Home Thoughts from Abroad

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

When Robert Browning wrote Home Thoughts from Abroad in 1845, shortly before his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, he was in his early thirties and living in the north of Italy. This was a part of the world which would go on to play an important role in his life and literary work, and although Browning obviously had a great affinity for the place, the poem eloquently captures the feelings of the ex-patriate. Whether English or Australian, Italian or Indian, it is possible to recognise the longing for the homeland which is so delicately described (even if this is often just the idealised version of ‘home’ that exists in the imagination). And as the verse aptly illustrates, the things that are taken for granted by those waking in their own country become much more significant to someone who is parted from them.

Around the time of the poem’s genesis (mid-19th century), the British Empire was still in the process of expanding rapidly, and many colonialists would have related to such feelings for the motherland. When I think of some of my own Victorian ancestors, I could imagine the same thoughts would have been in their heads. What might James William Skelton have felt when dealing with the tropical heat in British Honduras (see A Tale of Exploitation) instead of the soft light of an English spring? What did his younger sister, Ann, dream of while out in the wild and lawless goldfields of Australia? And did his older sister, Sarah, reminisce about cool spring rain from her palatial residence in Hong Kong? This branch of my family could be described as ‘children of the Empire’, and would have no doubt have appreciated Browning’s sentiments, made much more poignant at that time by the ever-present fear of death from disease, or from the long and often harrowing sea journeys involved in emigration.*

*Ann died in Victoria, Australia, in 1860 from tuberculosis. She was just 29. Sarah also died from tuberculosis while travelling back to England by steam ship from Hong Kong in 1873, aged 47.

I do not, however, believe the poem was meant to be jingoistic in any way – Browning was not a colonialist, and he loved and appreciated the way of life in Italy, which he later called ‘my university’. But like many of these types of poems which have wormed their way into the nation’s post-colonial consciousness, the meaning may leave itself open to being hijacked and reduced to a simplistic message concerning the superior way of life in England (rather than the idea of yearning for ‘home’ in general).

My yearly spring teaching break always falls in the first fortnight of April, a time when I long to return to the UK, and so I can certainly sympathise with Browning’s sentiments. For me, the British spring has a different quality from that here in Switzerland, where the transition between the seasons seems to happen all too quickly. Thus the end of March is a time for me to pack my bags and ‘head home’, away from the lingering snow that characterises my adopted country*, and allow myself to be catapulted into a milder and greener landscape. For Browning it would have been the reverse – there was not the long protracted spring in his warmer Italy, and his reference to the gaudy melon-flower later in the poem seems to refer to this.

*On returning back to Switzerland a fortnight later there is always a surprise to find that spring has usually appeared in my absence and tulips are now out beside the crocuses, and the hornbeam hedge in front of the house has exploded into a mass of green.

As a Scot, however, I did not really associate Browning’s poem with my April visits to the UK until I started visiting England in springtime. Latterly this has been the Yorkshire Dales, in order to combine family research with a regular walking and sightseeing holiday. But once, several years before those genealogical trips, it was Cornwall with Swiss friends who had never been to ‘the island’. I still remember their delight when, after a day of driving through snow blizzards in Germany, we arrived to find ourselves in a magical land where pink Camelias were in bloom, the sea was a dazzling turquoise, and the gorse bushes fizzed with sun-coloured flowers drenched in the subtle scent of coconut.

800px-Kynance_Cove_2Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Andy Wright from Sheffield, UK, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6021874

Of course I could not help but quote Browning’s poem as we strode along the lanes towards the sea, proudly showing off what I regarded as ‘my country’ to our Swiss friends. Not only did they enthuse about the beauty of southern Cornwall, but they also loved the very Englishness of the place: the cacophonous rookery by the old church, the fat badgers in the garden at night, the thatched cottages which lined the road to the harbour, the friendly local pub with the folk music jamming sessions, the cream teas in tiny chintzy cafes. I saw Britain through their eyes – a heady experience and one which I’ve always wanted to repeat. Next time you can show us Scotland, my friends said, and I was already planning where we would take them. But that was ten years ago, and despite our best intentions we have not yet been away together again. Perhaps I knew instinctively that nothing would beat that visit to The Lizard, where a run of great weather certainly helped to turn the whole experience into the living embodiment of Browning’s poem.

Fast forward eight years later to May 2016, a month before that terrible referendum, when another unexpected trip to the south of England was on the horizon. This time it was to the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife. Steve and Beverley have featured on this blog before – they were the ones who helped me visit Pennyhill Park (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot) and although not as fascinated by the family history as I am, they have always been very supportive of  my project. But this time there was no genealogical sidetrips planned – just a long weekend of walking, talking, eating and relaxing. And it was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped. For the first time in years I was able to experience the magic of bluebell-carpeted woods again (I am always too early in my spring break), not to mention having the chance to explore a part of the country I’d never visited but had heard so much about over the years.

BLUEBELL WOODSBluebell Woods at Weston-Sub-Edge, Cotswolds

Looking back now, that whole long bank holiday weekend seemed suffused in a dreamy pre-referendum light. It was the first few days of real warmth of the season, and on the drive up (across?) from Reading we stopped for lunch by the river at the wonderfully atmospheric Trout Inn in Lechlade, before heading to our final destination – the hamlet of Weston-Sub-Edge. That Friday evening, when we walked through the bluebell woods and over Dover Hill to the almost too-perfect yellow stone town of Chipping Campden, I felt enveloped in a sudden peace. May is always a hectic time at work, and despite what many people think about living in Switzerland, here there is a constant ‘performance pressure’ that permeates every aspect of life which I’ve never experienced to the same extent in the UK. And so I always feel like I’m moving down a notch or two when I step onto home soil – although the fact that I’m usually there on holiday probably helps.

SCENERY.JPGTypical Cotswolds Scenery

The trip certainly surpassed my expectations, with the particular highlight for me being the walk over the fields from from the church of St Lawrence at Mickleton to the arts and crafts gardens at Hidcote Manor, now owned by the National Trust. As we lazed on the grass by the ha-ha which separated the sheep from us, eating our homemade ploughman’s picnic lunch, and looking out over woods and undulating pastureland, I was overcome with an unexpectedly joyous feeling of possessing strong ties to family and land – an almost alien emotion for me, having lived away from my ‘home’ in south-west Scotland most of my adult life.

HIDCOTEHidcote Manor Gardens, Cotswolds

It was strange to feel such an attachment to an English landscape. Like many of my fellow compatriots north of the border, I have always had conflicting feelings about England, particularly the south. From an early age we are almost brainwashed into seeing this part of the UK as the default setting for the whole island. So much so, that when we actually visit the place for ourselves it can feel like stepping into a film set in the same way a first trip to Manhattan does. So while I delighted in the ancient churches, the soft meadowland paths, the stiles and kissing gates, the woodland streams, (in short the very Englishness of everything), part of me was struggling with the thought that it was not my own country. I am half English – the proof was in my very solid Berkshire cousin striding alongside me – and I do love the idea of England, at least in its most romantic sense. But something about the place shuts me out at the very same time that it beckons me in. It is a strange feeling to describe, although many Scottish writers have attempted to do so over the years.

Throughout the weekend I discussed the concept of identity with my cousin and his wife – how it was possible to feel British and Scottish, yet in my case also a tiny bit English, too. Perhaps this complex web of allegiances had been further tangled by all the years I’ve spent living and working abroad. Possibly my English relatives find it an odd thing to query, but if so they never say. They have never needed to grapple with those feelings, seeing English and British as mostly interchangeable terms.

COUSINS_2 (2)With my very English Cousin, Chipping Campden, Cotswolds

However, it was not long before my national identity was called into question when the results of the EU referendum were announced. Very much in shock, us Brits on the Continent kept our heads down and whispered long into the night with our fellow ‘remainer’ friends – most of us having been denied a vote in any case. And so it came to pass that those very fragile feelings of Englishness which I possessed from my paternal side of the family began to wither away, and even my sense of Britishness was called into question. The handmade Union Jack rag rug I’d bought in the Dales was hidden under the bed, then my London mug mysteriously ‘broke’, the red-white-and-blue hessian shopper was suddenly needed for storing junk in the attic. And so it continued, until not a single object in the house could remind me of that patriotic feeling I’d once had, and which now was lost to me. It felt like a bereavement of sorts, and I struggled to keep up my enthusiasm for my genealogy project, no longer fired up to visit London in the same way I’d previously been.

And exactly a year ago, on April 1st 2017, I finally applied for Swiss citizenship. At the time I thought it an auspicious date, but now I see it as rather fitting – particularly as my new passport arrived this week, just in time for my annual spring voyage home. Before the EU referendum I had not felt the need for such a document. Unlike my parents-in-law, who had been happy to give up their Austrian and German identities after the war and proudly called themselves Swiss, I felt no strong desire to dilute my roots through taking on another nationality. And in 2012 (what seems to me now like the high watermark of my feeling of Britishness, and I suspect I am not alone in this) I had celebrated the queen’s diamond jubilee with strangers – many of whom were English – on the island of Islay, had watched and re-watched Danny Boyle’s exhilarating Olympic games’ opening ceremony, and had cheered on my cousin’s daughter as she gave the performance of her life for team GB in the synchronised swimming event.

It had been around this time that I’d begun to really throw myself into my genealogy project, discovering my English roots with a keen interest. My trips to London became more frequent and I felt more and more connected to the Skelton side of my family through pounding the streets of their neighbourhoods, tracking down long-lost relatives on-line, and immersing myself in the archives. But was my project simply a way to strengthen my feelings of belonging, of being British while living abroad? Now I realise that our very sense of national identity is such a fragile thing: it can be buoyed up by certain events, weakened by others. But did my ancestors feel this, too, or were they unwavering in their patriotism as they crossed seas, fought wars on foreign soil, and set up homes and businesses in far flung corners of the globe? Perhaps like me they always thought that it would only be temporary – that one day they would return to the place of their birth and find it unchanged.

But in the case of both James William Skelton’s sisters, death prevented them from ever seeing their native land again. And so we might begin to understand how more intense those feelings of home were for those who did not know if they would ever walk amongst the blossoms and dewdrops of an English meadow again.

COTSWOLDS TREE.JPG

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)

Over the next three months I will be looking at the lives of James William Skelton’s three surviving sisters, starting with Ann, who emigrated to Australia with her husband in 1854, but who never made it back to England. My trip to the gold fields of Victoria was also a wonderful opportunity to visit the country again, meet fellow historians on the way, and immerse myself in the emigrant story. I look forward to sharing my research with you next month in Three Sisters: Ann.

Wishing everyone a very Happy Easter!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2018

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The Living and The Dead

I have plunged into the eighteenth century and can see I may get involved with many other contemporary enthusiasts. But I am using (or trying to) this century as a means of living more fully in the twentieth century. This is what I want to remember: don’t run away from your problems here and now, however well you write and see the past.

Jean Lucey Pratt (in 1949), A Notable Woman, ed. Simon Garfield (2015)

Last month I described my visit to the old Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey – the institution where my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton, spent his final terrible 18 months (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But what I did not mention was that, on that icy February day, I was not the only visitor taking advantage of the ex-asylum’s relatively infrequent open days.

While I was upstairs mooching around the gloomy Great Hall, with its hammerbeam roof, searching for the light switch, an unexpected group of visitors entered the room. With gasps of Oh, it’s just as I remembered! and I’d clean forgotten about that!, the three women were obviously familiar with their surroundings (including the whereabouts of the old fashioned light switches). Thrillingly, I realised that I was possibly about to come face to face with some of the people who had actually worked in the building while it still played an active role in mental health care, rather than simply housing the wealthy.

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Anyone who is particularly interested in the recent history of Holloway Sanatorium will soon discover that there is one relatively famous ex-employee who wrote about his time there in a very funny and irreverent way. In his book Notes From a Small Island, the British-American humourist Bill Bryson briefly mentions the period in 1973 when he worked as a janitor at the asylum, a job he obtained through knowing some of the student nurses (and where he eventually met his future wife).

He describes the institution as such: The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself. It had its own joinery shop and electricians, plumbers and painters, its own coach and coach driver. It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming-pool, a tuck shop and a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, sewing room and laundry. Once a week they showed movies in a kind of ballroom. It even had its own mortuary. The patients did all the gardening that didn’t involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate. It was a bit like a country club for crazy people. I liked it very much.

Over the years, Bryson, whose parents-in-law lived in the area, sadly watched the decline of the old sanatorium after it closed its doors in 1981. From being initially used as a set to film crime drama or rock videos (including the spooky Charlotte Sometimes, by The Cure), the buildings eventually fell into total disrepair and were repeatedly vandalised, as well as being looted for remaining ‘artefacts’, including some of the old casebooks.

In the late 1990s when Bryson returned to Virginia Water from America, fully expecting to see the old sanatorium further degraded, he was unprepared for the scene which awaited him and described it thus: So imagine my surprise when I crested a gentle slope and found a spanking new entrance knocked into the perimeter wall, a big sign welcoming me to Virginia Park and, flanking a previously unknown vista of the sanatorium building, a generous clutch of smart new executive homes behind. With mouth agape, I stumbled up a freshly asphalted road lined with houses so new that there were still stickers on the windows and the yards were seas of mud. One of the houses had been done up as a show home and, as it was a Sunday, it was busy with people having a look. Inside, I found a glossy brochure full of architects’ drawings of happy, slender people strolling around among handsome houses, listening to a chamber orchestra in the room where I formerly watched movies in the company of twitching lunatics, or swimming in an indoor pool sunk into the floor of the great Gothic hall (this was originally the dining hall, similar to the Great Hall, upstairs) where I had once played badminton and falteringly asked the young nurse from Florence Nightingale (a ward name) for a date, with a distant view, if she could possibly spare the time, of marrying me.

SWIMMING POOLThe (New) Swimming Pool at Virginia Park

According to the rather sumptuous accompanying prose, residents of Virginia Park could choose between several dozen detached executive homes, a scattering of townhouses and flats, or one of twenty-three grand apartments carved out of the restored san, now mysteriously renamed Crossland House (this was after Thomas Crossland, the architect). The map of the site was dotted with strange names – Connolly Mews, Chapel Square, The Piazza – that owed little to its previous existence. How much more appropriate, I thought, if they had given them names like Lobotomy Square and Electroconvulsive Court. Prices started a £350,000 (twenty years ago).

For the locally-based ex-nurses I met that day (none of whom had known Bryson or his wife), the external changes to the estate had been gradual. However, they were still unprepared for both the grandness of the interior and the coldness the place exuded, now that it was devoid of the staff and patients. And as is the nature of such encounters, we rapidly fell into conversation; while I showed them my photographs of Herbert and told them his story, they furnished me with their memories of the place – all of which seemed very positive. This was curiously very reassuring, even though they had worked there half a century after Herbert’s death. He would have been well cared for they said. It was very much a happy place.

I wanted to believe them, but had a feeling that Herbert’s condition wouldn’t have been an easy one to deal with. One of the ex-nurses later explained that during her medical training she’d once had the opportunity to discreetly observe an old lady suffering from advanced tertiary syphilis (very few of these cases existed by then due to the widespread use of penicillin from the 1940s), and she described the rather shocking limb tremors she witnessed in the patient.

I was touched at my new friends’ interest in my research, and felt quite emotional when I brought out some of the old Rotary postcards of Herbert, and they mentioned how he looked slightly like me (there is indeed a Skelton resemblance – my cousin’s oldest son could almost double for Herbert).

HERBERT SLEATH (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1906

Of course I pumped Nina, Beth and Helen (by now we were one first name terms) for any relevant information about their time at the hospital, and was impressed at how little they gave away about their individual patients. When we were later joined briefly by a retired male nurse from the subcontinent, the three women were rather disconcerted when he inadvertently blurted out the name of a famous actor-comedien who had once been treated at the asylum.  We would never give names they said. Even now.

Afterwards, when I re-read Bill Bryson’s account of the months he spent at Holloway San, it tallied with the stories the nurses had told me of upper-crust patients (there was still a proportion of fee-paying patients up until 1974 to offset costs, some even from the pre-NHS days) wandering the estate and neighbouring town of Virginia Water in plus fours and dinner jackets, their cut glass accents allowing them to get away with a lot of mischief both in and out of the asylum. Bryson describes this scenario more generally in his book as follows:

Virginia Water is an interesting place. It was built mostly in the twenties and thirties, with two small parades of shops and, surrounding them, a dense network of private roads winding through and around the famous Wentworth Golf Course. Scattered among the trees are rambling houses, often occupied by celebrities and built in a style that might be called Ostentatious English Vernacular or perhaps Game Stab at Lutyens, with busy rooflines crowded with gables and fussy chimneypots, spacious and multiple verandas, odd-sized windows, at least one emphatic chimney breast and acres of trailing roses over a trim little porch. It felt, when I first saw it, rather like walking into the pages of a 1937 House and Garden. But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics. Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanatorium for years, and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again.

Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags or sweets, having a cup of tea or just quietly remonstrating with thin air. The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms. The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn’t act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker’s declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone. It was, and I’m still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.

While this doesn’t detract from the gravity of some of the inmates’ conditions, it does seem to demonstrate that the ethos of the place – likened by many to a prolonged stay in a country hotel – had remained throughout the years. Patients appear to have been treated with kindness and respect, and the fact that the asylum had been built in what was originally open countryside meant that there had always been little restrictions on the patients’ movements (at least those not deemed to be a danger to themselves and others, such as Herbert).

With our new-found solidarity, the ex-nurses and I approached the administrator’s office on the ground floor to enquire about access to other parts of the building – and were rather perfunctorily told that most of the old sanatorium was out of bounds, including the chapel (a badminton match was taking place there). What we had seen that day seemed like a tease, and just as I have often found with genealogical research, it felt as if the curtain was being slowly lifted on an interesting and unknown aspect of my ancestor’s life, only for it to fall abruptly back down before the entire scene could be fully absorbed. Again, it felt like moving closer to – yet simultaneously further from – the truth.

Over lunch at a local overpriced bistro full of the American wives of bankers (many who lived at Virginia Park), I got to know the three women better. They had kindly invited me to join them for their reunion meal, and after parting we agreed to keep in touch. And so it was that a year later I returned to Virginia Water with my mother in tow. This time the nurses had arranged for us all to have a guided tour with Joy Whitfield – an expert in the history of the sanatorium – from the nearby Egham museum. By then (2013), the open days had shrunk to once a year, and on the 15th of September a small group of us gathered in front of the lodge gates to meet Joy. This time we were able to visit the chapel (where Joy had incidentally been married) and learn more of the historic details of the building – such as the elaborately painted TH, JH, and TC initials on the ceiling of the grand entrance hall, standing respectively for Thomas Holloway (the Victorian benefactor), his wife Jane, and Thomas Crossland (the architect).

1387 (2)Ceiling in the entrance hall (initials of Jane and Thomas Holloway)

1413 (2)The Chapel, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Joy had also thoughtfully brought along some of the photographs and brochures of the original fee-paying asylum from the turn of the century for us to browse through after our tour. A video (below) shows the contents of an Edwardian advertising booklet for Holloway Sanatorium. It certainly does look like it is emulating the style of a country house hotel. And in fact a contemporary account of the sanatorium states that: Dominated by the idea that a cultivated person whose mind is affected will never be cured if surrounded by vulgar idiots or grim accessories, Mr George Martin (Thomas Holloway’s brother-in-law, who later became Martin-Holloway) has endeavoured to introduce as many objects as possible to awake and stimulate the trained intelligence for the moment over-strained. In the smaller but still ample parlours and living rooms the same idea of cheerfulness and suggestiveness is carried out. It is endeavoured above all things to avoid leaving a dimmed intelligence opposite to a blank wall.

As I mentioned last month, one of the things that puzzled me about Herbert’s time as a patient at the sanatorium was the absence of his wife, Ellis Jeffreys, in his life. She is not even mentioned in the contested will of 1915, in which Herbert leaves almost everything to his wealthy sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, who would go on to be the beneficiary of three more wills before her own death in 1953 (see The Fortunate Widow). This fact has led me to surmise that the relationship had become strained several years previous to Herbert’s final illness. In addition, it would appear that neither she nor any other family member organised a funeral or an obituary for Herbert, who only twenty years earlier had been described by The Penny Illustrated Paper so: 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.

There is, however, plenty of evidence as to how Ellis lived out her remaining decades as a widow. After writing (or rewriting) her own will a month after Herbert died (in which she left everything to her daughter, Evelyn), she continued to live at both Dormy Cottage with Evelyn and at an address in town (30, Hill Street, S.W.7), acting on the London stage. By the 1930s, Ellis had even entered the exciting new world of cinema. So it is now possible to view Ellis as a celluloid creation, something which was denied us in the case of Herbert. And stills and promotion material from these films clearly show her aging well – a good-looking, fashionably dressed older woman, often playing the part of a mother or grandmother figure to the younger, rising stars of the period.

s-l1600Ellis Jeffreys in 1936 (at age 67)

But was it galling for Ellis to be re-imagined in these roles, having once been the attractive ingénue herself, or was she just grateful to still be able to work at a job she clearly loved, and continue to be active in society at a time when most older women became invisible? Somehow I think it was most likely the latter. Ellis always comes across to me as a survivor – a strong woman who did not allow herself to be the puppet of any one man. And yet I also have this feeling that she was perhaps manipulative in her own way, using her looks and connections to create the aristocratic lifestyle she wanted for herself.

In 1933, Ellis and Evelyn finally moved out of Dormy Cottage and into a large Jacobean farmhouse in the village of Chobham in Surrey. It seems a strange move for two women who were often up in London, as the house and grounds were even bigger and the village more remote (it did not even have a train station) than their previous residence. But perhaps the property was seen as an investment opportunity for ‘little’ Evelyn: she inherited the house* on her mother’s death in 1943 (from pneumonia and heart disease), and continued to live there alone for over half a century, until her own death in 1987.

*Ellis states in her 1921 will: My two children are aware that my love for them is equal and in making this my Will I desire to leave on record that I am solely influenced by the fact that my son is now old enough and able to earn his own living. I accordingly GIVE all my property to my daughter Ellis Evelyn Isabella Curzon and APPOINT her my Executor.

Shipping records also show that throughout the 1930s Ellis and Evelyn took several trips and cruises to exotic destinations together, so perhaps Ellis was making good money through her frequent film appearances. Between 1930 and 1938 (when she retired) she appeared in no less than a dozen British films, none of which appear to have stood the test of time. And while I have enjoyed watching full-length performances of her son, the actor George Curzon (who was famous for playing the role of Sexton Blake, as well as appearing in numerous Hitchcock films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much), I have not yet had the opportunity to see his mother spring to life before me. But like many of the actors and actresses of the period, who made the transition from the stage to film later in their career, I somehow imagine that she might come across as rather shrill and hammy. Even George does not exactly seem very natural and authentic today (usually playing the same cool, aristocratic part), although this may be more due to changing fashions in acting style.

George Curzon in The Scotland Yard Mystery, 1934 (man on right)

And so the dead rise up before us again through the magic of new technology, and we can only wonder at what those who first saw these moving pictures thought of such a spectacle!

Over coffee in the now busy local bistro, I explained to the ex-nurses that my next plan was to go out to the village of Chobham and try to see Chobham Farm (where Ellis and Evelyn lived). I had printed out a map of the area from the internet and had rather naively worked out that I could walk over there (and back) before darkness set in. But my new friends sensibly thought otherwise, and Nina eventually persuaded me to let her husband drive me to Chobham – she had a service appointment with her own car at the local garage that afternoon, but knew her husband would be free, and more importantly would be on board with the plan. Nina assured me that, as a newly-retired lecturer, he was interested in a plethora of different subjects, and local and social history was one of the things he wanted to delve into further, now he had more time on his hands.

We found ‘Geoff’ (I cannot recall if this really was his name, but in my mind he is a Geoff!) at Nina’s cottage-style, book-filled home, seated by a roaring fire, reading the Guardian. Outside the large back window which overlooked the secluded garden, birds screeched and flew from bush to tree to well-stocked feeders and back again. I was fascinated at the number of feral parakeets visiting their small but wild space, and it reminded me of my experience in the ‘rewilded’ area of Nunhead Cemetry in search of the family grave (see Present at the Death). I then remembered the sad sight of Herbert’s name on the Skelton tombstone, carved into a small area  on the granite (almost like an afterthought), and immediately I felt a brief connection between one area of my research and another.

When I later explained this feeling to Nina and her husband, they considered it a very apt description of the way social history can create unexpected links between people, places and events. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us opportunities to connect with living people with whom we might not otherwise come into contact. I thought about the new friends I’d made at East Coker, five years previously, when I’d started out on my quest (see In my Beginning is my End). And how all those encounters – including the ones that day in Virginia Water – had enriched me in some way, and had also (hopefully) touched the lives of others, too.

This was why I included the introductory quote from the biographer and diarist, Jean Lucey Pratt (in relation to the research for her biography into the 18th century actress, Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington). Pratt, whose edited journals were published recently as A Notable Woman, was the one of the Mass Observation diarists to be featured in all three of Simon Garfield’s edited collections featuring the cream of the archive material (namely: Our Hidden Lives, We are at War, Private Battles). It was through reading these books to discover more about wartime Britain that I fell in love with the writing of this remarkable woman, which naturally led me on to read her own diaries once they were published (see a Guardian book review here). Such is the nature of social history research!

Rather disappointingly, the trip to Chobham did not let me see much of Chobham Farm. Like many of the old country lanes around the village (which were now busy with cars), Sandpit Hall Road had no footpath or stopping place, which made it hell for pedestrians. And as most of the ex-farms* were set back from the road and hidden behind hedges, it was difficult to see much.

*Chobham Farm’s adjoining farmland was sold for 1920s housing before Ellis bought the property, although it still retained a huge garden.

geograph-4255333-by-Shazz (1)Junction of Sandpit Hall Road, Chobham

We drove by the dark wooden house a couple of times, slowing down to attempt a closer look. But I soon realised I did not have to see the place: I was getting tired of ogling all the ‘porn’ properties that my wealthier ancestors had inhabited. It felt like a replacement for real world activities – for chatting with Nina, Beth and Helen about their time at Holloway Sanatorium and their views on current mental health provisions, or discussing the south-east’s parakeet invasion with ‘Geoff’. I felt as if I had a psychological thermostat (for want of a better expression) which whenever I was in danger of going too far into the land of the dead would bring me partway back to the present. I realised more than ever that I wanted to be with the living, talking about the things that matter to us now. And perhaps it was at that point when I had the intimations that I should not get too carried away with this project, but try to combine it with the things that currently interested me.

I decided then and there that I would go the following winter to Australia. I would seek out the details of the life of Ann  Haydon (née Skelton), Herbert’s paternal aunt, who died of TB on the goldfields of Victoria before Herbert or his siblings were even born. This adventurous young sister of Herbert’s father (James William Skelton) is linked to the fate of her nephew by dint of sharing a ‘space’ with him on the family tombstone at Nunhead. They were the only two members of the family not be buried in the grave, yet their names were also engraved in the ugly pink granite. And in the canopy above the absurd block of stone which carried the memory of them and their immediate family, I knew that there would still be the raucous squawks  of the green feral parakeets. A sound like Australia in London. Like Nunhead in Virginia Water.

P1030838 (2)

P1030847 (2)The gravestone enscriptions of Ann (above) and Herbert (below)

To be continued soon in Three Sisters: Ann

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2018

Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall

Call no man happy till you know his end.

Herodotus, The Histories, (440 BC)

The final chapter of this three-part trajectory of the life of my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton is, like most traditional stories, written to be read in a linear, chronological fashion. In the first part (see Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour) we saw how Herbert conquered the London stage and found his cod-aristocratic bride. In the second (see The Lady and the Cowboy), we learned more about this relationship – which was possibly not all it seemed – and about Herbert’s twin loves, namely those of America and racehorses. And now we arrive at the last act, where we will be able to judge Herbert’s life (if we so desire) in its entirety.

But the piecing together of this life story was anything but linear. If plotted out mathematically it would be a series of loops circling in on themselves, then out again, some wide, some tight. What I started with was the surprise find of a Rotary photograph of a young and handsome Herbert Sleath, then I moved straight on to applying for Herbert’s death certificate. After all, when someone dies at age 50 (even in 1921), there is always the questions of Why? and From what? This is not just to satisfy morbid curiosity: as I have discovered previously through my research, death often casts a backward shadow over life. To wit, the number of my London ancestors who died in late middle-age of bronchitis-related infections. (It is not necessary to be a medical practitioner to realise that this would have been to a large part due to the polluted air in the industrial working class suburbs of South London).

Herbert2 (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1908

But to continue the story of Herbert Sleath-Skelton we must return to where we left off: when Herbert was a sprightly man-about-town, and the classic Edwardian gent. Throughout the 1910s, Herbert and his successful actress wife Ellis Jeffreys were to continue living in their rural idyll at Dormy Cottage, in Woking, and acting (often together) on the London stage. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. Several months later, when Herbert no doubt felt uncomfortable continuing in his present career while young men all around him left to do their duty (including his step-son, George Curzon), Herbert obtained a temporary commission as a lieutenant in the armoured car division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (conscription did not start until 1916, and then only to age 40). A grainy photograph from The Sketch in August 1915 shows Herbert in his uniform beside his armoured car, still looking relatively young and gallant at age 44.

HERBERT_NAVYHerbert Sleath-Skelton in August 1915

Herbert was to leave the Royal Navy Air Service shortly after this photograph was taken. This was due to the fact that the armoured car units were about to be handed over from the air force (then part of the navy) to the army, and it would seem that Herbert had to apply for a new commission. However, to complicate things further, Herbert had suffered a nervous collapse while under heavy shell fire at Loos in September 1915, and thus was also in need of a period of rest and recuperation.

Herbert eventually took up his new post in March 2016, but records show that his three month initial probationary period in the army did not go as intended. By June of that year, his behaviour was described by the Brigadier General as unsatisfactory: He (Herbert) seems to be careless and inefficient, and has shown no signs of improvement, although this was pointed out on several occasions. There has been great difficulty in getting him to understand the simplest orders, or obtaining any information from him about his section. His returns were often inaccurate and he had no idea how to select his N.C.O.s or organise his section. This certainly does not fit in with the portrait of Herbert that other records have helped to build up, and very much points to the fact that he was probably already suffering from the illness which was to kill him five years later.

Tellingly, it is also around this time that Herbert and Ellis’s lives seem to begin to diverge. Even though they were to keep the same official address at Dormy Cottage in Woking up until Herbert’s death (although typically Herbert also lists other addresses during the years from 1915 until his death), Ellis does not appear to be as involved in his life as much as previously (she is still acting on the stage throughout the war), and it is up to Herbert’s younger sister, Maude Beatrice, to intervene on her brother’s behalf when the War Office clamps down on Herbert’s further requests for sick leave and a pension at the time when his worsening illness makes him unfit for service. In addition, Herbert’s will (which was contested), written in July 1916, makes no mention of Ellis, but leaves all of his relatively meagre estate to his sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, making this the first out of four inheritances  she would go on to receive in her lifetime (see The Fortunate Widow).

Finding the folder full of correspondence between Herbert, Maude and the War Office in the National Archives at Kew was somewhat of a breakthrough for me. I had first become aware of Herbert’s unusual death in 2012, and it wasn’t until slightly later that detailed records from the First World War began to be accessible to the general public. Every year, as the 100 year limited is reached, more and more of these documents became available for consultation, illuminating past mysteries with a few scraps of yellowing paper. And from the correspondence to which I was privy, I was finally able to create the link between Herbert’s old life on the stage to his last debilitating years.

From Herbert (and later Maude’s) letters to the War Office, Herbert’s physical and mental decline from 1915 onwards becomes more and more evident. Although he was put on sick leave again in the summer of 1916, he had to suffer the ignominy of ongoing medical tests and doctor’s reports (every three months) in order to continue being eligible for his army pay. At the end of 1916, he was described by a medical doctor as: Suffering from the effect of shell shock. He is an extremely nervous condition. Knee jerks are absent but there is a marked tremor of the tongue and fingers. He suffers from insomnia and has marked tachycardia (rapid heartbeat).

The following month, Herbert wrote to the War Office to ask if he could be officially invalided out of the army so that he would be able to take up civilian work (in order to have an income to live on). This letter is heart-breaking to read as Herbert’s writing had become more and more ‘jaggy’ and uneven, obviously the result of tremors in his hand. In addition, Herbert’s mental capacities also appear to be diminished as the letter rambles on rather illogically and is not consistent intellectually with his past endeavours as a successful actor-manager and astute businessman. Something was obviously very, very wrong.

And this is where two strands of my research start to meet and curl around each other in a most satisfying, although macabre, way. In 2012 I had been rather shocked to discover that Herbert had died in 1921 (at the age of 50) in an institution with the grim-sounding name of Holloway Sanatorium. Not only that, but the cause of death was given as General Paralysis of the Insane. In other words: late stage syphilis which had affected the brain. This was a disease that was not an uncommon cause of death in the pre-penicillin days, and actually merits its own Wikipedia page, here.

Another quick online search connected this disease to the institution: Holloway San was not quite the Swiss-type sanatorium I had imagined, but was a private ‘hospital for the insane’. Located in upmarket Virginia Water, Surrey, it had first opened its medieval-looking doors (albeit to the middle-classes) in 1885, offering a wide range of up-market facilities. Surprisingly, it survived for almost a full century as a lunatic asylum, later mental hospital (take your pick from either of these terribly un-PC names!), being taken over by the newly-formed NHS in 1948, although still continuing to care for some of the old, pre-war patients.

HollowaySan1884front (4)

1411 (2)Holloway Sanatorium then (1884) and now (as Virginia Park)

This magnificent Victorian gothic building, was the brainchild – along with nearby Holloway College – of the wealthy philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune selling dubious cures for all-ills. In the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit of its benefactor, Holloway San was designed as an institution to cure those who wanted to help themselves. In other words, for fee-paying middle-class professionals who needed to ‘get better’ in order to take up the reins of their profession again. These patients were originally not expected to stay for longer than 12 months, and only curable cases were deemed to be accepted into the asylum. But these rules appear to have become more flexible over time, and thus by 1920, patients like Herbert, while less common, were not rejected.

I was lucky in that my initial research into Holloway Sanatorium led me to the case notes (currently being digitalised) of the asylum’s patients, most of which are held in the Surrey History Centre in Woking (others being kept at the Wellcome Library in London). And it was at the history centre, on a sunny day in early September 2012 that I was finally able to read the doctors’ reports on Herbert, detailing the eighteen months he had spent in the hospital up until his death. It had taken me three months to organise my visit, mainly due to the fact that that the period (1920-21) was not covered by the 100 year access rights, and thus I had to obtain special permission to view the records. My enquiries were handled by the extremely helpful head archivist, Julian Pooley, who is a passionate believer in the importance of local and social history, with a particular interest in Surrey’s mental hospitals and how such documents can help current mental health professionals. See a description of this research here.

Once I was able to ascertain by documentation that there were no living relatives of Herbert – I did fleetingly think of his step-grandson, Earl Howe, sitting in the House of Lords, but banished that thought as quickly as it had appeared – then I was able to either view the records in situ or pay to have a copy of Herbert’s case notes sent to me. I chose the former, which Julian Pooley agreed would give me the most ‘authentic’ experience. And by looking at the particular case notes’ book as a whole, I was able to compare Herbert’s situation with those of the other patients. It was not a pretty picture.

Holloway_Sanatorium_Hospital_for_Insane,_Cas_Wellcome_L0032179 (2)Example of a female patient’s case notes (c) Wellcome  Museum

Although Holloway Sanatorium was one of the first asylums to take photographs of the inmates, and as such has been the interest of researchers in this field, there were disappointingly no images of Herbert. However, after reading the doctors’ notes, this did not surprise me. Herbert was obviously one of the more ‘difficult’ patients at the institution described on entry to the asylum (on 22nd April 1920) as: violent and abusive, struggles, kicks and bites when touched. A fortnight later he was: Still raving and abusive. Almost impossible to examine. Speech very inarticulate. Stammering and slurring of consonants very marked. Says that he is colonel of the First Rifle Guards and that he is very rich, that he is going to have various people arrested and shot etc. etc. Cannot concentrate his attention on any one subject. And the following week the examining doctor writes: At times the patient is quiet and agreeable but more often is garrulous and self-centred. Cannot carry on a rational conversation.

As I sat in the comfortable and light Surry History Centre, and transcribed Herbert’s case notes on that beautiful late summer’s afternoon, I felt all sorts of conflicting emotions. Not only was there terrible sadness at the way this successful man had fallen so low, but there was unexpected anger at the seemingly off-hand way the doctors had described Herbert. Example: Nothing to note except that he is inactive, has gained several pounds in weight, and seems to be settling down to the demented stage. There was also frustration at the fact that anything he said had not been taken seriously, such as the idea that he was (or had been) rich. Example: considers he is a very wealthy man, which is a delusion. And of course the horrified embarrassment at reading: History of incontinence of the faeces on 2 or 3 occasions.

Half-way through the day’s research, I went out for a much needed break, and walked out from the centre of the town to the exclusive suburb of St John’s, where Dormy Cottage was located. The stroll along Jackman’s Lane emphasised the still semi-rural location of the house which – although surrounded by mature hedges and trees, and thus difficult to see in its entirety – looked like the kind of place I had spent my childhood dreaming about owning one day. (With a recent million pound selling price, this is alas, to stay a fantasy).

cottageDormy Cottage, Jackson’s Lane, St John’s, Woking

Sorting through my scribbled notes on the crowded train back to London that evening, I reflected on Ellis’s role in all of these proceedings. Why were there no details of visits or letters from her as there had been in other patients’ case histories? (This was the sort of thing that the different case notes had brought to my attention, illustrating the importance of viewing records in situ). Why, when admitted to the asylum was there this official statement: Has been in private care in Brighton. Mrs Mary Kate Bang, nurse, Brighton Pier Hotel, states patient has been ill for 3 years following shell shock: has had fits of epileptic character? It was becoming clear that Ellis had rejected her husband in his illness, as had presumably all the others who had been close to this once popular man. And when Herbert died in September 1921 (his last days at the asylum make harrowing reading), there were no death notices or obituaries in any contemporary newspapers, as there would be for Ellis twenty years later.

Although it is a well-known fact that many soldiers contracted syphilis during the First World War*, it would appear from his symptoms (of third degree syphilis) that Herbert had had the disease prior to this period. Had Ellis been aware of this while they were living their supposedly dream life at Dormy Cottage (see The Lady and the Cowboy)? Or did Herbert’s illness only begin to be evident during his military service, and thus exacerbated by the shell shock he received at Loos? And what (astute readers may cry) of Ellis’s confession in her divorce that her ex-husband, the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon, had syphilis. Had he in fact passed the disease onto her, and she in turn had unwittingly given it to Herbert? Would she even be aware of this possibility – and if so, did she blame herself?

*An estimated 5% of troops were infected, although the disease was often concealed by servicemen as it was punished as a military crime. In addition, any illness not caused by military service resulted in docked payments (hence Herbert’s focus on the shell shock theory). However, some historians point to the fact that a number of men actually tried to catch venereal disease so that they could leave the horror of the trenches.

Curzon had died the year before Herbert, at the age of 53, from Syncope (fainting) and Myocarditis, alongside Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. The former diagnosis may in fact be an indicator of tertiary syphilis, a disease which has always confused medical practitioners due to its reputation as ‘the great imitator’ i.e. many of its characteristics are shared with other illnesses.

The informer of the death was his son, George Penn Curzon, who was by then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and resident at Dormy Cottage. As already mentioned, Herbert’s wife, Ellis Jeffreys, was not listed as a beneficiary in his 1916 will (which was unsuccessfully contested in the high court), but Herbert did leave £100 to both his step-children, indicating that he had most likely been close to them. As a stepmother myself, I know that although often a fraught relationship, it can be a very enriching experience, and without children of his own Herbert may have enjoyed having the company of young people to create a more traditional family atmosphere at Dormy Cottage.

Whatever I may think of Herbert, it is still extremely sad to think that his family life unravelled so quickly over five years. However, with so much more stigma surrounding both sexually transmitted diseases and mental illness in those days, it is perhaps unsurprising that Herbert’s friends and relations washed their hands off him in his final years, leaving him to rot in Holloway San. Without family visits (interference?), it would have been easier for the medical staff just to dismiss him as another ‘madman’ who had to be ‘drugged up’ and kept away from the ‘normal’ life of the asylum. But perhaps this is unfair of me to judge these doctors so harshly as Herbert was certainly not an easy patient. And if those looking after him had never known him as the healthy, successful man he had once been, then it may have been harder to show compassion, particularly if he had been violent towards them.

For several months after viewing Herbert’s case notes, I tried to arrange a date to visit the old Holloway Sanatorium. Although it is now a private housing complex (described by the estate agents as: Spooky Sanatorium to Luxury Living), it was initially still open to the public several days a year through an arrangement with English Heritage in return for grant aid given for conservation work. Previous to that, in the intervening years since the NHS had packed up and left, the place had become neglected and vandalised – although before it became too dilapidated it had been used by film companies whenever the abandoned Gothic country house look was needed. Not only did this include TV series, such as Inspector Morse, but more excitingly, rock videos of the period, the best of which (in terms of showcasing the asylum) is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure, and Bonnie Tyler’s magnificant Total Eclipse of the Heart. (Among several of the other videos that were made was the very un-PC Ozzie Osborne song Bark at the Moon, which, given Herbert’s Case notes, had me in tears of outrage).

Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart (filmed at Holloway San)

But in 1994, just when it looked as if the old sanatorium would need to be demolished, the property developers Octagon made a successful bid to restore the Grade 1 listed building to its former glory, eventually bringing in a team of specialists to complete the work to standards acceptable by English Heritage. Although most of it was transformed into private apartments, and what Octagon described as ‘extensive on-site leisure activities’, on set days every month visitors had always been able to view the parts of the building that English Heritage had subsidised (although it was clear this was grudgingly accepted by the residents, and public visits are sadly no longer allowed). Access included the entrance hall and stairway, staircase to (and including) the grand hall, as well as the chapel in the grounds (if open).

As luck would have it, I ended up arriving by train from Waterloo on one of the coldest February days I have ever experienced. From the small station at the upmarket commuting enclave of Virginia Water – the UK’s most expensive area! – it took me less than five minutes to reach the security gates of what was now named Virginia Park.

Holloway San EntranceGated entrance to Virginia Park (with Stop sign and porter’s lodge)

Once I was vetted by the porter and allowed into the grounds, a strange feeling began to creep over me. On the surface everything seemed very quiet and peaceful, but that there was also something slightly menacing about the place. A Stepford-Wives feel seem to cling to the posh housing estate that had bloomed up in the grounds around the main building since it had been redeveloped, but still it was not hard to imagine how the old asylum would have originally appeared without all the twee stone houses dotted around like uprooted ersatz lodge houses.

As I approached the entrance to the main building (in all its Victorian Gothic splendour) and the wonderful spectacle of the frozen fountain, a couple of expensive cars glided past, making me feel as if I had somehow strayed on private property – although in a sense that is probably what most visitors felt when they came for one of Virginia Park’s infrequent open days. But ‘open day’ was a bit of a misnomer as it was very much a do-it-yourself affair, which on that February day suited me fine. I simply wanted to be left alone to try to imagine what life might have been like for the inmates of the asylum.

1406 (2)Frozen Fountain at Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Before I took the steps to the entrance, I paused at the fountain and glanced up at the main building, trying to take in the whole scope of the red-brick façade. I soon had the queer sensation that the Puginesque central tower was moving slightly towards me. It was an oppressive feeling and I wondered how the patients had felt when they had arrived at the entrance and had seen the (then ivy-covered) building hovering over them like an overly watchful nurse. I walked slowly up the wide flight of steps, trying to imagine how a recalcitrant patient might have been led stumbling towards the entrance door by a doctor or a distressed relative.

1407 (2)Entrance to Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Once inside the building, I realised that no amount of reading about the place – or watching the slightly surreal early 80s rock videos that were filmed there – is preparation enough for the gothic splendour of the interior, replete with medieval bestiary paintings and Gothic arches and the rich dark colours of the paintwork. It struck me that this was not quite the calming environment that certain patients might have wished for, or even needed. Every section of the wall was covered with mythical beasts sprouting tongues or tails, or bat-like wings, or fins and weird bulging eyes, and all of them looked more malevolent than the last. But there was also another accompanying feeling: that of having strayed into a monastery or a pre-reformation church, which in itself was balm to the modern soul, weary of life in the 21st century. And perhaps it might have had a similar effect on those who had also been forced to retreat from the demands of their own lives.

Holloway San CeilingDetail from wall painting, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

After the bright entrance hall, the Great Hall upstairs was a dark and gloomy place – even once I had managed to locate the light switches! It reminded me of the Victorian village church I had attended as a child, with its hammerbeam roof and stained glass windows. And it was in this huge room that I began to feel something of both the oppressiveness and opulence of the place – like a long stay at a country hotel from which it was impossible to escape. There was a sadness in the dark and dusty corners that did not go away, even when a shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. I stayed there for a while, absorbing the atmosphere, thinking about Herbert and all the others who had passed through the space where I stood: some to return to their families, others to live out the rest of their days there, perhaps still believing they were simply the long-term guests of the benevolent local aristocracy.

1405 (2)Staircase to the Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Before I reluctantly left the building I noticed that there were one or two quotations painted on the walls in the Great Hall, set in between the portraits of various kings and queens, and Victorian statesmen. And there, in Gothic lettering, was the quote from the Greek historian, Herodotus, which made me think about Herbert and his tragic demise. 

1354 (2)

Call no man happy till you know his end.

To be continued next month in The Living and The Dead.

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2018

 

The Memory Thief

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter

 Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Happy New Year! 2018 marks the third year of A London Family, and I now  have almost thirty chapters devoted to my genealogical quest – well over 100,000 words, and certainly more than enough for a full-length book. Nevertheless, I intend to continue with my project until this summer, ending with the discovery of the Ur-Skeltons in the Yorkshire Dales, and a surprise piece of information which highlights some of the issues involved in following a patrilinear family history.

There are, however, still plenty of exciting tales to come before then: including the third and final part of the story of the life and times of Herbert Sleath, as well as sea voyages to exotic destinations, and the requisite untimely deaths in which such adventures often ended. But as the demands of the festive season are currently impinging rather disproportionately upon my free time, I have decided to revisit the catalyst that reawakened my interest in family history: namely the discovery of the previously unseen photograph of my teenage father and his friends (including my future uncle) in Coker Wood in 1944.

I initially wrote about this event in 2007 – two years after first visiting the Somerset village  of East Coker with my mother (and with a copy of the photograph in my bag). Ten years ago I was studying part-time for an MA in creative writing, and wanted to incorporate the story into a fictional piece of work. This was part of a larger project on the Freudian idea of ‘the uncanny‘ in literature, a concept which, although notoriously dificult to define, had begun to intrigue me. Around that time I also became aware of   the close connection between photography and ‘the uncanny’, a topic explored obliquely by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida, and which I discussed in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces).

This story set within the tale which follows is one that readers may remember from my first blog posts. In those two chapters (see In my Beginning is my End and East Coker), I expanded the narrative of the original text, adding the background details and information required by the factual nature of the posts. But for those who have not yet read the initial chapters, or who are happy to take a return journey to Eliot’s village of open fields and deep lanes (albeit on a slightly circuitous route), then this creative offering is for you.

THE MEMORY THIEF (2007)

The rain fell relentlessly over the Bodensee. It spat down onto the bare heads of the children who played on the upper deck of the ferry while their parents watched from the fuggy warmth of the restaurant. It drove away the last of the tourists buying coffee and ices on the oleander-lined promenade. It splattered onto the shiny metal roofs of the vehicles on the car deck, washing away the dust of the Autobahn and the sins of carbon monoxide emissions.

I huddled in my parka on the bench at the back of the ferry and watched the harbour slip behind us as we nudged out into the open water with a renegade hoot. The lake hissed and roiled, the metres sliding between us and the German Zoll. Soon those metres would add up to the kilometres that would propel us into another country entirely. That was where home was now. For better or worse I had settled in a small town on the Swiss side of the lake. A place of two seasons: foggy or sunny; a place where the snow seldom fell, and bananas and palms slept uneasily throughout the long, dark winter, encased in hessian sacking.

We were heading for the foggy season. The lakeside cafés would soon be pulling in their outdoor furniture, and the ubiquitous window-box geraniums would be replaced with pumpkins – later, festive pine cone wreaths. Then I would make this journey again in reverse, laden down with cheese and chocolate and handmade candles from the Christmas markets. But in between those two trips was a whole semester of teaching and marking and lesson preparation, while the endless rhythm of shopping and cooking and cleaning hummed away in the background like a badly-tuned radio which was impossible to turn off. I tried instead to think of the positive things about the cold season: meals by the log fire with friends; the Italian marroni sellers in the old town; the scarlet leaves on the Japanese maple at the top of the lane; the winter clothes in boxes in the attic just waiting to be rediscovered.

My thoughts were interrupted by a woman walking past on unsteady legs who stopped to ask for directions to the toilets. I pointed her down to the lower deck, and she stumbled wordlessly towards the metal stairs, her sparse hennaed hair fluffing up around her face in the wind. A purple-nosed man in a sludge-green boiled wool jacket caught my eye and looked away. Something cold and hard settled low on my stomach. Ach, ja, I heard someone say. Self-important lips smacked shut. A low, rumbling laugh. A belch and the sound of a beer glass cracking onto a Formica tabletop. I looked over the railing down at the water. This grey, foam-flecked lake would be my substitute sea for the next few months. But seagulls would never chase the ferries on twisting wings, their rackety calls splicing the air; and seals would never lurk underneath the shifting waves, their worried old man’s heads bobbing up sporadically above the waterline.

As we headed out across the Bodensee, the rain became heavier, and I reluctantly picked up my bag and entered the restaurant. Orders of bratwurst and potato salad and Weizenbier were being carried aloft by the serving staff, and I ducked into the first available seat at the table near the door. In the centre of the table a round of pretzels hung on a wooden tree, looking like a game of hoopla on a fairground stall. I looped off the topmost one and bit into it. A large crystal of salt dissolved against my tongue, and I immediately called out to a passing waiter and ordered a beer.

The man sitting opposite me put down his Frankfurter Allgemein with an attention-seeking rustle and raised his head. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down craggy tributaries to the twin dams of his bushy eyebrows. He looked similar to the actor who played the retired Black Forest detective in the TV series I often watched on Monday nights. But then he extended his right hand across the table top, and I knew as soon as he clasped his four fingers around my five that he was someone else entirely.

Dr Killian Fuchs. Professor für Psychologie in die Rorschacher Hochschule. Und sie sind Frau Skelton – die Engländerin die auch bei uns arbeitet?

Ja, das stimmt. Aber bin keine Engländerin, komm’ aus Schottland.

Ah, ha. Scotland. One of my favourite places. He leant forward, his words piercing the damp air with his stale, peppermint-sweet breath. Have you just come from there?

Sort of.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry. I have also been in my home town – Duisburg. Do you know it?

I shook my head.

Perhaps you are feeling homesick, like me. But it will pass, as it always does.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. Fahrkarten, bitte. The ticket collector in his peaked cap stood beside us. I reached for the inside pocket of my jacket for my travel documents and pulled out the plastic wallet that contained my passport, identity card, travel pass and remaining euros.

A very good idea, Dr Fuchs said, once the conductor was satisfied with validity of our travel cards. He pointed to the zip-lock wallet. If you fell overboard, the authorities would be able to quickly identify you.

I smiled perfunctorily and busied myself fiddling with my documents, slipping them one by one back into the wallet. As I did so, a photograph fell onto the table, picture side up. Before I could catch it, Dr Fuchs splayed out his good hand and grasped the photo as it slid towards the edge of the table.

May I have a look? It seems to be hand coloured – a technique I’m particularly interested in for various reasons.

It is hand coloured – by my father, actually. But I don’t think there was much technique to it. He was just a boy when he did it.

Dr Fuchs reached for a pair of heavy-looking reading glasses on a chain around his neck. He pushed them up over his nose and peered down at the photo, angling it into the light. Eventually he turned it over and read the faint pencilled inscription on the back: Expedition to Coker Wood, Whit-Monday, 1944.

Is your father in this photograph?

Yes. He’s the one on the right. A friend of his took it. I just found out recently.

So your father told you about the photograph?

No. My mother and I found it some years after he died. All we knew was that he’d been evacuated to Somerset from London during the Blitz. He spent most of the war there, living on a farm.

Dr Fuchs handed me back the photograph and fumbled in the top pocket of his tweed jacket. He drew out an outsize handkerchief and rubbed at his forehead. Sorry, my dear. A touch of the flu, I shouldn’t wonder. It always gets me this time of the year. I see you have almost finished your beer. Would you care to join me in a hot drink?’

As we sipped at our Ovalmaltines, Dr Fuchs explained that as a child he too had gone to stay with his grandparents in the German countryside towards the end of the war. He had very few memories of that time, apart from those he had later constructed for himself from the photographs taken by visiting relatives. It was this subject to which he was returning for his final work: the link between family memories and photography. It was to be his lasting contribution to the field, after having retired from teaching. In several weeks he would join his youngest daughter in New Zealand’s Bay Of Islands, where he hoped to buy a small house which overlooked the ocean.

But now I’d very much like to hear more about your photograph.

There isn’t really a story, I’m afraid.

Dr Fuchs leaned over and patted me on the arm. I will be the judge of that. But please, will you excuse me for one moment. He tapped the side of his nose. I have to pay a visit.

When he returned, his jacket was buttoned up tightly, revealing what looked like the bulge of a tobacco tin or a packet of cigarettes in his inside left pocket. The stairs to the lower deck had obviously overexerted him and he squeezed back into his seat, face flushed, hands trembling slightly.

I explained what I knew of the photograph, but as I talked Dr Fuchs seemed slightly distracted, raising his right hand to his heart, as if assuring himself it was continuing to beat. At one point I stopped and asked if he was feeling alright – I thought I could hear a faint mechanical whirring noise – but he just batted away my concerns and urged me to continue.

And this is more or less the story I told him.

When I was a child I used to beg my father to tell me about the time he’d spent as a young evacuee in the English West country. Eventually he would relent and tell me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs, about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. As I grew up, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. For some reason I never thought to ask him the name of this wonderful village. To me it was a mythical place of perpetual summer, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes. When later I asked my father where this village was, he told me it was near Yeovil. Such an alien-looking name must surely have been that magical place of his boyhood!

After my father died, my mother found some photographs of him hidden in an old leather wallet he had once used. One of the photographs had been taken in Somerset, in the village I assumed to be Yeovil. It wasn’t until I inspected the back of the photograph that I discovered it had been taken in a place called Coker Wood. The name ‘Coker’ niggled at me for days before I thought to check it on the internet. (You have to remember, this was in the late nineties). It was there I came across the Eliot poem, East Coker – part of the Four Quartets – and decided that one day I had to make the pilgrimage.

I waited until this summer so I could travel down by train from Scotland with my mother. It was the day the bombs went off in London: the seventh of July. We had chosen that weekend as it was the local celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and the East Coker on-line newsletter promised a day of special events ‘commemorating VE and VJ Day’.

East Coker Commemorations

It was a hot day, and as news filtered through about the London bombings the staff at each station became increasingly vigilant. In the end we were unable to leave our suitcases anywhere to break up our journey, and did not stop to look round Bristol as we’d intended. From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way the first evacuees would have come on September 1st, 1939. At the outskirts of Yeovil – to my mind, an unprepossesing market town – a wrought iron signpost (of the kind seldom seen nowadays) pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus veered off down a narrow lane which seemed to sink deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields) to later, more concrete information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he went dancing; this is the church he was forced to attend), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present. And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the cool soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

East Coker -Path

Later that day we finally met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall WW2 exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees – and amongst the letters and photos we saw our own photograph mounted in a crude wooden frame. And it was then we learnt the story of that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow of the war, but caught like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

The ferry was now negotiating the narrow entrance to the harbour on the Swiss side of the lake. I was anxious not to miss my connecting train home, and made my excuses to Dr Fuchs as I gathered my possessions around me. For a moment he sat completely still, eyes blinking in the bright glare of a sudden shaft of sunlight which broke through the clouds. Then he stood up and left the table with little more than a nod and handshake. It was only then I noticed he had no luggage of his own – save for a small leather shoulder bag.

The last time I saw him was at the Swiss Zoll. I turned to give him a wave but he’d been stopped by one of the customs’ officers and was showing him the contents of his bag. A flash of something metallic caught my eye but I could not afford to dawdle – the local train was already in the port railway station and my husband would be waiting for me at the other end.

*

Since then two more summers have passed, and I have yet to return to East Coker, despite my original intentions. It is almost as if I dare not build further on the foundations of the flimsy house of my memory. Who knows which stone might send the whole edifice tumbling down? And even the lost image of my father’s grinning face – forever framed in Alan Cornelius’ father’s Kodak Brownie – has become almost impossible to recall.

Coker Wood 1944 (3)

In Eliot’s Village

I went to Eliot’s village and stood, quite still,

In a hollow, earthy lane,

Like you might have done

Over sixty years ago now,

When Eliot’s Quartets were fresh and new

And yet to be dissected.

 

The hall, the house, the pub all stand

the woods, the stiles, the awkward paths.

I know you never wanted to return

So I went in your place.

And found a sadder-sweetness there

Amongst the mid-summer haying.

 

Happy New Year! The Incidental Genealogist, January 2018

 

The Lady and the Cowboy

If realism or naturalism on the stage is to be desired, we ought to look for it in detailed interpretations of the various characters. A woman who does not understand what a lady would do under certain social laws of etiquette would naturally be at a disadvantage in trying to play a cultured and refined role. Great actresses and great artists may reach tremendous climaxes, but in the details of society life I do not think a woman lacking in refinement can ever convince an audience of the realness of the part she is playing.

Ellis Jeffreys, The Evening World, 1906

Last month we left Herbert Sleath – already a successful actor-manager by the age of thirty – newly-married and with the world at his feet. Several months after his low-key Mayfair wedding in February 1904 at which The bride was picturesquely dressed in grey chiffon, with a graceful pleated skirt, the bodice made with wide tucks and draped with Brussels lace, and wore a ‘picture’ hat of grey velvet, with grey Brussels net veil, the floating end of which reached to her shoulder, Herbert and his new wife, the actress Ellis Jeffreys, set sail for the lights of Broadway. Their spring honeymoon in Paris had been brief. In an interview later that year, Ellis explained that they had both been so busy with their respective acting careers that it was impossible to have more than a couple of days away from the demands of the stage.

A contemporary newspaper article describes just how popular and successful Ellis Jeffreys was at that time: Miss Ellis Jeffreys is an actress who has come to the very front rank with a considerable rush in the past few years, and has now achieved that pitch of popularity where one hears a certain type of theatrical character spoken of as “an Ellis Jeffrey’s part.” Miss Jeffreys made her start in comic opera in parts which did not require any vast amount of intellectual endeavour, and gradually worked her way into comedy parts – at first small, then larger and larger, till she has become just about the best light comedienne on the Stage to-day.

Like all good comedians she has the gift of pathos, and when it has been required has very clearly demonstrated its possession. A few months ago Miss Jeffreys, who was Mrs. Curzon in private life, became Mrs. Sleath-Skelton, and her husband, who is also on the Stage, and acts as Mr. Herbert Sleath, is a member of a well-known Brighton family. It may be that in the future we shall see Miss Jeffreys in more ambitious work than she has yet attempted, and that being so, it is impossible to say how far in her Art she will go. In the particular line she has made her own, she has already progressed very considerably.

Ellis Jeffreys (7)Ellis Jeffreys at the time of her marriage to Herbert

As mentioned in the article above and in last month’s post (see Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour), Ellis Jeffreys had previously been married to the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon (the younger son of the 3rd Earl Howe), a King’s Messenger and member of the diplomatic service. Their rather scandalous divorce several months before on the grounds of adultery and cruelty was reported in the newspapers of the time, making for the type of titillating reading that we are all too familiar with in the tabloids of today. However, it was only when I discovered that I could actually apply for a hard copy of the divorce papers from the National Archives (since published on-line) that I realised just how complex the case had actually been: as payment for the record was by the page, I knew that there had been a large number of papers involved. And when the bulky folder arrived on my doorstep several weeks later, I could barely bring myself to open it. Feeling like someone about to witness a terrible event, I grabbed the wad of documents, still wrapped in their brown paper packaging, and rushed to the local café to find a quiet corner in which to peruse them without distraction.

For over an hour I sat at the Formica table with my cappuccino going cold. Not only was I perhaps the only living person to have read the divorce proceedings in their entirety – an official stamp said that the documents were closed until 2007 – but laid bare in front of me were all the failings of the Curzons’ tempestuous eight years together. This was obviously a difficult union which had nevertheless resulted in the births of Chambré (the actor George Curzon) and little Evelyn. Sadly (and rather thrillingly), the decree nisi listed all the occasions of their marital discord in detail, and the incongruous image of Ellis shouting for help from passers-by at the open window of the Curzons’ smart Mayfair townhouse is one that is difficult to forget. In fact, some months later I was able to visit the scene of the ‘crime’ – and although Devonport Street has been renamed Sussex Place, and the house is now the Hyde Park Radner  Hotel, it was not hard to imagine Ellis gesticulating from one of the wrought iron balconies which overlooked the street.

hyde-park-radnor-hotelFormerly 7 (and 8) Devonport St – now the Hyde Park Radner Hotel

It is perhaps worth quoting a contemporary newspaper article in full for the details of the case, which the court reporter summarised as such:

Miss Ellis Jeffreys, the well-known English actress, was recently granted a divorce by Sir Francis Jeune, after a very painful story of married unhappiness had been told. Her real name is Minnie Gertrude Ellis Curzon, and her husband is the Hon Frederick Graham Curzon, a son of the late Earl Howe.

The case was undefended. Counsel stated that the petitioner made every effort consistent with her professional position and peace of mind to prevent the matter going thus far. The marriage took place in 1894, first at a registry office, and afterwards at St. James’s Piccadilly. They lived first in Jermyn Street, and afterwards in Devonport Street, Hyde Park, and there were a boy and girl born of the marriage.

Mr Curzon began to behave badly, said counsel, soon after the marriage, but things went fairly well until August, 1899. Then he found a letter written by Mrs Curzon, which he thought began “My dear Man”. He was very violent about this, but apologised when he found  it was “My dear May”. In January, 1902, his conduct became unbearable. He used very bad language, and made suggestions to her of an offensive kind.

Mrs Curzon found evidences of infidelity, and a solicitor was consulted. A temporary separation was agreed upon. On Feb. 13, 1902, the respondent wrote: “I will mend my ways. I am not going to give way to my temper. I will not be a brute to you again. I want to make you my friend in everything. I love you, but my jealousy has made me cruel. I have been a devil to you, but no more of it.” For the children’s sake Mrs Curzon took a cottage at Maidenhead, her husband living in Devonport Street.

“In September,” said Mrs Curzon, who presented a tall, graceful figure in the witness-box, “I came back to town and told him he would have to vacate the house. He flew into a violent rage, followed me upstairs, hit me, and knocked me down.”

“I called my maid, and got away down-stairs. He followed me to the dining-room, put his back to the door, and refused to let me out. I was due at the theatre, so I opened the window and called to a cabman. Then he let me go, and somehow or other I just got through my part at the theatre that night.”

Other evidence was given, and Mrs Curzon was granted a decree nisi, with costs, and the custody of the children.

Divorce Court 1900Public viewing of a divorce trial, Royal Courts of Justice, 1900

Had Ellis not had money and connections, it might not have been so easy for her to divorce her bad-tempered aristocrat. As it was, the whole process lasted over a year and even after she had married again, Ellis still had to ask the judge’s permission to take Evelyn to America when she and Herbert returned to New York with the theatre in 1906 and 1907 (which is presumably why the divorce documents were closed until 2007, bringing them in line with the 100 year privacy ruling).

Ellis obviously had an astute lawyer who most likely urged her to prepare to give an exact account of her husband’s adultery, which in those days had more legal weight than the domestic violence aspect. Had Ellis already put someone ‘on the case’ to supply her with the firm evidence she needed to push ahead? Shortly after her application* to instigate divorce proceedings on the grounds of adultery and cruelty (denied by Curzon), she supplied a supplementary petition which stated that: On the 18th day of November 1902 at no. 8 Egmont House Shaftesbury Avenue in the County of London the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon committed adultery with Mrs Bearing.

*In the initial petition it was pointed out that: Your petitioner is at present unable to give any further or better particulars of the acts of adultery herein alleged but she relies upon a verbal confession of adultery made to her by the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon and also upon a similar confession made by the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon from Elizabeth Anne Jeffreys.

I have not yet been able to ascertain who the elusive Mrs Bearing was, but as Ellis filed this petition while staying at 140 Sloane Street she had obviously already left the family home in Devonport Place. (That your petitioner in consequence of the violence and threats of the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon is afraid to return to the said house no. 7 Devonport Street and has refused to further cohabit with him and your petitioner’s health has greatly suffered by reason of his aforesaid conduct.) Without wishing to belittle Ellis’s awful predicament, it did strike me as rather ironic that all these shenanigans were taking place at some of the most upmarket addresses in London – or perhaps that is not so unexpected, given the louche and tangled lives that many of the aristocracy appeared to lead at that time.

It also did not escape my attention that the court reporter mentioned Ellis taking the children with her to live in Maidenhead in 1902. The divorce proceedings note that this was in fact at Brazilian Cottage – the house next door to Herbert Sleath’s residence (Latimore House) in the North Town area of Maidenhead. The Tatler magazine in June of that year describes the summer scene there so: Quite a number of well-known theatrical people have been about the vicinity of Boulter’s Lock Maidenhead, lately, either on the river or in motor cars, a great many motor cars being on the river front in the evening. Mrs Brown-Potter* has been entertaining several friends at her charming place at Bray Lodge. Miss Ellis Jeffreys and Mr. Herbert Sleath are among the other members of the theatrical profession at Maidenhead this summer.

*Mrs Brown-Potter was a popular American actress and socialite who had recently come through her own acrimonious divorce.

postcardmaidenheadboulterslockrpFashionable Boulter’s Lock, at Maidenhead, in the Edwardian Era

While I don’t doubt the fact that Curzon treated Ellis cruelly throughout their marriage – there are certainly reliable witnesses to the event – it does look as if Herbert and Ellis might have been romantically involved as early as the summer of 1902 (if not before), previous to a petition for divorce being initiated in late September of that same year. And the rather opportune way Ellis was able to soon discover her husband with the adulterous Mrs Bearing (this was the only name she was able to supply the court, despite stating that there were many more cases over the years with unknown women) makes me think that she might have been concerned about the tables being turned on herself at some point in the proceedings.

This must have been a stressful time for Ellis (particularly if she had fallen in love with Herbert during that summer in Maidenhead). In September 1902, when Ellis filed for divorce (seemingly prompted by the incident at the open window in which Curzon threatened to kill her), Herbert had already left for New York with his cousin Weedon Grossmith: they were due to appear in the first production to be staged at the newly-opened Princess Theatre on Broadway. Ellis also had her own acting commitments in London at the time as she was starring (ironically) in the play The Marriage of Kitty at the Duke of York’s.

Q0051902485 (2)Tatler photographs of The Marriage of Kitty (Ellis is below)

Perhaps Herbert’s frustration at being apart from Ellis at this important time manifested itself in his behaviour at Madison Square Garden when he tried to enter three of his jumpers at the horse show due to be held there in the indoor arena. In ‘Notes of the Stage’ from the New York Times it was reported that: Herbert Sleath, who is playing at the Princess Theatre with Weedon Grossmith in “The Night of the Party”, was turned down Saturday by the Entry Committee for the Horse Show to be held at Madison Square Garden. Mr. Sleath is the owner of many horses. Gazelle, supposed to have been the finest jumping horse in England, was recently presented by him to the Viceroy of India.* One of his horses, Trimmings, is now in New York, and wishing to enter three he cabled to London for Spun Silk and His Highness, two jumpers. Saturday he received word that the horses had been shipped on the American Transport Line. After the matinée at the The Princess Theatre he went to the Madison Square Garden to make the entry, but was told that he was half an hour late and that his entries could not be received. Mr. Sleath was much displeased at the position of the committee.

*The Viceroy of India was George Curzon, cousin of Ellis’s soon-to-be ex-husband!

MNY7061    New Princess Theatre 1902 (Grossmith’s play is on the billboard)

But if we return to Ellis’s divorce, there was one important point made by her lawyer that the court reporter had not mentioned – possibly this was not something to which he was privy, or allowed to make public. And this is perhaps the most important fact in our own story of Ellis and Herbert.

Following the statement regarding Curzon’s long-term adultery (That upon divers occasions since the date of the said marriage the said Frederick Graham Curzon has committed adultery with various women whose names are to your petitioner unknown), this bombshell was dropped: That as a result of such adultery the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon contracted a venereal disease known as syphillis.

A soon as I read those words I had to bundle up the papers and leave the café (and another half-drunk cappuccino). All I wanted was to get out into the cool spring air and walk. Somewhere. Anywhere. I certainly wasn’t ready to return home. As I stumbled towards the path running alongside the lake, ignoring the greetings of the lunchtime dog-walkers, my mind was making rapid connections. Did he? Did she? Did they? For as someone time-travelling from the future, what I knew – and what no-one in 1902 could have known or even predicted – was that less that twenty years later my ancestor, Herbert Sleath-Skelton, would be dead from tertiary syphilis.

Anyone who knows anything about this awful disease may be aware of the story which awaits us. But before I plunge into this terrible tale, I would like to return to the halcyon days of Herbert and Ellis’s first few years of married life. The decade from their marriage up until the outbreak of war seems to have been a charmed one, only interrupted by Herbert’s occasional clashes with his professional rivals and the odd bad review. After their frequent visits to New York they eventually settled – if their peripatetic lifestyle could ever afford such a description – in Dormy Cottage, near Woking. A 1908 pictorial essay in The Sketch entitled The Lady and the Cowboy – Broncho Busting at Woking shows the couple ‘rusticating at Dormy Cottage’ during what appears to be the happiest time in their marriage.

But was it?

HERBERT and Horse

Herbert SleathHerbert as Jim Carston (top: at Dormy Cottage, Woking, 1908)

I still cannot ascertain when things started going awry for the couple, but as pointed out in an earlier post this year (see Writing Down the Past), an Edwardian Rotary postcard of Herbert I purchased from an ebay seller unexpectedly included an unintelligible scribble on the reverse that only my mother (with her secretarial experience) was able to decipher.* This was due to the fact that it was written in old-fashioned Pitman shorthand – as if the writer had wanted to keep the contents away from prying eyes. It is a rather strange message which appears to be arranging a rendezvous with a Miss Foster for 2pm the following day (February 28th, 1908). Oddly, the postcard is signed by what looks like Bertie I mean Sleathy’. Could that really be our man Herbert already playing the part of adulterer after only four years of marriage? Perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, the lifestyle of an actor/actress is certainly not the most conducive to a stable home life, and in the days of different communication technology (where the frequent post service ensured that postcards were the text messages of their time) the chance to cheat and get away with it must have been relatively high.

*Strangely enough, it is the same image which was appropriated by a modern novelty greetings card company, whose ‘new’ card (based on the original Rotary postcard) my mother came across in a garden centre shop in Harrogate, calling her to cry out loud – But that looks like our Herbert!

A White Man (2)

The original Rotary post card

P1060915 (3)Is this Herbert Sleath’s message on the reverse?

sleathy-card-2The novelty card (based on the original postcard) my mother found

But the enigmatic postcard throws up more questions than it answers. Would Herbert have known how to write in shorthand, given that he had no need for such training? In addition, the card appears to have been written and posted (in London) only a week after his four-year wedding anniversary to Ellis. Would he have done such a thing, knowing how much she had suffered at the hands (literally) of her first husband? And what is the reference to Paris – was it perhaps a nickname for a West-End club or restaurant. Of course, there’s a good chance that this is all just coincidence, and the card has nothing to do with Herbert. But still, that message taunts (haunts?) me:

10 o’clock / Darling Mabel(ing)? / alone in Paris / thinking of you my dear / leaving other (?) stage (?) gall/ at 2 o’clock / much love from Bertie/ I mean Sleathy

But if it were the case that Herbert was having a dalliance with another woman, then it may put the events of the next few years in a different light. My mother pointed out that Ellis did not seem that happy with her rather posey  ‘broncho-buster’ in the pictorial article The Cowboy and the Lady (unfortunately not able to be shown here). It could be that the stress of their last year on Broadway had put their relationship under pressure. One of their plays (The Fairer Sex) was panned and had to be pulled off after a few nights. In addition, Herbert had entered into a legal dispute with the playwright Harrison Grey Fiske, whose play, the New York Idea (in which Ellis had recently starred), Herbert planned to bring to London. An article in the New York Times entitled Sleath Defies Fiske mentions that: Mr Sleath says he paid $1,000 in advance on account of fees and cannot understand why ten days after he had signed a contract with the agent for the play he should receive a cable from Mr. Fiske saying: “I forbid the London production of ‘The New York Idea’.”

Perhaps his more famous wife also threatened Herbert. An interview in the New York newspaper The Evening World in February 1906, entitled Miss Jeffreys Off the Stage Is More Charming Than Ever, was typical of the time in that it focused unduly on Ellis’s ladylike bearing and manners (the subtitle was: Her Potrayal of the Society Woman Is Ellis Jeffreys at Home. NO ACTING IS NEEDED.) Ellis herself goes to great lengths to explain to the interviewer why it takes a lady to play one, stating: The stage to-day in its society scenes reflects the manners and etiquette of the best society circles. You could not expect a woman who had never been brought in contact with culture and the inborn traits of good breeding to enter a stage drawing-room and move correctly than you could expect her to properly conduct herself in a high life social gathering for the first time. Quite!

However, this sycophantic article does at least go on to give us a wonderful and rare insight into Ellis’s private family life. It is worth quoting this section in full below:

Just then a golden-haired little girl of seven came into the room with her governess. There was no need of an introduction to know that this was little Ellis Evelyn Curzon. Another link with high society.

Of course you know that no less a personage than Earl Howe is Miss Jeffrey’s brother-in-law, and some day her small son, George William Penn Curzon, will succeed to his uncle’s peerage and estate.

Little Miss Curzon had just been taking a music lesson.

“I always have my daughter with me,” said Miss Jeffreys, “and wherever I go she and her maid and governess go also.”

“My son is in school in England. No, I have never allowed their photographs to be published. They have no connection with my public life and it would be distateful to all of their family.

“You know my first husband, whom I divorced, was the Hon. Fred Curzon, a nephew of Earl Howe, and while I have the custody of my two children, I always remember that their father’s family, whose name they bear, has a rightful interest in them.

“There will never be any necessity for my daughter to go upon the stage as I had to do so, there is really no reason why she should ever be before the public in any way.”

Little George William Penn Curzon’s photograph looked back at his mother with a childish face exactly like her own. “Isn’t he ridiculously like me?” laughed Miss Jeffreys. “Oh, you should read his letters. He writes as perfectly as a boy of fourteen and he is only six years old”.

EVELYN

GeorgeCurzonThe adult Evelyn Curzon and her brother George Curzon (the actor)

The interviewer goes on to make much of the fact that Ellis had been introduced to  the  king and other royals at one of her (now deceased) father-in-law’s parties at Penn House – the Curzon family seat in Amersham near to where Curzon jnr. was at boarding school. Perhaps that is why Ellis enjoyed her American tours so much. (Her first visit had been in 1895, in the play The Notorious Mrs. Eddbsmith, when she was just newly married to Curzon, but had ended in a serious illness). While Stateside, her refined manners and accents would allow her to play the aristocratic role she seemed to want to cultivate.

The article also points out that: Miss Jeffreys and her husband, Herbert Sleath, have been sought after by New York Society. On her writing desk were invitations galore and the telephone never stopped ringing every five minutes. And Ellis herself adds: “I have met so many delightful people in New York, friends of my English connections, that my American tours are always the greatest pleasure.”

But to give Ellis her dues, she does tell the interviewer that at the age of eighteen, as an accomplished musician and singer, she had reluctantly become a chorus girl for the D’oyly Carte Opera Company for financial reasons (her father, Captain Dodsorth Jeffreys had died years earlier). Nonetheless, she then goes on to say in what I imagine to be a rather haughty voice: You know I am not of English birth. My grandfather was Chambrey Corcor* (or Corker) of Cor Castle Innishannon. County Cork, and my father was Captain Jeffreys of the army.

*This was Ellis’s maternal grandfather, Major Chambrey Corker. After being destroyed during the independence struggles in 1921, Cor Castle has recently been restored by a descendant.

The interviewer ends her puff piece with a long description about Ellis’s American-born London dressmaker (Ellis was famed for her gowns, both on and off stage), then reminds us once again of Ellis’s credentials (including her link through the Curzons to their illustrious relations, in particular Lord Randolph Churchill). Aside from her former husband’s connections, which have given her entry in the best society, of all the foreign actresses who have come to this country, there have been none whose social position abroad was so excellent, or who have been more gently bred or better educated.

All this must have been extremely galling for Herbert, who is name-checked only once (as opposed to ‘the Hon’ getting several mentions). So perhaps he justifiably had feelings of inferiority. Had his father ever described his own lowly beginnings  above the tailor’s shop in riverside Bermondsey? Had he perhaps even gone further and told Herbert of his Yorkshire grandfather’s second marriage to the teenage Mary Ann and their resulting children? Did James William decide to reveal to his own children the awkward presence of another Skelton family branch out there, spawning away in South London? A family with whom they were very closely related and which would soon create the generation that would benefit most from the sweeping changes about to hit society.

It is hard to really like Herbert and Ellis as characters in this story. They may seem rather snobbish and extravagent to us today. Yet what is about to happen to them – or more specifically to Herbert – is something that no-one could have expected. And on that February day in New York, two years into her second marriage, Ellis might have found it difficult to imagine the fate which awaited her new husband.

To be continued in Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall.

Ellis Jeffreys (8)

Wishing everyone a very merry Christmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2017

 

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 passenger records from the early 1890s show that a Herbert Sleath-Skelton travelled out by ship several times to North and Central America in the company of his father’s current business partner – George Arthur Vaughan Schofield (son of the original co-founder and 15 years older than Herbert). This was the same man who would die forty years later from his injuries after falling under a train in what appeared to be suspicious circumstances at Warren Street Underground Station, an event I chronicled in last month’s post.

Perhaps Herbert’s father, James William Skelton, was trying to involve him in the family business in some way by this move. (Herbert’s brother, Stanley, officially became a partner in 1891). It would seem that, while in Central America, Herbert was able to indulge his adventurous streak, travelling through uncharted terrain on horseback. The Penny Illustrated Paper article of 1899 mentions that: It was there (in New Mexico) he added the finishing touches to his innate love for horses. He had always been devoted to the “friend of man”, but there he almost lived and slept with horses, and learned their every mood. There is nothing he cannot now do with them, so that it is not surprising to find him the owner of several racers of the highest order, with which he has been lucky on the Turf, especially during last season.

And Odd Notes supplies us with this little gem of Herbert’s time in Central America: A few years ago Mr. Sleath was of a surveying party travelling from Belize, in the State of Honduras, to a place called Tenosique. On the way he had occasion to stop at a little spot called Peten. Here the inhabitants were keeping one of their fiestas. The inhabitants, being of an observant nature, noticed the kindly disposition that lurked in Mr. Sleath’s eyes, so asked him to subscribe towards the expenses of a local dance. To this he had no objection, although at the moment he had no money on him. The natives, it may be mentioned, had at the same time “no flies” on them, and, noticing a gold signet ring that he wore on his little finger, suggested that he should hand it over by way of sealing the bargain. This he did, and the dance was given with native music and everything “bang up”. When the dance was over the ring was redeemed for two dollars, the entire cost of the dance.

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 population census of this new century shows that Herbert was living at Latimore House in North Town, Maidenhead (his father had died the previous year, his mother two years earlier). There he has employed his father’s coach driver (George Coe) and his wife to work for him as coachman and housekeeper. The Coes appear to have been in the employ of the Sleath-Skeltons for many years – certainly since the family moved to The Cedars at Clapham Common c1877 (where they lived in one of the mews flats behind the dwellings). The Coes also moved to King’s Gardens in Brighton with the family (living in nearby Victoria Mews), and it would thus be natural for Herbert to keep them on after the death of  his parents. It was probably an arrangement that suited both parties. Herbert’s father, James William, left his coachman the sum of fifty pounds when he died, the only servant detailed to have received any monies from him, indicating his appreciation of Coe’s long service (the butler and other domestics seemed to change regularly, as was common at that time).

However, there is one thing slightly puzzling about the 1901 census. While Herbert, George Coe and his wife and their youngest daughter are all listed at the address there is another name at the bottom of the list, that of Emma (or Esma) Thorne (age 5), described as an ‘adopted daughter’. Perhaps she was related to the Coes – or why else would she be placed after their names? Unless she had something to do with Herbert and the Coes were simply helping to raise her? Interestingly, the teenage Daisy Coe is said to be a ‘ladymaid’ (although if caring for a child, would have been described as a ‘nurse’).  But who is she working for? – unless of course she has a position outside the house, or was just visiting her parents at the time of the census. However, I have not been able to ascertain exactly what happened to this little girl, but suspect that she may have been a grand-daughter of the Coes whom they had ‘adopted’ for various reasons. Herbert never mentions a child in later life so – unless Emma/Esma dies shortly afterwards – I do not believe she was related to him, much as I would like her to be!

Although Herbert had previously lived independently from his parents – he appeared to have shared a house (The Gables) with his brother Stanley in Lewes in the 1890s – the move to Berkshire seems to have marked a new beginning in his life. There he was not only able to indulge his passions for rowing and horse racing, but was to be near to his future wife, the actress  Ellis Jeffreys, when she took over the lease of the neighbouring property (Brazilian Cottage) at the time of the disintegration of her stormy marriage to the younger son of Lord (Earl) Howe, a member of the famous Curzon-Howe family. Methinks, however, that it might not have been a coincidence that this lady ended up spending so much time in the genteel town of Maidenhead before her divorce!

  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

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