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.