Helen T’s story

A food technician is a job that most people would associate more with the 1970s and various lurid additives and e-numbers, rather than the 1920s and the “household arts”, but that is perhaps the best way to describe the work of Helen T.

For many years Helen lectured in the Department of Household Arts at Kings College For Women – now just Kings College, in London – and experimented with the science of particular ingredients and nutrition, with a view to improving advice given to school girls and therefore influencing the nation into better health. Since cooking and food had long been regarded as “women’s work”, this was an area where the growing number of female scientists were starting to make their mark at the time – although it is unlikely that Helen regarded herself as a scientist but more of an experimenter.

She was Scottish by birth, having been born into a landed family at the tail end of the 1890s. Her father – English by birth but Scottish by family – owned a large farm in the Scottish borders where he bred Leicester sheep and exhibited horses, and her mother appears to have done her fair share of work on the farm too. However, by the time Helen was two the flock of sheep had been sold, and the farm was let to a man from Edinburgh. Her father went to fight in the Boer War, leaving Helen and her mother living on the farm. Her mother called herself the head dairymaid, indicating that she was in charge of this operation, but clearly did not own the property herself. There were also two servants living with Helen and her mother, but possibly not working for them and rather perhaps for the farmer himself.

Helen and her mother then disappear from the British records for quite some considerable time. The best guess is that after the Boer War her father settled abroad somewhere and they went to join him, as later records do not appear to indicate a parental split. This may well have been in southern Africa, as there were many farming opportunities and perceived fortunes to be made across the former British colonies, but there is no indication of exactly where.

It is known that Helen travelled though, as there is a shipping record of her coming back to the UK from Gibraltar when she was in her mid-20s, and she must have studied in Paris at some point as she gained a diploma in cookery from the Cordon Bleu school based there. Her mother took up residence in Glasgow, it appears, when back in this country, and her father’s brother was quite prominent in life in County Durham, but Helen based herself in London.

She became a lecturer in the Household and Social Science Department at Kings College for Women in 1924. At this point the school was attached to that institution, but it became an independent entity in 1928 called King’s College of Household and Social Science. This meant that in 1929 the school was part of the University of London in the Faculty of Science. They also offered short courses in Institutional and Household Management, and a science course for nurses to enable them to gain a position of Sister Tutor.

Kings College 1938

The staff of King’s College in 1938. Helen is almost certainly included, somewhere.

Girls had been taught household skills at schools for many years – they were seen as an important part of the elementary school curriculum, undertaken by older pupils, either to prepare the young woman for running her own household when she married or for a skills base to enable them to take a placement as a domestic servant. Girls learnt cookery, how to stretch a household budget, sewing and textile crafts, laundry management and skills, and how to clean various different items. The advent of technology has meant that today these skills can be accomplished quickly and easily, but back then these jobs were often manual labour – cleaning silver cutlery, washing with a copper and a mangle, cooking on a range, and so on.

The Kings College of Household and Social Science took these tasks further, pushing the boundaries to find new ways of providing good nutrition, efficiencies in laundry tasks, science of food preservation, and many other ground-breaking ideas. Helen was involved in this end of the academic research, teaching the students and helping them to develop their own ideas.

Food was undoubtedly her speciality, both as an academic exploring nutrition and a cook working in the teaching kitchen. She also broadcast on her subjects as part of her job. A 1927 festive programme on BBC radio records that she was offering advice on how to “provide a party of children with a spread that will satisfy their keen sense of what is due at Christmas-time, without making them ill.” The accompanying blurb says that at this time she was an examiner in sick room cookery at Middlesex Hospital – nutritionists played an important part in helping the sick get well – and that she was presently engaged in working at the Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge. Cooking at lower temperatures would have meant using less fuel, which would have helped household budgets – therefore Helen’s research would have directly impacted on women’s daily lives.

Cookery students at Kings in the 1930s

She worked closely with Miss Jessie Lindsay, who was head of the Household Arts department, and later became the only woman member of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition for the Ministry of Health. Jessie was also an examiner in sick room cookery, and an expert in dietetics. Together they collaborated on two books. The first, What Every Cook Should Know, appeared in 1932. Rather than being a recipe book, it instead looks at the underlying basic principles of preparing food – handling yeast, how different parts of an animal have different cell structures so behave in disparate ways when heat is applied, commonly observed faults in recipes, and so on. In this sense, the work is far more about the science rather than the art of cookery, and thus goes way beyond the usually assumed remit of housewifery and domestic arts.

Their second book, Modern Cookery for Schools, was published in 1934, and instructed teachers on how best to instruct their students in meal preparation and planning. This was considered a definitive work in the teaching of domestic science, and was a popular tome for many years after publication.

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Jessie Lindsay, Helen’s co-author and colleague

As for her personal life, Helen never married. She lived with a woman, Margaret, at addresses both in London and a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Margaret worked as an arts auctioneer. There is no indication whether that this was a romantic relationship, and if it was it would have flown mostly under the radar, but it is equally possible that this was a close friendship. There was a marriage bar on female teachers in schools until 1944, and although it depended on the institution whether this applied to female lecturers it often meant that these guidelines were socially followed, and Margaret may have been a close companion rather than a lover. Her mother spent some time in Glasgow, and some time with her sister in Kent, meaning that she was close if Helen needed her. There was also a third member of their village household, an arts master named William, who may have had some connection to either Margaret’s work, or taught at a London university himself alongside Helen.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Helen was still working at Kings College, but referred to herself as a journalist as well as a lecturer, so may well have been contributing to various publications. Kings College and its students was evacuated from London, first going to Cardiff – where Jessie Lindsay can be found on the 1939 register – and then subsequently to Leicester.

Helen did not go with the college, however. She resigned her position to take a role in the newly re-established Ministry of Food, under its first director W S Morrison and then under the more famous Lord Woolton. Using her expertise on nutrition and household economics, she organised a nationwide propaganda campaign on food advice aimed at housewives, and gained a promotion to Head of the Food Advice Division. Much of this advice probably found itself into war-time food leaflets, although these did not bear Helen’s name.

In this new role, amid the introduction of rationing in January 1940, Helen flourished, from all accounts.

“It was her personal qualities which gave to her work so great a measure of inspiration,” recalled former colleague Howard Marshall. “She saw in the Food Advice movement an opportunity for service to the community. She realised that the guidance she was able to give to housewives through her Food Advice centres would result in better standards of living.”

Her mother died in Kent, in the first year of the war, leaving her effects to Helen. Her father appears to have been dead for quite a while before this, but there is no British record for what happened to him.

However, this job – though it appeared to be a great fit for Helen’s skills and personality – did not last long enough. She died suddenly at her village home in 1942, aged only 44, shocking the staff of the Ministry of Food.

“She was passionately sincere and entirely selfless in her approach to the problems created by war-time conditions,” said Howard Marshall, in letters. “Her humour, her enthusiasm, her wide humanity, and her energy will be sadly missed by all those who were privileged to work with her…. She was, I believe, too modest ever to have known how important her contribution was or how much it was appreciated… I feel as if a light had gone out… The best tribute we can pay to her memory is to continue the service to the community which is represented by Food Advice with our utmost energy.”

Her funeral was quietly held in the village, and her effects were handled by Margaret and a Scottish Writer to the Signet. There was a considerable amount of money that she had accumulated during her life.

Her former colleague Jessie Lindsay resigned her post from Kings College in 1948, though her books continued to be published for many years. She lived to be 100. Margaret lived on in their house until the mid-1970s, dying in her 80s.

Lillian H’s story

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

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

Lilian Shelmerdine Tatler 1938

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

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

Warmley House

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

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

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

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

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

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

british-consuls-residence-lourenco-marques-now-maputo-capital-of-mozambique-HH4HTC

The British Consulate in Maputo, where Lillian married Somerset.

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

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

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

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

Francis Shelmerdine

Francis Shelmerdine

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

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

Lilian Shelmerdine

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

Atlantic Park Southampton 1932

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

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

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

Amy E Bell’s story

Amy E Bell holds the distinction of being the first British woman stockbroker, at least as far as the publication Common Cause was aware when they published her obituary, and indeed there is no record of anyone having held that position earlier in the UK. The USA had Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Clafin, who had established a Wall Street Brokerage firm in 1870, but Amy was the first in the UK. However, she was never admitted to the London Stock Exchange – although there was no specific rule banning women from entering, new members had to be voted upon and anyone female was immediately blocked by the old boys network until six women broke through in 1973 – Muriel Wood, Susan Shaw, Hilary Root, Anthea Gaukroger, Audrey Geddes, Elisabeth Rivers-Bulkeley.

Other regional exchanges – in places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – had admitted women a bit earlier, but it was the 1973 merger with London that brought on the change. However, when Amy was practicing, during the 1880s and 1890s, the landscape of the financial world was very different, and this change nearly 100 years in the future.

A close friend, Edith C Wilson, writing in Common Cause a week after the obituary, says that Amy’s health meant that she had no wish to challenge the establishment and attempt to get into the LSE, but instead preferred to work outside the institution like many provincial brokers of the age – getting a member on the inside of the exchange to fulfil any necessary jobs for her. So, she established her business in Grays Inn, near to the LSE hub.

But how did she get to be a stockbroker in her era in the first place? The answer lies in her early years and level of education.

She was orphaned at around six months old. She’d been born in Bangkok, then in Siam, now in Thailand, in February 1859. Her father was Charles Bell, who had been appointed to the position of Vice Consul of Great Britain to Siam in 1857. Before this, Siam had been independent of colonial interests in the region, but the Bowring treaty – brokered by John Bowring, the British Governor of Hong Kong at the time – established some close links with the King of Siam and the British government at the time, and it was felt by Secretary for Foreign Affairs George Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon, that diplomacy should be established in the Kingdom and Charles was appointed.

He married Charlotte Erskine Goodeve in November 1857 in Singapore, and Amy was born over a year later. Little information survives of their life in Bangkok. A letter from King Mongkut to John Bowring makes mention that Charles is living in a house at the frontier part of the palace of his younger brother Krom Hluang Wongsahdi Rajsnidh (another of the 73 children of Mongkut’s father Rama II). He says that, while Amy’s father’s command of the Siamese language is now extensive, he has little to do and lives quite idly – which speaks of a relaxed and privileged life on the part of Amy’s parents, and a newspaper report of the time says that the consulate was on the river, and served elaborate dinners. Another report of the time says that Charles was involved in trying to get Siam to adopt silver coinage.

The_English_governess_at_the_Siamese_court_-_being_recollections_of_six_years_in_the_royal_palace_at_Bangkok_(1873)_(14773027951)

As to exactly what happened to Charlotte and Charles, the record is unclear. They died a week apart, in early September 1859, in Bangkok. There is no unrest known in the area at the time, so it seems likely that both were ill, and succumbed one after the other. They were 27 and 28 respectively and were buried in Bangkok Protestant Cemetery. Charlotte became a widow for the last week of her life, and her will transferred care of baby Amy – along with £4,000 – to her brother John Goodeve back in England.

John was studying medicine at Queen’s College, Cambridge, at this time, so it wasn’t to his house that Amy was brought. Her grandfather, Doctor William James Goodeve, would have been perhaps the next option – but he had recently buried his third wife and had several small children of his own, so it was to her great uncle Dr Henry Hurry Goodeve’s house in Bristol that Amy was taken by her nursemaid from Bangkok.

Henry Goodeve was married to Isabella, without any children, and looked after various parent-less members of his and his wife’s family, so his house Cook’s Folly, overlooking the Avon Gorge just outside Bristol, was perhaps the obvious place for baby Amy. They had her christened, in March of 1860, and cared for her alongside relatives and a vast houseful of staff. They had previously adopted Isabella’s nephew, another Henry.

Cook's Folly Bristol

This placement for baby Amy turned out to be a good call, as her grandfather died before she was 3. Amy continued to live with Henry and Isabella and their household, and was nurtured and educated as if she was their own child. Henry had served as a doctor in the British army in Bengal, and had been involved in both training Indian doctors and caring for children, as well as furthering medical research. He published a first aid book, called Hints on Children in India, that went through many editions. He had also been hit by a stray bullet on a tiger shoot, which shattered one side of his jaw and marked him for the rest of his life. He also later worked as a doctor in the Crimean War.

On retirement he became a Justice of the Peace, a tax commissioner, and deputy-lieutenant for Gloucestershire, and sat on the board of the local poor law executive. He was also president of the Bristol and Clifton Society in Aid of Boarding Out Union Orphans and Deserted Children, and was a passionate advocate for this. While today we might see removing children from their families as horrific, and rightly so, the Victorians truly believed that they were doing the best for the children and giving them a chance for a better life.

Henry goodeve bigger

Henry Hurry Ives Goodeve

Her great aunt Isabella died in 1870, when she was around 11. Great Uncle Henry reputedly made Amy his companion in all of his interests, so presumably would have included her in visits and discussions around his businesses and duties. She began reading The Times newspaper daily, studying the content carefully, under his guidance. They also employed a Swiss governess, Sophie Girard, under whose guidance Amy became a competent linguist. She was exceedingly well read, and a lover of poetry.

Her interest in money, stocks and shares reputedly began in early childhood. Her story was that, as a small child, an elderly gentleman visitor while reading The Times attempted to shoo her away to her own lessons. Amy apparently told him that “What’s your lessons is my play,” as she believed it great fun to watch the rise and fall of stocks on the money market.

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

After this, she won a Goldsmiths scholarship to Newnham College Cambridge, the first purely female institution there, and continued her studies. Principal at this college at the time was Anne Jemima Clough, another pioneering female academic.

However, Amy’s health was said to be precarious – perhaps affected by the illness that had taken her parents – so a friend later commented that for this reason her studies at both Bristol and Cambridge were necessarily brief. The 1881 census has her at home with her guardian, her relatives and her governess in Bristol, 22 years old and unmarried.

When her great uncle died in 1884, Amy declared her intention to become a stockbroker. It was widely believed at the time that she had somehow inherited the stockbroking business from a relative, but this was not the case. It was her idea and dream. Using money she had inherited, she initially appears to have set up in Bristol, but in 1888 moved her business to London.

Many of her clients were women of modest means, with a little to invest – the sort of amount that the top stockbrokers of the day would have considered piffling and really below their interest. But Amy knew that wisely invested smaller amounts of money could make all the difference for women’s survival on private means. In an era where men were the main earners, and if you lost your breadwinner you would inherit what he had left, judicious investing could pay dividends and keep a household going.

“You need to begin afresh every day,” says Miss Bell, speaking of the difficulties of her business. By this expression I take her to mean that the work cannot be performed in installments, as a man writes a book, with a chapter yesterday and another to-day. “And then,” she continues, “you must do everything yourself. You must read a great deal – books of history and political economy economy chiefly – but the newspapers continually. Keep an eye on the colonies and these newly explored African territories, did you say? Yes, indeed, and not one eye but a dozen if you had them! The chief qualifications for a successful stockbroker are, in my opinion, a keen interest in the world’s affairs and sympathy with individuals. … By sympathy with individuals I mean the power of understanding your client’s position. If, for instance, a woman writes to me and says she is old and a widow, that her family are comfortably settled in life, and that she wishes to make sufficient provision for the rest of her days, I know pretty well what kind of investment would suit her best. But if she gives me none of these personal details, I may not succeed in pleasing her half as well.”

From Professional Women upon their Professions, by Margaret Bateson, 1895.

Although she did have some male clients, most of her customers were women. Her comment was “one of the pleasantest features about my work is the number of interested, able and cultured women with whom I have made acquaintance.”

As we said before, the London Stock Exchange, because of its membership, would not allow women stockbrokers to set foot on the floor. Therefore, Amy set up the office just outside Capel Court, in Grays Inn, and operated from there. Any formal dealings with the LSE that she needed were dealt with by male members. She also had a female clerk to help her out with the work. Newspapers wrote about her and her work, but she never felt the need to advertise her services – relying on word of mouth and reputation.

LSE

Inside the LSE at the time

She doesn’t appear on the 1891 census – she was known for a love of travel, so it’s possible that she was abroad when it was taken – but in 1901 she is still in Grays Inn with her female housekeeper, who must also have been a companion, and calls herself a stockbroker agent.

At some point after this, however, her health forced her to give up work. She then lived off the proceeds of her work and devoted herself to her friends. She was known to have made a great many during her time as a stockbroker, and – although not declared as such on the 1911 census – taken interest in women’s suffrage.  The 1911 census finds her in a hotel in Bloomsbury, as a guest, with a lady’s companion. Whether this is a hint towards her sexuality is unclear, but it is known that she never married. Either way, marriage would have forced her to give up work, by the propriety of the day, and it is clear that work was a considerable passion for her.

“I want,” she says, “to make women understand their money matters and take a pleasure in dealing with them. After all, is money such a sordid consideration? May it not make all the difference to a hard-working woman when she reaches middle life whether she has or has not those few hundreds?… Many women are quite astonished when I explain business details to them, and ask “But is that really all?” So many women, you see, are not allowed to have the command of their capital. But in this, as in other ways, I rejoice to see that women are daily becoming more independent.”

Margaret Bateson, 1895.

It’s unknown what she did during the First World War – reports are that she spent time living with various friends. And it was at the home of one of these friends that she died, in March of 1920, after a brief attack of influenza which brought on heart failure. This friend was Maude Ashurst Biggs, a novelist and translator with suffrage sympathies, who lived in South Hampstead.

Common Cause, the newspaper of women’s suffrage, published an glowing obituary, which her close friend added to in the following edition:

“She was an admirable pioneer, obtaining recognition by sheer force of knowledge and ability, with no ostentation or eccentricity. One great secret of her success was her happy art of turning clients into personal friends. She humanised her profession, and was happy in leaving an open path to her successors.”

Edith C Wilson, writing in Common Cause, March 1920

Amy Elizabeth Bell

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

The Robinson sisters’ story

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

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

Robinson women postwomen

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

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

Mary

Mary Adkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace

Grace Nicholson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily

Emily Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

Harriet

Harriet Hobman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

Maysie’s story

Maysie was born Edith May, but was perhaps best known as “Mrs Pender Chalmers”.

Flying, society life, and an expertise in electrical engineering were defining factors in Maysie’s life, but all this appears to have ended due to society stigma around divorce in the 1930s.

Maysie was very much a twentieth century woman, growing up with the century and all of its developments. She was born in the 1890s, in North Wales, the only child of a doctor and his wife. The family were practising Quakers, and attended meeting in St Helens. Her mother, who was Liverpudlian, had family and friends in the city who Maysie spent time with, and she was educated at The Queens School in Chester, probably boarding there. In an era where the majority of people left school in their early teens, Maysie continued to study until she was at least 17.

After her father’s death in 1912, she appears to have relocated to London – this may have been to continue studies, or a move with her mother into society having inherited a reasonable amount to live on.

Although obviously bright and educated, she nonetheless fulfilled the good match that society dictated for women of her background at the time. She married a Brazillian-born British engineer, John, who had been working in electrics in the mines of Brazil but had come back to the UK on the outbreak of war in 1914. He signed up for the Royal Engineers, and he and Maysie tied to the knot in London in the summer of 1915. Maysie became Mrs Pender Chalmers.

While her new husband was sent to France on active service, Maysie appears to have spend the duration of the First World War at his family’s residence in Lyme Regis, Dorset. The house overlooks the sea, and while its unknown how she spent this time its certain she had a beautiful view during these years. She may well also have been furthering her studies – the changing culture around women working during the war years meant that many were able to get a start in the workplace and challenge long-held views. Electrical engineering in particular, as a new and far less established field with no male-dominated hierarchy, offered opportunities for women.

Indeed, it’s as an electrical engineer that Maysie first comes to the fore as Mrs Pender Chalmers. She and John – who practised as an engineer in Lyme Regis when he returned to civilian life, but also continued some work in Brazil, taking her with him on at least one occasion – moved to London over the course of the 1920s. He established a practice at College Street, and Maysie’s name was associated at that address, so she probably worked in practice with him.

The first mention of Maysie as an engineer in her own right is in 1931, when The Vote publication – the newspaper of the Women’s Freedom League – summarised the most recent issue of The Woman Engineer, and identifies her as a director of Electric Super-Service Co. Ltd. That issue of The Woman Engineer, the mouthpiece of the Women’s Engineering Society, had an article written by Maysie herself that focussed on women’s role in the technical side of aviation. John had got his Royal Aero Club Aviator certificate in 1928, and while she didn’t appear to be a pilot herself at this stage (there’s no parallel certificate for her, so she probably navigated) she had taken a short course on Maintenance of Aircraft at the London Aeroplane Club and was advocating women to achieve the Ground Engineer’s License.

“Only four women in the whole of the British Isles today hold the much coveted Ground Engineer’s License, and it may fairly be said that they owe their success entirely to their own individual efforts and the courage which has carried them over the obstacles which beset the path of the pioneer.

“Miss Amy Johnson was the first to lead the way in this new sphere, and it is thanks to her splendid achievement that ‘the powers that be’ realised that women are a force to be reckoned with.

“It is said that success which is hardly won in all the sweeter, and doubtless this is true, but there are probably many women who, though possessing valuable qualities, including the thoroughness and conscientiousness which are essential in a ground engineer, may yet lack the pioneering spirit necessary to carry them over the obstacles the others have had to surmount.”

Maysie and John Pender Chalmers 1932

Through the establishment of the Aeronautical Section of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1929 it was hoped that the demand for women’s training could be co-ordinated and addressed. Maysie’s article outlines the training and skills that female ground engineers could expect, offering encouragement to prospective candidates. It does not directly say whether Maysie was one of the four women that held the license at the time, but by implication it is likely that she was. She ends with a rallying cry against the economic background at the time:

“Any who have been connected with Aviation for any length of time realise that it must become the great industry of the future and that if we have the foresight to seize our opportunity it should be to our country what the motor trade has been to America. With our widespread Empire we have greater need for Aviation than any other country of the world.”

In terms of flying, Maysie accompanied John twice during the King’s Cup cross-country air race, in 1929 and 1930, and in 1928 they had joined a company of 21 aircraft flying to Vienna and back. In May of 1930, when she and John had three weeks’ holiday between them, they planned and undertook a flight to Baghdad and back, which provided Maysie with the subject of many talks in subsequent years. Her talk to the Minerva Club in 1931 faithfully recorded many details.

“They planned a tour to Baghdad and back, which in the ordinary way would take three months. They set out in May in a Moth aeroplane to cover 7,000 miles.

De Havilland Moth Coupe

“After leaving England aeroplanes have to follow corridors in and out of countries, and the pilot has to report at the first aerodrome he reaches in each country. There is always risk attached to crossing the sea in an ordinary aeroplane; there is a system across the Channel of checking in and out. If you are checked out at Lympne and not checked in at Calais at a stated time a lifeboat should be dispatched to make a search.

“They flew by way of Brussels, Cologne and Stuttgart to the Rhine. Here they enjoyed an aerial view of the beautiful river scenery which, with the Rhine castles on the hills, gave the impression of a fairy story country. The journey from Munich to Vienna, Mrs Pender Chalmers described as the most beautiful piece of flying scenery in the world. They enjoyed dodging the clouds over the mountains which was rather like playing a game. Vienna they found very peaceful. There were practically no motor cars in the streets and everywhere they saw signs of poverty.

“When you travel by air, geography lives,” said the speaker. They next flew across the Danube to Budapest, where they met the first touch of Byzantine architecture. The next stage to Belgrade, across a dull flat plain for hundreds of miles, proved a dull flight. The Danube had overflowed its banks and the isolated villages gave a picture of desolation. From Belgrade they followed the Danube for 700 miles and crossed the Iron Gates into Roumania. From Bucharest they went to the Black Sea, where they found the coast intensely interesting. Contrary to its name, the Black Sea was very blue and glittering in the sunlight.

“When they reached Turkey there were many restrictions. They flew through the Bosphorus across the Sea of Marmora and across Turkey to Asia in Konieh. They found the plateau most barren and desolate and not unlike Dante’s ‘Inferno’. The Turkish peasants they found most hospitable. They refused to take tips for their services, and smoked cigarettes with the flyers to show their friendliness. From Konieh they crossed the Taurus Mountains. Amy Johnson had said that crossing the Taurus Mountains and the Timor Sea were her most terrifying experiences. They tried to follow the railway through the pass, but it dived into a tunnel; they had to get under the clouds and fine their way as best they could. At Aleppo they had a delightful experience. An Armenian merchant gave them hospitality, and from a none too clean street, they went through a gate which opened into a fairy palace. They were shown a hiding place four cellars down where their host’s grandfather had taken refuge during a massacre.

“Wherever you go by air people are charming to you,” said the speaker. “You get a feeling of fellowship.”

“From Aleppo they crossed the Syrian desert, a great rocky plain, red and rolling, with nothing else to be seen. It is a deadly place, yet there are tracks made by travellers, both men and women, who have set out on expeditions. They followed the Euphrates to Baghdad and when they arrived they felt that they had flown on the magic carpet. They found the town intensely interesting. The streets were thronged with Jews, Bedouins and Turks, stroking their amber beads. Veiled and unveiled women were to be seen and babies with henna’d hair and nails. White donkeys and camels added to the picturesque appearance of the streets.

“They left Baghdad in the early morning when the sun was just touching the Mosque, the four domes of which are entirely of gold leaf. They flew over Ur of the Chaldees and obtained a fine view from the air of the recent excavations. They continued their flight to Bussora and made this their turning point. On the way back to Baghdad they went to Babylon and saw the pillar that is all that is left of Nebuchadnezzar’s Palace.

“On the return journey over Bulgaria they made a forced landing in a field. Three hundred Turks and Bulgars suddenly appeared and swarmed round their aeroplane. It was Sunday and a feast day. These people had never before seen an aeroplane thought it had been sent by the Saint. Again they received wonderful hospitality.

“Mrs Pender Chalmers considers that flying should do away with national hatreds. Air travellers should serve as ambassadors in the cause of peace. She hoped that members of the Women’s Freedom League would be air-minded and support this effort.”

On top of her working life, Maysie was quite the socialite in London. She is reported to have been at various notable social events, often those hosted by other aviators. She headed up The Forum Club from 1932, and put on events and dinners. Many of her activities promoted women and women’s achievements in various fields.

She became vice chairperson of the Electrical Association for Women, and as such would represent the organisation at various branch meetings around the country, and was also in demand as a speaker. Often her topics included aviation alongside electricity, and at one event she promoted a brown suit that could be heated by electricity to keep an airman or woman warm at altitude without burning their skin.

Business-wise, she branched out from work with her husband and the Electric Super-Service Company and opened a showroom in the West End. This was the only women’s electrical showroom in the area, located in Brompton Road. Members of the Electrical Association for Women would schedule visits. The exhibited products presumably showcased various innovations and new possibilities for electricity for daily life.

However, while her career was in ascendancy, it appears that her marriage was under strain. By 1935, although their business premises and upmarket London address remained the same as they had been for several years, John appears to have a new place in Surrey. Whether this is merely another investment or an indication that all was not rosy in a marriage that until now had seemed quite close is open to question. They also appear to have given up their personal plane by this point. She chaired some events for the Women’s Engineering Society, and was praised for her work in aviation in the early days of private flying.

1936 also saw a further career development for Maysie. She was appointed Art Adviser in Lighting by the British Thomson-Houston Company. She is described as an electrical engineer and a specialist in the art of decorative lighting and equipment, who has frequently worked in collaboration with famous artists. Several newspapers at the time remarked on the fact that the role had gone to a woman. The job meant that she travelled the country working with and advising top electrical companies and consumers.

She also launched the Home Workers Campaign with the Electrical Association for Women that year, which sought to promote electrical products to make women’s home lives easier. At this time, despite being available for decades, many houses did not have a refrigerator and fresh food would have to be brought in every day. Vacuum cleaners were also new. The work of this campaign promoted new, affordable technologies to cut down on grunt work and drudgery for women in the home – both women doing “unpaid domestic duties” and employed domestic servants. Maids could take a course and earn a certificate. While the idea of making women’s domestic lives easier as a goal – rather than getting them out and into the workplace – might appear to be rather unfeminist to today’s palate, back then this would have been enormously emancipating.

Let Electricity kill your wife

Maysie continued to travel the country as part of her work. She was known for being a charming and engaging speaker, and would speak on the need for cheap electricity to make life easier for all, and the psychology of kitchen design and comfort (yellow was a recommended colour, according to a 1937 article). A dinner at the Forum Club was held that year for the British Federation of Business and Professional Women. Maysie’s advice, which again sounds unfeminist to our far-more-enlightened ears, was to go for charm as well as brains. “You can go all around the world successfully if you just smile,” she is quoted as saying.

yellow kitchen

Her appearances on behalf of the EAW continue to the end of May 1937, and then suddenly cease. There is no mention of her after this point in any capacity, whether private or personal. John arrives back from a period in Brazil in June 1937, and then the next record to feature either of them is their remarriages. Maysie remarried first, just before Christmas 1937, and John a while later in early 1938. For this to have occurred, there must have been a divorce. These were easier to obtain in the late 1930s than they had been at earlier points in history, thanks to two acts in the 1920s, but nonetheless stigma-laden in societal terms. This also occurred around the same time as the abdication of King Edward VIII, over the matter of him wanting to marry an American divorcee. It may have been felt that Maysie’s public roles were too contentious to have been held by a divorcee, no matter what the circumstances of the marital split (which have not come to light), or she herself did not wish to continue, but she plays no further obvious role in the cause of women’s engineering or aviation. Indeed, her second wedding certificate – which was witnessed by Caroline Haslett, first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society – has a mere line in her occupation column, indicating that she did not have a recognised career at this time.

Her second husband, Frank, was considerably older than her. He had also been married before, had become a widower, and had two adult children. He was a mechanical engineer by trade who had risen to become chief electrical engineer of the Birmingham Corporation Electricity Supply Department, and it’s probable that Maysie had met him as part of her travelling engineering work. After marrying him in London, she moved to Birmingham and set up home there. Here, at the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the ARP Women’s Voluntary Service, but does not appear to have worked at that time. The 1939 register merely credits her with “unpaid domestic duties” and makes no mention of her engineering career.

Frank retired from his official role in Birmingham in 1944, and announced his intention to move to Lyme Regis – probably as Maysie had loved living there during her earlier life. They set up home just outside the main town but again close to the sea. Frank appears to have gone out to Germany briefly, to assist with setting up electrical systems in post-war reconstruction, but there is no official mention of whether Maysie went with him or not. Whether it is continuing stigma, or a desire for a quieter life, publicly she appears to have completely disappeared.

Frank died in Lyme Regis in 1950, leaving Maysie a widow with a tidy sum to live on. There were no children from either of her marriages, so this money supported her alone with the life she chose. Whether she ever worked again as an engineer or anything else has not come to light. The property may have been a small-holding. She died herself in Lyme Regis in the early 1980s.

Maysies two husbands

Maysie, and both her husbands.

Elizabeth W’s story

With the advent of the NHS, and better social care, and many labour-saving devices for housework, the role of a monthly nurse has become quite lost in obscurity. However, back in the days where women had a lying in period – of at least ten days if not longer – after having a baby, a monthly nurse was an extremely desirable person to employ. She was paid to assist a woman and her family in the post-partum period. Household jobs still needed to be done, and men would generally not do them – so they’d either get a female relative to help out, or pay a monthly nurse for a period of time if they could afford it. This woman would also assist with some of the body effluent after a birth, and look after the new mother. Sometimes they would also assist with laying out the dead. Often they’d live with the family.

Invariably, the monthly nurse was a slightly older woman, who had had all her children and raised them to a reasonable degree of independence – so therefore could leave their own family and jobs to a young adult daughter while she went out and earned money for the family. This was the case for Elizabeth, a monthly nurse from New Swindon – as it was called in the later 19th century.

Elizabeth really had grown up alongside the town of Swindon. She’d been born into a rural community to the west of the modern town, to a single mother in the late 1840s. On her christening record she’s given as the base-born daughter of Martha, who appears on the 1851 census as an agricultural labourer living with her sister Mary and various children – some of which are hers. Elizabeth had a sister called Maria, and a much younger brother called Thomas. She was brought up with Mary’s daughter Harriett, who was very close in age. All the children were illegitimate.

The arrangement where unwed siblings would bring up their illegitimate children together does not seem to be uncommon in rural communities in the Victorian era. Much of the moralising tone attributed to Victorian society really stems from an educated class who sought to differentiate from and rise above the illiterate working classes and were able to write that stigma down, and it is possible that the stigma for children out of wedlock was slightly less sharp in the rural and agricultural communities.

By the time she was 14, Elizabeth had left home and moved into Swindon – which was growing rapidly on the back of the Great Western Railway. The original settlement, now known as Old Town, was on the hill while the newer development was separate and on the flatter land next to the railway works. In the 1860s Elizabeth got a job as a servant at the Ship Inn on Westcott Street, part of this new town, while her siblings remained with their mother.

Ship Inn Swindon

In 1866, around the age of 20, she married Edward – a grinder for the GWR – and settled in the purpose-built railway village, to the south of the train tracks. They had ten children: four boys initially (although the second of these died aged less than a year), then two girls, another three boys, and finally another girl. The cottages were two storey and quite cramped, so Elizabeth’s growing family would have been all on top of each other. The young men of those streets at the time also had a bit of a reputation for wild behaviour.

Railway village

Eventually they moved a few streets away from the railway village to a slightly bigger house. It’s likely that Edward’s job probably didn’t bring in a great deal of money for such a large family, so Elizabeth supplemented the family finances by taking in washing and called herself a laundress. Her eldest son had also started at the railway works himself by the age of 13, which helped support the family.

Edward died in the autumn of 1887, leaving Elizabeth a widow at the age of 40. She would have relied on her laundry earnings and that of her children to support the family. Particularly as her youngest daughter was barely a year old.

By the 1891 census several of Elizabeth’s sons were employed at the railway works. However, both of her elder daughters had not found employment in Swindon – whether that was for a lack of opportunity for young women in the area at the time (there were cloth works employing women at the time, but the steam laundry was not set up until that year), or Elizabeth encouraging them to spread their wings and go elsewhere.

the_birth_of_swindon

Lizzy, the older, ended up in the workhouse in London for three weeks at the beginning of the 1890s, with a tiny illegitimate baby of her own. Elizabeth took Lizzy’s daughter Dorothy in, and raised her with the others, while Lizzy went off to become a cook in a private girls’ school. After that, she emigrated to Wisconsin, USA, to become a nurse. Dorothy remained in Swindon with her grandmother and grew up there.

In the late 1890s one of her daughters became ill, and the family participated in an advert for “Dr Williams’ Pink Pills For Pale People” in the newspapers, claiming that she was near death but the pills saved her. While outlandish, in an era where the general understanding of medical science was poor and advertising was unregulated, this probably helped Elizabeth’s standing in the community.

Most of Elizabeth’s boys married, and kept stable jobs at the railway works, and lived very close to their mother – either in the same street or a neighbouring one. One son appears to have been in regular trouble with the police over disorderly behaviour. Her daughter Martha also married, but moved back home with her husband to keep house with her mother. They never had any children. Her son George’s toddler twin daughters died of a terrible burning accident in 1896, after playing with matches, and Elizabeth was involved in caring for them, showing that she had a trusted degree of medical skill.

By this time most of Elizabeth’s children had grown up enough to either take care of themselves day-to-day or be looked after by Martha – which meant Elizabeth was freed from her home to be able to take on the more lucrative work of a monthly nurse. The fact that she was able to make a living from this profession – which relied on local families having enough income to take a monthly nurse in, rather than calling in a female relative.

monthly nurse bill

Elizabeth’s choice of profession may also have been influenced by a deep love of children. She appeared to collect them. Alternatively, she may have been religiously atoning for her own illegitimate start in life – or perhaps a bit of both. In 1908 her youngest daughter Amy followed the path of her sister Lizzy, and went over to the USA to work as a nurse. This did not work out so well for her though, and she came back and presented Elizabeth with another illegitimate grandchild – Walter – in 1910.

Again, Elizabeth seems to have taken care of the child and let her daughter go off elsewhere while she brought up the child. Amy went to be a parlour-maid on the Isle of Wight, and married there a couple of years later. However, she returned to Swindon in the middle of 1916, and died young. Elder daughter Lizzy died in Chicago in 1913.

So, by 1911 Elizabeth had acquired two grandchildren to bring up, and had adopted another, Ruby – who was born illegitimately in her house to an Agnes, who then disappears – so it’s probable that Elizabeth had volunteered to bring up Ruby too and let Agnes go off to a different life.

Her monthly nurse work will have undoubtedly brought her into contact with many women struggling after having a baby, whether married or not, and it is possible that her two grandchildren and adopted daughter were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the children she took in. We are lucky enough to know about these three from census records, but there may well have been others. Adoption and fostering processes were not formalised at this time, and relied upon good will – which Elizabeth clearly had in abundance.

She died in 1924, having outlived many of her children.

Phillis Dowson’s story

While the internet is full of references – and even the text of – an American version of a Women’s Suffrage Cookbook, published to aid the cause in the States in 1915, the earlier British version is less known and considerably hard to get hold of.

The Women’s Suffrage Cookbook was compiled and edited by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who held up the British tradition of resigning her own name to that of her husband despite her political views, in the early years of the 20th Century. One reference gives its publication as 1908, but several others say 1912, so whichever is right the book was in existence at the height of the women’s suffrage campaign.

The project had two real objectives – to raise funds for the suffrage cause, and to provide quick easy dishes for women to prepare for their family so that they’d have more time for campaigning.

Whether it was her brainchild or not, the book was put together by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who was born Phillis Ellen Heaton Atkinson in 1876 in Frimley, Surrey.

She was one of six children of Edmund Atkinson, an author and professor of physics at one of the Oxford colleges, and his wife Mary—the daughter of Bristol-based soap magnate Christopher J Thomas.

She grew up in Surrey, with a full complement of servants in the household, also spending time in Bristol with her grandfather. Educated well into her teens, she didn’t work afterwards, indicating that the family finances were solid enough for her to devote herself to other pursuits. Her father died in 1900, leaving a considerable amount of money to Phillis’ mother. At the age of 27 — in 1903 — Phillis married Aubrey Osler Dowson.

Aubrey had been a prominent rugby player in his youth—he played forward for New College Oxford and Leicester, and later for Moseley. He also played in the starting XV for England versus Scotland in 1899. By the time he married Phillis he had settled into a career as a glass manufacturer, but perhaps his prominent name was a factor in her choosing to be known by it rather than her own.

Aubrey’s aunt, Catherine Osler, was also well-known suffragist, who was perhaps part of influencing Phillis’s political leanings. Aubrey worked for the Osler family glass manufacturing business, and they probably had close ties with the firm.

Phillis and Aubrey had no children.

By the 1911 census Phillis was fully involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and declared herself as a women’s suffrage philanthropic worker. Her mother also expressed support for the suffrage campaign on her census return.

Many of the recipes in Phillis’s cookbook were drawn from suffrage campaigners working in the Midlands, around the Warwick and Birmingham area where she and Aubrey were living at that time. However, some well-known figures appear in the pages – Millicent Fawcett contributes some recipes, as does Helena Swanwick. She appears to have published nothing else following this cookbook. Phillis became secretary for the Midland Federation for the NUWSS.

Despite being almost 40, Aubrey signed up for military service during the Great War, leaving Phillis alone at home. He survived, but his record is one that was destroyed in a fire.

In later life, Phillis and Aubrey travelled to exotic places—Morocco and Indonesia.

They moved to a farmhouse at Hanging Langford, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, for their last years.

Aubrey died in 1940, but Phillis was not an executor of his will—he left a considerable amount of money to a solicitor and a civil servant.

Phillis outlived her husband by four years. When she died, in 1944, she left £70k to her bank.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.