Hubert Crackanthorpe and Leila Macdonald

The last Crackanthorpe to be recorded on Cumbrian Characters was a tragic one. And the short version is that Hubert Crackanthorpe was an author who died young, likely as a result of suicide. With facts thin and sources far from impartial, the story is one to be approached with caution.

Hubert Montague Crackanthorpe was born on May 12,1870, the eldest son, and heir, of Montague Hughes Cookson, later Crackanthorpe, and his wife, Blanche Althea Elizabeth, née Holt.

Journalist and writer

The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction says he was educated at Eton and partly in France. Though a contemporary says Eton and Lausanne.

Baptised at Christ Church, Paddington as Hubert Montague Cookson, he was with his parents at 26 Devonshire Terrace, Paddington, on the 1871 census. In 1881, he was with his parents and youngest brother Oliver at Rutland Gate, London (middle brother Dayrell was at a college in Margate).

Ten years later, he was visiting Roland Edmund Lomax Vaughan-Williams, then a law student, and his sister Sybil, in Abinger, Surrey.  Hubert’s occupation at 20 given as ‘journalist – writer’.

 The Cooksons became the Crackenthorpes when they inherited Newbiggin Hall. As the eldest son, Hubert was next in line. But in 1896, he was found dead in Paris.

Calling for reform

He ‘pops up’ in the Penrith Observer in Jun 1891, at a time when the expulsion of Jewish families from Russia was causing a lot of debate. The anticipated arrival of destitute foreigners on British shores was greeted no differently from today: a mixture of pity for their terrible plight, and concern they would take jobs from the British poor. 

Montague Hughes Crackanthorpe made an address at Newbiggin on the subject, with the Observer adding:

‘..other cogent reasons (for reform) were forthcoming from Mr Hubert Crackanthorpe, who has had exceptional opportunities of becoming acquainted with the pauper immigration movement.’

Whatever that meant.

Hubert Crackanthorpe was in Westmorland in 1891 for sure, attending the High Sheriff’s ball in Kendal and September that year.

A short-lived magazine

A NEW REVIEW. A new review, to be known as the “Albemarle,” is to make its appearance in the middle of next month (ie December 1891).

The writers are to be allowed perfect independence of thought, and are to be free to express their opinions on all kinds of subjects. The periodical, which is to be illustrated, will consist of a number of short signed articles on literature, art, music, the drama, political, social, and economic questions, and sport, as well as a series of short stories by well-known English and foreign writers. The first number is to contain contributions from Mr Whistler, Sir Charles Dilke (“foreign affairs and home defence”), the headmaster of Haileybury, Mr Oscar Browning, Mrs Lynn Linton, Mr Ben Tillett, Lady Greville, and others. A long list of other well-known magazine writers has been captured for the new venture, of which Mr W. H. Wilkins and Hubert Crackanthorpe are to be joint editors. 

Despite some ‘big names, it wasn’t a commercial success, and only lasted nine months.

Leila Macdonald

And then, in July 1892, Hubert Crackanthorpe announced his engagement to ‘Miss Leila Macdonald, granddaughter of the well-known judge and scientist Sir William Grove FRS’ and niece of Mrs Hills of Corby Castle’.

Mrs Hills was Anna Hills, née Grove, who had several nieces living or staying with her on the 1891 census at Corby Castle, near Great Corby (and nine servants). (Corby Castle belonged to the Howard family).

Herbert Augustus Hills was born in Italy in 1837 – as was Anna’s older brother, the mountaineer Florence Crauford Grove.

As well as being a barrister,Queen’s Bench judge, and privy councillor, William Robert Grove invented the Grove gas voltaic battery in 1839.

Anna (Grove) Hills’ other siblings were Sir Coleridge Grove, and three sisters.It was Emily Cicely Grove (b 1850, d 1875) who married civil servant and mountaineer Reginald John Somerled Macdonald in 1868. He was a descendant of Flora Macdonald, of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame.

Reginald Macdonald ‘late of the Colonial Office Whitehall’ died, aged only 35, of chronic alcoholism on 26 August 1876, at 2 Chapel Street West in Mayfair. He was survived by his two daughters, his wife having died of tuberculosis the previous year.

Leila MacDonald was thus an orphan aged just five. Her sister Zeila (honestly) Flora was seven. (Zeila, as Mrs Flora Baker, was one of the nieces at Corby Castle in 1891).

 Honeymoon and new publications

Hubert Crackanthorpe was at Newbiggin in August 1892, for the annual grouse shoot. He and Leila were married on Shrove Tuesday 1893, in Knightsbridge. Among the nearly 200 presents ‘none was more prized than the one from the tenants and villagers of Newbiggin’. 

The couple left for a honeymoon in Orthez, in the Pyrenees, for ‘the next few months’. 

And in March 1893, he published Wreckage, Seven StudiesWreckage received good reviews, with Hubert described as ‘a deep student of human nature’ and having the ‘masterly art of describing human passions and emotions in a few words but with remarkable power’.

In 1894, he contributed six chapters of a serial called A Commonplace Chapter to The New Review, and was described by one reviewer of the same as: ‘that clever but somewhat morbid writer, Hubert Crackanthorpe’.

Hubert and Leila were at Newbiggin Hall at the time ofhis parents’ Silver Wedding ball in April 1894. Hubert then ‘dropped his work in connection with monthly reviews’ in order to ‘devote himself to drama’. 

He doesn’t, by the way, seem to have been a fan of women authors, writing in 1894:

the society lady, dazzled by the brilliance of her own conversation, and the serious-minded spinster, bitten by some sociological theory, still decide… that fiction is the obvious medium through which to astonish or improve the world.

Hubert Crackanthorpe, in February 1896, contributed a ‘sketch’ of an adventure he’d had involving a tramp, when riding a few days earlier through heavy snow from Newbiggin to Alston.

The marriage sours

In December 1896, Leila Crackanthorpe inherited a quarter of her grandfather’s estate. At what point she had deserted Hubert isn’t clear. Various sources say she left him and ended up in Paris with a lover (a French artist), after miscarrying a baby early in 1896. 

Hubert went to Paris at some point later in the year, and had an affair with Sissie Welch, the married sister of (author and poet) Richard le Gallienne. It seems he and Sissie, and Leila and her artist lover, had something of a ménage à quatre in a Paris apartment. But then Leila demanded a divorce on the grounds that Hubert had (allegedly) given her a venereal disease.

Mystery disappearance

In December 1896, Hubert Crackenthorpe was reported missing in Paris: he’d last been seen there on November 5. Given his status in society, and that of his wife, the Press were fascinated by the mystery of his disappearance: it was ‘the sensation of the day’.

Theories ranged from him seeking solitude on some Mediterranean island, to his having been murdered. It was suggested he had gone off with a ‘slim, petite, exceedingly pretty lady, who was dressed somewhat loudly’. There was a supposed sighting in Bayonne about November 26, others in Rouen, Le Havre and Rheims, and a later one in London.

However, just before Christmas 1896, the Crackanthorpe family were given the tragic news that Hubert’s body had been found in the river Seine, between Asnières and St Denis. His brothers went to Paris to identify the body, which could only be done ‘from the clothes, linen-marks and other articles upon the body’. 

These were reported to have included a letter from his wife, though how that survived six weeks in the water isn’t explained.

Newbiggin mourns

At Newbiggin, the church bells tolled for the tragedy. On Sunday, December 29, the Dead March in Saul was played on the organ at both services, and ‘appropriate hymns’ were sung. The rector amended his pre-New Year sermon on the uncertainties of life to include the untimely loss of ‘one beloved by all who knew him.’

The preacher spoke of Hubert’s love for his parents and brothers, and of his ‘pure and spotless life’. 

To know him was to live him for his ready sympathy and warm heart… Hubert Crackanthorpe was loving, loyal, brave and true. 

William Henry Wilkins, co-founder of the short-lived Albermarle review, described him as: ‘a quick, ardent, sensitive nature, touched with the flame of genius’. All hidden behind ‘a quiet and somewhat shy manner’. 

Hubert’s body was brought back to England and cremated. A memorial service was held in London, then his ashes taken back to Newbiggin for interment. Leila lived on in Paris, dying in 1944.

Footnote. Herbert August Hills and Anna (Grove) bought High Head Castle, in 1902, You can read about that Cumbrian ruin here.