Elizabeth P’s story

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette 15 Sept 1870 concealed birth

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.

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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.

Charles William Hayes

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.

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The coffeehouse didn’t seem to last though, as when Elizabeth died in 1908 she was resident in Ealing, close to her two sons – who both had large families of their own, and was buried locally. Her daughter Ellen went on to be an apartment keeper, and never married. Son Charles became a gardener, and died just before the second world war. Her son Herbert emigrated to Australia and died out there in the late 1940s.

Muriel H’s story

lady coventry roadMuriel (better known as Lady Coventry) has a street named after her – rare for a woman – in the area of Chippenham she was once Lady of the Manor for. Her achievements, as a prominent female member of the town Poor Law Board of Guardians, and only the second female magistrate the town had ever had in 1928, appear to have come in second to the extreme benevolence and generosity that she showed towards the impoverished residents of Chippenham. Lady Coventry Road, however, relates to the name she took when she married in 1893, and she was born a Howard and was a Lady from the get go.

She came from the family that produced Katherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII, but her branch split off in Tudor times. She was the eldest child of the 18th Earl of Suffolk and 11th Earl of Berkshire Henry Charles Howard, and as the daughter of an earl and a lord was entitled to call herself Lady her entire life, regardless of who she married. In the run up to her parents’ marriage her father had been MP for Malmesbury, located at the family seat at vast Charlton Park, to the north of the town. However, two years before Muriel arrived he had been defeated in the general election, so was taking a bit of break from political life.

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Charlton Park, where Muriel grew up. It is still in the Howard family.

Muriel was born in central London at the beginning of the 1870s, and was followed less than two years later by a sister who didn’t live long enough to be named. Her next sister, Eleanor, followed just over a year later, when the family were living in Rutland, and then another – Agnes – midway through 1874 when they were back in Wiltshire. The son and heir to continue the Earldom, Henry, was born in Scotland, and then Muriel’s final two siblings – Katherine and James – in Malmesbury in the 1880s.

Both brothers were sent away to school to be educated, as would have been common for sons of the nobility at this time – both attended Winchester College. Muriel and her sisters, however, appear to have been educated at home at Charlton Park. One census has a Scottish governess in the household, who is clearly in charge of educating the young ladies. It is always possible that Muriel attended some sort of formal finishing school before she made her societal debut, but there is no definite record of this.

She’d have made a formal debut at around 18, being presented at court to the queen as would have been expected for the daughter of an Earl, and would have officially entered the marriage market. This didn’t happen immediately for her, however, and the 1891 census finds her still at home near Malmesbury at the age of 21, so she probably enjoyed several London social seasons. The household at Charlton Park included a cook, a couple of lady’s maids, a footman, a butler, housemaids and kitchen maids, and even a still room maid – in charge of herbs and brewing for them all.

At the age of 23, Muriel married her first cousin – Henry Robert Beauclerk Coventry, the son of her mother’s brother. He was two years her junior, and had been a serving soldier. It’s likely she already knew him, rather than meeting him through society, but it still would have been an advantageous match. He came from a prominent Scottish family, and a divorce scandal involving his mother in the late 1870s was temporally far away enough to be forgotten. They married at the church closest to Charlton Park, and initially lived close by, but in 1894 took on the vacant Monkton House in Chippenham. This Georgian-remodelled property had traditionally been the seat of the Esmead and Edridge families, but until 1892 had been home to prominent local solicitor West Awdry and his family. His death left the house available for Muriel and Henry.

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Monkton House c1960

The first mention of her at Monkton House is as the honourable secretary of the Chippenham branch of the Soldiers and Sailor Family Association in 1894. All of the office holders were women from big houses and prominent families in the area. She also first joined the Chippenham Poor Law Board of Guardians in that year, alongside her husband, which was another function that was often filled by the wealthy and good of the town. However, in Muriel’s case it proved to be less of a duty and more of a passion.

She did not have children for a few years after her marriage, but at the end 1897 her daughter Joan was born, and she was followed by sons Dan and Arthur at two and four years afterwards. They were all baptised at the Charlton Park church, and appear to have been close to their mother’s family.

All three children appear to have been sent away to be educated once they were old enough. Invariably, at this time, most children of the gentry were taught at home by a governess until they reached the age of nine, and then went away to school. Muriel and Henry were far from alone while they were gone, however. Their household in 1911 had a clutch of servants – a cook, a lady’s maid, a nurse, a house maid, a kitchen maid and two parlour maids. This was considerably less household staff than Muriel had grown up with, which may reflect a downturn in their fortunes, but equally could be explained by Monkton House being considerably smaller than Charlton Park, and therefore needing less people to keep the household going.

One of Muriel and her husband’s first loves in the life of the town was music, and they actively supported orchestral work in the local area. Both of them immediately joined the Poor Law Board of Guardians, with Muriel taking the position of Vice-Chairman of the Board for a time and though she was offered the position of Chairman she declined it. When the workhouse, the focus of the Board of Guardians, became the Chippenham Institution in 1931 following a change of legislation, she was nominated to represent the institution on the county council. Later she held the Langley seat on the council, and represented the area.

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The former Chippenham workhouse, now the town hospital

During the First World War she was involved in the food control committee, ensuring that everyone locally had enough to eat. Her daughter Joan, like many other upper-class women of the age, volunteered at the local field hospital and became a staff nurse treating wounded soldiers. Neither of her sons were old enough to fight in that conflict, but Arthur went into the navy straight after the war. Her brother Henry, however, who had become the next earl of the death of their father in 1898 and married a blue-blood American woman, was not so lucky and was killed by flying shrapnel in 1917 while serving in modern day Iraq.

Two of her three sisters and other brother had married equally well (the third sister remained unmarried her whole life). Her mother, after she was widowed, left the big house and moved to a cottage on the Charlton Park estate.

Muriel’s sister Eleanor, and brothers Henry and James. A publicly available photograph of Muriel is not available.

In 1919, a descendant of the Esmead and Edridge families, Miss Carrick Moore, sold the Monkton House buildings and all the estates. Muriel and Henry, who had only rented the house until this point, bought the property that they lived in and all the surrounding land. Lady Muriel is referred to as the owner, rather than Henry, so it is probable that it was her inherited money that bought the estate.

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Monkton House c1987

Muriel was deeply involved in the provision the Chippenham workhouse and later the Institution made for those in poverty. The general feeling among the place was that she treated the premises as her own house, and would often work tirelessly to improve the lives of those who resided there. She knew that many of the young women who grew up there and were placed in domestic service had nowhere to call home and return to during their time off, so she provided and furnished a large sitting room at the institution for their use, so they had somewhere comfortable to return to. She also provided a new organ for the workhouse chapel, and kept it maintained.

In 1928 she became only the second female magistrate to ever sit on the Chippenham bench, and regularly worked in local law matters, preferring public assistance cases and working in out-relief. She also had a considerable interest in the town hospital, and nursing association, sat on the parochial council of one of the churches, and was a manager of the local schools before they were taken over by the county council.

Her son Dan served in the army, but remained based at home. Her son Arthur was sent around the world with the navy, but married and eventually settled. Her daughter Joan did not marry either, but lived in Oxfordshire for a time and also spent time in India and South Africa.

At the beginning of 1938 Muriel was taken ill and was not able to attend her usual public meetings and duties. Wishes were sent for her recovery to no effect, and she died in mid-February just shy of her 68th birthday. Many public institutions mourned her passing, with reports of her good work and benevolence given in the local papers.

“When dealing with out-relief cases she was always just; with her own purse she was always generous.”

“No one more than the officers knew that vital work Lady Muriel did, and the untiring energy she always put into everything she undertook. The officers felt they had lost a true friend.”

In her will she left £26,500 to her husband. Her daughter Joan died during the Second World War, and her son Dan died directly afterwards. Muriel’s husband Henry lived until 1953. In 1954, part of their land was sold off to make a cattle market on Cocklebury Road. Further probate was settled for Henry in 1957, when Chippenham Council acquired the land and house. Muriel’s house was divided up into flats and is now in multiple ownership. An estate of houses was build on some of the lands, with some streets named after the families that had owned the house – and that’s how Lady Coventry Road was named. The rest of the land now forms a golf course and a public park.

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Lena B’s story

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Sarah Eleanor, known to the world as Lena, didn’t quite run off with the gypsies, but was steeped in the world of the travelling shows that toured and entertained the UK in the later part of the Victorian era and into the 20th century, gave birth to many, many technically-illegitimate daughters in a little horse-drawn caravan around the whole of northern England, and ran a clog-dancing family act that appeared on variety and music hall stages for years.

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Lena was a soldier’s daughter, born in the later part of the 1860s in the Colchester area of Essex. The 1871 census finds her living in Edinburgh with her parents and younger brother George, but it’s not clear if they’re permanent residents or passing through. Her elder sister Mary Ann had been left with her maternal grandparents in Westmoreland.

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Lena’s childhood appears to have been one of constant movement – while she was born in Essex, sister Mary Ann entered the world in Lancashire, brother George in Winchester, sister Rachel in York and brother Charles in Leeds. This indicates her father’s military role took him to many different places, and the growing family were probably housed in barracks when Lena was small. Later siblings Agnes, Alice, Elizabeth and Archibald were all born in Burnley, Lancashire – so by 1876 Lena’s father appears to have stopped soldiering and started to put down roots. However, by 1881 he is unemployed and the older children in the family – Lena included, then only 14 – were working as cotton weavers to make the family ends meet.

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In 1887, when she was around 20, Lena got married. Her husband was Henry, who worked in Burnley as a warehouseman – quite possibly in the cloth trade of the area. He was a widower, with two sons of his own. Their first child, a son called George, was born at Todmorden in 1889, and then their daughter Ethel was born three years later in 1892.

At some point around this time, however, something went awry in Lena’s marriage to Henry, which was only five years old. She appears to have met another man – Barnaby – who was a little her junior and had also been working as a cotton weaver in the area, and took up with him instead. Around this time Lena’s father died, aged just 46.

While divorce was possible for people of Lena and Henry’s class, and Henry would have had a case with his wife’s adultery, legal proceedings were expensive. Many people in their position saved for years to be able to bring proceedings to court. Lena and Henry never did though – it may have been reasonably amicable, or at least a situation they could live with. Lena’s new life with Barnaby may also have been a factor – he had started running an auctioneer’s van that travelled around the area, so the social factors around a new partner for Lena may have been easier to manage if she never stayed in one place too long. The death of her father may also have been a factor in this change of direction – as he wasn’t around to question Lena’s choices. Exactly what Barnaby was auctioning in different places in the north of England is open to question – presumably these were things he bought off one community and then sold off to the next – but it appeared to be lucrative enough to support a small family.

Lena and Barnaby’s first child, a daughter called Marguerite, was born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 1894. She was followed by Alice in 1896, who was born in Oldham in Lancashire and baptised four months later in Halifax, but died before her second birthday in Hemsworth, Yorkshire. Around the same time next daughter Georgina entered the world in the back of the auction van in Dewsbury, again in Yorkshire.

This pattern repeated itself over the next few years – babies born in one place and then christened in another: Mary in Burnley in 1899; George in Belper (Derbyshire) in 1901, twins Ann and Louisa in Lancester (County Durham) in 1903, with Ann dying in Nottingham a short while later; Alice in Prescot (Lancashire) in 1904; Charles in Fylde (Lancashire) in 1906; and Wilhelmina in Saddleworth (Yorkshire/Lancashire border) in 1909. All were born on fairgrounds, as naphtha flares lit the sky.

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This creates a picture of many people on top of each other in a small horse-drawn space, with little privacy, and a constantly mobile lifestyle. However, daughter Marguerite actually attended grammar school for a year in Derby around 1903, so at times Lena and Barnaby must have been static. On the school records their van is parked at the Market Square. It is equally possible that Marguerite may have lived with others during that year, however, while her family kept travelling. Lena and Barnaby would reportedly pull up in towns and villages and set up a big fit up theatre tent, where Barnaby would auction many different things, and then he and Lena would perform a melodramatic skit. As the children grew they would join in too. Barnaby had apparently got his start in the theatre in Blackpool productions, and had been a partner of George Formby Senior in his early years.

Lena’s older children appear to have lived with their father and/or other relatives for at least some of the time. While Ethel is living with Lena’s widowed mother on the 1901 census, and Lena and Barnaby are with their children in Alfreton in Derbyshire, by the time the 1911 census comes around both Ethel and the first George are with their father in Burnley – Ethel working as a cotton weaver and George as a shorthand typist at one of the town’s cotton mills. Henry claims to be a widower with no children on this census, which isn’t exactly true but was perhaps an easier explanation.

Meanwhile, on the same document, Lena and Barnaby and eight children (ranging in age from 1 to 16) are living in their show caravan at a fairground at Blackrod near Wigan. By this time Barnaby had given up the auctioning business at some point after 1906 and had moved on to something far more early 20th century – cinema projection. He would have carried his equipment with him in the van, including projectors and film reels, and broadcast the black and white silent films of the day to audiences. This would have been part of the whole travelling side show experience, with a growing audience appetite for the moving pictures that would have been projected on to the canvas of tents as part of a range of attractions – possibly including music, dancing, circus skills, and curiosities like strong men or bearded ladies. More information about travelling shows can be found at the National Fairground and Circus archive: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca

Two years later, Lena’s legal husband Henry died, so she and Barnaby were finally able to marry. They did so in the summer of 1913 in Burnley. Barnaby had taken some work as a painter and carpenter in the run up to the first world war, so it is likely that they were static for a while. With the babies of the family starting to be able to assert themselves properly, the family reinvented themselves as music hall theatre artists, as the skills they had gained and developed among the travelling shows came to the fore. By all accounts they could sing, dance, act and play instruments. They formed a family act, with Barnaby in charge and Lena playing all the mature female parts, which appeared on the sands of Morecombe Bay three times daily in the summer of 1913 – and were promptly fined for not having applied for performance licenses for Louisa and Alice, then aged 10 and 8 respectively. They had also performed in the same place the previous year. Eldest daughter Ethel, Lena’s daughter with first husband Henry, appears to have joined the family troupe around now, but her eldest son did not.

Lena’s talents appear to also have been in performing, although she seems to have known what would entertain audiences too. Her first mention as a performer and dramatist in her own right came in the early months of 1914, when she is billed as Madam Parsons and the originator of a pantomime version of The Babes In The Wood featuring her seven daughters – now called the Seven Lucky Lancashire Lasses – as part of a “first class cast of 30 artistes” which ran at a theatre in Derbyshire. The choice of name for the family act appears to derive from the Eight Lancashire Lads, a troupe of clog dancers founded in the 1890s who were also touring and treading the local boards and at one point included Charlie Chaplin, but Lena’s daughters’ unique selling point was that they were all related. The girls all could clog dance too – a style developed in the cloth mills of Lancashire which was performed in wooden soled shoes that were worn in the factories, and is a pre-cursor to tap dancing.

Madam Parsons panto

The beginning of the First World War, and its associated patriotic fervour, appears to have sent Lena’s star into its ascendancy. Barnaby went off to war early – in the autumn of 1914, when married men weren’t required to until 1916 – and the family act became Madam Parsons and the Seven Lucky Lancashire Lasses and continued to tour northern stages. Newspapers would give the impression that Barnaby was the driving force behind the act, but Lena spectacularly taking the reins during the war years shows that she was also prodigiously talented and very much at the head of the family entertainment business.

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Lena took the part of Britannia in one part of their performances, with her children, including the two younger boys, were England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, soldiers, sailors and boy scouts. A great fuss was made of their “Soldier Daddy” who was away with the army, initially in France and then in the Army Ordinance Corps when his health prevented front line duty. Lena and the children sold postcards of themselves, and sheet music, and performed to raise money for war funds, with Lena directly appealing to packed houses for money to support the armed forces and medical services. Other acts joined them, including acrobatic roller skaters, gymnasts, singers and comedians, but Lena appears to have been completely at the hilt of the shows. There would have been various administrative and production duties involved in producing the shows – licenses for underage performers (you had to be 12 before you could perform legally and therefore special paperwork was needed for the younger members of the family), wages for other performers, and stagecraft, and many other considerations – which Lena would have taken on.

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Lena as Britannia in her family’s patriotic performance

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Lena and daughters around 1920

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Barnaby was discharged from the army in 1917, and returned to the fold with the family, who were at that point living in a van in Morecombe. The performances continued, with a move into music hall rather than travelling shows, and he appears to have taken charge at a theatre – at least briefly – where he’s described as a pantomime proprietor. They put on performances of The Babes In The Wood and Cinderella in various theatres during the winter months. Their claim that they were the only related family act performing anywhere is given in every advert, with £500 offered if this claim was not true, and it sounds like Lena was still a big part of the performances and the administration. They continued performing, with engagements every week, for many more years – in various theatres, and each summer in Morecombe Gardens for three performances daily – until at least the mid-1920s.

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The gradual marrying off of Lena’s daughters put an end to the long-running family act, although most married into the theatrical business. Eldest daughter Ethel married John, a clerk at the lino works in Burnley, in 1914. Her performances with the family continued through the war years, but it’s uncertain how much of a role she played afterwards. They had no children, and lived in Lancaster. The others stayed closer to the family business, still taking part in performances. Daughter Marguerite, known as Maggie, married in Scarborough in 1920 to a music hall director and had a son and described herself as a variety artiste, while Georgina married Samuel Sharples in 1925. After her widowhood in 1939 she lived with her parents and her son, and still performed in the family act. Doris, known as Dolly, married a music hall director. The boys married too: Charlie to Mona, a professional dancer.

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Mary, known professionally as Eva, married a pianist in 1924 and had a son. Daughter Alice married Speedy Yelding, a clown and comedy wire walker, in 1927, while youngest daughter Wilhelmina, known as Mona and a stunning banjo player, did not marry until 1962.

Lena and Barnaby retired to Southport. In later years Barnaby, known as Papa Parsons, gives his profession as an advertising agent, so he and Lena are probably managing the careers of many performers, including their offspring. Charlie and George had their own variety act, that played on the Blackpool coast for many years, and towards the end of his career Charlie made a couple of appearances in Coronation Street.

Papa Parsons died in 1945, in Southport, to a major outpouring of grief from his offspring and wife in the newspapers. Lena’s death, the following year, went unremarked upon – though she was a considerable part of the family business in her own right.

Thermuthis and Lucy’s stories

Some siblings luckily share a tight sisterly bond, others are as different as night and day – and while they love each other and share a background, other values like politics can vastly differ within family members of the same generation. And this is equally true for those born of a privileged background as well as those from more modest beginnings.

Thermuthis and Lucy were sisters who exemplified this difference between siblings. Two of three daughters born to a landed squire in Wiltshire at the tail end of the 1850s, they had a comfortable upbringing for the time, and a great deal of money and influence behind them. But where Thermuthis followed the typical politics and activities of landed gentry at the time, Lucy turned her back 180 degrees on this lifestyle and instead worked tirelessly with the poor and underprivileged to make the world a better place.

Both women make brief appearances in Francis Kilvert’s diaries of the 1870s, as Squire Reverend Robert Martin Ashe – their father – was part of the landed gentry circles that Kilvert moved in at that time. Kilvert mentions dining at Langley House, their home, on several occasions during the diary, and there is a detailed description of Thermuthis in his writings.

Thermuthis Ashe was the eldest sister, born in 1856. She was her parents’ second-born child, but her older brother – named Robert after his father – had died a year earlier of whooping cough and convulsions aged about 18 months. Another sister – Emily Ashe, known to the family as Syddy or Syddie – followed in 1857, and then Lucy Ashe was born in 1859. There were no further children, and no boy to inherit the house and title, so Thermuthis became heir apparent until such time as she married, as under the law at the time a husband would assume the wife’s property.

Ashe and daughters

Thermuthis is on the left, Lucy on the right.

The three sisters would have enjoyed the best of country life growing up at that time, going into the nearby market town at Chippenham for anything that they needed, as Langley Burrell where they lived was a small village. Kilvert described Thermuthis, known as Thersie, on a visit to their house in January of 1871, when she would have been around fifteen.

“25 January 1871

A fly took Fanny, Dora and myself to dinner at Langley House at 7.30. The Ashes were very agreeable and Thersie Ashe was in the drawing room before dinner sitting on an ottoman in a white dress, white boots and gloves, almost a grown-up young lady and looking exceedingly nice with her long dark hair and brilliant colour.”

thermuthis_ashe

Kilvert’s gaze also fell upon Emily Ashe towards the end of that year, when she was around fourteen:

Wednesday 27 December 1871

After dinner I went with Dora to call at the John Knights’ at the farm on the common. At the cross roads we met Mrs Ashe with Thersie and Syddy going round to the cottages giving the invitations to the New Year’s supper at Langley House. Syddy is magnificent entirely, splendidly handsome. I never thought her so beautiful before. Her violet eyes, her scarlet lips, the luxuriance of her rich chestnut curling hair, indescribable. She is said by my mother to be very like her great grandmother, especially in her chestnut curling hair.

Youngest sister Lucy does not appear to have been mentioned at all, at least in the published portion of Kilvert’s diaries.

Both the 1861 and 1871 censuses find the family at home in Langley Burrell with eight servants in residence – in the early years the girls would have had a nursemaid, and later on a governess, and the house had a housekeeper, a cook and various other domestic maids. Their father, who though a reverend who could technically be in charge of the local St Peter’s Church, concentrated mostly on the running of the parish and passed the church over to Kilvert’s father. He was also a magistrate and justice of the peace in Chippenham. A newspaper report of the time says that Robert Ashe suffered some ill health and spent time abroad in better climates. Thermuthis, Emily, Lucy and their mother would also have played a great part in the parish life growing up, and the sisters by the standards of the day would have been expected to grow up into genteel young ladies and marry well, probably from among the local gentry. Their father apparently did not approve of mixed dancing, or even mixed tennis for his daughters, so it is likely that their contact with young men was limited.

Langley House

However, their mother died at the end of 1884 – when they were around 27, 26 and 24 – and their father a month later in January 1885, supposedly of a broken heart following his wife’s death. Thermuthis then inherited the house, and became the landowner, and Emily and Lucy lived at the house with her just as before. None of them showed any inclination of marrying for a good while. Emily eventually did marry, in 1891 to Edward Scott, a soldier. She then moved away, and had children of her own, living for a time in India. Neither Thermuthis nor Lucy ever married.

Thermuthis, as lady of the manor, assumed various duties of public life. She was deeply involved in village affairs, donating and supporting the poor and needy within the community, and a supporter of the village church that had been in her family for generations. Clearly extremely religious, she acted as a church warden, and one of the few female wardens in the diocese in the early 20th century (it was part of the wider Bristol diocese), attending the diocesan conference regularly. She also served on the ruri-decanal conference, an event concerning rural parishes.

Langley House remained a focal point for the community under her tenure as it was during her father’s day. The extensive grounds were used for political meetings, village and church fétes – there are mentions of her having entered gardening competition categories at various fétes and produce shows in the newspapers of the time. Her other chief hobby was archery, and she was often seen practicing this in the grounds of the house, right up until several months before her death. At her demise she was one of the oldest members known of the Society of Wiltshire Archers. She was also a member of the local Beaufort Hunt, but did not actually ride with them – instead providing land for the practice.

Politically, she was a staunch Conservative, perhaps typically for a landowner of her background, and was head of the local Women’s Conservative Association. Lord Londonderry – a cousin of Winston Churchill – once addressed a political meeting at her residence. She gradually sold off pieces of land that she had inherited – she’d owned West Kennet Manor through a connection of her great grandmother, but sold it in 1921. She also owned a local patch of woodland – Bird’s Marsh – and various extensive parcels of land via the church holdings that extended down into Chippenham itself, as part of what is now the town was a section of Langley Burrell Within parish. Several of these were sold off in the later years of her life, and her name is now remembered on streets created on the land itself – so Ashfield Road, Ashe Crescent and Ashe Close stand as memorials.

Thermuthis Ashe died in 1935 after a short illness, aged 78. She is buried at St Peter’s Church in Langley Burrell.

Her younger sister Lucy, in complete contrast, turned away from the Conservative and landowning lifestyle of Thermuthis in the early years of the 20th century, and instead moved away to live in London and perform social work among deprived communities. She had intended only to stay in London for a week or so, but ended up staying for more than forty years. She was visiting Emily and her family in Kent on the 1901 census, with no profession given, but ten years later she was resident at the Twentieth Century Club in Notting Hill. She apparently said “I throw in my lot with yours. I stay among you.” when she experienced life in Southwark, and did so wholeheartedly.

Lucy Ashe

This residence was a ladies club, founded in 1902, which had 105 bedrooms and was there for the purpose “to provide furnished residential rooms and board at economical prices, for educated women workers engaged in professional, educational, literary, secretarial or other similar work.” Lucy’s profession on the 1911 census was given as a Honorary Secretary of a Charity Organisation living on private means, which fits the remit of the club. While she lived there, she had income from another London property and presumably some inheritance to live on which initially gave her means to survive while working, but within a short time she largely financed her own work. The club had ceased to exist by 1924, so after this point Lucy lived elsewhere in Southwark where most of her work took place.

She is remembered as a particularly dedicated and tireless worker, regularly putting in unpaid 18-hour days for the benefit of the borough’s poorest residents. Southwark of the time was known for being a place of poor housing and tough living, with parts regularly flooded by the Thames and families crammed into one room in back to back accommodation and sharing one toilet with several neighbours. A large drive was underway to remove the slums and replace them with better quality housing – this was a big part of Lloyd George’s Liberal government – and Lucy joined this effort.

Southwark around the middle of the 20th century

At the beginning of the First World War she concentrated on helping the families of the borough who had their main breadwinner serving overseas – so focusing on mothers and children in the most part. This work led to being made the first Chairman of the Child Welfare Committee in 1919. She was also on the very first Pensions Committee in the early 1920s and – in direct contrast to her sister Thermuthis – was elected as a Labour Party member of Southwark Council. In later years she served as an Alderman for Southwark. Her work passions also included the health of residents, particularly around the care of people who had contracted tuberculosis.

She had a small office in Steedman Street from where she offered advice and help to the people she represented and served, and would paint and sell pictures to finance the help she was able to give. Hundreds of people benefitted from her work, and knew her as “the lady with the satchel”.

Lucy Ashe headline

She was only persuaded to leave Southwark and the people and streets she loved at the height of the Second World War blitz, with bombs regularly falling into the nearby roads. Six people took over the work that she had done alone. At this time she was into her 80s, and her health was beginning to suffer after all the years of hard work. Some residents thought she had succumbed to a bomb, but in reality she moved home to Langley House in Wiltshire – which at this time was owned by Emily’s son Major Charles Scott-Ashe – for the duration.

Her office in Steedman Street was bombed, as were many other places in the borough. After the war, she was remembered by a block of flats bearing her name in Peacock Street.

Her health was not good enough for her to return after the war, and she lived quietly at Langley Burrell for the rest of her life. She died in 1949, on her 90th birthday, and was remembered later that year with a memorial in the grounds of St Peter’s Church. In her will she left £150 to the Southwark Labour Party. A primary school now sits on the site of the block of flats in Peacock Street.

Griselda C’s story

Daughter of a baronet, Griselda was a considerable part of the movement to collect and preserve British folk music, spearheaded by Cecil Sharp. While the women who are mostly remembered tend to be the collectors themselves – Lucy Broadwood, Maud Karpeles, Mary Neal, Kate Lee – as their work is filed in libraries and is therefore still visible, rather than those who gave more physical support. Griselda, as headmistress and founder of her own private school, was able to give space to early English Folk Dance Society and Folk Song Society activities and summer schools, and supported the movement and the songs and dances’ preservation that way. She was a believer in giving the knowledge and information that had been collected back to the people and sections of society that might have become detached from whence it came, and worked at a grassroots level to encourage everyone to know and experience folk songs and dances from the British Isles.

Cecil sharp sign

Griselda never really knew her mother, a daughter of East India Company civil servant Sir Thomas Metcalfe who died when she was two after giving birth to her youngest brother. She was second youngest in a family of 13 siblings – although her sister Pamela died at the age of 2 – and had two sisters who lived and nine brothers. Her eldest siblings had been born in Bengal, where her colonel father had been stationed, but the family returned to England in the early 1860s. They first lived at various different army bases, but by the time Griselda arrived in the later years of that decade they had been established in Herefordshire for many years.

As upper-class Victorian children, Griselda and her siblings had domestic servants, a nursemaid, and a governess at home until they reached the age of nine or so. Thereafter, they were sent away to school. The family’s boys appear to have gone to a school run by a vicar in Ashbocking, Suffolk, while the girls went to West Grinstead Lodge at Belstead, also in Suffolk.

It was here, while at school with her older sister Finetta, that Griselda would have learnt of her father’s death in 1882, at around the age of 12. The barony went to her older brother Guy, who at this point was out in India serving in the army, while it seems likely that Griselda continued at school, later moving to further study at Westfield College in Hampstead which was a women-only institution founded in 1882. Some of her brothers also went out to India with the army, while others took up professions in the church.

On leaving school, Griselda went to live with her brother Francis, who later became a reverend, but in the early part of his career he held a position of assistant second clerk in library of the British Museum. Her eldest sister Annie also lived with them, as did her youngest brother George. Neither Annie nor Griselda had to work, and the household had a servant, so it was likely that they were still comfortably off.

In 1894 Griselda married Dudley, who was both the son of a Lord and a prominent (if understated) member of the Royal Asiatic Society. An authority on the Malay language, he had spent considerable time in the Far East before marriage, and was also appointed a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and published papers in both society’s journals. He was 20 years her senior.

They had three children together. A son, named Dudley, arrived a year after the marriage. Another son, Ambrose, followed four years later but sadly only lived for two weeks. And a daughter, also named Griselda, was born in 1901.

They settled in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, at around the time Elizabeth Garrett Anderson lived in the town, and employed a cook, a parlourmaid, and a lady’s nurse – which implies that Griselda’s health could be on the delicate side.

In 1906 they turned their residence into a private school for girls, with Griselda as headmistress. The fact that it was a private school meant that she, as a married woman, was able to hold the position and teach her pupils – had the school been run by a local education board she would have been subject to the marriage bar on female teachers.

The school was called Belstead House, named for the location of her former school, and was for girls “of breeding and means”. When the school began there were only seven pupils, but by the 1911 census this had grown to 17, and numbers continued to expand over the next decade. In 1911 there was one other teacher in addition to Griselda, and a full complement of domestic staff to look after the family and the pupils, who ranged in age from 11 to 16.

belstead house school

In 1911, her husband Dudley took a tumble from a pony and trap and broke his shoulder bone, which festered. and he died a week later. Griselda maintained the school, and together with her two children and house full of staff, continued to run it as a success. The reputation of the school was extremely good, and it attracted interest from many families who could afford the fees.

They took on adjoining premises to accommodate more pupils, building a gymnasium and a chapel, and even a domestic science laboratory – the subject during this period looked more at the actual science and technology of food and domestic chores, rather than teaching girls how to do them, and was a route into science for many young women.

Her son Dudley, who was educated elsewhere, went to fight in the first world war, and was able to come home afterwards. He married in 1926. Her daughter Griselda was educated at her mother’s school and went on to become an actress.

Griselda senior’s link to the British folk revival came through her friendship with Cecil Sharp himself. Her later obituary reports that she was a strong believer in the educational value of folk songs and dances, which aligned with Sharp’s own views. She incorporated folk songs and dances in the curriculum she taught at the school, encouraging those best at the art forms to go out into the communities just outside Aldeburgh to help local girls and young women form folk music groups and companies of their own. She was awarded one of the first two gold badges (the highest accolade) by the English Folk Dance Society – which later incorporated with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to form EFDSS – in 1922. The other recipient was Lady Mary Trefusis, who is commemorated with a hall named after her in London’s Cecil Sharp House, but no real mention of Griselda is evident on those premises today and even her gold badge names her as “Mrs Dudley Hervey” rather than using her own first name.

EFDSS-gold-badge

In addition, she also invited Cecil Sharp’s Summer Festival School to make use of the school buildings as their headquarters when the venture outgrew previous accommodation at Cheltenham College. This – the last summer school that Sharp ran himself – took place in 1923. Several hundred people attended, working on dances and songs, and Sharp gave lectures. Griselda kept a scrap book, containing photographs, programmes and correspondence about the event, which is now held by the University of California.

The revival and preservation spirit was so deeply embedded in the school’s philosophy that when Romanian pianist and composer Béla Bartók was invited to give a concert to the pupils in December 1923, he found that the girls were completely capable of learning and following Romanian folk dances without much bother.

a-0295-9-belstead-house-school-c1920

In addition to the emphasis on the folk arts, Griselda’s school also focused on French, and actively prepared girls for university education. She was also keen to promote good living and bodily welfare to her pupils, which included establishing a “clean milk” dairy for the school’s use, and worked on matters of faith and spirituality across the whole school. She was local deputy commissioner for the girl guides too, and worked with young people across the Aldeburgh community as well as her pupils.

In the later 1920s, however, she was in poor health. She died at the school in 1929, in her early 60s, of heart failure. Her elder sister Finetta, who had married and spent considerable time in India, then came to run the school in her stead for a few years, maintaining the values that had been established and sustained under Griselda. The school building is now a holiday home for Aldeburgh’s thriving tourist trade.

Griselda hervey pic

*****

A footnote should give more history of her daughter Griselda, who went on to be an actress as Grizelda Hervey. She appeared on stage in Ireland in 1923, and newspapers report her role as the Spirit of Kent in a pageant of 1931. Much of her renowned work was broadcast on the radio – for example the BBC broadcast a play called Congo Landing by Horton Giddy in 1935, which was an account of the adventures of Lady Susan (Grizelda) and Captain Smith (Stewart Rome) in the Cape Town Air Race. She was also in the cast of the first broadcast of the Forsyth Saga in 1945, when the BBC Home Service put on A Man of Property with Grizelda as Irene.

Griselda 2

She also appeared in extremely early live broadcast television plays on the BBC. Two of these were The Royal Family of Broadway, and The Circle, both from 1939. Television at this time was broadcast live to anyone who had a set, and no recordings of these plays were ever kept. Later television work included one episode of The Wednesday Play in 1966. She also appears to have consistently worked in theatres.

In September of 1957 she married Clarence Napier Bruce, third baron Aberdare of Duffryn. In early October that year the couple were in Yugoslavia to attend a meeting of the International Olympic Committee at Sofia, and planned to drive home through the country as their honeymoon. Their car fell over a precipice near Risan, into water. Clarence drowned, leaving Grizelda a widow after being married for just one month, and she herself was injured in the fall. To the end of her days – she died in Hull in 1980 – she was styled Baroness Aberdare of Duffryn.

Ellen H’s story

Chippenham was built on the cloth trade, with many small-scale weavers having looms in their homes to produce material once the thread had been dyed. By the mid-1800s, however, mechanisation and larger scale industry had led to the establishment of a full cloth mill.

This mill, which offered carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving, sat on the banks of the River Avon where the Hygrade meat factory later sat, a site which is now new apartment housing along Westmead Lane.

This mill, owned by Pocock and Rawlings, was one of the biggest employers in Chippenham towards the latter half of the 19th century, alongside the railway works, and the Nestle factory. By 1911 the workforce numbered around 130, the bulk of which were unmarried younger women. One of these women was Ellen, alongside at least four of her siblings.

Ellen Hillman

Ellen’s father – Julius – was a weaver at the factory throughout the 19th century, and married his wife Julia in 1871. There’s some discrepancy about where this took place – both St Andrew’s Church and the Wesleyan Methodists have a record of the marriage. They had nine children in all, of which Ellen was the fourth, born in the mid-1870s.

20200326_105736

The family, while clearly non-conformist in religion – like much of Chippenham at the time – appeared to be unable to decide which branch of non-conformism suited them best. Ellen was baptised into the Primitive Methodist faith, as were her sisters Anne, Elizabeth and Frances. However, her brothers Frederick and Arthur, and her sister Florence were baptised into the Wesleyan Methodists, and her sister Emily was christened at the Tabernacle church.

Although their parents married from Blind Lane (now Gladstone Road), while they were young, Ellen and her siblings lived on Factory Lane, modernly known as Westmead Lane, while their father worked at the cloth mill at the end of the road. Their grandfather, a dyer, also worked at the mill and lived next door. As they grew up, Ellen’s siblings gradually went to work for the cloth mill themselves. One of them, Anne, died at the age of one, but the rest all grew up to bring in a wage to the family. They found work in the mill themselves, and the condensed milk factory, and the railway.

In the late 1880s, when Ellen was about 14, the family moved out of Factory Lane into new houses on Parliament Street. While today this street is part of Chippenham, at that time the houses were outside the town’s boundaries, administratively in Lowden, and it would have been quiet compared to Factory Lane. This would have been a desirable move for a large family.

Around about this time, Ellen left school and started work. Her first job was in the Nestle Condensed Milk Factory. It’s unknown exactly what she did in the factory, but younger workers often were general factory hands – fetching and carrying, and menial tasks – and would gain specific knowledge and skills as they worked.

In 1892, when Ellen was 18, her father died suddenly. He’d been conducting a service at the Primitive Methodist Church in Kington St Michael, and had walked home with Ellen’s next youngest sister Elizabeth. As they went past the Police Station in New Road Julius collapsed and died, aged 42. An inquest said he’d had a weak heart all his life. Ellen’s mother Julia was left a widow with several very young children, and the eldest children had to support the family.

One of the girls went to work as a domestic servant in Bristol, and one of the boys as a railway porter in London, but the rest of the siblings stayed local. Ellen and three of her sisters went to work in the cloth mill. Two of them became weavers, having almost certainly learnt the trade from their father, while Ellen became a harness mender.

A harness mender did not relate to horses used at the mill, and instead referred to the mechanisms that drove the weaving looms. These were called harnesses, and Ellen’s job would have been to maintain them. This was specialist work, and appears to have usually fallen to men, so Ellen’s technical skill set appears to have been unusual. Other women at the mill worked as weavers, wool carders, spinners, spoolers, cutters, wharpers, beaters, machinists and general hands.

power loom factory

The Waterford Cloth Mill, also known as Pocock and Rawlings, took on workers from around the age of 14. When a young man married he could expect to keep his job, as he needed this to support his family. However, young women were expected to give up their jobs at the mill when they married, as they then had the responsibilities of a household and family. Some did keep their jobs – in 1911 there were eight married women at the mill, as opposed to 60 unmarried women and two widows – but this was driven by economic circumstance rather than propriety.

Significantly, Ellen and several of her sisters did not marry, so kept their jobs and lived with their mother. This may have been driven by the need to keep their family household going in the face of the loss of income that their father’s early death caused, but also may be down to lack of opportunity or a wish to keep their jobs.

By 1911, Ellen was in her thirties and had been the harness mender for over ten years, while her sisters Louisa and Emily were weavers. Another sister, Florence, had died in 1909, and had worked at the mill as a cutter.

20200326_105807

1915 saw a devastating fire which destroyed the Waterford Mill almost entirely. The five-storey main building, along with the rest of the outbuildings complex, was damaged beyond repair. This sounded the death knell for the textile industry in Chippenham, despite it continuing healthily in nearby towns like Trowbridge, as the factory was not rebuilt. Pocock and Rawlings did continue in some capacity until around 1930, but most of the workers lost their jobs. It’s unknown where Ellen worked after this, as employment records were sketchy and not in the public domain, but it’s possible that she continued with Pocock and Rawlings due to her skills. Other option would have been to go to Saxby and Farmer, and join the local women working in munitions there during the First World War. She may also have taken the same choice as her sister Emily, and returned to work at the Condensed Milk Factory.

Ellen’s mother Julia died in 1929, and whatever work Ellen was doing at this point she gave up to become the householder at Parliament Street. Her sister Emily lived with her, as did her sister Louisa on occasion.

Ellen died in 1948, aged 74. The house was then passed on to her sisters.

Evelyn D’Alroy’s story

Actors from the early 20th century are perhaps best remembered today if footage exists of them, as the popular Edwardian theatre was a fast moving world, and many young women would give up their stage career when they married – either through necessity of staying home with children or propriety within society. However, the silent film era, although exciting and great for career exposure, didn’t suit every actor at that time. Early films could be jerky, and stage actors who traded on delicacy of emotion would not be best suited to that medium, and similarly a singing voice and deft use of words and tones would not transfer well to the screen. Evelyn was one such actor, and she did not live long enough for the development of the talkies to bring her style to the screen.

As Evelyn D’Alroy she was much renowned, a beautiful touring actress who was written about in all the newspapers and even had a musical dog that she performed with. However, the exotic last name was a stage name, and she’d been born plain Evelyn Tegg – but kept her stage name even when she married.

Evelyn D'alroy 1910 2

Evelyn in 1910, from the National Portrait Gallery collection

Her father, William, was a veterinary surgeon – which probably accounts for Evelyn’s love of dogs – and lived in Hackney. Evelyn was the second child of three, with an older sister and a younger brother, and was born at the beginning of the 1880s in London. Vets would have earned relatively well at the time, as they would have been particularly important in keeping horses – the main mode of transport – fit and healthy. Her mother also came from a solid middle-class background, as the daughter of a military prison warden. Evelyn and her siblings grew up in Tottenham, London, and then Stamford Hill, and would have benefited from enforced elementary education.

However, she lost her father at the age of 12, and he only left the family a little to live on. Her mother took in boarders to make ends meet, and also taught singing – earning enough to keep a domestic servant – and probably influenced Evelyn’s acting and musical career.

She clearly was a violinist of some talent, appearing in various concerts alongside other musicians in the last couple of years of the 19th century under her birth name. Evelyn D’Alroy appears to have come into being in the summer of 1899 as she took a part in a touring production of The Streets of London – an anglicised version of Dion Boucicault’s The Poor of New York, exploring the fortunes of a family facing the 1857 financial crisis. Although her debut was widely held to be in 1902, she was performing in this touring play and others throughout the end of 1899 and into the first couple of years of the 20th century.

Evelyn d'alroy again

The official acting debut that is cited as hers was in “the provinces” (aka not London) in a farcical comedy called Why Smith Left Home in 1902, at around the age of 20. This play, by George Broadhurst, featured comic adventures of a man and his new bride – presumably Evelyn’s role. On her performance here, she was snapped up by theatre agent William Greet, and toured the country in various productions under his management. In the background, her older sister had married a fish salesman and started having children herself, while her younger brother had begun working. Her mother had also remarried, to the head of a wheel and machinery company, and set up home with her new husband in Twickenham – to where Evelyn returned when she was not touring. One of the theatres she is known to have played under this management was Southampton’s Grand Theatre, where she appeared in historical tragedy The Sign of The Cross from 1903 to 1904, although she had been in the play in the years before that. Newspapers of the time indicate that this production went to Durham, and Bristol’s Princes Theatre, Southport, Luton, Burnley and various other places. The newspapers were full of praise for her skills, if less so for the plays she was performing in. One wrote:

Miss Evelyn D’Alroy is a charming actress, and her gifts were really wasted in such a piece.

She also appears to have been managed by Ben Greet, brother of William, during this time too, which meant that she was consistently working.

Evelyn D'alroy 1913 2

Evelyn in 1913, from the National Portrait Gallery collection

Her London debut was reputedly as the Duchesse de Longueville in a period piece, The Bond of Ninon, at the Savoy Theatre in April of 1906. This play, written by Irish playwright Clotilda Graves, explored the history of Ninon (Anne) de l’Enclos (1620-1705), who intrigued many distinguished French men in the 17th century. As a production it wasn’t well received by everyone, but Evelyn performed alongside celebrated actors of the day Henry Ainsley and Lena Ashwell, and well and truly launched a career of note.

Her first supposed proper recognition was the leading part in The Builders by Norah Keith at the Criterion Theatre in 1908, described by a paper of the time as a “women’s suffrage play”, although it seems to fall into the anti-suffrage thinking rather than the pro, which examines the relationship between Adrian White, K.C., one of the foremost legal forces of the day, and beautiful divorcee Mrs Cray – Evelyn’s role – whose undying gratitude Adrian has won by winning her divorce case for her and gaining her custody of her daughter. Together these two build an illicit relationship, which leads to the play’s title. A review said:

Miss D’Alroy… is an emotional actress of distinction and personal charm, whose opportunity has yet to come.

While appearing in this play she also had the role of the heroine, Lady Lulu Devas, in After the Opera at the Empire Theatre. This was originally a French work, which had been translated into an English setting.

The discrepancy in accounts of Evelyn’s career details may lie in who she married. In the spring of 1908, about six months before The Builders hit the stage, Evelyn married theatre critic and journalist (Thomas) Malcolm Watson, a Scot who was about 25 years her senior. They appear to have met during 1905, when she appeared in his play Two Men and A Maid as the character Molly Price, which was playing at the Opera House in Northampton. She made a hit in this role.

Malcolm, as a regular critic, was in a good position to edit his wife’s rise to fame in official sources, and probably did so. They had no children together, but did have several pet dogs. She also relaxed by going motoring and playing golf.

By the end of 1908 she had been taken into the Lewis Waller Players and regularly worked at London’s Lyric Theatre. Roles here included Iduna de Solatierra in Ronald MacDonald’s The Chief of Staff, Lucy Allerton in Somerset Maugham’s The Explorer, Sadie Adams in Conan Doyle’s The Fires of Fate, and Anne of Austria in a revival of The Three Musketeers. Her husband, an accomplished writer who dabbled in writing drama as well as criticism, wrote a playlette for her to perform – Sanctuary – in 1909, to be performed at Christmas in the Empire theatre alongside other variety acts.

Fires of fateEvelyn d'alroy fires of fate

In September 1909 she was taken on by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre, indicating that her star was very much in the ascendency. Parts here included Yaouma in the Ancient Egyptian-set Fake Gods (translated from Brieux’s La Foi), which ran for 69 performances, and Lady Benedetta Mount-michael in The O’Flynn – Justin Huntley McCarthy’s 17th century-set play based on Irish events around King James II and William of Orange.

She also played the muse character Bettina Brentano in a biopic called Beethoven, Sport in Ben Jonson’s Vision of Delight, and Shakespearian characters Ophelia, Portia and Oberon. Hamlet’s Ophelia was reputedly her favourite role to play. Later she went to the St James Theatre under Sir George Alexander, with roles including the Chinese Princess in Turandot in January 1913 (this was Max Reinhardt’s Berlin production, brought to London and translated from the Vollmoeller version of Gozzi’s original play of 1762 by Jethro Bithell, and not the later Puccini opera), and Pamela Townshend in Louis Evan Shipman’s D’Arcy of the Guards.

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Evelyn as Turandot, in the 1913 production. From the National Portrait Gallery collection.

She played Mary Shrawardine in The Crucible (not the Arthur Miller version, but an earlier play by MPs Edward Hemmerd and Francis Neilson where a brother begs his sister to become a millionaire’s mistress) at the Comedy Theatre, and Brenda Carlyon in Raleigh and Hamilton’s The Hope at Drury Lane in September 1911.

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Evelyn as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Her early music training came into play in her later career too, drawing on her mother’s singing teaching that she must have benefited from during her teenage years, as she was known to have an excellent soprano voice. She appeared in Oscar Strauss’ operetta The Chocolate Soldier, playing Nadina Popoff – a role that required a great deal of singing – at the Lyric Theatre in 1910-11. The original was in German, itself a reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and The Man, but it was translated into English for a Broadway production in 1909. Evelyn also sang the leading role of Princess Yolande in Love and Laughter, another Strauss operetta, at the Lyric theatre in 1913. Her reported “bubbly personality” worked well in musical comedy, and these operettas reputedly gained her more fans.

In addition to acting in long-running productions, she appeared in some one-off shows, probably variety-act based. Music made an appearance in these too, as one newspaper reported:

Miss D’Alroy was a great dog lover. One of her pets, a cute little Airedale, was taught by his mistress to sit at the piano and make “music” with his paws. He was also accused of “singing” to his own accompaniment.

Dalroy and pet

During 1914 to 1915 she went back on the road with the Louis Waller Players, performing in touring productions around various different provincial theatres. Two of these productions were Dion Clayton Calthrop’s The Other Side of Love, and a play called Monsieur Beaucaire – set in 18th century Bath.

Many of Evelyn’s roles were in productions that were later put onto the silver screen, or reworked into other formats, for example The Chocolate Soldier was adapted as a silent film in 1915, but that technology was in its infancy when Evelyn was performing.

Sadly, she did not live into an era where her acting would have been appreciated in a cinema. In the April of 1915 her touring production with the Lewis Waller Players reached Sheffield, but she was taken ill suddenly with appendicitis. She was operated on at the hospital, and her appendix removed, and taken to a nursing home to recover. Her husband went to Sheffield to be with her, but she developed pleurisy and pneumonia and died three days later. She was just 33 years old. Two or three hundred people came to her funeral, including various theatre luminaries of the time.

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Evelyn in 1913, from the National Portrait Gallery collection

Ethel B’s story

It is relatively well known that English universities would admit women to study during the late 1800s, but would not award them their degrees or admit them to the university. Newham College in Cambridge is a good example. Founded in 1871 as the second women’s college at the University of Cambridge, and amalgamated into the university in 1880, women could sit university examinations from 1881 and their results were recorded in lists separate from the men. Various attempts were made to persuade authorities to give women their full degrees and privileges rather than just a certificate, one in 1887, another in 1897, and a further attempt during the first world war. Oxford – which had similar rules, capitulated in 1920 but it took until 1948 for the change to happen at Cambridge.

In contrast, the situation in Ireland was different. The Royal University of Ireland Act 1879 allowed women to take university degrees on the same basis as men. However, Trinity College Dublin – also known as Dublin University – which was seen as a sister institution to Oxford and Cambridge in the pre-split British Isles, was still a sticking point. They might have been comparatively late in admitting women to study in that it took until 1904, but unlike the English schools women were allowed their degrees from the get go. So much so that women who had gained their degrees at Oxford and Cambridge but had been denied their award on the basis of their gender could travel to Trinity to be awarded it. These women were known as the steamboat ladies, and the arrangement continued until 1907.

It was against that background that Ethel studied at Trinity College, entering around 1908 at the age of 18, one of the first groups of women to do so – but had had involvement with the college earlier via her later schooling – which took place at Alexandra School and College, a Protestant foundation intent on furthering women’s education that offered an equivalent education to that afforded to boys at the time, with a grounding in maths, philosophy, history and the classics. Lecturers at Trinity College would also provide tutoring for girls at Alexandra, and the two schools enjoyed close links.

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She’d been born in Ballycastle, in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, the daughter of a Church of Ireland Reverend who had also studied at Trinity College. She was the fourth of six children – four girls, two boys – and led an extremely musical upbringing. Her father was a renowned authority on church music, one of her sisters studied at the Royal College of Organists, and another was a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music who specialised in putting contemporary lyrics to old Irish airs. The girls of the family were educated by governesses at home in Ballycastle for the most part, but Ethel went off to Dublin to board at Alexandra College at about the age of 14.

In 1908 she moved to study at Dublin University, based at Trinity College, where – interspersed with some secondary school teaching (presumably to fund her studies) she achieved a BA (Hons) degree in French and English in 1912.

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In the years between women being admitted to universities to further their studies and the growth in women’s employment of various types during the First World War, teaching in schools was the best possible place for educated women to continue learning and flex their grey matter. The only trouble was that the marriage bar was in place for women teachers – so at the point when Ethel entered the profession if she found a relationship she would have to give up her learning and research. The idea that women went to university just to find a husband seems to have originated in this era, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case for Ethel.

As it was, she began working for her Master of Arts while simultaneously taking on a teaching position at the County School (later Fitzmaurice Grammar) in the picturesque Wiltshire town Bradford-on-Avon. She started work here in 1915, and was awarded her MA at Christmas in 1916, which is proudly remarked upon in their staff register. Most female teachers in this era did not hold degrees, let alone post-graduate ones. Some were even uncertified, and had learnt their skill on the job starting as a pupil teacher, whereas others had undergone some training at teacher training colleges. Ethel would therefore have been a rare and prized member of the school’s female staff.

This school had been going for nearly 20 years at this point, under a male headteacher. Many of the teaching staff were female, however, as was fairly usual in schools of the time. This school was mixed gender, and selective based on ability, as during the pre-1944 grammar and elementary system many schools were. Here Ethel taught French and History, in conjunction with stalwart school deputy head Julia Blake. Both are given as languages and literature specialists in the town’s trade directory for 1915.

Fitz Aerial view

Both brothers fought in the war. The elder rose to a high rank, whereas the younger was badly injured in 1917 and became a senior classical music master at a school in Mauritius. Both musician sisters appear not to have married, since that choice would have meant giving up their playing by the rules of society of the day. Her mother died in 1919, just after the war ended, and her father followed her in 1921.

This appears to have instigated a change for Ethel. She left Bradford on Avon in the September of 1921 to become French mistress in the next town over at Trowbridge Girls High School. This was a single sex, fee paying school – not necessarily a step up for her, but a different position in a slightly bigger town. She appears to have been here until around 1926.

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In the mid-1920s she chose to follow her faith and became a missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) at their base in Cawnpore (now Kanpur), India. Now called United Society Partners in the Gospel, the organisation was a high church group based in the teachings of the Church of England – not too far away from the Church of Ireland organisation that Ethel was brought up within. Here she was given a head teacher position, as head of the SPG School of the Epiphany, working with elementary school-aged girls.

Although the position in India fulfilled her desire to bring the Bible and its teachings to a different part of the world, her school position here did not particularly suit her as she was teaching to a much younger age group and found this frustrating. While there she was offered the secretaryship of the local YMCA, various jobs at the Indian girl guiding headquarters, a position at one of the biggest women’s colleges in India, and even the position of headmistress at one of the most prominent girls’ schools in North India. She refused all these, remaining loyal to the SPG mission, but hoped that the society might help her find a better post within their ranks.

A keen member of the girl guiding organisation, she asked mission if they would lend her to be a guide trainer for three years with the United Provinces Educational Department while she remained at Kanpur, but this was not allowed and she stayed with the Epiphany School and committed to her role as missionary.

At some point between 1929 and 1932, however, she felt she had given enough in Kanpur, and returned to the UK. She lived for a time at a prominently designed youth hostel in London, and in September of 1932 was appointed headmistress of a private girls’ school in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

This school, which again was private and fee-paying, catered for older girls who had already gone through the elementary education system and was particularly renowned for the arts when Ethel took it over, which would have suited her perfectly. She ran the school with a full complement of female staff, and appears to have relished teaching older girls again. The outbreak of war in 1939 shows that she was also an air raid warden as part of her role in the school and the local community.

The school decided to move from Aldeburgh – which was on the coast and probably directly under the flight path of German aircraft from the continent – to a priory in Mountnessing, Essex, in 1940. This would have been a quieter location, with less disturbance from the war, and more rural for protection. It is unclear whether Ethel went with them, however, as records were scarcely kept during the conflict. In 1943 she did step down and took a degree of retirement.

She moved to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire for the last bit of the war, becoming housemistress for St Helen’s, one of the boarding houses of Cheltenham Ladies College – another prestigious seat of female education. It is unclear whether she took a teaching role at the college in the way that modern housemistresses do, but she had a full time role looking after the pupils assigned to her care and took on a role of district commissioner for the girl guides at the school for the benefit of the girls. As part of this she gave various prominent talks and organised events on the guides behalf. She also worked coaching the choir.

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Around 1953, she left Cheltenham and again headed to the coast – but this time to Devon. She lived in Colyton, on the county’s southern edge, in a church cottage, and spent seven years in retirement. She died there, leaving her money to a nephew – the son of her eldest brother – and Violet, Baroness Merthyr, another prominent girl guiding commissioner.

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 greater 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.

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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. The family furniture business continues today in Botswana.

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. This first marriage was kept under wraps from later family, and the identity of Irene’s father was unknown to her descendants.

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. Irene was placed in a boarding school in the UK, and rarely saw her mother.

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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

Lillian and Francis 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 on to be Director General of Civil Aviation in India for four years. A later article reports that they spent five months of their year in Delhi and the other seven in Shimla – a British Raj “playground” at the foot of the Himalayas where the climate was cooler. Their official residences were fashionable places in London. While she was in the country, she probably officially represented him at many aviation events, and on that basis became involved in women’s aviation.

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Francis returned to the UK in 1931 when he was made Director of Civil Aviation after the death of his boss in the R101 airship crash (he was supposed to be aboard, but Lillian had apparently had a premonition that there would be an accident and refused to let him go), 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. She was chairman of the Aviation Group of the Forum Club, and would entertain aviators who came to England from elsewhere.

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

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Lillian, seated, third from right, at Atlantic Park Southampton in 1932
An award given to Lillian in 1936

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 of a stroke at a hotel 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.