Saved by the Crash!

Just how did the Wall Street Crash of 1929 save a tiny Chilterns village?

On a quiet August afternoon, camera in hand, I took to the back streets of West Wycombe village. Away from the busy thoroughfare, apart from the TV aerials amongst the chimney pots, not much has changed. 

The St Lawrence golden ball and Dashwood mausoleum survey their village

This tiny village, that hugs the hillside looks just like a film set; steep lanes, wobbly windows festooned with impressive cobwebs, doorways for tiny residents and unexpected passageways. All authentic, medieval properties, re-purposed for 21st century life. How come there are no ghastly 1960’s office blocks, betting shops or parking garages along this delightful high street? 

Wall Street

Luckily for us, through a chain of events that started in New York with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, West Wycombe village, in its entirety was sold by the Dashwood family to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (better known as the Royal Society of Arts), as part of the Society’s “Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages”. In 1934, the Society handed the property over to the National Trust, which is why so many original 16th – 18th century facings still exist.

I have village hall envy

This was once an important stop for weary travellers heading too and from London by stagecoach, along pitted and muddy roads. The street was packed with hospitality options, although chances are you’d have had to share your noisy, scratchy bed with a stranger. In 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the village, and today you can stop to enjoy a pint or glass of something local in the one of the tea shops or pubs. At least that hasn’t changed!

Wobby windows and doors for tiny people.
Wobbly walls and windows with doors for tiny people

Take in all attractions; the caves, St Lawrence and the mausoleum, down to the high street for a wander and then over the road into the National Trust Park. During the summer, the house is open, so set aside one day. Do the place justice!

West Wycombe House doesn’t try and dominate the landscape; it sits comfortably in its surrounds.
A familiar exterior that has been the star in many films, including ‘The Importance of Being Ernest.’

Further information:

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree, just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter! The West Wycombe story continues with this earlier feature: Hellfire on a Hill.

West Wycombe Park is generally open from Sunday through to Thursdays between 2-6pm from April and October. West Wycombe House is open for a few months over the summer. Best to check the National Trust website. Dogs are not allowed into the Park, but are welcome on the hillside opposite.

There are no formal gardens in West Wycombe park, just acres of lakes, trees and follies.
The ripples caused by energetic trout that fling themselves through the air, somersaulting and mid-air twists hardly a challenge.

There are no refreshments in the park, but along the high street are several pubs, a coffee shop and village store to support. The Hellfire Caves attraction is further up the hill above the village.

We like to celebrate our quirky residents, past and present and for another grand design, visit the National Trust at Stowe, near Buckingham.

Why should you visit our quintessential, uncrowded, rolling shades of green English countryside, with its impressive selection of museums, villages, pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns.

The steep lanes leading down the West Wycombe high street
Chilterns country cottages

George Alexander Gratton

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd; of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.

Two weathered headstones bolted together in the All Saints Church cemetery in Marlow, are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a mysterious so-called ‘Spotted Boy’ sold to be put on show for the paying public to gawp at. 

Intrigued to hear of the “Beautiful Spotted Boy of Marlow”, I arranged to meet Mike Hyde, volunteer and chair of the Marlow Museum. This is the place to go for all things Marlow, and their current Travellers’ Tales exhibition includes the fascinating stories of four historical people with local connections; Kate Marsden, explorer, writer and nursing heroine, Sir Robert Hart, British diplomat and official in the Qing Chinese government, King Zog, exiled King of Albania and George Alexander Gratton, aka “the spotted boy”. It is the last on this list that I am writing about, the others are no less interesting, but for very different reasons.

The spiritual home of rowing, Marlow is a well-heeled market town straddling the River Thames, east of Henley-upon-Thames and west of Cookham in the central Chilterns. Once a centre for lace making and timber, renowned these days for the many excellent restaurants and places to while away a few hours along the graceful Georgian high street, it is perhaps the combination of All Saints church spire and the William Tierney Clark-designed bridge that Marlow is most remembered. Modelled on similar designs to both the Hammersmith Bridge in London and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, this is its statement feature.

Marlow is a town that keeps its stories close

This is the tragic story of a young boy born on July 24th 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, where it was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander. King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name. According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol. At the tender age of 15 months. Facts are hard to verify as it’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England, and who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy. Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days. 

George Alexander coloured aquatint after Daniel Orme 1809. Subtitled: “An Extraordinary Spotted Boy” this engraving was often sold as a souvenir. Credit: Marlow Museum

The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman? George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo. This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white. It is more noticeable in people of colour.  

Three murders and a ghost

One such fair is described so vividly by Charles Dickens in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ published in 1836: ‘Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, ‘a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,’ and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. ”

Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield London.  Credit: Marlow Museum 

Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’. He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London.  

Contradiction and the absurd

Two weathered headstones bolted together in the cemetery of All Saints Church in Marlow are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a young boy purchased for 1,000 guineas to be put on show.

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd as it is said that the childless Richardson formed a bond with the boy, he even had him baptised George Alexander Gratton and brought to Marlow where he lived as his son. Around five years of age, on February 3rd 1813, his brief life came to an end, with all manner of speculation to the cause of death. Richardson was alleged to have kept the body for fear it would be stolen, until he could be interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral it is said, full of pomp and circumstance. Before Richardson died in 1837, he requested he be buried in the same vault, with the two back-to-back headstones bolted together.

Mike Hyde shared this verse from the now weathered epitaph: 

“Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eye

Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,

Know that there lies beneath this humble stone

A child of colour, haply not thine own, 

His parents, born of Afric’s sunburnt race,

Tho’ white and black where blended in his face, 

To Britain brought, which made his parents free, 

And showed the world great nature’s prodigy.”

Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by a loud mobile conversation on an iPhone from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Had to tick this sight off the bucket list, and was oblivious to the oil painting that Richardson had donated to the church. Over time, it fell into a state of disrepair and was restored about 10 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.

George Gratton, painted by the artist Coventry that still hangs in All Saints Church. 

I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’ We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where. We know very little about him. It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the grotesque and offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language.  I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2018 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son? His agony at not being with his parents. So far from home, paraded around town with Richardson, put on display for upwards of 12 hours at a time, what life was this for any child to have to endure? Perhaps his early passing was a blessing and a relief for him to find some peace. 

Sadly, there is no indication of where these graves are. I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.

Somewhere amongst these headstones is the grave

How wonderful then that the Marlow Museum has included George’s forgotten story in the Travellers’ Tales exhibition, I recommend you visit and find out more. They are also working with the Saint Vincent & The Grenadines 2nd Generation (SV2G) on a Heritage Lottery-funded project that seeks to uncover connections between Marlow and High Wycombe to deliver a new programme of Vincentian heritage events to commemorate the tragic life of this young boy, believed to be one of the earliest (if not the first) recored Vincentian’s in Britain. I am looking forward to finding out more about these links and the communities that have made their home in the Chilterns.

Further information

Travellers’ Tales with Marlow connections is on at the Marlow Museum. Find out more about All Saints Church and perhaps if you visit, ask where the grave is, as I couldn’t find it.

Read the wonderful story of Peter the Wild Boy part one and part two

Explore the naturally outstanding Chilterns and the market town of Marlow or take a walking tour of the historic town centre.

Discover more Chilterns Churches, ideas for winter wanderings and for the spring, the unique and bonkers Swan Upping ceremony that is best enjoyed from the riverside at Marlow.