Place to Place: M. Joseph, Smethwick’s Celebrity Chef

M. Joseph, photographed by Carjat for The Sketch, 13 April 1898

This post is (albeit tangentially) part of a series about translocality in relation to the Black Country: see other posts here. Over this spring/summer I’ve had a lot of fun running walks, workshops etc. for the Chance Heritage Trust, and this is a story that came up from that research. If you’re interested to find out more about the topic, I strongly recommend Rita Bailey’s Chance Brothers: The French Connection, available from Smethwick Heritage Centre.

The Black Country has a famous glass quarter near Stourbridge, but up until very recently more people were working in glass in Smethwick than anywhere else in the Midlands. The reason is very simple: Chance Bros. This huge glassworks employed up to 4,000 people at any one time, and the firm was a pioneer in window, ornamental, optical, decorative and even lighthouse glass, supplying the Crystal Palace, the White House, the Houses of Parliament and much more. until the closure of the site in 1981. It was founded in 1822 by Robert Lucas Chance, and closed down in 1981.

Chance Brothers’ 33-acre site sat between the old Birmingham Canal and Oldbury Road, and from Spon Lane to the border with Oldbury (Revolutionary Players)

It turned out that you couldn’t run a new glassworks simply on unskilled local labour, so in the 1830s, the Chances had to import skilled glassmakers from elsewhere. Originally, it was hoped that the recently closed Dumbarton glassworks would supply workers, and a row of cottages next to the works was named Scotch Row in their honour; but when this fell through, the Chances had to look further afield. Through his friend Georges Bontemps, Lucas recruited a group of workers from the large, diversified glassworks at Choisy-le-Roi, near Paris. As Chance Bros expanded, others were brought in from Rive-de-Gier (between Lyon and St Etienne); Strasbourg; Charleroi in Belgium; a handful from Germany; and Bontemps himself fled France after the 1848 revolutions and set up home in Edgbaston.

The bon ‘ommes

The “bon ‘ommes,” as they were known, were a colourful addition to West Smethwick. Working in Glasshouse No.2 (the “French House”) they were protective of their skills and refused to teach English colleagues; they were highly-paid despite a higher breakage rate because of the high quality of their work; and as Harriet Martineau described in 1852, they worked dressed in a blue blouse, drawers with no trousers or shoes, gold earrings, wide-brimmed leather hats and beards. Outside of work the community lived mostly in Scotch Row (except the Belgians, who had Belgian Row close to the nearby Kenrick factory). They imported ordinaire wine and even opened their own cabaret. Workers included Caspar Andre and Nicholas “Big Gaspard” Gaspard (“a splendid specimen of manhood more than six feet high,” according to the firm’s official biographer, JF Chance), lighthouse makers such as Jacques Tabouret and his assistants, and a foreman named Stengre who was sent regularly to the continent to find more workers. The numbers were not high – I can account for 30-40 in census statistics, although Germans, French and Belgians were significantly over-represented in Smethwick and West Bromwich compared to elsewhere, and I would estimate 100 at any one time.

Jules and Marie

One of these workers was Jules Auguste Dugniol. Born in 1813 near Marseille, Dugniol became a glassworker at Choisy-le-roi, and in 1837 married Marie Goujon from Le Creusot, about 50 miles south of Dijon. They had two children there, Alphonse and Lazarine, and seem to have moved to Smethwick between the census of 30 March 1851 and the birth of another son, Joseph, on 22 June 1851 – Marie must have emigrated while pregnant. This probably makes them part of the cohort recruited by Georges Bontemps to work on the vast Crystal Palace project that opened in May 1851. Jules was a glass flattener in the 1861 census, living in Belgian Row with three further children, Maria, Eugenie and Jules Gaspard. I can’t find any other Duignols in this census, but the historian FW Hackwood, writing in 1922, notes Alp (possibly Alphonse), Aristide, another Joseph, and a Leon, probably Aristide’s son, so this may have been an extended family. Both Leon and Jules’ son Joseph attended the Chance Bros school, at the entrance to the works in Spon Lane. This had been founded by Lucas and William Chance in 1845, and they insisted that all their workmen’s children must be educated there to the age of 12 before starting work at the glassworks. The headmaster, Frederick Talbot, ran the school from 1845 to 1892.

The Spon Lane area of Smethwick shown on the first series Ordnance Survey 6″ map between 1888-1913. Note the school, and Union Street in the North-east corner.

Joseph Dugniol

Many of Chance’s European workers left Smethwick in the 1860s, either returning home or travelling to America. The Duignols did so around 1864 – Joseph would have had a year or so of glassmaking under his belt. Jules set up a small restaurant near Paris (perhaps even in Choisy) and employed Joseph as assistant. By the age of 17, Joseph was showing such potential that he secured a chef’s position in Brébant for 40s per month – low wages but “excellent experience,” suggesting that the catering industry was as exploitative then as it is now. The apprenticeship paid off: in 1873 Dugniol moved to Vienna as a maître d’hôtel, where he was spotted by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary’s chef, who got him a job at the new Hotel Kaiserhof, and in the royal kitchens, both in Berlin. In 1878 he made it to the centre of the cooking world (as Hackwood called it, the “Mecca of the knight of the rolling-pin”), working at the famous restaurants of Louis Bignon and M. Paillard. Duignol married Marguerite Sophie François in Paris in 1879, and they had a daughter, Raymonde, the following year.

The family had a brief excursion to New York in 1887, working for the excessively wealthy Vanderbilt family. William Henry Vanderbilt was so enchanted with Joseph’s cooking that he offered him $10,000 dollars a year (over $300,000 in today’s money!) to become his private chef. This relationship swiftly became fractious – Dugniol scathingly remarked that the Vanderbilts ate, they did not dine, and referred the boss to the gardener when he requested boiled beef and cabbage. There was some surprise too when it turned out that the famous “French” chef was actually an “Englishman” – of course, both and neither are quite true here. Despite the problems, this brief appointment turned Joseph Dugniol into a world-famous chef.

Kenilworth Advertiser – Saturday 14 April 1888

The return of M. Joseph

Dugniol returned to Paris in 1889 with a new name (Monsieur Joseph, and nothing more) and a new venture, Restaurant Joseph on the Rue de Marivaux. This was not quite a hit amongst Paris’s dining class – Joseph attributed this to his lack of capital to invest in a truly top-class wine cellar. Located on the same street as the Opéra Comique, it was popular with actors such as Suzanne Reichenberg – Joseph’s restaurant is one possibility for the origins of Crêpes Suzettes, named in her honour. The family lived nearby in a small apartment in Rue des Jeûneurs. He was acquaintaned for a while with the English journalist Robert Sherard, who wrote about him in his memoirs of living in Paris (Sherard is best known in the Black Country as the author of the “White Slaves Of England” articles which popularised the plight of the Cradley Heath chainmakers). Sherard describes him as a “prince among cooks,” dedicated to producing beauty from simplicity.

Found in an Ebay listing!

That said, his party piece was hardly simplistic – he was a specialist in dramatic carving. Mrs Beeton described the show thus:

“In his own restaurant every aid was given to obtain effect; the orchestra stopped dead, and taking his stand at the head of the room, the master sliced off joints, one after the other, with vigorous single cuts, holding the bird on a fork in his left hand.”

Food writers Nathaniel Newnham-Davis noted that “to see Joseph carve a duck was to see a very splendid exhibition of ornate swordsmanship, and his preparation of a canard à la presse was quite sacrificial in its solemnity.” According to The Ludgate he would “hold up a cooked bird (game or poultry) on the end of a fork held up just in front of him, and while so held dextrously remove each portion or joint until nothing remained, accomplishing the feat without once resting the bird on the table.” There’s more description of Joseph’s duck here.

Joseph carving a duck, after a drawing by Paul Renouard – from Newnham Harris, The Gourmet’s Guide to London.

The great Joseph

By 1898, Joseph was one of Paris’s top chefs. So much so in fact, that when the famous Savoy Hotel in London was in search of a chef, they had to buy out the whole restaurant in order to persuade Joseph back to England. The Savoy had established itself as the home of fine dining in London under the leadership César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier – perhaps the most famous names in all restaurant history. This pair’s relationship with the Savoy ended in a cloud of accusations of fraud, but it allowed Joseph to establish himself (and his head chef, M. Thouraud) in another new country. Reading the recollections of acquaintances, he was actually a polite, kind and gracious man, always willing to extol the virtues of simplicity and elegance in food. He had very earthy hobbies, and wasn’t the single-minded, slightly psychopathic chef that modern celebrity chefs can sometimes be. He was fond of boxing, and once knocked out the famous Marquess of Queensbury; he liked waltzing, astronomy, and pigeon-flying; all good Black Country pursuits in their way. That’s not to say he didn’t have a flair for self-promotion when necessary, though., and told London journalists in 1898:

History has produced three great Josephs. The first, it is myself, the second it is a living Englishman, and the third – ah! the third – he ruled over Egypt.

Back to Smethwick

M. Joseph had to clarify that the “living Englishman” was his “townsman,” Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, and explained how he was born in Spon Lane, attended school there and only moved to France aged 13. When Joseph died in Paris at only 51, in 1901, his obituary in the Smethwick Telephone was written by none other than his master in those early years, Frederick Talbot. Talbot recalled Joseph paying a visit to his old home and school in 1898. According to Hackwood, Joseph told his old master that “he possessed a lovely house just outside Paris, but as his wife was not satisfied with it, he had brought her to see the poor little cottage in which his mother had reared nine children.”

Many celebrities who came up in such tough circumstances turned their back on their upbringing altogether, but Joseph clearly had a soft spot for Spon Lane. He had risen to the heights of sophistication and elegance, but retained some bits of Black Country – I like to think that his French-accented English had a Black Country lilt, and that he picked up his love of boxing or pigeons from Smethwick. This was a man who cooked for kings and kaisers, for the ultra-rich and the most sophisticated palettes, and who had reached the pinnacle of the restaurant world. History seems to have forgotten his name somewhat; it’s nice that he didn’t forget his own history. I’ll leave it with Hackwood’s summary:

Fame is to be won for consumate expertness in every calling and walk of life; here was a Staffordshire-born man who won for himself a world-wide reputation in the world of gastronomy. Yet it seems a far cry from the drab and sordid environment of Smethwick to the dazzling brilliancy of night secnes on the gay Parisian boulevards, the paradise of the rich and frivolous.


Chance Heritage Trust

You can learn more about the history of Chance’s and the exciting plans to breathe new life into its former home via the Chance Heritage Trust. I found this story while working on their #MadeInSmethwick programme over the summer, which aimed to make people aware of the site, and canvas opinion on what it’s future should be, so don’t forget to have your say on how the site should look – perhaps a French fine-dining experience?

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