Born in 1851 in the ‘Petticoat Lane’ area of Whitechapel in London’s East End, Barnett ‘Barney’ Isaacs was the son of Isaac Isaacs – a dealer in second-hand clothes and rags – and his wife, Leah, who died when Barney was just two years old.
As teenagers, Barney and his older brother, Henry, helped in their father’s business, did a bit of boxing coached by their father, acted as ‘bouncers’ in pubs (even though Barney was only 5’ 2” tall) and also performed conjuring, acrobatics and juggling at the local music halls. In the halls, they were introduced as ’The Great Henry Isaacs, and Barnett too’ and they became known as ‘the Barnato brothers’ – a name they gradually adopted in preference to Isaacs.
In 1871, Henry sailed out to join some cousins seeking their fortunes in South Africa where, in 1866, diamonds had been discovered. A couple of years later, when Barney was 21, he sailed out to join Henry and, together, they made ends meet by buying and selling a few diamonds as well as entertaining in the beer tents of the mining camps.
After spending a year learning about diamonds, Barney knew they could make much more money by buying their own diggings and they managed to acquire four adjacent claims near Kimberley. From that small start – each Kimberley claim was a patch of land only 31ft square – they went on to buy up and consolidate as many claims as they could afford. In doing so, they became the main rivals of Cecil Rhodes, who was working claims on what had been the De Beers farmland and who had come up with the same idea. In a few short years, the number of separate diamond producing claims in the Kimberley area had been consolidated from well over three thousand to less than one hundred. In 1888, “The Barnato Mine”, as the brothers’ consolidated holdings became known, was described as “the largest and most wealthy in the world”.
Cecil Rhodes, intent on gaining control of the whole of the Cape’s diamond industry, started negotiations and Barney agreed to a merger of the brothers’ Kimberley Central Diamond Mining Co. with Rhodes’ De Beers mining empire. By doing so, he and Rhodes hoped to control the number of diamonds released on the market and thus improve and maintain prices by keeping the level of supply a little below the level of demand.
Ultimately, in 1889, after a court case brought by disgruntled shareholders who opposed the merger, the Barnatos liquidated their Company and Rhodes bought it with a cheque, then the largest ever written, for £5,338,650.00, of which £4 million went into the brothers’ pockets. Today’s equivalent value of that £4 million, based on UK average earnings, is almost £1.9 billion. Not bad for the juggling sons of an East End rag dealer!
The Barnatos maintained an interest in diamonds, becoming shareholders and life governors of De Beers as well as owning one of only ten firms in the world allowed to buy diamonds from De Beers. But they now turned their main efforts to the pursuit of gold which had been discovered in the Johannesburg region in 1886. Although they were quite late in joining the party, they had large funds at their disposal along with Barney’s acute business acumen. They raised even more cash by forming several mining companies and issuing shares on the London Stock Exchange and quickly set about buying up and consolidating gold claims in the same way as they had with diamonds.
As their holdings and fortunes increased, the brothers took their older sister’s sons under their wings and their nephews, Woolf Joel, Solomon “Solly” Joel and Isaac “Jack” Joel joined the business – all three assumed ‘Barnato’ as a middle name.
On one of his many trips back to London, during January 1886, Barney was initiated into Freemasonry in The Lodge of Joppa No 188 which then met in the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street. Barney’s nephews, Solly and Jack Joel, were both initiated in January 1888 in Montefiore Lodge No 1017 which then met at the Café Royal in Regent Street.
It is said that, around this time, Barney had visiting cards which featured the motto “I’ll stand you a drink, but I won’t lend you a fiver”. Another story has it that Barney was once attending an upper-class party in a large house where the walls were lined with expensive works of art, when a glamorous Duchess invited him to “come upstairs and examine my Watteau”. Barney followed with great enthusiasm but was reportedly disappointed to find that the lady was referring to an eighteenth-century French painting!
The Masonic interest continued when The Barnato Lodge No 2265 was consecrated in 1888 and met at The Cock Tavern in Islington. The new Lodge was the idea of Masons who were involved in the diamond trade, mostly as merchants, and was named after the Barnato Mine – then “the largest in the world” – rather than the family.
Barney’s brother, Henry Barnato, was its first initiate in July 1888 and his nephews, Solly and Jack Joel, became joining members on the same day. Jack served as Worshipful Master in both 1893 and 1904. Barney himself became a joining member of 2265 in September 1890 along with his nephew, Woolf Joel, who is recorded as having joined from “The Peace and Harmony Lodge of Holland” (there is no record of a Lodge of this name in the UGLE registers). The Barnato Lodge warrant was eventually surrendered and the Lodge was erased in 2016.
Barney was proud and honoured to have been invited to attend Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations and, in June 1897, he and his nephew, Solly Joel, set sail to Southampton from Cape Town on Union Castle’s RMS Scot with Barney’s wife and family. After other relationships, one of which produced a daughter who died at only a few months old, Barney had set up home with South African born Fanny Bees in Kimberley and they married in Chelsea in 1892. The three young children returning to England with their parents were Leah Primrose Barnato, Isaac Henry “Jack” Barnato, who became an RAF pilot, and Woolf “Babe” Barnato, who became a racing driver and chairman of Bentley Motors.
Shortly after three o’clock on the afternoon of June 14th, 1897, when the ship was in the waters around Madeira, Barney was seated on deck with Solly and is said to have suddenly given “a spring” over the rail into the sea and drowned. Barney’s body was embalmed in Madeira and brought back to Southampton where an inquest was held at the South Western Hotel on Friday, June 18th, 1897 before the Coroner, Mr W Coxwell. There were only two witnesses at the inquest.
Solly Joel was the first to testify and gave the statement: “I was a passenger on board the Scot, and the deceased was a fellow passenger. I was walking on deck with him on Monday last at nine minutes past three in the afternoon. I was getting tired, so I asked him to sit down. He said, “Oh, no, let us walk.” We, however, sat down, and he asked me “What is the time?” I looked at my watch, told him, and then I saw him dash by. I had not time, in fact, to close my watch, or even to lift my eyes, when he gave a spring. I threw out my hands to catch him, but only caught the back of his trousers, and he jumped over the side into the sea. I screamed “murder,” and saw the fourth officer, who was sitting dozing, and said, “For God’s sake save him”.
In answer to further questions, Solly said: “at times, he was not in his right mind. One hour he appeared to be quite well, and the next his mind would wander. On the fatal day I noticed his behaviour and made up my mind not to leave him, and I did not. I think he had never shown signs of suicidal mania before.”
The other witness was William Tarrant Clifford, the fourth officer, who gave the statement: “I had seen and spoken to Mr Barnato once or twice on the journey, and noticed nothing peculiar either in his appearance or actions. On the 14th, when in latitude 31.8N and 17.13 W., I saw him leap overboard. Mr Joel said something I don’t remember, and I think I said “I’ll go,” and with that, I pulled off my coat and jumped in after him. I did not reach the body, though I saw it some way off. I was subsequently picked up by the ship’s boat.” In answer to a further question, he told the jury that the body, which was floating face down, was also hauled into the boat and taken back to the ship.
The jury, after a short retirement, returned a verdict that the deceased jumped overboard, and met his death by drowning while temporarily insane.
Several unanswered (and unasked) questions arise. You can no doubt come up with your own, but here are a few to start with:
As there was no post-mortem, how was it established without doubt that death was caused by drowning?
Why was the body floating so soon after drowning? This indicates there may have been air, rather than water, in the lungs. The bodies of the victims of drowning usually quickly sink, whereas those that are dead or unconscious before they reach the water and land face-down tend to float as there is no way for air to escape.
Why did Solly shout “murder” rather than something like “help”? Was it actually Barney who shouted “murder”?
Solly said that the fourth officer (Clifford) was dozing. If so, how did Clifford see Barney ‘leap’ rather than just see Solly ‘catch’ the back of Barney’s trousers after the shout roused him?
And here are a few more points that couldn’t have been known at the time of the inquest:
Fanny didn’t attend the inquest, but she subsequently denied that Barney was “not in his right mind” at any time on the voyage.
After the inquest, the fourth officer, William Tarrant Clifford, was rewarded by the Joels with a payment of £1,000 and was promised that they would “use all their great influence to further his advancement”. Today’s equivalent value of £1000 in 1897, calculated using average earnings, is in excess of £400,000.
In her biography, ‘Spreading My Wings’ (Pub. 1994 Patrick Stephens Ltd.), Barney’s granddaughter, Diana Barnato Walker MBE (who was the first woman aviator to break the sound barrier) shares this information:
The fourth officer, Clifford, the only witness apart from Solly who gave evidence at the inquest, was a good friend of Solly’s and went shooting with him on his English estate.
Solly’s son, Stanhope Joel, told her that Solly had “pushed” Barney and “gave him the heave-ho overboard”.
Diana says that Solly may have “biffed” Barney before pushing him overboard. (Note: If Barney was knocked unconscious, this could explain why his body was floating).
Solly was determined to get control of the South African companies. “It was said that Solly masterminded a phoney indictment of illicit diamond buying against his brother Jack”. “My Uncle Jack didn’t wait for the case to come up but hopped it back to England…where he ran the English side of the business well out of Solly’s hair.”
“After Jack’s return to England, the only people left to thwart Solly were my Grandfather, Barney, and his nephew Woolf Joel” (Solly’s brother).
The year after Barney’s death, in 1898, “Woolf suddenly became the victim of a blackmailer called Von Veltheim” who shot Woolf dead when he refused to pay up but only got a two-year prison sentence for his crime. Solly’s son, Stanhope, suggested that “Solly probably paid for Von Veltheim’s defence”. (Note: In 1908, Von Veltheim also tried to blackmail Solly).
With Barney and Woolf now dead, Jack confined to England and Henry in poor health taking little interest in business affairs, Solly now had a clear run and quickly took virtually full control of the business, Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (JCI).
As a final postscript to this bizarre tale, more than 25 years after Barney was killed, a two-year investigation of JCI’s books was achieved via court actions brought by Barney’s family. This revealed that shortly before Barney’s death, Solly had, in Diana’s words, “been diddling Barney out of well-nigh one million pounds” which impacted the family’s inheritance. Solly was forced to pay the Barnato side of the family £960,000 (today’s equivalent is around £150 million) and, a short time later, paid a further large sum representing almost 30 years’ interest.
SERGEANT BRICE McGREGOR is named in several sources as one of the small band of men who fought to close and bar the gates at Hougoumont Farm on June 18th, 1815. Credited by Wellington as having sealed his victory against Napoleon, this was one of the most fierce and famous days of action in the Battle of Waterloo.
According to his 1846 obituary in The Times, whilst Brice was patrolling outside the Hougoumont gates, he was attacked by a French Cuirassier who struck at him with his sword. The cut was parried, the Frenchman shot dead and Brice then galloped the vanquished Frenchman’s horse into the farm where he cut off the eagles from the saddle-cloth to keep as a souvenir.
In 1809, Brice had served in the unsuccessful ‘Walcheren Campaign’. This was an expedition to the Netherlands intended to open a front in the Austrian Empire’s struggle with France during the War of the Fifth Coalition and involved 40,000 British soldiers and 15,000 horses – all shipped across the North Sea along with a great deal of artillery. The four-month campaign involved little fighting, but incurred heavy losses from a sickness dubbed “Walcheren Fever”. Although more than 4,000 British troops died during the expedition, only 106 died in combat.
Brice was one of those stricken by the fever and “was carried on a sheet from the sick ward to the dead-house and placed in a shell”. The nurse in charge must have been quite shocked a little later when she entered the room and found him sitting up in his coffin. Fortunately, his strong constitution enabled him to survive and recover to fight at Waterloo.
Whilst still serving in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards (Scots Guards) in May 1816, just a year after Waterloo, Brice joined the ‘Lodge of United Strength’ (then No 399, now No 228) which met at the Saddler’s Arms in Swallow Street, Piccadilly and he remained a Lodge member for over 30 years until his death in 1846.
He joined the Lodge along with three of his colleagues who were also sergeants in the 3rd Guards of Foot – Thomas Goddard, William McRobert and the charmingly named Joseph Plumtree. All four men had been initiated into Freemasonry only a month earlier in ‘Lodge 895’ which is believed to have been an ambulatory military Lodge for the 71st Highland Light Infantry warranted by the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Ireland.
It would be great if anyone could help with an explanation as to how/why men of the 3rd Guards of Foot were allowed into the 71st HLI’s Lodge. It is understood (perhaps wrongly?) that the initiation of men from other regiments was a breach of the Irish Masonic rules of the day for military Lodges and could have resulted in Lodge 895 being fined or closed down?
According to Brice’s army discharge certificate, he enlisted in the regiment at the age of 18 in 1800 and was discharged in 1823, although his Times obituary quotes dates of 1799 and 1821 (journalists were apparently no more accurate then than they are now!). Shortly before leaving the army, he was installed as the Worshipful Master of the’ Lodge of United Strength’ and presided over its affairs in 1822 and 1823. After his discharge from the forces “in consequence of being worn out”, he was appointed as keeper of the ‘Foot Guards Suttling House’ in the Tilt-yard at Horse Guards in Whitehall (effectively the publican in charge of the pub/canteen of the Guards).
The Suttling House tenancy was at the disposal of the field officers of the Foot Guards who reportedly ‘bestowed it on old, brave and meritorious non-commissioned officers’ and it was granted to Brice ‘as a reward for his prowess at the Battle of Waterloo’. The tenancy must have been a lucrative appointment as, according to his obituary, he left £15,000 to his son – an enormous sum at the time!
During the years that he kept the house, he was in the news a few times. On one occasion, he was in court accused of using too much force to eject an argumentative customer who, along with his wife, had been rather too boisterous whilst (in the lawyer’s words) “bowing to the throne of Bacchus”. And he featured in all the London papers again when the Tilt Yard was attacked by someone unknown who threw an incendiary grenade which landed at his feet.
Whilst still in charge of the Suttling House, he was appointed by George IV as a Yeoman of The Guard and kept both positions until his death in 1846.
At some point in the 1820s (the last digit of the presentation year is obscured), the brethren of his Lodge presented him with an engraved silver item. After his death in 1846, the engraved part was cut away and incorporated into the mourning brooch pictured – probably for his daughter as his wife had died a few years earlier. It is not now in very good condition, but when she wore it at his funeral almost 170 years ago, it would have sparkled with its jewelled surround and glass front and would have contained a lock of her father’s hair.
The engraved dedication reads: “Presented by the Members of the Lodge of United Strength, to Br. Brice McGregor, P.M. & T, as a Tribute of Gratitude, and a Memorial of Men, April 4, A.D. 182..” Regrettably, the Lodge records, which might have told us more about the silver item and the significance of the dedication, are missing and are believed to have been destroyed. However, it seems likely that the presentation took place in the mid to late 1820s after he had installed his successor as Master and served for a time as Tyler.
For those interested in further research, there is still much to discover about his life and career – but be aware that his name is variously recorded as McGregor, MacGregor, MacGreggor, Brice, Bryce, Bice, Price, Bruce and even as Bryan!
Any visitor to Halifax in West Yorkshire cannot fail to notice the Wainhouse Tower – particularly at night when it shines out from the hills at the West end of the town and points directly to ‘the Grand Lodge above’ as illustrated here in this brilliant, rather spooky, photo taken by Christian Wilkinson.
The tower was originally intended to be a chimney for John Edward Wainhouse’s dye-works. However, before construction was finished, he sold the mill but kept the chimney to use as an observatory, adding steps inside it along with viewing galleries and the ornamental top that we see today.
For a few years before this, Wainhouse and Henry Edwards, the owner of the estate which neighboured the dye-works, had been feuding over such issues as water rights, nuisance smoke emissions, nuisance trees, blocked highways and the like. Wainhouse, who was somewhat eccentric, had published pamphlets criticising and lampooning Edwards and the two had faced each other in court several times. At one of these hearings, Wainhouse was asked if he had ever threatened or attempted to knock Henry’s brother’s teeth down his throat. “I have not” was the reply”, but I have no objection to try”!
Edwards was no shrinking violet either and had boasted that he had the most private estate in Halifax, which no-one could overlook, but after the opening of Wainhouse’s viewing galleries in 1875, he could never make that boast again.
Henry Edwards (later Sir Henry Edwards, 1st Baronet of Pye Nest) was initiated into Freemasonry in the Lodge of Probity No 73 (now No 61) in Halifax in 1847. He was also a joining member of Constitutional Lodge No 371 in Beverley in 1858, a founder member of The Lodge of Sincerity No 1019 in Wakefield in 1864, a joining member of Westminster and Keystone Lodge No 10 in London in 1867 and a joining member of St James’s Lodge No 448 in Halifax in 1876.
He served as the Conservative MP for Halifax from 1847 to 1852 and was elected as the MP for Beverley in 1857 where he served for several terms. During Sir Henry’s tenure, Beverley became known as a notorious ‘rotten borough’ and after the election in 1868, there were allegations of corruption against Sir Henry and the other successful Tory candidate, Edmund Kennard (who was also a member of Westminster and Keystone Lodge No. 10). The famous author, Anthony Trollope, was one of their Liberal rivals at this election.
In 1869, a Government enquiry revealed corruption with at least 900 people (about half the electorate!) having received bribes. The election was pronounced null and void and Beverley was disenfranchised as a parliamentary constituency. It was said at the enquiry that, in Beverley, the price of a vote “was as well-known as the price of butter”.
Subsequently, in 1870, Sir Henry was tried for bribery at the Yorkshire Assizes before Mr Justice Brett with the Solicitor-General appearing for the prosecution. At this trial, it was revealed that “a perfect holocaust of correspondence and documents” which had existed at the time of the initial Government enquiry had been destroyed “on the advice of a Conservative Agent”.
Although the Government enquiry had shown that bribery had secured Beverley for the Tories in all the elections since Sir Henry first stood in 1857, and verbal evidence was given at the trial that a Mr Norfolk and a Mr Cronheim, one a business partner and the other an employee of Sir Henry, had delivered some of the funds from which the bribes were paid, Mr Justice Brett – a Tory politician – expressed the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to show that Sir Henry – also a Tory politician – was involved. The Solicitor-General then announced that he did not propose to offer any further evidence (maybe because there was no other evidence that had escaped destruction?). Consequently, Sir Henry was found not guilty and on leaving the court was “loudly cheered by his friends”.
This was not the result of a ‘Masonic conspiracy’ – no Masons were sitting in judgement – but was there an ‘establishment conspiracy’? ……..No comment!
Five years after these events, in 1875 – the same year that Wainhouse Tower was completed to take its place in the history of the town – Sir Henry was installed as the Provincial Grand Master of The Freemasons of West Yorkshire.
Born in Clayton-le-Moors in Lancashire in April 1875, Fergus O’Conner Greenwood eventually became the stage illusionist, ‘Gustave Fasola’. It was under this stage name, in December 1904, that he was initiated into Freemasonry in the ‘Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038’ which then met at ‘Horns Hotel’ in Kennington Park (pictured here in around 1910).
At the time, there were other entertainers who used their stage names for Lodge membership, but would it be allowed by UGLE now? And, in 1904, would a candidate’s conviction and prison sentence from 12 years earlier have needed to be disclosed on his application?
As a teenager, Fergus toured small halls and schools with a friend, James Lee, billing himself as “Professor Greenwood, sleight-of-hand entertainer”. During this period, the youths were in the habit of taking lodgings in the towns in which they were working and then leaving suddenly without paying their hosts – sometimes taking with them bits and pieces that didn’t belong to them!
In 1892 in Blackburn, Lancashire, they were both convicted of ‘larceny’ and sent to prison for a month after a weekend spent using their talents for nefarious purposes. After staying on a Saturday at a lodging house in Bridge Street, they made themselves disappear along with “a purse, a lady’s companion, a box of paints, a picture frame, and a pack of cards” leaving their account unpaid. On the same day they had stolen two over-coats from the shop of a Mr Beaumont in Northgate, and they then turned up on the Sunday at a lodging house run by a Mrs Parks asking her to shorten the coats to fit them. They left her house the next day, again without paying, and took with them various things including her “hairbrush and comb”.
In court, they told the Bench that they gave ‘conjuring entertainments’ in schools. “Yes” interrupted Chief Constable Lewis who had arrested them “and they can do it very well, too”. Unfortunately, this review of their showbiz talents from a respected member of the community didn’t help much with the Blackburn justices who handed out the one-month jail sentence. Lee confirmed he had also been before the Nelson justices for larceny and Greenwood admitted that he had twice been in custody in Birmingham. The local press reported that they were “both well-dressed, seemed indifferent to their position, and smiled in the dock” as they pleaded guilty to all the charges and received their sentences.
By 1894, Fergus was receiving wider recognition for his talents and, in October of that year, he was promoted by a Burnley based showbiz agent in ‘The Era’ as “Professor Greenwood, the boy illusionist, acknowledged to be the youngest prestidigitateur in the World.” A few weeks later, the advert was “Professor Greenwood….. Scientific Illusionist and Conjurer”.
Fergus was also employed for a few years in the 1890s as an assistant to the well-known entertainers ‘THE FAYS’ i.e. Alexander Fay (whose real name was Alfred Hutchinson) and his sister, Annie. The Fays had become famous throughout the World because of the tragic events at one of their matinee shows in Sunderland on June 16th, 1883. What caused the most excitement amongst the children of the town on that fateful day was the announcement that “Every child will stand the chance of receiving a handsome present” – and well over 1,500 children showed up and paid a penny to try their luck.
At the end of the show, when the gifts were being distributed, there was a ‘Hillsborough type’ stampede. Disastrously, a door at the bottom of the stairs from the gallery had been bolted ajar, leaving just enough space for one person to squeeze through at a time. Within seconds, the gap was choked and the once-laughing, once-smiling, youngsters became a writhing heap of bodies.
The hall manager was one of the first to arrive at the door from its other side. He told the coroner at the inquest: “When I approached the lower door I heard some fearful screams, groans and noises of struggling. I rushed to the door and attempted to open it, and found I could not do so; the bolt was in the socket about two feet from the door frame, and the opening was jammed up nearly as high as my head with the bodies of children.” 183 youngsters, some only 3 years old, tragically lost their lives on that dreadful day.
By 1897, Fergus had left the employ of the Fays and taken with him Alexander’s daughter, also named Annie, whom he married in Norwich in 1895. He also took with him all the secrets he had learned about their magic acts and started performing as ‘Gustave Fasola’. At this time, he was appearing in “Miss Lyle’s American Mysteries assisted by Gustave Fasola, illusionist and hypnotist in Light & Dark Séances, The Phoenix, and Original Locked and Corded Box Illusions”. Within a year or so, he had taken over the star spot from ‘Miss Lyle’ (who may have been his wife, Annie) and the act was billed as “Gustave Fasola, Ventriloquist and Conjurer, also Miss Lyle in her Cabinet Séance”.
He was next in the newspapers early in 1907 – three years after joining Duchy of Cornwall Lodge 3038 – when Horace Goldin, a famous Lithuanian born illusionist from the USA (who billed himself as the “Royal Illusionist” as he had once performed for UGLE Grand Master, Edward VII) sought an injunction against him at the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court. Goldin was trying to stop Gustave, who was appearing at the Glasgow Empire as “ The Famous Indian Fakir”, from performing a trick in which a pretty girl appears to be fired from a cannon on the stage into a box suspended from the theatre’s roof above the audience.
In Court, it was claimed that Goldin held a patent on the trick, and, no doubt much to his disappointment, the secret of the trick was revealed to be dependent on nothing more complex than use of a trapdoor in the stage. The girl exited the cannon through its base, rather than through its barrel, and went under the stage through the trapdoor. Once the trapdoor was closed, the cannon was wheeled away and the box was lowered from the roof to take its place over the trapdoor. It was then a relatively simple matter for the scantily clad girl to enter the box through a panel in its base to be revealed to tremendous applause when the box was opened.
(When I was just a slip of a lad, I saw this trick performed by a famous illusionist of the day, whose name I’ve forgotten, at the Palace Theatre in my hometown of Halifax in Yorkshire. My family were seated up in ‘the Gods’ and, after the cannon had been fired and wheeled away, we could clearly see that someone under the stage was still struggling to close the trapdoor before the box was lowered to the stage to cover it. The audience in the expensive seats in the stalls no doubt wondered why there were roars of laughter coming from the rabble seated high-up in the cheap seats!)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sherriff in Glasgow refused to grant the injunction and, despite the trick’s secret having been revealed both in Court and in the press, Gustave, along with many other magicians, continued to perform it and even took the trick on tour to Australia as the following Melbourne news cutting from 1911 shows (note that Gustave, the Englishman and ‘Indian Fakir’, has now become Italian!):
Although the Melbourne newspaper was not gushingly complimentary about our Bro’s act, his two-year tour of Australia and New Zealand seems to have been very successful and well-received and he is recorded in the annals of history as being the first illusionist ever to use a lion in a stage act in Australia.
In February 1911, soon after his arrival in Australia, Bro. Gustave was at the Melbourne Opera House to perform his ‘Lady to Lion’ Illusion.
Waiting in the wings, was an 18-year-old African Lion, named ‘Wallace’, who had been borrowed from Melbourne Zoo. He was confined in a cage but managed to escape and spring across the stage in front of a startled audience before calmly making his way out of the theatre onto the streets. A woman in the street who saw him come out of the stage door fainted and everyone else in the vicinity fled in various directions to find whatever safe havens were available.
Followed by Gustave’s assistant, James Pearson, Wallace eventually wandered into the open door of the Temperance and General Mutual Life Society’s building on Little Collins Street. Pearson quickly closed the door and remained outside whilst those inside the building barricaded themselves into offices. Around a thousand people gathered in the street waiting to see either the ‘capture or the kill’ and State Troopers were called to clear a space in front of the building and keep order. It was two hours later when a team from the Zoo arrived with a cage into which Wallace proudly strutted after his adventurous day out.
Our Bro’s son, Fergus Greenwood Jnr, was born in Auckland, New Zealand in March 1912 and a year later, shortly before his return to England, Bro Gustave was injured and some of his stage props were destroyed in a railway accident in Perth. It was reported that he and his assistant were nearly killed, but he was back on the road performing again within a few weeks.
However, his injuries may have been more serious than he originally thought as, back in the UK, he seems to have phased out his stage appearances. Before he went to Australia, he had started a business which manufactured and sold tricks and stage equipment for magicians from an address in Acre Lane, Brixton and maybe he was concentrating on this, rather than performing.
It looks like our Bro’s business wasn’t particularly successful and, in 1921, a company that was storing his equipment at two different London addresses placed adverts in the trade press warning that the goods would be sold to defray expenses unless claimed within 14 days.
The Shreveport Times (Louisiana) December 21, 1925
Gustave rarely performed on stage again in the UK where the ‘variety’ industry was in the doldrums as films, particularly those from America, became more popular, but he was obviously trying to revive his flagging fortunes when, in the mid-1920s, he went to the USA and found work in cinemas, vaudeville and carnivals. As these press items from the USA show, he didn’t achieve the ‘top billing’ he’d enjoyed in Australia but was managing to make ends meet.
Green Bay Press-Gazette (Wisconsin) 12 August 1924 A review of the “Green Bay Labor Temple Festival”. The “carrier boys” were the lads employed by the Press-Gazette to distribute their papers who had been invited to the festival as a reward for their endeavours.
In the USA, Gustave had also developed a friendship with the famous American Illusionist, Howard Thurston, who has been described as “The Last Great Magician in the World”.
During his long career at the top of the magic business, from around 1908 to 1936, Thurston was equally as famous as Harry Houdini and, in the opinion of many, was a far better magician than Houdini. He toured with an enormous show featuring a cast of beautiful chorus girls, appearing and disappearing animals, mysterious cabinets – and, of course, many packs of playing cards – and he regularly dazzled his audiences with spectacular tricks and illusions.
But Thurston was not a prolific inventor of new tricks and relied on other magicians with whom he traded ideas and equipment. Our Bro. Gustave was one his collaborators and had allowed him to use the ‘Lady to Lion’ trick that had been such a draw for Gustave in Australia many years earlier. A letter from Thurston to Gustave reads ”Remember, Gus, that you and I are two best friends possible for two magicians to be, and that we have given our word to assist each other to the best extent and not to hold back any secrets”.
Gustave, now tired of touring ‘small town America’, decided to return to Europe to launch a spectacular new show using both his own and some of Thurston’s illusions. As part of the arrangement, Gustave employed an attorney to file for a US patent in Gustave’s name, with an assignment to Thurston, for a trick called the ‘Million Dollar Mystery’. The patent was filed in late 1928 and was granted in 1930.
This trick – which is still performed today – is a stage illusion where a raised box is placed in the centre of the stage and shown to be empty. The magician is then able to produce as many items as he wishes – e.g. people, animals, or anything else – from inside the box. If you want to learn the secret of the trick (along with others which are referenced on the link) you can see the patent documents online here: https://www.google.com/patents/US1760842
Excited about working with Thurston to develop his new show, Gustave arrived back in Plymouth from the USA on the Atlantic Transport Line’s ship ‘Minnekhada’ in late August 1928. Regrettably, however, the arrangement with Thurston seems to have acrimoniously broken down – possibly due to the involvement of another magician named ‘Dante’ who had secured the rights to perform Thurston’s tricks in South America but then transferred his act to Europe where Gustave had expected to be granted the sole rights.
This devastated Gustave’s efforts to revive his career and, by 1929 when the whole of the ‘Western World’ was approaching an unprecedented state of economic collapse, his disappointment at being unable to put a new show together and get back to work had spiralled into a depression from which he never recovered.
Fergus O’Conner Greenwood, aka Bro. Gustave Fasola, tragically hanged himself in Flat 6 at No 14, Cranworth Gardens, Brixton on January 12th, 1929.
RIP Bro. Gustave.
Peter Reeve and Mike Neville December 2017
With many thanks to Jeannie Talbot (nee Greenwood) for her help.
If you’ve made the wise decision to buy Mike Neville’s latest book, ‘Crime and the Craft’, you will have read the bizarre tale of the Yorkshire inventor and Freemason, Thomas Denton, who went to the gallows in 1789 in London in a merry mood “as if he had gone to a wedding”.
Along with his friend, John Jones, who may also have been a Yorkshire Freemason, Denton had been sentenced to death for the treasonous offence of possessing implements to make counterfeit coins. His coins were so well made that they could not be proven to be fakes – hence the ‘possession of implements’ charge.
Denton’s full true story in Mike’s book (which also involves robots, an odd device for sexual therapies and Nelson’s mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton) is well worth the price of the book on its own!
In the mid to late 1700s, the offence of ‘coining’ (i.e. ‘diminishing’ or ‘clipping’ gold or silver from the edges of genuine coins to melt and make into fakes) was widespread, particularly in Yorkshire. One of the most notorious gangs involved, now known as the ‘Cragg Vale Coiners”, was led by ‘King’ David Hartley who was convicted in 1769 and hanged in York in 1770. Cragg Vale, although fairly close to Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was a remote place in those days so it suited the coiners well.
Many coins from other countries, particularly Spain and Portugal, were circulating freely in Britain, and these were particularly susceptible to being tampered with. By the 1770s, it was estimated that gold clippings amounting to 9% of the weight of all the gold coins in circulation had been melted and turned into fakes with a face value of three and a half million pounds (today’s equivalent value is about 5.8 BILLION pounds based on average earnings).
So it is not really surprising that, in the late 1760s, another group of coiners who met at the Bacchus Tavern in Halifax town centre (pictured here and demolished in around 1937) came up with the idea of forming a Masonic Lodge to use as an excuse for their regular meetings and conceal their real purpose.
The Bacchus Tavern in Halifax photographed in around 1936
As attempts were underway to establish the new Lodge, the members of what is now the Lodge of Probity No 61 in Halifax were getting worried and in a postscript to a letter to Grand Lodge dated December 1768 they wrote “We are sorry to inform you that a set of persons or people are forming themselves in an illegal manner in this town who probably may apply for a warrant; we suppose they will be a discredit to the fraternity”. Despite this, in 1769, Grand Lodge granted a warrant to the Bacchus Lodge which, in the few years of its existence, was numbered 383, then 268 and finally 269.
From its start, the Bacchus Lodge made regular charity contributions to Grand Lodge. Maybe it could only afford this because of its members’ nefarious enterprises – the Lodge of Probity usually failed to make any contributions at all !!
One of the first Initiates to the Bacchus Lodge, on 6 November 1769, was John Cockroft, aged 22, a “woollen manufacturer” of Sand Hall, Highroadwell in Halifax. A little over a month later, Bro. Cockroft was arrested on suspicion of ‘clipping’ gold guineas and was taken to York Castle. Following the sentencing of ‘King’ David Hartley, the trials of over twenty other suspects, including Cockroft, were postponed and he was given bail. He then successfully evaded the law until 1778 when he was committed to Lancaster Castle for trial on a charge of forging half-pence coins but, luckily for him, he was acquitted as a result of a technical flaw in the indictment.
In 1782, he was again caught – ‘red-handed’ this time – when, in the words of the prosecutor, “he was surprised at Work in his Garret being then edging blank Counterfeit Shillings by means of his throw Wheel and a File, which he had not time to part with, but on his Wife giving the Alarm, he leap’d down at a trap door with the File in his Hand, which from its’ being silver’d over, plainly shew’d the Business he had been at, and indeed the state of his Workboard plainly proved he was taken in full Business, for there were no fewer than 449 Counterfeit Shillings without Impression mostly finished, but some in part finished”.
The coins were made “in Imitation of old bare shillings which have lost their Impression….as these he thought pass’d better in general than Counterfeits with an Impression upon them….he thought it more safe to make them than Counterfeits with Impressions, as they required no coining Press Dyes or other Implements which would be the means of conviction, if found…. he finished them by means of Steel Rollers and a Throw Wheel which might be used in Button-making as well as in Coining — but not at all applicable to his Business of a Woollen Manufacturer “.
Bro. Cockroft’s luck appeared to have run out – he was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death – but his good fortune hadn’t completely deserted him and the sentence was later commuted to transportation for life to a government settlement in East Africa.
Bacchus Lodge again came to the attention of Grand Lodge when it made a complaint against ‘The Old Cock Lodge’ concerning the ‘un-genteel treatment’ of one of their brethren who had attended a St John’s day festival. There doesn’t seem to have been a Lodge of that name, but ‘The Old Cock Inn’, which is still in business in the town, is where the Lodge of Probity met at the time. Just what this ‘un-genteel treatment’ involved is not clear, but, after an appeal to Grand Lodge, the Bacchus Lodge was finally erased as being ‘a disgrace to Masonry’ in April 1783, the year following Bro. Cockroft’s conviction.
‘The Old Cock Inn’, pictured above, is also where ‘King’ David Hartley was arrested and where, in 1852, a group of worthy men formed what became the ‘Halifax Permanent Benefit Building Society’ (now part of Lloyds TSB). Some might say that, by the year 2010, ‘The Halifax’, through greed and dodgy dealings, had incurred a cost to the state even more vast than that of the coiners!
‘King’ David Hartley and several other ‘Cragg Vale Coiners’ had been arrested, convicted and hanged in 1769/70 through the work of excise officer William Deighton (or Dighton) who was subsequently shot dead – allegedly at the instigation of Hartley’s family who put a price of 100 guineas on Deighton’s head. The murder was committed at a location at, or very close to, the present position of the Blackwall Masonic Hall in Bull Close Lane, Halifax which is the current home of De Warren 1302, St John’s 1736, Rokeby 6301, Heatherstone Savile RA Chapter 1302 and the Garuda Temple No 1 of the ‘The August Order of Light’.
One of the men suspected of the murder, Matthew Normanton, went on the run, whilst the other man, Robert Thomas, was caught but acquitted due to lack of evidence. A witness later came forward who had been their ‘look-out’ at the murder and Thomas was then convicted of robbing the dead man (he could not be re-tried for the murder). He was hanged in York in August 1774 and his body was then brought back to Halifax and hung in chains on Beacon Hill, which overlooks the town, with his right arm strapped to stretch out with the finger pointing to the murder scene in Bull Close Lane.
Matthew Normanton was captured in 1775 and he too was hanged in York and his body hung in chains next to the rotting corpse of his accomplice, Robert Thomas.
Halifax is overlooked by Beacon Hill where the bodies of the hanged murderers were hung in chains – one with an arm and finger strapped up to point at the murder scene!
Some of our more sensitive brethren (myself included) have had odd experiences at Blackwall Hall, but, if it is haunted, we’re not sure whether the ghost is the murder victim, William Deighton, or his murderer with the pointing finger, Robert Thomas. Well-intentioned visitors are always welcome!
Born in Plumstead in December 1877, John Benjamin McDowell was initiated into Freemasonry in 1902 in ‘Rye Lodge No 2272’, which then met in High Holborn. In 1912, he was a founder member of ‘Woolwich Polytechnic Lodge No 3578’ and, in 1915, he was a joining member of ‘Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038’ which then met at the Café Monico in Shaftesbury Avenue. He served as Worshipful Master in all three Lodges, being the youngest ever WM of Rye Lodge in 1913, and remained a member of all three Lodges throughout WW1 and the following years, earning his first London Rank in 1927. In around 1920, he was also a founder member of ‘Outre Manche – Across the Channel Lodge No 14’ in Calais.
At the age of 15, John was an engineering apprentice at Woolwich Arsenal, involved with the manufacture of munitions, but by 1898 he was working as a cameraman, projectionist and electrician for ‘The British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate’, often showing Biograph films of the Boer War at the Palace Theatre in London. In early 1908, after short spells with film-makers, ‘Warwick Trading’ and ‘Walturdaw’, John went into partnership with a former colleague and formed the ‘British and Colonial Kinematograph Company’ (B & C) producing news, documentaries and short comedies – the first comic film he directed was ‘A Breach of Promise Case ’ in June 1908 which starred two pet dogs!
‘B & C’ became a limited company in 1911 and began producing longer dramas along with its short comedies, news and documentary items. By 1913, John was in sole charge of the company and produced what has been hailed as ‘the first British epic film’ – an 86 minute spectacular depiction of the Battle of Waterloo employing hundreds of extras and horses. A squadron of the 12th Lancers cavalry regiment was loaned to the production and the regimental historian recorded “the facts that Napoleon could not ride a horse and that a sergeant in the regiment appropriated Wellington’s boots nearly prevented the film being made”!Nevertheless, the film was finished – in only 5 days – and was a great success when released in the summer of 1913. John later commented that “everyone made money out of it….and went home happy”.
The film’s director was Charles Weston who is believed to have been the older brother of writer/director, Harold Weston, who also worked on several British and Colonial productions. Harold was introduced to Freemasonry by W Bro John and was initiated in Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038 in October 1915.
Charles Weston in 1915
Tragically, Charles Weston jumped to his death from an open window on the 18th floor of a building on West 42nd Street in New York City in 1919. He left behind a hypodermic syringe and needle in an envelope on which he had written: “This is man’s greatest curse”. He also left a 500-word suicide note headed “How One Feels Just Before Death by Jumping From the Eighteenth Floor of a Building“ and continues “Five minutes from now I will know what death is like, but I have no fear of hell. I cannot suffer more than I have…….. I feel just like a man waiting to meet his boss when there is something wrong”.
B&C’s next major production, in 1914, was ’Loves and Adventures in the Life of Shakespeare’ on which W Bro John worked as Director. He had married Emily Ada White in 1900, but now fell in love with Emilie Olympia Rudolphine Martinek, who was cast to portray Queen Elizabeth in the film using the name ‘Aimee Martinek’. She also used the names ‘Olympia Sumner’ and ‘Sophia Sumner’ in other productions. Her brother Oceano and her sister-in-law, Ivy Martinek, also worked on ‘British and Colonial’ films.
Emilie was born into a touring circus family in Germany in 1878 and came to England in around 1908 with her parents and family which included her daughter from an earlier marriage. She and John had a long-lasting relationship and their daughter, Adrienne Aimee Franklin McDowell, was born in February 1915 – ‘Franklin’ was the maiden name of John’s mother. It was less than a month before John joined The Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038 that Adrienne was born – maybe he was having sleepless nights and went to Lodge meetings to snatch forty winks!
After war broke out in August 1914, John joined the Volunteer Training Corps and was also involved in negotiating for the rights to film the war – he was the signatory for ‘B & C’ in the final agreement with the War Office. He eventually got his chance in June 1916 when one of the two ‘Official War Office Kinematographers’ who had been authorised to film the allied armies in action in France was invalided home. John volunteered to replace him and within days, still a civilian, he was at the Western Front working with the other official cameraman, Geoffrey H Malins, in the battlefields of the Somme. The officer in charge noted that, during the filming, “Mr McDowell ran considerable risks. I have seen him have very narrow escapes, notably from machine gun-bullets…when trying to cross no man’s land…and several times from shells….he has also been gassed”.
The finished film, ‘The Battle of the Somme’, was released in August 1916 – while the battle itself was still raging – and, although many of the bloodiest scenes were cut as the War Office wanted images that would raise morale, it still contains some of the most iconic images of the horrors of war. On 28 August, the Yorkshire Evening Post printed the comment, attributed to Lloyd George, “If the exhibition of this Picture all over the world does not end War, God help civilisation”. It was a tremendous success and, during the first six weeks of its release, it was seen by twenty million people in Britain – that’s almost half the population – and was also shown in eighteen other countries. So many people bought tickets for the film that it held the UK Box Office record until Star Wars was released in 1977.
The ‘Evening Star’ reported that “The Somme pictures have stirred London more passionately than anything has stirred it since the war began. Everybody is talking about them. Everybody is discussing them. Everybody is debating the question whether they are too painful for public exhibition.”
Some readers will know that Mike Neville, one of the co-authors of this ‘fragment of history’, was the originator and DCI in charge of the Met’s ‘Super Recognisers’ team at Scotland Yard.In a bizarre twist to this tale, one of Mike’s team in the Met was asked by ‘The Times’ in 2014 to help identify the man carrying a comrade who is shown in the above still from the film – many people had claimed him as a relative. Mike had no idea at the time that one of the film-makers, W. Bro John, had been a member of the same Lodge as Mike a hundred years earlier! The Times article is not available online, but this link is to the Daily Mail’s take on the 2014 story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2604230/Police-super-recogniser-sheds-new-light-hero-WWI-propaganda.html
W. Bro John went on to work on more productions for the War Office including newsreels and the major films, ‘The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks’ and ‘The German Retreat and The Battle of Arras’. In April 1918, although still a civilian, he was put in charge of the movements of all the cameramen on the Western Front. In June 1918, both he and Malins were awarded the ‘Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ (known as the ‘BEM’ from 1922) for ‘courage and devotion to duty’ and John was eventually commissioned as a Lieutenant in July 1918 when he was also awarded the ‘Military Cross’ for ‘courage under fire’.
After the war, John returned to less hazardous work as a freelance cameraman and filmed, amongst other newsworthy events, the wedding of Princess Mary in 1922. In the same year, he founded ‘McDowell’s Commercial Films’ which failed after a couple of years and was voluntarily wound up. From 1926 onwards, he first worked for Agfa in their cinema film department and then for a company in Welwyn Garden City ‘dealing with American negative stock’. In 1939 he was recorded as living with Emilie and Adrienne and working as a ‘travelling salesman for …(illegible) …for jointings for engineers’ and in 1949 he was reported in the trade press as having “retired from films…..but making a second fortune in engineering”
Emilie died in 1950 and W Bro John himself died in 1954 in Pitsea, Essex, at the home of his daughter, Adrienne, to whom he left estate valued at under £500.
In 1920, Geoffrey H Malins published his best-selling book ‘How I Filmed the War’ in which he down-played W Bro John’s role to such an extent that the book never even mentioned his name – hence the subtitle, ‘THE FORGOTTEN CAMERAMAN OF WW1’.
Many thanks to Sally Freytag (nee Martinek), Chip and Yvonne Thompson (nee McDowell) and Valerie Brown (nee Sanders) for their assistance in supplying photographs and biographical detail.