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Keiller, Alexanderfree

(1889–1955)
  • Lynda J. Murray

Keiller, Alexander (1889–1955), archaeologist, was born at Binrock House, Dundee, on 1 December 1889, the only child of John Mitchell Keiller (1851–1899), master grocer and JP, and his wife, Mary Sime Greig (1862–1907), of the esteemed Dundee medical family. His parents were both Scottish, with his family heritage firmly rooted in Dundee. The company James Keiller & Sons was established in 1797, initially concentrating on the production of marmalade, but by the time Alexander was born they had a worldwide reputation not only for marmalade but for confectionery as well.

On the death of his father in 1899, Alexander Keiller, at the age of nine, became sole heir to the great marmalade fortune. He was educated first at Hazelwood preparatory school in Limpsfield, Surrey, and from there went on to Eton College. He left Eton following the death of his mother in 1907, when he had just turned seventeen. Little is known of the interim years from leaving school until his twenty-first birthday (when he came into his inheritance), except that he spent some time involved with the family business, and there served an apprenticeship as a draughtsman.

On 2 June 1913 Keiller married Florence Marianne Phil-Morris (1883–1955), daughter of the artist Philip Richard Morris, and they moved into Keiller's London house at 13 Hyde Park Gardens. Later the same year he founded and financed the Sizaire-Berwick motor company, which produced a Rolls-Royce lookalike. After the outbreak of the First World War he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary lieutenant, moving to the Royal Naval Air Service in December 1914 to work with the armoured car division. At Chingford in 1915 he obtained his aviator's licence, but shortly afterwards was invalided out of the service. In 1918 he joined air intelligence, with which he remained until the end of the war.

After the war Keiller divorced his first wife, and began to pursue his interest in archaeology. In 1922 he approached O. G. S. Crawford of the Ordnance Survey, suggesting an aerial survey of archaeological sites in south-west England. This project culminated in the publication of Wessex from the Air (1928), the first book of aerial archaeology to be published in the UK.

On 29 February 1924 Keiller married Veronica Mildred Liddell (1900–1964). Veronica had a keen interest in archaeology, and visited Avebury in Wiltshire with him later that year. This was to be a turning point for Keiller. He decided to buy up Windmill Hill and undertake a series of excavations on the site, which was known to be neolithic. Between 1925 and 1929 excavations proved the site to be a causewayed enclosure. It became a type-site for many years to follow.

Following a separation, Keiller divorced Veronica in 1934. In the same year he began a two-year programme excavating another area in Avebury: the West Kennet Avenue, which led south from the stone circle. Buried stones were uncovered and re-erected, and stone-holes marked with pillars. He procured a lease on Avebury Manor, and further land purchases strengthened his commitment to the village.

The first major excavation of Avebury stone circle was in 1937, the first of three seasons over the ensuing years. Each concentrated on a quadrant of the circle, restoring and preserving the site for future generations. The first season was concentrated on the north-west quadrant, which includes the great Diamond stone. The whole area was covered with bracken and trees, which were removed as the work progressed. Eight stones, some up to a metre below the ground, were uncovered and re-erected in their original stone-holes, and as with the avenue, concrete pillars were used to denote missing stones.

The second season, in 1938, was in the south-west quadrant. At the outset only one stone was standing, with a further three visible, in this sector. In the first ten days five buried stones were uncovered, and on day fifteen the famous barber–surgeon skeleton was discovered, lying where it had been since the stone toppled on the unfortunate man in the middle ages. (Over sixty years later, the skeleton of the barber–surgeon, thought to have been lost during the blitz, was discovered in the archives of the Natural History Museum.) By the end of this season, eleven stones were standing in the quadrant and stone-holes duly marked. The excavations in 1939 concentrated on the south-east quadrant, where the Obelisk stone described by Stukeley had once stood. Work was concentrated on the inner circle, and a curious rectangular setting of eight small stones, named the z-stones, was discovered to the west of the Obelisk site. These can now be seen close to the plinth (designed by Keiller) which marks the site of the Obelisk.

As Avebury was a site of national interest, the project maintained a high profile in the public eye. A museum was opened in June 1938, displaying finds from the Windmill Hill, West Kennet, and Avebury stone circle excavations. On 16 November 1938 Keiller was married for a third time; his new wife was Doris Emerson Chapman (b. 1901), an artist, who had joined the Morven Institute of Archaeological Research, founded by Keiller, in 1937.

The outbreak of war ended excavations at Avebury. Keiller joined the special constabulary at Marlborough, and was soon promoted to inspector. His duties left little time for other works, and the museum was closed to the public. In 1943, following negotiations with the office of works and the National Trust, Keiller sold his properties and land in Avebury to the National Trust for £12,000, which was the agricultural value of the 950 acres. He did not ask for any reimbursement for the vast sum (today equivalent to over £2 million) which he had spent on excavating and restoring the circle.

Both Keiller and his wife had brief affairs during and shortly after the war, but it was only in 1948, when he met Gabrielle Muriel Styles, née Ritchie (1908–1995), the champion golfer and art collector, that he sought a divorce. Doris refused. In 1951 he had an operation for throat cancer, and shortly afterwards Doris granted him a divorce on 16 June 1951, leaving him free to marry Gabrielle the following day. He was her third husband. The couple moved into Telegraph Cottage, Kingston Hill, Surrey, where he died on 29 October 1955. His ashes were interred in the wall of Gairn Castle, Morven, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, where he had once had a major landholding.

Keiller was described as 'a tall, well-built man, brown hair and good shaped head; an interesting somewhat furrowed face … distinguished and speaks with distinction, decision and confidence' (King diary, 1938, 27). His main interests throughout life were archaeology, photography, racing cars, and skiing, all of which his considerable fortune allowed him to indulge. Skiing had been a lifelong pastime, particularly cross-country and ski-jumping, for which he had won many honours in St Moritz and further afield. In 1931 he was elected president of the Ski Club of Great Britain. He had more than a passing interest in witchcraft and criminology, and in exploring the range of sexual practices. He did not have any strong religious or political beliefs, but was very patriotic.

In 1966 the museum at Avebury and its contents were gifted to the nation by his widow, Gabrielle. Avebury (together with Stonehenge and associated sites) was inscribed a world heritage site in 1986, and by 2000 received over 350,000 visitors a year.

Sources

  • L. J. Murray, A zest for life (1999)
  • Alexander Keiller Museum Archive, Avebury
  • W. Young diaries, Devizes Museum, Wiltshire
  • D. G. King diaries, Alexander Keiller Museum Archive, Avebury
  • I. F. Smith, Windmill Hill and Avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925–1939 (1965)
  • A. Burl, Prehistoric Avebury (1979)
  • C. Malone, Book of Avebury (1989)
  • The Independent (12 Jan 1996) [obit. of Gabrielle Keiller]
  • The Eton register, 8 vols. (privately printed, Eton, 1903–32)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, corresp. and papers
  • English Heritage, Swindon, National Monuments record, air photo notebook

Film

  • Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, home footage

Sound

  • Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, dictaphone recording of letter dictation

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1920–1929, Ski Club of Great Britain, London
  • D. Chapman, pencil drawing, 1934, NPG
  • Lafayette, photograph, 1940, Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury

Wealth at Death

£106,798 14s. 11d.: probate, 22 June 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh