Francis Neilson

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Francis Neilson (26 January 1867 – 13 April 1961), was an accomplished actor, playwright, stage director, political figure (former Member of the British House of Commons) avid lecturer, and author of more than 60 books, plays and opera librettos and a leader in the Georgist movement.

Biography[edit]

Early[edit]

Born as Francis Butters, the eldest of nine siblings, in the Claugton Road, Birkenhead, England, he was the son of a Shropshire father, Francis Turley Butters and a Scottish mother from Dundee, Isabella Neilson Hume. Several accounts explain that because of his large family, Neilson left school at the age of fourteen and moved to the United States at the age of eighteen. Nevertheless, the British Census of 1881 records the Butters' household as having 12 people, including 8 children and two maids.

During his days in Liverpool, Francis Neilson attended the Liverpool Institute for Boys. The census also records Francis Butters (Neilson's father) as a restaurant keeper. The same 1881 census records Neilson's paternal grandparents, Richard Butters (born in Market Drayton, Shropshire) and Sarah Turley (born in Snedshill, Shropshire), living at Cemetery Road in Wellington, Shropshire.

Move to the United States[edit]

In the United States, after arriving in New York City, and paying fifteen dollars for a hansom cab ride from the docks to his guest house, Neilson worked several odd jobs which included a longshoreman, a labourer in Central Park (years later he lived at the Savoy-Plaza, overlooking that same park), and some clerical work.[citation needed] After meeting an African-American man surnamed Johnson, who because of his color worked as a porter despite of his college degree,[citation needed] Neilson became fascinated with education and at times "…went hungry to buy books". This fascination led him to Henry George, of whom he became a devoted follower.

During his stay in the United States, he married Catherine O'Gorman; they had two daughters, Isabel and Marion. Isabel Neilson, an accomplished sculptor, married Prince Hermann Carl Bernhard Ferdinand Friedrich von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in 1932 and became Princess Herman of Saxe-Weimar, and Marion Neilson married Captain Hugh Melville, Sam Browne's Cavalry.

Theatre and Opera[edit]

Neilson's first success came in the following years after his discovery of Henry George's teachings, where he became well known and respected for his writing, acting, and directing. The Internet Broadway Database, records him as a director of The Little Princess in January 1903, first at the Criterion Theatre and later at the Savoy Theatre; and as the playwright of A Butterfly on The Wheel in January 1912, at the 39th Street Theatre.

In New York, he befriended director Anton Seidl who took him to Germany and introduced him to Richard Wagner's family in Bayreuth. This led him out of the United States and back to London. He came back to London as a stage director for Charles Frohman at the Duke of York Theater. Later Neilson was invited to direct the national opera at Covent Garden, which he remodelled completely in 1900. The first opera to be produced there was Puccini's, Tosca. Puccini himself was at the theatre supervising the production. The encounter of the two men triggered an interest that took Neilson to invite Puccini to see a private performance of the play Madame Butterfly, playing then at the Duke of York Theater. Puccini later requested Neilson to direct the opera at La Scala in Milan; however, this never came to pass due to Neilson's other commitments.

20th Century and Politics[edit]

In the early 1900s, he began his pursuit of politics. His first bid for a parliamentary seat was an unsuccessful one for the Newport Division of Shropshire. He lost to the incumbent, Colonel Kenyon-Slaney, by a margin of 130 votes. He was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hyde in Cheshire from 1910 to 1916. At his time in parliament, he was well acquainted with both Prime Ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George. Interested in radical politics he entered in the progress of the Land Values Movement.

His multiple contributions to the liberal agenda made him frequent the Liberal Headquarters at Parliament Street, and tour the country giving speeches in support of Liberal candidates. He resigned from parliament when his pacifist beliefs conflicted with the First World War, writing the antiwar How Diplomats Made War in 1915. From there, he returned to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1921 and began pursuing his writing career.

In the US, he met Helen Swift, an heiress of the Swift Meat Packing Business and the widow of Edward Morris, President of Morris & Company, another meat packing company. They were married in 1917. Together, they endowed many charities, and contributed to many institutions, including the University of Chicago, Ripon College, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Liverpool Cathedral, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, etc.

Resignation from Parliament and Writing career[edit]

His first book, How Diplomats Make War, was dedicated only six weeks after his resignation from parliament; and went through several printings and translations. He went on to write over sixty books, along with many other forms of writing such as articles, plays, and an opera. Neilson co-founded a journal of opinion and literary criticism, titled The Freeman.[citation needed]

During 1935 and as President of the Chicago Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America and in co-ordination with the University of Liverpool, he organised and endowed an archaeological expedition to the Near East, to research lands of biblical time. Archaeologist John Garstang, at the age of sixty, was enthusiastically in charge of the excavations, with much success at the site of the port of Mersin in southern Turkey.

A few years before his death, he lost his sight. He was assisted in writing his last book, Ur to Nazareth, by his literary secretary, K. Phyllis Evans. Neilson also wrote a two-volume autobiography, My Life in Two Worlds.

Neilson was a benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which he donated several paintings, including A Winter Carnival in a Small Flemish Town, Portrait of a Man, Possibly George Frederick Handel, and The Pelkus Gate near Utrecht. Neilson's late wife, Helen Swift Neilson, had bequeathed Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, by Rembrandt, for which she had paid $250,000 in 1930; Rembrandt Harmensz (Dutch, 1606–1669); the Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Pechell, and 1799. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was given John Singer Sergent's painting A Capriote. The Liverpool Cathedral also received support from Neilson in the form of a collection of Organ and Choral Works which he sponsored; the organ at the Cathedral also bears his name.

Death[edit]

Francis Neilson died, aged 94, on 13 April 1961 in Port Washington, Long Island, New York. He was cremated and his remains taken back to England and interred at the Anglican Liverpool Cathedral.

Publications[edit]

  • How Diplomats Make War[1], 1915
  • Duty to Civilization, 1921
  • The Eleventh Commandment, 1933
  • Man at the Crossroads, 1938
  • The Tragedy of Europe (5 vols.), 1940–1945
  • In Quest of Justice, 1944
  • Makers of War, 1950
  • My Life in Two Worlds, 1952
  • The Churchill Legend, 1954
  • From Ur to Nazareth, 1960
  • Control from the Top, 1933.
  • Sociocratic Escapades, 1934.

Opera librettos and plays[edit]

  • La Vivandiere (1893; with music by Victor Herbert)
  • Prince Ananias (1894, with music by Victor Herbert)
  • Manabozo (1899; composed for Anton Seidl)
  • The Bath Road (1902) – a romantic comedy in three acts
  • The Crucible (1911) – a drama in three acts
  • A Butterfly on The Wheel (1911) – a drama in four acts
  • The Sin Eaters Halloween'en (1924) -, a fantasy play in one act and two scenes
  • A Mixed Foursome (1924) – a comedy in three acts
  • The Impossible Philanthropist (1924) – a comedy in four acts
  • The Day Before Commencement (1925) – a comedy in four acts
  • The Queen Nectaria (1927) – a fantasy in four acts
  • Le Braiser De Sang (1929) – a drama in two acts; produced in Paris

Novels[edit]

  • Madame Bohemia, 1900
  • The Wise, 1903
  • Ralph Voyce, 1913
  • A Strong Man's House, 1916
  • The House of the Big Yard, 1936

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Duncan Schwann
Member of Parliament for Hyde
1910–1916
Succeeded by
Thomas Owen Jacobsen