The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Golden Jubilee Anniversary of HIM Haile Selassie’s Visit to Bath

Author - Adrienne Hack

Fairfield House, Bath

On 18th October 1954 Haile Selassie I, during a State visit to Britain, paid a visit to Bath, the City where he and his family had lived in exile from 1936-1940. Bath that day honoured him with the Freedom of the City and a parade. He later went to Windsor to be installed as a Knight of the Garter.

According to Lutz Haber* the Emperor in exile in England from 1936-1940 had first lived in Princes' Gate, London, staying with Sir Elie Kadoorie for the months of June and July 1936. Having the Emperor in London was deemed to be too 'politically embarrassing' for the Government. In August 1936 he moved to Bath, apparently drawn there for rest and, it has been suggested, treatment for the mustard gas wounds to his hands that he had received in Ethiopia. Firstly the Emperor stayed at the Bath Spa Hotel but in September 1936 he bought a home - the six-bedroomed Fairfield House, at 2 Kelston Road, Weston, Bath. The Emperor, apparently, liked the views from Fairfield as they reminded him of Harar. Once the refurbishments were completed the Empress and the rest of the family joined the Emperor from Palestine and the family, its retainers, supporters and staff lived in Fairfield House until they returned to Ethiopia arriving in Addis Ababa exactly five years after fleeing their country.

On the 16th October 2004, Anne Parsons and I went to Fairfield House: the Rastafarian community had invited us to share their celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Emperor's State visit.

Ethiopian time was the order of the day. We arrived at noon to be greeted by a flurry of preparations - rooms being decorated with flags, photographs and banners and lunch being prepared in the kitchen. In true European style the British guests were on time and Anne and I were able to spend a very happy hour or so walking round parts of the house and grounds and chatting to three Bathonian guests all of whom had played a part in 1930s life at Fairfield. I'd like to tell you some of their stories.

Dorothy Smith (left) and Ruth Haskins

Ruth Haskins told us that, as a 16-year-old, she spent the summer of 1937 employed as nanny to seven of the Emperor's children and grandchildren and a boy priest. All of these children "spoke perfect English". However, as they were being prepared for life in an English boarding school, the nursery meals consisted of 'school dinners' which all the children hated. Ruth told us that the children had to be quiet at all times and noise could only be made in the nursery or out in the garden. The English governess taught the children spelling, tables, English songs and nursery rhymes. Ruth said she loved all the children but found the Empress somewhat imposing and fearsome: her word was law in the nursery. Occasionally the children were bidden to eat with the Emperor and with Empress Menem in the formal dining room. At these meals no-one was permitted to speak unless the Emperor spoke first so meals were mostly held in silence save for the scraping of cutlery on the gold plates.

Ruth described the house as very grand: it was furnished with chandeliers, French furniture and lots of gilding. Nothing of this remains today though there is in the hallway a marble-topped iron-legged table which Ruth remembers from 1937. Ruth also recalls a radiogram in the sitting room and Prince Makonnen, the Duke of Harar, singing along to his favourite records.

Graham Clark

Graham Clark's grandfather was the local carrier. His horse was a grey named Poppy and Graham remembers riding the horse (which otherwise refused to walk through traffic) with his grandfather up to Fairfield on weekend afternoons. Once, Graham told us, he peeped in awe into the gilded and chandeliered hallway from the front steps. He also remembers receiving a pat on the head from the Emperor. According to Graham once Poppy was at Fairfield the Emperor would mount her (using the everyday western saddle) and go for a ride round the grounds. Mr Clark senior delivered goods around Bath and Graham remembers him delivering trunks to Fairfield from Smiths, the store sited opposite the Guildhall in Bath.

Dorothy Smith was wearing a splendid silver lion of Judah brooch which she had been given by Haile Selassie to mark her engagement to the son of the Bath merchant and leather goods manufacturer, Ernest (Pop) Smith, owner of the above shop. Mr Smith had, apparently, been introduced to the Emperor by the hall porter at the Bath Spa Hotel! The Emperor had let it be known that he sought someone to create leather goods for him - the first was a writing compendium which met with great approval and other crested leather goods were commissioned later. Dorothy told us that Mr Smith spoke no French and the Emperor little English so the two managed to communicate in "broken German". The Emperor would draw the designs of the goods he wanted made and Mr Smith would turn the drawings into reality.

Ruth Haskins recalled that bills often went unpaid (including her wages) but commented that life must have been expensive at Fairfield. There were many people living in the house including eight children, the Empress and many other attendants, staff and supporters as well as three priests in the family's private church located in the grounds. Some scholars have estimated that about 25 people were housed at Fairfield.

When times became hard and money was in short supply Dorothy told us that Mr Smith was asked to help by acting as the Emperor's agent in selling jewellery through Sotheby's salerooms in London. These two gentlemen formed a lasting, trusting, relationship and Mr Smith was invited to visit Ethiopia in 1955 where he was treated to a wonderful 3-month tour.

Guests at Lunch

In the late 1950s the Emperor gave Fairfield to the City "for the benefit of the older citizens of Bath". It became a residential home and, Ruth Haskins told us, her mother went to live there - her room being the old nursery which had meant so much to her young daughter. Today Fairfield is a day centre used mainly for groups of elderly thus keeping alive the wish of the late Emperor.

While Anne and I photographed and chatted to Ruth, Dorothy and Graham, other guests and friends were arriving. We met the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath, Rastafarians from all over the country, some of the 'elderlies' from Bath, the local press and a young man named Shaun who had produced a film, shown in 1999 on HTV, entitled Footsteps of the Emperor.

Chanting, drumming, flag waving, psalm readings and Rastafari love celebrated this historic day. Speeches of thanks and congratulations were made by the Mayor and some guests and then we were all offered lunch. It was a wonderfully colourful, friendly occasion and Anne and I felt warmly welcomed and entertained by the Rastafarian community. As ever we both tried to promote the work of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society: Anne by handing out copies of News File passim and me offering Society membership forms. We hope that some of our new friends will join our Society.

* Lutz Haber. The Emperor Haile Selassie I in Bath 1936 - 1940. The Anglo-Ethiopian Society Occasional Paper, 1992

More photographs of Fairfield House and of the celebrations can be seen in the Golden Jubilee Celebrations Photogallery.

First Published in News File Spring 2005

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