"Interred With His Bones" is a one act play based on the life of Osborne Aldis, Victorian "gentleman" and restorer of Plegmund's Well. The play leaves open the question as to whether Aldis was a con-artist or simply incapable of dealing with finance and perhaps more than a little forgetful. It's first (and so far last) performance took place on 8th December 2022, very shortly after the script was finished. The full script of the play is given below, with links to sources and background material.
One difficulty with the history of Aldis is that it is sometimes unclear whether his own accounts of events, revealed through his letters to the press and statements in court, are truthful or not. The stage directions suggest that Aldis should be played as a "little detatched from reality". Only a little is known about his "Wellington Club": "London Clubs" from 1911 states that -
- "The Wellington, like the Bachelors’ and Orleans, is another sociable club which offers its members the privilege of entertaining ladies in a portion of the building specially set aside for their use. In the club-house is a collection of fine heads, trophies of the successful big-game shooting expeditions of sporting members"
A foundation date for the club is given as October 1832 and some records state that it moved to 116a Knightsbridge (previously an antique dealers) in 1932 before it was dissolved in 1934, while others have it continuing until 26 June 2016. A licence to re-open was apparently refused but it appears to have eventually re-opened as a very exclusive private members club. However whether this establishment has any actual connection with Aldis' club is not at all clear.
Many of the places where Aldis lived (or at least claimed to) still exist. He seems to have have preferred pleasant surroundings. These include Rose Cottage at Torquay, The Crippetts at Witcombe, and in Chester Walmoor Hill: although St John's House was demolished to expose the remains of the Amphitheatre.
Aldis' personal interest in Suffragettes and Pantomine is attested to by his letters to local newspapers (see references). Newspaper records also show that he was also involved with the Chester Pageant which eventually took place in 1910, although he was not involved in its finances. Scientists have a name for a seemingly insignificant event which leads through a chain of causation to a major consequence. They call it the "Butterfly Effect", hence the butterflies in the play, although Aldis does mention them in one of his letters where he describes his chance meeting with Reverend Dempster.
"Interred With His Bones"
(Stage directions: the Suffragettes/Chorus/Fates, while at times raucous also get the work of shifting the set between scenes and even dressing the various legal figures with their wigs, however they are generally sympathetic towards Aldis, and less sympathetic towards the judges. Barber is doddering and Dempster, although given an Australian accent was actually from Camden in London. Aldis himself is somewhat detatched from reality and his dialog is often a series of "semi-sequiturs". It is entirely up to the audience to decide whether Aldis is an intentional crook or not.)
This is a dramatic version of the story of Osborne Aldis, restorer of Plegmund's Well. The words are largely taken from what actually happened, with only relatively small changes.
(Enter Chorus - with placards after the manner of suffragettes)
Scene One: The Grosvenor Museum
Chorus: We are the Chorus of the Gilded Age / Our Odysseus Osborne struts upon the stage / He bent his course from wealth to ruin / Our play starts in the museum / Where he has come to scrutinize / A case of preserved butterflies
(Chorus do butterfly impressions with their hands. Enter Osborne)
OA: My, what delightful creatures these are. “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free”. I am no Harold Skimpole. I hope mankind will surely not deny to Osborne Aldis what it concedes to the butterflies.
(Enter Reverend Dempster)
RD: By Dicken's Sir, G'day – that is defo a fine heap of butterflies. Hard to think they were once caterpillars and then metamorphosed – perhaps there is hope enough for all.
OA: Oh Hello, I take it from your dress you are a man of the cloth and from your tan that you are not from hereabouts – I'm Osborne Aldis M.A. Cantab
RD: Reverend Hubert Dempster, from Sidney, Australia, just landed at Liverpool this morning and due to take train for the Lambeth Conference at tea-time. I thought, being fortunate, I'd pass this present day in Chester.
OA: Our yesterdays are history and tomorrows are a mystery, each gifted day a present, so why not seize the sights?
RD: I have already waltzed the City Walls and visited St Johns. This afternoon I plan to attend the service at the Cathedral. What else should I not miss? I've heard that Alfred the Great's archbishop Plegmund was from here. I have been reading some of the translations he helped Alfred with on the voyage from Australia.
OA: Plegmund … mmm ….. I think he dwelt just north of Hoole …. Plemstall …. and has a well there which you might be tempted to visit
RD: Crikey! - I'm dead-set to see that, Plegmund's Billabong
OA: A pleasant outing. Well we could take a cab, unfortunately, I don't have any cash on me....
(Exit OA and RD)
Chorus: Through butterflies and chance he steers for Plegmund's well / But of his misadventures past there is much to tell.
Scene Two: Cheltenham Bankruptcy Court
Chorus: Two years before as we shall see / He was in court for bankruptcy / We start the tale as best we can / Some years before in Cheltenham
(Enter Recorder: the Chorus place a wig upon his head)
Rec. I understand that you are Osborne Aldis, 63 years of age and for a short time you have been living at the Crippetts, Witcome and before that you had resided at Bridgend, Norwich, Richmond and elswhere. is this true?
OA: I went to live at The Crippetts in August last year prior to that at Leckhampton for 12 months. I was at Ilfracombe for two years, Bridgend for a similar period, staying with relatives, I did spend a little time with my sister in Norwich and before that in London for two years, before that I was in the West Indies for six months. When I lived at Chesham Place off Belgrave Square London some twenty years ago now, I had an income of £1,200 per year. I received £10,000 from my mother's will but I met with heavy losses on two houses and had lost the whole of it.
Rec. Or have you spent it?
OA: Not at all
Rec. You have no occupation and for the past twenty years you have been living on your relatives.
Rec. Which went broke within a year
OA: I kept bees
Rec: Which flew away
Rec: Which threw off sparks and thankfully never saw the light of day
OA: It was for coal miners.
Rec. And a pit into which others threw their money
OA: I have never wished to live upon generosity; but I have been helped.
Rec. Very considerably – moving from relative to relative until they tired of supporting you
OA: I never asked anyone to pay any debts for me.
Rec. No, unfortunately your debts have not been paid. Where are you staying now?
Rec. But what is your address?
OA: I am staying with my son Charles Aldis
Rec. Where is HE living?
OA: He has just come home from India
Rec, And you were by his door at once. WHERE IS HE LIVING?
OA: In Chester
Rec. Come, come, man, GIVE ME HIS ADDRESS
Rec. And THAT is what you call living in North Wales with friends
OA: My son has some friends living with him
Rec. BUT CHESTER IS NOT IN NORTH WALES!
OA: Well I was speaking generally
Rec. Don't you mean you were speaking as you generally have - that is - untruthfully, unless you are collared?
OA: No if you had intimated that you wished to have the address, I would have sent it to you.
Rec. This entire performance is a pantomime. Are you going to Chester now and have you promised to send your new address should you leave there?
OA: Oh yes I did
Chorus: Oh no you didn't
Rec. Let us move on. According to your evidence when you left Leckhampton you had no silver or electroplate except for a few knives and forks. The lack of commonplace necessities suggests that there could not be a tumbler apiece and certainly not a set of linen for each bed. You had two beds and were living with your sister-in-law and two daughters. Did you not keep a servant?
OA: Not in the house.
Rec. Then where? - in the stables? My officers when making their inventory found the house cleaned out of everything of value. In the dining room people use table cloths sometimes; I don't find you have any. There was not even a pillow slip.
OA: My sister-in-law had removed her things, others may have been in the laundry
Rec: I see. Tell me how can you justify the huge debt you owe to Messrs Lance and Company?
OA: Well I had hoped to start a college teaching Oriental languages. I knew that when I bought furniture from Messrs Lance I was insolvent but at the same time I had every hope.
Rec. Hope is not an asset! ..and what do you mean by Oriental languages?
OA: Ancient Greek
Rec. Your explanations are all Greek to me. You are a spendthrift and a wastrel. Do you know what the people of Cheltenham are calling you just now? You are known here as the CHELTENHAM SWINDLER and don't you feel bound to confess that you richly deserve it, DEBTOR! Have you nothing to say?
Scene Three: Plemstall
Chorus: And now back to the Gilded Age / Where Plegmondstall provides our stage / Dempster and Aldis as we tell / Have come to find Plegmund's well / After a lot of walking around / The well, so far, cannot be found
(Enter Dempster and Aldis)
OA: Hoole Heath used to be a sanctuary for those accused of ... various things
OA: I'm sure it is to be found around here somewhere.
RD: Well, seek and ye shall find as they say
OA: Indeed. I took an examination for the church, you know, and thought of entering the clergy when I came down from Cambridge, and I have taught theology and classics. My maternal grandfather was the Reverend Brome of Barbados and had extensive sugar plantations.
RD: Do you come from a clerical family?
OA: He was kind to his slaves. It had to be given up, and there was a little issue with the Commissioners in Lunacy. The Master of our local Chester Union Workhouse in Hoole is my cousin William Aldis and his daughter Elizabeth is the Matron. They all sought a useful life as I have done.
RD: And I assume you pursue some equally worthy occupation?
OA: Er...well ...oh, is that perchance the well, over there beneath the bank at the side of the road.
(They walk over and examine the hole. A bell tolls in the distance.)
RD: It looks like a bunny hole to me – just think, a thousand years ago – you have been been very kind Mr Aldis – I shall not forget the well – but hark, is that the Cathedral bell I hear calling us to the service – we cannot tarry – and someone should restore the well
OA: (speaking to the audience) I would never see Reverend Dempster again after that day. We hurried to the Cathedral and then to Chester Station where he barely made the 17:35. I recall the parting words of the bronzed-faced Australian delegate. "The Well, St. Plegmund's Well! How strange! Eleven centuries! Only think of that! Shall not forget the Well!". "Nor will I forget the well," was my half-uttered response as the train glided away from the platform. I decided it would be a good thing for it to be restored.
(a railway whistle sounds)
Scene Four: The Grosvenor Museum
(Enter Arch-deacon Barber, an elderly cleric)
Barber: Members of the Chester Natural History Society welcome. On November 11th, 1907 I think it was, an interesting ceremony took place at Plemstall, when an ornamental stone curbing and protection round St. Plegmund’s Well, erected at the expense of Mr. Osborne Aldis, was dedicated by myself. I think he is in the audience here.
OA: Thank you..
Barber: The ceremony at the Well was preceded by a short service in the Church, when I gave an address on St. Plegmund, and the lessons to be learnt from his life. But he has done more than this. His frequent letters to the newspaper have raised many important issues here in Chester. Despite the protestations of our Corporation he has suggested that we collect the funds to stage a grand historical pageant and graciously agreed to be a trustee and treasurer
OA: I'll pass the hat round later....
Scene Five: Chester Magistrates Court
Chorus: And now we leap forward to 1910. / And Osborne's in the dock again. / It was for his final crime, / and there was no escape this time./ The well had spread his name around / By all his creditors, he was found
(Enter Judge – the Chorus once again place the wig on head}
Rec: We are here for the case of Osborne Aldis, 66 who has admitted in the written evidence that he has obtained goods on credit from Messrs Brown and Co of Chester to furnish his then home Walmoor .. wait a minute, is he even here in court? No! - send a clerk for him. He is now abiding, I believe, at St John's House which he intends to turn into a club for gentlemen.
(Enter Aldis in the background)
Chorus: He's behind you
Rec: Ah there you are – how do you explain your absence
OA: I was mistaken over the date and was composing a letter to the newspaper concerning a public subscription for my proposed pageant
Rec: As a matter of fact my clerk found you reading, perhaps an unpaid bill?. I won't ask you the ordinary question as to whether the answers you gave in your preliminary examinations were true. I am afraid I have satisfied myself there are a great many errors and omissions in your statements. I need to clear a few up. For example this business of your wife Miss Chown who died in 1876
OA: When she died I married her sister. It might have been illegal at the time. The marriage was not in church but in a private room of a house attached to one.
Rec: You do not suggest it was legal?
Rec: So the sister-in-law, who conveniently owned the goods used in your previous households, was also your wife.
OA: Not for the whole time, she would have been if the marriage was legal, I suppose.
Rec: ...and in the matter of the flour mills: among your assets in your statement of affairs you list a contract for the purchase of certain flour mills which you claim when sold will realise a profit of two-thousand pounds.
OA: I never had anything whatever to do with flour mills. That was a preliminary arrangement of which nothing has come.
Rec: It appears to me that you consider if something might come-up you treat it as an asset already in your possession. It seems to me you would pawn a betting slip and buy it back if the horse won.
OA: I am not in the habit of gambling.
Rec: Except with the property of others. I want you at the outset of this examination to understand that I am not going to put up and will not ask the court to put up with the prevaricating answers with which you covered pages on your previous examinations, and, which were grossly untrue.
OA: I had no wish to mislead the Court.
Rec: Now this business of Walmoor at Dee Banks – you say in your evidence that you moved there from Christleton in October 1909 and that you furrnished it from Browns, but had not paid them anything on account. Is that true?
OA: Yes, I offerred them a cheque but for some reason they would not accept it
Rec: That was only last week, perhaps your reputation had gone before you. I also understand that Walmoor is the home of Mr John Douglas the architect and even today he is still living there with his son Sholto. I fail to see how you could have furnished it without his leave. You have a constitutional inability to tell the truth!
OA: I meant it was true that I put it in evidence
Rec: And how do your explain that? You have not answered a single question directly all morning.
OA: It was some years ago. There are things that have long since passed my memory.
Rec: It was just over a year ago. Don't go rambling along with a lot of things which are utterly untrue. You are known for restoration of a well and can pour springs out of it. As a matter of fact it has been a perfect system on your part of taking houses and getting furniture on credit and then not paying for it.
OA: These things slip ones mind
Rec: Let me remind you. You were declared a bankrupt at Bristol in 1902, and at Cheltenham in 1908. In each case there was an inquiry as to where the furniture and other goods have gone and suggestions they are missing. It seems to be the same case here so far as I can make out. You have claimed that your creditors have been paid but the records show they have seen neither a brass farthing nor a stick of the furniture again.
OA: I had at that time expectations from my sister but she left all her money to a clergyman and my interest in Barbados had diminished very considerably. I have been very much aggravated.
Rec: So have I. Your interest in Barbados was diminished when you forged a signature to cash in the annuity and committed [fraud upon the Bank of England fraud upon the Bank of England], for which you went to prison in 1886. You chose not to mention in your evidence that your accomodation was provided at Her Majesties Pleasure.
OA: My club near Park Lane was successful and is now very exclusive, but I lost money on it. The Duke of Westminster thanked me himself. I suffered a great loss.
Rec: At least he did not lose his money, and that loss was over thirty years ago. At all other places you have been to since you have left owing money and nothing to show for the spending of it. Your life has been ONE PROLONGED SWINDLE, and now you have proposed to float another club at Chester and advertised for members of means to invest in it, who did not appear. Which you claim is the source of your current difficulties.
OA: I could have entered the medical profession or the Church
Rec: Thank goodness you did not. Your father was a noted medical man and poor fools would have flocked to your door. You mentioned that you have a noted cousin in Chester. He is the Master of the Workhouse and poor fools flock to his door as well.
OA: He is not my cousin
Rec: That must be a great relief to him. Well, I ajourn for lunch. Be back at two. PROMPTLY!
Chorus: Osborne's case was down the drain / Which like our lines was such a pain / In Chester he would not remain / At two he would be on a train / And the judge would wait in vain / With Osborne on the run again. / We must return to our campaign / But for the epilogue remain. / Some years later in the rain
(Enter the Recorder and Deacon with umbrella's as if meeting in the street)
Barber: Ah Judge Lloyd, if I wish you Good Day will you send me a bill.
Rec: No, Archdeacon Barber, no I'm retired so all is pro bono now. It's been quite a while. I haven't seen you since that fellow Aldis. He absconded as he had before and was collared in Oxford in charge of the Bishops library. Whatever happened to him after I sent him back to jail – I was as lenient as I could be.
Barber: The fellow who had the well restored? He died in poverty without a penny to his name, in a garret in Chelsea. He lies in a paupers grave in a great metropolitan necropolis. I do not think he was a wicked man at heart – future historians may judge him better, either in terms of tragedy or comedy
Rec: Or pantomime – he had a life-long run in that. At least Plegmund's Well won't be forgotten thanks to him, and the pageant he promoted was excellent - although we left his name out of the brochure of course. I fear the good that he did has indeed been interred with his bones.
Barber: He said to me once that hope was his greatest asset.
Barber: Well, there's always the well. Perhaps one day there will be a last word on that.
Chorus: So our play comes to an end / And all is well that endeth well / You may his motive comprehend / No more of Osborne we can tell / Save his reputation mend / In the depths of Plegmund's well / On his tale we close our book / As benefactor, or as crook
Sources and Links
- Osborne and the statue: (Combermere also owned slaves in Barbados);
- Osborne and Suffragettes;
- Osborne on Sneezing;
- Osborne's Icon;
- Osborne's History of Suffragettes: (he was a strong supporter);
- Osborne on Art;
- Osborne on Pantomine: (he wrote a brief history);
- Osborne and forgery;
Article by Peter Elliott, play based on Research by Colin Foden and Peter Elliott, and with thanks to Colin, Kath, Ruth and Monty for their acting, and Mr Phil Cook for sound effects.