The Dell Boys and the Empress

How the Brighton partnership of Dell and Dell came about their status as “Removers to Her Imperial Majesty” remains a mystery, but there are a few clues along the way.

Dell Removals

Source: Hathia Trust

To begin at the end, what did the job involve?   It was to remove the belongings of Eugenie, ex-Empress of France, Eugenie, widow of Napoleon III, her new home at Farnborough Hill in Hampshire.   Eugenie made the decision to move in 1880.  Eugenie had lived at Camden Place in Chislehurst since 1870.  Once her husband had been released from imprisonment in Westphalia, he joined her there in early 1871 but he had died soon after.  When her son died in 1879 (fighting for the British in South Africa) Eugenie must have decided it was time to leave Kent. 

In addition to her possessions in Chislehurst, Eugenie owned “furniture, writing-table and various relics of Napoleon I” at the Villa Eugenie in Biarritz.  In 1880, the French Republic saw fit to appropriate the most valuable assets in the villa, leaving Eugene very little.  But what there was, she wanted to keep and wanted to keep it by her, in England.  By 1881, Eugenie was in need of a reliable removal firm.  Dell and Dell it would be.

The two Dell partners were John Absalom and Edward Alexander, two of Absalom Dell’s five sons.  The brothers were modern and diligent businessmen. They used roads, rail and sea to move goods, carefully siting their offices and depots near railway stations, the coast and main thoroughfares.  They were well-educated by their highly respected father, Absalom Dell.


John Absalom and Edward Alexander Dell ran a removal and storage business at 48 Queens Road, Brighton. This photo was taken in about 1904, just before the death of Edward. The Dell name can be seen at the top of the darker house. The house next door was most likely sign-painted in the time of Absalom Dell, their father. Image: Courtesy of the Regency Society’s James Gray Collection Vol 31_181

Absalom Dell, an auctioneer (estate agent), had a very idiosyncratic style of advertising in local newspapers.  One quirk was that he would reveal his private opinions.  To what extent was he a Francophile?

Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon) had become emperor in 1852.  When the French state, much guided by Napoleon III, approved the abolition of the requirement for passports, Absolom Dell must have been pleased.  He published a paid advertisement (clearly flagged as such by the Brighton Gazette) disguised as a letter:

Absalom Dell Letter

Did Mr Dell and his family travel frequently to France? Or was Mr Dell simply looking forward to easier trading relations with France? The Cobden-Chevalier free trade agreement signed in January 1860 between England and France would certainly bolster business for an ambitious man and his sons.

At much the same time, a cryptic message started to appear in the Brighton Gazette, sometimes attached to one of Mr Dell’s straightforward business advertisements but often as a stand-alone item:

Louis Napoleon Emperor of Rome

The Book of Revelations Chapter 17, verse 11 cited in the advert is cryptic to say the least. Wiser heads than mine have also tried to find out the meaning of V.C.S.C., all to no avail.  Mr Dell was a non-conformist.  Did he relish the discomfiture of the Pope whose extensive states in Italy had come under the “protection” of France and the (largely French) Papal Guard?

The frequency of these inserts ranged from two or three a month (the Brighton Gazette was published weekly) in 1861 through to a handful a year from 1864 on.  The last one appeared in January 1873 – three years after Napoleon III’s fall from power and two years after his death. 

In 1862, Mr Dell’s older son, John, was 21 and Edward was just 18 but both were already working for their father.  John and Edward must have wondered why their father was spending money on this “advertisement” year after year after year.

Two newspaper advertisements give some idea of Mr Dell’s admiration for Louis Napoleon.

infiedel state

The 1862 “advertisement” above goes on to give some recommended reading, namely “Three Letters on Prophecy” (1833) and “The Great Continental Revolution” (it has to be the 2nd 1849 edition as Mr Dell tells us exactly which two pages to read).  Both were written by James Hatley Frere who was well known for his “prophetic books.”

After some eight years and some dozens of Mr Dell’s cryptic message, the Brighton Gazette itself commented on the fact of these repeated peons to the Emperor.

Statie text


The dedication to Napoleon III remains, but his statue has been replaced by one to “Le Génie des Arts” Source: Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

By 1868, both John (aged 27) and Edward (24) were in their prime and in partnership with their father.  Although Absalom would probably have been delighted that Napoleon III would be receiving his just recognition, as he saw it, his sons must have wondered why their father was spending money on this “advertisement” year after year after year.

Could the name of Dell have filtered through to Empress Eugenie?  It is unlikely.  Her world was turned upside down in 1870 when the Prussians invaded France.  By 1880 her refuge in Kent had lost its most important residents. It had been time to move away from Kent.

Absalom Dell died in 1875.  He would, no doubt, have been so proud his two sons were of service to the widow of the Emperor he so admired.

fin symbol

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