Jane had lost not only her husband when he ran off with a barmaid, but also her own identity when her husband’s lover claimed her name on the 1851 census in a vain attempt at respectability. She later brought one of the first civil divorce cases against him, after a new act was passed in 1857 enabling women to do so for the first time.
You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing had happened between Jane and her husband Charles, since she seemingly appears alongside him and their children in West Ham in 1851. However, the actual Jane filed for divorce from Charles in 1858, and says in her paperwork that he’d left her in 1841 – which makes the woman with him in 1851 his lover Elizabeth, and not Jane at all. So Jane actually appears on that census twice – once fake, and once with information she’d given the enumerator herself.
Jane was born in Fovant in around 1806, and had married Charles Shore in 1828 in Stockton – where she’d moved to during her childhood. Stockton lies close to the River Wylve in Wiltshire, between Warminster and Salisbury, while Fovant sits further south. Both were small rural communities. She is likely the daughter of James Goodfellow, a carpenter who died while she was still quite young, and Rhoda, nee Matthews. Her father’s death seems to have put the family – Rhoda and Jane’s siblings Hester, James, John, Mary, Elizabeth and Martha – close to the poverty line, as her mother subsequently gives her occupation as a pauper on early census returns.
Moving over to Stockton and subsequently marrying Charles must have seemed a bit of a step up for Jane. Charles came from Heytesbury, also relatively close by, and his father was a mason. They lived at Stockton for eight years after their marriage, while Charles worked as a farm labourer, and then moved to Trowbridge for him to run a carrying business between that town and Salisbury, and to subsequently run a pub. Much of this detail comes from Jane’s divorce petition, submitted in 1858, which fills in a great deal of the back story.
The likely pub premises, as they’re where Jane was living on the 1841 census, was the Brewery Tap on Back Street in Trowbridge, now long-since defunct, and probably serving Ushers ales, as the brewery was nearby. In all likelihood, though Charles would have been the landlord and held the licence on paper, it would probably have been Jane that did the day-to-day running of the pub. This situation was relatively common among landlords and landladies of pubs at the time.
The 1841 census, taken around a month after Charles deserted Jane, finds her still in the pub premises, with a new barmaid and a five-year-old girl, also called Jane though bearing Jane’s maiden surname. Jane states in her divorce petition that she’d had no children with Charles, so it’s likely that the younger Jane was a niece, the daughter of one of her many siblings, who partially fulfilled a child role in the couple. It’s relatively common to find niblings being brought up by their aunts – sometimes due to economic necessity, as that would be one less mouth for the parents to feed, but also sometimes passed over to childless couples, perhaps as a kindness in a society where motherhood was seen as a perfect state for women.
When the 1851 census was taken, Jane had given up the pub and had moved to Bath with her niece, where she was making a living as a nurse. This would not have been a nurse in a hospital during this era, but more someone who went into people’s houses to care for them if they were sick, or incapacitated after childbirth or an accident. It would have not been the most lucrative profession, but would have given her enough to live on. She more often worked as a monthly nurse. This was someone who cared for a woman in the final stages of pregnancy and through the birth, and lived in different households for a month at a time. She also probably did some of the chores of the household while the woman was lying in.
In contrast, Fake Jane, aka Elizabeth, was living with Jane’s husband Charles and two children in West Ham, where Charles was working as an engine driver on the railway. In addition to their own two children, Elizabeth had also taken in a nursechild, which meant that she’d probably lost a baby in the preceding year, but had taken in another child who needed her breastmilk. The reason for the deception of Elizabeth using Jane’s name on the official document was probably to do with respectability, as she was posing as his wife to all intents and purposes, but they perhaps feared some retribution on a legal document, as the census was. Therefore, she used the name Jane rather than Elizabeth. It’s probable that Jane never knew of this deception.
Jane’s plea for divorce, filed on 8th November 1858, was only the second divorce case from Wiltshire under the new 1857 act, (the first was Amelia Willett, in February 1858), and was a straight plea for the marriage to end.
There was a major overhaul in divorce law in parliament in 1857. This was partly brought about by the campaigning of Caroline Norton, who (finally) received a blue plaque for her efforts in 2021. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 brought divorce into the civil courts, and out of the realms of the church. It also meant that for the first time women could bring divorce proceedings, or seek ways out of the legal trappings of a marriage, which is what more what Caroline Norton wanted. And this enabled Jane to seek recompense for what had happened to her.
Under the Act, which came into force on 1 January 1858, men could achieve a divorce by just proving their wife had had an affair. Women had to prove their husband’s adultery, in addition to something else he’d done wrong: either extreme cruelty, desertion, bigamy or incest. Marriages were also ended by nullity – in most cases a previous marriage which had been “forgotten” to be declared, but occasionally impotence. The Divorce and Matrimonial Court didn’t just hear the ends of marriages either – either party could apply for a judicial separation, which mean that they were still legally married, but didn’t have to live together. This was often used by women who couldn’t prove adultery but wanted to avoid flying fists. Either party could also petition the court under the act for restoration of conjugal rights, therefore forcing their partner to live with them again.
Women could also apply to protect any independent earnings they’d made since their husband’s desertion, and the first of the two earliest Wiltshire cases was one of these, filed by Amelia Willett (née Philpott) of Market Lavington in late February 1858.
Jane’s story, from the case files, was a straight plea for the marriage to end on the grounds of adultery and desertion. She says that he ran off with the bar maid Elizabeth Doughty and went to live in Vauxhall, where she passed as his wife. He hadn’t contributed anything to Jane’s upkeep since. She had discovered that they’d lived under the surname Grant, and they’d run an eating house together, but had subsequently moved to Portsmouth.
The case, which was uncontested by Charles, was sent for trial in December, and the minutes were filed in May 1859. There is no definite sign of the verdict, either in the file or the newspapers, but it’s likely that Jane could have won. She may also have run out of money to remain in London and pursue the claim – divorce could be expensive, particularly before the verdict, as the claimant would have had to have funded the proceedings themselves before any costs were awarded in judgement.
Like many people in her position, she had moved to London to be closer to the courts while the legal proceedings were heard. She lived at Bloomsbury, in lodgings on Southampton Street, while the trial was being heard, but afterwards returned to Wiltshire. The time the legal proceedings took – other divorce papers have lawyer’s lackeys sent to hunt down the defendants, to get their answers to the divorce petitions. It may be, if Charles and Elizabeth called themselves Grant, that they were unable to be found. The case was ordered by the judge to be heard via oral testimony in court in 1859, and then there is no further record.
Whatever happened, Jane returned to her previous nursing life afterwards. The 1861 census has her caring for the rector’s wife in Dunkerton, Somerset, a bit south of Bath, who had a month old baby. Ten years later, the 1871 census has her visiting a friend on Conigre in Trowbridge, round the corner from her former pub, though she was still working as a nurse.
After that she disappears from view, and probably was mis-recorded in her death record as she would most likely have been living in someone else’s house when death occurred and they would not have had her full details to bury her properly. Someone bearing her name was buried in Bishop’s Lavington, now West Lavington, in 1884, but this would appear to be someone else who had lived there for years and not the Jane we are looking for.
Charles and Elizabeth never seem to have married, however, which could also indicate that Jane’s petition failed. Elizabeth Doughty might have pretended to be Jane on the 1851 census, but used her own name afterwards. She and Charles had at least five daughters together, and moved to Portsmouth where Charles still worked as a railway engine driver. He later ran a horse drawn taxi cab around Portsmouth, but he appears to have stayed faithful to Elizabeth for the rest of his life. He died in Portsea Island in 1881.
The humble professions of Charles and Jane should hopefully help to dispel the idea that divorce in this period was a preserve of the rich. They certainly weren’t. Jane would have saved enough money from her work to afford the legal fees, while waiting for the legislation to be put in place for her divorce case to be heard. Pauper cases were also heard, although they were rarer.
Without the information given in the legal files, a very different picture of this couple could have emerged. We would have had no way of discerning what had caused the split, and could have thought Jane had gone to Vauxhall with Charles, since Elizabeth used her name. Her divorce case gives her back her truth and her history.
One of the ways a gently-born Victorian woman who’d fallen on hard times could make an income respectably was to teach creative skills. In a society where women were expected to be decorative and provide entertainment, there was always a demand for those skills – from peers and for those who aspired to climb the social ladder.
That’s the route Charlotte took when her merchant husband returned to India without her, leaving her to bring up her small son alone. She claimed widowhood, taught piano and singing in fashionable circles, and gave recitals – in London, Chippenham, and Bristol. Except the qualifications she traded upon were actually later proved to be fake. And there is a question mark over whether she actually married her husband at all.
She was the daughter of Edward Peagam, a lawyer who occasionally called himself a gentleman, and his wife Mary. She was their eldest child, born about five years after they married (in London in 1846, with Edward calling himself a gentleman), in Sandbach in Cheshire – a pretty market town to the north-east of Crewe.
However respectable and middle class her background was, it does not appear to have been financially stable. Her father spent as much time becoming bankrupt as he did defending those with debt issues, and his name was often splashed all over the newspapers as owing money to creditors.
It was during one of those periods of bankruptcy that Charlotte was removed from the family home, and sent to Devon to be brought up by her grandmother and aunt Ann.
Her widowed grandmother, Mary Peagam, had been making a living as a hosier – someone who made legwear, so socks and stockings – but had acquired enough of a cushion to live off if wisely invested. Ann was her eldest unmarried daughter. Together they brought up Charlotte in Plymouth, and even when her parents’ financial situation was more stable she wasn’t returned to them.
By 1861 Charlotte’s parents had moved to Bicester in Oxfordshire, where her father was working as a solicitor. They had had two further daughters – Julia and Laura – so Charlotte had younger sisters, but she did not grow up alongside them.
At some point in the 1860s Charlotte’s mother had had enough of the constant financial fluctuations, and left her father. She returned to the Plymouth area with her two younger daughters, and they lived apart thereafter, and she may have seen Charlotte more regularly.
After her grandmother’s death in 1864, Charlotte’s aunt Ann moved into the supporting role for her. They boarded in Plymouth with another family, living off the interest of money, and at some point before 1879 moved to London.
Somewhere around this point, Charlotte met Cowasjee Wookerjee or Wookergee. He gave himself in trade directories as an East India Company merchant, but since that company had ceased to operate by 1874 it is likely that he was using the name and trading by association.
He had some sort of merchant business, importing products from India – possibly textiles – which was based in Leadenhall Market in the City of London. This was likely appealing to exclusive clients. However, since he was only there in the 1880 trade directory, he probably wasn’t there for long.
There’s no marriage record for Charlotte and Cowasjee in the British Isles, but it’s always possible that they did marry elsewhere. They certainly regarded themselves as married. Their first son, Pheeroze, was born in Paddington in 1879. They had a second son, Khoosow, in London in the summer of 1880, but later on that year Pheeroze died at just over a year old. The family do not appear on the 1881 census, taken that April, possibly due to poor transcription, but if they were in the country they were most likely in London.
There is a slim possibility that Charlotte had travelled to India with Mr Cowasjee Wookerjee and Khoosow, however. An article from an Indian newspaper in June 1881 says that he had selected and brought out machinery from Europe to start Scindia’s Paper Mill.
This, probably established by the Scindia family in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, made paper from rags and karbi (exactly what that was isn’t clear).
The article said:
“Great praise is due to Mr Wookerjee for the untiring zeal and energy he has show in connection with this scheme from which considerable results may be expected. The mill, indeed, promises to be a great success, especially as skilled European engineers and workmen have been employed to carry on the work.”
Whether or not Charlotte and Khoosow went to India, Charlotte’s marriage fell apart and they separated. She gave herself as a widow, but there’s another mention of Cowasjee Wookerjee in the Indian press in 1896, so that probably wasn’t the truth. She and her son were definitely in the UK by 1885, as the first evidence of Charlotte’s new career is reported upon then.
Giving herself as Mrs Cowasjee Wookerjee, Charlotte is reported as having sung at a Cricket Club concert in Monks Risborough, Buckinghamshire. This means that she and Khoosow were probably living nearby.
By February 1886 though, Charlotte had moved to Ealing and was starting to become more established as a teacher of music. She also had a stage name, Madame Elcho, which she used for performing and teaching purposes.
Her main qualification for teaching – she called herself a professor of music – was as a Fellow of the Society of Science, Letters and Art.
This society, which allowed Charlotte to put the letters F.S.Sc. after her name, was run by Dr Edward Albert Sturman from his house in Kensington. It allowed its members to wear academic dress and take exams that were not even marked, resulting in bought diplomas. Charlotte was thus duped, and traded on these qualifications for many years. The society was eventual exposed as bogus in 1892.
After only a couple of years in Ealing, she moved to Southall, where she further promoted herself as Madame Elcho and taught piano, organ, singing and music theory. She also performed once a week at Mr Adler’s Music Repository, in Uxbridge. George Louis Adler was a pianist, music dealer and composer, and used to run entertainments from his shop on St Andrew’s. Charlotte would have been part of a community of musicians and performers who worked out of here, and this would have enabled her to bring in new pupils.
After a year or two in Southall, Charlotte decided to move again. She chose Chippenham in Wiltshire for her new base, and set up home with her son Khoosow, who was then around 9. Her aunt Ann still lived with them, and would have helped her out with childcare and house duties.
In Chippenham she seems to have dispensed with the Madame Elcho name, and instead traded as Mrs Cowasjee Wookergee – a name that might have sounded quite exotic to the locals. She was initially based in Patterdown, from where she briefly advertised herself as a piano and artistic singing teacher, and said that she could travel to Corsham and Melksham for lessons. After that she moved to a house on Cook Street called East View, in the historic part of the town. Cook Street is now part of Chippenham’s St Mary Street, and is part of a particularly beautiful stretch of houses off the town’s market place.
From here she and Khoosow and her aunt Ann appear on the 1891 census together, on which Charlotte gave herself as a professor of music, and Khoosow would probably have attended the local elementary school by the church.
She had days of the week when she would teach in Trowbridge and Melksham, but seems to have been mostly based teaching Chippenham citizens to sing and play the piano. She also gave regular public performances. There is a report from 1890 of her singing as part of a concert at the Congregational Church, alongside other local performers. She also ran a series of piano concerts in the town hall, and tutored a choir of children to perform too.
When advertising her teaching services, Charlotte would occasionally submit testimonials to tempt potential pupils.
According to her, Musical World said of her: “In all she does a true and artistic feeling is made manifest.” Similarly, The Era apparently said that she had “grace and elegance” in her method. And the Court Circular said: “Can sing from D on the bass staff to B flat above the treble line, and she has been well trained in the Italian School of Art. Three recalls at the end of the evening rewarded her efforts to please.”
She was in Chippenham until at least 1892, but by 1895 her services are being advertised from Keynsham, to the west of Bath. Here she was directing concerts, and also performing throughout the 1890s at the Hamilton Rooms, which were on Bristol’s Park Street. There are also newspaper reports of concerts in Bristol’s Staple Hill, and one where she and others were entertaining inmates of Bristol’s workhouse infirmary.
It’s therefore no surprise to find her living in Bristol on the 1901 census. She and her son Khoosow and aunt Ann had set up home in Cumberland Street, in the city’s St Paul’s district. This would have been a relatively fashionable address for the time, even if the houses were in multiple occupation. Charlotte continued to give herself as a professor of music, while Khoosow, now aged 20, was a clerk at the post office. Ann still had no profession given, but would have been occupied with home duties.
After this point, Charlotte seems to have been starting to live a quieter life. There are no reports of concerts in the press, but she probably still taught.
Khoosow married in 1907, and went to live in the St Philips area of Bristol, where he worked as a packer for a printer. His wedding certificate gave his father as Cowasgee Wookergee, a general merchant. He and his wife Laura had several children who grew into quite a dynasty.
The following year, Charlotte’s aunt Ann died. She was quite elderly, and it’s likely that Charlotte may have had to do some considerable nursing in her twilight years. In 1909 Charlotte’s father died at Lutterworth. His financial situation does not appear to have settled entirely – he’d operated out of Southampton, Torquay, north Wales, and Rugby. His death was remarked upon in the press, and it sounds like he was well respected despite his monetary failings.
Charlotte herself is illusive on the 1911 census, but we know from an advert in the newspapers of that year that she had moved to Frampton Cotterell, in South Gloucestershire. She appears to have run some sort of market garden, offering baskets of produce for delivery. This is considerably different from teaching music, and perhaps reflects a more settled way of life.
Charlotte died in 1914, not long after the outbreak of the First World War. She was 62 and still living in Frampton Cotterell, though she was buried at a church in nearby Coalpit Heath.
The truth of a marriage, particularly in the 19th century, was often kept behind closed doors. The mud-slinging, he/she/they-said recriminations of a relationship falling to bits can be incredibly tedious, so maybe that’s a good thing.
Historical divorce cases, however, can offer an eye-opening snapshot of mid-century Victorian domestic life, and crucially what relationships were like for women, and what behaviour was considered acceptable. The 145 divorce cases filed in the first six months after an 1857 change of legislation show adultery aplenty (some in brothels), drinking, gambling, bargaining, pleas, bigamy, beatings, throwing of crockery and furniture, various people who nipped out for something and then turned up in New York or New Zealand or Australia, arguments over money and children, and even someone who couldn’t get it up.
There are various widely-accepted broad brushstrokes about divorce at that time. It’s generally known as the preserve of the rich, and was harder for women than men (it was actually virtually impossible for women to bring proceedings until early 1858). Oral histories recount that the stigma followed people around. This persisted into the 20th century and beyond. As 1980s children, we were encouraged to pity peers of “broken homes”, with added undertones that it was somehow the woman’s fault. An older work colleague (c.2006) confided that the village women were suspicious of “our local divorcee” because she was after their husbands – the idea that divorcees, having had regular sex, would chase it again. ONS statistics for 2019 showed that 42% of marriages ended in divorce, so it’s now commonplace, if no less sad.
In terms of women being able to kick their errant man to the curb, the first leap forward was the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Before this, divorce was only available to men, had to go through ecclesiastical courts (it was considered a sacrament, whereas the new Act made it a contract), and if someone wanted to remarry it required a complicated annulment process or a private bill in the House of Commons, which both cost a lot of money – hence it was something rare.
The new Act was seen through parliament partly via the campaigning of Caroline Norton (who was awarded a London blue plaque on her former home by English Heritage in April 2021), this came into effect on 1 January 1858. Of those 145 cases, from January to June, 92 of them were brought by women. These women were, effectively, pioneers. Paving the way for other unhappily married couples to try to change their circumstances, though not always successfully.
The new act also meant it wasn’t for just people with stacks of cash. The first of many pauper causes was filed in early May 1858, where Jane Astrope wanted to divorce husband William – and as time went on people on lower incomes saved for years in order to bring their other half to court.
It was still easier for men than women, as all men had to prove was that their wives had taken another lover, whereas a woman had to prove her husband had cheated on her AND beaten her or left her or married someone else too.
Divorce wasn’t the only option under this new act, or even the most common. You could petition for a legal separation (a “Judicial Separation”) which meant wives could escape the worst flying fists. Or ask the court to force your errant husband home. You could also go for nullity, either because your partner was already married, or it remained unconsummated. Earnings and inheritance acquired since a split could also be protected.
A prime example of one of these cases is Mary Jane Pascoe, originally from Dublin, who sought to rid herself of husband Charles. He’d originally been a ship broker and commission agent in Dublin, which was a good middle class occupation but not that rich. He had run off to Australia around 1851 to become a miner, presumably as part of the gold rush.
Mary Jane Pascoe, née Wynne, and Charles Pascoe
Mary Jane’s petition of late May 1858 claimed cruelty – he’d given her a venereal disease (probably syphilis).
“… your petitioner’s said husband being infected with the Venereal Disease communicated it to your petitioner by reason where of your petitioner has undergone great bodily pain and her health has been greatly injured.”
Pascoe vs Pascoe, P00012, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
Passing on the pox was considered cruelty. Her petition also alleges that had it off with their servant, and another woman in Liverpool, in addition to now being in Australia and having deserted Mary Jane. This should have been enough grounds to meet the criteria set out for women in the 1857 Act. Marriage was now a contract in the eyes of the law, not a sacrament, so proceedings were heard in civil courts.
The court would have attempted to contact him in Australia for an answer. It appears they didn’t get the answer they wanted. Charles filed for divorce from Mary Jane himself from the state of Victoria in 1876. He said they’d written to each other until 1862, and he’d constantly offered to bring her out to join him, but he’d then heard nothing until 1874. His brother-in-law had told him, from his home in Maryland, USA, that Mary Jane had had a child by William Foy of Trinity College, and now he wanted his marriage to end. Mary Jane died in Dublin in 1877, while they were still officially married. This put an end to the matter.
In fact, the first case brought in by a woman after the legislation was introduced fell short of the differences between men and women filing the cases. Ann Deane, née Saunders, of Reading in Berkshire filed for divorce from her husband Arthur on 6th February 1858 (there were three cases in that January, but they appear to have been originally operating under previous rules, and their outcomes are far from clear). They’d married in 1835, and had had nine children. She alleged that her husband frequented bawdy houses, and cheated on her with an actress. However, as her grounds for divorce were merely that he was a cheating git, and he hadn’t beaten her up too, the case could not progress.
We are also talking about an era where marriage was considered sacred and ordained by God, and many women would not have wanted it to officially end even if things had completely gone south. Therefore many women used the other options – protecting property and earnings from the date her husband left, so she wasn’t liable for his lifestyle or debts. A judicial separation, usually used where the beatings were vicious but he hadn’t actually cheated on her, meant they legally separated but her husband still financially supported her. The inequality lasted until 1923, when women could bring divorce proceedings just for adultery alone.
Protection of property and earnings
Sophia Moore, from Portsmouth, was the first of 26 cases in that first six months who wanted to protect her property and earnings from her errant husband. Under the law at the time – the Married Women’s Property Act was 12 years away – once married, any property or money or earnings that a woman had instantly belonged to her husband. So, even if he’d deserted her, as Sophia’s husband Thomas had 14 years earlier, any earnings or property that Sophia had acquired since were legally his. Had he got himself into debt, Sophia would have been legally liable to pay it off.
As it happens, Sophia and Thomas’s case is a fairly tame one for the period. He was steadily being promoted up the ranks of the Royal Marines, so spent large periods of time away at sea. They’d married in 1833, he’d formally deserted her in 1844, but until January 1858 had done the “right thing” and maintained her with a monthly allowance. He’d stopped in January, so in February Sophia entered a plea for her earnings and property from this date to be legally her own. It may be that she’d come into some extra money from the death of a parent. The case didn’t make the papers, but she appears to be successful as she’s on the 1861 census in Paddington living with a servant, and says she’s independent. However, she also claims to be a widow on that document, which she isn’t as Thomas was alive until 1884, and it may be that she used that status to bigamously marry again as she disappears from view thereafter.
Property cases could be far more salacious than this one. Later that February Mary Cartwright of Westminster also filed a similar petition against her husband Edward. However, he was a habitual drunk who’d deserted her in 1839 and didn’t provide anything by way of support. He reappeared in 1844, after the death of her mother, demanding money that she’d just inherited, took it, and then disappeared again. She hadn’t seen or heard anything of him since 1845.
An Act of Parliament in 1864, just six years later, changed the powers of women protecting their property and earnings to make them more difficult to achieve, by allowing a husband to apply for an order to have this protection discharged. This didn’t get repealed for more than 100 years.
Harrowing tales of Victorian family life can often be found in the Judicial Separation petitions. These were invariably (though not always) petitioned for in the cases of extreme domestic violence, but where there was no firm evidence of the husband’s adultery so divorce wasn’t possible. In addition, an amount of beating was considered acceptable in this society, where people were regularly physically punished, and a husband could “discipline” his wife – invariably with his fists or a stick. Emotional abuse was also common but wasn’t regarded as cruelty. However abhorrent this sounds to our modern sensibilities, this was parr for the course at the time.
Where the Act was able to help women was where the cruelty veered into something more than the occasional clout. Interestingly though, the first attempt at Judicial Separation (JS) didn’t feature any violence whatsoever. On Friday 5th February gentleman’s daughter Ellen Martin of Russell Square asked for a JS from husband John (who had no profession whatsoever). He married her the previous summer but didn’t spent a great deal of time with her. He left, took up with someone called Kate, and went to Brighton with her instead posing as husband and wife. He denied the accusations, however, and the case appears to have been dropped.
The second JS case through the courts on 9th February, where Londoner Sarah Peacock née Cuthbert accused her husband Alexander of adultery and requested a separation, again didn’t feature any violence. Sarah got the judgement she wanted in the end.
The third JS, however, is grim reading. This was filed on 20th February, and became the first jury case heard under Act when it went to court in May. Louisa Tomkins née Hudson left Farringdon Market potato salesman Thomas Tomkins in January after a catalogue of violence and threats. He would frequently use his fists on her if he felt she needed some chastisement and this situation had continued since 1851.
“… the said Thomas Tomkins at Shoe Lane Fleet Street in the City of London grossly abused and threatened your Petitioner and beat her and otherwise treated her with great cruelty whereby her health was materially affected.”
Tomkins vs Tomkins, T00006, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
“The petitioner having being sworn, deposed that her husband was a very ill-tempered person, who was in the habit of knocking her about when he was in a passion. On one occasion he had beaten her because she said that a woman whom he had called a respectable sort of person was not so. They had had quarrels about another woman, towards the child of whom her husband made a regular payment. Her husband threatened to bring the child into his house, in order to punish witness. If she ever made a mistake in her accounts he would abuse her; and on one occasion, when she had returned late from Woolwich, he beat her with his fists.”
West Middlesex Herald, Saturday 8 May 1858
In January 1858 he’d held her down by her hair and had beaten her around the head, from which she was still suffering in court, and threatened her with further violence too. She had left him, and had gone home to her mother, taking her children with her. Thomas insisted that this was untrue and asked the court to force her back home. The court for Louisa, and she received her JS. The judge in the case said that he wanted future cases like this one to be heard behind closed doors. As to what happened to Louisa next, the records have remained elusive.
A case of impotence led to a petition for the marriage to be annulled on 12th February 1858, a Wednesday. French citizen Alphonsine Isaacson had married British husband Ebenezer Silver twice, as was required by French law, once at Paris town hall and again at the Synagogue. However, the marriage was never consummated due to his supposed lack of ability to rise to the occasion (she entreated the court to examine his reproductive organs, to see she was correct), and he’d left her.
“That at the time of the civil and religious marriages the said Ebenezer David Silver was and has ever since been and now is naturally and incurably impotent and incapable of generation as on due examination of him will appear.”
Isaacson vs Isaacson, I00001, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
She believed he was living in Cheapside. The case does not appear to have made the newspapers. Ebenezer, a doctor with the East India Company, was an expert on diseases of the anus and rectum, and when Alphonsine tried again in 1869 for a separation on the grounds of cruelty he claimed he was previously legally married to someone else and that there wasn’t a case to answer.
Restoration of conjugal rights
There were four cases for restoration of conjugal rights brought by women too, in that first six months. The first of these was on 2nd March, where Eliza Kyan of Brompton petitioned the court to force her husband John back to live with her and their children, him having refused to do so since November 1857. Restoring him to the marital home would have meant Eliza had help parenting the kids, and also would have known that her financial situation was stable, whatever state their marriage was in. Divorce was not an option for this pairing, as they were both Catholic.
Divorce with adultery and desertion
As for the 22 wives who attempted to get a divorce in that first six months, two were automatic fails as there wasn’t enough evidence. The first one filed, on 8th February 1858, which successfully went through the courts was the petition of Esther Pyne née Varley, who had grounds via adultery and desertion of above two years. Her husband of 30 years, George, a renowned watercolour painter, had gradually put the couple into debt due to an addiction to gaming and gambling, and was unable to support them. He’d also committed adultery while drunk, went to France without her to try to earn his living again and deserted her, leaving her without income. Esther had relied upon her father for support, and started teaching music, though George would occasionally write to her and ask for money. Ten years later, and based in Chelsea, she discovered him living in Oxford with another woman and their four children. George didn’t contest Esther’s petition, and the divorce was granted. She remarried the following year, to solicitor Charles Willesford, and lived with him in Devon to the end of her days.
Divorce with adultery and bigamy
The first divorce case brought by a woman where he’d cheated on her and married someone else too was filed in the second week of February, and included desertion for a three-pronged attack. Grace Robotham, née Halford, married Thomas in Clerkenwell in 1849, and they had two daughters. However, he also married Leonora King in 1856, while Grace was still alive, and to avoid the consequences fled to New York. She asked for custody of the children, and for her marriage to end – but as Thomas was abroad the court sought him out for a possible defence, indicating that they’d unusually take his father’s word instead if they were unable to locate him. The case got no further mention, but there’s no sign of Thomas or Leonora in the UK from this point onwards, and Grace and her daughters went to live with her parents in Clerkenwell. Grace reverted to her maiden name, indicating that the divorce probably went through, but called herself a widow.
Divorce with adultery and cruelty
The first cases of a wife petitioning for divorce with adultery and cruelty took longer to come through the system. Jessie Sudlow attempted to use cruelty alongside adultery in her petition against husband Alfred in early March 1858, but it turned out that Alfred had died before the case was heard in April. Therefore Jessie was a widow and didn’t need a divorce. Emma Weatherill also included cruelty in her case against deserted and adulterous husband George, who was in Sydney when she filed on 13th April. The cruelty wasn’t particularly clear cut, and it was felt there was enough evidence on desertion and adultery, so that part of the case was dropped.
The first woman’s divorce case petitioned for that included cruelty as part of the case was brought by Eliza Brunell, wife of early photographer Theodore, who had famously taken photographs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s children in 1852.
Theodore Brunell’s portraits of Queen Victoria’s children
Widowed Eliza, née Bush, who kept an inn at Weymouth that still exists, had married second husband Theodore in January 1857. In the 17 months before she filed for divorce, he’d not only visited houses of ill-fame, and committed various acts of adultery, but had also assaulted a little girl by hitting her with a stick and was serving time when she filed for divorce. His catalogue of vile behaviour towards Eliza is extreme.
“The said Theodore Brunell spit upon your Petitioner and used and applied to her disgusting and obscene names and language and threatened to set fire to the House where your Petitioner was then residing and threatened never to have any peace with your Petitioner, and on… (6.1.1857)… the bedclothes of your Petitioner were found burnt, and your Petitioner verily believes the same to have been burnt by the said Theodore Brunell for the purpose of annoying and intimidating your Petitioner.”
Brunell vs Brunell, B00012, 1858, England and Wales Civil Divorce Records
He also spat, threatened her with knives and various dinner utensils, cut her, and hit her with a heavy stick in public. Within 20 days of the marriage they weren’t living together anymore.
Eliza got her divorce, granted in May 1859, and remarried soon after to James Board – who moved into the pub to help her run it, and they had a whole ream of children. Theodore continued on his downward spiral, and on the 1861 census he’s in the police jail cell, coincidentally next door to Eliza’s pub. He committed suicide a few months later. Eliza lived until 1875.
Mud-slinging apart, it’s hard not to be struck at just how human the lives are we see within these legal pages. The Victorian age is so often characterised as stilted and an attempt to live good, pure and Godly lives, enhanced by the stiff sepia poses of their portraits. If it wasn’t for obvious colloquial language differences, and evolved societal norms, you could quite easily see these break-ups being discussed over a bottle of prosecco at a top London bar. Time may have moved on, and we now wouldn’t accept some of the things that happen in a marriage – e.g. flying fists – and rightly so, but people are still people.
Caroline Norton’s story and campaign may have spearheaded change, but the cases of Jane, Mary Jane, Ann, Sophia, Mary, Ellen, Sarah, Alphonsine, Louisa, Eliza Kyan, Esther, Grace, Jessie, Emma, Eliza Brunell and the rest of the 92 women were all pioneering in their own way and helped to open up legal proceedings and recompense for the women who followed. There’s no doubt that the lives of the wives may have improved in the cases petitioned for by the 53 husbands in the first six months of the act. But these women were using the new legislation for themselves, and in many cases winning.
Dorothy, known to family as Dodo, was clearly not someone to be trifled with. She was once a suffragette, then a nurse in World War 1 Russia who was awarded a medal for bravery, founded one of the first anti-natal clinics in London in the early 1920s before more nursing in the Baltic states, and then was a formidable magistrate at home in Cambridgeshire. This eventful life, which pegged out when she was 95, was both lived to the full (her family remembers her being both formidable but also great fun as a person) and reflected the full scope of the 20th century.
Dodo came from a bright and slightly eccentric middle-class family, and was born in the mid-1880s, the third of five children. Her father was a doctor, serving in St Osyth, a village in north Essex at the time of her birth, but when she was two they moved with her new baby brother to Fulbourn just outside Cambridge. They named their house after the Essex village, and attached the new surgery and a village hall too. Her youngest brother joined the family around three years later. Though comfortably off, the family had no title and no influence, and were known for working with all sectors of society and being extraordinarily kind – her father Lucius often would not take payment for his work. Although initially he worked on horseback, Lucius was also one of the first doctors to make his rounds by motor car, at the turn of the 20th century. In the early years her family had several servants to help with the household, including a groom.
She was from an era where education was compulsory, so probably began her learning at the village elementary school. At around 11 she transferred to the independent Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, which is separate from The Perse School, which at the time only educated boys. Her brothers probably attended the boys’ school, while her older sister Marjorie would have gone to the same school as Dodo.
It’s there that the equality in education ended, however. Dodo’s brothers were allowed to attend the University of Cambridge – Lucius became a doctor like their father, Douglas a teacher, and Guy a civil engineer – but Dodo was not allowed to go. Women were not admitted to degrees at Cambridge until 1948, although there was a women’s college at this stage, and attending a university that did admit women does not appear to have been an option. Instead, Dodo undertook a diploma for dispensing medicines after finishing school, possibly based at Charing Cross Hospital in London, and then went on to work at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital in Brighton, where she continued training to be a nurse.
The disparity in how her brothers were allowed to continue their education and she was not was a factor in her decision to join in the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was angry. Family stories say that she chained herself to property, but not where and when. Since suffragette chainings were actually rarer than popularly thought, and it is known who was involved in most, it’s possible to pinpoint the likely action that Dodo took. Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves in the House of Commons Ladies Gallery, and Edith New and Olivia Smith chained themselves to the 10 Downing Street railings, both in 1908; and an unnamed group of women to the statues in St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster in April 1909. The St Stephen’s Hall action is therefore likely to be the protest that Dodo made, unless it was a smaller piece of action outside London. She reported being arrested, although newspaper accounts say that arrests didn’t happen at St Stephen’s Hall and they were merely escorted off the site by police, and the experience changed her mind. She reportedly thought that “I’d made a bloody fool of myself” and decided to get on with what she could do instead of concerning herself with what she couldn’t.
She was round about 22 at this time, which was prime marriage age in this era. Whether she did not have the opportunity, or was not inclined to marry (she’d have had to give up work, under the conventions of the day), she did not take this path and instead went on to work in St George’s Hospital, at Hyde Park Corner. Family remember this nurse training brought her directly into contact with the poverty, deprivation and hardship involved in multiple motherhood in certain areas of the city at that time. The 1911 census finds her as a 24-year-old sick nurse at St George’s Hospital, in the company of around 40 others, living at a nurses’ home in Knightsbridge.
Dodo remained at St George’s until 1913, and then took a position at a women’s hospital in Brighton (there were two at the time – Brighton and Hove Hospital for Women and Children, and Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children – and which she was based at was unclear), to train as a midwife, where she remained until the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.
Amid the patriotic fervour and recruitment drive, Dodo joined up with the British Red Cross to help nurse the inevitable casualties. She was sent with a unit to Boulogne on the north coast of France, embarking at the end of October in 1914. She was stationed at the 13th Stationary Hospital, which was on Boulogne docks, and began work at the beginning of November. This hospital became the main specialist unit for the treatment of eye, face and jaw injuries for the soldiers on the nearby Western Front, but this specialism may not have been Dodo’s as she only remained there for three months.
In January 1915 Dodo’s unit moved to the refugee hospital at Malassises, part of a monastery (the monks still had the other bit) at St Omer, a bit in from the coast heading towards the Belgian border. This was set up for the use of Belgian refugees who had been in the way of troops heading towards the front, who were suffering from enteric complaints (noroviruses, stomach bugs, and so on), and was partly under canvas. In late April 1915 she returned to the UK.
The initial party set out from the British coast at the end of October in 1915, carrying supplies and nurses. They took the long way round due to the war. They sailed through UK waters as far as possible, as it was safer to avoid German boats, and went up the west coast of Norway, around the top of Sweden and into the White Sea, arriving at the port of Arkhangelsk on the 6th of November. Dodo remembered the journey as extremely cold, with many women huddling together in one bed to keep warm, and dangers from the sound of the cracking ice on the sails of the boat possibly alerting the Germans to their presence.
They left Arkhangelsk on the train a couple of days later, traveling via the striking city of Yaroslavl, and arrived in Petrograd on the 14th of November. The Dimitri Palace had been offered by the Russians to be the base hospital, a grand building which had been empty since 1909. Dodo and her colleagues worked alongside Lady Muriel and Lady Sybil to convert the building for their use, setting up 200 beds for wounded soldiers and associated other facilities – including a bacteriological laboratory and x-ray department. It was referred to as “The (British) Empire’s Gift to Our Russian Allies”, and nurses like Dodo were paid £4-5 per week and provided with uniform.
The Tsaritsa was a major funder of the project, alongside donations from fundraising in the UK, and regularly visited the hospital with her daughters. Sometimes they even volunteered as nurses. Dodo apparently talked to them on many occasions, and got along well with them. The Buchanan’s daughter Meriel was also involved in nursing at the hospital, which was based at her residence.
While Ladies Paget and Grey also set up hospitals in other Russian places – mostly in Ukraine – and raised more donations in the UK, Dodo remained in Petrograd. Georgina Buchanan, the ambassador’s wife, took charge of the hospital while Paget and Grey were absent. More than 6,000 patients were treated by October 1916, and it was policy to not release soldiers until their wounds were completely healed. Often the men were no more than boys, and had suffered horrific injuries that made them cry out for their mothers. Dodo found this extremely distressing.
She was reportedly involved in helping to treat Prince Felix Yusupov when he had a fish bone lodged in his throat, a few hours after he had helped assassinate Grigori Rasputin in December 1916. Yusupov was placed under house arrest in the Dmitri Palace, where the Anglo-Russian hospital (and the British Embassy) were located, which probably accounts for his treatment in their facilities. She was reportedly very kind to him.
Dodo was awarded the Russian Medal of St George, 4th Class, at some point in 1917 (it was reported in the British Red Cross Journal that July). This was usually given for bravery, or service under fire many who fought at the Battle of Jutland received one. It was less usually given to women – recipients were usually nurses who had been in battle areas – and seems to have been awarded more for bravery rather than service under fire. Nurse Violetta Thurstan received one in 1915, as did Evelina Haverfield. Another nurse associated with the Paget hospital in Izmail, Ukraine, Evelyn Evans, seems to have received a medal around the same time as Dodo. In addition, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrona – Tsar Nicholas II’s younger sister – nursed and was awarded one, as was Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, so it may be that Dodo’s award was part of the work that they were doing.
The medal came from the Imperial government, and was supposed to presented by the Tsar but in reality probably came from Tsaritsa Alexandra, and to have received it in 1917 must have been one of the last acts of that regime. The Russian Revolution began properly in Petrograd in March 1917, with demonstrators on the streets and a workers’ strike, and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15th March (in the Gregorian calendar). The royal family were put under house arrest at the Alexander Palace, and a temporary government installed, which effectively ended the family’s involvement at the Anglo-Russian Hospital. Petrograd was effectively a tinder box from that point onwards, and the situation for Dodo and the other nurses was increasingly unstable, with bloody protests in July and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party leading a second revolution on 7th November that effectively ended the allied war agreement between Russia, Britain and France. This made the existence of the Anglo-Russian hospital precarious, and the Dmitri Palace received some damage in the fighting.
Dodo appears to have left Russia around August 1917, in the wake of these events, probably shortly after the July unrest and receiving her medal. The rest of the remaining nurses were evacuated from Petrograd and returned to the UK in February 1918. The Russian Red Cross then took over the hospital, where they had been left supplies for a further six months. Once she had been repatriated, Dodo went back out to France to the Western Front, where she continued nursing work. It was while she was there in February 1918 that she was awarded the 1914 Bronze Star from the Red Cross Society.
Back in the UK, she saw out the end of the war at the Military Convalescent Hospital in Epsom, working as a night matron. She would have been involved in the rehabilitation of soldiers, both physically and mentally. The hospital also had the first physiotherapists employed by the British army, who at that point were known as masseuses, the Almeric Pagets Massage Corps. It was probably here that Dodo met a close friend who she’d spend much of her life with, also called Dorothy, who worked as a physiotherapist/masseuse.
After the war, Dodo moved to London and worked as Matron at the Duchess of Marlborough’s Maternity Hospital from 1919. Here, fired by her experiences around Tooting, she set up one of the first infant welfare and ante-natal clinics in London. The hospital was also known as the Royal Free Hospital Maternity Home, and probably would have had the involvement of doctor Dame Janet Campbell, who was at the Royal Free and a pioneer in improving mother and baby services. Concern over maternal health and child welfare had been growing since the Edwardian period, with a drive to create a national vitality and a more robust society than had existed in Victorian times. This included increasing vaccinations, the beginnings of the welfare state, better housing stock, and various other programmes and ideas. At this time, though the child mortality rate was starting to drop, mothers were generally left to get on with pregnancy and birth. The stresses of multiple pregnancy on the body, combined with severe deprivation, were starting to be understood, and Dodo and her colleagues at the Duchess of Marlborough were striving to improve matters.
Dodo’s experience here, and her connection to Lady Paget, led her to leave London in 1921/2 and head to the Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – with a mission to provide better care for women and children there. The region had been unsettled since the Russian Revolution, but Estonia had joined the League of Nations in 1921, having had a war of independence in 1918 (Latvia began its own war of independence at around the same time, and Lithuania’s own declaration of independence had occurred slightly earlier), and this was an era of shifting borders in Eastern Europe. Lady Paget had returned to the region after the war was over, and had established mission hospitals and a series of travelling clinics. Dodo appears to have mostly been based in Estonia, where she was given the Medal of the Order of the Estonian Red Cross in 1922. The story goes that Lady Paget and two of the hospital doctors were awarded Estonian Orders of the Red Cross on 30th March 1922, and Lady Paget was given six other medals to distribute to those she felt deserved one. Dodo was one of the six.
Three mission hospitals in Estonia were taken over by the Estonian Red Cross in February of 1922, but Lady Paget’s group continued their work in Tallinn. It’s unknown how much longer Dodo spent in the Baltics though, as her mother was taken seriously ill and she returned home to Cambridgeshire to nurse her. She was still living at home when her mother died in 1923, and decided to remain at home to support her widowed father. He was still working, and during the war had run a local hospital for no renumeration, and had been given an OBE. Her older sister Marjorie was also living nearby, so between them they supported him, and Dodo took a job as Matron at Cambridge Hospital. Meanwhile, her brothers were also experiencing success – two of whom had fought in the war. Eldest brother and doctor Lucius was based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Dodo’s friend Dorothy also moved to the village over the next decade, and worked as a physiotherapist there – possibly alongside the family doctor’s surgery, and also possibly at hospitals in Cambridge.
Dodo now found her feet in village life and village affairs, continuing her family traditions and traits of kindness and fairness. She was taken on as the first female magistrate at Bottisham, a village to the north of Fulbourn, at some point during these years and was presiding over cases by the late 1930s, according to newspaper reports. She also served as a county councillor for twelve years, a position that coincided with the outbreak of World War II as she gives herself as in that position on the 1939 register, taken in the September of that year. She also managed to save her father’s life in 1926, when he had an accident with an oil lamp, and lost her older sister Marjorie to cancer in 1936.
As a magistrate and justice of the peace she made her mark. A report from October 1939 describes her intimating that an increased ration of petrol for local nurses was “bunkum and rot”, and that the nurses could save fuel by cycling wherever possible. Standing just five foot two, and with a deep and booming voice, she was known as being formidable and firm but fair with her judgements, often researching and giving the harshest punishments for misdemeanours.
Her father died in 1942, and was widely mourned by the village. Dodo, who had volunteered in local nursing during the war, had her friend Dorothy move into their house at some point after that, where she remained for the rest of their lives. Dodo’s sexuality was never remarked upon by family, but it was felt that her relationship with Dorothy – known as Double on account of her surname – was more than just friends. However, it could also have been one of companionship given many women of their generation had never married due to the loss of so many young men during the First World War. They came as a pair – known as Dodo and Double – for the rest of their lives, and owned an Alsatian dog together.
Dodo’s brother Lucius was also awarded the OBE after the Second World War, having doctored in the Caribbean, made great strides in bacteriological matters in Ceylon and researched diet and nutrition among prisoners of war in Singapore. Dodo continued to live in her father’s house, with surgery and a small village hall attached. She remained active in health matters – making a “spirited protest” about hospital staff housing being refused at Cambridge Mental Hospital in 1949. She also served on the board of governors for the local junior school for many years (often giving parties for the children in the hall), and was a member of the Chesterton Rural District Council and sat on the Fulbourn Parochial Church Council from 1951. Aside from her professional life, she was a great favourite of her young relatives, being lively and fun at family gatherings and taking delight in visiting her relations. She had a safe full of memorabilia, including jewels given to her by the Russian royal family, letters from various dignitaries and even a pair of pistols.
After a long life, Dodo died at the age of 94 in 1980, in Cambridgeshire. Her partner Double, who was eight years her junior, made it to 100 and died in 1995, also in Cambridgeshire.
Women have been unexpectedly discovering that they are pregnant since time immemorable. However, if that pregnancy is unwelcome or unwanted, how they have reacted over the millennia is related to religious, cultural, temporal and societal factors.
In the mid-19th century, if you were poor and unmarried, you had stark options if you found yourself in this situation. An illegitimate child was a massive stigma in society which could have detrimental implications for your life thereafter, and for that of your child. Abortion was illegal if you were caught and the abortifacients available at this time could be dangerous and didn’t always work, and there were huge religious implications for this option in a very God-fearing society. Another option was to have the baby and pass it off as someone else’s – perhaps your mother might claim it as your younger sibling – but if you were on your own far from home that wasn’t possible, and it’d be a rare family who could afford to take in another mouth to feed if the baby was offered for adoption. A final option, which some women took, was to conceal the pregnancy and to then either abandon or kill the baby when it arrived – which again were illegal, and had religious implications.
Elizabeth, a widow aged 31, faced this dilemma in 1870. She was living on her own with her two sons from her marriage in a down-at-heel area of Chippenham called Lowden, which was starting to be redeveloped as railway workers’ housing but at this time had portions that were semi-rural, poor and crowded. Her neighbours were labourers, hauliers, brickmakers, cloth factory workers, and she was working as a labourer and charwoman. This would have meant very low wages, and no particularly stable employment, and she really couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
Lowden in the 1880s
Despite the economics, she could have insisted that the baby was legitimate and had been fathered by her dead husband. The trouble was, she’d already done that 15 months earlier when she’d given birth to a little boy she had baptised as Alfred, who didn’t live long enough to have his birth registered. The fact that her husband had actually passed away in 1865 would have made this completely impossible, and the true father of the child was either not interested or unavailable to support Elizabeth, but attempting to pass off this little boy as legitimate could have created a veneer of respectability even if everyone would have known the truth. So, finding herself pregnant again in the winter of 1870 meant that claiming that the new baby was also fathered by her dead husband would not have been an option.
It’s unknown whether she tried any abortifacients, but if she did they didn’t work. Therefore, Elizabeth opted to conceal her pregnancy. This would have been easier than now, due to fuller skirts in women’s outfits, and stays would also have helped. She was therefore able to continue working and go about daily life as normal. Whether the concealment was intended, or part of denial and mental health issues brought on by grief having lost a baby and a husband, is open to question. Concealing a pregnancy was not illegal at the time, but concealing a birth was, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Therefore, she was on the road to committing an offence.
Technically, this wasn’t her first offence. She and her husband Eli had lied on their marriage certificate about their ages. They’d married in Corsham in 1860, and Elizabeth would have been 21 – which was old enough to marry without a parents’ permission under the law of the time. Eli, however, was 20 – which was under-age. He increased his age by a year, as did she. While this was an offence, this was a common occurrence, and was usually let slide. And it appears that they didn’t admit to being married at first. A year later, on the 1861 census, Eli – who was a railway porter – was living away from Elizabeth and lodging in the High Wycombe area. He did admit to being married. She, on the other hand, does not appear under her married name, and could well be visiting farming friends of her parents in Sussex posing as an unmarried woman.
She’d grown up in Sussex, just outside modern-day Crawley and close to where Gatwick Airport now sits, and was the daughter of rather a prosperous farmer. She was one of the middle children of a family of at least 13, and at the time her father died in 1851 – when she was just 13 – she was living away from home and working as a servant on another farm. Her mother appears to have not kept the farm, and took up working as a monthly nurse to make ends meet. Elizabeth and her siblings seem to have scattered on the wind.
Exactly where Elizabeth met Eli is unknown. He was a porter for the Great Western Railway though, like his older brother Andrew before him, so it may well have been at a station. At the time of their marriage he was based at Paddington Station, and she was possibly a servant at Hartham House on the outskirts of Corsham. If, as suspected, they hid their marriage for a while, it appears they reunited at some point in 1862. Their first son, Herbert, was born in High Wycombe in the early part of 1863. The new family then moved to Oxfordshire, as next son Charles was born in Thame in the spring of 1864.
They returned to Eli’s home – he’d been brought up in Yatton Keynell, just outside Chippenham – to have Charles christened. Here they stayed, as Eli died the following year aged just 25. His parents, who were agricultural labourers, were in no position to support Elizabeth and her sons. So she moved to a cottage on Lowden in Chippenham and took work where she could find it, which all led up to the concealment of her pregnancy in 1870.
It appears that on 6th September Elizabeth took to her bed and refused to see anyone except her two sons. This behaviour must have been out of the ordinary, as her neighbours were suspicious, and one decided to write to the local surgeon/doctor Mr Spencer outlining what they thought. Dr Spencer went to Elizabeth’s home, found her in bed with her clothes on, and accused her of concealing a birth. She denied it, and refused to let him examine her.
Undeterred, he took the letter to the police and the following day police superintendent Mr Wiltshire visited Elizabeth. Confronted with the officials, and obviously realising that the game was up, she admitted that she’d given birth but the baby hadn’t survived, and she’d concealed it all. The baby, a little girl (initial reports wrongly identified the child as male), was found wrapped in calico in a box at the foot of the bed. She had presumably been too ill since the birth to bury her daughter, or at least decide what to do next.
Elizabeth was taken into custody. Dr Spencer examined the dead child, and reached a verdict that the child had been suffocated by the umbilical cord around her neck during the birth, the result of having no-one to assist with labour. Therefore, Elizabeth was not charged with infanticide and her offence was the lesser one of concealing a birth. She was due to be charged when she recovered enough to face a court hearing. The register of births, marriages and deaths records the death of an unnamed female bearing Elizabeth’s married surname in Chippenham at this time. Whether concealment followed by abandonment, or something worse, was what Elizabeth intended for the child, it’s a situation she would not have gone into lightly, and is desperately sad that the community around her would not have supported her properly following the birth of another child.
She was held at Devizes prison until the case came to trial. She would have been held in a cell specially built for the use of women, dating from around 1841. Her sons went to live with her mother-in-law Sarah, who was widowed and working at Doncombe Paper Mill in Ford.
Devizes Prison, before it was demolished, taken from the air in 1924
The trial, in late March 1871, saw Elizabeth plead guilty and say that she was very sorry that she had done it. Under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 she could have faced up to 2 years in prison, but as the judge had found “that there was no evidence of the destruction of the child”, and had already served 6 months in prison, she was given another three months with hard labour. At Devizes Prison, which was the only prison in Wiltshire and was situated by the Kennet and Avon Canal, a prison term with hard labour would have included baking, cooking, cleaning and walking a treadmill to grind corn. Elizabeth completed her sentence in the summer of 1871, and would have reunited with her sons.
Rather surprisingly, the next record to feature her is another marriage. She married Thomas, a widower 35 years her senior, around 9 months after leaving prison. Thomas’s daughter Eliza had married Eli’s brother Job in the winter of 1870, so Elizabeth would probably have known him before her prison term. He was widowed while she was concealing her pregnancy.
This was probably quite a canny move on Elizabeth’s part. Thomas had a stable job as a small scale farmer, and a clutch of children from his first marriage that were either grown up or close to becoming independent. And at around 70 he would not be expected to live much longer. Her sons would have lived with them, on his farm in Cricklade – a town in the very north of Wiltshire close to the border with Oxfordshire. Elizabeth gave birth a final time, to a daughter called Ellen, in 1873.
However, Thomas did have longevity. The 1881 census finds him as a farmer of 15 acres, employing one boy – probably his stepson Charles, who was living with them. Elizabeth, given her family background in farming, is given as a farmer’s wife and undoubtedly had her own jobs on the land – but typically the enumerator has crossed out her occupation as she wasn’t supposed to admit to it.
Thomas died in 1883, aged around 80. Exactly what happened to Elizabeth after that is unknown for a few years. She appears not to have continued at the farm, as it went to Thomas’s son Henry from his previous marriage. Her eldest son Herbert got married in the London area to a woman named Caroline in 1883. He would have been around 21. However, he and Caroline were witnesses to younger son Charles’s very definitely underage wedding the same year – he married Emma, a woman from Minety, and claimed to be 22 but was actually around 19.
In 1887, her son Charles was convicted of arson, having tried to burn down a house he owned in Brinkworth, to defraud a fire insurance company. He received 6 years of penal servitude. He was imprisoned in Devizes initially, and then was moved to Portland in Dorset. Exactly what happened to his wife is unclear. Elizabeth and her daughter Ellen are not visible on the 1891 census – Herbert was working as an oilman and building his family in Ealing while Charles was in prison. There is also no sign of them on prison records, nor in an asylum.
Charles, after his release from prison, went straight and set up a greengrocers’ shop next door to Herbert in Ealing. He also married again, this time to Gertrude. Exactly what had happened to previous wife Emma is unknown. Reports of the arson mention that they had two children. There’s no obvious death record for her, and it may be that she shunned him after he was imprisoned.
Elizabeth’s son Charles in later life
Elizabeth eventually reappeared on the 1901 census, running a coffee house in Grays – an Essex town on the Thames Estuary – with the help of her daughter. At the time coffee houses were enjoying a boom due to the temperance movement, as they offered an alcohol-free meeting place, so Elizabeth was meeting a demand. Many women were involved in the temperance movement, and it was increasingly linked with women’s rights and universal suffrage. They also had a lodger – a coppersmith – living with them. This was particularly respectable, and in a complete contrast to her earlier rather more notorious life.
The coffeehouse didn’t seem to last though, as when Elizabeth died in 1908 she was resident in Ealing, close to her two sons – who both had large families of their own, and was buried locally. Her daughter Ellen went on to be an apartment keeper, and never married. Son Charles became a gardener, and died just before the second world war. Her son Herbert emigrated to Australia and died out there in the late 1940s.
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.
One gender disparity of the Victorian age was that, if a landlady of a pub was married, the license for the premises was invariably held in her husband’s name – even if he held another job elsewhere and the day-to-day running of the pub was left to her. In an era where women not working was prized as an elite aim, the pub landlady and her daughters appeared exempt. Women were sometimes referred to as the “hostess” of the establishment, which gave them status in a place that was usually regarded as a men’s domain. Women did drink in pubs during this time period, as beer was often better than water at the time, but not in the bar, and were usually not the type of women to be considered “nice” by the bulk of society. In contrast, the landlady had prestige.
More stringent social mores around women and alcohol came in with the temperance movement, and the Defence Of the Realm Act (DORA) during World War One. Temperance largely being a women’s political issue in the absence of being able to vote, there were social restrictions and expectations that grew around older girls and women entering a pub – particularly alone, as it might be seen that they were hoping to be picked up – and women would only be found in the lounge or snug areas of pubs, or would buy alcohol in a jug through a hatch in the outside wall to take away and drink at home. DORA also brought in restrictions for when alcohol could be sold in on-licensed premises.
Mary Ann, her sister Emma and mother Mary were no exception to the women-run establishment rule of thumb. Her father, Charles, nominally ran a pub in the Wiltshire town of Melksham when she was born in the mid-1840s, and the family later moved to Chippenham to run the town’s Three Crowns Inn, located at the crux of a busy coaching thoroughfare between Bath and London. She was the youngest of three children, which was a low number for the time.
However, Mary Ann’s father died in the Spring of 1857, when she was only fourteen. Her mother Mary, who had almost certainly been running the pub either alone or jointly with her husband since the family arrived in the town, then took over the license and ran it with the help of Mary Ann and her sister Emma – five-ish years older. A child working and being in the sight of alcohol being sold was not a problem at the time, as legislation banning under 14s in pubs appears not to have been brought in until the Licensing Act of 1964, and in any case did not apply to children residing at the premises (this was repealed in 1994 and removed at the beginning of 1995).
The pub was run as a going concern, with occasional overnight visitors. They offered a full service of ales and food, and accommodation for horses too – they employed an ostler on their staff, and had their own stables. Mary Ann’s brother George went on to be a commercial clerk, married and lived in Surrey, while the two girls stayed in business with their mother.
The pub, in common with other public houses and hotels at that time, was occasionally the venue for coroners’ inquests as it was a public area with enough space to accommodate many people. This included a 76-year-old sawyer who died of heart disease in 1870, a suicide in 1875, a two-year-old girl from measles complications in 1876, and a man who froze to death in a snowstorm in 1881.
Her mother ran the pub with Mary Ann and Emma for 15 years after her husband’s death, before dying herself at the age of 66. Directly after their mother’s death, both Mary Ann and Emma applied to jointly take over the license of the pub together.
They ran it together for a couple of years, until they both got married – on the same day, at Chippenham’s parish church. Emma’s beau was Charles, a school master who came from Reading, and she went off to live with him in that area and then South Wales. Mary Ann’s husband was Jeffrey, a farmer from nearby Langley Burrell. Accordingly, he took over the license of the pub from Mary Ann, and moved into the premises to nominally run it himself.
However, this marriage did not last long. Two years later Jeffrey was dead at the age of 40, and Mary Ann took over the pub license again. Given she had lived in the pub, and worked the business, since early childhood, this must very much have been business as usual – but running a pub alone, without any family, must have been a big ask. From accounts, the pub was not attached to any town brewery, so also brewed its own ale on the premises, of which Mary Ann would have had charge.
In 1880, she married a widower – Wright – who had lost his wife Emma at about two years before Jeffrey had died. He duly took over the pub licence from Mary Ann, who probably still ran the pub in actuality. Wright had been a farmer, and earlier than that had been a butler at Rodbourne House. His daughter Frances witnessed the marriage, as did Mary Ann’s brother George. With less people running the pub, however, they employed a barmaid and a servant as well as an ostler.
Her sister Emma had a baby in 1881, and Mary Ann went to visit her – Wright now working at the pub meant that she had the freedom to leave the business. There were no children from either of her marriages. Again though, this marriage was short-lived. This time, it was Mary Ann who died. Three years into the marriage, in 1883, she managed to catch her foot in the skirt of her dress and fell down the pub stairs, hitting her head. She complained of a headache later on, and lost a grip on reality, never recovering. She was discovered to have ruptured a blood vessel in her head when she fell. She was 39, which may seem no age now but by the standards of the time was getting on a bit. The local paper said:
“Although scarcely in the prime of life, Mrs. Clarke has perhaps been in the public business for a much longer period than any other landlady in the town, and her very amiable and obliging manners had won her many friends.”
She was buried in Chippenham. Wright sold up the business just over a year later, when it was described as “doing a very good trade, with a capital Market Dinner”. The death of Mary Ann had meant that Wright felt he could not continue running the pub. He went to live with his widowed sister in Norfolk, and died there in the early 1890s.
Actors from the early 20th century are perhaps best remembered today if footage exists of them, as the popular Edwardian theatre was a fast moving world, and many young women would give up their stage career when they married – either through necessity of staying home with children or propriety within society. However, the silent film era, although exciting and great for career exposure, didn’t suit every actor at that time. Early films could be jerky, and stage actors who traded on delicacy of emotion would not be best suited to that medium, and similarly a singing voice and deft use of words and tones would not transfer well to the screen. Evelyn was one such actor, and she did not live long enough for the development of the talkies to bring her style to the screen.
As Evelyn D’Alroy she was much renowned, a beautiful touring actress who was written about in all the newspapers and even had a musical dog that she performed with. However, the exotic last name was a stage name, and she’d been born plain Evelyn Tegg – but kept her stage name even when she married.
Evelyn in 1910, from the National Portrait Gallery collection
Her father, William, was a veterinary surgeon – which probably accounts for Evelyn’s love of dogs – and lived in Hackney. Evelyn was the second child of three, with an older sister and a younger brother, and was born at the beginning of the 1880s in London. Vets would have earned relatively well at the time, as they would have been particularly important in keeping horses – the main mode of transport – fit and healthy. Her mother also came from a solid middle-class background, as the daughter of a military prison warden. Evelyn and her siblings grew up in Tottenham, London, and then Stamford Hill, and would have benefited from enforced elementary education.
However, she lost her father at the age of 12, and he only left the family a little to live on. Her mother took in boarders to make ends meet, and also taught singing – earning enough to keep a domestic servant – and probably influenced Evelyn’s acting and musical career.
She clearly was a violinist of some talent, appearing in various concerts alongside other musicians in the last couple of years of the 19th century under her birth name. Evelyn D’Alroy appears to have come into being in the summer of 1899 as she took a part in a touring production of The Streets of London – an anglicised version of Dion Boucicault’s The Poor of New York, exploring the fortunes of a family facing the 1857 financial crisis. Although her debut was widely held to be in 1902, she was performing in this touring play and others throughout the end of 1899 and into the first couple of years of the 20th century.
The official acting debut that is cited as hers was in “the provinces” (aka not London) in a farcical comedy called Why Smith Left Home in 1902, at around the age of 20. This play, by George Broadhurst, featured comic adventures of a man and his new bride – presumably Evelyn’s role. On her performance here, she was snapped up by theatre agent William Greet, and toured the country in various productions under his management. In the background, her older sister had married a fish salesman and started having children herself, while her younger brother had begun working. Her mother had also remarried, to the head of a wheel and machinery company, and set up home with her new husband in Twickenham – to where Evelyn returned when she was not touring. One of the theatres she is known to have played under this management was Southampton’s Grand Theatre, where she appeared in historical tragedy The Sign of The Cross from 1903 to 1904, although she had been in the play in the years before that. Newspapers of the time indicate that this production went to Durham, and Bristol’s Princes Theatre, Southport, Luton, Burnley and various other places. The newspapers were full of praise for her skills, if less so for the plays she was performing in. One wrote:
Miss Evelyn D’Alroy is a charming actress, and her gifts were really wasted in such a piece.
She also appears to have been managed by Ben Greet, brother of William, during this time too, which meant that she was consistently working.
Evelyn in 1913, from the National Portrait Gallery collection
Her London debut was reputedly as the Duchesse de Longueville in a period piece, The Bond of Ninon, at the Savoy Theatre in April of 1906. This play, written by Irish playwright Clotilda Graves, explored the history of Ninon (Anne) de l’Enclos (1620-1705), who intrigued many distinguished French men in the 17th century. As a production it wasn’t well received by everyone, but Evelyn performed alongside celebrated actors of the day Henry Ainsley and Lena Ashwell, and well and truly launched a career of note.
Her first supposed proper recognition was the leading part in The Builders by Norah Keith at the Criterion Theatre in 1908, described by a paper of the time as a “women’s suffrage play”, although it seems to fall into the anti-suffrage thinking rather than the pro, which examines the relationship between Adrian White, K.C., one of the foremost legal forces of the day, and beautiful divorcee Mrs Cray – Evelyn’s role – whose undying gratitude Adrian has won by winning her divorce case for her and gaining her custody of her daughter. Together these two build an illicit relationship, which leads to the play’s title. A review said:
Miss D’Alroy… is an emotional actress of distinction and personal charm, whose opportunity has yet to come.
While appearing in this play she also had the role of the heroine, Lady Lulu Devas, in After the Opera at the Empire Theatre. This was originally a French work, which had been translated into an English setting.
The discrepancy in accounts of Evelyn’s career details may lie in who she married. In the spring of 1908, about six months before The Builders hit the stage, Evelyn married theatre critic and journalist (Thomas) Malcolm Watson, a Scot who was about 25 years her senior. They appear to have met during 1905, when she appeared in his play Two Men and A Maid as the character Molly Price, which was playing at the Opera House in Northampton. She made a hit in this role.
Malcolm, as a regular critic, was in a good position to edit his wife’s rise to fame in official sources, and probably did so. They had no children together, but did have several pet dogs. She also relaxed by going motoring and playing golf.
By the end of 1908 she had been taken into the Lewis Waller Players and regularly worked at London’s Lyric Theatre. Roles here included Iduna de Solatierra in Ronald MacDonald’s The Chief of Staff, Lucy Allerton in Somerset Maugham’s The Explorer, Sadie Adams in Conan Doyle’s The Fires of Fate, and Anne of Austria in a revival of The Three Musketeers. Her husband, an accomplished writer who dabbled in writing drama as well as criticism, wrote a playlette for her to perform – Sanctuary – in 1909, to be performed at Christmas in the Empire theatre alongside other variety acts.
In September 1909 she was taken on by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre, indicating that her star was very much in the ascendency. Parts here included Yaouma in the Ancient Egyptian-set False Gods (translated from Brieux’s La Foi), which ran for 69 performances, and Lady Benedetta Mount-michael in The O’Flynn – Justin Huntley McCarthy’s 17th century-set play based on Irish events around King James II and William of Orange.
She also played the muse character Bettina Brentano in a biopic called Beethoven, Sport in Ben Jonson’s Vision of Delight, and Shakespearian characters Ophelia, Portia and Oberon. Hamlet’s Ophelia was reputedly her favourite role to play. Later she went to the St James Theatre under Sir George Alexander, with roles including the Chinese Princess in Turandot in January 1913 (this was Max Reinhardt’s Berlin production, brought to London and translated from the Vollmoeller version of Gozzi’s original play of 1762 by Jethro Bithell, and not the later Puccini opera), and Pamela Townshend in Louis Evan Shipman’s D’Arcy of the Guards.
Evelyn as Turandot, in the 1913 production. From the National Portrait Gallery collection.
She played Mary Shrawardine in The Crucible (not the Arthur Miller version, but an earlier play by MPs Edward Hemmerd and Francis Neilson where a brother begs his sister to become a millionaire’s mistress) at the Comedy Theatre, and Brenda Carlyon in Raleigh and Hamilton’s The Hope at Drury Lane in September 1911.
Evelyn as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Her early music training came into play in her later career too, drawing on her mother’s singing teaching that she must have benefited from during her teenage years, as she was known to have an excellent soprano voice. She appeared in Oscar Strauss’ operetta The Chocolate Soldier, playing Nadina Popoff – a role that required a great deal of singing – at the Lyric Theatre in 1910-11. The original was in German, itself a reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and The Man, but it was translated into English for a Broadway production in 1909. Evelyn also sang the leading role of Princess Yolande in Love and Laughter, another Strauss operetta, at the Lyric theatre in 1913. Her reported “bubbly personality” worked well in musical comedy, and these operettas reputedly gained her more fans.
In addition to acting in long-running productions, she appeared in some one-off shows, probably variety-act based. Music made an appearance in these too, as one newspaper reported:
Miss D’Alroy was a great dog lover. One of her pets, a cute little Airedale, was taught by his mistress to sit at the piano and make “music” with his paws. He was also accused of “singing” to his own accompaniment.
During 1914 to 1915 she went back on the road with the Louis Waller Players, performing in touring productions around various different provincial theatres. Two of these productions were Dion Clayton Calthrop’s The Other Side of Love, and a play called Monsieur Beaucaire – set in 18th century Bath.
Many of Evelyn’s roles were in productions that were later put onto the silver screen, or reworked into other formats, for example The Chocolate Soldier was adapted as a silent film in 1915, but that technology was in its infancy when Evelyn was performing.
Sadly, she did not live into an era where her acting would have been appreciated in a cinema. In the April of 1915 her touring production with the Lewis Waller Players reached Sheffield, but she was taken ill suddenly with appendicitis. She was operated on at the hospital, and her appendix removed, and taken to a nursing home to recover. Her husband went to Sheffield to be with her, but she developed pleurisy and pneumonia and died three days later. She was just 33 years old. Two or three hundred people came to her funeral, including various theatre luminaries of the time.
Evelyn in 1913, from the National Portrait Gallery collection
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.
However, not letting truth get in the way of a good story, this papering over of Lillian’s past would have been commonplace at the time, as the wife of a knight of the realm should appear respectable and her own activities around supporting women in aviation meant that she was someone that young girls should look up to. So, two divorces were not mentioned. Nor was her husband’s previous drug habit, in contrast to the coals that would have been raked over today.
She was the oldest child of six, born in the late 1870s in Warmley – a village now part of greater Bristol, but at the time just outside the city. As mentioned, her father James Haskins was a grocer. However, as part of the Haskins family, who ran a pottery and pipe making works in the area, he was a high-class shop keeper. The family had servants. His older brother Joseph had previously run the family grocery business while their father William had had charge of the Haskins works, but that changed when Joseph took over in 1881, and James was given the shop. Joseph’s daughter Minnie, an academic, became a celebrated poet and was Lillian’s first cousin.
Warmley House, where Tatler claimed Lillian was brought up. She wasn’t. (Credit Brizzle Born and Bred)
From a later census return, it appears that Lilian’s siblings were not brought up in the shop premises – and it is probable that Lillian wasn’t either. Her mother’s mother, a widow, brought up the children in Devon, and employed a governess to educate them. At the age of 12 she’s back home, and still referred to as a scholar, so it is likely that she continued with her education past the required point rather than starting work.
At the age of 17, having secured the required permission of her father, Lillian married a gentleman farmer – Joseph – at least 19 years her senior, at St James in Bristol. Today that amount of age gap at that age might be considered grooming, but back then she would have been seen as having made an advantageous match, and he would have gained a young and healthy wife. Joseph, who was based in Glastonbury but appeared to have taken up residence in Bath – not too far away from Warmley – had been married before, but his first wife had died a year before. He also had two surviving daughters in his care (two more had died young), the older of which only five years younger than Lillian.
Around about the same time, Lillian’s father took the rest of her siblings out to live in South Africa – but if Lillian had not wanted to come it might explain why she married so young and to someone so much older. It is uncertain whether her mother accompanied the rest of the family or stayed behind – the next record for her is the 1901 census when she had clearly suffered some mental health issues, and had been admitted to an asylum in Berkshire – so there may have been a parental split around this time that influenced Lillian’s choice, and it’s certain that her mother’s mental health would have had a bearing on some events. The family furniture business continues today in Botswana.
Lillian’s marriage to Joseph was precarious from the get-go. Within four months of the union he had “infected her with a venereal disease of a very severe nature”. Lillian also said he was habitually drunk, and treated her with extreme cruelty. They lived at Kingswood Hill, on the edge of Bristol, and Lillian gave birth to a daughter – Irene – at the end of 1897, when she was just 19 years old. There were further instances of abusive and violent language, and he struck her on several occasions and threatened to shoot her. Unsurprisingly, she left him, taking Irene with her, in February 1899. His daughters were apprenticed to tradespeople in Bath, and he went to South Wales and took up with a woman there. Lillian moved to Reading – close to where her mother was being treated – and filed for divorce in 1901, asking for the marriage to be dissolved and for her to be given custody of their child. Though the request was filed in 1901, the divorce wasn’t granted until 1904. Joseph did not offer any evidence against Lillian’s claims. This first marriage was kept under wraps from later family, and the identity of Irene’s father was unknown to her descendants.
Very quickly afterwards, Lillian married for a second time. This time the age gap was considerably smaller, as he was just three years older than her. Somerset was the son of a gentleman, and kept a hotel in Lourenço Marques, now named Maputo in modern-day Mozambique. They married at the British Consulate, and lived together in Durban, South Africa – near the rest of her family. Lillian appears to have travelled widely while married to him – there’s a record of her arriving back in Bath from Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1908, and they spent time in British Central Africa (later named Nyasaland, today modern-day Malawi). It’s likely that Somerset was involved in colonial interests in that area – mostly growing cotton, tea or tobacco – alongside various members of Lillian’s extended family. Irene was placed in a boarding school in the UK, and rarely saw her mother.
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.
Lillian and Francis were able to finally marry in 1925, after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 enabled Mary to bring divorce proceedings against Francis. This took place in London, where they had set up home together. On Francis’s demobilisation from the army in 1919 he went to work at the Civil Aviation Department of the Air Ministry, and rose to become Controller of Aerodromes and Licences. As his wife, Lillian attended various events and became involved in encouraging women in aviation. His work took him to Egypt, and then on to be Director General of Civil Aviation in India for four years. A later article reports that they spent five months of their year in Delhi and the other seven in Shimla – a British Raj “playground” at the foot of the Himalayas where the climate was cooler. Their official residences were fashionable places in London. While she was in the country, she probably officially represented him at many aviation events, and on that basis became involved in women’s aviation.
Francis returned to the UK in 1931 when he was made Director of Civil Aviation after the death of his boss in the R101 airship crash (he was supposed to be aboard, but Lillian had apparently had a premonition that there would be an accident and refused to let him go), and then became Director General of the organisation in 1934. There were trips to Canada and other places that Lillian didn’t accompany him on. She looked after her granddaughter Yolande when she came to visit London in the mid-1930s. In terms of women’s aviation, she presented the trophy to the winner of the women’s race at the opening of Woodley Aerodrome near Reading in 1931. She also attended a women’s air meeting at Atlantic Park in Southampton in 1932, and was complemented by aviator Amy Johnson at the Women’s Engineering Society Annual Dinner at the Forum Club in 1937 for all she’d done for women’s aviation (after her husband had made a bad insinuation about women flyers always getting lost). From this we can surmise that she was a prominent presence in the early days of flying, probably attending a great many other meetings, and offered continual support and encouragement to women aviators. She was chairman of the Aviation Group of the Forum Club, and would entertain aviators who came to England from elsewhere.
Lillian in at the opening of an aerodrome in Reading in 1931
Lillian, seated, third from right, at Atlantic Park Southampton in 1932
An award given to Lillian in 1936
Her mother was taken dangerously ill in 1935 when she and Francis were on holiday in Sweden. Thanks to their flying connections she was able to fly home directly to her bedside in Truro, and the incident was reported in many of the newspapers of the day. In 1936 Francis was knighted, so Lillian became Lady Shelmerdine, and therefore more of interest to publications like Tattler. They had property in Pershore, Worcestershire, and at the outbreak of World War 2 were resident in Bristol, near her family.
Francis was forced to retire on age grounds in 1941, and died in 1945 in hospital in Bideford, Devon. Lillian was not an executor of his effects. She appears to have spent her dotage in both South Africa and the UK, spending time in both Pershore and Durban and travelling on ships in-between. She had not long returned from a four-month stint in the UK when she died of a stroke at a hotel in South Africa in 1956, in her late 70s. Her remaining money was left to the Bank of South Africa.
It is a bit of a myth that married women didn’t work in Victorian times – they often did, whether it was acknowledged or not. Unacknowledged roles might be serving behind the bar in the family pub, having their own jobs on a farm, or doing the accounts for her husband’s business. All these would still leave the profession box blank on a census return – the job was their husband’s, and therefore the work was attributed to him.
When it came to acknowledged work, low pay on behalf of their husbands would often mean that married women had to juggle childcare alongside a job, whether it was taking in laundry to make ends meet, or having a more formal role in a factory. However, respectable married women were not supposed to work in polite society – but if you had faced stigma from various different sources all your life, this probably mattered less as to how you saw your place in the community, and you carried on regardless. And this work ethic could help inspire those who came after you.
Mary was a married worker, with 14 children under her belt by the time she’d reached her 40s, and continually worked as a cloth weaver throughout her life. But she probably had faced enough stigma through her earlier life that any censure for working was water off a duck’s back.
The fact that she was a cloth weaver came from her parentage. Her father William had worked as a cloth weaver himself since his early teens, and many of his nearest and dearest worked throughout their lives too, whether they were male or female.
Mary was born in Rhydyfelin, South Wales – in modern day Rhondda Cynon Taff, not far from Pontypridd. The cloth industry at that time (late 1850s), in that area, was small. There was one mill, at Upper Boat and Rhydyfelin on the banks of the river Rhondda, which was run by Evan and James James. This had a small workforce, of which Mary’s father William, and possibly her mother Fanny, was part. Evan and James James, though cloth factory owners, are better known as the composers of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or Land of My Fathers, the Welsh National Anthem, and a statue commemorates them in Pontypridd.
Fanny was William’s third wife. Mary had a living brother from his first marriage, no siblings from his second, and then an older brother – Edward – from his marriage to Fanny. They were joined by sisters – Frances and Sarah, who lived, and Ann, who didn’t. Though William came from Wiltshire and Fanny from Somerset, the family moved around a great deal, going where the work was. They spent time around Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Tiverton and Chard in Somerset, and Cam and Wootton Under Edge in Gloucestershire, but Mary was the only child born in Wales.
Fanny died in 1869, when Mary was around 10, and her father very quickly married a fourth time – to Caroline. Mary gained a step-brother near her own age, and four siblings, all but one who lived.
On the face of it, this appears to be a fairly normal working class childhood for the period, but William’s four wives and the speed with which he mostly married the next after the previous wife’s death could point to something a little out of the ordinary, or even sinister.
Clarity is gained when it becomes more obvious that the family were early converts to Mormonism. William’s brother Samuel had left the Trowbridge area for Utah and Salt Lake City in the early 1850s, and their father Edward and other siblings were also known to have been members of that church. Five years before Mary’s birth there were around 50,000 Mormons in the UK. The earliest establishment of Mormon worship in Wiltshire was in the mid-1840s at Steeple Ashton, just outside Trowbridge, which fits with where the family were based. Mormons, as it was a fairly new faith with different interpretations and customs from established Church of England practices or even non-conformist groups, met a fair amount of suspicion and stigma in their community. At that time the church had not yet renounced polygamy, so it is possible that William and his wives may have had arrangements that were not recognised in the law of the time.
Growing up in this community, wherever you were based, could not have been easy for Mary and her siblings. Indeed, a great many Mormons emigrated to Utah from the Steeple Ashton area in the later part of the 19th century, having faced persecution. It is therefore no surprise that Mary’s choices in adulthood flew against society’s norms, whether the family needed the money or not.
The family settled at Drynham, to the south of Trowbridge – a town with many cloth mills – during Mary’s teens, and then into the town centre itself. She married Frederick, another weaver, in 1878 when she was around 19. Her father and stepmother and siblings were still in the area at the time, but they shortly emigrated to Utah themselves, leaving Mary behind. Her wedding doesn’t appear to have taken place in Mormon premises, however, as they married in a non-conformist chapel.
Frederick, a cloth worker who had been brought up purely in Wiltshire, does not appear to have either shared Mary’s faith or been particularly wedded to non-conformism. This is evident in that their first son, Thomas, who was well on the way by the time they married, had a Church of England baptism in Trowbridge.
Thomas, Mary’s first born, did not live very long. He was dead within a month of birth. The same fate awaited her second child, Rosa Augusta, who followed just over a year later – though she managed to last three months. Throughout, Mary worked at the clothmill, alongside Frederick.
Her third child, a daughter named Rose, was the first to survive babyhood. By the time of the 1881 census she was 3 months old and living with her parents in a two-up, two down property in the southern part of Trowbridge. Even this early in her babyhood, Mary was working as a woollen spinner, attached to one of the many nearby mills. The next two children, Laura and Frederick, also survived early childhood, but a third daughter – Florence – did not, dying in the winter of 1886 aged around 5 months.
Mary’s husband Frederick died shortly afterwards in early February, aged 32, leaving her cloth work as the only means of support for her and her three children. Another baby, Herbert, followed in the Spring of 1887. Mathematics would indicate that he was not Frederick’s child, since he was born 13 months after his father’s death, but he bore Frederick’s surname. In later life, when he signed up for the marines, he added a year to his age – but since this would put his birth at barely seven months after that of Florence, it does not work out. Exactly who Herbert’s father was is lost to time.
Around a year later, Mary’s daughters Rose and Laura enter the Union Workhouse at nearby Semington. Day books of entries have not survived, so their records of entry come from the workhouse school. It seems likely that Mary also entered, along with sons Frederick and Herbert, who were too young for schooling, but no record survives of this. To have at least some of the family in the workhouse means that she was struggling financially to keep going.
Four years later though, Mary had come to Chippenham to work in the Waterford Cloth Mill there and can be found on the 1891 census. Her two surviving sons were with her, but her daughters were not. Both still remained in the workhouse, and had been baptised from there too. In addition, there was a new baby, Walter, from her second husband Jacob – another worker at the cloth mill. However, there is no formal record of their marriage evident. Jacob had also been married before – his first wife Elizabeth died in 1888 – and Mary inherited six step-children. Despite a new baby, she was still working in the cloth mill. The fact that both daughters were still in the workhouse meant that there was not enough money coming in to support their upkeep.
After Walter she had five more children, taking her personal total of pregnancies to fourteen and her combined total with Jacob’s first family included to twenty children. The first was Florence, then Wilfrid (named after her brother, and who only lived a few months) then Wilfred, Lily, Ernest and William. William, the youngest, born in 1902 when she was around 43, again did not survive early childhood. So, although Mary had given birth to fourteen children, she had only nine that lived past infancy.
Throughout all these pregnancies Mary continued to work in the cloth mill. One of her earlier daughters, Laura, came to live with the new family and worked at the nearby condensed milk factory. The other from the workhouse seems to disappear – but may have been known as Annie rather than Rose, so may be in records under a different name. Jacob, who was also a hard worker, also sometimes worked at the cloth mill, but in addition worked as a carter for a local coal merchant. He is known to have been quite politically active, taking his children to see future Prime Minister Lloyd George speak in around 1903. His father was also living on the same street, which was known for poor quality housing that would often flood on the ground floor when the river was high, so it is possible that he helped out with childcare for Mary and Jacob’s children. Most of the children worked in local industries as they grew up – the cloth mill, and the milk factory invariably.
In 1910, at the age of 53, Mary died. Her daughters Florence and Laura therefore took on much of the household and care for the children, as Jacob continued to work for another three years until his own death. Two of her sons were killed in the First World War, and the rest of her children all worked hard throughout their lives – mostly around Chippenham. It’s her daughter Florence that is best remembered however, being extremely active around workers rights, and an eventual president of the TUC. She was later made a Dame.