The Seylers and South Place

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Often archive inquiries can lead you down interesting paths and this was the case with an inquiry we received last year. A researcher asked for information regarding Clarence Heinrici Seyler (1840-1906), father to the actress Athene Seyler, while attempting to discover what connection Clarence had with the researcher’s grandfather.

Clarence and his family were deeply involved in goings-on of the South Place Religious Society (which changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society in the 1880s and is now called Conway Hall Ethical Society).  Clarence and his wife, Clara (née Thies, 1844-1925), had seven children:

  • Clarence Arthur (1866-1959)
  • Clara Evelyn (1868-1874)
  • Irene (1870-1952)
  • Alethea (1872-1947)
  • Harold (1874-1902)
  • Clifford (1881-1930)
  • Athene (1889-1990)

Clarence Heinrici was for a time (ca. 1876-77) the Honorary Secretary of the General Committee for the Society and was particularly active during the ministry of Dr. Moncure Conway. Dr. Conway mentions him in his Centenary of South Place Society (1894, p. 115) saying that, “…much is left untold that is necessary to do justice to our Society – such as the Discussion Society, formed in 1877 by Mr. Seyler and others…” Seyler, and others, also opened their homes to young people on Sunday afternoons to offer them the Society’s equivalent of Sunday school; he would on occasion conduct the Children’s Service.

An obituary written for Clara in the Society’s magazine, The Monthly Record (Jan 1926, p. 7), states:

“For many years she was, with her family, a regular attendant at the Sunday Services and concerts; she also took part in all the social gatherings of the Society. She will be remembered by many of our older members, who will recall her kindliness and gentleness, as well as her wit and keen sense of humour. Both she and her children were always ready to assist at the Soirees and it may be recalled that her talented daughter Athene and her son Clifford made their first public appearances at many of these social occasions.”

Clara’s cousin, Conrad W. Thies, was another member of the Society and also a member of the General Committee. Conrad gifted funds towards the building of our current headquarters at Conway Hall, to outfit the handsome library which is still in use today.

Harold, the middle son, is referenced several times in our catalogues. His marriage to Edith Hunt is recorded in one of our Register of Marriages. We have 3 bound copies (1896-97, 1897-98 and 1898-99) of his collection of the South Place Magazine in which he has bound in leaflets, newspaper clippings and other ephemera which are of interest to researchers. He must also have been involved in tallying up of the takings from the 1898 fundraising Bazaar as these have been recorded by hand against each stall in the Bazaar’s pamphlet. Harold drowned in a tragic accident at Henley-on-Thames and an obituary from the October 1902 South Place Magazine (p. 6) notes that:

“Harold Seyler was one of those who may be called the children of the Society, for the whole of his intellectual life was formed under the influences many only come into late in life. Very early he threw himself into the activities of South Place, assisting every one of them that he felt able to, and showing plainly that his heart was in the work to no ordinary extent. His gay and happy temperament led him naturally to further those social features that have occasionally led critics to imagine the serious work of our Society must of necessity be neglected. Our young comrade’s life was perhaps the best answer to this complaint…”

Harold was a great friend of Wallis Mansford, a member of another family very active in the Society (Wallis’ brother, F. Herbert Mansford designed Conway Hall). They jointly ran courses for, “physical drill, ground gymnastics and fencing,” at South Place on the first and third Wednesday evenings in each month in 1901. On his friend’s death, Wallis composed a series of poems in memoriam and dedicated the small booklet to Harold’s wife, Edith.

SPES/6/3/2/4/14 – At the Annual Children’s Party in 1905, a play “The Doll’s Dilemma” is performed. Written and stage-managed by Clifford and in which Athene and Alethea’s children, Phillis Seyler Andrews and Geoffrey Andrews, perform. Later on in the programme both Athene and Clifford dance. As you can also see, many Fentons also perform in the play.

The most well-known of the Seylers is Athene, a professional stage, film and television actress, although her brother Clifford was a film actor and writer also. However, several of Clarence Heinrici and Clara’s children, and grandchildren, performed in productions and entertainments for the Society; we have programmes for some productions as well as children’s parties that provide evidence of this fact. Harold, Clifford, Athene, Alethea, and then her children, Phyllis Seyler Andrews and Geoffery Andrews all performed. Harold produced and Clifford wrote a number of the productions too.

SPES/6/3/2/4/4 – A programme for the Children’s Party, a fundraiser that place on April 13th, 1896.
Athene performing on the horn-pipe at the 1896 Children’s Party.

Desert Island Discs hosted Athene Seyler in March 1989 and she discusses (from 1.00 min) the first time she remembers people laughing at her – she was eight, playing a horn-pipe and saluting when unexpectedly her drawers fell down. We have a programme for a Children’s Party (in aid of the South Place Repair Fund), Monday, April 13th, 1896 (SPES/6/3/2/4/4), in which Athene played the horn-pipe; she would have been almost seven but perhaps this is the performance she is referring to.

Athene would be one of the speakers at the opening of the new home for the Society, Conway Hall, in 1929 demonstrating her continued connection with the Society.