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Benjamin Disraeli and Kaiser Bill’s Mother

Sharon Turner and William Ellis
Benjamin Disraeli might never have been Prime Minister without the early guidance and support given by Sharon Turner who is buried in West Norwood. Alongside him Turner’s son-in-law, William Ellis, an educationalist and the founder of the William Ellis School, had a profound impact teaching the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, ‘Kaiser Bill’. The daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Victoria, who became the German Empress, has featured in a recent television series. Here, as we approach the centenary of the Great War and other notable anniversaries, we explore some lesser known historical links to West Norwood.

Sharon Turner, a devout Anglican, writer, historian and sometime lawyer encouraged Isaac D’Israeli to have his son baptized a Christian at St Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Sharon Turner who lived nearby in Red Lion Square became Godfather to Benjamin Disraeli.

On 10 June 1843, four years prior to Sharon Turner’s death, one of the large slab topped burial plots in Square 64 near the Anglican Chapel site was purchased by William Ellis. Mary Turner and William Ellis had married at Ewell in Surrey in 1825 and lived in Croydon before moving to Champion Hall, Camberwell. By 1870 when Mary Ellis died they were living in some style at Lancaster Terrace. Mary was buried at West Norwood on 15 January 1870. William Ellis’ funeral took place on 25 February 1881. The slab also records Ellis’ sons, their lives cut short.

William Ellis founded many schools including the one that bears his name and which continues to flourish next to Parliament Hill Fields. This year the School has been celebrating its 150th anniversary. Those commemorations drew two recent visitors to West Norwood, Charles Commander and Lester Hillman who, in 1962, arrived at the School as ‘Centennial year’ pupils. On Sunday 3 February 2013 Ellen, on behalf of the Friends of Norwood Cemetery, led an exclusive tour and the group was joined by Jill Dudman at the Turner/Ellis tomb, the slab recently tidied up as part of the ongoing work of the Friends.

Educating royals and royal remembrance

William Ellis’ work in education attracted the attention of Albert, the Prince Consort. From 1855 Ellis gave tutorials on Social and Political Science at Buckingham Palace to the eldest of the royal children, the future Empress Victoria of Germany, the Prince of Wales, Princess Alice Grand Duchess of Hesse Darmstadt and Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh. A second course was later given to the two Princes alone. Facilitated by George Combe and Frederick Weymouth Gibbs, tutor to the Prince of Wales, these took place on Saturday afternoons for upwards of a year but had discontinued by 30 September 1858.

In the biography of King Edward VII by Sir Sidney Lee, Vol 1 (1925), the results were summed up thus ‘Ellis noted the superior quickness of the girl, and his failure to move much interest in the boy’. Contact with members of the Royal family continued after the tutorials. In January 1863, following the death of the Prince Consort in 1861, we find Ellis writing to the Queen's Physician from his home at 36 Lancaster Terrace, Regent's Park.

Julie Salis Schwabe, writing on 31 August 1888, recounted how, in 1887, the Princess Royal, Crown Princess of Germany, attending a function at the Drapers’ Hall in the interests of the Maria Grey Institution, seems to have remembered Ellis as one of her teachers, a memory “she has never ceased to cherish.” The mother of the future Kaiser (in the very year of his birth, in 1869) had herself expressed it thus: “Dear good Mr. Ellis! Why does he never come to Berlin? I cannot tell you how much I learnt from that man! My father also valued him so highly.” Ellis’ lessons to the then 15 year old Victoria were roughly coincident to the arrangements afoot for her betrothal to the future Prussian Emperor, and the marriage took place on 25 January 1858 in the Chapel Royal St James’s.

It is interesting to speculate what, if any, of Ellis’ views on economics, trade and industry percolated through to the future Kaiser. One may suspect little.

On a visit to Britain, during Ellis’ last years, Her Imperial Highness the Crown Princess of Germany invited William Ellis to Marlborough House. He had to decline because of ill health but on 26 March 1879 he wrote:

“Last Wednesday at midday I received a visit from Her Imperial Highness the Crown Princess of Germany, in remembrance of the benefit which she said she had derived from my lessons at Buckingham Palace twenty five years ago. She was very affable and unceremonious, and asked me to add my autograph to her collection, and of course I did so.” The Crown Princess’ visit was of more than an hour: it gave Ellis a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.

On the accession of her husband Emperor King Frederick III of Prussia on 9 March 1888 she became Her Imperial and Royal Majesty German Empress Queen of Prussia. But the Emperor’s death just 99 days later saw the accession of her son Kaiser Wilhelm II. As a widow she established schools in Berlin for the higher education of girls and for the training of nurses. She died on 5 August 1901.

Sesquicentennial

With a Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 Olympic Games William Ellis School has deftly navigated its anniversary year with open evenings, exhibitions, receptions, concerts and dinners including one in the House of Commons. The School has produced its fair share of writers and journalists, film makers and musicians and the celebrations have featured in the press, in publications and on the web.

Karl Marx lived near the School at its founding and politicians have continued to make their homes near Parliament Hill Fields. The school was previously a boys’ grammar school and has been a comprehensive since the middle 1970s. The current Chair of Governors is Fiona Miller. A number of sons of politicians, of both the left and right, have been pupils. Former pupils have featured prominently in local and national government. So who knows, perhaps there is a Benjamin Disraeli in waiting amongst existing students or recent leavers. If so, Sharon Turner and William Ellis may well have approved.


Lester Hillman
22 February 2013