Jane had lost not only her husband when he ran off with a barmaid, but also her own identity when her husband’s lover claimed her name on the 1851 census in a vain attempt at respectability. She later brought one of the first civil divorce cases against him, after a new act was passed in 1857 enabling women to do so for the first time.
You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing had happened between Jane and her husband Charles, since she seemingly appears alongside him and their children in West Ham in 1851. However, the actual Jane filed for divorce from Charles in 1858, and says in her paperwork that he’d left her in 1841 – which makes the woman with him in 1851 his lover Elizabeth, and not Jane at all. So Jane actually appears on that census twice – once fake, and once with information she’d given the enumerator herself.
Jane was born in Fovant in around 1806, and had married Charles Shore in 1828 in Stockton – where she’d moved to during her childhood. Stockton lies close to the River Wylve in Wiltshire, between Warminster and Salisbury, while Fovant sits further south. Both were small rural communities. She is likely the daughter of James Goodfellow, a carpenter who died while she was still quite young, and Rhoda, nee Matthews. Her father’s death seems to have put the family – Rhoda and Jane’s siblings Hester, James, John, Mary, Elizabeth and Martha – close to the poverty line, as her mother subsequently gives her occupation as a pauper on early census returns.
Moving over to Stockton and subsequently marrying Charles must have seemed a bit of a step up for Jane. Charles came from Heytesbury, also relatively close by, and his father was a mason. They lived at Stockton for eight years after their marriage, while Charles worked as a farm labourer, and then moved to Trowbridge for him to run a carrying business between that town and Salisbury, and to subsequently run a pub. Much of this detail comes from Jane’s divorce petition, submitted in 1858, which fills in a great deal of the back story.
The likely pub premises, as they’re where Jane was living on the 1841 census, was the Brewery Tap on Back Street in Trowbridge, now long-since defunct, and probably serving Ushers ales, as the brewery was nearby. In all likelihood, though Charles would have been the landlord and held the licence on paper, it would probably have been Jane that did the day-to-day running of the pub. This situation was relatively common among landlords and landladies of pubs at the time.
The 1841 census, taken around a month after Charles deserted Jane, finds her still in the pub premises, with a new barmaid and a five-year-old girl, also called Jane though bearing Jane’s maiden surname. Jane states in her divorce petition that she’d had no children with Charles, so it’s likely that the younger Jane was a niece, the daughter of one of her many siblings, who partially fulfilled a child role in the couple. It’s relatively common to find niblings being brought up by their aunts – sometimes due to economic necessity, as that would be one less mouth for the parents to feed, but also sometimes passed over to childless couples, perhaps as a kindness in a society where motherhood was seen as a perfect state for women.
When the 1851 census was taken, Jane had given up the pub and had moved to Bath with her niece, where she was making a living as a nurse. This would not have been a nurse in a hospital during this era, but more someone who went into people’s houses to care for them if they were sick, or incapacitated after childbirth or an accident. It would have not been the most lucrative profession, but would have given her enough to live on. She more often worked as a monthly nurse. This was someone who cared for a woman in the final stages of pregnancy and through the birth, and lived in different households for a month at a time. She also probably did some of the chores of the household while the woman was lying in.
In contrast, Fake Jane, aka Elizabeth, was living with Jane’s husband Charles and two children in West Ham, where Charles was working as an engine driver on the railway. In addition to their own two children, Elizabeth had also taken in a nursechild, which meant that she’d probably lost a baby in the preceding year, but had taken in another child who needed her breastmilk. The reason for the deception of Elizabeth using Jane’s name on the official document was probably to do with respectability, as she was posing as his wife to all intents and purposes, but they perhaps feared some retribution on a legal document, as the census was. Therefore, she used the name Jane rather than Elizabeth. It’s probable that Jane never knew of this deception.
Jane’s plea for divorce, filed on 8th November 1858, was only the second divorce case from Wiltshire under the new 1857 act, (the first was Amelia Willett, in February 1858), and was a straight plea for the marriage to end.
There was a major overhaul in divorce law in parliament in 1857. This was partly brought about by the campaigning of Caroline Norton, who (finally) received a blue plaque for her efforts in 2021. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 brought divorce into the civil courts, and out of the realms of the church. It also meant that for the first time women could bring divorce proceedings, or seek ways out of the legal trappings of a marriage, which is what more what Caroline Norton wanted. And this enabled Jane to seek recompense for what had happened to her.
Under the Act, which came into force on 1 January 1858, men could achieve a divorce by just proving their wife had had an affair. Women had to prove their husband’s adultery, in addition to something else he’d done wrong: either extreme cruelty, desertion, bigamy or incest. Marriages were also ended by nullity – in most cases a previous marriage which had been “forgotten” to be declared, but occasionally impotence. The Divorce and Matrimonial Court didn’t just hear the ends of marriages either – either party could apply for a judicial separation, which mean that they were still legally married, but didn’t have to live together. This was often used by women who couldn’t prove adultery but wanted to avoid flying fists. Either party could also petition the court under the act for restoration of conjugal rights, therefore forcing their partner to live with them again.
Women could also apply to protect any independent earnings they’d made since their husband’s desertion, and the first of the two earliest Wiltshire cases was one of these, filed by Amelia Willett (née Philpott) of Market Lavington in late February 1858.
Jane’s story, from the case files, was a straight plea for the marriage to end on the grounds of adultery and desertion. She says that he ran off with the bar maid Elizabeth Doughty and went to live in Vauxhall, where she passed as his wife. He hadn’t contributed anything to Jane’s upkeep since. She had discovered that they’d lived under the surname Grant, and they’d run an eating house together, but had subsequently moved to Portsmouth.
The case, which was uncontested by Charles, was sent for trial in December, and the minutes were filed in May 1859. There is no definite sign of the verdict, either in the file or the newspapers, but it’s likely that Jane could have won. She may also have run out of money to remain in London and pursue the claim – divorce could be expensive, particularly before the verdict, as the claimant would have had to have funded the proceedings themselves before any costs were awarded in judgement.
Like many people in her position, she had moved to London to be closer to the courts while the legal proceedings were heard. She lived at Bloomsbury, in lodgings on Southampton Street, while the trial was being heard, but afterwards returned to Wiltshire. The time the legal proceedings took – other divorce papers have lawyer’s lackeys sent to hunt down the defendants, to get their answers to the divorce petitions. It may be, if Charles and Elizabeth called themselves Grant, that they were unable to be found. The case was ordered by the judge to be heard via oral testimony in court in 1859, and then there is no further record.
Whatever happened, Jane returned to her previous nursing life afterwards. The 1861 census has her caring for the rector’s wife in Dunkerton, Somerset, a bit south of Bath, who had a month old baby. Ten years later, the 1871 census has her visiting a friend on Conigre in Trowbridge, round the corner from her former pub, though she was still working as a nurse.
After that she disappears from view, and probably was mis-recorded in her death record as she would most likely have been living in someone else’s house when death occurred and they would not have had her full details to bury her properly. Someone bearing her name was buried in Bishop’s Lavington, now West Lavington, in 1884, but this would appear to be someone else who had lived there for years and not the Jane we are looking for.
Charles and Elizabeth never seem to have married, however, which could also indicate that Jane’s petition failed. Elizabeth Doughty might have pretended to be Jane on the 1851 census, but used her own name afterwards. She and Charles had at least five daughters together, and moved to Portsmouth where Charles still worked as a railway engine driver. He later ran a horse drawn taxi cab around Portsmouth, but he appears to have stayed faithful to Elizabeth for the rest of his life. He died in Portsea Island in 1881.
The humble professions of Charles and Jane should hopefully help to dispel the idea that divorce in this period was a preserve of the rich. They certainly weren’t. Jane would have saved enough money from her work to afford the legal fees, while waiting for the legislation to be put in place for her divorce case to be heard. Pauper cases were also heard, although they were rarer.
Without the information given in the legal files, a very different picture of this couple could have emerged. We would have had no way of discerning what had caused the split, and could have thought Jane had gone to Vauxhall with Charles, since Elizabeth used her name. Her divorce case gives her back her truth and her history.
Margaret played a vital role in search and rescue during the Second World War, saving the lives of 21 people when she and her working dogs managed to locate them in the rubble of the doodlebug blitz. Training dogs to find buried people was an incredibly new (and incredibly dangerous) thing in the 1940s, and Margaret was at the forefront of this practice – and even was awarded a gong for bravery.
Co-incidentally, a house she spent some of her early life living in later played an important part in saving people’s lives too, although long after she left. Rowden Hill House, just beneath Chippenham’s Hospital, was accommodation for nursing staff in the 1960s and 1970s, and is now in need of some tender loving care itself. Margaret lived there with her family from before 1909 until late 1913, but also lived in the USA, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
She wasn’t born in Chippenham, however. She was born down the Great Western Road in Marlborough in 1889, the second of three daughters of Robert (Bob) Chaloner Critchley Long and Maud Johnson. Her father Bob, sometimes given as a gentleman and at other times given as a brewer and wine merchant, was a younger son of a Welsh MP, albeit one with a long family heritage of landowning in Wiltshire, and thus had no title and few expectations than his elder brother, but went into the army as well as running a brewing business.
Margaret’s older sister Muriel was born in Berkshire, while her younger sister Joan came along while the family were in Devon, so it sounds like the family were quite mobile. By 1901, they were in a large house, Ludford Park, in Shropshire. This was a timbered property, dating from around the early 17th century, and sat on a river bank just south of Ludlow. Here the household had ten servants, including a governess to educate Margaret and her sisters.
While Margaret’s uncle Walter became an MP like her grandfather, held seven different constituencies over 41 years and spent 16 years as a cabinet minister, her father Bob also had some political ambitions. To that end, he bought Rowden Hill House in Chippenham at some point before 1909, and campaigned to be the Conservative and Unionist Party MP for West Wiltshire (at that time you did not need to live in your constituency) for the first 1910 general election, held in January.
This meant that Margaret and her sister Joan moved into Rowden Hill House (elder sister Muriel had married a few years earlier), and became involved in campaigning for their father’s victory. In Margaret’s case, that meant becoming part of the local branch of the Women’s Unionist and Tariff Reform Association.
This group, from the days before women could vote, were a way some women could get involved in politics and have an influence on the way men voted. The Tariff Reform League, of which they were an offshoot, formed in 1903, was effectively a pressure group promoting British empire industry and products over those imported from elsewhere. The Unionist part of their name meant that they opposed home rule in Ireland. These values were extremely popular and aligned with the Conservative party, who at the time were known as the Conservative and Unionist party. One of the key tenets of the Women’s Unionist and Tariff Reform Association was that women’s engagement in political life was vital, both as citizens and as consumers of goods. This was part of a wider evolving of thought which was part of the process of women gaining a vote.
Despite Margaret’s involvement, her father did not win the West Wiltshire seat in January 1910, and did not stand again in the subsequent general election in December 1910, which was called to attempt to pass a mandate.
The family stayed at Rowden Hill House despite the end of her father’s political career, though it appears that he and his wife moved around in subsequent years. Margaret, aged 22, and her sister Joan were living at Rowden Hill on the 1911 census, with a houseful of servants. Neither of them has any profession given, and their parents aren’t at home.
From a 1900 advert offering the property to let, the house at that time had four reception rooms, servants’ accommodation, thirteen bed and dressing rooms, stables, a coach house, a gardener’s cottage and even two orchards.
This would seem slightly excessive for a family of four at the time, but a large house would have projected their monied status within the community, and room for entertaining and house parties was an essential part of life for people who moved in their circles.
An announcement of Margaret’s impending marriage was made in the society papers in March 1911 when she was 22. Her intended was Andrew Reynold Uvedale Corbett, of Crabwell Hall in Cheshire.
For whatever reason, this marriage did not take place. Andrew never married, and instead became an antique dealer in Hampshire. The end of the engagement got a quiet mention in The Gentlewoman in March 1912.
Margaret’s family remained at Rowden Hill until late 1913, when Robert and Maud moved them to Northcliffe House, just outside Bradford on Avon. It was from this house that Margaret actually did get married, in January 1914. Her new husband was Jack Giffard, a member of a prestigious family from Lockeridge, near Marlborough.
Jack was serving with the Royal Horse Artillery at the time, and as such might have expected to see action when the First World War began later that year. He was promoted to Captain that October, and does appear to have been involved in the early part of the conflict, even winning the Légion d’Honneur, as part of the British Expeditionary Force – but after his twin brother was killed in action in the first autumn of the war he seems to have stepped back a little from active duty.
Instead, he was specially employed by the war office from 1915. Margaret had their first daughter, Violet, in 1915, when they were living at Long Ashton just south of Bristol. She was pregnant with their next daughter – Sybelle – when Jack was sent to the USA on war business of the Anglo-Russian sub-committee in the Autumn of 1915, without her. Sybelle entered the world in Charlton in Kent in April 1916, presumably close to where Jack had been garrisoned before he left the country. She was then baptised near Marlborough, as Margaret had presumably brought her daughters back to Jack’s family in Wiltshire for support caring for them while her husband was away.
In June 1916, around two months after giving birth to Sybelle, Margaret arrived in New York to reunite with Jack. Neither baby Sybelle nor toddler Violet went with her, so they were cared for elsewhere. She spent two years in New York with Jack, and they arrived back after the war was over, in December 1918, with a third baby – Jacqueline – in tow.
Her mother died near Melksham in the early months of 1919, which may have been the reason Margaret and Jack hastened back to England. Later that year, Margaret and Jack purchased Shurnhold House at Melksham, perhaps intending it to be their family home.
In reality though, it appears Jack spent very little time there as he’s given as going back and forth to New York on ships over the next couple of years, and by the time the 1921 census was taken Margaret and Jack’s daughters were at the house being cared for by staff while Jack was on war business in London. Margaret was also not at home on the 1921 census, as she was visiting her younger sister Joan in Westminster. Joan had been married and divorced by this time, and was working as a dressmaker’s model.
After this, Margaret and the children (and Jack, when he was in the country), lived first in Amersham in Buckinghamshire, and then in Putney. Another daughter, Eleanor, joined them in 1923, and they rented out Shurnhold House.
It’s while they were in Putney that a glimpse of Margaret’s life to come starts to shine through. There’s a newspaper reference to a Mrs Giffard being involved in demonstrating the skills of working dogs, alongside a police dogs demonstration, in January of 1924 at Crystal Palace. The article radiates some excitement at the potential for the use of working dogs, since this was a particularly new idea anywhere other than the North East transport police forces who had been using dogs since around 1906. She was also an honorary secretary of the Alsatian Sheep, Police and Army Dog Society around this time.
However, there’s no further mention of her connected with dog training after this, and Jack seems to have decided to become a farmer in the newly formed British colony of Southern Rhodesia, so left for Africa in September 1925. Margaret’s father appears to have gone out there slightly earlier, so the plan may have been for the rest of the family to come and join him and become prosperous out there. At some point after that Margaret and her daughters followed him, and both her sisters ended up there too. Jack went back and forth between various African ports and England several times over the next few years, but Margaret never seemed to be with him.
Mrs Giffard has one last mention at a Catholic wedding in Harare in 1927, where her two younger daughters were bridesmaids, and then there is no more mention of Margaret under that name.
Jack remarried in Penhalonga, Southern Rhodesia, in 1933, so their relationship had come to an end. Her father died in 1938, in Wraxall, Southern Rhodesia, and – alongside leaving his housekeeper £200 for looking after his grandchildren – his will refers to Margaret as Margaret Bruce Griffin, so it appears that she had remarried too.
This marriage took place in New Zealand in 1930, to Harold Desmond Griffin. They returned to Britain in 1935 and settled in Sussex, where Harold worked as a farm manager and Margaret started her own boarding kennels. This marriage does not appear to have lasted either, as by the beginning of the Second World War Margaret was in Surrey, living on her own. She kept goats and poultry, and was training dogs for both war and the police.
Margaret was, by this stage, a renowned breeder and trainer of German Shepherd dogs, or Alsatians as they were known at the time. She attended various dog shows with her charges, and was becoming well known for the breed. German Shepherds had been favoured as police and working dogs since the Hull force – the first in the country to employ dogs – had decided to use them in 1923. Forces elsewhere in the country gradually became interested, and the Home Office had set up a committee to evaluated the use of dogs in policing in 1934, with a couple of labradors added to the Metropolitan force in 1935.
There were two schools training dogs for war work. The Army’s War Dogs Training School was initially based at Aldershot, then at Ickenham and then in Hertfordshire. It started with just a few dogs but by 1944 had capacity for 750 canines. Margaret became part of the staff at the other school, the Ministry of Aircraft Production Guard Dog School (MAPGDS), which was based at Woodfold near Gloucester. This school had been founded in November 1941 by Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin, and started with just 15 dogs. Two years later there were 665 dogs either training or working at Ministry of Aircraft Production sites throughout the UK. The MAPGDS was absorbed into the RAF Police and retitled the RAF Police Dog Training School in 1944.
While working with training police dogs was important in terms of developing that relationship and the skills involved in policing, Margaret and a couple of other trainers actually played a far more important part in war work. She was involved in the instigation of training and using dogs to locate and find people needing rescuing from disasters – bombs, gas explosions and building collapses. The concept of Search and Rescue Dogs was an entirely new idea at the time.
The dogs used for rescuing, however, while trained at these schools, weren’t those used by the military or police but instead tended to be the personal dogs of these trainers.
The story of how dogs came to be used for rescuing trapped people from under rubble is rumoured to have come from Colonel Baldwin having watched The Siege of Stalingrad at Cheltenham cinema which gave rise to the idea that dogs – with their enhanced sense of smell – could be trained to locate buried casualties. Indeed, the first documented rescue of an avalanche victim located by an untrained dog occurred in 1937. Margaret lit on the idea and started working on it with dogs from her kennels, and recalled a couple of dogs that had previously been through the MAP school to see if they could be retrained. One dog she retrieved from New Zealand.
They began working on commands and tells, and eventually gave a demonstration to the Minister of Home Security where volunteers hid themselves on bombed sites amid burning rags. The dogs had located their targets within two minutes. The first dog to go into service was Jet, who had been trained by Margaret. The dog started working on a site that had been bombed by a V-1 attack in north London in October 1944, and was distracted by onlookers, but soon after that located three deceased casualties after another attack at Purley.
After this, Margaret formed a team with two of her dogs – Irma and Psyche – from her renowned Crumstone Kennel, and worked alongside rescue teams throughout the doodlebug blitz, where V-1 flying bombs fell on London, to locate casualties buried under collapsed buildings. Between them, Margaret and her dogs managed to locate 233 victims in the rubble, 21 of whom were still alive. They also located buried pets alongside the humans.
Irma was particularly good at locating. She would change the sound of her bark when she felt that a victim was still alive, and would often not leave the site until the casualty was found. On one occasion it took two days to unearth two girls, and Irma refused to leave. Another tell from the dogs that indicated that someone was to be found was for Psyche and Irma’s ears to suddenly lie flat on their neck, and they would also excitedly scratch at the remains of the houses if they believed someone was alive.
Margaret, who attended the sites with the dogs in a blue-serge civil defence great coat and a beret with a German Shepherd badge on it, would also put her own safety at risk while working with her team to rescue people. She appears to have been incredibly brave and stoical about the work in hand. Extracts from her diary, which is believed to be held by the Dogs’ Trust, read:
11 and 12.11.1944. Rocket at Shooter’s Hill. 20.05 hrs. Public House, Ambulance Depot and 2 offices. Put Irma on right away. Frightful mess. Most of the casualties known to be in bar and billiard room of Pub but a few “unknowns” had to be located. Irma gave strong indication to right of debris… Digging proceeded here and after 2 hours the bodies of 2 women were recovered in the exact position, under approximately 7 feet of debris below the dog’s indication.”
21.11.1944 – Rocket on Walthamstowe (sic), 12.30 hrs. Arrived on site 13.30 hrs. Four houses completely demolished, about twelve badly knocked about. Things were made no easier by water pipes burst in all directions and a bad gas leak under the debris. A smashed meter was pouring gas into the rubble. Worked Irma. In spite of the stench of gas, she indicated at a point at the back of the debris. From the front of the building, she and I went right under the floors crawling on our stomachs in water. She lay down here when we reached a point approximately dead below the spot where she had indicated. Below this the bodies of a woman and two children were buried 4ft under fine rubble and dust.
20.1.1945 – Call to Osborne Road, Tottenham at 21:00 hrs. In house No.1 Irma found two live casualties. In No.2 Irma again gave good indication just to one side of a fairly large and fierce fire burning through collapsed house debris. Thick smoke rising here. Family of five found. In No.3 a strong indication from Irma over the debris. Rescue found a live cat.
Once the war came to an end in the spring of 1945, the direct services of Psyche and Irma, and therefore Margaret, were no longer needed with such urgency. However, their courage and wartime roles did not go unrewarded. Irma had been awarded the Dicken Medal (a bravery award for working animals during wartime) in January of 1945, and she and Margaret took part in the victory celebrations on Pall Mall in June 1946, alongside the first rescue dog Jet. They were the only two dogs to take part.
Margaret herself received the British Empire Medal in the 1946 New Year Honours, for her work training and working alongside the dogs.
Away from her war work, both her sisters had died in Harare (then known as Salisbury) during the war – Joan in 1941 and Muriel in 1943. The rest of the family also seem to have continued living in either Southern Rhodesia or South Africa. Margaret’s eldest daughter Violet, had married, then divorced, a wildlife expert. She then married again. Her third daughter Jacqueline married in India during the war, and eventually moved to Australia. And fourth daughter Eleanor became a nun in South Africa. However, there is no indication whether Margaret ever went back to Southern Rhodesia to see them. Her ex-husband Jack died in 1956, also in Southern Rhodesia.
Once the war was over, Margaret and her dogs returned to the dog school at Gloucester, where Irma and Psyche demonstrated their skills alongside another dog called Storm, who was also from Margaret’s Crumstone kennel. The trainers, including Margaret, also began to investigate teaching their dogs to search for victims in terrains other than rubble. Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin arranged for three of the dogs to search a mine in Cumbria after an explosion in 1947. The groundwork put in by Margaret and other trainers during the war built the foundations for modern search and rescue operations.
Later on, Margaret is known to have exhibited dogs from her Crumstone kennel at Crufts Dog Show. There are pictures of her with Irma and Psyche meeting children that she had rescued from rubble in 1945, at Crufts in 1950. Eventually Irma died, and was buried at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford.
As for Margaret, after 1950 she disappears from public view. Presumably she continued to breed German Shepherds and train them when necessary for different purposes. She is known to have lived at Wallingford in Oxfordshire in the early 1950s, and have lived alone.
She died in Henley on Thames, in May 1972, aged 83. Her death went unremarked upon in the newspapers.
One of the best known and loved volunteers at the Chippenham Red Cross hospital during the First World War wasn’t a nurse. Ethel Williams was the hospital’s head cook, a role she shared with Minnie Shipp, and is remembered fondly in the surviving documents from the hospital.
Ethel’s actual first name was Gertrude – a relatively popular girls’ name in the 1870s, when she was born – but by the time she was 12 she was known to everyone as Ethel.
She was born in Chippenham, to an ex-soldier turned landlord and a mother who was particularly good at running pubs. She had a half-brother and half-sister from her mother’s first marriage, and at the age of five gained another sister – Elsie.
When she was small, the family lived at the Bear Hotel, but her parents gave that up and moved to St Mary Street. When she was 9 her father died, and her mother went back into the pub trade – running several establishments in the town with the help of her children and step-children. Ethel would have grown up helping out in her mother’s pubs – she had at least two at one point – and serving customers.
Aged 21, in 1900, she married a vet – George Williams – who was ten years her senior. She was living in Chippenham’s market place, while he was resident up near St Paul’s Church. The 1901 census finds them together, at the rather innocuously named 2 Langley Road. In fact, 2 Langley Road was The Clift House, a rather grand property with grounds and a fountain in the garden, which was finally demolished in the early 1980s and replaced with sheltered accommodation flats for the elderly.
They had two daughters, Margery in 1901 and Caryl in 1905. In 1908 Ethel gave birth to her third child, a son, who sadly did not survive. This boy was not given a name. Their household appears comfortable, with a sizeable property and several domestic servants to help with the chores.
When the First World War hit, in August 1914, Ethel’s daughters were 13 and 9 and at school, and the shortage of male workers meant that women were encouraged to work and volunteer outside the home. While many women took roles making munitions at places like Saxby and Farmer (later Westinghouse), going out to work wasn’t quite right for women of Ethel’s social standing. Instead, they volunteered with the Red Cross. Ethel was part of the committee who worked to provide Belgian refugees arriving in Chippenham in 1914 with food and accommodation. They had escaped the early horrors of the war during that autumn, and were housed in various places in Britain, supported by the local Red Cross.
The next big Red Cross project locally was the hospital that was set up at Chippenham’s Town Hall in 1915. Ethel was engaged here from the outset, alongside other women of her social standing – for example, one daughters of the Clutterbuck family from Hardenhuish House also served, as did the daughter of Lady Coventry of Monkton Park, many of the wives of prominent town businessmen, and even the wife of Ivy Lane School’s headteacher.
The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) provided nursing care for the wounded from the war, and were an important part of the war effort at home. Chippenham’s Town Hall initially had 40 beds, and received its first patients in early November 1915. Demand became higher, and the hospital expanded to include the Neeld Hall and the Corn Exchange, and by November 1916 there were 100 beds available.
Many of the VADs were nurses to the wounded, and – given Ethel’s sister Elsie was at this point nursing in London – it might be expected that Ethel took this role too. However, there were lots of other volunteer jobs needed in the hospital, such as cleaning the wards, attending in the mess room, and washing up.
Ethel became the hospital’s head cook, which she shared alongside Mrs Minnie Shipp from Foxham. Other women also cooked, and she had several volunteers helped prepare vegetables, but Ethel and Minnie were in charge. This meant that they served both patients and staff.
Minnie, who was born Minnie Hatton and originally came from the Bournemouth area, was the wife of a farmer and butcher in Foxham. She came from a food background – her father was a baker, alongside her husband being a butcher – so would seem to have been an obvious choice for the shared role of head cook.
She and her husband Edgar had four children, three girls and a boy. Their son, Frederick, was old enough to serve during the war, so was sent away to the front while Minnie’s daughters stayed at home. They seem to have been a fairly wealthy family. Before setting up as a farmer in Foxham, her husband Edgar ran a butcher’s shop in Bath’s Northgate Street, and the family had several servants – including a “mother’s help” for Minnie. In addition to Minnie volunteering at the hospital during the war, two of her daughters joined her.
Records show that Ethel volunteered for many hours in alternate weeks during her time at the VAD hospital. Presumably, the weeks that Ethel didn’t work were the ones where Minnie was in charge. It’s Ethel’s food at the hospital that is well remembered, however, although Minnie’s fare was probably equally as good, perhaps because she remained in the town after the war where Minnie did not.
Ethel’s cookbook contains recipes for macaroons, nut loaf, pancakes, dried apricot jam and others to the delight of the recovering soldiers. Alongside her duties as a cook she was also in charge of entertainment, arranging visits to local homes and days out for the patients. One of her favourite activities was taking the men for picnics, especially to Cherhill (near Calne).
One picnic in particular would stay with Ethel forever. On 12th July 1918, whilst picnicking with the soldiers, nurse and their families, a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) plane crashed in a nearby field. Piloted by Captain Douglas Ridley Clunes Gabell, the plane was described as an R.E.8 C2236 (140 R et F or RAF WD/21146). He was only 20. Lieutenant George Frederick Delmar-Williamson (aged 19), of Black Watch Regiment, was the passenger on board. The aeroplane was a new machine, and it caught fire after it fell. The accident report recorded ‘both pilot and passenger died of fractured skulls’. The Court of Enquiry said the accident was caused ‘due to the wings collapsing in the air’. This incident affected Ethel greatly and she wrote to the father of Lieutenant Delmar-Williamson in Cheltenham to pass on her condolences.
Ethel served at the hospital until it closed in September 1917, and stayed with the Red Cross after the war ended. She was much loved by the patients, and one (Pte J. C. Dempsey) even wrote a poem about her. She was awarded a certificate of honourable service after the war.
After the war, Ethel returned to life as the vet’s wife, but still volunteered with the Red Cross. Her mother died in 1921, and her half-brother Joe Buckle ran a popular shop on Chippenham’s High Street.
By 1939 George had retired, and they’d left Clift House for a newer house on Malmesbury Road. Ethel was still in the Red Cross reserves during the Second World War. One of their daughters married, but the younger one still lived at home.
George died just after the end of the war, but left Ethel and other relatives a considerable amount of money.
Fellow cook Minnie did not stay in Chippenham. She and husband Edgar had moved to Dorset by the early 1930s, where one of her daughters ran a hotel. They were in West Parley by 1939. Edgar died in 1941, while Minnie lived on until 1946. When she died she left over £14,000.
Ethel lived on at Chippenham’s Malmesbury Road as a widow until the mid-1960s, when she died aged 87 leaving money to a solicitor.
She’s buried at St Paul’s church in Malmesbury Road, next to where her house once stood.
A book, Unity and Loyalty: The Story of Chippenham’s Red Cross Hospital, by Ray Adler, explores the full story of the town’s VADs. It is available at Chippenham museum and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
One of the ways a gently-born Victorian woman who’d fallen on hard times could make an income respectably was to teach creative skills. In a society where women were expected to be decorative and provide entertainment, there was always a demand for those skills – from peers and for those who aspired to climb the social ladder.
That’s the route Charlotte took when her merchant husband returned to India without her, leaving her to bring up her small son alone. She claimed widowhood, taught piano and singing in fashionable circles, and gave recitals – in London, Chippenham, and Bristol. Except the qualifications she traded upon were actually later proved to be fake. And there is a question mark over whether she actually married her husband at all.
She was the daughter of Edward Peagam, a lawyer who occasionally called himself a gentleman, and his wife Mary. She was their eldest child, born about five years after they married (in London in 1846, with Edward calling himself a gentleman), in Sandbach in Cheshire – a pretty market town to the north-east of Crewe.
However respectable and middle class her background was, it does not appear to have been financially stable. Her father spent as much time becoming bankrupt as he did defending those with debt issues, and his name was often splashed all over the newspapers as owing money to creditors.
It was during one of those periods of bankruptcy that Charlotte was removed from the family home, and sent to Devon to be brought up by her grandmother and aunt Ann.
Her widowed grandmother, Mary Peagam, had been making a living as a hosier – someone who made legwear, so socks and stockings – but had acquired enough of a cushion to live off if wisely invested. Ann was her eldest unmarried daughter. Together they brought up Charlotte in Plymouth, and even when her parents’ financial situation was more stable she wasn’t returned to them.
By 1861 Charlotte’s parents had moved to Bicester in Oxfordshire, where her father was working as a solicitor. They had had two further daughters – Julia and Laura – so Charlotte had younger sisters, but she did not grow up alongside them.
At some point in the 1860s Charlotte’s mother had had enough of the constant financial fluctuations, and left her father. She returned to the Plymouth area with her two younger daughters, and they lived apart thereafter, and she may have seen Charlotte more regularly.
After her grandmother’s death in 1864, Charlotte’s aunt Ann moved into the supporting role for her. They boarded in Plymouth with another family, living off the interest of money, and at some point before 1879 moved to London.
Somewhere around this point, Charlotte met Cowasjee Wookerjee or Wookergee. He gave himself in trade directories as an East India Company merchant, but since that company had ceased to operate by 1874 it is likely that he was using the name and trading by association.
He had some sort of merchant business, importing products from India – possibly textiles – which was based in Leadenhall Market in the City of London. This was likely appealing to exclusive clients. However, since he was only there in the 1880 trade directory, he probably wasn’t there for long.
There’s no marriage record for Charlotte and Cowasjee in the British Isles, but it’s always possible that they did marry elsewhere. They certainly regarded themselves as married. Their first son, Pheeroze, was born in Paddington in 1879. They had a second son, Khoosow, in London in the summer of 1880, but later on that year Pheeroze died at just over a year old. The family do not appear on the 1881 census, taken that April, possibly due to poor transcription, but if they were in the country they were most likely in London.
There is a slim possibility that Charlotte had travelled to India with Mr Cowasjee Wookerjee and Khoosow, however. An article from an Indian newspaper in June 1881 says that he had selected and brought out machinery from Europe to start Scindia’s Paper Mill.
This, probably established by the Scindia family in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, made paper from rags and karbi (exactly what that was isn’t clear).
The article said:
“Great praise is due to Mr Wookerjee for the untiring zeal and energy he has show in connection with this scheme from which considerable results may be expected. The mill, indeed, promises to be a great success, especially as skilled European engineers and workmen have been employed to carry on the work.”
Whether or not Charlotte and Khoosow went to India, Charlotte’s marriage fell apart and they separated. She gave herself as a widow, but there’s another mention of Cowasjee Wookerjee in the Indian press in 1896, so that probably wasn’t the truth. She and her son were definitely in the UK by 1885, as the first evidence of Charlotte’s new career is reported upon then.
Giving herself as Mrs Cowasjee Wookerjee, Charlotte is reported as having sung at a Cricket Club concert in Monks Risborough, Buckinghamshire. This means that she and Khoosow were probably living nearby.
By February 1886 though, Charlotte had moved to Ealing and was starting to become more established as a teacher of music. She also had a stage name, Madame Elcho, which she used for performing and teaching purposes.
Her main qualification for teaching – she called herself a professor of music – was as a Fellow of the Society of Science, Letters and Art.
This society, which allowed Charlotte to put the letters F.S.Sc. after her name, was run by Dr Edward Albert Sturman from his house in Kensington. It allowed its members to wear academic dress and take exams that were not even marked, resulting in bought diplomas. Charlotte was thus duped, and traded on these qualifications for many years. The society was eventual exposed as bogus in 1892.
After only a couple of years in Ealing, she moved to Southall, where she further promoted herself as Madame Elcho and taught piano, organ, singing and music theory. She also performed once a week at Mr Adler’s Music Repository, in Uxbridge. George Louis Adler was a pianist, music dealer and composer, and used to run entertainments from his shop on St Andrew’s. Charlotte would have been part of a community of musicians and performers who worked out of here, and this would have enabled her to bring in new pupils.
After a year or two in Southall, Charlotte decided to move again. She chose Chippenham in Wiltshire for her new base, and set up home with her son Khoosow, who was then around 9. Her aunt Ann still lived with them, and would have helped her out with childcare and house duties.
In Chippenham she seems to have dispensed with the Madame Elcho name, and instead traded as Mrs Cowasjee Wookergee – a name that might have sounded quite exotic to the locals. She was initially based in Patterdown, from where she briefly advertised herself as a piano and artistic singing teacher, and said that she could travel to Corsham and Melksham for lessons. After that she moved to a house on Cook Street called East View, in the historic part of the town. Cook Street is now part of Chippenham’s St Mary Street, and is part of a particularly beautiful stretch of houses off the town’s market place.
From here she and Khoosow and her aunt Ann appear on the 1891 census together, on which Charlotte gave herself as a professor of music, and Khoosow would probably have attended the local elementary school by the church.
She had days of the week when she would teach in Trowbridge and Melksham, but seems to have been mostly based teaching Chippenham citizens to sing and play the piano. She also gave regular public performances. There is a report from 1890 of her singing as part of a concert at the Congregational Church, alongside other local performers. She also ran a series of piano concerts in the town hall, and tutored a choir of children to perform too.
When advertising her teaching services, Charlotte would occasionally submit testimonials to tempt potential pupils.
According to her, Musical World said of her: “In all she does a true and artistic feeling is made manifest.” Similarly, The Era apparently said that she had “grace and elegance” in her method. And the Court Circular said: “Can sing from D on the bass staff to B flat above the treble line, and she has been well trained in the Italian School of Art. Three recalls at the end of the evening rewarded her efforts to please.”
She was in Chippenham until at least 1892, but by 1895 her services are being advertised from Keynsham, to the west of Bath. Here she was directing concerts, and also performing throughout the 1890s at the Hamilton Rooms, which were on Bristol’s Park Street. There are also newspaper reports of concerts in Bristol’s Staple Hill, and one where she and others were entertaining inmates of Bristol’s workhouse infirmary.
It’s therefore no surprise to find her living in Bristol on the 1901 census. She and her son Khoosow and aunt Ann had set up home in Cumberland Street, in the city’s St Paul’s district. This would have been a relatively fashionable address for the time, even if the houses were in multiple occupation. Charlotte continued to give herself as a professor of music, while Khoosow, now aged 20, was a clerk at the post office. Ann still had no profession given, but would have been occupied with home duties.
After this point, Charlotte seems to have been starting to live a quieter life. There are no reports of concerts in the press, but she probably still taught.
Khoosow married in 1907, and went to live in the St Philips area of Bristol, where he worked as a packer for a printer. His wedding certificate gave his father as Cowasgee Wookergee, a general merchant. He and his wife Laura had several children who grew into quite a dynasty.
The following year, Charlotte’s aunt Ann died. She was quite elderly, and it’s likely that Charlotte may have had to do some considerable nursing in her twilight years. In 1909 Charlotte’s father died at Lutterworth. His financial situation does not appear to have settled entirely – he’d operated out of Southampton, Torquay, north Wales, and Rugby. His death was remarked upon in the press, and it sounds like he was well respected despite his monetary failings.
Charlotte herself is illusive on the 1911 census, but we know from an advert in the newspapers of that year that she had moved to Frampton Cotterell, in South Gloucestershire. She appears to have run some sort of market garden, offering baskets of produce for delivery. This is considerably different from teaching music, and perhaps reflects a more settled way of life.
Charlotte died in 1914, not long after the outbreak of the First World War. She was 62 and still living in Frampton Cotterell, though she was buried at a church in nearby Coalpit Heath.
Escaping the Russian Revolution by the skin of her teeth may have been a defining event for Eugenie, but she also lived a truly international life that was shaped by the twists and turns of the 20th century. Add in several love affairs (at least one of which that went wrong), a search for various missing family members, the ability to speak and conduct business in several languages, and a knack of always falling on her feet, and you have a woman able to call many places home.
Eugenie was born at the tail end of the 19th century in Naples, one of four known children of an Italian/Polish couple. However, she identified as Russian. Her father was the harbour master of the Black Sea port of Odessa, now in modern Ukraine but at that time emphatically part of the Russian Empire, and the family were based there for her whole childhood and beyond.
Odessa, at that time, had a sizeable population that was historically Italian, even if by this stage they identified as Russian. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, had founded the city with a large number of Italian immigrants in 1794, having taken the area from the Ottoman Empire, and their descendants and relatives had remained. At this time, nationality and loyalties were often taken historically in the eyes of the authorities, and groups of people with similar backgrounds were lumped together.
Odessa was also, in addition to being an important port, quite cosmopolitan. As well as the historical Italian-descended population, there were Swiss, Greeks, and about a third of the population of the city in Eugenie’s time was Jewish. There were cafes, coffee shops, bakeries, merchants and artisans throughout the city, which at this time was the 4th largest city in the Russian Empire. Jews, while Eugenie was small at least, had fewer restrictions and discrimination in Odessa than elsewhere in Russia, leading to a vibrant city in which to grow up.
As the daughter of the harbour master, Eugenie and her family would have lived close to the busy port and could see boats and cargo arriving and departing every day. Her father’s job was probably relatively well paid, meaning they could experience some of the culture around them, but they would not have been in the higher or richer echelons of local society.
Events and strains in wider Russia did reach Odessa, however. When Eugenie was around nine, in 1905, a pogrom against the Jewish population took place in the city. Over 400 Jews were killed, and many more injured. Although it was unlikely Eugenie was directly involved in these events, as she was a child, this would have dramatically altered the atmosphere of the city.
In her early adulthood, she worked in Odessa as a school teacher. She spoke Russian, French, English, and some Polish and Italian. She could play the piano, so must have been taught in childhood, and was known as an expert seamstress. Religiously, she was a devout Russian Orthodox believer, and kept their festivals.
The Russian Revolution, which began in 1917, was the next big event to affect Odessa – and also changed life completely for Eugenie. Although the unrest had started in February 1917, and continued in the October of that year, but reached Odessa in mid-January 1918, when Eugenie was around 22.
The city’s revolutionary committees were elected on 17th and 18th January, and the uprising began in earnest on the 27th. For Eugenie and her family, whose sympathies were with the empire (indeed, her older brother Paolo was even in the Tsarist army), this meant they had to leave and fast. Battleships arrived in her father’s port, and the family fled. Eugenie remembered being pulled aboard a leaving ship by a sailor, and in the resulting confusion she completely lost her family.
The climate for Jews and citizens not of Russian origin changed in Odessa as a result of the revolution, so returning was not an option. In the aftermath, she found herself in Baghdad, at that point in Mesopotamia but modernly the capital of Iraq. The area had been part of the Ottoman Empire until the year before, but had been put under British rule as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. Here Eugenie met and married another misplaced Russian, whose first name has been lost to history. His surname, Filaratoff, indicates that he was probably Russian-born, and was likely also misplaced due to the Revolution. Baghdad, at this time, had a large Jewish community – Jews made up a quarter to a third of the city’s population – and others with the surname Filaratoff have followed the Jewish faith, so this could be an indication of his background, but his religion was never discussed in later life. After the unrest of the flight from Odessa, this may have seemed like a safe haven for Eugenie and her new husband.
There was a revolt against British rule in 1920, but this was supressed. Not long afterwards, Eugenie’s first child – a son, Volek – was born in Baghdad.
Sadly, Eugenie’s marriage was marked by domestic violence, and did not last. She took infant Volek and left, forming another relationship with a British man, George. Volek’s father later found his way to Palestine, and died there during the second world war.
George was a British engineer likely in Mesopotamia as part of either the British forces, or as someone who had served in the country during the First World War and had decided to come back and settle. He worked in communications, linking up desert areas. Their daughter Diana was born in 1924.
George died of natural causes, while undertaking his work in the desert. His spinster sisters in the UK asked to take care of Diana, but Eugenie refused and instead brought up Volek and Diana alone for a time.
Eventually Eugenie got together with the widower of her friend Xenia. Xenia, someone else of Russian background, had died after childbirth in 1922, leaving her husband Thomas to care for their newborn son Peter. Therefore, Peter became part of the family alongside Volek and Diana, and Thomas and Eugenie brought their family up close to Baghdad.
Thomas ran a dairy and farming business in the Baghdad area. He had come from a farming background in Worcestershire, and had been posted to Mesopotamia during the First World War. After the war, he had discovered that his first wife had possibly had another relationship while he was away, so returned to the Middle East to make a new life for himself. It was there in Baghdad that he had met and married Xenia, Eugenie’s friend. Given his background, dairy farming would have been an obvious choice for a business to begin with. They supplied the British Forces with dairy products, alongside anyone else local who wanted them.
His first farm was in Alwiya, just outside Baghdad. There he kept horses alongside his dairy cattle. Eugenie had visited him there, while he was married to Xenia, and had initially thought of him as rude and angry, as he’d walked past her and ignored her while she was there as a guest. Later, after they had got together, she lived with him at this farm, and assisted him in the business.
Iraq achieved independence from British rule in 1932, but Eugenie and Thomas decided to stay put. Despite him being married to Xenia in the Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, and officially a widower, they did not marry straight away. Under British law, the marriage between Thomas and his previous wife could have been dissolved. Either party could have proved adultery. However, this did not happen. This may have been a refusal to accept the societal stigma of divorce on her part, or a complication with Thomas not being resident in the UK.
In Iraq, Eugenie had friends in a wider Russian community, and kept the Orthodox festivals – like Easter – with them. She would bake for the occasion, cooking different large cakes, beautiful pastries and tarts. Her son John says: “Every year she would buy different multi coloured cheap floral material pieces and use these to sew onto raw eggs very carefully and tightly. She would take hours doing this and when completed hard boil the eggs. When dry, remove the material and the dye from the coloured patterns were imprinted on each egg beautifully. All these lovely looking eggs were displayed in a large bowl and looked so attractive. On Easter Sunday, Eugenie would invite all her Russian friends to a party to celebrate the occasion. Each visitor would take an egg and crack it against another visitor’s egg, saying in Russian “Christ has Risen” and eat the egg.”
Eugenie had two more children with Thomas, George and Gladys, who didn’t live. Family tales say they both died of tuberculosis. Then her final child, son John, arrived in 1934. Later on, they moved to a second farm, just outside Fallujah, between Baghdad and RAF Habbaniya (a British military base, built in the 1930s), close to the River Euphrates.
Peter, and later Volek, were sent to Worcestershire to be looked after by Thomas’s sister, and educated in a British school, at some point in the 1930s, but Diana and John stayed with their parents. Their lives included trips to the cinema, and to hotels for dinner twice a week. Eugenie also had fur coats – a mark of wealth at that time, when the ethics of creating those garments were not called into question. At one point their house had five members of staff.
They held card playing parties for government ministers, and moved in exclusive circles. They were members of the Alwiyah Club, an exclusive institution which had opened in 1921. This had regular social events, a ballroom, swimming pool, and tennis courts. Baghdad had various clubs at the time, one for each established profession, plus those for different religions represented in the city. The Alwiyah was the most exclusive, and was known for having prominent citizens in its ranks.
Then, out of the blue, in 1937 Eugenie discovered that her family had survived the Russian Revolution, and had settled in Naples. She took her son John with her, and went to reunite with them. Her father had passed on, and one of her sisters had married and was living in France, but she was able to reconnect with her mother, other sister and brother.
During the Second World War, both her son Volek and step-son Peter served for the British forces. Peter went into the army, while Volek was a radio operator in the air force.
A coup d’etat in Iraq in April 1941, in favour of the German and Italian forces, meant they had to move in a hurry. The story goes that the family were having breakfast when a soldier on a motorcycle arrived, who was in favour of the coup, and held the family at gunpoint. Eugenie attempted to reason with the soldier, crying as her husband was being held against an outside wall.
In the nick of time, a police officer arrived and ordered the soldier to leave. He was a family friend, so filled them in on the new political situation. Later that day, on his advice, they left their house and joined other British families in a barbed-wire surrounded ex-military camp on the outskirts of Baghdad. Eugenie and Diana were segregated from Thomas and John. The children made friends immediately, and John in particular treated the month-long experience as a grand adventure. Eugenie and Thomas, however, were worried about their farm and their business, as well as their long-term future.
When released, it was discovered that their house had been bombed by the RAF, as the rebels involved in the coup had used it as headquarters from which to attack RAF Habbaniya. The furniture and carpets had been destroyed, and then anything that was left had been looted by the rebels and some inhabitants of the nearby town.
The success of the previous business enabled Eugenie and Thomas to rebuild their life, however. They moved the family to a hotel on the banks of the River Tigris for a few months, then rented a new large, detached house in an upmarket district called Karadah. Thomas began a new farm across the river, and travelled over every day on a small round boat.
Elsewhere during the war, Eugenie’s brother Paolo was placed in the concentration camp system by the Nazi-allied Italian forces, as he had previously been part of the Russian army and retained political sympathies. He survived the experience.
Her son Volek was not so lucky. He did not return from a mission on a Lancaster bomber near Leipzig in February 1945, and was declared missing and then dead by the British forces. Three members of crew from this mission remained unaccounted for, however, but as far as the official record was concerned, Eugenie’s first son was dead.
After the war, her daughter Diana – who had fallen in love with a British man stationed in Iraq – married him in Baghdad, then moved with him to Chippenham in Wiltshire. Youngest son John went to England with her, to be educated. This left Eugenie and Thomas in Iraq to run their business, with no children around them. They remained in their rented house, and Thomas gave up the farm in favour of an import/export business with a couple of partners. This did not do as well as the farm had.
In 1947, Thomas’s first wife died in England. This meant that any barrier to their marrying had ended, and they formalised their union as soon as possible. This took place at St George’s Church in Baghdad, according to the rites of the Church of England. This is the only Anglican church in Iraq, and was built in 1936. Eugenie used the surname Dmitrieff at her marriage, but it is unknown where she took this name from.
However, there was a further twist in the tale of her eldest son Volek. In around 1948, a Russian woman – the friend of a friend – approached Eugenie and Thomas saying that she had a message from Volek, who was apparently alive. The woman had come to Iraq from Turkey, heading for the USA, and said that she had received a message from Volek at the border of Turkey with Russia. Though Russia does not modernly share a border with Turkey, the USSR and Turkey disputed territory in the area at this time.
Volek reputedly had said to tell his mother that he was alive, but captive, but not to make enquiries as it would cause problems. Eugenie and Thomas attempted to find out more, but found nothing, and as far as the British record is concerned the story is as presented to them when Volek was declared dead.
One tale is that the Russians at that time would consider releasing German Prisoners of War, but not captured British or Americans, so if the story Eugenie’s visitor told them is true it may mean that Volek was held in a prison camp for the rest of his days. To this day, the family do not know whether this account was truthful or not.
By 1960, Thomas had a medical problem, so he and Eugenie returned to the UK. He had a severe foot wound, exacerbated by diabetes, which required treatment. He believed that an English doctor would not amputate his limb, as the doctor he had consulted in Iraq had wanted. However, this wasn’t the case. He received treatment in Kent, where his leg was removed, and sadly died a few days later after suffering complications.
This meant that Eugenie had been widowed again, for either the second or third time depending on the eyes of the law. She returned to Iraq to wind up the farming business, gathering what funds she could from what remained. Furniture and Persian carpets were sold. She then came back to the UK. She settled in Chippenham, close to her children, and became part of the local community. She lived in Eastern Avenue, on the Monkton Park estate, in a semi-detached bungalow, and in later life her siblings came over from Italy to visit her.
She missed her husband dreadfully. She made friends with the woman next door, still baked (a layered chocolate sponge cake is remembered by family), and regularly attended bingo with her daughter. Her son John, who also settled in Chippenham, bought her a Persian kitten whom she doted upon.
She died in Chippenham in 1978, and is buried next to Thomas at the town’s St Paul’s Church.
The truth of a marriage, particularly in the 19th century, was often kept behind closed doors. The mud-slinging, he/she/they-said recriminations of a relationship falling to bits can be incredibly tedious, so maybe that’s a good thing.
Historical divorce cases, however, can offer an eye-opening snapshot of mid-century Victorian domestic life, and crucially what relationships were like for women, and what behaviour was considered acceptable. The 145 divorce cases filed in the first six months after an 1857 change of legislation show adultery aplenty (some in brothels), drinking, gambling, bargaining, pleas, bigamy, beatings, throwing of crockery and furniture, various people who nipped out for something and then turned up in New York or New Zealand or Australia, arguments over money and children, and even someone who couldn’t get it up.
There are various widely-accepted broad brushstrokes about divorce at that time. It’s generally known as the preserve of the rich, and was harder for women than men (it was actually virtually impossible for women to bring proceedings until early 1858). Oral histories recount that the stigma followed people around. This persisted into the 20th century and beyond. As 1980s children, we were encouraged to pity peers of “broken homes”, with added undertones that it was somehow the woman’s fault. An older work colleague (c.2006) confided that the village women were suspicious of “our local divorcee” because she was after their husbands – the idea that divorcees, having had regular sex, would chase it again. ONS statistics for 2019 showed that 42% of marriages ended in divorce, so it’s now commonplace, if no less sad.
In terms of women being able to kick their errant man to the curb, the first leap forward was the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Before this, divorce was only available to men, had to go through ecclesiastical courts (it was considered a sacrament, whereas the new Act made it a contract), and if someone wanted to remarry it required a complicated annulment process or a private bill in the House of Commons, which both cost a lot of money – hence it was something rare.
The new Act was seen through parliament partly via the campaigning of Caroline Norton (who was awarded a London blue plaque on her former home by English Heritage in April 2021), this came into effect on 1 January 1858. Of those 145 cases, from January to June, 92 of them were brought by women. These women were, effectively, pioneers. Paving the way for other unhappily married couples to try to change their circumstances, though not always successfully.
The new act also meant it wasn’t for just people with stacks of cash. The first of many pauper causes was filed in early May 1858, where Jane Astrope wanted to divorce husband William – and as time went on people on lower incomes saved for years in order to bring their other half to court.
It was still easier for men than women, as all men had to prove was that their wives had taken another lover, whereas a woman had to prove her husband had cheated on her AND beaten her or left her or married someone else too.
Divorce wasn’t the only option under this new act, or even the most common. You could petition for a legal separation (a “Judicial Separation”) which meant wives could escape the worst flying fists. Or ask the court to force your errant husband home. You could also go for nullity, either because your partner was already married, or it remained unconsummated. Earnings and inheritance acquired since a split could also be protected.
A prime example of one of these cases is Mary Jane Pascoe, originally from Dublin, who sought to rid herself of husband Charles. He’d originally been a ship broker and commission agent in Dublin, which was a good middle class occupation but not that rich. He had run off to Australia around 1851 to become a miner, presumably as part of the gold rush.
Mary Jane Pascoe, née Wynne, and Charles Pascoe
Mary Jane’s petition of late May 1858 claimed cruelty – he’d given her a venereal disease (probably syphilis).
“… your petitioner’s said husband being infected with the Venereal Disease communicated it to your petitioner by reason where of your petitioner has undergone great bodily pain and her health has been greatly injured.”
Pascoe vs Pascoe, P00012, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
Passing on the pox was considered cruelty. Her petition also alleges that had it off with their servant, and another woman in Liverpool, in addition to now being in Australia and having deserted Mary Jane. This should have been enough grounds to meet the criteria set out for women in the 1857 Act. Marriage was now a contract in the eyes of the law, not a sacrament, so proceedings were heard in civil courts.
The court would have attempted to contact him in Australia for an answer. It appears they didn’t get the answer they wanted. Charles filed for divorce from Mary Jane himself from the state of Victoria in 1876. He said they’d written to each other until 1862, and he’d constantly offered to bring her out to join him, but he’d then heard nothing until 1874. His brother-in-law had told him, from his home in Maryland, USA, that Mary Jane had had a child by William Foy of Trinity College, and now he wanted his marriage to end. Mary Jane died in Dublin in 1877, while they were still officially married. This put an end to the matter.
In fact, the first case brought in by a woman after the legislation was introduced fell short of the differences between men and women filing the cases. Ann Deane, née Saunders, of Reading in Berkshire filed for divorce from her husband Arthur on 6th February 1858 (there were three cases in that January, but they appear to have been originally operating under previous rules, and their outcomes are far from clear). They’d married in 1835, and had had nine children. She alleged that her husband frequented bawdy houses, and cheated on her with an actress. However, as her grounds for divorce were merely that he was a cheating git, and he hadn’t beaten her up too, the case could not progress.
We are also talking about an era where marriage was considered sacred and ordained by God, and many women would not have wanted it to officially end even if things had completely gone south. Therefore many women used the other options – protecting property and earnings from the date her husband left, so she wasn’t liable for his lifestyle or debts. A judicial separation, usually used where the beatings were vicious but he hadn’t actually cheated on her, meant they legally separated but her husband still financially supported her. The inequality lasted until 1923, when women could bring divorce proceedings just for adultery alone.
Protection of property and earnings
Sophia Moore, from Portsmouth, was the first of 26 cases in that first six months who wanted to protect her property and earnings from her errant husband. Under the law at the time – the Married Women’s Property Act was 12 years away – once married, any property or money or earnings that a woman had instantly belonged to her husband. So, even if he’d deserted her, as Sophia’s husband Thomas had 14 years earlier, any earnings or property that Sophia had acquired since were legally his. Had he got himself into debt, Sophia would have been legally liable to pay it off.
As it happens, Sophia and Thomas’s case is a fairly tame one for the period. He was steadily being promoted up the ranks of the Royal Marines, so spent large periods of time away at sea. They’d married in 1833, he’d formally deserted her in 1844, but until January 1858 had done the “right thing” and maintained her with a monthly allowance. He’d stopped in January, so in February Sophia entered a plea for her earnings and property from this date to be legally her own. It may be that she’d come into some extra money from the death of a parent. The case didn’t make the papers, but she appears to be successful as she’s on the 1861 census in Paddington living with a servant, and says she’s independent. However, she also claims to be a widow on that document, which she isn’t as Thomas was alive until 1884, and it may be that she used that status to bigamously marry again as she disappears from view thereafter.
Property cases could be far more salacious than this one. Later that February Mary Cartwright of Westminster also filed a similar petition against her husband Edward. However, he was a habitual drunk who’d deserted her in 1839 and didn’t provide anything by way of support. He reappeared in 1844, after the death of her mother, demanding money that she’d just inherited, took it, and then disappeared again. She hadn’t seen or heard anything of him since 1845.
An Act of Parliament in 1864, just six years later, changed the powers of women protecting their property and earnings to make them more difficult to achieve, by allowing a husband to apply for an order to have this protection discharged. This didn’t get repealed for more than 100 years.
Harrowing tales of Victorian family life can often be found in the Judicial Separation petitions. These were invariably (though not always) petitioned for in the cases of extreme domestic violence, but where there was no firm evidence of the husband’s adultery so divorce wasn’t possible. In addition, an amount of beating was considered acceptable in this society, where people were regularly physically punished, and a husband could “discipline” his wife – invariably with his fists or a stick. Emotional abuse was also common but wasn’t regarded as cruelty. However abhorrent this sounds to our modern sensibilities, this was parr for the course at the time.
Where the Act was able to help women was where the cruelty veered into something more than the occasional clout. Interestingly though, the first attempt at Judicial Separation (JS) didn’t feature any violence whatsoever. On Friday 5th February gentleman’s daughter Ellen Martin of Russell Square asked for a JS from husband John (who had no profession whatsoever). He married her the previous summer but didn’t spent a great deal of time with her. He left, took up with someone called Kate, and went to Brighton with her instead posing as husband and wife. He denied the accusations, however, and the case appears to have been dropped.
The second JS case through the courts on 9th February, where Londoner Sarah Peacock née Cuthbert accused her husband Alexander of adultery and requested a separation, again didn’t feature any violence. Sarah got the judgement she wanted in the end.
The third JS, however, is grim reading. This was filed on 20th February, and became the first jury case heard under Act when it went to court in May. Louisa Tomkins née Hudson left Farringdon Market potato salesman Thomas Tomkins in January after a catalogue of violence and threats. He would frequently use his fists on her if he felt she needed some chastisement and this situation had continued since 1851.
“… the said Thomas Tomkins at Shoe Lane Fleet Street in the City of London grossly abused and threatened your Petitioner and beat her and otherwise treated her with great cruelty whereby her health was materially affected.”
Tomkins vs Tomkins, T00006, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
“The petitioner having being sworn, deposed that her husband was a very ill-tempered person, who was in the habit of knocking her about when he was in a passion. On one occasion he had beaten her because she said that a woman whom he had called a respectable sort of person was not so. They had had quarrels about another woman, towards the child of whom her husband made a regular payment. Her husband threatened to bring the child into his house, in order to punish witness. If she ever made a mistake in her accounts he would abuse her; and on one occasion, when she had returned late from Woolwich, he beat her with his fists.”
West Middlesex Herald, Saturday 8 May 1858
In January 1858 he’d held her down by her hair and had beaten her around the head, from which she was still suffering in court, and threatened her with further violence too. She had left him, and had gone home to her mother, taking her children with her. Thomas insisted that this was untrue and asked the court to force her back home. The court for Louisa, and she received her JS. The judge in the case said that he wanted future cases like this one to be heard behind closed doors. As to what happened to Louisa next, the records have remained elusive.
A case of impotence led to a petition for the marriage to be annulled on 12th February 1858, a Wednesday. French citizen Alphonsine Isaacson had married British husband Ebenezer Silver twice, as was required by French law, once at Paris town hall and again at the Synagogue. However, the marriage was never consummated due to his supposed lack of ability to rise to the occasion (she entreated the court to examine his reproductive organs, to see she was correct), and he’d left her.
“That at the time of the civil and religious marriages the said Ebenezer David Silver was and has ever since been and now is naturally and incurably impotent and incapable of generation as on due examination of him will appear.”
Isaacson vs Isaacson, I00001, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
She believed he was living in Cheapside. The case does not appear to have made the newspapers. Ebenezer, a doctor with the East India Company, was an expert on diseases of the anus and rectum, and when Alphonsine tried again in 1869 for a separation on the grounds of cruelty he claimed he was previously legally married to someone else and that there wasn’t a case to answer.
Restoration of conjugal rights
There were four cases for restoration of conjugal rights brought by women too, in that first six months. The first of these was on 2nd March, where Eliza Kyan of Brompton petitioned the court to force her husband John back to live with her and their children, him having refused to do so since November 1857. Restoring him to the marital home would have meant Eliza had help parenting the kids, and also would have known that her financial situation was stable, whatever state their marriage was in. Divorce was not an option for this pairing, as they were both Catholic.
Divorce with adultery and desertion
As for the 22 wives who attempted to get a divorce in that first six months, two were automatic fails as there wasn’t enough evidence. The first one filed, on 8th February 1858, which successfully went through the courts was the petition of Esther Pyne née Varley, who had grounds via adultery and desertion of above two years. Her husband of 30 years, George, a renowned watercolour painter, had gradually put the couple into debt due to an addiction to gaming and gambling, and was unable to support them. He’d also committed adultery while drunk, went to France without her to try to earn his living again and deserted her, leaving her without income. Esther had relied upon her father for support, and started teaching music, though George would occasionally write to her and ask for money. Ten years later, and based in Chelsea, she discovered him living in Oxford with another woman and their four children. George didn’t contest Esther’s petition, and the divorce was granted. She remarried the following year, to solicitor Charles Willesford, and lived with him in Devon to the end of her days.
Divorce with adultery and bigamy
The first divorce case brought by a woman where he’d cheated on her and married someone else too was filed in the second week of February, and included desertion for a three-pronged attack. Grace Robotham, née Halford, married Thomas in Clerkenwell in 1849, and they had two daughters. However, he also married Leonora King in 1856, while Grace was still alive, and to avoid the consequences fled to New York. She asked for custody of the children, and for her marriage to end – but as Thomas was abroad the court sought him out for a possible defence, indicating that they’d unusually take his father’s word instead if they were unable to locate him. The case got no further mention, but there’s no sign of Thomas or Leonora in the UK from this point onwards, and Grace and her daughters went to live with her parents in Clerkenwell. Grace reverted to her maiden name, indicating that the divorce probably went through, but called herself a widow.
Divorce with adultery and cruelty
The first cases of a wife petitioning for divorce with adultery and cruelty took longer to come through the system. Jessie Sudlow attempted to use cruelty alongside adultery in her petition against husband Alfred in early March 1858, but it turned out that Alfred had died before the case was heard in April. Therefore Jessie was a widow and didn’t need a divorce. Emma Weatherill also included cruelty in her case against deserted and adulterous husband George, who was in Sydney when she filed on 13th April. The cruelty wasn’t particularly clear cut, and it was felt there was enough evidence on desertion and adultery, so that part of the case was dropped.
The first woman’s divorce case petitioned for that included cruelty as part of the case was brought by Eliza Brunell, wife of early photographer Theodore, who had famously taken photographs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s children in 1852.
Theodore Brunell’s portraits of Queen Victoria’s children
Widowed Eliza, née Bush, who kept an inn at Weymouth that still exists, had married second husband Theodore in January 1857. In the 17 months before she filed for divorce, he’d not only visited houses of ill-fame, and committed various acts of adultery, but had also assaulted a little girl by hitting her with a stick and was serving time when she filed for divorce. His catalogue of vile behaviour towards Eliza is extreme.
“The said Theodore Brunell spit upon your Petitioner and used and applied to her disgusting and obscene names and language and threatened to set fire to the House where your Petitioner was then residing and threatened never to have any peace with your Petitioner, and on… (6.1.1857)… the bedclothes of your Petitioner were found burnt, and your Petitioner verily believes the same to have been burnt by the said Theodore Brunell for the purpose of annoying and intimidating your Petitioner.”
Brunell vs Brunell, B00012, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
He also spat, threatened her with knives and various dinner utensils, cut her, and hit her with a heavy stick in public. Within 20 days of the marriage they weren’t living together anymore.
Eliza got her divorce, granted in May 1859, and remarried soon after to James Board – who moved into the pub to help her run it, and they had a whole ream of children. Theodore continued on his downward spiral, and on the 1861 census he’s in the police jail cell, coincidentally next door to Eliza’s pub. He committed suicide a few months later. Eliza lived until 1875.
Mud-slinging apart, it’s hard not to be struck at just how human the lives are we see within these legal pages. The Victorian age is so often characterised as stilted and an attempt to live good, pure and Godly lives, enhanced by the stiff sepia poses of their portraits. If it wasn’t for obvious colloquial language differences, and evolved societal norms, you could quite easily see these break-ups being discussed over a bottle of prosecco at a top London bar. Time may have moved on, and we now wouldn’t accept some of the things that happen in a marriage – e.g. flying fists – and rightly so, but people are still people.
Caroline Norton’s story and campaign may have spearheaded change, but the cases of Jane, Mary Jane, Ann, Sophia, Mary, Ellen, Sarah, Alphonsine, Louisa, Eliza Kyan, Esther, Grace, Jessie, Emma, Eliza Brunell and the rest of the 92 women were all pioneering in their own way and helped to open up legal proceedings and recompense for the women who followed. There’s no doubt that the lives of the wives may have improved in the cases petitioned for by the 53 husbands in the first six months of the act. But these women were using the new legislation for themselves, and in many cases winning.
Although women becoming doctors did not happen until well into the 19th century (Bristol-born Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from medical school in the USA in 1849, London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became a doctor on home soil in 1865, and Dr James Barry, born c1789, spent the first 20 years of his life presenting as female), there were still a few women who worked in healthcare in less prestigious roles.
The tradition of a wise woman, or herbalist, stretches back through time. She would have dispensed folk remedies and health care advice for a lesser price than a doctor, and would have often been the first port of call for women’s health problems.
It was rarer, although no way unheard of, to find a woman who worked as a chemist or druggist, which had more of a medical science nuance to the work and profession. This was a role more often performed by men. However, Chippenham’s Ann Colborne, née Salway, operated as a druggist on the town’s high street for many years in her own right, in the early 19th century. In common with other women who had this position, she had inherited the business from her husband when he died.
Ann had been the wife of town druggist William Colborne, who was from a notable local medical family. They were part of the family that had owned Hardenhuish House. His father had been an apothecary, and he had taken up the profession too, and his son went on to be a surgeon and doctor. On William’s death he had left his shop, drugs and medicines to Ann for her to continue practicing medicine and dispensing if she so wished. She did.
Ann had been born in 1760 in Corsham, to John and Sarah Salway. Baptism records of this time do not give father’s profession, but it’s likely that the family were fairly well off and in good social standing given who she married. She had a brother, Edward, who proved his mother’s will in 1780, so she’d lost her mother by the age of 20.
Her marriage to William took place in 1779, in Chippenham’s parish church. They had three children in fairly quick succession – Sarah in 1781, Frances in 1783 and William in 1785. Most women at this time would have had more than just three children, so the fact that Ann didn’t perhaps indicates why she had more time than others to help her husband out with his work and learn his methods and medicine. This would have been the only formal training she had. The practice at the beginning of her career was unregulated, and the eventual Pharmacy Act of 1868 had 223 women added to the first register for the whole country.
The Universal British Directory of 1791 gives William Colborne as an apothecary and druggist, one of five under that job title in the town. Others under the title “physic” are described as surgeon, apothecary and man-midwife. Ann is not mentioned as having the role at this stage.
Just two years after this, William died. Ann was left with three children aged 12, 10 and 8, as well as William’s business.
She did not have to take on the business if she didn’t want to. William had bought their Market Place-based house outright, allocated her any rent she might draw from it, and had enough money to pay her and the children an amount of money each year that if it was wisely invested should have easily seen her through.
His will, made in 1791 and proved in 1794, says:
“And also my stock of drugs and medicines and shop fixtures if my said wife Ann Colborne shall continue to carry on the business of a druggist but in case she refuses carrying on the said business then I direct my executors hereinafter named to sell and dispose thereof for the most money that they can obtain for the same and the money arising by the sale there if I desire maybe applied towards the putting of my said son William Colborne an apprentice to whatsoever business he may chose as soon as he shall arrive at a proper age.”
It speaks volumes that, even though Ann had no need to take over William’s business, she chose to continue to be the town’s apothecary and druggist. It indicates that she must have enjoyed the work and found it her calling. She ran the business for another thirty or so years.
She’s given as Widow Colborne on the Land Tax records of 1798. The business was also successful enough to pay for her son William to train as a doctor. He is referred to as a surgeon by 1808, and practiced alongside his mother in Chippenham.
Much of Ann’s (and William’s) working life would have been making and dispensing remedies for all sorts of maladies. It could have been anything from easing diarrhoea to making a salve to attempt to treat breast cancer, and anything in between. Probably involving a lot of bloodletting.
The main text in use at the time was The Book of Phisick, which dated initially from 1710 and was added to over the next century or so. It’s held by the Wellcome Collection today. Ann’s remedies would have at least have been based on the advice and ideas given in this book, if not following them closely.
A remedy for blackhead spots from this book involved nightshade water (presumably a tincture with the plant soaking for a while), red wine vinegar and prunella – a plant sometimes called woundwort. Another remedy to ease sore eyes required heating and condensing urine and dripping it in the eyes as a wash.
Ann’s tools were a vast array of various herbs and plants, spiced wines and oils, many types of animal dung, urine taken from people and animals. Rarer and hard to obtain ingredients might have been ordered from the garden run by the Company of Worshipful Apothecaries in London, which still exists today as the Chelsea Physic Garden. There would also have been appendages – penises, legs, bones on display in the shop, and various exotic powdered substances. The recipe lists for these cures sound more like ingredients of classic witches potions than medicines, but these methods would have been passed down from practitioner to practitioner, and there would have been no scientific testing or controlled trials in the way medicine does today.
On top of all this, Ann would also have provided basic first aid. She’d have dressed wounds and provided salves. The heavier work – amputations etc – would have been performed by her son William as that was considered doctoring. Some of the cures were aimed at livestock too. There’s a reference in an edition of the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette from 20 May 1802 to her stocking Bellamy’s Medicine for the cure of Scouring Cattle.
Her daughter Frances had married a man called John in 1804, and went off to live with him in various different local places – a son was born the following year in Bath, a daughter in a Salisbury Plain village in 1812, and she eventually settled in Devizes.
An Apothecaries Act in 1815 gave practitioners like Ann the licence to practice and regulate medicine, and started to build on the more serious standing of their job in the medical profession. Ann, because she had worked so long at this stage but had no formal training, would not have been part of the Company of Worshipful Apothecaries. However, she’d have personally benefited from the increased legitimacy that this act gave the profession.
Ann’s son William, who she lived with, married Sarah Taylor in 1818. She was the daughter of a Chippenham clothier, who were important within the cloth producing business that ran the local economy. He was 33 and a surgeon. He was apparently much loved as a doctor by much of the Chippenham population.
Ann is given as a druggist, alongside William, on the first proper trade directory of Wiltshire – Pigot’s Directory of Wiltshire – in 1822. She would have been 62 and still working. This would have been considered elderly for the time. A trade directory was a sort of telephone book for an area, but obviously without the telephone numbers at this time as it was long off the time they were invented. They informed people coming into the area who was available for particular life services – lawyers, builders, wheelwrights and so on – and was a way of advertising for more business.
She was also in the same druggist and apothecary position in the 1830 Pigot’s Directory, when she had reached the age of 70. Son William, as well as working as a surgeon, was also attributed in the druggist business.
Her daughter Sarah, who had never married, died in her late 40s in 1831. She had apparently had a severe illness for a long time. Her daughter Francis also died in 1838, over in Devizes.
By the time of the 1839 Robson’s trade directory, Ann had taken retirement and was not operating as a druggist anymore.
The 1841 census finds Ann aged 80, living with her son William and his family – he had nine children in the end – on the town high street. They were probably collecting rent on the house in the Market Place. William was working as a surgeon, and his son William was training to be a doctor, so the family medical profession was continuing.
Ann died in the early part of 1843, aged 82. She was living on the High Street, with her son and his family. She was buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, and her son William paid the death duty. He went on to practice in St Mary Street, and became mayor of Chippenham in 1851. His son William, the third to have that name, also became a doctor and surgeon.
Former dairy worker Ada became the victim of an age-old idea that a husband could control his wife’s finances, when her bankrupt husband ran her name into the mud too.
The daughter of a butcher and farmer, she was born in the late 1880s and grew up on the farm on the east outskirts of Bristol. She was the sixth of eight children, and she and all of her siblings had their own jobs working on aspects of the farm.
The farm appears to have specialised in cattle products, both beef and dairy produce, and was of a reasonable size.
In 1911, at the age of 20, she was working in the farm dairy alongside her younger sister Elsie, producing milk and probably butter and cheese too. Yoghurt would not have been on their produce list, however, as it was not introduced into the UK until the 1960s.
Milking cows in the first decade of the 20th century was unlikely to have be mechanised, at least not to any great extent. Milking machines had been invented in the 1860s and 1870s, but were often flawed in design which caused pain and damage to the cows’ udders, and many producers would have stuck with more traditional methods until the surge milker was invented in the early 1920s. Similarly, the pasteurisation process had been invented in the 1860s, but was not mandatory or commonplace in a dairy at that time – most people, if they were aware of milk-borne diseases, would boil the fresh milk at home rather than relying on the dairy to do it.
The reality for Ada and Elsie would therefore probably have been milking the cows by hand from a stool, a tiresome and hard job, and then placing the milk they collected into churns for sale. At this time, fresh milk was often delivered on carts around the district, and households would buy what they needed directly from the seller.
It’s likely that Ada and Elsie would also have made butter to sell alongside the milk – churning it in a barrel churn, over and over. This would have been made into pats, and sold wrapped in greaseproof paper. Again, with the lack of cooling facilities available in houses, households would only purchase the amount they would need for that day and buy more the following day from the cart when it next did its rounds. It may have been that Ada and Elsie made the rounds with the cart, but this job could also have fallen to other siblings.
Cheese, which kept slightly better in a larder, may also have been made in the farm dairy. This would have involved heating the milk, and adding a form of acid to separate the curds and whey, then straining and curing.
In the autumn of 1914, right at the beginning of the first world war, Ada married Tom. He was also from a farming family, which had initially been based at Jacksoms Lane on the edge of Chippenham, and then had moved to the Wiltshire village of Christian Malford.
Tom’s family were cattle dealers, which probably explains how Ada met him. Ada was 25, whereas he was five years younger – but on all official documents thereafter she pretended she was three years younger than she was. This would have meant a touch more respectability in terms of the match, as society approved of wives being younger than their husbands.
Ada and Tom had no children together.
Tom was of prime age, since he was in his early 20s, to fight in the First World War. He does not appear to have gone, however. Farming was a reserved occupation during that conflict, so he was not drafted to go. Therefore, he stayed at home with Ada and ran his cattle dealing business.
Within a few months of the marriage, Tom was in trouble with the law. He was accused of assault in March 1915, and had to attend court (he didn’t bother, and sent a solicitor instead), after an altercation with a clerk at Chippenham railway station where he had become extremely cross, threatened and swore at him and thrown a pen at him which scratched his face. He was fined, and imprisoned for a month.
This display of temper was not an isolated incident, as he was fined by the Gloucester and West Gloucestershire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (a precursor to the RSPCA) for viciously striking a heifer in his care in May 1917. For this he received a fine of £1 (a considerable amount of money in 1917), or imprisonment for seven days.
Somewhere along the line – whether his temper extended to his treatment of Ada, or as a result of the societal embarrassment at her husband being charged and imprisoned – Ada stopped living with him.
She moved in with one of her sisters in Shirehampton. Two of them lived there, so it was either with Rosa – who had lost her husband in the war and needed help with her two tiny children – or with Birdie that Ada made her home.
In 1917, whether she was living with him or not at the time, Tom’s cattle dealing business was declared bankrupt. He then proceeded to continue buying and selling cows, but running the business through Ada’s name. She later claimed that she knew nothing about this as they were not living together at the time.
Tom, using Ada’s name, moved into a large three storey house in Chippenham, which was close to the Three Crowns pub and on the direct market route for many people bringing their animals into town. Early electoral registers do not show Ada living there with him.
He eventually bankrupted Ada too. The case came to court in November of 1921, where Ada was said to owe over £2,300 but only had assets of £16 5s. Neither Ada nor Tom attended the court – both were said to be unwell – but Tom was said to have been in the pink of health at the previous market day.
When the case came back to court a month or so later, Ada said that she had opened a bank account in 1917 with the help of her sister, and she had allowed Tom access to continue trading – but he had bled it completely dry and she was not aware that the account was short to the extent that it now was. The court also questioned her about her household expenses, perhaps implying that she would spend money on fripperies. However, she said that Tom paid them all, they were not extravagant, and that she often wore an outfit for three or four years – which was fairly thrifty living.
There is then nothing about Tom or Ada in the newspapers until the 1930s, in respect to missed bill payments in May 1935. There is no sign of them having their bankruptcy revoked. However, in trade directories of the town they appear to have still been operating as cattle dealers so would have found some way to keep the business afloat.
After these court cases, Ada returned to live with Tom at the big house in Chippenham. Whether they had resolved their dispute or the court case against her meant that they were both as disreputable as each other, there seems to have been some sort of reconciliation.
Her parents both died in the 1920s, and significantly Ada was not named as executor on either of their wills, with finance being left to her other siblings.
She then lost three of her siblings in the 1930s.
By 1935, she and Tom decided to leave Chippenham and moved to Keynsham, which was relatively close to where she’d grown up. 1939 sees Tom still operating as a cattle salesman, albeit from a property that did not have land attached. Ada is tersely credited with unpaid domestic duties on that document, and they have a boarder living with them, a mechanic from a local garage.
One of Ada’s brothers, who had operated her family’s farm after her father’s death, died in 1938 but Tom and Ada did not go into partnership on that property. It’s possible that the bankruptcy had soured some family relationships.
Tom died in Keynsham in 1954, and was buried locally. Ada survived him by more than 20 years, and was buried alongside her parents and siblings at her family’s local church.
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.