Sunday, 22 May 2016

¡Las lágrimas son agua y van al mar! - Frank Besson (1895-1915) Dardanelles

I have previously written about Marthe Josephine Besson’s memorial in Highgate Cemetery, the French born business woman who ran the Besson musical instrument manufactory in Paris and London after the death of her father. Marthe married a Frenchman, Adolphe Fontaine, who worked at the French embassy in London, had a daughter with him but then became embroiled in a scandalous relationship with a Spaniard who worked for her. When she fled the country with her lover in 1895 Adolphe accused her of stealing bonds and share certificates from him to the value of £35,000 as well as plate and furniture. He followed her around Europe denouncing her to the local authorities wherever she stayed and eventually had her arrested in Seville by Scotland Yard who brought her back to London to face trial. The charges against her were eventually dismissed and once the blaze of publicity caused by the court case was over she disappears from public view.

Richard Barnes new book “The Art of Memory – Sculpture in the Cemeteries of London” features the Besson memorial and cites my previous post as a source. He drops the revelation that Marthe had another child in 1896. I had completely missed this despite there being an inscription on the Besson memorial itself; “Also in Loving Memory of Frank Besson Fl. Lieuy. RN who was killed in the Dardanelles 20th Dec. 1915 aged 20 years.”  Barnes suggests that Frank is the son of Señor Alcaraz. It seems likely – probate records show Frank’s real name was Francisco and he never used the name Fontaine. I have been unable to trace any birth records for him in the UK (though there is a slight chance that a Male Besson, registered in Hackney in 1896 is Frank) which suggests that he was possibly born abroad, perhaps in Spain or France and that this is where Marthe must have been from February 1896 when the charges made against her by her husband were finally dropped. Marthe reappears again in UK records in 1904 when she shows up in the electoral register in Westminster.  Did Marthe join her Spanish lover, Señor Alcaraz on the continent as soon as the courts freed her? Frank’s date of birth on his pilot’s license was 16 Dec 1896 which would mean that Marthe became pregnant in March. It all seemed to be fitting together nicely when I came across a puzzling fact; newspaper reports of Marthe’s discharge from the courts in February 1896 say that Señor Alcaraz was dead. The Scotsman of 15 Feb for example tells us that: 
Mrs Besson, who was in tears and attired in deep mourning, was discharged...... Madame Besson told a reporter who asked her whether it was correct that her lover, Macais D'Alcarez, had committed suicide at Seville, that the report had been corroborated at the Spanish Consulate. She also showed her lover's portrait, and spoke in the warmest terms of his qualities, saying that he was knighted by the Queen of Spain in January last year, and was a chef d'administration in Madrid.

File card from the records of the Royal Aero Club showing when Frank obtained his aviators certifcate

There are a couple of other anomalies. The Besson memorial gives Frank’s age as 20 when he died on 20 December 1915. If he was born 16 December 1896 it would have been his 19th birthday four days before he died. The 1911 census gives his age as 16 but if 1896 is his correct date of birth he would only have been 15. Was Frank’s real date of birth 16 December 1895? If it was he was born in the middle of the court battle between Marthe and Adolphe, and his father appears to have committed suicide at about the same time as he was born. The relationship between Marthe and Señor Alcaraz appeared to be on an intimate footing by February 1895 according to evidence given by Marthe’s charlady at her trial and reported in The Worcestershire Chronicle on Saturday 21 December; 

Matilda Hunt, married woman, said she worked for the prisoner as a charwoman to the end of July last. About February last the prisoner said something about a visitor and at her directions she got a bedroom for him.—Prisoner (excitedly): We are not the divorce court; I admit I had a sweetheart there! That has nothing to do with the case; it is only blackmail." —Witness continuing said the man who arrived was called by the prisoner "Antonio." He occupied the room next to Madame's bedroom, and she had seen him coming out of Madame's bedroom. One afternoon she went into Madame's bedroom and saw the two in bed together. The witness, with great reluctance, and only after being cautioned by the magistrate that he would commit her, gave this part of her evidence.

Inscription on the Besson memorial
It was therefore entirely feasible for Marthe to have become pregnant in March. Her decision to flee to the continent in the autumn with Señor Alcaraz also makes more sense, she would have been very visibly pregnant by then. No newspaper reported Marthe being pregnant during her trial but many reported that after the court session on Saturday 14 December the case was adjourned until the following Thursday. At that session Marthe did not appear and unusually it was the counsel for the prosecution that explained her absence to the court:

Mr. Horace Avory, who appeared for the prosecution, said that he was informed that Madame Besson had, since the last hearing of the case, been confined. He had received a medical certificate to that effect, and he had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the information. She would not be able to attend the court for four weeks, and he asked that the case might be adjourned for that time.—The Magistrate consented to this course, and the ease was adjourned for a month. (Lisburn Herald, and Antrim and Down Advertiser 28 December 1895)

Many newspapers make reference to Marthe’s confinement but none mention her having the baby. It seems likely though that Frank was born on 16th December 1895. There are no further mentions of her recent pregnancy or the birth of her son in the newspaper accounts of the trial when it recommenced in January 1896. On the 14th February Marthe’s husband gave her an unexpected Valentine’s – he dropped the criminal case against her. His counsel explained his reasons to the court “having regard to all the circumstances of the case, and having explained that the proceedings were never instituted from any vindictive motive, but simply to protect himself and recover possession of his child — and in this M. Besson had been successful — he desired to withdraw from the criminal proceedings, leaving the serious matters of dispute between the parties to a civil Court, where proceedings were now pending.”

Portrait of Frank Besson from  the Daily Mirror 20 May 1916

Marthe was now free of the criminal proceedings but her life was in tatters. She was probably not heartbroken about the breakdown of her marriage but having to surrender her daughter to Adolphe’s custody must have been a bitter blow. Her fortune was intact but her lover had committed suicide in Spain without waiting for the outcome of the trial in London. And she was now a single mother of a fatherless baby boy. As her good name and reputation were destroyed going abroad must have seemed the only option. She was almost certainly away from London until 1904 when she returned to live at 5 Russell Mansions in Southampton Row. Frank must have come back with her. When she died in 1908 he became the ward of the 35 year old Mary Reavley; the 1911 census confirms both of them living at 71 Harvard Court, Honeybourne Road, Hampstead along with 17 year servant Florence Knights.

Frank attended Westminster School from May 1910 to Christmas 1914. He was in Rigaud’s House and official school records concentrate on his athletic prowess as a cricketer, footballer, sprinter and gymnast who made up ‘in strength and energy for what he lacks in style.’ The Westminster School website says that “his obituary in The Elizabethan noted that ‘he possessed boundless energy and the divine gift of enthusiasm. His tastes were all for mechanical science and adventure, and before the war he had already designed to join the Air Service.” Before he finally left the school in December 1914 he delivered a talk to the school’s Scientific Society on ‘Theories of Aviation.’ Just a month later he was putting theory into practice having joined the Royal Navy’s airborne division and been sent for flight training at the Grahame-White School in Hendon. He passed his aviators certificate in a Grahame-White biplane on 23 January 1915 and was sent off to join his regiment. We know that he served at Dunkirk in August 1915 and was then sent to the Dardanelles to serve in the Gallipolli campaign. He died on 20th December 1915, four days after his twentieth birthday, when his plane was shot down by the Turks and landed in the sea. Newspapers reported him as missing in action – his death was not confirmed until April 1916 when his observer, who had been fished from the sea by the Turks and taken prisoner, was released and confirmed to the British military authorities that Frank had drowned when the plane went down. His body was never recovered. As well as the inscription on his mother’s grave he is one of the 8515 names from the Great War commemorated on the Chatham War Memorial. Probate records give his name as Francisco Besson, his address as 3 Harvard Court, West Hampstead and value his estate at £1246 14 shillings. 

A Wight seaplane at Dunkirk in 1916, these planes were also used in the Gallipoli campaign  and it is almost certainly in one of these that Frank Besson died. 


  1. The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) 20 Dec 1895, page 1, Reports "Childbirth Stops Trial" - Case adjourned for a month due to Madame Besson having given birth to a child on the morning of December 19, 1895. Madame Besson spent a short time in La Porte, Texas, where she built the town's first 3 story building on property she'd purchased at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It is unclear if she visited Texas in 1893, or later in 1902-03.

    1. Thank you. Confirmation at last! I didn't know Madame Besson had visited the US.