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Message… and a bottle

Rodney Legg tells the gruesome story of human skin from West Stafford that was a relic of the Opium Wars

This story started when I bought a pharmaceutical bottle at a car-boot sale in the Bath and West Showground at Shepton Mallet; it had been stuffed into a box of Victorian military books. Inside the bottle were the tattooed remains of a piece of human skin preserved in oil. Accompanying the gruesome relic was an 1896 letter from a member of the Egerton family at West Stafford Rectory, just one parish away from Stinsford and Dorchester where novelist Thomas Hardy was turning such macabre tales into his Wessex novels.

Sailor's skin preserved  in a bottle

Sailor's skin preserved in a bottle

Six square inches of skin, with the faint trace of an anchor – indicating a sailor – featured a wedding tattoo. It shows female (left) and male figures facing and greeting each other, and initials below for ‘MS’ and ‘ED’. He smokes a long-stemmed churchwarden pipe; the scene is probably British and certainly European.
The explanatory letter, on black-edged mourning stationery, sent from Stafford Rectory on 24 March 1896 is addressed to ‘My dearest Frankie’. It begins: ‘I know how pleased you will be to learn that I have only this morning discovered the long lost pocket book made out of the skin of the man who shot your father! I had in vain looked for it before.’
Signed ‘Blanche’, the letter was from Mrs Caroline Egerton. She came across the pocket book whilst clearing the rectory following the death of her father, Canon Reginald Southwell Smith, in December 1895. He had been rector of West Stafford for almost the entire Victorian period, from 1836 until his death. The Egerton family, and their Grey-Egerton line in particular, have had long associations with both Dorset and the military. Distinguished members include several Major-Generals, a Vice-Admiral and a Field-Marshal, plus Ambassadors and a colonial Governor.

Blanche Egerton's letter on finding the skin

Blanche Egerton's letter on finding the skin

So why was a Victorian Canon’s daughter writing so cheerfully about the gruesome practice of the use of human skin for binding books – anthropodermic biblioplegy? Luckily, Blanche Egerton recorded the incident in China that resulted in the skin-man being killed and flayed – in accordance with local custom – in an example of summary justice during the first Opium War of 1839.
Genealogist Howard Pell, who has researched the Egerton family tree, identifies Blanche as Caroline Blanche Southwell Smith, who was born in 1855. She married Colonel Caledon Philip Egerton in 1884. In 1909 she recorded ‘Some Recollections of Early Days’ in a manuscript, which is preserved in the Dorset History Centre at Dorchester: ‘Behind the green and beige doors of the bookcase of my mother’s bedroom was one of the most gruesome of all her possessions. It was a pocket book made out of the skin of a man who had attempted the murder of my uncle Major Simpson in the Chinese War.’
William Henry Simpson was born at Bitterne, Hampshire, in 1806. His sister, Emily Genevieve Simpson, married Reginald Southwell Smith in 1836, immediately before he became rector at West Stafford. His portrait still hangs in the village, in the dining room of Lady Mary Grey-Egerton, where he is shown as a handsome young cadet on passing out from Sandhurst in 1821.

William Simpson as a cadet at Sandhurst

William Simpson as a cadet at Sandhurst

The London Gazette records that Major Simpson, who served with the Madras Rifles, was ‘severely wounded’ during the capture of Chin-Keang-Foo on 21 July 1842. He returned to Calcutta on the Tennaserim from Nankin, after the signing of the treaty there, on board HMS Cornwallis on 29 August. In 1843 he left India for Egypt on the steamer Atalanta. By 1851 he had been further promoted and served as aide de camp to Major-General Sir Hugh Gough who led the British campaign in China.
The following year Major Simpson married in Somerset and started a family at Walcot Gate, Bath. His wife, Mary Christiana Ferguson, was the great-great-great aunt of present-day Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Major Simpson appears to have left Bath in 1860 and returned to Bitterne Manor, near Southampton, where he died in 1865.
The ‘Dearest Frankie’ of the letter was his third son, Francis Blake Simpson, who was born in 1859 and went to Harrow School, where he was tutored by Blanche’s elder brother, Boswell, and followed his father into the Army.
By 1896, Francis (or Frank as documentary sources show he was known) was the oldest surviving child of Major Simpson, and the obvious next owner for the pocket book that Blanche Egerton had found. The book itself was presumably falling apart as the tattooed section of skin was taken off and preserved in oil in a medicine bottle.
Though aware of these military honours, the last head of the family, 96-year-old Major-General Sir David Boswell Egerton – 16th baronet in a line created in 1617 – told me that he had no knowledge of the skin. Speaking shortly before his death in Weymouth, he said that his branch of the family was from Cheshire, where the 4th Baron Egerton owned Tatton Hall. Lord Egerton had died in 1958, without an heir, and the title became extinct.
Sir David spent the 1930s on India’s North West Frontier and took part in operations in Waziristan. He won the Military Cross with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and France, in 1940, and took charge of Britain’s guided weapons trials programme. On retirement he was Colonel Commandant of the Royal Artillery, from 1970 to 1974, and lived at Campion Cottage, Cheselbourne.
Unfortunately for the story, not only had he never heard of Major Simpson, but he equally had no wish to know anything about the skin: ‘I can’t think why anyone should want such a relic.’
Instead it had passed to Sir Philip Reginald le Belward Grey-Egerton (1885-1962), 14th baronet of a line from 1617, a Cheshire landowner and High Sheriff. He moved to Stafford House in Dorset so he could fly-fish in the River Frome. Lady Mary Grey-Egerton, the last member of the family to give a home to the bottle, remembers it well. It had been at Meadow House for several years but was put in a trunk and sent to auction after the death of her husband, 15th-baronet Sir Philip John Caledon Grey-Egerton, of the Welsh Guards. Like Sir David, who died on 17 November 2010, she had no desire for it to make a reappearance in the living room: ‘It’s not something I would wish to see on my mantelpiece.’

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