Saturday, 12 March 2016

He sent forth his angel with a great trumpet; Marthe Josephine Besson (1852-1908), Highgate East Cemetery

Up a steep and neglected muddy side path in Highgate East Cemetery, hidden amongst the undergrowth and surrounded by toppled and leaning gravestones, you will find this striking monument to a Victorian businesswoman. The inscription reads:  

In loving memory of
Marthe Josephine Besson,
daughter of Gustave Besson
of Paris and London
and beloved wife of Adolphe Fontaine.
Died 15th Sept 1908, aged 56 years.
Her great talents and untiring energy gained the praise of the foremost masters in the musical world.

It looks like a touching tribute from a grieving husband and one could lazily assume that Adolphe and Marthe were mutually devoted and lived long and contentedly in conjugal bliss. But one would be wrong. 12 years earlier Adolphe was trailing through Europe after Marthe and her Spanish lover accusing her of stealing his fortune, trying to have her arrested by Scotland Yard and generating a scandal that he must still have been trying to live down when he instructed A. MacDonald & Co. Ltd of Euston Road to produce his wife’s funeral monument.

Marthe’s father, Gustave was the son of an army colonel who was apprenticed at the age of ten to a maker of military brass instruments. Gustave was a talented instrument maker and an astute business man. He established his own firm and thrived but was incensed in 1845 when the French War Ministry adopted the brass instruments of his arch rival Adolphe Sax. He became embroiled in anti-Sax litigation which did not go well and in 1854 Besson instruments allegedly produced in contravention of sax patents were seized by the authorities. Gustave transferred his assets into his wife’s name to avoid having them seized as compensation and fled to London. In London he set up a new factory while his wife nominally continued to manage the French business. By 1873 the two highly successful businesses had been joined and there were factories in both London and Paris.

Marthe was trained as an instrument maker by her father and she seems to have inherited his business acumen as well as his talent for producing brass. Gustave died in 1874 and her mother in 1877 and from this point the 25 year old Marthe ran the business herself. She continued to run it even when she married Adolphe Honore Fontaine in Marylebone in 1879. Her husband was  an attaché at the French Consulate a man of uncertain temper who was no doubt very charming and affable in the days of their courtship but who proved not so easy going once the ink on the marriage certificate had dried. Marthe changed the name of the firm to Besson-Fontaine and allowed her husband to dabble in the business. Things did not go well. Adolphe quarrelled with the employees and eventually caused a strike and six week lock out amongst the 95 workers at the Paris factory. There were also hints of domestic violence, Marthe later said that Adolphe had tried to kill her. Despite their differences the couple had a daughter, Martha Juliette Gabrielle Fontaine born a year into their marriage, but this did not stop Marthe from leaving her husband in France in the early 1890’s returning to London with her daughter, trying to obtain a divorce in the French Courts and, in the words of a contemporary newspaper “contracting an improper intimacy with a Spaniard employed by her as a traveller.” When she failed to get her marriage dissolved without consulting Adolphe she liquidated most of her business assets selling off bonds and share certificates and then packed her bags and set off to Europe with her Spaniard, Señor Alcaraz. The furious Adolpe set off in hot pursuit, following her to Belgium, Holland, and Portugal, denouncing her as a thief and an adulteress to the French consul in every town she stopped at and trying to get the civil authorities to arrest her. The European press followed the case with avid interest and Marthe showed no hesitation in retaliating against her husbands accusations to any journalist who cared to listen.

Marthe portrayed in the French press at the time of the strike in Paris

Events came to a climax in Seville where Marthe and her daughter put up at the Hotel Europa. Her husband was only a few days behind and the correspondent of El Liberal, the Spanish newspaper was waiting for him at the station when he arrived. The reporter watched him go straight to the Post Office where he tricked his wife’s address and post restante correspondence out of the clerk and then followed him to the French Consul where he immediately denounced his wife and demanded action. From the Consulate he went to his wife’s hotel where his young daughter happened to be in the foyer.

“Follow me!,” he yelled at the startled child, “and if you refuse to recognise paternal authority I shall have you locked up!” His daughter ran away crying before he could grab her and ran back to her mother’s room. Adolphe booked himself into the neighbouring guesthouse, the Fonda Cataluna, from where he could watch his wife’s comings and goings.

The following day he met Señor Alcaraz in the street and cried “Voila le voleur!” (“here is the thief!” Voleur a’coeur – thief of hearts). There was a scuffle between the two men and Adolphe yelled obscenities and insults in French at his former employee. The police were called and arrested both men, eventually letting Adolphe go but keeping Señor Alcaraz in custody. A few days later the correspondent of El Liberal was reporting further details of l'affaire Besson. Marthe’s daughter left the hotel with an employe to do some shopping only to meet her father in the street. Adolphe immediately started shouting that her mother was a thief and unfaithful to which the daughter responded by bursting into tears and running back into the hotel shouting “Ma mére est bonne!” The following day, at dusk, Marthe let her daughter venture out again accompanied by a hotel employee. Adolphe was lurking by the cab rank and once again tried to seize his daughter. This time though Marthe was watching from the hotel lobby and on seeing her husband she ran out into the street screeching “Voleur miserable!” holding her hands out as though she mean to rake her husband’s face with her nails. El Liberal’s correspondent commented “As Monsieur Fontaine is well acquainted with the power of Madame Besson’s nails, having had them dug into him onto the day he arrived in Seville on the patio of the Hotel Europa, he hid himself in great consternation between the hackney carriages.” There were loud cheers and laughter from the cab men and passers by which immediately ceased when Juez Señor Anaya sternly appeared accompanied by the lawyers acting for the warring couple and the French vice-consul. Adolphe was left in the hotel lobby while the legal contingent followed Marthe up to her rooms. There the judge broke the bad news that she would have to return her daughter to her husband as he had accused her of abducting a minor. There followed a scene of such hysteria with wailing Marthe and her sobbing daughter both prostrating themselves before the judge that he changed his mind and ordered her to removed to a convent school instead, the Colegio del Valle.

While Adolphe was dealing with his wife in Spain his representatives were also trying to deal with her through the British Courts. Their first line of attack had been to seek an injunction against Parr’s banking Group to try and stop them honouring his wife’s drafts against a letter of credit she had obtained by selling bonds and shares. The Judge refused to grant an injunction against the bank on a technicality, saying that only Madame Besson could be restrained from drawing on the account in which case the bank would have to dishonour the drafts. The next move was to have counsel apply to the Clerkenwell Police Court for a warrant for Madame Besson’s arrest on charges of stealing £11,150.00. The Judge granted the warrant and a few days later Scotland Yard dispatched Inspector Brookwell to Spain to arrest and accompany Madame Besson back to London to answer the charges made against her. Marthe had started proceedings against her husband in the Spanish Court for assault, slander and appropriation of private correspondence but this counted for nothing when Inspector Brookwell arrived with his warrant from Clerkenwell. Marthe was taken into custody, and within a few days the authorities had decided to allow her extradition to the UK via Gibraltar.

On November 29 Madame Besson made her first appearance at Clerkenwell Police Court, charged with stealing £35,000 in bonds and share certificates and appropriating plate and furniture belonging to her husband. Mr Avory, the prosecutor (acting for Adolpe, this was, despite the involvement of Scotland Yard, a private prosecution) outlined the case against her and objected to her been given bail, “If bail were granted perhaps the expense of the extradition would be thrown away. This lady left the country with her paramour and travelled to Spain, intending to go to America…”

“You say she ran away with someone else?” asked the Judge, suddenly perking up.
“She ran away with a Spaniard and has been living with him adultery ever since!” thundered Mr Avory. Despite the objections the Judge bailed her on her own recognisance.

Marthe was back in court the following week where, for the benefit of the Judge, Mr Avory went into more details about the background of the case. Adolphe was, he explained, totally mystified by his wife’s aberrant behaviour and had no idea why she wanted a divorce. They had not quarrelled prior to their separation and he was heartbroken by her decision to leave him. He read out a letter from Adolphe to Marthe in May 1894 to show how things stood between them: “My darling a million kisses. It is with much joy that I would meet you at the hotel. I am anxious, not receiving news of you. I am devoured by grief. You ought  to understand it how much I love you. I only live for you and my children. How can you make me suffer as you do? We are making each other miserable by our separation. Is it possible that the existence you are carrying on is what you desire? It is altogether a false one for you. I pray you to come back and let us take our life as honest people and throw over this Bohemian life of yours.” Adolphe took the witness stand under Mr Avory’s gentle examination explained how his wife not only betrayed him with another man, a Spaniard and an employee, but went on to steal almost everything he owned, leaving him penniless. It was an affecting performance but the story did not stand up when subjected to the fierce cross examination of Mr Gill, Marthe’s counsel. He went straight to the nub of the matter, when Marthe married Adolphe what were his wages at the French Consulate?
“That is nothing to do with the case!” Adolphe objected.
“Answer the question sir and do not waste the public time,” the Judge intervened.
“I had no wages,” Adolphe responded, “I was not a cook or a clerk.”
“Don’t aggravate the witness with questions,” Mr Avory stepped in, “ask him what his salary was.” Adolphe admitted to earning a mere 1,800 francs a year.
“This is a blackmailing prosecution…” Mr Gill shouted, “I will show that the prosecutor has been living upon my client!” He went on to accuse Adolphe, through a series of detailed questions, of having no means when he married, of occupying a room at 213 Euston Road at 6 shillings a week at the time, and of being supported by a Mademoiselle Saiseau a dressmaker at the same address. He eventually admitted the dressmaker was his sweetheart and confirmed that he had met Marthe at the French consulate when she went to conduct some business there and had taken an interest in her when a French confectioner told him what her business was and that she was in love with him and ready to marry him. Did he lie to his wife and say that as a clerk in the consulate he was not allowed to engage in business? There were humiliating questions about how much cash he had at the time of his marriage and how much he contributed towards the furniture at the couples first married home. “I cannot say, it was 20 years ago,” Adolphe replied. Well how much was he supposed to contribute and where was the money to come from? How much of it was in cash?
“I cannot say. How can I say to a sixpence how much it was?” Adolphe said in exasperation.
“Nonsense sir!” the Judge thundered, “You can surely say about how much you had when you were married. You seem to be trifling with the court. What are we take the amount at – tuppence?” When the questioning moved on to the particulars of the charges things went from bad to worse for Adolphe. Briefed by his counsel about the differences between English and French law in relation to the property of married women Adolphe kept continually referring to them until the Judge shut him up “I beg to tell you, once and for all, that I object to your making speeches about Englishmen and Frenchmen and the practice in England and France. Answer the question like other people.” There then followed a confusing exchange about a bank pass book belonging to Besson &  Co which drove the Judge to complete exasperation, “I cannot understand this witness! His evidence is quite unintelligible!”
"It must be a matter of surprise that you have listened to this case as long as you have,” Mr Gill, acting for Marthe, sympathised.
“If he had been an Englishman I think I should have had to commit him for contempt of court,” the Judge observed.  

When the verdict was finally delivered it could have come as a surprise to no one. The prosecution’s case rested on the fact that under French law the property sold or taken by Marthe belonged to her husband as there was community of property between them under their marriage contract and that in no case could a wife dispose of property belonging to the community. They argued that Madame Besson could only dispose of her personal property to a value of £1000. The defence argued that under the Married Women’s Property Act the couple’s business assets all belonged to Marthe who had the right to dispose of her property as she saw fit. Their portrayal of Adolphe as a penniless adventurer who lived on his wife’s charity probably did as much damage as the legal arguments. Marthe was acquitted of all charges against her.    

What happens next is a mystery. Marthe apparently didn’t divorce Adolphe but whether the couple were reconciled we simply do not know. Does the elaborate funeral monument apparently commissioned by Adolphe suggest the couple arrived at some form of rapprochement? Or was he giving in to a guilty conscience? His jealousy and his undignified pursuit of Marthe across Europe and the humiliations he undoubtedly suffered as a result indicate strong feelings on his part towards his wife. Or was all he ever cared about the money? There are some clues; Martha fails 
to show up in the 1891 and 1901 census which might mean that she was living abroad. If she had gone abroad she returned to England in 1904 when she appears in the electoral register and the phone books (telephone number Gerrard 5242) living at 5 Russell Mansions in Southampton Row. She seems to have been living alone. When she died on September 15 1908 her death was registered twice and she appears in the death index as Marthe Josephine Besson and Marthe Josephine Fontaine. She left a fortune of £46,610 2 shillings and 11 pence, her will administered by Albert Durrand, Juge au Tribunal Civil de Reims and the Public Trustee. Her daughter would have been 18 and therefore technically a minor and not legally competent to administer her own affairs. Under French law Adolphe, as her lawful husband, would have been entitled to half of her estate. As after their very public falling out of 1895-96 the couple kept their private life very private with no further scandals played out in the blaze of publicity we will never know how matters between were finally resolved.


What happens next is a mystery? All my research on Marthe Besson failed to pick up a rather blatant clue which is actually on the memorial itself: “Also in Loving Memory of Frank Besson Fl. Lieuy. RN who was killed in the Dardanelles 20th Dec. 1915 aged 20 years.”  Marthe had a son in 1895, the court battle with her husband had to be adjourned for four weeks whilst she had the baby. This post completes the story of Marthe Besson and her son Frank.  


  1. Thank you Algarivo for "El caso de Madame Marta" which helped me enormously with this.

  2. Please, I do not feel frustrated at all.
    My intention was to continue research in the future, from Spain, but no exact date.
    His work is superb and I congratulate him. I appreciate the reference to my blog.
    All the information available on the National Library of Spain.
    Thank you.
    Take care of yourself.