Sir Ernest Shackleton, who spent part of his boyhood at 12 Westwood Hill, was one of Sydenham's best-known residents. Heroes are fine, but often villains are more interesting and one of Sydenham's most notorious villains was none other than Sir Ernest’s younger brother, Francis Richard Shackleton, known as Frank.
The story begins with a report in The Times of 8 July 1907 that the “Crown Jewels and other Insignia of the Order of St Patrick”, popularly known as The Irish Crown Jewels, had disappeared from a safe in Dublin Castle, Ireland. This regalia had been created in 1830 from diamonds and rubies once belonging to Queen Charlotte and was used on State visits to Ireland. Queen Victoria used the regalia on four occasions and Edward VII once, in 1903.
On 6 July 1907, during the preparations for Edward VII's next visit to Ireland, it was discovered that the regalia had disappeared. It was clear that this was an inside job as there was no evidence of a break-in, and both the strong room and safe had been opened with keys. The safe was in the office of Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms and guardian of the Crown Jewels.
In the official report of the theft, Vicars was found negligent and forced to resign. One "grave charge" against him was that he “associated with a man of undesirable character” and “introduced this man into his office”. In defence, this man was said to be a friend of influential peers and “came from a well-known and highly respected family”. He is not officially named.
Vicars vigorously protested his innocence. His three assistants resigned. One of these, with the job title “Dublin Herald”, was a young man of “charismatic personality” called Frank Shackleton. Frank was, and still is, widely regarded as the most likely suspect. He was probably the “man of undesirable character”. He “lived by his wits and his charm, ingratiating himself into the highest social circles”. He was also homosexual. I suspect that is what “undesirable character” means.
There have been suggestions that the heralds and others were involved in nightly orgies at Dublin Castle. It is claimed that Sir Arthur Vicars was blamed in order to protect someone else, and that the King himself was involved. In Vicars’ will he states that he was made a scapegoat when they “shielded the real culprit and thief Francis R. Shackleton”.
Frank was never charged with the theft. However some six years later he was found guilty of “fraudulent conversion” when he and another cheated a woman out of nearly £6,000. He was sentenced to 15 months hard labour. On his release he changed his name to "Frank Mellor", and under that name he lived in Cator Road in 1919-1920. He then lived for a time in Penge. In about 1934 Frank Mellor moved to Chichester where he ran an antiques shop. He died there in 1941.
Several questions remain. Why would Edward VII want to protect Frank Shackleton? In early 1907 Ernest Shackleton was making arrangements to lead his first expedition to the Antarctic, an expedition being followed closely by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. They visited Ernest when his ship was at Cowes on 4 August 1907. In September 1907, shortly before leaving for the Antarctic, Shackleton gave a lecture to the King and Queen at Balmoral where he said the King was “very jolly” and “enjoys a joke very much”. Was the unfortunate Vicars sacrificed to save the family name of a national hero?
Another reason for Edward VII's close interest in the case has been suggested. The Marquis of Lorne, who was married to the king's sister, Princess Louise, is known to have been homosexual. He was also a close friend of Frank Shackleton. At this time homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence. If it became widely known that the King's brother-in-law had a relationship with the man, even then, widely suspected of having stolen the Irish Crown Jewels the scandal would have shaken the Monarchy to its roots.
For many, that is the reason why so many vital documents were destroyed, why Shackleton was shielded and why the inocent and naive Vicars took the blame.
And what of the Irish Crown Jewels? There are various theories including that they were sold to a Dutch pawnbroker, or to private collectors, or buried outside Dublin. They were even, according to an official document, offered for sale to the Irish Free State in 1927. Whatever became of them, to this day their whereabouts has remained unknown.
First published in Sydenham Society Newsletter (1999)