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Butler Records - Part 3

Last time we met Weeden Butler, my great*4 grandfather. It was he who, around 1770, started a school at 6 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, on the site of Dr Dominicetti’s hydropathic baths (an eighteenth-century pamper palace).* That house was the family home until my great-great grandfather sold it in 1854.

I don’t have any of Weeden’s letters from his days as a teacher, though the British Museum has some in its manuscripts division. So too, it turns out, does the University of South Carolina. Their holdings come from a correspondence Weeden had with Pierce Butler (no relation), an American whose son Thomas attended the school during the late 1780s. These give some little insight into life in Chelsea, and Weeden’s schoolmaster style: “Tommy is perfectly [well]; and by this Time pretty quiet, under the Poppies of Morpheus, and so is the house too, in no small Proportion, when his Liveliness is retired to his Pillow”, he assures Pierce, while of a planned school trip to Weymouth he writes: “We mean...to eat very little more fish than we catch, tho' I rather anticipate that your Son's Stomach will require somewhat more substantial than the Quota of his piscatory Acquisitions." Something tells me that Tommy rather grated; but I do hope Weeden didn’t actually talk like that.


There's a companion piece to the Butler Verses and Records book I’ve been using - a scrolled Family Tree, written in ink on two large sheets of paper glued together, and also I think compiled by my great-grandfather Thomas. This purports to trace the family back (albeit with increasing vagueness) to the early 16th century, but as we move to later times it becomes far more than a list of deaths, births and marriages. Many of the names have notes added about their achievements, and increasingly (as we come within the compass of Thomas’s own memory) what might be called personal trivia. Take Weeden’s son George Butler (1774-1853), my great*4 uncle. He was certainly a man of distinction, successively Senior Wrangler (look it up!), Headmaster of Harrow and Dean of Peterborough. My father had a print of George (where is it now?), looking every inch a dean in his lawn sleeves, or whatever material graces the arms of a dean, and the two letters from him in the Records book show him very much in that character. Here he is, for example, writing on 2nd July 1849 to his niece Fanny about a recent scare - perhaps angina? - just a week short of his 75th birthday (or “Grand Climacteric”, as he puts it, though I always thought that was one’s 63rd):

In some respects I do believe that my complaint may have undergone some alleviation, —though never, I suppose, likely to be cured. It is an affection of the heart, not uncommon at my advanced age, and best understood, in its moral and spiritual character, when regarded as a timely warning from an all-merciful providence “to set one’s house in order”, and with loins girded and lamp burning to be waiting for the coming of the Son of Man. God grant, that He may find me so prepared.

Very laudable sentiments, but who would guess from all this that George was also – or so says the Tree – one of the best fencers, swimmers and skaters of his time? It puts him in a whole new light.

The Family Tree is positively garrulous in some places. Under his own entry, for example, Thomas tells – in increasingly-tiny but still miraculously-legible handwriting – how on Saturday June 10th, 1916 (his 70th birthday), he travelled with his son Montagu (my grandfather) to York for the 9th Congress of British Esperantists, and the following day gave a sermon in Esperanto at the Church of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate. Interesting, maybe – especially to me, as I happen to know and like that church – but is this outing really tree-worthy? Oh well, his Tree, his rules.

In other places, though, the Tree is quite tight-lipped. Take skater George again. His side of the family is by far the most illustrious, but you wouldn’t guess that from the Family Tree, which makes no mention of his daughter Louisa, who married Francis Galton, or of his son Montagu’s being Master of Trinity, Cambridge; or indeed of his great-grandson Richard, who as Rab Butler passed the 1944 Education Act. [ETA: admittedly this would have been difficult to predict c.1918 when the Tree was compiled!] His eldest son George’s marriage is also unmentioned, though in a later, very faint, pencilled hand someone has added “=Josephine Grey” next to his name. Josephine Grey is better known as Josephine Butler, the campaigner for women’s rights. It’s hard to believe that Thomas was unaware of her. Perhaps he left her out because he disapproved (as did many of her contemporaries – though notably not her husband) of a lady making public speeches about venereal disease and demanding better treatment for prostitutes? More likely it was simply that she wasn’t of the hallowed Butler blood, any more than that upstart Francis Galton, and so was of no interest.

By comparison with the fame of the cadet branch, my own line of Butlers, descended from George’s older brother (yet another Weeden), describes a slow decline into the eccentric obscurity we currently enjoy. But it’s not without interest, as I hope to show in future instalments - and at least we don’t have that eugenics shit to live down.



* “On the right side of the garden, and communicating with the house, was erected an elegant brick building, a hundred feet long, and sixteen wide; in which were the baths and fumigating stones; adjoining to which were four sweating bed-chambers, to be directed to any degree of heat, and the water of the bath, and vaporous effluvia of the stove impregnated with such herbs and plants as might be most efficacious to the case.” An Historical and Topographical Description of Chelsea and Its Environs, Thomas Faulkner, 1810
Tags: family history
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