by William Johnstone, Assistant archivist at Westminster diocesan archives
A chain of events that links Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman with Meghan Markle might seem an unlikely scenario but this is exactly what I encountered while cataloguing some nineteenth century correspondence recently at Westminster Diocesan Archives.
The connection came in the person of Charles Joseph Pagliano, a prominent Italian who lived in London in the early 1800s. A letter in the Archbishops’ papers (preserved in the diocesan archives) reveals him corresponding with Monsignor Francis Searle, Cardinal Wiseman’s secretary, about a forthcoming fundraising dinner and asking whether the Cardinal might contribute something towards the event. Pagliano was a committed Catholic and he seems to have been a great character among the Italian expatriate community. He was also involved in a number of Catholic charitable causes. Among these were the Brotherhood of St Vincent de Paul and the Aged Poor Society. I decided to do some further research on him and discovered a remarkable story behind the name.
Pagliano had come over to England from the small fishing village of Positano on the Amalfi Coast in order to marry Mary Floris. Mary was the daughter of Juan Famenias Floris, the founder of the Floris fragrance company which still operates from its original premises in Jermyn Street.
A portrait of the couple can be seen there in a mahogany case. Once married, they took up ownership of the Sablonière Hotel in Leicester Square. The hotel no longer exists but it seems to have been a dramatic and imposing building which played a key part in Italian life in London and was often the first port of call for Italian visitors. The couple owned the hotel for more than three decades in the early 1800s. It was in this very hotel that the inaugural meeting of the St Vincent de Paul Society took place in England with Pagliano as its first president.
Pagliano never returned to Positano and he remained in London for the rest of his life, holding court at the Sablonière and engaging in charitable work as a Catholic layman.
This might well have been the end of the story but Paglioano’s name has been brought to prominence again with the forthcoming wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Floris London have produced an official scent to mark the occasion, inspired by Bergamotto di Positano, the perfume that was created in honour of Charles Joseph Pagliano and the Italian village where he grew up, the very man whose letter I discovered in our archives this month. The citrus-infused scent has been described as a combination of orange blossom with a hint of vanilla and it is strongly evocative of the beautiful Italian coast.
The forthcoming wedding will undoubtedly be a fairly Anglican affair. But the story surrounding this new royal perfume is a reminder of the important role that Catholics have always played in London’s history. There are often interesting nuggets to be found while rooting through historical archives. The fact that the Pagliano letter appeared just a few weeks before the royal event takes place is remarkable in itself.