Saturday, February 26, 2011

Who was Henry Fleming? A dandy? A heartless villain? Both? Neither? More history from Charles Street, Berkeley Square

At No. 2, Charles Street, which runs from the southwest corner of Berkeley Square in London, in 1871, there lived a bachelor, Henry Fleming, and two servants. Perhaps more people actually lived there, but that's who was home on census night.

Map, Google Street View, and the census return details for No. 2 Charles Street

Henry Fleming in 1871: Secretary of the Poor Law Board

It's there in black and white on the census form, Secretary of the Poor Law Board.

Your mind should immediately be racing to thoughts of Oliver Twist and gruel, poor people (both in the sense of lacking wealth and in the sense of suffering hardship), misery, and the workhouse.

This was 1871, about 32 years after the publication of Oliver Twist, but the poor were still liable to be taken into the workhouse, a place no one wanted to be.

Henry Fleming's involvement with the Poor Law Board dates back into the 1840s, closer to Dickensian times.

Thom's Irish Almanac and Official Directory, 1850, shows, at page 16, that the English Poor Law Board's office was at Somerset House, in London. Henry Fleming, Esq. is one of two Assistant Secretaries.

This was a time when Henry's star was rising.

A few years earlier, on July 15, 1844, Thomas Carlyle, the writer, sent a letter to his wife (one of over 9,000) mentioning callers stopping by that day.

 Old Stimabile, Darwin; then after dinner, Fleming3 on horseback to ask If Mrs Carlyle was home?—perhaps by Mrs Buller's order? He would not come in, tho' I by message invited him. 

(From Volume 18 of the collected letters, on  The Carlyle Letters Online, a website from Duke University Press.)

The footnote says:

"Henry Fleming (d. 1876); asst. sec. of poor law board, 1848–59; permanent sec., 1859–71. Introduced into society by Charles Buller, he “made his way by his pleasant manners and amusing gossip. It was said that when Lady Palmerston wanted to know which way the political wind blew, she sent him out on a horse in the Park. He was very good-looking, and [no one could] … guess his age. He wore an undeniable brown wig, and had a lovely complexion and brilliant teeth, how much due to art no one could tell” (Mary C. M. S. Simpson, Many Memories of Many People [1898] 115).

According to another account Fleming was “a kindly little man, … commonly known as the ‘Flea.’ … He was well known in society, a friend of Charles Buller's, and an  habituĂ© of Lady Palmerston's house. He was much made up; and when Lady Ashburton was told of his house being entered by burglars, ‘It was hard on him,’ she said; ‘for he could not move, having unfortunately left his backbone on the dressing-table’” (Algernon West, Recollections 1832 to 1886 [1899] 1:86–87).

His obituary in the Times, 3 March 1876, said: “He was a welcome member of society which his official chiefs [of the poor law board] could often not aspire to enter. … As no one seemed to know his age, it was a constant subject of jocose speculation. His familiarity with Lord Palmerston was attributed to the alleged fact that Lord Palmerston had been his fag at Harrow.”

End of the footnote.

In fact, there are about 20 letters on the Duke University Press Carlyle website where Thomas or Jane (his wife) mentions Henry Fleming.

Our peek at the houses of Charles Street, Berkeley Square in 1871 began at No. 1: Thomas March of 1 Charles Street: One degree from Queen Victoria.

Before that, we started with the Stoker family: Bram Stoker, author of Dracula in public records: BMD (Birth, Marriage, Death).

Next time: what the Carlyles said about Henry. Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane mentioning Henry Fleming in their letters to each other. (For what it's worth, I found it pretty funny what they had to say, and how fragrantly they could throw mud at people.)

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