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The Eccentric British Headmaster Who Never Existed

istock (man) / getty images (cambridge)
istock (man) / getty images (cambridge)

For several weeks in 1948, strange letters began circulating through the British postal system. Most were addressed to headmasters at elite schools across the country; all were written by one H. Rochester Sneath, headmaster of a minor public school called Selhurst. Not a single one of the letters' recipients had ever heard of Sneath or Selhurst—because neither ever existed.

The eccentric headmaster of Selhurst, said to be located near Petworth, Sussex, penned a series of letters to other school leaders, full of weird complaints and even more bizarre pieces of advice. Sneath asked for help in dealing with rats and exorcisms, requested help finding a sex education teacher, and discussed plans for "an exhibition of Schoolboy Art [for] South America,” whatever that might have been. 

To the headmaster at Oundle in Northamptonshire, he wrote seeking help for an infestation of rodents:

No less than sixty-four rats of various shapes and sizes have been discovered in the precincts of the School with the result that three Matrons have had nervous breakdowns, and the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors, who was lunching with me and my wife, had a fit of hysteria upon seeing no less than six of these creatures, and collapsed in a heap, having to be carried away in a blanket.

To the headmaster of Tonbridge in Kent, whom he addressed as “Rootie,” he wrote:

You will doubtless remember old ‘Tubby’ Sneath—well it will give you a helluva shock, you old bounder, because last year I took on the Headship here. Do you remember prophesying my early death in a South American brothel? I must say that I never imagined that you would get muddled up in this racket either, and imagine my surprise when I returned from India to be told that the man whom I had carried home, drunk as a coot seven times a week, should have got a job. At least I presume the Headmaster of Tonbridge is you!

The alarmed headmaster wrote back:

I have received from you a letter opening ‘Dear Rootie’. It is not intended for me though addressed to the Headmaster of Tonbridge. In view of the contents of the letter I should be obliged if you would send me the name of the person to whom you have written as Headmaster of Tonbridge and on what the incorrect information is based; for if it is widely presumed that he is Headmaster of Tonbridge that needs correcting for reasons obvious to you.

The head of Marlborough College, one F.M. Heywood, was also a frequent target. On March 15, 1948, Sneath wrote a letter asking how Heywood had “managed to engineer” the school’s recent visit from the King and Queen. (Sneath explained that Selhurst was hoping for its own royal visit in celebration of its 300th anniversary, noting that “the nephew of a Balkan monarch” had once been a student.) Heyworth wrote back in a huff, saying "I did nothing whatever to engineer the recent royal visit … No doubt the fact that the King’s Private Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop  of Canterbury are all Old Marlburians had something to do with the matter.”

Not to be put off, Sneath wrote to Heywood again. This time, he wanted to discuss Mr. Robert Agincourt, a former French teacher at Selhurst now said to be applying for a post at Marlborough. Sneath wrote to warn against this possibility, and several paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.

During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.

As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Heywood responded that he'd never heard of the man. Sneath wrote back saying that Agincourt had abandoned the idea of an academic career and had become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho. He also asked for the name of a good private detective, and a competent nursery maid. 

Sneath targeted more than just headmasters. He invited George Bernard Shaw to speak at the school's 300th anniversary celebrations, “in view of the long-standing connection between your late wife’s family and Selhurst school.” (Shaw wrote back: “Never heard of any such connection.”) He wrote to Scottish sculptor William Reid Dick asking him to create a statue of Selhurst’s founder “Puritan leader Ebenezer Okeshot." (Dick was interested, but Sneath never followed up.) He also asked Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new building at the school (the architect politely declined).

Most of Sneath’s correspondents fell for his ruse, but some were smart enough to smell a prank. One was John Sinnott, headmaster of Wimbledon College. During their correspondence about a potential exorcism designed to rid Selhurst of the ghost of a matron who committed suicide after having been seduced by a housemaster, Sinnott requested a packet of salt "capable of being taken up in pinches.”

Sneath’s unmasking came after he wrote to The Daily Worker, complaining that he was being prevented from teaching Russian at Selhurst. A curious reporter from the News Review investigated, and after being unable to verify any of Selhurst’s contact information, or any other trace of its official existence, exposed the hoax. The source of the letters: Humphrey Berkeley, a future Conservative Minister of Parliament, then an undergrad at Cambridge University. After Berkeley was exposed, he was formally rebuked by Cambridge officials, and forbidden from visiting the school for two years.

Berkeley went on to earn his degree from Cambridge, and was elected as a Conservative MP in 1959, the same year Margaret Thatcher got her start in Parliament (Berkeley's political career was considered more promising). His political life was relatively unremarkable, but in 1974 he published an illustrated collection of the Sneath letters, entitled The Life And Death Of Rochester Sneath: A Youthful Frivolity. Given his political post, Berkeley took care to downplay his mischievousness, calling Sneath’s existence “the only practical joke I have ever played in my life.” Today Sneath lives on not only in the book, but with his own Twitter account, appropriately used to annoy teachers around the world.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Hulton Archive//Getty Images
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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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