Thursday, June 13, 2019

Frank and Alexa's circle


This is another foray into the vacuums, tittle-tattle and misunderstood facts that constitutes family history (a topic I always listen to with fascination, but  never seem able to retain).

There was an intellectual circle in London in, let's say, around 1900. There were many such circles, of course, but I am interested in this one because it includes my great-grandparents: Edward (known as Frank) Plowright, a bank manager in Croydon, and his wife Alexandra (known as Alexa), née Porecky.

Alexa's father Alexander, born in 1814, had emigrated to England from Poland via Paris. He was variously recorded as "Médecin", umbrella-maker, "Inventor in Mechanics", "Commercial Agent in gold and silver leaf", "Trading in leaf gold"... We still have designs for paddle-wheels and umbrella-opening mechanisms.

In subsequent years family opinion was divided on whether Alexa was of Jewish extraction; Marjorie (her eldest daughter) always maintained it, but my grandmother Ruth always denied it. Most likely Marjorie was right. A record of Alexa's birth (6 December 1859, soon after her father moved to London) records her names as Sarah Sulamith. Doubtless Alexa was not a practising Jew by the time she married; she was perhaps a "free-thinker" more than anything. Ruth inherited Alexa's lovely jet-black hair, and in turn passed it down to my dad. (When I knew Ruth, she was a devout Christian, but I didn't realize that this was not an inheritance from her parents, but rather something she had inherited "upwards" from my father.)

The circle had two geographical centres: the Doughty Street area of Holborn (home of many writers, most famously Charles Dickens back in 1837-39), and Croydon, where Frank and Alexa gave at-homes. I have a vision of a house with a lovely large garden; my grandmother must have told me about it.

Its luminaries included the young composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (born in Holborn, lived in Croydon) and Ramsay MacDonald, co-founder of the Labour Party and subsequently Prime Minister. Chesterton and Shaw, among others, were said to be occasional passage migrants.

Alexa, an idealist and intellectual, corresponded with MacDonald about the Labour movement. She also received affectionate letters from the elderly Francis Espinasse, the "Nestor of Victorian journalism", author of Lancashire Worthies,  biographies of Voltaire and Renan, etc.

Frank and Alexa had six children:

Marjorie
Dickie (died in childhood)
Ruth (my grandmother)
Joan
Esther
Oliver (known as Bobby)

After six children Alexa didn't want any more. That might be one reason why Frank began a second family with a girl he met in a shoe-shop in Midhurst. Her name was Nell Azulay (a Sephardic Jewish surname, incidentally). Alexa, now needing her own income, began to work as a masseuse. A highly respectable kind of masseuse (probably best seen as kind of alternative health therapy); but in order to maintain the respectable air she needed to be safely married, so would not countenance a divorce. Hence Frank and Nell were unable to marry until Alexa's death.

All the girls were educated at home, except Esther, who was deemed "too much of a handful".

Ruth was musical. Like Coleridge-Taylor before her, she attended the Royal College of Music, as a violinist. As a child she knew Coleridge-Taylor well, and also remembered playing for Elgar and Delius.

Marjorie inherited her mother's intellectual passion. She was the only one of the siblings seriously interested in literature (accordingly, she was my dad's favourite aunt). She went from Catholicism to Unitarianism to Communism to atheism. She married "beneath her"; John Mantle, a Southampton working man and a Catholic, who already had two children by an earlier marriage (Pauline, who became a nun, and Jack, a posthumous VC -- he died, aged 23, heroically manning his anti-aircraft gun on HMS Foylebank in Portland Harbour on July 4, 1940).

Joan, who trained as a dancer, married a wealthy director of Woolworths, Howard Dear (Howard's brother was the film director Basil Dearden). Joan and Howard helped John Mantle in setting up his own shop, but he over-extended and went bankrupt. Later he was a cargo checker at Southampton docks.

Inevitably, I suppose, there was sometimes a perceptible distance between the better-off, smart, Londoners (Joan, Esther and Bobby) and the less well-off elder sisters they generously assisted, Marjorie and Ruth.  Ruth had married a fellow-musician, a cellist. They played in palm court orchestras. But the marriage broke down. Ruth raised her two boys as an impoverished single parent.

In later life Ruth was good friends with both Pauline the nun and "Auntie Nell" the former shoe-girl. In fact it was Nell who first invited Ruth and her young family to come and stay with her in Eastbourne.  Here Ruth settled, my dad grew up and, in due course, I was born.



Alexandra Porecky

Between the death of her father and her marriage to Frank, Alexa had a brief career as an actress. My only photo of her comes from this period. It shows her in a farce-comedy, Our Flat, which was played in Hastings in 1891. The critic of the Hastings and Bexhill Observer (August 22, 1891) observed that Miss Alexandra Porecky's role as Madame Volant "was especially well-sustained".

[Our Flat, written by Mrs H. Musgrave, was first performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, on 13 June 1889.]


Ramsay MacDonald (1866 - 1937), photo from the early 1900s


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramsay_MacDonald ]



Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912)


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Coleridge-Taylor ]




Around 1910. Frank and Alexa with (L-R) baby Esther, Ruth, Joan, Marjorie.


Around 1917. L-R: Ruth, a nanny (?), Esther, Marjorie, Frank, Alexa, Bobby, Joan.


A young Ruth Plowright (my grandmother)




Recital given by Ruth and her future husband at Croydon on 20 May 1922.  On the programme, in addition to Tchaikovsky, Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc, there was naturally some Coleridge-Taylor. Ruth ended the concert with his African Dance No IV (Op. 58). Prior to that, Roy had performed a piece called Réverie by "G. Coleridge-Taylor", with piano accompaniment by the composer. This was  the late Samuel's daughter, Gwendolyn Coleridge-Taylor, now nineteen. As "Gwen", she was a close friend of Ruth and Roy. (She had been composing since the age of 12. Later she preferred to use her second name, Avril.)


Gwendolyn Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903 - 1998)

[Image source: https://musictheoryexamplesbywomen.com/composers/avril-coleridge-taylor-1903-1998/ ]



Frank in later life (c. 1930).


Leading Seaman Jack Mantle (1917 - 1940)


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Mantle ]


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: African Dance No. 4 in D minor:

https://youtu.be/rGINItWQf0o


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