(with sub-chapters on the Henley & Yeames families)
This story was commissioned in 2006 as a gift for the Green family of Ballyvolane House, Castlelyons, Co. Cork.
The Whishaw Family & the Russian Connection
One of the great discoveries in probing the history of the present day Green family was their descent from the enigmatic Whishaw family, a line of intrepid merchants head-quartered in the great Russian city of St. Petersburg from the time of Peter the great until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The borders of time and generation are deftly swept away with a remark in the memoirs of Jim Whishaw, an enigmatic banker and arms dealer in the days of Tsar Nicholas and Rasputin, stating that one of his best friends was his young grandson, Ian Benson. It was this same Ian Benson who provided me with so much of the following information when I met with him in the autumn of 2005. The rest comes from “A History of the Whishaw Family” by James Whishaw. Jim’s memoirs were written shortly before his death in 1935 and edited by his son-in-law, Maxwell S. Leigh (Methuen & Co. London, 1935, reprinted in facsimile in 1992). Other sources are footnoted.
NB: The actor Ben Whishaw (who also provides the voice of ‘Paddington’) is of French, German and Russian descent; his family name is really Stellmacher.
Ian Benson’s fascination in Russia was originally nourished when, he was educated by a distant relative on his father’s side, John Benson, “a brilliant man” who had been a tutor to one of the Tsarist princes near St. Petersburg during the early 20th century. In the present age of Roman Abramovic and his like, it is reassuring to recall that Russians have always done extravagance better than most. In this particular prince’s palace, for instance, the Ball Room shimmered with a coat of diamonds and rubies, hurled upon the walls when the plaster was still wet. When he wasn’t being scholarly, the well-connected John Benson was acting as an agricultural advisor for English merchants seeking to buy cattle, horses and other animals. After the Revolution, John returned to England and there taught young Ian how to speak Russian. They were nearly all French. He also explained the background of the revolution. “It was very sad because there were in fact moves afoot to give land to the peasants“, said Ian. “A lot of land had already been distributed which is what the whole revolution was about but it was evidently too little, too late“.
However, Ian’s connection with Russia goes back considerably further than the Revolution. His mother, Enid Benson (nee Whishaw) was born in Russia during the twilight of the Romanov dynasty and grew up speaking the language. Indeed, recalls Ian, “we never had an idle moment as children because we had to stand up for the English national anthem and then we had to stand up for the Russian national anthem! We were always bobbing up and down“. Ian and his sisters were also instructed in the language of the Russians but to little avail. “It is fearfully difficult to learn. When one looks at it written down, one’s heart sinks. How am I ever going to learn that! Besides which nobody in Russia spoke Russian in those days. They all spoke French or English!” But their mother nonetheless used a lot of Russian words in her vocabulary. “If she was stuck for a word, she’d use a Russian word“. And well she might for her fathers’ family, the Whishaws, had been in Russia for over a hundred years before her birth in 1891.
1. Amid the Birch Trees – Origins of the Whishaw Clan
2. The Move to London
3. The Headless Woman
4. John Whishaw (1765 – 1840) – The Pope of Holland House
5. Financing the Abolition of Slavery
6. Richard Whishaw (1708 – 1787) – The Attorney from Dedham
7. Francis Whishaw – The Man behind the Great Exhibition of 1851
8. “Speedwell” Whishaw (1746 – 1838) & the Fock Connection
9. Summertime at Mourino
10. The Hill Family
11. Bernhard Whishaw (1779 – 1868) – Whipping Canes & Grain Exports
12. The Henley Family
13. The Yeames Family
14. William Whishaw (1880 – 1882) – The Man from Archangel
15. The Crimean War & Return to England
16. Bernard Whishaw – Weightlifter and Photographer
17. Rev. Alexander Whishaw – Parnell’s School Teacher
18. Jem Whishaw – Bear Hunter
19. Uncle Alfred & the Todds
20. The Scrophulous Vicar of Clerkenwell
21. The Youngest Boys – Charles & Henry
22. Mary the Chicken Farmer
23. Jim Wishaw’s Siblings
24. Jim Whishaw – The Early Years
25. The English Colony in St. Petersburg
26. Yakov Vassilievich
27. The Oil Magnate of Azerbijan & Serge Witte
28. Financial God & Philanthropy
29. Dealing Arms for the White Army
30. The Aunts
31. The Short Life of Uncle Jimmy
32. Twilight of a Country Gent
33. John Benson and Enid Whishaw – Ian’s Parents
34. Great Aunt Bubbles
35. Great Aunt Weenie
36. Ian James Whishaw
37. Stop Thief! Big Holes in Piccadilly!
38. The Dreadnought Hoax
The Whishaws trace their origins back to the parishes surrounding the great silver birch forest of Rudheath on the banks of the River Dane in East Cheshire. The meaning of the name is almost certainly “White Shaw“, an evolution of the Saxon word “scaga” for copse or small wood. The family motto, “Truth I Cherish” (E dono), is a more modern invention. They held positions as husbandmen, blacksmiths, tailors, soldiers, sailors and apothecaries in the Middle Ages. Many were yeomen, running small estates on behalf of the landed gentry. One of their more colourful forbears was Hugh Wishaw of Leighes, “which married five wives” and was living in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and James I. His grandson John Whishaw of Hampstead was the first of the family to ascend to the rank of gentlemen.
John’s son, another John Whishaw, became a prosperous solicitor in Clifford’s Inn, London during the reign of Queen Anne and George I. Among his friends and patrons he counted the Duke and Duchess of Leeds, the Earl of Warrington and the Earl and Countess of Stamford. John’s elder brother Hugh Whishaw was actually the first of the family to enter the law, moving to the “City of Chester” in the early 1690s. In December 1705 he married Francis Brompton. The joys of a legal salary evidently suited Hugh well and, earlier that same year, he purchased the handsome Queen Anne manor house and 400-acre estate of Hockenhull Hall between Duddon and the village of Tarvin, some 7 miles from Chester. The property gave fine views of the Welsh hills. Jim Whishaw visited Hockenhull in 1926 and was much impressed by the beautiful proportions but the house was already in “deplorable” condition.
Hockenhull Hall was the setting for the murder of Alice Tregg. Legend has it that, while hunting down Royalists in the Chester area, Cromwell’s troops visited the house and found it deserted save for the housekeeper, Miss. Tregg. When she wouldn’t reveal the location of the family treasure, the troops tortured and beheaded her. Her headless corpse was dragged from the attic through an underground passage and then cast into a ditch on the Whitchurch Road. When Jim visited 250 years later, he claimed the bloodstains could still be seen in the attic. He also noted “in order to commemorate this gruesome event“, the local Inn is called The Headless Woman. Hockenhull Hall remained in the Whishaw family until 1761 when sold by Hugh’s grandson.
Hugh’s eldest son Hugh rose through the legal profession to become Recorder of Chester and Keeper of the Seal of the Palatinate. He married Mary, daughter of John Baskerville Glegg of Old Withington, Cheshire. His son John Whishaw, born in 1765, was a great traveller, biographer, author and an intellect of considerable renown. Originally destined for the cloth, the accidental loss of his leg led him to taking silk instead and he became a prominent advocate in the Lincoln’s Inn. He worked closely within the Whig circle of Lord Lansdowne and his friends included the chemist Smithson Tennant, the economist Thomas Malthus, William Wollaston, Sydney Smith, Porson, and other members of the Royal Society. In 1799 he was elected to the “King of Clubs”, an informal dining and conversation club founded the previous year by Bubus Smith. Members met for frothy pints and heady banter in a pub called the Crown & Anchor Tavern in Arundel Street near the Strand .
In 1806 Lord Lansdowne appointed John to be Commissioner for Auditing the Public Accounts, which he held for 30 years being known as “the Pope of Holland House”. Another of his closest friends was the anti-slavery radical Lord Henry Brougham who, in 1806, was dispatched as Secretary to the Lords Rosslyn and St. Vincent during their short-lived mission to the Court of Lisbon. It was hoped that these three men might be able to prevent the highly anticipated invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s army. The appointment devastated their personal finances; each man was expected to pay for his own court. John Whishaw duly wrote to Brougham to say he had “money at my bankers” from which he would gladly “furnish you with any reasonable sum” to help off-set any “unexpected expenses” he might occur. This generous offer was not to be forgotten. John was made Director of the African Institute, subsequently inaugurated in 1807 to promote the Act for the Abolition of Slave Traffic. Partial blindness obliged him to retire in later life and he settled at 29 Wilton Crescent with his wards, the children of Sir Samuel Romilly. He died unmarried on 21st December 1840 and was buried at St. Peter’s, Eaton Square, London.
The Pope’s uncle Richard Whishaw was the direct forbear of Jim Whishaw and Ian Benson. He was born in Chester in 1708 and moved to London to study as a solicitor at the age of 22. He became an attorney at Lincoln’s Inn in 1732 and rose steadily to become Secretary to the Committee of Gentlemen Practitioners (1745 – 1754). He married Elizabeth Peters of Hendon in 1737 and had nine children. He died in 1787 and was buried in Dedham, Essex. Elizabeth was laid to rest beside him in 1796. His sons likewise prospered in the legal profession and earned a reputation for “benevolence” to the poor, “invariable integrity” and “kindness of heart“.
One of Richard and Elizabeth’ sons, another John Whishaw, lived at Brent Bridge House outside Hendon, Middlesex, an 18th-century stuccoed building, part of which survives as the Brent Bridge hotel. John’s son Francis Whishaw (1804 – 1856) became a Civil Engineer and wrote The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1842, a monumental work containing an exhaustive general and technical account of nearly all the railways open or under construction at that time. As Secretary to the Society of the Arts, Francis was also one of the prime movers behind shaping the Great Exhibition. A cartoon in Punch from this time has a caption beneath a picture of Victoria and Albert saying “Francis Whishaw; Palman qui meruit ferat“, implying that he should have been given more credit for the mighty show.
Francis’s son John Charles Whishaw, a medical man in India, was one of the great Victorian experts on sunstroke. He wrote a letter to The Times telling how he once examined a boy in India who had been brought up in the jungles by wolves. Presumably Rudyard Kipling heard this tale and thought it might make for a great children’s story.
Richard and Elizabeth’s fifth son William – known to the family as “Grandfather Speedwell” on account of the colour of his eyes – established the first family connection to Russia on 13th June 1777 when, at the age of 31, he married Constancia Cecilia Fock in the Church of St. Petersburg. Constancia’s father Bernhard Fock descended from a Dutch refugee Abraham Fock who had escaped from Holland to Holstein (then part of Denmark) in the 1530s. Disobeying his father’s wishes that he become a Pastor, Bernhard had run away to Russia in about 1731 and secured a post in charge of the Imperial hothouses in Peterhof. He subsequently helped plan the Botanical Gardens in St. Petersburg, producing the first ever Russian peach there in 1741. Proud of his achievement, he commissioned a number of paintings of himself holding said peach which he distributed among his children. He is highly esteemed in St. Petersburg today as the master-gardener who, with Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, created the city’s’ Lower Park between 1755 and 1760. His wife Maria was daughter of Baron van Ammers, landscape gardener to Peter the Great, who lived on a great estate of Kaibola in the Yamburg district. Bernard served as Inspector of the Imperial Gardens for 45 years. Five of Constancia’s nine siblings married into English merchant families in St. Petersburg, and of Constancia and Speedwell’s nine children, four did likewise. Most of these reproduced copiously.
With transport as backward as it was in those days, a journey home to England might take the six warmest months of a year so it was unlikely that William to’d and fro’d much. He was born in England in April 1746. Nobody is quite sure how he came to be in Russia. A few years earlier, he had been in Buenos Aries. He was almost certainly an export merchant, being amongst the first to receive the title of “hereditary honorary citizen“. At any rate, the Russia of his day was the Russia of Catherine the Great, a particularly stirring epoch in the annals of the Motherland. He was the first Englishman to have his principal summer residence in Mourino, an estate belonging to Count Vorontsov-Dashkoff some 12 miles north-west of St. Petersburg, which became a regular summer resort for English families such as the Andersons, Cattleys and Higginbothams. He was immensely popular and constantly entertained guests until his death at the ripe age of 93 in October 1838, just fifteen years before the birth of his great-grandson, Jim Whishaw. Indeed, Jim described Speedwell as “a temperate man but, as was the custom in those days, he drank his port after dinner, never exceeding half a bottle“. He would then cover his face in a silk handkerchief and enjoy a short nap. On one such occasion, Jim’s mother went to awaken him only to find that the old man was dead. He was buried in the Smolensky Cemetery in St. Petersburg.
Speedwell and Constancia had nine children, of whom Bernhard was Jim’s grandfather. Jim recalls meeting the youngest of these, Sarah Hill, in London when she was old and very nearly blind. “When I went up to her, I stooped to kiss her and she said ‘I am not sure who you are but you smell like a Whishaw’. A remark that might pleasantly ring or otherwise – I took it and retain it as a compliment“. Sarah and her husband Henry Hill had twelve children by which they later accounted for a whopping sixty grandchildren! The eleventh child was Jim’s friend “Ocky” (Octavius) Hill, “from my very earliest childhood a great hero of mine, famous for his strength and daring. As a child I remember his standing on his head and singing Rule Britannia from beginning to end, drinking three glasses of port during the performance“. But Ocky was “a man who took no care of himself [and] died when he was only thirty five years old, leaving four children“.
Speedwell’s eldest son, Bernhard, was born in June 1779 and died in Cheltenham in November 1868. He was a strong, six-foot tall redhead with a trim red beard. Jim recalled how his grandfather once single-handedly kept a ship’s rigging intact during a bad storm. There was also talk of 70-year-old Bernhard walking across 40 miles of snow to complete a transaction in St. Petersburg – and walking back again when the transaction was concluded! He was a strict father, much given to caning his seven sons and three daughters when the stood accused of riotous behaviour. Indeed, he used to give the boys a cane each and then instruct them to thrash each other. Whichever boy gave in first would then be taken out and thrashed by himself personally. In the early 1800s, Bernhard co-founded Hills & Whishaw which, by the 1870s, had become one of the leading grain exporters in. St. Petersburg. In 1819 he married a fiery, party-loving, indomitable beauty called Elizabeth Yeames in St. Petersburg. Their first child William was born the following February, shortly before the demise of the long-serving George III. Hampered by a financial downturn, the couple returned to England in about 1851 and settled in Cheltenham. That same year, Bernhard’s cousin Francis Whishaw had his dreams realised when London hosted the Great Exhibition. At first they lived at Kynsham House, Cheltenham, but after dementia crept in upon Bernhard’s life, they moved to nearby Linden House. Bernhard was wont to go walking through Cheltenham with money in his pocket that he would distribute among the beggars. Jim recalls seeing a crowd of such pensioners flooding into Kynsham when old Bernhard was barred from his walks; a detachment of police was required to disperse the crowd. He died aged 90 and was buried at Leckhampton where Elizabeth was also buried in 1879.
The Henley Family
Jim’s maternal grandmother was also his paternal great aunt Anastasia Whishaw. In 1809 she married Major John Henley, a great horseman, who was Steward to Countess Potosky at the Human estate outside Kiev. Indeed, the Potosky’s stables and horses were then the most famous in Russia. They had seven children of whom Harriet – Jim’s mother – was the sixth. Jim’s memoirs include comprehensive details as to the fate of the other Henleys, such as his friend the Rev. Arthur Henley who drowned in Devon in 1904 and his cousins Charles and John Bruun who died defending Finland against the Russians in the Great War. His aunt Anastasia married Andrew Handyside, the formidable and rather fearsome Civil Engineer who, in 1848, founded the Britannia Iron Works in Derby, famous for its fountains and garden vases. Handyside’s foundry did much work on the Continent, particularly in Russia.
Another of Major and Anastasia Henley’s daughters was Emily Henley who married Henry de Milte Severn. Their son Henry Severne was born in Derby in 1854 and arrived on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1886. He played a large role in helping to settle nearby Thetis Island and had a big part in its early mill operations with the Australian engineer Henry Croft, the founder of Crofton. Sadly Henry Severne drowned on 22 Jan 1891, just off the coast of Thetis Island. ‘He and Sam Gray fell from an overturned boat returning from Chemainus, five miles distant, Severne swimming the remaining half mile to the beachfront of his home perhaps dragged up by his dog, only to die during the night of exposure when no one knew his whereabouts. Help arrived only 3 days later when the rescuers were kept at bay by the loyal dog.’ He never married and was only here for 5 years but left his mark on the community.
Jim’s grandfather Bernhard Whishaw married Elizabeth Yeames. The Yeames family originated in Norfolk; one of them migrated to America with the Pilgrim Fathers and had a son, Gershow Yeames, who distinguished himself in the fight against the indigenous American Indians of Massachusetts in 1675. In about 1737, another adventurous member of this clan by name of John Lambe Yeames (1707 – 1787) went to Russia to carry on his father’s work of building war ships. According to an account by Major TR Wells, John’s wife Mary (1718 – 1778) was a natural daughter of Peter the Great, meaning that the present day Greens of Ballyvolane might have a splash of Tsarist blood in them. It certainly seems plausible that Peter the Great had something in common with John. During Peter’s undercover visit to England in 1697, the Russian monarch worked as an ordinary “hand” in the shipyards at Deptford. During this era, he is said to have fathered a son who went by the name of Richard Cozens and later became Master Shipbuilder in Russia. In the fifty years after his arrival in St. Petersburg, John Lambe Yeames rose to become a Major General and Surveyor of the Russian Navy, witnessing the reign of four Russian Emperors – Anna, Elizabeth, Peter III and Catherine the Great. Jim Whishaw claimed that between John Yeames, who arrived in Russia in 1737, and William Whishaw, who arrived there in 1772, no British family could possibly have had such a long connection to the motherland as his.
One of John Lambe Yeames Russian-born descendents was the artist William Frederick Yeames (1835 – 1918), who painted ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ for the Royal Academy in 1878. Although slated at the time, the painting was later popularised in school text books to such an extent the scene was recreated by Madame Tussauds. The painting, depicting a young Royalist boy being interrogated by Cromwellian soldiers, in the time of the English Civil War, is currently held by the at the Walker Art Gallery in the National Museum in Liverpool.
Jim Whishaw described his father William as “decidedly intellectual … his vigour and energy were both extraordinary and were due far more to his nervous vitality than to muscular power. He was unusually hot-tempered but any outburst of anger was over in a moment and he never bore resentment. He was intolerant of any form of cant, deceit, hypocrisy or snobbishness and his tastes were simple. He had a contempt of anyone who made a show of wealth. He was extremely fond of music and was great and a wise reader. He never forgot a friend in trouble – to such his purse was ever open“. He was a fanatical walker and adored shooting, especially around their summer residence in Mourino. He trained pointers and setters but didn’t have the patience to do so successfully. William was born in St. Petersburg in February 1820, the last year of George III’s remarkable life. When he was 21 years old he decided to abandon working for his fathers company Hills & Whishaw and went to Archangel to establish a business of his own. On 7th December 1846 – just as Ballyvolane House was preparing for a facelift – he married 22-year-old Harriet Henley in St. Petersburg. She was a cheerful, witty and very musical soul but died of peritonitis (an inflammation of the appendicitis) in Cheltenham in March 1856, six months after the birth of Jim’s sister. William was in Liverpool bidding his younger brother bon voyage to New Zealand when news of her impending death came. “He took a special train to Cheltenham but arrived too late to see her alive“. She too was buried in Leckhampton.
William’s younger brother Alexander was educated at Trinity College Oxford while his brother James and Henry studied at Glasgow University. He was beginning to prosper when the double blow of the approaching Crimean War and the death of his daughter Emily from whooping cough knocked the stuffing out of him. Jim was born in June 1853. The following January his father departed Russia with the rest of his family in intense cold. “The whole journey was, of course, made on sledges and, after resting a few days in St. Petersburg we went, still by sledge, to Konigsberg and from there on a small sailing ship to Dundee, the entire journey taking, I believe, ten weeks“. William returned to Archangel to liquidate his affairs in 1855. Despite the animosity between England and Russia in the Crimea, the Emperor Nicholas took the English in St. Petersburg under his protection and indeed he frequently walked the quays of St. Petersburg with Jim’s uncle Bernard. As Jim pointed out, England had effectively monopolized trade with Russia from the time of Ivan the Terrible and Queen Elizabeth through to the Crimean War. William Whishaw died on 6th June 1882 and was buried at Ettington in Warwickshire.
William did not always see eye to eye with his younger brother Bernard (1821 – 1900) who Jim recalls as rather more laidback than his father. Bernard didn’t go in for sport and far preferred relaxing in the Garden at Mourino or entertaining the family back in Cheltenham. His twin hobbies were photography (“in its wet days – his hands were always discoloured in consequence”) and weight-lifting (“even after he was 65 years old he would deeply resent any offer to assist – though he once had to ask my assistance when in danger of dropping in mid-stream a stalwart lady whom he had assayed to carry across the river at a Mourino picnic“). There are plentiful details in Jim Whishaw’s memoirs about Bernard’s many descendents by his two wives. From one of these descended Marie-Louise Karttunen whose study, Making a Communal World: English Merchants in Imperial St. Petersburg, provided some of the source material for this story.
William’s third brother Rev. Alexander Whishaw (1823 – 1882) studied at Oxford and became a great friend of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford. As Vicar of Chipping Norton, one of Alexander’s pupils was Charles Stewart Parnell who he described as “the most difficult boy that he ever had and the most obstinate boy he ever met“. A brilliant preacher, he was very popular with dissenting ministers and finally fetched up as Chaplain in the Institution for the Blind in Liverpool. As a gifted baritone, fine artist and exceptional linguist, he was a man of much renown. He was also a celebrated wit. Once Jim’s father invited Alexander to a dinner party in Russia at which “a very witty and amusing Irishman” named McSwiney (the Cronstadt Chaplain) was also present. William was sure it would be “a case of ‘pull devil, pull baker’ as to which of the Reverend Gentlemen could tell the best yarn or sing the best song. As it turned out the evening was a complete failure for the two padres remained silent and merely glowered at each other!” Further details of Alexander’s family are also to be found in Jim Whishaw’s memoirs.
The next brother was “Uncle Jem” (1826 – 1879), a very noble and charitable fellow who loved bear-hunting. It was he who first urged his nephew Jim to go to Russia in 1877 and work “in his office during the navigation season and in my Uncle Alfred’s office during the winter months“.
Alfred Whishaw (1830 – 1915) married Rhoda Todd, daughter of a respected Russian merchant in London, and remained in Russia for most of the 19th century. Further details of Alfred and Rhoda’s family are to be found in Jim Whishaw’s memoirs.
Aunt Lily fell in love with the Rev. Warwick Wroth but her parents initially forbade the romance because they held the Wroth family to be “consumptive and scrophulous“. In 1854, she realized her dream and married Wroth but she died the following year. As Vicar of St. Philip’s, Clerkenwell, the Rev. Wroth’s achievement was to be the first in the Church to abolish the system of payment for pews, making all seats at St. Peters free. Times were tough in Clerkenwell at this point. Wroth himself noted that “the richer classes are continually moving to other localities and the poorer are taking their place. Houses which were formerly filled with tolerably well to do are now let out in lodgings, and the lodgers instead of being able to aid others, sometimes need aid themselves“.
The next child was Charles Whishaw who was engaged in the flax trade in Russia but died young. His widow Dasha was a difficult old lady, looked after by uncle Bernard.
The ninth child and youngest son Henry Yeames Whishaw (1836 – 1912) “was clearly no scholar – arithmetic was his special bugbear; his father devoted both mornings and afternoons to teaching him, and the rule of three frequently reduced him to tears.” Henry was much better at history and natural philosophy. He migrated to New Zealand, married a Guthrie and became a farmer. He came to a nasty end when one of his cows attacked him, broke his leg and left him badly mauled for the last years of his life. Further details of Henry’s descendents are to be found in Jim Whishaw’s memoirs. Of particular note is Henry’s youngest child Rhoda Sophy, a maternal first cousin of Ted Wilson who died with Scott in the Antarctic and whose grandson went by the remarkable name of Bruce Topless and married Joy Ann Scott of the same family.
The youngest child, Mary, was born in 1841 and married Dr. Edward Wilson, 1st secretary of the Delancey Hospital and Chairman of the 1st Medical Committee that sought to revive the glories of Cheltenham as a Spa. Mary was a sickly child and “subsisted largely on calomel“. In later life she proved an excellent horsewoman and specialized in poultry farming at Westal Farm on the Hatherly Road and at the Crippets. She was the first person to import “Plymouth Rocks” from America to England and was author of the seminal “ABC of Poultry“.
Jim’s elder brother Bernard “Bora” Whishaw died aged 11 from meningitis following a fall at Abbey Wood in Kent in 1859. His elder sister Emily died of whooping cough in Archangel aged 4 in 1853. His eldest surviving brother Jack Whishaw became a Mate and Master and set sail for New Zealand where he married Katherine Elizabeth Guthrie and had children and remained until his death in 1900; three of his children were killed in the war. Jim’s sister Edith was born at Inellan on the Clyde in 1855, the only one of his immediate family to be born in Great Britain. A family friend, Miss. Potter, raised her. In 1877 she married James Henry Todd, a businessman in St. Petersburg but he was completely invalided shortly afterwards and they left Russia in 1880, settling at Goring near Cheltenham where he died in 1886. Harriet survived him until May 1942.
Ian Benson’s maternal grandfather, Jim Whishaw, was born in Archangel on 21st June 1853. His father William Whishaw lived between Ettington in Warwickshire and St. Petersburg. His grandfather Bernhard Whishaw lived in Cheltenham. With the prospect of war in the Crimean ever escalating, his parents brought him to England that December. He was educated at Leamington and Sutton Valance, before going on to study medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He has left us a detailed memoir of his formative years. In 1877 he abandoned the concept of doctoring in favour of a commercial career in Tsarist Russia, entering the business of his uncle Jem. Jem’s business was located in St. Petersburg, then deservedly looked upon, as one of the gayest capitals in Europe. Hill and Whishaw was one of the leading grain exporters in Russia when Jim arrived. However, when Jem died in 1879, his will dictated that the firm’s capital be so seriously reduced that the firm had actually failed by 1882. In March 1881, the reforming Tsar Alexander II was blown up by a bomb hurled by a Polish student, leading his son and heir Alexander III to pursue an infintely more dangerous policy of autocracy and repression. The first Russian Marxist group was formed in St. Petersburg in 1883.
Nonetheless, Jim took to St. Petersburg like a duck to water. “The English colony (especially those in society) was a large one, and one could dine out practically every evening without meeting the same people twice. No English people living out of their own country could have lived happier or more jolly lives than we did…It was a bright and comparatively care-free life – visitors from the old country always carried away with them happy and perhaps somewhat envious recollections” (J. Whishaw 1992, p. 171). John Baddeley, news correspondent for The Standard for two decades and a regular visitor to the Whishaws, was equally enamoured of the community. “[The English colony] had passed through many vicissitudes to reach at the time of my arrival in Russia a stage that as far as regarded social amenity left really nothing to be desired. There were very few old people, the great majority of the leaders of the community being, by chance, young married couples, nearly all in receipt of good incomes and possessed of spacious apartments in St. Petersburg and pleasant country quarters at Lígovo, Mourino or elsewhere – with tennis lawns – where they spent the summer months and where they delighted to entertain their friends. There were pretty girls about, too, and altogether a more pleasant society, for a young man, it would have been difficult to find anywhere“.
In February 1880 Jim married Frances “Fanny” Anderson who, over the next 21 years, provided him with seven daughters (one died young) and a son. When the two returned to England to meet Fanny’s family, Jim wrote how “for any one accustomed as I already was to the comforts and unconventionalities of Continental life, the strictness and punctilios that had to be observed were truly awful“. In 1884 Jim assumed Russian nationality and adopted the name “Yakov Vassilievich”, a nod to the Scottish medical pioneer Sir James Wylie who became doctor to the Tsars in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Shortly afterwards, he received the Freedom of the City of St. Petersburg. He became very well known in that city as a shipbroker and steamship agent and was, for many years, agent for the Wilson Line of Hull. He was British Vice Consul for more than 12 years and frequently served as Acting Consul and Acting Consul General.
According to Russian Law, foreigners could not own mining lands in Russia. However, as a Russian subject, Yakov Vassilievich was invited to become Trustee by many of the prosperous Englishmen now taking an interest in Russia’s vast wealth. Among his principal backers in England was Ned Baring, Lord Revelstoke, founder of Barings Bank. At this time, many still stuck by the Duc de Richelieu’s remark from 1820: “There are six main powers in Europe; Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Prussia and Baring-Brothers!” The bank would be brought to its knees nearly 90 years later by Nick Leeson. By dint of his connection with Barings, the Baku oil-fields in Azerbaijan and other enormous properties became vested in Jim’s name. When the Revolution came, he still held the Baku oil fields in his own personal name on behalf of the English government which, as Ian says a touch mournfully, was “quite something really“. By Jim’s own admission he was sent for by the then Minister of Finance, Count Serge Witte, “the greatest autocrat as a minister Russia has had“. He said to Jim: ‘You are an Englishman, but for purposes of business you have become a Russian subject. I know everything that you are doing. I know also that you are within the law, but you are doing acts that must be put a stop to. I am, however, going to help you, for I wish to milk the English cow.’ I had wit enough to say, in my execrable Russian, that the cow was plentifully supplied with milk”. In other words, Witte “was anxious to increase the flow of British Capital into Russia“. Witte urged Jim to ensure that all those for whom he was acting should apply to have their interests in Russia legalized immediately. Under such conditions, the Minister offered Jim “his powerful assistance“. At this time, no British companies were allowed to operate in Russia with the exception of the New Russia Company. However, just a few months after meeting de Witte, Jim managed to become “the first to secure Imperial Recognition for all British Companies for whom I was acting as Trustee“. Over the coming years, Jim claimed to have secured recognition for over fifty British companies in Russia, becoming “Responsible Agent” for many of these. Inevitably he moved away from shipping and transferred his attention to looking after British interests in Russia generally. It is important to note that, prior to the Great War, Russia was the fastest growing economy in Europe. Indeed, advised by Cassells, plenty of families in Britain and Ireland invested heavily in the economy – and consequently lost. Thus, one assumes, Jim may have represented everything that made capitalism so loathsome to the rapidly rising forces of Communism. Following the upsets of the 1905 Revolution across Russia, the Tsar was obliged to appoint Witte as Russia’s first Prime Minister. In this capacity, Witte managed to secure a loan of some £80 million from Britain and France which gave the government considerably more freedom to act although Witte himself was dismissed from office less than six months later. It may be assumed that Jim Whishaw and his friends at Barings played a significant role in raising the £80 million loan.
In 1908 Jim was appointed representative in Russia of Messrs. Baring Brothers. Soon afterwards, he was elected Director of the well-reputed Azov-Don Bank in St. Petersburg, the second largest Bank in Russia. By this time he was one of the best known, highly regarded and well liked operators in pre-revolutionary Russia. After his death, his cousin Maxwell S. Leigh was astonished by the number of “proofs” he discovered in his papers showing Jim’s “kindness to those in difficult times, not only in times of prosperity but also at times when he himself was very hard hit“. In later years he would be particularly generous to the many family members who had suffered under the Bolsheviks.
A few months before the outbreak of the devastating Communist Revolution in March 1917, Jim was appointed Agent for the supply of Platinum to the Ministry of Munitions. He left Russia in October 1917, just before the final overthrow of the Provisional Government by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A detachment of Red Guard was sent to arrest him but he escaped although all his property, including many family heirlooms, was confiscated. The Azov-Don bank was amongst innumerable institutions confiscated by the new government. Jim only visited Russia once more in his lifetime – a fleeting visit to the South in the winter of 1919 – 1920 when he tried to organize supplies for General Denikin’s White Army. He also had a hand in recruiting some 200,000 foreign soldiers from Britain, France, Japan and the United States in support of the anti-Bolshevik forces. The Whites collapsed in Crimea before Jim’s armaments scheme came to fruition.
Jim returned to England but remained a devoted and popular figure in the Anglo-Russian Society. He remained with Baring Brothers and also had a delightful job until the final months of his life as Manager of an office organized jointly by the Cunard Company and the Hudson Bay Company which sought to encourage young men to emigrate to Canada. In 1925 he applied to have his British Nationality restored. He refused to acknowledge the Bolshevik Government in Russia and was a virulent defender of business in the sense of the old school.
As to Ian Benson’s six aunts and one uncle, the eldest Muriel Whishaw (1880 – 1972) was married in Bombay in 1907 to Max Leigh of the Indian Civil Service. They left India in 1922 and settled at Winchester College where Max became Assistant Bursar. Between 1926 and 1932 he returned to India to work for the Cambridge Mission to Delhi. Muriel remained in Winchester “devoting herself to any of her friends who were sick in mind or body“. It was Max who edited Jim Whishaw’s Memoirs.
The second aunt Dorothy died while still a baby in 1883.
The next surviving aunt, Margaret or “Madge” was born in 1883 and married in 1906 to Captain TH “Harry” Hawkins, CMG. The service took place at St. Augustine’s, Queens Gate, London and was conducted by the Rev. Arthur Henry Stanton. Harry served with the Admiralty during the Great War, rising to become Colonel, and later Assistant Manager of the Mersey Dock Board. Their son Guy Hawkins went to Alaska as a Midshipman on the Durban – the first British man-of-war to visit that country since the time of Captain Cook. Another son Bill became a Chartered Accountant and JP in Liverpool and was regarded as a considerable comedian. Madge died in May 1973.
The fourth aunt Bridget (1885 – 1944) was married at Kilmesdon in Somerset to the Rev. Francis Dickson (“Dick”) who became Vicar of Weston in Somerset. Jim described her as “the perfect parson’s wife, taking an active part on all parochial duties, except possibly grave digging“.
The fifth aunt Phyllis (1888 – 1974) was a great lover of animals, trained as a vet and worked as Assistant Commandant of Chippenham Hospital during the Great War. She was married in Lahore to Godfrey Prickard, a decorated member of the Imperial Police who later became Rector of Cossington near Bridgewater.
The sixth daughter was Enid (1891 – 1936), mother to Ian Benson and grandmother to Merrie Green, of whom more anon.
The youngest aunt Audrey (1901 – 1983) was married in 1922 to a mineralogist called Norman Grimke-Drayton (1888 – 1962) employed by Rothschilds. Their daughter Frances was the first member of the family to sport red hair since Bernhard. They also had a son, Lance Grimke-Drayton who married an Australia and now lives in Cheshire.
The only son Jimmy came next. He was born in 1894, educated at Clifton and was about to go on to Magdalene College Oxford when he decided to visit Russia. While there he had an attack of appendicitis. The eminent Russian surgeon Dombrovski – who had previously cured 12-year-old Muriel of acute peritonitis on the kitchen table at Mourino – attempted to save him but enteric fever soon became rampant and Jimmy died in August 1913. An obituary notice in The Cliftonian of October 1913 spoke of him as “an affectionate companion with light-hearted manners and infectious cheerfulness, which used to break into dark days like sunshine on a spring morning“. Ian tells a curious and rather unsettling tale indicating the superstition of the Russian peasants. “My mothers’ brother was quite young when he was photographed against a particular wallpaper which featured a bird pattern on it. Well, it so happened the bird came out as if it was on his shoulder in the photograph. They showed it to the servants who went off screaming. They said he can’t live and he didn’t. In Russian mythology, it’s unlucky to have a bird on your shoulder“. Not such a good place to be a pirate then.
Although the Communist Revolution had wiped out his property and business interests in Russia, Jim never lost heart. Indeed, he doggedly continued to champion the cause of English firms throughout his 70s although the latter years of his life were blighted by blindness. His friends “fixed him up on the Cunard so he was always going around the world in the greatest luxury in suites, take off and have a free travel every so often“. The Whishaw’s domestic life was largely one of happiness, spoiled by the premature death of his only son, Jimmy. His wife Frances, nee Anderson, supported him throughout his time in Russia and England, and left him with six daughters, all of whom took husbands. The family lived in many different houses over the decades – in Bodmin, Kilmersdon, Chippenham, Westerham, Hungerford (Wilton House) and Winchester. Ian also recalls him having a house near Bath where he “lived in the greatest comfort … He was a great man and a marvelous fisherman. They used to rent grouse moors and he fished all around the world and Christ knows what he didn’t do!” All his life he had been an enthusiastic sportsman, particularly keen on country pursuits such as fishing and shooting. His memoirs describe some particularly lively adventures with rod and gun in Russia and Finland. Ian recalls how he would “stick a wine glass with a long stem about 30 – 40 yards out on the lawn and send a dry fly out and he’d land it in the glass without tipping it up“. He was a member of the Flyfisher’s Club, a prominent player in the angling brotherhood of Hungerford and also a member of the Fishing Club at Warpa Saari in Finland, thus giving him access to what has frequently been described as a Fisherman’s Paradise. Just before his last illness, Ian took him out fishing. “He lost his sight when I was a little tiny fellow. But I was a keen fisherman at that age. And I could see his fly and I could see the rise so I would say “up a bit” or “down a bit” and then I would net the fish for him“. By this unorthodox method, Blind Jim Whishaw landed at least two trout.
Jim Whishaw died at Formby immediately after his 80th birthday in 1935 while visiting his third daughter Madge Hawkins who had given him eight grandchildren. By these and his other eight grandchildren he was to be recalled as a delightful grandfather. He and his widow were buried in Bathwick Cemetery, Bath, with their only son James and second daughter Dorothy, both of whom died young.
Enid Whishaw was born on 13th June 1891, the sixth of Jim and Frances Whishaw’s seven daughters. There’s a painting of her on the stairs above circular portrait in blue dress. Ian recalls her as “an extraordinarily pretty woman with deep, deep violet eyes, the same eyes that Ger has“. Born in Russia, Enid’s early years coincided with the remarkable and tragic decade which preceded the 1917 Revolution – the rise and fall of Rasputin, the devastation of the Great War and the execution of the Royal. On 11th November 1912 she married John Robinson Benson. He was 22 years her senior having been born on 18th March 1869, the year the Suez Canal was opened. At the time he was also a leading surgeon in Bath. After the marriage he sold his practice and bought a private mental home, Fiddington House, at Market Lavington in Wiltshire. The property had been a private lunatic asylum for comparatively well off patients since 1817. Fiddington House was sold to the Ministry of Defence in the 1950s. In 1962, it was closed down and demolished; the site was used for a housing estate known as Fiddington Clays. During the Great War, he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Colonel, leaving Enid to run the Home. In 1920, John purchased a second mental home at Laverstock House, Salisbury. Laverstock House, a mental home since 1754, was closed down in 1955 and, like Fiddington House, felled to make way for a housing estate in the 1960s. John also formed a Limited Liability Company of which he and Enid were directors. Enid was also in charge of company accounts. John was a recognized authority on mental disorders and a director of the Bailbrook House in Bath. They lived at Aldershot neat Fordingbridge in Hampshire.
Their eldest daughter Diana Whishaw Benson was born on 28th October 1913, three months after the tragic death of Enid’s younger brother Jimmy from appendicitis. She was known as “Bubbles” and was a talented musician, successfully obtaining her Licentiate or LRAM from the Royal Academy of Music exam at the age of 19. She made her debut as a professional pianist at Bournemouth on 20th June 1933, two days before the death of her grandfather. Jim’s last conscious act was to send her a telegram of encouragement. Ian recalls her as “very pretty, small and dark-haired with wonderful eyebrows“. When performing, she would have the audience “half made” before she took her bow and sat on the piano stool. She excelled at the piano, violin and harp but Ian holds that she could master any instrument, “within minutes, or at the outside a week, a month at the absolute maximum … The only one that really flawed her and took her at least a year to master was the Irish tin whistle. Because it was wind not string! But in the end my God she could play that too!” But she was also “fearfully temperamental; she would never have done a thing she was told!” Wendy recalls a recital by Diana during which one of her aunts turned to another and said “Evelyn dear, do give me a recipe for your scones“. Diana slammed down the piano and left the room. “It was terribly funny and such a wonderful thing to be caught saying”, muses Wendy.
On 19th September 1936 Diana married John Atkinson, a popular naval officer from Northern Ireland. He was stationed in Malta during the war but the couple had a serious row when he refused to countenance Diana bringing her Grand Piano out to the island. They divorced in 1940. When John met Diana some years later, he described the experience as “not unlike standing on a rake in such a way that the handle leaps up and belts you in the face“. She subsequently converted to Catholicism and became a nun. She passed away on 20th February 1966.at the age of 53
The second daughter Barbara D’Arcy Benson was born on 4th January 1915 and nicknamed “Weenie. Like Bubbles, she was educated at Godoplhin School, Salisbury, and Groveley Manor, Bournemouth. She too was “very pretty, dark auburn hair, captivating“. She was also a promising musician, benefiting from the installation of a music studio in the garden at teh back of their home. “My father built it to get a bit of respite – we called it the Albert Hall and it was three times the size of the living room“, complete with a Bluthner and cello. She became a cellist in the Philharmonic Orchestra but, tragically, her shoulder bone was irreparably damaged during an operation so her right or bow hand became unusable and withered away.
She has left quite a dynasty through her three husbands. She married the first of these, John Carbray Richardson in August 1940. He was killed while serving with the Fleet Air Arm in Crete on 16th May the following year. On 3rd March 1946 she married secondly Herbert Peter Kent (1920 – June 1984) who she divorced eight years later. They had five sons – Piers John D’Arcy Kent (b. 1946), Terence Robin Whishaw Kent (b. 1948), Nigel Peter Benson Kent (b. 1949), Hilary Paul Herbert Kent (b. 1950) and Quentin Ian Geoffrey Kent (b. 1952). All five sons married and by the time LWG Drayton completed his “Addendum to a History of the Whishaw Family” in 1997, they had amassed some thirteen children between them, born twixt 1972 and 1984. Their names can be found in Drayton’s Addendum. On 18th July 1954, Weenie took a third husband, Anthony Vivian White (d. 20th April 1986). They had a son Anthony Beverley Wayne Whishaw White (b. 1957) and daughter Vivienne Faith Barbara White (b. 1955). By her marriage to Timothy William Crisp, Vivienne has a son Jordan William (b. 1994) and a daughter whom they called me of India Mercedes D’Arcy White (b. 1992). In 1997 Barbara (Weenie) White was living near Devizes. She died on 5th July 2009, aged 94.
John and Enid’s only son Ian James Whishaw Benson was born on 17th April 1920. In 1933, his grandfather Jim Whishaw explained that Ian’s health prevented him going to school but “he is being trained as a farmer: He is a keen sportsman and a good gunshot. He is a great friend of mine and has never called me anything but ‘Jim’“. On St. Patrick’s Day 1941 Ian married Joan (Wendy) Benson. His sister Weenie married Richardson eight weeks later. Their only son Jonathon Patrick D’Arcy Benson was born on 29th June 1943 and their daughter Gabriel Meredith (Merrie) on 24th April 1946. Merrie Benson married Jeremy Dominic Blake Green (b. 28 Aug 1934, educ Harrow, also raised at Whitland Abbey), the present patriarch of Ballyvolane House, Co. Cork. (See: The Blake Family). Jeremy and Merrie Green were the parents of three sons – Justin, Sebastian and Adam. Justin Green married Jenny Marshall and they are the parents of Toby James D’Arcy Green (born in Dublin, 04 Jan 2001), Jamie Marshall Archie Green (born in Cork, 04 May 2004) and Fleur Maude Jessica Green (born in Cork, 24 Apr 2007). Sebastian Green is married to Pippa and has four daughters – Sasha Clare Green (born on 5 Feb 1999 in Southampton), Isla D’Arcy Green (born 1 Feb 2001 in Northallerton), Evie Cecily Green (born 27 May 2003 in Bishop Auckland) and Emily Meredith (Mimi) Green (born 12 May 2005 in Cheltenham). Adam Green designed this entire www.turtlebunbury.com website and is engaged to marry Miss Lucie Wright of Gilford Castle, Co. Down.
Ian also had this colourful recollection of his grandfather. “He was very fond of children, and he always used to demonstrate so that, say a car went by, he would jump up and down and make faces at it and things, we all thought it was hysterical. We were on a little road on the Wye and I saw a huge black car coming and it had a chauffeur so I said “Jim” – I always called him Jim – “Jim Jim, look there’s a good one coming now!” “Right”, he said, and hopped into the middle of the road and began dancing and pulling faces … well I was delighted … the car stopped and the chauffeur jumped out and opened the back door and a man got out and said “How clever of you to recognize me Jim!” and he was dumbstruck. He said “Jump in!” and he was so embarrassed that he got in and left me there. I was only a little chap, had to walk home”
Perhaps this cheerful friend was no less a cad than Horace De Vere Cole (1881-1936), the great Edwardian trickster who was one of Jim’s close pals. Ian described him as “an amazing man, bright as a button, very funny, a very dangerous friend“. I’ve always been intrigued by Horace because his widow Denise (nee Daly) subsequently married my rogue great uncle Anthony Drew. He was essentially a wealthy man at the end of a golden age with money, mischief and time to burn. At any rate, Jim and Ian “had little tricks together“. Once, the two of them and an English minister had been out to a boozy dinner. Cole spotted a policeman way ahead and said to Jim and the Minister “come on, we’ll have a race down the next four lampposts” so off they set. Cole then “tipped the wink” to Jim to slow him down and just as the Minister drew level with the policeman he shouted “Stop thief!” The policeman put his foot up and upscutted him. Cole had slipped his pocket watch into the Minister’s pocket which was duly “discovered”. Cole and Jim “swore they’d never seen the man before and off they went, locked the Minister up for the night. Cole and my grandfather, went back to the club delighted with themselves and had a lovely evening.” It is also worth telling the tale here of how Horace Cole and some pals employed a gang of workman – “paid them the regular wage” – to put bollards around Piccadilly Circus and start digging a trench. “They dug a bloody great hole in the middle of Piccadilly, half as big as this room and nobody said a thing. Cole wrote to the Council and said “what are you doing, leaving a hole like that in the road?” and each department thought it was the other department so when they found that nobody had authorized it there was hell to pay.”
In 1910, Horace de Vere Cole and five friends, including a young Virginia Woolf, disguised themselves as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his royal circle and were given a full tour of the spanking new British warship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought. The Admiralty actually piped him and his entourage abroad, the lot of them with their arms folded. The entire Royal Navy came out in full colours to parade before their distinguished guests, who were dressed in costumes, with dyed skin and hair, speaking a language they were inventing on-the-fly. The hoax is sometimes referred to as the “Bunga-Bunga Affair” – a reference to this invented Abyssinian dialect the hoaxers used while on the ship. According to Wendy, “Scribanik” was the word he used while addressing the navy – a corruption of “Scrub Hammock“! When the hoax was discovered, Cole’s life was in serious danger. A friend of Wendy’s father ran a nursing home in London and had Cole locked up in an attic until it was safe to emerge. Ian reckoned his contemporaries would have thought it all extremely funny, “particularly if one of your siblings was in the Navy“. Wendy suggests that humour goes with the times, a double-edged thing. Certainly one of his pranks wouldn’t be out of place on a 21st century comedy show. According to The Time-Life Library of Curious and Unusual Facts, Cole would sometimes “pose as a surveyor on the street and politely ask a passer by to help by holding one end of a string for a moment. Then the prankster would disappear around the corner, find another man to hold the other end of the string, and walk away.”
With thanks to Adam Green, Ian Benson, Wendy Benson, Chris Heath, Julia Elcock, Carrie Lee-Baker, Harriet D’arcy-Kent, Piers John D’Arcy-Kent, Elizabeth Lewis, Charlotte Benson, Sue Squirrell, Ted Hill and Hilary Everitt of Overbury Town Museum.