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Saturday 30 March 2013


I have written here before about the complex life story of the pulp fiction writer Walter Sydney Masterman (1876-1946, a grandson of my 3x great uncle Thomas Gurney). His path was not straight, and I always had a degree of sympathy with his wife Ollie Lowrie who – I have imagined – must have had to put up with a lot.

I have no real evidence for any long suffering on her part, save the fact that he was more than twice her age when he married her and was serving a three year prison sentence for embezzling the British government at the time of the birth of their only daughter. For the whole of their married life he pursued the precarious existence of an author (tell me about it!), albeit a successful one; and she outlived him by nearly thirty years.

The Flying Beast, 
by Walter Sydney Masterman (1876-1946), not a colonel.

He died in Brighton. She never remarried, remaining on the south coast of England for the rest of her life. Their daughter too remained in the area until her death earlier this century. I spoke to her widower recently, and he always referred to her father as The Colonel. To me that suggests a rather distant relationship with him. I have heard from a nephew of his that he was a difficult man to live with.

But it is entirely possible that Ollie was content. They married in 1920, soon after the Great War whose attrition left eligible men in short supply. He was not a colonel, but he was a captain and from a well-connected family. With a postwar job in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries disposing of the captured German North Sea fishing fleet, he must have seemed quite a catch. Olive’s own family background was far less comfortable and privileged.

Olive Doreen Lowrie was born the eighth of ten children (five girls and five boys) raised by Irish-born Barbara McKenzie. I don’t know what brought Barbara to Northeast England, but a few months after the birth of her first child Barbara married the father, George Arthur Lowrie, in Hartlepool. 

George was a commercial traveller. He’d learned his craft on the road selling hats on behalf of his father, a master hatter in Darlington; and perhaps he’d picked up on other paternal behaviour too – George was himself the second of eight children, and only with George’s birth was his father persuaded to marry his mother.

George went wherever he could sell the most. He was away from home a lot and it seems almost as if every time he did return there was another mouth to feed. From the northeast he moved the family to the more affluent English Midlands and, before the end of the century, to the heavy industry and dense population of South Wales, where he sold brushes and hardware.

Here Olive was born and for a while her mother Barbara was raising not only her own children but the fatherless daughter of George’s unmarried sister Una. George was still travelling, and he was out on the road in 1918 when he died aged only 57, far from home and family, while trying to sell brushes to the good people of West Derby in Liverpool.

I’m not sure exactly what happened next. At least two of Ollie’s older sisters had married and left home by then, and only Barbara’s three youngest children were still under twenty. Without a breadwinner they may have gone to live in Marylebone, London with her eldest son. Certainly it was in Marylebone that Olive and Walter got married on 18th September 1920. With Ollie still under twenty-one, Barbara had to make a declaration the day before the wedding, confirming that (in the absence of the father) she gave her blessing to this wedding of a minor.

I was told once that Olive sang for the troops, and she was known in the family in later years as Ollie-bird – perhaps that’s how she helped to make ends meet in London after her father’s death, and how she caught the eye of the distinguished older Captain Masterman.

Saturday 23 March 2013


(Read Part One here!) My great great grandfather’s nephew Kingsbury Jameson fell in love with theatre and his future wife Grace MacDonald at the same time, while he was chaplain of the Anglican Church in Bordighera, Liguria. The MacDonald family had moved there in 1880 for the good of their health.

The family of George MacDonald (centre with beard) and Louisa Powell (behind him) pictured in 1876 – four of their eleven children would die of tuberculosis within fifteen years

The illness which haunted them was tuberculosis, such a frequent presence that they nicknamed it “the family attendant.” By the time the family arrived in Bordighera Grace had already lost a brother and a sister to it, and she too had contracted it by the time Kingsbury married her.

Kingsbury took roles in the MacDonald family stage production of Pilgrim’s Progress when Grace’s brother Ronald was too ill to perform. When Grace’s illness forced her too to miss performances her parts, Mercy and Piety, were taken by Octavia Hill, a family friend better known today as a co-founder of the National Trust and social reformer. Many performances of Pilgrim’s Progress were given in support of her campaigning work, and when Kingsbury and Grace were blessed with a daughter in 1882, they named her Octavia.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) namesake of Kingsbury Jameson’s daughter

Life was good; the Ligurian air was sweet; and the landscape so bright that Claude Monet, who came to paint in Bordighera in 1884, declared that to paint it “I would need a palette of diamonds and jewellery.” But that year, after only three years of marriage, Grace died of tuberculosis. She is buried in Bordighera and commemorated in a plaque within Kingsbury’s church there. Worse was to come when nine-year old Octavia fell to the contagious disease, dying in 1891. Grace’s oldest sister Lilia, who had nursed so many members of her family through the illness, also caught and died from tuberculosis that year.

In time Kingsbury Jameson left Bordighera and returned to England, where he took a job as chaplain to Highfield Girls’ Boarding School in Golder’s Green. There he met Mary Agnes (Dysart) Morewood, a widow, and the couple were married in 1896. After the loss of his wife and daughter within seven years of each other, Kingsbury was at last rebuilding his life, and perhaps it was while at Highfield that he reconnected with the theatre too. Certainly he cuts a cheerful figure in this photograph of 1898.

Kingsbury Jameson (1856-1943) photographed by Gwendolyn Marjorie Howard, one of his Highfield pupils, in 1898

At the age of 60 Kingsbury accepted a position as vicar-chaplain of St Edward’s Church in Cambridge, but only on condition that he preached as little as possible. Instead he invited friends and celebrities to cover for him in the pulpit – among them Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch the legendary literary critic, and Sir Oliver Lodge the physicist. It was said of him that “Jameson expects every man to do HIS duty.” But it was also said that if you hadn’t preached in St Edward’s as Jameson’s locum, you hadn’t really made it socially in Cambridge.

Life in the university town suited him very well indeed. Freed of most of his ministerial duties he threw himself back into amateur dramatics; and although he preferred not to act, he welcomed (according to Cambridge publisher S.C. Roberts in his 1966 memoir Adventures with Authors) “any job, however humble, in the mechanics of production – properties, noises off, the curtain, anything provided that it gave him a part in the production.”

At the age of 80 he was still spritely and an instantly recognisable character around Cambridge in a Norfolk jacket, a pair of knickerbockers and a cloud of pipe smoke. At 83 he was mounting a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida – Shaw, who had been a regular guest in the home of his father in law George MacDonald in the days before Bordighera.

Bordighera, by Claude Monet (1884)

Today actors talk about the power of Doctor Theatre – the power of the stage to help actors overcome illness and injury in order that The Show may go on. It seems to have worked for Jameson too and he lived to the age of 87. However there was one aspect of old age that Doc Theatre could not deal with: in his 70s Kingsbury was so deaf that he couldn’t always hear his cues. S.C. Roberts, who was also an amateur actor and whom Jameson cast in his Candida, recalls on more than one occasion having to hiss from the stage in a very loud stage whisper, “HOUSE LIGHTS!”

Saturday 16 March 2013


The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. It’s what theatre workers onstage and backstage are supposed to be addicted to – more often, as the 1965 Bricusse-Newley musical had it, it is the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I know, because I was part of it – a touring stage manager for fifteen years man and boy, completely seduced by the glamour of barnstorming one night stands in everything from provincial theatres to wooden village halls.

I am not alone. Kingsbury Jameson, youngest son of my 3x great uncle William Kingsbury Jameson the indigo merchant, was hooked. And he remained, despite tragedy and comedy in his own life, a hands-on devotee of the theatre until his death.

Rev Kingsbury Jameson (1856-1943)
actor, stage manager

Kingsbury is a fascinating man and worthy of much more research than I have given him. As a young man he became chaplain of the English Church in Bordighera, a small town in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. It was in Bordighera that he met his wife, and through her that I believe he found his love of theatre.

His bride was Grace MacDonald, daughter of George MacDonald, the theologian and fantasy novelist who inspired C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The MacDonald family, plagued by illness, sold their London home The Retreat in Hammersmith to William Morris (who renamed it Kelmscott House) in 1877 and moved to Italy in search of better, healthier air. In 1880 they settled in Bordighera where they built Casa Coraggio, their winter home for more than twenty years.

Casa Coraggio, Bordighera, Liguria, survives to this day

The house became, according to one report, “the centre not only of the British community but also of the social and cultural life of the town, open to everybody. Concerts, recitals, parties, entertainments, and biblical lectures were given in a large salon on the first floor, which was provided with five pianos and a chamber organ.” In 1880 Kingsbury Jameson must have been an early guest.

He probably saw one of the early performances of an extraordinary piece of theatre, the MacDonald family’s amateur stage version of John Bunyan’s Pigrim’s Progress. It was an adaptation in 1877 by George’s wife Louisa Powell and the cast included all of George and Louisa’s eleven children. Kingsbury Jameson must have been taken with Grace’s performance, and he married her in Rome a year later in 1881.

Now, as a MacDonald son in law, he too got involved in the play. On several occasions he took acting parts to cover for the illness of MacDonald’s second son Ronald – Ronald’s principal role was as Feeble-mind! Pilgrim’s Progress was performed on tours of Britain as well as in the private homes of friends and acquaintances in England and Liguria in the course of twelve years up to 1889.

Props and costumes from Pilgrim’s Progress, displayed in the town museum in Huntly, George MacDonald’s northeastern Scottish birthplace 
(picture from

Jameson may also have used his own family influence to get bookings for the play. It is known to have been performed at the home of Mrs Russell Gurney, whose late husband (he died in 1878) was a first cousin of Kingsbury’s mother Mary Anne (Gurney) Jameson. (I’ve written about Russell's pivotal role in the Treaty of Washington here before now.)

With the MacDonalds’ deep Christian convictions the amateur production was as much an missionary project as a theatrical one. Hardened drama critics such as Laura Ragg were unimpressed: “the team seemed to me wholly inadequate to a very difficult task." But audience members including Lewis Carroll, a family friend, were captivated. One, Joseph Johnson, wrote that “all who came … went away feeling that no performance could be more unpretentious and reverential.” Carroll particularly admired the family’s diction.

 L:George MacDonald (1824-1905), Strong-heart in Pilgrim’s Progress
R: Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), who admired the MacDonald troupe’s “perfect clarity of diction”

The family felt it was engaged in good and useful work. The move to Italy had been at least partially effective – George MacDonald’s health was much improved. Kingsbury had fallen in love with Grace and the theatrical arts. All in all it was a very happy time. And although some of that happiness would evaporate in only a few years, Jameson never lost his enthusiasm for the stage. More about Kingsbury and the theatre here in Part 2!

Saturday 9 March 2013


My great great grandfather Richard William Ralph Sadleir remains elusive, my knowledge of him tantalisingly free of detail. But he was one of ten brothers, and lately I have pieced together some of the life and death of his brother, my 3x great uncle John. (Toler was the surname of their paternal grandmother.)

Colours of the 1st Bn. Of the 2nd Regiment of Foot, with Queen Catherine's Colour in the centre

On the 2nd June 1843, the London Gazette reported, John Toler Sadleir, gentleman, was to be an ensign “by purchase” in the 2nd Regiment of Foot. John was from Tipperary, and the regiment was a natural choice for an Irish gentleman in need of a military career. It had a long history, having been founded in 1661 to guard Tangier, part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, from where it holds the oldest battle honour in the British Army: Tangier 1662-1680. Since 1798 it had been based in Ireland, where it was sent to suppress the Irish rebellion that year; but throughout its history it fought in Britain’s many overseas campaigns.

When John signed up he first saw action with the 2nd Foot in India during the First Sikh War. The regiment sailed back to England on 17th September 1846 and was stationed for a while in Gosport. Its troops were certainly there long enough for John to meet and – in St Thomas’s Church, Old Portsmouth – to marry his wife, Mary Mitchell in May 1847.

Presentation of new colours to the Second (Queen's Royal) Regiment, at Gosport, 10th July 1847

The following year the regiment came home to Ireland where they remained until 1851. I assume that John and Mary spent time in the family home, Sadleirswells, northeast of Tipperary. There is no record of children, and unfortunately the next we hear of Mary is her second marriage, as a widow, in 1854. What follows here is conjecture as far as John's part in it is concerned, but fits with what little I know of his life.

In 1851 the regiment returned to Portsmouth to be fitted out for action in the Kaffir War fought against the Xhosa of South Africa. John may have sailed from there when the paddle steamer HMS Birkenhead embarked at the start of January 1852, or he may have joined ship at Cobh in southern Ireland where it stopped on 5th January to pick up further troops with wives and families.

HMS Birkenhead (built 1845) - in 1846 it pulled Brunel's stranded SS Great Britain off the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland

After seven weeks at sea, most of the families were put ashore near Cape Town on 23rd February. Two days later the Birkenhead set off again to deliver the troops to their final destination, Algoa Bay. But at 2am on 26th February the ship struck a submerged rock two miles off Danger Point. Water rushed in, and as the captain tried to reverse his vessel it struck again, ripping open the bulkheads, flooding the engine rooms and drowning over 100 soldiers in their bunks.

The surviving men mustered on deck where they manned the pumps and assisted with the disembarkation of the women and children who had remained on board. Through poor maintenance many of the troopship’s lifeboats were unusable, and only three were successfully launched.

The commanding officer realised that if he allowed his men to seek their own safety he risked overloading and capsizing the lifeboats and their precious family loads. Instead he ordered all soldiers to stand to attention in their ranks. With the discipline and stiff upper lip for which the British Army in the nineteenth century was most admired, this is what they did, in silence, as HMS Birkenhead sank in the space of twenty minutes beneath them.

The Wreck of the Birkenhead, painted by Thomas M. Hemy in 1892

Of those who now swam for shore, most were killed by sharks or died on the perilous rocks of the aptly named Danger Point. We’ll never know whether John Toler Sadleir was amongst them because the muster books went down with the ship. Did he drown in his bunk? Did he get to shore and die fighting the Xhosa? Was Mary with him? News of the selfless courage of the British men spread quickly, and their final assembly on the decks of the ship became known as Birkenhead Drill after Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase in a poem, Soldier and Sailor Too:
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps
An' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill,
Soldier an' sailor too.

Of the 643 people on board at the time of the accident, 450 were lost, none of them women and children (although in fact only twenty family members had remained with the ship beyond Cape Town). 113 soldiers, 6 marines and 54 seamen also survived. The behaviour of those men who went down with the Birkenhead directly inspired the now established shipwreck practice of shouting, and saving,
Women And Children First.
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