A lecture to Molesey History Society: Part 2
The story of slavery in Elmbridge, and in England, is given an inspiring conclusion with the arrival in Elmbridge, in 1825, of the fifteen year-old Fanny Kemble (1809 - 1893). Fanny [Frances Anne] and her famous family, moved to Eastlands House in Weybridge, which she described as 'rural, rather deserted-looking, and most picturesque', and she was very happy here. Although acting and marriage took her away from the area, she returned numerous times, and always thought of it as 'home'. She visited Oatlands House twice in 1831 when it belonged to Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, (1799-1863). Known as 'Golden Ball' its hard not to like 'a man of extreme handsomeness', who styled himself as a dandy, with a circle of rich and royal friends interested in sex, scandal, money, and fashion. Much of his estate at Oatlands was sold off for the development of villas, and the property speculation, which coincided with the arrival of the railway to London was the only thing he did that ever showed a profit. Fanny Kemble later stayed at Oatlands when it became a hotel. Kemble came from the foremost dramatic dynasty in England, her aunt was the great Sarah Siddons, and her father managed the Convent Garden Theatre. She became a world-famous actress, but always considered writing her greatest achievement. After marrying Pierce Butler, an American plantation owner, she was horrified by the reality of slavery in America. Her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation was circulated privately among abolitionists before the American Civil War, and published both in England and America after the war broke out in 1863. It is a heartbreaking and inspirational book, where two important subordinate narratives of history can be heard, the reasoned emotional intelligence of a woman's perspective and voice, and the growing social sway of popular culture. She writes, "We have no laws forbidding us to teach our dogs and horses as much as they can comprehend; nobody is fined or imprisoned for reasoning upon knowledge, and liberty… But these themes are forbidden to slaves, not because they cannot, but because they can and would seize on them with avidity - receive them gladly, comprehend them quickly; and the masters' power over them would be annihilated at once and forever." The three almost contiguous lives of Samuel Dicker, Cesar Picton, and Fanny Kemble bear witness to the truth of her words. Picton seized with avidity the education and financial opportunity given to him by the women of the Phillips family and made an inspiring success of his life. Dicker's bridge stood for only 33 years, the bridge Picton and Kemble crossed towards abolition was, like Canaletto's painting, far more lasting and significant.
Of course, abolition was only the beginning of a continuing worldwide struggle against racial equality. One of the figures that only narrowly missed being selected for The Elmbridge Hundred was Ronald Segal. Now firstly, if it was not for Ronald and his wife Susan we would not have a roof over our heads right now, and Elmbridge would not have a vibrant arts centre as its cultural heart. When they met last year, the final selection panel felt it was too soon to 'judge' Ronald, who had died in 2008. Personally, I disagreed quite strongly with that, and I would like to tell you why. Ronald Michael Segal was born into a privileged South African family. His father was the co-owner of Ackerman's, a large chain of clothing stores. However, after attending Cape Town University, Segal's eyes were opened to the unjust social and political reality of life in South Africa under apartheid. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning 'separateness'. It was the name given to the system of legalized racial segregation introduced and enforced by the National Party government of South Africa in 1948. Under the apartheid regime, which lasted until 1993, the rights of the majority 'non-white' inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed to maintain, and often violently enforce, the minority rule of white people. Segal continued his academic studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but in 1956, he returned to Cape Town, and launched the literary and political periodical Africa South. The new journal gave a voice to liberal and radical thinkers, many of them fierce, young opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa, like Alan Paton, author of Cry, The Beloved Country (1948). Between 1956 and 1961, 21 issues of the important and influential journal were published in Cape Town, and later London, with contributors including: Ruth First, Nadine Gordimer, Helen Joseph, Leo Kuper, Basil Davidson, Walter Sisulu, Kenneth Kaunda, Joshua Nkomo, Barbara Castle, and Tony Benn. In 1961, Segal published an early piece by Nelson Mandela, called 'Out of the Strike'. However, by the late 1950s, the South African government was becoming increasingly sensitive and intolerant of internal criticism. Segal's editorials were frank, combative, and outspoken, and when he went on a speaking tour of American college campuses to promote an economic boycott of South Africa his arrest became inevitable. In 1958, Segal organised a defense fund in Cape Town for Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) members who were on trial for treason in Pretoria. Shortly afterwards, Segal was caught by the authorities in a black African township, distributing pamphlets that called for a boycott of Afrikaner businesses. He was arrested, and under apartheid law, he could be detained indefinitely without trial. When he was released, his passport was confiscated, his right to travel freely was curtailed, and he was officially labeled a 'communist', which made it a criminal offence for him to associate with any other people the authorities deemed to be a risk to state security. On 21st March 1960, after a day of demonstrations by black protesters in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (now called Gauteng), the South African police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. Following what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, the ANC was banned. The following week saw a vast escalation of protests and riots around the country. On 30th March 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, and detained over 18,000 people deemed a threat to the state. Universal international condemnation followed the Sharpeville shootings. Demonstrations of solidarity against the South African regime took place in many countries around the world, and after complaints by twenty-nine Member States, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134 on 1st April 1960. The resolution was adopted with nine votes, although shamefully France and Britain abstained. Sharpeville marked a turning point in South Africa's history as the apartheid government was increasingly isolated from the international community. The event also hastened South Africa's departure from the Commonwealth in 1961. The ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, had little option but to move the ANC leadership abroad. Narrowly avoiding arrest in Cape Town, Segal and Tambo drove north, crossed the South African border into exile into British Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and eventually fled to England. He continued to publish Africa South in exile for a few editions but eventually Pretoria forced the magazine out of business. After the Sharpeville Massacre, the international English-speaking world's interest in African literature and politics was awakened, and Tony Godwin, the chief editor of Penguin Books, invited Segal to launch the Penguin African Library. The pioneering series eventually saw the publication of 65 titles, introducing many contemporary African writers into the canon of world literature, including Basil Davidson, and Ruth First. Segal's friend and fellow anti-apartheid activist, the journalist and scholar Ruth First, was assassinated by a letter bomb at the University of Maputo in Mozambique, on 17th August 1982. The bomb was sent on the orders of a major in the South African Police. Following her murder, Segal founded the Ruth First Memorial Trust to support Southern African studies with travel and research grants. Besides publishing and editing other writers, Segal was also the author of fourteen books, including the autobiographical Into Exile (1963), and several groundbreaking works on international affairs. I would particularly recommend Race War: The Worldwide Conflict of Races of 1967, and The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa of 1995. When he finally returned to visit South Africa in 1992, Segal was given to a hero's welcome, sharing a stage with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Joe Slovo. Two years after arriving in England, Segal married Susan Wolff, and they lived, just over the road from here, in The Old Manor House in Walton-on-Thames. In June 1987, the Segals hosted a meeting at their home in Walton between Oliver Tambo (1917-1993) and Thabo Mbeki of the African National Congress (ANC), and Chris Ball, the chief executive of Barclays Bank in South Africa. It was the first of a series of meetings, which eventually convinced the multinational business community to support the ANC to end apartheid. Segal gave the same commitment to local issues that he had to South African and international affairs. He founded the Walton Society, a residents' association whose members have successfully run for election to Elmbridge Borough Council. Ronald Segal, like Cesar Picton, was forced to leave Africa against his will, but made Elmbridge his home. Like Fanny Kemble, he was born to wealth and privilege but, once he had seen it, he worked tirelessly to defeat the terrible injustice he saw being done to other people. Ronald segal should have been selected to The Elmbridge Hundred, not merely for his remarkable achievements in bringing an awareness of the politics and literature of Africa to safe, leafy Elmbridge, but rather for reminding us that the great issues of history only exist here and now in the present. It is the aggregate of all our actions and inactions, important and unimportant, which define history.
Most recently, Ronald also chaired a campaign against Surrey County Council's plans for a new Walton Bridge. Now, as a poet I am not beneath a good bit of doggerel, and the opening lines of one of my proposed poetic plaques reads, "Old Walton Bridge was built by Samuel Dicker, so he could get to London quicker". After Henry VIII, the greatest transformation of Elmbridge was that of the stock exchange trader, Whig politician, and newspaper proprietor, Sir John Easthope (1784-1865). Easthope joined the stock exchange in 1818, and with a series of speculations amassed a large fortune in just a few years. He was a founding director of the London and Southhampton Railway Company (LSRC), a director of the Canada Land Company, and chair of the Mexican Mining Company. In 1834, he bought and revived the ailing newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. He was a difficult employer, and was given the nickname 'Blast-hope' by his journalists. On taking over the Morning Chronicle, he employed a young journalist named Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) as a Parliamentary reporter. Charles Dickens was not yet famous, but he showed his militancy by leading a short, successful strike against 'Blast-hope' in February 1836 over the terms of employment of his fellow journalists. In March 1936, Dickens began serializing The Pickwick Papers, left the Chronicle in November 1836, and never looked back. Easthope was a newly moneyed land and stock speculator, who joined the establishment by supporting the Whig party, and buying a newspaper to support their interests. Thomas Cooper, the Chartist candidate from Leicester, who opposed John Easthope in the election of 1841, describes in his autobiography, Life Of Thomas Cooper of 1872, the fierce reforming passion which self-serving Whigs like Easthope faced: "I must confess I enjoyed the nomination day in Leicester market-place. Our Chartists kept their stand well, in the centre, before the hustings. As I faced them, the Tories with their blue flags were on my right, and the Whigs with their orange and green flags were on my left. I, as the universal suffrage candidate for the representation of Leicester, had the largest show of hands… while all the workingmen who were on the Tory side held up their hands for me, to spite the Whigs. However, the Mayor said Sir John Easthope… had the show of hands - at which there was much shouting for joy on the Whig side - but the scene was soon changed. One of our Chartist flag-bearers happened, intentionally, to droop his flag till it touched the heads of some of the Whigs who were shouting. The gudgeons caught the bait! They seized the poor little calico flag and tore it in pieces! "Now, lads, go it!" shouted some strong voices in the Chartist ranks, and the rush was instant upon the Whig flags. A few escaped; but Easthope's supporters declared that the orange and green flags which were 'limbed', or torn up in the course of perhaps ten minutes, had cost Sir John Easthope£70 - for they were all of silk!" (Chapter XV,?Elections: Chartist Life,?1841). Shortly before planning for the London to Woking line was granted, Easthope bought a large landed property called Firgrove in Weybridge, close to the proposed new station. He moved there in 1835, and the LSRC (which became the London and South Western Railway Company in 1840) completed the line from London to Woking in 1838, with the second section from London to Southampton added in 1840. It was Easthope's money and speculation, but the man who actually built the railway to Elmbridge was Thomas Brassey (1805-1870), one of the most remarkable and historically underappreciated of the great Victorians. Brassey was a civil engineering contractor and building materials manufacturer who built most of the world's railways in the 19th century. By 1847, he had built almost one-third of the railways in Britain, and by time of his death in 1870, he had built one in twenty miles of the world's railways, including most of France and many other European countries railways, as well as Canada, Australia, South America, and India. During the 1840s, the upper and middle classes flocked to Weybridge, Esher, and other towns along the line, rapidly developing and redeveloping the area, making it some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Easthope continued to buy, develop, and speculate on land in Weybridge after the railway opened. Surrey History Centre archives record that On 25th November 1852 Easthope acquired the Locke King family, the lease and counterpart for 1,000 years at £90 yearly, with option to purchase reversion on a piece of land formerly allotments under Weybridge Inclosure Act, bounded west and east by roads from Weybridge to railway station. In 1854, having turned the allotments and large parts of the heath into houses, Easthope clearly felt Weybridge had become too crowded and over-developed and moved back to London. He retained Firgrove Cottage on the estate as a weekend retreat, and died there in 1865.
Before Easton built the railway, the main thoroughfare was the London to Portsmouth Road, the River Thames, and the Wey Navigation, which made the River Wey navigable from the Thames at Weybridge to Guildford. It was the development of the pound lock by Sir Richard Weston (1591-1652), who devised and built the inland waterway, which made the Wey one of the first British rivers to be made navigable. By no means a local lad, he was educated largely in Flanders, but when he succeeded to the family estates at Sutton and Clandon in 1613, he decided to copy the canal and lock system he had seen in The Netherlands. Opened a year after its creator died in 1653, over the next three hundred years Wey barges transported timber, corn, flour and coal; gunpowder, chalk and bark for tanning; paper; sugar, oil cake and artificial fertilizers; rags for papermaking, barrel-hoops, and even biplanes at the end of the 1st World War. The Wey Navigation operated as a working waterway until Stevens and Sons, the last private owners, gave the canal to the National Trust in 1964. It is now maintained for leisure cruises, and as an important site of England's industrial archeology, and Dapdune Wharf where Wey barges were built (on Wharf Road, behind Surrey County Cricket Ground in Guildford) has an original barge, Reliance, alongside a display detailing the history.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) poet, writer, and inspector of schools, who moved to Pains Hill Cottage at Cobham in 1873, certainly appreciated the easy commute to London. "It is a pleasant walk to the Cobham Station for the 5.7 train", he wrote in one of his letters. Retiring to Cobham from 1873 to 1888, he was a local boy returning home, having been born just over the river at Laleham on Christmas Eve, 1822. His published correspondence reveals just how fond he was of the area: "The cottage we have got is called Pains Hill Cottage... the country is more beautiful than the Chilterns, because it has heather and pines, while the trees of other kinds in the valley of the Mole, where we are, are really magnificent." Arnold had been a Schools' Inspector for 35 years, and from 1851, he campaigned, with middling success, for a state school system. He found his day job tiresome, dull, and politically frustrating, but thanks to some magnificent poems, mostly composed in his youth ('Dover Beach' is one of the greatest short lyric love poems), and his later searing social criticism, he was also a part-time literary superstar. As a social critic, despite retiring to leafy, wealthy, Elmbridge, which by 1873 was decidedly haute bourgeois, Arnold attacked the 'narrowness' of English life coined the term 'Philistinism' with reference to his English middle class neighbours and fellow commuters. Taking terms with classical and Biblical connotations, he called the aristocracy 'Barbarians', and referred to the working class as the 'Populace'. Arnold died of a sudden heart attack on 15th April 1888 in Liverpool as he made his way to the docks to meet his daughter Lucy who was returning from America.
Connections with America feature strongly in The Elmbridge Hundred. Fanny Kemble I have already mentioned married an American, and found success on stage there when she divorced her plantation-owning husband and returned to acting. The Mount Felix estate that had belonged to Dicker passed into the hands of the Earls of Tankerville when Charles Bennett, the fourth Earl (b. 1743 - d. 1822), bought the house circa 1771. In 1836, the 5th Earl of Tankerville (b. 1776- d. 1859) decided to build a new house and commissioned Sir Charles Barry (b. 1795 - d. 1860) demolish the current house and to build a new mansion on the site of the old one. Barry had won the competition to design the new Palace of Westminster the same year. He designed a large Italianate villa with a square, two-storey porte cochere entrance. Mount Felix became a model for Queen Victoria's holiday home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. By the 1850s, the American Sturges family had bought the Mount Felix. Russell Sturges was the director of Baring's bank, and the Mount Felix ball had become a major social event. In a letter to William Webb Follett Synge of Sunday 6th March 1859 Anne Thackeray, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray describes the Mount Felix ball the night before: "The Mount Felix ball this year went off famous. Papa behaved nobly. Took us down dined at Oatlands Pk. Hotel. Went with us stopped till half 4 slept at OPH. Came back to town next day. ...really liked it as much as last time." Russell Sturges had three talented brothers, the eldest returned to America and became an architect. However, it was the younger two, who lived in England, that were selected for The Elmbridge Hundred.
Julian Russell Sturgis (1848 -1904) became a novelist, poet, librettist, and lyricist. He was born in Boston, but moved to Walton aged seven months. He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and became a barrister. In 1885, Sturgis wrote the libretto for Arthur Goring Thomas's opera Nadeshda, which was performed at Drury lane Theatre. However, his best-known libretto is the Ivanhoe of 1891, written for Arthur Sullivan. W.S. Gilbert had declined to write a libretto for a grand opera with Sullivan because he refused to allow his words to be subordinate to the music. However, on Gilbert's recommendation Sullivan asked Sturgis to write Ivanhoe based on Sir Walter Scott's novel. It was performed at Richard D'Oyly Carte's new Royal English Opera House on 31st January 1891. Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), the composer and conductor, was another resident of Walton, and was selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. His partnership with W.S. Gilbert began in 1871 when the manager of the Gaiety Theatre asked him to compose music for a Christmas piece by Gilbert called Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. I am great fan of W.S. Gilbert's poetry, and think The Bab Ballads one of the great underrated and forgotten masterpieces of popular literature, but I think it is fair to say Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration was not their best. The music and words seem at dreadfully at odds. However, the different temperaments of composer and librettist sparked a successful creative partnership that lasted for over a quarter of a century. Ivanhoe, his one great work without Gilbert, played consecutively for155 performances, unheard of for grand opera in Britain, but the new opera house was a failure. The critic Herman Klein called it "the strangest comingling of success and failure ever chronicled in the history of British lyric enterprise!" The most interesting thing about Julian Russell Sturgis is that as a young man he played amateur football for the Wanderers F.C. and won the FA Cup in 1873, becoming the 1st American to play in and win the FA Cup. It is difficult to imagine any of the numerous multimillionaire footballers currently living in Elmbridge penning a libretto.