Henry Byrne

a biography by Oliver Towers

At the time of the Chesham Peace Celebrations on 5th August 1919, Henry Byrne was a pillar of the local community.  He was the Managing Director of the Chesham Brewery, the Chairman of Chesham Urban District Council and he was about to leave his permanent stamp on the town by presiding over the Chesham War Memorial Committee. 

On the afternoon of the Peace Celebrations, he and wife Leila, together with Mr and Mrs. W.F. Lowndes, were to plant one of the two Victory Oaks to commemorate the occasion, the other oak being planted by Lady Chesham and Aylesbury MP Lionel de Rothschild. 

Henry had come a long way from his upbringing in rural Tipperary, his father writing in his will when Henry was 15 years old that ‘his character is so underdeveloped, I cannot point out to his mother what is best to be done with him’.


Two Victory Oaks were planted between the Guide Hut and the bowling green, one by Lady Chesham and Lionel de Rothschild, M.P. and the other by Mr and Mrs W.F. Lowndes and Mr and Mrs H.A.V. Byrne.  Leila Byrne is standing directly behind the planted sapling with husband Henry on her left (with the dangling watch chain) – as seen in detail on right.

Henry Byrne was born in January 1862.  His full name was Algernon Henry Vesey Byrne, and his parents were Captain Dudley Byrne and Matilda Byrne. 

The accounts of Captain Byrne in Volume 2 of Daniel Byrne-Rothwell’s book ‘The Byrnes and the O’Byrnes’ paint a vivid picture of a swash-buckling character who had made his mark as a paymaster in the Spanish Carlist Wars with Sir George de Lacy Evans’ Legion. 

Back at home in Ireland, Captain Byrne’s brother was murdered as a result of a land dispute and allegations of Captain Byrne bribing witnesses undermined the case against the man accused of the murder.  Later, an unsuccessful attempt was made to assassinate Captain Byrne himself. 

Captain Byrne was the election agent for the Liberal Charles White, and successfully got him elected as one of the two MPs for Tipperary, although the means by which he got Charles White elected led to a House of Commons Select Committee enquiry at which Captain Byrne was noted for showing ‘considerable capacity for evasion in answering counsel’s questioning and cross-examining’. 

Nevertheless, White retained his seat. The family lived in a sizable estate at Sorrell Hill in the district of Templemore in Tipperary, and there were six children with Henry being the youngest of four boys. As Daniel Byrne-Rothwell comments, life for the Byrnes was not all turbulent.  Seemingly the first game of cricket played locally was between the Sorrell Hill Cricket Club and Strogue Cricket Club and it was played in the grounds of their home at Sorrell Hill House.  The Sorrell Hill Cricket club won by an innings and 29 runs.

Henry’s father died in June 1879 when Henry was 17 years old, and it seems that after his father’s death his mother and eldest brother ran up serious debts, such that Sorrell Hill House was sold in 1891.  It was advertised as a ‘splendid dwelling house’ with over 390 acres. 

Henry moves to England

Henry Bryne moved from Ireland to England at some stage, and on 21st November 1895 (by now 33 years old) Henry Byrne arrived in Chesham for his appointment as brewer and manager at the Chesham Brewery Company (on the day that the company became a limited liability company).  Previously, he had reportedly held a similar position at the Wellingborough Brewery Company. 1

Henry Bryne had an immediate impact at the Chesham Brewery, with Henry Nash, the brewery Chairman, commenting at the first annual general meeting of the limited company that ’the brewer, Mr Byrne, had introduced various improvements, the result being that the character of the beers had improved’. 2 

By the time of a dinner for employees in 1898, Henry Nash was more effusive, stating on this occasion that ‘Mr Byrne has so reformed the affairs of the Chesham Brewery as to place it in the high position to which it stands today’ and ‘this happy meeting is really due to Mr, Byrne, because if the Company’s “chart” had not gone up there would have been some doubt whether this supper would have been given at all’. 3

The year after the brewery dinner mentioned above, Henry Byrne was to marry Leila Douglas.  The marriage took place at Holy Trinity Church in Hounslow on 30th August 1899, Leila being the youngest daughter of Dr James and Adelaide Douglas.  Dr. Douglas had become a Member of The Royal College of Surgeons in 1851, and the family had moved to Hounslow in 1856.  Leila (born in 1863) was the youngest of six children, with four elder sisters. 4 

How Henry came to meet Leila is unknown.  Presumably after getting married, Henry and Leila moved to 120 Bellingdon Road, Chesham, where according to the 1901 census they were supported by a 28-year-old, Chesham born, cook/domestic, ironically called Susan Cook. The same year, Leila’s father died while on a visit to their home on Bellingdon Road.

Post marriage, Henry’s success continued at the Chesham Brewery.  In 1904 the brewery exhibited their wares for the first time at the Brewer’s Exhibition held at the Agricultural Hall, London.  There were 174 exhibits and the brewery won prizes in two categories. 5 Prizes continued to be won in later years, with two firsts, a second and two thirds being accumulated, ‘only exhibiting unsuccessfully on one occasion’.  6

By the time of the 1911 census, Henry and Leila has moved to The Cotttage, Amy Lane, Chesham, and they were supported by a housemaid, Florence Covington, and a 21-year-old cook, Emily Buckoke (who was born in Chesham).  

Black and white photo of The Cottage Amy Lane. There are trees surrounding the cottage and a wooden archway at the fence at the entrance of the garden
The Cottage, Amy Lane, Chesham (in the days before houses were built around it)

In 1913, on the death of W.J. Nash, Henry Byrne was appointed as the Chesham Brewery’s Managing Director.

A poster showing Chesham Brewery Wine and Spirits Merchants

As the 1913 announcement of Henry Bryne’s appointment as Managing Director of the Chesham Brewery makes clear, he was active in a lot more local causes than just brewing.  The activities reported along with the announcement included being a member of Chesham Urban District Council, and Chairman of the General Purposes Committee, Chairman and Treasurer of the Chesham Allotment Holders’ Association, Chairman of the Town Band Committee and a vice-president of several of the Athletic Clubs in the district 6.

The First World War

During the first World War both Henry and Leila Byrne devoted themselves to local causes.  On 30th October 1914 a Chesham Town Belgian Relief Committee was formed, with Henry Byrne as the Chairman of the General Committee and William Lowndes as the Chairman of the Finance Committee.  7

In all, 63 refugees ‘from the country of our brave Ally, Belgium, have been entertained in this town’ and by April 1916 32 of them were still being supported.  In parallel, it was reported in January 1915 that land had been acquired for a new Catholic church between Chesham and Amersham ‘which is now more than ever needed, owing to the influx of Belgian refugees’ and ‘which will be opened by Easter’.8

It is assumed that Henry Byrne became a worshipper at the resulting Church of Our Lady at Chesham Bois, given that Father F.J. Flanagan from the church officiated at both of the funeral services on Henry’s death.   

Photo of the Church of Our Lady in Chesham Bois.
Church of Our Lady, Chesham Bois (photo taken on 15 April 2023)

In 1915 Henry rejoined the Chesham Urban District Council, this time as the Council Chairman. 9   On 21st October 1915 three performances of ‘Our Day’ were laid on, presumably to raise money for the Red Cross.  Henry Byrne’s photograph was included on the programme for the event alongside Lady Susan Trueman.

Souvenir programme for ‘Our Day’, 21st October 1915 with close-up of Henry Byrne’s photograph
Souvenir programme for ‘Our Day’, 21st October 1915 with close-up of Henry Byrne’s photograph

Leila’s activities included organising a Chesham Red Cross fund raising appeal in 1917.  10

After the end of the First World War, there were the forementioned Chesham Peace Celebrations on 5th August 1919, but also Henry presided over the Chesham War Memorial Committee. 

Henry was apparently  ‘impressed by a fine Portland stone memorial he had seen at Heston near Hounslow.  This was of an active infantryman in full battledress.  Mr Byrne contacted the sculptor Arthur George Walker.  In October 1920, Mr Walker submitted a design very similar to the one at Heston.  It was of a life-size figure standing with a rifle butt resting by his feet’.  The fact that Henry had observed a memorial near Hounslow is interesting, and perhaps linked to the fact that his wife Leila came from there.  The statue was unveiled on 24th July 1921.

Chesham War Memorial (photograph taken on 27th March 2023)
Chesham War Memorial (photograph taken on 27th March 2023)

Henry’s death

Henry Byrne died suddenly on 10th April 1922, age 60, and there was extensive local press coverage of his funeral accompanied by numerous tributes. 12 His funeral was split between a service at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady on New Road, Chesham Bois, and further service at Chesham Cemetery where people ‘massed deeply’, ‘necessitating special police martials’.13

The published tributes added further examples of his extensive support for local causes including being a Justice of the Peace and the vice president of the local branch of the British Legion (and of the previous organisation, The National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers).   

After Henry’s death, it seems that Leila turned their home of the Cottage, Amy Lane, Chesham into a nurse’s home, and in the following year the pottery designer and society entertainer Blanche Vulliamy must have been one of her first patients, dying on 4th August 1923. 14  It is assumed that Leila learned her nursing skills by helping out in her father’s surgery until her marriage to Henry at the age of 36.  

One of Blanche Vulliamy’s pottery designs (that she called a ‘Spunk’) that sold for a £1250 hammer price in Rendells Auction on 18th May 2023
One of Blanche Vulliamy’s pottery designs (that she called a ‘Spunk’) that sold for a £1250 hammer price in Rendells Auction on 18th May 2023

At the time of the 1939 National Register, Leila was still living at The Cottage on Amy Lane, Chesham, being described as a ‘Nursing Home Matron’, along with June Peach (‘Nurse Attendant) and two ‘patients at home’. 

Leila died on 3rd December 1948 age 85.  She was still living at The Cottage, Amy Lane at the time.  Leila’s effects on her death were valued at £8169, equivalent in purchasing power to about £410,000 in 2023.  Interestingly, this was about double what her husband Henry left on his sudden death in 1922 (when converted to a 2023 equivalent sum). 

One wonders if Henry had been sending money to his family in Ireland, particularly given their apparent financial difficulties after the death of his father.  He may also have been contributing to the various causes he supported, including the Belgian refugee fund and perhaps the funds needed to build the Church of Our Lady at Chesham Bois. No doubt, however, Leila was also an astute businesswoman in the running of her nursing home.

Henry and Leila Byrne are both buried in Chesham Cemetery. They had no children.  

Henry and Leila’s grave in Chesham Cemetery.  The inscription on the book reads:  ALGERNON HENRY VESEY BYRNE, YOUNGEST SON OF CAPTAIN DUDLEY BYRNE, OF TEMPLEMORE COUNTY TIPPERARY  AND CHESHAM, BORN 1862 – DIED 1922;  ASO OF WIFE LEILA BYRNE, WHO DIED 3RD DEC 1948 AGED 85 YEARS
Henry and Leila’s grave in Chesham Cemetery.  The inscription on the book reads:  ALGERNON HENRY VESEY BYRNE, YOUNGEST SON OF CAPTAIN DUDLEY BYRNE, OF TEMPLEMORE COUNTY TIPPERARY  AND CHESHAM, BORN 1862 – DIED 1922;  ASO OF WIFE LEILA BYRNE, WHO DIED 3RD DEC 1948 AGED 85 YEARS

References

1 Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 25 July 1913, page 4

2 Bucks Herald, Saturday 29th August 1896, page 8

3 Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 18 February 1898, page 5

4 https://sites.google.com/site/peoplegen/old-hounslow-families/douglas – viewed 26/3/2023. (This site seems to have been deleted since)

5 Bucks Herald, Saturday 29th October 1904, page 2

6 Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 25 July 1913, page 4

7 Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 28th April 1916

8 Bucks Herald, Saturday 16 January 1915, page 2

9 Bucks Herald, Saturday 1st May 1915, page 7

10 Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 9 February 1917, page 2

11 https://cheshammuseum.org.uk/blogs/one-hundred-years-of-chesham-war-memorial/

12 Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 21 April 1922, page 3

13 Bucks Herald, Saturday 22nd April 1922, page 10

14 ‘Blanche Vulliamy (1869-1923): tickling fancies with her humorous grotesques