Simon Slingsby – Northwood’s Nijinsky (and Mr Tambourine Man)

Posted by Admin on Wednesday, 24th July 2013, 14:20

Simon Slingsby – Northwood’s Nijinsky (and Mr Tambourine Man)
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On the wall of the north aisle of the church is a discreet stone plaque commemorating the deaths of Simon Slingsby Esq and his wife Elizabeth whose remains are said to be buried nearby. He died 28th February 1811 ; she died seven years later on 24th August 1818. Simon’s remains are recorded as having been deposited “in a vault on the north side of the chancel” in other words somewhere near or indeed under the current vestry.
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The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1811 describes Simon (wrongly called Samuel) as dying “at an advanced age.” According to church records Elizabeth was 65 when she died.
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So who was Simon Slingsby? And how did he come to be buried in Northwood?
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Simon Slingsby was probably born in Ireland. He may have been the son of Simon Slingsby, a Dublin merchant, who died December 1747 having served as churchwarden at Clondalkin church between 1741-3. The young Simon trained as a dancer under the celebrated ROBERT ALDRIDGE who later opened a famous dance school in Edinburgh. What the Slingsby family may have thought of young Simon’s choice of profession is not recorded.
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Simon is first mentioned in 1759 as dancing at Crow Street Theatre, Dublin. His breakthrough to stardom came when he danced at a benefit (a performance where all the profit goes to a particular person) ballet given for Robert Aldridge. Aldridge had injured himself as a result of falling ten feet through the floorboards of the stage on landing from a jump. The benefit ballet was called “The Tambourine Dance”. In one scene of a tall man stood on a pedestal holding a tambourine up as high as he could. Simon bounded onto the stage, took a flying leap and kicked the tambourine out of the man’s hand to the amazement and delight of the audience. The theatre manager, Mr Barry, asked the director the name of this prodigy. “Why, sir,” replied the director, “it is little Simon Slingsby, the boy you have seen here every night and thought very little about.” “Engage him”, replied the manager. “Article him for any money.”
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Ireland proved too small for a dancer of Simon’s ambition and talent. He moved to London to seek his fortune. From 1761 he was performing at the King’s Theatre (now Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket) which at that time specialised in Italian opera and ballet. He subsequently became the principal dancer at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane under David Garrick, the celebrated actor-manager. It was at Drury Lane that Simon is recorded as performing “a Tambourine Dance with Mrs Baker” (no doubt featuring the famous sensational flying leap) in 1764. Garrick was annoyed when after he had negotiated a contract with Simon’s brother Simon backed out of the engagement to cross the channel and dance at the Paris Opera. Perhaps he was fed up with being pigeon-holed as the Tambourine Man and wanted to explore the serious side of ballet. It was a very bold move. France was the original home of ballet and had the highest standards in Europe at the time, rather like the Russian ballets in our day. During his visit Simon had the honour of dancing before the French Royal Family.
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Simon returned to London in 1766. Garrick must have forgiven him because he continued to dance at Drury Lane. During this period he married Elizabeth Jelfe in a runaway marriage at Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland, on 17th March 1769. She was listed as living in the parish of St Mary le Bonne (Marylebone). From her age at death it appears that she was only 16 when she married which indicates that her parents had refused their approval to the match. I have been unable to find any trace of who they were.
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As a dancer Simon was famous for his speed and agility, very much like Nijinsky whose leaps astonished audiences of the Ballet Russe in 1911. It was said of Simon that “the rapidity of his motions was such, that the human figure was scarcely distinguishable”.
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Simon’s benefit performance at Drury Lane in 1775 brought him £202 worth over £20,000 in today’s money. It was about this time that he moved into choreography and management. He was co-manager of Richmond Theatre with a Mr Jefferson from 1774 to 1778. This theatre is likely to have been the Theatre Royal, Richmond, which opened in 1765 at the top of Old Palace Lane, but was demolished in 1884. It was a prestigious venue including among its patrons George III and Queen Charlotte. Over the years some of the most famous actors of the day including Mrs Siddons and Macready performed there.
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During this time a son was born to Elizabeth and Simon. He was christened on 3rd July 1776 with the unusual names SMITH SAVILLE SLINGSBY. There was at the time an aristocratic family of baronets by the name of Slingsby from Scriven, North Yorkshire. The 7th Baronet who died in 1780 at the age of 82 was called Sir Saville Slingsby. Simon’s Irish family may have been distantly related to the Scriven Slingsbys whose baronetage dated back to 1638. After the Irish were defeated by Cromwell in the mid 17th century, many English adventurers settled in Ireland on forfeited Catholic lands. Simon might have been hoping that the ageing baronet would leave something in his will to his namesake. (Oddly enough there is an Isle of Wight Slingsby connection. In 1664 a Civil War veteran Royalist soldier COLONEL WALTER SLINGSBY, a cousin of the Scriven Slingsbys, was made deputy lieutenant of the Isle of Wight by King Charles II.)
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From 1778 until 1784-85 when he retired Simon continued to perform at the King’s Theatre. Most of the ballets with which he is associated have classical French names including : Pas de deux Anacreontique, Les Forges de Vulcain, La Bergere Coquette, Medee et Jason, Apollon et les Muses. Simon’s last appearance benefit was on 21st April 1785.
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It is unclear why Simon ceased his connection with Richmond Theatre in 1778. Perhaps he became disenchanted with the business side of management. According to his obituary he also taught dancing “in the first families [, ] acquired an ample fortune and lived in London in a style of elegant hospitality”. In 1781 he was living at no. 34 Upper Seymour Street Portman Square, a good address, so he must have been doing pretty well.
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Unfortunately he then suffered a series of misfortunes. His brother Captain John Slingsby committed suicide in 1790. Then, according to his obituary, “engaging in building speculations he became the dupe of men less honourable than himself and in consequence was for a time under great embarrassments till relieved by an appeal to the laws.” Like many artists he was possibly naive in commercial matters. However, he at least managed to recover some or all of his losses through the courts.
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This seems to be the point at which he retired to the Isle of Wight to live in West Cowes. He may have come to know Cowes through his brother as the town became very popular with officers of the Royal Navy in the second half of the 18th century. Many, like Admirals Osborn(e) and Cloberry, built villas overlooking the Solent. Perhaps Simon inherited a property from his brother. Or maybe he wished to leave behind the unpleasantness he had experienced in London. This was the period during which members of fashionable London society were beginning to establish what became the Royal Yacht Squadron.
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At this time St John the Baptist church, Northwood, was the principal church for both Cowes and Gurnard. The church on the site of what later became St Mary’s Church, Cowes, was then just a small chapel. It was upgraded by John Nash during the Regency period to become the chapel for the Ward family at Northwood House but was subsequently rebuilt on a massive sale by the Victorians. Simon and Elizabeth would have travelled up Church Lane on Sundays to church. Interestingly the family tombs of the Scriven Slingsby Baronets are located in another St John the Baptist church at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Given the Saville name he bestowed upon his son, Simon would doubtless have appreciated the co-incidence.
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What happened to Simon’s children? I could find no record of the fate of his son, SMITH SAVILLE SLINGSBY. He also had three daughters : MATILDA SLINGSBY born c. 1785, CAROLINE SLINGSBY born 1786 or 1791 and LOUISA GEORGI(A)NA SLINGSBy born before 1801. All three married after their father’s death and all three seem to have ended up living in or near Uxbridge in West London.
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First to marry was MATILDA SLINGSBY (“spinster of Northwood”) by licence at Carisbrooke on 27th July 1813 to WILLIAM THORNTON, surgeon of the 100th Regiment (of Albany Barracks). She would have been 28, quite an age in those days for a first marriage but probably brought an attractive inheritance from her father. Matilda had a son WILLIAM HENRY THORNTON born in 1822 when she was 37, another remarkable feat for those times. William Henry followed in his father’s footsteps and became a GP surgeon. In the 1881 Census he was living at Berkely Lodge, Margate with his wife ANN THORNTON (born in Margate), their son SWINFORD LESLIE THORNTON, a 27 year old barrister, plus a live-in cook and two housemaids. Evidently the family were doing pretty well.
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LOUISA SLINGSBY married CHARLES HANCOCK on 25th January 1819, both described as from Northwood parish, so probably at St John the Baptist church. In 1840 Louisa was living at Rockingham Cottage, Uxbridge, Middlesex as the widow of Charles Hancock of West Cowes. The 1841 Census shows her as aged 40 implying that her mother would have been around 48 at the time of her birth. That seems very unlikely.
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CAROLINE SLINGSBY was the last to marry. The July 1819 issue of the European Magazine and London Review describes her as the “third daughter of the late Simon Slingsby of West Cowes, Isle of Wight” and records her marriage to A[LEXANDER] W[ILLIAM] D[AVIS] FILLON [should be FILLAN] Esq. They married on 22nd June 1819 at St Luke’s church, Old Street, London. Interestingly, a baby named ELIZABETH JELF, daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Jelf, was also christened at St Luke’s in 1800. If these Jelfs were related to Caroline’s mother, Caroline may have been living with them at the time of her marriage. Like Matilda Caroline would have been in her late 20s or early 30s but if she was an heiress these things would have been overlooked.
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Fillan is a Scottish name but I have been unable to find any definitive trace of Alexander. The Sun Fire Insurance has a record of an ALEXANDER FILLAN living at 9 Gloucester Street Queen Square wherever that may have been in 1792. There is also a reference to an Alexander Fillan in 1799 who was deputy Steward to the Metcham Park Estate, Surrey.
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The three couples were named in the 1821 House of Lords Journal in relation to a petition on an undisclosed subject, probably relating to electoral irregularities, brought by the Marquess of Northampton as follows : “Charles Hancock of Chelsea, Gentleman, and his wife Louisa Georgiana, Alexander Davis Fillan of Park Hall, Middlesex, Gentleman and his wife Caroline, William Thornton, Gentleman of Uxbridge and his wife Matilda”. Park Hall may have been Hayes Park Hall, a substantial house located north of the Uxbridge high road.
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LOUISA HANCOCK died in Uxbridge in 1855. Her death provoked a Probate lawsuit “Durrant v. Fillan and Thorton [Thornton] that same year. The Durrant in question was a WILLIAM DURRANT, probably the son of William Durrant who died in Uxbridge in 1851. William Durrant Senior had been party to a lease and release of some property in the Isle of Wight with Louisa in 1840. He was then described as a “gentleman of Brussels in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” Perhaps Louisa rented Rockingham Cottage from William Durrant and the lawsuit concerned the terms of the remaining lease on her death. If Louisa died without issue, her two sisters Caroline and Matilda would have been beneficiaries.
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The law suit over Louisa’s estate appears to have been settled by 1857 when Matilda and Caroline, both widows living in Uxbridge, were involved in a contract regarding property in Pyle Street, Newport, with William Durrant, then described as “gentleman of Rockingham House, Uxbridge”. Rockingham House was a large mansion which subsequently passed to General EJ Rickards who died there in 1876. Rockingham Cottage may have been a small house or lodge on the estate or perhaps it was later extended and renamed as Rockingham House.
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The 1861 Census shows CAROLINE FILLAN living in Uxbridge as a boarder aged 70. In 1871 aged 80 (implying a birthdate of c. 1791) she was still living in Uxbridge but now in the household of her nephew CHARLES F THORNTON (43), his wife LOUISA THORNTON (44) and JULIA A THORNTON (36), perhaps Charles’s younger sister. All three were born in Uxbridge. When Caroline died in Uxbridge in 1874 her age was given as 90 implying a birthdate of c. 1794.
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MATILDA THORNTON died in 1866 aged 81, still living in Uxbridge, Middlesex . Her son WILLIAM HENRY THORNTON, Simon’s grandson, died in Margate in 1887 aged 65. He had become a magistrate as well as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. William’s wife ANNE THORNTON died in 1913 aged 86. Their son SWINFORD LESLIE THORNTON, Simon’s great-grandson, emigrated to South Africa where he died aged 86 in 1939 as a “late senior puisne judge” of the Straits Settlement. He is described on his tombstone as the eldest son.
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Simon and Elizabeth Slingsby would doubtless have been proud of their descendants’ success – surgeon, JP, barrister, judge. However, it would be nice to think that some of them may have inherited his artistic genes.
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Jacquie Pearce
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July 2013

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To read more of the History of Northwood and of the many famous people with Island connections please see our articles in the Church section under Parish Features and in the T.C. Hudson section.

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