Le Fanu Arms

A website to mark (almost) 500 years of Le Fanu family history.

The Le Fanus in France & Ireland 1536 – 1900

The Le Fanus’ origins were in Normandy, in the city of Caen and its neighbourhood. They were Huguenots and, as such, in 16th century catholic France, members of a persecuted sect. The first Le Fanu of whom we have a firm record is Michel Le Fanu who graduated in Arts at the University of Caen in 1536. Though drawn to poetry, which he composed fluently in French and Latin, he took to the Law, one of the few callings open to Huguenots. His only son, Etienne Le Fanu de Montbénard, another poet, also became a lawyer. Appointed Avocat de la Ville, he was ennobled by King Henry IV in 1595 whose Edict of Nantes three years later promised toleration – freedom of conscience and of worship – to all his Huguenot subjects.

For a time, the Le Fanus prospered but there was recrudescence of anti-Huguenot feeling under Louis XIV and they were again subjected to various forms of harassment. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and the Le Fanus, like many other Huguenot families, were forced into exile.

One of Etienne’s great-grandsons, Charles Le Fanu de Cresserons, went to Holland where he joined the army of William of Orange and subsequently fought at the Battle of the Boyne, a service rewarded by a pension of two shillings and sixpence a day, on condition that he settled in Ireland. When eventually he retired from a life of professional soldiering in 1710, he set up house in Dublin and lived there until his death in 1738. By that time, he had been joined by a much younger cousin, Philippe Le Fanu, who had come over to London from Normandy as a young man and would become the founder of the Irish Le Fanus.

Philippe’s son Guillaume (William) prospered as a banker and merchant, acting as Dublin agent for many of the Huguenot settlers scattered over Ireland. Significantly for the future of the family, he was appointed trustee for the actor and playwright Tom Sheridan when, in 1764, debts incurred in various theatrical ventures in Dublin and London drove him for a time to live in France. This exile did not last, and Tom Sheridan was soon back in London assisting his famous younger son Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the management of the Drury Lane Theatre. Tom Sheridan also revisited Dublin where his two daughters, Alicia and Elizabeth (Betsy), both of whom had literary talent, were leading members of a social circle devoted to the theatre to which the Le Fanus also belonged.

William bequeathed his financial interest in the Theatre Royal, Crow Street, to his son Joseph and the family as a whole were much involved in the private theatricals so fashionable at the time. So it came about that Joseph, after the death of his first wife Anne, married Alicia Sheridan in 1781. Eight years later, Alicia’s younger sister Betsy married Joseph’s brother Henry forging a further link with the Sheridan family. Indeed, all living Le Fanus are of Sheridan descent as Peter, William’s youngest son (and the only one beside Joseph to have left descendants) married Frances Knowles, granddaughter of the Revd Dr Thomas Sheridan of Quilea House, Co Cavan to found the ‘cadet’ branch of the family. The Revd Peter Le Fanu, to give him his full title, was Rector of St Brides’, Dublin from 1810 until his death in 1825. His son, William Joseph Henry, was Rector of St Paul’s, Dublin from 1834 to 1879 and his son, also WJH but known as Henry became a high-ranking Indian Civil Servant (see below).

To return to Joseph Le Fanu and Alicia Sheridan: the only one of their three children to have a family was Thomas Philip, father of William Richard and the famed writer, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, author of Uncle Silas, Carmilla and the collection of gothic short stories In a Glass Darkly. William Richard married Henrietta Barrington and had a family of ten children, including eight boys who all made their mark in life. Tom (Thomas Philip), the eldest son, had a most distinguished career. Clerk to the Irish Privy Council and Official Secretary to the Chief Secretary, then following his father as Commissioner of Public Works in Ireland. Vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy and President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, he also found time to write the memoir of the Le Fanu family and numerous articles on Irish and antiquarian subjects. Brinsley was a civil engineer, like his father, building railways and harbours in Ireland. Fletcher was the popular Rector of St John, Sandymount and a fine preacher. Harry (Henry Frewen) also entered the Church and became Archbishop of Perth and Anglican Primate of Australia. Willie (William Richard), barrister and Secretary-Treasurer of Queen Anne’s Bounty, was a great sportsman and all-rounder. Victor, another highly cultivated man, won seven Rugby caps for Ireland and was Agent for Lord Pembroke’s great Dublin estates. Lastly, Hugh, Captain in the Royal Navy, and father of Michael (Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord).

Following the death of Tom Brinsley in 1945 and of Brinsley’s son, also Brinsley, in Killiney in 1964, there were now no Le Fanus left in Ireland though Thomas Phillip’s two children Lucie and William (see below), and Brinsley’s younger son Lewen were all brought up in Bray, Co Wicklow and Dublin.

The Le Fanus in England and Australia 1900–1998

Lucie Catherine (1901-94) married John Christie, Headmaster of Westminster School and for 17 years Principal of Jesus College, Oxford. She was a charming woman of independent spirit and wide cultural interests. There were two daughters (Catherine and Jane) and a host of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

William Richard (1904-95) had an extremely distinguished career as an author and as Librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. A Scholar of King’s College, Cambridge, he took a First in Classics and joined the RCS in 1929. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, he produced throughout his life a steady stream of publications. In 1938, the British Periodicals of Medicine 1684-1938; in 1951, the biobibliography of Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination; in 1990, his study of Nehemiah Grew, the 17th century botanist – not to mention his edition of the Lives of the Fellows of the RCS in four volumes and his catalogue of portraits and sculptures held by the RCS.

In 1930 William married Elizabeth Maconchy, later to become a famous composer, then at the beginning of her musical career. She had been a pupil of Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. In 1930, her first major work, the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, was performed in Prague and her orchestral suite, The Lane, was introduced by Sir Henry Wood at the London Proms. Her largest output was to be in chamber music – all the thirteen string quartets are available on records – along with numerous compositions for orchestra, vocal, choral and solo works. Her work was performed at three Festivals of Contemporary Music (Prague 1935, Paris 1939, Copenhagen 1947). She was Chairman of the Composers Guild in 1960 and served as President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. Appointed CBE in 1977, she was advanced to DBE ten years later as Dame Elizabeth Maconchy.

William and Elizabeth are survived by their two daughters, Anna (b 1939), teacher of mathematics and married to the philosopher Francis Dunlop, and Nicola (b 1947), like her mother, a highly regarded composer. Nicola spent some time as Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School before being appointed, aged thirty, Senior Lecturer in Music at King’s College London, where she gained her Doctorate and was later promoted to the Chair of Musical Composition. In 1994 she moved again on her appointment as Professor of Music at the renowned Department of Music at York University. In the meantime, she produced numerous compositions for orchestra, chamber ensemble, vocal, choral and solo works and two operas, Blood Wedding (1992) and The Wildman (1997). In 1979, she married the Australian composer, David Lumsdaine.

Michael Le Fanu (grandson of William Richard and subsequently Admiral of the Fleet) was born in 1913 and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1931. He opted to specialise in gunnery and in 1939 was appointed gunnery Officer of the light cruiser Aurora which, in the next two years, was heavily involved in the operations off the coast of Norway and on Arctic patrols. In 1941 Aurora joined Force K in Malta to carry out a highly successful series of attacks on Italian convoys on their way to North Africa. In his first engagement, Michael’s performance earned him the DSC.

In 1943, Michael was appointed Gunnery Officer of HMS Howe, the Navy’s latest and most advanced battleship. In the same year, he married Prudence Morgan, severely disabled by polio contracted as a schoolgirl. In 1945, with his promotion to Commander, Michael joined the American flagship, the cruiser Indianapolis, as Liaison Officer for the British Pacific Fleet with the American 3rd and 5th Fleets. He remained with the American Fleet through the assaults on Iwojima and Okinawa and the kamikaze attacks until the end of hostilities.

In 1965, he took up the appointment as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, based in Aden from where, after two years in a dangerous and deteriorating situation, he successfully organised the orderly withdrawal of the British Forces.

In 1968, Michael was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath and took up his appointment as First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff. He could well have reached the highest rung of all, as Chief of Defence Staff, when he learned that he was suffering from leukaemia. Submitting his resignation, he was able to enjoy some active months of retirement before his death on 28th November 1970. At his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, Admiral Sir Peter Hill-Norton, Michael’s successor as First Sea Lord, gave the address.

‘Many of us will remember him as a young man – but nobody could ever think of him as an old man; he was a man of our time, for whom rank, or age, or class raised no barriers. His charm, sincerity and love of his fellow men gave him that rare quality of the common touch.’

Michael’s eldest son, Mark (b 1946), followed his father into the Royal Navy and served in the frigates Galatea and Achilles. Resigning from the Navy in 1973, he qualified as a solicitor and in 1979 joined the Society of Authors, becoming its General Secretary in 1982.

Moving over to the ‘cadet’ branch of the family, we encounter my grandfather, W.J.H. Le Fanu (Henry) (1843-1923) who had a distinguished career in the Indian Civil Service, mainly in the Madras Presidency. He was, by all accounts, a very difficult man. His children, six sons and one daughter, were all born in India. His wife, Katharine Moore, wanted to take them to her home in Ireland but Henry decreed that his family should live in Germany and installed them in Melsungen, a small town to the south of Kassel.

When they had completed their education at the local Gymnasium my father, Cecil (C.V.) (1877-1936) and his elder brother Hugh (1874-1965) were enrolled in the Medical School of Aberdeen University. Having passed their final examinations, they both opted for the West African Medical Service. My father arrived in the Gold Coast (now Ghana, then ‘the white man’s grave’) in 1903. He spent the early years of his service ‘in the bush’, as Medical Officer and ex officio District Commissioner. This life is recorded in an album of faded sepia photographs. Hugh, who had temporarily abandoned medicine for music joined him in the Gold Coast in 1907. They both took the Diploma in Tropical Medicine in Liverpool and for the next twenty years, the careers of the two brothers ran in parallel, both of them achieving the highest rank in the Service – that of Medical Specialist. My father was responsible for the planning of the great hospital of Korle Bu in Accra. Hugh carried out important field research and served in the Togoland campaign.

Roland ‘Tiger’ Le Fanu (1887-1957), younger brother of Cecil and Hugh, was sent to Glasgow as an engineering apprentice. He ran away and spent some years as a seaman in the Royal Navy. When his father ‘bought him out’, he joined the Army in the ranks. In 1908 he was commissioned into the Leicestershire Regiment in which he served throughout the First World War, in France and in the Balkans. He was decorated with the MC and the Croix de Guerre.

After some years in India, he was seconded to Iraq as Commandant of the Staff College. An appointment at the War Office followed, then, with his promotion to Colonel, back to India as GSO I of the 1st Indian Division, then operating on the North West frontier and in Waziristan. Here he was awarded the DSO and was three times mentioned in Dispatches. In 1939, he was gazetted as Major-General and raised and commanded the 15th Scottish Division in the South of England.

‘Tiger’ Le Fanu was not an easy man and was used to speaking his mind. In 1940, it seems that he had occasion to cross his superiors and was forced into early retirement. He spent the rest of his life in Scotland, dying an embittered man in his 70th year.

His son, Victor (b 1925) was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards and served with them in Italy from 1943 and later in Palestine. After some years spent in regimental and staff appointments, he took early retirement with the rank of Major and joined the Office of the Sergeant at Arms in the House of Commons. He was knighted in 1987.