Following the stars and taking spiritual guidance from the universe around us has been part of human existence from time immemorable. But in the 1920s, with several generations having moved into the industrial cities, many people were starting to feel a disconnect from the natural world.
The time was ripe for the early beginnings of popular astrology, reading fortunes from the stars – which could still mostly be seen in city sky scapes. Of the back of this growing interest, the 1920s saw horoscopes included in daily newspapers for the first time. Those with less conventional religious views, and an interest in esoteric matters started to grow with the changed and slightly more open society created after the first world war, and one woman who was particularly active in those circles was Esmé.
“Esmé Swainson” was really a stage name, initially, and rather than any sort of mystical or occult background she came from quite traditional British roots. She was born Emilie Alice in the early 1880s at Headington in Oxfordshire. Her father was Charles, a warehouseman who sometimes called himself a merchant, and her mother was named Sarah. She was the eldest of three kids. Her family background was wealthy – their household in 1891 had three servants.
The family had moved to Lewisham in London by 1901, and Esmé said she was a student artist at the age of 19. This probably meant that she was studying various creative arts, which included music. There are also a couple of references to her performing in concerts, as Esmé Swainson, around this time. She is known to have been a singer, and to have played piano.
In the autumn of 1908, Esmé married Harold at West Bromwich, and went to live in Birmingham with him. He worked in advertising. Although she was now in “the provinces”, as theatreland outside London was known, she kept her music up, and worked as a music teacher. They originally lived in the Spark Hill area of the city. She advertised her services as a music teacher in a trade directory of Birmingham in 1908, and appeared on the 1911 census as a professional musician. She and Harold had no children.
Harold signed up for the Royal Air Force in 1917. At that stage he was working as a stage manager. He gave his next of kin as his wife Emilie, at a Birmingham address. However, he noted that they had separated on his sign up form.
Divorce at this time was still fairly difficult for a woman to achieve. She had to prove that her husband had been adulterous, and also that he had been cruel/violent or deserted her, or committed rape/incest/bigamy. In contrast, the husband only had to prove that his wife had committed adultery. Therefore, if Esmé and Harold’s marriage had broken down with no-one else involved, or as a result of his adultery, they had no grounds for a divorce, and Esmé would have remained tied to Harold financially, even though they were separated.
Given Howard was a stage manager, and Esmé a performer, it is likely that the circles they moved in were slightly more bohemian than general society at that time, and separation and divorce would have carried less stigma.
Round about this time, Esmé began a new relationship with William, an electrical engineer. He was a few years older than her, and due to him nearing 40 at the outbreak of World War 1 he probably didn’t serve in the forces.
William was also technically married, however, though it appears that he’d also separated from his wife. They’d married in Yorkshire, and had had two sons, but appear to have split by 1915.
They moved away from Birmingham at some point between 1917 and 1923, and set up house in a sizable villa just outside Bath, in Somerset.
If Esmé’s marriage breakdown was merely due to Howard’s adultery, or he had had a relationship with someone else since their split, 1923 was the first possible year that Esmé could have gained a divorce. The private members bill introduced in this year meant that women no longer had to include additional causes, which was brought into law as the Matrimonial Causes Act. The move to Somerset may be a direct consequence of this.
Esmé, by 1923, called herself Mrs Swainson on this document. Divorced women would still often call themselves by their married title at this time, but the fact that she is using her middle/stage name as an official name indicates that there has been some shift in her status.
In Somerset, Esmé appears to have stopped working as a music teacher, and gained an interest in writing and lecturing. Her subjects were usually more fringe religious matters, and astrology. She was quite involved in the Theosophical Society, and gave various different lectures, including one in 1925 in Melksham which looked at destiny and free will in the context of astrology and reincarnation.
Today, we see astrology as something quite separate from Christianity, as it would seem to be quite different from the belief system in the Christian church. However, Esmé’s beliefs seem to mention God and Christ as part of her practice. Certainly, at this time when most people in the UK were still nominally Christian, even though church-going was starting to change, the ideas offered by astrology and the occult carried more traction with the public if they were linked to wider accepted beliefs. So, even if Esmé was not nominally Christian, she linked much of her work to that belief system, at least in a general sense.
She also advertised her services in more esoteric publications of the age, like “The Occult Review”, from which this advert is taken in 1926.
At this time, the monthly publication offered various insight into esoteric matters and ideas present in psychology. A sample contents list for one of the 1926 editions included Magic of the Mantra, Some Evidential Clairvoyance, Sorcery in France and Africa, Reincarnation in English Poetry, and The Influence of Personality on Leadership. All are subjects that would not feature in mainstream newspapers, but are clearly of interest to the clientele that Esmé was appealing to with her work.
In around 1933, Esmé wrote and published a book on the basics of astrology. This was aimed at children, but also provided an introduction to the subject for a general readership. A review said that it “serves a two-fold purpose; it can be read merely as a fairy tale for children, yet its narrative contains many facts of occult life (on which the authoress is an expert) in its fairy tale guise, and is true in its Zodiacal symbolism”.
The 1939 register has Esmé still living at her villa. On this document, she says that she is divorced, and working as a market gardener, writer and lecturer. This would indicate that she drew some living from the agricultural land around the house, and this probably subsidised her other work. William is living with her too, but says that he is still married. This indicates that he has not legally separated himself from his former wife, who in fact was living nearby with one of their sons at the time.
She continued to lecture on various occult and esoteric subjects for the next few years, taking in venues around Bath and in Bath itself.
William died in the summer of 1956, and left a considerable amount to both Esmé and his son Joseph, who was working as an accountant. Esmé was referred to as a widow on the probate document – meaning that her former husband Howard had died. Being a widow was considerably more respectable than being a divorcee, and many divorced women would change their status to widow as soon as they could.
Three years after his death, at the very end of the 1950s Esmé left the UK for India. She sailed from Southampton, heading for Mumbai. She said that she was an author, and that she intended to live in India. This may just have been for travel, or for furthering her knowledge of eastern philosophy matters.
Whether that worked out or not, she returned to the UK at some point after 1960. Esmé died in the early summer of 1966 back in Somerset, aged 84.
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.
For much of the 20th century, school head teachers were supposed to be formidable and particularly scary, so a visit to them or even just an interaction should have put the fear of God into a pupil. However, Miss (Edith) Denne, who was the first head of Chippenham’s Girls High School in 1956, still has a reputation among women of the town for being particularly fierce and terrifying. The school buildings have now been incorporated into the town’s Hardenhuish School, but the girls’ school she founded fully came to an end in 1976.
Edith in 1950
Like any scary teacher though, Edith was in fact only human – although that fact often does not occur to pupils – and had a life before and outside the school she presided over. She gained a science degree at a time when women attending university was still very rare, and science was still considered mostly a boy’s subject. She even at one point joined a convent. And had taught at various other schools before appearing in Chippenham.
Edith Cassia was the first child of her father’s second family, born in 1906 in a village just outside Canterbury. She was followed four years later by her brother William. Her father had previously been married to a woman named Harriet, and Edith and William had older half-siblings – Esther, Amelia and Percy – who appeared not to live with them while growing up by virtue of being much older. Harriet had died in 1903, and Edith’s father (a bricklayer employed by Canterbury cathedral) married her mother Emma in 1905. Both were from Kent, born and bred.
Edith, who was perhaps known to her parents as Cassia, was educated at Simon Langton Girls Grammar School in Canterbury, being bright enough to pass the entrance requirements and rise to the top of the school. This school still exists, although the buildings Edith would have attended were destroyed in the Second World War. Her father died in 1917, when he was 60 and Edith was around 11, and as such would have been too old to fight in the First World War. Edith, once she had finished school then went on to the University of London, and gained a BSc in the sciences in the early 1920s. She took her mother with her.
Chippenham Girls High School appeared not to keep a record of their staff’s careers before joining the school – this was often more common to long-established grammar schools – so it is impossible to trace Edith’s full career before she arrived in Chippenham. However, a newspaper articles reporting her headship of a previous school have given some clues to where she taught and lived.
She began her teaching career in 1928 after completing her degree. Going in to teaching was often the choice of bright young women coming out of university at this time, as it enabled learning to continue and gave the chance to impart what you’d learned so far to young minds. A degree was not required to become a teacher, particularly for women, but it did mark out women as committed and ambitious. There was also a marriage bar for female teachers at this time, meaning that if Edith had married she would have not been able to keep her job. However, that does not have been a consideration for Edith. This bar was removed for the London school boards in 1935, but not for the rest of the country until 1944.
Whether it was her first teaching job or not, by the late 1930s Edith was on the staff of Dame Alice Owen’s School in Islington. She was living with her mother Emma in Hendon for much of that decade, so it’s possible that her first teaching jobs were closer to there. By 1939 she was established as very much a part of Dame Alice Owen’s as the biology mistress.
The original Dame Alice Owens Girls’ School, which Edith taught at
At the outset of the Second World War, the school moved as one to Kettering in Northamptonshire, taking all the teachers and evacuating the students. Edith initially lived in Kettering, in digs alongside the school secretary Rita. Her mother went to Harpenden in Hertfordshire instead, so they were separated, at least initially. About a year later the boys part of the school moved to Bedford, where it remained for the rest of the war, but the girls stayed in Kettering – alongside various other evacuated schools from London, including St Aloysius’ Covent School, two Catholic primary schools and Clark’s Secretarial College.
One of her pupils, Veronica Pinckard, remembered an incident involving Edith during these years.
“On our way to school one lovely, hot sunny day, my friends and I were enjoying an ice-cream cone when we spotted Miss Denne, our biology mistress. They threw theirs in the gutter, but I was a thrifty little soul and hated waste. Putting it in my pocket was a messy idea and hiding it behind my back seemed childish, so I brazened it out. Miss Denne was furious. ‘Eating in the street – in uniform – without gloves, Veronica is very low class. You shall not make a mockery of Dame Alice Owen’s. You will report to the headmistress immediately.’ She confiscated my blaze and straw hat, which was pointless as I was wearing the very distinctive saxe blue dress with the school emblem emblazoned on the breast pocket. Everyone in town knew which school we belonged to.
Miss Bozman, the headmistress, scolded me rather gently, told me to be more circumspect, reminded me to wear gloves at all times and not to eat ice cream in public. It was unladylike, and I must always uphold the traditions of our illustrious school. Then with my promise to do just that, she gave me back my blazer and hat.”
(Veronica Pinckard, A Damn Fine Growth, published 2012)
Veronica, perhaps understandably given this incident, had no love for Edith, describing her as “mean”, and as someone who delighted in dissecting insects and frogs as part of her biology lessons.
This episode shows the respect for ladylike qualities, and class boundaries, that were expected of young women at the time, and that had been bred and enforced into women like Edith. Teachers considered it their moral duty to enforce these morals into their charges, and were rarely off duty. Eating in the street was seen as vulgar, and uncouth, much as being improperly dressed without a hat and gloves, and was part of a peculiarly British sense of morals, and all about outward appearances.
The original Dame Alice Owen’s School girls’ buildings were bombed in 1940, so the school did not return until 1945. Edith went back to London with them, and her classrooms were now temporary huts on the former school site. She rose to become their senior science mistress, and lived in Finsbury with her friend Rita.
In 1950, fancying a change, Edith took on her first school headship. She moved to become the third headmistress of the girls’ part of the Silver Jubilee Schools in Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk. The schools, established in 1935 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of George V having the British throne, were at this stage part of the Secondary Modern schools that had been created in the tripartite system in 1944, providing a general extended secondary education and training for pupils not expected to go on to higher education. In the early days of these schools, the provision was continuing the elementary school style education that had flourished since the 19th century, but gradually more ideas were added to the curriculum and in some towns the main employers would have an influence on the skills the children learnt.
Here, under Edith’s jurisdiction, the sexes were kept strictly separate at the school, with a white dividing line in the playground. In addition to further English, Maths, Science, Scripture and some humanities subjects, the girls studied commercial, secretarial and nursing courses. Domestic science, often the backbone of girls’ education at the time, was also heavy in the curriculum, which would have encompassed food technology and techniques, textiles, and other home economics skills.
Edith (left) with prefects at the Silver Jubilee School in 1953/4
Four years later, having been well respected in the town as the head mistress of the school, Edith decided on a full career change. She left the world of schools behind, resigning her head teacher position, and planned to enter a convent.
At this stage, in 1954, she was 48 and at the top of her profession – and may have felt that the life of a nun was right for her in terms of both spiritual and career fulfilment. She would also have long gone past the age where most women of the time expected to marry, even though she could now do so and keep her job. Or this may have been a long cherished ambition for her. Whatever her reasoning, she handed over her Bury St Edmunds school over to the next head teacher Edith Crocker, and prepared to take holy orders.
Exactly what happened next is not known, but Edith did not last more than two years in the convent. Whether being a nun was not what she expected it to be, or she missed teaching too much, she returned to teaching in 1956. She took on the position of head teacher at the brand new girl’s high school – another secondary modern establishment – in Chippenham, a market town in Wiltshire.
Chippenham Girls High School was opened 10 September 1956, by education secretary and Chippenham MP Sir David Eccles and his wife Sybil, taking the girls away from the mixed secondary modern which had operated out of the old grammar school site on Cocklebury Road since the Chippenham Temporary Senior School was formed in November 1940.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1953
Sir David Eccles, MP for Chippenham, and his wife Sybil. Both signed the school log book.
The new building was close to the buildings that the grammar school had moved to in 1939, and had been purpose-built for their use. Four years of schooling were offered at the time, from 11 until the school leaving age, which was then around 14, so at the end of what was is now called Year 10. There were 486 girls on the roll at the beginning of the school, with 22 teaching staff and a school secretary. They offered English, maths, science, music, history, and a LOT of domestic science. With a nod towards the surrounding area, the school also offered rural subjects. They supported some girls who had already started work towards their GCE – but the ambition of Edith and her school was to further improve the depth of the education offered to the girls of the town. The staff wanted to aim for the University of Cambridge courses, not the Associated Board syllabus that they had been working to before, and one of the first subjects discussed at staff meetings was the provision of advanced courses (beyond the GCE examinations) in Secondary Modern Schools.
This came to fruition quickly – two years after the school’s founding, in 1958, there were over 600 girls on the roll, and the school offered a Fifth Form and even had a lower Sixth Form. And by 1959 there was a full opportunity for girls to study either for GCE, general subjects, or practical courses, and they were streamed accordingly. Shortly after this commercial subjects were added to the senior school provision.
In terms of school life, Edith’s log book regularly records sports matches against other local secondary modern schools – those in Melksham, Malmesbury and Calne most often – and athletics tournaments, with educational trips and visits from speakers intended to inspire the pupils. For example, a representative of Simplicity Dress Patterns (clothes making was an important skill when very little came ready-made) visited in October 1958, and the school held a fashion show to demonstrate the skills they’d learned, and in 1966 they hosted Flying Officer PL Sturgess of the WRAF to talk to the girls about opportunities in the armed forces. And in July 1959 the BBC radio discussion programme “It’s My Opinion” was broadcast from the school hall. Some pupils remember that when the neighbouring boys’ school opened across the field at what is today Sheldon School, Edith altered the start and finish times of the school to discourage her girls from spending time with the boys on the way to and from school.
The buildings used for Chippenham Girls’ High School
Edith remained at the school until the summer of 1966, having presided over some initial discussions about integrating secondary education in the town a couple of years earlier, although this did not take place for several more years. She’d had a period of ill health just after Christmas in 1966, and had lost her mother the previous year, so at the age of 60 took retirement. There was a presentation made for her in that July, with guests served tea in the library afterwards.
She returned to the school at least once more, to talk about its history at a celebration event in 1975, alongside second head teacher Miss Wilkins.
Edith spent her last years by the sea, on the south coast of England at Worthing in Sussex, and died there in 1991, aged 85.
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 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.
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.
Martha Ann Washington (known as Pat) was the seventh and final child of William and Martha Ann Washington, born in Cambridgeshire in 1890.
She was the final child because her mother (35), died from puerperal fever after the birth. Pat, christened Martha Ann after her mother, was just 43 days old.
Her father was now in a sad and difficult but not uncommon, position. He was widowed with six children and a tiny baby needing immediate care. Being a farmer he needed to work. His older daughter was 12, old enough to run the house but not to look after a new baby.
Pat was lucky. Her aunt Mary Ann, known as Rebecca, was married with two young children of her own and she agreed to take the little one in. As often happened, no formal arrangement was made. Rebecca had recently lost a baby girl of her own but wasn’t able to feed the baby herself, but her neighbour Ellen Burden was and did.
Ellen had three young children, the youngest a baby that she was still feeding. Conveniently the two families had rooms in the same house but whilst Rebecca’s family had four the larger Burden family only had two. Ellen would surely have found the money she got by being a wet nurse very useful.
Rebecca lived in Plumstead, London, 80 miles away from Littleport where Pat was born. Family stories say Pat was taken there by cart but this seems a bit unlikely. Trains had been running there since 1847 so this was more probable. But whichever way it would have been an uncomfortable journey and feeding the baby would have been a problem. Spoon feeding or bread dipped in milk was common but difficult to do successfully and even harder on a long journey. Pat was tough, she survived.
Whilst it is romantic to think that Rebecca was only too pleased to take in the baby girl as she had lost her own, it seems that the truth of the matter may have been a bit different. Pat’s childhood was a little difficult and whilst she was not unkindly treated it is clear that she was treated differently to Rebecca’s two natural sons. This may have been down to gender, resentment or simply a clash of character.
But Rebecca didn’t have an easy life either. In August 1891 she gave birth to Winifred meaning that she was pregnant again when Pat was 8 months old. I hope she didn’t suffer from morning sickness!
Rebecca was now caring for two youngsters, 18-month-old baby Pat and the new baby Winifred. Her husband was working as a steel foundry labourer, a hard job but not excessively well paid. Pat’s brother George, a railway engine stoker, was also living with them. I imagine his contribution to the family pot would have been very useful but it would also mean more work for Rebecca.
Sadly at the end of 1891 baby Winifred, just 3 months old died from internal catarrh and canker, often caused by a weak immune system and poor nutrition. Family stories suggest that Rebecca blamed this loss on Pat, feeling she didn’t have enough time and possibly energy, to look after her own daughter as well as she would have liked because she had Pat to care for.
When Pat was 18 months old her father William, married again and had three more children. Pat didn’t rejoin the family. In fact, it wasn’t until she was about 11 that her sister Flora (known as Florrie) visited and explained to her that she wasn’t Rebecca’s daughter. Florrie later became Mayor of West Ham for the Labour party and eventually had a block of flats named after her.
Their father visited sometime later and it was during his visit that she learned that her birthday was the 27th March and not 31st which is what she had been told. This must have been a very confusing time for her and she must have wondered if there were going to be any more revelations.
Pat went to Burridge Grove School for girls. She didn’t miss school often and had good attendance medals to prove it. She also became a skilled swimmer and diver (women’s diving was in its infancy at the time) and won medals for gymnastics. More unusually she joined a local fencing club which at the time had a male fencing master. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about this, just a photograph to prove it. For someone so active and talented it must have been difficult to have to give up sport when it was discovered that she had a heart murmur.
When she left school she became apprenticed to a tailor but hated it so she went to work for Cliner & Co, an electrical company, as a machine magnet winder. She proved to be no walk over there and whilst the Foreman used to swear a lot she would on occasions swear back.
It was in 1914 when romance entered her life. She met her future husband at a Good Templars Club (a temperance club). Retrospectively this is quite amusing as in later life she became very fond of the odd glass or two of sherry! Pat, the story goes, was asked to sing but part way through forgot the words. A young man in uniform stepped to her rescue and the rest is history.
She and James Whiting courted for a year and were married in June 1915 in Catford, London. Pat wore a new blue costume with a pink feather in the hat. There was no honeymoon as James was in the army and had only four days leave.
There was obviously some tension around the wedding. Catford was where James’ family lived and they were both staying with his parents before the ceremony. Pat’s cousin Henry, who she grew up with, was one of the witnesses but Rebecca didn’t attend the wedding at all but stayed at home and went to a funeral instead. When Pat and James got back home, Rebecca, for some reason declared that they weren’t really married. It was a mixed faith marriage so maybe Rebecca was unhappy about that. But whatever the reason it was not the best of starts. There is no doubt that both were strong-minded forthright women.
James returned to fight and Pat stayed with Rebecca. A while later Aunt Nance, James’ sister, brought the news that James had been injured and was in hospital at Richmond. He received a head injury during the war which he never fully recovered from. He was mending telegraph wires in France when the Germans broke through the line by shelling. Whilst sheltering by the corner of a building he was hit on the head by a piece of iron guttering. He carried on without going for medical attention and without sleep and was later awarded the DCM.
But afterwards he suffered from very severe headaches and quite violent mood swings which made him quite difficult to live with at times. Her daughter Kit had quite distinct memories of having to tiptoe round the house to avoid making any noise that might disturb him when his head was bad.
Things with Rebecca didn’t go well. Kit recalled: “Rebecca gave Mum (Pat) such a bad time that an old neighbour got her rooms in Raglan Road.” This is where Pat’s first two children were born. It is one of the rare occasions that the family unit lived alone together. They moved from these rooms to Norland Street in Lambeth.
After the war the couple lived in a flat in Camberwell. Times were hard and they had to pawn a signet ring and an engagement ring to pay a gas bill.
In 1922 Rebecca’s husband Henry died. Rebecca, never an easy woman, in later life became cantankerous.
At first she was cared for by her daughter in law, Ethel, the wife of Harry (born Henry), Rebecca’s eldest son. Ethel found the old lady too difficult and it was deemed best (by whom we don’t know) for Pat and her family to move back to Plumstead to look after Rebecca instead. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when Harry suggested that Pat and her family should pay rent for the privilege!!
They lived together for the next eight years. Pat received little or no help from Rebecca’s natural children and apparently little thanks from Rebecca as she was after all only doing her duty. Pat’s final two children, Catherine (called Kit) and Kenneth were born here.
So, Pat had her hands full. An ill husband, four young children and an irascible foster mother. Rebecca in her later years was incontinent, bed ridden and demanding. Pat’s life would not have been easy.
When Rebecca died in 1930 she left an estate to the value of £685.11s.3d. It is said that she kept a sock of sovereigns under her mattress, but no one admitted to finding it! The Maxey Road house and furniture, which for the last eight years had been Pat’s home, was left to her sons. She did however bequeath £60 to Pat.
Pat used £5 of this as a deposit on a house in Greenford, which cost £600. So began a calmer and more stable period in her life until the Second World War. In Greenford they could hear buzz bombs coming and as a precaution Pat would pin heavy curtains under the sills which would be full of glass some mornings as the window had blown in.
In September 1940 pinning the curtains was not enough. The house was bombed, while she was out paying the gas bill. No one was hurt, and even the cat survived, but most of the family possessions were lost. They slept at first in the boiler room at the Catholic Church then spent some time with Honor Blackman’s family. Later they shared a large rented house with most of the family and Aunt Nance to boot. Four women using one kitchen!
The Greenford house was rebuilt in 1948/9 and the large family cluster moved back in!
Gradually the children moved out until 1954 only Kit and her husband Peter and Aunt Nance were left.
James devised a grand plan that the older members of the family should club together and buy a ‘retirement house’. A bungalow in Prittlewell was bought and Kit & Peter were ‘encouraged’ to find somewhere of their own!
James died December 1956 and two years later Pat had a stroke. She went to live in Orpington with Kit and her family. Time for someone to look after her.
She recovered well and lived for another 30 years. She remained button bright and sparky throughout these years and continued to know her own mind.
She died in November 1989 in Norwich aged 99 and was buried in Southend with her husband James and Aunt Nance.
A confident, caring and highly independent woman. She remembered waving a flag at Queen Victoria’s carriage on her Diamond Jubilee and described the Queen as a little, fat lady! She lived through three major wars and had clear memories of watching the troops marching out of Woolwich Barracks on their way to the (second) Boer War.
She brought up four children, nursed her husband and foster mother, survived the house being bombed and recovered from a stroke. A redoubtable lady indeed.
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.