When fin de siècle poet Ernest Dowson died Oscar Wilde wrote "poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was… I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was." When I called on him in Ladywell Cemetery only dandelions, ragwort and thistles were choking his rather modest grave. The memorial was restored in 2010 after a facebook campaign – the vase that would have topped the pedestal originally was missing but a new stone was added at the foot of the grave inscribed with two stanzas from one of his best known poems:
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Dowson was born at Lee in Kent in 1867, the son of Alfred Dowson, the owner of a dry dock at Limehouse but also the friend of Robert Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson. Due to delicate health he had an irregular education which included 5 terms at Queens College , Oxford which he left in 1888 without taking a degree. For the next few years he combined working as a supervisor in the dry dock with writing poetry and immersing himself in the London literary scene. His poetry was, according to T.S. Eliot, the product of the most gifted and technically perfect poet of his age. On the literary scene he knew Oscar Wilde (to whom, unlike many, he stayed loyal after his trial and imprisonment), W.B. Yeats, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley and Paul Verlaine. As well as poetry he translated many French novels including Zola’s La terre and Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses. The memoirs of his friends painted Dowson as an archetypal poète maudit of the fin de siècle, smoking hashish, swilling absinthe and roistering with professional ladies. In his Autobiographies Yeat’s said of him ‘sober he looked on no woman, drunk he picked up the cheapest whore.’ Ezra Pound, who only knew him by reputation wrote in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley that “Dowson found tarts cheaper than Hotels.” Dowson himself didn’t help matters with remarks in private letters like “absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.”
In 1895 Dowson’s father died of an overdose of a sleeping draught of choral hydrate. The circumstances in which he died were ambiguous and many thought he had committed suicide. Six months later his mother left no room for doubt when she hung herself at the family home. Dowson was soon struggling to run the dry dock which he left in the hands of the family solicitors. They were extremely parsimonious with any money the business was making and Dowson found himself in financial difficulties and on a downward spiral of drink, poverty and ill health. In early 1900 the writer R.H. Sherard was drinking in the Bodega in Bedford Street when Dowson tapped him on the shoulder. Of late Dowson had generally been unkempt and scruffy but Sherard was startled at how ill he looked “it was if a being from the grave were standing by my side” he wrote later. Dowson told him a story of being driven from his sick bed by his landlord’s threats and demands for money. Sherard took him home to the upstairs half of a modest terraced house in Catford where he was living with his aristocratic wife Marthe whilst researching one of the journalistic exposes for which he was famous (published in 1901 as The Cry of the Poor). Dowson lived with Sherard for six weeks before dying in Marthe’s arms on 23 February. The funeral was held on 27 February and was described in a note by Herbert Horne one of his friends:
The Mass was said at the Catholic chuch in Lewisham, at 11 o’clock, and the body afterwards interred in Ladywell Cemetery in a triangular plot of ground just beyond the two chapels, which had recently been reserved for Catholics. The coffin-plate was inscribed: Ernest Christopher Dowson, Died 23 February 1900, aged 32 years. Beside his uncle, Mr Hoole, & a few relatives, Moore who collaborated with him, Sherard at whose house at Lewisham he died, & his wife, Jephson, Teixeira de Mattos, Mrs Plarr, Bennett, Swanton, Pawle & another actor friend & myself were present.
|Dowson as sketched by Charles Edward Conder in the late 1890's.|
Most definitely not present at the funeral was the woman Dowson had loved for over a decade, Ellen Adelaide Foltinowicz. Dowson first mentions Adelaide in a letter to his friend Alan Moore dated 7 November 1889; “I am dining to-night with Samuel at a Polish Pot au Feu in Sherwood St, Glasshouse St. Soho. I discovered it. It is cheap; the cuisine is fair; I am the whole clientele, and there is a little Polish demoiselle therein…..whom it is a pleasure to sit & look at.” The Polish demoiselle was 11 years at the time of this first meeting. Over the next two years after a day at the dry dock Dowson adopted a routine of starting his evenings in the Cock Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue with a glass or two of absinthe where he would jot verses on scraps of paper or meet friends. At seven he would go to ‘Poland’ to dine where he would linger on after eating until the rest of the clientele, mainly Polish and French workmen, had gone. Once the restaurant was quiet Adelaide would join him at his table and they would chat or play cards until her mother called her to bed at 10 o’clock. Adelaide’s parents do not seem to have been alarmed by Dowson’s interest in their daughter. His feelings for the intelligent and vivacious girl gradually deepened but he was aware that his behaviour might be misinterpreted. In August 1891 the newspapers were filled with the grim details of the abduction of the 16 year old Lucy Pearson. Dowson’s reaction to the story was repugnance and horror “this beastly thing has left a sort of slimy trail over my holy places” he wrote to Alan Moore. Mistrust of Dowson’s motives is probably even stronger today than it was in the 1890’s. Bernard Richards, in his entry for Dowson in the Dictionary of National Biography states that he “regarded his unsatisfied love” for Adelaide “as something like Keats's for Fanny Brawne. Through the letters and poetry there runs a strong current of paedophilia, which has an erotic strain; but it is tempered by a humane and romantic appreciation of the freshness and generosity of children not yet tainted by the manners of society.”
Dowson certainly developed strong romantic feelings for Adelaide which continued as she grew and lasted until his death. Some of his most famous poetry was directly inspired by his unrequited love. In 1893 Adelaide’s father became ill; worried that he would lose her forever with the death of the father and the inevitable changes to the Foltinowicz household that would follow Dowson blurted out a proposal to the 15 year old. She said she was too young and could not even think about it whilst her father lay dying. The matter was never raised between them again. Dowson continued in his devotion even when she became engaged to another man, Augustus Noelte, a tailor who had once worked in her father’s restaurant. At the beginning of 1897 took a room above the restaurant in Sherwood Street to be close to Adelaide. She married Noelte on September 30 that year at the Bavarian Chapel in Westminster. Dowson could not bear to be there but he ensured that the ever dependable Alan Moore attended on his behalf and gave the happy couple his present. The Noelte’s moved to 30 Comeragh Road near Hammersmith and had two children, Bertha and Amelia born in 1899 and 1900 respectively. Adelaide’s mother, who was living with them, died in 1900 and the couple moved back to Sherwood Street soon after. She seems to have lost contact with Dowson by the time of his death in Catford.
|Bromley Road, Catford in 1895 with St Laurence's church in the distance|
Adelaide died three years after Dowson at the age of 25 on 13 December 1903. The cause of death was septicaemia due to an abortion carried out in June. She had never recovered from the procedure and must have suffered immensely over the six months it took her to die. Following an inquest into her death, a woman called Bertha Baudach, was arrested in January and charged with manslaughter. The Cheltenham Chronicle of 23 January 1904 carries the following account of her arrest:
Bertha Baudach, a German woman, living in Drumrig Street, Euston-Road, was charged at Marlborough-street Thursday, under warrant issued the 6th instancet. Mr. Troutbeck for Westminster, with the manslaughter of Adelaide Ellen a young woman, 19 Sherwood-street, W1, by means of an illegal operation. Detective Sargeant Clarke, of the C Division, deposed that on Wednesday evening, with Sergt. McArthur and another officer he went to 2 Euston-square, and there saw the prisoner in a back room on the ground floor, concealed behind some clothing hanging on the door. He explained why he was there, and told her she would be accused of manslaughter. She refused to leave her hiding-place, and when dragged from beneath the clothes struggled violently for about ten minutes with the three officers. An effort was made to read the coroner's warrant to her, but that could not be done, as she continued her violence. Eventually she had to be carried to a cab waiting outside, and was driven Vine-street. During the struggle she exclaimed, "Kill me! Let me die now. I would rather die than go with you and go through what I have been through before!" When the warrant was read she answered, ''All right. I have been to Bant, in Germany, and only came back yesterday." During the struggle a wig she wore with a view to disguising herself came off. The magistrate directed a remand.
Bertha had form. In 1894 she had had a narrow escape when she and another woman, Louisa Greenleaf, appeared at the North London Police Court charged with causing thedeath of Mary Jane Keen by performing an illegal operation at Bertha’s house in the Ball’s Pond Road. On their solicitors advice neither woman gave evidence and they were acquitted when the medical witnesses said they could not find any evidence that an abortion had been performed. The following year Bertha was back in court and this time she was not so lucky. This time the forty five year old was charged, along with Otto Huster (38) with ‘feloniously using a certain instrument with intent to procure the miscarriage of one Martha Elizabeth Cole.’ Martha Cole did not die but Bertha was found guilty and sentenced to five years penal servitude. Huster was given 12 months hard labour.
In March 1904 Bertha was charged with the manslaughter of Adelaide Noelte at the Central Criminal Court. There are few details of the case in the official ‘Proceedings of the Old Bailey’ apart from the names of the accused, the victim, the judge and the counsel for the prosecution and the defence. Instead there is a terse one line description “the case being one of causing abortion, the evidence is unfit for publication.” There had been some suspicion, according to a slightly fuller account of the trial in the News of the World, of a Joseph Kaiser who boarded with the Noelte’s, who helped nurse Adelaide once became sick and often gave her her medicine but there was not enough evidence to charge him. Bertha was found guilty of causing Adelaide’s death and sentenced to seven years penal servitude.
|Late Victorian satirical postcard|