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To the Manor Born

Words by
Frank Walter Sands

Photography by
Golli & Sigfús Eymundsson

The story of the Baron

of Hvítárvellir

A bright, mild, late-summer Sunday greeted the festive locals in the Borgarfjörður region of western Iceland who flocked from far and wide to take part in the Þjóðminningardagur, National Heritage Day, in early August 1898. The popular festival featured a variety of events, including traditional sporting competitions, poetry readings, speeches by noted Icelanders and, perhaps most remarkably, waltzes danced to mechanical music. To the loud, clanging machine-driven tune of a curious large wind-up music box called a calliope, couples young and old swayed and danced joyfully to Johann Strauss’ Radetzky’s March, a catchy waltz tune popular to this day. Other favourites included Hip Hip Hurrah March and Die süßen kleinen Mägdelein.

Before the global dominance of Edison’s audio recordings that came to be known as records, this fascinating machine allowed popular music to be played to crowds in the same way we think of 19th-century street organ grinders. The mechanical wonder was generously loaned to the festival by a somewhat mysterious and clearly wealthy foreigner who had recently moved to Hvítárvellir, a nearby farm located on the banks of the mighty Hvítá river: the Baron Charles Francois Xavier de Gauldrée-Boilleau.

A fresh new breeze

Hvítárvellir was one of the finest and most productive Icelandic farms at the turn of the century, with many fertile acres of pastureland, dozens of dairy cows, hundreds of sheep, and access to the plentiful salmon in the Hvítá river. The estate was sold to the baron for the modern equivalent of nearly one million US dollars, an unheard-of price even for such a renowned estate. Apparently, he made no attempt to negotiate the price. At the baron’s behest, the farm immediately underwent extensive and costly modifications. In a matter of months, a new wooden building was constructed as living quarters for the farmhands, which was a huge improvement over the turf and stone huts in which most of them had grown up. 

Among the modifications the baron introduced were a wide range of new machines that were imported and employed, including a mechanical mower, a hay baler, and an odd device that was meant to flatten the bumpy land by tearing up frost tussocks – a familiar geographic feature of Icelandic pastureland. Farmhands’ wages were paid in cash, which was a rarity in those days. The baron demanded to be acknowledged with proper respect at all times; in his presence male farmhands were expected to doff their caps while women were meant to curtsy. The baron insisted on personally approving every hire because he believed he could determine the applicant’s trustworthiness simply by looking deeply in their eyes.

Baron Charles Gauldree Boilleau was a fascinating man and his brief stay in Iceland left a mark on Icelandic history, so much so that in 2004, he was the subject of a historical novel by Þórarinn Eldjárn. The locals were surprised and delighted when the esteemed Baron Bolló, as the locals dubbed him, showed up unannounced at the festival’s reception tent, dressed in exquisite riding gear and casually smoking a Russian cigarette. He was accompanied by a good-looking young man in a suit and tie who he introduced as his cousin, Richard Lechner, whom the locals soon began referring to as the count for no other reason than he was associated with the baron. The foreign pair spoke together in German but made praiseworthy efforts to speak to the festival officials in Icelandic. The dashing foreigner with the lofty noble title asked if he might be permitted to partake in their festivities, which would be completely unprecedented and was immediately approved. Curiosity piqued as the baron registered for the annual horse race. 

A noble visitor

Foreigners, often wealthy Englishmen, were not unknown in West Iceland at the time but were generally considered eccentric if not arrogant, mostly keeping to themselves and ignoring the locals. That such a notable figure as a baron would deign to join the Icelanders in their local gala and even compete in a horse race was welcomed with giddy anticipation. 

His background and reasons for moving to Iceland were largely unknown, but the charming baron, who had become their neighbour just weeks before, had already garnered a reputation for being a progressive and cultured man of vision and conviction. He expertly mounted his beautiful stallion and trotted in perfect tact to the starting line, deftly demonstrating his riding prowess. Hundreds of dismayed onlookers watched as the baron was first to cross the finish line and became the horse race’s undisputed winner. While most cheered the victorious foreigner, some chagrined locals were understandably humiliated, grumbling that the wealthy foreigner must have fed his horse some special foreign fodder to defeat them so handily.

As Baron Gaudrée-Boilleau accepted his award for placing first in the horse race, speculation about just who this man was and where he came from was on everyone’s lips. He was thought to be French based on his name and general appearance, but he had come to Iceland from the Bavarian city of Munich and spoke flawless German with his so-called cousin, Richard. Letters addressed to him, however, came regularly from the United States, which led some to assume he must be American. According to the farmers who sold him Hvítárvellir farm, he spoke English with a distinctive upper-class accent, sounding like the British lords who sometimes fished the Hvítá river. It was rumoured that one time a young woman who had been working as a farm hand at Hvítárvellir walked up to him and impudently asked; “Who are you actually? And why did you come here?” The baron stared at her momentarily, then replied in clear and correct Icelandic: “Don’t you know it is rude to ask personal questions?” 

Only a few months earlier, to wide acclaim, the baron had made his first public appearance. It was a sunny evening in late May 1898, and a concert was held to inaugurate Reykjavík’s recently completed Iðnaðarhús, Craftsmen’s Hall, a relatively large wooden building that serves as a theatre, meeting place and concert hall. Iðnó, built on the banks of the city’s lake, Tjörnin, still stands to this day. The youthful baron proved to be an exceptionally talented cellist. He was also a proficient pianist and an accomplished composer. After promising his local acquaintance, the writer Benedikt Gröndal, to perform at the auspicious Reykjavík Music Association event to a packed audience of some 200 Icelanders, the baron had turned up with a 250-year-old Cappa di Saluzzo cello, an instrument which was completely unfamiliar to the average Icelander at the time. His masterful playing of the “knee-fiddle” or hnéfiðla, as it was reported in the following day’s newspapers, reportedly left music-deprived Icelanders astounded, calling for encore after encore. To the delight of the audience, the baron then improvised expertly with an a cappella singing group, which he clearly enjoyed. When asked by a fan whether he would be willing to perform regularly, he answered that he was actually giving up his music career, but he would be willing to play occasionally for charity. His new passion, he said, with a grin but without any touch of irony, was to become an Icelandic farmer.

Það er strok í honum – He’s a flighty one

Just why the baron chose to become a farmer in Iceland of all places was not clear to anyone. With all his impressive heritage and fine skills, he was used to a wealthy cosmopolitan lifestyle in America and Europe. Apart from studying music for years in Munich, the baron had been cruising frequently to London or New York or spending time in places such as Algiers when not at his family homes in Paris or on the Italian Riviera. Already fluent in seven languages, the baron managed to learn Icelandic with remarkable speed. He came from a privileged background: he was the son of a wealthy French diplomat and had been educated at expensive English boarding schools. His more practically-minded brothers in America were as worried about him as they were mystified, writing: “He was flying high after arriving in Iceland, which made us happy, as we had been following him between hope and fear. On the other hand, we knew very well how quickly things could change for our brother. We knew of his plan [to move to Iceland], but we didn’t take it too seriously. We had hoped that our patience would be rewarded, and that Charles would realise what a pipedream this was but hope that he would somehow find happiness and peace in this absurd place.”

Farming in Iceland was not an especially profitable endeavour even at the best of times. It requires extensive knowledge and hard-won skills, as well as a certain disposition. It was not long before his farmhands and neighbours began to notice the baron’s odd behaviour, demonstrating inexplicable apathy and irrational carelessness on many occasions. When purchasing a horse, he would avoid wasting time with troublesome negotiating and simply ask the seller to name his price. In the middle of important farm projects, which would consume his attention for weeks on end, he would suddenly lose all interest, mount his horse, and ride away without a word of explanation. At other times, the baron would capriciously summon his expensive imported private steamship, which was docked nearby, and order it to sail him to Reykjavík where he owned a comfortable home on Laugavegur. Local farmers commented that the baron was like an untamed horse that would bolt, running off at the slightest distraction. And that the baron was “likely not wholly sane.”

When he decided it would be pleasant to stay in a luxurious tent with all the amenities on a nearby lake, the baron called together the various local Icelandic farmers who owned it and offered them triple the estimated value. After three days of hunkering in his tent while it rained continuously, he abruptly rode back to Hvítárvellir, abandoning his latest acquisition, never to return. In the summer months, the baron would practise his marksmanship with a pistol by shooting at golden plovers. He insisted on eating grilled salmon and mashed potatoes nearly every day. When one of his servants was heavily pregnant, the baron was so repulsed that he fired her immediately. Whether out of shyness or arrogance – and despite his language abilities – when the baron was approached in public he would invariably pretend not to understand and simply walk away.

After a few months of drab living at Hvítárvellir through the autumn and winter of 1898, the baron was bored. He saw business opportunities everywhere, claiming Reykjavík could double or triple in size with the right investment. It was then that he decided to take ever-bigger risks with his remaining money, taking short-term high interest loans when necessary. Looking to drive progress and change, he financed the construction of a hugely expensive modern concrete barn which was to house 50 milk cows and provide higher-quality dairy products to the citizens of Reykjavík. The unfortunate project was destined for failure. Locals did not know what to make of the baron’s bold innovation and baulked at buying milk from what they considered a foreign company. The barn’s construction alone cost three times its budget and the cows produced much less than anticipated. By the summer’s end the baron became depressed and fell seriously ill. Unable to even hold a pen, he was bedridden for months. Before the end of 1899, he was forced to sell the barn, his precious steamship, and various other properties at a tremendous loss in order to pay off his rising debts. 

Upon his recovery, he dismissed the bankruptcy of his dairy project as regrettable but insignificant; there were far greater rewards to be had which would dwarf the year’s losses. The baron’s new plan was to create a huge fishing company with nearly a dozen ships and a modern harbour. The required financing would flow in, he was sure, because it was obvious that Iceland needed to compete with the European fleets that had been exploiting Icelandic fishing grounds since the Middle Ages. All it would take was for the Icelandic Parliament to approve the new fishing company’s charter; nothing but a trifle, surely. Flush with fresh loans from local Icelanders, the optimistic baron set off by ship to London to raise the rest of the capital. Interest in the innovative plan was high and the baron saw no chance of failure. When the Parliament broached the issue in the summer of 1900, however, opponents pointed out that the baron was no Icelander. Discussion went on for months, but the charter’s approval never gained a parliamentary majority. The baron’s fishing company, like so many of his business ventures, was stillborn.

A tragic end

It was a cold winter evening in 1901, between Christmas and New Year’s, in London. On a regional passenger train from southeast London to Victoria Station, the normally uneventful journey was interrupted by the crack of a lone gunshot. The piercing report resonated in the confines of the narrow train carriage and briefly, a nervous silence ensued. The train’s two conductors, who had been checking tickets, quickly made their way toward the apparent origin of the shooting: the only first-class cabin with closed curtains. 

As the conductors cautiously opened the cabin door, their eyes were drawn to an irregular dark stain on the wall, just above an empty seat. Then, they caught sight of a well-dressed young man sprawled unnaturally on the floor, a dark, sleek pool of blood surrounding his head. He wore a gentleman’s high-collared white shirt with an ornate cravat and an elegant waistcoat. They stared wide-eyed at the gaping wound in the man’s head and the blood soaking his wavy brown hair. An antique revolver lay on the floor next to his lifeless hand, the last traces of gun smoke still drifting lazily from the single barrel. 

Speculation among the train’s passengers spread like leaves in a storm. Some suspected an armed robbery, perhaps gone terribly wrong, while others considered the possibility of a deliberate murder. Rumours abounded. Was it a crime of passion, a jealous lover’s revenge? 

Clad in tall dark-blue helmets and matching wool tunics adorned with brass buttons, a small contingent of London police arrived on the scene. Upon the detective’s first examination, there was little doubt that the young man in the blood-sodden, bespoke suit had taken his life, most likely in a moment of despair. A note of requests in the event of his death appeared to confirm that the fatal incident was no accident. The cartes de visite in his elegant but otherwise empty porte-monnaie identified him and his local address in Anerley, Southeast London as Baron Charles Francois Xavier De Gauldrée-Boilleau. The coroner’s brief forensic examination officially registered the death: “…killed himself whilst temporarily insane, shock and haemorrhage due to inflicting bullet wound to head from a revolver.” Due to the letter left in his coat, the police had no trouble in determining that the unfortunate man’s next of kin was a younger brother who apparently resided in the American city of Baltimore. The following day he was duly informed of his older brother’s tragic death via transatlantic telegram. 

In the end, Baron Charles Gauldrée-Boilleau died penniless on an English train by his own hand. His many business ventures were certainly progressive and innovative. Had he chosen to live in a more modern country such as America or France, he might well have been much more successful. Icelanders were quite simply unreceptive to the forward-thinking ideas that the baron was so eager to establish, in part due to the fact that he was assumed by some prejudiced Icelanders to be just another untrustworthy, money-grubbing foreigner. His stay in Iceland was brief, only a couple of years at the turn of the 20th century, but the concrete barn that he built still stands and today houses a convenience store. He left an indelible mark on the emerging city of Reykjavík and in belated recognition of his achievements, charming Barónstígur street in Reykjavík was named in his honour. 

A 19th Century Nobleman in the undeveloped and Isolated Far North

Iceland was a primitive, underdeveloped society at the turn of the 20th century. Although Iceland had been granted home rule in 1874, it was still very much under the control of the Danish Crown, and full independence was decades away. Reykjavik was little more than a foul-smelling fishing village lacking public sanitation, a proper harbour and paved roads. Fewer than 80,000 people lived in the entire country. Vistarbandið, or bonded labour in the manner of serfdom, was not completely abolished in Iceland until 1900. Due to this profoundly unfair tradition, landless farm hands were legally prevented from leaving the farms where they were employed without the permission of the owner, consigning some 25% of the population to abuse and drudgery and with little chance of a better life. As bad as conditions were for men, women typically earned 1/3 to 1/2 of their male counterparts’ wages. Poor infrastructure and impoverished living conditions were grudgingly accepted as facts of life, but increasing awareness of the world beyond Iceland beckoned; nearly a quarter of the beleaguered population had abandoned the meagre farms and migrated to North America starting in the mid-19th century, leaving much of the country depopulated. It is generally considered that the emigres’ departure probably prevented mass starvation.

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