exploitation), and later becoming a stockbroker, always used his two names – and this despite having his father’s ship named after him (The Stanley Sleath), which ignored the Skelton part of his surname.

As the year progresses, I’ll be writing more about Stanley and Herbert, Maude’s older brothers, who were both educated at Cheam, then Eton, then Oxford, and were obviously destined for great things. For her part, Maude was probably simply expected to marry well, and it would appear that she was educated at home – perhaps alongside her cousin, Daisy Winifred Green, with whom she was close until her death in 1954. Maude and Daisy spent much of their late Victorian childhood together, while their brothers were away making connections with successful young men who, amongst other things, were potential suitors for their sisters. Both Maude and Daisy made what looked like (on paper, at least) ‘good marriages’: Maude to the barrister Cecil Floersheim; Daisy to the Olympic sailor, Salusbury Manners Mellor, then to the yacht designer, Alfred Westmacott.

I have written before about the three Sleath-Skelton children’s privileged upbringing in Gypsy Hill and later Clapham, with their houseful of servants (including a private coach and driver), and all the opportunities for advancement and social networking which was denied to their unknown Hawkins-Skelton relatives. But while James William’s half-siblings eventually went on to create large numbers of descendants across south London, none of his own progeny had any issue, thus abruptly ending the only wealthy and successful branch of the family before it could put out shoots. I often wonder how different my quest might have been had I come across any living descendants of Stanley, Herbert or Maude Beatrice. Would they have held on to the family wealth and thus been more likely to have kept papers and documents pertaining to the family as well as looking after their ancestors’ cherished possessions? Might they have been able to open the door just a little on that lost gilded world that the Sleath-Skeltons enjoyed?

Both Herbert and Stanley, however, died with relatively little to their name, albeit in very different circumstances. Their male Green cousins also seemed to be constantly battling near bankruptcy, brought on through ‘living beyond their means’. Thus it would appear that only the canny Maude Beatrice and Daisy Winifred were able to retain part of their respective family’s wealth. When Maud died in 1954, at the age of 82, she left behind a large amount of money and jewellery and other possessions which she requested be distributed among all her friends and family, making her will into one extraordinary long list of exotic objects. These included diamonds, emeralds, furs, a Rolls Royce, and a Millais painting, among other things.

But fascinating as all these riches may be, what interests me more is how she came to have so much in the first place. Because there is something of the magpie about Maude Beatrice. Whether consciously or unconsciously, over the years she became a repository for the wealth and possessions of not only her parents, but also her husband, and latterly from his unmarried friend from his Oxford days. And on her death, she had still not claimed the small inheritance that was left to her by her older brother Stanley when he died intestate in 1948.

For those of us who dream about suddenly finding ourselves the beneficiary of bountiful wills and being able to give up the day job (something Maude Beatrice never had to bother herself with) it is quite galling to know that much of what Maude had gathered around her she most likely had no need for. We can only guess at the lifestyle she would have had in her later years. It is not hard to picture her in old age shortly after the Second World War – a part of that generation of wealthy West London widows who met for long luncheons, decked out in too much jewellery and outdated, sweeping clothes. One of the last of the privileged Victorians who still clung on tenaciously to an earlier more gentile way of life, with their cooks and housemaids and chauffeurs.

Through Maude Beatrice’s detailed will I was lucky to also track down the descendants of Daisy Winifred Westmacott (formerly Mellor, née Green), the cousin who was like a sister to Maude. Several months after writing to one of Daisy’s grandchildren mentioned in the will, another grand-daughter replied instead, explaining that as the oldest child she was the only one of her group of siblings who could actually recall visiting Maude (together with their grandmother, Daisy) in London as children. Confirming my suspicions about Maude’s lifestyle, she told me that: We all used to lunch at Searcy’s restaurant in Sloane Street and I remember she gave banknotes for a tip – riches to a child! In addition to this, she gives the following interesting fact: I also have what I believe is the table silver with the Floersheim crest on it. It is silver-plated and family lore has it that Maude used it for the servants!

Sadly, Daisy’s grand-daughter was unable to supply any photographs of Maude Beatrice, something I had hoped she might have possessed. However, it would stand to reason that, for a child, a grandmother’s cousin would not necessarily be regarded as a close family member (I cannot remember having met any of my own grandparents’ cousins). But I imagine that with no children of her own, nor any nieces or nephews, Daisy’s children and grandchildren were perhaps more important to Maude than they themselves ever realised.

Just as James William Skelton (Maude’s father) involved his brother-in-law, John Green, in his financial affairs, Maude trusted Daisy’s oldest son, John Edward Mellor, with her will, among other things (he was also the informant at her death). Interestingly, it was this second-cousin of Maude’s who married Joyce Niven in 1940 (the older sister of the actor David Niven). Another of Daisy’s grandchildren who I contacted separately through a yachting website recalled how David Niven sometimes came to visit the Mellor/Westmacott family at Bembridge in the Isle of Wight, where the Niven family had once lived when David was a child – and presumably where Joyce Niven met John Mellor.

Norcott HouseNorcott House, Isle of Wight, built 1908 for Alfred Westmacott

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The boat-builder, Alfred Westmacott, circa 1930

All this information is of course manna to the ears of a family historian – as a child I remember the older David Niven appearing on television in the 1970s in chat shows and how by then he was regarded as a national treasure. Recently I read sections of his entertaining biography The Moon’s a Balloon, which unfortunately only mentions his Isle of Wight connection in passing. My mother, however, eagerly devoured the whole book in one sitting. For her generation, David Niven was a much loved and respected figure who embodied the idea of the British gentleman actor (a topic to which I will return when discussing other male family members’ connection with the stage).

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Interesting as the tenuous Niven connection is, I have to ignore the temptation not to get side-tracked by thoughts of celebrity. And while the protagonist of this chapter – Maude Beatrice – knew some of the actors and actresses of earlier in the century due to her actor-manager brother, Herbert-Sleath, there is no evidence to suggest that she herself had any artistic or bohemian bent. Although Maude’s will detailed a gift of jewellery to the actress Marie Lohr, in the main her friends and relatives tended to be those with a different kind of standing in society: Lady Oppenheimer, the Dowager Lady Swaythling, Captain Bryan Cecil Dunant to name some of the most prominent.

Maude’s long list of beneficiaries sent me on an extended chase to find out more about those mentioned in her 11-page will (complete with codicils). Although she included servants, cooks and chauffeurs (past and present), most of these individuals were difficult to research, whereas not only had her wealthier friends more unusual names (often double-barrelled), more importantly they had left a paper trail behind them that was easy to pick up on-line (at least superficially). And so it was that I peeked into some of the lives of those in the upper echelons of society in the first half of the twentieth century, and marvelled at their houses and gardens and military honours.

Lady Swaythling in her Gertrude Jekyll designed garden at Townhill Park House, Southampton,1920s

Maude’s friend, Lady Gladys Swaythling, in her Gertrude Jekyll designed garden at Townhill Park House, Southampton, c1920 (or earlier)

It did not take me long to notice, however, that there were certain things most of them had in common. The men (or husbands) had studied at Oxford in the 1890s, around about the same time as Maude’s brothers and own husband, Cecil Floersheim. Some of them had, like Cecil, also come from German-Jewish banking families established in the Frankfurt area in the 19th century, and had moved to London and become naturalised British citizens (usually then converting to Anglicism). Many had prominent roles in the law, government and military – just as Maude’s own husband did – and had been decorated or given peerages. Cecil Floersheim himself had received his CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1920 for voluntary services to the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation and to the Legal Branch of the Ministry of Pensions.

It would appear that, despite – or because of – their wealth, the Floersheims and their friends had attempted to contribute to society in their own patrician way. The men through their influence in the legal and political sphere, their wives through raising funds for ‘worthy causes’, such as the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association and Dr Barnardo’s. Without the pesky business of having to make a living getting in the way, it was relatively commonplace for  wealthy women to devote some of their free time to charitable works. Whether this had anything to do with assuaging their sense of guilt at the easy hand that life had dealt them, or their strong sense of faith (both Anglican and Jewish), it is difficult to speculate. Perhaps it was more a social activity that also managed to combine aspects of the former points.

Like most of their friends, the Floersheims lived in West London: the census returns from 1901 and 1911 show them to be living at Kensington Court, a select neighbourhood just off Kensington High Stree, close to Kensington Palace and Gardens, where they were to remain until Cecil’s unexpected death at sea in 1936. Throughout the decades in which they made the area their home, they moved three times within Kensington Court Mansions – a red sandstone neo-Gothic Victorian apartment block. In her latter years, the widowed Maude moved to the nearby Rutland Court – the place where she was living when her cousin Daisy’s grandchildren visited her after the war.

And in another strange, but happy, coincidence, a writer friend of mine actually lives in that very same mansion block in Kensington. Because of this I have visited the place on several occasions, and still can’t quite come to terms with the uncanny feeling that an unknown force is pulling me back into my ancestors’ lives in some way. The quiet tree-lined streets belie the proximity of the neighbourhood to the hub of Kensington High Street, and the ornate French balconies let in a gentle breeze to the building on hot summer days. In many of the apartments there is enough space for two people (and domestics) to live there quite happily without having to bump into each other, and when you factor in the location, it is unsurprising that the Floersheims chose to make this their London home for several decades.

kensignton-courtKensington Court Mansions, Kensington

Regular readers might recognise that I can often get rather obsessed with the ex-houses of my ancestors, and with the contemporary connection adding an extra incentive to discover more about this mansion block where the Floersheims spent their married lives together, I decided to undertake a little research into the building, unearthing a story which I believe to be worth telling:

As to be expected, Kensington Court Mansions was one of several buildings erected in the area at the end of the 19th century to fuel the demand for the growing upper middle classes to have an apartment (in the continental style) in a fashionable part of town. Following a familiar pattern of West End development, the new buildings replaced two old houses with generous gardens that had been on the site for several centuries and belonged to the Colby family, which were unsurprisingly named Kensington House and Colby House.

fig20Kensington House and Colby House

However, things were not quite as straightforward as one might assume. Between these two events – the destruction of the old houses and the establishment of the Kensington Court neighbourhood – I discovered the story of a forgotten other house. This was a mansion that was confusingly also called Kensington House, and built in 1873 to the specifications of a wealthy entrepreneur, Albert Grant (also known as Baron Grant). Grant bought up and demolished the two medieval Colby family houses on the site, as well as some of the surrounding slums, in order to create a private estate for himself and his family, of which a newly-built Kensington House would take centrepiece. However, this new house was never actually inhabited due to Grant’s unexpected bankruptcy shortly after its completion. When no buyer for this rather ostentatious building could be found (despite the idea of turning it into a private club), the estate was sold to a speculative builder who promptly tore down Grant’s new mansion and erected the buildings which exist today. As much as it is an oasis of calm in a busy part of London, one cannot help but wonder at what the previous houses and their extensive gardens would have been like. But perhaps something of their spirit lingers on in the quiet and sedate neighbourhood of Kensington Court!

fig22Grant’s Plans for the New Kensington House

fig23The completed residental area of Kensington Court

With a large airy flat in London’s West End as well as shared family country houses in the home counties, the Floersheims would have enjoyed a life of arts, theatre, travel and entertaining. Cecil had studied modern history at Oxford, and was interested in the classics, as well as writing poetry (in the census of 1911 he described himself as being a literary barrister), and was also a member of the Royal Geographic Society as well as Entomological and Zoological societies. Cecil’s office was at Farrar’s Building  in the Inner Temple, just off Fleet Street – and another unexpected corner of calm in the capital. However, I’m not quite sure how much legal work Cecil actually did as he found time to travel widely and write papers for his scientific societies as well as translate poetry from the classics and write his own (rather dull) verses. But as he had inherited a large amount on the death of his German-born banker father in 1917 (Maude Beatrice had already received her inheritance from James William Skelton on her marriage to Cecil), he could probably pick and choose the cases he wanted to pursue.

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Farrar’s Building and Inner Temple (with Temple Church)

But I am going to leave the story of Cecil and his family to another day, as the focus of this chapter is Maude Beatrice and what happened to her after Cecil’s death. It is the sort of story that (with a bit of tweaking) could be rewritten as a 1930s whodunit, which might then be turned into a rather hammy stage play where odd-looking characters strut the boards with a stiff gait and even stiffer accents. However, I am getting ahead of myself again, so will return to 1936, the year that Cecil unexpectedly died on board the ship Oronsay on his way back from Australia, on what had possibly been a private ‘scientific’ expedition. Throughout the 1930s, Cecil took many overseas trips (he was no doubt fully-retired by then), and his death at 65 from a cerebral thrombosis was presumably unexpected.

The times printed the following obituary:

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Other papers mention Maude Beatrice’s inheritance, and report on the strong wording of Cecil Floersheim’s will (one example is: Socialistic Misgovernment – Barrister’s Request in Will). This was the 1931 will in which Cecil stated that: I express my very strong wish in view of the possibility of even greater excesses in socialistic mis-government than those already obtaining and which in my opinion cannot at any time be deemed unlikely in view of universal suffrage and the want of proper constitutional restraints thereon that my wife will retain at least one-half of her fortune in currencies other than British and preferably that of the United States. (note: such legal documents do not use punctuation)

This was one thing that I found rather shocking, and at odds with the concept of the possible philanthropic lifestyle that I mentioned earlier. Reading those words over and over again, not quite able to believe them, I thought about my Hawkins-Skelton relatives (the ones from which I am directly descended) and how a bit more of so-called socialistic ‘mis-government’ might not have gone amiss for that family, helping them to have the opportunities from which the other branch of the Skeltons had benefited.

However, to give Cecil his credit, in this relatively straightforward will he also mentions that: I express my wish though without imposing any legal trust upon or wishing to fetter my wife in any way that she will herself if she thinks fit leave my estate by her will as to one third to Brian Cecil Durant and as to two thirds equally between the children of my wife’s cousin Mrs Alfred Westmacott at present residing in the Isle of Wight. Interestingly, Daisy’s grand-daughter later told me: So that’s where my father got the money to build the tennis court!

But the strange thing was that shortly after her husband’s death, Maude was to inherit a significant amount again. This was from Cecil’s friend, the cleric William Doherty, a former tennis player, and brother to the famous Doherty Brothers (Reggie and Laurie), and who later arranged for the erection of the Doherty Gates at Wimbledon in his brothers’ memory.

Contemporary newspapers reported the event as thus:

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(c) The Straits Times, 30 August 1936

After carrying out some more research into William Doherty, I came across a reference to Maude Beatrice in an on-line book The Tennis-Playing Doherty Brothers – a Biography by Mark Ryan. The information given in the final chapter is worth quoting in full:

According to the British Probate Registry, Willie Doherty died at 90 Kensington Court, Middlesex, off the Kensington Road, in the exclusive Kensington area of London. Kensington Court is, in fact, located only a few minutes’ walk away from Albert Hall Mansions, where Willie’s parents and brothers once lived. Willie Doherty left effects to the value of £53,208-4s-2d, in those days a significant amount of money. It is possible that he had invested the money he inherited from his father and that he had sold the family apartment in Albert Hall Mansions, a valuable asset. He might well also have inherited his father’s printing business. Of course, Willie Doherty had also worked for a living. Like his two younger brothers, Reggie and Laurie, Willie Doherty had not married.

Willie granted probate to a Maud Beatrice Sleath Floersheim, listed in the British Probate Registry as “widow”. This lady had been married to Cecil Floersheim, a minor English poet and a barrister by profession. Cecil had died at sea earlier in 1936, leaving Maud £171,000, a huge sum at the time. The link between Willie Doherty and Cecil Floersheim had first been created back in 1889, when they went up to Christ Church, Oxford, at the same time. They had both been born in the same year, 1871.

Cecil Floersheim married Maud Beatrice Skelton at Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square, London, in the second quarter of 1896. In the 1901 Census of England and Wales Cecil and Maud Floersheim were living at 16 Kensington Court Mansions; ten years later they were living at 29 Kensington Court Mansions. They had no children. Because Willie Doherty died at 90 Kensington Court*, Maud Beatrice Floersheim was probably with him in his final hours, especially if she was still living in Kensington. This would have been a solace to Willie in the same way that the presence of family members had been a solace to Reggie, and the presence of his father had been a comfort to Laurie, in their final hours.

*90 Kensington Court was actually the third and final apartment in Kensington Court Mansions where Maude and Cecil lived, until the widowed Maude later moved to Rutland Court.

I applied for William Doherty’s will and death certificate – curious to find out more about this story. It would appear that Doherty hurriedly wrote his will on one sheet of hospitality notepaper on the 28th of December, 1933, at the Hotel Metropole, Brighton (reproduced below), giving everything to Maude before she was in fact made a widow.

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It does seem a rather strange scenario.  However, over twenty years later, when Maude made out  her own will, she donated a thousand pounds each to three different charities in remembrance of her legacy from William Vernon Doherty. Ironically, one of these organisations was The Church of England Children’s Society (formerly Waifs and Strays Society) Old Town Hall, Kennington, London (the original stamping ground of the Hawkins-Skelton children).

When William Doherty died five years later, The Oxford and Cambridge Club (see the will above) was still given as his home address, while the place of death was recorded as 90, Kensington Court. His death certificate states that he died of a coronary thrombosis at 65 (the same age as Cecil). The informant was given as an L. Turner who was present at the death, and lived in nearby Queen’s Gate, so perhaps Willie was simply visiting Maude when he collapsed with a fatal heart attack. However, Mark Ryan (the writer of the Doherty biography) reports that one source  mentions that he had suffered from a short illness shortly before his death.

Whatever the relationship had been between Maude, Cecil and William Doherty, Maude could no doubt count on her cousin Daisy for support during that fateful year when she lost two people dear to her. For shortly afterwards, in the autumn of 1936, Daisy’s second husband, Alfred Westmacott, died, thus turning both the cousins into widows.

Neither of the two women remarried, and when war broke out Maude went to stay with naval friends in Hove, near to where her widowed brother Stanley was living. A year later Daisy lost her middle son in combat: RAF Wing Commander, Harry Manners Mellor. Their husbands’ deaths in 1936 had possibly only been the beginning of a turbulent time for the two cousins, who saw the world plunged into chaos yet again. But perhaps this was also the start of a new bond in older age for Maude and Daisy. Certainly the post-war world in which they would soon find themselves would feel even more alien to the aging women who had grown up under the reign of Victoria, and they may have increasingly turned to each other and their shared childhood memories for comfort in the final years of their life.

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans

It is an undeniable fact that the number of amputations performed in this and other countries has been greatly augmented of late years, attributable no doubt to the numerous accidents occasioned by the increasing use of Machinery and Steam power in all departments. This circumstance, in conjunction with the casualties of the late war, have caused the subject to be prominently before the notice of the medical profession.

William Robert Grossmith, Amputations and Artificial Limbs, (1857)

Sleath Shop

Trade Card for Sleath’s Improvements, 18th C (c)Fitzwilliam Museum

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Advertising Feature for Sleath & Jackson, c1800 (c)British Museum

When Emma Sleath married James William Skelton on 21st Nov 1866 at St Giles Church, Camberwell, at the age of thirty, she may well have been relieved to be finally leaving her family to marry such an eligble bachelor. A successful West India merchant who had grown rich through trading in mahogany (see A Tale of Exploitation), James William was a respectable decade older than Emma, as well as having a substantial home on the outskirts of London – Westle House in Moreland Road, Croydon. Whether Emma knew about his British Honduran daughter, whom he’d fathered while establishing his business out in the Caribbean, is open to question.  With three decades already behind her, Emma would not have been naïve in the ways of the world, and had possibly already resigned herself to the fact that marrying an older successful man necessitated accepting some sort of baggage. Of course, she may even have been delighted at the thought of becoming a step-mother and had perhaps already established a good relationship with the teenage Louisa Arabella. Yet what can often be an emotionally fraught situation today, would no doubt have created the same conflicts for the Victorians – particularly when it came to the issue of illegitimacy. But having witnessed her father’s early death and her mother’s fast re-marriage, followed by the birth of two half-siblings, Emma would possibly have accepted this situation as an inescapable part of life in the mid-nineteenth century (where death was always lurking close by).

Emma’s Father, John Henry Sleath, had died suddenly of apoplexy (cerberal haemorrhage) in early 1843 at the age of forty-five, when Emma was just six. Only several months after this tragic event, her mother quickly, and perhaps rather sensibly, went on to marry her late husband’s younger business partner, William Robert Grossmith. The Sleath family had established their successful business in Fleet Street a century earlier, when they had grown wealthy through supplying trusses and artificial body parts to the Georgian Court and high-ranking military. What the Sleaths (and their business partners) had learned to excel at over the years was the mechanics of creating life-like and moveable prosthetic limbs, an invention which Emma’s stepfather continued to develop further. In fact, so well-respected was Wiliam Grossmith that in 1856 he published a book on the subject: Amputations and Artificial Limbs (or Grossmith on Amputations, Artificial Legs, Hands &c.) Surprisingly, this was not the first book to which his name was attached – in 1827, shortly before his ninth birthday, the ‘memoir’ of his life as a prodigy child actor was published. Entitled The Life and Theatrical Excursions of William Robert Grossmith the Juvenile Actor, not yet nine years of age, this book followed on from a shorter pamphlet, published in 1825, with the title The Life of the Celebrated Infant Roscius, Master Grossmith of Reading, Berks, only seven years and a quarter old.

Although William Robert Grossmith is a very tenuous connection to the Skelton Family (not only was he Emma Sleath’s step-father, but Emma herself is not a blood relative), he is, nevertheless, an important one in the history of the Sleath-Skeltons. His early success on the stage and his theatrical connections can be claimed to be one of the influences on Emma’s youngest son, the Edwardian actor-producer, Herbert Sleath-Skelton – who often went by the stage name of Herbert Sleath. (More about this colourful character in a future post). William Robert Grossmith was a relatively famous child actor in the 1820s, and deemed to be ‘the Infant Roscius’ of his time. His younger brother, Benjamin Grossmith, also went on to follow him on the stage at a very early age. This was towards the tail end of the hey-day of the Georgian child prodigy actor (which included young girls), the most famous being Master Betty, or William Henry West Betty, said to be the original ‘infant Roscius’ – Roscius being a term once used to describe an actor of outstanding talent (after the famous Roman actor, Quintus Roscius), but which may be unfamiliar to readers today.

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William Grossmith in various acting roles c1825 (c)British Museum

And if this was not enough to excite a humble family historian such as myself, I discovered that William and Benjamin Grossmith had an even  younger brother who also had a gift for impersonation  – George Grossmith I. Not only would he become the father of George Grossmith II (who had a famous son, George Grossmith III, hence the numbers) and his younger brother Weedon but he was said to be a talented and humorous solo performer in his own right. His sons later said that their father would leave his family in London for several months of the year in order to tour the country with his entertaining literary ‘lectures’, a task he was somehow able to combine with his day job as criminal court reporter for The Times (a role which George II eventually took over). His famous sons, George and Weedon Grossmith, went on to become successful and multi-talented actors, producers, writers and artists, and are perhaps best remembered today for their illustrated (and very funny) book The Diary of a Nobody, first published in 1892.

As you might imagine, the discovery of this connection to the  famous Grossmith Family left me elated. As a teenager I had watched the 1979 BBC adaption of ‘The Diary’, although it was my younger sister who owned a copy  of the book (being more interested in social history at that time), and who was particularly taken with the story of the trials and tribulations of the deludedly aspirational Pooter family of Holloway. The Grossmith brothers had themselves grown up in a very different household to the fictional characters they lampooned. Theirs was a very middle-class Bohemiam upbringing where famous actors of the day, including Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were regular guests to the family home, alongside prominent literary figures, such as George Sala.

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George Grossmith I

Diary of a Nobody

Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith II (and ‘The Diary‘)

What was perhaps even more surprising to discover was that Evelyn Waugh’s father, Arthur – who professed ‘The Diary’ to be one of his favourite books – would often read out extracts to his sons during the frequent evening theatrical reading sessions in his study. Those readers who have followed my genealogical quest from its beginning (see Begin Again) will know that it was the documentary, Fathers and Sons, (and Alexander Waugh’s accompanying book) about the male line of the literary Waugh family that first re-ignited my interest in returning to research my own family history. So it was with a certain sense of satisfaction that I learnt of this coincidence.

Indeed, in 1930 Evelyn Waugh went so far as to make the following observations on the Grossmiths’ book in the Daily Mail newspaper: I still think that the funniest book in the world is Grossmith’s (sic) Diary of A Nobody. If only people would really keep journals like that. Nobody wants to read other people’s reflections on life and religon and politics, but the routine of their day, properly recorded, is always interesting, and will become more so as conditions change with the years.

The Australian academic, Peter Morton, suggests that Waugh not only identified with the Pooters’ wayward but ‘modern’ socially climbing son, Lupin, but could see in Mr and Mrs Pooter the petit bourgeois sensibilities of his own parents (from which, just like Lupin, he wished to escape). It would appear that in later life Waugh made an extensive study of the diary, comparing it with the original series published in the Magazine Punch from 1888 to 89. This was after receiving a copy from his mother at Christmas in 1946 – something that may have been prompted by his mention of the diary in his recently published novel, Brideshead Revisited (where Lady Marchmain reads extracts to her family).

But our story of the Grossmiths, like Alexander Waugh’s investigation into his family, begins with an earlier generation: namely with the prodigous talents of Emma’s stepfather, William Robert Grossmith (uncle to the more famous Grossmiths who succeeded him). Born in Reading in 1816 (although said to be born in 1818!), William  was the oldest son of a Looking-Glass and Picture Frame Manufacturer (that very title conjuring up the Victorian mysticism of Alice and her adventures). As an infant William seemingly already showed great talent for memory and impersonation, and a visit to the local theatre at age six seemed to have left an impression on him. Thereafter he began to learn theatrical songs off by heart, showing aptitude for singing tunes by ear. When his father introduced him to Charles Kemble, an actor and the manager of Convent Garden Theatre, Kemble described the young Grossmith as the greatest theatrical prodigy he had ever met with and advised the elder Grossmith to first try him on the boards of one of the minor theatres.

After success in 1824 at the Royal Cobourg/Coburg Theatre in Southwark (now The Old Vic) performing several popular comic songs of the age – an opportunity which which came about due to an introduction to James Jones*, the theatre’s founder – young William withdrew from the stage at the behest of his mother, who was concerned about the effect acting  might have on his moral development. However, shortly afterwards  this bright and inquistive child encountered the works of Shakespeare, and began to learn to recite whole plays, all the while displaying a full range of adult emotions. His particular favourite was Richard III, and so it came to pass that several months after ‘retiring’,  the Infant Roscius was back at the Cobourg, acting out scenes from this play to a rapturous audience, as well as playing to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre for one week (after being offered a more lucrative contract by the Manager). *The first book to describe William’s juvenile career (in 1825) was dedicated to James Jones who has since honoured him with the title of his ADOPTED CHILD.

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Contemporary external and internal views of the Royal Cobourg

Although Mrs Grossmith continued to try to thwart the attempts of those who were keen to put William on the stage, after a short while the Grossmiths were eventually persuaded to allow their son to give a full evening performance at their local theatre – an event which consisted of short acts featuring different Shakespearian characters, interspersed with comic songs. So impressed were the Reading audiences with the young Grossmith that William and his father eventually set off on a tour of the provinces, along with an elaborate portable stage which had been specially constructed to accomodate the boy’s small size. William even found time to give a private performance to the Princess Augusta at her home in Frogmore Lodge, Windsor, as well as to perform at the Chertsey residence of Mrs Fox (Elizabeth Armistead) – the elderly widow of Charles James Fox, the famous Whig politician, and a controversial figure who in her youth had also appeared on the stage.

Hancock, G.; William Robert Grossmith (1818-1899), as Richard in 'Richard III' by William Shakespeare

William Grossmith as Richard III in the Tent Scene (c)V & A Museum

The childhood memoirs of young William draw to a close in 1827 with the grand announcement that the New Argyle-Rooms (off Regent Street) in London are booked for his appearance during the upcoming season, in an attempt to woo the fickle West End audiences. Thus the booklet ends on this positive note for William’s future success: . . . it may be confidently predicted, that, whether our very youthful actor should stop short at the point of histrionic excellence he has already reached, or whether ( . . .) he will be too conspicuous and remarkable not be generally observed, and his beams too pure and splendid not to be constantly admired.

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However, by 1830 not only had the New Argyll Rooms ceased to exist, having burnt down in a fire, but with William now an adolescent (the playbill appears to have taken some liberties with William’s real age), his ‘Farewell Tour’ had already been announced (see playbill above). The playbill (below) of the following year ushers in the new infant prodigy: William’s younger brother, Benjamin Who is now but five years and four months old. However,  it is interesting to note that a later newspaper advertisement from 1833 indicates that the two Grossmith brothers are still occasionally acting together, so perhaps it was not quite as easy for the teenage William to relinquish his fame (and fortune). And in fact a further discovery (while making a final edit to this chapter) showed that the two brothers had indeed continued to act together throughout the 1830s, touring Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland, albeit with William still having the lesser role.

2014HD7965_2500 (2)Playbill feat. Grossmith brothers, 1831 (c)V & A Museum, London

Roscius

The young William’s slip from top billing is perhaps unsurprising. In the history of the theatre, very few juvenile actors have ever enjoyed the same level of success as adults – to wit, the young Master Betty, who gave up acting when he went up to Cambridge at seventeen, but after an unsuccessful comeback was forced to retire at twenty and live from the wealth he had accumulated in his youth. Perhaps our William was lucky in that from an early age he also showed a great interest in things of a scientific nature. In the latter biography of his childhood  it is remarked that during his country-wide tours he would often collect fossils in his free time, and when visiting the north of England it was reported that: Nothing in this quarter engaged the boy’s attention so much as the mode of weaving cotton by the vast powers of steam, so multifarious in its application. Two years earlier, in 1825, the writer of his first biography also mentioned that, alongside his powers of mimicry, a genius for poetry and song, and appreciation of art and architecture, the young William is equally as curious in scientific and mechanical acquirements. He views minutely all kinds of machinery, he enquires and examines into its nature, its use, and its properties; a mere cursory inspection will neither gratify his senses, nor satisfy his enquiring mind; everything must have its explanation, for he observes, “everything has its use”.

Although William Robert Grossmith was obviously interested in things of a mechanical nature, we  do not know how his conversion from child actor to mechanical surgeon was achieved: most likely he took up some course of study or apprenticeship in his teens, which he may have combined with intermittent touring. Unsurprisingly, it would seem that Emma’s stepfather showed the same sort of devotion to the craft of creating artificial limbs as he previously did to stage acting. In the book describing this successful second career, published when he was but thirty-nine, (after fourteen years of running the business – and of marriage to Emma’s mother), he outlines at great length how to construct the perfect limb for different types of injuries. Although it makes for slightly gruesome reading, it is fascinating to note (from the case histories of past patients) how many people at that time lost limbs in the employ of the new steam railways – in addition to those that were amputated due to illness (often in childhood) and riding accidents. As Grossmith himself points out: It is an undeniable fact that the number of amputations performed in this and other countries has been greatly augmented of late years, attributable no doubt to the numerous accidents occasioned by the increasing use of Machinery and Steam power in all departments. This circumstance, in conjunction with the casualties of the late war*, have caused the subject to be brought prominently before the notice of the medical profession. * The Crimean War

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Artificial leg by William Grossmith (c) Science Museum, London

Artificial_left_arm_Wellcome_L0037165Artificial Arm, by William Grossmith (c) Wellcome Collection, London

In 1856, William Robert Grossmith was granted Freedom of the City of London by redemption (meaning that he possibly paid  for the privilege). However, by the mid-nineteenth century the advantages to being a Freeman were not as great as they had once  been, and perhaps William was more concerned about the status this honour would confer on him than anything else. In the frontispiece to his book on amputations, he dedicates the work to William Lawrence, president of the Royal College of Surgeon’s and a leading opthalmic surgeon of the time, who also treated Queen Victoria (and was made a Serjeant Surgeon, or surgeon of the royal household). In this dedication, Grossmith mentions the many patients which this eminent surgeon had sent to his business in Fleet Street, and praises him for his promotion of the advancement of the Industrial Arts. So it is perhaps while writing the book that he decided to apply for the Freedom of the City, an act which he may have reasoned would eventually lead to more professional kudos.

Not only did William Grossmith win the medal for artificial eyes at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, but accolades followed from several other international exhibitions, including the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin in 1853, and the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855, where Grossmith won medals for his artificial limbs. These awards were always  mentioned in the frequent advertisements for the business which appeared in the regular newspapers of the day.

After William died in 1899, one year after his step-daughter Emma, the business survived well into the 20th century with the name W. R. Grossmith Ltd intact. Before William’s death the company had already moved its premises to 110 the Strand, then later round the corner to 12 Burleigh Street. Unfortunately, William’s immediate successor to the business – his son, William  Benjamin – had died almost twenty years previously at the age of 30 (while working for the company), and William Grossmith’s step-son John Henry Sleath (Emma’s older brother), who had initially been apprenticed to the business as a Surgical Mechanist, had eventually taken a different professional direction. (His other step-son, George Sleath, who had worked for the business had unfortunately also died relatively young). And when William made his will in 1887, he had still not specified who would take over the company on his death – mentioning a codicil he intended to make to clarify this. This was, however, never written and it has so far proven impossible to find out what happened to the firm after William’s demise. I am, however, convinced that such an astute business man would have organised his succession planning before his death at the age of eighty-one – particularly as the business was still limping on (no pun intended) even after I was born. But after two centuries of trading, the company of W. R. Grossmith finally went into liquidation – an event which took place in 1966 at their registered office in Africa House*, Kingsway. *Observant readers may recall that it was in this very building, less than twenty years later, where I started my career as a genealogist (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born).

Over the two hundred years that the company sold trusses and artificial body parts, it moved between owners and addresses (mainly all in Fleet Street), although the Sleath connection was the thread which continued to run through the company’s history. When Emma’s father (John Henry Sleath) took over the business as a young man, he himself had inherited it from a Mr John Williamson, his father’s  business partner – who in a strange coincidence had also become his step-father. So perhaps when John Henry Sleath later took on the young William Grossmith he had in mind the possibilty of the very same role for him. Certainly the speedy way which Emma’s mother remarried (already called Mrs Grossmith when the will was finalised) makes one think this scenario was not unlikely.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago an online search alerted me to a letter in a 1925 edition of the  journal Notes and Queries which asked about the relationship of  William Robert Grossmith to Sleath, the artificial limb maker, but at the time I was unable to discover if anyone had ever replied to this rather unusual query. Then while putting the finishing touches to this chapter I unexpectedly came across both a copy of the original question – and the response – which I have included below.

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(c)The British Museum, London

John Henry Sleath’s will was indeed to be found, although it is no longer kept at Somerset House (a place I remember from my days as an heir hunter). With a credit card and an internet connection, the pre-1858 (Doctors’ Commons) wills can be  ordered on-line instantaneously from the National Archives, and lately even the Probate Registry (for wills post-1858) has moved into online ordering, considerably speeding up research time.

Interestingly, John Henry Sleath’s simple and uncomplicated will (made in 1841, two years  before he died) stated that everything he possessed should be given to his wife Martha, and appointed her his sole executrix. There were no caveats about remarriage (such as  in my great-great grandfather’s will to his much younger wife, Mary Ann),  and in the document Sleath stated that he entrusted Martha with his estate well knowing that she will do the best for our children. So it would appear that he regarded his wife as a trustworthy partner,  and combined with the absence of  financial restrictions on her remarrying, this may point to the fact that  William Grossmith could well have been already lined up to step into John Henry Sleath’s shoes. And so it is perhaps fitting that it is Emma’s step-father who should have the last say in this chapter, linking as he does the story of the Grossmiths and Emma’s actor-manager son, Herbert Sleath, who worked with his older Grossmith cousins, George and Weedon, on many occasions.

Last year (2016) was the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and to mark the ocassion the BBC created a Shakespeare on Tour website in which, to my delight, William Robert Grossmith was featured, using his early life to  illustrate the history of childhood Shakespearean actors. This was mainly because of the discovery of old playbills (such as the ones above) which showed Young Master Grossmith touring in the north-east. (The link to the above-mentioned site is here and the link to the short recording of schoolchildren discussing Grossmith’s stage career in an acting workshop is here, and is an especially touching tribute). However, it is interesting to note that the website states that: It’s difficult to find details of Grossmith’s life after he retired. According to an article in The Idler magazine of February 1893, the comic actor and writer George Grossmith, remembered today as the author of ‘The Diary of a Nobody’, claimed to be nephew of Master Grossmith the Infant Roscius. It seems that no-one can ever imagine the delightful child actor eventually becoming a successful maker of artificial limbs, hands, eyes, noses &C.

But perhaps one of the main things that unites the young William Grossmith with the older one, is a sense of playfulness. In an interview with the New York Times at a Surgical Aid Society meeting in London in 1889, not only did Grossmith mention how he can spot one of his ‘own’ legs walking down Fleet Street, but he also enthusiastically discusses the quality of his artificial eyes (which seemingly  fill a prominent place in the window of his body parts’ shop). According to Grossmith, his artificial eyes (which he was proud to state were worn by MP, actors and the clergy) will last much longer than those of his competitors due to the fact that they are made from durable French enamel.  Despite this advantage, the technology was obviously still not available to create an unbreakable eye. I have one customer Grossmith starts, who uses 6 or 7 every year. He is a member of the Athanaeum Club, where there are marble washstands, and is constantly letting his eye drop on these and break when he takes it out with the object of cleaning it.

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See you next month!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2017  

 

 

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