Tag Archives: Kensington Court

The Fortunate Widow

Truest and best who made for me of old

Higher the name of woman that you hold;

Beloved, whom thro’ so many years I see

Of happiness your rarer gift to me

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

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

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Copying my Skelton grandparents’ wedding pose from 1923 in 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The boat-builder, Alfred Westmacott, circa 1930

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kensignton-courtKensington Court Mansions, Kensington

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

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

fig20Kensington House and Colby House

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

fig22Grant’s Plans for the New Kensington House

fig23The completed residental area of Kensington Court

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

Farra's Buildings

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

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

The times printed the following obituary:

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

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

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

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

Contemporary newspapers reported the event as thus:

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(c) The Straits Times, 30 August 1936

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2017