Heritage: The African Emperor who found refuge in Wimbledon
Hilda Seligman has a cup of tea with Haile Selassie, accompanied by one of her daughters-in-law and grandson
Exactly 76 years ago this week in June 1936, the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1892-1975) stood before the League of Nations to appeal for international support against the Italian Fascist conquest of his country.
A few weeks earlier, he and his family had taken refuge in Wimbledon with a sympathetic family living in Parkside.
After a while, they moved on for a longer period in Bath but his stay at Lincoln House, opposite Wimbledon Common, marked one of the town’s most remarkable events and is still recalled by a statue in Cannizaro Park.
It was five years before he would return to Ethiopia in 1941, supported by British forces fighting in the Second World War.
The Emperor’s hosts that summer, Dr Richard Seligman and his wife Hilda, were very happy to accommodate the imperial retinue at their home with its five acres of grounds.
Richard Seligman was a leading metallurgist and entrepreneur in Wandsworth. Hilda and a group of supporters including Sylvia Pankhurst, the former Suffragette, were leading campaigners against Britain’s pre-war appeasement of the dictators Mussolini and Hitler.
Years later when the war was over, Hilda herself became well known in Ethiopia for her humanitarian work. Her three sons, Adrian, Peter and Madron, all made their own marks in adulthood.
An amateur sculptor, Hilda took advantage of Haile Selassie’s presence at her house to create the bust now standing in Cannizaro Park. It originally stood in the grounds of Lincoln House until the building was demolished in 1957, making way for the roads and houses now on that site.
Wimbledon Council was given ownership of the statue and it was moved to Cannizaro Park’s rose garden beside Camp Road. In the 1980s it was transferred again to its present position in the former Tennis Garden amid rhododendrons behind the aviary.
Over the years the bust deteriorated and in 2004, Hilda’s daughter-in-law, Nancy-Joan Seligman (widow of Madron), offered what was now Merton Council and the Friends of Cannizaro Park some funding towards its restoration. Eventually, Merton's arts development officer persuaded the Council to carry out the project, supported by the Friends.
Haile Selassie himself was assassinated following a coup in Ethiopia in August 1975. However, following his exile in the 1930s, he had become an inspirational African leader known as the Lion of Judah to followers of the Rastafarian faith.
So when the restored bust was formally unveiled by the Mayor of Merton on 22 October 2005, the ceremony was attended by a remarkable mix of Rastafarians, members of the Seligman family, relatives of the late Emperor himself - now exiled once more - and Friends of Cannizaro Park.
Sir Peter Seligman and his two sisters-in-law, Nancy-Joan and Rosemary (Adrian’s widow), all recalled the Emperor’s time at Lincoln House. Rosemary, still a Wimbledon resident herself, also recalled visiting Haile Selassie at his palace in Ethiopia in the early 1970s, shortly before his final overthrow.
The bust’s restoration cost some £1000 for pressure cleaning, chemical treatment, and repairs of hairline cracks. Seven years on it has deteriorated again.
For Haile Selassie, Africa’s last true Emperor and 225th in a line traced to back to the Biblical Queen of Sheba, holding a unique status had its ups and downs.
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