Back in the nineteenth century Wood Green was rather different to its current incarnation. Up until the twentieth century, large houses were still dotted about the area. Just to the west of the Great Northern railway line stood a large house called The Mansion.
Built in the early 1870s at the the junction of Alexandra Park Road and Palace Gates Road, The Mansion was commissioned and built in the early 1870s by a Belgian ex-cavalry officer at a cost of £20,000 (many millions at today's value*).
When I first started uncovering this military man's tale, I thought it was one of an eccentric and spoiled fantasist. But the more I dug into his past, the less I liked him. What was gradually revealed to me was a man who clearly felt the world owed him a living and treated those about him with little respect or even humanity, particularly those he perceived to be 'less' than himself.
On the many occasions he crossed the line, his wealth and position afforded him a level of protection by those in authority that gave him reason to believe that he could carry on behaving as he wished. However, ultimately, his grandfather sought to reign him in by the use of extreme financial sanctions.
Known in the neighbourhood as the Belgian Lieutenant, our Belgian protagonist went by a number of names. Most colourfully, he was known as Le Chevalier Georges Solinsky de Bruxelles. Whilst he claimed that this was the only name by which he was known in Belgium, it appears to have been a complete confection. On official documents iin this country, he was known as George Smith-Burggraeve or simply George Smith.
The socialist wags at the Clarion newspaper, clearly didn't think much of George's titular pretensions.
I have been unable to track down his family history. So I cannot confirm with certainty what his given name was. What I can say is that it appears that he was indeed of Belgian extraction and probably birth and that Burggraeve is a name of Belgian origin.**
Setting up Home
George married in 1878 and his employment of a nurse over a period of nine years suggests that he may have had a large family. But I was only able to find records of the birth of one child, a daughter born at The Mansion in 1884.
It is likely that the house, with its notably continental styling, had only been finished shortly before George's marriage. Contemporary newspaper reports reveal that his grandfather gave his wife between £7,000 and £8,000 to furnish it, a considerable sum in today's values.
Life was quite comfortable for the Burggraeves to begin with, particularly so for George who seems to have had his bread buttered on both sides. In the early 1870s, he set up in business, trading as a colonial merchant, under the name George Smith & Co at 60 Fenchurch Street. Prior to 1871, the firm had been run as a family concern by his partner Philip de Bosson and his brothers.
At home in Wood Green, George and his wife had nine servants, including five domestic staff, a coachman, a groom and a gardener. George also kept a separate house in Hornsey where a young lady lived, as the contemporary press described it, 'under his protection' "The establishment", commented the Morning Post was “rather extravagantly conducted”. Little more need be said. Perhaps it was no more than what what expected of someone of his class in the period.
Off the Rails
Spending, it seems, was something George loved to do. Records estimate that he and his wife spent between £10,000 and £20,000 furnishing the mansion, millions at today's values. It appears that their purchases may have been made in haste or they felt the need to change their furniture regularly. Later court reports reveal that George was in the habit of making a gift of rooms full of furniture to his servants.
Our lieutenant doesn't come across as a man in control. Matters at work were soon to take him further down the path to chaos. In 1880, his firm ran into trouble and Philip de Bosson absconded leaving Burggraeve to deal with significant debt. Guided by his friends he was able to repay the debt at a discount' He then survived without work, living off an allowance of £8,000 a year from his grandfather.
Within a few years, George became gossip fodder for the scandal-hungry late Victorian press, a habit that proved hard to break. Through the 1880s and in to the early 1890s, Burggraeve was rarely out of the newspapers for more than a few years - and none the stories was positive.
As a foretaste of what was to come, the first incident picked up by the newspapers was in 1886. It followed what became a pattern that was to be repeated in some of the future incidents: it started with, what for the time would probably have been seen at the time, as inappropriate fraternisation between servant and master and ended with a punitive outburst.
The People newspaper takes up the story in an article entitled 'The Belgian Officer and his Coachman':
Soon after entering on his duties his master told him to drive to the café Royal, Regent Street, where they had dinner together at the same table (Laughter.)
Following this incident, there was evidently some sort of falling out between the two men and coachman Haydon was dismissed by his employer. The newspaper report went on to relate how "Mr. Avery", counsel for plaintiff Haydon, questioned his client.
Mr Avery - What occurred when you were dismissed by the defendant on November 16? – The witness: The defendant said to me, “Out you get of this house in 20 minutes, or I’ll blow your head off." (Laughter.) – Mr Avery - Do you know why you were dismissed? – The witness: No, except from what he said. He said, “Oh! You have had the impudence to enquire in the village as to my character.“ (Laughter.) I replied, “No, sir; so far from that. I have closed people's mouths in the village.“ (Laughter.)
Later in the proceedings, Avery gave voice to the infringement of social mores the lunch represented., "Don't you think you were very familiar with your coachman at the Cafe Royal?"
It is difficult to conclude what had transpired between the two men. But it starts to paint a picture of a man who disposes at will with those less powerful than himself.
Two years later, Burggraeve sacked another coachman and once again found himself taken to court for unpaid wages. But this time his behaviour had progressed to include violence. The events had apparently started when a misunderstanding had left Burggraeve waiting for his transport home in the West End. When he eventually got back to The Mansion, somewhat drunk by his own account, he attacked coachman George Crozier with a riding whip, striking him several blows about the head and then threatened to kill him.
After the incident Burgraeve again sacked his coachman. Commenting on the injury Crozier sustained, the judge rather incredibly concluded “there was some kind of provocation and the injuries were not severe”. So the penalty was no more than a small fine. Thankfully, however, the judge found for the plaintiff with respect to lost wages.
The following year, the Belgian again found himself in court: this time it was after he struck a woman in the street with his walking stick. The excerpt below is taken from a story of the court case carried in the Morning Post and entitled Extraordinary Conduct of a Belgian Officer.
Smith defended his conduct with the explanation that he and his companion had been mistaken for European royalty whilst they were still in the store and that a threatening crowd had gathered outside with the intent of robbing them. He explained that his actions were self-defence.
Through the progress of the trial, we also learn that Burggraeve had been convicted of many other assaults, including the recent assault of his gardener.
The next year, in 1890, Burgraeve was in court again. This case concerned Ann Weeks who had been employed as the family's nurse on and off for nine years. Her ex-employer brought a short-lived case against her for theft. Lloyds Weekly covered it very briefly.
A counter-action brought by the nurse the following year, may suggest what lay behind the previous year's case. Ann's' case against Burggraeve in 1891 was to recover from the defendant damages for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. Her grounds were as follows.
Having claimed to have discovered the theft, Burggraeve took a detective to Ann Weeks' house and without a warrant searched it and and found a clock, brooch and nine diamonds which he claimed were stolen. The nurse was then taken into custody for the alleged theft.
At the trial, Nurse Weeks said that the items had been given to her. In evidence it was submitted that Burgraeve had given rooms full of furniture to servants. Teh Belgian admitted to this as well as to giving nurse Weeks gifts.
The 'inidgnant jury' found in the nurse's favour and she was awarded damages of £120.
No doubt, there were plenty of other incidents that didn't see the light of day. Those that did get aired suggest that all the while Burggraeve's was continuing to live high on the hog on his grandfather's money.
Apparently, his grandfather eventually tired of his grandson's behaviour and, in November 1891, cut him off without a penny. Without family support, Burggraeve was quickly driven into bankruptcy. During the the bankruptcy proceedings that followed, we learn that his grandfather "wrote a letter to the effect that he would not send any more on account of his (Burggraeve's) conduct".
Burgraeve presented himself at a the first bnakruptcy hearing in 1892. After this, however, he seems to have made himself scarce and I have been unable to find any further trace of him.
Later that same year The Mansion was put up for sale.
The Mansion's Next Chapter
The house did find a new owner, but it was never again to be inhabited as a single family dwelling.
After sitting on the market for five years, it was evident that The Mansion had very quickly become something of a white elephant. Finally, in 1898, the Shoreditch Board of Guardians, desperate to alleviate their shortage of workhouse accommodation, took a three year lease on the house to accommodate 70 elderly residents from the Kingsland Road workhouse premises.
It proved to be a popular destination with the occupants.
At the end of the lease period, the Board decided to purchase the house. At just £4,000, it seems like a bargain when compared to the supposed building cost some 30 years previously.
The Mansion continued to house the poor of the East End till around 1920, although records suggest that at some point between 1907 and 1909, it may have changed from providing temporary workhouse accommodation to being a convalescent home.
The Final Chapter
By 1927, the building had been converted into eight flat sand continued in this format until it was demolished around 1960 and replaced with the Anderton Court flats that stand there today.
There are many old houses whose passing I mourn. Because of the grim shadow cast by its original owner, I can't quite find it in myself to do so for this one.
*The Bank of England inflation calculator estimates that £20,000 in 1875 is worth £2.3M today. measuringworth.com considers the relative values against a range of yardsticks and provides estimates from £1.9M to £15M
**Burggraeve is not a common name even in Belgium. There was a prominent Professor Burggraeve at Ghent university who had been the surgeon to Napoleon III. He had a great grandson in England by the name of Adolphe Smith. (That Smith name again!) So it may be that George/s was also related to this professor. But I can find no population records of any of the familly in this country.
What an interesting tale Hugh
What a brilliant yarn! Thank you Hugh for your work. This would actually make a really good House in Time piece by David Olasago! I just wish I had bumped into the story during my time at the HJ!
I was thinking the same, Richard. House history can be fascinating. I can imagine those contented old fellas with their baccy, their library, their draughts and dominoes. They'd take the baccy away these days, more's the pity.
Comments sent to me by Ernest today and reproduced here with his permission.
This was quite a blast from the past for me as we lived about one hundred yards up the hill from this building and from our back garden we could look straight across to it.
Beyond the left hand railings was a horse chestnut tree, we would leg over and gather the best conkers around.
On the corner across the road was an Air Raid Wardens' ARP Post and alongside the mansion was the Palace path where a Bomb Shelter was built.
You have thrown light on what we had no knowledge of.
Burggraeve's well-heeled grandad wasn't King Leopold II by any chance?