Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

The Chronicles of the Welbys (part the third)

You are perhaps wondering why I illustrate today’s chapter with a picture of the Queen of Spain wearing a head-dress of ostrich plumes in 1820? Well, there is a perfectly sensible answer, but you will have to wait until further down the page to find out.

Today we are launching into the story of Bernard Welby, and I had hoped to bring you my hypothesis, of which I had grown rather fond, that he was the descendant of Katherine Welby, daughter of the Rt Revd Thomas Earle Welby, in turn the son of Sir William Earle Welby, the second baronet. In St Helena she had married Saul Solomon, an Anglican Jew who was the nephew of the great liberal political reformer in South Africa. Their descendants live on as the Welby-Solomons today. However, in the course of gathering further material to adduce in support of this lovely romance, I stumbled instead on the truth. And the truth, in its own way, is just as strange and romantic as my hypothesis.

Bernard Welby, formerly Weiler, 1867-1930

Bernard Welby was born in about 1867 in Germany. He was one of four brothers who came to London: Siegfried Hermann (1857-1935), Max (1865-1927), Bernard (1867-1930), & Ernest (1870-). All four became ostrich feather merchants. It seems  that Siegfried came first and established the business, and was then joined by Max and Bernard, who arrived together in 1886 (the year that Siegfried was naturalised British). To begin with, they both lived with their brother at 21 Warwick Road, North Paddington. They were not exactly struggling, the 1891 census shows that they had two live-in servants.  On 4 July 1893, Bernard and Max became naturalised British citizens.

In 1898, Bernard is on a ship bound for Cape Town, presumably in search of ostrich feathers. He is not in the 1901 census, so it may be he spent some time furthering the business of Weiler Bros in general while he was there. By 1909, Ernest leaves the family firm. This is also the year that Bernard marries Edith James, in the first quarter of 1909. They have two children, Peggy Kathleen in late 1909, followed by ‘Bernard G’ (ie Gavin) in 1910. Edith was born in about 1886 in Finsbury Park, and although her name sounds rather Anglo-Saxon, Bernard describes them both as ‘Hebrew’ on a ship’s passenger list.

On 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany and on 25 September, 1914 (in what is surely a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc)  the following notice appeared in THE London Gazette:

I, BERNARD WELBY, heretofore called or known by the name of “Bernard Weiler,” of “Ivycot,” Maxwell-road, Northwood, in the county of Middlesex, and of 16 and 17, Devonshire square, Bishopsgate, E.C., Ostrich Feather Merchant, Hereby give public notice that I have renounced and abandoned the use of my surname of “Weiler,” and in lieu thereof have assumed and adopted the surname of “Welby,” and such change is formally declared and evidenced by a. deed poll under my hand and seal dated the 22nd day of September, 1914, and enrolled in the Central Office of the Supreme Court of Judicature on the 23rd day of September, 1914.­ Dated the 23rd day of September, 1914. BERNARD WELBY.

Interlude for assessment

This seems a good moment to pause for breath and assess.  We have already found all the clues to the strands that had been suggested: Jewish, German, South African and the change of name to Welby. The only niggle that remains for me is whether the family came here, as suggested, to escape anti-Semitism. The period when the Weilers came to Britain was a relatively benign one for Jews in Germany itself, although pogroms began in Russia in 1881. Also, it must be admitted that anti-Semitism was generally prevalent in Britain at that stage – think of Fagin, Melmotte and the novels of John Buchan, whose villains are often Jewish.

This is an area which needs exploring in more depth than I can at present, but I found the following passage interesting, although it shows a conflicted attitude on the part of the Germans:

Anti-Semitism gained ground in Germany during the 19th century. Anti-Semitic libels were published everywhere, and the economic crisis of the early 19th century was blamed on the Jews. Thousands of Jews fled to Germany from the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century – thus keeping up the level of German xenophobia. In a climate of economic crisis in Germany towards the end of the 19th century, Jewish bankers were blamed. The Jews were seen as evil and exploiting capitalists, and several anti-Semitic parties were founded. University teachers and other learned people also pleaded for anti-Semitism. In connection with the growth of modern nationalism and the motto of ‘one state, one nation’, the German author and philosopher Paul de Lagarde wrote, “I have long been convinced that Jewry constitutes the cancer in all of our life; as Jews, they are strangers in any European state and as such they are nothing but spreaders of decay.” Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the “superman” – Übermensch – as a race biologically and intellectually better shaped than others, was misused by anti-Semites, and later by the Nazis. Some Germans felt like a part of this race of superior human beings at the end of the 19th century.  “Scientific” race theories also surfaced as a new current in Europe and Germany in the 19th century. The Aryan myth came to play an important and terrible role during the Nazi era – including the idea of a special Germanic spirit and race that was superior to all else. In spite of the anti-Semitism, Jews were awarded legal equality in Prussia in 1859, and later in the rest of Germany. This, however, did not significantly alter the popularity of anti-Semitism.


Another area which you may like to explore further is the whole business of ostrich feathers and the luxury trade therein. Here I recommend a fascinating book by Sarah Stein called ‘Plumes, Ostrich Feathers, Jews and a Lost World of Global Commerce‘ – how’s that for a title. You can download it on Kindle as I did, quite reasonably.
Stein explains: ‘Nearly 1 million pounds of ostrich feathers, valued at £2.6 million, were exported from the Cape in 1912…over a 20 year period the value of Cape ostrich feathers had tripled’. She does not mention Weiler Bros, so they were presumably only minor players, but can you imagine what £2.6 million in 1912 would be in today’s money? It is hardly surprising that even minor players were doing so well for themselves. The market, however, was highly volatile. Stein goes on to explain: “some had lost their wealth once or twice over, particularly between 1886 and 1896, when shifts in fashion caused the value of ostrich feathers to plunge by 75 %…the mercurial feather market would ensure that in a few years time ostrich feathers would be nearly worthless, and many buyers would be deeply in debt.”
But to return to Bernard’s domestic life. In 1911, he was living comfortably at Ivycot, Maxwell Road, Northwood with his wife, two children and three live-in servants in a house of 8 rooms (bedrooms and reception rooms) . By 1913 he had moved to 54 Platts Lane, Hampstead, still a leafy street of solid villas.
However, (Arch)bishop Justin remembers his father Gavin telling him that Bernard lost all his money in ‘the crash’. The normal presumption would be that this the general crash of 1929.  But, given Bernard’s source of income this seems more likely to have been ‘the feather crash’ which, according to Stein, began in the late winter of 1914. In 1921 and 1926, Bernard put some pictures up for sale at Sotheby’s followed, five years later, by some  Oriental objets d’art.














There is not a great deal left to tell. Bernard and Edith moved to Torquay, where they lived at Dunalister, Torwood Gardens until Bernard’s death, on 5 February 1930, at the Trinity Nursing Home, Torquay. The cause of death was coronary thrombosis. Edith returned to London to live after Bernard’s death. And Gavin, father of our future Archbishop of Canterbury, set off to America to restore the family fortunes, which he successfully did.

The illustration is a portrait of Maria Josepha of Saxony, Queen of Spain (1803-1829) by Francesco Lacoma y Fontanet, downloaded from Wikimedia.

19 comments on this post:

Matthew Caminer said...

Ahah! Confirms my suspicions (see comments against Part Two) that he was probably not fleeing German anti-semitism at that time, and that the name was an Anglicisation of a German name, though my guess (Welbeg) was wrong but not that far off. I wonder to what extent (+)+Justin acknowledges these Jewish roots – usually Jewishness is considered to go through the female line, though there is a very good reason for that, also related to pogroms and anti-semitism. You’re doing a great job here, Laura! I doubt if an incoming ABofC were ever quite so well researched!

Lay Anglicana said...

I think (Arch)bishop Justin is quite keen to acknowledge the Jewish roots, actually – anything to deflect attention from the unfortunate Etonian schooling! (I should say here that I am very sorry inverted snobbery has come to this – as Joyce has said, the education at Eton is excellent and it seems sad that it should be a black mark against anyone). I admit to being rather terrier-like in my pursuit of the new Cantuar’s antecedents, but it is partly to satisfy my other Welby friend on whose behalf I was doing the tree in the first place, and partly because I have a Miss Marple-like interest in mysteries!

17 November 2012 12:47
17 November 2012 12:38
Nick said...

That was really fun to read!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Nick – welcome to Lay Anglicana 🙂

17 November 2012 15:42
17 November 2012 14:09
Sarah Wilson said...

Terrier-like. You know I like that.

I found this glimpse into that world-gone-by fascinating. Particularly appreciate the details/comments you add that flesh out the story and the image in my mind.

You make would could be a dry piece into a fun adventure into a world I knew nothing about.

Thank you. 🙂

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Sarah :>). As you say, the thought of ostrich plumes is really fascinating, and the combination with an Archbishop of Canterbury is almost irresistible. The thing is, (Arch)bishop Justin has quite a strongly developed sense of fun himself (he allowed himself to be photographed having swopped his mitre for a policeman’s helmet, with the policeman wearing the mitre, so I don’t think he takes himself too seriously, which is great news for all of us.)

17 November 2012 15:42
17 November 2012 14:16

Dear Mrs. Laura Sykes,

I read your blog quite often and found today your post on newly elected-Archbishop of Canterbury Justin P. Welby. I do know there is an ongoing discussion about the personality, the backgrounds of his family. I would not go into this. On the other hand, may I take the liberty to draw your attention to some facts. The Anglican Church had quite a long list of “Hebrew Christian” priests and bishops in the course of the nineteenth century. Cf. J. Jocz’s “The Jewish People and Jesus Christ”. Many came from Eastern Europe, from the undefined borders between the German areas, present-day Poland, Prussia, the Russian Empire. Other came from Germany, indeed because of the pogroms.
Were they linked to some personal “mystery”, “James Bond-like personal story if not fairy tales”? No. On the other hand, it makes sense for the British to “scan” their résumé. In Jerusalem, the Church of England had the first Anglican Archbishop of the Holy City, designate in 1841: Solomon Alexander Pollak, born in Tauroggen, i.e. Prussia that, at that time was a part of the Tzarist Russian Empire, raised in a German and Jewish context. Thus, he could connect many parties and this is why he was chosen to be sent to Jerusalem in a middle of local troubles or “mishmash”.
It is quite understandable to try to trace back the “pedigree” of one of the most important personalities in the Kingdom of Great-Britain. You are very involved in genealogy and this is fascinating. And it is normal and really interesting to find out the ancestry of a person. It is much more delicate and quite difficult to get to the specificities of those who lived in a context that history has wiped out from Europe or that had no other choice than to change… It has been quite a blessing for the Church and England as well as for the Episcopalian Church. It allows also the faithful to focus on the price of God’s choice. But the whole thing only starts as far as concerns the new Archbishop.
……………………………….. [This part of the comment was written a few days ago, but got misplaced; the next part of the comment is in response to my reply. Sorry about this. LS/Ed]

I would not think of nuances because Anti-Semitism plays on subtleties, on irrationality, often unknown swinging and twisting reactions and this has been the case all over the ages and till now. “Anti-Semitism” is one thing and the name only shoewed for the first time in Vienna, in the very “Anti-Judaic” declaration of Mayor Karl Lueger. In Israel, we have a law that “there is a full freedom of speech and conscience/religion” and all points of view do exist. Indeed, mystery always is always intriguing and somehow it itches. Your third post on the Welby saga is very interesting. You are really fond of “genealogy” and it is important. I would say that Anti-Semitism was terrible in Germany; the point is to know what one considers as tragic, difficult, “pogrom-like”. You are right: Anti-Semitism existed in Great-Britain, but this not the same.
I wanted to add something I started to express in my last comment: God gives or entrusts us His servants for our time, our generation, from generation to generation. It is not comon to serre in the Church and mostly to serve in the name of the Holy Trinity. it is a Service and a call that directs both the servant and his flock to more than they can fahtom or imagine. This is why the new (arch)bishop’s appointment is significant. Then, he also mirrors the general destiny of the Commonwealth and the very exceptional history of the Church of England.
Best regards, in Christ,
archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel

Lay Anglicana said...

Dear Archpriest Alexander – this is a bit of a mystery! For some reason, your comment is still here but is attached to the part of the website which is about the blog in general . I will do a bit of cutting and pasting, and add it to the beginning of this comment of yours here. (Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get it back in sequence). I wouldn’t have dreamed of deleting it, I am so grateful to have a reader who understands something of the background and who can put us right. I have always been ashamed of British anti-Semitism (which of course had horrible practical consequences in the Middle Ages – York etc). But I take your point, it was probably still preferable to the even nastier version in Germany.


Dear Laura,

Thank you for your reponse! No problem with regards to my comment. Your third post is very interesting and please give more insights in the backgrounds of the new Archbishop.

I am indeed very inteersted in the development of the Anglican Church. Judaism and Christianity could reach at some point a sort “comprehensiveness” in the Communion.

Blessed Sunday, Christ is Risen,

17 November 2012 16:35
17 November 2012 16:26
17 November 2012 15:51
Harold Gardner said...

So interesting to look at the ancestry and background of our leaders to see the influences. Thanks for your investigation and clever post about the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lay Anglicana said...

I am hoping the Archbishop of Canterbury will be pleased – his family did say they had been trying for years unsuccessfully to identify him.

17 November 2012 16:28
17 November 2012 15:53

Excellent story (just add a few fictional, or not, interludes along the way and we have a BEST SELLER and HIT MOVIE)! The best part is, it’s not over yet, vamos a ver! Thank you Laura (I can see you with a Ostrich feather or two cascading up/down the side of your head…such panache)!

Lay Anglicana said...

Good afternoon/morning, Leonardo. I thought this post might put a smile on your face 🙂

17 November 2012 16:29
17 November 2012 16:02
JayKay said...

On Electoral Registers (Ancestry) 1918-20, 54 Platts Lane for Bernard Welby and Edith Welby: 1920 also has them at 16/17 Deconshire Square.

From 1925 to 1933 I found Mrs Edith Welby at 99 Gloucester Place – the same address given by Gavin on his travel papers to New York in 1930. No mention of Bernard.

Edith Welby travels to America on SS Aquitania in 1922 – quoting Bernard Welby, husband, at 16 Devonshire Square. (Ancestry and Find My Past).

There’s also a divorce catalogued on the TNA in 1927 – wife’s petition: Edith Welby, Barnard Welby.

I hadn’t spotted the Deed Poll information before – thank you for that!


Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this – as I expect you will appreciate, my source is also ancestry on the whole. But I also check The Times, the London Gazette (and Edinburgh Gazette), and cross-check in and The Genealogist. (Trade secrets!) Because the transcription on ancestry is rather poor, I have often found census returns etc from these other sources. Once you add them to the ancestry tree, ancestry will usually also pick them up. Also both other sources are good on overseas British births (Jane Portal was born in Meerut in British India, for example). The address at Devonshire Square is in Bishopsgate, E C, which is in the City of London and I imagine is the address of Bernard’s place of business rather than a second home.

What is new in what you tell me is the divorce – rather endearing, then, that she was still with him when he died three years later and it was she that reported the death. It does explain, though, why on the Probate record, it mentions that Edith Welby is single.

17 November 2012 20:48
17 November 2012 20:34
Mithu Hassan said...

Thanks a lot to share great article !!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Mithu, I’m glad you liked it, and thanks so much for the retweet :>)

18 November 2012 00:32
17 November 2012 21:28
Gary said...

The section of your story that gets me is, “A million pounds of feathers.” I can’t shake the image of a bunch of ostrich rustlers, some thing along the lines of our American cowboys.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thanks for commenting, Gary. I agree that’s a powerful image, especially when combined with an archbishop… :>)

18 November 2012 00:33
17 November 2012 21:36

Leave a Reply

We rely on donations to keep this website running.