How writer who sold millions of novels was almost written out of history

In the latest of his encounters with Camden Victorians, Neil Titley looks at the life of Hall Caine

Thursday, 31st March — By Neil Titley

Hall Caine

Portrait of Hall Caine by RE Morrison. Caine was proud of a believed resemblance to a bust of Shakespeare

IT was the great Labour politician Michael Foot who in 1969, using the excuse of postal confusion, managed to have the name Worsley Road in Hampstead changed to the more romantic Pilgrims Lane. A former resident and fellow romantic, the writer Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931), would have heartily approved.

A Victorian phenomenon almost forgotten today, Hall Caine was the most highly paid writer of his day, selling more than 10 million copies of his novels and rivalling Charles Dickens in popularity. His theatrical adaptations were equally successful and with the arrival of cinema several of his books were turned into films.

Descended from a Manx family and born into relative poverty in Liverpool, Caine first trained as an apprentice to an architect. Seizing an unusual opportunity he moved to London in 1881 to become the house­keeper and later nurse to the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti, having been a Camden resident for many years and helping to found the Working Men’s College in Crowndale Road, now lived at 16 Cheyne Walk.

Caine found himself sharing the house with Rossetti’s menagerie that included a kangaroo, an armadillo, a bull, a raccoon, a chameleon, a zebra, a family of wombats, and an emu (which once chased Rossetti over the garden wall). It was with difficulty that Caine dissuaded Rossetti from his plan to buy an elephant and train it to wash the windows.

Eager to expand his literary ambitions, the youthful Caine set about editing a poetry magazine but felt anxious about approaching poets as to whether they would allow publication of their work. When he asked Rossetti for advice, Rossetti replied that wondering how to approach a poet to see if they wished to be published was rather like a fisherman deliberating over how to approach a shark with an offer of blood.

In 1882 Rossetti died “ravaged by years of addiction to too much whisky”. Within months Caine published his first book – a biography called Recollections of Rossetti. Oscar Wilde made the acid observation that: “Whenever a great man dies, Hall Caine goes in with the undertakers.”

Moving from Cheyne Walk, Hall Caine took new lodgings in Clements Inn in Holborn, which he shared with a friend called Eric Robertson. Their peaceful bachelor life was soon shattered. It was their habit to order evening meals from local cafes to be brought to the lodgings. The food was usually delivered by two young girls who quickly befriended the two men.

Caine’s wife Mary Hall (née Chandler)

One evening, the door burst open and the girls’ fathers appeared, declaring that their daughters’ reputations had been ruined and demanding that Caine and Roberts make “honest women” of them.

Horrified to discover that the girls were aged 13, the terrified Roberts swiftly obeyed and married one of them. In the knowledge that nothing untoward had happened, Caine resisted for a time. (Previously, he had actually campaigned to raise the age of consent from 12 years old to 13.) However, after being hounded with threats of blackmail and violence, he agreed to accept responsibility for the other girl, Mary Chandler.

After a short period of education away at a Kent school, Mary fell in love with Caine and after she became pregnant he married her. Taking lodgings in Hampstead, the first of their two sons was born at a house called Yarra in Worsley Road.

The child was named Ralph after a friend advised him to avoid the name Abel – “it would produce too many poor jokes”.

Despite its lurid start, the marriage proved to be a happy one. Mary became a devoted wife, advising Caine on his work and becoming his first secretary. Much later in their lives, the relationship did falter and although remaining great friends they separated.

In 1919 Mary moved into Heath End House next to the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead where she died in 1932.

Now immensely rich and feted with literary success, Hall Caine returned to his roots in the Isle of Man. As some of his books featured life there, his fellow islanders revered him for boosting the tourist trade. He became a member of the Manx Parliament, moved into a mansion called Greeba Castle, and was known as “the uncrowned King of Man”.

There was some discord when the film director Alfred Hitchcock arrived on the island for exterior shots in his adaptation of Caine’s book The Manxman in 1929 (it was Hitchcock’s last silent film). While there, he found Caine’s interference so irritating that he moved the entire operation to Polperro in Cornwall.

Caine went to see the movie but became so angry over Hitchcock’s interpretation that he stormed out of the cinema halfway through the film.

As the years passed Caine became increasingly vain. He was very proud of his strong resemblance to the Stratford bust of Shakespeare. One day, he was shaved by a barber who removed too much of his beard, thereby ruining the likeness. As a result, Caine refused to leave his room for three weeks until the beard had re-grown.

Hall Caine Airport near Ramsay IOM closed in 1937 and is now as faded into history as its eponymous inspiration.

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. More information at www.wildetheatre.co.uk

Related Articles