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.
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.
Women have been unexpectedly discovering that they are pregnant since time immemorable. However, if that pregnancy is unwelcome or unwanted, how they have reacted over the millennia is related to religious, cultural, temporal and societal factors.
In the mid-19th century, if you were poor and unmarried, you had stark options if you found yourself in this situation. An illegitimate child was a massive stigma in society which could have detrimental implications for your life thereafter, and for that of your child. Abortion was illegal if you were caught and the abortifacients available at this time could be dangerous and didn’t always work, and there were huge religious implications for this option in a very God-fearing society. Another option was to have the baby and pass it off as someone else’s – perhaps your mother might claim it as your younger sibling – but if you were on your own far from home that wasn’t possible, and it’d be a rare family who could afford to take in another mouth to feed if the baby was offered for adoption. A final option, which some women took, was to conceal the pregnancy and to then either abandon or kill the baby when it arrived – which again were illegal, and had religious implications.
Elizabeth, a widow aged 31, faced this dilemma in 1870. She was living on her own with her two sons from her marriage in a down-at-heel area of Chippenham called Lowden, which was starting to be redeveloped as railway workers’ housing but at this time had portions that were semi-rural, poor and crowded. Her neighbours were labourers, hauliers, brickmakers, cloth factory workers, and she was working as a labourer and charwoman. This would have meant very low wages, and no particularly stable employment, and she really couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
Lowden in the 1880s
Despite the economics, she could have insisted that the baby was legitimate and had been fathered by her dead husband. The trouble was, she’d already done that 15 months earlier when she’d given birth to a little boy she had baptised as Alfred, who didn’t live long enough to have his birth registered. The fact that her husband had actually passed away in 1865 would have made this completely impossible, and the true father of the child was either not interested or unavailable to support Elizabeth, but attempting to pass off this little boy as legitimate could have created a veneer of respectability even if everyone would have known the truth. So, finding herself pregnant again in the winter of 1870 meant that claiming that the new baby was also fathered by her dead husband would not have been an option.
It’s unknown whether she tried any abortifacients, but if she did they didn’t work. Therefore, Elizabeth opted to conceal her pregnancy. This would have been easier than now, due to fuller skirts in women’s outfits, and stays would also have helped. She was therefore able to continue working and go about daily life as normal. Whether the concealment was intended, or part of denial and mental health issues brought on by grief having lost a baby and a husband, is open to question. Concealing a pregnancy was not illegal at the time, but concealing a birth was, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Therefore, she was on the road to committing an offence.
Technically, this wasn’t her first offence. She and her husband Eli had lied on their marriage certificate about their ages. They’d married in Corsham in 1860, and Elizabeth would have been 21 – which was old enough to marry without a parents’ permission under the law of the time. Eli, however, was 20 – which was under-age. He increased his age by a year, as did she. While this was an offence, this was a common occurrence, and was usually let slide. And it appears that they didn’t admit to being married at first. A year later, on the 1861 census, Eli – who was a railway porter – was living away from Elizabeth and lodging in the High Wycombe area. He did admit to being married. She, on the other hand, does not appear under her married name, and could well be visiting farming friends of her parents in Sussex posing as an unmarried woman.
She’d grown up in Sussex, just outside modern-day Crawley and close to where Gatwick Airport now sits, and was the daughter of rather a prosperous farmer. She was one of the middle children of a family of at least 13, and at the time her father died in 1851 – when she was just 13 – she was living away from home and working as a servant on another farm. Her mother appears to have not kept the farm, and took up working as a monthly nurse to make ends meet. Elizabeth and her siblings seem to have scattered on the wind.
Exactly where Elizabeth met Eli is unknown. He was a porter for the Great Western Railway though, like his older brother Andrew before him, so it may well have been at a station. At the time of their marriage he was based at Paddington Station, and she was possibly a servant at Hartham House on the outskirts of Corsham. If, as suspected, they hid their marriage for a while, it appears they reunited at some point in 1862. Their first son, Herbert, was born in High Wycombe in the early part of 1863. The new family then moved to Oxfordshire, as next son Charles was born in Thame in the spring of 1864.
They returned to Eli’s home – he’d been brought up in Yatton Keynell, just outside Chippenham – to have Charles christened. Here they stayed, as Eli died the following year aged just 25. His parents, who were agricultural labourers, were in no position to support Elizabeth and her sons. So she moved to a cottage on Lowden in Chippenham and took work where she could find it, which all led up to the concealment of her pregnancy in 1870.
It appears that on 6th September Elizabeth took to her bed and refused to see anyone except her two sons. This behaviour must have been out of the ordinary, as her neighbours were suspicious, and one decided to write to the local surgeon/doctor Mr Spencer outlining what they thought. Dr Spencer went to Elizabeth’s home, found her in bed with her clothes on, and accused her of concealing a birth. She denied it, and refused to let him examine her.
Undeterred, he took the letter to the police and the following day police superintendent Mr Wiltshire visited Elizabeth. Confronted with the officials, and obviously realising that the game was up, she admitted that she’d given birth but the baby hadn’t survived, and she’d concealed it all. The baby, a little girl (initial reports wrongly identified the child as male), was found wrapped in calico in a box at the foot of the bed. She had presumably been too ill since the birth to bury her daughter, or at least decide what to do next.
Elizabeth was taken into custody. Dr Spencer examined the dead child, and reached a verdict that the child had been suffocated by the umbilical cord around her neck during the birth, the result of having no-one to assist with labour. Therefore, Elizabeth was not charged with infanticide and her offence was the lesser one of concealing a birth. She was due to be charged when she recovered enough to face a court hearing. The register of births, marriages and deaths records the death of an unnamed female bearing Elizabeth’s married surname in Chippenham at this time. Whether concealment followed by abandonment, or something worse, was what Elizabeth intended for the child, it’s a situation she would not have gone into lightly, and is desperately sad that the community around her would not have supported her properly following the birth of another child.
She was held at Devizes prison until the case came to trial. She would have been held in a cell specially built for the use of women, dating from around 1841. Her sons went to live with her mother-in-law Sarah, who was widowed and working at Doncombe Paper Mill in Ford.
Devizes Prison, before it was demolished, taken from the air in 1924
The trial, in late March 1871, saw Elizabeth plead guilty and say that she was very sorry that she had done it. Under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 she could have faced up to 2 years in prison, but as the judge had found “that there was no evidence of the destruction of the child”, and had already served 6 months in prison, she was given another three months with hard labour. At Devizes Prison, which was the only prison in Wiltshire and was situated by the Kennet and Avon Canal, a prison term with hard labour would have included baking, cooking, cleaning and walking a treadmill to grind corn. Elizabeth completed her sentence in the summer of 1871, and would have reunited with her sons.
Rather surprisingly, the next record to feature her is another marriage. She married Thomas, a widower 35 years her senior, around 9 months after leaving prison. Thomas’s daughter Eliza had married Eli’s brother Job in the winter of 1870, so Elizabeth would probably have known him before her prison term. He was widowed while she was concealing her pregnancy.
This was probably quite a canny move on Elizabeth’s part. Thomas had a stable job as a small scale farmer, and a clutch of children from his first marriage that were either grown up or close to becoming independent. And at around 70 he would not be expected to live much longer. Her sons would have lived with them, on his farm in Cricklade – a town in the very north of Wiltshire close to the border with Oxfordshire. Elizabeth gave birth a final time, to a daughter called Ellen, in 1873.
However, Thomas did have longevity. The 1881 census finds him as a farmer of 15 acres, employing one boy – probably his stepson Charles, who was living with them. Elizabeth, given her family background in farming, is given as a farmer’s wife and undoubtedly had her own jobs on the land – but typically the enumerator has crossed out her occupation as she wasn’t supposed to admit to it.
Thomas died in 1883, aged around 80. Exactly what happened to Elizabeth after that is unknown for a few years. She appears not to have continued at the farm, as it went to Thomas’s son Henry from his previous marriage. Her eldest son Herbert got married in the London area to a woman named Caroline in 1883. He would have been around 21. However, he and Caroline were witnesses to younger son Charles’s very definitely underage wedding the same year – he married Emma, a woman from Minety, and claimed to be 22 but was actually around 19.
In 1887, her son Charles was convicted of arson, having tried to burn down a house he owned in Brinkworth, to defraud a fire insurance company. He received 6 years of penal servitude. He was imprisoned in Devizes initially, and then was moved to Portland in Dorset. Exactly what happened to his wife is unclear. Elizabeth and her daughter Ellen are not visible on the 1891 census – Herbert was working as an oilman and building his family in Ealing while Charles was in prison. There is also no sign of them on prison records, nor in an asylum.
Charles, after his release from prison, went straight and set up a greengrocers’ shop next door to Herbert in Ealing. He also married again, this time to Gertrude. Exactly what had happened to previous wife Emma is unknown. Reports of the arson mention that they had two children. There’s no obvious death record for her, and it may be that she shunned him after he was imprisoned.
Elizabeth’s son Charles in later life
Elizabeth eventually reappeared on the 1901 census, running a coffee house in Grays – an Essex town on the Thames Estuary – with the help of her daughter. At the time coffee houses were enjoying a boom due to the temperance movement, as they offered an alcohol-free meeting place, so Elizabeth was meeting a demand. Many women were involved in the temperance movement, and it was increasingly linked with women’s rights and universal suffrage. They also had a lodger – a coppersmith – living with them. This was particularly respectable, and in a complete contrast to her earlier rather more notorious life.
The coffeehouse didn’t seem to last though, as when Elizabeth died in 1908 she was resident in Ealing, close to her two sons – who both had large families of their own, and was buried locally. Her daughter Ellen went on to be an apartment keeper, and never married. Son Charles became a gardener, and died just before the second world war. Her son Herbert emigrated to Australia and died out there in the late 1940s.
While becoming a widow is a tragedy at any time, an era when your husband was the main or only breadwinner could be particularly harsh on the woman left behind. Poorer women would have to take in work – often extra laundry or charwoman jobs – alongside bringing up their children, and if they couldn’t do that they’d end up on poor relief or in the workhouse. Widows with older children might have found factory or mill work, if their older children could look after the younger, but all this would have to be fitted around family life and other duties expected of women.
In contrast, if a woman from an upper-class background was widowed the tragedy was no less but the economic impact on her life was significantly different. This was the case for Louisa, who was able to fall back on family when she lost her husband at the age of 31.
She was born at the tail end of the 1820s, the penultimate child and third daughter of an extremely wealthy Surrey landowner. Her father, John Spicer, had made a considerable amount of money as a merchant and a stockbroker and had bought a large house – Esher Place, a little way south of Hampton Court Palace – from the descendants of former Prime Minister Henry Pelham in 1805. He knocked the entire property down and rebuilt it to suit his own tastes. Eleven years after acquiring the property he married Louisa’s mother, and gradually started producing his family. Louisa was the 7th of eight children, with four older brothers. One took up soldiering, another joined the navy, and the other two went into the church. There were then twin sisters four years her senior, and when she was around six her sister Sophia was born.
A year later, her second oldest brother, Phillip, who was then around 19, died at sea. He’d been midshipman aboard the HMS Wanderer, and died on passage home from Sierra Leone – at that point a British colony, with troops based in Freetown.
Around the age of nine Louisa was sent to be educated at a private girls’ school in nearby Richmond on Thames. Before then her education would have been at home under a governess and her mother, but as with most wealthy families children were sent to school at about the age of nine. It’s likely that her twin sisters, Anna and Mary, also went to this school, and her younger sister Sophia too when the time was right. The family’s boys would have been sent further afield for their education.
If Louisa followed the experience of Anna and Mary, once her education was finished she would have come home to be debuted into society and await her eventual husband. Anna did not manage to make a match, as she died in 1842 at the age of 18, but Mary married her cousin Julian – a reverend – in 1853.
Louisa’s husband, Edmund Clutterbuck, came along in 1851 a few days before her 22nd birthday. He was heir to a large house and estate at Chippenham, in Wiltshire, miles away from her home in Surrey. It’s likely that they met during a summer season in either London or Bath. His family had been landowners in Wiltshire for several generations, initially in Bradford-on-Avon and from the mid 1820s in Chippenham when his father had purchased Hardenhuish House. Thomas, Edmund’s father, had become Sheriff of Wiltshire for a year in 1826.
Hardenhuish House and grounds
Louisa moved into Hardenhuish House with Edmund and his family. As the heir, he lived there with both his parents and his shortly-to-be-married sister Fanny, as well as a cousin on his mother’s side and various visitors. The house, which was built in the later part of the 18th century by Joseph Colborne, had ten live-in servants and had had various additions by Sir John Soane in 1829, at the behest of Edmund’s father Thomas. Although it had been enlarged considerably by the family, the number of servants in 1851 (ten) can be compared to those at Louisa’s father’s estate in Surrey (18) and show that the property was smaller than that which Louisa had been used to.
The following year, Thomas died and Edmund inherited the house and living, and became Sheriff of Wiltshire himself in 1854. Louisa also gave birth to her first child, a son named Edmund after his father. She would have taken on the duties of the squire’s wife, visiting the poor and sick at his side, supporting him through business, and appearing with him at church and other official functions. A second son, Walter, followed a year later.
Louisa’s sons Edmund Henry and Walter John Clutterbuck
In 1855 two of Louisa’s siblings moved to the area. Her eldest brother, John William Gooch Spicer, bought and renovated the house and estate at Spye Park, just to the south of Chippenham.
Her younger sister Sophia also married Edmund’s younger brother Daniel – a military officer who she had probably met through Louisa – and moved first to Chippenham and then to nearby Bath as they established their family.
Louisa had three more children in the following years – daughter Henrietta, son Newton (who died before he was two) and finally daughter Mary in 1860. However, Edmund’s health was in a decline by this point. His eventual obituaries say that his strength was on the wane, and he was gradually getting thinner and more emaciated over a long period of time, which perhaps points to cancer or diabetes. He spent time away from home for his health, as the Victorians believed spas and seaside environments would help those with health issues, but nothing helped him. He died aged 36, while on one of these health visits, in Torquay in February of 1861, and was buried at the church at Hardenhuish. Louisa became a widow, with four dependent children, at the age of not-quite-31. Eldest son Edmund was in his first year at boarding school (he and his brother Walter are known to have attended Eton), while youngest Mary was still a babe-in-arms.
The end of Edmund’s obituary reads:
“Who will forbear to hope but that another of his name will in future years worthily fill his, now vacant, position? Who will not offer a prayer that the bereaved wife and children may be supported in their grievous trial by ‘The Father of Mercies and the God of all comfort?’”
Practically, Hardenhuish needed another squire, and a nine-year-old boy away at school was not going to be able to fulfil that role. Louisa and her children needed somewhere else to go while her son Edmund grew up to inherit his title. The solution appears to have been solved by Louisa’s older brother. He seems to have arranged for the family to live at Whetham House, a smaller property between his estate at Spye Park and that of the Marquis of Lansdown at Bowood, with a few servants to meet their needs. Whether the house was tied to his property or he purchased it isn’t clear, but Louisa’s inheritance from Edmund and the £2,000 she received when her father died in 1862 would have helped the household. Her mother died in 1863, and she may well have inherited more money from her father’s estate then.
Meanwhile, a Reverend Benjamin Winthrop and his family lived at Hardenhuish House and took on the role of squire. He had come in from Wolverton, in Warwickshire, and he and his wife and children lived at the house until Louisa’s sons came of age.
Walter also went away to be educated, and Edmund studied at Oxford University to become a barrister. Louisa seems to have kept her daughters closer though, and instead of sending them away to school appears to have either educated them locally or at home. Her life would have been quieter than that she had when wife of the squire, as she would not have had many official duties and occasions to attend, and instead probably kept within an upper-class social sphere.
Once Edmund came of age in 1873, aged 21, he was able to take on his inherited squire title. Reverend Winthrop moved out of Hardenhuish House, and Edmund moved back in. Louisa stayed at Whetham House with the rest of the family, and did not take up residence at the house that had formerly been hers. He married Madeline Raikes at Chittoe near Spye Park in 1880, his youngest sister Mary was a bridesmaid and his brother Walter was groomsman. Curiously, Louisa is not mentioned in newspaper reports of the wedding – it may be that it was just assumed that people would know she attended, or that something prevented her being there. Her first grandchild, a girl named Henrietta, was born a year later.
However, Louisa’s health was now failing too, which may also have prevented her from attending her son’s wedding. She died while still living at Whetham, aged 53, in the summer of 1882, and left over a thousand pounds to her beneficiaries.
Her son Edmund went on to have ten children in all. Her other three remaining children all married over the next few years, with Walter becoming a pioneering early photographer who travelled widely – including Japan and a trip on a sealing vessel to the Arctic. Hardenhuish House remained in the Clutterbuck family though, until her grandson – another Edmund – died in 1938 and the property was sold to the people of Chippenham to become part of the town’s grammar school. It still remains a school, and most of the administrative offices sit within the old walls.
One gender disparity of the Victorian age was that, if a landlady of a pub was married, the license for the premises was invariably held in her husband’s name – even if he held another job elsewhere and the day-to-day running of the pub was left to her. In an era where women not working was prized as an elite aim, the pub landlady and her daughters appeared exempt. Women were sometimes referred to as the “hostess” of the establishment, which gave them status in a place that was usually regarded as a men’s domain. Women did drink in pubs during this time period, as beer was often better than water at the time, but not in the bar, and were usually not the type of women to be considered “nice” by the bulk of society. In contrast, the landlady had prestige.
More stringent social mores around women and alcohol came in with the temperance movement, and the Defence Of the Realm Act (DORA) during World War One. Temperance largely being a women’s political issue in the absence of being able to vote, there were social restrictions and expectations that grew around older girls and women entering a pub – particularly alone, as it might be seen that they were hoping to be picked up – and women would only be found in the lounge or snug areas of pubs, or would buy alcohol in a jug through a hatch in the outside wall to take away and drink at home. DORA also brought in restrictions for when alcohol could be sold in on-licensed premises.
Mary Ann, her sister Emma and mother Mary were no exception to the women-run establishment rule of thumb. Her father, Charles, nominally ran a pub in the Wiltshire town of Melksham when she was born in the mid-1840s, and the family later moved to Chippenham to run the town’s Three Crowns Inn, located at the crux of a busy coaching thoroughfare between Bath and London. She was the youngest of three children, which was a low number for the time.
However, Mary Ann’s father died in the Spring of 1857, when she was only fourteen. Her mother Mary, who had almost certainly been running the pub either alone or jointly with her husband since the family arrived in the town, then took over the license and ran it with the help of Mary Ann and her sister Emma – five-ish years older. A child working and being in the sight of alcohol being sold was not a problem at the time, as legislation banning under 14s in pubs appears not to have been brought in until the Licensing Act of 1964, and in any case did not apply to children residing at the premises (this was repealed in 1994 and removed at the beginning of 1995).
The pub was run as a going concern, with occasional overnight visitors. They offered a full service of ales and food, and accommodation for horses too – they employed an ostler on their staff, and had their own stables. Mary Ann’s brother George went on to be a commercial clerk, married and lived in Surrey, while the two girls stayed in business with their mother.
The pub, in common with other public houses and hotels at that time, was occasionally the venue for coroners’ inquests as it was a public area with enough space to accommodate many people. This included a 76-year-old sawyer who died of heart disease in 1870, a suicide in 1875, a two-year-old girl from measles complications in 1876, and a man who froze to death in a snowstorm in 1881.
Her mother ran the pub with Mary Ann and Emma for 15 years after her husband’s death, before dying herself at the age of 66. Directly after their mother’s death, both Mary Ann and Emma applied to jointly take over the license of the pub together.
They ran it together for a couple of years, until they both got married – on the same day, at Chippenham’s parish church. Emma’s beau was Charles, a school master who came from Reading, and she went off to live with him in that area and then South Wales. Mary Ann’s husband was Jeffrey, a farmer from nearby Langley Burrell. Accordingly, he took over the license of the pub from Mary Ann, and moved into the premises to nominally run it himself.
However, this marriage did not last long. Two years later Jeffrey was dead at the age of 40, and Mary Ann took over the pub license again. Given she had lived in the pub, and worked the business, since early childhood, this must very much have been business as usual – but running a pub alone, without any family, must have been a big ask. From accounts, the pub was not attached to any town brewery, so also brewed its own ale on the premises, of which Mary Ann would have had charge.
In 1880, she married a widower – Wright – who had lost his wife Emma at about two years before Jeffrey had died. He duly took over the pub licence from Mary Ann, who probably still ran the pub in actuality. Wright had been a farmer, and earlier than that had been a butler at Rodbourne House. His daughter Frances witnessed the marriage, as did Mary Ann’s brother George. With less people running the pub, however, they employed a barmaid and a servant as well as an ostler.
Her sister Emma had a baby in 1881, and Mary Ann went to visit her – Wright now working at the pub meant that she had the freedom to leave the business. There were no children from either of her marriages. Again though, this marriage was short-lived. This time, it was Mary Ann who died. Three years into the marriage, in 1883, she managed to catch her foot in the skirt of her dress and fell down the pub stairs, hitting her head. She complained of a headache later on, and lost a grip on reality, never recovering. She was discovered to have ruptured a blood vessel in her head when she fell. She was 39, which may seem no age now but by the standards of the time was getting on a bit. The local paper said:
“Although scarcely in the prime of life, Mrs. Clarke has perhaps been in the public business for a much longer period than any other landlady in the town, and her very amiable and obliging manners had won her many friends.”
She was buried in Chippenham. Wright sold up the business just over a year later, when it was described as “doing a very good trade, with a capital Market Dinner”. The death of Mary Ann had meant that Wright felt he could not continue running the pub. He went to live with his widowed sister in Norfolk, and died there in the early 1890s.
It is a bit of a myth that married women didn’t work in Victorian times – they often did, whether it was acknowledged or not. Unacknowledged roles might be serving behind the bar in the family pub, having their own jobs on a farm, or doing the accounts for her husband’s business. All these would still leave the profession box blank on a census return – the job was their husband’s, and therefore the work was attributed to him.
When it came to acknowledged work, low pay on behalf of their husbands would often mean that married women had to juggle childcare alongside a job, whether it was taking in laundry to make ends meet, or having a more formal role in a factory. However, respectable married women were not supposed to work in polite society – but if you had faced stigma from various different sources all your life, this probably mattered less as to how you saw your place in the community, and you carried on regardless. And this work ethic could help inspire those who came after you.
Mary was a married worker, with 14 children under her belt by the time she’d reached her 40s, and continually worked as a cloth weaver throughout her life. But she probably had faced enough stigma through her earlier life that any censure for working was water off a duck’s back.
The fact that she was a cloth weaver came from her parentage. Her father William had worked as a cloth weaver himself since his early teens, and many of his nearest and dearest worked throughout their lives too, whether they were male or female.
Mary was born in Rhydyfelin, South Wales – in modern day Rhondda Cynon Taff, not far from Pontypridd. The cloth industry at that time (late 1850s), in that area, was small. There was one mill, at Upper Boat and Rhydyfelin on the banks of the river Rhondda, which was run by Evan and James James. This had a small workforce, of which Mary’s father William, and possibly her mother Fanny, was part. Evan and James James, though cloth factory owners, are better known as the composers of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or Land of My Fathers, the Welsh National Anthem, and a statue commemorates them in Pontypridd.
Fanny was William’s third wife. Mary had a living brother from his first marriage, no siblings from his second, and then an older brother – Edward – from his marriage to Fanny. They were joined by sisters – Frances and Sarah, who lived, and Ann, who didn’t. Though William came from Wiltshire and Fanny from Somerset, the family moved around a great deal, going where the work was. They spent time around Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Tiverton and Chard in Somerset, and Cam and Wootton Under Edge in Gloucestershire, but Mary was the only child born in Wales.
Fanny died in 1869, when Mary was around 10, and her father very quickly married a fourth time – to Caroline. Mary gained a step-brother near her own age, and four siblings, all but one who lived.
On the face of it, this appears to be a fairly normal working class childhood for the period, but William’s four wives and the speed with which he mostly married the next after the previous wife’s death could point to something a little out of the ordinary, or even sinister.
Clarity is gained when it becomes more obvious that the family were early converts to Mormonism. William’s brother Samuel had left the Trowbridge area for Utah and Salt Lake City in the early 1850s, and their father Edward and other siblings were also known to have been members of that church. Five years before Mary’s birth there were around 50,000 Mormons in the UK. The earliest establishment of Mormon worship in Wiltshire was in the mid-1840s at Steeple Ashton, just outside Trowbridge, which fits with where the family were based. Mormons, as it was a fairly new faith with different interpretations and customs from established Church of England practices or even non-conformist groups, met a fair amount of suspicion and stigma in their community. At that time the church had not yet renounced polygamy, so it is possible that William and his wives may have had arrangements that were not recognised in the law of the time.
Growing up in this community, wherever you were based, could not have been easy for Mary and her siblings. Indeed, a great many Mormons emigrated to Utah from the Steeple Ashton area in the later part of the 19th century, having faced persecution. It is therefore no surprise that Mary’s choices in adulthood flew against society’s norms, whether the family needed the money or not.
The family settled at Drynham, to the south of Trowbridge – a town with many cloth mills – during Mary’s teens, and then into the town centre itself. She married Frederick, another weaver, in 1878 when she was around 19. Her father and stepmother and siblings were still in the area at the time, but they shortly emigrated to Utah themselves, leaving Mary behind. Her wedding doesn’t appear to have taken place in Mormon premises, however, as they married in a non-conformist chapel.
Frederick, a cloth worker who had been brought up purely in Wiltshire, does not appear to have either shared Mary’s faith or been particularly wedded to non-conformism. This is evident in that their first son, Thomas, who was well on the way by the time they married, had a Church of England baptism in Trowbridge.
Thomas, Mary’s first born, did not live very long. He was dead within a month of birth. The same fate awaited her second child, Rosa Augusta, who followed just over a year later – though she managed to last three months. Throughout, Mary worked at the clothmill, alongside Frederick.
Her third child, a daughter named Rose, was the first to survive babyhood. By the time of the 1881 census she was 3 months old and living with her parents in a two-up, two down property in the southern part of Trowbridge. Even this early in her babyhood, Mary was working as a woollen spinner, attached to one of the many nearby mills. The next two children, Laura and Frederick, also survived early childhood, but a third daughter – Florence – did not, dying in the winter of 1886 aged around 5 months.
Mary’s husband Frederick died shortly afterwards in early February, aged 32, leaving her cloth work as the only means of support for her and her three children. Another baby, Herbert, followed in the Spring of 1887. Mathematics would indicate that he was not Frederick’s child, since he was born 13 months after his father’s death, but he bore Frederick’s surname. In later life, when he signed up for the marines, he added a year to his age – but since this would put his birth at barely seven months after that of Florence, it does not work out. Exactly who Herbert’s father was is lost to time.
Around a year later, Mary’s daughters Rose and Laura enter the Union Workhouse at nearby Semington. Day books of entries have not survived, so their records of entry come from the workhouse school. It seems likely that Mary also entered, along with sons Frederick and Herbert, who were too young for schooling, but no record survives of this. To have at least some of the family in the workhouse means that she was struggling financially to keep going.
Four years later though, Mary had come to Chippenham to work in the Waterford Cloth Mill there and can be found on the 1891 census. Her two surviving sons were with her, but her daughters were not. Both still remained in the workhouse, and had been baptised from there too. In addition, there was a new baby, Walter, from her second husband Jacob – another worker at the cloth mill. However, there is no formal record of their marriage evident. Jacob had also been married before – his first wife Elizabeth died in 1888 – and Mary inherited six step-children. Despite a new baby, she was still working in the cloth mill. The fact that both daughters were still in the workhouse meant that there was not enough money coming in to support their upkeep.
After Walter she had five more children, taking her personal total of pregnancies to fourteen and her combined total with Jacob’s first family included to twenty children. The first was Florence, then Wilfrid (named after her brother, and who only lived a few months) then Wilfred, Lily, Ernest and William. William, the youngest, born in 1902 when she was around 43, again did not survive early childhood. So, although Mary had given birth to fourteen children, she had only nine that lived past infancy.
Throughout all these pregnancies Mary continued to work in the cloth mill. One of her earlier daughters, Laura, came to live with the new family and worked at the nearby condensed milk factory. The other from the workhouse seems to disappear – but may have been known as Annie rather than Rose, so may be in records under a different name. Jacob, who was also a hard worker, also sometimes worked at the cloth mill, but in addition worked as a carter for a local coal merchant. He is known to have been quite politically active, taking his children to see future Prime Minister Lloyd George speak in around 1903. His father was also living on the same street, which was known for poor quality housing that would often flood on the ground floor when the river was high, so it is possible that he helped out with childcare for Mary and Jacob’s children. Most of the children worked in local industries as they grew up – the cloth mill, and the milk factory invariably.
In 1910, at the age of 53, Mary died. Her daughters Florence and Laura therefore took on much of the household and care for the children, as Jacob continued to work for another three years until his own death. Two of her sons were killed in the First World War, and the rest of her children all worked hard throughout their lives – mostly around Chippenham. It’s her daughter Florence that is best remembered however, being extremely active around workers rights, and an eventual president of the TUC. She was later made a Dame.
The latest exhibition at Chippenham Museum is a display on 180 years of Wiltshire Police. One of the exhibit is a prison record book, open to a page on Mary Ann Hopkins. She’d committed larceny in 1864, had been locked up for seven years, and was released in 1869.
Basic maths will tell you that 1864 to 1869 is five years, not seven, so who was she, why was she a criminal, and why did she get an early release?
Mary Ann was born in Lewes, Sussex, in around 1844. Her father, William, worked as agricultural labourer but had served as a soldier – he was made a Chelsea Pensioner in 1836, at the age of 43. Her mother, Sarah, had been born local to Chippenham at Bremhill, and it appears held a desire to come home – while Mary and her older siblings William, Jane, George and John were all born elsewhere, the 1851 census has the family settled in Reybridge, between Lacock and Chippenham.
Reybridge in c1900
Mary Ann at this point was just six. Her elder sister had been sent out to work at 13 as a nursemaid to a local baker, while her eldest brother – just a year older – was working the local fields. This paints a background of a family just about surviving on her father’s pension and the little money her siblings were able to bring in.
Mary Ann’s father was a Chelsea Pensioner
Unfortunately, her father – who was twenty years older than her mother – died in the early spring of 1852, which would have thrown the family’s finances into dire straits. Most of her brothers went back to Sussex, presumably to receive some support from their father’s family, and its unknown exactly what happened to her mother. Sarah definitely didn’t die around this time, but completely disappears from records – so it may be that she remarried, or moved away.
What is certain is that Mary Ann remained in the Chippenham area. By 1861 she claims to be 18, when she was actually nearer 16, and was resident in the town’s union workhouse. She had previously been working as a domestic servant.
It’s after this that Mary Ann’s trouble began. If she was in the workhouse she would have been desperate for money. So desperate that she would steal it to keep herself going. And that’s what happened.
In the summer of 1863 she was convicted of larceny from a person, and was imprisoned for six months. A year later she was in the courts again for an identical charge, but on this one was found not guilty. And then later in 1864, in the early autumn, she was tried again for larceny and found guilty – this time receiving the seven-year stint in gaol.
The local newspapers, reporting the case, described her as a “prostitute” – which didn’t necessarily mean that she was selling sex for money, but more that she was considered a fallen women in the eyes of the sort of educated and moralising people who were able to read the newspapers, and who had the potential to act as a sex worker. However, she had stolen 7 shillings and 6d from a labourer called Mr Pinnegar that she had been associating with in Chippenham, so it may have been that this was what she’d been given for her services but she hadn’t fulfilled the deal. Whatever the circumstances, Mary Ann was locked up.
The records describe her as five foot six-and-a-half inches in height, quite tall for a woman of this time, with a fresh complexion, light brown hair, large grey eyes, and long fingers and nails. She was sent to prison – at Winchester, over in Hampshire – from the Marlborough courts. And as we said before, served five years of a seven-year sentence.
Winchester Prison, where Mary Ann was held.
Being released for good behaviour was unheard of at this time. If you were convicted, you served the full sentence unless you were let out on licence. And this is what happened to Mary Ann. Exactly why she was given a licence to be released becomes clearer in the month following her release. She was released on June 21 1869. On July 17 1864, she married a brickmaker called John Griffin in Chippenham’s St Andrew’s Church. This was after banns, so she would have had to be present to hear them read in the three weeks prior to the ceremony. Effectively, she had been released to allow her to get married, as she would therefore be under her husband’s correctional influence rather than the judicial system’s. It’s probable that she knew John, who lived at Englands or Wood Lane, before she was incarcerated, and he probably stood by her while she was in prison.
Tellingly, on her marriage certificate, Mary Ann did not give her father’s name or profession. It may have been that she was too young when he died to know them, and it gives more weight to the theory that she was the only one of her immediate family left in the area.
They moved to Swindon together – probably as much for John’s brickmaking work, as the construction of the new town was booming, as to escape her local notoriety. Their first daughter Mary Elizabeth was born in 1872, and another – Emily – followed in 1874. They returned to Chippenham to have both girls baptised in St Andrew’s Church.
Thereafter, Mary Ann had several more children – three boys and three girls. However, only one of these six children survived more than a few months, and she would have experienced a great deal of sorrow. John kept his work as a labourer, but it is unlikely that it brought in a great deal to live on. Beatrice Ellen, born in 1883, was the only other child of Mary’s to live to adulthood.
Her last child, Edgar, died in the later part of 1885. And within a few months Mary was dead herself – it may be that she was pregnant again and experienced complications, as she was only 39 years old, or it may be that her health was suffering from all the repeated pregnancies and she wasn’t strong enough to fight off winter ailments.
Mary Elizabeth and Emily found work, while Beatrice was brought back to Chippenham to be raised by her father’s brother on Wood Lane. John Griffin continued to work as a brickmaker in various places, and did not remarry.
Charlotte Marvelous sounds like a rather fantastic stage name for a Victorian circus performer. Or possibly a burlesque dancer.
In reality, however, she was the faithful housekeeper to a Sheffield bookseller, and almost certainly never saw as much as a prancing pony or a nipple tassel. But Marvelous wasn’t her real surname, and was probably a mark of deep affection given to her by her employer.
She’d been born in Eydon, a rurally-set village in Northamptonshire, towards the end of the 18th century. She was her parents’ seventh child of at least eleven, and not the first to have the name Charlotte – there’d been an older sister called Charlotte who’d died at a year old a few years earlier. While calling a child after one who’d died might seem a little morbid, this was relatively common at this time, with a far higher rate of infant mortality than today. Charlotte was not even the only child in the family for this to happen to – she had two brothers named John, one being born just over a month after the first one died at the age of seven.
Her parents, William and Maria Hunt, don’t appear to have been anyone particularly of note in the village – which mostly had a mixture of agricultural workers and house-based weavers – although towards the more well-to-do end of the scale given the professions of the men their daughters married and the fact that many of them were able to write their names on their wedding records so were at least partially literate. Charlotte was a witness to her sister Lavinia’s wedding in 1808, and was able to write her name.
In 1812, at around the age of 23, Charlotte married James, an agricultural labourer, in her home village of Eydon. James’ surname was Marvesley, so she became Charlotte Marvesley. There are no children in the baptismal records that fit, so it’s likely that their marriage was childless. As a farm labourer’s wife, it’s likely that Charlotte stayed at home doing domestic duties – which would have been considerable at the time – but it’s possible that she may have had some duties on the farm too.
However, after 13 years of marriage, her husband James died and was buried in their home village. With no children, and no visible means of support, Charlotte would have had to find work of some kind. Her mother died a year later, so she may have supported her father until his death in 1833. Her sisters Lavinia and Maria had married, as had her sister Diana, and her surviving brother John was living in Oxfordshire with his wife. What exactly happened to Charlotte next is unclear until she appears on the 1841 census in Sheffield, in her forties and in the employ of a bookseller.
What is likely is that she somehow came across George Brown, the book seller, through her brother in law Thomas. Thomas, also a book seller although formerly a tailor, had married Charlotte’s sister Diana. They’d moved around Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire, after leaving Eydon and the clothes business behind, and it’s probably that Thomas came across George through his work, and knew that George needed a housekeeper as much as Charlotte needed a comfortable position.
George had never married, it appears, so as a 19th century bachelor would have needed some help around the house – both in terms of housework and food preparation. A Victorian housekeeper would also have run the financial aspects of the household, so Charlotte would have had some financial nous and book-keeping skills. It’s also likely that she would have kept the books for his business, a role that many wives took on in small businesses at this time. So, to many intents and purposes Charlotte was George’s wife, without the benefits.
In 1841 they are living in Arundel Street, in the centre of Sheffield. Her sister Diana and her husband and children are nearby. Both men are working as booksellers. Diana died in 1847. By 1849, Charlotte and George had moved to Eyre Street, and it’s there they can be found on the 1851 census. On this record George claims to be married, but there’s no sign of a wife.
It appears to have been George that coined the name Charlotte Marvelous, as she’s not referred to as Marvesley after she enters his employ. It would almost certainly have been George that provided the information for the census enumerators, so using the name Marvelous perhaps speaks of the great esteem he held Charlotte in. So, rather than a stage name, the moniker refers to her personal traits and how well she supported him in his life, and speaks volumes for their relationship. The first use of Marvelous occurs when she witnesses her niece’s wedding in Eydon in 1830.
In 1851 one of Charlotte’s sisters, Maria, left the UK with her husband and children to join the Latter Day Saints in America, settling initially in Missouri and then in Illinois. Another sister, Lavinia (by this stage a widowed lacemaker still based in Eydon) did the same in 1854, and was eventually claimed by the LDS. Her sister Diana, while she was alive, had been a member of the Moravian church – so it appears that many of the family, despite being baptised into the Church of England, questioned the traditional way of faith. Whether this was Charlotte’s way is open to question, but like most people of the time it’s probable that she had deep Christian faith.
By 1857, trade directories show that George – and therefore Charlotte – had moved to Bridge Street, and he had taken up bookbinding in addition to selling tomes. However, both of them are elusive on the 1861 census – it’s always possible that they’d gone to visit her family in America, as shipping records are unavailable that early. Their Bridge Street premises has a brewer in residence instead.
Later that decade Charlotte and George were living at Park Wood Springs, a piece of woodland and open space just outside central Sheffield at that time. This may have been a deliberate move on George’s part to help Charlotte’s health – as she was now in her mid-70s, considerably aged for the time – which was starting to fail. By 1863 she was suffering from a liver complaint, which was recorded as hepatitis, but is unlikely to have been the sort of hepatitis we would recognise as such today. It’s possible that Charlotte could have been an excessive drinker, but it seems unlikely that she’d have lasted to a ripe old age if she had, so it is more likely that she had a viral type of hepatitis that was passed on somehow – possibly infected blood – which would have led to jaundice.
Charlotte died at Park Wood Springs in early October 1864, aged 78. George registered her death, and said that she’d suffered chronic hepatitis for a year, which had led to anasarca – a liver-based problem associated with the condition that finished her off. Very telling is that he registered her as “widow of ________ Marvelous, farm labourer”, which indicates that she never referred to James by name to George and instead called him “my late husband”. This may indicate that the relationship between Charlotte and George, who were around 12 years apart in age, was very proper and more like mother and son than anything else.
George buried her in Sheffield’s Burngreave cemetery, at the time a new and extensive facility outside the rapidly growing town, and marked her grave with her place of birth to tie her forever to the place she grew up. In many ways he was the only family she had left, particularly locally. He also had “she was faithful in all her dealings” carved on the stone, which again speaks of the affectionate partnership they must have had for many years.
George continued to run his book business in Sheffield’s Orchard Street for a few more years, but died himself in 1868 and was buried alongside Charlotte. Dear friends of his, John and Elizabeth Parr, also took the same grave when their time came, leading to a rather disparately related monument in the cemetery that shows the ties and bonds that were made as the industrial nature of the 19th century took hold and many – like Charlotte Marvelous – came to the big city for work leaving family behind.
Amy E Bell holds the distinction of being the first British woman stockbroker, at least as far as the publication Common Cause was aware when they published her obituary, and indeed there is no record of anyone having held that position earlier in the UK. The USA had Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Clafin, who had established a Wall Street Brokerage firm in 1870, but Amy was the first in the UK. However, she was never admitted to the London Stock Exchange – although there was no specific rule banning women from entering, new members had to be voted upon and anyone female was immediately blocked by the old boys network until six women broke through in 1973 – Muriel Wood, Susan Shaw, Hilary Root, Anthea Gaukroger, Audrey Geddes, Elisabeth Rivers-Bulkeley.
Other regional exchanges – in places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – had admitted women a bit earlier, but it was the 1973 merger with London that brought on the change. However, when Amy was practicing, during the 1880s and 1890s, the landscape of the financial world was very different, and this change nearly 100 years in the future.
A close friend, Edith C Wilson, writing in Common Cause a week after the obituary, says that Amy’s health meant that she had no wish to challenge the establishment and attempt to get into the LSE, but instead preferred to work outside the institution like many provincial brokers of the age – getting a member on the inside of the exchange to fulfil any necessary jobs for her. So, she established her business in Grays Inn, near to the LSE hub.
But how did she get to be a stockbroker in her era in the first place? The answer lies in her early years and level of education.
She was orphaned at around six months old. She’d been born in Bangkok, then in Siam, now in Thailand, in February 1859. Her father was Charles Bell, who had been appointed to the position of Vice Consul of Great Britain to Siam in 1857. Before this, Siam had been independent of colonial interests in the region, but the Bowring treaty – brokered by John Bowring, the British Governor of Hong Kong at the time – established some close links with the King of Siam and the British government at the time, and it was felt by Secretary for Foreign Affairs George Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon, that diplomacy should be established in the Kingdom and Charles was appointed.
He married Charlotte Erskine Goodeve in November 1857 in Singapore, and Amy was born over a year later. Little information survives of their life in Bangkok. A letter from King Mongkut to John Bowring makes mention that Charles is living in a house at the frontier part of the palace of his younger brother Krom Hluang Wongsahdi Rajsnidh (another of the 73 children of Mongkut’s father Rama II). He says that, while Amy’s father’s command of the Siamese language is now extensive, he has little to do and lives quite idly – which speaks of a relaxed and privileged life on the part of Amy’s parents, and a newspaper report of the time says that the consulate was on the river, and served elaborate dinners. Another report of the time says that Charles was involved in trying to get Siam to adopt silver coinage.
As to exactly what happened to Charlotte and Charles, the record is unclear. They died a week apart, in early September 1859, in Bangkok. There is no unrest known in the area at the time, so it seems likely that both were ill, and succumbed one after the other. They were 27 and 28 respectively and were buried in Bangkok Protestant Cemetery. Charlotte became a widow for the last week of her life, and her will transferred care of baby Amy – along with £4,000 – to her brother John Goodeve back in England.
John was studying medicine at Queen’s College, Cambridge, at this time, so it wasn’t to his house that Amy was brought. Her grandfather, Doctor William James Goodeve, would have been perhaps the next option – but he had recently buried his third wife and had several small children of his own, so it was to her great uncle Dr Henry Hurry Goodeve’s house in Bristol that Amy was taken by her nursemaid from Bangkok.
Henry Goodeve was married to Isabella, without any children, and looked after various parent-less members of his and his wife’s family, so his house Cook’s Folly, overlooking the Avon Gorge just outside Bristol, was perhaps the obvious place for baby Amy. They had her christened, in March of 1860, and cared for her alongside relatives and a vast houseful of staff. They had previously adopted Isabella’s nephew, another Henry.
This placement for baby Amy turned out to be a good call, as her grandfather died before she was 3. Amy continued to live with Henry and Isabella and their household, and was nurtured and educated as if she was their own child. Henry had served as a doctor in the British army in Bengal, and had been involved in both training Indian doctors and caring for children, as well as furthering medical research. He published a first aid book, called Hints on Children in India, that went through many editions. He had also been hit by a stray bullet on a tiger shoot, which shattered one side of his jaw and marked him for the rest of his life. He also later worked as a doctor in the Crimean War.
On retirement he became a Justice of the Peace, a tax commissioner, and deputy-lieutenant for Gloucestershire, and sat on the board of the local poor law executive. He was also president of the Bristol and Clifton Society in Aid of Boarding Out Union Orphans and Deserted Children, and was a passionate advocate for this. While today we might see removing children from their families as horrific, and rightly so, the Victorians truly believed that they were doing the best for the children and giving them a chance for a better life.
Henry Hurry Ives Goodeve
Her great aunt Isabella died in 1870, when she was around 11. Great Uncle Henry reputedly made Amy his companion in all of his interests, so presumably would have included her in visits and discussions around his businesses and duties. She began reading The Times newspaper daily, studying the content carefully, under his guidance. They also employed a Swiss governess, Sophie Girard, under whose guidance Amy became a competent linguist. She was exceedingly well read, and a lover of poetry.
Her interest in money, stocks and shares reputedly began in early childhood. Her story was that, as a small child, an elderly gentleman visitor while reading The Times attempted to shoo her away to her own lessons. Amy apparently told him that “What’s your lessons is my play,” as she believed it great fun to watch the rise and fall of stocks on the money market.
After this, she won a Goldsmiths scholarship to Newnham College Cambridge, the first purely female institution there, and continued her studies. Principal at this college at the time was Anne Jemima Clough, another pioneering female academic.
However, Amy’s health was said to be precarious – perhaps affected by the illness that had taken her parents – so a friend later commented that for this reason her studies at both Bristol and Cambridge were necessarily brief. The 1881 census has her at home with her guardian, her relatives and her governess in Bristol, 22 years old and unmarried.
When her great uncle died in 1884, Amy declared her intention to become a stockbroker. It was widely believed at the time that she had somehow inherited the stockbroking business from a relative, but this was not the case. It was her idea and dream. Using money she had inherited, she initially appears to have set up in Bristol, but in 1888 moved her business to London.
Many of her clients were women of modest means, with a little to invest – the sort of amount that the top stockbrokers of the day would have considered piffling and really below their interest. But Amy knew that wisely invested smaller amounts of money could make all the difference for women’s survival on private means. In an era where men were the main earners, and if you lost your breadwinner you would inherit what he had left, judicious investing could pay dividends and keep a household going.
“You need to begin afresh every day,” says Miss Bell, speaking of the difficulties of her business. By this expression I take her to mean that the work cannot be performed in installments, as a man writes a book, with a chapter yesterday and another to-day. “And then,” she continues, “you must do everything yourself. You must read a great deal – books of history and political economy economy chiefly – but the newspapers continually. Keep an eye on the colonies and these newly explored African territories, did you say? Yes, indeed, and not one eye but a dozen if you had them! The chief qualifications for a successful stockbroker are, in my opinion, a keen interest in the world’s affairs and sympathy with individuals. … By sympathy with individuals I mean the power of understanding your client’s position. If, for instance, a woman writes to me and says she is old and a widow, that her family are comfortably settled in life, and that she wishes to make sufficient provision for the rest of her days, I know pretty well what kind of investment would suit her best. But if she gives me none of these personal details, I may not succeed in pleasing her half as well.”
From Professional Women upon their Professions, by Margaret Bateson, 1895.
Although she did have some male clients, most of her customers were women. Her comment was “one of the pleasantest features about my work is the number of interested, able and cultured women with whom I have made acquaintance.”
As we said before, the London Stock Exchange, because of its membership, would not allow women stockbrokers to set foot on the floor. Therefore, Amy set up the office just outside Capel Court, in Grays Inn, and operated from there. Any formal dealings with the LSE that she needed were dealt with by male members. She also had a female clerk to help her out with the work. Newspapers wrote about her and her work, but she never felt the need to advertise her services – relying on word of mouth and reputation.
Inside the LSE at the time
She doesn’t appear on the 1891 census – she was known for a love of travel, so it’s possible that she was abroad when it was taken – but in 1901 she is still in Grays Inn with her female housekeeper, who must also have been a companion, and calls herself a stockbroker agent.
At some point after this, however, her health forced her to give up work. She then lived off the proceeds of her work and devoted herself to her friends. She was known to have made a great many during her time as a stockbroker, and – although not declared as such on the 1911 census – taken interest in women’s suffrage. The 1911 census finds her in a hotel in Bloomsbury, as a guest, with a lady’s companion. Whether this is a hint towards her sexuality is unclear, but it is known that she never married. Either way, marriage would have forced her to give up work, by the propriety of the day, and it is clear that work was a considerable passion for her.
“I want,” she says, “to make women understand their money matters and take a pleasure in dealing with them. After all, is money such a sordid consideration? May it not make all the difference to a hard-working woman when she reaches middle life whether she has or has not those few hundreds?… Many women are quite astonished when I explain business details to them, and ask “But is that really all?” So many women, you see, are not allowed to have the command of their capital. But in this, as in other ways, I rejoice to see that women are daily becoming more independent.”
Margaret Bateson, 1895.
It’s unknown what she did during the First World War – reports are that she spent time living with various friends. And it was at the home of one of these friends that she died, in March of 1920, after a brief attack of influenza which brought on heart failure. This friend was Maude Ashurst Biggs, a novelist and translator with suffrage sympathies, who lived in South Hampstead.
Common Cause, the newspaper of women’s suffrage, published an glowing obituary, which her close friend added to in the following edition:
“She was an admirable pioneer, obtaining recognition by sheer force of knowledge and ability, with no ostentation or eccentricity. One great secret of her success was her happy art of turning clients into personal friends. She humanised her profession, and was happy in leaving an open path to her successors.”
Edith C Wilson, writing in Common Cause, March 1920
Amy Elizabeth Bell, from Margaret Bateson’s book of 1895
Susannah was a ballet dancer, which means a very different thing in today’s culture than it did in the 1870s – when it basically equated to an immoral woman with connotations of prostitution, and she was treated accordingly. She ended up in a reform home.
Today we have a particular social and cultural view of ballet dancers – it’s high culture, an aspirational discipline characterised by hard work and sacrifice, and full of grace and beauty. Women who perform it are seen as wholesome and hardworking. This view – in the UK at least – really comes from the work of Dame Ninette De Valois and her ilk, founding the Royal Ballet School in the mid-1920s and bolstering the art form’s reputation and standing in society at that time.
In Susannah’s time as a ballet dancer – and you’d perhaps hesitate to call her a ballerina, as that word has many unspoken nuances that link it to the French and Russian traditions – the dance form and its connotations were very different. While she called herself a ballet dancer on one census return, ballet in the UK of the 1870s was more music hall and variety show dancing in a troupe, perhaps as part of a pantomime, than the crisp corps de ballet of Swan Lake or Coppélia. And while ballet of that form was still being performed on the continent, displays of it were rare in the UK – and instead the more popular view of a ballet dancer was a performer in an entertainment.
Britain had had some exposure to the high art form of ballet earlier in the 19th century. Indeed, by the 1840s the great romantic ballerinas of the age – Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler – had toured Europe, including the UK, and had been widely seen. However, while the Russian and French ballet traditions continued, interest dimmed in the UK – perhaps as the country did not produce its own great romantic ballerina (Clara Webster was prophesised to become this icon, but sadly died after a costume caught fire in 1844).
At the same time, middle- and high-class Victorian moralising was intensifying, and ballet and theatrical costumes often exposed far more female flesh than was considered proper for the time. Degas paintings, for example, had a titillating element to them that we might not recognise today, and were a form of pornography for their era.
It was against this background that Susannah went on the stage as a ballet dancer. It appears to have been a career that she fell into rather than deliberately chose.
She was born in London in the mid-1840s, and was one of six siblings – although an older sister had died before she was born. The family appear relatively well off. Her father, Edward, had been a confectioner when his oldest children were born and by the time Susannah arrived he gave his profession as a cook.
A male cook in this era was unusual. Domestic cooks were invariably women, employed and accommodated in bigger houses, whereas Susannah’s father appears to have lived at home. His prior occupation of confectioner gives more of a clue to his career. Male employed cooks were usually responsible for high end and intricate food – into which category confectionary fell – in very stately homes or hotels. In fact, Edward was employed by Judge Sir John Jervis, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and was cook to the household alongside another man. The job required some travelling – the 1851 census finds Edward at work in Norfolk, while Susannah and her mother and siblings are at home in London.
Her father’s job was clearly a relatively lucrative one, and Susannah and her sisters and brother didn’t need to go out to work as they grew up. Although not rich, they would have enjoyed activities from the expanding middle class. Her older sister Sarah was educated until at least the age of 14, and it’s likely that Susannah and her sisters Louisa and Emma were included in that. It’s also likely that the girls of the family would have had some dancing instruction – although not from Marie Taglioni, who didn’t teach in the UK until the late 1870s – which would have stood them in good stead for later on.
Her father was clearly on the rise. The family began while he and his wife Sarah were living in the Barbican area, but they soon moved to a smart town house now on Shepherdess Walk in Hoxton, and then later they were in cottages in Caledonian Road, Barnsbury. Sir John Jervis died in 1856, but their lifestyle continued so it is probable that Edward found similar work.
Susannah’s next youngest sister Louisa married a wine merchant in 1864, although this did not work out (and is a subject for another blog), and her older sister Sarah appeared to leave the family – but whether this was marriage, death or work is unclear. However, things changed completely when Susannah’s father died in 1868.
Her mother suddenly lost her source of income and the lifestyle they had previously enjoyed. She moved the family to Drury Lane – the heart of London’s theatre district – and put Susannah, at this stage aged 27 and unmarried, and her younger sister Emma on the stage. The 1871 census describes Susannah and her sister as “performer”, although it is not specific which theatre they are working in. Their younger brother – Edward – is bringing in money as a fishing rod maker, so it is clear that all three children are supporting the family by whatever means possible. Susannah and Emma must have had enough talent and instruction from their more privileged former life to gain jobs as performers – and its Susannah’s later description of herself as a ballet dancer that leads to the assertation that they were probably taking part in the more music hall/pantomime productions of the era.
Pantomime and light entertainment ballet was flourishing at this time. Many new venues had opened in preceding years – Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, the Oxford near Tottenham Court Road, South London Palace near the Elephant and Castle, and the Adelphi Theatre. But Susannah and Emma were more likely employed at the Alhambra Theatre and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square. The Alhambra had a reputation for lavish ballet “spectaculars”, performed by vast numbers of dancers exhibiting entertainment that promoted patriotic pride and the culture of the day.
This was a precarious life, and not without its dangers. Gas lights in theatres and flammable fabrics used in costumes made burns a constant risk. The most famous victim of this was Emma Livry – who was burned after an accident with a gas lamp in a rehearsal at the Paris Opera in 1862, and died following the wounds in July 1863. However, an account of a fire during a pantomime of Richard Coeur de Lion, at the Surrey Theatre on Blackfriars Road in 1865, gives an impression of the sort of performance Susannah and her sister Emma would have been part of. The show’s clown, Rowella, was performing a burlesque solo on the trombone when the fire was noticed, and it was thanks to his efforts and other pantomime performers that the troupe of flimsily dressed ballet girls also appearing in the entertainment were saved. Thankfully, Susannah and Emma were not part of this world at the time, but the backstage world could be a risky place.
While Emma married in 1875, and left performing, Susannah continued. Her mother died in 1879, which may well have made her even more reliant on her income from the stage.
However, by the 1880s this stopped. The 1881 census finds her in the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution, the origins of which was explored in Hephzibah’s story. While this, by modern standards, may seem an odd place to find a ballet dancer, the moral background surrounding performers did not sit well with society’s improvers. Male theatre patrons would buy sexual favours from ballet dancers and actresses – this was part of the lifestyle and a way to make extra money. Therefore, Susannah was, whether she engaged in this practice or not, a fallen woman in terms of the society surrounding her.
As someone who had previously been of a good family, Susannah was ideally placed to be taken in by the ideals of the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution. Those who ran the programme, who actively recruited women on the streets and around the theatre district, felt that those who had been brought up morally but had fallen into disrepute could be saved by their good work.
The work of the institution trained inmates for a new and moral life, offering them preparation for work as domestic servants and finding them good positions when they had reformed. Susannah, at this time, was 37 but claimed to be 30. It may be that she was getting tired from the rigors of performing, and was looking for a way out – so, whether she worked as a prostitute as well as a dancer or not, she may have felt that this was a chance at a new life.
After her retraining was over, she was supposed to be found a domestic placement to support her going onwards. Whether this happened or not isn’t clear – there are a couple of plain Susans (rather than the more flamboyant Susannah) on the 1891 census, working as cooks in big houses, but no one answering her exact name. It’s also possible that she was using her middle name – Elizabeth – for this new life, but there isn’t an exact fit for her here either. There is a reference to a Susannah of about the right age entering the workhouse in 1882, declared insane. This woman was removed after a while by “friends” – who, if this was our Susannah, could have been either from the theatre or the reformatory. But again, there is no definite proof this is Susannah the dancer.
What is certain, however, is that she lived to a great age and was buried under her own full name. She died in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, aged 92. And is buried in Greenwich.