Tag Archives: Samuel Shepheard

The final journey of Sir Richard Francis Burton

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I made a visit to one of London’s most unusual tombs today. No great hardship as it’s only a 30-minute walk from my own front door. It is the final resting place of the famously restless Sir Richard Francis Burton and his forbearing wife Isabel.

His was a life that is hard to summarise in just a few sentences. He was perhaps the preeminent British explorer of the Victorian age, but he was also a soldier, spy, diplomat, linguist, ethnographer, travel writer, poet, translator and bloody-minded controversialist. He claimed to have learnt Latin at the age of three and Greek at four. In adulthood he was said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects. In his university years (Oxford), he was an accomplished boxer, fencer and frequenter of brothels. He began his career as a soldier and intelligence agent in India, where he perfected the art of passing himself off as a trader from the Arab Gulf. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim he became one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina. He next ventured into Africa in search of the forbidden fortress city of Harar. At Berbera, an ancient Somali port, his expedition was attacked by local tribesmen one of whom drove a barbed lance through Burton’s face, scarring him for life. Undeterred in 1856, he returned to Africa in search of the source of the Nile in the company of fellow explorer John Hanning Speke. Both men fell sick and both went nearly blind. In 1861, aged 39, he married Isabel Arundell, a devout Roman Catholic who was ten years his junior. She evidently exerted a calming influence because Burton not long after joined the British Foreign Office and was sent as consul successively to Fernando Po (an island of the coast of West Africa), Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste in Italy, which is where he died in 1890.

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The caption has a Baedeker guide saying to a Murry’s handbook, ‘A bit ahead of us old boy’

Burton was in Egypt several times, notably in 1853 enroute to Mecca. In Cairo he stayed at Shepheard’s hotel, where he came to know the proprietor, this blog’s old friend Samuel Shepheard. In the introduction to later editions of his Pilgrimage to Al Medina and Mecca, Burton thanked Shepheard for helping raise money for the expedition. He was back at the hotel three years later. Perhaps he was looking for money again because when Shepheard mentioned the visit in a letter, it was with a testy, ‘Captain Burton has just come to bother me about his expedition to the interior of Africa’.

Many years later, long after Samuel Shepheard had exchanged Cairo for the life of a wealthy landowner back in his native England – and had died there in 1866 – Burton was back at his former hotel. It was 1877 and he was off in search of gold and other valuable metals in the Arabian peninsula. In his account of the expedition, The Gold Mines of Midian, he writes, ‘I cannot pass Sam Shepheard’s old home without a few words upon the subject of its first owner, a remarkable man in many points’. He praises Shepheard for his independence of mind and manner, noting that he once threw a prince out of the hotel because he ‘would not behave like a gentleman’. According to his biographer, Sam was also independently minded when it came to Burton, who he considered a poseur.

On his death, Isabel tried to have Richard Burton buried in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. The problem was Burton’s later years had been spent in large part translating international erotica, including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. His greatest work was a major new 16-volume translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, in which he played up the sexual content. As a consequence, the establishment considered Burton far too rakish for the Abbey. (This can’t have come as a surprise to Isabel, who was also very uncomfortable with some of her husband’s enthusiasms, so much so that on his death she burned all his manuscripts, notes and diaries.)

Instead, she had him buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen in the then-village of Mortlake, west of London, in what was then one of the city’s few Catholic cemeteries. She designed the tomb herself, which is in the form of an elaborate desert tent, based on one the couple had made for themselves when they lived in Damascus. She joined him in the tomb when her time came in 1896.

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These days the tomb can be visited – though not many do – in a small, unassuming but beautifully tended churchyard beside the railway tracks, not far from Mortlake station. This is how it looked today – thanks to a recent restoration it’s in magnificent condition.

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It is about 12-foot square and 12-foot high, with sloping sides, skilfully carved from sandstone to represent the folds of canvas. In addition to a Christian crucifix, there is also a frieze of gold-painted Islamic crescents running around all four sides. Around the back is ladder so visitors can climb up and peer into the interior of the tomb through a glass panel – which is there supposedly because Richard Burton didn’t like the dark. You can see the two caskets, an iron one on the right containing him and one of mahogany on the left containing her. The walls are festooned with camel bells, which were once wired up to ring when anybody entered the tomb, although the door has since been sealed up to prevent against vandalism.

It’s a fittingly eccentric tomb for a very unconventional couple.

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Looking for the heirs of Samuel Shepheard

I’ve posted many times here on Shepheard’s hotel, which, until it was burned down in 1952, was not only the most famous hotel in Egypt but one of the most famous in the world. But what about its founder, the man who gave his name to the hotel, Samuel Shepheard?

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He was born on 21 January 1816 in the village of Preston Capes, Northamptonshire, in the English Midlands. As a young man he was apprenticed to a pastry cook but chose instead to abandon the parochialism of country life and run off in search of adventure at sea. He found more of it than he bargained for when, in January 1842, serving as a junior officer aboard a P&O mail ship he took the crew’s side in a mutiny and was charged by the captain with insubordination and thrown off at Suez. From here he made his way overland to Cairo. He may have been intending heading up to Alexandria where he could board another ship for England, but he never got that far, instead he found employment in Cairo with a Mr Hill who ran the British Hotel.

Although still only in his twenties the marooned sailor proved himself capable enough that by 1846, when English social reformer and journalist Harriet Martineau passed through Cairo on a tour of the East, Hill’s hotel was already being referred to as “Shepheard’s”.

Officially though, it was still the British Hotel. We know this for sure because a couple of years later, in 1848, it moved premises to a new location on the Ezbekiya and there’s an image of it with the name clearly painted above the door (click on the image below to enlarge).

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Business must have been good because within just another couple of years Shepheard was looking for somewhere bigger again. The opportunity came through a chance meeting between Shepheard and Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive Abbas, in which the two discovered shared a love of hunting. Soon afterwards, in November 1849, Shepheard wrote to his brother that the Pasha “has given me a grant of a large college to build an Hotel on the site. I am busy making a plan” (the letter is reproduced in Michael Bird’s 1957 biography of Shepheard).

The site granted was the Palace of Alfi Bey, which overlooked the recently created Ezbekiya Gardens. This was the residence commandeered by Napoleon when he rode into Cairo in July 1798. Following the departure of the French, the building was occupied by a daughter of Muhammad Ali and later became a school of languages, which was closed during the reign of Abbas, leaving the premises empty and free to gift to Samuel Shepheard. The new establishment (pictured below), the first to bear the name of Shepheard’s Hotel, opened its rooms to guests in July 1851.

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Samuel Shepheard would stay on in Cairo for just another nine years before selling up in 1860 and returning to England. There, he retired to the Midlands, not far from where he grew up, buying a grand Georgian house called Eathorpe Hall. For all that, he was not a lucky man: no less than four of his children died in infancy in Cairo, and another at the age of ten. One possible reason he sold up so early in his career was that he feared to lose any more children to illness in Egypt. But ill luck followed him to England and he hardly had time to enjoy his bucolic surroundings before he also died, in 1866 at the age of 50.

He was survived by three daughters, but only one of them went on to marry, the other two dying as spinsters. She married a man called Arthur Bird and I’m presuming the Michael Bird who wrote the Samuel Shepheard book in 1957 is a descendent. I have managed, or rather my mother, who is good at this sort of thing, has managed to piece together a Shepheard family tree.

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If we’ve got this right then it seems there are definitely some descendents of Samuel Shepheard out there – if so, and if any of them ever come across this blog post, I would dearly love to hear from you. In the past I have had emails from descendents of other Egyptian hoteliers I’ve blogged about, so fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, Samuel Shepheard’s old home Eathorpe Hall still survives. It remains a beautiful place, as can be seen in the photographs below which were posted on an estate agent’s site last year when the property came up for sale. The asking price was £2,750,000, which is one historic hotels of Egypt souvenir I couldn’t stretch to.

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Fire in Cairo

I knew that Shepheard’s was severely damaged by fire in 1868 from a dramatic illustration that ran in the London Illustrated News, below. But I was never able to find any further details, so the event only receives a passing mention in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt. Recently, however, I managed to find not one but two newspaper accounts of the event, one of which, from the 21st August 1868 edition of The Coventry Herald and Free Press, and Midland Express I’m going to post in full because it’s full of interesting detail. For instance, in 1868 Shepheard’s had a stock of wine that was worth fully half as much as the entire hotel?

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A correspondent at Cairo, in a letter dared the 7th furnishes some particulars of the burning if Shepheard’s Hotel, which occurred on the previous night: “The building was constructed by Mohamed Ali for a school of languages on the site of a former building occupied by Napoleon as his headquarters while in command of the French expedition in Egypt; and a well now subsisting in the garden of the hotel is said to be the identical well in which the assassin of General Kleber momentarily concealed himself after stabbing the general and those who were in the company walking up and down one of the garden paths. On the breaking up of Mohamed Ali’s schools the building passed to Kamal Pasha, his son-in-law, and now one of the Sultan’s ministers. In 1850 Abbas Pasha, then Viceroy of Egypt, rented it from Kamil Pasha, and granted it, at the suggestion of Sir Charles Murray, then Her Majesty’s agent and consul-general in Egypt, for a nominal rent, to the late Mr. Shepheard (who resided until his death at Eathorpe, near Leamington), for the purpose of a hotel. In a few years Mr. Shepheard was enabled to retire, and in 1859 he transferred the hotel for a premium, it was understood of £12,000 to its present proprietor, Mr. Zech, who has further laid out much money upon it. It is said he is insured in French offices to the amount of £14,000. The building was of two floors in height, and in plan in the form of a hollow square round an inner quadrangle, which was laid out as a garden. On the lower floor was a wine closet containing a stock of wine valued at between £6,000 and £7,000.

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The fire began at half-past eleven last night, the first alarm preceeding from an explosion from a store closet containing parafine – or, as it called in Cairo, gas – candles, and other combustible matters. The servants were at the moment preparing to close the house. In an instant flames shot forth in several directions at once. The people of the house could do nothing, there having been no fire-extinguishing apparatus of any kind on the premises. The preparations against fires are so ineffectual in Cairo that it was stated to be two hours before an instrument, consisting of a hand-carried box with a pump in it, which passes for a fire engine, arrived. The stream projected by such a pump is certainly not thicker than an ordinary hand garden pump. Fortunately there was no wind. Had the northerly wind which had been blowing for some nights previously continued, Kamil Pasha’s house must have gone, and very probably the new hotel, constructed and furnished at a cost of £120,000, and not yet completely finished. On visiting the scene at eight O’clock this morning, I found the east and south fronts a roofless burnt-out ruin – thin columns of smoke curling up here and there from the materials which had fallen in between the walls. The north and west blocks are uninjured, but the furniture they contained having been thrown as best it could, out of the windows, will yield little salvage.

Some suspicions are entertained that the fire may have been the act of an incendiary. Fires are of rare occurrence in Cairo; but it so happens that for the last nine days a fire has been reported in different parts of the town every evening. There is a great discontent among the people at the arbitrary exactions to which they have been subjected in order to satisfy the Pasha’s requirements for meeting his liabilities at home and abroad, while at the same time they hear of his wasting enormous sums of money at Constantinople. A firdeh or trade tax of 8 1/3 per cent per annum on the profits from trade, calculated in many instances much in excess of the true profits, and weighing with excessive hardship on a large class of the inhabitants of the town, has lately been imposed.

The Glasgow Daily Herald of Wednesday 2nd September 1868 ran a very similar story, probably from the same correspondent, but it chose to include this excellent detail:

I am told of one guest in the hotel putting an appearance, in sorry plight, at one of the windows flanked by flames from others on either side of it, and by aid of extemporised ladders and mattresses and things for his to jump on, he was got out in safety and nudity.

The hotel was not out of commission for too long because just a few months later, in January 1869, travel impresario Thomas Cook was in Cairo leading his very first Egyptian tour party, and from a diary left by one of its number, we know that Shepheard’s was up and running again by this time.

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Hotel du Nil

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If anybody talks about the properly historic hotels of Cairo, then invariably it’s Shepheard’s that gets mentioned. Rightly so – until it was destroyed in 1952 it had renown and a guestbook to rank with any hotel in the world. But there were hotels in Cairo before Shepheard’s, including the Orient, Giardano, Levick’s and the British Hotel, formerly Hill’s, which is where Samuel Shepheard got his start in the trade before he opened an establishment under his own name in 1851. Chief among the early hostelries, though, was the Hotel du Nil.

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The du Nil was established in 1836 by the half-German, half-Italian Signor Friedmann. Like all the early hotels that came before Shepheard’s, it was buried in the alleyways of the medieval city, just off the Muski, one of the busiest commercial streets in Cairo at that time. It was a traditional and sizeable Arab house with striped stonework and mashrabiya, set around a large courtyard filled with palms, and banana and orange trees. Famously, it’s where Gustave Flaubert and companion Maxime du Camp stayed in late 1849 at the start of their voyage around Egypt. Du Camp photographed Flaubert wearing native dress in the garden.

At a later stage management added covered terraces and a large veranda, as well as a curious rooftop tower of scaffolding, known as the “belvedere of Cairo,” which provided guests with views over the city. From up here the then-owner, Cavaliere Battigelli, conducted observations that he published as a daily meteorological bulletin.

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Before then, however, the hotel received William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter, who had previously covered the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade; he passed through Cairo in 1868 and was not a fan of either the city or the Hotel du Nil:

In the dark, among the dogs, through lanes and alleys of infinite closeness, nastiness, and irregularity, we stumbled, the playthings of dragomans and donkey-boys, till some of us disappeared in one hole or other, were swallowed up in a gateway, or were absorbed round a corner. I and a few more ran to earth in a mansion apparently situated among quarries and lime-kilns. It was called the Hotel du Nil, and it well deserved the name, for we could get nothing to eat, not even a piece of bread, when we arrived. In a long, ill-lighted room, at a lanky table covered with a dirty cloth, sat three men smoking vigorously and talking in lingua Franca. One of whom told us, “Signori! Avete patienza e averete qualche cose subito”. Subito meant just two hours, at the end of which time the council of three resolved themselves into waiters, and appeared with the very smallest and moldiest chickens I ever beheld. These were supported by omelettes made of eggs, which were just about to make chickens … but our appetites were better than the food, and washing the meal down with copious draughts of a wine which tasted like writing fluid, we stretched ourselves on chairs, tables, and sofas, and sunk into a sleep which relieved the mosquitoes from the smallest anxiety of interference in their assiduous labours. My Diary in India, in the Year 1868-9 by William Howard Russell

Not all Englishmen were as sniffy about the place. Egyptologist Flinders Petrie was recommended the hotel when he first arrived in Egypt in 1880; for the next 11 years he stayed there whenever he was in Cairo.

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The Hotel du Nil survived into the first decade of the 20th century but its facilities must have been hopelessly outdated, especially when measured against the offerings of the glut of new hotels that were appearing around this time. The exact date of closure isn’t known, According to 11th edition of Murray’s Handbook, published in 1910, the hotel closed in 1906, although the garden and the tower were still accessible (thank you Susan J. Allen for this bit of information). Soon after, the Bristol Hotel on Khazinder Square, which had opened in 1894, was marketing itself as the Hotel Bristol et du Nil – it was common practice in Cairo at this time for a new hotel to absorb the name of a recently defunct old hotel in order to inherit its clientele.

So where exactly was the Hotel du Nil? Thanks to an amazing set of fire-plans of Cairo, drawn up in 1910 for insurance purposes, and now owned by architect Nick Warner, we can pinpoint its former location precisely:

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It stood on the western edge of the Khalig al-Masri (the canal that once ran off the Nile north through the city) and just to the south of the Muski (coloured red on the map). The main approach to the hotel was originally from the Muski, but when the canal was filled in to become Port Said Street (orange) in 1900, that then became the main route to the hotel, as described in an article in the Egyptian Gazette of that year. The line in yellow on the map shows roughly the route of what is now Al-Azhar Street, which crashes through the site of the du Nil. However, Al-Azhar Street was only created in the 1920s and the du Nil disappeared long before then. The likelihood is that it was lost to a widening of Port Said Street, which since its creation had become one of the city’s busiest tram routes. Nick Warner’s map then must be one of the last recordings of the existence of the hotel.

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The hotel that history forgot

Alongside the Paris Ritz and London’s Savoy, Shepheard’s of Cairo was once one of the most famous hotels in the world. So how come you’ve never heard of it?

I’m stood at the side of the road on Gomhurriya Street in Downtown Cairo pointing my camera and clicking quickly. Quickly, because it is painful to step out of the shade and into the full burn of the afternoon sun. I must appear furtive because almost immediately a uniformed guard from a few doors up the street comes running towards me waving his arms and shouting, ‘No, no, no’. Why am I taking photographs of his bank he wants to know? Because, I tell him, the site where his bank now stands used to be the old Shepheard’s Hotel. ‘Yani eh Shepheard’s?’ (‘What is this Shepheard’s?’). I find it tragic that he has to ask.

You can read the rest of this feature here, in the August issue of bmi’s Voyager magazine. Apologies, this link no longer works as the website for bmi’s Voyager magazine is defunct (as is the airline bmi) – but there’s plenty more about Shepheard’s elsewhere on this site .

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Before the travellers’ cheque

There’s a fascinating essay in the October 2011 issue of willfully eccentric US literary magazine The Believer entitled ‘How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer’. While researching a book about African exploration the author, Monte Reel, stumbled on a whole long dead and forgotten genre of ‘how to explore’ books. As he explains:

Victorian adventurers rarely took a step into the wild without hauling a small library of how-to-explore books with them. Among the volumes [Richard] Burton carried into East Africa* was a heavily annotated copy of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel; or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Originally conceived as a handbook for explorers, and sponsored by England’s Royal Geographical Society, the book was required reading for any self-respecting Victorian traveler. Before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the hard business of exploring, he could turn to page 134 to learn the best way to do exactly that:

When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt-sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside-out, but outside-in—the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.

I share Reel’s enthusiasm having read lots of early Victorian travel manuals while researching Grand Hotels. Galton’s book, published in 1855 by John Murray, is a particularly fine read (you can download it from the internet in pdf form). Starting with the contents list, which includes entries for Swimming Rivers; Secreting Jewels; Securing Prisoners; Breaking in Oxen; and In Case of Death…

The section on starting a fire explains how this may be done by putting a quarter of a charge of powder into your rifle and on it a quantity of rag. On firing the gun straight up in the air the rag is shot out lighted and you must then run after it as it falls and pick it up quickly. Alternatively, notes Galton, he has read of the crystalline lens of a dead animal’s eye having been used with success in the same way as a magnifying glass. You just don’t get that sort of information in a Lonely Planet.

Other things learned. A good substitute for firewood is bones. A European can live through a bitter night on a sandy plain without any clothes beside what he has on if he buries his body deeply in the sand keeping only his head above the ground. To find honey, catch a bee, tie a feather or straw to its leg, throw it into the air and follow it to the hive. And if you’re worried about having all your valuables stolen, buy a few small jewels and put them in a little silver tube with rounded edges, then make a gash in your skin and bury it there leaving the flesh to heal over; the best place is on the left arm at the spot chosen for vaccination. The only drawback, says Galton, is if robbers are wise to this trick they might mince the traveller to pieces in search of further treasures.

* Burton was a repeat visitor to Shepheard’s hotel in Cairo. He lodged there in 1854 on his return from Mecca where he’d taken part in the Haj disguised as a Muslim Arab pilgrim. He also used the hotel as a base for his expeditions into Africa. The hotel’s owner, Samuel Shepheard thought Burton ‘a bit of a poseur’.

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