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Tag Archives: History of Civilisation & Culture

  • Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons by Gareth Winrow

    One of the main, general observations of my book is that history is constantly being rewritten. This is certainly the case regarding the Robinson family. Further research, contacts with members of the extended family, and exchanges with individuals who knew of particular members of the family, has enabled me to tap into new sources of information.

    A key character in my book is Hannah Robinson, one of the first female converts to Islam in late Victorian England. In late 1891 she was married to a supposed Afghan warlord in the mosque at Liverpool, before the couple went off in the hope of beginning a new life in Constantinople. Presumably, the founder of the mosque, the lawyer William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam, officiated at the wedding ceremony.

    (Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons, Amberley Publishing)

    I have lately discovered that Hannah made use of her ties with Quilliam, who was a close confidante of Sultan Abdulhamid II, to secure financial support from the Ottoman court when her marriage was in tatters and Hannah sought a divorce. Her pleading letter penned to the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Cevat Pasha, in June 1892, can be found in the Ottoman archives. In this letter, Hannah mentioned how she was on good terms with Quilliam, who was by this time establishing a close relationship with the sultan. Connections between the Robinson family and Quilliam, not picked up by other commentators, is one recurring theme in the book which I do believe needs to be explored further. Amazingly, according to the Ottoman archives, Quilliam was the father of Hannah’s children! This is clearly wrong. But how, and perhaps why, the archives came to this conclusion and pedalled this story does need to be examined.

    Hannah would continue to benefit from the generosity of the Ottoman court after her divorce and then marriage to the military officer, Ahmed Bahri. I knew that the couple were given rent-free accommodation on Akaratler, a well-heeled neighbourhood very close to the Dolmabahce palace. What I did not know, until recently, was that the Ottoman authorities at one time attempted to claim rent payment of 90,750 kuruş from the Bahris. This was a substantial sum. Hannah immediately notified officials that the accommodation at 107 Akaratler had been provided to her and her family free of charge. The authorities swiftly backed down. The chastened Ottoman Minister of Finance, himself, addressed a letter of apology to Hannah on 12 February 1907. This incident provided a further illustration of the extraordinary strength of character of Hannah, the one-time domestic housemaid from London’s impoverished East End.

    Another leading personality in my book is Ahmet “Robenson”, one of Hannah’s sons. Much is already known about Ahmet Robenson. Indeed, in today’s Turkey he is almost a living legend because of his sporting prowess and his achievements with the Galatasaray Sports Club. However, I do believe that there is still a lot more to learn about this celebrated sportsman, who introduced basketball and founded the Scouting movement in the late Ottoman Empire.

    Ahmet Robenson and members of family at the Lyndhurst estate, Tarrytown, New York. (Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons, Amberley Publishing)

    After emigrating to the US in the late 1920s, Ahmet Robenson spent his last years working at the famous Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown in New York state. I have written a small piece for one of the local newspapers which covers the Tarrytown district, pointing out how nobody in the area knew that the elderly groundskeeper who had worked at the Lyndhurst estate in the 1950s and 1960s had been such a well-known sporting celebrity.

    Little is still known about the life of Ahmet Robenson, and of his wife Nina, after they had emigrated to the US. I am fascinated to learn what really happened to Ahmet and his wife. Were the couple forced to abandon Turkey in the face of criticism from hard-line Turkish nationalists who were opposed to Ahmet’s work with the Americans on social and educational projects? Or were there other factors at play? And, how were they able to adjust to living a life of relative obscurity in New York after having been so well-known in Turkey – in the 1920s Ahmet had also played an instrumental role in the construction of the Taksim sports stadium, and had briefly served as President of the Galatasaray Sports Club.

    I am hoping to re-trace the lives of Ahmet and Nina in the US. A visit to the Lyndhurst mansion is a must. My study of Ahmet Robenson remains a work in progress.

    Who knows what other stories about the Robinsons may come to light in the months ahead? Perhaps, I may also uncover new information about Ahmet Robenson’s father, Spencer – the tenant farmer from Lincolnshire who began a second life as a tea planter in Darjeeling. And, may be, further details about Gertrude Eisenmann, the intrepid motoring amazon of late Wilhelmine Germany, who was an illegitimate daughter of Hannah, may come to my attention.

    Will there be a sequel to Whispers Across Continents?! It is too early to say. What I am sure of, though, is that my work with the extraordinary Robinson family is still far from complete.

    Gareth Winrow's book Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons is available for purchase now.

  • London - 'The Flower of All Cities' by Robert Wynn Jones

    The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire

    A large part of London, and almost all of the old walled City that lay at its heart, was burned down over the space of a few short days during the Great Fire of 2–6 September 1666. This book attempts as it were to unearth from the ashes something of the history of the already age-old and burnished City that had gone before. It tells tales of settlement, struggle, conquest, oppression, rebellion, war, plague and purifying fire. The City founded by the Romans in the middle of the first century AD, on the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, and named by them Londinium. The City abandoned by the Romans at the beginning of what some still think of as the ‘Dark Ages’ of the seaborne Saxons and Vikings, and known by the former in turn as Lundenwic and Lundenburg. And the City of the – later – Middle Ages or Medieval period, of the Normans and Plantagenets; and the post-Medieval or early Modern, of the Tudors and Stuarts; one of the first true world-cities, called by some Londinopolis.

    Replica of the Elizabethen Globe playhouse, Bankside, Southwark. The original was built nearby in 1599. (The Flower of All Cities, Amberley Publishing)

    This unique history of old London town encompasses the lives of kings and queens, gentlefolk, commoners and knights, monks and merchant-adventurers and strutting players; of the anointed and ill-fated, the remembered and the forgotten. It is a City tale of “great matter” and “great reckoning”; of bustling waterfronts and imposing walls, of praying spires and vying masts, of consuming chimneys and seducing streets, of plunging shadow and abiding light. That which the poet William Dunbar in 1501 described as “sovereign of Cities” and “the flower of Cities all”.

    The City of London as presently defined incorporates some areas that lie a little outside the original walls (including Southwark, south of the river). Pre-Great Fire Greater London, that is to say the more-or-less continuously built-up area, extended even farther out, especially along the Thames: on the north side of the river, as far west as the West End and Westminster, as far north as Spitalfields and Shoreditch and as far east as Stepney, Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall; and on the south side, as far west as Lambeth and Vauxhall, as far south as Borough and Newington, and as far east as Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, but not as far as Deptford, Greenwich, and Woolwich, which remained isolated settlements. The Great Fire was substantially confined to the old walled city.

    Through the story of early London we can trace a busy, beautiful, dangerous city lost forever, but brought back to life here through skilful analysis of the archaeological, pictorial and written records.

     

    Robert Wynn Jones's new book The Flower of All Cities: The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire is available for purchase now.

  • To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall

    Saving the Imperial Jewels

    When revolution came to Russia in 1917 the Romanovs not only had to save themselves. They also possessed a fortune in jewels – and the means to which they went to in order to save them were unorthodox and often surprising.

    By the summer of 1917 the Tsar’s cousin Grand Duke Boris was anxious to retrieve the jewels of his widowed mother Grand Duchess Vladimir. The Grand Duchess was living in the remote Caucasus but her priceless jewels were still in Petrograd.

    Boris and his friend The Honourable ‘Bertie’ Stopford hatched an audacious scheme to save Grand Duchess Vladimir’s jewels from her Petrograd palace on Palace Embankment.

    Stopford, a rather shadowy figure, had some high powered connections. He travelled regularly between London and the continent during the war and although he had no official status as a King’s Messenger or as a member of staff of the British Embassy or Foreign Office, on one occasion is thought to have acted as a personal messenger for Queen Mary. He also delivered personal correspondence from George V to the Tsar in 1916 and is rumoured, although it has never been proved, to have worked for the Secret Intelligence Service. There could not be a better man for the job.

    The Imperial family at the time of the Tercentenary of the dynasty, 1913. Seated: Grand Duchess Olga, Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Tsarevich Alexei, Grand Duchess Tatiana. Behind: Grand Duchess Maria, Empress Alexandra. (Collection of Ian Shapiro, To Free the Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Stopford knew the layout of the rooms in the official part of the Vladimir Palace very well but to get to the Grand Duchess’s safe in her private apartments would not be so easy. Boris told Stopford that there was a secret passage from a side entrance which led directly to his mother’s first floor boudoir. In this Moorish-style room was a concealed door leading to several such passages. From her boudoir it would be easy to reach her dressing room and, nearby, the locked metal safe containing her jewels.

    Instrumental in helping Stopford to gain access was the palace’s loyal caretaker, who ensured that entry to the building would be possible during the night.

    Stopford disguised himself as a workman and made his way into the palace unseen, through the suite of rooms to the safe. Carefully taking the jewellery apart, he wrapped it in newspaper and stuffed it into two rather shabby old Gladstone bags, along with any money he found in the safe. Some of the tiaras, however, were left intact, including the one of linked diamond circles which is often worn by Queen Elizabeth II today.

     

    Now he had to get out of the palace and through streets teeming with soldiers and police. The risk of being stopped and searched was great and he could not implicate the Grand Duchess or her son if he was caught red handed. He could even be shot for looting or theft.   It is not known exactly what Stopford did with the jewels that night but, as his hotel room had already been searched at least once, it is more likely that he used his contacts at the British Embassy to place them temporarily in the chancellery. Then, as the Grand Duchess had been president of the Imperial Academy of Arts, they were lodged with the director before being spirited out of Russia.

    The British Armoured Car Division was withdrawing and, by a strange coincidence, one of the men was called John Stopford.  John’s route took him eastwards via Vladivostok, Japan and America to London; Bertie Stopford left in the opposite direction by ship via Sweden. One of these men took the jewels and deposited them in a London bank vault.

    Queen Olga of Greece. The magnificent jewels of the Tsar’s Russian-born aunt were spirited out of Russia by the Danish Embassy. (Collection of Mark Andersen, To Free the Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The Tsar’s Aunt Queen Olga of Greece enlisted the help of her lady in waiting Madame Baltazzi. One day a Greek student called at the Marble Palace where the Queen was living bringing a package of books. The guards carefully examined the parcel and admitted him. Sometime later he left carrying a box of the same size and shape made by the resourceful lady-in-waiting. It contained Olga’s priceless emeralds and other valuable gems. The guards, having searched him when he came in, saw no need to examine his parcel again. He delivered the jewels straight to the Danish Legation, from where they were sent to Copenhagen.

    Even more ingenious was another of the Tsar’s cousins, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna. She emptied a huge bottle of office ink and inside the empty bottle put the diamond rays of a tiara unstrung from its wire. She then poured paraffin over the diamonds and replaced the ink. A large label all round the bottle obscured its contents and it stood in plain sight on her desk. Other jewels were hidden in home-made paperweights, while used empty cocoa tins were dipped in wax and provided with a wick to simulate a candle. Sometimes these were lit in front of the icons to deceive the servants, who had no idea that priceless jewels were concealed inside. Before leaving Russia Marie sent this concealed jewellery to the Swedish Legation for safekeeping and it eventually reached her in exile.

    As for the jewels of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her daughters, when Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia left Tobolsk in the spring of 1918 some jewels went to Ekaterinburg with them concealed in their clothes, but at least three caches of jewels were left behind.

    One was given to a nun, who hid some in a well and concealed others in a belfry and graves in the cemetery at the Ivanovsky Convent in Tobolsk. When the convent was closed in 1923 an elderly nun was going to throw the gems into the river but was persuaded instead to give them to a local fish merchant. He hid 154 items of jewellery in the basement of his house in two glass jars placed inside a wooden case. These were discovered by Stalin’s secret police in 1933 after the nun was arrested and interrogated. Today these items would be worth over seven million pounds. Two more caches are still missing, including a suitcase given to the priest Alexei Vassiliev, which is said to contain diamonds and ‘crowns’ belonging to the empress and her daughters. The priest died in 1930 and the treasure is believed to be hidden in Tobolsk or Omsk.

    Another casket, given to the tutor Claudia Bittner by her husband Colonel Kobylinsky (to whom it had been given by the Tsar), was later given to Constantine Pechekos. When interrogated in 1934 he said it was hidden in his brother’s house at Omsk, which turned out to be untrue. He then attempted suicide and, again, the treasure was never found.

    Other jewels, and even a stash of tsarist gold, are believed to still remain hidden in the area. So maybe the future will yield up more Romanov treasure.

    Coryne Hall's new book To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal 1917-1919 is available for purchase now.

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