04/09/1866 – Moving in with Charles Alison, the British ambassador in Tehran

During his long stay of five months in Tehran, in 1866, Tinco Lycklama becomes a close friend of Charles Alison, the minister plenipotentiary at the British legation. When Alison invites Tinco to live at the Gulhek compound for two weeks, as Her Majesty’s guest, Tinco is very touched by this personal sign of affection.

Charles Alison (1810-1872)
Charles Alison (1810-1872), by Capt. W.H. Pierson, courtesy of Miss Philippa Bateman-Champain – Printed in “The English Amongst the Persians: Imperial Lives in Nineteenth-Century Iran” by Denis Wright, 2001, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London/New York.

 

The British minister was a pretty excentic man. Charles Alison (1810-1872) had taken up his position as the head of the British legation to the Qajar court on July 19, 1860. He came with a reputation for flamboyance, partying, and womanizing. But, since 1863, he also lived in sorrow.

Elizabeth Sorell (1823-1863)
Elizabeth Sarell (1823-1863)

Alison was new to his role in Tehran. His previous assignments at Constantinople and Damascus had been in lower positions. He spent many years in the Ottoman capital  where he had met Elizabeth Sarell (1823-1863). She was a member of an influential merchant family in the Levant and wife of Theodore Baltazzi (1798-1860) – personal banker to the Sultan and the richest person in that city. Baltazzi died in 1860. Though stationed in Tehran, Alison courted Elizabeth, and they married in Paris in 1863. The marriage was short-lived: Elizabeth died the same year, right after Christmas.

Tinco Lycklama doesn’t elaborate on this sad episode in Alison’s life. He simply writes that his friend was hiding a profound sadness – and kept it for himself.

Charles Alison was otherwise a perfect host and enjoyed throwing parties. Actually, that is how Tinco met Alison, only days after arriving in Tehran, in May 1866. The occasion was a party at the British residence. Tinco mingled with other Englishmen but also Frenchmen, Russians, Turks, Persians, and even an Indian prince. A single evening gave Tinco all the right introductions. But, there were many parties – and Tinco didn’t miss any of them.

Diplomats desperately needed parties in Tehran, as the city didn’t have much else to offer to its foreign residents. Charles Alison seems to have been a reasonably good piano-player, but Tinco writes that the best player of all was William John Dickson (1826-1900), the Oriental secretary at the British legation. With a slight display of false modesty, Tinco says he was occasionaly invited to perform as well.

Moving to Gulhek

British Legation at Bāgh-I Īlchī in 1867
The British Legation in Tehran at Bāgh-I Īlchī in 1867

The British legation was formally located in central Tehran, at Bāgh-I Īlchī. The compound dated from 1811 and was built under ambassador Sir Gore Ouseley (1770-1844). But, by the time Alison took his position, the buildings had been deteriorating, and he asked for (and obtained) the permission to acquire new lands and construct a new embassy. It was William Henry Pierson (1839-1881) – an important figure at the Indo-European Telegraph Department (also read this article…) – who conceived and oversaw the design of the new compound (and most of its execution). It was located at Ferdowsi – and entered into operation in 1872.

Tinco only saw the original compound at Bāgh-I Īlchī. And, as it was summer and the heat in Tehran was unbearable, the legation soon set up quarters at its summer residence at Gulhek – (then) located outside the city limits. This is where Tinco stayed for two weeks, September 4-18, 1866.

Charles Alison made arrangements so that Tinco could stay in a separate pavillion. It was surrounded by gardens and situated right opposite Alison’s main residence. On the 1865 map above we can identify Tinco’s pavillion as the red rectangular building above the residence (in white).

The days at Gulhek were well organized. At 8am, Charles Alison would rise for breakfast. Lunch was served at noon sharp, and dinner at 6pm. Tinco enjoyed the refined European luxury of Gulhek. Alison had even put a coach and three horses at his disposal. Of course, Alison had his official duties to tend to. But, he spent all meals and evenings in the companionship of Tinco.

Tinco describes Alison as one of the most educated people he ever met, of great elegance and good taste. In Volume II of his travel diaries (“Voyage…“), Tinco reports Charles Alison’s death, in 1872. From the sadness of Tinco’s words, one understands the deep affection both men had for each other. It is likely that they maintained correspondance.

British Legation - The Gulhek sumer camp in 1865
Sketch of the Gulhek summer residence of the British legation (sketch by Lt. Pierson, 1865)

 


Further reading…

  • For more information about Charles Alison in Constantinopel, as well as the Sarells, the Baltazzis, and other Levantine merchant families, we recommend the web site of the Levantine Heritage Foundation.
  • We acknowledge the Room for Diplomacy web site as the source for some of the images used. We recommend this web site for their excellent information and documentation on the history of British embassy and consultate buildings.
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