From valet to world traveler: a long life well lived

Estate History 05/05/15

Written By Judy Ross

In researching people who worked for the Vanderbilts, our Museum Services staff uncovered a 1973 newspaper article in the Hendersonville Times-News about Wilfred George Shackley, who served as George Vanderbilt’s valet for six years beginning in 1900.

Excerpts from the article provide fascinating glimpses into his life and times:

“Few people have been able to cram into their lifetime book of memories as many world trips, as many confrontations with kings and potentates and as much hobnobbing with world celebrities as Wilfred G. Shackley of Flat Rock who celebrated his 98th birthday last week.

“Sleeping in the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt, meeting Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and King Edward of England and traveling around the world with millionaire George Vanderbilt, original owner of Biltmore House are only a few of the highlights of Shackley’s career.

“Born in June 17, 1875 Shackley attended school in England and came to the United States when he was 15 years old. When he came to this country he worked and attended night school and learned accounting, bookkeeping and typing. When he was 19 years old a cotton broker engaged him to go to Shanghai with him.

“He was there eight months and returned to London wearing the white type of clothing usually worn in China.

“When he checked in at the hotel where he usually stayed the clerk greeted him and said ‘You’re just the man we are looking for.’ He added ‘There’s a millionaire here from America looking for someone to travel around the world and keep his records.’

“Shackley says he was introduced to Vanderbilt and when the millionaire learned he spoke several languages he immediately hired him. He said ‘we leave for Paris day after tomorrow.’ Shackley said he told Vanderbilt it would be impossible because all the clothing he had was light clothing he brought from the Orient. Vanderbilt postponed the start of the journey ten days for Shackley’s convenience.Napoleon's Chess Set

“The Flat Rock retiree spent a number of years travelling with Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, keeping records of their travels, purchases and other details. Among the countries visited were Russia, Germany, France, Holland, Italy, China, Japan, the Philippines and Canada.

“In his travels Vanderbilt was seeking art treasures, tapestries, statuary, works in silver and gold and historic treasures.

“Shackley has also played chess with a set of chessmen which Napoleon used while he was imprisoned at St. Helena. Vanderbilt acquired the set and it is a part of the possessions at Biltmore House.”

After leaving service at Biltmore, Shackley went to work for a Wall Street bond company, later selling bonds in Paris. He served in World War II with the War Department then became vice president of Henry Rump and Sons, a wholesale fruit and vegetable business founded by his father-in-law. The Shackleys ran this business until his retirement in 1966 when he turned 90. He passed away at the age of 101 in Hendersonville, NC.

Credit: Excerpts from “William [sic] Shackley At Age 98 Has Led A Full Life,” July 23, 1973 Hendersonville News-Times.

Top: Boots, gloves, and hat from the early 1900s, acquired by Biltmore to represent what a gentleman of the era would wear.

Right: Chess set and gaming table once owned by Napoleon and given to George Vanderbilt; now on display at The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad exhibition at Biltmore.

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