Friday, 29 November 2013

Alexander Joseph Dourof, 'last of the sword swallowers', Camberwell Old Cemetery

It must have been hard times and a fickle public’s dwindling interest in sword swallowing that drove this former performer in the Russian Royal Circus to the unglamorous business of selling shag piles and Axminsters to south east Londoners.  This proud man who as well as performing for the Tsar had been a Cavalry Officer in the British army would surely be disheartened to know that in anywhere with an SE postcode his name is now almost synonymous with carpet selling and that his principal legacy is Dourof’s Carpet Warehouse on Rushey Green in Catford.

Alexander Joseph Dourof was born into a well known family of circus performers in Russia in 1881. The Dourofs were animal trainers and Alexander was reputedly one of the first people to succeed in training a bear without breaking its back. Alexander and his extended family were performers in the Russian Royal Circus but fled the country in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. When they arrived in the UK Alexander and his wife Sophia Elsa entertained the troops fighting out the last months of the First World War. Alexander was forced to go one step further and join the military himself where he became a horse trainer in the Light Cavalry. After the war the family worked first at a circus in Wales and then travelled the rest of the country before putting down roots in Peckham where he seems to have largely given up performing and settled down as a carpet salesman. In 1943, at the age of 62, he came out of retirement to take part in a carnival scene in the James Mason film “The Man in Grey” where he could be seen swallowing a sword in the background. Unfortunately for reasons unknown the scene, the only film record ever made of Alexander in performance, was excised from the video and DVD versions and now seems to be lost forever. Apparently there is a plaque at Guy’s Hospital commemorating Alexander’s help during the development of the stomach pump, presumably swallowing rubber tubes rather than swords. He died in 1949 and was buried at Camberwell Old Cemetery.       

Alexander was married to Sophia Elsa, who was born in Russia in 1888 and was buried with her husband when she died in 1967. She too was a circus performer, a tight rope walker, and when the family came to England she worked with Alexander and their two eldest children (who were acrobats). Later she must have dedicated her life to her large family – the couple had ten children.   


Almost all the details about Alexander Dourof's life come from

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Rowland & Mary Eliza Stephenson, All Hallows, Tottenham

The tomb of Rowland Stephenson of Downhills House lies in the churchyard of All Hallow’s Church Tottenham.  Stephenson (1737? – 1807) was a wealthy banker originally from Westmorland in Cumbria. He was a founder member of the Lombard Street banking firm of Stephenson, Remington & Co. He was also MP for Carlisle between 1787 and 1790 though not a very active one; his only recorded votes in the house were with the opposition over the Regency and he never spoke on any matter. He did not stand for re-election at the end of his term. Buried with him is the wife of his great-nephew and namesake Rowland Stephenson, Mary Eliza Stephenson (1786 – 1820) of Marshalls in Essex. It is hard to see quite why Mary, who married Rowland Junior the same year Rowland Senior died, is buried here perhaps because the Stephenson’s were an exceptionally close family, Rowland Junior and Mary were cousins and Mary’s father was not only Rowland’s uncle and father-in-law but also a business partner in Stephenson, Remington & Co.  

Rowland Junior was born aboard ship in 1782 when his parents were fleeing America. His father had been a merchant in Florida but was forced to leave when the Spanish captured the colony from the British during the American war of Independence.  He became a partner in Rowland Seniors banking firm on his return to England. Rowland Junior joined them when he finished his education at Eton and became a fully-fledged partner in 1822. In the early years of his career he married his cousin Mary who was small and delicate and came from a musical family. Her father was an expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and a collector of Cremona violins.  Mary was also a musician and Hester Lynch Piozzi (better known as Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale), wrote in a letter that she “carries the applause away from many a fair dilletente (pianoforte) player”. The composer Ferdinand Ries dedicated to her his “A Russian Sailors Song.” She continued with her musical interests into her marriage to Rowland; in 1817 she became a private pupil of Sir George Smart, a close friend of the family and one of England’s most famous musicians, conductor of the London Philharmonic and lecturer at the Royal College of Music. Later her son Edward was apprenticed to Sir George.   When her husband bought Marshalls, a ‘pretty villa’ with 300 acres near Romford in Essex in 1816 the couple enjoyed a few tranquil years of happiness with their large family of 8 children. They entertained every Sunday, inviting their friends to parties and musical soirees in the Essex countryside. During the week Rowland rode to work in Lombard Street from Romford and returned each night to his family. Mary was esteemed by the Romford locals (although her husband was apparently not so popular) but the banking business was flourishing, the family were healthy and the couple were happy. Then in 1820, at the age of 34, Mary unexpectedly died, probably in childbirth.  Rowland buried her with his great uncle in All Hallows churchyard and probably intended to join her there himself despite his growing list of connections with west Essex.

He had bought himself the manor lordship of Cockermouth in Dagenham, the How Hatch estate in Braintree, a mill house in Romford and various other local properties as well as purchasing manors and houses as far away as Dover. Property was only one of Rowland’s extravagances however. He had previously tried to follow his follow his great uncles footsteps by getting himself elected as MP for Carlisle in 1816 but the effort failed through lack of funds. After Mary’s death he threw himself back into politics but this time money seemed to be no object and there followed a series of costly by election challenges across the country – West Looe in February 1822, Newport in March 1823, Carlisle again in 1825 and, in the 1826 general election, Leominster where he came in third in a borough that made a double return (i.e. elected two MP’s). One of the successful candidates ran the lottery and Rowland mounted a legal challenge arguing that as a government contractor he was disqualified from standing. The challenge was successful, eventually, and Rowland became an MP on 19 February 1827. After getting himself elected he turned his attentions to assisting his brother-in-law win the Sudbury by election in 1828. Having gone to such efforts to gain himself a parliamentary seat Rowland then seems to have taken relatively little interest in his new position, making no speeches in the house and voting only on three or four occasions Perhaps his mind was on other matters.
In December 1828 he was living in an apartment at St Bartholomew’s hospital where he held the honorary position of treasurer. On the 27 December his partners at the bank discovered that his assistant, John Henry Lloyd, had made large unsecured advances and the bank was forced to suspend payments. On hearing the news Rowland immediately left his apartment and sought out Lloyd and the two men then fled together to the West Country. In Clovelly and Bristol they had themselves smuggled out of the country on fishing smacks but initially only as far as Wales. From Milford Haven they took passage on a ship to Savannah in Georgia. It was believed, incorrectly, that they had fled with £200,000 in exchequer bills and the Lord Mayor of London issued a writ for their arrest. Rumours abounded and were reported with great relish by the newspapers, Rowland had been £30,000 overdrawn at his bank for years they said, he kept six women and three country estates, he had private boxes in all the London theatres, gambled regularly and excessively and so on. By 4 January Remington’s had declared itself bankrupt and an indictment was issued at the Old Bailey on the 16, as a prelude to outlawry proceedings in King’s Bench, charging Rowland with embezzlement. By the 29 January an auctioneer was instructed to sell off Rowland’s assets to satisfy his creditors. It took the auctioneer, Shuttleworths, almost 6 months to get rid of Rowlands many assets the Essex estates, a mansion and its contents in Dover, a box at Drury Lane theatre, paintings, antiques, and the contents of David Garrick’s villa at Hampton, Middlesex, which he had purchased in 1823 all went under the hammer. In January 1830 he was declared formally bankrupt and stripped of his position as an MP as a result.
Meanwhile Rowland and Lloyd, travelling incognito as Smith and Larkin, arrived in New York on the 27 February 1829. There disguise proved inadequate to protect them from the law and they were almost immediately arrested and placed in debtors prison whist awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings. These took place relatively quickly but failed because the courts judged that as neither Rowland nor Stephenson were convicts they could not be sent back to England under duress. On March 26 they were released. Lloyd tried to protect his boss by assuming full responsibility for the transactions that had brought the bank down but given Rowlands alacrity in fleeing London and then England as soon as his subordinates crimes came to light no one really believed that the banker had no idea what was going on. He was not left destitute however, his family stepped in to assist him financially, supporting him in America and looking after his children in England. His eldest son, just 21 when this his father was disgraced, almost immediately sailed from England to see him and, whilst he was visiting, purchased for him a 170 acre estate on the Delaware River in Bensalem in Pennsylvania for $15,000. Rowland took up residence there in October 1829 and lived on the property until his death in July 1856. He never remarried. His obituary in the Bucks. County Intelligencer described him as ‘formerly a banker in England’, long since settled in Bristol, where ‘he was universally esteemed for his benevolence and kindness to the poor and distressed’. He was buried in the churchyard of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Bensalem, 3500 miles away from poor Mary in All Hallows Tottenham who has only her husband’s embittered great uncle  for company, a man who must have felt his great nephew’s disgrace keenly and probably has not a single good word to say about him.  
Rowland Stephenson in Parliament:

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Agnes Forsyth, 4 years old, Abney Park

Agnes Forsyth, the daughter of James Forsyth the sculptor, died at the age of 4 in 1864. She lived with her mother Eliza and her father at 8 Edward Street, Marylebone. James was the son of a mason and was born in Kelso, Scotland in 1827. He came to England with brother William in the early 1850’s to work at Wells in Somerset carving the organ case and choir stall in the cathedral. He became a successful sculptor working on churches and cathedrals all over England. By the early 1860’s he was living at Marylebone with his young family. He must have found some comfort for his grief at the death of his young daughter creating this monument for her at Abney Park Cemetery. Three years later Eliza also died. She does not appear to have been buried with Agnes.

By 1871 James had remarried. His second marriage, to Annie, lasted until his death in 1910 and produced 9 children.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Philipson Mausoleum, Golders Green Crematorium

This is an extraordinary building; a latticed wall encircles a central domed structure, originally designed, like the Pantheon, to be open to the sky. The intention was for the space between the outer and inner walls to be planted with roses. Inside, two alabaster cinerary urns stand on a pedestal opposite the doorway. In front of this, in the centre of the floor, is an ‘inverted dome’ to catch the rainwater (no longer needed now that the dome is glazed) and, round the wall a walkway and bench.
Sir Edwin Lutyens
Grade II (England and Wales)
Year Built

The Philipson Mausoleum (one of only two in the garden of rest at Golders Green Crematorium) was built by Ralph Hilton Philipson (1862-1928) for himself and his wife, Florence (1876-1914). Clearly viewable through the door their ashes stand side by side on a pedestal inside the mausoleum, contained in two rose coloured alabaster urns which seem to be wrapped in Clingfilm.

Ralph Philipson was born in Newcastle and was the eldest son of a coal magnate. He was educated at Eton and Oxford and trained as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn but I could find no evidence that he ever practiced. He was a sportsman, an amateur cricketer (though not of the same calibre as his younger brother Hylton who was England’s second wicket keeper during the 1891/2 and 1894/5 Australian test tours) and tennis player and he was a lover and patron of the arts. He married Florence Woodward, a Californian heiress, in New York 1908 after meeting her the previous year aboard a ship, presumably travelling between Europe and the States.

After a honeymoon in Canada the couple returned to London where Ralph had been living in Mayfair in the parish of St George, Hanover Square. They later moved north of Oxford Street and close to Regents Park, to 74 Portland Place where Ralph took out a 21 year lease on an apartment (and where he later spent £5000 on wood paneling for four of the rooms, an enormous sum then). There were no children. The marriage lasted only 6 years because in January 1914, at the age of 36, Florence died. Ralph must have been grief stricken – even for a wealthy man the mausoleum he commissioned is ostentatious and his shock at losing his relatively young wife must have influenced the decision to build not only a lasting memorial but a place where he would eventually join her. Edwin Luytens was already a well known architect when Ralph asked him to design the mausoleum; his services would not have come cheap.

In 1922 Ralph married again, to Maya Stuart King, the widow of Baron Knoop, a Russian textile millionaire and collector of musical instruments (he owned 4 Stradivari’s). Maya was of Hungarian descent and had a romantic and artistic temperament. She ran away from home at the age of 18 to search for her godmother, a German princess and met Baron Knoop when she was playing the violin in the salons of Vienna. The Baron was considerably older than her and very possessive but young women wear out old men quickly and he died in 1918 leaving her comfortably off as long as she did not remarry (old men’s jealousy lasts longer than life it seems – Maya had a very special friendship with the writer Algernon Blackwood which might have stoked the Baron’s distrust). Maya was 47 and Ralph 61 when they married. When in London they lived at Portland Place but Ralph bought Encombe House in Sandgate, Kent and this is where they seem to have spent most of their time. He employed the architect Basil Ionides to completely remodel the house as an Italian renaissance cum art deco villa. In December 1928 Ralph contracted a severe case of food poisoning and died. He had apparently left instructions for his body to be cremated and his ashes placed with his first wife’s in the Mausoleum in at Golders Green.

Maya lived on until 1945 and Derek St Clair-Stannard gives an account of her at Encombe in her later years:

“Once Encombe nestled beneath the wooded escarpment of Shorncliffe in, but not of, Sandgate. I used to go there most days of the school holidays - I was only 10 or 11. I was welcome as a "playmate" to Mrs Philipson’s adopted girls, Betty and Barbara. We called her "Winky". She never got over her husband’s death and wore widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. She organised Easter egg hunts, games of tennis and rounders. She let us use the little thatched changing-rooms on the Esplanade from which we went bathing and maybe searching rock pools for crabs at low tide. We enjoyed a never-ending round of amusements.”

I can’t find out what happened to Maya after she died, she certainly did not join Ralph and Florence in a Golders Green ménage à trois. If she missed Ralph enough to remain in widows weeds for the rest of her life it must have hurt her to place Ralph’s urn next to Florence’s in the mausoleum.