Former dairy worker Ada became the victim of an age-old idea that a husband could control his wife’s finances, when her bankrupt husband ran her name into the mud too.
The daughter of a butcher and farmer, she was born in the late 1880s and grew up on the farm on the east outskirts of Bristol. She was the sixth of eight children, and she and all of her siblings had their own jobs working on aspects of the farm.
The farm appears to have specialised in cattle products, both beef and dairy produce, and was of a reasonable size.
In 1911, at the age of 20, she was working in the farm dairy alongside her younger sister Elsie, producing milk and probably butter and cheese too. Yoghurt would not have been on their produce list, however, as it was not introduced into the UK until the 1960s.
Milking cows in the first decade of the 20th century was unlikely to have be mechanised, at least not to any great extent. Milking machines had been invented in the 1860s and 1870s, but were often flawed in design which caused pain and damage to the cows’ udders, and many producers would have stuck with more traditional methods until the surge milker was invented in the early 1920s. Similarly, the pasteurisation process had been invented in the 1860s, but was not mandatory or commonplace in a dairy at that time – most people, if they were aware of milk-borne diseases, would boil the fresh milk at home rather than relying on the dairy to do it.
The reality for Ada and Elsie would therefore probably have been milking the cows by hand from a stool, a tiresome and hard job, and then placing the milk they collected into churns for sale. At this time, fresh milk was often delivered on carts around the district, and households would buy what they needed directly from the seller.
It’s likely that Ada and Elsie would also have made butter to sell alongside the milk – churning it in a barrel churn, over and over. This would have been made into pats, and sold wrapped in greaseproof paper. Again, with the lack of cooling facilities available in houses, households would only purchase the amount they would need for that day and buy more the following day from the cart when it next did its rounds. It may have been that Ada and Elsie made the rounds with the cart, but this job could also have fallen to other siblings.
Cheese, which kept slightly better in a larder, may also have been made in the farm dairy. This would have involved heating the milk, and adding a form of acid to separate the curds and whey, then straining and curing.
In the autumn of 1914, right at the beginning of the first world war, Ada married Tom. He was also from a farming family, which had initially been based at Jacksoms Lane on the edge of Chippenham, and then had moved to the Wiltshire village of Christian Malford.
Tom’s family were cattle dealers, which probably explains how Ada met him. Ada was 25, whereas he was five years younger – but on all official documents thereafter she pretended she was three years younger than she was. This would have meant a touch more respectability in terms of the match, as society approved of wives being younger than their husbands.
Ada and Tom had no children together.
Tom was of prime age, since he was in his early 20s, to fight in the First World War. He does not appear to have gone, however. Farming was a reserved occupation during that conflict, so he was not drafted to go. Therefore, he stayed at home with Ada and ran his cattle dealing business.
Within a few months of the marriage, Tom was in trouble with the law. He was accused of assault in March 1915, and had to attend court (he didn’t bother, and sent a solicitor instead), after an altercation with a clerk at Chippenham railway station where he had become extremely cross, threatened and swore at him and thrown a pen at him which scratched his face. He was fined, and imprisoned for a month.
This display of temper was not an isolated incident, as he was fined by the Gloucester and West Gloucestershire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (a precursor to the RSPCA) for viciously striking a heifer in his care in May 1917. For this he received a fine of £1 (a considerable amount of money in 1917), or imprisonment for seven days.
Somewhere along the line – whether his temper extended to his treatment of Ada, or as a result of the societal embarrassment at her husband being charged and imprisoned – Ada stopped living with him.
She moved in with one of her sisters in Shirehampton. Two of them lived there, so it was either with Rosa – who had lost her husband in the war and needed help with her two tiny children – or with Birdie that Ada made her home.
In 1917, whether she was living with him or not at the time, Tom’s cattle dealing business was declared bankrupt. He then proceeded to continue buying and selling cows, but running the business through Ada’s name. She later claimed that she knew nothing about this as they were not living together at the time.
Tom, using Ada’s name, moved into a large three storey house in Chippenham, which was close to the Three Crowns pub and on the direct market route for many people bringing their animals into town. Early electoral registers do not show Ada living there with him.
He eventually bankrupted Ada too. The case came to court in November of 1921, where Ada was said to owe over £2,300 but only had assets of £16 5s. Neither Ada nor Tom attended the court – both were said to be unwell – but Tom was said to have been in the pink of health at the previous market day.
When the case came back to court a month or so later, Ada said that she had opened a bank account in 1917 with the help of her sister, and she had allowed Tom access to continue trading – but he had bled it completely dry and she was not aware that the account was short to the extent that it now was. The court also questioned her about her household expenses, perhaps implying that she would spend money on fripperies. However, she said that Tom paid them all, they were not extravagant, and that she often wore an outfit for three or four years – which was fairly thrifty living.
There is then nothing about Tom or Ada in the newspapers until the 1930s, in respect to missed bill payments in May 1935. There is no sign of them having their bankruptcy revoked. However, in trade directories of the town they appear to have still been operating as cattle dealers so would have found some way to keep the business afloat.
After these court cases, Ada returned to live with Tom at the big house in Chippenham. Whether they had resolved their dispute or the court case against her meant that they were both as disreputable as each other, there seems to have been some sort of reconciliation.
Her parents both died in the 1920s, and significantly Ada was not named as executor on either of their wills, with finance being left to her other siblings.
She then lost three of her siblings in the 1930s.
By 1935, she and Tom decided to leave Chippenham and moved to Keynsham, which was relatively close to where she’d grown up. 1939 sees Tom still operating as a cattle salesman, albeit from a property that did not have land attached. Ada is tersely credited with unpaid domestic duties on that document, and they have a boarder living with them, a mechanic from a local garage.
One of Ada’s brothers, who had operated her family’s farm after her father’s death, died in 1938 but Tom and Ada did not go into partnership on that property. It’s possible that the bankruptcy had soured some family relationships.
Tom died in Keynsham in 1954, and was buried locally. Ada survived him by more than 20 years, and was buried alongside her parents and siblings at her family’s local church.
In terms of Wiltshire and women’s suffrage, the awesome figure of Edith New – Swindon-born but London-based – overshadows much of the grassroots activism in the early 20th century. The town of Corsham is known to have been very supportive of the Great Pilgrimage that came through the county in June 1913, but there are no local names of women that stand out as activists and speakers, and though the pilgrimage also came through Chippenham the populace here are thought to have been largely indifferent and instead responded better to the antis coming through around the same time. Trowbridge had a branch of the WSPU, with Bessie Gramlick as joint secretary alongside Lillian Dove-Willcox (who famously evaded the 1911 census by camping out in a caravan on Salisbury Plain), but not a great deal about their activities has been recorded. In contrast, the Devizes branch of the WSPU, with secretary Katherine Abraham, appear to have been much more active.
Katherine was a grocer’s daughter, born at Upavon on the edge of Salisbury Plain at the beginning of 1888. She was the younger of two children – her brother Edward was two years her senior – and her parents had married quite late on for the time, which perhaps explains her lack of other siblings. Her father had run a grocer’s shop on Estcourt Street in Devizes, but by the time Katherine and Edward were around he’d taken retirement. The family lived in Upavon for a while, but by the turn of the 20th century they were back at Estcourt Street where the shop was no longer a going concern for the family – it appears to have been next door, in a premises now occupied by Roses’ Hardware – but their smart town house was of a good size and they were financially solvent enough to be able to employ a servant.
Katherine’s level of education is unknown. She definitely would have attended elementary school – probably at the National School for Girls – and she may have gone further, likely to the Devizes College and High School, as the town’s private grammar school was only for boys.
Her father died in 1902, when she was around 14. The family continued living in the Estcourt Street house, and her brother began to train as a doctor. Katherine was well positioned – unmarried, comfortably off, and probably educated to a good standard – to become involved in the movement for women’s suffrage. She became the secretary for the Devizes branch of the WSPU on its establishment in 1911, but had probably been involved in the work of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which had been active in Devizes since around 1909.
One of the first acts of the Devizes WSPU was to attempt to boycott the 1911 census, in line with other branches nationally. Katherine’s mother wrote her name on their family census form, but this was crossed out later as she did not spend the night of 2nd April 1911 at their house. Instead, Katherine and three other WSPU members – Flora Sainsbury, a domestic science teacher; Evangeline Cross, head teacher of the girls’ national school; Kate Allen, head teacher of the national infants’ school – hid at an empty house in Victoria Street, Devizes, to evade the census. The enumerators found out, and on 20th April their details were recorded (with various errors – Evangeline was recorded as Eveline) alongside those of Emily Hale, an art teacher who was also away from her lodgings that night to evade the census. Another known WSPU member, teacher Norah Ussher, may also have been with them on census night, but her father recorded her presence at the family home in Potterne Road regardless. There may well have been others in the Devizes WSPU, who either successfully evaded the census or were recorded by their families even though they were not present.
Katherine, with Norah and Flora, attended the Women’s Coronation Procession through London on 11th June 1911. This was a mass suffragette march, held just before the coronation of King George V, aimed to demand women’s suffrage in the new era. Katherine, Norah and Flora – dressed in suffrage colours white, mauve and green – carried the Moonraker banner on behalf of the Devizes WSPU and joined 40,000 others on the route from Westminster to the Albert Hall. Many women dressed as well-known female historical figures, and there were representatives from various different groups and societies in the movement.
It’s likely that Katherine stayed involved in the WSPU until their cessation of activities at the outbreak of the First World War. Her friend and colleague Norah had a boyfriend who was killed during the war. Katherine married her young man, Jessie – a coal miner from South Wales who had somehow found his way to Devizes – in the autumn of 1915. Their son Thomas was born in the October of 1916. At some point that can’t quite be pinpointed, Jessie went into the army to fight, and was sent to India. He died out there at Poona, in September 1918, having contracted influenza that mutated into pneumonia, and was probably a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic. This left Katherine as a widow with a son aged not quite two. She was probably supported by her WSPU friends, none of whom had married, and they encouraged her to take her next steps.
In the spring of 1919, after the war was over, Katherine applied to the war office for funds for a period of training as part of her widow’s pension. She got this grant, and moved to the Golders Green area of London with Thomas to train as a Montessori teacher. This child-centred system of education had been popularised in the UK by its founder Maria Montessori a few years earlier, and allowed Katherine to train for a profession alongside caring for her son in the same setting.
After four months of training, Katherine was qualified and able to take up a position. She found one in Sheffield, at a Montessori school headed by Hilda Doncaster – a Quaker and wife of a steel manufacturer. Whether this was her first position or a later one is unclear, but she was definitely working there from the late 1920s onwards, and living close to the Sheffield Botanical Gardens.
The Montessori school where she worked was located on Psalter Lane (the building it occupied now houses the city’s Interfaith Centre), and in 1931 an advert for the school detailed that they could explain the educational methods at an open day. The same advert also promised a demonstration of Margaret Morris dancing, a method that encouraged grace and good posture, given by Mrs Doncaster’s daughter Margaret. Mrs Doncaster had four children, including Christopher who went on to be a celebrated theatre designer. Katherine’s own son Thomas, who came through the same Montessori system, trained as an architect and was practicing by the beginning of the Second World War. Architecture was one of the reserved professions, so he did not have to fight in that conflict.
Thomas, who lived at home with his mother even as a young adult, married during the war years and eventually gave his mother four grandchildren. Katherine appears to have moved back to the London area during the tail end of the war, living in Bermondsey. At this point she would have been in her mid-to-late 50s, and like many of her generation she had not married a second time. She probably continued to work as a Montessori teacher until taking retirement.
Katherine died in London, at the tail end of 1974. She was 87.
Dorothy, known to family as Dodo, was clearly not someone to be trifled with. She was once a suffragette, then a nurse in World War 1 Russia who was awarded a medal for bravery, founded one of the first anti-natal clinics in London in the early 1920s before more nursing in the Baltic states, and then was a formidable magistrate at home in Cambridgeshire. This eventful life, which pegged out when she was 95, was both lived to the full (her family remembers her being both formidable but also great fun as a person) and reflected the full scope of the 20th century.
Dodo came from a bright and slightly eccentric middle-class family, and was born in the mid-1880s, the third of five children. Her father was a doctor, serving in St Osyth, a village in north Essex at the time of her birth, but when she was two they moved with her new baby brother to Fulbourn just outside Cambridge. They named their house after the Essex village, and attached the new surgery and a village hall too. Her youngest brother joined the family around three years later. Though comfortably off, the family had no title and no influence, and were known for working with all sectors of society and being extraordinarily kind – her father Lucius often would not take payment for his work. Although initially he worked on horseback, Lucius was also one of the first doctors to make his rounds by motor car, at the turn of the 20th century. In the early years her family had several servants to help with the household, including a groom.
She was from an era where education was compulsory, so probably began her learning at the village elementary school. At around 11 she transferred to the independent Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, which is separate from The Perse School, which at the time only educated boys. Her brothers probably attended the boys’ school, while her older sister Marjorie would have gone to the same school as Dodo.
It’s there that the equality in education ended, however. Dodo’s brothers were allowed to attend the University of Cambridge – Lucius became a doctor like their father, Douglas a teacher, and Guy a civil engineer – but Dodo was not allowed to go. Women were not admitted to degrees at Cambridge until 1948, although there was a women’s college at this stage, and attending a university that did admit women does not appear to have been an option. Instead, Dodo undertook a diploma for dispensing medicines after finishing school, possibly based at Charing Cross Hospital in London, and then went on to work at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital in Brighton, where she continued training to be a nurse.
The disparity in how her brothers were allowed to continue their education and she was not was a factor in her decision to join in the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was angry. Family stories say that she chained herself to property, but not where and when. Since suffragette chainings were actually rarer than popularly thought, and it is known who was involved in most, it’s possible to pinpoint the likely action that Dodo took. Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves in the House of Commons Ladies Gallery, and Edith New and Olivia Smith chained themselves to the 10 Downing Street railings, both in 1908; and an unnamed group of women to the statues in St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster in April 1909. The St Stephen’s Hall action is therefore likely to be the protest that Dodo made, unless it was a smaller piece of action outside London. She reported being arrested, although newspaper accounts say that arrests didn’t happen at St Stephen’s Hall and they were merely escorted off the site by police, and the experience changed her mind. She reportedly thought that “I’d made a bloody fool of myself” and decided to get on with what she could do instead of concerning herself with what she couldn’t.
She was round about 22 at this time, which was prime marriage age in this era. Whether she did not have the opportunity, or was not inclined to marry (she’d have had to give up work, under the conventions of the day), she did not take this path and instead went on to work in St George’s Hospital, at Hyde Park Corner. Family remember this nurse training brought her directly into contact with the poverty, deprivation and hardship involved in multiple motherhood in certain areas of the city at that time. The 1911 census finds her as a 24-year-old sick nurse at St George’s Hospital, in the company of around 40 others, living at a nurses’ home in Knightsbridge.
Dodo remained at St George’s until 1913, and then took a position at a women’s hospital in Brighton (there were two at the time – Brighton and Hove Hospital for Women and Children, and Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children – and which she was based at was unclear), to train as a midwife, where she remained until the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.
Amid the patriotic fervour and recruitment drive, Dodo joined up with the British Red Cross to help nurse the inevitable casualties. She was sent with a unit to Boulogne on the north coast of France, embarking at the end of October in 1914. She was stationed at the 13th Stationary Hospital, which was on Boulogne docks, and began work at the beginning of November. This hospital became the main specialist unit for the treatment of eye, face and jaw injuries for the soldiers on the nearby Western Front, but this specialism may not have been Dodo’s as she only remained there for three months.
In January 1915 Dodo’s unit moved to the refugee hospital at Malassises, part of a monastery (the monks still had the other bit) at St Omer, a bit in from the coast heading towards the Belgian border. This was set up for the use of Belgian refugees who had been in the way of troops heading towards the front, who were suffering from enteric complaints (noroviruses, stomach bugs, and so on), and was partly under canvas. In late April 1915 she returned to the UK.
The initial party set out from the British coast at the end of October in 1915, carrying supplies and nurses. They took the long way round due to the war. They sailed through UK waters as far as possible, as it was safer to avoid German boats, and went up the west coast of Norway, around the top of Sweden and into the White Sea, arriving at the port of Arkhangelsk on the 6th of November. Dodo remembered the journey as extremely cold, with many women huddling together in one bed to keep warm, and dangers from the sound of the cracking ice on the sails of the boat possibly alerting the Germans to their presence.
They left Arkhangelsk on the train a couple of days later, traveling via the striking city of Yaroslavl, and arrived in Petrograd on the 14th of November. The Dimitri Palace had been offered by the Russians to be the base hospital, a grand building which had been empty since 1909. Dodo and her colleagues worked alongside Lady Muriel and Lady Sybil to convert the building for their use, setting up 200 beds for wounded soldiers and associated other facilities – including a bacteriological laboratory and x-ray department. It was referred to as “The (British) Empire’s Gift to Our Russian Allies”, and nurses like Dodo were paid £4-5 per week and provided with uniform.
The Tsaritsa was a major funder of the project, alongside donations from fundraising in the UK, and regularly visited the hospital with her daughters. Sometimes they even volunteered as nurses. Dodo apparently talked to them on many occasions, and got along well with them. The Buchanan’s daughter Meriel was also involved in nursing at the hospital, which was based at her residence.
While Ladies Paget and Grey also set up hospitals in other Russian places – mostly in Ukraine – and raised more donations in the UK, Dodo remained in Petrograd. Georgina Buchanan, the ambassador’s wife, took charge of the hospital while Paget and Grey were absent. More than 6,000 patients were treated by October 1916, and it was policy to not release soldiers until their wounds were completely healed. Often the men were no more than boys, and had suffered horrific injuries that made them cry out for their mothers. Dodo found this extremely distressing.
She was reportedly involved in helping to treat Prince Felix Yusupov when he had a fish bone lodged in his throat, a few hours after he had helped assassinate Grigori Rasputin in December 1916. Yusupov was placed under house arrest in the Dmitri Palace, where the Anglo-Russian hospital (and the British Embassy) were located, which probably accounts for his treatment in their facilities. She was reportedly very kind to him.
Dodo was awarded the Russian Medal of St George, 4th Class, at some point in 1917 (it was reported in the British Red Cross Journal that July). This was usually given for bravery, or service under fire many who fought at the Battle of Jutland received one. It was less usually given to women – recipients were usually nurses who had been in battle areas – and seems to have been awarded more for bravery rather than service under fire. Nurse Violetta Thurstan received one in 1915, as did Evelina Haverfield. Another nurse associated with the Paget hospital in Izmail, Ukraine, Evelyn Evans, seems to have received a medal around the same time as Dodo. In addition, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrona – Tsar Nicholas II’s younger sister – nursed and was awarded one, as was Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, so it may be that Dodo’s award was part of the work that they were doing.
The medal came from the Imperial government, and was supposed to presented by the Tsar but in reality probably came from Tsaritsa Alexandra, and to have received it in 1917 must have been one of the last acts of that regime. The Russian Revolution began properly in Petrograd in March 1917, with demonstrators on the streets and a workers’ strike, and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15th March (in the Gregorian calendar). The royal family were put under house arrest at the Alexander Palace, and a temporary government installed, which effectively ended the family’s involvement at the Anglo-Russian Hospital. Petrograd was effectively a tinder box from that point onwards, and the situation for Dodo and the other nurses was increasingly unstable, with bloody protests in July and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party leading a second revolution on 7th November that effectively ended the allied war agreement between Russia, Britain and France. This made the existence of the Anglo-Russian hospital precarious, and the Dmitri Palace received some damage in the fighting.
Dodo appears to have left Russia around August 1917, in the wake of these events, probably shortly after the July unrest and receiving her medal. The rest of the remaining nurses were evacuated from Petrograd and returned to the UK in February 1918. The Russian Red Cross then took over the hospital, where they had been left supplies for a further six months. Once she had been repatriated, Dodo went back out to France to the Western Front, where she continued nursing work. It was while she was there in February 1918 that she was awarded the 1914 Bronze Star from the Red Cross Society.
Back in the UK, she saw out the end of the war at the Military Convalescent Hospital in Epsom, working as a night matron. She would have been involved in the rehabilitation of soldiers, both physically and mentally. The hospital also had the first physiotherapists employed by the British army, who at that point were known as masseuses, the Almeric Pagets Massage Corps. It was probably here that Dodo met a close friend who she’d spend much of her life with, also called Dorothy, who worked as a physiotherapist/masseuse.
After the war, Dodo moved to London and worked as Matron at the Duchess of Marlborough’s Maternity Hospital from 1919. Here, fired by her experiences around Tooting, she set up one of the first infant welfare and ante-natal clinics in London. The hospital was also known as the Royal Free Hospital Maternity Home, and probably would have had the involvement of doctor Dame Janet Campbell, who was at the Royal Free and a pioneer in improving mother and baby services. Concern over maternal health and child welfare had been growing since the Edwardian period, with a drive to create a national vitality and a more robust society than had existed in Victorian times. This included increasing vaccinations, the beginnings of the welfare state, better housing stock, and various other programmes and ideas. At this time, though the child mortality rate was starting to drop, mothers were generally left to get on with pregnancy and birth. The stresses of multiple pregnancy on the body, combined with severe deprivation, were starting to be understood, and Dodo and her colleagues at the Duchess of Marlborough were striving to improve matters.
Dodo’s experience here, and her connection to Lady Paget, led her to leave London in 1921/2 and head to the Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – with a mission to provide better care for women and children there. The region had been unsettled since the Russian Revolution, but Estonia had joined the League of Nations in 1921, having had a war of independence in 1918 (Latvia began its own war of independence at around the same time, and Lithuania’s own declaration of independence had occurred slightly earlier), and this was an era of shifting borders in Eastern Europe. Lady Paget had returned to the region after the war was over, and had established mission hospitals and a series of travelling clinics. Dodo appears to have mostly been based in Estonia, where she was given the Medal of the Order of the Estonian Red Cross in 1922. The story goes that Lady Paget and two of the hospital doctors were awarded Estonian Orders of the Red Cross on 30th March 1922, and Lady Paget was given six other medals to distribute to those she felt deserved one. Dodo was one of the six.
Three mission hospitals in Estonia were taken over by the Estonian Red Cross in February of 1922, but Lady Paget’s group continued their work in Tallinn. It’s unknown how much longer Dodo spent in the Baltics though, as her mother was taken seriously ill and she returned home to Cambridgeshire to nurse her. She was still living at home when her mother died in 1923, and decided to remain at home to support her widowed father. He was still working, and during the war had run a local hospital for no renumeration, and had been given an OBE. Her older sister Marjorie was also living nearby, so between them they supported him, and Dodo took a job as Matron at Cambridge Hospital. Meanwhile, her brothers were also experiencing success – two of whom had fought in the war. Eldest brother and doctor Lucius was based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Dodo’s friend Dorothy also moved to the village over the next decade, and worked as a physiotherapist there – possibly alongside the family doctor’s surgery, and also possibly at hospitals in Cambridge.
Dodo now found her feet in village life and village affairs, continuing her family traditions and traits of kindness and fairness. She was taken on as the first female magistrate at Bottisham, a village to the north of Fulbourn, at some point during these years and was presiding over cases by the late 1930s, according to newspaper reports. She also served as a county councillor for twelve years, a position that coincided with the outbreak of World War II as she gives herself as in that position on the 1939 register, taken in the September of that year. She also managed to save her father’s life in 1926, when he had an accident with an oil lamp, and lost her older sister Marjorie to cancer in 1936.
As a magistrate and justice of the peace she made her mark. A report from October 1939 describes her intimating that an increased ration of petrol for local nurses was “bunkum and rot”, and that the nurses could save fuel by cycling wherever possible. Standing just five foot two, and with a deep and booming voice, she was known as being formidable and firm but fair with her judgements, often researching and giving the harshest punishments for misdemeanours.
Her father died in 1942, and was widely mourned by the village. Dodo, who had volunteered in local nursing during the war, had her friend Dorothy move into their house at some point after that, where she remained for the rest of their lives. Dodo’s sexuality was never remarked upon by family, but it was felt that her relationship with Dorothy – known as Double on account of her surname – was more than just friends. However, it could also have been one of companionship given many women of their generation had never married due to the loss of so many young men during the First World War. They came as a pair – known as Dodo and Double – for the rest of their lives, and owned an Alsatian dog together.
Dodo’s brother Lucius was also awarded the OBE after the Second World War, having doctored in the Caribbean, made great strides in bacteriological matters in Ceylon and researched diet and nutrition among prisoners of war in Singapore. Dodo continued to live in her father’s house, with surgery and a small village hall attached. She remained active in health matters – making a “spirited protest” about hospital staff housing being refused at Cambridge Mental Hospital in 1949. She also served on the board of governors for the local junior school for many years (often giving parties for the children in the hall), and was a member of the Chesterton Rural District Council and sat on the Fulbourn Parochial Church Council from 1951. Aside from her professional life, she was a great favourite of her young relatives, being lively and fun at family gatherings and taking delight in visiting her relations. She had a safe full of memorabilia, including jewels given to her by the Russian royal family, letters from various dignitaries and even a pair of pistols.
After a long life, Dodo died at the age of 94 in 1980, in Cambridgeshire. Her partner Double, who was eight years her junior, made it to 100 and died in 1995, also in Cambridgeshire.
Women have been unexpectedly discovering that they are pregnant since time immemorable. However, if that pregnancy is unwelcome or unwanted, how they have reacted over the millennia is related to religious, cultural, temporal and societal factors.
In the mid-19th century, if you were poor and unmarried, you had stark options if you found yourself in this situation. An illegitimate child was a massive stigma in society which could have detrimental implications for your life thereafter, and for that of your child. Abortion was illegal if you were caught and the abortifacients available at this time could be dangerous and didn’t always work, and there were huge religious implications for this option in a very God-fearing society. Another option was to have the baby and pass it off as someone else’s – perhaps your mother might claim it as your younger sibling – but if you were on your own far from home that wasn’t possible, and it’d be a rare family who could afford to take in another mouth to feed if the baby was offered for adoption. A final option, which some women took, was to conceal the pregnancy and to then either abandon or kill the baby when it arrived – which again were illegal, and had religious implications.
Elizabeth, a widow aged 31, faced this dilemma in 1870. She was living on her own with her two sons from her marriage in a down-at-heel area of Chippenham called Lowden, which was starting to be redeveloped as railway workers’ housing but at this time had portions that were semi-rural, poor and crowded. Her neighbours were labourers, hauliers, brickmakers, cloth factory workers, and she was working as a labourer and charwoman. This would have meant very low wages, and no particularly stable employment, and she really couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
Lowden in the 1880s
Despite the economics, she could have insisted that the baby was legitimate and had been fathered by her dead husband. The trouble was, she’d already done that 15 months earlier when she’d given birth to a little boy she had baptised as Alfred, who didn’t live long enough to have his birth registered. The fact that her husband had actually passed away in 1865 would have made this completely impossible, and the true father of the child was either not interested or unavailable to support Elizabeth, but attempting to pass off this little boy as legitimate could have created a veneer of respectability even if everyone would have known the truth. So, finding herself pregnant again in the winter of 1870 meant that claiming that the new baby was also fathered by her dead husband would not have been an option.
It’s unknown whether she tried any abortifacients, but if she did they didn’t work. Therefore, Elizabeth opted to conceal her pregnancy. This would have been easier than now, due to fuller skirts in women’s outfits, and stays would also have helped. She was therefore able to continue working and go about daily life as normal. Whether the concealment was intended, or part of denial and mental health issues brought on by grief having lost a baby and a husband, is open to question. Concealing a pregnancy was not illegal at the time, but concealing a birth was, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Therefore, she was on the road to committing an offence.
Technically, this wasn’t her first offence. She and her husband Eli had lied on their marriage certificate about their ages. They’d married in Corsham in 1860, and Elizabeth would have been 21 – which was old enough to marry without a parents’ permission under the law of the time. Eli, however, was 20 – which was under-age. He increased his age by a year, as did she. While this was an offence, this was a common occurrence, and was usually let slide. And it appears that they didn’t admit to being married at first. A year later, on the 1861 census, Eli – who was a railway porter – was living away from Elizabeth and lodging in the High Wycombe area. He did admit to being married. She, on the other hand, does not appear under her married name, and could well be visiting farming friends of her parents in Sussex posing as an unmarried woman.
She’d grown up in Sussex, just outside modern-day Crawley and close to where Gatwick Airport now sits, and was the daughter of rather a prosperous farmer. She was one of the middle children of a family of at least 13, and at the time her father died in 1851 – when she was just 13 – she was living away from home and working as a servant on another farm. Her mother appears to have not kept the farm, and took up working as a monthly nurse to make ends meet. Elizabeth and her siblings seem to have scattered on the wind.
Exactly where Elizabeth met Eli is unknown. He was a porter for the Great Western Railway though, like his older brother Andrew before him, so it may well have been at a station. At the time of their marriage he was based at Paddington Station, and she was possibly a servant at Hartham House on the outskirts of Corsham. If, as suspected, they hid their marriage for a while, it appears they reunited at some point in 1862. Their first son, Herbert, was born in High Wycombe in the early part of 1863. The new family then moved to Oxfordshire, as next son Charles was born in Thame in the spring of 1864.
They returned to Eli’s home – he’d been brought up in Yatton Keynell, just outside Chippenham – to have Charles christened. Here they stayed, as Eli died the following year aged just 25. His parents, who were agricultural labourers, were in no position to support Elizabeth and her sons. So she moved to a cottage on Lowden in Chippenham and took work where she could find it, which all led up to the concealment of her pregnancy in 1870.
It appears that on 6th September Elizabeth took to her bed and refused to see anyone except her two sons. This behaviour must have been out of the ordinary, as her neighbours were suspicious, and one decided to write to the local surgeon/doctor Mr Spencer outlining what they thought. Dr Spencer went to Elizabeth’s home, found her in bed with her clothes on, and accused her of concealing a birth. She denied it, and refused to let him examine her.
Undeterred, he took the letter to the police and the following day police superintendent Mr Wiltshire visited Elizabeth. Confronted with the officials, and obviously realising that the game was up, she admitted that she’d given birth but the baby hadn’t survived, and she’d concealed it all. The baby, a little girl (initial reports wrongly identified the child as male), was found wrapped in calico in a box at the foot of the bed. She had presumably been too ill since the birth to bury her daughter, or at least decide what to do next.
Elizabeth was taken into custody. Dr Spencer examined the dead child, and reached a verdict that the child had been suffocated by the umbilical cord around her neck during the birth, the result of having no-one to assist with labour. Therefore, Elizabeth was not charged with infanticide and her offence was the lesser one of concealing a birth. She was due to be charged when she recovered enough to face a court hearing. The register of births, marriages and deaths records the death of an unnamed female bearing Elizabeth’s married surname in Chippenham at this time. Whether concealment followed by abandonment, or something worse, was what Elizabeth intended for the child, it’s a situation she would not have gone into lightly, and is desperately sad that the community around her would not have supported her properly following the birth of another child.
She was held at Devizes prison until the case came to trial. She would have been held in a cell specially built for the use of women, dating from around 1841. Her sons went to live with her mother-in-law Sarah, who was widowed and working at Doncombe Paper Mill in Ford.
Devizes Prison, before it was demolished, taken from the air in 1924
The trial, in late March 1871, saw Elizabeth plead guilty and say that she was very sorry that she had done it. Under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 she could have faced up to 2 years in prison, but as the judge had found “that there was no evidence of the destruction of the child”, and had already served 6 months in prison, she was given another three months with hard labour. At Devizes Prison, which was the only prison in Wiltshire and was situated by the Kennet and Avon Canal, a prison term with hard labour would have included baking, cooking, cleaning and walking a treadmill to grind corn. Elizabeth completed her sentence in the summer of 1871, and would have reunited with her sons.
Rather surprisingly, the next record to feature her is another marriage. She married Thomas, a widower 35 years her senior, around 9 months after leaving prison. Thomas’s daughter Eliza had married Eli’s brother Job in the winter of 1870, so Elizabeth would probably have known him before her prison term. He was widowed while she was concealing her pregnancy.
This was probably quite a canny move on Elizabeth’s part. Thomas had a stable job as a small scale farmer, and a clutch of children from his first marriage that were either grown up or close to becoming independent. And at around 70 he would not be expected to live much longer. Her sons would have lived with them, on his farm in Cricklade – a town in the very north of Wiltshire close to the border with Oxfordshire. Elizabeth gave birth a final time, to a daughter called Ellen, in 1873.
However, Thomas did have longevity. The 1881 census finds him as a farmer of 15 acres, employing one boy – probably his stepson Charles, who was living with them. Elizabeth, given her family background in farming, is given as a farmer’s wife and undoubtedly had her own jobs on the land – but typically the enumerator has crossed out her occupation as she wasn’t supposed to admit to it.
Thomas died in 1883, aged around 80. Exactly what happened to Elizabeth after that is unknown for a few years. She appears not to have continued at the farm, as it went to Thomas’s son Henry from his previous marriage. Her eldest son Herbert got married in the London area to a woman named Caroline in 1883. He would have been around 21. However, he and Caroline were witnesses to younger son Charles’s very definitely underage wedding the same year – he married Emma, a woman from Minety, and claimed to be 22 but was actually around 19.
In 1887, her son Charles was convicted of arson, having tried to burn down a house he owned in Brinkworth, to defraud a fire insurance company. He received 6 years of penal servitude. He was imprisoned in Devizes initially, and then was moved to Portland in Dorset. Exactly what happened to his wife is unclear. Elizabeth and her daughter Ellen are not visible on the 1891 census – Herbert was working as an oilman and building his family in Ealing while Charles was in prison. There is also no sign of them on prison records, nor in an asylum.
Charles, after his release from prison, went straight and set up a greengrocers’ shop next door to Herbert in Ealing. He also married again, this time to Gertrude. Exactly what had happened to previous wife Emma is unknown. Reports of the arson mention that they had two children. There’s no obvious death record for her, and it may be that she shunned him after he was imprisoned.
Elizabeth’s son Charles in later life
Elizabeth eventually reappeared on the 1901 census, running a coffee house in Grays – an Essex town on the Thames Estuary – with the help of her daughter. At the time coffee houses were enjoying a boom due to the temperance movement, as they offered an alcohol-free meeting place, so Elizabeth was meeting a demand. Many women were involved in the temperance movement, and it was increasingly linked with women’s rights and universal suffrage. They also had a lodger – a coppersmith – living with them. This was particularly respectable, and in a complete contrast to her earlier rather more notorious life.
The coffeehouse didn’t seem to last though, as when Elizabeth died in 1908 she was resident in Ealing, close to her two sons – who both had large families of their own, and was buried locally. Her daughter Ellen went on to be an apartment keeper, and never married. Son Charles became a gardener, and died just before the second world war. Her son Herbert emigrated to Australia and died out there in the late 1940s.
Muriel (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.
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.
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 of 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.
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.
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.
She was known to be a fan of collecting clocks. A 1933 issue of the Liverpool Echo reported that she owned over 100, all in working order, which required an hour’s winding daily. Whether she did this winding herself, or asked a member of staff to do it for her, is open to question. She is also thought to have been a keen gardener – a type of begonia was named after her in 1907.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lena as Britannia in her family’s patriotic performance
Lena and daughters around 1920
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Evelyn as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
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.
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.
Evelyn in 1913, from the National Portrait Gallery collection