Monday, March 18, 2013

Backstreets: More John Street Family History

I hope I'm not exhausting interest here (a review of a John Rhode mystery is coming tomorrow), but I've made some more discoveries about the family of Cecil John Charles Street (I do wish all this had made it into Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery).  In the last John Street post I discussed Street's descent on one side from Major General John Alfred Street (veteran of the Second Opium War!) and on the other from Caroline Bill, daughter of Charles Horsfall Bill, wealthy landowner.

After service in the Royal Artillery John Street became an electrical engineer for about eight years (he was called up again into service in the R.A. when the Great War started).  After the war and a spot of Army Intelligence work in Ireland, Street settled down to a life of writing, publishing his first mystery novel in 1924, when he was forty years old.  Street's detective novels, particularly his Dr. Lancelot Priestley mysteries published under the John Rhode pseudonym, reflect Street's peculiar mechanical genius.  During the Golden Age of the detective novel, he was especially lauded for his ingenious means of murder, which often drew upon principles of science and engineering.

In his mysteries Street also wrote disdainfully of snobbish gentry who looked down their noses at people in business and mechanical trades (see, for example, Mr. Babbacombe Dies--well, if you can ever find a copy!).  Was he writing from personal experience?  Where did John Street get his marked knack for science and technology?

David Hume and Adam Smith--friends of
John Jardine, "a hard-headed, jolly dog,"
according to James Boswell
It now seems there was a family link after all.  Street's paternal grandmother, the mother of his father General Street, was Catherine Jardine, a granddaughter of Reverend John Jardine (1716-1766).  Jardine was a member, with David Hume and Adam Smith and others, of Edinburgh's Select Society, a founder of the Edinburgh Review and a figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Writes E. C. Mossner in his The Life of David Hume (Oxford University Press, 1980): "Greatly beloved by David Hume was John Jardine, six feet two of a man with large bones and a huge zest for life" (p. 277).  James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson, described Reverend Jardine in his journal as "a hard-headed, jolly dog."

I was struck by these references, because in great part they could have been made about Jardine's descendant John Street.

As Doug Greene records in his biography of John Dickson Carr, Street was a tall, large man (grown stout in middle age), a zestful imbiber ("I have watched him polish off ten pints of beer before lunch, and more than that after dinner," an admiring Carr once recalled) and a "great storyteller with entertaining accounts of his army experiences" (some of these were retailed by Street in his war memoirs, With the Guns and The Making of a Gunner).

It was Street who, putting his electrical skill to work, wired the eye sockets of Eric the Skull, the Detection Club mascot, to glow red during initiation ceremonies, like the one Carr participated in when he became a member of the Club in 1936.

Catherine Jardine Street's husband died in 1829, when John Street's father was but seven years old.  Six years later Catherine married Sir George Steuart Mackenzie (1780-1848).  Mackenzie was a Scottish baronet, mineralogist and geologist, who co-authored, among other works, Travels in the Island of Iceland, During the Summer of the Year 1810.

plate from Travels in Iceland (1810)

Mackenzie is also known for having conducted experiments, at the age of twenty (four years after his succession to the baronetcy), with his mother's diamonds, in order to establish that diamonds were crystallized carbon.  He succeeded in this endeavor and thereby became at that time the youngest person elected to the Royal Society.

What Sir George's mother thought of the sacrifice of her precious jewels on the altar of science we don't know.

George Steuart and Catherine Jardine Street Mackenzie resided at Coul House, the mansion Sir George had built in 1821.  Catherine had one son with her new husband, who already had fathered ten children by his first wife.  This son of the second marriage, a half-brother of John Street's father and thus a half-uncle to John, was Henry Augustin Ornano Mackenzie (1839-1909).

Coul House in 1888, when Queen Victoria came to visit

Henry Mackenzie was a civil engineer and inventor who was granted several patents, including one to facilitate the opening of wind-chest pallets in organs (see George Ashdown Audsley, The Art of Organ-Building, 1905).

Street never actually killed anyone with an organ in any of his many books (I think the closest we ever got to this was Ngaio Marsh, with a fatal piano--or is someone actually crushed by an organ in Edmund Crispin's Holy Disorders?), but did he ever meet his uncle Henry Augustin Ornano Mackenzie and get inspired thereby with a passion for gadgets and tinkering, which he put to deadly use in his crime books?  Perhaps we will find out someday, as we keep traveling down the backstreets.

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