155: George Watteau: the African gardener of Chislehurst

* Contributed by David Stuart-Mogg

George Watteau also known as Whattow, Whottow, Watto, Makepo, Makoppo and Makippe died in Chislehurst, Kent in March 1931, aged 87. He had lived there for over fifty years. There are photographs of him in the National Portrait Gallery, London and he has been described as a close associate of David Livingstone. David Stuart-Mogg has investigated his life and has written as follows:

My interest in Chislehurst’s celebrated ‘African Gardener’ came about in 1993 when I visited St Nicholas’s church in Twywell, Northamptonshire where, in 1874, the rector Thomas Waller compiled and edited Livingstone’s African notes and diaries, published as Livingstone’s Last Journals by John Murray, London. Waller had been a friend of Livingstone and had been with him to what is now Malawi. During this visit to Twywell I met George Childs, an octogenarian former church warden and local historian (Childs’s father had been a churchwarden during Waller’s time) who recounted how, as a lad working with his father in the fields, a ‘dark stranger’ had crossed the field. George’s father called out to the stranger to establish his identity and the reply was thought to be an impudent ‘what ho!’ in reply to which he received the none too civil response to ‘clear off’. The stranger stayed for a while in the village and claimed to be the son of either Susi or Chuma, the African followers of Livingstone who had carried his mummified corpse over hundreds of miles from central Africa to the Indian Ocean from where it was transported to England and buried in Westminster Abbey. Susi and Chuma were brought to England and duly feted, and presented with medals by Queen Victoria. They went to Twywell where they spent time with the Revd Waller at the rectory, assisting with his editing (providing context and locus to the often wandering, fevered and barely legible handwriting of Livingstone).

Over a century ago the ‘dark stranger’ eloped with a local girl from Twywell. In 1995 I heard that an elderly lady, with her daughter, had visited the church and claimed to be the daughter of the local runaway who had married a son of Chuma. I recounted this tale to George Child’s widow (who lived in a nearby village) and was told the runaway girl’s surname was Abbott. I went back to St Nicholas’s church and examined the visitor’s book which noted the name Phyllis Clough of Bromley who was in search of Abbott family graves. In August 1995 I wrote to the Bromley and Beckenham Times seeking contact from Phyllis Clough. In May 1996 I had a response from her, which confirmed her mother had been the runaway. Mrs Clough’s daughter was not enthusiastic about an investigation into her African grandfather and Phyllis died shortly afterwards. I was put in contact with a cousin, Sylvia, who had been raised with Phyllis ‘as a sister’. The ‘what ho!’ story George Childs had told me made sense when I realised that Phyllis Clough’s maiden name had been Watteau.

The ‘dark stranger’ who eloped with Polly Abbott the Twywell girl was George Henry Watteau, born 9 November 1884. Polly, the eldest of eight sisters, was regarded as the ‘black sheep’ of the Abbott family. Polly and George Watteau had two children – Harry and Phyllis. Polly left George for a chap named Tom Moore who lived in Bromley Common. They had two children, and Polly then took the daughter and moved to Ashford where no trace of her has been found. The separation may have been when George Watteau was serving in the British army in World War One (the army described him as a ‘mulatto’). Harry and Phyllis Watteau were raised by one of Polly’s sisters (Grace) with her own family.

This George Watteau’s father was the African who died in Chislehurst on 11 March 1931. He was functionally illiterate, hence the variety in his surnames. He married a Chislehurst woman named Martha Holmes. She ‘took in laundry’ and was neither French nor employed as a maid by the exiled French Empress Eugenie who lived in Chislehurst. George and Martha Watteau had three children: George Henry (the ‘dark stranger’) in 1884, Charles (February 1886) and Samuel (June 1887). Their father was a gardener who worked for a Chislehurst man named James Vanner, whose house was named Livingstone, a leading light of the local Wesleyan church. George the African pumped the organ until he was dismissed for playing the fool to amuse the congregation. He habitually wore an ancient coachman’s cloak and a top hat, and chased taunting children with a spear. Photographers were keen to take his portrait and those at the National Portrait Gallery were taken by Henry Walter Barnett (1884-c.1948). Images in the local press included Watteau with a spear, alongside a portrait of Dr Livingstone.

The claims that he had accompanied Livingstone’s body from the heart of Africa, that he had been a slave until freed by Livingstone, and that he had been a pall bearer at the doctor’s grand funeral are easy to deny – Jacob Wainwright was the sole African pall bearer, and he had been the sole African to accompany the coffin from Africa. The family knew the names Chuma and Susi, and their link to Waller was also well known. Why Watteau’s son visited Twywell and later claimed to be Chuma’s son is unclear.

We are not sure that Watteau was born in Africa although the 1901 census has his place of birth as South Africa. He worked for Vanner for some thirty years, and on his death continued as a gardener at Livingstone House, for a chap named Williamson, for twenty years. At Watteau’s funeral, March 1931, the Wesleyan minister said Watteau had lived in Chislehurst for fifty-five years but was uncertain how Makippo had been changed to Watteau. That 1901 census has the name as Watto, and the 1931 death registration has ‘Whattow otherwise Watteau’.

There are many threads to be drawn together to obtain a satisfactory picture of the life of George Watteau. At this time we can suggest that in all probability, enjoying the minor celebrity status he achieved, he and his family embellished a Livingstone connection to maintain interest and likely obtain consideration or benefit. Part of the story may have been an attempt by the family to add status and significance to what was a mixed-race union in Victorian England.

* David Stuart-Mogg, F.R.G.S. is the editor of The Society of Malawi Journal. Active in tourism and travel including hotels in Malawi, he has retired and lives near Peterborough. His website is http://www.davidstuartmogg.com and his e mail is david@stuartmogg.com

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