Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Fitz-Henry / Darwin connection?

Here in the UK, there's been a fair bit of celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin. And for a brief time I thought that we at the Blog could share in the party.

Back in December I did a piece about Captain William Fitz-Henry of Ashtead Surrey. His address was given in the 1885 Kelly's directory as Oakfield Lodge, Ashtead. When I randomly Googled "Oakfield Lodge, Ashtead", I was surprised to get a hit from the New York Botanical Gardens.
In the library collection of the papers of Charles Finney Cox, one of the founders of the Gardens and a great admirer and collector of all things Darwin, was a letter written at Oakfield Lodge. The letter had black borders and was sent from that address on 18th March 1886.

Black edged paper was used for correspondence by families in mourning, and this letter was sent within the six months of deep mourning that would have followed the death of the head of the family. William died in November 1885. I was very excited by this - I knew that Charles Darwin had died in 1882, but would this letter show that the Fitz-Henrys had some acquaintance with the Darwin family?

Stephen Sinon, one of the archivists, quickly brought me down to earth.
The letter in question is an offer to publish some photographs and sketches the author has. They are being offered to an artist assigned to create drawings for an illustrated edition of Darwin's travels. Apparently the letter mentions they met aboard 'The Wanderer' at Cowes. The signature is a bit indistinct but seems to read "Foley C Vescken".
While disappointed that the letter was not written by a Fitz-Henry, I can tell you that the author of the letter was the next occupant of the house, Commander the Honorable Foley C. Prendergast Vereker RN FRGS (Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society). I found him at Oakfield Lodge in the 1886 edition of Kelly's directory when the widowed Mrs Martha Fitz-Henry had moved to "The Shaw". This indicates that the Fitz-Henry family had moved out of Oakfield very soon after William's death.

Commander Vereker was a member of the family who are holders of the title Viscount Gort. He himself was an explorer and surveyor, charting the Magellan Strait, the Sunda Strait and North East Borneo coasts and the Western Australian waters.

And this wasn't the last time that Oakfield Lodge had notable persons living there. In 1907, letters were sent to David Lloyd George (the British Prime minister) by Hubert Llewellyn Smith who worked with Charles Booth to improve the lot of the London dock workers in the late Victorian age.

If anyone out there has a picture of Oakfield Lodge, will they please email it to me. I believe that the house has now been demolished.

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