Monday, 23 July 2012

Alexander Keiller (1889 - 1955)

Alexander Keiller

Alexander Keiller was born at Binrock House, Dundee, on 1 December 1889, the only child of John Mitchell and Mary Keiller of the esteemed Dundee medical family. On the death of his father in 1899, Alexander Keiller, at the age of nine, became sole heir to a vast fortune derived from the family marmalade business; James Keiller and Sons, established in 1797.

Keiller was educated at Hazelwood preparatory school in Limpsfield, Surrey, and from there went on to Eton College. He left Eton following the death of his mother in 1907, and returned home to help administer the family business. On his 21st birthday he came into his inheritance. He continued in the family business and served an apprenticeship as a draughtsman.

On 2 June 1913 Keiller married Florence Marianne Phil-Morris, daughter of the artist Philip Richard Morris, and they moved into Keiller's London house at 13 Hyde Park Gardens. Later the same year he founded and financed the Sizaire-Berwick Motor Company, which produced a Rolls-Royce lookalike.

After the outbreak of the First World War he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary lieutenant, moving to the Royal Naval Air Service in December 1914 to work with the armoured car division. At Chingford in 1915 he obtained his aviator's licence, but shortly afterwards was invalided out of the service. In 1918 he joined air intelligence, with which he remained until the end of the war.

After the war Keiller divorced his first wife, and began to pursue his interest in archaeology, at a time when archaeology barely existed as a profession. In 1922 he approached O.G.S. Crawford of the Ordnance Survey, suggesting an aerial survey of archaeological sites in south-west England. This project culminated in the publication of Wessex from the Air (1928), the first book of aerial archaeology to be published in the UK.

On 29 February 1924 Keiller married Veronica Mildred Liddell. Veronica had a keen interest in archaeology, and visited Avebury in Wiltshire with him later that year. This was to be a turning point for Keiller. He decided to buy up Windmill Hill a little under 2 miles from Avebury and undertake a series of excavations on the site, which was known to be neolithic. Between 1925 and 1929 excavations proved the site to be a causewayed enclosure. It became a type-site for many years to follow.

Following a separation, Keiller divorced Veronica in 1934. In the same year he began a two-year programme excavating another area in Avebury, the West Kennet Avenue, which led south from the stone circle. Buried stones were uncovered and re-erected, and stone-holes marked with pillars. He procured a lease on Avebury Manor in 1935 from Lt. Col Leopold and Nora Jenner, and further land purchases which included 950 acres of Avebury and Windmill Hill, which only helped to strengthened his commitment to the village. However, though Keiller generated much employment locally there was a price to pay. His acquisition of lands allowed him to demolish many of the cottages close to, or within the henge to enable him to carry out his excavations. Keiller rehoused all the occupants in council properties at nearby Avebury Trusloe.

The first major excavation of Avebury stone circle was in 1937, the first of three seasons over the ensuing years. Each concentrated on a quadrant of the circle, restoring and preserving the site for future generations. The first season was concentrated on the north-west quadrant, which includes the great Diamond stone or Swindon Stone as it is commonly referred to. The whole area was covered with bracken and trees, which were removed as the work progressed. Eight stones, some up to a metre below the ground, were uncovered and re-erected in their original stone-holes, and as with the avenue, concrete pillars were used to indicate where Keiller believed the missing stones once stood.

The second season, in 1938, was in the south-west quadrant. At the outset only one stone was standing, with a further three visible. In the first ten days five buried stones were uncovered, and on day fifteen the famous barber–surgeon skeleton was discovered, lying where it had been since the stone toppled on the unfortunate man in the middle ages. (Over sixty years later, the skeleton of the barber–surgeon, thought to have been lost during the blitz, was discovered in the archives of the Natural History Museum.) By the end of this season, eleven stones were standing in the quadrant and stone-holes duly marked. The excavations in 1939 concentrated on the south-east quadrant, where the giant Obelisk stone described by the 18th century antiquarian - William Stukeley had once stood. Work was concentrated on the inner circle, and a curious rectangular setting of eight small stones, named the z-stones, was discovered to the west of the Obelisk site. These can now be seen close to the plinth (designed by Keiller) which marks the site of the Obelisk.

As Avebury was a site of national interest, the project maintained a high profile in the public eye. A museum was opened in June 1938, displaying finds from the Windmill Hill, West Kennet, and Avebury stone circle excavations. On 16 November 1938 Keiller was married for a third time; his new wife was Doris Emerson Chapman (b. 1901), an artist, who had joined the Morven Institute of Archaeological Research, founded by Keiller in 1937.

The outbreak of war ended excavations at Avebury. Keiller joined the special constabulary at Marlborough, and was soon promoted to inspector. His duties left little time for other works, and the museum was closed to the public and the Manor was left empty for many years. In 1943, following negotiations with the office of works and the National Trust, Keiller sold his properties and land in Avebury to the National Trust for £12,000, which was the agricultural value of the 950 acres. He did not ask for any reimbursement for the vast sum (today equivalent to over £2 million) which he had spent on excavating and restoring the circle. The National Trust declined to purchase Avebury Manor, deeming it too expensive.

Both Keiller and his wife had brief affairs during and shortly after the war, but it was only in 1948, when he met Gabrielle Muriel Styles, née Ritchie, the champion golfer and art collector, that he sought a divorce which Doris refused. In 1951 he had an operation for throat cancer, and shortly afterwards Doris granted him a divorce on 16 June 1951, leaving him free to marry Gabrielle the following day. He was her third husband.

The couple moved into Telegraph Cottage, Kingston Hill, Surrey, where he later died of lung cancer on 29 October 1955 aged 65. His ashes were interred in the wall of Gairn Castle, Morven, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, where he had once had a major landholding.

Keiller had many interests besides archaeology they included: photography, racing cars - rather than spectating, shooting (he was a crack shot) aviation (he was a competent pilot). He had a collectors passion for antique furniture, art deco, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian antiquities, books, particularly on archaeology, witchcraft and the occult.

Keiller’s love of fast cars was to catch up with him, when on the 9th July 1929 he was involved in a crash on the A4 between Savernake Forest and Marlborough. He was driving his Targa Florio Bugatti accompanied by a Miss Duncan when he collided with a bridge, in his own words:

'The actual site of the crash you must know well. It is the Railway Bridge on the hill climbing into Savernake out of Marlborough on the main Bath Road. We were climbing this hill at a reasonable speed, but not by any manner of means, I consider, an excessive one, viz. some 84 miles an hour, when my back axle broke and, the car turning round and rising into the air, we hurtled ourselves onto the angular portion of the Bridge. It is fortunate that we hit the angle, since otherwise, considering the speed at which we were travelling, we must have burst through the brickwork and fallen another forty feet onto the Railway line below. It is of course miraculous that either of us lived through the experience.'

The speed limit on this stretch of road is now a respectable 30mph.

His fortune allowed him to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes - Skiing, particularly cross-country and ski-jumping, for which he had won many honours in St. Moritz and further a field. Allegedly, there is even a slope named after him there.

In 1931 he was elected president of the Ski Club of Great Britain. Keiller was fond of cocktails and even more fond of parties. During one Oxford University Ski Club Dinner he records - ‘sixteen of us consumed a hundred and fifty cocktails before the meal began. I clearly recall doing my share up to this point, after which I do not very clearly recollect anything’.

In 1966 the Keiller Museum at Avebury and its contents were gifted to the nation by his widow, Gabrielle. Avebury was inscribed a world heritage site in 1986 by NESCO. Avebury alone is host to around 300,000 visitors a year.

In 1991, the National Trust purchased Avebury Manor from the official receivers following the bankruptcy of Kenneth King.

We owe a great deal of gratitude to Alexander Keiller for his tireless dedication restoring much of Avebury's neolithic monument. It is unfortunate that some twenty or so stones still lay buried beneath the henge just waiting to be re-erected.

The Keiller Parlour

This room is just one of nine rooms selected by the BBC for a themed makeover.  It is in the oldest part of the house (1555 - 1580) but for the purpose of the project, is set in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the WWII - 1st September.

We know Keiller had a fondness for art deco styles, so many items brought in by project designer Russell Sage reflect this.  Instruments similar to those he would have most likely used during his excavations can be seen on the desk.

Alexander Keiller owned Avebury Manor between 1937 - 1955. A themed room created for the project by the BBC and named the ‘Keiller Parlour’ is, I feel, a fitting statement to his memory.Sources:
L. J. Murray, A zest for life (1999) · Alexander Keiller Museum Archive, Avebury · W. Young diaries, Devizes Museum, Wiltshire · D. G. King diaries, Alexander Keiller Museum Archive, Avebury · I. F. Smith, Windmill Hill and Avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925–1939 (1965) · A. Burl, Prehistoric Avebury (1979) · C. Malone, Book of Avebury (1989) · The Independent (12 Jan 1996) [obit. of Gabrielle Keiller] · The Eton register, 8 vols. (privately printed, Eton, 1903–32) · NA Scot. · d. cert.

Wealth at death
£106,798 14s. 11d.: probate, 22 June 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Edited for ‘Avebury Manor‘ by ~ Willow (2012)

The Keiller Parlour.

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