Cousin Albert Septimus: Queen Victoria’s Consul in Cairo

To celebrate a few days of uninterrupted research, this week I hope to make up for a couple of weeks’ blog absence with a series of posts about a few of my more intriguing ancestors. While I am fascinated by people of all places, occupations, walks of life and circumstances there are some that for whatever reason pique my interest more than others. So, tonight, I introduce you to Cousin Albert.

Even when I was little I was aware of having an ancestor who travelled further than most Walnes before or since. It made my lessons about the Egyptians from Mrs Ingate at Primary School even more enthralling, because I knew that somewhere I had an ancestor that had really been there. 

It is only more recently that I have begun to find out more about Alfred Septimus Walne. My first cousin, six times removed, he was born in Market Weston in Suffolk on 22 February 1806, the youngest child of Thomas Walne and Elizabeth Cole.

‘Ordinary’ records (by which I mean the census and parish baptisms, marriages and burials) give little away about his life abroad but give tantalising hints into his existence. The census for 1861 shows him staying at the White Lion Hotel, High Street, Bath, occupation “HM Consul Cairo”. Among the other guests are ‘gentlemen’ and a captain in the Bengal Artillary. Ten years later, he can be found at the United Hotel (19-25 inclusive Charles Street, St James Square) a similarly grand hotel, this time occupation “Landowner late HMC”. 

His lack of an appearance in earlier census’ is probably due to his being in Cairo at the time. In this post I can only scrape the surface of his life as Consul, but I hope to touch on a few of the things I have so far discovered about Cousin Alfred. 

It would appear that Alfred first ventured to Egypt not as Consul, but as a doctor, and specifically, an eye doctor. A book, online here, first published in 1837, entitled “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land” by John Lloyd Stevens (1805 – 1852) who travelled to Egypt in 1835, includes the following passage: 

“Nearly all the time I was at Cairo, Paul and myself were ill, and for a few days we were in a rather pitiable condition. Fortunately, a young English army surgeon [Dr Forbes] was there, on his way to India, and hearing there was a sick traveler in the house, he with great kindness called upon me and prescribed for our ailments….At that time there was no English physician in Cairo, and I believe none at all, except some vile Italian or French apothecaries, who held themselves fully qualified to practice, and were certainly very successful in relieving the sick from all their sufferings. On my return I found Dr. Walne, and though for his own sake I could wish him a better lot, I hope, for the benefit of sick travellers, that he is there still.

A post-script to the page adds:

“I have seen with great pleasure, in a late English paper, that Dr Walne has been appointed English vice-consul at Cairo. In the close relation now growing up between England and Egypt by means of the Red Sea passage to India, it is a matter of no small consequence to England to have at Cairo as her representative a man of character and talents; and I am sure I but express the opinion of all who know Dr. Walne when I say that a more proper appointment could not have been made.”

A year after his meeting with John Stephens, Alfred appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine, volume 5, online here, in June 1836:


At the time, Alfred must have been relatively new in post. As a little girl, the thought that a cousin of mine had been involved in investigating such things long before Howard Carter would have been astonishing. Today, I find it a little more difficult to be as excited, as I’m not so sure that at the time the excavations were handled as modern day ethics might require. Still, it is fascinating nonetheless to find an ancestor mentioned as such – ancient Egypt still hold me in some kind of enchantment which adds a magic of sorts to the connection. 

The Literary Gazette, Volume 20, also of 1836, contains the following article: 

“Egyptian Society – The Augsburg Gazette states, that a scientific society under this name has been formed at Cairo, by a British physician, Mr Alfred Walne, long resident in Egypt, and a zealous student of hieroglyphic and Coptic literature. The Society has hired a house for he reception of travellers, and are collecting a library of books likely to be useful to such as explore the Egyptian provinces in Africa and Asia. One Turk has subscribed, but the members are chiefly English, with some French and German.” 

One of my favourite discoveries to date has been a portrait, sold at Sotherby’s, which can be viewed here. The painting, by David Roberts, depicts an ‘Interview with the Viceroy of Egypt at his Palace in Alexandria’ and the inscription on the reverse states that one of the men is Alfred. The meeting took place on 12 May 1839. Alfred is the only Englishman ancestor I have yet found a portrait of (even indirectly!), my Bermudan and Belgian ancestors usually being those with the money and tendencies to indulge in such things. 

Another book, “State and Society in Mid-Nineteenth Century Egypt” by Ehud R. Toledano, first published in 1990, also has references to Alfred. At a meeting with other acquaintances on 1 February 1856 at his ‘country house near Cairo’ he was quoted as saying: 

‘Abbas’ refers to Abbas I of Egypt, who had died a year and a half earlier, murdered by two of his slaves. Alfred was certainly involved in important circles, and must have been embroiled in all aspects of Egyptian, Indian and English politics for the whole of his time abroad, including outbreaks of violence as well as historical discoveries. It boggles my mind to try and imagine what his life must have been like in an era where so many things were so markedly different from today (and so many tensions are still unresolved?). 

A couple of years later, The London Gazette made a couple of puzzling announcements about Alfred’s career. On 9 February 1859, the Foreign Office, in Issue 22229 published that: 

“The Queen has also been pleased to appoint Alfred Septimus Walne Esq. now Her Majesty’s Consul at Cairo, to be Her Majesty’s Consul at Alexandria” 

This was swiftly followed by another on 2 May 1859, in issue 22229: 

“The appointment of Alfred Septimus Walne Esq. to be Her Majesty’s Consul at Alexandria, which was notified in the Gazette…is cancelled; and Mr Walne retains his appointment as H.M. Consul at Cairo”. 

This is just one of things I intend to investigate when I get my hands on the “Letterbooks of Walne, agent at Cairo, 1838-59” in IOR/G/17 at the British Library. The dates I believe are probably significant as I know he was awarded a parting gift in 1861 on his resignation of office. Amongst the dedication (painstakingly copied out by me as a little girl) are mentions of his involvement in the construction of the railway between Alexandria and Cairo in 1851, increased public security, the first regular conveyance of Indian Mail between Alexandria and Suez in 1853 and his appointment as Her Majesty’s Commissioner for the affairs of Guddah after June 1858 (nb I think possibly this refers to the Jidda Massacre?). He was certainly a busy man. 

On resignation from his post in 1861, Alfred returned to England and seems to have spent much of the remainder of his life in gentleman’s clubs, grand hotels, and on his country estate. He died twenty years later, his probate calendar entry stating: 

“Walne Alfred Septimus Esquire Personal Estate £70,486 7s 10d 20 August. The Will with three Codicils of Alfred Septimus Walne formerly of the Union Club Trafalgar Square but late of 72 Guilford Street Russell Square both in the County of Middlesex Esquire who died 17 June 1881 at 72 Guilford Street was proved at the Principal Registry by John Henry Hill of 39 Old Broad Street in the city of London solicitor Amelia Elizabeth Gimingham of Broomfield Villa Weston-Super-Mare in the County of Somerset spinster and Thomas Walne of Pulham St Mary in the County of Norfolk Esquire the Executors” 

Although Alfred died in London, he was laid to rest in Brockdish in a handsome red tomb, not far from the family vault containing several more of my ancestors.

The Grove estate in Brockdish, one of several owned by the family at the time, was passedfrom Alfred to Thomas Alfred Walne (known as Alfred), his cousin’s grandson and his own adopted son (the latter according to a stone in Brockdish churchyard). 

When I come to write my first book, I think Alfred would be a wonderful candidate for research. I would welcome comments from anybody that can provide more leads, or help fill in my knowledge of Egypt in the 19th Century which I am very willing to admit is somewhat limited to date. 

I can’t imagine many places more different than Brockdish, a leafly little village of just 434 souls in 1881, and the rapidly growing city of Cairo upstream of the Nile delta. Alfred must have seen incredible things, both good and terrible. I am sure there is an enormous amount waiting to be discovered on a spectrum from the deep to the more mundane – why did he go to Egypt in the first place? What were his political views? Why didn’t he marry? How did he cope with the heat?! What drove him to take on his career? What was he like as a man? 

I hope over time, these, and other questions, will begin to reveal their answers.


5 Responses

  1. My thanks to the English American Library in Nice who emailed me to say that Alfred spent his winters in Nice and was on the Committee of Management of the Nice Library until as late as 1878.

  2. Hi,
    I’m currently writing a dissertation on the East India Company in Egypt and part of this thesis includes research on Alfred Walne’s time as packet agent at Cairo. It would be great to get in contact to find out more information on your ancestor so I could do the subject justice in my work.

    1. Hi, My apologies but I’ve only just seen your message. By all means use the contact form – I’m not sure how much I’d be able to tell you above what you already know, but I’d love to read your work.

  3. I see that in the last edition of WWW (2019) give the birth date 22 February 1805. Do you know what is correct? of perhaps there are two different sources for it

    1. If you zoom in on his tomb you’ll see it says 1806. The baptism register transcription for Market Weston says baptised 6 March 1806, born Feb 22nd. I admit I have not seen the original of that yet as Suffolk registers are only now being digitised for release in the next couple of years, but if WWW is right, then the person giving info for his tombstone was wrong long before I was! Even the big boys make typos, though, I remember a piece of coursework where we had to prove one of the big peerages wrong.

      Edit to add: newspapers largely refer to him as being ‘in his 76th year’ when he died, i.e. 75, which may be where the confusion has crept in.

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