History

EARLY HISTORY - 1895 AND BEFORE

Americans have been present in London since the visit of the Virginian Princess Pocahontas in 1616. The princess was sailing back to Virginia, but never even made it to the sea. She died on the Thames and is buried in Kent, where you can visit a statue in her honour.

On April 5, 1621, almost four months after landing at Plymouth, Captain Jones and his crew sailed the Mayflower back to England. During the cruel winter months that followed their arrival in the new world, the ship's passengers suffered difficult hardships. Terrible sickness followed the search for food, drinking water, and suitable sites to build. There were some days in February when only six or seven people were well enough to take care of the ones who were sick. By spring, about half the Pilgrims and sailors were dead. Three whole families died during this short period. Captain Jones said he would take any of the Pilgrims who wanted to go return with him. Not one person went back. This only happened once, and people have been travelling east to the Mother Country ever since!

The first large group to return to England were the Crown sympathisers during the Revolutionary War. They did not receive a lot of sympathy from the English when they arrived, however. There was very little news about the war, and some people were even tricked into joining the Royal Navy without knowing the war was over.

John Adams, our first American Minister (1785-1788), fared better. He enjoyed London life. Funds were very low, however, and diplomatic entertaining was a problem. The fledgling American Navy came to the rescue by presenting Mrs. Adams with a giant turtle, and the young couple became instantly popular with their British counterparts. (WHY? HOW?) His son, John Quincy Adams also served as U.S. Ambassador or Envoy (from 1815-1817) and was the seventh person to hold this office. John Quincy Adams was married in London at All Hallows-by-the-Tower, in 1797 to his wife, Louisa, of English birth. After he became President in 1825, Louisa became the first (and so far, only) foreign-born First Lady. Their son, Charles Francis Adams, was also (U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain from 1861 to 1868). One hundred and ten years after the first Ambassador served as de facto leader of Americans living in Great Britain, a new tradition would begin, with the American Minister serving as honorary vice-president to the American Society, and the American Ambassador as the honorary president.

In the ensuing years, droves of Americans arrived on English shores: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Houdini, Tallulah Bankhead, and Gordon Selfridge, to name a few.

During the 1870s, the position and status of the landed aristocracy in Britain was undergoing a significant change. Declining revenue from their estates meant they were losing the essential income that had supported their lifestyle and status. By 1873, British farming income began to fall just as transatlantic shipment improved, bringing cheaper, imported foodstuffs in devastating competition. American wheat, for example, drove down prices, forcing British landlords had to reduce rents for their farmland, and returns on investments for land dropped dramatically.

Mama may have, papa may have, But God bless the child that's got it's own.
-Arthur Herzog, 1941

Falling incomes put pressure on the eldest aristocratic sons to marry wealthy heiresses, and, along with the commercial imports came the daughters of the American millionaires and industrial barons, anxious to exchange large sums for a title. The most famous and enthusiastic of these was Jennie Jerome, who launched a campaign against her reluctant family to marry Randolph Churchill, until they gave in. The union, plus those of her two sisters, took place during 1874, and 1885, when this trend was gaining great momentum. Although the marriage iyself was not considered a great success, it produced Winston Churchill. (Prime Minister Churchill would later become a Speaker and Guest of Honour for the American Society at the end of World War II). Many more marriages followed including Conseulo Vanderbilt, Minnie Paget, Mary Leiter Curzon and more.

The young and independent America came to the art world along with the socially ambitious establishment. 19th century England welcomed writers in the way that painters before them were accepted, with honours and patronage. England offered a much bigger, wealthier and sophisticated reading public than America at the time. Henry James told his mother on Christmas Eve 1876 that he "was must be a born Londoner". Mark Twain, who lived in Chelsea, liked nothing better than calling on his neighbors, and was the Guest of Honour and Speaker for an American Society white-tie dinner.

Like the triumphant Lady Jennie Churchill, most Americans felt at home in London. It is remarkable how well they managed, with vitality, perseverance and optimism. Although it would seem that outsiders would not be welcome in British society, and be kept distant by political tensions occurring, by their self-confidence, and support in times of trouble, Americans kept relations with the British in good repair.

WAR IF NECESSARY
-New York Sun, July 1895

In 1887, Britain and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations over an old boundary dispute, which flared anew when gold was discovered in the contested region. The United States' efforts to restore harmony only made matters worse.

In July 1895, Richard Olney, President Cleveland's Secretary of State, reminded Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Minister of the "noncolonization" clauses of the Monroe Doctrine. The United States considered Britain's presence in South America "unnatural and inexpedient." He continued: "Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law." When Salisbury replied in unconciliatory language, Cleveland got Congress to appropriate money for a commission to settle the boundary, and advised the British that efforts to grasp territory not allotted to British Guiana would be considered by the United States "as a wilful aggression upon its rights and interests."

Twenty-six governors promptly pledged the President their backing. "WAR IF NECESSARY", cried the New York Sun. If it came, said Theodore Roosevelt, he hoped he might "have a hand in it myself". The bankers, brokers and anglomaniacs generally", he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge, seemed to favour "peace at any price." In the meantime, Britain's growing concern over the rise and rivalry of Germany, and her desire on that account to court the United States, helped avert armed conflict over this issue.

A SOCIETY IS BORN

In this climate, a group of American businessmen, including Henry Wellcome and John Meiggs, grouped together to voice their concern. On March 21, 1895, they met in Grosvenor Square with Ambassador John Hay to form the American Society. The quest was how to improve communications and shatter ill-formed American notions, such as the Yankee stereotype written of by Constance Rourke, American humour analyst in 1820: "We Yankees don't do things like you Britishers; we are born in a hurry, educated at full speed, our spirit is as high as our pressure, and our life resembles a shooting star, till death surprises us like an electric shock".

The committee elected Benjamin F. Stevens as its first chairman, and the American Ambassador was to serve as the Honorary President. They decided the most effective way to present Americans in their best light to the British was to welcome them at American patriotic holidays, and to share traditional feasts. White-tie dinners were arranged to take place at the official residence of the American Ambassador on July 4 and Thanksgiving, and were considered a warm addition, and strong extension of friendship, which could take place apart from official events.

THE 20TH CENTURY 1895-1920

The patriotic duty of celebrating American national festivals, entertaining distinguished visitors and promoting fellowship between Americans and Britons took off on July 4, 1895, with a bang. The Hon. Wayne McVeagh, American Ambassador to Italy, presided at a gala dinner in Holburn. The centrepiece at the banquet table was a design of electric lights as stars, on a field of violets, red geraniums and white daisies, which formed the stripes. The Ambassador declared the Isle of Briton to be closer to paradise than Hawaii or Cuba.

The next chairman in succession beginning in 1897, was Henry Wellcome, founder of Wellcome Pharmaceuticals, who commissioned a large silver cup to present His Excellency Ambassador John Hay, in appreciation for all his kind support to the American Society. A second cup was subsequently commissioned, with a base to record the succeeding Society chairmen.

This Independence Day Banquet pamphlet was organised by the American Society in London on July 4th 1905. The cover is illustrated with a troop of American soldiers. According to an account of 'American London' written in 1902 by an American woman, "The American settlers in London number about twenty thousand. Those who make up this twenty thousand belong to all sorts and conditions, from the American society woman entertaining not only her own countrymen and countrywomen, but members of the English royalty and nobility, to the humble American negro, who elects to reside in London because of what he thinks is the greater degree of 'liberty, equality and fraternity."

By the beginning of the century, the prominence of Americans was so large that many American organizations were founded, but the American Society pre-dates them all, including the Atlantic Union, The American Women's Club, the Pilgrims, American Aid, The Harvard and Princeton Clubs in England, The Anglo-American League, and the Sulgrave Institute.

In 1911, as the centenary of the Treaty of Ghent, 1814, ending the troubles between the United States and the United Kingdom drew near, a committee to organise celebrations of the anniversary was established in the U.S. with President Theodore Roosevelt as its head. It was soon matched by a British committee, and Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire, the home of George Washington's great, great, great, great, great grandfather, was dedicated by Roosevelt and George V as a symbol of everlasting peace between the two nations. It remains the only property owned jointly by both the American and British people. The American Society continues to support its endeavours, and celebrate national holidays at the manor house.

I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty; I woke, and found that life was duty.
-Ellen Sturgis Hooper, American poet, 1840

In 1914 the Anglo American Society hosted an Exhibition at Shepherd's Bush.

In May 1917, the New York Times published an article reporting an energetic campaign by the American Society in London to persuade Americans in the United Kingdom to tender immediately to the United States government their services for such war duties as they were capable of performing.The American Society appealed to every male American between the ages of 18 and 41 to offer his services either for combatant or non-combatant work. There were thousands of American citizens in Great Britain, large numbers of whom were highly educated in various positions. The names were collected by the Society and turned over to the Military Attaché of the American Embassy and forwarded to Washington. The Society made plans to take large corps of these men of wide experience, many of whom were willing to work without pay, to France to prepare a base for the first troops sent from the United States.

With the onset of World War I, all shipping was immediately commandeered to ferry troops. For the 150,000 or more American tourists and ex-pats in Europe, most of whom streamed to England, the summer holiday turned into a nightmare. Banks were closed, and people found themselves penniless, unable to obtain hotel rooms or steamer passage home. The Savoy Hotel opened their ballroom, provided tables and chairs, and young entrepreneur, Herbert Hoover, was persuaded to head a committee for the stranded Americans. Hoover and his committee, many of them engineers from his London office, set up headquarters manned by volunteers who cabled American firms in London and borrowed cash from company safes. During six weeks beginning early in August, the American committee helped some 120,000 Americans get back home and paid out over one and a half million dollars, of which only three hundred dollars was not repaid.

The entire operation was spurred along by the good fun at the hotel. Among the more colourful tourists was a Wild West show, which had been caught in Poland. Twelve American Indians and ten cowboys, completely broke but in full regalia, made it to the hotel and bivouacked in the lounge. The hotel used their personal influence to get them on board any ship they could! Mr. Hoover was asked to head the Commission for Relief in Belgium, and began a career as a public servant, which eventually led him to the White House. The American Society suspended all dinner dances for the duration of the war, but following fifty-six years of dinners at other hotels, held the Thanksgiving dinner dance at the Savoy for the next thirty consecutive years.

THE ROARING TWENTIES and THIRTIES

Gordon H. Selfridge, the Society's 26th Chairman, was born in Wisconsin in 1858. He worked his way up as an employee of Marshall Field's, becoming XXXXXX and eventually retiring from the retail business at the age of 48, after buying the Schlesinger & Mayer department store for five million dollars, and selling it three months later.

On an earlier trip to London, he hadcome to the conclusion that the English knew how to make products but did not know how to sell them. Deciding that he was too young to retire, he returned to London and built what he considered to be the first real department store on Oxford Street, Selfridge's. It was, and is, hugely successful, doubling in size during the 1920's, a "palace to the people". Selfridge was responsible for the famous slogans: "The customer is always right", and "only ____days left 'till Christmas", (which haunts us still)!

Following the death of his wife, Selfridge moved into Lansdowne House, one of the great mansions of London (now the Lansdowne Club, where the Society holds events to the present day), where he hosted some of the finest parties of the era. The New York Times in 1921 describes one of the balls as a beautiful pageant, decorated in fairy columns, with lords, ladies, the Prince of Wales, Princess George of Greece, and the King of Spain as guests. Two of Selfridge's most frequent and favorite guests were the Ziegfiled Follies' Dolly Sisters, and during his time as chairman, the great and the good passing through London clamoured to be among the revellers. He became Chairman of the Society in XXXX, carrying the torch of revelry and relationships throughout his tenure and securing many notable guest speakers, including Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft.

By the 1930's, the depression, coupled with unchecked spending, took its toll, and Selfridge, abandoning plans to build a castle, moved from Lansdowne House (some of which was later dismantled and became part of the Metropolitan Museum in New York), to Putney, where he died on May 8, 1947. His death made the front page of all the newspapers, and one headline read "Six Shillings to Millionaire." The American Society still treasures the memory of our most flamboyant Chairman.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
-Joseph P. Kennedy 1888-1969, American financier and diplomat, father of J.F. Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was, of course, the son of Joseph P. Kennedy, the American Ambassador to England, and the American Society's Honorary President in 1938. Joseph Kennedy arrived on March 1, to find only a few things he did not appreciate, something he held in common with many Americans upon their arrival, which were: bad weather, cramped living conditions, and a six-month quarantine for the family dogs.

When he received the press in his office at the Embassy, he chewed gum, sat with his feet on the desk, and called the Queen of England "cute". American reporters were embarrassed, but their English counterparts found him to be what they considered to be "wonderfully American"; wealthy, vulgar, crude, friendly and energetic.

Kennedy caused a sensation when he decided to end the practice of the American Ambassador presenting American debutantes to the Queen, thus sparing himself and his staff from an entire month of confrontation with all the American mothers in England manoeuvring to get their daughters presented at Court. Roosevelt cabled: "President greatly pleased, congratulations"! and the Daily Herald announced, "Social Climbers Take a Tumble".

THE WAR YEARS-1940's

Make do and mend.
-Wartime slogan, 1940's

In the summer of 1942, General Eisenhower set up headquarters in Grosvenor Square, and lived at Claridge's Hotel on Brook Street. He soon established a personal friendship with Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, who frequently accompanied him on field exercises, which resulted in Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. The subsequent flooding of London with GIs suddenly made Americans, always accepted individually, popular en masse. So many buildings were occupied by American military high command that Grosvenor Square was nicknamed "Eisenhowerplatz". A donation to raise a statue to Eisenhower began in 1945, when the maximum contribution permitted was five shillings. The cost was raised in one day by 200,000 donations.

Reverend Marcus Acheson Spencer, D.D., was an active member of the American community, and part of the general committee of the American Society when war broke out in England. During the war years, banquets did not take place in deference to the wartime effort, but there was much to do. Reverend Spencer volunteered as a liaison between the State Department and Americans citizens in remaining in England for the duration of the war. A great deal of correspondence and assistance took place during those years. When the war ended, other tasks began. Reverend Spencer headed an aid program with the help of others from the Society to help rebuild the bomb- damaged buildings in the East End of London. He was also on the committee to establish the American School in London, which was built in St. John's Wood. He continued to spearhead this support, and to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the American Society, Spencer organised a dinner, which was held to raise money for the school. There is to this day a Marcus Spencer Award for outstanding students.

In 1964, Reverend Spencer became the Society's 65th Chairman, and around the same time his sister Ethel requested some family photos. Photography was a favorite hobby, and Spencer complied. Ethel put them together with some anecdotes, and the book she compiled became a national best seller, hailed by critics as the only comprehensive chronicle of middle class life at the turn of the century in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His daughter, Molly Cox, was Guest of Honour at the 100th Anniversary of the American Society held at the American Embassy on March 21, 1995, which featured the photographs and memorabilia of her tireless father.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS

In 1995, to celebrate the Society's Centenary, Sulgrave Manor, George Washington's Ancestral Home in England was chosen as the recipient of the fundraising dinner. Ambassador William J. Crowe suggested Daniel Boorstin, the Pulitzer Prize winner and Librarian of Congress Emeritus, as the Guest of Honour and Speaker. A lecture and reception was held at the Embassy, a luncheon at Sulgrave Manor, and formal receptions at the Garrick Club, and Winfield House, the Ambassador's residence. Boorstin delivered as his Sulgrave Lecture, "George Washington, The Interpretation of Character", to an enthusiastic audience, filled in large parts with historians. A good sum was raised in support of the Manor's appeal.

American Society in London social events are held for the enjoyment of the membership, and not for profit, with all charitable funds available disbursed after the Annual General Meeting. The Autumn Party is held on or near Columbus Day, and the Spring party is usually an opportunity to bring friends who would like the opportunity to enroll as a member.

The parties are traditionally held at Winfield House, Wychwood House, and venues of interest and cultural exchange, such as The British Library, The British Museum, The College of Arms, The Houses of Parliament, The Tate Museum, St. John's Gate, The Petrie Museum of Egyptology, The Imperial War Museum the Cabinet War Rooms, and private clubs.

The Independence Day celebration is traditionally hosted by the American Ambassador, which began as a white-tie dinner, and in more recent years has observed as barbeques or fireworks events. Thanksgiving is a black-tie dinner or dinner dance, with an eminent speaker, and is held on a Friday preceding Thanksgiving Day.

How Americans can find AMERICA right here in England.
-American Society newsletter, 1937

Still in print is a newsletter with a picture of the Statue of Liberty superimposed in Trafalgar Square, which reads as follows:

"Each one of us loves his own country best, be it a little land or the greatest on earth… Where there is true greatness let us acclaim it, where there is true worth let us praise it as if it were our own".

These, the words of England's great novelist, John Galsworthy, epitomise the aims and ideals of The American Society in London. A man far from home should keep warm in his heart a love of his native land; it is well worthwhile, too, to cherish that love by such expedients as foregathering with his countrymen…celebrating his National Festivals…..listening to discourses about the Home Land.

It is well that the heart of America beats strongly in London.