Skip to main content

Looking for Lillie Langtry

‘A Jersey Lily’ by John Everett Millais, 1878

Lillie Langtry, known as the ‘Jersey Lily’, was a mistress of Bertie the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. It is widely believed that she lived in South Hampstead and today her name is remembered by Langtry Road which runs off Kilburn Priory, Langtry Walk in the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, and the Lillie Langtry pub at 121 Abbey Road, on the corner with Belsize Road.

The Lillie Langtry was built in 1969 to replace a demolished Victorian pub, The Princess of Wales, named in honour of Alexandra, Edward’s wife. In 2007 it was briefly called The Cricketers before the name reverted to The Lillie Langtry in 2011.

Lillie Langtry’s address is given as Leighton House, 103 Alexandra Road which is now demolished and lies under the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. It was thought that Bertie visited her there during their affair which lasted from about June 1877 to June 1880. The dates are approximate as there is little evidence of when their affair began and ended.

For several years we have been looking at when Lillie lived there. This the story of what we found.

Lillie’s Rise to Fame

She was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in October 1853, the only daughter of the seven children of the Dean of Jersey. As a young woman, she longed to leave Jersey and come to London. When she was 20, Lillie saw her opportunity. Edward ‘Ned’ Langtry, a recent widower from Belfast, arrived in Jersey on board his 80-foot yacht, Red Gauntlet. In her 1925 autobiography she said: ‘One day there came into the harbour the most beautiful yacht. I met the owner and fell in love with the yacht. To become the mistress of the yacht, I married the owner, Edward Langtry’. This was written long after they had divorced and Ned had subjected her to bankruptcy, and his own alcoholism.

They married on 9 March 1874 at St Saviour’s her father’s church in Jersey. At first, they lived near Southampton until in January 1876, Lillie persuaded Ned, even though he loathed London, to rent a small flat in Eaton Place Belgravia. Knowing very few people in London they spent a miserable first year. Then a chance meeting with Lord Ranelagh, whose daughter had married Lillie’s brother Clement, produced an invitation to attend a party on 29 April 1877 at 23 Lowndes Square Knightsbridge, the home of Sir John and Lady Olivia Sebright. To her surprise, Lillie became the centre of attention. Among the guests were artists John Everett Millais, James Whistler and Frank Miles who all thought she was a remarkably beautiful woman and asked to paint her. Miles who was a good illustrator, made pencil sketches of her at the party and the pictures, reproduced in the thousands as a penny postcard, went on sale within weeks. Lillie was soon receiving numerous invitations as all of London society wanted to meet her.

Pencil sketch by Frank Miles

On 24 May 1877 at a small diner party of 10 people at Sir Allen Young’s house in Stratton Street Mayfair, Lillie first met the Prince of Wales. Young was an explorer and a yachting friend of Bertie’s who had asked him to invite Lillie. Edward was married to Princess Alexandra and had five children, but he also had many mistresses and lived up to his nicknames of ‘Dirty Bertie’ and ‘Edward the Caresser’. The affair with Lillie probably started soon after the dinner party, and she and Bertie were openly seen riding in Rotten Row, Hyde Park each evening at 7pm.

Millais’s picture of Lillie in a plain black dress, ‘A Jersey Lily’, was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in 1878 and made her even more famous. This was the age of the PB, or ‘Professional Beauty’ and there was a craze for collecting their photographs. Lillie outsold all the other PBs such as ‘Patsy’ Cornwallis-West, a previous mistress of the Prince of Wales. Patsy also lived in Eaton Place at number 49, and she and Lillie became friends.

Mary ‘Patsy’ Cornwallis-West (Getty Images)

With money coming in from the sale of her photos and a contract with Pears Soap, Lillie and Ned moved to 17 Norfolk Street (now called Dunraven Street), off Park Lane at the Marble Arch end, in early 1878. But Ned was unhappy with all the attention Lillie was getting and was drinking heavily. He also disliked the endless round of parties and conveniently went on fishing trips so Lillie could see Bertie.

The Sensational Trial

Then Lillie’s wonderful life in London threatened to come to a sudden end. On 30 August 1879 Adolphus Rosenberg the 27-year old proprietor and editor of a scandal magazine called Town Talk, published an article saying that Edward Langtry had filed for divorce. In a subsequent edition he also criticised Patsy Cornwallis-West for her role as a PB. The article claimed jokily that there were four photographic studios in a yard behind her house and 15 darkrooms in her home at Eaton Place, and that Mrs Cornwallis-West rushed from studio to studio in different costumes posing for photographs. ‘Now in blue satin, now in red, then in green, and next in white, she seemed to be a female human chameleon. Then she drives round to the shops and collects her commission which amounts to thousands of pounds annually. But she is being out photographed by Mrs Langtry.’ The article went on to say that Mrs Cornwallis-West had named her pets after photographic materials, so her cat was ‘Iodide of Potassium’.

Incensed, Patsy’s husband filed a writ of libel against Rosenberg who was also charged with a libel of Mr and Mrs Langtry. Patsy asked Bertie to make sure that Rosenberg was silenced, and he handed the matter over to his friend George Lewis, the society lawyer.

The sensational case was heard in the Old Bailey on 25 October 1879. The Town Talk issue of 30 August said that Mr Langtry had filed a divorce petition naming the Prince of Wales and two other gentlemen as co-respondents. The next edition named Lord Lonsdale and Lord Londesborough. Although it was common knowledge in society circles, this was the first time Bertie had been named in print as an adulterer.

The prosecution said that Rosenberg had made up the whole story and had laughed when he was told he would be taken to court. Edward Langtry gave evidence and said he had never filed a petition for divorce, and he lived happily with his wife. This was untrue: the marriage was breaking up and Ned left Lillie after the court case.

Through his lawyer Rosenberg said the article about Mrs West rushing from studio to studio was just a joke and was not meant to be taken seriously. He pleaded guilty and apologised for any offence caused. Rosenberg’s lawyer hoped the judge would take this into account before passing sentence, describing his client as a young man of good character, married with a wife, two children and expecting a third, and his father was also dependant on him for support. However, the judge sentenced Rosenberg to 18 months in prison with a huge £1,000 fine if he failed to keep the peace for a further 18 months. After serving his sentence, Rosenberg continued to publish Town Talk for several years, and then took his family to America where he worked as a journalist in New York. In 1917 he changed his name to Ross and died there in 1936.

Towards the end of 1879 through Frank Miles, Lillie met Oscar Wilde who became a good friend and supporter of Lillie’s and acted as her mentor.

The affair with Bertie supposedly ended in June 1880 when Lillie overstepped the mark at a society ball when she dropped a scoop of ice cream down his neck. He was not amused at being publicly humiliated and left the room, but despite this he maintained a life-long friendship with Lillie after their affair had ended. Another version of the story says it was Patsy Cornwallis-West who dropped the ice cream in Bertie’s collar, but when he turned round he thought it was Lillie.

In November 1880, the Langtry’s were in financial difficulties. Creditors and bailiffs moved into the Norfolk Street address and The New York Times reported the couple had left their London home.

Lillie’s next affair was with Prince Louis of Battenberg, and on 8 March 1881 her daughter Jeanne-Marie was born in Paris. But it is now believed that Arthur Jones, a long-time friend from Jersey, was the father. He and Lillie had a three-year secret affair (1879 onwards). In 1978, 65 of her letters to ‘Darling Artie’ were discovered and sold at Christie’s in November for £8,000. He was one of seven children Lord Ranelagh had with his mistress, Mary Elliott or Edwards. The children were brought up by a nurse in Richmond, spending summer holidays in Portelet Jersey where they met Lillie and the Le Breton family.

Ned had been in America and when he returned, he rented 3 Berkeley Street in April 1881 and attempted a reconciliation with Lillie. But they quarrelled; Lillie left and rented Lord Ranelagh’s flat at 18 Albert Mansions, Victoria Street where she could continue to see Arthur Jones.

After Ned’s bankruptcy, it seems the Prince of Wales gave Lillie £2,000 through his friend Sir Allen Young to settle her debts. She wanted to be financially independent, and her artist friends and Oscar Wilde suggested she should go on the stage. Fortunately, the well-known retired actress Mrs Henrietta Labouchere offered to give Lillie lessons and arranged for her to perform in a one-hour play at the Twickenham Town Hall on 19 November 1881. This was reasonably well received, and Henrietta became Lillie’s manager. On 15 December Lillie performed in a charity performance of ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ at the packed Haymarket Theatre, with the Prince of Wales and Alexandra in the Royal Box. Lillie’s performance was much better than people expected, and Princess Alexandra led a large group to her dressing room and gave Lillie a kiss on the cheek.

Lillie toured the country with ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ to sell out audiences. Mrs Labouchere arranged an American tour from October 1882 to June 1883, and again huge crowds turned out to see Lillie. Oscar Wilde who had been in America since January, was there to greet Lillie when she arrived on 23 October. The police had to rescue her from the crowds in New York. Now earning £250 a week (today worth about £26,000), over time Lillie repaid the money from Sir Allen Young which she considered a loan. She also gave Ned a monthly payment through lawyer George Lewis, on condition that he never saw her again.

Lillie as Cleopatra (Getty Images)

In New York she met ‘the great love of her life’, Freddie Gebhard who had inherited a fortune from his wealthy father. They were lovers over a nine-year period.

Although Lillie and Henrietta Labouchere had a falling out during the first tour of America, Lillie went on to have a very successful acting career and spent her time touring America or appearing on the London stage. Lillie earned a substantial income and became a rich woman through good property investments in America. She could also afford to indulge her passion with her own stable of race horses whose winnings were substantial.

From 1889 to 1898 Lillie lived at 21 Pont Street in Chelsea, where today there is a Blue Plaque. Ned was asked for a divorce by Lillie’s lawyer George Lewis but he continually refused. After becoming an American citizen, Lillie finally obtained a divorce in May 1897 in California after the couple had been separated for 13 years. At the time Ned said he had lived quietly in Holyhead Wales for 10 years and was now resident in Southampton. Typically, he was out fishing when he was told about the divorce by a reporter.

Sadly, his years of drinking had affected his health and Ned came to a tragic end. In 1897 on a steamer crossing from Liverpool to Belfast, he slipped and fell down a ladder, hurting his head badly. After a few days’ treatment in a Belfast hospital, he returned to Liverpool. On 3 October he took a train to London but got off at Crewe and was found in a dazed state walking on the rails. Just a few days after being seen by a local doctor, Ned was found delirious in the street and taken to the Upton Asylum near Chester where he died on 15 October 1897. The cause of death was a blood clot on the brain.

Lillie bought a beautiful house, 2 Cadogan Place in Knightsbridge, and lived there from 1899 to 1904. She finally got a title when she married Hugo de Bathe in 1899 and became Lady de Bathe when his father died in 1907. She and Hugo shared a love of horse racing, but his time in the Army during the Boer War affected him badly and their relationship deteriorated. After WWI ended, Lillie bought a house in Monte Carlo where she died ten years later on 12 February 1929.

Leighton House, 103 Alexandra Road

The first reference to Lillie living in Leighton House in Alexandra Road is from the Evening Standard 2 April 1965. Electra Yaras who had bought the lease of the property and had lived there for many years, told a reporter that tables were banged, and voices were heard whispering in Leighton House. Electra, who was an actress in the 1950’s, said she had seen the ghost of Lillie Langtry in her bedroom. According to her, Lillie had lived in the house for many years and Edward, Prince of Wales regularly visited her there. Now the house was earmarked for demolition by the council.

1954 OS map of Alexandra Road showing No.103
 

Alexandra Road, Edwardian postcard (Marianne Colloms)

Camden Council bought a 13.5-acre site from the Eyre estate for £925,000, including the houses in Alexandra Road, but these were not demolished until 1971. That year, the Hampstead News of 11 April carried an article by a journalist who had visited No.103. It says Leighton House was built by Lord Leighton for Lily (misspelt), with high walls and a glass canopy over the entrance steps to shield Bertie from view during his visits. While the house did have a glass-covered entrance behind the high wall, the walls were no higher than some neighbouring properties. No.103 was not built for Lillie by Lord Leighton. It was already standing by the mid-1860s and the name ‘Leighton House’ was given to the property by Samuel Litchfield, an importer and dealer of Dresden china, who moved there in 1870. He may have named the house after his wife’s place of birth, Leighton Buzzard. This was quite common for property owners at the time.

Leighton House, 103 Alexandra Road, empty just before demolition in 1971

Did Lillie Langtry ever live in Alexandra Road?

Using a variety of sources, such as the census, rate books, and electoral registers, we have looked at all the people who lived at Leighton House between 1870 and 1907. For the most part they were wealthy businessmen and there is no record of Lillie in Alexandra Road. Other sources say Lillie’s cousin Philip Le Breton lived at the house and she was a frequent visitor. But in fact he lived in Hampstead not Alexandra Road.

None of the many biographies of King Edward VII and Lillie mention Alexandra Road, apart from ‘Edwardians in Love’ by Anita Leslie. On page 97 she writes; ‘From her small house in Mayfair, Mrs Langtry moved to Hampstead, where she bought a mansion called Leighton House in Alexandra Road.’ But the book was first published in 1972, after the publicity about saving the house had appeared in national newspapers, and Leslie describes some of the rooms using information which appeared in the articles.

In common with many other houses in Alexandra Road, No.103 later became multi-occupied and by 1932 nine people are shown in the electoral register.

When advertised for sale in June 1945, the property was described as:

‘Leighton House, 103 Alexandra Road. 12 and a half-year lease.

6 beds, dressing rooms, 2 bathrooms, 3 reception rooms, large breakfast room, offices and garden. Vacant possession, to be sold by auction on the premises, 20 June. Auctioneers, George Head and Co, 40 Baker St.

In 1956 the electoral register shows Electra and her husband Romuald Yaras were sharing the house with 11 other tenants.

The Times for 8 October 1971 and the Daily Telegraph of 9 October, reported the attempts made by campaigners to save the property, described as Lillie Langtry’s house. Electra Yaras and her son Andrew had persuaded fellow actress Adrienne Corri, who lived nearby in 26 Springfield Road, to add to the publicity in a last-minute attempt to get a preservation order on the house. But inspectors for the Environment Department decided the house did not merit saving, and the families had to move out that weekend.

Working under Sydney Cook, Camden’s celebrated borough architect, Neave Brown produced a unique design for the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. Building began in 1972 and was undertaken in two phases, completed in 1978-79. Neave Brown was awarded the prestigious RIBA Gold Medal and he died in January 2018.

From all our research, we have found no evidence that Lillie Langtry ever lived in Alexandra Road or that the Prince of Wales visited her there. We are now convinced the story was fabricated by the occupants of Leighton House in an attempt to prevent its demolition.

 

We would like to thank Anthony Camp MBE, the former director of the Society of Genealogists, for his help and information about Lillie Langtry.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Sandor Eles: from Hammer Horror to Crossroads

A face many of us knew from his stage, TV and film work, Sandor Eles, was born in Tatabánya , 60km west of Budapest , in June 1936. He became a British citizen on 10 January 1977. After a long and successful career, h e died of a heart attack on 10 September 2002.   Sandor Eles, 1964 While doing some research on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), I was surprised to find that he died in his flat in Morland House, 17 Brondesbury Road Kilburn. At the time of his death Sandor did not have any heirs, and his name appeared on the Government Bona Vacantia list of unclaimed estates.   Sandor was orphaned and aged 20, fled during the Hungarian Revolution of October and November 1956 when Soviet tanks entered Budapest. After receiving help from the Red Cross in Vienna, he travelled to England, unable to speak the language. Nonetheless, having trained at a student theatre in Hungary, he attended the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and began his professional stage career in 1958.  

The Death of Chris Barber and Rock Island Line

It was sad to hear that Chris Barber, the jazz trombonist and band leader, died aged 90 on 2 March 2021. He was very influential in developing a version of New Orleans jazz in the 1950s which led the way to skiffle, British blues, the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Chris Barber (Getty Images) A few years ago I had lunch with the late Harold Pendleton and his wife Barbara. Harold was a chartered accountant with a love of jazz, and he told me when he arrived to work in London in 1948 from Southport, the first thing he did was to go to Dobells’ Record Shop at 77 Charing Cross Road. He was thumbing through the jazz records and got talking to a man who was doing the same. The man was Chris Barber and Harold became the manager of his band and a lifelong friend. Harold went on to open the Marquee Club in 1958, and he and Barbara organised the National Jazz and Blues festivals held in Windsor and later Reading. Decca Studios, Broadhurst Gardens, (Dick Weindling, 1979)   There is an importa

The Kilburn Gang of Bank Robbers

I went to school with a bank robber, but I did not know it at the time. In January 1962 four men from Kilburn were arrested while attempting to break in through a window at the rear of the Barclays Bank in Kenton Road Harrow. In court the men were described as: Brian Shrimpton (19) a labourer from Palmerston Road; Brian Phillips (23) a driver also from Palmerston Road; David Francis Murphy (17) a labourer from Brondesbury Villas Kilburn, and John Stainer (18) a van boy from The Avenue Brondesbury. They had been in the Prince of Wales pub in Kingsbury when they were overheard planning the raid. But their luck was out - they did not know that the men at the next table were three policemen from the Flying Squad. The Kilburn men drove off in a van to check out the Kenton Road bank, then they went to The Cabin café at 80 Palmerston Road in Kilburn and back to Kenton to do the bank raid.  They were unaware that they had been followed all the way by the Flying Squad and were totally surprised