Edward Tracy Turnerelli was the grandson of an Italian count. His father Peter was one of the most eminent sculptors of the age and in 1801 became Royal Sculptor in Ordinary to King George III. He carved portrait busts of many members of the Royal Family and enjoyed a large and lucrative practice. One of his most important commissions was the National Memorial to Robert Burns in Dumfries. This was the privileged family into which Edward Turnerelli was born in London on 13 October 1813.
For a period, he studied sculpting under his father and at the Royal Academy and then enrolled at Carlow College an Irish Seminary to train as a Priest. As a young man, he decided to go to Russia with a family friend, Lord Durham, the British Ambassador in St Petersburg and a close friend of the Tsar. He spent the next eighteen years living in Russia under the patronage of Tsar Nicholas 1 visiting and sketching places and monuments in remote regions and publishing two illustrated books about Russian buildings in Kazan which were well received by the Tsar. Turnerelli had frequent meetings with Tsar Nicholas, who on one such occasion took a diamond ring from his finger and put it on Turnerelli’s. He was also given the honorary title of a Russian Noble of the First Class and the title ‘Delineator of the Ancient Monuments of Russia’.
On his return to England, he married Miss Martha Hankey the sister of the Governor of the Bank of England and the couple moved into a large detached house in Avenue Road, Leamington Spa which was named Tracy Lodge. His life was devoted to his Catholic faith and to politics, as a fervent supporter of the Conservative party, and much of his time was given over to writing and publishing pamphlets on topics of national and even local interest. Several hundred booklets were published under the masthead Conservative Tracts for Englishmen printed by Tomes the Bedford Street printers. Turnerelli also wrote a number of more substantial works based on his knowledge of Eastern Europe and in 1884 he published his Memoirs of a Life of Toil, or the Autobiography of the Old Conservative. He became something of a polite essayist, pamphleteer, political writer and censor of public morals rolled into one. There was scarcely a newspaper editor in the land who had not received letters from Turnerelli and in his autobiography he speaks about sack loads of letters being delivered each day to Tracy Lodge and postmen groaning under their weight.
In Leamington, Turnerelli became a well-known figure but was regarded by most townsfolk as a somewhat distinguished if rather whimsical foreigner. Quite apart from his manifold eccentricities and his unabashed vanity, he was a prolific writer of considerable merit. One of his eccentricities was to purchase a burial plot in Leamington Cemetery and to have his grave prepared. Next to the plot he placed a huge piece of rock six feet tall and over eight feet in length which reportedly weighed over six tons. The Courier opined ‘it is probably as large a block as has been in any British cemetery.’ Carved on the rock is a eulogy to his father and homilies about Turnerelli and his wife both of whom were of course still living when the stone was placed there. Turnerelli is said to have visited the cemetery frequently in his trademark black Fedora and cloak just to sit on a bench and contemplate his future resting place and to read the inscriptions about himself and his good works. The Leamington photographer Bullocks produced a photograph showing Turnerelli visiting his grave which was reproduced in The Graphic in February 1896. and is shown alongside. He was instrumental in creating memorial plaques for some of the town’s worthies including a tablet in St Peter’s church to three priests, one in the Parish Church in memory of Rev. John Craig and another in the old Well House near the Parish Church to Ben Satchwell. Each of the plaques bears Turnerelli’s name in a prominent position. Craig’s tablet has these words inscribed on it in bold letters ‘erected by his old & attached friend Edward Tracy Turnerelli.’
In 1878 he dreamed up a scheme for presenting Prime Minister Lord Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli) with a ‘People’s Tribute’ which was to be in the form of a large laurel wreath made of gold. Turnerelli made a nationwide appeal to all working men to donate a penny each and 52,000 men responded and sent in their pennies. The Court Jewellers Messrs Hunt & Roskell made the wreath which was shown to the Prince of Wales and exhibited at the Crystal Palace. Disraeli was obviously shrewd enough to realise that Turnerelli’s prime motivation was to ingratiate himself with the recently ennobled Ear of Beaconsfield, and sadly for the ‘Old Conservative’ Turnerelli, he declined to accept the gold laurel wreath, doubtless harbouring some anxieties as to the real motives behind it.
Punch had a field day. In spite of his aristocratic lineage and his well-to-do acquaintances, he was very sympathetic to the plight of the poorer members of society and frequently arranged ‘At Homes’ at Tracy Lodge to entertain them. He lived on in Leamington until his death on 24 January 1896 at the age of eighty-four.
In his will he left the Beaconsfield Wreath to the Nation and it was last seen in Madame Tussaud’s but quite what happened to it subsequently is not known. The will also provided bread for the poor of the parish. The obituary writers of the time were fulsome in their eulogies and the local newspapers carried tributes from many of the national newspaper editors on the day of his funeral. The Birmingham Gazette spoke of him as “A man of singularly loveable character and of the loftiest ideals. A true Englishman, a genuine philanthropist, a sincere patriot and a model friend.” The Leamington Courier spoke about the ‘great charm’ in his writing and the ‘straightforward method he used in expressing himself.’ Their piece concluded with these words: ‘He received from time to time many words of encouragement from leading statesmen, who were inclined to believe he was an influence in the country and in his neighbourhood’.
In recent years we have done Tracy Turnerelli something of a disservice by frequently dismissing him as little more than another eccentric old man with time on his hands to pen letters to newspapers. The reality is very different. Turnerelli was distinguished by his readiness to spend time, energy and money on the many worthy causes that interested not only him but large sections of the community who had no other voice. He was sincere and courageous and a citizen of whom Leamington should feel justly proud.
The Leamington History Group arranges a number of guided walks in Leamington Cemetery each summer – details of these will be posted on the website in May 2017. We have published a booklet with biographical details of some of those including Tracy Turnerelli who are buried in the Tachbrook Road cemetery. The booklet In Memoriam is available at all of our meetings priced £3.50
Alan Griffin December 2016
Sources & acknowledgements:
Memoirs of a Life of Toil, or the autobiography of the Old Conservative
Conservative tracts for Englishmen
Dictionary of National Biography
British Newspaper Archive
Leamington Spa Courier
The Graphic Magazine
National Portrait Gallery