Oscar, Buck and Henriette

Everybody loves a good murder. Everyone that is except the victim, and those attached to him or her. Murderophiles are having a Field Day at the moment, all eyes turned to South Africa, more particularly to Oscar Pistorius. It’s Oscar this, Oscar that, Oscar the other. Did he do it? Didn’t he? It really is Oscartime. The tragedy of the Malaysian airliner has, temporarily taken over public attention on the airwaves, but he will be back, and what of the escalation of the crisis in Crimea, and what of Reeva Steenkamp, the girl who lost her life?

Bizarrely, since childhood, I have had a fascination with murderers, not particularly with the grisly details of the crime, but certainly with the perpetrators. Every Saturday morning, from a really early age, Dad would take me down to Marton Library in Blackpool. There, to the soundtrack of the clanking of the trams, on their way to the ‘Royal Oak’, I would be deposited in the Children’s Section, on the right just after the desk. I loved picking books, I still do. But I couldn’t wait to become old enough to get into the Adult Section, more especially, True Crime. There I could read about George Smith, the ‘Brides in the Bath murderer’ and Louisa Merrifield, the poisoner, both of whom committed crimes in Blackpool, and would be hanged. The names Heath, Haigh, Crippen and Christie all meant something to me. It was the fascination of the ‘normal’ man, for the Ripper, I had no interest whatsoever. He was almost a work of fiction. It all sounds a bit ghoulish to my older self, but it was true life and, thankfully, it wore off.

I have recently reread a Penguin Book that I’ve read for years, ‘The Decline of the English Murder’ by George Orwell. The book has been in my possession for a long time, I was heavily into his ideas when I was trying to make sense of the world, it cost me 3/6d (18p). But Orwell bemoans the lack of style in murders, at the time of writing, in 1947, compared to those of the ‘Golden Era’. He compares a (then) current American, and his moll, who committed the ultimate crime, with little panache, in his opinion, to the murderers of the early years of the Twentieth Century, with their baths, both normal and acid, their burying of the bodies, marital jealousy and greed for small amounts of money. From the distance of 60+ years he might have had a point. But do the events being played out, in South Africa, over the death of Reeva Steenkamp, today, give the lie to that? Not an English murder, if it turns out to be a murder at all, but we are living in a smaller world than George Orwell, and the headline writers, Tweeters and TV moguls are loving this one.

Recently, and quite by chance, on other tasks, I have stumbled on several murders committed between 1914 and 1937. My youthful self has been reawakened. My brother lives in Lancaster where one of the murderers of the ‘Golden Age’ committed his crimes. I had been interested by Peter’s idea of ‘Walks in Lancaster’, so decided to do one myself. Churches, theatres, mills, slavery and shipyards, all the accoutrements of a modern ‘historic city’, they’re all there. I paused for breath in Dalton Square and there, hardly, outwardly, unchanged, was the house of Dr. Buck Ruxton. A classic. A killer of the ‘Golden Age’.

This good-looking, 31 year old, Doctor lived at Number Two, Dalton Sq. A very prestigious site. He had been born in Bombay, in 1899, a Parsi, whose name was Bukhytar Rustonji Ratanji Hakim. This would be a bit of a mouthful for the average Lancastrian, so he anglicized it, to Buck Ruxton, when he arrived in Lancaster in 1930. He had left a wife in India, but lived, in Lancaster, with Isabelle Kerr, who changed her name to Ruxton, as a common law couple. In quick succession they had three children. He was popular and had a good reputation, she enjoyed her status as the ‘wife’ of an eminent doctor, and enjoyed the social life that went with the position.

But Ruxton was a jealous man and there would often be abusive, and fiery, public arguments, invariably based on her ‘alleged’ infidelity. She, in fact, went to the police complaining of his violence. But he was a doctor, a man of position, so nothing was done. This does have a modern ring to it, in both the police attitude to a woman complaining of domestic violence ( current cases too numerous to mention) and taking the word of a doctor (that nice Dr. Harold Shipman, for instance!). So the scene was set for the murder on September 15th.1935. Suspecting his wife of an affair, Ruxton flew into a rage and stabbed and strangled Belle (classic, murdered, wife’s name, Belle Elmore [Crippen]). The Ruxton’s had taken on a maid, Mary Rogerson, who, either saw, or suspected, foul play. Ruxton battered and strangled her. The deed was done.

The rage abated, and the problem of the disposal of two corpses, from a house in a busy, city centre, in a fashionable square, was addressed. He dismembered both of them, in the bath, and wrapped the bits in newspaper. The house is still there, not lived in, but offices, and the bathroom no longer exists, as a bathroom, but I’ll bet the people who work there know which room it was! And the bath? Well, it became a horse trough at Lancashire Police’s, Hutton, HQ. How sensitive is that?

Ruxton’s solution? Take the parts to a remote border location and scatter them. He chose a deep, rarely-frequented, ravine, near the town of Moffat, in the Borders. When I told a Scottish friend this, she immediately responded, “Ah, yes. Ruxton’s Dump. I know it.” So eighty years after the crime, the place is still known and notorious.

Isabelle was reported missing, as was the maid. “Ah. Mary was pregnant and my wife has taken her to Edinburgh, to ‘sort it out'” Unfortunately Belle’s clothes had not been touched, they were still in the house, and her car was still outside. Careless.

Worse was to follow. On the way back from disposing of the two women, he had hit a cyclist, in Kendal, and not stopped. The man with a modern cyclist’s sense of ‘who does that car driver, with the low slung, swanky, car, think he is?’ took down the car registration and reported it to the police. An observant ‘Bobby’, in nearby Milnthorpe, stopped the good Doctor, and asked him to produce his documents at Lancaster Police Station, the next day.

It was starting to get progressively worse for Dr. Ruxton. He had been seen trying to clean up his mess in Dalton Sq. Worse still, his choice of wrapping paper. He had used a ‘Daily Herald’, a ‘Sunday Graphic’ and, most tellingly, a ‘Sunday Chronicle’. The ‘Sunday Chronicle’ had been a special Morecambe supplement, only distributed in the nearby seaside town. Whoops! Everything was leading the police, unerringly, to Ruxton. But, for the first time the ‘Silent Witness’ approach came into play. He had tried to disguise the remains. The finger ends were removed. No fingerprints. His ‘wife’ had prominent teeth, these were disfigured. But, a pathologist transposed images of the two skulls onto photographs of the two women. They matched. Gotcha.

He was arrested in October 1935 and tried at Manchester Crown Court in March 1936. This was an Oscar Pistorious moment, as there were queues of women outside the court, each day, to watch the handsome doctor being tried. It was a star-studded event. Ruxton had sold his account of the story to a Sunday newspaper for £3 000, a considerable sum in those days, on the proviso that it would not be opened, or published, unless he was found guilty. He was. It was. It contained a full confession. The money was used to hire a top lawyer to defend him. He chose Norman Birkett, later to become a presiding Judge at the Nuremberg Trials. He was prosecuted by Hartley Shawcross, later to become the British Prosecutor at Nuremberg, and prosecutor of Haigh, the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ and Klaus Fuchs, the Atomic Spy. The money was spent to no avail, he was found guilty, and executed at Strangeways in May 1936. Murder to execution in eight months.

Surprisingly,for such a violent crime against women, a petition, asking for clemency for Buck Ruxton, raised over 10 000 signatures. The crowds outside Strangeways, that morning, were of football crowd proportions, and newspaper photographs show policemen struggling, manfully, to keep the throng under control. It is, almost, reminiscent of the crowd one would imagine at a public hanging (many of which were carried out in Lancaster). Why such a macabre interest in an execution behind ‘closed doors’? Different days? With today’s interest, via the media, in Oscar, perhaps those scenes would be repeated today, given the same circumstances. Everyone loves a disaster, someone else’s disaster!

The live broadcasting of the trial in Pretoria, eighty years later, perhaps gives a clue. Sky News must recognise that there is a worldwide interest in sensational murders, or, as yet, in this case, alleged murders. This would have heartened George Orwell, the ‘classic’ killing is alive, and well, and still attracting massive media attention.

As an aside, I have just finished reading ‘Midnight in Peking’ by Paul French. A story of a wartime slaying in Peking, a vicious assault on a woman. Orwell knew nothing of this case, which happened in a city about to be invaded by the Japanese. A city fully expecting the worst excesses of Japanese barbarism. The story paints a picture of an ex-pat, diplomatic, community, living a surreal life, in China. A young girl, Pamela Werner, daughter of an English diplomat, is found, butchered, underneath the Peking City walls. We have only moved on eight months from the hanging of Buck Ruxton, in Manchester, but we are in another world. There is no ‘romance’ here. This is murder most foul. Ripperesque. In this whirlpool of a city, stuck between an imperial past and violent modern future, a solution to this crime is virtually impossible. Neither is a solution found, notwithstanding the extraordinary efforts of her father, at the time, and the modern detective work, albeit at a distance, by the historian Paul French. Nobody pays the ultimate price, with the exception of Pamela and her father.

Pamela’s mother is dead, and she has spent time at a private school, Tientsin Grammar School. She seemed to be a precocious girl, if not a little sullen, and the school photographs show the normal netball/hockey life of a private school. Gym slips et.c. In her life in Peking she showed a liking for both the life in the European Quarter and in the teeming Chinese city. She spoke fluent Mandarin. But another photograph exists, of an attractive, young, urbane woman, fashionably dressed, taken at, roughly, the same time as the, almost dowdy, ‘school photos’. She attended adult parties, as well as going skating with her, younger, friends. She was seen entering casinos which were flimsy fronts for other activities.

There existed, in the European life of the city, a more sordid face. The city was not only one of diplomats, but of White Russian émigrés, terrified of return to ‘Mother Russia’, and of the flotsam and jetsam from the four corners of the Earth. The dark underbelly of Peking, the brothels, the casinos and the drug dens, was their world. French describes this, dying, China beautifully. A world of European sex parties, naked women and debauchery. Of European ‘nudist colonies’ in the nearby hills. Of drugs and violence. Pamela, it appeared, was part of all this. Paul French arrives at a perfectly plausible conclusion, based on Pamela’s father’s investigations. His historian’s approach makes for a cracking read. But this was not a ’cause célèbre’, in London, or one which made a mark on pre-war England, or anywhere, it happened a very long way away, from Fleet Street.

To find a murder of the ‘Golden Age’ which bears a close resemblance to the Pistorius trial, we must travel back to the Paris of 1914. This time it is not the victim, but the killer who is a woman. Madame Henriette Caillaux. And there is no mystery. No complex detection methods. No careless slip by the killer. When the police arrived at the scene, the killer was sitting calmly, unrepentant, demanding to be conveyed to the Police Station, in her own chauffeur driven car, rather than a police vehicle. Her wish/demand was granted. Her trial would become, throughout France, the biggest thing since Dreyfus.

We are in the Paris of 1914, a Paris of political ferment. The President is Raymonde Poincaré. Newspapers are taking sides. ‘Le Figaro’ is firmly on the right of the line, led by its editor, Gaston Calmette. But, as with modern day politics, there was no compunction with the use of the ‘Dept. of Dirty Tricks’, and M. Calmette was not ‘behind the door’ in that department.

The Minister of Finance, Joseph Caillaux, a Centre-left politician, was opposed to some of the President’s measures, in terms of the army, he felt that they may aggravate the delicate situation with Germany. The French government was still smarting from the ‘Debacle’ of 1870 and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Revenge was always in the air. Caillaux was seen to be in some sort of a loose, pacifist, alliance with the Socialist leader Jean Jaurès. So ‘Le Figaro’ began a smear campaign against him, they were ‘for’ French belligerence. The newspaper printed evidence that whilst, publicly, supporting an Income Tax Bill, when Minister of Finance, he had , secretly, been organising the opposition to it. This revelation seriously harmed Caillaux’s reputation. But the smear campaign went on. Calmette threatened to publish copies of telegrams, purporting to show that Caillaux had pro-German sympathies. Caillaux took action. He went to President Poincaré, and asked him to come out, and publicly support him. As an ‘Insurance Policy’ he told Poincaré that if he didn’t, he would make known secret telegrams that had passed from the President, himself, to the Vatican. This would have riled Poincaré’s Republican and anti-clerical supporters. Unsurprisingly the support from the President was forthcoming, and the damning telegrams were not published.

But Gaston Calmette was nothing if not dogged. He now threatened to print some love letters sent by Joseph Caillaux, which he’d picked up, from a disgruntled servant. In 1907, 51 year old, married, Caillaux had started a romantic affair with the 33 year old Henriette Claretie, a, married, mother of two. The ‘fin de siècle’ equivalent of the twenty first century imprudent text, was the love letter. Calmette had got hold of some excellent material, from Joseph to Henriette. Hot stuff! They had been sleeping together, both married, when he was, briefly, President of the Republic in 1911

‘A thousand kisses, all over your adorable body . . . ‘

Henriette became the second Madame Caillaux in 1911, and their combined fortunes made them one of the wealthiest couples in France.

Joseph had been very indiscreet and Henriette had kept his, written, indiscretions. All grist to the ‘smear mill’.

Henriette was furious that Joseph was letting Calmette get away with his threats. She wanted him to challenge the Editor to a duel. He would not, he didn’t have the nerve. She did, she was not a woman to sit down and let events dictate to her, and if he would do nothing, she jolly well would. Calmette could not be allowed to get away with this blackmail, with these smears and innuendo.

She bought a Browning pistol and, on March 16th. 1914, set out to rid her husband of this embarrassing irritation. She went directly to Calmette’s office at ‘Le Figaro’ and asked to see him. His secretary said that he wasn’t there.

“I’ll wait.”

And wait she did for an hour. When Calmette finally returned, she asked him if she could have a word with him. He agreed and took her into his office. She was wearing a fur muff, not just to keep her hands warm, but to hide the pistol.

“You know why I’m here.”

She took out the gun and fired all six shots. Four of which hit him, one of which killed him. Calmette was dead. Her husband’s torture was over. Did she flee in panic. No. She waited for his stunned employees to summon the police. There was no mistaken identity. No, I did it in a fit of rage. No I didn’t mean to kill him. She calmly sat and waited for the police. Then asked to use her own car to go to the police station. Cool, calm and collected. A woman with courage.

The trial took place in June 1914, lasted seven days and captivated Paris. Just like Ruxton’s trial there was a star-studded cast. Maître Labori, defending Henriette, and Maître Chean, prosecuting, had both been major players in the Dreyfus Trial. The stage was set for a showcase. This was to be a trial of high emotion, political chicanery, celebrity witnesses, hot tempers and romance. Wouldn’t modern English papers have just loved it, as did the French newspapers of the time? The trial was a useful diversion, to deflect the French people from the dark clouds, emanating from the Balkans, that were about to engulf them. The events in the Ukraine, and their importance seem to have taken a back seat to Oscar, in much the same way.

Joseph Caillaux’s first wife, the wronged Berthe, gave intimate details of the affair, and of Joseph. Henriette had fainting spells, in the dock. At the difficult passages when the ‘lettres’ were read out she appeared pale, in shock, and the court had to be suspended whilst she regained her composure. That appears familiar!
Joseph would rush up to the railings of the dock and leap up to comfort his wife. There was one heated exchange, between M. Caillaux and a supporter of Calmette, Henry Bernstein, which resulted in ‘ uproar and disorder’ which took a suspension of proceedings to cool down. This was as much a political battle Left v Right as a murder trial. Even the judge’s opening question, to Henriette, showed where the trial was going, it wasn’t about the killing, it was about her divorce. She made no bones about the fact that she had killed Calmette, “. . . since there is no more justice in France . . . I resolved that I alone could stop this campaign.” She was clear about her purpose. “I feared the publication of the ‘lettres intimes’, I feared for my husband, for myself and for my daughter. It was all to be flaunted, my intimacy, my most dear secret, but also, the most hidden, my womanly honour was to be laid bare.” So there we have it this is a story of the faithful love of a woman protecting her family and her husband’s honour.

In a rigidly ‘macho’ world Henriette was about to reap the results of the dominant, male ego. The position of the male, and female, in that society, had to be protected, at all costs. The case was laid for a woman, with ‘unbridled female passions’, her pursuit of love and her desire to protect her man, whatever the personal cost.
She was portrayed as a woman who was subject to her own emotions, who, despite all efforts, was unable to master (sic) the emotional distress that the public exposure of her scandalous affair caused her. It seems that her ‘weak, frail, nature’, the antithesis of masculine ‘strength'(?) would save her. Although her weak, frail, nature did not save Gaston Calmette! It took the, all male, jury an hour to acquit her, her’s was a ‘crime passionel’. She was only a woman, and couldn’t be expected to have the strength to counter her emotional urges. Gavrilo Princip’s, male, emotional urges were, also, about to turn Europe in an altogether different direction, but that was not uppermost in the thoughts of the Parisians, that space was reserved for Henriette Caillaux.

On the same day that Henriette Caillaux was acquitted, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Three days later Jean Jaurès, the French, pacifist, Socialist, was assassinated in Paris. On August 3rd. Germany declared war on France. Madame Caillaux became yesterday’s news.

The subject of murder, and, more particularly, the people who commit it, still fascinates people. Trials of high profile murders still have the power to magnetise people. Did they do it? Didn’t they? The same questions that people asked in the ‘Golden Age’ are still asked now. Crime thrillers on TV, or books by famous authors, still attract. Be it Poirot, Maigret, Hole or Rebus, they can still fascinate. But when a real ‘un comes up, when the accused is a person, not a figment of a writer’s, fertile, imagination, the universal, salacious, juices begin to flow. Would the crowds still turn out for a public execution? I think that they just might. Just for the ‘crack’!



Lottie and Johnnie. Communist and Cavalryman.

The centenary of the 1913 Derby, where Emily Davison was killed, under the hooves of Anmer, King Edward VIII’s horse, has aroused a great deal of interest. The English love a plucky heroine, and it appears that Emily fits neatly into that category. She was a woman who performed one notable act, on her own, and, fortunately, in front of the Pathe newsreel cameras. Her motives have become a major discussion point. The image universal.

Emily was a bit of a guerrilla suffragette, not the sort attractive to the Pankhursts, who wanted total control of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and it’s actions. They were the political figureheads, and brooked no opposition, or individual action. Such highly principled, and motivated people as the Pethwick-Lawrences, Charlotte Despard and even Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia, were all expelled from the WSPU, for being too independent. The magnificent Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who never had the same desire for fame as the Pankhursts, had been campaigning, for votes for women, since the 1870s.

Theories seem to abound. If Emily intended suicide why did she buy a return ticket to Epsom? But, then, she told a friend that ‘she was going to do something tomorrow, which they could read about in the papers’. Did she just intend to put a Suffragette sash round Anmer’s neck and underestimated the power of a racehorse at full speed? Was she just trying to cross the track? Emily Davison was not an unthinking fanatic, she was an intelligent woman. We shall never know the answers to these questions, and psychohistorians ( there must be some, there are psychogeographers) will debate it forever.

She certainly did have an effect though. The Daily Sketch, whilst saluting her bravery, said that Society could not be held hostage, by an act of ‘Terrorism’. The police used acts, such as this,to justify telephone tapping, mail interception, surveillance and, the possible, prosecution of the financial backers of the WSPU. The public turned against Suffragettes for attacking the King, and particularly attacking an innocent horse. How reminiscent is all this, in the light of current events in Woolwich?

It is interesting, when looking at these exciting, and turbulent, times, to reflect on the role of siblings in the forming of history. Emily Davison may have been a loner, and hers a solitary action, but Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters were a powerful unit and the remarkable Garrett family, each in their own fields, had a huge impact. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who lived to see the full enfranchisement of women in 1928, her daughter Philippa, a gifted mathematician and educational administrator, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent’s elder sister, who became the first British woman on the Medical Register and her daughter Louisa who founded the Endell St. Military Hospital, in London. But another relationship, with a famous, and ennobled brother, and radical and effective sister, is that of John and Charlotte French. The Pankhursts, the Garrett family and Emily Davison all are, comparatively well-known, but the French family? Who are they?

The brother, John, is better known as Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders, in 1914/15, Viceroy of Ireland, ennobled to become Lord Ypres. His sister, now generally little-known, was Lottie, recognisable, to some, by her married name, Charlotte Despard. This still, probably, rings fewer bells than Pankhurst or Garrett, but any woman who was on familiar terms with Sylvia Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz must have been a woman of some importance.

The Pankhurst family, though, at times, divided, did share a common aim. The Garretts were a close knit family, of intelligent, and ambitious, I nearly said women, but father, Newsom, was a successful, East Anglian, businessman, in his own right, and very supportive of all his children. But the Frenches, one a dashing, though short, bandy-legged, cavalryman and notorious womaniser, and his doting, long-widowed, elder sister, a radical, suffragette, communist and IRA sympathiser, were hardly a comfortable match.

Charlotte was born in 1844, in Kent, on the small estate, at Ripple Vale, near Deal. John joined his four sisters in 1852, to be joined later, by a fifth girl. Their father, a naval Captain, died in 1854 and his wife, Margaret, became seriously, mentally, unstable. In her excellent biography of Charlotte, Margaret Mulvihill likens Charlotte and John’s mother to Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, in ‘Jane Eyre’ and the wasted woman in ‘The Woman in White’. John commented, guardedly, on his upbringing;

‘ the absence of any powerful directing mind being brought to bear on my
childhood and bringing-up, had a certain influence on the rest of my life’

Is this, I wonder, an Edwardian version of the ‘I blame the parents’ sketch?
He was brought up, initially, in a household with no parents and five sisters. As with Charlotte, he couldn’t really cope with his mother’s delicacy, and renounced her Scot’s ancestry, in favour,of his more distant Irish forebears. They both became very proud of their imagined ‘Irishness’. How common is that today as well? How romantic to have Irish forebears. There are many sub-tribes, of proud ‘Irishmen’ all over the known world.

Charlotte’s version was a little different, though, in a world where her father showed little interest in his daughters;

‘We were taught, disciplined, scolded and punished after the repressive
fashion of those days; but all that was unimportant to us. Our real life was
in our playworld and there we were irrepressibly happy.’

The childhood memories of John and Charlotte were very different, but the manner of her mother’s slipping away, slowly, was not for Charlotte, her life was notable, right up to the end, for its feverish activity. Charlotte loved John dearly, and was responsible for his early education, teaching him his ‘letters’. He wasn’t a very bright lad, and although, unsurprisingly, quiet and retiring, he did resist the family wishes, that he go to Harrow School. Ironically, he was involved in an equestrian accident, and his finger was broken. it never straightened, and became known, in the family, as the ‘crochet hook’! Due to this, his writing remained chronically appalling, all his life. He opted for Naval training, and passed to go to Dartmouth. He actually served, as a midshipman, on HMS Warrior, which all cross-channel ferries, from Portsmouth, pass en route to France. But, in 1870, he resigned from the Navy to join the Army, and, via the Suffolk Artillery Militia, the Cavalry.

In 1870 Charlotte French became Mrs. Maximilian Despard, wife of a wealthy businessman. Their marriage was childless, indeed possibly, celibate;

‘Something in me revolted then and has ever since protested against,
certain of the techniques of nature connected with sex. Nor will I and many
men and women of like nature, including my husband, be satisfied, be
purified and redeemed, life after life, until the evolution of form has
substituted some more artistic way of continuance of the race.’

These problems, of an ‘artistic way of continuance’, were never to concern John. Ever.
Between 1870 and her husband’s death in 1890, Charlotte strove to become a writer, and published a stream of mediocre novels, with such titles as ‘ Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow’, ‘A Voice from the Dim Millions’ and ‘ The Rajah’s Heir’. The Mills and Boon of the day. Her career, as a novelist, never developed! But how Victorian middle-class is her life? John, meanwhile was becoming an avid reader of Dickens and the hunting novels of Surtees.
During the years of Charlotte’s marriage, John’s military career was ‘taking off”. He served in Ireland, at The Curragh, as Capt. French. He had married, in 1875, to Isabella Soundly, but by 1878, the impetuous French was already divorced. A brother-in-law, a lawyer, paid for Mrs.French to have an ‘affair’, a total fabrication, thus John cited her for divorce. The ‘honour’of the Cavalry Officer was preserved. John had a lot to thank his sisters for, as they also, regularly, baled him out, financially, as well. A cavalry regiment was an expensive place to be.
He, also, collected military memorabilia, and always had a bust of Napoleon on his desk. I think any psychologist might have had thoughts about this small, irascible, ambitious, lusty, young cavalry officer being attracted to L’Empereur! In 1880 he married again, to Eleanora Selby-Lowndes, the ‘Belle of Bletchley’. Not only was she a beauty, she was level-headed and had money. All the necessary attributes for the wife of a cavalry officer! But, within ten years, the lustful Johnnie French was conducting a string of affairs. From 1884-1886 he served, with his regiment, in Egypt.
On Maximilian’s death Charlotte inherited a great deal of money. She was attracted to the Victorian lady’s pastime. ‘Good works’. She became involved in the Duchess of Albany’s ‘Nine Elms Flower Mission’. This initiative should be memorable, if only for its name! Nine Elms was an extremely poor area of Battersea, and the aim of the ‘mission’ was for a team of middle- class ladies to grow flowers, then distribute them to the poor. A worthy cause for earnest, middle class ladies.
Placing flowers in these poor homes gave, the 46 year old, Charlotte her first view of real, grinding, poverty. The effect was to change her life,and, by association, the lives of many others. She saw, that to alleviate some of the trials and tribulations of true poverty, it would take a lot more than a bunch of, albeit well-meaning, flowers from her garden.
Battersea became the centre of her life. She used her inheritance to open two community centres, ‘Despard Clubs’ which had youth programmes, drop-in health clinics, nutrition classes, subsidised food for new mothers and baby supplies on loan. And we imagine that ‘joined-together thinking’ is new? How far ahead of her time was she? Charlotte was not a blinkered, one issue, politician. She recognised need, and attacked the source of the need. She acted, in the interests of others. Charlotte we need your like in 2013!
She moved from her comfortable, home, at Courtlands, to live, during the week, over one of the clubs, in Nine Elms.

Charlotte adopted a very unique ‘look’. She dressed in black. Instead of a hat, she wore a black lace mantilla. She adopted open-toed sandals. This was how she dressed until her death fifty years later. This became her instantly recognisable persona. Charlotte didn’t realise it, but she was nurturing that generation which her brother was going to send ‘over the top’. That wasn’t the only link with John. The population of Battersea contained a high percentage of Irish, either evicted tenant farmers, who were, actually, being evicted by the very soldiers commanded by Capt.French, or the poor of the Dublin slums, who Charlotte was later to champion, when Sir John was Viceroy of Ireland. When they were committed to self-rule, she stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, with them. Here, in Battersea, was a hotbed of radical politics and burgeoning trades unionism, in the heart of London.

‘I determined to study for myself the great problems of Society. My study
landed me in uncompromising Socialism’

She became a friend of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl. She was a British Marxist delegate at the Second International. Her vision was simply to offer something to those at the bottom of the ladder;

‘Those who slave all their lives long . . . earning barely a subsistence and
thrown aside to death or the parish when they are no longer profitable.’

To that end, she was elected to the local Poor Law Board, the body which oversaw the running of the local workhouse. At the first meeting at which she spoke publicly, at Wandsworth Town Hall, she was accompanied by her brother, and was extremely nervous. He was extremely fond of her, and offered the advice ” Only nervous people are of any real use.” This close bond would survive the Boer War and the Great War, but would be irreparably snapped by the problems of Ireland.

John’s wife, Eleanora, and her son, Gerald, stayed at Courtlands whilst he was serving in Egypt and India. When Colonel French returned from India, he moved in as well. Gerald recounted, quite condescendingly, what it was like, at weekends, when Charlotte would bring the people of Battersea, to Courtlands, for a couple of days;

‘My father . . . threw himself nobly into the breach, and helped organise
sports for the men. . . I think he was more amused than anyone at the
extraordinary antics of the invaders of our peace and quietness.

Within twenty years HE would be throwing THEM into the breach, the breaches of enemy cannon and machine gun fire, at Loos. Meanwhile, in September 1899, Major-General French was en route to South Africa. His sister was vociferous in her, public, denunciation of this imperialistic, jingoistic, nearly disastrous, adventure. She addressed a rally in Battersea Town Hall, where pro-war hecklers tried to shout her down. But this didn’t affect John, who just saw this as one of his sister’s ‘funny ways’. She railed against this unjust colonial aggression, throughout the war. The popular press were in the process of lionising her brother, Lieutenant-General Sir John French. His exploits with the cavalry, buckling swashes, advanced him to the status of national hero.

There’s a General of ‘orse which is French,
You’ve ‘eard of ‘im o’ course, fightin’ French,
E’s a daisy, e’s a brick,
An e’s up to every trick,
And ‘e moves amazin’ quick,
Don’t yer, French?
‘ E’s so tough and terse
‘E don’t want no bloomin’ nurse,
And ‘e ain’t ‘ad one reverse,
‘Ave yer French?

He returned home in 1902 to command the 1st. Army Corp at Aldershot. A meteoric rise. The family were installed in Hertfordshire, leaving Sir John to pursue his, discreet, extra-marital activities in London. In 1903 his niece had married one of his officers, Fitz Watt, whose London flat provided Sir John with a London base camp. Lady French was well aware of his sexual adventures but kept a discreet silence. Their surviving correspondence shows that she, simply, loved him, and could pardon his indiscretions. Not so, for much of his life, his children!
He spent a decade manoeuvring the army, especially his cavalry. Cavalry strategy was paramount. The gallop to victory with guidons fluttering, harnesses jingling and breast plates shining was what war was all about to John French!

Tally Ho! This was to be an important issue, when the British Army faced the realities of the machine gun, gas and barbed wire, the next time it was involved in real warfare, not quite the scenario of the High Veldt, against irregular, mounted, Boer commandos! Not quite ‘whipping’ a native insurgency.

But Charlotte was involved in a very active struggle, in the years between the turn of the century and the outbreak of war. She was a determined suffragette. In February 1907 she led a march into Parliament Square;

‘I asked myself, “Is this the beginning? Is this indeed part of that
revolutionary movement for which all my life long I have been waiting? ”

Previously the ‘London Cossacks’, the mounted police, the agents of State control, had been loathe to arrest the sister of a war hero. But this time she was determined, and removed her trademark mantilla, and black attire, so that she would not be recognised. And, a bit like Arthur Scargill, in his baseball cap, at Orgreave, many years later, she set out to be arrested, and was, as were the Pankhursts.

‘I had marched with great processions of the unemployed but amongst all
these experiences, I had not found what lived on the threshold of this young,
vigorous, Union of Hearts’

As the leader of the march, she got 21 days in Holloway Prison. But her membership of the Independent Labour Party meant that she fell out with the autocratic Pankhursts, and she left the WSPU and formed the Women’s Freedom League. The Pankhursts did not see any future in partnership with the ILP, as it would not put female suffrage, rather than universal suffrage, at the top of its agenda. This made life particularly difficult for Sylvia Pankhurst, who was Keir Hardie, the leader of the ILP’s, lover. Charlotte and her were to become close allies.
How did John react to his sister’s imprisonment? In a speech at The Savoy, the day she was sentenced, he said;
‘We have tried all we could to keep her from mixing up with these foolish
women. I wish she wouldn’t do these things but we can’t prevent her!

A shrug of his manly shoulders, I think. “What can I do?” But Charlotte is 63 years old, hardly a petulant teenager. It is easy to forget her age, as we see the newsreels of young, Edwardian, women chained to railings and attacking policemen. Her younger colleagues had tried to surround her, to protect her from the police horses, which were encouraged to rear in front of the women, a latter-day aggressive police tactic, but she would have absolutely none of that molly-coddling! Loud and proud! A witness to one of her speeches at Hyde Park Corner said :-

‘The arms were raised Cassandra-like, the whole, thin, fragile, body seemed
to vibrate with a prophecy, and, from the white hair, the familiar black lace
veil streamed back like a pennon.’

This was written in 1912, when she was 68 years old. Her appearance was everything you would expect of a witch, with her hooked nose, bizarre black attire and pointing finger. But what an astonishing woman! Where is her like today?

The Women’s Freedom League was a less, physically, militant organisation than the WSPU, and more Socialist, they supported the ILPs struggle for Universal Adult Suffrage. Rather than chaining themselves to railings, they were more thoughtful. In the 1911 Census, thousands of women refused to be enumerated, merely by removing themselves from their homes on Census Night. Thousands of ‘Family History’ buffs will be finding gaps around 1911! They avoided paying tax, even the Dog Licence. In 1909 Charlotte met Mahatma Gandhi, who was truly impressed by her campaign of passive resistance. He had met with Emmeline Pankhurst, but was more taken with the methods of Charlotte Despard. Perhaps it is total conjecture, but it was a campaign of spiritual resistance that was to become his ‘weapon of choice’ in the fight for Indian independence. Was he influenced by Mrs. Despard? It is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Still involved in Union affairs and her house, in Battersea, became the HQ of the striking railwaymen, dockers and seamen. With all the labour unrest before the war, women’s suffrage took a political back seat. But Charlotte was involved, in partnership with Sylvia Pankhurst, who was operating in a similar fashion to Charlotte, in the East End. When the women workers, in the Jam and Pickle factories of Bermondsey, came out in sympathy with the dockers, Charlotte financially supported them.

In 1914 she was 70. ‘Dear, good, Jack’ came to visit, twice, the second time with Lady Clonmel. A bit of an eye-opener for his sisters, a risque manoeuvre in public. It could have been that John needed a bit of elder sisterly support. He had just been embroiled in the incident which became known as the ‘Curragh Mutiny’, where some officers, at the Curragh Barracks, at Kildare, indicated their unwillingness, if ordered, to fire on their Protestant fellows in the North. He was a loyalist, but his difficult, resignation, position was saved by the imminent outbreak of war.

The Great War would surely be the ultimate test of their familial bond. He, the commander of the British Army in the field, the British Expeditionary Force, pursuing a war that he, passionately, believed in. He was a fighting soldier, not a paper general. A cavalryman to the core, a General who was loved by his troops. She was a pacifist, and had campaigned against the Boer War, fifteen years before. Her suffragette activities, her communist sympathies and her constant struggle on behalf of those unable to struggle for themselves, were all acceptable foibles, to John, but her active pacifism? That was different. She said;

‘Our first object must be to demonstrate everywhere, so long as time is left,
against our nation embarking in this criminal war.’

Even Millicent Fawcett succumbed to a view of the necessity of women supporting the war. Emmeline Pankhurst was an active supporter of conflict. But Charlotte and Sylvia Pankhurst remained staunch pacifists.

Meanwhile, the non-French speaking John was making a poor fist of establishing a working relationship with the French High Command, particularly General Lanrezac. The BEF was in wholesale retreat from Mons.
This didn’t deter Sir John from his all-too-familiar romantic activities. When Jack Annesley, a colleague in the 10th.Hussars was killed, John wrote a letter of condolence, to his mistress, Winifred Bennett, the start of a relationship which would last many years.

Alan Clarke, in ‘The Donkeys’ would have us believe that French was an unthinking buffoon, but Winston Churchill, no less, said that he carried ‘the sacred fire of leadership’. His colleague/rival Douglas Haig, thought he was unfit to command, but then, in a quote from another era, ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ Haig was French’s natural successor. It cannot be gainsaid that Sir John was courageous, charming and had a magnetic personality, but he also had a penchant for taking bad advice, he lacked intellectual depth and had an inconsistent temperament.

At the Battle of Loos, the first concerted British attack, at the end of 1915, major errors were made. Reserves were kept too far in the rear, the British gas attack failed, in fact backfired, literally, and the troops were not able to cut through the thick, German, wire quickly enough, and were mown down, by enemy machine guns. The Germans refer to the battlefield as ‘The Corpse Field of Loos’. They were so affected by the massacre, 8 000 of the 10 000 attackers were casualties in the first three hours, that they stopped shooting the British, as they crawled or limped back to their own lines. In total the British lost over 61 000 men during the battle. But French claimed this debacle as a, sort of, victory. It had been a ‘learning experience’. How many modern ‘cock-ups’ carry that self-same headline? A ‘learning experience’? Not for the thousands of dead it wasn’t! Haig, who was, probably, equally to blame, but had the ‘ear’ of the King, his wife being a Lady-in-Waiting, manouevred French’s dismissal, and his replacement by . . . . himself! Surprise!
In the time-honoured, British, fashion, French was not sacked, but ‘kicked upstairs’. He was put in command of Home Forces, and, given a peerage.
Why do we think that failing bankers’ huge bonuses are a new phenomenon? Rewards for failure? Management’s nervousness, when they should be wielding the ‘Big Stick’? Fear of public wrath, when a Boer War/Thatcherite economics hero was culpable? The lessons of history are writ large, for those with the eyes to see. Ironically, with all the dead still lying on the field of Loos, and scattered around the Salient, he became Lord Ypres! The events surrounding his dismissal , his leadership and military prowess are extremely well- documented, particularly in Richard Holmes’ biography, ‘ The Little Field Marshall’. This is a well-researched and readable account of Sir John French’s life.

And Charlotte? The Government managed to divert her, and a group of women, from attending a Conference of Pacifists, in The Hague. In a way, her brother’s removal from the front line helped her, she could now become a great deal more vocal. But, notwithstanding, her affection for her brother was unchanged. Before his removal, as the army was retreating from Mons, she said, in her diary that it was;

‘with keen admiration, and a constriction of heart that I heard of Jack’s
splendid despatch of the retreat that would make history. Joy to think that
it was over; but ah! the sacrifice

In Easter 1916 there was a rising in Ireland and the leaders were brutally executed. This event drove Charlotte into a full support for Irish independence. A support which she would give, unflinchingly, for the rest of her life. But there was a difficulty. Her brother was made the Viceroy of Ireland in 1918.
Sir John saw the crushing of Sinn Fein as an important objective, but neither Sinn Fein or the IRA were going to ‘roll over’. The notorious ‘Black and Tans’ and, even more notorious, ‘ Auxiliaries’, were recruited in England. The Irish people were to become targets for reprisals. In 1919 the IRA came within an ace of assassinating the Viceroy, near Phoenix Park. But, by 1921, he had become, merely, a figurehead and was replaced. One of his colleagues in the Great War, Sir Henry Wilson said;

‘I think Johnny French won’t last much longer. Poor little man, he is so weak
and pliable, and then has such gusts of illogical passion. He is an
Imperialist, a Democrat, a Home Ruler all at the same time. Poor man.’

He was 68 years old, but still entertained his mistress, Winifred Bennett at Viceregal Lodge, and they holidayed, together, embarrassingly, on the Cote d’Azure. He, perhaps inadvisedly, decided to write his account of the incidents at the beginning of the War, a book called ‘1914’. His memory was failing and his account may, or may not, have been factual, but ‘old ghosts would not lie down’.

What of Charlotte, whilst her brother was embattled, protecting the Empire? In 1920 this remarkable woman was 76, and decided to leave England and live in Ireland. In 1918 some women were given the vote. A partial success for the Suffragettes. She became President of the Vegetarian Society. In 1919 she was in Zurich for the Women’s Internatioal Congress. In 1920she was in Hungary on behalf of ‘Save the Children’. She became an Alderman. In Battersea she was on the Health Committee, the Maternity and Child Welfare Committee, the Tubercular” Dispensary Committee and she was a School Manager in Nine Elms. Then she had an epiphany;

‘One Sunday as I was kneeling at Mass in my club room, at Nine Elms, where
Mass was said on Sunday mornings, it seemed to me that I heard a voice:
“You must go yourself.” Purely emotional some would say . . . I have never
regretted my decision.’

She had to move to Ireland and, there and then, she wound up her Battersea affairs. She became friendly with such powerful women as Maud Gonne and Constance Markiewicz and, now, was in direct confrontation with her brother. In 1923 she was sat outside Kilmainham Gaol crusading on behalf of Maud Gonne. On one occasion, as he was passing a Sinn Fein demonstration, of striking Irish women, he was dismayed to see that, that one of the fiery speakers was his own sister and the other was Maud Gonne! She had gone ‘beyond the Pale’.
There was no turning back in their relationship.

But, although a fervent Nationalist, she never lost sight of the vision she had had for supporting the less fortunate. In 1924, she opened a Jam Factory, in Dublin, for local women. But it only lasted until 1927.

‘ I have been robbed of money from my house. I believe that two of those who
lived with us and whom I trusted have betrayed me badly. My poor girls will
be out of work and my factory as gone. It will be all I can do to pay what I

The money was starting to run out for this 83 year old woman. But not her enthusiasm. She had struck up a friendship with the British Communist, Harry Pollitt and her life was about to hurtle off in another direction.

Lord Ypres wanted to live out his days in Ireland, in one of his two houses. But the tense, political, situation would not allow that, and, as he was out of cash, again, he could not afford a suitable house in England. Expensive job being an Earl! His affair with Winifred Bennett was losing its gloss, but he was still enjoying an active life, in France, staying with Lady Wavertree, in Cannes. He died, of cancer, in Deal, in 1925, aged 73. He was afforded a full, military, funeral at Westminster Abbey. Thousands turned out, they were twelve deep round the Abbey, and the pavements were jammed, as the cortège passed. His ashes were buried at Ripple. Many in attendance, at the lying-in-State were ex soldiers, his men. A, once-wounded, veteran of the Retreat, said “I wouldn’t mind living off biscuits for six weeks for him.” Another, who had marched in from the suburbs,said, ” It means a stiff tramp home, but we had to say good-bye to the General”. He was, still, loved by his men. The Boer War hero, but failed Field Marshall and Viceroy, was also recognised by his country. A State funeral was always good for morale, however controversial, as we know even now in 2013! He would have been extremely irritated, though, if he had known that Douglas Haig, and Smith-Dorrien, were two of his pall-bearers!

Charlotte wanted to see her, still beloved, brother, when she knew that the cancer was terminal. She wrote to ‘My Dearest Jack…’, with no response. Either he was not reconciled or the doctors forbade it. She didn’t see him again. She did remain on good terms, though, with the long-suffering, Eleanora French. But neither Lady Ypres nor her children ever understood where their aunt was ‘coming from’, politically, at all.

In 1930 at the age of 86, an avowed Communist, she visited Russia. She was suitably schmoozed by the authorities, and saw only what she was shown, what they wanted the West to see. But she was in good company, many westerners were hoodwinked by the propaganda, including Mrs.Pankhurst and George Bernard Shaw. She remained a defiant Feminist. She was asked, at the ripe old age of 91, if women’s fight for freedom was finished? Her reply was typical ;

‘No, not while equal pay is denied to women for equal work to that being done
by men. The whole basis of society today is wrong and cruel. Everything is
considered from the point of view of some selfish interest – collective, or
racial or national. We need the universal outlook so that all mankind can live
together with affection. I remember at a meeting many years ago, that a
man interrupted me with a question, ‘Who is it who mans the army and
navy?’ I retorted at once ‘Woman!’ There were roars of laughter, but it is

Charlotte moved to the North in 1934. Her money, as well as her body, was exhausted. On the eve of the Second World War, whilst drugged, to fight pain, she fell down a step, never regained consciousness, and died in November 1939. She was buried, near Constance Markiewicz, in Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin, amid scenes of great grief. Her pall bearers were men such as Sean MacBride, Roddy Connelly and Peader O’Donnell. Republican men that she would have chosen. Maud Gonne delivered the eulogy ” She was a white flame in defense of prisoners and the oppressed”.
The inscription on her tomb reads;

In Loving Memory of
Charlotte Despard
née French
widow of
Maximilian Carden Despard
Born 15 June 1844
Died 10 November 1939
She tried to do her duty.
‘I slept and dreamed that Life was Beauty,
I woke and found that Life was Duty.’

A brother and sister. An Empire Monarchist and a Republican. A Militarist and a Pacifist. A Field Marshall and a Social Reformer. A philanderer and a sexphobe. A cavalryman and a Communist. A peer of the realm and an Alderman of Battersea. Who, until their last confrontation, over Ireland, remained deeply affectionate.
And who do we remember?
He, remains famous, or notorious, and, with the, upcoming, centenary of the onset of the Great War, will, once again, enter the limelight of controversy . He affected countless millions of lives, for good or evil, of that there is no doubt. A man of violence.
She, championed the downtrodden, and oppressed, and is, virtually, forgotten. She is one of Britain’s great, fighting, women and deserves to be remembered for the fact that throughout her long, and active life, she never gave up the struggle, the struggle for fairness, equality and peace, a struggle for all. Charlotte Despard deserves better.