The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men…woven into the stuff of other men’s lives*


I get off the No 1 bus to Aldershot at Netley Street, Farnborough, for the short walk to my hotel for tonight. The first hotel to be built on this site, in 1855, was the Queen’s Hotel. A prominent, wooden building, it burned down on 14th March, 1902.

At the time the fire broke out, General Sir William Butler and seventy officers were about to sit down to luncheon at the hotel. Butler was born at Golden, Co Tipperary, in 1838, and died at Bansha in the same county in 1910. The great famine of 1847 and scenes of suffering and eviction were among his earliest recollections.

Then as now, the hotel overlooked Queen’s Parade, a grassed open area of about 89 acres which is owned by the Army. It is open to the public, and is also used for special events such as the Aldershot Garrison Show. It was here that Queen Victoria carried out her annual review and inspection of the garrison.

A short walk from the station would have brought me to Saint Michael’s Abbey, built in the grounds of her home in 1881 by the Empress Eugénie (said to be the only person who could reduce Queen Victoria to uncontrollable fits of giggling). The Empress kept a horse drawn carriage so magnificent that the approach to Farnborough Main Station was made extremely large – it is now a transport interchange- to give it turning space.

Napoleon III and his wife were forced to leave France following the fall of the Second French Empire (the so called “Carnival Empire”) in 1870. With their son, Louis-Napoleon, the Prince Imperial, they settled in Chislehurst, Kent. The Emperor died there in 1873.

Stephen Mansel writes: “The Prince Imperial – “Napoleon IV” – held rallies at Chislehurst, on St Napoleon’s Day, 15 August, and on his eighteenth birthday on 16 March 1874. Thousands came. Chislehurst briefly resembled a suburb of Paris.”.

In 1879 Louis was killed fighting for the British in the Anglo-Zulu War, leaving Eugènie bereft. She moved to Farnborough, where she bought the large house shown above, and built the Abbaye Saint-Michel in the grounds to serve as a monastery and Imperial Mausoleum for her husband and son and, eventually, for herself.

The original French Benedictine community was augmented by monks from Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire. (From 1951 to 1958, the Prior was Father Basil Robinson, son of the cartoonist and inventor Heath Robinson.)

The Empress’s wine merchant was Wheatley’s of Mayfair. On business visits to Farnborough, the proprietor brought his son Dennis; Eugenie enjoyed feeding the boy cake and regaling him with stories of the French Imperial Court.

On completion of his education, Dennis was sent to Traben-Trarbach in Germany to learn about wine production. He had been there for six months when World War I broke out. Having joined the Royal Artillery Company, Dennis found himself at a camp in Luton. A cultured conman called Gordon took Dennis under his wing, the legend goes, and taught him about life, sex, world religions and modern and classical literature.

Fast forward to the Great Depression. Dennis was financially over extended, close to bankruptcy, and forced to sell his wine business. Knowing him to be an accomplished storyteller, his (second) wife, Joan, suggested he write a book. Drawing on the stories told him by the Empress Eugenie, Dennis Wheatley wrote a detective novel called “Three Inquisitive People”, introducing the Duke de Richleau. It was accepted for publication by Hutchinson, who would be his publishers for the rest of his life.

Gordon disappeared in April 1922, and Dennis, who married his first wife that year, could not find out what had happened to him. In fact, he had been murdered by a business colleague. When the body was discovered in September 1923, the police investigation was headline news, and Wheatley followed the case extremely closely. He was fortunate not to be caught up in the scandal attached to the death of Gordon Eric Gordon Tombe.

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