It's an open secret that I love history, especially that of the eastend, also I can't resist trying to solve a mystery so when I found the above photo with the following blurb:
At the junction of Abbey Road and Mitre Road. The first name listed amongst the dead of World War 1 is that of Comte Robert de Lesseps, Legion d'honneur and Croix de Guerre. Robert was the son of Ferdinand, Vicomte de Lesseps, the man responsible for digging the Suez Canal and Robert was also the great-nephew of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. The memorial is not a municipal one but that of the Crocketts' Leather-cloth factory, which used to be sited here. Robert died in 1916 and had been an early pioneer aviator and a friend and student of Bleriot. But why should Crocketts directors wish to remember him in this way?
Why indeed, that's the question I set out to answer but failed, the factory has long gone it was demolished in the 1960's and replaced by a council estate called Leather Gardens. So what of the man himself ?
As it notes in the piece above he was the son of Ferdinand, Vicomte de Lesseps who was responsible for the building of the Suez canal which linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The origins of de Lesseps' family are traceable back as far as the end of the 14th century. His ancestors, it is believed, came from Scotland, and settled at Bayonne during the region's occupation by the English.
Robert was born in Paris on the 23rd May 1882, he was the second eldest of five brothers who has they grew to adulthood were swept up in the frenzy of manned flight all four were to become pioneer aviators.
On the 27th February 1902 he married Marthe Sophie Alland in Belgium and they had two children, Nicole and Robert jnr. Now Robert seems to disappear until World War One and the battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme began on the 1st July 1916 and ended on the 18th November 1916, it was a joint British and French operation dreamt up by the French Commander in Chief Joffre and agreed to by the British Commander in Chief Douglas Haige. It was mean't to be a swift campaign to break the German defences but it turned out far different to that and is remembered as the bloodiest battle of all time.
On the first day there was a loss of 58.000 British troops a third of them killed, others badly wounded. The death toll continued rising through the summer months until the beginning of winter when finally it was deemed as ended, the ground gained was a mere 25 miles long and 6 miles wide but the cost in human life and suffering was immeasurable 420.000 casualties for the British, 195.000 for the French and 650.000 for the Germans. Among the French casualties was Comte Robert de Lessep who died of his wounds in September 1916.
So how was this French aristocrat who fought, and died, with such bravery for his country in the hell that was the Somme and winning France's highest award the Legion d'honneur become linked with a leather cloth factory in the east end ? I'm sorry but that will have to remain a mystery I'm afraid, although there is something that may have linked them and that could have been leather, for early aviators wore leather jackets and caps as a protection against the wind.
On one site Robert is noted as a 'promotor' for his more famous flying brothers, so does that mean he wasn't as able as them or did he perhaps have a flying accident, so as their promotor he would be responsible for all needs and would buy the best possible flying suits possible. Now we come to the World Fair of 1910 which was held in Brussels, one of the contributors was 'Crockett and Jones' manufacturers of fine leather footwear from Northampton, is it just a coincidence that another Crockett in the eastend was involved in leather cloth manufacture that was used to make clothing, or that at the time Robert de Lesseps was married to a Belgium woman and would certainly have attended the World Fair.
Of course all this is only supposition but one thing is possible is a the outbreak of World War One Robert is no longer flying instead according to his death certificate he was in a cavalry regiment when he died. Robert's brothers Ferdinand and Bertrand also died in World War One.
Jacques who served in the French military as pilot of night bombardment and observation aircraft, he was also the second person to fly across the English Cannel, and was one of the pioneers of aerial photography; he died in 1927 while carrying out a survey in Canada, his body was later found at Newfoundland.
The last remaining de Lesseps brother Paul, who was the first man to fly around the Eiffel Tower died in 1947 following a spell of imprisoment The 14 Jan 1947 Time Magazine said about him that:
"Paul de Lesseps, 63-year-old son of the famed Suez Canal builder, was down with heart trouble and a sense of persecution in Fresnes Prison. The French Government said that Prisoner de Lesseps, who owned land in Turkey, had offered to sell it to the Germans, for bases from which to bomb Suez. De Lesseps' reply: the Government owed him five billion francs for land confiscated in World War I, now condemned him 'to avoid paying.' "
Perhaps I haven't answered the question as to why Compte Robert de Lesseps is remembered at Stratford but perhaps there is a little more substance to a brave man than just a forgotten name carved in a monument far from his native land.
Robert de Lesseps death certificate [spoil]
Bertrand de Lesseps death certificate [spoil]
Ferdinand de Lesseps death certificate [spoil]