Wednesday, 16 September 2015

His Coffin was a Living Shark! - how Ephraim Thompson's son and Henry Watson's watch ended up in the belly of a fish

Detail from 'Watson and the Shark" by John Singleton Copley showing Lord Mayor Brook Watson losing his leg in Havanna

There is something fishy about this shark tale. Perhaps because it is such a close match to  the classic ‘the fish and the ring’ type of folk tale first written down by Herodotus in his account of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos who was persuaded to give up his most valuable and luxurious possessions otherwise his life would end in tragedy. One of the items he cast into the sea was his favourite emerald ring. Months later a fisherman brought him a fish as a tribute and when it was cut open to be gutted the cast off ring was discovered inside. There are dozens of variants, Jewish, Indian, German, Irish, English amongst others, on the basic motif of the lost or discarded valuable thrown into the sea and emerging at the most opportune moment in the belly of the fish that swallowed it. In the newspaper accounts of the lost son of Ephraim Thompson of Whitechapel the fish not only swallows and eventually gives up the valuable, in this case a watch, but also swallows Ephraim’s son. The accounts below appeared in many newspapers, always with identical wording, so clearly from one original source. Searches of birth, marriage and death records reveal no trace of a Ephraim Thompson in Whitechapel. Nor can I trace any record of a watchmaker called Henry Watson, in Shoreditch or anywhere else in London, or a ship called the Polly and under the command of a Captain Vane. The story may well be an 18th century urban myth but the author of the 1787 version of Dodsley’s ‘Annual Register’ thought it was too good to pass up and his version has caught the fancy of many compilers of miscellanys right up to the present day. And so the story of the Poplar Shark remains in circulation, even if no one can vouch for its reliability.

On Saturday 1 last as some Fishermen were fishing in the Thames, near Poplar, they perceived something more than commonly ponderous in their net, which with much Difficulty they drew into their Boat, when to their great surprise, they found it to be a Shark, yet alive, but evidently in a dying State. It was taken to Shore; the Admeasurement is as follows: From the Tip of the snout to the End of the Tail, 9 Feet 3 Inches—from the Shoulder to the end of the Body, 6 Feet 1 Inch—round the Body in the  thickest Part 6 Feet 9 Inches— the Width of Jaw when extended, 17 Inches. It has five Rows of Teeth, consequently five Years old, having an additional Row every Year until it has arrived to its proper Growth. It has been opened, and what renders this Fish a greater Curiosity, in its Belly were found a Silver Watch, a Metal Chain and Cornelian Seal, together with several small Pieces of Gold Lace, supposed to have belonged to a young; Gentle man, who was unfortunate enough to have fallen overboard and become a Meal to this voracious Fish ; but that the Body and other Parts, had been either been digested, or voided; but the Watch and Gold Lace not being able to pass through it, the Fish thereby became sickly, and would in all Probability very soon have died. This is the largest Fish of the Species ever seen by any Person in, the River Thames. The Watch has the Name of Henry Watson, London, No. 1369, and the Works are very much repaired. It is intended to preserve this extraordinary Fish, as a great natural Curiosity and place it in one the public repositories in this Metropolis. 
Northampton Mercury Sat 08 Dec 1787

Our readers will recollect a paragraph in a former paper, giving an account of a shark taken in the river Thames, near Poplar, by some fishermen, in the body of which was found a watch, with a chain and seal, and also some pieces of gold lace, which was conjectured to have belonged to a young gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious fish ; the maker’s name and number of the watch, being Henry Watson, London, No. 1369, hath been the means of obtaining the following additional account of that remarkable circumstance :—Mr. Henry Watson, the watchmaker, lives in Shoreditch, who sold the watch two years ago, to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a present to his son going out on his first voyage (as what is called a Guinea Pig,) on board the Ship Polly, Capt. Vane, master, bound to Coast and Bay; about three leagues off Falmouth, a sudden heel of the vessel, during the time of a squall. Mailer Thompson fell overboard, and was seen no more. The news of his being lost soon after came to the knowledge of his friends, and no more was expected to be heard of him—but from the above circumstances, it is proved, somewhat similar to the fate of Jonas in the belly of a whale (young Thompson’s coffin was a living shark) he was not so fortunate as to escape. Mr. Ephraim Thompson has purchased the shark, which he calls his son's executor —and the watch, &c. which he considers as his last legacy.
Northampton Mercury 14 December 1787

Monday, 14 September 2015

If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all; Sir John Soane (1753-1837) Old St Pancras churchyard

Sir John portrayed in 1828 by John Jackson
Sir John Soane never had much luck; his reputation has survived better than his buildings. Born in 1753 he was most active at the end of the Georgian period when his neo classical clean lines, careful proportions and decisive detailing were just going out of fashion. The next generation of gothic revivalists demolished many of his buildings and others were finished off by accident or the Luftwaffe. His most famous work was the Bank of England but most of this was peremptorily demolished by Sir Herbert Baker when he rebuilt the bank between the wars, a move described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century." Soane’s new infirmary at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, was destroyed in the blitz in 1940 and his work on the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. His work on Freemasons Hall in 1821 was demolished to make way for the current building, and his National Debt Redemption Office and Insolvent Debtors Court of 1823 were demolished in 1900 and 1861 respectively.  His design for the new Law Courts at Westminster Hall was completed in 1822 but was so ferociously attacked by author and politician Henry Bankes that Soane was forced to demolish the façade of the building, set the building lines back several feet and redesign it  in a gothic style instead of the original classical. Even this did not save it though – it was demolished in 1883. Enough of Sir John’s work survived to guarantee his reputation though he is still most famous of course for his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields which became the Sir John Soane museum.

Eliza Soane with her dog Fanny
Sir John's mausoleum in Old St Panras Churchyard was designed and built for his wife Eliza who died in 1815. Elizabeth Smith was the niece and ward of George Wyatt the builder whom Soane knew the from working with him on the rebuilding of Newgate prison. On the 10th January 1784 Soane took her to the theatre and a few weeks later, on the 7th February she took tea with Soane and a group of friends. Soane began to accompany her regularly to plays and concerts and on the 21st August 1784, less than 8 months after that first visit to the theatre, they were married at Christ Church in Southwark.

George and John Soane
They had four children, John born in 1786, George in 1787 (but who died six months later), another George in 1789 and Henry who was born in 1790 but died the following year. Soane was disappointed that neither of his surviving sons showed any interest in becoming architects. John was lazy and suffered from ill health. He was sent to Margate in 1811 to improve his health where he met a woman called Maria Preston. John badgered his father into agreeing to a marriage which Soane eventually did on the stipulation that Maria’s father provided a dowry of £2000. The marriage went ahead on the 6th June but the dowry failed to materialise. Not to be outdone the 20 year old George wrote to his mother a few weeks later to break the news that he had married Agnes Boaden, the daughter of an older acquaintance, on the 4th July. He made no bones about the reason for the marriage telling his mother that he had done it “to spite you and father.”  Sir John tried to keep his wayward offspring in check by tightly controlling their finances. George retaliated by telling his father in 1814 that if he did not settle £350 per annum upon him and Agnes he would be forced to take to the stage for a living and become an actor. Later that year Agnes gave birth to twins, only one of which survived infancy. Two months later George was imprisoned for debt and fraud. Possibly behind her husbands back Eliza Soane settled the debt and repaid the embezzled money to get her son out of prison.

In September  1815 an article was published in the magazine Champion called The Present Low State of the Arts in England and more particularly of Architecture. Sir John Soane was the particular target of an acrimonious attack in the article which, although it had been published anonymously, it soon became clear had actually been written by George. His distraught mother wrote on the 13th October 'those are George's doing. He has given me my death blow. I shall never be able to hold up my head again'. She died on 22 November 1815.  and was buried 1 December. Soane wrote in his diary that he had endured 'the burial of all that is dear to me in this world, and all I wished to live for!'

Cherub & extinguished torch - mausoleum detail 
Soane was never reconciled to George and their feud continued until his death. His son John died in 1823 and was buried with his mother in the family vault. Soane set up a trust fund of £10,000 to support his widow and children.  The following year he found out that George was living in a Ménage à trois with his wife and her sister by whom he had a child called George Manfred. George was scraping a living as an author and his always uncertain temper suffered even further under the stress of always being a step away from poverty. He drank and both the women in his life and his children suffered from domestic violence at his hands. Soane helped the women financially but refused to help his son. It is said that he refused a baronetcy because he did not want george to inherit the title on his death.  When he did die in 1837 he left a considerable bequest for the maintenance and upkeep of his house as museum but left his son a  small annuity of £52 a year explaining in his will that the bequest was so small because of 'his general misconduct and constant opposition to my wishes evinced in the general tenor of his life.' George challenged the will through the courts on the grounds that his father was insane. The challenge was rejected by the courts and George half heartedly attempted an appeal which he eventually let drop. George Sala in his memoirs said “I knew the disinherited George Soane well - a  gaunt, sad man, earning a precarious livelihood as a minor poet and playwright.” George died in 1860 in Portland Place, at the age of seventy. He was not buried in the family mausoleum.

The Mausoleum set in an imaginary landscape, a water colour by George Basevi
Nicolas Pevner's verdict on the Mausoleum: "Outstandingly interesting monument by Sir John Soane to his wife, who died in 1815, extremely Soanesque, with all his originality and all his foibles. A delicate marble monument beneath a heavy Portland stone canopy. Four piers with incised Ionic capitals; a pendentive vault carries a shallow drum encircled by a tail-biting snake (symbol of eternity), with a pineapple-shaped finial. The tomb is surrounded by a low balustrade with distinctive acroteria, which also encloses the steps down to the burial vault. Sir John Summerson suggested that the tomb can be interpreted as civilization (the monument) within eternity (the surrounding canopy)."

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Israelite in whom there was no guile and the boys he saved from the Nazis; Paul Philip Levertoff (1878-1954), Barkingside Cemetery

Schneur Zalman
The intriguing epitaph on this modest grave reads “In loving memory of the Reverend Dr. Paul Phillip Levertoff, Scholar and Saint, who departed this life July 31 1954, aged 75 years. An Israelite in whom there is no guile. Erected by his wife and the boys he saved from the Nazis.” Paul Levertoff was the Vicar of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch who lived at 5 Mansfield Road in Ilford, was married with two daughters, the youngest of which was the poet Denise Levertov and who came from what seems an almost impossibly exotic background for an Anglican clergyman. Paul Phillip had been born Feivel Levertoff, a Russian Jew, in the town of Orsha, Belarus in 1878 to a distinguished family of Hassidim. One of his ancestors was the miracle working Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the Rav of White Russia, who as a child was so precociously clever that at 12 his teachers sent him home from the yeshiva with instructions not to bother returning as there was nothing else they could teach him and who at his Bar-mitzvah address spoke with such passion, prescience and learning that the community immediately pronounced him an 'Iluy', a prodigy of learning.
A young Paul Levertoff in his missionary days with Robert
Feinsilber, who helped hatch the plan to save the boys, at his side
Feivel Levertoff was also an outstanding scholar and in her book of memoirs, “Tesserae”, Denise Levertov recounts an episode when her 8 or 9 year old father picked up a scrap of paper in the snow “about a boy like himself who – it said – was found in the Temple expounding the scriptures to the old, reverent, important rabbis!” Entranced he took the scrap of paper home to show his father, who was furious, tore the paper to shreds and threw it in the fire. It was, of course, the story of Jesus and Feivel’s fascination was prophetic because a few years later, as a student in Germany at a Rabbinical Seminary , he came across a copy of the Gospels translated into Hebrew. These he read clandestinely and as he read he became stirred by a ‘profound and shaking new conviction’ that this man, this renegade Palestinian Jew who had died during the height of the Roman Empire, really was the Messiah. Paul Levertoff became a JBJ, a Jewish Believer in Jesus, had himself baptised as Paul Philip and for fifteen years became a professional missionary visiting Jewish communities in places as far apart as Hungary, Bosnia, Egypt and Palestine.  In 1910 he took a post as Evangelist in Constantinople offered to him by the United Free Church of Scotland where he met Beatrice Spooner-Jones, a teacher at the Scottish mission school.  Beatrice was an orphan from Holywell who had been brought up in the guardianship of her uncle, a Congregationalist minister who consented, when she 19, to her going abroad. Her first hope had been to go to Paris but her horrified uncle rejected the suggestion out of hand, the French capital being a totally unsuitable place for an unattached young woman. He agreed to the more dubious proposition of Constantinople because it was to teach at a church school. So the naïve young Welsh woman who spoke no language other than English and had only previously set foot outside of Wales to visit Liverpool and Chester set off unaccompanied to travel across Europe and take up residence in the Sublime Porte.
The couple were married in 1911 and lived in Warsaw until the outbreak of the first World War when, as a Russian citizen, Paul was placed under house arrest and was technically a prisoner of war for the duration of hostilities.  After the war Beatrice persuaded Paul to leave battle ravaged Europe and return with her to Wales where family contacts helped arrange work for him as a Librarian at St. Deiniol’s Library in Flintshire whilst he prepared for ordination into the Church of England.  From Flintshire the Levertoff’s moved to Ilford, Beatrice already pregnant with Denise and their eldest daughter Olga a toddler. Paul had been made Director of the East London Fund for the Jews and vicar of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch. He began to conduct liturgy in Hebrew and gathered a small but loyal congregation of Jewish converts who were ecstatic to find a spiritual leader who recognised their Jewishness as much as he accepted their Christianity.  The Levertoff’s lived at Mansfield Road for the next 31 years and Paul worked on many of his most influential books in Ilford. He produced a noted translation into English of sections of the Zohar, a key text of the Kabbalah as well as translating St Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ into Hebrew. Amongst his many books were ‘The Son of Man; A Survey of the Life and Deeds of Jesus Christ’, ‘St Paul in Jewish Thought’ and his most renowned work ‘Love and the Messianic Age.’  According to Denise her father was fluent in Russian, German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, English, Yiddish and Arabic.
Levertoff and the boys - his wife Beatrice is standing in front of him and Denise is being carried.
The boys saved from the Nazis were 10 teenage ‘mischling’ boys, who even though raised as Chritians had one Jewish and were therefore ‘crossbreeds’ according to the third Reich. In July 1938 after the Anschluss when Germany had annexed Austria  Levertoff announced to his Stepney congregation his plan to establish a hostel where ten “Jewish Christian refugees of student age and type will be given  hospitality, taught English, shorthand and typing and assisted to complete their studies…”  Levertoff had a friend and colleague in Vienna, Robert Feinsilber, who urged him to help ethnic Jews raised as Christians. The pair recruited a pastor from the Swedish mission in Vienna to help them find suitable candidates and soon identified their ten mischlings. Levertoff had difficulties obtaining visas for the ten boys, his application to the Home Office apparently going nowhere. His eldest daughter Olga, then 8 ½ months pregnant came to the rescue, marching into  the Home Office and demanding an explanation then fainting away in front of the horrified civil servants eyes. Terrified that she was about to go into labour they quickly came up with the required ten visas and then hustled Olga out into the street.  The ten new arrivals were initially billeted at Mansfield Road but then moved into the church hall at Holy Trinity. When Levertoff died in “the boys” paid for the headstone and also for the maintenance of his grave when Beatrice Levertoff decided to leave England and follow Denise to the United States.