Sanderson at the Langham Hotel

The Civil War was a memory. In the first five years after the war’s end many of carpetbaggers and scalawags had been found out by resentful losers reposed in the Southern States and so some of those northern infiltrators and Southern turncoats, high on quick riches and low on moral self worth redirected their attention to Europe.

A posse of shady Americans wishing to hoodwink the British with the title deeds to exotically distant worn-out mines or cattle ranches replete with lush grass and sweet natured neighbours arrived en masse in London to set up base. For their home away from home they chose the Langham Hotel.Langham_hotel

These Americans had to stick together as many of them were not widely welcome in polite society.  The Wall Street Journal attacked this guild of speculators in 1871 and The Times the following year called them “mere western adventurers with nothing to spare of either capital or character, who could not find a respectable banker in New York to co-operate with them.”

When it opened the summer the war ended in 1865, the Langham Hotel had much to offer American expatriates — and not just the con tricksters. From the day it opened, it was run on ‘American lines’. That meant its suites had their own private bathrooms and even for the less opulent, just taking a room, there were more shared bathrooms than was the norm in London. The hotel had its own artesian well to supply its own in-house laundry and more importantly to those that knew London’s reputation (‘don’t drink the water or eat a salad’) to provide pure drinking water from which the risk of disease had been removed. And with 38,000 gallons of water pumped up to tanks in the roof, fire was less of a risk than with some older London hotels. It even boasted lifts for people and for their luggage – six people at a time could travel in the hotel’s guest elevator or ‘rising room’ to use a name destined not to catch on.

Above all in the damp and dreary winter climate, the American plan meant heat. This point was made by an American traveller so world weary and such a moaner about things foreign that you’d almost take him to be English. He was John Weiss Forney, journalist, editor and minor politician. By his photographs he has something about him that reminds one of the contemplativeness of mid-life John Wayne, and in a way his stance on America’s supremacy among nations reminds one too.



This is Forney writing in his Colonel Forney s Letters from Europe some three years after the Langham opened:-

“I am stopping at the Langham Hotel, at the southern extremity of Portland Place, which is regarded as the healthiest site in London, overlooking the noblest thorough- fares in the metropolis and commanding a view of the broad walk of Regent’s Park, and, on a clear day, of the beautiful heights of Hampstead and Highgate. As this establishment is now in charge of an American, Colonel James M. Sanderson (formerly of Philadelphia), and is partially conducted upon American principles, being in this respect an experiment in the British metropolis, a few words in regard to it may not be uninteresting.

The difference between the English and American hotels is, in my opinion, largely in favor of the latter, and the success which promises to crown Colonel Sanderson’s effort strengthens this conviction. While there are undoubtedly many ideas which the American hotel-keepers might get from their English associates, nothing is clearer than that the system so successful in our country will, when fairly tried, supersede many of the English habitudes. Colonel Sanderson has adopted a plan which unites the best points of the three systems, English, French, and American the comfort of the first, the elegance of the second, and the discipline and organization of the third. You cannot enter an English hotel without being instantly chilled.

Even the Langham, with its American guests and kindly English faces, is cold in comparison to such establishments as the Continental in Philadelphia; the Brevoort in New York; and Barnum’s, in Baltimore. The English people are undoubtedly more home-like than the French, and therefore more like our own; but their hotels are, to my sensibilities, exceedingly repulsive. Of course, much of this results from the fact that every thing is strange to me; but no Englishman that I have met, especially of those who are enjoying the comforts of the Langham, refuses to admit that in many respects our hotels are superior.”

So who was this American, Colonel James Monroe Sanderson, that Ferney praises?

langham sanderson face


How he got the Langham job harked back to 1860 when the callow young Prince of Wales was sent to North America to polish his diplomatic skills, pat the locals on the head and sow a wild oat or three. Much to the chagrin of the Canadians, the American Sanderson was seconded to organise the catering on the royal progress and occasionally to act as chef. Queen Victoria’s son and heir remembered Sanderson and so when the Langham went through a bad patch, HRH put in the word with the chairman – and you did not turn away a recommendation from the next king of England.

Sanderson’s was a back-story that reminds us all that there was once adversity out there the kind of which we no longer suffer.

Sanderson was born in 1817 and grew up in Philadelphia. You could say that hospitality was in the blood as his father was a hotelkeeper too. Together they ran the best hotel in Philadelphia, The Merchant’s Hotel on 4th St and young Sanderson added a resort hotel, the Brandywine Springs near Wilmington to the list in 1839.

langham brandywine

Sanderson’s Brandywine Hotel

By the mid forties Messrs Sandersons had a chain of hotels and franchises. They were a notable success. Then came the war and the need to provide huge numbers of men with food and the means to cook it. Sanderson was commissioned to the vital role of commissary management, some said without taking any pay. By 1863 he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

He wasn’t a stay-at-home soldier though and while reconnoitring a stream crossing he was caught and incarcerated in a warehouse turned into the notorious Libby prison.  Bars instead of glass at the window and gross overcrowding meant that conditions were primitive and disease spread rapidly. Sanderson, whose role had previously been to give practical advice to the average soldier on how to feed himself  took similar charge inside Libby.

langham libby

Libby Prison, Richmond in 1865.

Before he arrived the prison had already divided into factions. Very soon Sanderson fell out with a man who had taken over much of the top floor accommodation for himself and his cronies. Lt Colonel Abel Streight and Sanderson became the sort of enemies that only close proximity in a school or prison can sustain.

langham streight

Abel Streight; does he look like a man you’d want to do jail time with?

When Streight, Sanderson and 107 other officers escaped the jail through a tunnel on the night of February 9 1864, Sanderson was shocked to find that when he got back to the Union side he was arrested on the say-so of Streight. Sanderson’s alleged crimes were many. He kept food from the others, he even stole the egg nog destined for the hospital and most importantly he provided information to the guards.

When a trial failed, Sanderson was ignominiously dismissed the service by June of that year. After a fight he and his friends got him re-admitted to the army by August and then honourably mustered out.

Enough must have been enough for Sanderson among the East Coast establishment so that when he got the call from the Langham he packed his trunk and said farewell to fractious New York and his enemies.

But on Thursday morning of November 16 1871, just after he had given staff instructions about the wedding breakfast that was take place in the coffee room later, Sanderson felt faint and collapsed on this way from the cellar to his office. He was taken to the boardroom where, though he was conscious for a half hour, he died. Within the week his body was heading for Liverpool and a ship to take him home.

Nevertheless, he got a good write up:-

langham Sanderson

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Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble

Rome, that is to say ancient Rome “fell”. Every schoolkid knows that. But a thought occurs to me. Was it the hordes of heathens knocking at the gate that told Romans, in a manner not unlike Nicholson in The Shining that “Here’s Gothy…!” as they chopped their way through that gate? Or were there subtler tides that crept unceasingly over the togas on the beach?

I bet ‘austerity’ is how the Roman Empire began to crumble; first the roads, then social services and the ability to defend themselves come what may. We nowadays think decline’s a temporary, partisan and fixable thing when it’s almost certainly the whimper preceding the bang.

“Ancient footprints are everywhere. You can almost think that you’re seeing double.”


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Somebody call the hair police

What did you do if you’re a young (ish) woman in the French region of Brittany in the 1860s and you needed a new dress or a pair of shoes? Why, you had a haircut, that’s what you did.

Here’s Bentley’s Miscellany on the subject in 1863:-

From 15 to 40 years of age the hair is saleable about seven times, but the price diminishes on each occasion, because of the greater coarseness of the product. Now, as the total female population of the three hair-growing departments stands at 893,000, of whom at least one-half are above 15, follows that, if three-quarters of them pursue the trade, some 260,000 heads contribute, in that district alone, the supply of wigs and fausses queues to the richer classes. The thing is such a habit in Brittany, and is regarded as so natural (though there are symptoms that it is diminishing) that if a young girl wants pair of sabots her mother will simply send her to market to exchange her hair against them. The women who have contracted the habit of dealing regularly, as long as they can get crop, cannot bear to have their hair long afterwards, so when it turns grey, and is no longer sale: able, they hack it down themselves, and keep in such a bristly state that when they take off their coiffes jumps up into a thorny aureole, like a firework in explosion. There is a grizzly old peasant woman near St. Brieuc who has smouldered into rheumatisms and neuralgia, and who always swears indignantly at her hair as the cause of them; when a twinge comes on she tells her grandchildren ” to cut off a little square there, just there, that is where the pain is, it will go away with the confounded hair.”

All this hair was ending up in the UK and America where wigs and hair extensions had become resurgent in women’s fashion. This followed a lull earlier in the century when the trendsetters tried desperately to avoid the overblown hair fashions of Georgian and Regency England.

Where there is money changing hands there is always the option for dishonesty. In New York professional teams would circulate crowded places visited by those rich enough to have already made purchases of hair and they would be deprived of their own hair or even the very expensive imported extensions they wore.

Nowhere was sacred from ‘hair depredation’ as it was known. Though the story may be apocryphal, the New York Sun in 1869 told of a rich young teenage girl with magnificent hair ‘of the richest chestnut color and flowed in shining ripples even beyond her waist’. When she suddenly died, she was laid out in a bedroom and the room cleared. While the parents grieved in another part of the mansion, yes, you’ve guessed, someone came in and “robbed the fair corpse of all her tresses”. The report claims this was not an isolated incident either, and so one hopes New York’s finest closely questioned workers in funeral homes nearby.

But there was an even darker side when, let’s be honest, fetishists, took to wandering the streets with scissor or razor in hand ready to clandestinely deprive girls and women of their own curl or plait.

In 1912, Paris police were hunting an upper crust Englishman who was hanging around the “night establishments of Montmartre”.  His pitch was first to ask, saying (as if this wasn’t weird enough) that he was collecting hair to make a mattress. When, unsurprisingly, he was turned down, he resorted to inviting the woman whose hair he fancied to dine, then drugging her and snipping what he desired. If only he’d known about Brittany (and we don’t mean Britney — she had hair issues of her own a while back, but that’s another yarn).

The practice is probably going on even today, to satisfy the kinky, though hopefully relatively harmless, deviants out there.

In 1926 Maurice Knight, a 29 year old commercial traveller from the poor Eastern side of London was arrested after loitering suspiciously in the ritzy district of Maida Vale for some hours. When searched, he had on him two locks of hair. The Sherlock Holmes on the case, one police sergeant Pike, told the court “It is quite possible the hair found on his person has been cut from women.”

You don’t say…





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Three paragraphs

a 3 para

Not as bad as the 1868 earthquake and tsunamis where 25,000 died, but still pretty serious. This is an example of how the God-fearing 19th century took on board a natural disaster without the handwringing cliché-ridden sentimentalism with which 24 hour news has sensitised the world.

This June 30 1877 report is from a provincial paper in the west of the UK, a paper likely to have been read by relatives of some of those un-named Cornish miners. But the death of the 200 makes it to paragraph two of a three paragraph story. How different it would be nowadays.

“As I stand beside this pile of rubble that 24 hours ago was a building at the top of the mineshaft… every few minutes there is a call for silence as rescuers listen for survivors… and then a cheer goes up as a miner is rescued alive from the devastation. But mostly it is simply another sad, blanket covered body that is pulled from the scene of this tragedy and taken through the crowd of anxious family members gathered in small groups, some sobbing and inconsolable while others wait in silence amid the dust and devastation of this once quiet hamlet… This is Betty Reporter, CNN, at the aftermath of the earthquake in Tocopilla, Peru”

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Tommy this and Tommy that


We are lucky to have a photograph of Troop Sergeant Major Edwin Mole

Here’s a tale about one of the soldiers of the Queen, one Edwin Kempson Mole (1847-1937). For a few months in 1897 this soldier became famous in a Kiplingesque Tommy Atkins sort of way, after his reminiscences of army service were published. But it is worth looking at what parts of the story the book did not relate.

Troop sergeant major Mole told his readers how he first took the Queen’s shilling for a cavalry regiment aged just 16, following  an argument with his foreman while he was working to build the Charing Cross Hotel in London. He served 25 years in the 14th (King’s) Hussars, serving most of that long time overseas, in India — Kalapoosh as the squaddies (or ‘swaddies’, to use the original old northern/Norse word) called the country.

Before he sailed for India he married a girl he met while serving in Dublin. She went to India with him, had a daughter and died there. The daughter he sent home to live with the late wife’s sister. Mole remarried while in India. Tellingly, as we shall see, his biography leaves out what may have happened to wife number two.

At the end of his enlistment, with a pension of £40 a year and quite a bit of his life ahead of him, ex-sergeant major Mole felt himself very fortunate when he left Colchester garrison depot for the last time on July 27 1888.

After that things went down hill, judging from his police blotter and medical records. Maybe he wasn’t such a hero after all, perhaps more a controlling deceiving slimebag — a possible bigamist, probable incestuous child abuser and certainly prone to violence against at least two women – of the three who at different (or almost certainly in the case of the last two, the same) time called him husband. His fall from exemplary grace is so hard to explain. Either he was devious and bad, or sick and helpless. You decide. Either way it shows how much disappears from biography and how little of us is really left to history.

With his honourable discharge in his pocket he moved in with his dead wife’s sister who had minded his daughter when she was sent home. They lived in a tiny village near to his last barrack in Colchester.

It was only just over a year later that he was in court for allegedly raping his only child.  He was charged with “unlawfully and carnally knowing his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mole, aged 12 years, at Cornard”. The newspapers danced around relating sordid details of the case, so we know not much more than that. However, we do know his defence tried the time honoured tactic of accusing the victim. The paper said that Mole’s lawyer “…severely cross-examined complainant [a 12-year old] at great length to test her credibility.

“He elicited the fact that she had been a great source of trouble to her parents on account of her lying and thieving propensities.”

But there was worse yet… “She denied reading sensational novels, and said she read only what her father allowed her to read. She admitted having left home for a night when living at Ipswich.”

Now if that does make her an absolute harlot, I don’t know what else a court would need.

On the balance of probabilities it appears that something like what she claimed may well have gone on. Her evidence included the fact that she had given some of her clothing to the nextdoor neighbour — and the neighbour had examined them. Not quite a forensic rape test kit, but a married woman’s report of what she found should have carried some weight. Not so. While the paper admitted that she “expressed her opinion” to the court, it does not say what that opinion was. However you can be sure it would have been mentioned if her evidence had disproved little Mary Elizabeth’s claim. The three man panel of magistrates decided there was not enough to take the case to a higher court and so Mole escaped.

By 1893 he had moved 20 miles and was to be found running a pub on the outskirts of Cambridge. We know this because he was fined for allowing gambling on the premises. That’s a minor occupational hazard of all pub landlords, but worth noting in that Mole was closely associated with alcohol..

This leads me to mention that later in his life, in the early years of the 20th century, Mole had a number of short spells in what nowadays we are told to hold our noses when we call them lunatic asylums. As his inpatient stays lasted just months and between times he was well enough to hold down a job – club steward, cold storage warehouse caretaker and house decorator – they are likely to have been alcohol related rather than the other common though more permanent and terminal cause of mental illness – tertiary syphilis.

And that brings us to his wives. Without doubt his first love died in India giving birth to his second child, who also died. His second wife was 20 year-old Agnes Manley Morton, born in the Nagpur cantonment of Kamptee. She parted with him before he left India saying she had to leave him ‘on account of his violence’. They communicated by letter. That is to say he wrote them and she sent them back unopened.

But in 1891 the 44 year old Mole married a 18 year old, Fanny Luxton Dean in Battersea, South London. He claimed he was a widower. They lived together as husband and wife more than a decade and probably much longer, but the spells in the asylum must have been too much for Fanny. Eventually she moved back into London while Sergeant Major Dean had pursued yet another career change – as a chicken farmer in what is now the commuter belt in leafy Surrey.

We next encounter Mole just after Christmas in 1916, 26 years into this probably bigamous marriage to Fanny. He gets discovered through his own folly and violent behaviour. He is now going on 70 years of age, but it does not stop Farmer Mole twice visiting his seemingly estranged wife in London where she is then living, breaking up the chest of drawers and the door lock and on the second occasion threatening to assault her. In January 1917 he appeared in court. Somehow during the hearing the prosecution tells the magistrate that charges have been changed by the police to the much more serious one of bigamy. There is no answer  where they got this information. It’s unlikely the police found this out unaided. Let’s face it, record keeping between Imperial India and a local magistrate just could not have been infallible. Before digitisation, even if the marriage were recorded and accessible back in London someone would have had to know to take down the right ledger for the right year and read the details. Mole could have had his marriage recorded locally in India by his regiment, but would the details have followed him back to England?

Did Fanny know and tell the court? The scanty court reporting makes intriguing if ambiguous reading. The prosecution said that Mole’s wife in India found out about the new model some time soon after the marriage.  That means she was alive and therefore he had committed the crime. For his part Mole said that that wife was now dead from cholera. It’s a nicety in law that bigamy ceases when the first wife dies. Once again Mole escaped.

The final act of this unmasking of the hero came when he finally died in 1937 aged 90. Extraordinarily perhaps he left his money, what there was of it, to his only daughter — the one who rightly or wrongly claimed he’d raped her nearly 50 years before. Families, eh?


To read about military life in India in the middle years of Victoria’s reign told by Edwin Mole to Herbert Compton, go here to download the book, A King’s Hussar

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The Albion Disaster

Thanks to First Night History who reblogged this…

Cemetery Club

by Sheldon

Now that I’m working amongst the glass towers of Canary Wharf, the history of Docklands is of particular interest to me at the moment. I regularly find myself stalking the exhibits of the Museum of London during my lunch hour andlast week I paid a visit toTunnel, the Archaeology of Crossrailwhere I learnt more about a Victorian disaster most of us have never heard about. Remarkably, bits of it were filmed.

On June 21st 1898, close to where Royal Victoria Dock DLR station is now, the firstof sixCanopus class battleships named the HMS Albion was preparing to leave her dock and enter open water. It would be the sixth ship to bear that name for the British Navy since 1763 and what better way to christen this battleship than with an almighty party?

Grandstands were prepared, local children were given the day off from school…

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We walked on the moon. You be polite…

Moving the entire Crystal Palace from Hyde Park nine hilly miles to that vale in Sydenham after the Great Exhibition closed in 1851 was an audacious piece of Victorian chutzpah, but it was by no means unique in that age of civil engineering audaciousness now long passed from the Western psyche.

Think first about how you would do it, to dismantle it — by hand. They took down an entire building some 1500 feet long and three or four storeys high. Men had to work far above the ground without any of today’s safety equipment, in order to unbolt each and every wrought and cast iron girder arch. That was after they stripped off all the acres of glazing. The girders then had to be lowered to the ground by steam powered cranes or the muscle of the labouring men. Then they had to be labelled, put onto wagons and taken through the streets — and these were big pieces of ironwork that probably needed a six horse team to pull them.  They must have stopped traffic as they negotiated their way through narrow streets.

But that was by no means an achievement in the top ten of what the Victorians did. As early as in 1843 English engineers had tunnelled under the Thames. In 1881 they started digging a tunnel under the English Channel, that only security fears and private money problems kept the from finishing. The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 and the Panama Canal was proposed before that, though not begun until 1881. In the late 1850s – and that was 30 years before half of the bridges across the Thames were built, people believed in their own invincible abilities enough that they sank a telegraph wire to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to connect the 3,000 miles between the continents. When it failed — and then its successor cable broke and sank in mid ocean in 1865 — what did the Victorians do? They simply sent out a ship and, with a grappling hook, fished for the cable until they found it. That was the indomitable spirit of the age. Where did it go?


Yeah, just dangle a hook over the side. We’re bound to find it


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Kill Whitey, or at least stop labelling him

I have just finished re-watching Ken Burns’ austere yet elegiac panorama in time and space entitled simply The Civil War, first broadcast 27 years ago. It occurred to me how quickly have curse words changed. I don’t mean since 1861-5, you understand, but from when the series was made. Nowadays in certain respects our sensibilities have become dulled; in other ways words not used to denigrate now burn like a grit-embedded knee graze on a hot, hot day. Back in 1990 in The Civil War actors read testimony from South and the North where speakers were conversant with and used the N word – yassah, dat N word.

Other epithets (and usually those connected with sex or genitalia), once damned; words that start with letters like F and C, are commonplace on TV and cable networks, but that ‘ole N is almost never heard, even if it is to be used in proper historical context, as it was in the Burns documentary. Producers self censor today — and in doing so have canonised a new taboo.

In polite company that N got replaced long ago with a litany of terms that change like hemlines. In no particular order, N got supplanted by “colored”,”negro”,  then “black” and later still“…of color” Nowadays “African American” or in Britain “Afro-Caribbean” are in vogue. The same thing has happened with other groups’ identity, when ‘Injun’ became its own swear word and “Jap’ would make all but WW2 veterans blush. Next year, who knows? (But you can surely guess).

It will be interesting to see how brave or indeed ‘sensitive’ that same Ken Burns has been with the self same N word when his undoubtedly supreme examination of the Vietnam War airs on PBS come September. It was a word that many, dare I say it, ‘black’ servicemen used of themselves as a badge of pride, but will it figure in the series?

In regard to that lame phrase ‘African-American’… So much for Teddy Roosevelt who said:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all … The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic … There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

By the way, I am getting more than a little ticked off by the majority of people in the world calling me “white”. It’s a racial slur — and it has to stop. I’ll get back to you when I’ve decided what you can and cannot call me.

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Three murders; three verdicts

For those incensed over the waywardness of justice these days, where ‘human rights’ trump human wrongs, it’s worth thinking about the way things were. On one evening in April a visiting judge arrived with a fanfare and civic reception to work his way through the prisoners gathered before him at the Spring Assize.  The town was Taunton, Somerset; the year was 1855. By Saturday morning (yes, judges worked Saturdays in those days) in quick succession he had sentenced two men and one woman for three murders they attempted. (separated only by hearings on a mad sailor who set fire to himself, a forger and an oak thief). His honour gave one laddish murderer just four days’ jail time, the next very troubled woman who tried and failed to drown her infant son in a cess pit, transportation for life and another jack the lad with a blade who stabbed his mate to death, 15 months.

Unfair? Read the cases and you decide whether justice was blind – or whether it was a case of, as my old mum used to say: “there’s none so blind as those who will not see.”


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Your seed catalogue for 1797 has arrived


For the gardener historian

Fresh off the ship from England, five, yes count them, five, different varieties of asparagus seed and 23 different melon varieties. Things weren’t so bad in Philadelphia after the war as long as you could feast on 13 different kinds of radish,  or 26 different cabbages.

For the previous year’s catalogue in full go to

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