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:
We deeply regret to announce the death of Mr Richard Roberts, JP, in Italy, where he was spending a holiday with one of his sons. No details are yet to hand. The melancholy news was made known to the family by telegram received yesterday morning at 10, Willowbridge-road, from Florence, and later in the day the telegram was read to the congregation at Union Chapel, Upper-street, where the deceased gentleman held the office of deacon.
Willow Bridge Road, in Canonbury, not Wilton Bridge Road, is closed to traffic at its southern end, where it crosses the New River. No. 10 is a four-storey, red-brick, semi-detached Victorian house, which was divided into four flats in the early 1980s. According to the 1901 census, there were nine people living there at the turn of the last century: Richard Roberts, his wife Anne, their sons Robert, Richard E(llis) and Arthur, their daughter Margaret, and three servants – the cook, Sarah Reece, and two teenage housemaids, Emily Lunmir and Ethel Bailey. The eldest son, William, must have already moved out. In his will, my great-great-grandfather ‘desired it to be known that it was by the consent of his eldest son, William Corbett Roberts, who is already well provided for, that nothing is bequeathed to him.’ By 1911, Robert and Arthur had moved out too. Ellis and Margaret were still there, as was the cook, though they were down to one housemaid: Charlotte Sampson, 28.
‘One of Mr Roberts’s sons,’ the Gazette said, ‘who had remained at home in the absence of his father, left last night for Florence.’ My grandmother always maintained that this was her father, Robert, though it’s possible that it was his younger brother Arthur, whom my grandmother always referred to as ‘wicked uncle Arthur’. Robert and Arthur were partners in the family building firm until they fell out and the partnership was dissolved. According to Robert’s children, the problem was Arthur’s ‘dubious financial dealings’, though Arthur’s daughters’ grandchildren have no doubt heard an entirely different story about wicked uncle Bob.
If it was Arthur who went to Florence, that would make it easier to account for the letter from R.L. Roberts dated 29 September and published in the Gazette the following day, correcting ‘one error in your very kind notice of Mr Richard Roberts in to-day’s issue. You state that Mr Roberts stood for the LCC in 1904. This was not the case; he had retired some time before that, and I believe I am right in saying that he was never defeated in any election for the LCC.’ If Robert had left for Florence on Sunday night, how could he have been writing letters to the Gazette from 54 Rheidol Terrace on Monday? It’s strange that another of the sons went out to Florence at all. Did they think Ellis was incapable of bringing the remains home?
This small mystery raises another question: why had Ellis and his father gone on holiday to Florence at all, just the two of them? Robert’s non-inclusion is easily explained – he was married with three children and a fourth on the way – as is William’s, ordained in the Church of England and also married, but the others’ less so. Ellis was in his mid-thirties, unmarried, still living at home, and though he gave his profession as ‘author’ at the consulate in Florence, he had not published much: a book of poems, privately printed in 1906, a study of Samuel Rogers (1910), a translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1912). It’s hard not to suspect that he was a cause of concern to his parents, given his dilettantism and the industriousness of his father and older brothers.
As well as the letter from Robert, and perhaps as a deflationary response to his pride in his father’s unblemished election record, Tuesday’s Gazette carried the following item:
Further reports concerning the death of Mr Richard Roberts, JP, of 10 Willow Bridge-road, Islington … show that the deceased gentleman fell down the well of the lift at the Hotel Metropole, Florence … and sustained fracture of the skull. He died on the way to the hospital.
The remains are being brought to England.
A South Islington correspondent recalls the fact that the late Mr Roberts, in addition to interesting himself in the Northern Polytechnic, Holloway-road, was a member of the Music Halls committee of the London County Council, and in that capacity some years ago was concerned with a number of others in securing the purity of public entertainments in London. In common with some of his colleagues he suffered the resentment of some members of the music-hall and theatrical profession. In one election a number of professional ladies visited South Islington and canvassed the constituency against him.
The story continued in Wednesday’s Gazette, though it had by then slipped from the news pages into a gossip column (called, with admirable lack of hyperbole, ‘Local Men and Things’). At the Royal Aquarium in 1890, ‘The Tatler’ said,
there appeared … a young female gymnast known as Zao, whose sensational performance concluded with a dive from a trapeze near the roof of the building into a net far below. The enterprising manager of the Aquarium, Captain Molesworth by name, had the hoardings posted with pictures of the young lady in the ordinary attire of a gymnast and of another performer named Paula.
Richard Roberts had castigated the Royal Aquarium as ‘a jumble of degrading entertainments of various kinds’. Had the writer intended the contrast between Zao’s nightly death-defying dive from the trapeze and my great-great-grandfather’s one-off plummet to oblivion?
The Gazette carried no more stories about Richard Roberts until Monday, 6 October, when it announced that
The remains of the late Mr Richard Roberts arrived at London Bridge Station on Saturday morning, and were removed to the deceased gentleman’s late residence, 10 Willow bridge-road. At four o’clock in the afternoon a memorial service was held at Union Chapel, Upper-street, and from the church the remains were conveyed to Aberystwith, where the interment takes place to-day.
The Rev. W. Hardy Harwood let the Union Chapel congregation know that ‘on the day of his death Mr Roberts had written him a letter saying that he found Florence more beautiful than ever.’ One purpose of this announcement, presumably, was to allay any suspicions of suicide.
According to the 1913 edition of Baedeker’s Northern Italy, the Hôtel Métropole & Londres in Florence was on the corner of Via dei Sassetti and Via Anselmi, a block west of Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele (now Piazza della Repubblica), across the street from the post office. The British consul, Alfred Lemon, could be found at Via Tornabuoni 4 (now the Cape Verde Consulate; the British have moved to a much grander palazzo on the Lungarno Corsini). ‘The spring and autumn months are the best season for a tour in North Italy,’ Baedeker advised, ‘especially April and May or the second half of September and October.’ Richard and Ellis were travelling by the book. As for the chances of getting mugged, ‘public safety in Northern Italy is on as stable a footing as to the north of the Alps. Travellers will naturally avoid lonely quarters after nightfall, just as they would at home. They should also be on their guard against pickpockets, who abound at railway stations, on tramway cars and corridor trains, and in all crowds.’
The building on the corner of Sassetti and Anselmi is now a bank. The windows are made of reflective glass tinged a metallic pink. There’s a plaque on the wall: ‘C. Steinhauslin & C., Fondata 1868’. Steinhauslin, absorbed into the Monte dei Paschi di Siena group a few years ago, claims to be Italy’s oldest private bank. (MPS, founded in 1472, describes itself as the oldest bank in the world.) Despite the bank’s sense of history, there was clearly no way they were going to let me sniff around for traces of my ancestor’s ghost and I headed over the river to the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library. The institute was founded in 1917, so had no contemporary records of my great-great-grandfather’s death. What it did have were two copies of the diary that Arnold Bennett kept while in Florence in 1910, which is full of details of everyday life – the trams, the crowds, the cafés, the horses, the barbers, the handcarts full of laundry outside hotels, the street cleaners going on strike because one of them had been jailed for fighting with his supervisor, the prostitutes in Piazza Peruzzi – as well as recording Bennett’s daunting productivity: it wasn’t unusual for him to write several thousand words of fiction before breakfast. Interesting, but no use to me. I crossed the river again.
The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze is the largest library in Italy. It has its origins in the collection of 30,000 books that Antonio Magliabechi bequeathed to the city in 1714. It grew steadily over the decades, and since 1870, when the unification of the country was completed with the annexation of Rome, it has been a copyright library. The collection used to be housed in the Uffizi, but in 1935 was transferred to its current site, a monumental building between Santa Croce and the Arno which took more than twenty years to finish (it was begun in 1911) and from the outside looks like a railway station. The interior is a typical Florentine combination of white plaster and dark grey pietra serena.
I ordered up the microfilm for La Nazione from September and October 1913. In The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy says that the ‘Cronaca di Firenze’ in ‘that excellent morning newspaper’ is a ‘daily chronicle of disasters to foreigners’. McCarthy was writing in the 1950s, but there was no reason to think the paper had changed much in forty years. I looked first at the edition of Monday, 29 September. A general election was coming up, Italians were being persecuted in Austria, and a young man had thrown himself into the Arno. There was nothing about any English tourists. Nothing on Tuesday or Wednesday, either. But spooling back to Sunday, 28 September, as well as the news that Austria and Italy had warned Serbia against invading Albania, and that a 38-year-old waiter had been taken to hospital after swallowing hydrochloric acid in a suicide attempt, I found a lurid thousand-word account of ‘the terrible disaster of yesterday evening at the Hotel Metropole: Englishman falls from lift and dies.’
According to La Nazione, the ‘unlucky man who met his death in this horrible way’ was ‘Richard Roberts Esq, 65’ – three different newspaper reports, three different ages – ‘of London’. He had been in Florence with his son Ellis for two weeks, and was staying in a room on the third floor of the Hotel Metropole. On the afternoon of his death, he went out for a walk by himself. According to the weather report elsewhere in the paper, Saturday, 27 September 1913 was a pleasant day: moderate wind from the north-east, clear skies, temperatures between 13 and 18.5ºC. He returned to the hotel at around half-past three, and declined a bellboy’s offer to take him up in the lift, preferring to operate it himself. ‘It is perhaps as well to state at this point that Mr Roberts was extremely short-sighted.’ When the lift reached the second floor, he thought he had arrived. So he opened the glass door and stepped out onto the small platform between the lift and the gate to the landing. The lift then signalled that it was going on up to the third floor.
My short-sighted great-great-grandfather suddenly found himself trapped on a narrow ledge on the second storey of a Florentine palazzo, one locked door in front of him and another behind. He struggled to open the gate, but it wouldn’t budge, held fast by the safety mechanism. Trying to get back into the lift, he broke several panes of glass which crashed to the landing below. Before anyone had time to run to his aid, a bloodcurdling cry (‘un grido straziante’) echoed through the building, followed by a sinister thud (‘un tonfo sinistro’). The lift had continued on its way, and the unlucky man (‘il malcapitato’), stranded on the little doorstep (‘la piccola soglia’), had lost his balance. The drop was about fifteen metres.
‘It isn’t easy to describe the scene that followed the fall of the poor gentleman.’ He lay still, horribly battered, blood pouring from wounds on his face and head. The bystanders, including the proprietor of the hotel, Achille Luckembach, picked him up and carried him to the nearest Guardia Medica. There he was seen by two doctors, who called for an ambulance which took him to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. He died as he was lifted onto the operating table.
The police were summoned. After a lengthy interrogation of hotel staff and a thorough investigation of the mechanism of the lift, they concluded that Richard Roberts’s death had been an accident. Later, accompanied by the proprietor of the hotel and various ‘other gentlemen’ (including La Nazione’s correspondent?), the victim’s son went to view the body. Ellis was in tears as he entered the mortuary, where the corpse was laid out on a table. He flung himself on his father’s body, embraced him and kissed his face, still smeared with blood. With great difficulty, Ellis was detached from the corpse, and carried from the room.
The story in La Nazione had clearly been elaborated: Ellis’s flamboyant display of grief doesn’t ring true; and no one can know exactly what happened during the few nightmarish moments that my great-great-grandfather spent trapped inside the liftshaft. But one thing seems clear: my grandmother’s grandfather’s wallet was still in his pocket when he died. He hadn’t been robbed; my grandmother made that up. And yet, I can hear her pointing out, in the same half-playful voice in which she used to accuse me of cheating at backgammon, how interesting it was that the newspaper had nothing at all to say on the subject of his missing gold watch.