History of the Building

Nick Mckie, details his research establishing the origins of our theatre building.

Of Seltzogene and Syphons and Incognito Theatre

Everyone seems to have heard that Incognito Theatre occupies a building hat was once a lemonade factory. The story rests on the 1941 discovery of an oddly shaped bottle by our earliest Incogs pioneers (including Mike Stillwell, proud custodian of the bottle). They had been excavating the compacted earth floor for eventual use as the auditorium.

The Hamilton Bottle

The bottle is a so-called 'Hamilton bottle' designed to lie on its side so that the cork is kept wet by the contents and does not dry out so releasing the fizz'. The bottle has moulded into it 'E Geraut and Co' and thereby hangs a tale. Our building is said to be built 1900ish: it doesn't appear on the 1898 OS map but is there in 1913. Surrounding houses in Holly Park Road already existed in 1898. You may not have it by your bedside for casual reading but may I recommend The Mineral Water Trade Review and Guardian? Its issue of January 18th 1905 carried this advertisement:

Syphons Advert

Syphons and Holly Park are tantalising but hardly specific. The handwritten minutes of the Friern Barnet Urban District Council dated 13th December 1898 and 10th January 1899 are more helpful. They record conditional approval for 'workshop and stores for Mr Nicoli (sic) Holly Park Road'. Thence to the 1901 Census: but first remind yourselves where Incogs is situated - in the space in Holly Park Road between number 106 to the left as you face the Clinic and 104 to the right.

The Nicole Family

Occupants of number 104 are Henry and Blanche Nicole and their two children. He is described as a 'Mineral Water Manufacturer' and 'Employer'. It seems reasonable to suppose that 104 and the present Incogs and Clinic sites and the present car park were occupied by the Nicoles and that they manufactured mineral water there. A question remains about water supply to the factory. Mike Stillwell recalls a gas supply in 1941 but no water. Options are that either the supply was removed pre1941 or that water was drawn from the dwelling house (supplied by the Barnet District Gas and Water Company) or that water was brought to the site in containers. Kelly's Post Office Directory of 1902 confirms and develops the story. It shows Blanche Nicole as 'proprs' (?=proprietress) of the Barnet Aerated Water Company Ltd of 104, Holly Park Road.


The Public Record Office at Kew holds records of dissolved companies: there you can see the handwritten Indenture dated 20th April 1899 which creates the limited company with Blanche and Henry as directors. You will note dear reader the closeness of the building approval (10th January) and the company formation on 20th April 1899. The best we leave till last. The indenture lists in detail all the paraphernalia of a mineral water manufacturer of 1899:-

"Machinery and Plant as erected in factory at Holly Park Road aforesaid, consisting of 3 and a half HP Crossley Gas Engine, 40 Gallon Cylinder with pump, gold lined, two 2 and a half inch pumps, Rocker cylinder gold lined, two syphon filling machines, gold lined, three syphon filling machines, one of which with syrup pump, one volcanic machine, complete with pump and bottle filler. One only 1HP Boiler, Shafting for the above together with three Horses, one pony, one van, one trap, two sets of harness, five carbonic gas tubes, three hundred syphons, three dozen selzogenes, one gross screw bottles, thirtynine one dozen cases for syphons and thirtysix two doz cases for bottles"

So as we sit in the auditorium suffering the occasional longueur we can imagine three horses and a pony dozing somewhere near, and above us three syphon filling machines (one with syrup pump) waiting tomorrow's labours. Henry died in 1904 aged 51. The advertisement of 1905 still speaks of Nicole and patent syphons so we can suppose business carried on in some form. The company solicitor wrote on 26th May 1905:-

(Henry) "died some two years ago and since then what business remained was carried on or managed in some way by a Mr Bull who now carries on a business on the premises.............we ask you to strike the company off the register".

Blanche Nicole

It seems from the cessation of business at his death that although, as we shall see, Blanche had powerful family background in mineral water, Henry ran the show at Holly Park. The story ends here - or have we forgotten the bottle?

Blanche was born Blanche Julia Geraut: she had two sisters Eugenie and Elise, 6 and 5 years older. Their father was Eugene Geraut. His company had been "50 years" in the syphon business when a company advertisement appeared February 18th 1900. An early will shows that he handed the business on to Eugenie and Elise in about 1888 and they carried on until at least 1901 when the Census shows Eugenie as a 'Seltzogiser Glass Syphon Manufacturer' and 'Employer'. In the same will he describes himself as a 'manufacturer of soda water apparatus'. He died in 1899. Eugenie married Herbert Hewitt a 'dispensing drug chemist' and Elise married Henry Butler who I think became involved in the business. Blanche opted out of her share of the business when her sisters took it on in 1888. What she did from then on I don't know, but it is known that she and Henry set up as the Barnet Aerated Water Company Ltd in early 1899.

That Bottle Again

We at last come to the bottle. The three sisters were all in the world of mineral water and syphons. Perhaps Blanche filled bottles for Eugene and Co: she may have bought them in for filling and resale: it's fanciful to suppose our bottle was discarded by someone working in the factory - surely there was enough mineral water there in any case, and what about the deposit on the bottle? We only know that 'E Geraut and Co' was her sisters' company and that the bottle was one of theirs. Eugene bequeathed the family vault in Finchley cemetery to Henry Butler. Unsurprisingly it is now largely overgrown but inscriptions can be read; the cemetery record is clear:

Cemetery Record

Blanche died 8th May 1943 from Whittington Road N 22: her son Henry Leonard Lawrence Pannied Nicole survived her.

Henry James Nicole - Seltzogenes & Syphons

Now for the Henry James Nicole story: we know it from 1899 on - that is the Incogs and Barnet Aerated Water Company Ltd story. Henry has a forgotten place in mineral water history. His father was a watchmaker: when he married in 1887 he described himself as a watchmaker and his death certificate describes him as a watchmaker and jeweller. It's likely that he could repair, probably make and design, intricate pieces. It's clear that he used his talents in the commercial battlefield not wholly in manufacturing aerated mineral water (a fairly simple procedure of passing gas through water) but in the tricky area of designing the device to hold the aerated water in the bottle (or so-called vase), then to allow the water to be used at will.

Patents speak of taps for Seltzogenes and Syphons, and variations on a theme: improved valves, improved methods of fixing the head to the vase, ways of treating the internal metalwork with e.g. gold or silver to prevent the water contamination, sleeving the metal parts with celluloid with the same object (Seltzogene was an earlier name, as was Gazogene, for what was later known as the soda syphon).

Blanche's patent number 5379 of 1899 submitted in her name from "Holly Lodge, Friern Barnet" is typical of the three Blanche Nicole patents and two Eugene Geraut patents I have copied, and because I think it likely to have been Henry's work, knowing his background, I speculate that his particular contribution to history was his work on syphon taps or heads. Somehow Henry had secured five patents in the two years 1889/90 (were they his work or did he buy the rights to the patents?) in the UK, Austria, France, Hungary and Belgium.

The Idris Connection

A limited company was created in 1891 - the Glass Lined Syphon Company Ltd - with Henry as a shareholder committing his patents to the company and three other shareholders who together made up Idris and Company (remember 'I drink Idris when I's dry'?) They committed two patents of their own to the venture. The legalese and complexities of the Indenture are too much for me, but the certain fact is that the new company was to supply Idris and Company with syphons of a specified standard: this supply was somehow linked to the life of the patents. My reading is that Henry had developed a design that Idris wanted and his price was his part in the joint venture. The company was wound up on 29th May 1899 with Henry appointed 'Receiver and Manager'. This date neatly relates to 20th April 1899 when Blanche and Henry become the Barnet Aerated Water Company Ltd. So Henry had a part in Idris Company history - a company formed in 1873, with assets of £215,000 in 1893 and acquired by the Beecham Group in 1967.

The Story Continues.....

That is the story so far. If any dear reader can add anything to the story, or amend please let me know. I've not given references but unless you see 'seems' or 'I think' I've got or can identify the source document. This is a first shot at the story and there are things I'd still like to do: a trial dig at Incogs to see if any new confirming item turns up. Maybe try to identify precisely the 1899 operation at the factory from the plant and machinery set up there (pretty unlikely). How did Herbert Hewitt come to own the factory in ?1907 then receive rent for it then sell it to the MCC in ?1937? Was it connected somehow with the building of Holly Park Council School (for 300 juniors) in 1908? Identify surviving family. Have they photographs? Who was the Mr Bull who succeeded Henry? In the 1899 indenture Blanche refers to an associated business name, D A Nicole: who he.....?