Aileen F’s story

A school-marm has a particular historical resonance, and immediately conjures a vision of an older unmarried woman with a sour expression and a mortar board – but women of this tradition were often regarded as some of the very best and most beloved teachers, and this reputation could sometimes be traded upon to build an extensive career.

One of the very first Oxford female graduates, early 20th century teacher Aileen was regarded as “formidable” and taught at various British and American institutions, then went on to found her own British-style Catholic boarding school in the eastern United States – complete with British values, cold dormitories and chilblains.

She came from an Irish background – her father came from Waterford and her mother from Dublin – but her father’s employment as a railway clerk and then an accountant seems to indicate that their emigration to the London area was not directly from the labouring class in search of better work. Both parents arrived in Britain at some point before 1891, and while her father went straight into clerical work, her mother appears to have taught at a convent school in Edinburgh before they married.

Aileen was the middle child of five – two older brothers and one younger survived childhood, but her younger sister did not – and was born at the very tail end of the 19th century. With a family home in Woolwich, all the children were well educated. From the ages of nine to 18, Aileen was boarding at St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine foundation at Princethorpe, near Rugby in Warwickshire. The building here now forms part of the modern Princethorpe school. The mother superior at the institution was French, while the nuns came from all over the globe – Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Jamaica, India, and even Mexico. Aileen was one of 41 students being educated here in 1911, in a large community of nuns, and it may be that becoming a nun was her original plan.

Miss-Farrell

Aileen at her teacher’s desk

However, her obvious intelligence led to further study. She joined the University of Oxford Society of Home Students in 1917 to further her studies. Although women were allowed to study at the university, due to their gender they were not allowed to be admitted to the university – in other words be given their degree – until 1921. Trinity College Dublin, which – as the whole of Ireland was part of the UK until this era – was considered on a par with Oxford and Cambridge admitted women to their degrees from 1904, but Cambridge did not follow suit until 1947. Aileen was housed at St Frideswide’s, a large hostel at Cherwell Edge, run by the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus along with many other young Catholic women. Aileen would have gone to Oxford expecting to just follow a course of lectures, but reforms in 1920 meant that she would qualify for her degree in English Language and Literature and be given it – and she received it, one of the first women to do so, in 1921. The Society of Home Students became St Anne’s College at Oxford in 1942.

As one of the first Oxford women graduates, this status opened doors for Aileen. While one of her older brothers went to work in China in 1919, having served in the navy in the First World War, was awarded Master of Foreign-Going Steamships in 1923, she got her first teaching job at Hays School, at Shaftesbury in Wiltshire, in 1921. After this, Aileen took up a teaching position in the United States and relocated there in 1923.

Arriving in New York in early autumn of that year, she became part of the staff of Marymount College in Tarrytown, located up the Hudson River about 25 miles north of the main city. This was founded as a boarding school by Mother Marie Joseph Butler in 1907, and educated Catholic girls. Aileen was 25, unmarried – as was required for a female teacher at that time – and her well-educated convent background would have been seen as an asset to the school. She remained at Marymount until the summer of 1925, when she returned home.

She arrived back in America the following autumn, and took up a teaching position at Foxcroft School in Virginia. This prestigious boarding and day school educated girls from well-connected families, and took pupils from the ages of around 13 to 18, preparing them for college. Aileen worked alongside founding headteacher Charlotte Haxall Noland, and the school famously educated Wallis Simpson.

She appears to have come home every summer, but in 1928 she stayed in the UK rather than heading back to America. She gained a position at the County School, a grammar school a world away from the boarding schools she’d previously worked in, in the Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon. This school, where she taught English to 11-18 year olds, had many more male teachers than she would previously have worked with, and rather than being an exclusive boarding school for those who could afford it instead educated those children of the town who had passed an exam for entrance. The school later became Fitzmaurice Grammar School.

Fitz Aerial view

The County School, later Fitzmaurice Grammar, in Bradford on Avon

However, it seems this position did not suit her well. She wrote a letter of resignation in June 1929, saying that she had been offered another very good position in the United States, and “owing to family reasons I do not feel justified in refusing”. Exactly what her family situation was at this time is open to suggestion – both older brothers were happily settled in professions, her younger brother was also working as a school teacher, and her parents both appear healthy – but leave she did.

Exactly what the teaching position Aileen was offered in the US to tempt her back is unclear. The founder of Marymount College had founded a connected girls day school in Manhattan in 1926, so it is possible that a job here was offered, but it equally could have been any other school in the eastern US.

In 1930, with around ten years of teaching behind her, she established her own boarding school in the US. Foxhollow School was founded at Rhinebeck in Dutchess County in New York State, another part of the Hudson River Valley, but north of Tarrytown. The house she acquired had previously belonged to Tracy Dows, the son of a successful Manhattan grain merchant, who had commissioned the building in 1910 from architect Harrie T Lindeberg. The family had fallen on hard times during the Wall Street Crash, and Aileen was able to purchase the estate for her school.

Foxhollow farm

Foxhollow Farm, the original home of Aileen’s school

Foxhollow School was a college preparatory school, so catered for girls in the final four years of American schooling. Aileen was known as a proper Brit, with values, accent and manners to match – which probably helped cement the exclusive and top-quality nature that went with the reputation of British-style boarding schools.

British schools, especially private (also called “public”) schools with boarding facilities, have always held an enviable international reputation as the best places to educate children. Elite families around the globe, especially those from countries in the former British empire, would package up their children on a ship and send them to school with a tuck box, and only see them again during the holidays. As did many British parents too. For (literary) examples of this phenomena see books by Angela Brazil, Charles Hamilton, or Enid Blyton.

A by-product of the esteem these schools were held in was that teachers associated with the British grammar and public school tradition could usually find themselves held in high renown if they took a position in a foreign school, and even values that we would today frown upon could be upheld if they came from the British Boarding School tradition. For example, Aileen’s pupils apparently complained of chilblains from the coldness of their dormitories, but were told that this was to be expected of a school of this character, and to buck up and suffer in silence as girls had done for decades previously.

When the first Jewish refugees from the Nazis started to arrive in the US in 1933, Aileen felt it was her moral duty to help them. She offered refugees temporary jobs at her school until they could find something better. She reportedly despised Nazis.

In 1939 Aileen chose to move her school from New York state to Massachusetts, but kept the original name – so Foxhollow School was resident at Holmwood, the former estate of the Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt family in Lennox. This was a much bigger property, with 47 rooms, so shows that the school was doing well and expanding. Vandebilt, who had died on the Lusitania in 1915, never actually lived in the house. His widow, Margaret, had bought it after his death, had it remodelled, and had lived there with two subsequent husbands.

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Holmwood, which Aileen’s school took over in 1939

margaret emerson

Margaret Emerson, widow of Alfred Gwynne Vandebilt

As the school had continued to expand, Aileen looked at other nearby properties to take over, particularly as some of the classrooms and a stable suffered some fire damage in late 1941. Adjoining Holmwood was The Mount, which had originally belonged to writer Edith Wharton, which Aileen was able to buy for a reasonable price, and boarded girls in their junior and senior years of the high school system in the servants’ sleeping quarters in the attic and the first floor bedrooms. A chemistry lab was established in The Mount’s kitchen, and four older girls shared the room that had previously been Wharton’s bedroom – even with her original decorated panels in situ. On Sundays, senior girls were allowed to sit and read quietly in what had been Wharton’s private library.

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The Mount, former home of Edith Wharton

The school also had extensive stables, based in the original buildings at The Mount estate. Riding was seen as an important part of school life at Foxhollow.

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Pupils riding at Foxhollow

Aileen herself has been described as “formidable”, “charmingly British”, “strict and proper” and a “grande dame”. She was an established presence in local town life, and – despite living in America for most of her life – never gave up her British citizenship. She had a limousine and a chauffeur, and would send them to the airport to pick up visitors – including her younger brother when he came over to visit her.

The school girls were allowed to have dances with neighbouring boys’ schools, to socialise the pupils and teach them how dance. At one of these Aileen is supposed to have leaned over to a male chaperone from The Berkshire School, and asked him “can you tell me, is the word “fuck” still in common usage?”.

The school gradually lost a number of pupils as the image of British boarding school education faded, and eventually closed in 1976. Aileen had retired as headteacher in 1970, and had placed the school buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The original Holmwood building was then used as an inn, and has now been converted into apartments. The Mount has been restored to the glory days of Edith Wharton’s era, and is now a visitor centre dedicated to her life and work.

Aileen had never married. Neither had two of her brothers. One brother did, but there do not appear to have been any children. She continued to live in Lenox, Massachusetts, until her death in 1981 in her early 80s. She left no survivors, but a considerable legacy.

Nellie W’s story

Nellie W began her life in Chicago, born on the corner of Clark & LaSalle Streets, in 1871. She was born to English parents, Rachel H who had moved to the USA as a small child with her family, from Milwich in Staffordshre, for reasons not yet explained. Nellie’s father was Thomas W a carpenter/builder from County Durham who went to the USA, presumably to seek his fortune.

Sadly Rachel died in childbirth (the baby died too) when Nellie was only five years old, Rachel is buried in Topeka, Kansas where the family had moved from Chicago.

With no mother to look after Nellie and her older sister Katie (Kitty), their father Thomas returned with them to England, so they could be looked after by their Aunt (his sister).

It’s possible that Rachel’s death may not have been the only reason for their return. Passenger records show that the family had made another trip back to England when Nellie was only two years old, maybe a trial return to England that failed or perhaps they were rich enough to have a holiday? Nellie and Kitty left Aunts on their mother’s side of the family behind in the USA, who could have presumably looked after them, so perhaps Thomas was just ready to return home.

The story is that on the journey back, people on the boat were organising some sort of concert and asked Kitty if she had a piece to perform, to which she replied “no, but my little sister will”. Nellie entertained the passengers by reciting poems, whether they were ones she had learnt or just made up on the spot, history doesn’t relate.

Once the family arrived in England, they stayed the night in London, but the girls got bored in the hotel so decided to go out for a walk. Apparently people were most surprised and concerned to see the two girls walking round unaccompanied, maybe the hotel was in a “shady area” or young women in England were not given the same freedom as in the USA.

After arriving in County Durham young Nellie continued to amuse and bemuse the crowds. Asking “have you got any gum” in the sweet shop and then when a horse and cart went past, running to the door shouting “oh look a buggy!” – everyone thought she was swearing!

Nellie and Kitty had a rather strict and austere upbringing with their Aunt, Nellie rebelled saying “I won’t, I won’t” if she didn’t want to wear something awful. Kitty was more compliant but eventually had enough and ran away to be a milliner in central London. Nellie stayed close to home but later described her aunt, “put it this way, she never called me hinny”.

Census records prove that Nellie’s Aunt was his father’s older sister Jane. She can be found living with her husband Cuth Pearson and Nellie in 1881. The 1861 census shows that Jane and Cuth did have one daughter Sarah, but that she died in infancy, maybe Nellie was a poor substitute.

In 1891 Nellie is lodging with a William Pearson and his wife Annie in Selbourne Terrace Darlington and is now working as a dressmaker. William appears to be no relation to Cuth so it’s unknown how Nellie ended up in these lodgings.

It must have been around that time that Nellie met Frederick Airey because by 1893 they were married and in January 1896 a daughter, Winifred Willis Airey, was born, Nellie had miscarried a child previously, but had no further children.

It seems a happy marriage, they had good times and poorer times according to the fluctuations of the building trade and moved house many times as a result. It’s known that Fred was a worried parent and that Nellie had a more pragmatic approach. She was around the same height as him (about 5ft 4) so wore flat shoes in his company. After his death one of his cousins showed an interest in Nellie and daughter Winnie said “why don’t you go with him, he’s very like Dad?” to which Nellie replied, “your father had bright blue eyes and he has steely grey ones”.

Nellie has been described by other relatives: “Mrs W seemed rather genteel”. She brought Winnie up to play the piano, embroider and crochet. She and Nellie read the complete works of Dickens, the Brontes and I presume Jane Austen as a matter of course. Nellie quoted poetry to her daughter who in turn quoted it back to me saying “you will remember this won’t you” I am afraid I didn’t try to remember it as it irritated me for some reason, but of course wish I did now. It was not whole poems but rhyming couplets relating to places we were visiting or something that had happened.

“yorkshire pudding and gravy like rain, i could eat til i was hungry again”

“the narrow lanes of Devon…”

Nellie has also been described as “a most sensible woman”. Apparently, she said “you need to be a girl in a dress, not a dress on a girl”, an interesting comment from an ex-dressmaker!

Other assorted facts known about Nellie W.

She went to the pictures twice weekly.

She had flexible fingers that could be bent backwards.

She knew without going to church what the preacher would be preaching about in any given week, (not sure how she did this but my father said she was always right).

She had wide calves and narrow ankles – something to be proud of at that time apparently, probably early 1920s…

 

From photographs you can see that she liked a flamboyant hat and was always dressed in style, daughter Winnie was beautifully turned out as a little girl.

Nellie had quick reactions. When her grandson Norman was a toddler they were visited by a little girl of roughly the same age as him, they were all admiring the little girl’s new shoes, apart from Norman, who picked them up and flung them in the fire! Nellie just as quickly whipped them out again.

Nellie and daughter Winnie also performed a trick while cycling where they could take off their jackets and swap them with each other. I am not sure if they then put on each other’s jackets – maybe.

Of the expression “rain before 7, fine by 11” she said that she wasn’t sure if this referred to 11 in the morning or 11 at night.

She would describe the weather as “glishy” this was when you get a bright crystal clear morning with everything clearly defined, then it turns to rain, almost the exact reverse of “rain before 7”. Glishy is actually given in a dictionary of words used in Swaledale.

Nellie was sadly, racist; this was against her character in other ways and not something passed on to daughter Winnie, who was remarkably aware of race issues and accepting especially for someone of her era. After a visit to the home by a black man, Nellie beat all the cushions and swept the floor trying to get rid of all traces of him, it was most odd. Winnie could only think that it was some experience that Nellie had as a child in the USA, but as she left there at five years old this seems unlikely, but maybe something was ingrained in her at the time. I don’t know what sister Kitty’s attitude was, but leaving the USA at 12 any prejudices may already have been formed and these may have been passed on to Nellie.

Nellie lived with daughter Winnie from Winnie’s birth, I think that after Winnie married Billy Jackson they lived with Fred Airey and Nellie, but after Fred’s death the tables turned and Nellie lived with Winnie and Billy, moving with the family from Darlington to Widnes for six years when Norman was one year old, and then on to Leeds where Billy eventually bought a house in Meanwood and it was there that Nellie ended her days.

Nellie was a capable woman and I get the impression often did things for Winnie without meaning to undermine her, but making Winnie seem more incapable than she actually was by not really giving her a chance. Winnie did take over the housekeeping though, as by the 1939 census Nellie is described as “incapacitated”. Despite a weak heart and suffering a mild stroke she kept going until her 81st year, living until 1851. Nellie is buried with husband Fred in Darlington North Cemetery with Fred’s parents William and Sarah.

A bit more about Kitty who had no descendants to describe her

Kitty’s birth certificate was burnt in the Great Fire of Chicago, she and her father argued about which year she was born in, so she was never sure to a year as to how old she was.

When she ran away to work in a hat shop it was to a shop in central London, clearly not one to do things by halves.

She was rather eccentric compared to Nellie’s sensibleness. Extremely tidy, she once threw a brand new bag of lace in the fire while tidying up, (Nellie didn’t manage to fish this out, unlike the baby shoes).

Kitty had one baby named Norman, but he died during his first year of life.

She was fun, letting her Great nephew (another Norman) teach her semaphore with much flag waving and hilarity.

You could detect a slight American accent when she said the word squirrel.

She lived to about 84 years of age.

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Nellie’s story was submitted by Joanna.

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.

 

Caroline B’s story

International traveller, politician’s wife, member of the aristocracy, and divorcee are all fairly important things to have achieved in the later 19th and early 20th century, but to have been all four was the preserve of Caroline.

She spent her childhood travelling between South America and the UK, which sounds fairly exotic now, but in the later part of the 19th century it was the preserve of all but the very monied. She was born to Americans living in Lima, Peru, in the early 1870s. Her father had set up an artificial ice company in Peru which grew to become a thriving brewery and took him back and forth across the Atlantic between South America and the UK. The family (Caroline was the oldest of 11) went with him – one of her brothers was born in the UK, while the rest all had Peru as a birthplace – but while her brothers were educated at British boarding schools Caroline and her sisters remained with the family and received their education closer to home.

As a wealthy white woman at this time in South America, Caroline would have socially mixed with others reckoned to be of equal standing, and it was from this pool of society that she met her husband – a man of British parentage but South American birth, who was also engaged going back and forth across the Atlantic running an importing business. They married in Lima in the mid-1890s, and Caroline became a British citizen by marriage.

Three children followed over the next few years, two born in Chile and one in the UK, and Caroline and the children still supported her husband by travelling back and forth across the Atlantic as his business demanded. As her sons grew, they were sent to British boarding schools like their uncles before them, but Caroline’s daughter remained with her parents.

On her father’s death, at the tail end of the 19th century, Caroline’s mother moved from Peru to London, bringing her younger siblings with her.

Her husband saw service during the First World War, but Caroline still appears to have spent that period travelling back and forth between the UK and South America, even at a point when shipping in the Atlantic could be risky due to U-Boat activity. Her sons also served in the armed forces, while her daughter remained with her parents.

It was as the Great War came to an end that things started to change. Caroline’s husband left his business ambitions behind him, and developed political ambitions. He stood as an independent Liberal candidate – in full support of the Coalition government but without being given a coupon – for a Wiltshire constituency in the 1918 general election. This catapulted Caroline from the wife of a company director to a political wife – which would have involved supporting not only his political views but appearing at various political meetings and rallies in her own right as his wife. The Representation of the People Act 1918 had enfranchised almost all men over the age of 21, and in this era many politicians were drawn from the higher echelons of society. A loyal and supportive wife and family background – as displayed by Caroline and her husband and children – helped politicians draw parallels with themselves in the minds of the electorate.

The Act also gave the vote to women over 30, who were householders or part of a university constituency, and another act just before this election enabled women over 21 to stand as candidates. However, with only 17 women standing over the entire country, most candidates were still traditional politicians, and the candidate’s wife was expected to appeal to the newly enfranchised women by endorsing her husband. Campaigning at this time, with no television or radio, was done through the newspapers and frequent political meetings – where the candidate’s wife would also address the assembled crowd. Caroline would have stood up and made speeches at these meetings to endorse her husband’s candidacy and political views.

Her husband failed to gain the seat in Wiltshire, where he faced the coalition-backed existing Conservative candidate, and by the next election had moved on to a new constituency in Nottinghamshire. The family, who retained a great deal of money from his successful business, had purchased a large stately home, and Caroline became mistress of this. Her home included a library, a billiards room, seven ‘best’ bedrooms, provision for many servants and ornamental gardens. Hunting parties and other pursuits befitting stately homes at this time also became part of her life. This would have befitted her status as the MP’s wife, as her husband won the seat in the 1922 election, only to lose it again in the snap election held in 1923 when Prime Minister Bonar Law fell ill and resigned. She was returned to her status as MP’s wife at the following election in 1924, and retained that role until 1930.

Her husband was also invested as a Baronet in the late 1920s, in addition to being an MP – although by this time he’d switched allegiance to the Conservative Party. Caroline became Lady Caroline.

Financial problems had led to the couple becoming bankrupt, and Caroline had to leave her large house behind as it was sold to pay debts. As a consequence of this, her husband also resigned as an MP in 1930, and Caroline could retire from that public role.

Their marriage started to disintegrate in the 1930s, and by 1938 she had become a divorcee – easier at this point in the century on account of new divorce legislation brought in in the later 1920s, but no less stigma-laden in an era where couples were societally expected to stay together and work through difficulties.

Her ex-husband remarried quickly, but Caroline remained single for the remaining six years of her life. She died just after the end of the Second World War, leaving a considerable amount of money to her eldest son and a solicitor.

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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.

Cecelia W’s story

Magdalene laundries are more usually associated with Ireland, but institutions for penitent women were found in many countries.

The more usual name for these institutions were reformatory schools or refuges for penitent women, and they were run by a collection of nuns with the aim to cleanse the souls of those accommodated within, and focus the mind on good work through useful industry.

The more usual view is that admittance was via loose behaviour – either bearing a child out of wedlock or engaging in prostitution – but young catholic women could also be placed there for other reasons, such as engaging in petty crimes.

It is unknown what Cecilia W did to end up in a convent reformatory, but there is a record from someone bearing her name in 1879 who was charged with two counts of fraud. This young woman admitted her guilt, and was released – but may have been placed in a reformatory by her parents to keep her on the straight and narrow.

She’d been born in Newport, South Wales, into a large catholic family of eleven children. Her father worked as a sawyer, while her mother ran a public house.

Whatever she did to end up as a penitent, by 1881 she was placed in a convent institution in Bristol, spending her time employed in laundry work and needlework.

She stayed there for at least the next twenty years. In 1891 the institution, which was run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd – who had other convents and reform schools elsewhere in the UK – had 67 penitent women on their books alongside 59 reformatory girls and 20 school children. By 1891 Cecilia’s needlework role appeared to have been dropped and she was merely working as a laundry maid. She was similarly employed in the same institution in 1901.

By 1911, however, she appears to have left the convent as she does not appear on the list of inmates – so perhaps her debt to society had been repaid in the eyes of the church. A woman bearing her name was living in a flat in Brighton, on the south coast of England, as the travelling companion to an American visitor of Irish descent. In the absence of an obvious death record it would be nice to think that, after many years hard laundry labour at the hands of the nuns, she had a nicer and more comfortable life in her later years. There is no further record of Cecelia, so she may have travelled back to America with her new-found companion.

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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.

Sophia C’s story

Born into a seafaring family, Sophia C’s life reflects the Victorian globe-trotting that was possible for women with access to a great deal of money and good connections.

She was born in the 1820s in Valparaiso, a seaside port not too far from Santiago in Chile. Her father was a captain and a mariner, and came from a well-established long-heritage community in Massachusetts, while her mother was Irish. It’s likely that her mother accompanied her father on certain journeys, hence Sophia’s American citizen status but exotic birth, as the rest of her siblings were born in Massachusetts. The family were back in Massachusetts by the end of the 1820s, as her younger brother was born there, but the voyage back to the northern part of the USA from Chile would have been long and involved traveling through the Strait of Magellan.

In the 1840s, Sophia married another seafaring man – one who had started his career on the whaling boats of Massachusetts and was gradually working his way up the mariner ranks. Several years her senior, he came from another well-established Massachusetts family, and had ancestry from the Mayflower.

They settled in the state for a time, but her husband’s career grew in a different direction. He became a shipping agent, and the couple moved across the Atlantic to be based in Glasgow, Scotland. He commanded packet ships for an American company, and ran a large shipping and commission business. They rented a house in a fashionable area of the city for a few years, and were well known in local society – her husband also held a fair amount of property in the area. A female student from Prussia (now Germany) lived with them for a while, as she studied in the city, and Sophia’s brothers and their wives appeared to be frequent visitors.

There appear not to have been any children from her marriage, and Sophia was provided well for by servants, so her life would have been comfortable with a degree of leisure, and probably centred around functions and good works.

Later on, when her husband retired, they moved down the country to London. They lived in a smaller but-no-less-fashionable property with Sophia’s widowed mother, and a servant.

Her husband died on a visit to coastal France, at the age of 64, leaving Sophia a widow at the age of 51. She remained in the UK for a few years, having settled her husband’s affairs and inherited a great deal of money, living on her own on a private income. She then returned to the US.

In later life, she went travelling for pleasure – firstly to Berlin and Leipzig, coming back through the UK, and then on to Switzerland. She describes her role in life as a “matron and housewife”. She eventually went home to Massachusetts “for my health”.

She died back at home in Massachusetts at the end of the first world war, aged 94.