Wednesday, August 31, 2011

September 5, 1872 --- An American Girl

On a fine, late summer evening, a well-dressed young woman, climbs the parapet on Waterloo Bridge, and throws herself into the Thames. Though her intentions are obvious, when she hits the water the woman begins crying for help. A police launch is there in minutes but the unfortunate woman cannot be saved. On the bridge, a handbag is found containing a ha'penny, a pawn ticket for 2 shillings, a wedding ring and a locket with "the picture of a gentleman."

For days, the body lay unidentified at the morgue. Finally, a Shadwell landlady reported a tenant had gone missing and had left behind a suicide note. She was able to identify the body as that of an American woman named Alice Blanche Oswald. In her note, Alice disclosed she had been in Britain but nine weeks. She had been taken on as a nursery governess with a family in Wick, in the far Highlands. Soon, however, she was dismissed; her employer even refusing to pay for passage home. The cost of the trip to London alone left her with a mere 5 shillings.

Her note continued: "Now I am destitute, every day is a misery to me. No friend, no hope, no money; what is left? Oh, God of Heaven! have mercy on this poor helpless sinner! Thou knowest how I have striven against this; but fate is against me. I cannot tread the path of sin, for my dead mother will be watching me. Fatherless, motherless, home I have none. Oh, for the rarity of Christian hearts! I am not mad; for days I have foreseen that this would be the end. May all who hear of my death forgive me, and may God Almighty do so, before whose bar I must soon appear! Farewell, to all, to this beautiful and yet wretched world."

Alice Oswald was just 20 years old. She had apparently sought help from the American consulate. In fact, her landlady reported that on the day of her death, Alice had received a letter from the Consulate which seemed to upset her. Alice was buried at the Necropolis in Woking, a memorial to the "kithless kinless orphan" was paid for by a committee "chiefly composed of American ladies."

She remained a mystery as did her heartless employer. While Alice's story created "great excitement" in Wick, The Dundee Advertizer could find no trace of her: "It is generally supposed that some mistake must have been made as to the name of the town."

September 4, 1850 --- Haynau, Go Home.

September 4 --- (1850) --- In Southwark, the Austrian General Baron von Haynau, receives a most unfriendly welcome from the locals. Nicknamed "General Hyaena" or worse "the Butcher," Haynau is a villain in the eyes of the more radical British working classes for his heavy-handed suppression of rebellions in Hungary and Northern Italy; dozens of rebel men were hung and their women publicly flogged.

While visiting London, Haynau asks to tour the sprawling Barclay & Perkins Brewery. Recognized by the workmen on his arrival - his infamous moustachio gave him away - the General is met with an angry crowd of workers, including burly draymen and carters. Shouts are heard, "Pitch him in the Thames," and "Let's give it to the woman flogger." A truss of straw dumped from above nearly hits Haynau, who is soon the target of all manner of missiles. Fearing for his life, Haynau and his small entourage bolt to a nearby Bankside public house, the George, "to the utter astonishment of Mrs. Benefield, the landlady." Taking refuge in a locked upstairs bedroom, Haynau escapes via a rear window to a police boat for a ride back to his hotel at Charing Cross.

The Queen demands that Foreign Secretary Palmerston send an apology for "a brutal attack and wanton outrage committed by a ferocious mob on a distinguished foreigner of past seventy years of age." Palmerston reluctantly complied, adding a note that Haynau's visit to England was ill-advised. Barclay & Perkins
refused to discipline its workers and the Baron's name was expunged from its guest book.

Punch, in halting verse, celebrated the incident:
The New Police came just in time,
(Tis said they're sometimes slack, man)
And rescued him cover'd with bruises and grime,
And carried him off in their smack, man.
With rage and fear he did glare and grin,
Says they "You are well away, man;"
"And don't let us catch you here agin,"
Says Barclay and Perkins' Draymen.

September 3, 1878 --- The Princess Alice

September 3 --- (1878) --- A tragedy of horrific proportions occurs on the darkened Thames. The saloon steamer Princess Alice, loaded with holiday-makers, is rammed and sunk near Woolwich.

The Alice is returning from a one day two shilling pleasure cruise from London Bridge to Sheerness and back. At 8:20 p-m, as the band plays "Nancy Lee", the ship is cut in half by the steamship Bywell Castle's metal prow.  The terrified passengers spill in to the water. The death toll is staggering. 632 bodies are recovered, but many more dead may have been washed out to sea. There is no official passenger list.

Pathetic stories are commonplace; a man lost his wife and his eight children, a governess lived but lost all six of her charges, and a man who swam to safety thinking he had rescued his wife found he had saved a perfect stranger, his wife was lost. Elizabeth Stride, who would be the Ripper's third victim, insisted she turned to drink and prostitution after she lost her family aboard the Alice. A pathetic tale, if true, however no one named Stride was listed among the victims.

The inquest relied on the testimony of the Bywell Castle's crew as the officers of the Alice were all lost. Not surprisingly, the onus for the tragedy was placed on those not around to testify. The two ships met at a bend in the Thames at Tripcock Point.  The Alice was actually steaming north, crossing the Castle's path.  The helmsman of the Castle claimed he saw the Alice's lights and steered to starboard, to the right, as trained to do; but the Alice continued to the north bank of the river and the clumsy, over-loaded steamer moved directly across the bow of the fast-closing Castle.

Perhaps the busiest river in the world, the Thames is governed by a variety of guilds and local traditions, with little or no enforcement of "the rules of the road." The Saturday Review called it a recipe for disaster: "So vessels, big or little, are left to make their way up and down the river in the manner that seems best to those in charge of them, who treat other vessels which they happen to encounter according to the inspiration of the moment."  The Spectator took a more matter-of-fact approach: "A percentage of those who go afloat will be drowned, and modern civilization, by encouraging men to travel in huge groups, by trainful instead of coachful, and steamerful instead of boatful, ensures that the percentage shall be made up in huge calamities appalling to the imagination."

Sketch of the Princess Alice at

September 2, 1898 --- Revenge at Omdurman

A dozen years after Gordon's death (see 26 January), an outraged Empire gets revenge. The Mahdi is
long dead but the Dervishes, now led by the Khalifa, still control the Sudan, their presence a continuing obstacle to realization of the dream of a British controlled north-south road through Africa, from Cairo to the Cape.

The Sirdar - commander of the Anglo-Egyptian Army - Major-General Kitchener (right) moved south with an army of 20,000. The Dervish outnumber them threefold. After some days of feinting in the desert, the two armies chose to fight near the village of Omdurman, north of Khartoum. At sunrise, the Africans charge. A young officer, Lt. Winston Churchill recalled the moment: "A tremedous roar came up in waves of intense sound, like the tumult of the rising wind and sea before a storm...this great host of implacable savages, hurrying eagerly to the attack."

The attackers, most armed with spears, are no match for Kitchener's well-placed machine-guns. The Daily Mail correspondent wrote, "No white troops would have faced that torrent of death ... It was not a
battle but an execution." Surveying the littered sands, Kitchener calls it "a thorough dusting." When the surviving Dervishes try to escape to Khartoum, the 21st Lancers mount one of the last successful cavalry charges in history. Lt. Churchill termed it "the most dangerous two minutes I shall live to see."

Kitchener's army then sacks Khartoum; the Mandi's tomb is opened, his bones tossed into the Nile save for the skull presented in triumph to the Sirdar. A hostile Press (he dismissed them as "drunken swabs") reported Kitchener used it for an inkstand. Planning to ship it to the Royal College of Surgeons, Kitchener instead had it reburied. The Queen, while shocked at the ghoulish looting (It "savoured too much of the Middle Ages"), is much pleased, "Surely [Gordon] is avenged."

Kitchener returned to London to receive the highest military honors since Wellington, including a peerage, Baron Kitchener of Khartoum.

September 1, 1882 --- Zulu Chieftain

September 1 --- (1882) --- The great Zulu leader, Cetshwayo, sails from Southampton, returning to his homeland where British officials plan to place him back upon his throne. He had been brought to England to discuss the prospect of lasting peace in turbulent Zululand.  In the Zulu War of 1879, his warriors had badly embarrassed and bloodied the Queen's forces at Isandlwana.  Sir Garnet Wolseley's reinforcements crushed Cetshwayo's forces later at Ulundi.

A captive for three years, the chief proved an able diplomat. The Foreign Office and Prime Minister Gladstone agreed to his return, under strict British control. The "sable potentate" was the sensation of the normally dull London summer.  He lodged in fashionable South Kensington (there's now a Blue Plaque honoring his stay at 18 Melbury Road).  Cetshwayo was seen everywhere; at the Zoo, the Crystal. Palace, at a major temperance convention where he promised to ban spirits from Zululand, but not beer, which he called "mere gruel."  The highlight of his stay was an audience with the Queen at Osborne: "Cetawayo (a variant spelling) is a very fine man ... tall with a good-humored countenance and an intelligent face. Unfortunately, he appeared in a hideous black frock coat and trousers."  The chief's traditional necklace of animal claws had been taken by Wolseley and broken up for souvenirs for the wives of influential politicians.

In Southampton, The Times correspondent notes: "His Majesty looked remarkably well, his generally grave features occasionally lighting up with a smile at the cordiality which he met with on his departure to open a new chapter in South African history."

The new chapter is a brief one. Rival chieftains, using Cetshwayo's ties to London against him, quickly brought him down. Punch had prophesized as much:

Good bye Great Cetawayo? I think you'll understand
That what is right in London may be wrong in Zululand.

The chief died while a "guest" at the British residency at Eshowe in 1884..

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 31, 1888 --- The Whitechapel Murder

In Buck's Row, Whitechapel, 42-year old Mary Anne Nichols, a local prostitute, is found murdered; her body is still warm, there is a ghastly slash across her throat. While two previous murders had attracted some attention, it's generally held that the unfortunate Nichols is the first victim of the infamous "Jack the Ripper."

Police say the wounds are the work of a madman. On 8 September, not far from Buck's Row, another streetwalker, Annie Chapman, was found with "wounds of a nature too shocking to be described," according to The Times.  Her womb had been cut out, the entrails tied around her neck. On 30 September, two more victims were found; Catherine Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride; both eviscerated, obviously "the work of the same fiendish hands."

At London's Central News Agency, a letter from "Jack" arrived: "Double event this time. Number One squealed a bit; couldn't finish straight off." Panic gripped all London and the police were subjected to unprecedented abuse. Rumor was king; several "suspects" barely avoided the mob's noose. There was a lull.  Then, on the morning of the Lord Mayor's Day, 9 November, the body of Mary Kelly was found, butchered in her bed in a grimy boarding house.  Mary was - apparently - the last victim. The killings suddenly stopped. No one was ever charged.

Exhaustive research and lively controversy continues to this day. Was "Jack" possibly Montague Druitt, a young London lawyer who threw himself into the Thames in early December? The most scandalous theory - broadcast on the BBC, no less - involves the Royal Family. Supposedly, the Duke of Clarence, eldest son of the Prince of Wales, married a Catholic shopgirl in the East End who bore his child. The story goes that Mary Kelly, "Jack's" last victim, either witnessed the wedding or midwifed the birth and made the fatal mistake of blackmail. The other women were either slain to provide "cover" or because they had contact with Kelly. The actual murders, goes the theory, were the work of Sir William Gull, a prominent Mayfair obstetrician.  It must be pointed out that the doctor was then in his 70's and recovering from a slight stroke. The plot reached all the way to Downing Street. Prime Minister Salisbury allegedly called off the police. 

If you're not buying into that, and most do not, the best website on the subject,, provides a list of all 31 possible "Rippers."

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 30, 1852 --- The Miser Nield

The eccentric Chelsea miser John Camden Neild dies at the age of 72, leaving his entire fortune in excess of a quarter-million pounds to Queen Victoria.
Neild, whose father made his fortune from a London jewelry shop, was highly educated and - at one time - a practicing barrister in Lincoln's Inn. However, to quote a contemporary report, "the last thirty years of his life were solely employed in accumulating wealth." He resided at 5 Cheyne Walk on the Thames, one of London's better addresses, yet he lived amid squalor, sleeping on a board. He roamed the streets in a blue swallow-tailed coat - which he refused to have brushed for fear of harming the nap - and in shoes that were invariably patched and down at the heels. Often mistaken for a vagrant, Neild never turned down proffered food and lodging, preferring to hoard his ample resources.  His father had invested much of his fortune in land.  Nield enjoyed visiting his country tenants incognito and then begging for lodging and a meal. 
He never married (surprise!)  He had no surviving relatives. In his one-page will, in his own bold hand, Neild wrote that he left his fortune to "Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, begging Her Majesty's most gracious acceptance of same, for her sole use and benefit, and of her heirs." Meanwhile, his housekeeper of 26 years found herself "without the smallest provision or acknowledgement for her protracted and far from agreeable or remunerative services."  Lloyd's Weekly called him a "dangerous lunatic" who actions should never be emulated.
The Queen accepted the bequest, believing that Neild - whom she had never met - knew that she "would not waste it." She set aside a legacy for the man's forgotten servants and in the village of North Marston, where Neild was buried, she had the village church refurbished and a memorial window installed.
Victoria and Albert used the money to acquire additional land near Balmoral in Scotland and to construct new residences there and at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight. She shared news of her good fortune with her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, who replied, "Such things only still happen in England where there still exists loyalty and affection for Royalty, a feeling unfortunately much diminished on the Continent."
In later years, as her children grew and Parliament was asked to provide them with more and more subsidies to live, the Queen was often compared to the miser Neild in the radical Press. One pamphlet, which sold in great numbers, was entitled "What Does She Do With It?"

August 29, 1843 --- The Madman Dadd

An early morning traveler passing the Earl of Darnley's magnificent Cobham Park in Kent comes upon the body of a well-dressed gentleman, his throat slashed, his chest ripped open. Nearby he finds a bloody spring-knife and an open razor "of more than usual size."
The dead man is carried to the nearby Ship Inn where the innkeeper recognizes him as Robert Dadd, who had arrived the night before with his son Richard, an artist of great promise. Richard is missing. His rooms in London are searched, the Channel ports are alerted. But, having hired a small boat, Richard is already in France. His freedom is short-lived; in a coach near Fontainbleau, he attacked a fellow passenger with a razor. Though badly cut, Monsieur M---- was able to subdue his assailant. French police, at the request of Dadd's family, took him directly to an asylum near Melun.
In London, the tragedy stuns the art world. Richard had first exhibited at the Royal Academy two years before when he was but 22. His sketches were being considered for a mural in the new Houses of Parliament. The young man's troubles began while painting in the Holy Land. Friends said it was sunstroke. Today, they'd have diagnosed it as paranoid schizophrenia. He complained of being stared at and became mordantly suspicious of everyone.  He returned to London claiming to be under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris who had employed him to seek and destroy "the Great Fiend." He retreated to his rooms, living on eggs and ale. Finally, a family doctor urged that Richard have a "keeper." As a last resort, Richard invited his father to Cobham, hoping the countryside would "disburden his mind." Less than 24 hours later, the elder Dadd was dead.
In 1844, under pressure from the Home Office, Richard was returned to England.  He was adjudged insane without trial, and sent to "Bedlam," the madhouse in South London. A difficult inmate, he seemed at ease only while painting or playing his violin. Dr. Hood, the administrator, encouraged his art; "With all these disgusting points in his conduct he can be a very sensible and agreeable companion."
Word of the "late Richard Dadd" reached the outside. Dickens was among his visitors. A reporter from The World reported that Dadd was willing to discuss his crime "with sickening exactitude." Prison authorities withheld his paintings until his death in 1886. Critics claim Dadd's best work was done whilst in confinement.  Today his paintings hang in the V&A, Tate and some of the world's finer private collections.
A photo of the artist while in prison, circa 1855.

August 28, 1839 --- The Eglinton Tournament

On a glorious summer day, a crowd estimated to number 100,000 people, arriving by boat, train and foot, reaches remote Ayrshire for the eagerly awaited Eglinton Tournament. Hosted at his Castle by the 27-year old Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, the extravaganza is hailed as a salute to knighthood and chivalry, with "the very elite of the most elite" invited for jousting and other medieval sport.
For months, the combatants have rehearsed the long-forgotten arts of knightly combat and spent literally thousands of pounds on armor. Wrote one of the participants, "I know of nothing which ever seized on the minds of the young men of fashion with such force."
The proceedings are to begin at noon with a Grand Parade of the Knights. Suddenly, in those days before weather forecasts, a rainstorm blows in off the Firth of Clyde. It rains in torrents; soon, the Castle greensward is a quagmire. The parade is an impossible failure; the image of armored knights carrying umbrellas will forever be the memory of Eglinton. The great tent covering the numerous ladies and dignitaries leaks awfully as does the newly built hall which is to be the scene of the evening's grand ball. Nothing can be done but call everything off, leaving the throng to muck its way through all but impassable roads back to civilization.
For two days it rained nonstop in Ayrshire. The Earl's invited guests are left to stage mock jousts in the great hall with broomsticks, while their servants dealt with the rusting armor. Finally, on the 30th, the sun returned and the jousting began at last, with but a few hundred spectators still about to see it. The most spirited contest pitted the Knight of the Red Lion, the irascible Marquis of Waterford (see 29 March) versus Viscount Alford. Their lances broken, the two young Lords commenced to whacking at one another at close quarters until separated by the Knight Marshal. The sport - at last - complete, the participants rejoined the ladies for the gala closing ball. Fittingly, the rain returned.
The young Queen, who did not attend, noted in her diary that "it had turned out to be the greatest absurdity." The Press was unkind: The Spectator hoped that England had seen the final meeting of "The Eglinton Patent Emasculated Mopstick Middle-Ages Recovery Society."
The Melee at the Eglinton Tournament by James Henry Nixon (1839)

August 27, 1888 --- Is Marriage a Failure?

"The greatest newspaper controversy of modern times" rages on.  The Daily Telegraph had asked its readers to answer the question "Is Marriage a Failure?" This came in response to a sensational essay in The Westminster Review by an early feminist Mona Caird who had gone so far as to proclaim the institution of marriage a "vexatious failure."

For weeks the Telegraph published responses, affirmative and negative; in all 27,000 letters were received. Today's samples include, among the nay-sayers:

A gentleman from Leeds, entrapped by the wiles of a "garrison hack" who complains that his marriage has produced "years of misery." He calls marriage "the great delusion of the age, and it seems to me that a large proportion of young men entering upon it are, like myself, LOST BEYOND REDEMPTION."

A gentleman from Essex who writes: "We don't actually fight, but both of us enjoy ourselves better when t'other dear charmer's away ... Surely if two people really wish to untie the knot there ought to be some method to allow them to do so. My wife says that is the only sensible remark I have made in two months." The letter is signed only "The Dog."

Not surprisingly, the clergy weigh in in favor of matrimony:
A cleric from Bath, married twelve years, submits an 8-point recipe for happiness, among them, mutual sympathy, proportionately divided income, a moderate family - he suggests three children, and finally, "Careful avoidance of those "Platonic friendships" which are so frequent a cause of disagreement."

The rector of Walton West and Talbenny proposes Draconian measures: "If a man cannot live happily with the wife of his bosom because he has a bad temper and is tyrannous, or because he is a drunkard, or is unfaithful, I would release him from her society. In the one case I would release him by imprisonment and hard labor until his temper had improved, in the other by transportation, and in the third case by hanging."

And so the debate continued until "Jack the Ripper" distracted the public's attention.

August 26, 1873 --- The Great Forgeries on the Bank of England

Four Americans are tried at the Old Bailey for the audacious Bank of England Forgeries. The mastermind of the plot is George Bidwell, a veteran con-man and thief, joined by his younger brother, Austin, and the Harvard educated but New York trained forger, George McDonnell.

After modest trial successes against banks in Brazil and Liverpool, the three men settled in London for the big heist. Investing their own money, they set up Austin as "Mr. Warren," a wealthy U.S. railwayman, with forged references and letters of credit. He opened a sizeable account at the Bank's West End branch in Burlington Gardens, Mayfair. A fourth man, Edwin Noyes, arrived from New York to pose as Warren's secretary. Meantime, McDonnell - using letterheads and bank forms pilfered across Europe by George Bidwell - began the printing of quite artful but bogus "checks."

The schemers struck in late January; it was surprisingly easy. No one at the branch questioned the distinguished new customer, not even when Warren or Noyes took their withdrawals in gold. Laundering the money through another London bank, the proceeds - which soon topped £100,000! - were converted into U.S. Bonds. With roughly two months before the dishonored checks would be discovered in the slow, gentlemanly world of banking - the forgers worked quickly. Too quickly to avoid a fatal error.

On 28 February, amid several bills of exchange presented by Noyes were two that a clerk noted were undated. They were drawn on a Mr. Blydenstein in the City; upon inquiry, that gentleman denounced them as forgeries. When Noyes returned to the bank, he was arrested. The conspirators scattered; McDonnell was taken in New York, Austin Bidwell in Havana, and brother George in Edinburgh. At one point, George tried to catch a steamer to the States but dockside police scared him off; the ship sank, hundreds drowned.

Trial security is unprecedented; London buzzed with rumors of a jailbreak. Several warders were sacked for fraternizing with another Bidwell, John, who'd been buying drinks at the local. After eight days and ninety witnesses, the jury takes fifteen minutes to convict. In remarks before sentencing, Austin Bidwell apologizes to the bamboozled Bank manager, "Any other man in London, however able ... would have been deceived in the same way."

Justice Archibald, declaring that the serious threat to British commerce merits "terrible retribution," hands down four life terms. Still, the plotters won many admirers; especially McDonnell, who defended his craft from the dock, "Forgery is a very wretched, unhappy, miserable and contemptible art [but] an art nevertheless."

Sketch of the guilty foursome from The Penny Illustrated Paper

August 25, 1857 --- Divorce

For the first time since Henry VIII, Parliament approves a change in Britain's divorce laws with the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act.

Heretofore, divorce was available only through the Ecclesiastical Court, with grounds limited to non-consummation and other such rarities, or through the long and prohibitively expensive process of seeking a private Act of Parliament. The new law creates a civil Divorce Court. The husband fares better, he must only prove adultery on his wife's part. Wives must prove adultery plus aggravating circumstances, anything from desertion to bestiality.

The bill was the subject of bitter debate. The Bishops, of course, led the fight in the Lords, assisted by such men as Lord Redesdale who suggested that the happiness so typical of British marriages could be traced to "the almost impossibility of dissolving them." In the Commons, Mr. Gladstone argued that easing the path toward divorce is a step "towards a laxity which Christianity does not recognize." When opponents threatened a rare filibuster, Prime Minister Palmerston told the House, "I have been told, 'You will never pass this bill!' I replied, 'Won't we?'" He vowed to keep Parliament sitting through the grouse season, prompting yelps from the back benches. Gladstone accuses his former and future leader of "vicious" conduct. In the end, the opposition wins only minor concessions, such as a clergyman's right to refuse to perform marriage where one or both of the parties is a divorcee.

The divorce courts are quickly busy. Newspaper accounts, explicit in detail even by modern standards, so shocked the Queen that she wrote to the Lord Chancellor comparing them to "the worst of the French novels [and] most pernicious to public morals."

The first judge of the Divorce Court was Sir Cresswell Cresswell who was unmarried.  A Manchester Man, writing in the Quarterly Review, thought that was most wise: "He has no ugly prejudices, no reminiscences, pleasant or unpleasant, to stand in the way of equitable decisions. He has no dread of a curtain lecture at night for dealing heavily during the day with some erring one who might have attracted his wife's pity. Besides, a judge who has just left a scolding wife, depend upon it, does not assume composure with his wig."

The First Cloud by Orchardson (1887) at the Tate Britain.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 24, 1875 --- The First Channel Swim

At 12:55 p-m, Captain Matthew Webb, a surgeon's son from Shropshire, wades into the waters off Admiralty Pier in Dover to begin his bid to become the first person to swim the English Channel. He is 27 years old and has been a swimmer since the age of seven.  An officer in the merchant navy, his feats were well known.  He'd swum the new Suez Canal and rescued crewmen in the Atlantic.  He stands 5-foot-8 with a "capacious" 43-inch chest.  The late summer-weather conditions are ideal, the sun is shining, the Channel is calm, and the water comfortable at 65 degrees. He is accompanied by two boats; one carrying his coach and tidal strategist, Captain Toms along with a supply of beef tea, beer and brandy, and in the other, journalists to record the event.

At midnight, word is relayed back to London by a passing ferry that Capt. Webb swims on and is in "capital spirits." But after sunrise, within sight of shore, a tidal change pushes a tiring Webb back out into the Channel. A young lad named Baker, dives in from the supply boat, to provide encouragement for the final strokes to the shore. Webb recalled that the final few hours were "cruel work," his eyes were burning from the salt water and he was stung by a jellyfish.  But just after 10:30 a.m., Webb makes landfall at Calais, too weak to stand. It has taken 21 hours 45 minutes.

After some cod liver oil and a fish dinner, he took a nap.  He returned by yacht to Dover to find himself a national hero.  The Times hails him for giving the lie to the charge that "the manly type" has disappeared due to the "enervating influences of modern civilisation."

The captain's feat prompted a fad in distance swimming; people began plunging into rivers and canals across Britain, often with fatal results. In fractured verse, Punch urged its readers:
Now, Jonathan, let Webb's exploit drive none of you too frantic,
So as to lead to more than talk of swimming the Atlantic!

For several years, Webb told and retold his tale on the music hall stage. Interest inevitably waned and in July, 1883, Webb hoped to rekindle his popularity by swimming the rapids above Niagara Falls.  He seemed to be swimming strongly but he suddenly went under. His body was not found for several days and then five miles below the rapids.

No one was to match his Channel swim until 1923.

Illustration from The Graphic

August 23, 1861 --- Extraordinary Assault by a Foriegn Nobleman

The shocking case of the Baron de Vidil, charged with horse-whipping his son, comes to a mysterious end. The Baron, a minor French nobleman, resided in Twickenham.  He had married a wealthy Englishwoman, now deceased, and had the one son, Alfred, now 23. In July, while riding with his son down a wooded lane near their home, he suddenly attacked the young man with the butt end of his whip. Workers in a nearby field heard Alfred's cries.  They would later swear that the bleeding man ran to them, pleading "Help me, protect me, save me."

The Baron, after briefly seeing to his son's care at a local inn, had fled to France. Traced to the Jockey Club in Paris, de Vidil agreed voluntarily to return to face charges. As the Baron was well known in London gaming circles, his arrest caused great consternation on the Turf and in clubland. Speculation as to motive ran rampant; The Morning Chronicle theorised that "He had injured this young man beyond redemption; he had squandered the fortune entrusted to his keeping, and the day of repayment was at hand."

In the police court, Alfred announced that he would not testify against his father. In the witness stand, still bearing the scars of the attack, he declares: "My mind is fully made up ... and I must still decline to give evidence." Alfred is sentenced to one month in gaol. The trial proceeds without him; field hands, the
innkeeper and the doctor who treated the injured man relate their stories. Serjeant Ballentine, the Baron's counsel, belittles it all. Reminding the English jury, no doubt unnecessarily, that the French are "an excitable race," Ballentine argues that what took place was a family argument, no more, no less, unfortunately in broad daylight, on a public road and ending with injuries causing "little or no inconvenience." His client had been "slandered and calumniated" by gossip and scurrilous journalism.

The Baron is found guilty on the minor charge of unlawful wounding. The presiding judge, however, stressing the fact that the victim had been repeatedly struck with the heavy end of the whip, "for which there can be no possible justification," sentenced de Vidil to a year's hard labor.

A befuddled but fascinated Press is left to but surmise as to what really happened. The Daily Telegraph wonders: "Must we rest contented with this vague and imperfect explanation, which seems to hint at some secret too foul and hideous to be brought into the light of day? It would appear so."

August 22, 1889 --- A Reprieve for Florence Maybrick

After a remarkable fortnight of mass meetings and trans-Atlantic petition-drives, the Home Secretary spares the life of Florence Maybrick. Alabama-born, Florence had been convicted of poisoning her estranged husband James, a wealthy Liverpool cotton broker. The Crown had called it "a murder founded upon profligacy and adultery... carried out with a hypocrisy and a cunning which have been rarely equalled."

Here are the details. In May, Maybrick died at Battlecrease House in suburban Aigburth after a peculiar illness, despite the "care" of several doctors whose litany of drugs and patent medicines proved of no avail. His last words to his wife were: "Oh Bunny, how could you do it?" Shortly before the master's death, suspicious servants wired his brother. "Come at once; strange things going on." When the postmortem revealed traces of arsenic, the grieving widow was arrested.

The redoubtable Sir Charles Russell headed the defense. Arsenic was commonplace in the Maybrick's Merseyside home; Florence used it for "skin eruptions," while James was an addict. In fact, defense toxicologists argued that death was more likely due to arsenic withdrawal than the contrary. But Florence was undone by the sordid details of her brief affair with Alfred Brierly, a cotton agent, including a letter (opened by a servant) in which she wrote that James was "sick unto death."

The trial was held by Justice Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, a highly respected but aged and failing jurist.  His conduct of the case was much criticized.  His charge to the jury made it seem more a divorce case than a murder trial.  Meanwhile, Mr. Maybrick's mistress and bastard family were never mentioned. Despite the complexity of the case, the jury verdict and death sentence took less than an hour. The outcry was immediate.

The New York Times correspondent said the country had been gripped with "Maybrick-mania ... Nineteen out of every twenty persons I have talked with believe, or at least think it is probable, that she deliberately killed her husband; yet perhaps fifteen of this number would join the agitation for her free pardon, and five or six would say frankly -that they don't care whether she poisoned the tiresome old fool or not."  Finally, the Home Secretary agrees to commute the sentence to life, finding the evidence "does not wholly exclude a reasonable doubt." Queen Victoria wasn't at all pleased that "so wicked a woman should escape by a mere legal quibble."

Florence was freed from prison in 1904 and returned to America where she died in obscurity in 1940.

In 1992, a diary surfaced - allegedly written by James Maybrick - in which he boasted of being Jack the Ripper.  Its authenticity is defended and disputed with equal vehemence.

August 21, 1843 --- The Temperance Pledge

A crowd of roughs does its best to disrupt a Blackheath rally held by the Irish temperance campaigner, Father Theobald Mathew.  The Capuchin friar's message was "Ireland Sober is Ireland Free."

Father Mathew is touring England amidst great curiosity, having claimed that fully one-fourth of his Irish countrymen had taken "the pledge" not to let liquor cross their lips again. He crossed the Irish Sea for a series of mass rallies, rewarding newly-vowed tea-totallers with a little tin medal. In Liverpool and Manchester, he drew huge crowds.  In London, the dour frock-coated priest is entertained at a politicial breakfast where his remarks are so persuasive that one oft-sozzled peer barked, "Damn me, I will keep sober—for this night."

On this day, running behind schedule, Father Mathew arrives in Blackheath to a much less hospitable reception. The crowd numbers 20,000 including, by now, a small but vocal group of drunks. The local brewing interests had well-oiled their goons with free ale and porter available within sight of the speaker's platform. The hecklers, including several Royal Marines, make it impossible for the priest to be heard.  The crowd, according to The Times reporter on scene, made "the most hideous noises imaginable." Wearing badges proclaiming themselves members of "The Malt and Hop Society," with pewter tankards around their necks as their "medals," the mob charges the stage, driven off by Mathew's shillelagh wielding defenders. But Mathew opts to abandon the field, leaving Greenwich having administered the pledge to not more than 600 people.

Returning to Ireland, Mathew's movement was slowed by poor health , waning interest and the horros of the famine years. He toured America with similar success.

His last years were spent in poor health.  When the Queen was asked to provide him assistance with a pension from the Civil List, she demurred:  "He has done much by preaching temperance, but by the aid of superstition, which can hardly be patronized by the Crown."  The government eventually alloted him £300.

He died in 1856.

August 20, 1890 --- The Pelican Club

Disgruntled Soho residents, displeased by the noisy, all-hours antics at the Pelican Club, file a complaint asking that the club be closed as a public nuisance. The Pelican had opened in 1887, and quickly attracted the rich and notorious.

Gambling and drinking are the main offerings with emphasis on the latter; the unwritten rule is that the bar is open as long as anyone has any money left. That brings to mind a third specialty of the club, dodging creditors. One Captain Fred Russell, whose debts were considerable, was dubbed "Brer Rabbit"'to mark his evasive skills. He once managed to have himself (under an assumed name) hired by the firm that had been dunning him. He chased himself around England expenses paid - and reported back that the Captain had fled the land.

Such "gentlemen" partied late; bands blared sometimes til sunrise. When the club does close, tipsy toffs spill streetward, whistling for cabs and setting off loud and profane arguments among the cabmen for the fares. Making matters worse for the neighbors, the Pelican had taken to hosting boxing matches, often with American "colored gentlemen" matching fists with local talent.

The attorneys for the club skillfully but vainly prolonged the action, hoping to tire or break the bank of their foes. The proprietor argued that Gerrard Street had always been a "late" street, home to many after-hours clubs; perhaps the noise is coming from the Italian Cooks and Waiters Club next door? The music, insisted a clubman piously, is no louder than a Salvation Army band. It took until December before a judge granted the neighbors a partial victory; he ordered an end to all boxing and further, directed that no cabs may be hailed between midnight and 7 a.m. The Times chortled that the ruling "robs the weary Bohemians of their cabs during the very hours in which they are accustomed to seek their beds."

The Pelican closed its doors in 1892 but lives on in P.G. Wodehouse's creation, Sir Galahad Threepwood; the old "Pelican," who after a "thoroughly misspent life .... holds his whiskey & soda aloft like some brave banner beneath which he had often fought and won."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

August 19, 1859 --- Dr. Smethurst

Dr. Thomas Smethurst of London is convicted of "the Richmond poisoning," the murder of his wife in a bigamous marriage. He is sentenced to die.

An "insignificant little man with a red moustache," Smethurst is in his 50's and had been married for some time to a woman twenty years his senior. In 1858, he made the acquaintance of Isabella Bankes at a Bayswater boarding house where their relationship became so notorious that the young woman was evicted. With the apparent knowledge of both his wife and his lover, Smethurst "married" Miss Bankes and took lodgings with her in Richmond. It wasn't long, however, before Isabella became dangerously ill. The symptoms included intense stomach pains and nausea. When it became clear she would not recover, the doctor arranged for a new will leaving Isabella's modest estate of some £2000 entirely to him. Only days before her death, Isabella signed.

The suspicions of a consulting physician lead to an autopsy and Smethurst's arrest. The second doctor became the lead witness for the Crown, claiming to have been the first to spot traces of arsenic in Isabella's vomit. He also described the "peculiar expression of terror" on her face when her husband was in the room. Yet, the defense brought in others to claim that throughout his wife's final days, he nursed her with "kindness and affection." The attorney who drafted the new will insisted that Isabel was alert and "perfectly competent" to make her own decision to sign. Medical experts for Smethurst argued that Isabella was unwillingly pregnant and her death may have been caused by purgatives aimed at self-abortion. Expert medical testimony, including extensive analysis of Isabella's vomit and stools, took four days and was graphically reported in the Press.

The guilty verdict proved controversial; the leading papers and medical journals are filled with combative letters espousing rival theories. Within three days of his date to hang, Smethurst won a respite. The Home Secretary then threw out the conviction on grounds of "sufficient doubt [which] has risen from the imperfection of medical science." Smethurst did serve one year for bigamy. Incredibly, upon his release, he sued the Bankes family and won, collecting on the dead woman's will.

August 18, 1875 --- The Wreck of the Mistletoe

With the Queen aboard, the royal yacht Alberta is involved in a tragic and embarrassing accident in the crowded Solent, during the height of the yachting season. The Alberta collides with and slices in half a much smaller boat, the Mistletoe, which quickly sinks. Despite the efforts mounted by the Alberta's crew, three people - 2 Mistletoe crewmen and a sister-in-law of the owner - are lost.

The Queen is greatly upset. "The poor lady, it is too awful, and I cannot get over it ... most harrowing scenes ... the crash, shock and the complete disappearance of the yacht will never be forgotten!"

The Alberta is commanded by Prince Victor of Leiningen, the Queen's nephew, who is much criticized in the Press for the vessel's speed (the 350-ton steamer is doing 17 mph in a crowded channel) and the lack of adequate lookouts. However, separate civilian inquests reach no verdict as to culpability and the Admiralty Board places the blame on the Alberta's Staff Capt. Welch, who is reprimanded for "not having exhibited sufficient care and attention." Prince Victor is exonerated; the board concludes "His Serene Highness [was] unavoidably taken up by attendance upon the Queen."

Many thought the Prince had been treated too leniently, a feeling that was not helped by an ill-advised letter from the Queen praising his seamanship. When Victor was hissed in the streets, the Queen blamed it on "low Portsmouth people." As for the Mistletoe, the families of the dead were indemnified and the yacht-owner paid for his loss.

Although The Times thought the matter was resolved to "general satisfaction," questions as to the Queen's travel habits were raised in the Commons.  When the Queen travels by rail, the track is cleared in advance and The Spectator thought that should be also be the plan on the Solent: "The Queen has no time to waste upon her journeys, is not in health to bear protracted fatigue, exposure and weariness, and very probably enjoys, like the rest of mankind, the pleasure attendant upon rapid locomotion."

A painting of the Alberta on the Solent waters.

August 17, 1849 --- The Bermondsey Horror

At 3 Miniver Place, Bermondsey, police find the body of Patrick O'Connor buried in quick-lime beneath a newly-laid flagstone in the kitchen. Missing a week, the customs clerk and small-time usurer had been a frequent caller at this address, the now vacant home of Frederick and Maria Manning. O'Connor lies face down, his skull bashed in, his legs tied up to his haunches, his features decomposed. Identification is made only by his "less perishable features of an extremely prominent chin and false teeth."

According to neighbors, O'Connor had been openly romancing Mrs. Manning with her stolid husband's apparent approval.  Then, the Mannings suddenly sold up and left. The discovery of O'Connor's body was called "The Bermondsey Horror" and police put out a description of the missing couple on the telegraph to all ports and railway stations. Within four days, Mrs. Manning is found in Edinburgh. The Times notes with especial glee that she was reading their account of the crime when "the messenger of justice interrupted her studies." A week later, her husband was nabbed on the isle of Jersey.

Manning is a former-railway guard sacked for theft.  Mrs. Manning (pictured) was Swiss-born and a woman of "great personal beauty" who had served as a ladies maid in several aristocratic homes. At the Old Bailey, the crowded court was not cheated of excitement. Frederick's counsel made the startling claim that Maria had been the killer and he merely her "dupe and instrument." Maria's lawyer rose to condemn his fellow barrister, "God forbid that I should pursue that course." The trial is brief, the evidence strong, and the verdict certain. Frederick chose to make no final statement, but Maria - who refused to look at her husband throughout - proclaimed that O'Connor was "more to me than my husband" and Frederick had killed him in a jealous rage.

The Mannings hanged before 30,000 people in Horsemonger Lane. Frederick appeared badly shaken, while Maria walked to her fate with "firm, unfaltering step." Dickens, who watched the double hanging, wrote The Times: "I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd ... could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. Thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore."

August 16, 1892 --- The Double Duchess

At Christ Church, Mayfair, the 8th Duke of Devonshire (formerly the Marquis of Hartington) marries the widowed Louisa, Duchess of Manchester.  Despite the lofty social position of the bride and groom, as The Times brief account noted, the ceremony "took place very quietly."

For years, the two had carried on a discrete affair, acknowledged by society. The New York Times, allowed more candor from abroad, described them as "inseparable companions," and reported: "It is perfectly understood that the Devonshire has remained a bachelor all these decades on her account." The late Duke of Manchester, whom Disraeli wrote off as a "well-intentioned bore," had been a mari complaisant and absented himself accordingly. When he finally passed away, Louisa's future became the topic of general speculation and re-marriage rumors were frequently floated.

While he lived, the 7th Duke of Devonshire - Hartington's father - disapproved of the relationship between the Duchess and his son.  The 7th Duke believed that widows ought never re-marry. But then the old Duke of Devonshire died in 1891 and Hartington had the title at last.  Of his wedding plans, he wrote his sister: "I am sure that we shall both be much happier when the friendship which has so long existed between us is openly recognized."

Although nicknamed "Harty-Tarty" from his randy days as a young Marquis, Devonshire's phlegmatic personality is legendary. In Parliament, he yawned during his maiden speech, and stopped another to make the aside, "This is damned dull." He often quipped that his greatest moment came when his pig took the ribbon at the Skipton fair. Ironically, he might have captured his romantic prize at a much younger age had he been a more ardent wooer. Hoping to jar her  lover from his "customary indolence," Louisa flirted with the future Duke of Manchester. As we know, her scheme misfired.

Together, finally, the new "Double Duchess" entertained lavishly at London's Devonshire House and the magnificent family seat at Chatsworth, showing more ambition for higher office than the Duke. Often mentioned as a possible P.M., Devonshire never took the highest laurel.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

August 15, 1894 --- Bigamy Denied

Rumors of bigamy dog the Royal family. George, Duke of York, lone surviving son of the Prince of Wales and second in line to the throne, is newly wed to Princess May of Teck. When the betrothal was first announced, The Star, a radical daily, charged that the Duke was already married to the daughter of a naval officer he'd met while on duty at Malta in the Mediterranean and there were children. George scoffed: "I say May, we can't get married after all. I hear I have a wife and three children."

Given the -shall we say - irregular marital habits of the Prince of Wales and the scandalous conduct of George's elder brother, the late and unlamented Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria saw little humor in the subject. She was reportedly furious with the Archbishop of Canterbury - who married George and May - but whose ham-handed denial of the story only seemed to bring it to new ears. So, in The Times, purportedly in response to an inquiry from a Mr. A. Barnard of Middlesborough-on-Tees, the Palace issues the following statement:

The report to which you allude is so obviously invented for the mere purpose of causing pain and annoyance to an innocent young couple that his Royal Highness has always declined to allow the story to obtain further currency by contradiction from him; but it is nonetheless cruel and malignant.
It was at Malta - "a hotbed of malevolent tittle-tattle" - that the rumors began. Denials notwithstanding, the story of a secret marriage, crushed by a vengeful old Queen, was believed - at least sentimentally - by many Britons and it resurfaced in 1910 when George succeeded his father on the throne. The supposed first wife - an Admiral's daughter now a Mrs. Trevelyan D.W. Napier - came forward in a successful libel action against the author of an article entitled "Sanctified Bigamy."

It is interesting to note that at the time of the 1894 denial, George and May were celebrating the birth of their first child, the future King Edward VIII. Could it be that the father of the man who would give up the throne for "the woman I love," gave up the woman he loved for the throne?

August 14, 1886 --- The Incident of the Dog in Baker Street

Queen Victoria takes action in defense of "Her dear poor friends, the dogs." She demands that there be no repetition of the infamous "Baker Street mad dog case."

London is in the midst of another outbreak of hydro-phobia; as rabies is then known.  The victims of a rabid dog's bite, while they complain of desperate thirst, simply cannot take water. While M. Pasteur's work continues in Paris, British doctors are sceptical of any imminent cure.  In the meantime, the Metropolitan Police had recently proclaimed that all dogs must be muzzled or under control at all times.  "Any dog abroad and not under proper control would be seized by the police and dealt with according to law."

In June, a Baker Street woman had let her spaniel out, muzzled, as required by law. The dog, teased by some children, began barking vigorously, loosening the muzzle. Two constables, attracted by the commotion, chased the dog for several blocks, cornered the frightened animal and proceeded to beat it to death with their truncheons. Miss Fannie Revell, an angry neighbor who doused the officers with a bucket of water, took her story to the Press and Palace: "How long is this ridiculous tyranny, and the still more ridiculous panic which initiated it, to continue?" Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of Police stated that the officers had acted "perfectly rightly" and without cruelty.

While the Queen's love for animals is well-known, this case surely touched poignant memories. The ill-fated Baker Street spaniel was named Dash, the very name of the Queen's pet spaniel of long ago: "DEAR SWEET LITTLE DASH," whom she rushed home to bathe after her Coronation, 48 years before.

In her memo, the Queen demands:
1. No dogs should ever be killed by police unless the veterinary surgeon declared they were mad. That dogs who were close to their masters or mistresses or their house doors, poor quiet dogs, should be left alone and not molested.
2. Dog's Homes should be augmented and enlarged. (She was a frequent contributor.)
3. Muzzles, except [for] very savage dogs, should not be used, nor should dogs be run after and hunted to be caught..
At the end of the message, sent to the police without comment, she adds briefly: "Cats should likewise be well cared for."

August 13, 1891 --- Advice from the Prince of Wales

In the aftermath of the "Great Baccarat Scandal" (of which more later) the Prince of Wales issues a public statement on gambling.  No stranger to scandals, this was his worst.  He had been denounced in the public papers as a "wastrel." He had associated with frivilous young people and card cheats.  The New York Times reported "a growing conviction" in Britain that the Royal family wasn't worth the expense any longer.

After protracted negotiations overseen by Prime Minister Salisbury, the Prince agrees to write a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury - for public release - in which he admits to a "horror" of gambling. The Prince complains to Archbishop Benson of "a torrent of abuse upon me not only by the Press, but by the Low Church and especially the Nonconformists." The Prince even goes so far as to declare, "Gambling, like intemperance, is one of the greatest curses a country can be afflicted with." He exempts horse-racing, however, calling it "a manly sport which is popular with Englishmen of all classes." Waxing philosophical, he concludes, "Alas! Those who gamble will gamble at anything."

Lord Salisbury hoped that the letter "would suffice to deodorize him of all the unpleasant aroma which this case has left upon him." It had taken a lot to bring the Prince and Prelate together.  Bertie was miffed when the Archbishop agreed to a request for a special prayer for a restoration of morality in the land. They had even suggested that the Princess of Wales should join their entreaties; she declined. The Prince remained bitter on the subject.  If you can afford the losses, it isn't gambling, he reasoned.  Certainly someone earning the average workman's wages of £10 a week couldn't appreciate that.

The anti-Royals weekly, Reynolds' Newspaper, let him have it: "The Heir Apparent to the British throne [is] staking his gold upon the chances of a card or the roll of a ball.  Gold, be it remembered, that he obtained from the toil and sweat of the British working-man, without himself producing the value of a halfpenny."

Bertie remained active on the Turf but his card-playing days were all but over.

August 12, 1875 --- A Girl on a Swing

The Rev. Francis Kilvert has a most interesting day at the school fete in the Wiltshire village of Kington St. Michael. A girl with a "beseeching look" asks for a push on the swing. "She was a perfect little beauty," he writes in his diary that evening, "with a sweet little mouth as pretty as a rosebud." Unfortunately, while seating the girl on the swing, her clothes become disarranged. "It instantly became apparent that she wore no drawers. A titter, then a shout of laughter ran through the crowd as the girl's plump person was seen naked hanging from the swing ... I believe it was partly my fault." No doubt embarrassed for the child, he finds pleasure in the moment, nonetheless, "Her flesh was plump and smooth and in excellent whipping condition."

Rev. Kilvert's unusual diary was discovered and published shortly before World War II, and no less a critic than A.L. Rowse has called it "among the best half-dozen or dozen diaries ever written in English." Born in 1840, Kilvert began his diary while a curate at Clyro, near Hay-on-Wye, in 1870. He continued it until his marriage in August 1879; a month later, he died suddenly of peritonitis. The diary, according to Rowse, is "an extraordinarily sensitive and observant picture of life in the 70's."

The incident at the fair is only one of several in which the cleric reveals his voyeurism. Like Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and John Ruskin (at 47, he proposed to a teenager), Kilvert was a member of the cult of the "little girl." Only weeks before the swing incident, while strolling a beach on the Isle of Wight, he happily encountered a little girl, entirely naked on the sand.  He noted well what he had seen: "The supple slender waist, the gentle dawn and tender swell of the bosom and the budding breasts ... and above all the soft and exquisite curves of the rosy dimpled bottom and broad white thigh."  Rattled by this chance meeting, the good curate admitted, "I missed the road by the windmill ... and went too far round to the right."

August 11, 1885 --- A Private Collector

The social and literary world mourns the death of Baron Houghton at the age of 76.  He was born Richard Monckton Milnes. A wealthy dabbler in politics, poetry and criticism, Lord Houghton, according to The Times, "will be remembered more for his encouragement of genius than his possession of it." The Saturday Review mourns, the loss of "perhaps the best after-dinner speaker of his time," for it was said that no gathering was complete without "Dicky" Milnes. He won the nickname, "Cool of the Evening."

Unsaid in any obituary, however, is that Milnes will be remembered for being one of the foremost erotologists of all time. His country seat, crumbling Fryston Hall in South Yorkshire, was known as "The Aphrodisiopolis." The place was so drafty that Tennyson dubbed it "Freezetown" Hall. The Complete Peerage notes that his library was "by no means virginibus puerisque," i.e. for little girls and boys. He established an ultra-secret reading group, The Philiobiblion Society for like minded gentlemen. In fact, it was Milnes' complete set of the works of the Marquis de Sade which is supposed to have sent Swinburne off to the "birching parlors" of St. John's Wood.

Milnes' "procurer" (who often shipped the material home in a diplomatic pouch) was Frederick Hankey, a truly unlikeable Englishman living in Paris, who collected items of sexual torture. According to Ian Gibson, the historian of such things, Milnes did more than merely collect but also fulfilled his many sexual fantasies.  He patronized London flogging brothels and was the likely author of The Rodiad, a classic of the flagellation school.  

Milnes married late in life; Disraeli described him as "unfortunately short" with a face that resembled a "countenance cut out of an orange." Once an ardent wooer of Florence Nightingale, Milnes finally married a peer's daughter and raised three children. Among other less celebrated acts of kindness attributed to him, Milnes quietly saw to it that Arthur Nichols' curate's salary was supplemented so as to allow him to marry Charlotte Bronte.

The explorer Burton, who had been helped by Milnes both in his travels and in the publication of some of his more salacious translations, wrote at his patron's death, that Milnes "never said an unkind word, never did an unkind deed."