Florence B’s story

In the eighth of our Grandmother stories, Florence was submitted by Claire.

Florence had to battle a selfish husband, a protective mother-in-law, and the divorce courts to achieve the life she wanted.

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My granny Florence was born in Wigan in the 1920s. Her father was an undertaker and funeral director, and a taxi driver, which meant he wasn’t working in the cotton mills or other factories, and therefore was better off than most other people who lived around there.

She had an older brother, Herbert, who went into the family business when he grew up, and a sister two years younger called Mary but always known as Molly.

She was 15 and had just left school when World War Two broke out, but I’m not sure what she did during those years. Her mother died when she was 17, and two years later her father remarried. At some point during the war though, she and her sister Molly met two brothers – James and Gordon – through Wigan Rowing Club, and their friendship developed into romance.

A big society double wedding was planned at Wigan Parish Church in 1944, and crowds of people came out to see Florence marry James and Molly marry Gordon. But apparently the brothers’ parents didn’t come as they thought James was too young to get married.

But while Auntie Molly’s marriage worked really well, my granny’s marriage didn’t. James was very attached to his mother, and didn’t want to let her go – which didn’t please Florence very much. He wanted to be an artist, and his mother encouraged him in that, instead of settling down and earning money like Florence wanted him to. They ended up moving in with James’ parents, and there were lots of rows, and he thought she should serve him and be at his beck and call – like his mother had all his life. His mother always took his side against Florence, and she felt she could never win, even with the man she loved.

She found a shop, with living quarters above, and wanted to go and live there with James and start a hairdressing business. But James refused point blank to go, as he preferred living with his mother. In the end, not one to let grass grow under her feet, Florence left him and went back to live with her father and stepmother.

It’s said that James still considered her his wife though, and even courted her while she was living at her father’s house, but nothing changed around his relationship with his mother, and all that friction, so in the end Florence left Wigan.

She went down to Wiltshire, and met my grandfather – Frank – who was an engineering lecturer at the Royal Military College of Science. He’d previously been married too, and it hadn’t worked out, so they couldn’t marry until both of them had got a divorce. James hadn’t wanted a divorce – it was still very taboo in the late 1940s – so it took a while to happen. In the meantime, Florence used Frank’s surname as her own, and they had two children: Godfrey in 1947, and Roxanne in 1951. Eventually their divorces came through, and they were able to marry in 1953. She went back up to Wigan for this wedding, and her father and stepmother were witnesses. This marriage was considerably happier, and she brought up her children with Frank in the countryside.

In the meantime, James started to become a rather successful – if a bit controversial – artist, and began to exhibit and sell his paintings. Some were given to Florence, and she kept them on the wall of her new home in Wiltshire.

Frank eventually died, and Florence married a third time – to Geoffrey in the early 1980s. Her sister’s marriage to Gordon continued to be successful, and she was instrumental in James’ art career, keeping her sister in touch with her earlier life.

Florence eventually died in 2014. James’s paintings were still on the wall.

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Amy E Bell’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

The_English_governess_at_the_Siamese_court_-_being_recollections_of_six_years_in_the_royal_palace_at_Bangkok_(1873)_(14773027951)

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

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

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

Cook's Folly Bristol

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

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

Henry goodeve bigger

Henry Hurry Ives Goodeve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LSE

Inside the LSE at the time

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

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

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

Margaret Bateson, 1895.

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

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

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

Edith C Wilson, writing in Common Cause, March 1920

Amy Elizabeth Bell

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

The Robinson sisters’ story

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

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

Robinson women postwomen

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

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

Mary

Mary Adkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace

Grace Nicholson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily

Emily Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

Harriet

Harriet Hobman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister Josephine’s story

Unlike her famous song namesake, Sister Josephine did not found a pontoon team in her convent nor sit with her boots up on the altar screen. Instead she co-founded the English mission of the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, and went on to lead a prestigious convent and well-respected school. But a holy life and fulfilling her God’s work did not mean that everyone respected her choices, and at one point she was stoned for her efforts.

She’d been born as Elizabeth (Josephine was a name she took later on in life, when she dedicated herself to the convent), in Loughrea, County Galway in Ireland. She was born a few years before the famine, which hit rural Ireland hard in 1845, and she had a sister – Maria – born three years later. It’s unknown exactly what her father did, but he appears to have moved the family into Galway city at some point during the next few years, probably due to the famine, as a land tax record finds the family there in 1857.

Therefore, the family did not leave Ireland during the famine, but Josephine appears to have come over of her own accord at some point. Josephine moved to Chippenham in Wiltshire. She was the first godmother mentioned in the baptisms of the original St Mary’s Church in St Mary’s Place, Chippenham, which start in 1857. The church was founded in 1855, and operated as a catholic school where Josephine – at this point still called Elizabeth – must have taught. The original church is now used as the modern-day church hall, a new building having been established in the early 20th century on Station Hill.

st mary's chippenham

The original St Mary’s catholic church in Chippenham, now used as the church hall

The first census to feature her is the 1861. She appears to have come to England to become a teacher, and found a place at a convent school in Birmingham. Aged 22, she had gained the position of assistant school mistress, and was in charge of various teenage girls being educated at the convent.

Josephine, having worked in a convent for several years, decided to take the cloth herself. She went to the founding convent in Annecy, France, and became a novice in the order. It was from there, in August of 1864, that the English mission of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy was founded. Two sisters – Sr Athanase (sometimes Antoinette) Novel, who was originally French, and Sr Stanislaus Bryan, who was of Irish extraction – travelled from the sisterhood’s Indian mission in Kamptee by ox cart to the coastal port of Yanam and thence on to France, in order to found the English mission.

Mother Athanase and Sister Stanislaus

The impetus for founding the mission came from a British Army officer, Captain Dewell, who had seen the good work of the sisters in Annecy and asked them to come to his home country of Wiltshire. Since Josephine had already been teaching in Chippenham, about ten miles away from the intended site in Devizes, she was perhaps the obvious choice to accompany Sisters Athanase and Stanislaus on their endeavour. They travelled across Europe to Devizes, took up residence in the town’s Wyndham Villas – a former priests’ residence by the Kennet and Avon Canal – and founded a school in Monday Market Street, in a rented warehouse.

It was then that the trouble started. Despite the fact that the school, and the mission, were founded with the best of intentions, educated poor children for just a penny a week and gave out clothing to those in dire need, the three nuns were met with suspicion by the Devizes population. The struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism in the UK were nothing new at this point in the 19th century, and Devizes was no different though perhaps more vociferously anti-Rome than most, but Catholicism was starting to gain a foothold in England again after the Irish famine of the 1840s and the arrival of many destitute people in need of work. The moralising tone of the educated middle and upper classes, which was reported in the newspapers of the day, implies that the destitute Irish were an underclass and therefore somehow a scourge on the land and were bringing their unsavoury religion with them. And they were taking local jobs too.

A speaker at a Devizes function at the time warned of the new nuns, saying of the “necessity of avoiding the follies of Catholicism and of shunning the nuns who dappled (sic) in witchcraft.” The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette scathingly reported on the “opening” (inverted commas theirs, not mine) of the Catholic Church in 1865, describing it as plain and ugly, and that the nuns were, with one exception, foreigners. Feeling continued to run high, and in 1866 1,600 people in Devizes attended a talk on the evils of Catholicism, and how convents should be ended. Such was the hostility the three sisters – Josephine, Athanase and Stanislaus – were even stoned by local residents as they went about their work.

Catholic church devizes

Despite this, Josephine and the others persevered. They opened a school for middle- and upper-class children in Wyndham Villas, in addition to their work with the poor children, and walked the ten miles to Chippenham every Sunday to Josephine’s original church, to teach the Catechism and play harmonium for mass. They also undertook work in Westbury, several miles to the south of Devizes.

In 1866, however, the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy opened a new convent and school in Chippenham’s Marshfield Road, and needed a mother superior. Josephine came back to Chippenham from Devizes and took over that role. Situated in Suffolk Villas, the 1871 census has her with two female scholars, neither of whom were born locally, and two other nuns, running the convent and the education of the school, and providing space for a religious visitor to live. Stanislaus and Athanase remained in Devizes.

There does not appear to have been the local opposition to the establishment of the convent in Chippenham that was experienced in Devizes. There are no reports of witchcraft or stones being thrown. It is probable that the establishment of St Mary’s in the 1850s probably paved the way, and the townspeople were more accepting of the Catholics and foreigners. However, newspapers of the time have virtually nothing about Catholic activities in the town, so it’s likely that much of Josephine’s activity flew under the radar.

Ten years later, however, the convent did not have any pupils, and perhaps could not be called a school in the strictest sense of the word. Josephine was still mother superior, with four other nuns serving in the institution, and they had three other women boarders or visitors. Convents would often house Catholic widows as they were trying to get back on their feet after their husband’s death, and St Joseph’s Convent in Chippenham was clearly no exception. The convent would have offered a calm and serene atmosphere, with a structured timetable and considerable prayer.

The lack of pupils probably played a part in the ending of the Chippenham convent in 1884, when the house moved to new St Joseph of Annecy premises in Malmesbury – about six miles to the north of Chippenham but still in Wiltshire. There was no further convent in Chippenham until the 1930s, when St Margaret’s established on Rowden Hill.

There had been a foundation in Malmesbury since 1867, when Friar Larive – part of the male portion of the order – had left Devizes to establish a base there. Josephine, after her period as mother superior in Chippenham, also took on this role in Malmesbury. In 1881 there were four other nuns besides her, in addition to several boarders and three domestic staff – meaning that Josephine could devote herself to more spiritual matters than running a household. This would have been a step up for her.

By the turn of the twentieth century Josephine had crossed the River Severn, and was established as mother superior at the Stow Hill Convent and School in Newport, South Wales. This establishment had been founded from Devizes in 1873 (using money from the dowry of Sister Mary Joseph, who had been educated there), and Mother Athanase had gone from there to be the first mother superior taking most of her household with her. Only two sisters and a postulant were then left in Devizes, Westbury’s work ended in 1875, and the focus of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy became this new school and convent in Newport. By 1901 Mother Athanase was getting on in years, and had stepped down as mother superior, leaving the UK for the Sisters’ base in Annecy, where she spent her dotage. Josephine, at this point in her early 60s, became the head of operations in Newport.

newport school

The Newport Convent

The Newport school was a huge undertaking. Josephine had fourteen teachers underneath her, teaching art, music, needlework, French, German and basic elementary subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. There was a full complement of domestic staff – including ladies’ maids – boarding pupils aged between 12 and 17, and a host of young women in their early twenties who are referred to on the census as resident students but are probably novices in training to become nuns. There is even a resident artist. Many of the teachers, like Josephine, are Irish-born, but the cooks are both French. The students, in contrast, are mostly drawn from the local area – except one who was born in India.

This convent and school appears to have thrived. Josephine was still mother superior in 1911, but by now in her early 70s she had taken a step backwards from the day-to-day life of the school. Her jurisdiction was over the novitiates and teachers, of which there were many, but only five boarding pupils were in her household. The convent and school, however, spread over four houses, and with many teachers employed most pupils would have attended just in the daytime. The school and convent eventually outgrew its premises in the 1940s, and was moved to Llantarnam Abbey a few miles north.

As for Josephine? She lived to be 97. At some point she would have given up being mother superior, and would have been cared for by her household at the convent. She died in 1933, and is buried in Newport.

Maysie’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maysie and John Pender Chalmers 1932

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

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

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

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

De Havilland Moth Coupe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Electricity kill your wife

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

yellow kitchen

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

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

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

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

Maysies two husbands

Maysie, and both her husbands.

Marion R’s story

Marion was a prison warden, who came off worst under the flying fists of serial offender and prostitute Mary Ann Fairlie in Hull Gaol in the 1880s. But 60 years earlier she probably wouldn’t have been in the job at all, and Mary and the other female prisoners would have been under the charge of a man.

The 19th century saw considerable prison reform across the board, with the reforms of Elizabeth Fry being realised in 1823 when women prisoners were granted the right to be guarded by women themselves. By the 1840s new thinking about prison accommodation separated men and women for much of the day – initialised by London’s Pentonville Prison new design, which had spokes and designate areas – and women were housed and guarded separately, with separate tasks to accomplish during the day. It was to this world that Marion came when she began work as a prison warden, alongside other women in every sizeable gaol in Britain.

She came from the Welsh island of Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, from a tiny community about seven miles inland from Holyhead, and was born to a farming family at the beginning of the 1840s. The only girl in the family, her parents lost two of her five siblings in infancy, and Marion’s father was dead himself before Marion was eight. Her mother, having lost her source of income as well as her husband, became a pauper. Marion’s remaining three brothers were brought up by their mother, while she appears to have spent the rest of her childhood elsewhere. She probably would have spoken Welsh in addition to English, at least at home with family – her brother, on a later census return, is Welsh speaking and it is highly likely that all the rest of the family were too.

By the early 1870s she had left Wales behind, and was working as an assistant matron in the Liverpool workhouse. Liverpool, with a big port as part of the city, was growing rapidly at the time, and many from North Wales moved there to take advantage of the economic opportunities that weren’t available in their mostly-rural communities. Like many big towns – it was not declared a city until 1880 – there was great wealth and great deprivation, and it was those suffering poverty that Marion would have helped on a daily basis.

In the workhouse system, the care of women inmates usually fell to the matron – often the wife of the workhouse master – and as her assistant Marion would have been quite high up in the administration of the institution. The Liverpool workhouse had a large hospital attached, with many nurses, and other supporting staff – wardmistresses, clothing store keepers, sewing mistresses, laundresses. She may have applied for a license to marry in Liverpool in the later part of the 1860s, but it appears that this marriage did not take place in the end.

It was through the workhouse system that Marion met her eventual husband William. He had been born in Dublin, and had grown up in the Birkenhead workhouse, across the river Mersey from Liverpool – but as the son of the workhouse master and not an inmate. He gave various jobs as his occupation around this time – including being a clerk and a groom – but these were probably attached to his workhouse duties. They were married in Liverpool in the summer of 1872, when she was in her mid-twenties.

Soon afterwards, however, William decided to take up a commission in the army. He joined the 7th Hussars, a cavalry regiment. It appears that Marion did not accompany her husband to the barracks as a dutiful army wife, despite the fact that he was deployed in England for eight years after signing up.

Instead, she appears to have continued working – despite the social stigma of a married woman going out to work. By the turn of the 1880s she was working as a prison matron at a gaol in Derby, and calling herself a widow – perhaps an indication that all was not happy in her marriage, or a way of protecting her reputation since she continued to work, as many of the women in this employ were older and single.

The prison regime for women was aimed at reforming criminals’ bad character – using domestic labour (for example a washhouse or a bakery), religious instruction and moral guidance. Matrons were expected to oversee all of this activity, under the direction of the prison governor – who, by this time, after a ruling in 1878, was employed by the government. In this role Marion would have lived at the prison, and been part of the strict regime for female prisoners. She would have enforced the rules, visited each of the prisoners daily, overseen the hard labour given as punishment, and inspected the food, clothing and bedding of her charges. She also would have had charge of other women workers in the prison.

tothill_women_640

By 1883 Marion had moved to the prison at Hull. And the altercation with Mary Ann Fairlie occurred. Mary, who was serving a six-month term with hard labour, had been found in the prison washhouse talking to another prisoner – both breaches of the prison rules. Marion told her to go to her work, but Mary refused and another female warder came to help. Between Marion and the other warder they escorted Mary down the corridor to her cell. However, when Marion let go of Mary’s arm to unlock the cell Mary gave her a violent blow to the eye. Marion dropped her keys, and when she stooped to pick them up Mary continued to punch and hit her around the head and face.

The injuries were so severe that Marion had to be attended by the prison surgeon, and she needed a full two weeks to recover. Mary received a further prison sentence for this beating.

Whether it was this incident or something else, by the beginning of the 1890s Marion had given up her job in the prison and had settled into the army barracks as a military wife with her husband. In the intervening time he’d been sent to Natal – in modern-day South Africa – with his regiment, but had mainly been based in the UK. This cavalry depot was based in Canterbury, Kent, many miles away from where she’d grown up and worked, and full of wives and children alongside the consigned soldiers. Marion and William never had any children.

Unusually, there’s a second marriage record for Marion and William. Twenty one years after they first married, they appear to have married again – at least in the eyes of the British Army, who record their marriage (in Liverpool, not Canterbury) in 1893. This may be a peculiarity of army records, but equally may be an indication of their long separation.

William was posted on duty to India in 1893, but was pensioned out of the army in 1894 after suffering from dysentery and dyspepsia and returned to Marion in Canterbury.

In retirement, their income was William’s army pension. They moved to a farm on the English side of the lower Wye valley, and ran it as a going concern.

They remained there, with Marion taking the role of farmer’s wife – like her mother before her – for more than 20 years.

Marion died in February 1921, in her late 70s. But there is a sting in the tail/tale. By the following July, William had married again – his new wife having taken up residence in their house a while before the wedding.

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

Harriet and Mary Ann’s story

Abortion was illegal in the UK until 1967, so unfortunately when we hear about it publicly before this date it is likely because it has gone disastrously wrong. This is the case in Harriet and Mary Ann’s story from 1883, which may also feature elements of injustice in the British legal system of the time. It’s up to the reader to decide based on the evidence.

Wherever your politics, moral and religious beliefs take you on the subject of abortion, a crisis pregnancy is exactly that – one that a woman feels that she cannot continue with, whether for health, mental health, society factors, or any other myriad of reasons. And until a woman faces that situation, it is a real unknown as to how she will react and then choose to act. In most countries around the world abortion has been illegal at some point – and in some it still is, or is verging on being again – and therefore making a choice to end a pregnancy puts a woman into a particularly murky place morally, religiously and societally. But wherever you personally fall on these matters, some women will still want abortions.

Abortion is, therefore, very much part of women’s history. Particularly in an era when “good” girls were supposed to be chaste until marriage, sexual desire on the part of women was barely even known about much less discussed, and illegitimate children carried a huge societal stigma. However, men who did engage in sexual intercourse outside marriage – although perhaps frowned upon – were not subject to the same stigma, and male desire was an acknowledged concept throughout all walks of life.

Therefore, when Mary Ann – a single Wiltshire woman not in her first flush of youth – discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1883, she had to decide whether to keep the baby and face the wrath of society, or undergo an illegal abortion.

She’d been born in Chippenham in the early 1850s, the oldest child of a gardener and his wife, and lived in a small cottage to the east of the town. After some schooling she lived at home with her parents and siblings, and contributed to the family income as a dressmaker. However, unmarried and staring her thirties in the face, she left the confines of a Wiltshire market town and went to London, gaining a position as a cook in an affluent townhouse. She was there for six years. She worked for a chemist and his family, as one of several servants with the family, and her employer had several unmarried sons living at home and working in his business.

It’s unknown exactly who fathered Mary Ann’s child, it could have been one of her employers’ sons or someone else entirely, but during the spring of 1883 she lost her job and returned home to Chippenham, to her recently widowed mother’s care. About this time she began to complain of “indigestion”.

Most women at this time were kept ignorant of the mechanics of sexual intercourse until they were married – when it was therefore considered necessary for them to know – but even then information (usually lying back and thinking of England) was not passed on easily between mother and daughter, and men were often ignorant too. The attitude of many doctors was that women had no sexual feelings apart from the urge to have children. So, it may be that Mary Ann did not know exactly what had happened to her.

Her lover may also have been uninformed to a degree – unmarried men were often not given the full picture either, and contraceptives at this time were very much in their infancy. There were leather condoms for men, but these were expensive and had to be asked for directly at the chemists as they weren’t displayed. Women could use an inserted piece of sponge on a string that was coated with a spermicide substance, but only if they knew about it, which Mary Ann probably didn’t.

Therefore, when Mary Ann complained of indigestion, her mother took her to see a herbalist in Calne, the next town over, for a remedy as this would have been cheaper than seeing a doctor.

This herbalist was Harriet, who at this time was in her early 40s. She’d been born in Herefordshire, had married her husband Isaac in Wolverhampton, and they’d had six children together. Isaac had come to Wiltshire to run a pub near Malmesbury, making Harriet a landlady for a time, but by the early 1880s he was settled in Calne as a gardener and Harriet ran a herbalism business alongside him.

On Mary Ann’s first visit to Harriet, she was supplied with some liquid and 16 powders to take to cure her indigestion. This, obviously, didn’t work, and Mary Ann made several subsequent visits for further treatments, accompanied on occasion by relatives and friends of her mother. Whether the true nature of Mary Ann’s condition became obvious to Harriet during these visits is unknown. Harriet insisted, later, that she did not know at all, and certainly outwardly she was still treating Mary Ann for digestion-based complaints.

Since Mary Ann was still not cured and had taken to her bed, Harriet came to visit her in Chippenham, and they spent some time alone talking. Mary Ann then, four days later, went again to visit Harriet in Calne. Upon her return she felt unwell, vomited, and went to bed. Then a further three days later Harriet again came to see Mary Ann and her mother, and this time – according to witnesses – made it clear that something had happened to Mary Ann. Her mother stated that Harriet had said: “If anyone asks what is the matter you say it is a tumour, but it has burst now, and she will soon be all right.” And another witness said that she’d said it was a bloody tumour and she would soon be all right and up in two or three days. These witnesses also say that Harriet took something away in her basket. The following day a doctor was called, who said that Mary Ann was suffering from inflammation of the womb and peritonitis, and sadly Mary Ann died later that day.

Given the now serious nature of the matter, a post-mortem was performed on her the following day by the doctor. The opinion was that she had died either from the effects of the noxious drugs (fennel and rue were found), from the effects of an instrument used upon her, or from both. Harriet was subsequently arrested.

Information about how to administer an abortion was well known in whispers among married women at this time, for occasions when they felt they could not afford another mouth to feed. Some doctors at the time reckoned that one in four pregnancies ended this way. There were many dangerous methods: pints of gin, hot baths, knitting needles inserted into the womb, falling downstairs. Alternatively, there were dangerous drugs, which brought on an abortion as a side-effect: adhesive plasters contained diachylon, which was made from lead and could be bought from the chemist, and would then be eaten. There was also a mixture called ‘hickey-pickey’, which was bitter apple, bitter aloes and white lead, which could all be purchased from the chemist. Infusions of rue were a known irritant, and had abortifacient properties, and was sometimes combined with other herbal infusions to increase potency.

It is likely that at least two of these methods – inserting an instrument, and a rue and fennel infusion – were used in Mary Ann’s case. But whether they were administered by Harriet the herbalist – as the subsequent murder court case claimed – or by Mary Ann’s mother and friends, is open to question.

The prosecution alleged that Mary Ann’s mother claimed Harriet said to her that she had “instruments”, but they were never to be seen. Harriet apparently carried away something from the house in a bag. And the post-mortem, having found no trace of any noxious drugs in Mary Ann’s stomach, concluded that the cause of death was the instrument used to expel the pregnancy, which was used with enough force to cause the internal bruises and that Mary Ann could not have administered that herself. This was the case against Harriet.

Her defence argued that Harriet had not been seen to possess one single noxious drug in this case, and that a single piece of “rue” might not actually be the plant. And that the instruments described were not to be seen, much less obviously used. They also felt that the day the instruments were used was the day that Mary Ann had travelled to Calne and back on the train, and that if she’d suffered the amount of bruising and wounding that day she would not have been able to walk properly. The defence suggested that Mary Ann had suffered a miscarriage, and that Harriet perhaps had attempted to help her evacuate the womb to both improve her health and save her reputation. Or that Mary Ann’s friends and relations may have attempted to do the same, and subsequently accidentally caused her death.

The summing up of the case by the judge was as follows:

His Lordship, addressing the jury, said it was the law of England that a person who, pursuing a felonious intent, brought about the death of another person was guilty of murder. Thus, if this woman endeavoured to procure abortion and in doing so produced Mary Ann’s death, it was murder. But if treating Mary Ann for an innocent purpose and not to procure abortion and death – through her unskilfulness – followed it was not murder but manslaughter. It was important to consider whether drugs and instruments had been used. The doctor had said that an instrument must have been used. Then who used it? Could the poor woman herself or her friends? No suspicion was associated with the friends; and it must be remembered that the deceased and the prisoner were in frequent association.

Whatever actually happened to Mary Ann, and the role of her mother and Harriet in the case, in the end, Harriet was found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Her words on hearing the verdict were:

I am not guilty. I am entirely innocent. It is only a vile conspiracy on the part of (Mary Ann’s mother) and her friends. Oh, my lord, I knew no more of her true condition than you did. Oh, my poor children, don’t take me away from them.

It is hard, from a modern perspective, to read this case and not wonder if details were missed, and conclusions drawn on the part of each of the women involved that related to society and women’s expected role within the social structure. Modern investigation and medical practices might also have had a bearing on the case. It may be that Harriet – reportedly a devout Baptist – was entirely innocent, and suffered a miscarriage of justice, or it may be that as a married woman with six children of her own she knew how not have another and applied that knowledge to Mary Ann. What is certain though is that Mary Ann’s death was entirely accidental, and the villain of the piece is neither party, nor the man who made Mary Ann pregnant, but the society that they lived in that both denied women’s sexuality and desire, and vilified women for acting upon them in an entirely natural manner.

Harriet was jailed for ten years for the manslaughter, and sent to Woking prison, many miles away in Surrey. Her husband remained local to Calne and Chippenham, bringing up their children. However, seven years into her sentence Harriet was declared insane and taken to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum until a further order or the expiration of her sentence.

In 1893, when her original sentence ran out, Harriet was taken to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Devizes where she remained indefinitely. It is from their records that we can decipher what had happened to her.

Her insistence of her innocence in the case that had convicted her had by this time become an obsession, and she had been therefore diagnosed of chronic mania with delusions of persecution.

The doctor reports:

Says she is the victim of a conspiracy to deprive her of her liberty – that she is cruelly and shamefully treated by those in authority, preventing her husband and friends communicating with her or to make any effort to alleviate her sufferings: that her trial, sentence and consequent confinement are illegal.

Her confinement and treatment in prison, not surprisingly, appears to have had an extremely detrimental effect on her mental health. Harriet is the only patient at the time not to have a photograph included in the records – she apparently believed that if they took one they might use it against her to persecute her. Reports are that she believed the staff were against her, and that she was a force of good and others were wicked. She read and quoted from the Bible continually, and wrote to committees and asked to be released – which was denied. Victorian psychiatric care being what it was, there is no treatment recorded for Harriet and it appears that their plan was to lock her up until she gave up this insistence of her innocence. She never did.

She somehow collected money while in the asylum, which she intended to use to aid her escape, but it’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There are three incidences of her being caught with money that she should not have had, once while bathing a sovereign disguised as a button was found in her clothes, and another time she was found to have bought epsom salts while out shopping with other inmates in Devizes.

Aside from her mental health, she apparently was a great sportswoman who had a real affinity with animals. She acted as the hospital rat catcher. She was also described as an ardent naturalist – which fits with her plant knowledge as a herbalist.

She was kept in the Wiltshire Asylum for 23 years past the end of her original sentence, and does not ever appear to have given up her claim of innocence. Release, when it occurred, appears to have been unremarkable. She had had some physical health issues and was quietly allowed to return to her husband in the summer of 1915, at the age of 75.

He had been living with his sister and her husband in Oxfordshire, working as a jobbing gardener. They had six years together before he died leaving his assets to her. It’s unknown whether she remained in Oxfordshire for her final years, or lived with one of her children in Bristol, but she died some years after her husband.

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