THE BELINFANTE FAMILY


This is a lesson on how not to do disciplined research. As the webmaster will verify, I am liable to go off at tangents when working on something. This time I wasn't even researching, but the trail led me from Hastings to London, to New South Wales and back again, and Epsom, although not in any particular order.

Archibald Belaney of Hastings, who posed as a native American called Grey Owl, has nothing whatsoever to do with this tale (the article in the link is worth a read anyway if you have five minutes to spare), but it was because I read something about him on the BBC website and then looked up his family on Ancestry that I happened upon a lady called Bella Carlotta Belinfante in the probate records. It seemed a fairly exotic name, so I looked her up too (this is how I am, unfortunately, but now and again my meanderings unearth a story, as in this case).

Bella Carlotta Belinfante was born in 1872 in Kensington, daughter of warehouseman (later tailor's salesman) David Belinfante and his wife Laurence Odile Jeanne Mathilde (nee Brodier, married 1864 Brussels). David, who died in 1902, was born in The Hague in 1836 and his wife, known as Mathilde, was born in Brussels in 1843; she died in 1907. The Belinfantes were of Portuguese Jewish ancestry and have been traced back as far as the 15th century; the Amsterdam branch began in the 17th century when Meir Chaim Belinfante fled from Belgrade (then part of the Turkish Empire, now the capital of Serbia) to escape persecution. The first point of interest was that Bella, a former musical scholar, who was unmarried and lived with her unmarried sister, Louise Elinor, in Kensington (1911 census) died in the Manor Asylum, Epsom on 25 April 1912. This did not mean she had any personal connection with Epsom, since the London County Council had several facilities for the mentally ill and epileptics in the area, and the fact that she died locally was almost certainly a blind alley. There were 990 patients in the Manor Asylum according to the 1911 census.

However, we do have a family called Belinfante living in Epsom at that time and there was a connection between them and Bella: this is where the trail veered off to Australia, but let me tell you who these people were.

In the 1901 census, at Croft House, Mill Road, Epsom, we have bachelors Leo and William Belinfante, both born in St Pancras, plus their French mother, Leontine. Leo (full name Leo Baptiste Louis, born c.1862) was 'Secretary to a Learned Society' and William (full name William Shakespeare - yes, really -, born c.1859) was a cashier and book-keeper. Leontine Louise was a widow, then aged 65. In 1911 they were at 'Hillbrow' in Mill Road (Number 18 I understand, now a care home).

Leo was actually Assistant Secretary of the Geological Society of London. His Dutch father, a doctor, disappeared to Australia, abandoning his family, and in 1877 Leontine took the children to France. After a spell in Berlin Leo returned to Britain and gained an honours degree in geology. He was fluent in many languages and had publishing experience which led to his being appointed Assistant Secretary to the Geological Society in 1890 and he edited their quarterly journal until 1930. He died on 10 April 1937, then living in Bridport, Dorset. Leontine and William had predeceased him, dying on 25 April 1917 and 31 July 1921 respectively, still living at 'Hillbrow'. Both are buried in Epsom Cemetery.

I now need to disinter Leontine, metaphorically, because you will have noticed a plot spoiler concerning her husband - he 'disappeared to Australia'. As I said earlier I am not very disciplined when I find a story and I will confess now that I uncovered the tale of Dr Belinfante before I knew that his family had moved to Epsom. Simon Peter Cohen Belinfante was born in Amsterdam in 1831 and he was the brother of David, whose daughter died in the Manor Asylum. Simon seems to have come to Britain as a student in about 1852 and qualified as a doctor in 1859, by which time he had married Leontine Louise Deloune (1856 in Pancras district); they had just the two children, William and Leo. In 1861 Simon and Leontine were living in Pancras with Simon's brothers, Bernard (actually Baruch - died 1870 New York) and the aforementioned David, who were both described as students. Simon himself was described as 'medical, not in practice' and baby William was not there at all.

I show below an article from 'The Gulgong Argus' of 14 July 1874. Gulgong is in New South Wales, about 190 miles north-west of Sydney, and was one of the gold rush towns of the 1870s; just south of Gulgong is the town of Mudgee.

DROWNING OF DR BELINFANTE.

It is our painful duty to record the death of DrSimonBelinfante, who was drowned this morning when attempting to cross the Cudgegong River, at Slasher's Flat, Green Swamp, on his way from Mudgee to Gulgong. The doctor and his wife started this morning in a buggy, and near the river were overtaken by Mr Crossing (of the firm of Crossing and Cox, Mudgee), who said that, being better acquainted with the river, he would cross first, telling DrBelinfantenot to attempt to come until he had got over. When part of the way over, Mr Crossing, fully comprehending the danger, advised the doctor not to attempt to cross. When Mr Crossing got on the opposite side he looked back, and much to his surprise, saw that the doctor had entered the water and was too low down. Mr Crossing then urged the doctor to keep up the river and avoid the deep water below the rubble that forms a bar across the river. He did not appear to understand the instructions, and in a moment after the buggy upset, Dr and MrsBelinfantewere thrown into the river. He swam for a short time, but the current was too strong, and he sank. Mr Crossing, with great presence of mind, succeeded in rescuing MrsBelinfante, who was nearly senseless. She was conveyed to Adams's Hotel, and every care was taken of her. Dr. Belinfantewas about 40 years of age, and a native of Holland. He was a gold medallist of the London University for proficiency in anatomy. He came to this colony as surgeon of the ship Beejapore, bringing 650 passengers, in 1862, from London to Rockhampton and Brisbane.

The Cudgegong River at Mudgee
The Cudgegong River at Mudgee

Simon's body was subsequently found about two miles downriver and he was buried at Mudgee Memorial Park. His death resulted in the building of a bridge, named after him, across the Cudgegong.

Simon Belinfante's grave
Simon Belinfante's grave.
Image source: Australian Cemeteries Index.

We will not dwell unduly on Simon's career in Australia. Suffice it to say that he had become a barrister, as well as practising medicine, and had unsuccessfully stood for election to the New South Wales Parliament. He appeared in a fair number of Australian newspaper reports and comes over as somewhat irascible and litigious. One paper later described him as 'clever and amiable but somewhat inactive in both professions'.

So, poor Leontine had almost drowned in the Cudgegong River in 1874, had she? No, she had not: she was never there. The 'Mrs Belinfante' in Australia was someone else entirely. Whether or not Simon had gone through a ceremony of marriage with the woman I do not know (I cannot find any record in England, Queensland or New South Wales), but I can tell you something more about her.

'Mrs Belinfante' of Australia was called Janette and she was born in Calcutta (or 'at sea', according to which census is correct) in about 1840. After Simon's death she ran a boarding house in Sydney and one of her guests was an eminent English actor called William Creswick, born in 1813, who was on a tour; they were married on 3 June 1878 and went back to live in London, where William died in 1888. There followed a public contretemps when some of his friends announced an auction of memorabilia in aid of Janette, saying that she had been indifferently provided for and had been obliged to sell her furniture. Her step-son, James Frost Creswick, responded indignantly, saying that she had received the bulk of William's estate and that the sold furniture was surplus to requirements. When Janette died in 1900 her estate was 452.

William Creswick.
William Creswick.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

So, there you are - see what happens when you are of a curious disposition and start reading about a man called Grey Owl! And, by the way, if you are ever in Hastings, the local museum has a very interesting display about him, together with a replica of his log cabin. But I digress - again!

Linda Jackson
September 2013

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