Nostalgia: Selsey's Muslim baronet
The small town of Selsey has attracted its fair share of remarkable residents. Few have been more unusual than Sir Archibald Hamilton, who lived for over 26 years at Paisley Cottage until his death in 1939.
Hamilton owed his title to two baronetcies which he inherited when his father died in 1915. Some entries in Sir Archibald’s CV cause little surprise given his title and social connections. During the first world war he was honorary recruiting officer for Selsey and district. For a time he was also president of Selsey Conservative Association. More controversial, although not particularly unusual in a man of his background, was his later embrace of the British Union of Fascists (BUF).
There were friendly links between some right wing Conservatives and Sir Oswald Mosley’s movement. Some former Conservatives (as well as some ex-members of other parties) even went the whole way and joined the BUF. However, it must have been very rare to find Mosleyites who had proclaimed their conversion to the Islamic faith, as Sir Archibald did in 1923. An even more remarkable distinction was that in 1925 he was offered the throne of Albania!
Charles Edward Archibald Watkin Hamilton was born in London in 1876 and served as a Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment. As his surname suggests, his ancestral roots lay in Scotland and he was related to the Dukes of Abercorn. Although most of his life was spent in southern England, he was clearly proud of his Caledonian heritage. Hamilton owned a collection of kilts and was escorted at ceremonial events by his personal bagpipers, the Rob Roy Pipers. A strong smell of eucalyptus also accompanied him- he was convinced of the plant’s health-preserving properties.
The pipers made an appearance at a BUF meeting in 1934 hosted by Sir Archibald and Lady Hamilton at the Pavilion, Selsey. The Chichester Observer recorded that the baronet arrived, preceded by his musicians playing ‘Cock o’ the North’. After the speaker, there were songs and a display of Highland dancing. The book Blackshirts-on-Sea, about the BUF summer camps, has pictures of Sir Archibald (with pipers) at the 1937 Selsey camp, held at what is now West Sands Caravan Park. Hamilton in his customary regalia was part of the official group welcoming Mosley.
Given his love of dressing up, it is perhaps not surprising that Hamilton was drawn to Mosley’s movement, with its uniforms and parades. For a deeper understanding of fascism’s appeal in the 1930s, we must also acknowledge the long shadow cast by the First World War. Like many of his generation, Hamilton had lost a son in the War, killed in action while serving in France with the Grenadier Guards. A significant body of British opinion, desperate to avoid another war, favoured friendly relations with Germany and supported the appeasement policies of Chamberlain’s government. Some who held these views, including a number of aristocrats, expressed them through political groups on the far right.
In contrast, Sir Archibald’s conversion to Islam was unusual enough for newspapers to refer to him as ‘the only Mohammedan [i.e. Muslim] baronet’. His formal profession of faith was made before the imam of the mosque in Woking, Surrey and he added the name Abdullah to his already long string of given names. In 1925 it was reported that fellow Muslims at the mosque had offered the throne of Albania to Hamilton and to Lord Headley, another British convert to the faith. The Balkan country was in considerable turmoil at the time and the Albanian Minister in London denied any knowledge of the offer. In any case both men refused, Lord Headley citing the danger of assassination and Hamilton explaining simply that he was an Englishman and ‘once an Englishman always an Englishman’.
The baronet’s romantic life did not run smoothly. His first wife was Olga Mary Adelaide FitzGeorge, a granddaughter of the Duke of Cambridge and great- great-granddaughter of King George III. The marriage ended in divorce after five years.
His second wife, Blanche Marjorie Algorta Child, was 17 when she married and her origins are rather mysterious. The couple parted after only two years and later Blanche (under the name ‘Lady Diana Hamilton’) brought her husband unwelcome publicity by her appearances in the London police courts. She was fined for being drunk and incapable and later went to prison for stealing jewellery from two women who had befriended her. In a foretaste of modern celebrity culture, Diana recounted her exploits in the Weekly News under the title ‘My Adventures in the West End’. Her life ended tragically early in a Scottish asylum at the age of 37.
After Diana’s death in 1927, Sir Archibald married Lilian Austen, daughter of a builder. Newspapers at the time reported his statement that he had married Lilian at Woking under Muslim laws 13 years previously and that ‘now she is my wife under the laws of England’. It encouraged cynics to suggest that his conversion to Islam was merely a matter of convenience as, under certain conditions, the religion allowed more than one wife. Fellow Muslims disagreed, describing him in an obituary as ‘an ardent preacher of the faith’. It is also clear that he played an important role in the affairs of the Woking mosque. There is a
Pathé newsreel of Hamilton (with the inevitable pipers) welcoming Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia there in 1936 (ironically, in view of the baronet’s support for the BUF, the Emperor had found sanctuary in Britain after the invasion of his country by fascist Italy).
On Sir Archibald’s death, the Chichester Observer made no mention of fascism but noted that his funeral at Woking involved ‘simple but impressive rites’ conducted by the imam. He was buried in the Muslim cemetery beside his friend Lord Headley.
I shall leave the last words on the enigmatic baronet to another notable Selsey resident, scholar and scientist Edward Heron-Allen (and in turn to Rudyard Kipling). In a tribute published in the Chichester Observer just after Hamilton’s death, Heron-Allen praised him as ‘one of the most highly cultivated and most deeply read men that I have ever known’. After acknowledging Sir Archibald’s eccentricities and ‘facets of his variegated personality which were displeasing to me’, the tribute perhaps veered towards hyperbole in quoting Kipling’s Phao over the dead body of Akela: ‘Howl dogs, for a wolf has died tonight!’