Mr A.H. Adair

Adair.jpg
With Marcel Boulestin in France in 1939[1]

Alec Henry “Robin” Adair, 31, (1901-1956) was a cookery writer and both business and life partner of the restaurateur Marcel Boulestin, also on this table. They lived in England and with a house in the Landes, SW France, where he taught English to “the best people’s brats”. During the Second World War Robin was imprisoned in France and Marcel died in Paris in 1943. Robin returned to London after the war and continued writing and publishing cookery books.[2]

SEATED BESIDE

My favoured starting position for the table would be to seat Fothergill and Lysaght together, where there is some link between their two industrialist families, and if Fothergill’s guest were the other side of him (albeit a completely unknown quantity at this stage), to follow that with Boulestin, Emilie Peacocke and then Adair (who would then be beside Lysaght). The three restaurateurs would be seated alternately in that way and Emilie would have two restaurateurs to persuade to supply decent portions – though they ran the same restaurant of course.

WHAT’S ON HIS MIND?

Whilst expectations of a gastronomic evening might not have been high, he may well have been interested to see to what standard the hotel could cater for 130 people. In straightened economic times a little austerity might have even been in order, especially with a guest of honour whose father had been the wartime Minister for Food – though a paper written by my grandfather revealed that her mother Sybil knew even in wartime how to ensure she could have a good celebration without breaking any rules.

ROBIN’S STORY SO FAR

Alec Henry Adair was born in Malta in the fourth quarter of 1901 to Louisa Mary Knight, born 15th May 1876 in Gravesend Kent, and Joseph Adair, born 26th January 1871, Kilkeel, Co. Down, Ireland, one of nine children, a Sergeant Major on the Permanent Staff of the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Royal Malta Regiment of Militia. Louisa and Joseph had married in Nass, Kildare in 1896. They had four children of which two had died as of April 1911. In 1911 the family were living at the barracks in Malta. Joseph Adair’s original regiment, the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, was stationed in Ireland from April 1891 to 1897. In 1899 it was posted to Crete, and then in 1901 to Malta, where Alec was born.[3] By 1917 Joseph was a Quarter Master – perhaps Alec picked up a good sense of the logistical challenges of catering.

Alec’s older sister Caroline Elizabeth, later Mrs Harvey, was born in Naas, Curragh co. Kildare, on 28th October 1897. On 14th September 1916 she joined the Malta Special Intelligence Bureau (MI5), which had been set up earlier in the year, in March, for the Surveillance of passengers arriving/leaving Malta, and dockyard employees. She served until 11th March 1919.[3] In 1939, married, she showed her genetic affinity with her brother as a café proprietress in Brightlingsea, Essex, with divorcee Hilda Ruth Pragnell, both living at 50 High Street, next to one of the oldest buildings in the little coastal town.

Alec/Robin spent an early part of his life in Jamaica but returned to London, 1st class, on the Elders and Fyffes banana boat S.S. Bayano in March 1922.[4] By the time of the dinner he and Marcel were in full swing running their successful Covent Garden restaurant, Boulestin’s. They had started by doing private catering, their first job being to provide a dinner for Virginia Woolf and friends at her flat.[5] On 15th March 1930 he was sailing first class from Birkenhead to Marseilles, profession author, at the time resident at 34a Portsdown Road, London W9 – which is where he and Marcel were living at the time of the dinner.[6] He translated many of Boulestin’s recipe books.

Assisting Boulestin.jpg
Assisting Boulestin in a Cookery Demonstration[7]

WHAT ROBIN DID NEXT

Villars
Miss Villars,”Priscilla” of the “Tatler”[8]

In 1935 he was living at 94 Holmefield Court, Belsize Grove, Hampstead. In January 1940 he was teaching English at a school he and Boulestin had set up at La Daoune, Hossegor, Landes, near their home, to which “all the best people are sending their brats” according to Tatler columnist “Priscilla of Paris”. They misread the seriousness of the war situation and Robin was interned in France during the war but he eventually returned, alone, Boulestin having died in Paris in 1943.

In April 1945 Robin was writing again, and here in Britannia and Eve, he presents recipes he had learned to cook when was in the Red Cross wartime camp.

I Learned A Lot When I Only Had Little

By ROBIN ADAIR

Our Pre-war Cookery Expert, who returns to these pages after Four Years in a German Internment Camp in France

Four years of captivity in a German internment camp in France have taught me much. The British Red Cross organization saved us and with their wonderful parcels we could live reasonably well. All the recipes which follow are of dishes made from ingredients contained in our parcels and therefore similar to the supplies available in the English shops. The recipes are naturally all of a makeshift kind, for we had no weights and measures. Our utensils, often home made, were primitive. For fuel anything and everything was utilized. Stoves burning balls of paper, cardboard and scrounged wood smuggled spirit lamps, camp fires, tins containing ration grease with an improvised wick. After we had become somewhat organized, herbs, salads, tomatoes, radishes were available, for some enterprising people started little gardens dug out of the barrack yard, and later a few more ambitious vegetables were grown.[9]

From about 1948 he divided his time between Ireland and England, his adopted home across the water being in Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary. (His father of course was an Irishman). He continued writing and publishing on cookery, as well as teaching cookery.  In December 1953 he was teaching debutantes to cook, running a course at the St. John’s Wood Home of Lady Birley, the widow of Sir Oswald Birley , the painter.  His students included Jane Stewart, of of the Queen’s maids of honour at her coronation, that year, and her sister Lady Anabel Stewart, plus the daughter of Earl and Lady Mountbatten, Lady Brabourne, and Mrs. Robin Warrender. In the eight lessons he focused mainly on French dishes, his speciality.[10] As he put it “the debs of 1953 who want to be first class cooks  when they become the spring brides of 1954.” [11]

Shortly afterwards he was running classes in Ireland, noting that the Irish “were wonderful students”, complimenting them on  their “fresh approach.” He toured the country under the auspices of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association”, again teaching French recipes.  In a new book planned for 1954 he said there would not be any Irish recipes – “they are exceedingly hard to get” – but he was putting in a few Irish hints.  It was a time he noted that open hearths were becoming a rarity in Ireland.[11] 

In 1955 he was living at 25 Half Moon Street, W1. He died on 11th October 1956 after jumping into the Thames at the Victoria Embankment, Westminster: in financial difficulties and suffering depression, the verdict was that he took his own life.  His sister, Mrs. Caroline Harvey, said at the inquest that she had not seen him for about a year.[12] [13]  As Robin Alec Henry Adair he was then resident at 13 Clarges Street, probate of his estate, of £104 to Thomas Roche, waiter, taking more than 18 months to be completed. A sad end to an eventful life.

Dinner Puzzle reader Rosie Hill has recently shed more light on Robin’s final days, with her findings from a memoir of Fanny and Johnnie Cradock, the TV cookery couple of the latter half of the 20th century. In Time to Remember they recounted both poignant and amusing memories of Robin following a three day houseparty at Epernay at the Château of Count Robert de Vögue of Möet et Chandon: 

“among the guests was a man of whom we knew much but had never met. He was Robin Adair, the very well known cookery writer. We got on splendidly together and for our part thoroughly enjoyed this new acquaintance.  Whether it was because we got on so famously or not we have no means of knowing, but when we all flew home together Robin confided in Fanny that he was out of work.  He said, ‘I can’t get work. Honestly I’m desperate. No one seems to want me to write for them any more.’

This was so horrifying to us both that we resolved to do something about it immediately we got home. Robin gave us his address and telephone number and the following morning we settled down to do some string-pulling telephoning. We succeeded. Early that afternoon we found Robin a job. Writing about cookery for a very distinguished publication and in triumph we telephoned him. No one answered it. When the evening papers arrived we learned why. As we were ringing Robin with the news of this very well-paid work he was throwing himself off Westminster Bridge.” 

If it indeed all happened with such rapidity it suggests that the desperate Robin came down from highs of that glamorous champagne party with a crash, perhaps feeling even lower for having revealed his worries and position.  

However the Cradocks did recall a fonder memory: “In our last chat with him on the aircraft which brought us all back to England we discovered that Robin shared with us a passion for the French pique-nique.  We compared notes and had a hilarious session remembering little scenes we had witnessed on French beaches.” [15]

Robin will have doubtless have had plenty to recall from France.  

However in 1957 the popular trio of recipe books he had published with Boulestin, on 101 Ways of Cooking Potatoes, 127 Ways of Preparing Savouries and Hors d’oeuvres and 120 Ways of Cooking Eggs were re-released by Heinemann for 6s each.[14]  Presumably the debs of 1957 could do some last minute homework.

Both Robin’s parents had pre-deceased him by four to five years, his mother in May 1949, in Chichester (living there at 136 Bognor Road in 1939), and his father also in Chichester, on 1st February 1951, albeit when on a visit from his then home in Alderney.[16] [17] Both parents were upstanding members of the Chichester British Legion, Major Joseph Adair being the first secretary, and his wife chairing the Women’s Section – as well as being elected to the City Guardians.[18] Robin’s sister Caroline died forty years later, aged 93, at the Old Vicarage, Wallingford, Oxon, a care home, on 1st July 1991. Before needing care she had been living in Coleshill, near Amersham, active in the W.I., putting on plays etc – known then as Mrs. Elizabeth Harvey.

Alec Henry “Robin” and Caroline Elizabeth had two sisters. Eileen Beryl Adair, qualified as a nurse at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital associated with Dreadnought Hospital, Greenwich, on 10th March 1933, by coincidence therefore a fortnight before our dinner, and she later practised in the European Hospital in Nairobi (when, curiously, a cousin of mine was later the Matron).  The Dreadnought Hospital was so-named after the original hospital ship there in the Napoleonic wars.  Eileen married divorcee Ronald Hopkins and later lived in Alderney, her father coming to join them after her mother had died.  Like her parents, she played a role in local society, at one time a Member of the States of Alderney. Sheila Mary Adair, born, like Robin, in Valetta, Malta, married a Thomas Watterson, had (by my count) four children, and died in Glasgow.  The three sisters all attended the funeral of their mother but there was no mention of Robin in the reports.  

But his writings and his memory live on. 

BACK TO TABLE 12


[1] Plate 20 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[2] Cookery Corner: Salads British Newspaper Archive accessed 18th March 2019

[3] Adair teaching in France The Tatler 31st January 1940 access by BNA subscription

[4] With many thanks to the contribution of Mark Hifle, himself researching the life of Caroline Elizabeth, on the lives of Robin’s father and sister.

[5] Ancestry source, UK Outward Passenger Lists, on the S.S Bayano

[6] Ancestry source, UK Outward Passenger Lists, on the City of Hong Kong.

[7] Plate 22 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[8] Plate 8 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[9] Robin Adair, I Learned A Lot When I Only Had Little Britannia and Eve, 1.4.1945 pp44-45

[10] Belfast Telegraph, 4.12.1953 page 9 

[11] Wicklow People, 19.12.1953 page 13

[12] Shields Daily News, 15.10.1956 page 7

[13] Liverpool Echo, 15.10.1956 page 12

[14] Birmingham Daily Post, 10.1.1957 page 4

[15] With many thanks to Rosie Hill for these excerpts from Fanny and Johnnie Cradock’s Time to Remember, A Cook for all Seasons, pp116-117, published in collaboration with the Daily Telegraph, 1981

[16] Chichester Observer, 28.5.1949 page 1

[17] Chichester Observer, 8.2.1951 page 2

[18] Chichester Observer, 23.3.1927 page 2

4 thoughts on “Mr A.H. Adair

  1. His sister Miss C E Adair, (Mrs Harvey) actually worked for the Malta Special Intelligence Bureau (MI5) from 14 Sept 1916 to 11 March 1919, She is listed in ‘KV 1. Organisation and Administration: annexures; Chronological list of staff of MI5’ KV 1/59 at the National Archives

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  2. Quite a poignant account of Robin’s last days in ‘Time to Remember’ (1981) by Fanny and Johnnie Cradock. They claim to have encountered him in distress, used their contacts to secure a job for him – but no-one picked up the phone when they rang to tell him, as he’d already done the deed.

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