In my extensive, some would say exhaustive, research into the history of Savile Row, there is a frustrating lack of information about the founding fathers: Gieves, Hawkes, Kilgour, Davies, Huntsman, Anderson or Sheppard. Of them all, the most intriguing is Thomas Hawkes who appeared to have been rather a cuckoo in a drunkard tailor’s nest and rose to be Savile Row’s man by appointment to King George III, Queen Charlotte and the Prince Regent.
Having worked long and hard in the archives at Poole’s, I had become over-familiar with the eponymous Henry and took for granted his extraordinary story. He was secondary to the restoration of over 100 company customer ledgers and the admittedly dazzling biographies of the kings, courtesans, emperors, heroes and villains that Henry Poole dressed.
Henry was an exalted heir to his father James Poole’s thriving military tailoring business and inherited the rent on a Regent Street shop front as well as the block of property on Old Burlington Street and Savile Row that became his personal fiefdom. Poole befriended champion jockey Jem Mason, the exiled Prince Louis Napoleon and a young Prince of Wales. He cut a dash riding his phaeton drawn by magnificent black stallions on Rotten Row at the fashionable hour.
Henry Poole was the pre-eminent tailor to the courts of Europe and Russia for thirty years. When Prince Louis Napoleon became Emperor of the French, Henry – a tradesman – was a guest at his chateaux and was a great favourite of the Empress Eugenie with whom he sang duets at Compeigne. ‘Bertie’, the future King Edward VII, was Poole’s houseguest at Dorset Cottage in Fulham: a magnificent Thames-side villa surrounded on four sides by conservatories and lavish, mature pleasure gardens.
When in his forties, Henry married the head of Poole’s ladies’ department, Emma Walker, who oversaw the measuring-up and construction of riding habits for such equestrian goddesses as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Empress Frederick of Prussia and grand horizontale Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters so named because she was discovered in a Mayfair bowling alley.
Company lore has it that Henry lived high on the hog, gave his favourites unlimited credit and died in 1876 leaving the company in a perilous state. It wasn’t that simple. When I began researching the company’s biography, I found a tin box in the old archive room and forced the lock to reveal the personal papers of the present chairman’s grandfather Howard Cundey. What emerged will change the company’s history.
It transpires that Henry Poole made arguably the most divisive will since Jarndyce & Jarndyce. On his death, the business was buoyant but Henry Poole was broke. He had remortgaged various properties, borrowed £6000 from his devoted sister Mary Ann and bowed-out of the business in the last three years of his life due to ill health.
Henry’s cousin, Sam Cundey, had worked by his side for forty years in the counting house. In his absence, Henry had appointed a Charles Bentley Bingley to manage the Savile Row showrooms over Sam Cundey’s head. Henry divided his estate into quarters leaving 50% to Sam Cundey, 25% to Bingley and a further 25% to his niece by marriage Fanny Cutler and her husband Edwin. Catastrophically, Henry named Bingley Sole Trustee.
The Cundeys and Cutlers would contest Henry Poole’s will through the Royal Courts of Justice for thirty years. It wasn’t until 1906 when Sam Cundey, his formidable wife Eliza, Charles Bingley and the man he appointed his heir Sir Reginald Hanson were all dead that the case was decisively settled. Howard emerges as the hero of the piece fighting the law courts while keeping Henry Poole & Co at the apex of the international bespoke tailoring trade.
In addition to the ruinously expensive Royal Courts of Justice, Howard was in the firing line at Henry Poole & Co while tailors’ strikes, sweating scandals and World War One threatened to sink the business. Last week while I was elbow-deep in Howard Cundey’s deeds, our chairman Angus Cundey arrived at No 15 Savile Row with what he called ‘something that might interest you’. That was the understatement of the century. What Mr Cundey gave me was a document hand-written in spidery black ink and signed by Henry that turned out to be a previous Will revoked in 1874.
The revoked will named neither Sam Cundey nor the Cutlers as beneficiaries except in a codicil. The aforementioned would only inherit on the death of Charles Bingley, Emma Cundey or Mary Ann Cundey. Between 1874 and his death in 1876, Henry Poole wrote both his wife and sister out of his Will. He left provision for both of a £2,500 annuity to be paid at the discretion of Bingley but Bingley did not pay. Neither did he honour the request for Emma and Mary Ann to choose favourite pieces of furniture from Dorset Cottage, Savile Row or the house in Brighton where he died.
We do not know why Henry Poole didn’t leave his wife or sister an interest in the company. We do know that Emma died a year later and Mary Ann in 1879 in considerably reduced circumstances. When Mr Cundey and I sat down to discuss the most recent findings in the vault and the intriguing revoked will, he said the story of Henry Poole & Co knocked Mr Selfridge into a cocked hat. I am inclined to agree with him.