Tag Archives: Evelyn Curzon

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 at £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 on 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

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