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Saturday 30 November 2013


Fathers and sons. Never easy. We started well and finished badly, and most of the in-between was pretty difficult. But last week I found myself in a funny situation about his legacy which I think he would have enjoyed.

Charles Henry Salter (1918-2008)
university lecturer and author, pictured in 1946

Dad should have been one of the great minds of his generation. His academic path to Oxford University was golden. His peers there included Tony Benn, Iris Murdoch and Mary Warnock. And in his first year he won two of the nine prizes awarded annually by the Chancellor of Oxford, for which every single student in the university was eligible. It was an unprecedented achievement.

In the end, that promise was not fulfilled. He spent his whole working life trying to teach English Literature to Scottish students as a lowly lecturer at Glasgow University. His published output was minimal even by ordinary academic standards – a handful of articles and just one book.

Good Little Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1981)

Good Little Thomas Hardy was his iconoclastic reappraisal of Hardy, one of his favourite novelists. The title was a remark by Henry James, an earlier Hardy critic and another favourite of Dad’s. It was overlooked at the time of its publication, although it has appeared in the occasional PhD bibliography since. Its dense scholarly text is not for general readers such as me, although I was always rather hurt that Dad didn’t even give me a signed copy!

I was doing some research in the National Library of Scotland last week. It’s one of the four legal deposit libraries of Great Britain – libraries entitled legally to a copy of every book published in Britain. In a moment between “proper” research tasks I idly searched the catalogue for Charles Henry Salter: no copy of GLTH turned up. Instead, to my delight, there was a pamphlet containing the long piece of Latin verse which he composed to win one of the Chancellor’s Prizes back in 1939.

The New Bodleian
He wrote [this]
and in the Sheldonian Theatre
recited [it],
Charles Henry Salter,
New College student
Published by Basil Blackwell

It was the happiest day of Dad’s life, the encaenia, or awards ceremony, in the Sheldonian at which he recited his verse. He basked in his success that day and never forgot the details of the occasion: his proud parents and girlfriend in the audience, and PG Wodehouse too, there to receive an honorary degree from the university. More than sixty years later he wrote about it in A Day to Remember, an essay which I only found, folded away, after his death.

Of course I called it up from the vaults – six pages of unbroken Latin verse, 171 lines, in praise of the New Bodleian Library, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and still under construction in 1939. The building, across the road from the Sheldonian, was not formally opened (by King George VI, in whose hand the ceremonial silver key broke in the lock) until 1946, when Dad and many others returned to Oxford to resume their studies after the war.

I went to the information desk and asked to photocopy the entire pamphlet, six double-page spreads including cover and title page. I was met with a sharp intake of breath. Hifffff. Did I know the date of death of the author?

On this I was fairly confident. “Yes, I do as it happens. 2008.”

“Ah, well, you see, it’s still in copyright.”


“Yes, I’m afraid it can’t be copied without the permission of the copyright holder for seventy years after the author’s death.”

“But he’s my father.”

“Oh. Well I suppose that makes you the copyright holder.”

“I suppose it does!”



“Do you give permission for this work to be photocopied?”

"Do I give permission for this work to be photocopied - by me?"

Reader, I did. The New Bodleian is closed at the moment for refurbishment. It will reopen next year as the Weston Library, housing the Bodleian’s special collections. Now that I have a copy of Bodleiana Nova, I am prepared to recite it – should anyone ask me – at the reopening, exactly 75 years after my father Carolus Henricus Salter first recitavit.

The New Bodleian, soon after its construction

Saturday 23 November 2013


I’ve written up a few of the Old Bailey cases in which my cousin Talfourd Salter appeared as a barrister. He began his legal training in 1851 and must have had mixed feelings about a trial in the Old Bailey which involved his family the following year.

On the one hand, Talfourd was still living in the family home when it was burgled in the early hours of 11th November by two really rather inept thieves, William Rogers and Edward Jenner. Amongst other things, they stole his meerschaum pipe.

A meerschaum pipe – meerschaum means “foam of the sea” in German, a reference to the raw material from which pipe bowls were carved, a soft white lightweight mineral – magnesium silicate – sometimes found floating in the Black Sea like foam (but mostly these days mined in Turkey)

On the other hand, when the case came to court a month later, it was a chance to watch the law in action from his new perspective as a law student. Perhaps he coached his father, William Davis Salter, who as head of the burgled household was called as a witness.

In fact there was not much to tell. The robbers were caught red-handed at 4.15am by a vigilant bobby on the beat. Jenner legged it out of the back door, and a third member of the gang got clean away, but PC T75 William Weston pursued Rogers, tackled him and delivered him into the custody of William Salter before conducting a thorough inspection of the crime scene. Weston was able to identify Jenner who was later arrested at Marylebone Theatre.

Den of iniquity, the Marylebone Theatre (built 1832, demolished 1959) is regarded as the home of musical hall, famous for the theatrical transformations made possible by its huge stage (pictured here in 1909 when it had become the West London Theatre)

The trio had entered the house through the tiny window, 38 x 18cm, of the downstairs loo. They carefully laid a towel on the loo seat to muffle their entry, then removed their shoes and left them outside the back door to avoid noise and dirt. Still, three men moving about the house with the intention of burgling it seems mob-handed and risky. Although they didn’t wake Mr Salter senior or his daughter Mary Jane, Talfourd must surely have been out of the house at the time.

The thieves moved silently from room to room and even ventured upstairs where they found and took three of William’s coats and a hat from the first floor corridor. In the parlour downstairs they grabbed a dress which Mary Jane had been sewing the previous evening and had left on her chair. They also took her victorine, a fashionable stole-like cape lined with fur, often that of a fox or marten.

The Comtesse Tessin wearing a fur-lined tippet or victorine
(painted by Jean-Marc Nattier in 1741)

From the kitchen they stole a toast rack, and from somewhere in the house – Talfourd had mislaid it a few days earlier – his meerschaum pipe. But all of this eclectic swag was found bundled up by the side of the house next to the gang’s three pairs of shoes. I have an image of the footwear neatly set in a row as if waiting for the footman to polish them.

When PC Weston saw three men moving about furtively with a candle through the scullery window he challenged them. “It’s alright, it’s only the servants,” one of them whispered back. But Weston’s shout had woken Mr Salter and as he came out to talk to the policeman, the gang panicked and ran, leaving their shoes and their stolen goods behind. Rogers admitted that one pair was his when he asked Mr Salter if he could have his bluchers back because on that November night his feet were cold.

The blucher shoe, whose upper is made from a single piece of leather with overlapping flaps for the laces, is named after Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Bl├╝cher (1742-1819) who devised such footwear to improve his troops’ feet

Jenner’s guilt was also confirmed by the footwear when, at the police station after his arrest, it was found that a pair of boots left beside Rogers’ bluchers fitted him perfectly - it was a sort of Bad Cinderella moment. He conducted his own defence in court, which consisted mostly of challenging Weston’s ability to identify him through the blinds of the scullery window. William Salter countered Jenner’s argument by pointing out that there were no such blinds. Rogers, caught at the scene and in any case only just out of prison from a six month sentence for stealing a table cloth under the alias William Mack, didn’t have a barefooted leg to stand on.

For their crime of stealing goods to a total value of £5, both men were sentenced to seven years’ transportation. If any of their descendants are reading this now, I’d love to know what happened next.

Saturday 16 November 2013


Allan Macpherson, youngest son of the quartermaster general of Bengal, struggled to make his way in the world when the family’s fortunes collapsed. You can read about his erratic early life in my previous post, here. In Calcutta, at the age of 45, he married Caroline Gibson, with whom the following year he had a daughter Matilda Harriet. When an opportunity to raise the family in England arose, Allan grabbed it; and in 1835 he took up the post of vicar at Holy Trinity, Rothwell.

The early years at Rothwell were without doubt the most stable of Allan Macpherson’s life. At the age of 47 he at last had a family life and a secure income in a comfortable climate. Rothwell was a growing community, thanks in part to the presence of the brewery owned by the Gotch family of Kettering. John Cooper Gotch, head of the dynasty, had also founded a bank which grew out of his financial support for Christian missionaries. The two men must certainly have known each other, and it may have been their friendship which allowed Macpherson to run up debts at Gotch’s Bank of around £3000, a huge sum at the time of the banker’s death in 1852.

Five pound note of the Kettering Bank of John Cooper Gotch & Sons, c1855

Was it just comfort buying? Sorrow came back into Allan’s life with the death of his nine-year old daughter in 1843 and of his second wife in the 1850s. His faith must have been sorely tested. In 1852, mindful perhaps of his mounting deficit at Gotch’s, he looked to Europe where he saw money being made through the patenting of inventions and the exploitation of mineral wealth. With the permission, one assumes, of his bishop, Macpherson moved to comfortable apartments in Brussels “to retrieve myself,” and began to speculate with the hope of accumulating. His duties at Holy Trinity were covered by his curate Rev Charles Iliffe Gibbon; and tellingly, he asked the bank to stop addressing him as Reverend in case it cramped his style in this secular activity.

Over the next five years he registered a number of patents – for a fee – in the hope of selling them on for a profit, in the fields of gas supply, motive power and sewage management. He invested in slate, tin and iron ore mines too, and kept the bank informed at every turn (in nearly 500 letters) with assurances of imminent and magnificent returns. Those returns never arrived. When the Kettering Bank finally failed in June 1857, having thrown much good money after bad, Macpherson (now 69) owed it £25,000 – a third of all its bad debts.

Beyond the reach of the law and deprived of the bank’s funds, he turned to family members for support. But if they frowned at his financial dealings, they were appalled by the news that he had fathered a secret child during his time in Rothwell. He married the mother in 1860 and they lived for a while in England, keeping a low profile. But his relatives would have nothing to do with her, and his sister – who had already funded him to the tune of £1000 – turned off the tap. At their last meeting in 1862, Allan could not even afford new clothes. She gave him £5 and six shirts, and he left for Europe where he might live for less. He died in Paris in 1864.

Allan Macpherson (1788-1864), photographed a year before his death (from Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire)

I don’t think Rev Allan Macpherson was a bad man. As a slave owner, minister and speculator he was only following the example of the times and his ancestors. But he was unlucky, weak and ill-equipped to deal with life. His nephew remarked, “There is a great deal of genuine kindness about him – but his utter lack of the smallest fragment of the commonest of common sense makes him in my opinion entirely removed from the list of responsible human beings.”

I found some details of Allan’s life in Stephen Foster’s tremendous book A Private Empire, a history of five remarkable generations of the Macpherson family of which Allan was very much the product and the black sheep.

Saturday 9 November 2013


I am not related to the Reverend Allan Macpherson, only to the Gotch family whose private bank he almost single-handedly brought to collapse. But the vicar got under my skin when I wrote about him here a few months ago. As I looked into his background I uncovered an extraordinary life, which I had the great pleasure of writing up for the parish magazine of Holy Trinity, his former church in Rothwell, Northhamptonshire. Here is that article.

Reverend Allan Macpherson (1788-1864), who served as vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell from 1835 to 1855, lived a life so colourful that I can’t believe his Northhants parishioners knew the half of it. He hit the headlines in 1858 as The Reverend Speculator, the man who almost single-handedly caused the collapse of the Kettering Bank, and died in Paris penniless and abandoned by his family at the age of 76. The rest of his life was no less dramatic.

Macpherson means “son of the parson” in Scottish Gaelic. A different branch of Macphersons, on the Isle of Skye, had been Scottish ministers for three generations. Allan's branch were the Cluny Macphersons from mainland Scotland. Like many Scots after their hope of an independent nation was crushed at the Battle of Culloden, Allan’s father left Scotland to seek his fortune in the British Empire. He rose to become the Quartermaster General in Bengal.

Allan’s father Lieutenant Colonel Allan Macpherson (1740-1816), quartermaster general in Bengal, painted by John Thomas Seton (from Stephen Foster’s history of the Macphersons, A Private Empire)

For the Quartermaster handling supplies for the East India Company there were plenty of opportunities for augmenting one’s salary. When Allan’s father returned to Britain the year before Allan’s birth it was with the intention of investing his considerable fortune in Scottish estates. But he was unlucky in choosing a business partner who died suddenly with huge debts for which he became responsible. By the time Allan was born, the youngest of three children, the family was ruined.

With no prospects at home, Allan’s father sent him in 1805, aged 16, to learn business on the Guyana plantation of a family friend. He carried a letter of paternal advice which recommended him to “honour God, respect the negro, and avoid loose women,” ideally by taking a slave as a concubine. Allan already had a reputation within the family for being hot-tempered and flighty, and in Guyana he tried his hand at many things without much success – he joined the West Indian Army, he traded horses, he bred beef. By persevering in Guyana he missed the weddings of both his siblings and the death of his father. And from 1816 he fathered two children with Kitty, a slave twelve years his junior, whose freedom he bought before he returned – without them – to Britain in 1820.

James Baillie Fraser (1783-1856), who oversaw the Fraser plantations in Guyana to which Allan was apprenticed

Now, like many younger sons, he studied for the cloth. In 1823 received his first preferment, no doubt through family connections in Scotland, as the domestic chaplain to the Marquis of Tweeddale. He acquired a second living, Berwick St Leonard in Wiltshire, which was in the gift of his sister’s husband. And in 1826 he married Margaret Chalmers, the sister of his brother’s wife, with whom early in 1828 he moved to take up a post as chaplain at Dum Dum in Bengal, presumably as a result of his late father’s role in India. Although there is no record of children, there is a reference to “Allan Macpherson and family.” The Macphersons returned to Britain on leave that summer, but on the long voyage back to Calcutta in November, Margaret died.

Allan overcame his grief through work. He became chaplain at Calcutta’s newly built St James Church (consecrated in November 1829) and in 1833 married Caroline Gibson, with whom the following year he had a daughter Matilda Harriet. When an opportunity to raise the family in England arose, Allan grabbed it; and in 1835 he took up the post of vicar at Holy Trinity, Rothwell.

The early years at Rothwell were without doubt the most stable of Allan Macpherson’s life. At the age of 47 he at last had a family life and a secure income in a comfortable climate. But further personal loss and reckless financial dealings soon came to blight the unlucky Macpherson’s life once more. Read about his final descent IN PART TWO HERE.  I found some details of Allan’s life in Stephen Foster’s tremendous book A Private Empire, a history of five remarkable generations of the Macpherson family of which Allan was very much the product and the black sheep.

Saturday 2 November 2013


Not all Tall Tales from my trees are true. My cousin Mark Bloxham Cooper was in his day an eminent Dublin barrister and a Freeman of the City of Dublin. There have always been rumours amongst his descendants of some association with the Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. In Butterhill and Beyond, a Cooper family history, author Richard Austin-Cooper briefly expands:
[Mark Bloxham Cooper] was appointed permanent Junior Counsel for the Crown at Nenagh 1897 and Counsel for Clonmel in 1904; he was also Crown Prosecutor at Leinster Assizes, Senior Divisional Justice of the Dublin Met. District 1919-1925, and prosecuted Michael Collins for the British Crown [my italics, not Austin-Cooper's].

Mark Bloxham Cooper (1855-1929)

It’s a connection to a revered leader in Irish history, even if it’s one from the wrong side of the tide of Irish affairs. My Cooper ancestors are all from the Protestant Ascendancy, the implanted English ruling class. And although by Mark Cooper’s time they felt completely Irish having been residents for 350 years and seven generations, when it came to the struggle for independence they were still seen as the enemy.

Ironically, Collins was an English resident until the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. He had been living and working in London since 1910, for a succession of financial companies including the London office of the Guaranty Trust Company of New York (now part of the multinational giant JP Morgan Chase).

Michael Collins (1890-1922)

He returned to Dublin but played by all accounts a relatively small part in the Rising, of which he was a critic because of the indefensible positions taken up by the Irish rebels. He was captured along with many of them, and his minor role may explain why he was not executed, as fifteen Irish leaders were.

Instead he was interned in Frongoch Prisoner of War Camp in Merioneth, in Wales, from which German prisoners from the Great War were hastily evacuated in the wake of the rising. It was a political blunder by the British – Frongoch became known as Sinn Fein University, a place where Irish captives shared revolutionary ideas and organized themselves.  Collins emerged as a leader, and was even able to give classes in guerilla warfare developed from his criticisms of the tactics of the Easter Rising.

 Frongoch Concentration Camp, Merioneth – the British developed the idea of the concentration camp during the Boer War of 1900-1901

At the end of 1916, new British prime minister Lloyd George issued a general amnesty for Irish prisoners and Collins was released with all the other inmates of Frongoch. He became a senior figure in Sinn Fein and played central roles in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. He was assassinated on his way to Cork in 1922, and is now a venerated figure in the fight for Irish independence.

Crucially, he was never prosecuted, by Mark Bloxham Cooper or anyone else on behalf of the British Crown. After his release from Frongoch he never faced charges; so the family myth is intriguing. If there is no smoke without fire, then perhaps Cooper prosecuted another leading revolutionary; or perhaps he was preparing a prosecution of Collins when the amnesty was announced.

Perhaps there are papers in a vault somewhere which could reveal the truth of the story. But on this occasion at least, neither Cooper nor Collins had his day in court.
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