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Draft: Golden Threads Copyright © Rossen, 2011 Tuesday, March 5, 2013
My Family in Greece
John Augustus Toole
Who can tell which Angel of Good Fortune must have smiled upon the young loyalist
Irishman, John Augustus Toole, when he joined the British Navy as a midshipman
and sailed out to the Mediterranean sometime in the first decade of the 19th Century?
He was landed on the enchanted island of Zante where he met the great love of his life, the Contessina Barbara Querini. In this book I will tell the story of their love, the disapproval of Barbara’s family and how it came about that the young British officer prevailed.
It was his good fortune and hers that resulted in my family on the Ionian Islands in Greece. My life, four generations later, was succoured in the cradle of luxury and privilege that he, his children and grandchildren had created. Before I tell you the story of my remarkable life on these islands, a story resonant with living memory and fondness for the people who touched my life, I will describe in this preamble the times, places and people who came before me: the tales told to me as a child.
Most of Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time of John Augustus Toole’s arrival. The seven Ionian Islands, located on the west coast of Greece, had escaped Ottoman occupation as part of the Venetian Empire. In 1796 Venice fell to the French under Napoléon Bonaparte. In 1809, British forces liberated the island of Zante and soon after Cephalonia, Kythria and Lefkada. In 1815, after Napoléon had met his Waterloo, Corfu and the remaining Ionian Islands passed into British hands. Britain established the Union of the Ionian Islands and made it a protectorate administered by Lord High Commissioners appointed from Britain.
British colonial administration may have been high handed at times but Pax Britannia brought stability and protection from Ottoman ambitions, the rule of law, independent courts and free trade. Considerable public works were undertaken. Schools and a university were founded. British administration was strikingly free of corruption.
John Augustus Toole was seconded from the marines to the British administration in
1810. He must have performed well, for in 1813 he was appointed Deputy Assistant Commissioner General of the Ionian Islands. Later John Augustus joined Governor Sir Charles Napier on the island of Cephalonia. Argostoli, the capital of the island, became the family home where he and the Contessina, now titled La Nobile Signora Barbara Querini Toole, raised their five children: Anne, George, Mary, Antonio and Ernest. We always referred to her as the Contessa Barbara.
1 Draft: Golden Threads Copyright © Rossen, 2011 Tuesday, March 5, 2013 Around that time, Lord Byron arrived on the island of Cephalonia to orchestrate the liberation of the Greek mainland from Ottoman occupation. LordByron obtained a house in Metaxata but he was often in Argostoli and occasionally a guest at the Toole family home. Before leaving the island in 1824, he gave Contessa Barbara a lock of his hair, a romantic gesture in keeping with his flamboyant style. I saw this lock. It was kept in my grandmother’s bureau, in the study.
John Augustus Toole was given the task of providing transport and arranging supplies for Lord Byron and his expeditionary force of Sulioti warriors. Lord Byron left for Messolonghi to re-ignite the fires of the Greek War of Independence that had been sputtering somewhat as the Greeks had taken to fighting each other instead of the Ottomans. John Augustus went with him. In Messolonghi Lord Byron contracted malaria or perhaps some other disease. His doctors finished the job by draining his blood and inducing septicaemia by using dirty instruments. Lord Byron died. John Augustus returned to Argostoli.
John Augustus Toole died in 1829 from Blackwater Fever, a complication of malaria contracted on a trip to Italy. His death at the age of 37 left Contessa Barbara alone with four children. Their fourth child, Antonio, had died as an infant. Their youngest child, Ernest Augustus, was only five at the time.
Ernest Augustus Toole My great grandfather, Ernest Augustus Toole, was the baby of the family. He was loved by everyone. However he grew up to be a terrible disappointment. His indiscretions were so offensive that the family disowned him.
What did he do? What became of him?
Ernest Augustus had died long before I was born. His indiscretions were not discussed in my presence, although I seemed to know that there was a dark secret of some kind hidden there. I was quite a lot older before I was told the whole story; I shall get to that later.
His daughter, Barbara Toole, named after her grandmother, was my grandmother.
John Saunders My other great grandfather on my mother’s side, John Saunders, had been a banker in Aberdeen, Scotland, when he was appointed manager of the British Ionian Bank. The British Ionian Bank had first been proposed by the Islands’ High Lord Commissioner, Lieutenant General Sir Howard Douglas. In part, at least, the purpose of the bank was to bring and end to usurious money lending practices that had been employed by the Venetian landed gentry, the traditional ruling class, to keep the Greek speaking peasants in effective indentured servitude. The bank was funded by private investors in London and greatly promoted the growth of the merchant and professional classes on the Islands.
John Saunders arrived on Cephalonia in May, 1841. He spoke Latin to the Venetian Italians, and Ancient Greek to the Greeks, in a Scottish brogue and with a cadence quite foreign to the music of the Mediterranean. They were puzzled and thought he 2 Draft: Golden Threads Copyright © Rossen, 2011 Tuesday, March 5, 2013 was speaking English. He married my great grandmother, Mary Toole, the third child of John Augustus Toole and Contessa Barbara. He was a good man: honest, reliable and loyal. He retired in 1860 and was succeeded as manager of the bank by his brother-in-law, George Augustus Toole.
Shortly after John Saunders’ retirement, a major change was to come over the Ionian Islands. Greece had been liberated from the Ottomans. For a while Greece was embroiled in conflict, coups and chaos as the Greeks took once again to fighting among themselves. The European powers had an interest in stabilising the country and bringing it into the Western sphere. Greece, the cradle of Western Civilisation, obtained the benefit of romantic European idealism. In 1864, Prince William of Denmark was made George I, King of the Hellenes. A new Greek constitution was enacted, the first in the world to incorporate universal male suffrage from the start, giving the Greeks both ancient and modern reasons to regard themselves as the founders of democracy. In that year the Ionian Islanders were given the choice by plebiscite to remain an independent nation under British protection or to become part of Greece. The people elected for union with Greece.
These islands, that had been Venetian for hundreds of years, on which Venetian Italian had been the language of the ruling class, and that had been a British Protectorate for almost half a century during which time English had become the language of government and commerce, now became part of Greece and Greek the language of the islands’ affairs.
James Saunders John’s son, James Saunders, was my grandfather. He was born in Argostoli and was registered at Somerset House, London, to ensure British citizenship. Boarding school was a right of passage for the sons of British expatriate families. John attended Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England, the Jesuit school for boys. He won a prize for giving a sermon in Latin and prizes in other subjects, at least one each year that he attended. In that time, when prizes were given only for truly outstanding achievement, this was quite something. He was selected for the school's cricket first eleven, and was a member of the rowing team. On one occasion when boys from Eton and Stonyhurst met, an Eton boy enquired smugly, “What is Stonyhurst?” James replied, “Stonyhurst is what Eaton was, a school for Catholic gentlemen.” James was popular and graduated cum laude.
James Saunders returned to Cephalonia and started working for Mr Veyias, a successful Greek entrepreneur who exported currants to Europe. James' contacts in England and Holland opened doors to new export markets, and his acumen helped the business to thrive. Mr Veyias made him a partner.
Mr Veyias had no wife or children. He was a benefactor on the island; for example, his contribution had financed the first wing of the hospital in Argostoli. When he died he left the business and its premises to James, including the stately family home.
James Saunders fell in love with the beautiful Barbara Toole. Barbara's family was set against the match because the young couple were first cousins. Barbara took aspirins 3 Draft: Golden Threads Copyright © Rossen, 2011 Tuesday, March 5, 2013 in protest, and had to be treated by a doctor. It was said that she had to have her stomach pumped, but that might not be true.
After that she was sent to a finishing school in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where she learned to cook German Christmas biscuits, and to sing German lieder. She had a pleasing voice and was reputed to have had perfect pitch. She married a Swiss gentlemen named Jacob Wartmann, and they had two children: Lily and Jimmy.
Jimmy was named after James Saunders, who had remained a close family friend. Mr Wartmann died young, and left Barbara with two small children.
After Barbara had been sent to Germany, James Saunders wrote often to her. He thought of her every day. He clipped articles from the newspapers for her. He was an honourable man and decided that sending these letters would not be the proper thing to do; if Barbara were to marry someone else she should be free of entanglements. He kept the letters in a box. When Barbara married Jacob Wartmann he stopped writing.
Now, he decided to show them to her. Together they spent an afternoon reading the letters, laughing and recalling past times. They were married soon after.
James Saunders was an astute businessman. He grew the currant business into a major enterprise. Currants were exported to England, Holland and Germany. He was held in high esteem and became the consul for Britain and The Netherlands in Argostoli. He was knighted by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands for his services to Dutch Traders in the Levantine: Ridder in de Orde van Oranje Nassau.
James Saunders spoke fluent modern Greek. He travelled to many parts of the island, talking to the peasants and encouraging them to plant and tend the vines that would supply his business with currants. He introduced new techniques of viticulture from Europe. In good years he paid well for the currants. He was also a philanthropist on the island. He sent the sons of widows to school in England, which he considered the ultimate opportunity in life; it would make great men of them. Many of these hotblooded Mediterranean boys suffered terribly in that cold and rainy climate, eating porridge without honey. In those days the majority of people on the island were illiterate. The Cephalonians knew a good opportunity when it was offered. They returned with valuable British educations and began the process of elevating their positions in society.
On James' daily constitutionals he would pick up bits of broken glass so that barefoot children would not cut themselves. He also picked up discarded papers. At that time, concern for the environment and upkeep of public spaces was not prevalent, and the Greeks considered him to be an eccentric but admirable Englishman. They could not understand why he refused to take bribes. His kindness to those who worked for him was seen as odd. He was much loved.
Barbara and James were happy together, although they were quite different kinds of people. Barbara Saunders was a Victorian lady; upright, straight-laced and quite proper. She entertained high society at home. Trips to the theatre in Paris and the opera in Milan were regular pilgrimages.
4 Draft: Golden Threads Copyright © Rossen, 2011 Tuesday, March 5, 2013 James Saunders was content to stay in Greece. He kept a canoe in Argostoli in which he travelled around the island and from one island to another as far as Zante. This was very daring; occasional storms in the Ionian seas are sudden and terrible.
He was interested in science, and built a man’s room in the attic where he installed a large brass telescope in one of the dormer windows. He would inspect the ships in the harbour during the day; at night he would search the heavens for comets and new stars. Just outside one of the dormer windows he constructed a platform on which he set a rain-gauge. A spinning anemometer above the turret was connected to a brass dial inside, showing wind speed and direction. James methodically collected meteorological data for the offices in Athens and in London. He subscribed to The Tablet and Punch magazines, which kept him in contact with the world. He played chess with friends in England by correspondence. His billiard table was located in the attic; he and visiting friends would vanish upstairs for a game or two, while the ladies chatted below.
James Saunders was an avid reader, and his library occupied a room on the third floor.
The beautiful leather-bound books with gold embossed letters filled the shelves on three walls, from floor to ceiling. Comfortable leather chairs, thickly padded, provided for evenings of quiet reading.
He was an elegant and well-dressed man to the end. His little white beard, and tropical suits were admired in Argostoli.
James Saunders was 95 when he died. We were told that his teeth were still as good as new. I remember thinking that this must have been a reward for good living, and very meritorious. Aunty Lily and Jimmy Wartmann remembered James Saunders as a kind and benevolent stepfather. Aunty Lily told me that she had loved him more than her own mother. Still today local people take care of his grave, clearing the weeds and placing fresh flowers in the vases. Some believe him to be a saint.
Alice Saunders On the spring morning of 5 April, 1894, my mother, Alice Elizabeth Anne Saunders, was born. She was James Saunders’ only child and he was delighted. If she cried at night he was the first at her cot to comfort her. He called her his little princess, and peeled grapes and feed them to her one by one.