Émile Zola (1840-1902), the great French writer and literary critic who risked his life by defending an innocent man against racism, considered settling in Wimbledon after escaping here exactly 114 years ago.

He changed his mind because too many people recognised him.

Zola was internationally famous when he first visited London in September 1893 to be feted and given a standing ovation by thousands of guests at The Guildhall.

At a dinner in his honour at the Crystal Palace, his profile and name were illuminated in a firework display.

But, less than five years later, he returned as an exile under an assumed name, shunning virtually all visitors.

He had alienated powerful forces within the French establishment by accusing them of a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

An army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, had been convicted of treason without evidence and imprisoned for life - simply for being Jewish. Another officer was acquitted although proven guilty of passing military secrets to Germany.

Zola, outraged, wrote a letter of complaint to the French President and this was published in the press, causing national uproar.

His intention was to be prosecuted for libel so that he could present evidence clearing Dreyfus but in the event he was himself convicted of criminal libel and faced potential imprisonment.

He fled to London on July 19, 1898, calling himself “Monsieur Pascal”.

His friend and translator, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, lived in Wimbledon where it was thought that Zola might avoid French government spies and the press while the hunt for him extended across Europe.

Vizetelly’s solicitor, Frederick Wareham, lived in Prince’s Road and Zola stayed at his house while his bodyguard, Fernand Desmoulin, stayed at 20 Alexandra Road, Wareham’s office.

On their first evening in Wimbledon, Zola and Desmoulin were entertained at what was then the town’s only restaurant.

The proprietor, Mr Genoni, although “foreign”, was trusted to be discreet but as one of the waiters was French-speaking, they were advised to be reticent.

After dinner they adjourned to Wareham's home and discussed a suitable location for Zola’s exile. He was very impressed by Wimbledon, praising the shops, pubs and the library in Hill Road, the Broadway and Worple Road, and told his hosts they were far superior to what you would find in a French town of corresponding size and similar distance from the capital. He was also very taken with the Village, the Common, the windmill, the ponds and Caesar's Camp.

He decided to rent a house locally. The next day, accompanied by Vizetelly and Wareham in a hired landau, he visited house agents and explored the area where large houses were available from four guineas a week (£4.20). 

He wanted one with lots of foliage and screened from passers-by. He was not keen on low garden fences or semi-detached villas with flimsy party walls but he liked some interiors and trim gardens.

He found one he particularly liked on the hillside between the Ridgway and Worple Road. On his behalf Vizetelly asked the lady owner about plate, linen, garden produce and the servants who would be available.

All went well until the lady suddenly turned to Zola and addressed him in fluent French. Taken aback, he responded politely but as they drove away he said her French had been too good and she would soon discover his identity.

She was not alone. Wimbledon College had French staff and pupils, several French families lived nearby, and the community included many literary people, journalists, and others who knew all about the Dreyfus case.

Zola was soon recognised by a number of people and decided to move on to Weybridge and then Norwood.

There he stayed at a hotel, writing and taking photographs, until June 1899 when the Dreyfus case was reopened and it became safe for him to return to France. His lasting contribution towards the liberalisation of French society was confirmed.

To save face for the French military, Dreyfus was pardoned and freed but not exonerated until 1906. Four years earlier in September 1902, Zola, his champion, had died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney.

His enemies were blamed for his death because of previous attempts on his life but nothing could be proved. With the agreement of Zola’s widow, Dreyfus was among the thousands who attended his funeral.

Frederick Wareham’s firm of solicitors, Gregsons, was a century old when Zola stayed in Wimbledon.

It retained the office at Alexandra Road until 1926 when it moved to 57 St George’s Road and subsequently in 1988 to its present site at Tabor Grove, off Worple Road.

The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.

For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk .

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