The story, as my grandmother always told it, was that her grandfather was pushed to his death down a liftshaft in Florence for the sake of his gold watch. It never occurred to me to wonder whether or not this was true. The events it related were too remote – a great-great-grandfather a hyphen too far. My grandmother’s grandfather was pushed to his death down a liftshaft in Florence for the sake of his gold watch in much the same way that Troy fell to a large wooden horse packed with Greeks.
The indexes of births were kept in large red binders, shelf after shelf of them in the Family Record Centre on Myddleton Street in Clerkenwell (now closed down); marriages were green; deaths, black. The lists of deaths recorded overseas were kept in separate folders. Of the 58 volumes of ‘deaths abroad’ since 1849, 17 – almost a third – were dedicated to the years 1914-21. Of those 17, one contained the names of all the marines who died during the First World War, one was for the navy, one was for the Indian Services, one was for army officers, and the remaining 13 were given over to Army Other Ranks. In all, they listed more than 700,000 names. It was as if the Cenotaph in Whitehall and every war memorial on every village green had been compressed into a few cubic feet of paper and ink.
The death of my great-great-grandfather, my mother’s mother’s father’s father, a year before the First World War began, was registered at the British Consulate in Florence on 29 September 1913, a Monday. According to his death certificate, Richard Roberts, a 67-year-old Justice of the Peace and builder, staying at the Hotel Londres & Métropole in Florence, died at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova on Saturday, 27 September 1913. The consul, Alfred Lemon, was informed of the death by R. Ellis Roberts, the deceased’s son, an author, of 10 Wilton Bridge Road, Canonbury, North London. The hospital registered the death with the Italian authorities on Tuesday, 30 September. I found a copy of the page from the Registro Atti di Morte on microfilm upstairs at the Family Record Centre. It’s written in a cursive script that’s hard to decipher, but I think it says that Richard Roberts was declared dead on arrival at the hospital, at ‘ore quindici e minuti quarantacinque’: quarter to four in the afternoon, around teatime.
Wilton Bridge Road wasn’t listed in the A to Z, though there’s a Wilton Square in N1, near the canal. I supposed Wilton Bridge Road must have had its name changed, or been bombed out of existence during the war. I thought about going to poke around the area anyway, but it was raining so I went instead to the Times Room in the basement of the London Library in St James’s Square, on the off-chance that Richard Roberts had been important enough (he was a Justice of the Peace, after all), or the manner of his death sensational enough, to warrant a mention in a national newspaper.
And, slightly to my surprise, there it was, with minor inaccuracies, towards the bottom of the second column on page 10 of the 30 September 1913 edition of the Times, nestled among news of a ‘Railway Accident in the Isle of Wight’, a ‘Murder in the East-End’ and the ‘Death of a Well-Known Jockey’:
Builder killed in Florence – News reached Aberystwith yesterday of the death of Mr Richard Roberts, who fell to the bottom of the lift-well at an hotel in Florence on Saturday night and was killed. Mr Roberts, who was 69 years of age, was a brother of the late Mr Lewis Roberts, of Plershendre, Aberystwith, and both had been engaged for many years in the building trade in London. Mr Richard Roberts was an original member of the London County Council.
The contents of his will made it into the Times, too, on 1 November, though only the early edition. He ‘left estate of the gross value of £14,830’ – about three-quarters of a million in today’s money – ‘of which £11,874 is net personalty’.
Given that his death was reported in the Times, it must have been headline news in the local press. Sure enough, the Islington Daily Gazette and North London Tribune had followed the story for a week. On Monday, 29 September: