Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Kilburn Animal War Memorial Dispensary

The recent commemoration of the centenary of the First World War has focused many people’s thoughts on the service men and women who fought, died and survived the conflict. But millions of animals and birds also died alongside the troops.

The memorial to ‘Animals in War’ in Park Lane was unveiled on 24 November 2004. An inscription reads, ‘They had no choice.’ However, Kilburn is home to a much earlier memorial to the nation’s service animals. 

The Kilburn Clinic at 10 Cambridge Avenue (Dick Weindling)

 Horses, dogs and donkeys were the most commonly used animals – mainly for transport and haulage, but camels, elephants, pigeons, bullocks, dogs and goats were all pressed into service. They suffered from exposure, lack of food and disease, dying alongside their human companions.

The Park Lane memorial was the fulfilment of an idea that dates as far back as the early 1920s when the RSPCA proposed a memorial for animals that had served in WWI. A committee was set up, funds were raised and the site chosen was Hyde Park corner. In 1925 photographs of the proposed memorial were submitted to Westminster City Council but there the project appears to have stalled.

Instead the RSPCA decided on a more practical commemoration, in the form of the Animal War Memorial Dispensary, where, ‘the sick, injured or unwanted animals of poor people could receive, free of charge, the best possible veterinary attention, or a painless death.’ 

It took many years to find a suitable site. The RSPCA acquired 10 Cambridge Avenue Kilburn, in March 1931 and that May, the freeholders allowed a change of use from a private house to a ‘free dispensary for sick and injured animals.’

The memorial inscription on the Kilburn building is echoed by that in Hyde Park: 

‘To all animals who suffered and perished in the Great War knowing nothing of the cause, looking forward to no final victory, filled only with love, faith and loyalty, they endured much and died for us.’

Thirty-one sculptors entered the competition for a memorial design for the main facade of the building. Frederick Brook Hitch of Hertford was the winner and his wonderful bronze plaque is above the main door.
RSPCA plaque above the Kilburn Dispensary (Dick Weindling)

A local paper recorded the official opening on 10 November 1932, by the Countess of Warwick. But the dispensary had been at work for over a year, during which time 6,000 animals had been treated. The ceremony was preceded by a meeting at St Augustine’s School in Kilburn Park Road, presided over by the Chairman of the RSPCA, Sir Robert Gower.

By the mid-1930s, more than 50,000 animals and birds had received attention at the Kilburn Dispensary. 

At the rear of the well-equipped premises were glass fronted kennels and catteries with a loose box for horses. There was accommodation on site for a vet and an assistant, providing 24-hour care. In 1936 alone, 9,756 animals passed through the doors. 

Unfortunately, the clinic in Cambridge Avenue was closed in 2016 as part of the RSPCA reorganisation of its London veterinarian services.

The main door is flanked by two marble memorial panels. They record that 484,143 animals were killed by enemy action, disease or accident and that 725,216 animals were treated by the RSPCA during WWI. We now know the overall mortality figures were far higher, with an estimated 8 million horses dying in WWI.
Dead horses in 1918 (The Imperial War Museum)

The horse is the animal most often associated with the European conflict. In 1914, the British and German armies had a cavalry force of some 100,000 men.
The development of trench warfare made cavalry charges redundant, but horses and mules were still needed to transport materials and supplies and to pull guns and ambulances.

Dogs accompanied sentries on patrol, carried messages and worked as scouts, ‘sniffing’ out the enemy ahead. Others acted as medics, sent onto the battlefield equipped with basic supplies that allowed a wounded man to tend to his own injuries. They might also stay with a fatally injured soldier until he died.

Pigeons were very reliable when it came to sending messages. It has been calculated that they had an astonishing 95% success rate getting through to their destination. The Government even issued a special ‘Defence of the Realm Regulation’ to prohibit the shooting of homing pigeons. Offenders were warned they faced six months imprisonment or a £100 fine.

A pigeon named ‘Cher Ami’ was awarded the Croix de Guerre for work in the American sector around Verdun in 1918. On her last mission, Cher Ami was shot but delivered a message that gave the co-ordinates of 194 soldiers cut off behind enemy lines. The men were rescued. Cher Ami recovered and was sent back to the USA where she died in 1919. Her body was put on display at the Smithsonian museum, Washington D.C.

There is newsreel footage of animals in service during WWI; but be warned many of them make for unpleasant viewing.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

A Hundred Years Ago Bombs Fell on Kilburn

This is a short piece following our recent story about Zeppelins (scroll down to see the previous story).

During WWI when the Germans stopped their Zeppelin raids in 1917, they continued to attack London using Gotha heavy bombers.

German Gotha Bomber

In the raid on the 28/29 January 1918, Gotha GV 938/16 approaching from the north, commenced its attack shortly before 10.00pm and dropped three bombs along Belsize Road close to the railway line. Two people were killed and two others were injured. 118 houses were damaged. The Princess of Wales pub at No.121 Abbey Road on the corner with Belsize Road, (today the site of the Lillie Langtry pub), was wrecked. Robert Hill, the landlord since 1911, survived the attack. When the pub was repaired he continued there for another 10 years, until his son took over.

Princess of Wales pub in the 1890s (Marianne Colloms)

Three more bombs from the Gotha landed in St George’s Road (today’s Priory Terrace), Mortimer Road and Greville Road, damaging a total of seven houses.

On its homeward flight across Essex, the bomber was intercepted by two Sopwith Camel fighters of 44 Squadron. These were piloted by Capt. George Hackwith and Lt. Charles ‘Sandy’ Banks. Despite heavy fire from the Gotha, they shot the bomber down and it crashed in a ball of flame near a farmer’s house in Wickford.

The bodies of the three crewmen were recovered from the burnt-out wreckage of the aircraft. They were Lieutenant Friedrich von Thomsen (commander and navigator), the pilot Karl Ziegler, and the gunner Walter Heiden. The three young men were given a military funeral on 2 February. This was the first victory in combat between aircraft at night, and the two pilots, Hackwith and Banks, were awarded the Military Cross by King George V.

A Second Attack
Kilburn was hit again in a Gotha raid on the night of 19/20 May 1918. Three bombs were dropped about midnight, and a 300kg bomb destroyed the Carlton Tavern in Carlton Vale, killing Arthur Stribling the publican and his seven-year son. His wife Elizabeth and sister-in-law Florence were rescued from the debris and although injured, they survived.

Carlton Tavern about 1913, showing Arthur Stribling and his family.

Heading home across Kent, GV 979/16 first came under attack from Major Frederick Sowrey, both his guns jammed but he wounded the pilot. Just before the bomber reached the coast, it was shot down by a Bristol Fighter of No. 141 Squadron from Biggin Hill, crewed by Lieutenants Turner and Barwise. The Gotha crashed between Frinsted and Harrietsham in Kent. The three-man crew was pilot Albrecht Sachtler, observer Joachim Flathow and gunner Hermann Tasche. Only the gunner survived and was taken prisoner. Turner and Barwise received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

People looking at the wreckage of the Gotha near Harrietsham

The Carlton Tavern was rebuilt by Charrington and Co. in 1920/21 at a cost of £11,610 (worth about £490,000 today). Its sudden illegal demolition in April 2015 by Ori Calif, the developer and owner of CLTX, was widely reported. After a public enquiry, Westminster City Council ordered the pub must be rebuilt, to the original design.

Carlton Tavern just before demolition, 2015

In August 2018 it was believed work had started. There was a high hoarding surrounding the site, with a giant notice which said, ‘Carlton Tavern: Coming Back Soon’. But today, it is difficult to see what progress has been made.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Day a Zeppelin flew over Kilburn

During WWI the Germans began Zeppelin airship attacks in 1915. Because they had never seen anything like it, people came out to stare in wonder at these huge flying machines, but they soon became more cautious as the bombs started to fall.
Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838 -1917)

On the 19 October 1917 a group of 13 airships left Germany to attack the Northern industrial cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. Climbing to 16,000 feet they encountered extremely strong winds which forced them off course and made it very difficult for the commanders to establish their position. Lt. Waldemar Kolle was in L.45 aiming for Sheffield, but he found he was being blown rapidly south. He dropped a number of bombs on Northampton, but around 23.30 the crew saw a large number of lights and realised they were over London. Kolle dropped several bombs which damaged the Grahame-White Aviation Company in Hendon. Continuing south-east, he dropped further bombs which landed near Cricklewood Station.

These Zeppelins were a new class of airship which flew so high that British fighters and anti-aircraft guns couldn’t reach them. Some of the crew got frostbite and others suffered from altitude sickness. The height and the thin cloud cover also meant that people on the ground couldn’t see or hear the airship and this attack became known as ‘the silent raid’.


The airship flew over the Kilburn High Road but no bombs were dropped. Passing over St John’s Wood towards central London, the Zeppelin crew dropped bombs at random: but the effects were devastating. The first fell close to Piccadilly Circus where a huge 660lb bomb smashed the front of department store Swan and Edgar’s and caused further damage in Regent Street, Jermyn Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. Flying glass and shrapnel cut down 25 people and seven died. L.45 continued over South London bombing Camberwell and Hither Green, killing another 20 people.

Despite the strong winds, Lt. Kolle flew his Zeppelin across the Channel and with only two engines working and short of fuel, landed in Southern France. He set the ship on fire before surrendering to a group of French soldiers. This proved to be last Zeppelin attack on London; subsequent raids were carried out by Gotha and Staaken Giant bombers.

The Staaken Giant Bomber

Marianne owns a postcard, which will have been printed in thousands. An inky black sky is pierced by the beams of search lights which light up a small, elongated white oval, meant to be a Zeppelin. The date ‘Wednesday 8 September 1915’ is printed bottom right, when London experienced its most severe Zeppelin raid, almost all the damage inflicted by just one Zeppelin, the L.13. Bombs were dropped on Golders Green and in Central London as far as Liverpool Street Station. Printed at the bottom left was, ‘Zeppelin Raid as seen at …’ (blank), so people could buy the card as a souvenir and send it to a friend or relative, filling in the blank with their location.

The Hindenburg bursts into flames (May 1937)
After the War the Zeppelins and other airships continued to be used for long-range commercial flights. But the crash of the British R101 in France on its maiden overseas flight on 5 Oct 1930, and the Hindenburg disaster when the German LZ 129, burst into flames in Lakehurst New Jersey on 6 May 1937, effectively ended interest in airships.

There is a short Pathe film clip here:

The map and information about the raid come from an excellent book by Ian Castle, London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace, Osprey Publishing, 2008.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Drilling for Oil and Gas in Willesden?

This intriguing story takes us off our usual area to Stonebridge Park.

In 2017, Nick Grealy, CEO of London Local Energy (LLE), applied for a fracking licence to drill for shale gas on the old White Heather Laundry site at Stonebridge Park. Not surprisingly, this caused considerable opposition from local environmental groups. Brent Council along with Sadiq Khan the mayor of London, were also against the idea, and it does not appear to have gone any further. LLE was registered at Companies House on 9 May 2017 and dissolved on 16 October 2018.

But why did LLE choose the site?
The White Heather Laundry was established in Alric Avenue in 1898, apparently by three young men from Oxford or Cambridge University (newspaper reports differ). In January 1911 they sank a well to supply water for the laundry on their two and a half acre site. At 2,225 feet this is one of the deepest artesian wells ever drilled in this country, and is reflected today by the name of a road on the old site, Artesian Close.

In 1912 Walter Bridges, a consultant engineer to the White Heather Laundry, told the press they had found water above the London clay but it was too muddy to be used for washing, so they continued drilling. After encountering hard water in the chalk layer, they found softer water suitable for their needs at a greater depth. They were very surprised when on 9 September 1911 they found traces of petroleum at a depth of about 1,700 feet. The company decided to continue searching and if successful, Bridges said this would be the first oil well in Britain. But their efforts failed to find enough oil to make its extraction commercially viable, and the well was only used to provide water to the laundry.

The White Heather Laundry provided a high-class laundry service for many years. But when the ladies of London sent their undergarments to be ‘got up’ or cleaned in Paris, business at the Laundry suffered a downturn. In 1905 as clever publicity stunt, they held an exhibition of washing of ‘Fine Lingerie’ in the Grafton Art Galleries to show they could compete with Paris. They subsequently won contracts to deal with the laundry of the royal family, and in 1926 the Duke of York visited the works at Stonebridge Park where he saw the King’s shirts being ironed in the ‘royal wing’. Over time they held several Royal warrants, including those for The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The London Gazette records that the White Heather Laundry (London) Ltd was wound up in 1973.

In his application Grealy chose the old White Heather Laundry site for LLE fracking because of the oil found here.

Second Attempt
In 1947 a second attempt to find oil was made in the centre of the Gibbons Road Recreation Ground, which was only about 400 metres away from the White Heather site. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company paid £8,000 (worth about £300,000 today), to their subsidiary D’Arcy Exploration, to drill the well with a 94-feet high derrick. D’Arcy had previously drilled exploratory wells in several parts of the country. 
The 94 feet derrick in Gibbons Road Recreational Ground, 1947

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company became British Petroleum (BP) in 1954.

On YouTube there is a short film clip by Pathe News about the well. The commentator wrongly says that four years ago oil was found on a nearby laundry site. In fact, the White Heather Laundry well was sunk 36 years earlier.

Once again it seems that they found insufficient oil to make it a commercial venture.

Despite opposition, recently fracking licences have been granted to several companies who are looking for shale gas around the country. Their operations are being closely monitored for any disturbances in the earth. The national news reported that on 26 Oct 2018, Cuadrilla halted their fracking at Preston New Road near Blackpool for 18 hours, as the British Geological Survey monitors registered a small quake of 0.8 magnitude two kilometres underground, which was over the prohibited limit of 0.5. It remains to be seen if any of the schemes proves viable.

Rather oddly, there is also a Willesden Green in Alberta Canada, situated between Calgary and Edmonton, where there is considerable oil drilling.

We would like to thank John and Sandra Westbrook and John Mann for alerting us to the story about drilling for oil in Willesden in 1947.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Clive Donner, film director

Clive Donner was born in the Priory Nursing Home at 43 Priory Road West Hampstead, in January 1926. He grew up in 31 Peter Avenue, Willesden Green, where his parents Alex and Deborah Donner, lived for most of their lives. Alex was a concert violinist and Deborah ran a dress shop. Clive attended Gladstone Park junior school and Kilburn Grammar school. He became interested in film when he accompanied his father to a studio recording session. While at Kilburn Polytechnic he made an 8mm film about a boys’ sports club. In 1942 he was working as a shipping clerk when his father who was recording the music for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), asked Michael Powell the director, if he could find a job for Clive at Denham Studios. After several rejections he got a job as a junior assistant editor for the Sydney Box film On Approval (1944). He gained experience and formed a close friendship with Fergus McDonell, who later edited several of Donner’s films.

Clive was called up in 1944 and served three years in the Army ending as a sergeant in the education corps. After he was demobilised, he got a job assembling the daily rushes at Pinewood Studios. Then he worked as first assistant editor on two of David Lean’s films, Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeline (1950). Donner greatly admired Lean for his instance on the highest standards of film making. By 1951 Donner had become an editor on films such as Scrooge (1951), Genevieve (1953) and I Am a Camera (1955).

The Secret Place, Belinda Lee and a young David McCallum (1957)
He made his debut as a director on The Secret Place (1957), a realistic film about a policeman’s son whose infatuation with a young girlfriend of a crook, leads to his inadvertent involvement in a jewel robbery. Donner used location shooting, much of it filmed at night, which prefigured the British new wave films that emerged in the next few years. Because he was offered few exciting films, he was glad to be released from his contract with Rank to work in the new field of television advertising. He also directed episodes of Danger Man (1961) starring Patrick McGoohan. His first popular film was Some People (1962) about working-class teenagers who formed a rock band in Bristol.

Poster for The Caretaker

In 1963 he used a small budget from a consortium including; Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noel Coward, Peter Hall and Peter Sellers, and others who each put up £1,000, to make an film adaptation of his friend Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker (1963). This was shot in black and white in an empty house in Hackney by the stylish cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. With excellent performances from Donald Pleasance, Alan Bates and Robert Shaw, it won an award at the Berlin Film Festival and established Donner’s reputation as a director. During the 1960s he lived in a flat at Weymouth Street, Marylebone.

Clive Donner with the cast of What's New Pussycat (Getty Images, 1965)

Donner’s biggest box office hit was What’s New Pussycat (1965), one of the first ‘Swinging London’ films which was actually filmed in Paris. It was a farce starring Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentice and Ursula Andress. The title comes from Warren Beatty’s phone call salutation to his female friends, and it featured the hit song by Tom Jones, which was written by Bert Bacharach and Hal David. Beatty was going to play the notorious womaniser, but dropped out and the part was offered to Peter O’Toole. The role of crazy psychiatrist Dr Fassbender was planned for Groucho Marx, but O’Toole wanted Peter Sellers who had recently achieved success as Inspector Clouseau.

Bewigged Peter Sellers and Clive Donner in Paris (1965)

Clive Donner was given a budget of over £6M by an American producer to make Alfred the Great (1969), with David Hemmings in the lead role. Three years later Clive married Australian-born Jocelyn Richards who had worked as costume designer on the film. They bought a country cottage at Speen in Buckinghamshire, and a house at 6 Melina Place, off Grove End Road in St John’s Wood.

Jocelyn Rickards photographed by Alec Murray

Jocelyn designed the costumes for films which defined the 60s, including Look Back in Anger (1959), From Russia with Love (1963), The Knack (1965), and Blow Up (1966). She had studied art in Sydney and travelled to England in a converted troop ship with ‘rats in the wardrobe and crabs in the pool’. She arrived in London in 1949 and continued her relationship with Australian fashion photographer Alec Murray. 

During the 50s she had affairs with the philosopher AJ ‘Freddie’ Ayer, and the writers Graham Greene and John Osborne who described her as a woman of ‘passionate intelligence and emotional candor’. She was called ‘one of the most exciting women in London’ by Greene’s biographer Norman Sherry. She met Clive Donner while they were making Alfred the Great and they remained together for the rest of their lives.

Veruschka in a Jocelyn Rickards dress for Blow Up (1966)

With the downturn in film attendances, Clive Donner turned to the theatre, directing Shakespeare, and revivals of two of Pinter’s plays. He returned to film, making several spoofs including Vampira (1975) and Charlie Chan and the Dragon Queen (1982).

Donner was better employed by BBC TV where he made an excellent adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1976) starring Peter O’Toole. This was Donner’s favourite film. In the 80s he continued to work in television both in England and America but these programmes did not match the quality of his earlier work.

Rogue Male, on the cover of the Radio Times (1976)

By 2000 Donner had sold his cottage and the St John’s Wood house and moved to a flat in Rainville Road Hammersmith. When their health deteriorated, they moved to the Sunrise Assisted Living home in Virginia Water, where Jocelyn died of pneumonia in July 2005, and Clive died from Alzheimer’s on 6 September 2010.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Mrs Bernard-Beere, the Victorian actress

The streets of Kilburn and West Hampstead were home to literally hundreds of actors, actresses and musical hall artistes. A handful were very successful, but the majority were hardworking performers who made their living touring the country. They used professional newspapers to advertise their ‘availability’ often giving a friend or relative’s address where they could be sure of receiving a letter, as their nomadic lives made it hard and expensive to maintain a permanent home. When they rented accommodation, it was generally for a few months at a time, to fulfil a local engagement.

Actress Mrs Bernard-Beere was successful enough to afford a permanent London home that she left empty when touring. In 1883 she was at 63 York Terrace, Regent’s Park; by 1890 her home was a cottage on Marylebone Road. She next moved to West Hampstead, renting No.8 Carlton Mansions in West End Lane, from April 1899 to 1902. The block of flats was newly built and today is the Francis Gardner Hall for student accommodation, near the corner of Gascony Avenue.

Mrs Bernard Beere in 'A Life of Pleasure', 1893

She was born Fanny Mary Whitehead in 1851, the daughter of Francis Wilby Whitehead, artist and picture dealer of King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth. On 6 October 1874 Fanny made her first and on the face of it, very good marriage, to Army officer Edward Cholmeley Dering, the son of Sir Edward Dering, MP. She had been working for the caterers, restaurant and theatre owners Spiers and Pond, where she ‘attracted the admiration of Mr Dering’. However, the marriage was not advertised as usual in the newspapers. Fanny was about eight months pregnant at the time and subsequent events indicate that so far as Edward was concerned, it was a means of gaining custody of his child. Daughter Janet Elizabeth Adela was born on 12 November but tragically Edward died on the 17th. His obituaries noted he had been ill for only two days before his death at their home in 6 Jermyn Street. He left less than £1,000 to his brother George Edward Dering, the guardian of baby Janet who he named as his only next of kin. The newspapers mention Dering’s first wife and his parents, but the fact he had married again and had a child was conspicuously absent. It was said Fanny received a generous annuity, but this probably ceased after her daughter Janet died the following January. She was to be Fanny’s only child.

Fanny was an attractive and charismatic actress, who developed a dedicated following. Reviews reveal she was capable of great acting. Indeed, she was once called ‘the English Bernhardt’ for her performance in ‘Fedora’ but reoccurring illness and nerves limited her career to some degree. There is no indication why she decided to become an actress and sources differ as to whether she began acting before or after her first marriage. Accordingly, her first appearance on stage is reported at the Opera Comique under Mr Hingston, who managed it from October 1872 to December 1873. Or it was in late 1877, at the Gaiety Theatre, in ‘School for Scandal’.

It is generally agreed that Fanny trained under the American elocution teacher Herman Vezin with help from Willie Wilde, Oscar’s brother. To begin with, she was described as an ‘awful stick’ but Fanny worked hard on training her voice. She became successful and appeared with some of the leading theatre companies such as the Bancrofts and Beerbohm Tree.

‘Fedora’ and Floria in “La Tosca” were perhaps her best roles: while Mrs Sternhold (“Still Waters Run Deep”), Peg Woffington (“Masks and Faces”), Lena Despard (“As in a Looking Glass”) and Mrs Arbuthnot (“A Woman of No Importance”), were other major successes for ‘Bernie Beere’ as she was known. At various times she was also a producer of plays and a theatre manager. Less certain are claims that the poet Thackeray was her godfather and that he called her as a child, ‘the little actress’.

In August 1876 Fanny married for a second time. Many reports call him ‘Bernard Beere’ because she adopted this as her stage name, but in reality, he was Edward Beer. The marriage took place at the fashionable St George’s Bloomsbury when the couple were living at nearby 23 Alfred Place. The marriage certificate describes him as a merchant and he seems also to have been a traveller, probably working for his father Isaac’s provision business.

Fanny had many admirers. In November 1887 the sudden death of banker and MP Lord Wolverton was widely reported in the press. The rumours that circulated about the contents of his will were mostly incorrect, including the bequest of large sum of money to his friend Mr Gladstone. Another paper described, ‘a trifling legacy of £500 is all that Mrs Bernard Beere is to have’. In fact, that would have been worth around £60,000 today. When the will was published in February 1888, Fanny’s name did not appear. That’s not to say she didn’t benefit: the Pall Mall Gazette commented, ‘Like so many wills Lord Wolverton’s is remarkable only for its omissions’, further noting ‘the absence of those provisions that has been expected on personal grounds, although possibly it was more seemly that they should be provided for privately’.

By 1890, Fanny had moved into Church Cottage alongside St Marylebone parish church at No.17 Marylebone Road. A reporter described it as, ‘a delightful bijou residence. It is a tiny labyrinth of rich and strange things. The walls are hidden beneath a collection of photographs with the friendly inscriptions of celebrities. Her favourite room is known as the Red Room, and to this only friends and visitors of distinction are admitted. There is one of the hugest armchairs ever made, in which Mrs Bernard Beere can coil herself at will’. It’s possible her second marriage didn’t last long as no mention was made of any husband when Fanny was interviewed at Church Cottage. (The house was still standing in the 1950s).

In the early part of 1892, Fanny toured Australia. The Antipodean press had already paid her a lot of mixed attention. In 1888 an Australian reporter judged that, ‘she is nearly at her zenith. I do not think she will last very long. Her nature is one of such a combustible character that she is using up her vital forces very fast’. However, another thought her, ‘the rising actress of the day’. The tour started badly when the first performance of Fanny’s much-loved ‘Fedora’ was brought to a premature close. She had struggled to continue but finally left the stage after two of the supporting actors had to be continuously prompted by her. She told the audience: ‘I trust you will excuse me, I could not finish the part’. Indeed, she prided herself on being word perfect: ‘I have never yet forgotten my words; in fact I shudder to think what would happen if I ever required to be prompted. I think I should lose my wits altogether, and the curtain would have to be rung down’. It was reported her Australian agent lost over £3,000 but Fanny recalled her visit down-under with great affection. An American tour later that year when she was engaged at a basic salary of £500 a week, was also a failure, Fanny returning to England in January 1893. She blamed theatrical mismanagement and being asked to perform in a theatre unsuited to the role she was playing.

Later that year Fanny was engaged to play Mrs Arbuthnot, the character referred to in the title of Oscar Wilde’s play, “A Woman of No Importance”. It opened on 19 April and ran for 118 nights at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. She received very good reviews, the Times going so far as to describe her performance as, ‘one of the most pleasing and most impressive of her creations’. Fanny was a personal friend of Oscar Wilde who called her ‘Dear Bernie’. Two years later, she was one of several sympathisers who wrote to him in Holloway Prison after he had lost his libel case against the Marquis of Queensbury and was awaiting trial for gross indecency.

There are several press reports of Fanny falling ill or having hysterics and having to cancel performances throughout her career, while her increasing poor health during the 1890s often kept her from the stage. It was noted that she missed (at least) the last night of “A Woman of No Importance”. Concerns were raised that she wasn’t strong enough for the demands the work imposed. Fanny told a reporter that, ‘I am distinctly nervous but I believe that adds to the value of my acting when playing a good emotional part’. In 1896 she was so ill that it was feared she might not recover. But she did and returned to the theatre in 1898.

Two years later Fanny married for a third and final time when she was living at Carlton Mansions in West End Lane. On 17 April 1900 a quiet wedding took place at St Mary’s Church in Abbey Road. Aged 34, Alfred Charles Seymour Olivier was several years her junior and gave his profession as that of a ‘Gentleman’, the son of Rev. Canon Dacres Olivier of Salisbury Cathedral. The two close friends who signed as witnesses also gave the bride away and acted as best man: the Reverend Thomas Noon Talfourd Major (vicar of Thundersley in Essex), and Rudolph Doran Holtz. When asked, Alfred said he would prefer his wife retired, but recognising what a loss this would be to the stage, it had been agreed she would continue acting for the time being.

On 18 June 1900 the couple were travelling on a Windsor-bound train that had stopped at Slough station to take on passengers, when the West of England Express ploughed into the rear at full speed, telescoping the last two carriages. 70 passengers were injured and five died. Fanny and Alfred were reported as shaken and bruised, but she was probably more seriously affected than most papers reported, returning to London a couple of days later, she was carried to her train from her Slough hotel in an invalid chair. The accident undoubtedly contributed to Fanny’s declining health in later years.

Reports of her acting are absent until October 1905 when she made a ‘welcome reappearance upon the London stage’, as Mere Michaud in a short run of a sketch entitled “The Spy” at Oswald Stoll’s London Coliseum. The reviews were generally favourable but when Stoll altered part of the programme and Fanny gave a recitation, it was less well received. This was the last time she appeared on stage.

Fanny and Alfred had moved to 41 St Mary’s Mansions, St Mary’s Terrace in Paddington by 1911. He gave his occupation as wine merchant, but she left the occupation space blank. The couple had moved again, to Lauderdale Mansions, when on 25 March 1915 Fanny died at a Maida Vale nursing home, suffering heart failure after an operation for peritonitis. She was buried at St Marylebone Cemetery East Finchley, (now East Finchley Cemetery). That November, her theatrical relics were sold at auction, including personal letters from Oscar Wilde. Her husband Alfred Olivier died in Epsom in May 1922 and was buried alongside his wife.

Fanny merited an obituary in the Times. It called her ‘a fine emotional actress’, but today ‘Bernie-Beere’, her stage roles and many achievements, have largely been forgotten.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The London Pavilion, Kilburn and an Acid Attack

This is a story of the darker side of Victorian theatre which follows the complex links between the London Pavilion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus, Kilburn and a vicious acid attack on an actress.

The London Pavilion
The imposing London Pavilion occupies a prominent site at the corner of Shaftsbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus. In the late 1980s the building was gutted and redeveloped behind the Grade II listed fa├žade.

This was the second ‘Pav’ on the site: the first dated from 1859 and was a humble affair, an entertainment room attached to the Black Horse Inn in Tichborne Street (now part of Great Windmill Street). It was the brainchild of Emil Loibl and his business partner Charles Sonnhammer who roofed in the irregularly shaped yard of the Inn to create the first London Pavilion Music Hall. A gallery was added on the north and east sides in 1861, and further improvements followed in 1876. Both men were born in Vienna and came to England in January 1844. Fifteen years later they had married English women, become naturalized British citizens and were wealthy men. The Pav attracted the great stars of the music hall such as Bessie Bellwood, Arthur Lloyd, and George Leybourne, while enormously popular performers like Jenny Hill and Albert Chevalier started their careers there.
Opening of the original London Pavillion, the men with top hats are probably Loibl and Sonnhammer

Sonnhammer ended their partnership and opened Scott’s Restaurant in nearby Coventry Street. Loibl remained as the Pav proprietor until 1878, when he was awarded £109,300 (worth an astonishing £10M today), by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) for the freehold of the property. This was part of a major redevelopment of the area to create Shaftsbury Avenue. Loibl retired and became a cigarette and cigar importer as Markovitz and Co. 11 Air Street, Regent Street.

The Kilburn connection is that from 1872 to 1880 Loibl lived in ‘Springfield House’, and at No.7 Waterloo Cottages, on the Willesden side of the High Road. These were large houses near today’s Tricycle Cinema. In 1882 Emil divorced his wife Mary Anne for adultery, and two years later married American-born Emma Tannenbaum who was 34 years his junior. From 1888 to 1898 they lived at various addresses in Maida Vale. He died aged 83 on 10 May 1914 at 112 Greencroft Gardens and left £22,832, (worth over £2M today). Emma died in Ticehurst Sussex in 1926.
His partner, Charles Sonnhammer died in Brighton in 1895 and left £31,048 (worth about £3.5M today), to his wife.

Robert Edwin Villiers
Edwin Villiers had run several theatres and was the proprietor of the Canterbury Music Hall in Westminster Bridge Road. He went bankrupt in 1877 with liabilities of £60,000. He said the takings at the Canterbury averaged between £600 to £800 a week and he hoped to be able to pay all his creditors in full.

In August 1879 he took over the old London Pavilion and paid the MBW £7,000 per year (worth about £700,000 today) for the lease. Frederick William Goddard, the Metropolitan Board’s chief valuer and surveyor, informed Villiers through an intermediary that he expected ‘something for himself’ and Villiers paid Goddard £50 a quarter ‘under the counter’. In 1884 when it looked as though the old theater was going to be demolished, Villiers met Goddard and other MBW officials and agreed a secret and complex deal. Villiers built the new London Pavilion on the large triangular site facing Piccadilly Circus. This included the Black Lion site and the last performance in the old theatre took place on 26 March 1885. It was demolished and just eight months later, the impressive London Pavilion opened on 30 November 1885. Today, on the Shaftsbury Avenue side there is a plaque saying ‘This stone, the first in the new street was laid by Robert Edwin Villiers, 8th June 1885’.

London Pavillion, 1890s

In December 1886, Villiers sold the Pavilion to the Syndicate Halls Company for a large amount of money, and Goddard received a total of £5,000 of the proceeds. This was only one of the secret agreements entered into by the MBW and exposed by the Financial News. This led to a scandal and a Royal Commission inquiry in 1888. By that time the Board had gained such a bad reputation that the public dubbed it the ‘Metropolitan Board of Perks’. Partly as a result of the enquiry, the MBW was abolished under the Local Government Act 1888 and the LCC was elected on 21 January 1889.
Cartoon of Edwin Villiers

Robert Edwin Villiers was born in Clerkenwell in 1830, the son of a tailor. He worked as an actor and comedian before becoming a theatre manager. In 1856 he married the actress Rosa Antoinette (Nora) Schott who was born in Toronto in 1833. She had been on stage at the Haymarket Theatre with Villiers from 1854 to 1856. In 1880 Rosa filed for a judicial separation saying that Edwin had committed adultery with her sister, Cecilia Schott who was also an actress. He did not defend the case. From about 1881 to 1890, Edwin Villiers lived in 4 Loudoun Road, St John’s Wood. He died in Bickenhall Mansions in Gloucester Place in April 1904 and left £49,927 (worth over £5M today) to his son.

In 1901 Rosa Villiers was living in Hove. There is a connection between Rosa and Fanny Cornforth, the model who lived with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She is one of several red-haired, so called ‘stunners’ who appear in his paintings, and she lived with him for over 25 years. After Rossetti’s death in 1882 she married Rosa’s brother John Schott. By 1907 Fanny was suffering from dementia. It has recently been discovered that Rosa arranged for Fanny to become a patient in the Graylingwell mental asylum in Chichester, where she died aged 72 in February 1909 under her previous married name of Sarah Hughes. Nine years later in October 1918, Rosa died in Torquay aged 85.

'The kissed mouth', Fanny Cornforth by Rossetti, 1859

The last connection in the story is between Edwin Villiers and Charles Henry Hodson who were both theatre managers, but at different ends of the scale.

Charles Henry Hodson
Hodson was born in Clapham in 1841 the son of a commission agent. For a short time he worked as a comic with the stage name Harry Don. He said that his family didn’t want him working in the theatre so he used the names Stanley Hodson, and Hodson Stanley when he was a theatrical agent. It was during this time that he met the much more successful Edwin Villiers.

In January 1869 Hodson’s first venture in management at the Theatre Royal in Colchester was a total flop. On Thursday of the first week when he had only taken 15 shillings; he announced the show was cancelled and the audience would get their money back. When they learned there was no money for salaries, the actors locked Hodson in his office overnight. The next day he paid them the £4 he had in his pocket and allowed them to pawn his diamond ring. But he subsequently sued them for assault and three actors were fined 1s and 6s 8d costs. In turn he was sued under the ‘Masters and Servants Act’ for not paying one of the actors a week’s salary. Hodson successfully argued that actors were not servants and the case was dismissed.

Lulu, the Beautiful Goddess of the Air

A few years later he was somewhat more successful. For ten months in 1875 he was the business manager for Lulu, a famous young gymnast who toured Europe. A highlight of her act was an enormous leap from the ground to a platform 25 feet high. In fact, she was propelled by a contraption hidden under the stage which fired her into the air. In 1877, while performing with Hengler’s Circus in Dublin, the mechanism malfunctioned and Lulu was badly injured. When treated by a doctor, Lulu had to admit that she was really a boy. Lulu was an American called Sam Wasgate who had been adopted by Guillermo Antonio Farini, whose real name was William Leonard Hunt. They toured as the Flying Farinis; Guillermo was a tightrope walker who tried to rival Blondin. Some years later when he was interviewed in New York, Lulu said his greatest problem had been fighting off the attentions of a German Baron who wanted to marry him!

The Flying Farinis

The Cannon Ball
In 1876 Hodson ran a theatrical agency at 30 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden and had periodic work as a business manager for various acts. At the end of October 1879 Hodson Stanley organised a ‘Grand Dramatic Ball’ for the ‘friends of the dramatic profession’ at the Cannon Street Hotel. The tickets cost half a guinea. ‘The Era’, the theatrical trade newspaper, published a very critical letter from ‘Cannon Ball’ who had attended the evening. He wrote that there was little evidence of any theatrical drama, there were no known actresses, and that some of the young women who wore fancy dress, were dressed in short shirts and carried skipping ropes. The suggestion was that many of them were ‘painted harlots’ or prostitutes. About 200 men and 100 women attended the ball. Hodson Stanley sued Edward Ledger the editor of The Era, for publishing a libellous letter. In court Clement Scott the theatre critic of The Era, admitted he had written the ‘Cannon Ball’ letter.

Edwin Villiers gave evidence and said he had known Hodson Stanley for about seven years. He had been given a ticket and did not see any indecency at the ball. The great actor Henry Irving who was a friend of Edward Ledger, was bizarrely called to give his opinion on the suitability of the costumes. After hearing several days of evidence, the jury decided Stott’s letter contained rather severe criticisms, but was not libellous.

The Acid Attack
Using his real name, in 1882 Charles Henry Stanley married Louisa Cooper in Clerkenwell. She was about 20 years younger than him. On the 5 March 1885 Louisa was appearing in the chorus of the pantomime at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool under her stage name Dora Keene. Two days earlier she had received a letter from her husband saying she must return to London or he would come and get her. While she waited in a cab outside the theatre, Stanley suddenly appeared in the street. He had been to her lodgings where he found several love letters signed ‘Harry’. In a fit of jealous rage, he threw oil of vitriol or sulphuric acid in her face, then waited until he was arrested. In court Stanley said about two years ago he suffered from a serious illness of the spine and had to walk with crutches. The doctors told him he had about 12 months to live. Unusually, at the trial he was allowed to fiercely cross examine Louisa (he had previously been a solicitor’s clerk). He said when he first met her she was living in poverty as a household drudge with her step mother. He married her and taught her how to act and sing so she could go on the stage. From her few engagements and £2 a week salary, she gave him 10s or 15s. The doctor from the hospital where she was treated, said the sulphuric acid had scarred her face permanently and she might lose the sight of her right eye. In his defence Stanley said the illness had affected his brain and when he had carried out the attack he was effectively mad. The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy. The judge said the attack was very serious and warranted a sentence of 10 years but following the jury’s recommendation he reduced it to five years.

Stanley was so ill when he arrived at Pentonville on 5 May 1885, he was sent straight to the prison hospital. Close to death, he was asked if he wanted to see anybody. Stanley replied he had no friends or relatives apart from his wife and he did not want to see her. Later he asked to see Mr Villiers of the Pavilion Theatre. When Edwin Villiers was contacted, he made the excuse that he only knew Hodson by sight, and was unable to see him because of business engagements. Stanley died the next day, aged 42. We do not know what became of Louisa.

This complicated story, following a chain of people, has looked at the underside of the theatre world in late Victorian England to show financial corruption, madness and violence.