Lillian H’s story

Society magazines have always been known for being a little bit stretched with the truth in the pursuit of a chink of glamour, and their words accompanying Lady Shelmerdine’s portrait in a 1938 edition of Tatler are no exception.

Lillian, Lady Shelmerdine, it says, was “before her marriage Miss Lillian Haskins of Warmley Towers, Gloucestershire”. But the magazine fails to mention which marriage – since her nuptials to Sir Francis Shelmerdine, at the time director general of civil aviation in Britain, was her third – and although she was part of the Warmley Towers Haskins family her father was the youngest son and a grocer, and did not actually live at the grand property.

Lilian Shelmerdine Tatler 1938

However, not letting truth get in the way of a good story, this papering over of Lillian’s past would have been commonplace at the time, as the wife of a knight of the realm should appear respectable and her own activities around supporting women in aviation meant that she was someone that young girls should look up to. So, two divorces were not mentioned. Nor was her husband’s previous drug habit, in contrast to the coals that would have been raked over today.

She was the oldest child of six, born in the late 1870s in Warmley – a village now part of great Bristol, but at the time just outside the city. As mentioned, her father James Haskins was a grocer. However, as part of the Haskins family, who ran a pottery and pipe making works in the area, he was a high-class shop keeper. The family had servants. His older brother Joseph had previously run the family grocery business while their father William had had charge of the Haskins works, but that changed when Joseph took over in 1881, and James was given the shop. Joseph’s daughter Minnie, an academic, became a celebrated poet and was Lillian’s first cousin.

Warmley House

Warmley House, where Tatler claimed Lillian was brought up. She wasn’t. (Credit Brizzle Born and Bred)

From a later census return, it appears that Lilian’s siblings were not brought up in the shop premises – and it is probable that Lillian wasn’t either. Her mother’s mother, a widow, brought up the children in Devon, and employed a governess to educate them. At the age of 12 she’s back home, and still referred to as a scholar, so it is likely that she continued with her education past the required point rather than starting work.

At the age of 17, having secured the required permission of her father, Lillian married a gentleman farmer – Joseph – at least 19 years her senior, at St James in Bristol. Today that amount of age gap at that age might be considered grooming, but back then she would have been seen as having made an advantageous match, and he would have gained a young and healthy wife. Joseph, who was based in Glastonbury but appeared to have taken up residence in Bath – not too far away from Warmley – had been married before, but his first wife had died a year before. He also had two surviving daughters in his care (two more had died young), the older of which only five years younger than Lillian.

Around about the same time, Lillian’s father took the rest of her siblings out to live in South Africa – but if Lillian had not wanted to come it might explain why she married so young and to someone so much older. It is uncertain whether her mother accompanied the rest of the family or stayed behind – the next record for her is the 1901 census when she had clearly suffered some mental health issues, and had been admitted to an asylum in Berkshire – so there may have been a parental split around this time that influenced Lillian’s choice, and it’s certain that her mother’s mental health would have had a bearing on some events.

Lillian’s marriage to Joseph was precarious from the get-go. Within four months of the union he had “infected her with a venereal disease of a very severe nature”. Lillian also said he was habitually drunk, and treated her with extreme cruelty. They lived at Kingswood Hill, on the edge of Bristol, and Lillian gave birth to a daughter – Irene – at the end of 1897, when she was just 19 years old. There were further instances of abusive and violent language, and he struck her on several occasions and threatened to shoot her. Unsurprisingly, she left him, taking Irene with her, in February 1899. His daughters were apprenticed to tradespeople in Bath, and he went to South Wales and took up with a woman there. Lillian moved to Reading – close to where her mother was being treated – and filed for divorce in 1901, asking for the marriage to be dissolved and for her to be given custody of their child. Though the request was filed in 1901, the divorce wasn’t granted until 1904. Joseph did not offer any evidence against Lillian’s claims.

Very quickly afterwards, Lillian married for a second time. This time the age gap was considerably smaller, as he was just three years older than her. Somerset was the son of a gentleman, and kept a hotel in Lourenço Marques, now named Maputo in modern-day Mozambique. They married at the British Consulate, and lived together in Durban, South Africa – near the rest of her family. Lillian appears to have travelled widely while married to him – there’s a record of her arriving back in Bath from Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1908, and they spent time in British Central Africa (later named Nyasaland, today modern-day Malawi). It’s likely that Somerset was involved in colonial interests in that area – mostly growing cotton, tea or tobacco – alongside various members of Lillian’s extended family.

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The British Consulate in Maputo, where Lillian married Somerset.

At some point, Somerset left Africa for New Zealand, to become a publisher – he specialised in books on African flora and fauna, it appears – and Lillian took up with someone else. Whether the marriage to Somerset was over, or the affair was the nail in the coffin is open to question. Her paramour was Oswald, a former navy captain, who had retired from the service. He had also been married to someone else since 1907.

Lillian and Oswald lived together in Blantyre, in the southern part of Nyasaland, from late October 1912 onwards. They went back to the UK for a while, then returned to Africa via Southampton. Somerset filed for divorce from New Zealand in the Spring of 1913, on the grounds of Lillian’s adultery. Oswald was mentioned in the case, but not charged as he had died around a month before, aged 34, of heart problems and gouty kidneys. The divorce was granted in the spring of 1914. Somerset married again a year or two later.

Presumably Lillian spent much of the first world war in Africa – her family had a base in Durban, and business interests in Nyasaland. It is probable that she met Francis, her third husband, in one of these places as he also had business interests in the area. However, he was on active service with the Royal Flying Corps and then the RAF during the war, so wouldn’t have been with her much during this time.

The first mention we have of them together is in 1918, when Irene got married. As she was slightly under-age, she applied for a licence saying that her father was dead (he wasn’t), and her mother was Mrs Shelmerdine. The actual Mrs Shelmerdine at the time was Francis’s first wife Mary. They had been split since 1912, after a paternity suit muddied by the fact that he couldn’t remember fathering his daughter due to his drug habit at the time (this was probably cocaine, which was not illegal at the time, or another opiate), but did not divorce as he had not exhibited cruelty to his wife. To compensate for the legal problem of not actually being married, Lillian sometimes claimed to be called Sylvanie on legal documents. It is assumed that he somehow managed to end his drug habit, as it is not mentioned again after the paternity case. Irene and her husband and children also lived in South Africa, and were involved in family businesses.

Francis Shelmerdine

Francis Shelmerdine

They were able to finally marry in 1925, after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 enabled Mary to bring divorce proceedings against Francis. This took place in London, where they had set up home together. On Francis’s demobilisation from the army in 1919 he went to work at the Civil Aviation Department of the Air Ministry, and rose to become Controller of Aerodromes and Licences. As his wife, Lillian attended various events and became involved in encouraging women in aviation. His work took him to Egypt, and then to India, but she does not appear to have lived there with him – their official residences were fashionable places in London. While he was out of the country, she probably officially represented him at many aviation events, and on that basis became involved in women’s aviation.

Francis returned to the UK in 1931 when he was made Director of Civil Aviation, and then became Director General of the organisation in 1934. There were trips to Canada and other places that Lillian didn’t accompany him on. She looked after her granddaughter Yolande when she came to visit London in the mid-1930s. In terms of women’s aviation, she presented the trophy to the winner of the women’s race at the opening of Woodley Aerodrome near Reading in 1931. She also attended a women’s air meeting at Atlantic Park in Southampton in 1932, and was complemented by aviator Amy Johnson at the Women’s Engineering Society Annual Dinner at the Forum Club in 1937 for all she’d done for women’s aviation (after her husband had made a bad insinuation about women flyers always getting lost). From this we can surmise that she was a prominent presence in the early days of flying, probably attending a great many other meetings, and offered continual support and encouragement to women aviators.

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Lillian in at the opening of an aerodrome in Reading in 1931

Atlantic Park Southampton 1932

Lillian, seated, third from right, at Atlantic Park Southampton in 1932

Her mother was taken dangerously ill in 1935 when she and Francis were on holiday in Sweden. Thanks to their flying connections she was able to fly home directly to her bedside in Truro, and the incident was reported in many of the newspapers of the day. In 1936 Francis was knighted, so Lillian became Lady Shelmerdine, and therefore more of interest to publications like Tattler. They had property in Pershore, Worcestershire, and at the outbreak of World War 2 were resident in Bristol, near her family.

Francis was forced to retire on age grounds in 1941, and died in 1945 in hospital in Bideford, Devon. Lillian was not an executor of his effects. She appears to have spent her dotage in both South Africa and the UK, spending time in both Pershore and Durban and travelling on ships in-between. She had not long returned from a four-month stint in the UK when she died in South Africa in 1956, in her late 70s. Her remaining money was left to the Bank of South Africa.

Diana W’s story

Appearing in the UK divorce courts just once in the 1880s was scandalous enough. But three times seems beyond the pale, particularly as one of those appearances was for an accusation of adultery with six different men. But Diana’s life in Victorian London appears slightly more bohemian than most for the time, as were the circles she moved in, and this slight relaxation of what was considered “proper” for that period was found in pockets around the country – Dr Price of Llantrisant, for example.

However, Diana’s life started off conventionally enough. She was the youngest of five daughters born to a journeyman lawyer and his wife in mid-Sussex, in the early 1850s. Her father seems to have worked between jobs in London and Brighton, and all his daughters were sent away to school to be educated – hence he was earning a reasonable living for the time.

The family adopted her mother’s nephew, who was the same age as Diana, and grew up with them. Her elder sisters Ellen and Matilda grew up and left home, the first to be a housemaid in Brighton, and the second to run a boarding house in London. Her sister Eunice died in 1864, when Diana was around 12, and her fourth sister Eliza married a stonemason and moved in next door to her parents.

Diana, however, appears to have started her exploits at an early age. Described as “very young” when this occurred, she eloped out a dormitory window at a school in Holloway, London, with a gentleman and travelled with him to Germany. However, she did not actually marry this man – whose name remains elusive, but lived with him as his wife for a while in Germany. There were two children – the older of which appears to have been fathered by the man she eloped with, but given his mother’s maiden surname – and another born later, possibly to a solicitor. By the age of 20 she was back in the UK, however, and resident at her sister Matilda’s boarding house on Devonshire Street in London. Her son, Henry, born in Halle, Germany, in April of 1872, appears to have lived in that country with friends. The younger child, who was known to exist but not referred to by name, was born later when Diana was living in Pimlico, and its father provided for the child, who lived elsewhere.

In the early 1870s, Diana passed herself off as a widow called Mrs Shelley, but there was no-one in her life called Mr Shelley, and it’s unknown exactly how she supported herself – although she appears to have regularly lived at her sister’s boarding house. Another regular boarder at Matilda’s house was Henry Hyndman, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, and reporter at the time for the Pall Mall Gazette, who was starting to build a political career. This would have meant various learned and diverse visitors to the house where Diana was living. Henry and Matilda were lovers for several years, and married on Valentine’s Day in 1876.

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Matilda’s husband Henry Hyndman

It may be that Matilda’s marriage awakened the same desire in Diana, or that she needed an alternative means of support, as she attempted to find a husband of her own the following summer. To this end, she visited the offices of a publication called Matrimonial News to place an advert for a husband.

It was there, on the stairs of the publication, that she met a widower nearly forty years her senior – John Ambrose. He had also come to the Matrimonial News to place an advert. The two fell talking, and Diana presented herself as a widow with two children – her former husband, she claimed, was from America and had died just before the birth of their second child – and in possession of a considerable amount of money. She also gave a false name and profession for her father.

However, John believed her and they were married in the February of 1877, and honeymooned at the Louvre Hotel in Paris. And it was there that the trouble began. Diana’s lies gradually fell apart, and both of them expressed some extremes of temper. John had previously been a clergyman, but had given it up to become a farmer and held some strong views about religion. They apparently entered a church, and John began verbally abusing the priest. Diana attempted to remove him in vain, and eventually left him and bolted back to the hotel – where he apparently eventually appeared and threatened her with violence when she returned to England. However, John maintained that Diana flirted with all the waiting staff in the hotel, and caused him considerable embarrassment.

Things only got worse when they returned to the UK and lived in John’s rectory seat in Essex. Diana later claimed that after only seven weeks of marriage he started to threaten and beat her, pulling her hair out on one occasion, and making an attempt to break her wrist. In addition, his home was ruled by his long-time housekeeper Ellen, who appears to have resented his new young wife, and helped John keep all kitchen equipment locked up away from Diana, so that she couldn’t even get a cup of tea unless Ellen allowed it. He invited a man called Oliver to live with them, and put everything under his control, so Diana had to ask for permission to do anything in the house. On another occasion she went to Southend for a break, and he followed her there and threatened her.

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However, this state of affairs was not one-sided. John later alleged that Diana had destroyed his books and papers, and china, opened his letters, disturbed family prayers, pawned his property and threatened to kill him. On one occasion she threw a teapot at him. She knocked him over and scratched his face, and pulled his whiskers. And she insisted that he had committed adultery with Ellen and locked them in a room together. On another occasion, she refused to give him sheets for the bed, and he slept without for two nights. And apparently she swore, using “Billingsgate language”.

Violence from either side is a sure sign that a marriage is not working, and should not continue, but it does appear that Diana and John were particularly ill-suited, with little in common and a huge age gap, and each had a temper and gave as good as they got. It was after he apparently beat her up at home in April of 1880 that Diana left him, and went back to her sister’s boarding house.

It was from there, in the summer of 1880, that Diana filed for divorce.

At this time, UK divorce law was unequally weighted towards the man in the relationship. Since the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a man could divorce his wife on grounds of adultery alone, but a woman had to prove both cruelty and adultery on the behalf of her husband to achieve a dissolution. And unfortunately Diana, though she had a great deal of evidence of cruelty, could not prove that John was adulterous. Therefore, she was awarded a judicial separation – a section of the law which meant that the parties were legally separated, and had to live apart, but did not dissolve the marriage. Legislation around divorce only came over from the ecclesiastical courts with the act of 1857, and the religious sanctity of marriage and “to death do us part” still had an influence on the judgements that were made. Many judicial separations were granted at this time, as it was clear to judges in cases of extreme cruelty that parties wishing for divorce couldn’t continue to live together – and this often acted to increase the safety of the women involved. It also meant that they could continue to live with their children. And the estranged husband would have to continue to contribute towards his wife’s upkeep.

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John was therefore ordered to live apart from Diana, and to give her £200 per year, so long as she remained chaste and unmarried. He went back off to Essex, in the company of his niece and nephew and his loyal housekeeper.

Diana, newly released and solvent, found herself a position as a lady’s help in the household of a German Count living in Surrey. Having lived in Germany probably meant that she was fluent in the language and could therefore communicate with her mistress with ease. Once that job finished, she lived at several different addresses in London, including her sister’s boarding house. It was from there that Henry and Matilda founded the Democratic Federation – Britain’s first left wing political party – in 1881. This would have brought Diana into contact with a great many different people, with liberal thinkers of the day almost certainly meeting and socialising at the house. Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member and personal friend of Matilda, as was the artist William Morris. This new political party would have seen itself as progressive, and not in-line with the majority of society of the time, which meant that those associated with it would have considered themselves different to what was thought of as “proper” at the time. The party became the Social Democratic Federation in 1883.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Diana’s next appearance in the divorce courts, in the spring of 1884, involved a charge of adultery with at least six men – John had clearly been watching her movements closely, and had various witnesses and specific dates – as many would have been coming and going to the boarding house. She’d also briefly lived in other places, and he’d found witnesses to her activities at these too, including a street artist. It appears, from this action, that he resented supporting her financially, and was prepared to go to court to end that arrangement.

Of the six men Diana was accused of having relations with, two were struck off by the judge. Another two did not enter any evidence or plea – one, an Argentinian businessman, was in Ireland at the time, and the other, possibly a Goan sailor, was presumably not in the country either. The other two both entered a denial, as did Diana. The most prominent of these, a dress salesman called John, had apparently been observed entering a “private hotel” with her on numerous occasions. The judge in the case decided that the hotel was a brothel, and that both Diana and the dress salesman were lying, and therefore granted the decree nisi.

How Diana supported herself in subsequent years isn’t known, but she appears resourceful and able to get by. There was a rumour that she had been an actress at certain times, so she may have appeared on the stage – though there’s no record of that apparent. She also, like her sisters, went into domestic service – and it’s in this profession that she appears next. The 1891 census finds her as a housekeeper to a grocer, having brought her son Henry – who had taken his ex-stepfather’s surname – over from Germany to live with her.

It may be that the title of housekeeper was a front for what was really going on in the house, as Diana married the grocer – Alexander – in the spring of 1893. He appeared to be a buyer for a larger firm, but also had a reasonable-sized household with several servants so lived comfortably. Diana said on this second marriage that she was a widow. This was technically true, as John had died in 1888, and therefore she could present herself a little more respectably than a divorcee.

However, Diana again filed for divorce only a few months later. The fact that she could afford to take out these proceedings indicates that their financial situation was comfortable. She claimed that on the night before their wedding Alexander had committed adultery with a housemaid named Florence – which appears particularly cruel given he was to marry her the next day. The affair continued through the spring and into the summer. Alexander did not deny the allegations.

Again, as the divorce laws were weighted in favour of men at that time, the judge was unable to end the marriage. Alexander was judged not have raised a hand to Diana, although she did claim some violence in the month before the marriage, and as such she could not end the marriage as one of the two conditions for women – adultery AND something else (cruelty, incest, etc) – was not met. Therefore, the judge threw the case out in the December of 1893, and Diana and Alexander had to stay married and living together. Quite what this meant for the state of their relationship is unknown, but it is doubtful that it was very happy after this.

Henry married in 1899 giving his mother’s first husband as his father – which he clearly wasn’t. He made a living as a florist, and later as a commercial traveller. Diana remained with Alexander at Gower Street in London, and her life seems to have taken a quieter turn.

She took in two illegitimate girls – relatives of her mother – and raised them to adulthood. Alexander gradually took a back seat in the household, and she came to the fore. She ran a boarding house herself, like her sister Matilda – who by this stage was particularly active in the Social Democratic Federation and was involved in a scheme providing free school meals and seaside holidays for poor school children. Unlike Matilda’s establishment, and the private hotel that Diana had once frequented, her boarding house had a full cohort of staff – including Italian waiters – and catered for retired men from the legal profession.

Matilda Hyndman death

Her sister Matilda died in 1913, and the newspapers referred to her as “the mother of socialism” for her activities in the Social Democratic Federation. Henry Hyndman apparently mourned her deeply, but was married again within a year. The fact that she left no diary or letters means that Matilda Hyndman, neé Ware, has virtually been forgotten in the history of the socialist and labour movements in the UK.

As for Diana, the two girls in her charge moved away, and Alexander died in Eastbourne – where they appeared to keep either a town house or a seaside boarding house – towards the end of the First World War. Diana kept going until her 80th year, dying in Surrey in the early 1930s, but living at her house in Eastbourne. She left her money to her son Henry, whose son Emile went on to become a vet.

Mary H’s story

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.

Women-Mill-Workers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Amy E Bell’s story

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.

The_English_governess_at_the_Siamese_court_-_being_recollections_of_six_years_in_the_royal_palace_at_Bangkok_(1873)_(14773027951)

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.

Cook's Folly Bristol

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 goodeve bigger

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.

Later on, as detailed in Jane Duffus’s fabulous book The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018, Amy was one of the earliest entrants to Bristol University to study. Bristol University admitted women from opening in 1876, when she was around 17 (university entry was often earlier then than today), and studied with several other women.

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.

LSE

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

Amy Elizabeth Bell, from Margaret Bateson’s book of 1895

Susannah P’s story

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.

Degas painting

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.

Vaughan Terrace Hoxton

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.

Three clowns 1870s

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.

The Robinson sisters’ story

“Four plucky Wetherby Postwomen” trumpets the Leeds Mercury in February 1916, in a masterstroke of propaganda. The Military Service Act had been passed a month earlier, specifying that single men aged 18-40 were liable to be called up for service unless they were widowed with children or religious ministers. Then in June that year married men were included. Articles like this served to reassure men that their jobs were being kept safe for them while they were at the front, and women that they could release their loved ones without risk of loss of income. However, it also served to empower the women’s workforce, showing that they were perfectly capable of doing many jobs that previously had been the preserve of men, and this hastened women’s suffrage in 1918.

“Four Wetherby sisters, who are acting as postwomen, and so releasing men for service,” says the article. “Two of them are soldiers’ wives, whilst a third is a soldier’s widow, her newly-married husband having fallen at Suvla Bay. The fourth is unmarried. From left to right:- Mrs Mary Adkins, whose husband is a prisoner in Germany; Mrs Grace Nicholson, whose husband is in France; Miss Emily Robinson, and Mrs Harriet Hobson, whose husband fell at Suvla. (Lamb)”

Robinson women postwomen

The four Robinson sisters – for that was their original surname – were in fact no strangers to post delivery. That had been their father James’ job for much of their early lives, although he had also worked as a foreman on roadbuilding works before dying young in 1900. At this point, Mary was 15, Grace was 13, Emily was 10, and Harriet was 8, and their mother Faith sent the older girls out to work, while working herself as a newsagent and shop keeper. They had brothers – Harry, Jim and Clarence – the older of whom worked as a letter carrier himself after his father’s death, and the youngest who died aged just 14.

Each of the sisters has their own tale to tell, the details of which are hinted at in the photo caption.

Mary

Mary Adkin

Mary was baptised in 1884, and was her parents’ second child. The death of her father in 1900, when she was 15, meant that the family was without a breadwinner – so as the oldest child she was expected to contribute to the family finances. She moved out of the family home and was apprenticed to a dressmaker elsewhere in Wetherby, to learn a good trade. However, she gave up work to get married to Edgar Adkin, a soldier who had served in the Boer War, at the tail end of 1905.

She had a son, also called Edgar, in the following summer. Sadly, he died aged not-quite 1. Another son, Reginald, arrived in 1908 and survived. Her husband came out of the army and into the reserves, and became a town postman in Wetherby. It’s likely that Mary, given her background in the postal service from her father, helped him out in this job.

At the outbreak of World War One in August 1914 Edgar was taken back on as a soldier, and was sent to France with his regiment. He was reported as missing in action on the 20th of September 1914, having been attacked near Reims in Northern France. Eventually Mary and Reginald were notified that he was alive and a prisoner of war in Germany – which would have been a relief, but they would not have known how long he would be held for.

At the time of the Leeds Mercury article, Mary was effectively a single parent caring for an eight-year-old son, with no other visible means of support. It’s probable that she happily took up duties as a postwoman, with her mother Faith and sisters’ help with childcare.

Definitive records for when Edgar was released aren’t publicly available, but this was probably in 1918. He would have received the war medals, gone into the reserves again in 1919, and then went back to Wetherby to work as a postman.

Mary, Edgar and Reginald moved to Bedale, where Edgar continued to work in the postal service and Reginald became a commercial traveller. Mary, according to the 1939 register, went back to unpaid duties at home. They appear not to have had any further children. Reginald married in 1930.

Edgar died in York in 1943, so did not see the end of the Second World War. Mary lived on until the early 1950s, dying in Northallerton, Yorkshire.

Grace

Grace Nicholson

The second sister in the newspaper picture, Grace, was only 13 when her father died. She appears to have continued at school, and helped her mother at home and in the newsagents’ business the family ran.

She married Bertie Nicholson, a Yorkshireman who had been both a soldier and a postman, in 1909. Bertie was a Methodist, and had served eight years in the army – including some time in India – in the early years of the 20th century. They moved to Boston Spa, a village just south of Wetherby, and set up a bakery business. While Bertie did the baking, Grace was responsible for the confectionary side of the operation – so would have made sweet treats and decorated cakes. Their first child, Laura, was born in late 1909, and a son – named Bertie after his father – in 1910. Army life beckoned again for Bertie, and he returned to the military in 1912. They had a second son, Clarence (named after Grace’s recently deceased brother), in 1913, and a third in mid-December 1914, who was named Edgar after his missing uncle. This fourth child was born a month or so after Bertie had been sent to France with the army – so by the time of the Leeds Mercury photograph Grace was coping alone with her four children, and now working as a postwoman to bring in income.

Bertie suffered injuries in the war – prominently a gunshot wound in his left shoulder, and an amputated finger – and was allowed home on leave occasionally. Grace gave birth to their fifth child – a daughter also named Grace – in the spring of 1918. Bertie was released from the army in 1919, and drew a pension from 1920.

Grace and Bertie and their family continued to live in Wetherby, and it’s likely that Grace returned to unpaid domestic life during peacetime, while Bertie worked as either a postman or a baker. However, this return to family life did not last as Bertie was taken ill and died in hospital in Leeds in February 1929, aged only 46. He left Grace just over £48 – which was not a considerable amount of money at that time – and she would have been left on her own with at least two dependent children.

It is perhaps no surprise, given the economic climate of 1929, that Grace married again quickly. This took place in the November of 1929 when she married George – who at that point was a widower insurance agent in Wetherby. By 1939 they had moved to Harrogate, where Grace was undertaking unpaid domestic work and George had found work as a kitchen porter in a hotel – a considerable step down the economic ladder from insurance work.

Both Grace and George died in 1956, in their late 60s.

Emily

Emily Robinson

The unmarried sister from the 1916 Leeds Mercury photograph was born in 1890 and grew up on North Street in Wetherby. Only nine when her father died, she would have continued at school and helping her mother in the newsagents business that she ran.

By the time she was 20, however, she had gone out to work as a charwoman – cleaning and skivvying in other people’s houses to help the family finances. Working as a postwoman in the First World War would have been a step up from this sort of employment, and it was this opportunity that the Military Service Act encouraged and ultimately was instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage.

Emily remained unmarried until well after the end of World War One. Aged 30 she married Fred – a former WW1 soldier turned chauffeur – in Wetherby. They had a daughter, Mona, a year later. Fred later became a newsagent, taking over Emily’s mother’s business, as she had died in 1918.

In 1936 Emily died, aged 46. This took place at Knaresborough, a few miles north of Wetherby – where they were still living. This indicates that she most likely had tuberculosis, as the local sanatorium – Scotton Banks – was located there.

Fred continued to run the newsagents that had previously belonged to Emily’s mother. He married again, and had a son who was brought up alongside Emily’s daughter Mona. Fred died in 1951.

Harriet

Harriet Hobman

The fourth sister in the photograph, Harriet, is the youngest of them. And possibly the unluckiest in the story as it is given.

She’d also gone to work as a charwoman to support the family after her father’s death – which occurred when she was just 8. She undoubtedly would also have helped her mother in the newsagents business, and appears to have been involved in the postal service in some way too – indicated by her take up of the postwoman job in 1916.

She married Arthur, a soldier seven years her senior, in the May of 1915. As a lance corporal, this would have been while he was on leave. He entered the war again in the Balkans on 11th July 1915, and was killed in action at Suvla Bay (now in modern-day Turkey) – as part of the Gallipoli campaign – slightly less than a month later. Harriet was paid his effects.

When the Leeds Mercury picture was taken, Harriet had been a widow longer than she had been married, and it is very unlikely that she spent much of that married life with her husband, and there was no child from the marriage. It’s probable that she helped her sisters with childcare while their husbands were away, alongside being a postwoman.

Two years later, however, she married again. This time her husband was Edward, a soldier three years her junior, who also had been serving in the war. In peacetime he had worked as a farmer, and it was to that profession he returned once the war was over. Harriet became a farmer’s wife, and would have had her own duties on the land.

Soon after the end of the war Harriet and Edward emigrated to Canada, intending to farm land and settle in the country. Their three children – Robert, Reginald and Faith – who were all born in Wetherby in very quick succession after the war, went with them. The British government paid their passage across the Atlantic. They settled in Saskatchewan, traveling there by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and farming there for many years.

Harriet died in 1945, aged only 53. Her husband Edward continued with the farm until he died in the early 1980s.

******

And as for the brothers, Harry married Maggie in 1903 and had five children. He had various jobs – a grocer, a horsekeeper, and a railway porter. He also fought in World War 1 while his sisters were working as postwomen. Jim, the youngest surviving brother, became a baker. He married Elsie, and had several children.

Sister Josephine’s story

Unlike her famous song namesake, Sister Josephine did not found a pontoon team in her convent nor sit with her boots up on the altar screen. Instead she was one of the first sisters from the English mission of the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, and went on to lead a prominent convent and well-respected school. But a holy life and fulfilling her God’s work did not mean that everyone respected her choices, and at one point she was stoned for her efforts.

She’d been born as Elizabeth (Josephine was a name she took later on in life, when she dedicated herself to the convent), in Loughrea, County Galway in Ireland. She was born a few years before the famine, which hit rural Ireland hard in 1845, and she had a sister – Maria – born three years later. It’s unknown exactly what her father did, but he appears to have moved the family into Galway city at some point during the next few years, probably due to the famine, as a land tax record finds the family there in 1857.

Therefore, the family did not leave Ireland during the famine, but arrived at some point later. Her parents did not live long over in England, and left Josephine alone to educate her sister, and she was placed in a convent. Maria later joined the Sisters of Charity. Josephine moved to Chippenham in Wiltshire. She was the first godmother mentioned in the baptisms of the original St Mary’s Church in St Mary’s Place, Chippenham, which start in 1857. The church was founded in 1855, and operated as a catholic school where Josephine – at this point still called Elizabeth – taught. it was there that she first met Father Larive, missionary of St Francis de Sales. The original church is now used as the modern-day church hall, a new building having been established in the early 20th century on Station Hill.

st mary's chippenham

The original St Mary’s catholic church in Chippenham, now used as the church hall

The first UK census to feature her is the 1861. She had become a teacher, and found a place at a convent school in Birmingham. Aged 22, she had gained the position of assistant school mistress, and was in charge of various teenage girls being educated at the convent.

Josephine, having worked in a convent for several years, decided to take the habit herself. She had been recommended by Father Larive. She went to the founding convent in Annecy, France, and became a novice in the congregation. She took the habit herself in September 1863. It was from there, in August of 1864, that the English mission of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy was founded. Two sisters – Sr Athanase (sometimes Antoinette) Novel, who was originally French, and Sr Stanislaus Bryan, who was of Irish extraction but had grown up with the sisters in India – travelled from the congregation’s Indian mission in Kamptee by ox cart to the coastal port of Yanam and thence on to France, in order to found the English mission.

mother athanase

Mother Athanase

The impetus for founding the mission came from a British Army officer, Captain Dewell, who had seen the good work of the sisters in India and asked them to come to his home country of Wiltshire. Since Josephine had already been teaching in Chippenham, about ten miles away from the intended site in Devizes, she was perhaps the obvious choice to accompany Sisters Athanase and Stanislaus on their endeavour. They travelled across Europe to Devizes, took up residence in the town’s Wyndham Villas – a former priests’ residence by the Kennet and Avon Canal – and it was here that Josephine took her vows in November 1865. The three nuns founded a school in Monday Market Street, in a rented warehouse.

It was then that the trouble started. Despite the fact that the school, and the mission, were founded with the best of intentions, educated poor children for just a penny a week and gave out clothing to those in dire need, the three nuns were met with suspicion by the Devizes population. The struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism in the UK were nothing new at this point in the 19th century, and Devizes was no different though perhaps more vociferously anti-Rome than most, but Catholicism was starting to gain a foothold in England again after the Irish famine of the 1840s and the arrival of many destitute people in need of work. The moralising tone of the educated middle and upper classes, which was reported in the newspapers of the day, implies that the destitute Irish were an underclass and therefore somehow a scourge on the land and were bringing their unsavoury religion with them. And they were taking local jobs too.

A speaker at a Devizes function at the time warned of the new nuns, saying of the “necessity of avoiding the follies of Catholicism and of shunning the nuns who dappled (sic) in witchcraft.” The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette scathingly reported on the “opening” (inverted commas theirs, not mine) of the Catholic Church in 1865, describing it as plain and ugly, and that the nuns were, with one exception, foreigners. Feeling continued to run high, and in 1866 1,600 people in Devizes attended a talk on the evils of Catholicism, and how convents should be ended. Such was the hostility the three sisters – Josephine, Athanase and Stanislaus – were even stoned by local residents as they went about their work.

Catholic church devizes

Despite this, Josephine and the others persevered. They opened a school for middle- and upper-class children in Wyndham Villas, in addition to their work with the poor children, and walked the ten miles to Chippenham every Sunday to Josephine’s original church, to teach the Catechism and play harmonium for mass. They also undertook work in Westbury, several miles to the south of Devizes.

In 1866, however, the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy opened a new convent and school in Chippenham’s Marshfield Road, and needed a mother superior. Josephine came back to Chippenham from Devizes and took over that role. Situated in Suffolk Villas, apparently at 11 and 12 that road, the 1871 census has her with two female scholars, neither of whom were born locally, and two other nuns, running the convent and the education of the school, and providing space for a religious visitor to live. Stanislaus and Athanase remained in Devizes.

There does not appear to have been the local opposition to the establishment of the convent in Chippenham that was experienced in Devizes. There are no reports of witchcraft or stones being thrown. It is probable that the establishment of St Mary’s in the 1850s probably paved the way, and the townspeople were more accepting of the Catholics and foreigners. However, newspapers of the time have virtually nothing about Catholic activities in the town, so it’s likely that much of Josephine’s activity flew under the radar.

Ten years later, however, the convent did not have any pupils, and perhaps could not be called a school in the strictest sense of the word. Josephine was still mother superior, with four other nuns serving in the institution, and they had three other women boarders or visitors. Convents would often house Catholic widows as they were trying to get back on their feet after their husband’s death, and St Joseph’s Convent in Chippenham was clearly no exception. The convent would have offered a calm and serene atmosphere, with a structured timetable and considerable prayer.

The lack of pupils probably played a part in the ending of the Chippenham convent in 1884, when the community moved to a house made available by Captain Dewell in Malmesbury – about six miles to the north of Chippenham but still in Wiltshire. There was no further convent in Chippenham until the 1930s, when St Margaret’s established on Rowden Hill.

There had been a foundation in Malmesbury since 1867, when Father Larive – a missionary of St Francis de Sales – had left Devizes to establish a base there. Josephine, after her period as mother superior in Chippenham, also took on this role in Malmesbury. In 1881 there were four other nuns besides her, in addition to several boarders and three domestic staff – meaning that Josephine could devote herself to more spiritual matters than running a household. This would have been a new way to devote her to Jesus.

By 1897 Josephine had crossed the River Severn, and was established as mother superior at the Stow Hill Convent and School in Newport, South Wales. This establishment had been founded from Devizes in 1873 (using money from the dowry of Sister Mary Joseph, who had been educated there), and Mother Athanase had gone from there to be the first mother superior taking most of her community with her. Only two sisters and a postulant were then left in Devizes, Westbury’s work ended in 1875, and the focus of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy became this new school and convent in Newport. By 1901 Mother Athanase was getting on in years, and was no longer mother superior, leaving the UK for the Sisters’ base in Annecy, where she spent her dotage. Josephine, at this point in her early 60s, became mother superior in Newport.

newport school

The Newport Convent

The Newport school was a huge undertaking. Josephine had fourteen teachers underneath her, teaching art, music, needlework, French, German and basic elementary subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. There was a full complement of domestic staff – including ladies’ maids – boarding pupils aged between 12 and 17, and a host of young women in their early twenties who are referred to on the census as resident students but are probably novices in training to become nuns. There is even a resident artist. Many of the teachers, like Josephine, are Irish-born, but the cooks are both French. The students, in contrast, are mostly drawn from the local area – except one who was born in India.

This convent and school appears to have thrived. Josephine was still mother superior in 1911, but by now in her early 70s she had taken a step backwards from the day-to-day life of the school. Her jurisdiction was over the novitiates and teachers, of which there were many, but only five boarding pupils were in her household. The convent and school, however, spread over four houses, and with many teachers employed most pupils would have attended just in the daytime. The school and convent eventually outgrew its premises in the 1940s, and was moved to Llantarnam Abbey a few miles north.

Josephine, as she was starting to age and lose her sight, went on to be mother superior at a much smaller community in Wincanton in 1912, and then on to a boarding school in Clifton, Bristol. She then moved back to the Newport convent to be a part of that community again, and served as a councillor in the town.

She lived to be 97, and in her last years was cared for by her community at the convent. She died in 1933, and is buried in Newport.