Following the stars and taking spiritual guidance from the universe around us has been part of human existence from time immemorable. But in the 1920s, with several generations having moved into the industrial cities, many people were starting to feel a disconnect from the natural world.
The time was ripe for the early beginnings of popular astrology, reading fortunes from the stars – which could still mostly be seen in city sky scapes. Of the back of this growing interest, the 1920s saw horoscopes included in daily newspapers for the first time. Those with less conventional religious views, and an interest in esoteric matters started to grow with the changed and slightly more open society created after the first world war, and one woman who was particularly active in those circles was Esmé.
“Esmé Swainson” was really a stage name, initially, and rather than any sort of mystical or occult background she came from quite traditional British roots. She was born Emilie Alice in the early 1880s at Headington in Oxfordshire. Her father was Charles, a warehouseman who sometimes called himself a merchant, and her mother was named Sarah. She was the eldest of three kids. Her family background was wealthy – their household in 1891 had three servants.
The family had moved to Lewisham in London by 1901, and Esmé said she was a student artist at the age of 19. This probably meant that she was studying various creative arts, which included music. There are also a couple of references to her performing in concerts, as Esmé Swainson, around this time. She is known to have been a singer, and to have played piano.
In the autumn of 1908, Esmé married Harold at West Bromwich, and went to live in Birmingham with him. He worked in advertising. Although she was now in “the provinces”, as theatreland outside London was known, she kept her music up, and worked as a music teacher. They originally lived in the Spark Hill area of the city. She advertised her services as a music teacher in a trade directory of Birmingham in 1908, and appeared on the 1911 census as a professional musician. She and Harold had no children.
Harold signed up for the Royal Air Force in 1917. At that stage he was working as a stage manager. He gave his next of kin as his wife Emilie, at a Birmingham address. However, he noted that they had separated on his sign up form.
Divorce at this time was still fairly difficult for a woman to achieve. She had to prove that her husband had been adulterous, and also that he had been cruel/violent or deserted her, or committed rape/incest/bigamy. In contrast, the husband only had to prove that his wife had committed adultery. Therefore, if Esmé and Harold’s marriage had broken down with no-one else involved, or as a result of his adultery, they had no grounds for a divorce, and Esmé would have remained tied to Harold financially, even though they were separated.
Given Howard was a stage manager, and Esmé a performer, it is likely that the circles they moved in were slightly more bohemian than general society at that time, and separation and divorce would have carried less stigma.
Round about this time, Esmé began a new relationship with William, an electrical engineer. He was a few years older than her, and due to him nearing 40 at the outbreak of World War 1 he probably didn’t serve in the forces.
William was also technically married, however, though it appears that he’d also separated from his wife. They’d married in Yorkshire, and had had two sons, but appear to have split by 1915.
They moved away from Birmingham at some point between 1917 and 1923, and set up house in a sizable villa just outside Bath, in Somerset.
If Esmé’s marriage breakdown was merely due to Howard’s adultery, or he had had a relationship with someone else since their split, 1923 was the first possible year that Esmé could have gained a divorce. The private members bill introduced in this year meant that women no longer had to include additional causes, which was brought into law as the Matrimonial Causes Act. The move to Somerset may be a direct consequence of this.
Esmé, by 1923, called herself Mrs Swainson on this document. Divorced women would still often call themselves by their married title at this time, but the fact that she is using her middle/stage name as an official name indicates that there has been some shift in her status.
In Somerset, Esmé appears to have stopped working as a music teacher, and gained an interest in writing and lecturing. Her subjects were usually more fringe religious matters, and astrology. She was quite involved in the Theosophical Society, and gave various different lectures, including one in 1925 in Melksham which looked at destiny and free will in the context of astrology and reincarnation.
Today, we see astrology as something quite separate from Christianity, as it would seem to be quite different from the belief system in the Christian church. However, Esmé’s beliefs seem to mention God and Christ as part of her practice. Certainly, at this time when most people in the UK were still nominally Christian, even though church-going was starting to change, the ideas offered by astrology and the occult carried more traction with the public if they were linked to wider accepted beliefs. So, even if Esmé was not nominally Christian, she linked much of her work to that belief system, at least in a general sense.
She also advertised her services in more esoteric publications of the age, like “The Occult Review”, from which this advert is taken in 1926.
At this time, the monthly publication offered various insight into esoteric matters and ideas present in psychology. A sample contents list for one of the 1926 editions included Magic of the Mantra, Some Evidential Clairvoyance, Sorcery in France and Africa, Reincarnation in English Poetry, and The Influence of Personality on Leadership. All are subjects that would not feature in mainstream newspapers, but are clearly of interest to the clientele that Esmé was appealing to with her work.
In around 1933, Esmé wrote and published a book on the basics of astrology. This was aimed at children, but also provided an introduction to the subject for a general readership. A review said that it “serves a two-fold purpose; it can be read merely as a fairy tale for children, yet its narrative contains many facts of occult life (on which the authoress is an expert) in its fairy tale guise, and is true in its Zodiacal symbolism”.
The 1939 register has Esmé still living at her villa. On this document, she says that she is divorced, and working as a market gardener, writer and lecturer. This would indicate that she drew some living from the agricultural land around the house, and this probably subsidised her other work. William is living with her too, but says that he is still married. This indicates that he has not legally separated himself from his former wife, who in fact was living nearby with one of their sons at the time.
She continued to lecture on various occult and esoteric subjects for the next few years, taking in venues around Bath and in Bath itself.
William died in the summer of 1956, and left a considerable amount to both Esmé and his son Joseph, who was working as an accountant. Esmé was referred to as a widow on the probate document – meaning that her former husband Howard had died. Being a widow was considerably more respectable than being a divorcee, and many divorced women would change their status to widow as soon as they could.
Three years after his death, at the very end of the 1950s Esmé left the UK for India. She sailed from Southampton, heading for Mumbai. She said that she was an author, and that she intended to live in India. This may just have been for travel, or for furthering her knowledge of eastern philosophy matters.
Whether that worked out or not, she returned to the UK at some point after 1960. Esmé died in the early summer of 1966 back in Somerset, aged 84.
In terms of Wiltshire and women’s suffrage, the awesome figure of Edith New – Swindon-born but London-based – overshadows much of the grassroots activism in the early 20th century. The town of Corsham is known to have been very supportive of the Great Pilgrimage that came through the county in June 1913, but there are no local names of women that stand out as activists and speakers, and though the pilgrimage also came through Chippenham the populace here are thought to have been largely indifferent and instead responded better to the antis coming through around the same time. Trowbridge had a branch of the WSPU, with Bessie Gramlick as joint secretary alongside Lillian Dove-Willcox (who famously evaded the 1911 census by camping out in a caravan on Salisbury Plain), but not a great deal about their activities has been recorded. In contrast, the Devizes branch of the WSPU, with secretary Katherine Abraham, appear to have been much more active.
Katherine was a grocer’s daughter, born at Upavon on the edge of Salisbury Plain at the beginning of 1888. She was the younger of two children – her brother Edward was two years her senior – and her parents had married quite late on for the time, which perhaps explains her lack of other siblings. Her father had run a grocer’s shop on Estcourt Street in Devizes, but by the time Katherine and Edward were around he’d taken retirement. The family lived in Upavon for a while, but by the turn of the 20th century they were back at Estcourt Street where the shop was no longer a going concern for the family – it appears to have been next door, in a premises now occupied by Roses’ Hardware – but their smart town house was of a good size and they were financially solvent enough to be able to employ a servant.
Katherine’s level of education is unknown. She definitely would have attended elementary school – probably at the National School for Girls – and she may have gone further, likely to the Devizes College and High School, as the town’s private grammar school was only for boys.
Her father died in 1902, when she was around 14. The family continued living in the Estcourt Street house, and her brother began to train as a doctor. Katherine was well positioned – unmarried, comfortably off, and probably educated to a good standard – to become involved in the movement for women’s suffrage. She became the secretary for the Devizes branch of the WSPU on its establishment in 1911, but had probably been involved in the work of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which had been active in Devizes since around 1909.
One of the first acts of the Devizes WSPU was to attempt to boycott the 1911 census, in line with other branches nationally. Katherine’s mother wrote her name on their family census form, but this was crossed out later as she did not spend the night of 2nd April 1911 at their house. Instead, Katherine and three other WSPU members – Flora Sainsbury, a domestic science teacher; Evangeline Cross, head teacher of the girls’ national school; Kate Allen, head teacher of the national infants’ school – hid at an empty house in Victoria Street, Devizes, to evade the census. The enumerators found out, and on 20th April their details were recorded (with various errors – Evangeline was recorded as Eveline) alongside those of Emily Hale, an art teacher who was also away from her lodgings that night to evade the census. Another known WSPU member, teacher Norah Ussher, may also have been with them on census night, but her father recorded her presence at the family home in Potterne Road regardless. There may well have been others in the Devizes WSPU, who either successfully evaded the census or were recorded by their families even though they were not present.
Katherine, with Norah and Flora, attended the Women’s Coronation Procession through London on 11th June 1911. This was a mass suffragette march, held just before the coronation of King George V, aimed to demand women’s suffrage in the new era. Katherine, Norah and Flora – dressed in suffrage colours white, mauve and green – carried the Moonraker banner on behalf of the Devizes WSPU and joined 40,000 others on the route from Westminster to the Albert Hall. Many women dressed as well-known female historical figures, and there were representatives from various different groups and societies in the movement.
It’s likely that Katherine stayed involved in the WSPU until their cessation of activities at the outbreak of the First World War. Her friend and colleague Norah had a boyfriend who was killed during the war. Katherine married her young man, Jessie – a coal miner from South Wales who had somehow found his way to Devizes – in the autumn of 1915. Their son Thomas was born in the October of 1916. At some point that can’t quite be pinpointed, Jessie went into the army to fight, and was sent to India. He died out there at Poona, in September 1918, having contracted influenza that mutated into pneumonia, and was probably a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic. This left Katherine as a widow with a son aged not quite two. She was probably supported by her WSPU friends, none of whom had married, and they encouraged her to take her next steps.
In the spring of 1919, after the war was over, Katherine applied to the war office for funds for a period of training as part of her widow’s pension. She got this grant, and moved to the Golders Green area of London with Thomas to train as a Montessori teacher. This child-centred system of education had been popularised in the UK by its founder Maria Montessori a few years earlier, and allowed Katherine to train for a profession alongside caring for her son in the same setting.
After four months of training, Katherine was qualified and able to take up a position. She found one in Sheffield, at a Montessori school headed by Hilda Doncaster – a Quaker and wife of a steel manufacturer. Whether this was her first position or a later one is unclear, but she was definitely working there from the late 1920s onwards, and living close to the Sheffield Botanical Gardens.
The Montessori school where she worked was located on Psalter Lane (the building it occupied now houses the city’s Interfaith Centre), and in 1931 an advert for the school detailed that they could explain the educational methods at an open day. The same advert also promised a demonstration of Margaret Morris dancing, a method that encouraged grace and good posture, given by Mrs Doncaster’s daughter Margaret. Mrs Doncaster had four children, including Christopher who went on to be a celebrated theatre designer. Katherine’s own son Thomas, who came through the same Montessori system, trained as an architect and was practicing by the beginning of the Second World War. Architecture was one of the reserved professions, so he did not have to fight in that conflict.
Thomas, who lived at home with his mother even as a young adult, married during the war years and eventually gave his mother four grandchildren. Katherine appears to have moved back to the London area during the tail end of the war, living in Bermondsey. At this point she would have been in her mid-to-late 50s, and like many of her generation she had not married a second time. She probably continued to work as a Montessori teacher until taking retirement.
Katherine died in London, at the tail end of 1974. She was 87.
Dorothy, known to family as Dodo, was clearly not someone to be trifled with. She was once a suffragette, then a nurse in World War 1 Russia who was awarded a medal for bravery, founded one of the first anti-natal clinics in London in the early 1920s before more nursing in the Baltic states, and then was a formidable magistrate at home in Cambridgeshire. This eventful life, which pegged out when she was 95, was both lived to the full (her family remembers her being both formidable but also great fun as a person) and reflected the full scope of the 20th century.
Dodo came from a bright and slightly eccentric middle-class family, and was born in the mid-1880s, the third of five children. Her father was a doctor, serving in St Osyth, a village in north Essex at the time of her birth, but when she was two they moved with her new baby brother to Fulbourn just outside Cambridge. They named their house after the Essex village, and attached the new surgery and a village hall too. Her youngest brother joined the family around three years later. Though comfortably off, the family had no title and no influence, and were known for working with all sectors of society and being extraordinarily kind – her father Lucius often would not take payment for his work. Although initially he worked on horseback, Lucius was also one of the first doctors to make his rounds by motor car, at the turn of the 20th century. In the early years her family had several servants to help with the household, including a groom.
She was from an era where education was compulsory, so probably began her learning at the village elementary school. At around 11 she transferred to the independent Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, which is separate from The Perse School, which at the time only educated boys. Her brothers probably attended the boys’ school, while her older sister Marjorie would have gone to the same school as Dodo.
It’s there that the equality in education ended, however. Dodo’s brothers were allowed to attend the University of Cambridge – Lucius became a doctor like their father, Douglas a teacher, and Guy a civil engineer – but Dodo was not allowed to go. Women were not admitted to degrees at Cambridge until 1948, although there was a women’s college at this stage, and attending a university that did admit women does not appear to have been an option. Instead, Dodo undertook a diploma for dispensing medicines after finishing school, possibly based at Charing Cross Hospital in London, and then went on to work at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital in Brighton, where she continued training to be a nurse.
The disparity in how her brothers were allowed to continue their education and she was not was a factor in her decision to join in the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was angry. Family stories say that she chained herself to property, but not where and when. Since suffragette chainings were actually rarer than popularly thought, and it is known who was involved in most, it’s possible to pinpoint the likely action that Dodo took. Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves in the House of Commons Ladies Gallery, and Edith New and Olivia Smith chained themselves to the 10 Downing Street railings, both in 1908; and an unnamed group of women to the statues in St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster in April 1909. The St Stephen’s Hall action is therefore likely to be the protest that Dodo made, unless it was a smaller piece of action outside London. She reported being arrested, although newspaper accounts say that arrests didn’t happen at St Stephen’s Hall and they were merely escorted off the site by police, and the experience changed her mind. She reportedly thought that “I’d made a bloody fool of myself” and decided to get on with what she could do instead of concerning herself with what she couldn’t.
She was round about 22 at this time, which was prime marriage age in this era. Whether she did not have the opportunity, or was not inclined to marry (she’d have had to give up work, under the conventions of the day), she did not take this path and instead went on to work in St George’s Hospital, at Hyde Park Corner. Family remember this nurse training brought her directly into contact with the poverty, deprivation and hardship involved in multiple motherhood in certain areas of the city at that time. The 1911 census finds her as a 24-year-old sick nurse at St George’s Hospital, in the company of around 40 others, living at a nurses’ home in Knightsbridge.
Dodo remained at St George’s until 1913, and then took a position at a women’s hospital in Brighton (there were two at the time – Brighton and Hove Hospital for Women and Children, and Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children – and which she was based at was unclear), to train as a midwife, where she remained until the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.
Amid the patriotic fervour and recruitment drive, Dodo joined up with the British Red Cross to help nurse the inevitable casualties. She was sent with a unit to Boulogne on the north coast of France, embarking at the end of October in 1914. She was stationed at the 13th Stationary Hospital, which was on Boulogne docks, and began work at the beginning of November. This hospital became the main specialist unit for the treatment of eye, face and jaw injuries for the soldiers on the nearby Western Front, but this specialism may not have been Dodo’s as she only remained there for three months.
In January 1915 Dodo’s unit moved to the refugee hospital at Malassises, part of a monastery (the monks still had the other bit) at St Omer, a bit in from the coast heading towards the Belgian border. This was set up for the use of Belgian refugees who had been in the way of troops heading towards the front, who were suffering from enteric complaints (noroviruses, stomach bugs, and so on), and was partly under canvas. In late April 1915 she returned to the UK.
The initial party set out from the British coast at the end of October in 1915, carrying supplies and nurses. They took the long way round due to the war. They sailed through UK waters as far as possible, as it was safer to avoid German boats, and went up the west coast of Norway, around the top of Sweden and into the White Sea, arriving at the port of Arkhangelsk on the 6th of November. Dodo remembered the journey as extremely cold, with many women huddling together in one bed to keep warm, and dangers from the sound of the cracking ice on the sails of the boat possibly alerting the Germans to their presence.
They left Arkhangelsk on the train a couple of days later, traveling via the striking city of Yaroslavl, and arrived in Petrograd on the 14th of November. The Dimitri Palace had been offered by the Russians to be the base hospital, a grand building which had been empty since 1909. Dodo and her colleagues worked alongside Lady Muriel and Lady Sybil to convert the building for their use, setting up 200 beds for wounded soldiers and associated other facilities – including a bacteriological laboratory and x-ray department. It was referred to as “The (British) Empire’s Gift to Our Russian Allies”, and nurses like Dodo were paid £4-5 per week and provided with uniform.
The Tsaritsa was a major funder of the project, alongside donations from fundraising in the UK, and regularly visited the hospital with her daughters. Sometimes they even volunteered as nurses. Dodo apparently talked to them on many occasions, and got along well with them. The Buchanan’s daughter Meriel was also involved in nursing at the hospital, which was based at her residence.
While Ladies Paget and Grey also set up hospitals in other Russian places – mostly in Ukraine – and raised more donations in the UK, Dodo remained in Petrograd. Georgina Buchanan, the ambassador’s wife, took charge of the hospital while Paget and Grey were absent. More than 6,000 patients were treated by October 1916, and it was policy to not release soldiers until their wounds were completely healed. Often the men were no more than boys, and had suffered horrific injuries that made them cry out for their mothers. Dodo found this extremely distressing.
She was reportedly involved in helping to treat Prince Felix Yusupov when he had a fish bone lodged in his throat, a few hours after he had helped assassinate Grigori Rasputin in December 1916. Yusupov was placed under house arrest in the Dmitri Palace, where the Anglo-Russian hospital (and the British Embassy) were located, which probably accounts for his treatment in their facilities. She was reportedly very kind to him.
Dodo was awarded the Russian Medal of St George, 4th Class, at some point in 1917 (it was reported in the British Red Cross Journal that July). This was usually given for bravery, or service under fire many who fought at the Battle of Jutland received one. It was less usually given to women – recipients were usually nurses who had been in battle areas – and seems to have been awarded more for bravery rather than service under fire. Nurse Violetta Thurstan received one in 1915, as did Evelina Haverfield. Another nurse associated with the Paget hospital in Izmail, Ukraine, Evelyn Evans, seems to have received a medal around the same time as Dodo. In addition, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrona – Tsar Nicholas II’s younger sister – nursed and was awarded one, as was Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, so it may be that Dodo’s award was part of the work that they were doing.
The medal came from the Imperial government, and was supposed to presented by the Tsar but in reality probably came from Tsaritsa Alexandra, and to have received it in 1917 must have been one of the last acts of that regime. The Russian Revolution began properly in Petrograd in March 1917, with demonstrators on the streets and a workers’ strike, and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15th March (in the Gregorian calendar). The royal family were put under house arrest at the Alexander Palace, and a temporary government installed, which effectively ended the family’s involvement at the Anglo-Russian Hospital. Petrograd was effectively a tinder box from that point onwards, and the situation for Dodo and the other nurses was increasingly unstable, with bloody protests in July and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party leading a second revolution on 7th November that effectively ended the allied war agreement between Russia, Britain and France. This made the existence of the Anglo-Russian hospital precarious, and the Dmitri Palace received some damage in the fighting.
Dodo appears to have left Russia around August 1917, in the wake of these events, probably shortly after the July unrest and receiving her medal. The rest of the remaining nurses were evacuated from Petrograd and returned to the UK in February 1918. The Russian Red Cross then took over the hospital, where they had been left supplies for a further six months. Once she had been repatriated, Dodo went back out to France to the Western Front, where she continued nursing work. It was while she was there in February 1918 that she was awarded the 1914 Bronze Star from the Red Cross Society.
Back in the UK, she saw out the end of the war at the Military Convalescent Hospital in Epsom, working as a night matron. She would have been involved in the rehabilitation of soldiers, both physically and mentally. The hospital also had the first physiotherapists employed by the British army, who at that point were known as masseuses, the Almeric Pagets Massage Corps. It was probably here that Dodo met a close friend who she’d spend much of her life with, also called Dorothy, who worked as a physiotherapist/masseuse.
After the war, Dodo moved to London and worked as Matron at the Duchess of Marlborough’s Maternity Hospital from 1919. Here, fired by her experiences around Tooting, she set up one of the first infant welfare and ante-natal clinics in London. The hospital was also known as the Royal Free Hospital Maternity Home, and probably would have had the involvement of doctor Dame Janet Campbell, who was at the Royal Free and a pioneer in improving mother and baby services. Concern over maternal health and child welfare had been growing since the Edwardian period, with a drive to create a national vitality and a more robust society than had existed in Victorian times. This included increasing vaccinations, the beginnings of the welfare state, better housing stock, and various other programmes and ideas. At this time, though the child mortality rate was starting to drop, mothers were generally left to get on with pregnancy and birth. The stresses of multiple pregnancy on the body, combined with severe deprivation, were starting to be understood, and Dodo and her colleagues at the Duchess of Marlborough were striving to improve matters.
Dodo’s experience here, and her connection to Lady Paget, led her to leave London in 1921/2 and head to the Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – with a mission to provide better care for women and children there. The region had been unsettled since the Russian Revolution, but Estonia had joined the League of Nations in 1921, having had a war of independence in 1918 (Latvia began its own war of independence at around the same time, and Lithuania’s own declaration of independence had occurred slightly earlier), and this was an era of shifting borders in Eastern Europe. Lady Paget had returned to the region after the war was over, and had established mission hospitals and a series of travelling clinics. Dodo appears to have mostly been based in Estonia, where she was given the Medal of the Order of the Estonian Red Cross in 1922. The story goes that Lady Paget and two of the hospital doctors were awarded Estonian Orders of the Red Cross on 30th March 1922, and Lady Paget was given six other medals to distribute to those she felt deserved one. Dodo was one of the six.
Three mission hospitals in Estonia were taken over by the Estonian Red Cross in February of 1922, but Lady Paget’s group continued their work in Tallinn. It’s unknown how much longer Dodo spent in the Baltics though, as her mother was taken seriously ill and she returned home to Cambridgeshire to nurse her. She was still living at home when her mother died in 1923, and decided to remain at home to support her widowed father. He was still working, and during the war had run a local hospital for no renumeration, and had been given an OBE. Her older sister Marjorie was also living nearby, so between them they supported him, and Dodo took a job as Matron at Cambridge Hospital. Meanwhile, her brothers were also experiencing success – two of whom had fought in the war. Eldest brother and doctor Lucius was based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Dodo’s friend Dorothy also moved to the village over the next decade, and worked as a physiotherapist there – possibly alongside the family doctor’s surgery, and also possibly at hospitals in Cambridge.
Dodo now found her feet in village life and village affairs, continuing her family traditions and traits of kindness and fairness. She was taken on as the first female magistrate at Bottisham, a village to the north of Fulbourn, at some point during these years and was presiding over cases by the late 1930s, according to newspaper reports. She also served as a county councillor for twelve years, a position that coincided with the outbreak of World War II as she gives herself as in that position on the 1939 register, taken in the September of that year. She also managed to save her father’s life in 1926, when he had an accident with an oil lamp, and lost her older sister Marjorie to cancer in 1936.
As a magistrate and justice of the peace she made her mark. A report from October 1939 describes her intimating that an increased ration of petrol for local nurses was “bunkum and rot”, and that the nurses could save fuel by cycling wherever possible. Standing just five foot two, and with a deep and booming voice, she was known as being formidable and firm but fair with her judgements, often researching and giving the harshest punishments for misdemeanours.
Her father died in 1942, and was widely mourned by the village. Dodo, who had volunteered in local nursing during the war, had her friend Dorothy move into their house at some point after that, where she remained for the rest of their lives. Dodo’s sexuality was never remarked upon by family, but it was felt that her relationship with Dorothy – known as Double on account of her surname – was more than just friends. However, it could also have been one of companionship given many women of their generation had never married due to the loss of so many young men during the First World War. They came as a pair – known as Dodo and Double – for the rest of their lives, and owned an Alsatian dog together.
Dodo’s brother Lucius was also awarded the OBE after the Second World War, having doctored in the Caribbean, made great strides in bacteriological matters in Ceylon and researched diet and nutrition among prisoners of war in Singapore. Dodo continued to live in her father’s house, with surgery and a small village hall attached. She remained active in health matters – making a “spirited protest” about hospital staff housing being refused at Cambridge Mental Hospital in 1949. She also served on the board of governors for the local junior school for many years (often giving parties for the children in the hall), and was a member of the Chesterton Rural District Council and sat on the Fulbourn Parochial Church Council from 1951. Aside from her professional life, she was a great favourite of her young relatives, being lively and fun at family gatherings and taking delight in visiting her relations. She had a safe full of memorabilia, including jewels given to her by the Russian royal family, letters from various dignitaries and even a pair of pistols.
After a long life, Dodo died at the age of 94 in 1980, in Cambridgeshire. Her partner Double, who was eight years her junior, made it to 100 and died in 1995, also in Cambridgeshire.
Isabella Maria Constantia, named perhaps for her father’s fascination with Italy and its people, was orphaned by the time she was three. Her mother – her clergyman and poet father’s second wife – had died giving birth to her in 1776, and her father died in 1779 aged only 45.
She had a brother, John, who was eight years her senior, but he had been brought up by an aunt since his own mother’s death in childbirth, so the orphaned toddler Isabella was alone in the world. She’d been born in Blagdon, Somerset, where her father had been the Reverend since 1766, but he’d really made a name for himself while working for several churches in London – and it was there that Isabella was sent. He’d become friendly, while living there, with the Gillman family. Thomas Gillman, who was involved in the law (although what sort of position he held is not clear), his wife Catherine and their daughter Catherina Elizabeta were named Isabella’s guardians and protectors in her father’s will.
She was removed to their house in Great Ormond Street – at this stage a street of important people living in smart sizable town houses that dated from the beginning of that century and not the site of a famous hospital for sick children (it wasn’t built until 1852) – and began a life in London as their ward. The Gillman’s daughter and only child Catherina was in her later teens, so the age gap between the two girls was vast, and it seems likely that they all lavished their attention on the young Isabella, who would have been brought up in considerable privilege for the time. This was a great time to be a privileged child, as the period brought in huge amounts of books, toys and games aimed at children, and began to value and educate their developing minds in a far more structured way. Isabella’s father had instructed that she would benefit from the sale of his goods and chattels to help fund her life with the Gillmans, all her mother’s clothes, and a further sum of £1,000 to be held in trust for her when she reached the age of 21. He also bequeathed her and her brother a diamond ring apiece.
When Catherina married in February 1783, Isabella was around the age of seven. Though Thomas Gilman was still in Great Ormond Street, Isabella went with Catherina to be the ward child in her new marriage. Catherina had married Esmead Edridge, the lord of the manor at Monkton House, in Chippenham in Wiltshire. The Edridge family, who were initially Quakers and had mostly been born in Bristol, had had the house since at least the 1740s. At this stage, Esmead was the eldest son, but there were many other siblings still associated with the house – his older sister Love Mary had recently married and moved to Bath, but younger brothers Thomas, John and Abraham were all unmarried and at the house, running a business as clothiers of the town. In addition to the four men, their widowed mother Love and unmarried sister Martha completed the large household that Catherina and Isabella joined.
Shortly after the marriage, Esmead had Monkton House renovated. This altered what had originally been a substantial farmhouse-style property into a grand Georgian mansion of many rooms. He appears to have made a reasonable living as a merchant, as well as being Lord of the Manor, but it may be that Catherina’s dowry brought in additional funds for the building project. Brother Abraham had a smaller house built in a similar style, possibly using the same architect and builders, in St Mary Street just across the river. The property is currently used as apartments, and has purpose-built sheltered accommodation on the land leading down to the river that may initially have been used for fulling and dyeing cloth.
Isabella, at just seven, now grew up in this great house full of people. Esmead and Catherina, who had no children of their own, considered her their daughter to all intents and purposes. They educated her, probably at home with a governess, and she was considered part of the wider Edridge family. There were no other children known to have lived at Monkton House at the time.
This position changed in 1798, when Isabella had just turned 22 and had come into her inheritance. She engaged in a clandestine marriage with Abraham Edridge, Esmead’s younger brother, who had been in the position of uncle to her throughout her childhood. Catherina and Esmead were said later to have been deeply offended by this act because of this prior relationship. Abraham was a good 15 years older than Isabella, and had also fathered an illegitimate child – John – in his late 20s who was regarded as his heir, and who became Isabella’s stepson. As an aside, Esmead and Abraham’s brother Thomas had also had an illegitimate son at around the same time, but he was not acknowledged, and John’s elevation appears to have been due to a lack of any legitimate male heir anywhere in the family.
Isabella then went to live with Abraham, probably at his house on St Mary Street and became mistress of that property. They are known to have paid hair powder tax around now, so would have been fashionable enough to wear wigs. They did not have any children together. Isabella’s marriage technically made her the social equal of Catherina and other gentry wives, but given the controversy surrounding the marriage it is unclear whether they were accepted in local society.
In the very early 1800s, Catherina – who was then in her early 50s – started to suffer mental health issues and in the parlance of the time was declared a “lunatic”. Descriptions of some of her behaviour put this as close to dementia. She was removed from Monkton House to Fisher House, which appears to have been a London residence. Isabella tried to work with the family to help Catherina be placed in environments that were comfortable, going through legal means if necessary.
Around the same time, Isabella and Abraham moved from Chippenham to Pockeridge House, on the edge of Corsham, which is now on Ministry of Defence land and was converted to an officers’ mess during the second world war. The property there was substantial, and Abraham’s son John lived with them there when he wasn’t serving with the Royal Navy. In this house she was able to be a gentry wife away from the house she’d grown up in, but still maintained her links with Chippenham.
Esmead, her adoptive father, died in 1812. At this stage Isabella’s care of Catherina seems to step up a gear, perhaps as he was not there to stand in the way. She goes through legal means to have access to Catherina despite the judgment of lunacy. This made the newspapers, and the scandal over Isabella’s marriage was raked over by the press. It was agreed, however, that Isabella could take Catherina out for drives in her carriage, and could look after her at Monkton House as she was more comfortable there and her symptoms reduced. Isabella argued that since Catherina had looked after her from childhood, it was now time for her to look after her guardian.
Catherina, despite her illness, managed to outlast Isabella by six years. Isabella died at Pockeridge in 1820, aged 44, and was buried close to where she’d grown up in Chippenham. Catherina died in 1826, and was buried with Esmead at Chippenham. Abraham continued to live at Pockeridge, with his son John and his first two wives (there were three in all), and died in Bath in the early 1840s. He is not buried with Isabella.
The name Lovegrove was around in Chippenham for centuries. There’s a marriage of a Lovegrove in the records from 1611, so the family were probably the town during Tudor times. However, by 1802 the name had died out, having gone to ground with a childless widow and her unmarried sister-in-law.
Mary Dunn, from Chippenham, became Mary Lovegrove when she married Ambrose Lovegrove at St Andrew’s church in 1762. At the time, Mary was around 43 and Ambrose was around 40 – which might indicate why the couple did not have surviving children. Ambrose’s sister Margaret, who appears to have lived with the couple later on, was about eight years younger than him. They had also had a brother, William, who was younger than Ambrose but older than Margaret, but he died in the 1740s aged just 16. There were other Lovegroves in Chippenham during the 18th century, but gradually they either moved away or died out.
Very little is available about Mary and Margaret’s earlier life, but by the late 1780s they were all living in a property in Chippenham known as The Baron House. Exactly where this was located has not come to light, but with that name it is likely to have been a historical property, and tax returns and a later inventory indicate it was sizeable, and was probably somewhere in the older part of the town. Later on, it was sold to a Mr Spencer. However, it is not listed as a local seat in a list of gentry in 1791, so it clearly was not in the landed gentry realm.
The family appear to have been yeoman farmers by tradition, and Ambrose and Margaret’s father William’s earlier 18th century accounts detail land held at Rowden Down and many sales of pigs around the district. However, after he died in 1778 the pig business appears to have gone south, and daughter Margaret – who had inherited £1,500 on his death, a yearly stipend, and all his household goods – used his books for household accounts.
Directories of the late 18th century give Margaret and Mary as local gentry, meaning that they didn’t have to work for their income – bills show that they had income from a turnpike at Stanley and Stanton St Quintin, in opposite directions but just outside Chippenham, and rents from parcels of land that they let to tenants at Tytherton Lucas and off the town’s Causeway. Once William Lovegrove had died, they also rented the land formerly used for pigs at Rowden Down. They also invested large sums – at least £500 at a time – in the stock market. Ambrose was on the list of voters for parliament around that time, and also helped elect someone for knighthood.
When Ambrose died in 1788, Mary was 69 and Margaret was 58. These were considered advanced ages for the time, and they lived together and supported each other. Margaret’s detailed accounts give a full view of these two older women and the sort of life they led in the last years of the 18th century. For this pair, money was not a problem, so they were able to eat and drink what they chose and furnish their lifestyle as they saw fit. The fact that Margaret was literate (unlike many people of that time), and able to run accounts and manage their money, gives an insight into a purely female household.
She details their day-to-day expenses. There are regular purchases of meat (veal and beef were favourites), fish, butter, sugar, bread, chocolate, milk and “gardenstuf” – effectively 18th century shorthand for vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions, cabbages, and other greens.
More unusual items in the lists include: “a pig’s face and an ounce of tea”, and “An ounce of coffee, a brush and six faggots”. She also lists household items and other expenses – candles, occasional oranges, a pack of cards, payments of poor rates, a pack of cards, charges for using the highways, two gallons of Lisbon wine, an old cheese, cleaning and mending a clock, and five shillings to Mr Coombes the organist. Services are also recorded in the book – six months’ wages to trusted servant Mary, the weekly use of a washerwoman (it cost a shilling), ironing of garments, and whitewashing the house and sweeping the chimneys.
They also had building work done on their house in 1798, as there’s a receipt from Margaret paying the workers. While we don’t know exactly where The Baron House was – and indeed the area of Chippenham where it must have been located saw various development since the early 19th century so it may not even exist anymore – their tax returns indicate that it must have been sizable. The window tax dues show that there were up to 16 windows on the house that they were taxed upon. To give a comparison, the nearby Angel Hotel, which was in use as a coaching inn on the great Western road at the time, has 20 windows that face the street, and the current rectory (which wasn’t used for that purpose in Mary and Margaret’s time) has 22. Although not all of their house’s 16 windows would have faced the front, this gives the impression of a fairly grand property but not quite as big as others belonging to local gentry.
Another tax that they had to pay was that on hair powder, brought in in 1795, meaning that they almost certainly wore wigs.
Among her other documents, there is also Margaret’s bill from a Chippenham general merchant from 1800. Here she bought the household rush lights, candles, muslin fabric, pocket linings, sugar, cheese, butter, bombazet fabric, cotton fabric, nails, cotton stockings, worsted fabric, and tea. Fabric purchases probably mean that they made their own clothes, as there are no bills for dressmakers. At Mary Landen’s shop there were purchases of pork, bran, cakes, sugar, tea, a leg of lamb and chops, bread, and water of lye – which would have been used for washing. She bought a dozen wine from merchant John Goulten.
There are also bills for reblackening of a tea kettle and a frying pan, and replating of metal items – sugar tongs, wine funnel, pepper box, gold rings, coffee pot, ladles, spoons, a silver snuff box. Snuff, a type of dipping tobacco that would be placed under the nose or between gum and upper lip, was often a female way of using tobacco at the time – both women and men would more often smoke it in clay pipes – and there was a stereotype of older ladies working hard outside with a lip full of snuff. Mary and Margaret, because of their class, are more likely to have used it discretely in the home – if they used it at all, as snuff or tobacco does not feature in their accounts.
Mary died in September 1800, aged 81. This left Margaret to settle all of her affairs, and there are extensive receipts for this. Mary had clearly been ill since the beginning of the year, as a doctor’s bill shows repeated instances of medical services. Dr Thomas Greensmith, who was based towards the village of Box, billed her for: pints of nervous mixture, a bottle of lavender drops, countless large boxes of pills, cardiac mixture, opening a vein, a blister on the stomach (a plaster with caustic ointment on it to draw out toxins), saline draughts, tamarind, balsamic draughts, pearl barley, attendance in the night, ointment for the blister, a pint of Imperial water, extracting a tooth, an aperient (laxative) draught, camphorated spirits of wine and port, essential oil of peppermint, a bottle of emetic mixture, febrifuge (fever reducing) balms and mixtures, and more aperient pills.
From this mixture of cures, it seems that there wasn’t one specific thing ailing Mary, and this seems like general maladies caused by old age. 81 is a particularly old age for the time, when most died much earlier. And the year’s bill came to £5.1.7d.
As Mary’s executrix, Margaret’s records also include bills for her funeral expenses at Chippenham’s St Andrew’s church. She was laid to rest next to Ambrose and his parents. Expenses ran to a grave digger, a shroud and a coffin lining. Mourners were bought hat bands, capes, black ribbons and silk and kid gloves. She left five pounds to several people, and sixty pounds to her niece Elizabeth.
As part of her affairs, Mary’s house had to be valued by solicitors. Taking place in October 1800, this gives a better idea of the sort of dwelling the Baron House was. There was a kitchen (with a spit, roasting rack, knives, toasting forks, a copper warming pan, and various other items), a hall where they ate, a parlour, three bedrooms (one with a four poster bed), a pantry, a brewhouse, a stable, a coal house, a cellar and a garden – where there was a chicken coop. On this inventory list, Margaret has written “mine” next to things that she owned rather than Mary. The household was valued at £103.16.6d.
Once Margaret was alone, her household bills continued unchecked. She invested in the stock market, and commissions, which gives an indication of how finances for them worked once the pig business stopped. Their various parcels of land were rented to others, and they had a share in a dwelling at the Kings Head inn, next to the church.
She had been left a house and decided to sell it. She put adverts in the Bath newspapers and on handbills around the town. It was bought at auction by a Mr Spencer, and the paperwork drawn up by local solicitors. Whether this was actually The Baron House or a separate dwelling is not clear, as she appears to have spent the rest of her days in the house they had lived in together. Mr Spencer would appear to be surgeon Thomas Spencer, and his wife Alice.
Part of the reason for the sale is that Margaret appeared to be making provision for her eventual demise. Her will, written around this time, says that she leaves all her plate to Miss Thermuthis Ashe – daughter of Squire Ashe of Langley Burrell – and Mrs Sarah Randall, formerly Miss Sarah Goldney, daughter of town clerk and bailiff Gabriel Goldney. “Plate” in this case included a coffee pot, a set of teaspoons, a cream jug, pepper box and sugar plyers. She also left a silver teapot to Sarah’s mother.
The list of Margaret’s friends who were in line to receive five guineas to enable them to buy a mourning ring – a strong 18th century tradition – when she died shows the circles she moved in. They are mostly widows and spinsters, with nobody carrying a title. She also left her trusted servant, twice-widowed Lucy Gawen, ten pounds in her will.
Margaret died in June 1802, aged 70. She was buried with her parents, brother and sister-in-law at St Andrew’s Church. Her affairs were wrapped up by solicitors, with her household re-inventoried. Their multiple bills and Margaret’s meticulous record keeping paint a very vivid portrait of life for elderly women at the tail end of the 18th century.
For much of the 20th century, school head teachers were supposed to be formidable and particularly scary, so a visit to them or even just an interaction should have put the fear of God into a pupil. However, Miss (Edith) Denne, who was the first head of Chippenham’s Girls High School in 1956, still has a reputation among women of the town for being particularly fierce and terrifying. The school buildings have now been incorporated into the town’s Hardenhuish School, but the girls’ school she founded fully came to an end in 1976.
Edith in 1950
Like any scary teacher though, Edith was in fact only human – although that fact often does not occur to pupils – and had a life before and outside the school she presided over. She gained a science degree at a time when women attending university was still very rare, and science was still considered mostly a boy’s subject. She even at one point joined a convent. And had taught at various other schools before appearing in Chippenham.
Edith Cassia was the first child of her father’s second family, born in 1906 in a village just outside Canterbury. She was followed four years later by her brother William. Her father had previously been married to a woman named Harriet, and Edith and William had older half-siblings – Esther, Amelia and Percy – who appeared not to live with them while growing up by virtue of being much older. Harriet had died in 1903, and Edith’s father (a bricklayer employed by Canterbury cathedral) married her mother Emma in 1905. Both were from Kent, born and bred.
Edith, who was perhaps known to her parents as Cassia, was educated at Simon Langton Girls Grammar School in Canterbury, being bright enough to pass the entrance requirements and rise to the top of the school. This school still exists, although the buildings Edith would have attended were destroyed in the Second World War. Her father died in 1917, when he was 60 and Edith was around 11, and as such would have been too old to fight in the First World War. Edith, once she had finished school then went on to the University of London, and gained a BSc in the sciences in the early 1920s. She took her mother with her.
Chippenham Girls High School appeared not to keep a record of their staff’s careers before joining the school – this was often more common to long-established grammar schools – so it is impossible to trace Edith’s full career before she arrived in Chippenham. However, a newspaper articles reporting her headship of a previous school have given some clues to where she taught and lived.
She began her teaching career in 1928 after completing her degree. Going in to teaching was often the choice of bright young women coming out of university at this time, as it enabled learning to continue and gave the chance to impart what you’d learned so far to young minds. A degree was not required to become a teacher, particularly for women, but it did mark out women as committed and ambitious. There was also a marriage bar for female teachers at this time, meaning that if Edith had married she would have not been able to keep her job. However, that does not have been a consideration for Edith. This bar was removed for the London school boards in 1935, but not for the rest of the country until 1944.
Whether it was her first teaching job or not, by the late 1930s Edith was on the staff of Dame Alice Owen’s School in Islington. She was living with her mother Emma in Hendon for much of that decade, so it’s possible that her first teaching jobs were closer to there. By 1939 she was established as very much a part of Dame Alice Owen’s as the biology mistress.
The original Dame Alice Owens Girls’ School, which Edith taught at
At the outset of the Second World War, the school moved as one to Kettering in Northamptonshire, taking all the teachers and evacuating the students. Edith initially lived in Kettering, in digs alongside the school secretary Rita. Her mother went to Harpenden in Hertfordshire instead, so they were separated, at least initially. About a year later the boys part of the school moved to Bedford, where it remained for the rest of the war, but the girls stayed in Kettering – alongside various other evacuated schools from London, including St Aloysius’ Covent School, two Catholic primary schools and Clark’s Secretarial College.
One of her pupils, Veronica Pinckard, remembered an incident involving Edith during these years.
“On our way to school one lovely, hot sunny day, my friends and I were enjoying an ice-cream cone when we spotted Miss Denne, our biology mistress. They threw theirs in the gutter, but I was a thrifty little soul and hated waste. Putting it in my pocket was a messy idea and hiding it behind my back seemed childish, so I brazened it out. Miss Denne was furious. ‘Eating in the street – in uniform – without gloves, Veronica is very low class. You shall not make a mockery of Dame Alice Owen’s. You will report to the headmistress immediately.’ She confiscated my blaze and straw hat, which was pointless as I was wearing the very distinctive saxe blue dress with the school emblem emblazoned on the breast pocket. Everyone in town knew which school we belonged to.
Miss Bozman, the headmistress, scolded me rather gently, told me to be more circumspect, reminded me to wear gloves at all times and not to eat ice cream in public. It was unladylike, and I must always uphold the traditions of our illustrious school. Then with my promise to do just that, she gave me back my blazer and hat.”
(Veronica Pinckard, A Damn Fine Growth, published 2012)
Veronica, perhaps understandably given this incident, had no love for Edith, describing her as “mean”, and as someone who delighted in dissecting insects and frogs as part of her biology lessons.
This episode shows the respect for ladylike qualities, and class boundaries, that were expected of young women at the time, and that had been bred and enforced into women like Edith. Teachers considered it their moral duty to enforce these morals into their charges, and were rarely off duty. Eating in the street was seen as vulgar, and uncouth, much as being improperly dressed without a hat and gloves, and was part of a peculiarly British sense of morals, and all about outward appearances.
The original Dame Alice Owen’s School girls’ buildings were bombed in 1940, so the school did not return until 1945. Edith went back to London with them, and her classrooms were now temporary huts on the former school site. She rose to become their senior science mistress, and lived in Finsbury with her friend Rita.
In 1950, fancying a change, Edith took on her first school headship. She moved to become the third headmistress of the girls’ part of the Silver Jubilee Schools in Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk. The schools, established in 1935 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of George V having the British throne, were at this stage part of the Secondary Modern schools that had been created in the tripartite system in 1944, providing a general extended secondary education and training for pupils not expected to go on to higher education. In the early days of these schools, the provision was continuing the elementary school style education that had flourished since the 19th century, but gradually more ideas were added to the curriculum and in some towns the main employers would have an influence on the skills the children learnt.
Here, under Edith’s jurisdiction, the sexes were kept strictly separate at the school, with a white dividing line in the playground. In addition to further English, Maths, Science, Scripture and some humanities subjects, the girls studied commercial, secretarial and nursing courses. Domestic science, often the backbone of girls’ education at the time, was also heavy in the curriculum, which would have encompassed food technology and techniques, textiles, and other home economics skills.
Edith (left) with prefects at the Silver Jubilee School in 1953/4
Four years later, having been well respected in the town as the head mistress of the school, Edith decided on a full career change. She left the world of schools behind, resigning her head teacher position, and planned to enter a convent.
At this stage, in 1954, she was 48 and at the top of her profession – and may have felt that the life of a nun was right for her in terms of both spiritual and career fulfilment. She would also have long gone past the age where most women of the time expected to marry, even though she could now do so and keep her job. Or this may have been a long cherished ambition for her. Whatever her reasoning, she handed over her Bury St Edmunds school over to the next head teacher Edith Crocker, and prepared to take holy orders.
Exactly what happened next is not known, but Edith did not last more than two years in the convent. Whether being a nun was not what she expected it to be, or she missed teaching too much, she returned to teaching in 1956. She took on the position of head teacher at the brand new girl’s high school – another secondary modern establishment – in Chippenham, a market town in Wiltshire.
Chippenham Girls High School was opened 10 September 1956, by education secretary and Chippenham MP Sir David Eccles and his wife Sybil, taking the girls away from the mixed secondary modern which had operated out of the old grammar school site on Cocklebury Road since the Chippenham Temporary Senior School was formed in November 1940.
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by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1953
Sir David Eccles, MP for Chippenham, and his wife Sybil. Both signed the school log book.
The new building was close to the buildings that the grammar school had moved to in 1939, and had been purpose-built for their use. Four years of schooling were offered at the time, from 11 until the school leaving age, which was then around 14, so at the end of what was is now called Year 10. There were 486 girls on the roll at the beginning of the school, with 22 teaching staff and a school secretary. They offered English, maths, science, music, history, and a LOT of domestic science. With a nod towards the surrounding area, the school also offered rural subjects. They supported some girls who had already started work towards their GCE – but the ambition of Edith and her school was to further improve the depth of the education offered to the girls of the town. The staff wanted to aim for the University of Cambridge courses, not the Associated Board syllabus that they had been working to before, and one of the first subjects discussed at staff meetings was the provision of advanced courses (beyond the GCE examinations) in Secondary Modern Schools.
This came to fruition quickly – two years after the school’s founding, in 1958, there were over 600 girls on the roll, and the school offered a Fifth Form and even had a lower Sixth Form. And by 1959 there was a full opportunity for girls to study either for GCE, general subjects, or practical courses, and they were streamed accordingly. Shortly after this commercial subjects were added to the senior school provision.
In terms of school life, Edith’s log book regularly records sports matches against other local secondary modern schools – those in Melksham, Malmesbury and Calne most often – and athletics tournaments, with educational trips and visits from speakers intended to inspire the pupils. For example, a representative of Simplicity Dress Patterns (clothes making was an important skill when very little came ready-made) visited in October 1958, and the school held a fashion show to demonstrate the skills they’d learned, and in 1966 they hosted Flying Officer PL Sturgess of the WRAF to talk to the girls about opportunities in the armed forces. And in July 1959 the BBC radio discussion programme “It’s My Opinion” was broadcast from the school hall. Some pupils remember that when the neighbouring boys’ school opened across the field at what is today Sheldon School, Edith altered the start and finish times of the school to discourage her girls from spending time with the boys on the way to and from school.
The buildings used for Chippenham Girls’ High School
Edith remained at the school until the summer of 1966, having presided over some initial discussions about integrating secondary education in the town a couple of years earlier, although this did not take place for several more years. She’d had a period of ill health just after Christmas in 1966, and had lost her mother the previous year, so at the age of 60 took retirement. There was a presentation made for her in that July, with guests served tea in the library afterwards.
She returned to the school at least once more, to talk about its history at a celebration event in 1975, alongside second head teacher Miss Wilkins.
Edith spent her last years by the sea, on the south coast of England at Worthing in Sussex, and died there in 1991, aged 85.
Women have been unexpectedly discovering that they are pregnant since time immemorable. However, if that pregnancy is unwelcome or unwanted, how they have reacted over the millennia is related to religious, cultural, temporal and societal factors.
In the mid-19th century, if you were poor and unmarried, you had stark options if you found yourself in this situation. An illegitimate child was a massive stigma in society which could have detrimental implications for your life thereafter, and for that of your child. Abortion was illegal if you were caught and the abortifacients available at this time could be dangerous and didn’t always work, and there were huge religious implications for this option in a very God-fearing society. Another option was to have the baby and pass it off as someone else’s – perhaps your mother might claim it as your younger sibling – but if you were on your own far from home that wasn’t possible, and it’d be a rare family who could afford to take in another mouth to feed if the baby was offered for adoption. A final option, which some women took, was to conceal the pregnancy and to then either abandon or kill the baby when it arrived – which again were illegal, and had religious implications.
Elizabeth, a widow aged 31, faced this dilemma in 1870. She was living on her own with her two sons from her marriage in a down-at-heel area of Chippenham called Lowden, which was starting to be redeveloped as railway workers’ housing but at this time had portions that were semi-rural, poor and crowded. Her neighbours were labourers, hauliers, brickmakers, cloth factory workers, and she was working as a labourer and charwoman. This would have meant very low wages, and no particularly stable employment, and she really couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
Lowden in the 1880s
Despite the economics, she could have insisted that the baby was legitimate and had been fathered by her dead husband. The trouble was, she’d already done that 15 months earlier when she’d given birth to a little boy she had baptised as Alfred, who didn’t live long enough to have his birth registered. The fact that her husband had actually passed away in 1865 would have made this completely impossible, and the true father of the child was either not interested or unavailable to support Elizabeth, but attempting to pass off this little boy as legitimate could have created a veneer of respectability even if everyone would have known the truth. So, finding herself pregnant again in the winter of 1870 meant that claiming that the new baby was also fathered by her dead husband would not have been an option.
It’s unknown whether she tried any abortifacients, but if she did they didn’t work. Therefore, Elizabeth opted to conceal her pregnancy. This would have been easier than now, due to fuller skirts in women’s outfits, and stays would also have helped. She was therefore able to continue working and go about daily life as normal. Whether the concealment was intended, or part of denial and mental health issues brought on by grief having lost a baby and a husband, is open to question. Concealing a pregnancy was not illegal at the time, but concealing a birth was, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Therefore, she was on the road to committing an offence.
Technically, this wasn’t her first offence. She and her husband Eli had lied on their marriage certificate about their ages. They’d married in Corsham in 1860, and Elizabeth would have been 21 – which was old enough to marry without a parents’ permission under the law of the time. Eli, however, was 20 – which was under-age. He increased his age by a year, as did she. While this was an offence, this was a common occurrence, and was usually let slide. And it appears that they didn’t admit to being married at first. A year later, on the 1861 census, Eli – who was a railway porter – was living away from Elizabeth and lodging in the High Wycombe area. He did admit to being married. She, on the other hand, does not appear under her married name, and could well be visiting farming friends of her parents in Sussex posing as an unmarried woman.
She’d grown up in Sussex, just outside modern-day Crawley and close to where Gatwick Airport now sits, and was the daughter of rather a prosperous farmer. She was one of the middle children of a family of at least 13, and at the time her father died in 1851 – when she was just 13 – she was living away from home and working as a servant on another farm. Her mother appears to have not kept the farm, and took up working as a monthly nurse to make ends meet. Elizabeth and her siblings seem to have scattered on the wind.
Exactly where Elizabeth met Eli is unknown. He was a porter for the Great Western Railway though, like his older brother Andrew before him, so it may well have been at a station. At the time of their marriage he was based at Paddington Station, and she was possibly a servant at Hartham House on the outskirts of Corsham. If, as suspected, they hid their marriage for a while, it appears they reunited at some point in 1862. Their first son, Herbert, was born in High Wycombe in the early part of 1863. The new family then moved to Oxfordshire, as next son Charles was born in Thame in the spring of 1864.
They returned to Eli’s home – he’d been brought up in Yatton Keynell, just outside Chippenham – to have Charles christened. Here they stayed, as Eli died the following year aged just 25. His parents, who were agricultural labourers, were in no position to support Elizabeth and her sons. So she moved to a cottage on Lowden in Chippenham and took work where she could find it, which all led up to the concealment of her pregnancy in 1870.
It appears that on 6th September Elizabeth took to her bed and refused to see anyone except her two sons. This behaviour must have been out of the ordinary, as her neighbours were suspicious, and one decided to write to the local surgeon/doctor Mr Spencer outlining what they thought. Dr Spencer went to Elizabeth’s home, found her in bed with her clothes on, and accused her of concealing a birth. She denied it, and refused to let him examine her.
Undeterred, he took the letter to the police and the following day police superintendent Mr Wiltshire visited Elizabeth. Confronted with the officials, and obviously realising that the game was up, she admitted that she’d given birth but the baby hadn’t survived, and she’d concealed it all. The baby, a little girl (initial reports wrongly identified the child as male), was found wrapped in calico in a box at the foot of the bed. She had presumably been too ill since the birth to bury her daughter, or at least decide what to do next.
Elizabeth was taken into custody. Dr Spencer examined the dead child, and reached a verdict that the child had been suffocated by the umbilical cord around her neck during the birth, the result of having no-one to assist with labour. Therefore, Elizabeth was not charged with infanticide and her offence was the lesser one of concealing a birth. She was due to be charged when she recovered enough to face a court hearing. The register of births, marriages and deaths records the death of an unnamed female bearing Elizabeth’s married surname in Chippenham at this time. Whether concealment followed by abandonment, or something worse, was what Elizabeth intended for the child, it’s a situation she would not have gone into lightly, and is desperately sad that the community around her would not have supported her properly following the birth of another child.
She was held at Devizes prison until the case came to trial. She would have been held in a cell specially built for the use of women, dating from around 1841. Her sons went to live with her mother-in-law Sarah, who was widowed and working at Doncombe Paper Mill in Ford.
Devizes Prison, before it was demolished, taken from the air in 1924
The trial, in late March 1871, saw Elizabeth plead guilty and say that she was very sorry that she had done it. Under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 she could have faced up to 2 years in prison, but as the judge had found “that there was no evidence of the destruction of the child”, and had already served 6 months in prison, she was given another three months with hard labour. At Devizes Prison, which was the only prison in Wiltshire and was situated by the Kennet and Avon Canal, a prison term with hard labour would have included baking, cooking, cleaning and walking a treadmill to grind corn. Elizabeth completed her sentence in the summer of 1871, and would have reunited with her sons.
Rather surprisingly, the next record to feature her is another marriage. She married Thomas, a widower 35 years her senior, around 9 months after leaving prison. Thomas’s daughter Eliza had married Eli’s brother Job in the winter of 1870, so Elizabeth would probably have known him before her prison term. He was widowed while she was concealing her pregnancy.
This was probably quite a canny move on Elizabeth’s part. Thomas had a stable job as a small scale farmer, and a clutch of children from his first marriage that were either grown up or close to becoming independent. And at around 70 he would not be expected to live much longer. Her sons would have lived with them, on his farm in Cricklade – a town in the very north of Wiltshire close to the border with Oxfordshire. Elizabeth gave birth a final time, to a daughter called Ellen, in 1873.
However, Thomas did have longevity. The 1881 census finds him as a farmer of 15 acres, employing one boy – probably his stepson Charles, who was living with them. Elizabeth, given her family background in farming, is given as a farmer’s wife and undoubtedly had her own jobs on the land – but typically the enumerator has crossed out her occupation as she wasn’t supposed to admit to it.
Thomas died in 1883, aged around 80. Exactly what happened to Elizabeth after that is unknown for a few years. She appears not to have continued at the farm, as it went to Thomas’s son Henry from his previous marriage. Her eldest son Herbert got married in the London area to a woman named Caroline in 1883. He would have been around 21. However, he and Caroline were witnesses to younger son Charles’s very definitely underage wedding the same year – he married Emma, a woman from Minety, and claimed to be 22 but was actually around 19.
In 1887, her son Charles was convicted of arson, having tried to burn down a house he owned in Brinkworth, to defraud a fire insurance company. He received 6 years of penal servitude. He was imprisoned in Devizes initially, and then was moved to Portland in Dorset. Exactly what happened to his wife is unclear. Elizabeth and her daughter Ellen are not visible on the 1891 census – Herbert was working as an oilman and building his family in Ealing while Charles was in prison. There is also no sign of them on prison records, nor in an asylum.
Charles, after his release from prison, went straight and set up a greengrocers’ shop next door to Herbert in Ealing. He also married again, this time to Gertrude. Exactly what had happened to previous wife Emma is unknown. Reports of the arson mention that they had two children. There’s no obvious death record for her, and it may be that she shunned him after he was imprisoned.
Elizabeth’s son Charles in later life
Elizabeth eventually reappeared on the 1901 census, running a coffee house in Grays – an Essex town on the Thames Estuary – with the help of her daughter. At the time coffee houses were enjoying a boom due to the temperance movement, as they offered an alcohol-free meeting place, so Elizabeth was meeting a demand. Many women were involved in the temperance movement, and it was increasingly linked with women’s rights and universal suffrage. They also had a lodger – a coppersmith – living with them. This was particularly respectable, and in a complete contrast to her earlier rather more notorious life.
The coffeehouse didn’t seem to last though, as when Elizabeth died in 1908 she was resident in Ealing, close to her two sons – who both had large families of their own, and was buried locally. Her daughter Ellen went on to be an apartment keeper, and never married. Son Charles became a gardener, and died just before the second world war. Her son Herbert emigrated to Australia and died out there in the late 1940s.
Muriel (better known as Lady Coventry) has a street named after her – rare for a woman – in the area of Chippenham she was once Lady of the Manor for. Her achievements, as a prominent female member of the town Poor Law Board of Guardians, and only the second female magistrate the town had ever had in 1928, appear to have come in second to the extreme benevolence and generosity that she showed towards the impoverished residents of Chippenham. Lady Coventry Road, however, relates to the name she took when she married in 1893, and she was born a Howard and was a Lady from the get go.
She came from the family that produced Katherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII, but her branch split off in Tudor times. She was the eldest child of the 18th Earl of Suffolk and 11th Earl of Berkshire Henry Charles Howard, and as the daughter of an earl and a lord was entitled to call herself Lady her entire life, regardless of who she married. In the run up to her parents’ marriage her father had been MP for Malmesbury, located at the family seat at vast Charlton Park, to the north of the town. However, two years before Muriel arrived he had been defeated in the general election, so was taking a bit of break from political life.
Charlton Park, where Muriel grew up. It is still in the Howard family.
Muriel was born in central London at the beginning of the 1870s, and was followed less than two years later by a sister who didn’t live long enough to be named. Her next sister, Eleanor, followed just over a year later, when the family were living in Rutland, and then another – Agnes – midway through 1874 when they were back in Wiltshire. The son and heir to continue the Earldom, Henry, was born in Scotland, and then Muriel’s final two siblings – Katherine and James – in Malmesbury in the 1880s.
Both brothers were sent away to school to be educated, as would have been common for sons of the nobility at this time – both attended Winchester College. Muriel and her sisters, however, appear to have been educated at home at Charlton Park. One census has a Scottish governess in the household, who is clearly in charge of educating the young ladies. It is always possible that Muriel attended some sort of formal finishing school before she made her societal debut, but there is no definite record of this.
She’d have made a formal debut at around 18, being presented at court to the queen as would have been expected for the daughter of an Earl, and would have officially entered the marriage market. This didn’t happen immediately for her, however, and the 1891 census finds her still at home near Malmesbury at the age of 21, so she probably enjoyed several London social seasons. The household at Charlton Park included a cook, a couple of lady’s maids, a footman, a butler, housemaids and kitchen maids, and even a still room maid – in charge of herbs and brewing for them all.
At the age of 23, Muriel married her first cousin – Henry Robert Beauclerk Coventry, the son of her mother’s brother. He was two years her junior, and had been a serving soldier. It’s likely she already knew him, rather than meeting him through society, but it still would have been an advantageous match. He came from a prominent Scottish family, and a divorce scandal involving his mother in the late 1870s was temporally far away enough to be forgotten. They married at the church closest to Charlton Park, and initially lived close by, but in 1894 took on the vacant Monkton House in Chippenham. This Georgian-remodelled property had traditionally been the seat of the Esmead and Edridge families, but until 1892 had been home to prominent local solicitor West Awdry and his family. His death left the house available for Muriel and Henry.
Monkton House c1960
The first mention of her at Monkton House is as the honourable secretary of the Chippenham branch of the Soldiers and Sailor Family Association in 1894. All of the office holders were women from big houses and prominent families in the area. She also first joined the Chippenham Poor Law Board of Guardians in that year, alongside her husband, which was another function that was often filled by the wealthy and good of the town. However, in Muriel’s case it proved to be less of a duty and more of a passion.
She did not have children for a few years after her marriage, but at the end 1897 her daughter Joan was born, and she was followed by sons Dan and Arthur at two and four years afterwards. They were all baptised at the Charlton Park church, and appear to have been close to their mother’s family.
All three children appear to have been sent away to be educated once they were old enough. Invariably, at this time, most children of the gentry were taught at home by a governess until they reached the age of nine, and then went away to school. Muriel and Henry were far from alone while they were gone, however. Their household in 1911 had a clutch of servants – a cook, a lady’s maid, a nurse, a house maid, a kitchen maid and two parlour maids. This was considerably less household staff than Muriel had grown up with, which may reflect a downturn in their fortunes, but equally could be explained by Monkton House being considerably smaller than Charlton Park, and therefore needing less people to keep the household going.
One of Muriel and her husband’s first loves in the life of the town was music, and they actively supported orchestral work in the local area. Both of them immediately joined the Poor Law Board of Guardians, with Muriel taking the position of Vice-Chairman of the Board for a time and though she was offered the position of Chairman she declined it. When the workhouse, the focus of the Board of Guardians, became the Chippenham Institution in 1931 following a change of legislation, she was nominated to represent the institution on the county council. Later she held the Langley seat on the council, and represented the area.
The former Chippenham workhouse, now the town hospital
During the First World War she was involved in the food control committee, ensuring that everyone locally had enough to eat. Her daughter Joan, like many other upper-class women of the age, volunteered at the local field hospital and became a staff nurse treating wounded soldiers. Neither of her sons were old enough to fight in that conflict, but Arthur went into the navy straight after the war. Her brother Henry, however, who had become the next earl of the death of their father in 1898 and married a blue-blood American woman, was not so lucky and was killed by flying shrapnel in 1917 while serving in modern day Iraq.
Two of her three sisters and other brother had married equally well (the third sister remained unmarried her whole life). Her mother, after she was widowed, left the big house and moved to a cottage on the Charlton Park estate.
Muriel’s sister Eleanor, and brothers Henry and James. A publicly available photograph of Muriel is not available.
In 1919, a descendant of the Esmead and Edridge families, Miss Carrick Moore, sold the Monkton House buildings and all the estates. Muriel and Henry, who had only rented the house until this point, bought the property that they lived in and all the surrounding land. Lady Muriel is referred to as the owner, rather than Henry, so it is probable that it was her inherited money that bought the estate.
Monkton House c1987
Muriel was deeply involved in the provision the Chippenham workhouse and later the Institution made for those in poverty. The general feeling among the place was that she treated the premises as her own house, and would often work tirelessly to improve the lives of those who resided there. She knew that many of the young women who grew up there and were placed in domestic service had nowhere to call home and return to during their time off, so she provided and furnished a large sitting room at the institution for their use, so they had somewhere comfortable to return to. She also provided a new organ for the workhouse chapel, and kept it maintained.
In 1928 she became only the second female magistrate to ever sit on the Chippenham bench, and regularly worked in local law matters, preferring public assistance cases and working in out-relief. She also had a considerable interest in the town hospital, and nursing association, sat on the parochial council of one of the churches, and was a manager of the local schools before they were taken over by the county council.
Her son Dan served in the army, but remained based at home. Her son Arthur was sent around the world with the navy, but married and eventually settled. Her daughter Joan did not marry either, but lived in Oxfordshire for a time and also spent time in India and South Africa.
At the beginning of 1938 Muriel was taken ill and was not able to attend her usual public meetings and duties. Wishes were sent for her recovery to no effect, and she died in mid-February just shy of her 68th birthday. Many public institutions mourned her passing, with reports of her good work and benevolence given in the local papers.
“When dealing with out-relief cases she was always just; with her own purse she was always generous.”
“No one more than the officers knew that vital work Lady Muriel did, and the untiring energy she always put into everything she undertook. The officers felt they had lost a true friend.”
In her will she left £26,500 to her husband. Her daughter Joan died during the Second World War, and her son Dan died directly afterwards. Muriel’s husband Henry lived until 1953. In 1954, part of their land was sold off to make a cattle market on Cocklebury Road. Further probate was settled for Henry in 1957, when Chippenham Council acquired the land and house. Muriel’s house was divided up into flats and is now in multiple ownership. An estate of houses was build on some of the lands, with some streets named after the families that had owned the house – and that’s how Lady Coventry Road was named. The rest of the land now forms a golf course and a public park.
Sarah Eleanor, known to the world as Lena, didn’t quite run off with the gypsies, but was steeped in the world of the travelling shows that toured and entertained the UK in the later part of the Victorian era and into the 20th century, gave birth to many, many technically-illegitimate daughters in a little horse-drawn caravan around the whole of northern England, and ran a clog-dancing family act that appeared on variety and music hall stages for years.
Lena was a soldier’s daughter, born in the later part of the 1860s in the Colchester area of Essex. The 1871 census finds her living in Edinburgh with her parents and younger brother George, but it’s not clear if they’re permanent residents or passing through. Her elder sister Mary Ann had been left with her maternal grandparents in Westmoreland.
Lena’s childhood appears to have been one of constant movement – while she was born in Essex, sister Mary Ann entered the world in Lancashire, brother George in Winchester, sister Rachel in York and brother Charles in Leeds. This indicates her father’s military role took him to many different places, and the growing family were probably housed in barracks when Lena was small. Later siblings Agnes, Alice, Elizabeth and Archibald were all born in Burnley, Lancashire – so by 1876 Lena’s father appears to have stopped soldiering and started to put down roots. However, by 1881 he is unemployed and the older children in the family – Lena included, then only 14 – were working as cotton weavers to make the family ends meet.
In 1887, when she was around 20, Lena got married. Her husband was Henry, who worked in Burnley as a warehouseman – quite possibly in the cloth trade of the area. He was a widower, with two sons of his own. Their first child, a son called George, was born at Todmorden in 1889, and then their daughter Ethel was born three years later in 1892.
At some point around this time, however, something went awry in Lena’s marriage to Henry, which was only five years old. She appears to have met another man – Barnaby – who was a little her junior and had also been working as a cotton weaver in the area, and took up with him instead. Around this time Lena’s father died, aged just 46.
While divorce was possible for people of Lena and Henry’s class, and Henry would have had a case with his wife’s adultery, legal proceedings were expensive. Many people in their position saved for years to be able to bring proceedings to court. Lena and Henry never did though – it may have been reasonably amicable, or at least a situation they could live with. Lena’s new life with Barnaby may also have been a factor – he had started running an auctioneer’s van that travelled around the area, so the social factors around a new partner for Lena may have been easier to manage if she never stayed in one place too long. The death of her father may also have been a factor in this change of direction – as he wasn’t around to question Lena’s choices. Exactly what Barnaby was auctioning in different places in the north of England is open to question – presumably these were things he bought off one community and then sold off to the next – but it appeared to be lucrative enough to support a small family.
Lena and Barnaby’s first child, a daughter called Marguerite, was born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 1894. She was followed by Alice in 1896, who was born in Oldham in Lancashire and baptised four months later in Halifax, but died before her second birthday in Hemsworth, Yorkshire. Around the same time next daughter Georgina entered the world in the back of the auction van in Dewsbury, again in Yorkshire.
This pattern repeated itself over the next few years – babies born in one place and then christened in another: Mary in Burnley in 1899; George in Belper (Derbyshire) in 1901, twins Ann and Louisa in Lancester (County Durham) in 1903, with Ann dying in Nottingham a short while later; Alice in Prescot (Lancashire) in 1904; Charles in Fylde (Lancashire) in 1906; and Wilhelmina in Saddleworth (Yorkshire/Lancashire border) in 1909. All were born on fairgrounds, as naphtha flares lit the sky.
This creates a picture of many people on top of each other in a small horse-drawn space, with little privacy, and a constantly mobile lifestyle. However, daughter Marguerite actually attended grammar school for a year in Derby around 1903, so at times Lena and Barnaby must have been static. On the school records their van is parked at the Market Square. It is equally possible that Marguerite may have lived with others during that year, however, while her family kept travelling. Lena and Barnaby would reportedly pull up in towns and villages and set up a big fit up theatre tent, where Barnaby would auction many different things, and then he and Lena would perform a melodramatic skit. As the children grew they would join in too. Barnaby had apparently got his start in the theatre in Blackpool productions, and had been a partner of George Formby Senior in his early years.
Lena’s older children appear to have lived with their father and/or other relatives for at least some of the time. While Ethel is living with Lena’s widowed mother on the 1901 census, and Lena and Barnaby are with their children in Alfreton in Derbyshire, by the time the 1911 census comes around both Ethel and the first George are with their father in Burnley – Ethel working as a cotton weaver and George as a shorthand typist at one of the town’s cotton mills. Henry claims to be a widower with no children on this census, which isn’t exactly true but was perhaps an easier explanation.
Meanwhile, on the same document, Lena and Barnaby and eight children (ranging in age from 1 to 16) are living in their show caravan at a fairground at Blackrod near Wigan. By this time Barnaby had given up the auctioning business at some point after 1906 and had moved on to something far more early 20th century – cinema projection. He would have carried his equipment with him in the van, including projectors and film reels, and broadcast the black and white silent films of the day to audiences. This would have been part of the whole travelling side show experience, with a growing audience appetite for the moving pictures that would have been projected on to the canvas of tents as part of a range of attractions – possibly including music, dancing, circus skills, and curiosities like strong men or bearded ladies. More information about travelling shows can be found at the National Fairground and Circus archive: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca
Two years later, Lena’s legal husband Henry died, so she and Barnaby were finally able to marry. They did so in the summer of 1913 in Burnley. Barnaby had taken some work as a painter and carpenter in the run up to the first world war, so it is likely that they were static for a while. With the babies of the family starting to be able to assert themselves properly, the family reinvented themselves as music hall theatre artists, as the skills they had gained and developed among the travelling shows came to the fore. By all accounts they could sing, dance, act and play instruments. They formed a family act, with Barnaby in charge and Lena playing all the mature female parts, which appeared on the sands of Morecombe Bay three times daily in the summer of 1913 – and were promptly fined for not having applied for performance licenses for Louisa and Alice, then aged 10 and 8 respectively. They had also performed in the same place the previous year. Eldest daughter Ethel, Lena’s daughter with first husband Henry, appears to have joined the family troupe around now, but her eldest son did not.
Lena’s talents appear to also have been in performing, although she seems to have known what would entertain audiences too. Her first mention as a performer and dramatist in her own right came in the early months of 1914, when she is billed as Madam Parsons and the originator of a pantomime version of The Babes In The Wood featuring her seven daughters – now called the Seven Lucky Lancashire Lasses – as part of a “first class cast of 30 artistes” which ran at a theatre in Derbyshire. The choice of name for the family act appears to derive from the Eight Lancashire Lads, a troupe of clog dancers founded in the 1890s who were also touring and treading the local boards and at one point included Charlie Chaplin, but Lena’s daughters’ unique selling point was that they were all related. The girls all could clog dance too – a style developed in the cloth mills of Lancashire which was performed in wooden soled shoes that were worn in the factories, and is a pre-cursor to tap dancing.
The beginning of the First World War, and its associated patriotic fervour, appears to have sent Lena’s star into its ascendancy. Barnaby went off to war early – in the autumn of 1914, when married men weren’t required to until 1916 – and the family act became Madam Parsons and the Seven Lucky Lancashire Lasses and continued to tour northern stages. Newspapers would give the impression that Barnaby was the driving force behind the act, but Lena spectacularly taking the reins during the war years shows that she was also prodigiously talented and very much at the head of the family entertainment business.
Lena took the part of Britannia in one part of their performances, with her children, including the two younger boys, were England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, soldiers, sailors and boy scouts. A great fuss was made of their “Soldier Daddy” who was away with the army, initially in France and then in the Army Ordinance Corps when his health prevented front line duty. Lena and the children sold postcards of themselves, and sheet music, and performed to raise money for war funds, with Lena directly appealing to packed houses for money to support the armed forces and medical services. Other acts joined them, including acrobatic roller skaters, gymnasts, singers and comedians, but Lena appears to have been completely at the hilt of the shows. There would have been various administrative and production duties involved in producing the shows – licenses for underage performers (you had to be 12 before you could perform legally and therefore special paperwork was needed for the younger members of the family), wages for other performers, and stagecraft, and many other considerations – which Lena would have taken on.
Lena as Britannia in her family’s patriotic performance
Lena and daughters around 1920
Barnaby was discharged from the army in 1917, and returned to the fold with the family, who were at that point living in a van in Morecombe. The performances continued, with a move into music hall rather than travelling shows, and he appears to have taken charge at a theatre – at least briefly – where he’s described as a pantomime proprietor. They put on performances of The Babes In The Wood and Cinderella in various theatres during the winter months. Their claim that they were the only related family act performing anywhere is given in every advert, with £500 offered if this claim was not true, and it sounds like Lena was still a big part of the performances and the administration. They continued performing, with engagements every week, for many more years – in various theatres, and each summer in Morecombe Gardens for three performances daily – until at least the mid-1920s.
The gradual marrying off of Lena’s daughters put an end to the long-running family act, although most married into the theatrical business. Eldest daughter Ethel married John, a clerk at the lino works in Burnley, in 1914. Her performances with the family continued through the war years, but it’s uncertain how much of a role she played afterwards. They had no children, and lived in Lancaster. The others stayed closer to the family business, still taking part in performances. Daughter Marguerite, known as Maggie, married in Scarborough in 1920 to a music hall director and had a son and described herself as a variety artiste, while Georgina married Samuel Sharples in 1925. After her widowhood in 1939 she lived with her parents and her son, and still performed in the family act. Doris, known as Dolly, married a music hall director. The boys married too: Charlie to Mona, a professional dancer.
Mary, known professionally as Eva, married a pianist in 1924 and had a son. Daughter Alice married Speedy Yelding, a clown and comedy wire walker, in 1927, while youngest daughter Wilhelmina, known as Mona and a stunning banjo player, did not marry until 1962.
Lena and Barnaby retired to Southport. In later years Barnaby, known as Papa Parsons, gives his profession as an advertising agent, so he and Lena are probably managing the careers of many performers, including their offspring. Charlie and George had their own variety act, that played on the Blackpool coast for many years, and towards the end of his career Charlie made a couple of appearances in Coronation Street.
Papa Parsons died in 1945, in Southport, to a major outpouring of grief from his offspring and wife in the newspapers. Lena’s death, the following year, went unremarked upon – though she was a considerable part of the family business in her own right.