Heroes

Major-General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837)

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, an event which I have studied closely in the past. Having already written a post on Wellington, the great hero of the battle, I thought I would focus here on another character- Major General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby. it’s a great story!

by Thomas Heaphy, watercolour and pencil, 1813-1814

by Thomas Heaphy, watercolour and pencil, 1813-1814

Ponsonby was the second son of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Lady Henrietta Spencer, daughter of the 1st Earl Spencer. During the Peninsular War he fought at Talavera, Badajoz, Salamanca, and was wounded at Burgos. He also fought at the Battle of Vitoria and The Battle of the Pyreenes. It was Frederick who gave the news to Wellington that Napoleon had been forced to abdicate.

During Waterloo Frederick took part in a ill-fated cavalry charge with the 12th Light Dragoons. They badly overstretched themselves and Frederick was very badly injured and left for dead on the battlefield. He was wounded in both arms, thrown to the ground by the stab of a sabre, and then pierced through the back. Over the hours that Frederick endured lying on the bloody battlefield, he met a Frenchman who promised to help him and gave him some brandy, was used as a shield from which another Frenchman shot at the British from, was trampled by oncoming Prussian cavalry, and plundered for his possessions; still he survived! At last he was spotted by a passing British foot soldier who stood guard over him until he could be taken to shelter. Miraculously he survived his many injuries, nursed back to health by his infamous sister- Lady Caroline Lamb.

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. On the left is Frederick and on the right Major-General Sir Colin Campebell

Frederick became quite famous for this adventure, although the exact details of it only came to light later. Frederick had wanted to keep the exact happenings of his traumatic experience away from his mother, who was bound to be shocked by them. Eventually though he was persuaded to tell his tale to Lady Shelley. Lady Shelley then wrote this long letter relaying the details to Lady Bessborough.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

It’s a very long account, so I have abridged some of it, but I promise it is worth a read! Over to Frederick…

‘In the melee I was disabled almost instantly in both my arms, and followed by a few of my men who were presently cut down—for no quarter was asked or given—I was carried on by my horse, till receiving a blow on my head from a sabre, I was thrown senseless on my face to the ground. Recovering, I raised myself a little to look round, being I believe at that time in a condition to get up and run away, when a Lancer, passing by, exclaimed : ” Tu n’es pas mort, coquin,” and struck his lance through my back.

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The Battle of Waterloo. Image: Plas Newydd

My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth; a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought all was over. Not long afterwards (it was then impossible to measure time, but I must have fallen in less than ten minutes after the charge) a tirailleur came up to plunder me, threatening to take away my life. I told him that he might search me, directing him to a small side pocket, in which he found three dollars, being all I had. He unloosed my stock, and tore open my waistcoat, then leaving me in a very uneasy posture. He was no sooner gone, than another came up for the same purpose, but assuring him I had been plundered already, he left me. When an officer, bringing on some troops (to which probably the tirailleurs belonged) and halting where I lay, stooped down and addressed me, saying he feared I was badly wounded, I replied that I was, and expressed a wish to be removed into the rear. He said it was against the orders to remove even their own men, but that if they gained the day, as they probably would, for he understood the Duke of Wellington was killed and that six battalions of the English army had surrendered, every attention in his power should be shown me. I complained of thirst, and he held his brandy bottle to my lips, directing one of his men to lay me down on my side, and placed a knapsack under my head. He then passed on into the action, and I shall never know to whose generosity I was indebted, as I conceive, for my life. Of what rank he was I cannot say; he wore a blue great-coat.

By-and-bye another tirailleur came, and knelt down and fired over me, loading and firing many times, and conversing with great gaiety all the while…Whilst the battle continued in that part, several of the wounded men and dead bodies near me were hit with the balls, which came very thick in that place. Towards evening, when the Prussians came up, the continued roar of cannon along their and the British line, growing louder and louder as they drew near, was the finest thing I ever heard. It was dusk when the two squadrons of Prussian cavalry, both of them two deep, passed over me in a full trot, lifting me from the ground, and tumbling me about cruelly—the clatter of their approach and the apprehensions it excited may be easily conceived. Had a gun come that way, it would have done for me.

The battle was then nearly over, or removed to a distance. The cries and groans of the wounded all around me became every instant more and more audible, succeeding to the shouts, imprecations, and cries of ” Vive l’Empereur,” the discharges of musketry and cannon, now and then intervals of perfect quiet which were worse than the noise. I thought the night would never end. Much about this time one of the Royals lay across my legs—he had probably crawled thither in his agony—his weight, convulsive motions, his noises, and the air issuing through a wound in his side, distressed me greatly—the latter circumstance most of all, as the case was my own.

It was not a dark night, and the Prussians were wandering about to plunder, and the scene in “Ferdinand Count Fathom” came into my mind, though no women, I believe, were there. Several Prussians came, looked at me, and passed on. At length one stopped to examine me. I told him as well as I could, for I could speak but little German, that I was a British officer, and had been plundered already. He did not desist, however, and pulled me about roughly before he left me. About an hour before midnight I saw a soldier in an English uniform coming towards me. He was, I suspect, on the same errand, but he came and looked in my face. I spoke instantly, telling him who I was, and assuring him of a reward if he would remain by me. He said that he belonged to the 40th Regiment, but that he had missed it. He released me from the dying man, and being unarmed, he took up a sword from the ground, and stood over me, pacing backwards and forwards.

At 8 o’clock in the morning some English were seen at a distance. He ran to them, and a messenger was sent off to Colonel Harvey. A cart came for me—I was placed on it, and carried to a farmhouse, about a mile and a half distant, and laid in the bed from which poor Gordon, as I understood afterwards, had been just carried out. The jolting of the carriage and the difficulty of breathing were very painful. I had received seven wounds; a surgeon slept in my room, and I was saved by continual bleeding—120 ounces in two days, besides a great loss of blood on the field.’

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

His injuries left him a hero, but partially disabled without the use of his left arm. In 1835 he married Lady Emily Bathurst, daughter of the 3rd Earl Bathurst, and went on to have six months. From 1826-35 he was Governor of Malta. it was during his time in Malta that Frederick the French soldier who had given him brandy on the field of Waterloo; which must have been a remarkable experience.

Categories: 19th Century, Heroes | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Flora Sandes (1876-1956)

Ever heard of a British woman fighting on the Serbian front line in WWI? Read on to discover more about this fascinating woman with a true passion for adventure…Bvdy4N0CUAAR8nlFlora was born into a hardworking middle class family from Yorkshire. Eschewing the normal forms of amusement for little girls, Flora adored horse-riding and shooting. She spent hours out of doors, running wild through the woods and fields around her home. Flora wished she had been born a boy so she could become a soldier, but this of course was absolutely impossible at the time. As she grew older, her sense of adventure and desperation to see more of the world could not be abated. As soon as she turned eighteen, Flora used her secretarial skills to travel to Cairo, across British Colombia and the United States. On her return she became of the first women in Britain to obtain a driving license and bought a French racing car. She joined the shooting club and trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

Flora’s first opportunity for adventure was on the horizon. In July 1914 Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, and the European powers agreed to send support. Flora soon found herself on the way to the front line in Serbia as part of St. John’s Ambulance. Working on the front tending to the sick and wounded, at first Flora communicated using only sign language. By October of the following year however, Flora was fluent in Serbian. She joined the Serbian Red Cross, working for the 2nd Infantry Regiment- known as the ‘Iron Regiment’ because it spent so much of their time at the front. Flora showed such courage and fortitude that she was soon regarded as an invaluable resource for the Serbian troops. The war was going very badly, and as the army was pushed further back through the Albanian mountains, Flora was able to become more and more the soldier she had always dreamt of being.

Flora Sandes portrait with medalWomen were actually allowed to join the Serbian Army, something that would never had been allowed back in Britain. Flora jumped at the first opportunity to join as a private in the infantry. No British woman had ever done so before, so it really was an extraordinary thing to decide to do, in the midst of a war. The Serbs in turn greatly appreciated Flora’s commitment and many skills. She was the utmost professional, game for everything, but also had a humour and humility that endeared her to soldiers from all ranks. For the Serbs she personified Britain’s commitment to help them in their hour of need. Flora was also fantastically brave. She was twice mentioned in Dispatches, and was awarded the Serbian equivalent the Victoria Cross for her bravery during a particularly vicious attack. This attack left her seriously wounded from twenty-eight individual shrapnel injuries down one side. By this time she had been promoted to the rank of Sargeant- Major, and on sick leave in England, raised as much money as possible for her beloved Serbian troops. She returned to the front line in May 1917.

After the war ended Flora became the first woman or foreigner to be raised to the rank of Captain in the Serbian army. It was a huge honour, and Flora was delighted to be given command of her own platoon. In 1922 Flora left the army as the Serbian forces were scaled back after the war. Flora returned to England, but felt very out of place. She said ‘I felt neither fish not flesh when I came out of the army. The first time I put on woman’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ Living on her army pension, she survived by teaching and writing her second autobiography.

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Flora with Yurie (sandesancestry.net)

In 1927 she married a Serbian called Yurie Yudenitch who had been a Colonel in the White Army and had escaped Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. They had met when Yurie was serving in Flora’s regiment, and they had fallen deeply in love. The couple moved to Paris where Flora worked for a time as a chaperone for young ladies at the famous Folie-Bergere bar. Flora and Yurie then moved to Belgrade where Flora worked as one of the city’s first taxi drivers. She also spoke about her experiences in the Serbian Army extensively, lecturing all around the world. She always gave her talks in her Captain’s uniform, which she wore with great pride.

When WWII broke out, having refused to leave Yogoslavia, Flora was arrested and imprisoned by the Gastapo. Flora later recalled of prison life: ‘There were fourteen women in that room–British and Serb. There were also streetwalkers and so on, but we were bound together by our common misfortunes and became good comrades.’  Later one of Flora’s cell mates recalled that she ‘possessed a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words which she launched at the guards with such devastating effect that they behaved almost respectfully.’  After her release she had to report weekly to the Gastapo. Devastatingly Yurie fell ill soon after her release and died of heart failure.

bhbFlora was forced to endure three and a half years of solitude in Belgrade, cut off from friends and family. When the war  ended Flora was free to return to England, but without her beloved husband, it was a difficult decision. However her sense of adventure had not diminished, and so Flora decided to go and live with her nephew in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She loved living there but was forced to leave after only a few months as the locals were appalled to find her smoking and drinking with the African locals, in a fashion that was deemed totally unacceptable! Flora reluctantly returned to England, where she lived out her remaining years dreaming of more adventures. She even renewed her passport in the months before her death in 1956, in the hope that she might get to explore more of the world.

A real heroine of the First World War!

Categories: 20th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Jack Sheppard- celebrity escape artist (1702-1724)

 

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Jack Sheppard, after a portrait (lost) by Sir James Thornhill

Jack Sheppard was renowned in 18th Century London for escaping the justice system not once or twice, but four times! He was born to a poor London family but showed great promise as a carpenter. However, the lure of London’s nightlife led him astray and he fell into some salubrious company. Falling in love with a prostitute called Elizabeth Lyon, he began to steal in order to supplement his income as a carpenter and to accommodate his new habits. He left his apprenticeship with only a little under two years left until its completion, and turned to a life of full time crime. In 1723 alone, he was arrested and managed to escape prison four times before being incarcerated for the fifth and final time. His very public defiance of the 18th Century justice system made him an overnight celebrity and wildly popular with the poorer classes. He became their mascot against the power and authority of the state.

Soon the miraculous nature of his escapes were made plain by many illustrations and pamphlets, poems and published stories. Jack Sheppard became a household name.

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Sheppard helping his lover Elizabeth Lyon to escape

Sheppard’s first escape involved him breaking through the timber roof in his cell and after fashioning himself a rope out of his bedding, lowering himself to the ground. Still manacled, he joined the crowd under the window, and shouting that he could see the shadow of the escaping convict on the roof, he made his escape. Once he was re-arrested after being caught pickpocketing, he was visited in prison by his lover Elizabeth Lyon, who was recognised and subsequently also arrested and placed in a cell with Sheppard. They both escaped their manacles and lowered themselves to the ground. They then both had to scale a 22 foot wall in order to escape the compound. For his third imprisonment Sheppard was incarcerated in Newgate Prison. On the very date that his execution was to be fixed, Sheppard managed to remove an iron bar in a small window in his cell where you could talk to visitors. Being of a slight build, Sheppard was able to squeeze through and he escaped in women’s clothing which had been bought to him by Elizabeth.

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Sheppard squeezing through the bars of his cell, right under the noses of his gaolers

But no escape was as sensational as Sheppard’s fourth and last adventure. After unlocking his chains he clambered up the chimney with his leg irons still in place. He then managed to break through no less than six barred doors until his reached the prison chapel. Once he got onto the roof he realised he would need something to help he gain access to the adjoining building, and so he went all the way back again (still in his leg irons), fetched his blanket, and then made the return journey! Once he had escaped he managed to convince somebody to remove the leg irons. Sheppard celebrated by stealing all the necessary accoutrements of a society dandy and cavorting around London with his two mistresses getting blind drunk. It’s a surprise he escaped the law for a further two weeks really.

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His fourth and most sensational escape

His gaolers took Sheppard’s final incarceration very seriously. He was held in the most secure central section of Newgate Prison where he was constantly under observation as well as being weighed down with 300 pounds of iron weights. High society visitors were charged a shilling to come and see the infamous escape artist for themselves. On the 16th November 1724 he was taken to Tyburn to be hanged. Although he was given the opportunity to inform on his accomplices for a lesser sentence, that was not Sheppard’s style. About 200,000 people thronged the streets in celebration of Sheppard’s career in escapology (about a third of the city’s population at the time). Sheppard was hanged, and for once his slight frame did him no favours, as he was slowly strangled to death. His friends had hoped to take the body and see if it could be revived, but the crowds stormed in after the body was cut down, and by the time they had cleared it had been badly mauled.

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The hanging of Jack Sheppard

At his execution an autobiographical ‘Narrative’ was sold, possibly ghost-written by Daniel Defoe; with illustrations by George Cruikshank. Straight away Sheppard entered the public imagination in a series of plays, one of the most popular being the 1728 play ‘The Beggars Opera’; on the stage for the next 100 years. Again in 1840 a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth was written entitled ‘Jack Sheppard’, which became so popular that any book with the same title was banned for the next forty years. Even to this day Jack Sheppard is still the most famous escapologist in our history, and quite deservedly earns his own entry on this blog. 

Images- spitafieldslife.com 

Categories: 18th Century, Heroes | Tags: | Leave a comment

Lady Georgiana Lennox, later 23rd Baroness de Ros of Helmsley (1785-1891)

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Image: NPG Collection: NPG Archive

Lady Georgiana Lennox was born on the 30th September 1795 at Molecombe, the Dower House on the Goodwood Estate. She was the third daughter of the 4th Duke of Richmond and the former Lady Charlotte Gordon. She was one of fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters.  In 1806 Georgy’s father succeeded to the titles and estates of Goodwood, Lennox and Aubigny.

The financial strain on the Richmond family resulting from their ever growing number and the spendthrift habits of the Duchess meant that the Duke was forced to close up Goodwood, and keep the family in Europe where living costs were cheaper. In 1807 The Duke of Richmond was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and reluctantly he left England for Phoenix Park in Dublin. His posting was a success, and the family remained in Ireland until 1813.

His Chief Secretary during this period was Colonel Sir Arthur Wellesley K.B., who had just returned from a successful military campaign in Southern India. It was here that Georgy first met Arthur. They rode out together daily, accompanied by some of Georgy’s many sisters. They called him the ‘great Sir Arthur’. The Richmond’s house in Phoenix Park was the centre of many evening events which Sir Arthur attended, socialising closely with the Duchess and her daughters.

In 1815 the family relocated again as Richmond was placed in command of the reserve forces in Brussels preceding the Battle of Waterloo. The entire family, including the three eldest brothers, all followed their father to Brussels. They moved into a large house on the Rue de la Blanchisserie, on the site of a 17th Century laundry. Wellington nicknamed it ‘The Wash House’. During the day Georgy would attend Reviews, as well as ride out with her sisters to visit other families who had settled in Brussels. There was a plethora of concerts, picnics, dinners, assemblies, and dances which filled the Richmonds’ diary. Balls were held two or three times a week. As Lady Caroline Capel wrote ‘Balls go on here as though we had had none for a year.’ The Duchess of Richmond was often out and more often than not took her eldest daughters with her. Wellington left for a time to attend the Congress of Vienna, having taken the place of Lord Castlereagh. Everyone was anxious for the great commander to return, as rumours grew about Napoleon’s plans to escape from the Isle of Elba.

The epic conclusion to the battle against Napoleon’s forces was drawing near. Daily rumours of an imminent French invasion were flying from letter to letter and house to house, with no one knowing which report to believe. Wellington returned from Vienna and set about making ready the troops. Lord March, Richmond’s eldest son, was A.D.C. to the Prince of Orange, and the two younger brothers George and William were also to be involved in the fighting in a similar capacity.

The Duchess intended to give a ball, to which Wellington agreed whole-heartedly. The now famous event took place in a large room previously used to build coaches in by the previous owner of the house. Its usual function was as a playroom in which Georgy and her siblings spent hour playing games of battledore and shuttlecock when the weather kept them indoors.

It was to this ball that Wellington arrived late and announced to Georgy that the French had crossed the border into Brussels, and that war which Napoleon was imminent. Many of the men attending there, the majority of which were officers, left immediately to join their regiments. Others stayed, danced and drank, attempting to enjoy what could be their last night as free men. As Georgy later recalled

‘When the Duke [of Wellington] arrived, rather late, to the ball I was dancing, but I went to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, “Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.” This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume’

Wellington remained calm and collected. At dinner he sat with Georgy and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, seemingly unperturbed by the reports being bought to him. Requesting a map from Richmond, he retired into the library with his other Generals. Pointing with his finger on the map, he said that the small village of Waterloo would be the spot where the battle could be fought, and with luck, won. He knew the ground well, having covered the area during reconnaissance trips the previous year. Wellington remained at the ball until around 2.30am. Georgy went with her brother George to his house in the grounds to pack his belongings and bid her farewells. She, her sisters and her mother parted with painful goodbyes, not knowing if they would ever see their beloved brothers or father again. It was the same for many women in Brussels that night.

historylive.us

Some of the battle could be heard from the houses in which wives, mothers and sisters waited, but information was limited and often inaccurate. Over the next three days Georgy waited anxiously for news of their fate. Yet as a young woman from a sheltered background, it must also have been thrilling to be present at such an important and historic moment.

Writing to her aunt Lady Bathurst Georgy exclaims ‘We had a great ball last night, and fancy the horror of hearing this news in the middle of it, and seeing all one’s friends fly to the right and to the left’. Despite putting a brave face on her fear, Georgy knew she was lucky.  Most of her family, friends and admirers had survived the onslaught. Her brothers and father had seen a good deal of action. Acting as A.D.C’s to the Prince of Orange and then Wellington himself, the latter was able to keep the Richmonds’ out of trouble.

After Waterloo

After the battle the family went to live in Paris, where Georgy and her family continued to socialise with Wellington at numerous grand galas, balls and operas. After Georgy recovered from a serious illness, the family returned first to Brussels, and then to England. During these years many letters passed between Georgy and Wellington, often passing on local gossip about love sick officers in Wellington’s staff.

In 1818 Richmond was made Governor General of British North America, and travelled with his two eldest daughters to Canada. Georgy stayed behind and went to live with her beloved Aunt, Lady Georgiana Bathurst. Tragedy struck the family the following year when Richmond was bitten by a pet fox which he caught fighting his spaniel, Blücher. Richmond contracted rabies, and after several days of writhing in agony, died. The whole family, who had adored their brave and kind-natured father, were devastated. The title was succeeded by Georgy’s beloved brother George, who became the 5th Duke.

In 1824, at the age of twenty-nine, Georgy married William Lennox Lascelles Fitzgerald de Ros, who would later succeed his brother to become the 23rd Baron de Ros of Helmsley. But why did Georgy wait so long to marry? She was certainly not without suitors. Perhaps she was still holding a flame for Wellington, who she adored for his brilliance, his celebrity, and his attention to her over all her other sisters.

William de Ros was a military man, a diligent officer and a fine husband. After Georgy’s marriage the de Ros’ continued to socialise with the Wellesley’s, attending dinners and opera’s together, and visiting Wellington at his country estate of Stratfield Saye. Together William and Georgy had three children: Dudley, later 24th Baron de Ros (1827-1907), Frances Charlotte, (c.1840-1851) who died tragically young at the age of twenty-one, devastating both her parents; and Blanche Arthur Georgina (1832-1910). Wellington was named Blanche’s godfather, and they developed a touching friendship as Blanche grew up.

Georgy's son Dudley after he had inherited the title from his father. 'Spy' drawing from Vanity Fair

Georgy’s son Dudley after he had inherited the title from his father. ‘Spy’ drawing from Vanity Fair


The year after the premature death of Frances de Ros, Wellington himself died. Although ill and infirm, his passing caused a great shock to Georgy, herself now fifty-five years old. She wrote in her diary

‘From childhood I loved and venerated him and invariably received the most unremitting kindness from him and so many years of unclouded friendship cannot be given with without much suffering’.

Commiserations poured in from friends and relations. Georgy had known the Duke for forty-six years. William was charged with organising and executing the funeral with military precision. This he did with his usual flair and attention to detail.

After William’s died in 1874, Georgy left the family seat in Strangford, Ireland and lived permanently in London. Cherished as one of the last surviving personal friends of the Great Duke, every Waterloo Day she enjoyed receiving scores of guests, flowers and telegrams rejoicing in the victory. In her 93rd year she produced, at the behest of many friends, two articles in Murray Magazine entitled ‘My Recollections of the 1st Duke of Wellington’, which continues to be one of the most important first hand recollections of the Duke. Georgy’s description of the ball-room in Brussels and of Wellington’s actions in the days during and after the battle has become a vital source to historians.

Georgy continued to receive friends and relatives, as well as producing brilliant illuminations and keepsakes, until her health and sight began to fail her. Georgy died on 15th December 1891 in London and is buried in the family vault at the Old Court Chapel, in Strangford. Two years later her daughter Blanche published ‘A Sketch of the Life of Georgiana, Lady de Ros, With Some Reminiscences of Her Family’, which is the only source where a small portion of the de Ros family archive has been made public.

Categories: 19th Century, Amazing Women in History, British Political Figures, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

By Joe Gardner

Being a Londoner, I have walked passed a fair few blue plaques in my time.  Dickens delivered his articles to this address.  John Keats practiced medicine here.  Peter Cook used the toilet of this restaurant on route to a gig.  But my runaway favourite adorns the wall of a beautiful little townhouse – now an Italian bistro – on the corner of Poland Street in Soho.

Image: plaques of London

Image: plaques of London

You have to be careful with blue plaques; often the historical celebrity you’re reading about ‘Lived in a house on this site’, so the place they resided is as dead as they are (I’d walked past what I long assumed to be Mozart’s house many a time before this damning realisation), or they ‘Stayed here’ or ‘Visited here’ etc.  That’s why I love the little house on Poland Street so much:  ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley; 1792-1822; Poet; Lived Here.’  It is his home, as it was (Italian restaurant aside).  He slept under that roof, he gazed from those windows.  Whenever I pass it on my idle wanderings I can picture the young Romantic Poet seated by his window, fretting over a draft or nipping out the front door in pursuit of a much needed beverage.  That’s what history does to people; it comes alive as it makes itself known.

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London Remembers.com

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London Remembers.com

I’m fascinated by Shelley.On top of his staunch vegetarianism, his ahead-of-the-times socialist philosophies and the fact that he wrote Ozymandias; the greatest short poem ever penned, Shelley was a remarkably interesting being in his own right.  Much like his aforementioned contemporary Keats, much of Shelley’s poetry had roots in a more scientific background.  Obsessed with all things science thanks in large part to his astrology and magnetism lessons at school, as a boy he’d conduct myriad experiments that would often end in explosions.  If that’s not incredible enough, as he grew older he developed an interest in what he referred to as the ‘Occult Sciences’; he began experimenting with gunpowder and electricity, often even using his own body as a conductor of electrical current.  Contemporaries noted that his dwellings were frequently cluttered with science and astronomy apparatus.  It is understood that Shelley was even concerned with theories of life on other planets and, perhaps most interestingly, galvanism and bodily reanimation.  I find it incredible that someone as synonymous with dusty old poetry was so eccentric and pioneering in a completely different field of study, as a hobby.

You’d be forgiven for being put in mind of a different literary man nonetheless associated with the name Shelley, as it is increasingly believed that Mary Shelley’s sci-fi anti-hero Victor Frankenstein was at least partially inspired by her husband’s obsession with electro-magnetics (the philosopher Erasmus Darwin serves as the main inspiration for the character).  It is well known that the premise of Frankenstein was born out of both a nightmare of Mary’s and a friendly ghost story contest proposed by Lord Byron, which in turn ultimately became the classic horror novel.  But the immortal image of the twisted young obsessive, darting about his rooms at Ingolstadt wielding scientific equipment and provoking electrical sparks around him was doubtlessly one that wife Mary was well familiar with.  In short, the most infamous monster story from Western fiction is quite possibly the end result of a wife cheekily turning her frustration at her husband’s manic geekery into something more productive. 

It is also worth noting that the sub-heading of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, which of course ties in strongly with Percy Shelley’s epic poem Prometheus Unbound; the titular ancient Greek titan was punished by Zeus for giving humanity the secret of fire and such themes clearly translate from Shelley’s poetic retelling to his wife’s famous novel; the mortal man wielding divine power undeservedly.  Thus I’d like to believe that Percy Bysshe Shelley had more of a hand in the inception of Frankenstein than is commonly surmised.

The reason for my fondness for Shelley is simple; as well as my admiration for his then radical values, being myself someone who continually divides his time between writing literature and geeking up on science and science fiction, I have a century-spanning affiliation with the man.  So whenever I pass that little house with the blue plaque I always give a polite nod and a smile back through time to my favourite literary neighbour.

 

Categories: 19th Century, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

Angela Burdett-Coutts by Julius Jacobs
Today we see female philanthropists on a daily basis in our news and in the pages of our glossy magazines. Think, for example, of Ophrah Winfrey, who has given tens of millions to charities over the years. When one acquires great wealth, it seems the natural step to start dealing it out to those less fortunate. Look back to the age of Victorian charity-giving, and we see a very different kind of philanthropist emerge from the urban sprawl of post industrial England . The emphasis was on moralising the subject, the aim being to help them onto the respectable path of productivity and hard work. Alcoholism, prostitution and vagrancy were seen as the moral ills of society. Women often took it upon themselves to help the ‘lower orders’. None did more, in her own way, than Angela Burdett-Coutts. This is her story.

Born Angela Georgina Burdett in 1814, Angela was the daughter of the Radical and popular politician Sir Francis Burdett and Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the famous banker Thomas Coutts. In 1837 she inherited the vast Coutts fortune on the death of Harriot Mellon, who had married Thomas Coutts in old age. Harriot came from a working background, but enjoyed a position of huge wealth and influence after her husband died, and bagged herself a Duchy to boot when she marryied the Duke of Argyll. She hand-picked Angela to become her sole successor. Angela was a quiet, prim and upright girl, well-educated and level headed. She did not succumb to the frivolities of her class like many of her peers. She became one of the wealthiest women in England, a position that bought her great power, but also a profound sense of duty to those around her who were less fortunate. It was reported that Angela inherited around £1, 800, 000 when Harriot died, making her the richest heiress in the country.
minrec.org Angela<
Image: minrec.org

When Angela came of age, she did not follow the ‘normal’ route for women of her class by marrying and having children. Her vast wealth brought with it suitors, and many asked for her hand. To each she politely refused. Feeling that they were only interested in her for her money, and knowing that under English law the power over wealth was controlled by husbands, Angela retreated into a single, quiet life of philanthropy and friendship. True, she held many lavish parties at her inherited house of Holly Lodge in Highgate, but the majority of her time was spent in companion with people who were both serious and sensible.

londondailyphoto.com Holly Lodge
Image: Holly Lodge, in Highgate.

Her philanthropic works are legendary. It is impossible to name them all here. Her first works perhaps are most famous as they so closely involved the help and friendship of Charles Dickens. Together they set up and ran the revolutionary Urania Cottage, which took women off the streets and re-trained them away from a life of prostitution and petty crime. Angela also supported and funded immigration to countries like Australia and Canada. Like many Victorian women of her time, Angela’s charity works often centred on moralising and reforming the lower classes. Although in hindsight this is seen as controlling these charity works were, in Angela’s case, not done out of a preconceived idea of superiority, but a genuine desire to help those less fortunate than herself. She had seen with painful clarity the sufferings of those living in the East End of London, the squalor, the crime and the hardship. She sought to alleviate some of this suffering, and poured money into re-housing, sanitation, schools and training centres, and green open spaces where children could play. She gave generously, but always oversaw the work her money achieved, and so aimed to diminish any mismanagement.

Angela was heavily involved in the establishment and development of both the National Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Without her continued financial support neither of these two now nationally important charities would have survived.

Angela was also a generous benefactor of the Church of England, being herself very religious. She funded several expeditions into Africa with the aim to spread the message of missionaries. Mostly these were failures, Africa being large non-Christian at this time. She founded many bishoprics is Australia and Canada, and was seen as a national hero there due to the thousands who benefited from her funds which allowed them to emigrate. She also set up her own church, St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the West-end, which still stands today.

Angela and Mrs. Brown

In her personal life, Angela was devoted to her former governess and companion Mrs. Brown. She also developed a deep love and affection for the Duke of Wellington, to whom she proposed when she was 33 and he was 78. The proposal may seem shocking to us, but Angela had always had friends of all ages. She had grown up with Harriot happily married to her grandfather, who was double her age. Angela and the Duke were undoubtedly in love with each other and forever in each other’s company. Angela even had her own apartment at Stratfield Saye which had an enjoining staircase to the Duke’s quarters on the ground floor. But the Duke felt he could not accept her proposal, and wrote her a charming letter in which he said:

WellingtonTomb01

‘I have passed every Moment of the Evening and Night since I quitted you in reflecting upon our conversation of yesterday, Every Word of which I have considered repeatedly. My first Duty towards you is that of Friend, Guardian, Protector! You are Young, my Dearest! You have before you the prospect of at least twenty years of enjoyment and Happiness in Life. I entreat you again in this way, not to throw yourself away upon a Man old enough to be your Grandfather, who, however strong, Hearty and Healthy at present, must and will certainly in time feel the consequences and Infirmities of Age.’

His refusal did not break their relationship, in fact it bought them closer together. They remained constantly in touch until the death of the Duke in 1852. In 1878 tragedy struck again when Mrs. Brown passed away. Anyone who knew Angela knew that this would be a devastating blow, as she and Mrs. Brown had been inseparable for years. Angela wrote to a friend of the loss of ‘my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for fifty-two years!’

Greatly shocked and isolated by the death of Mrs. Brown, three years later she shocked the nation in turn by announcing her marriage to the American Ashmead Bartlett. She was 67 and he was only 29. Bartlett had been acting as one of Angela’s secretaries for many years and she had known him since he was a boy. By marrying a foreigner, Angela was forced to forfeit her claim to the Coutts fortune, although she remained handsomely provided for for the rest of her life. Even so, she was forced to stop many of the large annual donations which saw her projects flourish. The social housing schemes and church funds were the first to be halted, causing distress to both sides. But Angela could do not without the companionship of Bartlett, especially as so many of her close companions and family members had now died. Bartlett became and MP for Westminster in 1821, just as Angela had wanted. She herself never involved herself in politics, and was not allowed to involve herself in the business of the bank. Her talents laying in social work and social reform. She was also a skilled writer, which she worked hard at all her life. She published works on social reform and charity work on several occasions; often to great acclaim.

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Angela lived the rest of her long life in quiet companionship with Bartlett, traveling extensively. She spent much of the year either in Brighton or Corsica, but always loved to get back to London. She developed an extensive art collection, including Old Masters and contemporary pieces. When photography developed she kept extensive albums with images of herself and her numerous note-worthy friends, including Henry Irving, Princess Mary of Cambridge Duchess of Teck, Mr. Darbishire (the architect of her Columbia Square), and Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak. Angela died of acute bronchitis on 20th December 1906. She lived a long and full life which was not without its personal tragedies and losses. As she married so late, she did not have any children, and so her title died along with her. Edward VII described her as ‘after my mother, the most remarkable woman in the kingdom’.

Categories: 19th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The Black Count’- by Tom Reiss. The tale of the black half-slave hero of the French Revolution

Tom Reiss, an American writer best known for his international bestseller ‘The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West’, has succeeded yet again in producing this squash-buckling tale of a man so brave, so strong, and filled with such Revolutionary heroics, that he was immortalised in some of the best loved French novels of all time. I am talking of course of General Alexandre Dumas, the real life inspiration behind his son’s novels ‘The Three Musketeer’s and ‘The Conte of Monte Christo’. Dumas’ story is so incredible and so unbelievable that it is hard, at times, to believe it is non-fiction, and that the events that shaped his life really took place.

Alex Dumas’s real name was Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; he was born in a slave colony in Saint Domingue, to a slave mother and a French aristocratic father. Alex’s father, who was for all intents and purposes a total scoundrel, sold Alex’s mother and their three other children in order to pay for his own passage back to France. Incidentally, he also sold Alex in this way but arranged for his travel to join him once he had raised the funds, and successfully bought his son back out of slavery. This was in 1776. Slavery was illegal in the forward thinking France of this time, so Alex’s colour was no issue in his being educated, or in his decision to join the army.

What was surprising was that Alex chose to shrug off his noble background, which could have secured him a commission and a place in the army as an officer. Instead he enlisted as a common soldier in the Queen’s Dragoons. As well as his social position he also shunned his father’s name, adopting ‘Dumas’, which was the surname of his mother, whom he would never see or hear from again.

Image

This is actually Alex Dumas the writer dressed up as his beloved father, but you get the idea of the strength and power of the heroic Revolutionary. Oil portrait by Olivier Pichat.

No one could have been prepared for Alex’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the French army, something that could only be facilitated by the social and political upheaval thundering through France at the time. Having joined the army at 23, Alex would become General in Chief of the Army of the Alps by his 31st birthday; in command of some 53,000 troops. From the Alps Alex went to Italy, and then joined Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to conquer Egypt in 1798.

 In Egypt, Alex would soon realise he had a much more dangerous enemy than the Bedouin rebels in the unforgiving landscape of the desert. Napoleon himself quickly took a dislike to the handsome and tall, powerfully built and strong leader. It was easy to see why Napoleon felt threatened, when he stood at just over five foot, and Alex was well over six. The Egyptian campaign was an unmitigated disaster, with huge losses for the French and little ground won. Napoleon soon fled the hell-hole of his failures in Egypt and headed back to France in 1801 to take control of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris. Alex managed to arrange passage on a boat which proved to be unsound, and was forced to dock at Naples, which was at this time unforgivably anti-French. Alex was captured, thrown in a dungeon, and left there to rot for the best part of three years before his release could be arranged.

Finally returning to France in 1803, after many suffering and trials in lands far away from home, Alex was able to settle down with his adored wife Marie-Louise. They had a son, also called Alexandre, who would become one of France’s most beloved novelists. Alexandre hero worshiped his father, who would become the main inspiration for the characters and events in his stories.
General-Thomas-Alexandre-Dumas-
Reiss tells a marvellous tale, with never seen before research that he uncovered by blowing up a safe in Villers-Cotterêts, France. Having heard an interview with him on Radio 4, and learning the tale of such a fantastically rich life, I knew I had to know Alex’s exceptional story. My only, very minor, complaint about this book is the lack of images included. I suppose this is a typical grievance for any Art Historian. Granted, images of Alex are few and far between. Reiss does however mention in a special chapter at the end of the book an old statue of the General in Paris. Sculpted by Alfred de Moncel, it showed Alex standing proud, like a ‘resolute patriot, grasping his long rifle like a walking stick’. Before the statue was destroyed by the Nazis in the winter of 1941-2 (I suppose it is easy to see why the Nazi’s would not want a statue of a strong and heroic black man standing proud) a few photographs were taken, and I would simply have loved to have seen one. Hell, I would have even liked to have seen the blown up safe!

 Please do read this book if you love history and adventure. Many thanks to my sister for buying me the book for Christmas.

 ‘The Black Count- Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Count of Monte Cristo’ by Tom Reiss was published by Harvill Secker, London, in 2012.

Categories: 18th Century, Biography Review, Heroes | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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