The Collector: George Edward Milligen (1910-2004)

Family Background

George Edward Milligen was born on 27 April 1910. Tracing his ancestors has proved very difficult indeed and the information I present here is both scant and provisional. I wouldn't have got even this far without the help of one of George's great nephews. It has proven impossible to locate a birth certificate and I understand that George's parents didn't marry but there is good evidence as to who they were.

  • There is clear evidence that his mother was Violet Woods based on documentation of travel, the fact that George's death is registered twice - once in the name of Milligen and once in the name of Woods, and family knowledge.
  • There is no independent evidence that his father was John McIlwraith Millegen, but George himself stated that this was the case and it seems highly unlikely that he would not be telling the truth about this.

The incomplete pedigree chart below shows George Milligen with his name highlighted

Milligen Pedigree
George Edward Milligen. Family pedigree chart [78]

George Edward Milligen's Paternal Ancestors

George Edward Milligen's direct ancestors on his father's side of the family were:

  • Grandfather: Thomas Milligan (1828-)
  • Father: John McIlwraith Milligen (1855-1947)

There were no settled spellings for names until around the middle of the 19th Century with 'Milligan' being a much more common variation than 'Milligen'. This family name has been spelt 'Milligen' since 1855. Thomas's name appears as 'Milligan' on the census records but only transcriptions of the documents are available so there may have been a transcription error.

Thomas Milligan (1828-)

George Milligen's paternal grandfather Thomas is believed to have been born in Ireland in 1828 but was living in Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland by the time of the birth of his son John. In 1861 Thomas was a pilot on board the vessel Prince Albert when the census was taken. Checking through the records of ships of that name, it must have been rather small as I could find no match in any of the sources I use for shipping research. In all 98 people were recorded as on board vessels by the enumerator for Ayr at the time. When the next census was taken in 1871, Thomas was recorded as a 'boatman' based at Troon and living by the harbour.

Thomas married Elizabeth McIlwraith on 30 May 1852 and by the time of the 1871 census they had three children - John, Elizabeth and the strangely named Promasina. I can find no other trace of anyone called Promasina so there could be a transcription error in the 1871 census records that remain available.

The aerial photograph taken in 1927 below shows Troon Harbour with the Ailsa Craig Shipyard to the right. Interestingly there is a row of 12 cottages on the bottom left and the Milligens could well have lived in one of them. The site of the cottages is now a parking area for the Glennan Brothers sawmill.

Directory
Troon Harbour in 1927 from Britain from Above image SPW019546 [120]

I have been unable to find any records showing when Thomas died.

John McIlwraith Milligen (1855-1947)

George Milligen's father John was born at Ayr in 1855 but the family had moved to Troon by 1861 as we know that Elizabeth Milligen was born there.

Troon had been a small place with a natural harbour until the early 19th Century when the Duke of Portland developed the harbour for the export of coal from mines around nearby Kilmarnock - much of it going to Ireland. He also had an early horse-drawn wagon way built to convey coal to the port from the mines. The engineer was William Jessop and the line was originally constructed with L-shaped plates rather than rails as we know them; Jessop is better known for the construction of canals. The L-plate design had one advantage in that the wagons, which did not have flanged wheels, could be moved off the rails as well as on them. It was the first railway in Scotland authorised by an Act of Parliament and John Milligen's coal would have been moved to the harbour on this line which had two tracks and, apart from coal, carried limestone, timber and even passengers.

Waggon Way
Painting of the Kilmarnock to Troon Waggon Way [103]

In 1885, by which time John was about 30, the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company had been set up at Troon building mainly paddle steamers.

Nowadays Troon is most famous for its Royal Troon golf club which hosts the British Open Championship every seven years. It is still a busy harbour and home to the Ayr fishing fleet and a P&O ferry service to Ireland.


In 1881, at the age of 26, John joined the Belfast Lodge of the Freemasons and on 13 June 1881 there was an announcement in the Belfast Newsletter that he would marry Catherine Harriet McCracken at the Duncairn Presbytarian Church on 2 August. I can find no record of this marriage having taken place, nor of a matching death record of a Catherine McIlwraith. In any case John married Marcia Susan Nina Slacke on 4 Sep 1893 in Morpeth Northumberland gaving his marital status as 'widowed' which suggests that he actually did marry Catherine. Marcia was the daughter of William Slacke a 'clerk in Holy Orders' and Chaplain to the local County Asylum at Morpeth in Northumberland.


In 1901 the census records John living at Drumbeg, a few miles to the South of Belfast, and lists his occupation as Director of Bleaching Co Limited and Coal Importing Company. In 1903 he joined the Solomon's Bank Lodge No. 565 of the Freemasons at Lambeg and is listed as a Coal Merchant. The Lodge records note that he was 'struck off' in 1928 but doesn't say why.

Bleaching Interests

There were a number of companies producing bleaching material for the linen industry in the Belfast area but there are no further clues about which one John was associated with. One possibility is that it was the Lambeg Bleaching, Dyeing & Finishing Co (Ltd). The Belfast bleaching companies not only served the local industry but bleached cotton goods for manufacturers in Manchester and elsewhere. The goods would be taken to the works, treated, and returned to the manufacturers. It was a complex and highly polluting process.

Shipping Interests

I don't know how John got started with shipping ownership but he clearly saw it as an integral part of the business of selling coal. Possibly funds were raised with the help of his business associates or fellow freemasons. In any case he and his company owned a number of ships over the years although never more than two at any one time as far as I can determine. There is further information about the Milligen ships on the Benjidog website HERE.

The table below summarises the ownership of vessels by John Milligen and his company.


Ship Name Operated From Operated To Disposal
Black Diamond 1887 1888 Sold to Woodside & Workman
Kathleen (1887) 1887 1889 Sold to North Eastern Shipping Co
Eveleen (1891) 1891 1918 Lost with all hands
Kathleen (1902) 1902 1940 Sold to Grand Union Shipping Ltd
Brideen 1919 1926 Sold to Brideen SS Co Ltd
Eveleen (1920) 1920 1957 (with a gap during war years) Broken up
Monaleen 1920 1926 Sold to A. Chester
Ballyhaft 1955 1965 Sold to John Kelly Ltd

In 1908 John Milligen had a coal yard at Abercorn Basin as can be seen from the Belfast Street Directory of that year:

Directory
Extract from Belfast street directory of 1908. [120]

The map below shows Abercorn Basin and adjacent coal depots from around the same period. Abercorn Basin is just to the south of the Harland & Wolff shipyard and is skirted by Queen's Road. The old coal unloading area is now occupied by the SSE Arena Belfast.

Abercorn Basin
Extract from 3rd Edition of the OSNI map [120]

The image below is of a model of one of John Miligen's railway trucks for transporting coal.

Railway Truck
Model of a John Milligen railway truck [103]

Apart from the coal depot, John had premises at Bedford Street Belfast which, in the late 1800s was the centre of the city's lucrative linen trade. The area became run down with the demise of linen manufacture and 'The Troubles' but efforts are being made to rejuvenate and modernise it. Milligen's offices were housed in what was originally the 1904 Scottish Temperance Buildings. You can still see a mosaic for John Milligen & Co in the doorway. The whole building is in the process of being converted into The George Best Hotel though the project has had serious problems.

Bedford Street
Milligen premises in Bedford Street Belfast [121]
George Best Hotel
Vision for the George Best Hotel in Bedford Street Belfast [122]

The 1939 telephone directory for Belfast lists John Milligen as a coal importer with addresses at 18 Donegall Square and a goods station at Ballymena.


The 1943 Belfast Street Directory has the following entry for John Milligen:

Milligen, John, & Co. Ltd., Steamship Owners and Coal Importers, 18 Donegall Square North; Depot, Abercorn Basin.


The following two images give a good idea of the coal handling area at Abercorn Basin in 1947.

Abercorn Basin
Abercorn Basin in 1947 from Britain from Above image XAW009547 [89]
Abercorn Basin
Abercorn Basin in 1947 from Britain from Above image XAW009555 [89]

The following two invoices that appear to be from 1948 show the company had office addresses of 12 Bedford Street and 18 Donegall Square North in Belfast.

Invoices
Coal invoices from 1948 [103]

John Milligen died on 17 Sep 1947 at the G.N.R. Hotel at Rostrevor, Co. Down. Probate was granted to Coutts & Co on 12 October 1948. The value of his estate was £153,180 19s 8d (about £5.6 Million at 2019 values).

George Edward Milligen's Maternal Ancestors

George Edward Milligen's direct ancestors on his mother's side of the family were:

  • Grandfather: Unknown
  • Mother: Violet Harriet Woods (1886-1970)
George Milligen's Mother: Violet Harriet Woods

Violet is a real mystery. There is a birth index record for a Violet Ethel H Woods registered at Kensington, London in Q1 of 1886 that I believe to be her. Apart from her entry on the 1939 Register, which says she was born on 6 Mar 1886 and was living with George at East Ruston Manor and using the surname Milligen, I can find no trace of her on any UK census record from the year of her birth. It could be that she used another name. I am certain that Violet never married John Milligen who, as far as I can ascertain, remained married to Marcia Susan Nina Slacke until his death.

Violet and John Milligen had two children - George, and a sister Vera M (probaby Myrtle) Milligen who was born on 1 September 1912. I will say more about her further down the page. According to the family, both births took place in Europe - for privacy presumably - which may explain the difficulty in tracing birth certificates.

By 1949 Violet had moved to London and was living at 63 Melton Court, S.W.7. Melton Court is an apartment block in an exclusive London area and opposite South Kensington Station.

Melton Court
Melton Court [43]

In 1954 Violet was living at 63 Neville Street, Chelsea - another fine property. I can't locate the exact house as street numbers have changed since then but the image below is a general view along the street.

Neville Street
View along Neville Street Chelsea [43]

Violet died 4 November 1970 and her death was registered at Tonbridge, Kent. She had been staying at the Wellington Hotel, Mount Ephraim at Tonbridge Wells and left an estate valued at £8,608.

Wellington Hotel
Old postcard showing the Wellington Hotel [134]

Vera Milligen (1912-1987)

Before getting around to George, I would like to say a little about his younger sister Vera.

George and Vera
Family photo of George and Vera Milligen - estimated date 1916-1918 [123]

We don't know anything about how George and Vera got on but they certainly chose very different directions in life as will be seen.

Motoring Accident

In 1934, at the age of 22, Vera had her own car and was involved in a fatal accident driving it. An inquest was held at Worthing Town Hall on 28 April 1934 on the death of Evelyn May Ellis, the daughter of a local policeman. The verdict was Accidental Death with a rider that the jury considered that Vera was driving in a dangerous manner. Miss Ellis had been on a cycle and Vera had been driving "a large blue Daimler saloon car" - possibly at 40 miles per hour according to witnesses.

Cutting
Cutting from Worthing Gazette 29 August 1934 [125]

Interestingly there was a report in the Belfast Newsletter on the following September reporting that Vera had been found not guilty of manslaughter but guilty of 'driving in a dangerous manner' for which she was fined £10, had her licence endorsed and had to pay £11 costs. The fact that the Belfast newspaper reported this matter suggests that her being the daughter of John Milligen may have been known in the area - though it could have just been a syndicated story as it also appeared in the Gloucester Citizen and Hartlepool Daily Mail. Vera's address at this time was noted as Ashley Court, Queen's Gate, London.

Cutting
Cutting from Belfast Newsletter 15 September 1934 [126]
Queen's Gate
View along Queen's Gate in 2020 - Ashley Court seems to have been renamed [43]

Whatever else might be said about him, it seems that John Milligen was certainly looking after his family!

Rodeo Performer

At some point in her life, Vera chose a very unusual path in deciding she wanted to appear in 'Wild West' or rodeo type events. Eventually she made a career from her performances.


Vera married Alexander Dennis (Tex) McLeod in July 1939. Tex was born in Texas in 1889 - or maybe 1892. Most of the information about Tex seems to be rather fluid but it seems pretty clear that his father George McLeod was a schoolteacher. In 1910 Tex was working on a ranch and his War Draft record from 1917 says he was working for the Jess Willard and Buffalo Bill Show. Jess Willard had been a world heavyweight boxer billed as The Pottawatomie Giant; he lost his title to Jack Dempsey in 1919 but thereafter alleged that Dempsey had cheated. William (Buffalo Bill) Cody (1846-1917) died around this time and the business was sold so either Tex's employment with the show was short-lived or he joined the new company.


Tex may have been married in the US but facts are hard to come by. He certainly had a child Clyde Robert McLeod (1917-2003) with Emily Stickney who also worked on stage and as a circus performer. Clyde went on to work in Hollywood as a movie actor and has a mention in IMDb where it says that he had been directed by Charles Chaplin, Frank Capra, and Cecil B. DeMille. Clyde was a stand-in for Anthony Quinn, Ronald Reagan, Rock Hudson and Tex Ritter among others. He even played small parts in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and one of my favourite films - Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles but I have been unable to find a photo of him.


As for Tex, there are a number of short videos of him from the early 1930s on YouTube for anyone interested. They include him performing his 'rope twirling' act and making jokes that have quite honestly not stood the test of time; acts were not too sophisticated back then. However by 1942 Tex and Vera were well-enough known for Pathé News to produce a short newsreel item about the pair at their farm in Sussex.


The following press cutting from 1945 shows Vera as an established artist performing with Tex.

Cutting
Cutting from Birmingham Mail 8 March 1945 [64]

In April they were appearing in a Rodeo at Lichfield, Staffordshire.

Cutting
Cutting from Lichfied Mercury 6 April 1945 [131]

In July 1945 they appeared at the Hastings Horse Show and Gymkhana.

Cutting
Cutting from Hastings and St Leonards Oberver [129]

The performers had also been at the Wollaton Park Show in Nottingham. They were clearly following a circuit of some kind much as rodeo performers in the USA still do to this day. I attended one of these events in Waco Texas a few years back and it looked very hard work.

Cutting
Cutting from Nottingham Evening Post 7 August 1945 [124]

As well as the rodeos, performances were staged at indoor venues across the country. Nowadays it seems odd to have animals performing on a theatre stage, but I remember being taken to a stage show at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road in 1958 featuring Hugh O'Brian - an American actor who played the part of Wyatt Earp in a popular TV show so this tradition carried on in the UK for some while.


In February 1948 Vera and Tex were appearing in a variety show at Torquay.

Cutting
Cutting from Torbay Express and South Devon Echo 17 February 1948 [130]

Later in 1948 the pair appeared at Exeter and Aberdeen. Vera's act included her high-school horse Bracken and son of Lass the collie dog. I don't think I would have liked to have been in the audience while Hamilton Conrad's famous pigeons were flying overhead!

Cutting
Cutting from Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 7 May 1948 [128]
Cutting
Cutting from Aberdeen Press and Journal 12 November 1948 [127]
Cutting
Recent photo of the inside of the Tivoli Theatre Aberdeen [103]

Vera and Tex had at least one child but I do not know the details. Tex's death was registered in Brighton in 1973. Vera died in July 1987 and her death was registered at Ashford in Kent.

Life of George Milligen

So finally we get to George Milligen. After reading about Vera, I must warn you that this is going to be a much more low-key story.

George was born 27 April 1910, and seems to have kept out of the limelight most of his life with very few references to him in the media. I have not been able to find him on the 1911 census and, given that his mother is believed to have given birth to him out of the UK, he may well still have been abroad when the census was taken. In fact the first reference to him on official documents is on the 1939 Register where he was described as 29 years old, living at East Ruston Manor near Smallburgh in Norfolk and employed as a Farmer. His mother Violet (described as 'of independent means') was living with him. A little of his life can be gleaned from his interests and a bit more was revealed in articles published after his death as you will see below.

East Ruston Manor House

We don't know when George took on East Ruston Manor House. The map excerpt from 1886 below shows its location and presumably his father provided the money to purchase the property. Judging by later accounts, George was an 'early adopter' of the use of tractors on his farm and departed from the Norfolk tradition of using horses. He is said to have become a successful farmer as a result.

East Ruston Manor House
East Ruston Manor House from 25" Ordinance Survey map of 1886 [44]

The Manor House is a Listed Building and the Norfolk Heritage Explorer has this to say about it: [135]

Farmhouse. Late 16th century, enlarged 17th century, altered 18th century, enlarged and altered 1933, when the tiled roof was replaced with thatch. Flint plinth and brick and flint walls. South front of two storeys and dormer attic. 20th century door right of centre with three light 20th century segmental headed window to right and two to left. Five 18th century casements to first floor. Western bay with one first floor window is addition of 1933. Gabled roof with three sloping dormers and casements arranged symetrically over pre 20th century extent of house. East and west gables raised 1933 and stepped, that to east with internal stack. Two ridge stacks left of centre. North front of two storeys. Full height 16th century brick porch left of centre of square plan. Round arched doorway on square responds and set within pair of pilasters rising to linear entablature. Over entablature two round arches. Walls set off at this, first floor level. Two light first floor window below hood mould on labels. Original straight gable corbelled out and raised and stepped 1933. 16th century walling to left of porch pierced by two casements at ground floor. To right of porch one bay 16th century walling with 20th century casement in reduced opening. Second bay of 17th century chequered brickwork extending over first floor. Platband at first floor. Further 20th century ground floor casement and three 18th century casements to first floor.Two small first floor windows in final 1933 bay. Interior is entirely 20th century.

The family, presumably descendents of Vera Milligen, still run successful farming businesses based at Old Manor Farm.

Shooting Accident

The Nottingham Journal reported on 31 October 1938 that George had been injured in a shooting accident at Antingham - a few miles from his manor house. Another member of the party, a former Welsh rugby player, had been less fortunate and lost an eye.

Accident
Cutting from Nottingham Journal [119]

Travel

On 19 December 1950 George and his mother left Southampton on the 1931 Norwegian Bergen Steamship Company's vessel Venus bound for Tenerife and travelling First Class. They returned on 8th January 1951 so this must have been a cruise. Whether the only cruise they took or not I don't know but it is the only one with records showing on Ancestry.com.

Venus had been seized by the Germans in 1941 and was discovered sunk in Hamburg harbour in 1945 as a result of Allied bombing raids. After examination it was decided that she was repairable and so was salvaged, repaired, returned to Bergen Line and brought back into service in April 1948 with a larger profile which had the forecastle built one deck higher. She maintained summer sailings from Newcastle to Bergen and operated cruises from the UK to Madeira and the Canary Islands in the winters from December 1948 onwards and brought fruit and vegetables to the UK. She was finally scrapped in 1968.

Bergen Line Venus
Bergen Line's Venus - date and location unknown [103]

Stephanotis

As far as I have been able to discover, Stephanotis was the only steam yacht or seagoing vessel that George purchased and the reason he did this is not known - nor is how he came across her. But in a way I suppose it is not that surprising given his interest in all things mechanical and their renovations. She was, or at least had been, a very attractive vessel. After having her restored, he loaned her to King Edward VII Nautical College and some light is thrown on the matter in a letter to Sea Breezes (date unknown), from A.G.W. Miller, the vessel's Master at the college, who wrote the following: [38]


After the war, Wendorian came into the ownership of Mr G. E. Milligen of Stalham, Norfolk. Mr Milligen collected things only if they worked and he had her towed to Poole to be refitted but it was found that the main engine bed plate was cracked, presumably by a near miss. This necessitated some welding to cast iron which was specialist work. Mr Milligen used the yacht on the south coast but had some difficulties with the crew and with the supply of coal which was rationed at the time.

The year 1952 saw Wendorian once more back in class at Lloyds having been completely overhauled by Richards Iron works in Lowestoft.

During the war the Prince of Wales Sea School had been evacuated to Norfolk and Mr Milligen offered the use of the yacht to the British Sailors Society who had found a new home in Dover for the school. The Prince of Wales Sea School being unable to see a use for the vessel, the idea was put to Captain H. F. Chase, the Principal of King Edward VII Nautical College. A committee of staff visited the ship in Lowestoft and proposed that in spite of the difficulties of coal and food rationing, she should become a sea training vessel working out of a berth in Wapping Basin by courtesy of the Port of London Authority.

It seems to me that George had only a passing interest in Wendorian and that he was more at home with cars - hence him lending her to King Edward VII Nautical College. However as with his cars, which seem never to have been sold when he was alive, he retained ownership and only arranged for the final disposal of the vessel in 1961 when she was beyond repair.

The World Ships Society Marine News magazine of December 1961 reported that Wendorian had been sold by Mr. G.E.Milligen of Stalham Norfolk to dutch breakers in the Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) in Rotterdam and arrived there for breaking on 17 November 1961.

The George Milligen Collection

George was an enthusiastic collector of all things mechanical. During the construction of this page I unexpectedly came across a large amount of information about his remarkable collection but can't do justice to it here. I have another section of the Benjidog Historical Research Resources dedicated to the collection under construction and will add a link to it here as soon as it is complete.

Last Years and Death

George Milligen died on 10 May 2004 at the age of 94. Shortly after his death there was a sale of much of his collection.

The Daily Telegraph covered the auction of his collection on 2 Sep 2004 and mentioned that he had driven in some of Europe's most challenging car rallies and was also a miniature steam locomotive enthusiast. At one time he had a half mile track on his farm so he could use the engines. The rails were later taken up and were found stacked in a barn.

Reflections on George's life were included in an article published on the Automotive Masterpieces website and add a bit more colour to the little I have been able to discover: [132]


Car collectors' pioneer and farmer. George Milligen was one of the most private and secretive surviving members of the tiny and uniquely distinguished group of pioneering motor car collectors whose activities began in the 1920s. Such men were true pioneers and their appreciation, taste and connoisseurship set standards to which subsequent collectors have ever since aspired.

George Milligen’s farm was being worked to the maximum to sustain what was known as ‘The Home Front’ and his already celebrated mechanical innovations there, and good management, had made it one of the most productive and efficient around.

He was a well-known character within the burgeoning Vintage Sports Car Club. Yet while always sociable and engaging to like-minded enthusiasts and Club members, he became increasingly protective of his personal privacy and restricted visits to his small but growing car collection at Stalham to a select few. He was prepared, however, to run his cars from time to time in public events which appealed to him and for many years was a particularly avid supporter of local East Anglian fetes and agricultural shows etc, for which he would often provide vintage cars as attractive display pieces – a public-spirited show of support which he maintained throughout no fewer than five decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s and even into the present century. He was also a keen supporter of the growing series of International rallies, ‘raids’ and club runs organised by various bodies for Vintage and Historic cars – virtually throughout the postwar period.

In 2004, after his death, the George Milligen Collection Sale at Bonhams Goodwood Revival Sale - displayed 38 individual cars, plus steam and marine engines and automobilia - a remarkable cross-section of long-time privately-preserved classics from such renowned marques as Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, Sunbeam, Ford and Fiat backed by further supreme quality rarities from the Motor Manufacturing Company (a 19th century veteran car), Sizaire-Berwick, Excelsior, Armstrong-Whitworth, Windsor and Sava.

Summary

My research leads to the conclusion that George Milligen was the illegitimate son of the owner of an Irish coal merchant and ship owner who made generous financial provision for George, his mother and his sister Vera. George was a keen collector of all things mechanical and this led him to purchase Stephanotis. Although he doesn't seem to have made much use of her himself, he was good enough to have her restored and to make her available to the King Edward VII Nautical College where she was very popular with trainee seamen.

George was a private man, a keen and successful farmer, and one of the UK's foremost collectors of top-quality veteran cars, model trains, and all kinds of other things mechanical. Little information has been forthcoming about his personality other that he has been described as 'eccentric'. I really have no idea whether that is a fair description or just a lazy cliché applied because of his interests. He certainly held on to the things he restored and regarded as precious as evidenced by the wonderful collection left behind when he died. I am left with the impression that he must have been a pretty decent sort of bloke.

The next page is about the stewardship of Stephanotis by the King Edward VII Nautical College.