For this round of ABC Wednesday, I thought I would focus on people from the past, some famous, others less so, but hopefully all interesting in one way or another.
Starting with the flamboyant 5th Earl of Angelsey, who “seems only to have existed for the purpose of giving a melancholy and unneeded illustration of the truth that a man with the finest prospects, may, by the wildest folly and extravagance, play away an uniterable life, and have lived in vain.”
Henry Cyril Paget was born in 1875 to an illustrious military family. The 1st Marquis of Angelsey had been granted the title for his bravery at Waterloo and Henry’s grandfather was Sir Henry William Paget MP who had commanded the cavalry with great distinction in Spain.
Henry Cyril was the antithesis of this tradition, being eccentric, effete and spendthrift.
He was the eldest son by his father’s second wife, Blanche Mary Boyd, although rumours persisted that that his biological father was the French actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin.
There may have been some truth in this. When Henry’s mother died when he was two, he was raised by Coquelin’s sister in Paris until the age of eight, largely in the company of theatrical people.
He returned to live at the Gothic-style mansion of Plas Newyyd, the family estate on Angelsey in North Wales.
The property owned by the Pagets stretched to 30,000 acres and included mineral-rich land in the Midlands which brought in a huge annual income of £110,000, the equivalent of £55 million today.
In 1898 he married his cousin, Lilian, daughter of Florence Maud Chetwynd, in what was a marriage of convenience and inherited the family fortune later the same year on the death of his father.
Set free from family constraints, his first act was to convert a centuries old chapel into a 150-seat theatre. He named it the Gaiety Theatre and staged a series of lavish productions with the large cast clad in luxurious costumes and large amounts of jewellery.
During the interval, he would perform his ‘Butterfly Dance’ dressed in large gossamer wings and clusters of jewels.
Later, he took the company on tour, complete with scenery and orchestra, and was seen in the most fashionable parts of Europe in flamboyant clothes and carrying a white, pink-ribboned poodle under his arm.
He even had his car exhausts modified so that they would spout gases perfumed with patchouli and ‘l’eau d’Espagne’.
His wife divorced him in 1900 on the grounds of non-consummation and there was an assumption that he was gay, which was then illegal. However, he was more likely a classic narcissist, incapable of loving anyone but himself.
Henry Cyril’s extravagant lifestyle took its toll on his fortune and by 1904 he owed £544,000, more than quarter of a billion today. He filed for bankruptcy which lead to an auction lasting 40 days with 17,000 lots going under the hammer.
Even his dogs were sold, including chows, pugs, collies and terriers, and their little silk coats embroidered in silver with the Paget family crest.
The 5th Marquis of Angelsey died from pneumonia just five months later on 14 March 1905 at the Hotel Royale in Monte Carlo with his ex-wife by his side.
The press mourned his passing with one headline saying it was ‘a sad end of a wasted life’, although The Times reported that despite everything, he remained much liked by the people of Bangor who regretted to hear of his death.
The Angelsey title passed to his cousin who destroyed all of Henry Cyril’s papers and converted the Gaiety Theatre back into a chapel, but the profligacy of the 5th Marquis ultimately resulted in the breaking up of the family’s estate in the 1930s.
Today, the family home of Plas Newydd is owned by the National Trust.