Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The mysterious Miss Jewell and her Prince

At time of writing, one of the most popular films on the planet is The Greatest Showman which is very loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum. While it is a fabulously enjoyable movie, it shouldn't be relied upon for historical accuracy, although no doubt the infamous "King of Humbug" himself would have approved of its ability to hoodwink and entertain the masses.

There were several other similar showmen during this era and one of the lesser-known was Frank Fillis (b. London 1857 d. Bangkok 1921) whose circus company toured throughout the world, in particular the UK and far-flung corners of the British Empire. 

Every bit as colourful and outrageous as P.T. Barnum, having had three wives and children with links to the stage and movies, he is worthy of a blog post in his own right, but is probably best remembered in South Africa where he came up with the idea for the spectacle Savage South Africa that he brought to Britain at the turn of the previous century. 

Image in TROVE

Here is an early moving image of the arrival of the cast at Southampton docks, 1899 prior to its debut at Earl's Court.

But it was events that took place during the tour of Savage South Africa when two individuals were destined to become notorious celebrities and which, in the moralistic and racist attitudes of those long-ago days, created a huge scandal.

An attractive white woman, Florence Kate ("Kitty") Jewell, supposedly a respectable piano player and teacher, daughter of a Cornish mining engineer, had met and fallen in love with the star performer. His name was Peter and he was touted as a Prince, a son of Lobengula, King of the Matabele. When the couple tried to get married in London all hell broke loose.

The Evening News screamed that there is something inexpressibly disgusting in the idea of the mating of a white girl and a dusky savage. The Daily Mail added to the fire stating that such behaviour would weaken and lead to the downfall of the Empire. The snootier Vanity Fair proclaimed the New Woman was unable to tell a savage from a savant ... and so on. The Reverend who had been going to take the marriage service got cold feet and found an excuse not to marry them (the groom was likely to have other wives left behind in Africa).

Searches of old newspapers online will provide many similar reports on the scandal.

In the book by Ben Shephard, Kitty and the Prince, the story is described in great detail and it is -
"A heart-breaking tale, a real mystery, and a window into Victorian attitudes to race, the beginnings of tabloid journalism, and feminism, in the 1890s. In short, a true story that has everything."
It makes absorbing reading for anyone who wants to know more of the historical background to the couple's relationship, how they were forced to abort their first attempt at marriage in the glare of media, their public and violent spats, passionate reunion and marriage, acrimonious parting and divorce.

The cancelled entry in the parish records for the first marriage:

The second marriage was a low-key affair at the Holborn Register Office on 28 February 1900. It didn't make waves, possibly because of the Boer War raging in South Africa taking up most of the print space, although Kitty did manage to return to the headlines when she staged a suicide attempt by leaving some of her belongings, plus a "letter of a tragic character" addressed to her husband, on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. Some of her other letters to Peter (whom she called "Blackchops") were reproduced in the newspapers of the day - even as far away as Australia - see TROVE.

Copyright National Archives UK

In Kitty's divorce petition of 4 November 1901, she accuses Peter of adultery with two other women and also that he bit and kicked her, gave her "two black eyes" and even tried "to stab her with an assegai". Peter did not defend the case, but the press had a field day with justification for the case against mixed marriages, lecturing white women not to marry "natives", that they would only have themselves to blame when they were treated badly.

After Kitty left the divorce court in February of 1902, she completely disappeared from all the records and was never heard of again, leastwise not as Kitty Jewell or Kitty Lo Ben.

The true character and ancestry of the Prince has been questioned by historians although the truth went to the grave with him when he died in 1913 aged 38. Some say he was an imposter, his persona created by the showman Fillis to draw the crowds, others say he could well have been a son of one of King Lobengula's lesser, or non-official, wives. Peter had married an Irish woman and settled down in Salford where he was reduced to menial jobs. Three of his four children died young and a son, also Peter, lived until 1977 but does not appear to have any descendants. 

Here is another Youtube video about Peter Lobengula from SalfordOnline (contains some errors of fact - Kitty and Peter definitely did marry and later divorce, also Kitty did not commit suicide).

Kitty is a mystery waiting to be solved by some family historian. Although Shephard could confirm her birth in Redruth, Cornwall in 1873, he had difficulty in verifying certain aspects of her past and was unable to trace her movements accurately - nor was he able to confirm beyond doubt that her father, Joseph Jewell, was a Cornish mining engineer in South Africa.  Some newspaper reports said Kitty was Jewish, which is doubtful, but other American reports state her father worked in mines in Mexico, not South Africa.  

A public Ancestry family tree for the Jewells reveals that others in Kitty's family skirted around scandal involving Princes, as can be seen by a divorce petition brought in 1895 by John Corrie Woolston, the husband of one of Kitty's sisters, Emily Jane, with one of the named co-respondents being none other than the claimant to the French throne, Louis Phillipe Robert, Duc d'Orleans !

Copyright National Archives UK

From that family tree, it appears Emily had an interesting life as well with another marriage and divorce in Canada. The case against Prince Phillipe was dismissed, but was it a complete fantasy? Did she really snag the attention of the French Prince, and how? Did Kitty start her romance with the "Black Prince" in order to gain a bit of oneupmanship over her sister?

Then to add another layer of intrigue, Kitty's only brother was also a bit of a shady individual. In 1893, Joseph Stanley Jewell  was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 18 months' hard labour for deception and fraud.

All of this suggests that perhaps Kitty herself wasn't quite the "respectable" young lady she made out to be and may have had a colourful past she needed to cover up. 

Kitty's mother, Frances Jewell, is in the 1911 Census Return as a widow and sole lodger of "private means", aged 69 and living at 41 Trinity Square, Lambeth. She declares that she had 4 children, one of which is dead. Without delving deeper into family research (another sister Alice Maud is said to have lived to the age of 102), it cannot be known which child this was, but perhaps Kitty was "dead" to her mother after what happened.

There is every possibility Florence Kate ("Kitty") Jewell also decided to put all the turmoil of her relationship with Prince Lobengula behind her and went on to completely reinvent herself somewhere else in the world.