Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A simple inscription that led to stories of
theft, scandal, murder and a lost title

The inscription on the vestry doors in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge ... erected in memory of Athelstane Wolseley, a former churchwarden and parish treasurer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

During the past two weeks in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, I noticed a simple wooden piece above the door into the sacristy, with a simple but fading carved inscription that reads: “A.G. Wolseley (1858-1933) In Christ.” Above is a colourful image of the Visit of the Magi.

I wondered who he was. Had he been a former Vicar or Curate? Was he related to the Wolseley family of Wolseley in Staffordshire? Was he related to the Wolseley family of Mount Wolseley, Co Carlow?

I decided to find out, and found myself on a trail the led through Edwardian scandals, the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels, a brutal murder during the Irish War of Independence, blackmail, eccentric baronets and back to the story of the Cheshire cobbler who inherited an Irish title.

Athelstane George Wolseley was born in Dublin in 1858, the son of Richard J Wolseley, an engineer, and his wife, Elizabeth Anne (née Hughes). He was a clerk in the Irish Law Commission and for many years he shared household arrangements with Sir Arthur Edward Vicars, Ulster King-at-Arms, who was at the centre of a scandal following the theft of the Irish “crown jewels” from Dublin Castle in 1907.

Wolseley was at the centre of one of the early controversies involving Saint Bartholomew’s Church. In 1890, he presented a brass sanctuary cross to the church in memory of his mother, Elizabeth Anne (née Hughes) Wolseley, who died on 13 May 1887. The Select Vestry agreed to the cross being placed behind the altar. Acting on behalf of the Protestant Defence Association, Colonel Fox Grant complained to the Diocesan Court in 1892. The controversy spilled over into the pages of the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette (now the Church of Ireland Gazette), the Church Times, The Irish Times, the Daily Express and other daily newspapers.

Grant eventually took his case to the Court of the General Synod, which upheld his appeal in 1894, and the cross was moved to another position, but the controversy continued.

Sir Arthur Vicars ... sacked after the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle

Wolseley and Vicars had lived for some in the 1890s as guests of Canon Richard Travers Smith in Saint Bartholomew’s Vicarage on Clyde Road, and in 1897 Wolseley was the People’s Churchwarden of Saint Bartholomew’s. By the 1901 census, when Wolseley was 42, the Census shows he and Vicars were living at 80 Wellington Road.

Vicars was one of Ireland’s distinguished experts on heraldry and genealogy. He had a distinguished career until 1907 and the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. As Registrar of the Order of Saint Patrick, Vicars had custody of the insignia of the order, also known as the crown jewels. They were found to be missing on 6 July 1907, four days before a visit to Dublin by King Edward VII.

A Vicergal Commission was set up in January 1908 to investigate the theft of the crown jewels. Vicars and his barrister Tim Healy, later Governor General of the Irish Free State, refused to attend the commission’s hearings. The commission’s findings were published on 25 January 1908, and Vicars was dismissed as Ulster King of Arms five days later.

The theft of the regalia also drew attention to the living arrangements of Wolseley and Vicars. The Earl of Aberdeen, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the last person to wear the regalia, was shocked when he read a secret police report alleging “scandalous conduct” by the Ulster King of Arms.

Vicars was defended by his half-brother, Pierce Charles de Lacy O’Mahony, of Grangecon, Co Wicklow, relying on evidence given by Athelstane Wolseley, then the principal clerk in the Land Commission and a churchwarden of Saint Bartholomew’s.

Under questioning, Wolseley told O’Mahony: “I cannot conceive anyone bringing such an accusation against your brother ... except for the purpose of blackmailing or from some malignant motive ... I know what a high opinion [Canon Travers Smith] had of your brother.”

Canon Richard Travers Smith (1831-1906) ... Vicar of of Saint Bartholomew’s (1871-1905)

In a letter to The Irish Times in 2000, Gregory Allen compared “the hounding of Vicars with the treatment of Roger Casement in 1916.” George Bernard Shaw recalled in 1927: “You could go nowhere in London at the time without hearing this scandal whispered.”

Vicars left Dublin, moved to Kilmorna, near Listowel, Co Kerry, and married Gertrude Wright in Ballymore, Co Wicklow, on 4 July 1917. He continued to protest his innocence until his death, even including bitter references to the affair in his will. When his house was ransacked in 1920, the raiders may have thought he had secreted away the Crown Jewels. His house was burned down in the night and he was shot dead before his wife on 14 April 1921. He was buried in Leckhampton, Gloucestershire, a week later. His widow never returned to live in Ireland.

In 1927, the recovery of the regalia, the Grand Master’s jewelled badge and star were offered in return for the payment of a ransom by President WT Cosgrave, but they have never been seen in public since then, and their whereabouts remain a mystery.

For his part, Athelstane Wolseley continued to live in Ballsbridge, and in 1908 and again in 1919, he was the Vicar’s Churchwarden of Saint Bartholomew’s, and People’s Churchwarden in 1914. He lived alone at 48 Wellington Road (1911, 1913). In 1928, as the Parish Treasurer of Saint Bartholomew’s, he organised a fund the defray the costs incurred by the Vicar, the Revd Walter Cadden Simpson, who had been strictly admonished by the Ecclesiastical Courts for for infringing the canons of the Church of Ireland. Simpson had to pay the costs, which totalled over £500, but Wolseley’s fundraising, including £125 brought in through an appeal in the Church Times, met the costs within a year.

The Wolseley family grave in Mount Jerome, Harold’s Cross (Photograph: Yvonne Russell/Ireland Genealogy Projects Archives)

When Wolseley died some years later on 8 October 1933, he was buried with his parents Richard and Lizzie Wolseley and his elder brother William in Mount Jerome. The new vestry doors in Saint Bartholomew’s erected in his memory in 1934 were designed by the architect and town planner Manning Robertson. Above the doors, the mosaic of the Epiphany by Kate O’Brien is a memorial to Canon Walter Simpson (1872-1958), former Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s (1918-1951).

Vicars, with his genealogical expertise, ought to have known which branch of the Wolseley family his one-time companion was descended from, and that he was eventually in line to succeed to the family title, given the many Wolseley title holders who were dying without heirs. If he did know, this line of descent never appeared at the time in either Debrett’s or Burke’s Peerage.

The Wolseley Memorial in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Even the printed and online versions of the family tree are confusing and show many inconsistencies. Over the last few days, though, my research has confirmed Wolseley’s descent from the family that had given its name to Mount Wolseley, now a golf resort and hotel on the edges of Tullow, Co Carlow. Mount Wolseley House is the ancestral home of Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, one of Britain’s most important military leaders, and his brother, Frederick York Wolseley, in whose Birmingham factory the first British-designed car was built in 1895.

The Wolseley Arms ... near the former seat of the Wolseley family near Rugeley, Staffordshire (Photograph: fatbadgers)

I have had a long interest in the history of the Wolseley family. Wolseley is in mid-Staffordshire, between Stafford and Rugeley, north of Lichfield. The Comberford and Wolseley families’ coats-of-arms are inverted reflections of each other, and the families were related by marriage in the 16th century. Wolseley and Comberford are about 20 miles apart, and one of my earliest contracts as a freelance journalist was to interview Sir Charles Wolseley of Wolseley for the Lichfield Mercury and the Rugeley Mercury over 40 years ago.

The first of the Wolseley family to come to Ireland was William Wolseley from Wolseley in mid-Staffordshire, between Stafford and Rugeley, north of Lichfield. He fought alongside King William at the Battle of the Boyne and later bought the 2,500 acre estate of Mount Arran from Charles Butler, Earl of Arran, renaming it Mount Wolseley. When William Wolseley died unmarried, the estate passed his nephew Richard Wolseley, who was MP for Carlow from 1703 to 1713 and a younger brother of Sir William Wolseley, 5th Baronet, of Wolseley, Staffordshire.

Probably the most famous of all the Wolseleys was Frederick York Wolseley, who in 1895 started producing one of Britain’s most famous car marques – the Wolseley. The name dominated the British motor industry for eight decades until 1975, when the last car with the Wolseley name was produced.

Mount Wolseley House, outside Tullow, Co Carlow ... sold in 1925 for £4,500 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Sir John Richard Wolseley (1834-1874), 6th Baronet, died aged 40, he was succeeded in the title by his brother Sir Clement James Wolseley (1837-1889), probably the last of the family to live at Mount Wolseley. The estate was sold for £4,500 in 1925 by Sir John’s daughters to the Patrician Brothers, founded in Tullow in 1808 by Bishop Daniel Delaney.

Meanwhile, the title of baronet in the Irish branch of the Wolseley family began to pass out in an ever-widening circle of distant cousins. The eighth baronet, the Very Revd Dr Sir John Wolseley (1803-1890), was Dean of Kildare (1859-1890) when he inherited the title on 16 October 1889. He only held the title for three months, and died on 26 January 1890. In all, five successive holders of the title died without heirs.

The tenth baronet, Sir Reginald Beatty Wolseley (1872-1933) was the son of a Dublin doctor. He inherited the family title when his cousin died in 1923, but he never used his title. Instead, he sought anonymity in self-imposed exile, working as an “elevator boy” at the Black Hawk Bank Buildings in Waterloo, Iowa, for 18 years and living as plain Dick Wolseley.

That is until his secret came out in May 1930. His mother’s dying wish was to visit Sir Reginald and persuade him to return to England. A day after her arrival in Iowa, Sir Reginald married his mother’s nurse, Marian Elizabeth Baker, a woman 18 years his junior. The day after their marriage, Marian returned to England on the understanding that he would follow her.

But the new Lady Wolseley realised that Sir Reginald was too set in his ways and that he was unwilling to move. He claimed he had taken the title and married her out of gratitude for the way she had cared for his mother. “I took the title for my wife,” he said, “on marrying her out of gratitude for what she did for my mother. The title will be of advantage to her in English society. A lady is a lady over there.”

He obtained a divorce on the grounds that his wife “harassed him” with telegrams trying to persuade him to return to England. However, she was not going to give way too easily. She returned to Iowa and in January 1932, she persuaded him to move, their divorce was annulled and Sir Reginald and Lady Wolseley moved to England.

Sir Reginald died a few months later in Devon on 10 July 1933. Only a few villagers attended his funeral in Berry Harbour; 12 farmers carried his coffin, and his wife was dressed entirely in white. Lady Wolseley, who became a Justice of the Peace, died on on 20 June 1934. Meanwhile the title passed to yet another distant cousin, the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley (1865-1950), who had succeeded as 11th baronet.

He was educated at the school run by the Revd Dr Charles William Benson in Rathmines and at Trinity College Dublin. He was a curate in parishes in Limerick and Kerry for short spells before moving to Australia, and was a Vicar in Australia for many years before returning to England in 1920. When he succeeded to the title at the age of 68, Australian newspapers described him as “a rather eccentric clergyman, notorious wherever he went for the prodigious rate at which he preached.” When the 11th baronet died at the age of 84 in 1950, he had no children and the title passed to another distant cousin, a cobbler living in a four-room flat in Bromborough, Cheshire, who was earning £5.10s a week and rode on a bicycle to work in a backstreet shop each day when he became the 12th baronet as Sir Garnet Wolseley.

The new Sir Garnet’s father, Richard Wolseley, was a second cousin of Athelstane Wolseley, and they died within a few years of each other, Athelstane in 1933 and Richard in 1938.

His wife, Lillian Mary Ellison, had been a telephone operator in Liverpool, and they lived ordinary working-class lives in post-war England until a genealogical quirk transformed them into international curiosities as Sir Garnet and Lady Wolseley.

The Wolseley lineage had become so distant and dispersed that Debrett’s began an international search for an heir to the title.

It seemed the heir would be a very distant cousin and two Americans vied for the title, Noel Wolseley, of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Charles William Wolseley, of Brooklyn, New York. The search seemed to be reaching a conclusion when a widow living in Wallasey near Liverpool, Mary Alexandra Wolseley (née Read) claimed the title on behalf of her son, Garnet Wolseley, a single 35-year-old shoemaker.

It was soon discovered that her late husband was descended from a line in the family that many had thought had died out in the 19th century. In fact, not only had that line of the Wolseley family not died out, but the Cheshire cobbler’s father was a second cousin of Athelstane Wolseley.

Experts from Debrett’s examined the competing claims. The American contenders were ruled out, and the quiet, pipe-smoking bachelor cobbler became the 12th baronet of Mount Wolseley, Co Carlow.

On 12 August 1950, the new baronet had married Lillian Ellison in Wallasey Town Hall in Cheshire. They had known each other for 12 years, since they worked together in a grocery shop in Wallasey.

Overwhelmed by their new status, which brought no wealth, property or privilege, they emigrated in June 1951 to Canada, where Lady Wolseley’s uncle, Andrew Ellison, lived in Brantford.

“In Canada, I hope to live the life of a lady,” she said. But they soon found there are few class distinctions in Canada and they became merely objects of curiosity. They moved from one address to another, and Sir Garnet, who liked to be known as George, worked as a press operator at Cockshutt Farm Equipment and later as a gardener at the city parks department until his retirement in 1979. Lady Wolseley worked for a while at Bell Telephone and at a sweet shop.

Sir Garnet died in Canada on 3 October 1991. Lady Wolseley died at Brantford General Hospital at the age of 94.

Since Sir Garnet’s death, the title has not passed officially to a 13th baronet. The presumed baronet, Sir James Douglas Wolseley from Texas, has not been able to prove his claims to the title successfully, his name is not on the Official Roll of the Baronetage, and so the baronetcy has been considered dormant since 1991.

It is curious to note that had Athelstane Wolseley ever married and had children, the family title would have passed instead to his descendants.

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