Category Archives: Sleath-Skeltons

Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour

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,

Signifying nothing.

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

HERBERT SLEATH (2)The dashing Herbert Sleath (c) 1900

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 GARDENSKings 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 ships’ passenger records from the early 1890s show that a Herbert Sleath-Skelton travelled out 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.

Herbert2 (2)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-Skelton2 (2)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.

ADELPHIThe 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’!

JonesProgFront (2)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 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 in his employ once his parents had both died. 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 to have received any monies from him on his death, 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!

  maidenhead-lock-eveningBoulter’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!

CHRISTCHURCH MAYFAIRChrist 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 (3)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 progess 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

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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.

$_57

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

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 Eton and 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

alfred1-295x600

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, pre-1920

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 own husband, Cecil Floersheim. Some of them had 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 Cecil did – and had been decorated or given peerages. 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 most of the apartments there is enough space for several 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.

Farra's Buildings

church-court-inner-temple

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 memory of his two brothers.

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

AN00436764_001_lAdvertising 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.  However, 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 (a cerebral 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 would continue 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 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 also included 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.

AN01238777_001_lWilliam 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. However, the Grossmith brothers had themselves grown up in a very different household to the fictional characters they lampooned. Theirs was a very middle-class and Bohemian 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.

George-Grossmith-senior-1820-1880 (2)George Grossmith I

Diary of a NobodyWeedon 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 1889. 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).

Even as an infant, William seemingly already showed great talent for memory and impersonation, and a visit to the local theatre at age six appeared to have left an impression on him. Thereafter he began to learn theatrical songs off by heart, showing an 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 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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444px-Royal_Coburg_Theatre_1822Contemporary 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 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 ShakespeareWilliam 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. 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 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 (and stated in the introduction to this chapter): 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

Artificial_left_leg,_London,_England_Wellcome_L0057949

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).

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.

AN00439340_001_l(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