Thursday, 12 September 2019

Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous forensic pathologist

In this story we look at the life of Bernard Spilsbury, rather than the many cases he was involved in. We are particularly interested in the period when he lived in St John’s Wood and also just off the Finchley Road.

Bernard Spilsbury was born on 16 May 1877 in Leamington Spa, the eldest of the three children of James Spilsbury, a manufacturing chemist who later moved to London.

Bernard went to Oxford where he took a degree in natural science. For his medical studies at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington’s Praed Street he was fortunate to work with three brilliant forensic scientists: the toxicologists Arthur Pearson Luff and William Willcox, and Augustus Joseph Pepper, a leading pathologist. 

The three men had developed a good working relationship with the Metropolitan Police under Edward Henry, the Commissioner from 1903 to 1918. He was dedicated to making criminal investigations more efficient and modern. Spilsbury who succeeded Pepper at St Mary’s when he retired in 1908, argued that England’s pathologists ought to have access to the finest laboratories and mortuary equipment, and he found a powerful ally in Henry. By 1909 Luff, Willcox and Spilsbury were being regularly called in by the coroner, the Home Office or the Director of Public Prosecutions to give forensic help.

In September 1908 Spilsbury married Edith Caroline Mary Horton, the daughter of a surgeon-dentist, and they lived at Hindes Road in Harrow on the Hill until he bought a large house at 31 Marlborough Hill in St John’s Wood. They lived here from 1912 to about 1940 (it now has a blue plaque to commemorate his residence). Their four children were looked after by a nanny in the basement, and Spilsbury built a laboratory in a back room on the top floor. Spilsbury had close working relationships with his sons Peter, who became a surgeon, and Alan, who assisted him in the Gower Street laboratory.
31 Marlborough Hill today, with Blue Plaque
Early in his career Spilsbury became known as an expert witness in a series of notorious murder cases which gained wide publicity in the press. His methodical approach and his calm demeanour in court won the respect of barristers, judges, juries, and the public. The Crippen case of 1910 made him famous while other trials such as that of George Joseph Smith, ‘the Brides in the Bath’ murderer, enhanced his prestige. See this link for more information about his cases:

Locally, he conducted autopsies on Kilburn murders in 1919 and 1937.
See our previous stories;

When Spilsbury was at the height of his professional influence from 1910 to the 1930s, his opinion was virtually unquestioned among jurors. Newspapers reported his testimony, giving the impression that ‘Sir Bernard in the Box’ was a turning point for inquests and criminal trials. His reputation for invincibility evoked comment and some professional jealousy. A slip of the tongue by a defence counsel who called him Saint Bernard instead of Sir Bernard, merely reinforced public perception that Spilsbury’s opinion could not be overturned even by an array of other expert witnesses.
Bernard Spilsbury in his laboratory, 1922
At his most productive, in the 1930s, Spilsbury was performing an astonishing 750 to 1,000 post-mortem examinations per year. He undertook more than 25,000 in his long career. Knighted in 1923, he was renowned as a pathologist who helped to establish the profession as a science.

A very private man, he did socialise with a group of criminologists, writers and amateur enthusiasts called ‘Our Society’ or the 'Crimes Club’ (Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and PG Woodhouse were members). Their meetings focused on medical and legal discussions of historical cases.

Today, some people who think that he was overrated as an expert witness point to his reluctance to rely on statistics, the fact he did not put his work forward for peer review, and for some of his opinions on the stand which seemed to be outdated at the time.

The Spilsbury’s marriage had effectively broken down by the time of the outbreak of WWII. In 1939 the St John’s Wood house stood empty: Edith was living with her married sister in Solihull while Bernard was in rented lodgings in Verulam Buildings, Gray’s Inn Holborn. But after bombs hit the building in March 1941, he moved to the Langorf Hotel at 18-20 Frognal just off the Finchley Road, where his sister Constance was staying. He kept his car, an Armstrong-Siddeley, in a garage down the hill in Finchley Road and drove to his laboratory in University College Hospital, Gower Street.

Spilsbury suffered three personal tragedies in succession. His son Peter, a surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital was killed during a bombing raid on 15 September 1940, when the Hospital received a direct hit. Constance his sister, died in March 1942. Alan was helping his father at his laboratory, but in November 1945 suffering from TB he fell ill and died after a short illness lasting just three days.

Spilsbury’s own health had deteriorated during the War. Following strokes in May 1940 and 1945, colleagues noticed that his precision with autopsies and his clarity giving evidence in court had noticeably declined. He struggled to get work and was short of money as he was paid per autopsy.

Just after 8.00 on the evening of 17 December 1947, a hospital technician at University College passed Spilsbury’s room and smelt gas. When the room was unlocked, Spilsbury was found unconscious on the floor with a Bunsen burner gas tap full on. Medical staff desperately tried to resuscitate him, but he was declared dead at 9.10 pm.

The newspapers speculated it could have been an accident, a collapse following a heart attack, or the fact that Spilsbury had previously lost his sense of smell and may not have realised the gas was on. But the inquest returned a verdict of suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed. The coroner was a personal friend, Bentley Purchase. Fighting back tears, he said that Spilsbury’s declining health must have been a key factor in his decision. He was cremated at Golders Green on 22 December 1947.

At the time of his death, Spilsbury was still living quietly in Room 5 at the Langorf Hotel where people did not know who he was. He left just over £9,000 in his will, bequeathing all his property to his wife Edith. She had returned to London at the end of the War and died at 24 Lyndhurst Road Hampstead in December 1962.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Barnes and Cole, the Kilburn boys who made good

The building at the heart of this story is today’s Kingsgate Workshops at Nos.110-116 Kingsgate Road in Kilburn. It was constructed about 1887 by John Allen and Sons who were local builders of many of the houses in the area. When they moved across the High Road to a site that later became the State Cinema, the building in Kingsgate Road was taken over by Robert Charles Barnes in 1894.

Originally a greengrocer by trade, he moved from Marylebone to Kilburn in the mid-1850s, opening a shop at 7 St George’s Terrace (which was later re-numbered as 240 Belsize Road). During the 1870s, Robert changed career and gave his job in the 1881 census as that of a furniture van proprietor, employing five men. His office was at No.199 Belsize Road. The business expanded, and by 1891 Barnes also had premises at 251–255 Kilburn High Road and 252–254 Belsize Road. In 1894 Barnes converted the large Kingsgate Road premises into a depository, where people paid to store their furniture and other household goods during a house move.

His great-grandson Cecil Barnes (born in 1902), formed Barnes and Cole, a sheet metal company, with his friends Benjamin Cole and James Kirby. By 1939 they were based in the Kingsgate Road building.

Benny Cole’s parents were William and Mary Cole. His father was a bus driver, and Ben was born on 10 May 1912 in Paddington. During WWI the family came to Kilburn and lived at 21 Cotleigh Road. Jim Kirby was born in 1912, the son of a road sweeper.

In 1939 Benny Cole and his family were sharing a house at 30 Braemar Gardens Hendon with Jim Kirby and his wife. Cecil Barnes and his wife were living at 100 Cotswold Gardens, Hendon.

Benny Cole went to Kingsgate School and before school began, he earned money to supplement the meager family budget by washing steps, carrying coal from cellars and polishing brasses in the large houses in Hampstead. He left school aged 14 at the time of the General Strike in 1926 and did his bit for the workers by selling the Daily Herald at Kilburn Bridge. There were two million unemployed and was difficult to get work after leaving school. Benny was lucky and found a job at a St John’s Wood metalworking and blacksmith company. 

After 10 years with different engineering firms he decided to set up his own welding and car repair firm. In 1936 a sign for ‘B. Cole, Crash Repair Specialists’ went up outside a shed in Kingsgate Road. He persuaded a garage to send him work and in two years he had amassed a working capital of £100. He joined up with Cecil Barnes and ‘Barnes and Cole’ was born. The third member of the group was Jim Kirby who lived at 101 Kingsgate Road.

Benny, Cecil and Jim worked hard and conscientiously, and earned the trust of insurance firms who sent them work from car accidents. Business began to look up, but then WWII started. Ben Cole enlisted in the RAF and was sent to India and South East Asia. Cecil Barnes went into the (A.F.S) the auxiliary fire service. Jim Kirby was left to carry on doing metal work under Government contracts. When the War ended Barnes and Cole returned to car repair work. 
But as the sheet metal work increased, the business outgrew the Kingsgate Road site, so they acquired a garage at 77 St Paul’s Avenue Willesden. Here, in addition to the repair work and sheet metal finishing, they added the sale of petrol. 

Then in 1954 Ben spotted a vacant site on the Kingsbury Circle at the junction of Kenton Road and Honeypot Lane. Here ‘Cole and Kirby’ built a large petrol filling station with offices attached. Business was very good, and four years later they built an extension with a showroom for the sale of cars.

1969 Advert for 584, Cole & Kirby at Kingsbury Circle
The various branches became part of the ‘584 Group’ of companies which by 1960 had over a hundred employees and a turnover of more than half a million pounds, which is equivalent to about £12.5M today. 

Benny, the wiry, restless, perky man of 5ft 6, then chief of the 584 Group, could say in his North London accent,
‘Blimey, Chiefy, who’d a-thought it!’ He and his Kilburn friends had really made it good.

Photo by Jean Smith

Benjamin Cole died in 1972 in Harrow Weald leaving £85,859 (worth about £1,2M today). Cecil Barnes died in 1975 on the Isle of Wight with an estate of £10,819 (worth about £89,100 today), and James Kirby died in 1988 in Tring Herts leaving £70,000 (equivalent to about £184,000 today).

‘Barnes and Cole’ left Kingsgate Road in 1975 and the following year the building was bought by Camden Council. It remained empty until it was opened as Kingsgate Workshops in January 1978 with studios for artists and craftspeople.

Kingsgate Artists at the 30 years anniversary (2008)

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

The Peterloo Massacre

In 2012 we published an e-book entitled ‘The Marquis de Leuville: a Victorian Charlatan?’

The charismatic Marquis was the lover of Ada Peters who lived in Kilburn. She was the wealthy widow of John Winpenny Peters, who owned a successful coach building business which made coaches for Queen Victoria. John died in 1882 at The Grange, a mansion on the Kilburn High Road, roughly where the Grange Cinema (currently used by the church group UCKG), and Grange Park are today.

As was the case with many marriages at the time, John’s will made some personal provision for Ada, but if she re-married, she lost most of her inheritance including the right to live at The Grange, and the house with its extensive grounds would revert to the Peters family. Instead Ada and her Marquis decided to enjoy her considerable fortune and never married but their relationship lasted many years. For more information the e-book can be found here.

The Marquis De Leuville, 1874

The Peterloo Massacre
To give her full name, Ada Britannia Sarah Beckers was born in 1833, the daughter of Rebecca and Gustavus Edward Beckers. He was Rebecca’s second husband; the first was the journalist Henry Feltham Orton.

With the current widespread coverage of the Peterloo Massacre that took place two hundred years ago, on 16th August 1819, we were reminded of a passage in our book when Henry Orton was working as a young reporter for the New Times.

He was sent to Manchester in August 1819, to cover a protest meeting about the Corn Laws and the generally poor economic conditions that followed the end of the Napoleonic War. But this was not a normal demonstration. A huge crowd of 60,000 people assembled in St Peter’s field where they were addressed by the well-known radical speaker, Henry Hunt. Things got out of hand and mounted troops were ordered to charge and disperse the crowd. Fifteen people died and some four hundred to seven hundred men, women and children were injured. Orton wrote two articles for the New Times on the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ as it came to be known, and he was a witness at Hunt’s trial at the York Assizes a year later.

Cartoon of the Peterloo Massacre, by George Cruikshank (1819)
The text for picture reads:
Down with ‘em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! ---- and remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage and your Loyalty.

See Wikipedia link:

What began as a peaceful demonstration by working class people who wanted political reform, was disastrously handled by the authorities who sent in sabre wielding cavalry. The horses charged at the huge crowd and in the resulting panic people were slashed or crushed. The exact number of deaths is not known but is generally taken as between 15 and 18, with hundreds of wounded. In 1820 at York, Hunt was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. 

After his release, Hunt had a successful business career and was elected MP for Preston from December 1830 to 1832. During his brief parliamentary career Hunt, who was called ‘the poor man’s protector’, spoke over a thousand times, and his activities included the presentation of a pioneer petition for female suffrage. His health suffered and followed a stroke he died on 13 February 1835.

Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo was made in 2018. St Peter’s Field is now part of St Peter’s Square in central Manchester. The only Manchester memorial to ‘Peterloo’ was a plaque on the Radisson hotel (previously the Free Trades Hall) until the Peterloo monument nearby was opened to the public on the 13th of August, three days before the bi-centenary.

In 1827 Henry Feltham Orton published an account of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s amazing tunnel under the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, which today forms part of the London Overground network.

Orton died in April 1828 and the following July, his widow Rebecca married Gustavus Beckers. Their daughter Ada was born five years later.

When Ada lived at the Grange her mother Rebecca also lived there until she died in 1881. Ada died in Kilburn, still living at The Grange, in 1910.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Lily Mathé, the Gypsy Violinist of Kilburn

Lily Mathé was born in the town of Eger Hungary, in 1910 as Lily Markstein. She began attending a teacher training college but dropped out and went to Budapest to study violin. In 1932 she adopted the stage name Lily Mathé and set up a gypsy band. She first played in Hungary with the group and then settled in Paris for a few years. Here they performed at the restaurant Hungaria, in the Cirque Medrano, and on the radio. The band also toured in Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. 

In 1939, Lily moved to the Netherlands after the beginning of WWII, returning to live with her family in Budapest two years later. Following the German occupation of Budapest in the spring of 1944, Lily was arrested with her parents and other family members and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her parents were gassed soon after their arrival. Lily however, became a member of the women’s orchestra and in the autumn of 1944 they were transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There she worked in the weaving mill and had to play music for the camp commandant Josef Kramer.

Badly ill, she was freed on 15 April 1945 by the British army when they took Bergen-Belsen. Shortly after emigrating to Britain in February 1947, she married Edward Bernstein, a Viennese member of the British army who had participated in the liberation of the camp.  

Edward and Lily lived quietly at No.3 Douglas Road in Kilburn (off Willesden Lane). During the 1950s and 60s Lily worked as the leader of a gypsy group in the Aldwych Brasserie restaurant.

After the War Adolf Eichmann managed to escape to Argentina under a false identity. Simon Wiesenthal spent years tracking him down. In May 1960 he was captured by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires and taken to Israel. Lily gave evidence against him during his trial. Eichmann was convicted in December 1961 and hanged in June 1962.

In February 1961 Lily appeared in an ITV film about Eichmann and Bergen-Belsen where she said that when Josef Kramer met her he had hummed a tune and asked her to play it on a violin he gave her. He said, ‘If you can’t, you will die’. She made an effort which seemed to please him and he told her, ‘You have saved your life’. She was taken to Eichmann who said, ‘You will lead a camp orchestra to welcome the new inmates and play at the officers’ mess every evening.’ 

Kramer, known by the press as ‘The Butcher of Belsen’, was arrested at the camp in April 1945 and following his trial he was executed.

Josef Kramer arrested by British Troops at Belsen, April 1945
Lily survived the horror of the camps and died on 16 Dec 1985 at 17 Kenilworth Road in Edgware.

She was not the only woman involved in the death camp orchestras. In 1980 Vanessa Redgrave played Fania Fénelon in the film Playing for Time which was based on her experience in Auschwitz, where she and a group of classical musicians were spared in return for performing music for the Nazis.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Vinegar Joe and West Hampstead

The blues-rock band Vinegar Joe was formed in 1971. They took their name from the nickname of the caustic US General Joseph Stilwell. The band recorded three albums for Island Records; Vinegar Joe (1972), Rock n Roll Gypsies (1972), and Six Star General (1973).

At various times three of the band lived in West Hampstead: Robert Palmer, Steve York and Pete Gage. Many musicians lived in West Hampstead before the neighbourhood was ‘gentrified’ and the supply of cheap rented accommodation dried up.

Pete Gage
Pete Gage, guitarist, composer and producer, is the link in the formation of the bands that led up to Vinegar Joe. He was born in Lewisham in 1947 and married Pauline Newman in 1966. Pete worked in several London bands before forming the Ram Jam Band in 1964 using a number of different singers. He met Geno Washington who was with the US Air Force and asked him to be the singer with his band. Pete said his mother paid to get Geno demobbed, and the band became Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in April 1965. They played in blues clubs across the country, including 16 times at West Hampstead’s Klooks Kleek, and had two best-selling live albums in 1965 and 1966. In January 1967 Pete’s wife tragically died in a car crash on the M1 when they were returning from the Twisted Wheel in Manchester.

The band broke up in late 1969. For more details about the band see Nick Warburton’s excellent article on his website:

Kevin Rowland and Dexy’s Midnight Runners big 1980 hit ‘Geno’ was based on hearing the band at gigs where the fans shouted ‘Geno! Geno! Geno!’
In 1983 Geno Washington co-owned a basement restaurant at 212 West End Lane in West Hampstead. Most nights about 10.30, he would arrive and sing blues songs such as ‘Little Red Rooster’ and ‘Got My Mojo Working’ to the diners.

In 1970 Pete Gage formed Dada, a short lived 12-piece jazz-fusion band, with three vocalists, Elkie Brooks, (whom Pete married in 1971), Jimmy Chambers, and initially Paul Korda who was replaced by Robert Palmer. The band was Stax-influenced with a horn section, and were signed by Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records. They released one album called Dada (1970).

Steve York takes up the story:
‘I joined Dada shortly before their US tour. When we returned to London Ahmet Ertegun flew out to see us play at Ronnie Scott’s. Shortly after Pete Gage, Elkie, Robert, and I were summoned to a meeting with Ahmet and Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records), at the Park Lane Hilton. They wanted to reduce the size of the band and become more rock oriented, and we became Vinegar Joe in late 1971'.

‘Ahmet asked us to find a new drummer & keyboard player and told us that he wanted the band on Atlantic Records for the US, and Chris would have the band on Island for the rest of the world’.
Cover for the first Vinegar Joe album. Artwork by Hipgnosis (Getty)
‘We recorded the first album with Dave Thompson and Tim Hinkley on keyboards, and Conrad Isidore and Rob Tait, drums, playing on a session basis. The final line up of the band was Robert, Elkie, Pete, Steve, with Pete Gavin drums and Mike Deacon keys. Guitarist Jim Mullen joined the band for their second album “Rock & Roll Gypsies” and for their US tour’.

Here they are performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973:

They were an incredible live band who performed on the club and university circuit. However, Pete did not think their albums were well produced and they did not sell very well.

Vinegar Joe broke up in March 1974. Chris Blackwell wanted Robert as a solo act for Island. The band recorded a single featuring Elkie (without Robert) of ‘Sweet Nothin’s’ and ‘Rescue Me’. This was briefly released by Island but withdrawn immediately by Chris Blackwell. You can hear it here:

Steve said:
‘Elkie remained under contract to Island but was unable to record for about two years. She subsequently signed with A&M records. Her first album for A&M was recorded in LA and flopped, but her second album was recorded in London with veteran producers/songwriters Leiber & Stoller and yielded the hits ‘Pearl’s A Singer’ and ‘Sunshine after the Rain’. I played bass on the record.’

Pete Gage was very angry about how badly he was ripped off and treated by the music industry. After his divorce from Elkie, he lived briefly in Compayne Gardens in the 1980s (he can’t remember the address). Pete married the singer Ruby James and they emigrated to Sydney Australia in 1999, where he lives today.

(There is another Pete Gage, not to be confused with the above, who sang with the Jet Harris Band and with Dr Feelgood after Lee Brilleaux’s death in 1994).

Robert Palmer
Singer Robert Palmer was born in January 1949 in Batley West Yorkshire. He grew up in Malta where his father worked as a civilian for the Royal Navy as a code breaker during the Cold War. Robert went to Scarborough High School for Boys, and age 15 he joined a band called the Mandrakes. In 1969 Pete Gage recommended Robert to Alan Bown, and he came to London to replace vocalist Jess Roden in the Alan Bown Set. Pete Gage persuaded Robert to join Dada when they had a US tour lined up.

Robert lived in the basement flat of 35 Dennington Park Road West Hampstead from about 1970. Pete Gage told Dick Weindling that he remembers writing the songs ‘See the World’ and ‘Never Met a Dog’ from the first Vinegar Joe album, sitting cross-legged on the floor of Robert’s flat.

Robert married designer Sue Thatcher in 1970, after a chance meeting on Slough Station in 1968. In later interview he said: ‘I was taken by her style. Silver boots and silver mini-dress. The Sixties, y’know? She was reading a science fiction book, and I’m a sci-fi fan.’

They had a son James, and a daughter called Jane. He left the Dennington Park Road flat after it was flooded, destroying most of his belongings.
(Dick: This seems to be before the notorious August 1975 flood in West Hampstead).

Robert and Sue moved to Greenwich Village in New York where he became friends with members of the band Talking Heads. About 1976 Robert relocated to Nassau in the Bahamas just across the street from Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios. Robert left the States for Lugano in Switzerland in 1987, and he and Sue were divorced in 1993.

His first solo album, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley (1974), was recorded in New York with members of Stuff, Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie, and at Sea-Saint Studio in New Orleans with Lowell George, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville and other members of the Meters. Robert Palmer had a successful career and a number of major hits. In the 1980s he was in the Power Station, with Andy Taylor and John Taylor of Duran Duran and Tony Thompson of Chic.  

His iconic music videos for ‘Addicted to Love’ (1985) and ‘Simply Irresistible’ (1988) featured identically dressed women with pale faces, dark eye makeup and bright red lipstick. The videos were directed by photographer Terence Donovan. There is another West Hampstead link here as Donovan had lived in a flat in Douglas Mansions (now called Douglas Court), on the corner of West End Lane and Quex Road in the 1960s.

Robert’s last album was Drive (2003) which was very blues based. In September 2003 he had just recorded a programme for Yorkshire Television called ‘My Kinda of People’, which looked at the musicians who had influenced him. He was taking a short break in Paris with his American partner Mary Ambrose before they returned to Switzerland, when he suddenly died of a heart attack in the Warwick Hotel.

Steve York
Bass and harmonica player, Steve York was born in London in 1948. His father was a Chief Petty Officer, and Steve first lived on the Gosport Naval Base before moving to Temple Fortune in North London. The West Hampstead connection is that Steve lived above a shop at 55 Mill Lane West Hampstead from 1972 to 1977.

Steve has had a long career playing with many well-known musicians and recording numerous records. Beginning with blues bands in the 60s including Graham Bond and Manfred Mann, in 1971 he joined Pete Gage in Dada and then Vinegar Joe.

Steve told me:
‘The first Vinegar Joe album was released about nine months after we recorded it. In the meantime I toured the US with the American band Climax who had a huge hit with the song “Precious & Few”. I moved to Mill Lane a few months after returning to the UK and rejoined Vinegar Joe. I let Graham Bond stay in my flat in Mill Lane while I was on tour with VJ in 1973. He was homeless after his marriage broke up.’

Steve has recorded with Marianne Faithful on her albums Broken English and Dangerous Acquaintances, also with Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Chicken Shack, Elkie Brooks, Joan Armatrading, Dr John, Chuck Berry and many others. 

He played harmonica, or as he wonderfully calls it ‘the tin sandwich’, on Robert Palmer’s albums, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, and Pressure Drop.

The list of the numerous bands Steve has played with can be found here:

Today Steve lives in Mexico. See his website for more details:

With special thanks to Steve York and Pete Gage for their help with this article.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Rathbones: builders and developers in West Hampstead

Victorian West Hampstead and Kilburn was created by hundreds of builders, some building just one or two houses, others whole runs of properties. Some worked independently while others forged links with fellow developers. Many went bankrupt in the process.

Marianne’s interest was aroused when she bought a couple of postcards addressed to a ‘Marguerite Rathbone’ of NW6. Her father Arthur Rathbone was responsible for many houses in the neighbourhood, he stayed solvent and passed on a large property portfolio to his heirs.

The cards were posted in May and June of 1909 by Margery Berman to her friend Marguerite. They were addressed to ‘Sandown’, Westbere Road, a detached house which became number 14, near the junction with Mill Lane.

Arthur Rathbone
At the time, Marguerite was living with her widowed mother Emma and several of her siblings. Emma Maria Lawson had married Arthur Rathbone in 1878 in Bethnal Green and they had nine children. The 1881 census has him working as a builder and sharing a house in Tottenham with his married brother Edward, a plasterer. Two children were born in Tottenham before the family moved to Croydon and then to West Hampstead by 1888, where initially Arthur and Edward traded as ‘Rathbone Bros’. They worked as builders and estate agents before Edward left to set up home in Brighton.

We know Arthur built houses in Broomsleigh Street, Ravenshaw Street and Glastonbury Street; Ingham and Burrard Roads, as well as Sumatra, Cotleigh and Dynham Roads. He owned properties elsewhere in the neighbourhood, including Sherriff and Gladys Roads.

Arthur appears to have had penchant for fast driving (and possibly alcohol), which led him into trouble. In November 1890, he was ejected from the North London Hotel (now the North London Tavern) in Brondesbury for being the worse for drink and accused of ‘furious driving’ a horse and trap on the Kilburn High Road, at speeds of between 12 and 13 miles an hour. The following February he was fined 20sh for failing to get a license for his trap. In June 1891 he was summonsed for another incidence of ‘furious driving’ along Kilburn High Road – it is very long and straight! Rathbone agreed with the charge and the magistrate dismissed his defence: that ‘his pony had been standing with his head towards home, and he could not restrain it.’ 

There’s no evidence of his taking part in local life, other than his loaning a cart to be used as a platform by the Fortune Green Preservation Society, at a public meeting to drum up support to retain the Green as an open space.

The family were living at 19 Mill Lane at the time of Arthur’s death on 11 November 1894. He is buried in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green Road. Probate was granted to Emma with his effects valued at £100. This low sum disguises the fact that he had built up a large property portfolio, and presumes the properties were registered in her name. Emma moved to Westbere Road and by 1911 was living in Golders Green, at 865 Finchley Road, which she also called ‘Sandown’.

Who sent the postcards?
Margery Berman was the daughter of Solly and Jessie Berman. In 1911 he was working as a clerk for the Board of Guardians and living at 6 Hemstal Road. Margery was 13 and Marguerite Rathbone 14, so it’s likely they were school friends. One message ends ‘I remain yours to a cinder, Margery’ and the other suggests a walk the next morning, meeting at the top of West End Lane. It ends with an apology: Will send you a nice card next time but I am awfully stoney’, (short for ‘stoney broke’).

Miss Billie Burke, postcard
Both postcards were photographs of Billie Burke, daughter of the famous American clown William (Billy) Burke who had worked for the Barnum and Bailey circus. He started his own troupe and came to England in 1893. At the time of his death in 1906 he was living in St John’s Wood, and was buried in Hampstead Cemetery. Billie worked as an actress in London before returning to America where in 1914 she married Florenz Ziegfield (creator of the Ziegfield Follies) and her career took off. Billie appeared in over 80 films, but her best-known role was as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Billie Burke as Glinda with Judy Garland as Dorothy

What happened to Arthur’s property?
Emma died in 1919 leaving £14,822, today worth about £670,000, to her son George Rathbone and another local builder, James Gibb. 

In January 1923 The Times described the imminent sale of her properties:
This is one of the most important auctions for a long period of Hampstead property. It involves 141 freehold and long leasehold houses, and two shops, in Cotleigh-road, Westbere-road, Burrard-road, Fortune Green-road, and other streets. The rentals amount to £9,500 a year and the leaseholds are held for unexpired terms, in some cases, as long as eighty years.
The auction was conducted by Ernest Owers, West Hampstead’s well-known estate agent.

What happened to Arthur’s children?
Of those we have traced, Marguerite married veterinarian Robert Johnston Forrest and she died in Dorset in 1972. Her sister Florence married tailor William Warr at Emmanuel Church in 1909. Several of Arthur’s sons followed professions related to the building trade. The 1901 and 1911 censuses variously show Frederick as a surveyor and auctioneer; Arthur junior an electrician; Charles a self-employed carpenter and George, a clerk to an auctioneer and estate agent. He became the co-owner of Banks and Rathbone, estate agents of 163 Cricklewood Broadway, who were involved in the 1923 property sale above. Only George benefitted directly under his mother’s will.

In 1911 their brother Herbert was lodging in Fulham and working as a commissionaire. He had been a carpenter when he signed up in 1899, shortly after the start of the Second Boer War to join the Lancers. Discharged as medically unfit in 1902, Herbert is buried in the family grave at Hampstead Cemetery. On 19 February 1916 Frederick joined up at Folkestone to the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He was killed on 10 August 1918, one of 1,447 men who died that day, fighting at the battle of Amiens and is buried in Rosieres Communal Cemetery extension. He left his £975 estate (today worth about £48,000), to his sister Florence.

Arthur Rathbone and his family helped shape West Hampstead and Kilburn, leaving a lasting legacy in the form of the many properties they built.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Edwin Levy, private detective

On the 26 February 1895 Edwin Levy died from a heart attack at his home, 31 Compayne Gardens West Hampstead. He had bought the newly-built house a few years earlier and named it ‘Beaulieu’ after the village on the French Riviera which he regularly visited. When he died Levy was a very wealthy businessman, but he had a mysterious past. There are no biographies about him but here is what we have found.

Edwin was born on 29 August 1840 at 38 Warren Street, the son of Aaron and Hannah Levy. His father was a tailor but struggled for work and was in the Shoreditch Workhouse in 1843 for a short period. Edwin married Annie Sweeney in 1860 and they had two children. Levy started work as an oil and colourman selling paint at 2 Great St Andrews Street in Seven Dials.

By 1866 he had changed careers and was doing work for the Marquis of Townshend’s Society for the Protection of Women and Children, when he acted as an observer at several trials involving children. One of the cases was the horrifying St Giles murder of a young boy who was hanged by his father in the cellar.

In February 1870 Levy placed adverts in the Morning Post for his confidential investigations as a private detective. As this is the only time adverts appeared, he obviously obtained work from personal recommendations. His office was in Basinghall Street for several years.

Napoleon III
He worked very discreetly and it is hard to find records of his undercover activities for the Bank of England and several European governments. We know that the French Government employed him to observe Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon who was the Emperor of France from 1852 until his exile in England in 1870. He lived at Camden Place Chislehurst and died there in January 1873. Levy installed his agents in the windmill on the other side of the cricket field in Chislehurst to report the names of all visitors.

In a libel case against The Times in February 1874, when Edwin Levy was called as a witness, he said he was the London agent for the Brussels Minister of Police.

In 1880 Levy was living at 164 Oakley Street just off the Kings Road Chelsea. By 1883 he had made enough money to buy a second home, a detached house in its own grounds at Hastings, called Elphinstone Lodge.

Oscar Wilde
Levy was also a money lender. In 1883 he lent Oscar Wilde £1,200 (worth about £15,000 today). Oscar had spent all of 1882 in a successful lecture tour of America and although he was paid handsomely, he had spent lavishly and his debts in England were being called in. Levy helped Wilde again in 1892. Oscar had received a letter from Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’ to his friends. He was being blackmailed over an indiscreet letter concerning an incident in Oxford where he was a student. This was the beginning of the affair between Oscar and Bosie. Oscar asked his friend George Lewis, the top society lawyer, for help. Lewis got Levy to arrange for the payment of £100 from Oscar to the blackmailer (who has never been named). Oscar later wrote that both Lewis and Levy were shocked by the letter and advised him to have nothing to do with Bosie. In De Profundis, the long letter Oscar wrote in Reading Goal to Boise, he said that Levy ‘warned me for the space of a whole hour about knowing you’. Because of his relationship with Bosie, Oscar also lost the support and friendship of Lewis and said that at this point, ‘I was deprived of one of the great safeguards of my life’. 

Oscar Wilde and Bosie, 1893

J. Lyons, and Olympia
Levy bought property and shares as investments. He was friends with Joseph Lyons and Isidore Gluckstein and he bought 60,000 shares in the catering firm J. Lyons and Co. He took no part in the day to day running of the firm other than providing printing services for menus, price lists and stationery. 

He was also an investor in Olympia, the large exhibition hall in west London. In 1894 Levy was a director in both companies as well as the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, which in its final form is part of today’s Northern underground line.

His first wife Annie died in 1876, and in 1892 Edwin married Marion Mackenzie at St George’s Hanover Square. The previous year in the census she is shown as his 27-year-old housekeeper when they were living above 213 Piccadilly. Levy negotiated a price of £35,000 for the lease with an annual rent of £1,000. After extensive remodelling, the ground floor became the first Lyons tea shop which opened on 20 September 1894.

Edwin Levy died suddenly at the age of 65, and on his death certificate his occupation was just shown as ‘of independent means’. His friend Isidore Gluckstein was present at the death. Beaulieu House with his paintings, and his other properties in Hastings and Chelsea were all sold. At probate he left the huge sum of £261,518 (worth about £29M today), to Marion and his son Mordaunt from his first marriage. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery Willesden.

Marion left Compayne Gardens and moved to 30 Daleham Gardens in Hampstead, and in September 1899 she married Wilfred Harry Whiston. When she died in Reigate in 1954 she left £46,407 (worth about £1.25M today).

At his death one obituary said Edwin Levy was reputed to be the cleverest private detective in England. He was employed by many members of the English nobility as well as several English Royals and he often enjoyed a friendly chat with the Prince of Wales. A second tribute said, ‘He was engaged in most of the great cases of his day, and solved many a private problem which, had it burst into publicity, would have caused serious scandal. He knew where others only suspected, and had directed episodes behind the scenes which the world had only witnessed from the audience side of the footlights.’

Like George Lewis, he was too discreet to write his memoirs, which would have made very interesting reading.