Susannah P’s story

Susannah was a ballet dancer, which means a very different thing in today’s culture than it did in the 1870s – when it basically equated to an immoral woman with connotations of prostitution, and she was treated accordingly. She ended up in a reform home.

Today we have a particular social and cultural view of ballet dancers – it’s high culture, an aspirational discipline characterised by hard work and sacrifice, and full of grace and beauty. Women who perform it are seen as wholesome and hardworking. This view – in the UK at least – really comes from the work of Dame Ninette De Valois and her ilk, founding the Royal Ballet School in the mid-1920s and bolstering the art form’s reputation and standing in society at that time.

In Susannah’s time as a ballet dancer – and you’d perhaps hesitate to call her a ballerina, as that word has many unspoken nuances that link it to the French and Russian traditions – the dance form and its connotations were very different. While she called herself a ballet dancer on one census return, ballet in the UK of the 1870s was more music hall and variety show dancing in a troupe, perhaps as part of a pantomime, than the crisp corps de ballet of Swan Lake or Coppélia. And while ballet of that form was still being performed on the continent, displays of it were rare in the UK – and instead the more popular view of a ballet dancer was a performer in an entertainment.

Britain had had some exposure to the high art form of ballet earlier in the 19th century. Indeed, by the 1840s the great romantic ballerinas of the age – Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler – had toured Europe, including the UK, and had been widely seen. However, while the Russian and French ballet traditions continued, interest dimmed in the UK – perhaps as the country did not produce its own great romantic ballerina (Clara Webster was prophesised to become this icon, but sadly died after a costume caught fire in 1844).

At the same time, middle- and high-class Victorian moralising was intensifying, and ballet and theatrical costumes often exposed far more female flesh than was considered proper for the time. Degas paintings, for example, had a titillating element to them that we might not recognise today, and were a form of pornography for their era.

Degas painting

It was against this background that Susannah went on the stage as a ballet dancer. It appears to have been a career that she fell into rather than deliberately chose.

She was born in London in the mid-1840s, and was one of six siblings – although an older sister had died before she was born. The family appear relatively well off. Her father, Edward, had been a confectioner when his oldest children were born and by the time Susannah arrived he gave his profession as a cook.

A male cook in this era was unusual. Domestic cooks were invariably women, employed and accommodated in bigger houses, whereas Susannah’s father appears to have lived at home. His prior occupation of confectioner gives more of a clue to his career. Male employed cooks were usually responsible for high end and intricate food – into which category confectionary fell – in very stately homes or hotels. In fact, Edward was employed by Judge Sir John Jervis, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and was cook to the household alongside another man. The job required some travelling – the 1851 census finds Edward at work in Norfolk, while Susannah and her mother and siblings are at home in London.

Vaughan Terrace Hoxton

Her father’s job was clearly a relatively lucrative one, and Susannah and her sisters and brother didn’t need to go out to work as they grew up. Although not rich, they would have enjoyed activities from the expanding middle class. Her older sister Sarah was educated until at least the age of 14, and it’s likely that Susannah and her sisters Louisa and Emma were included in that. It’s also likely that the girls of the family would have had some dancing instruction – although not from Marie Taglioni, who didn’t teach in the UK until the late 1870s – which would have stood them in good stead for later on.

Her father was clearly on the rise. The family began while he and his wife Sarah were living in the Barbican area, but they soon moved to a smart town house now on Shepherdess Walk in Hoxton, and then later they were in cottages in Caledonian Road, Barnsbury. Sir John Jervis died in 1856, but their lifestyle continued so it is probable that Edward found similar work.

Susannah’s next youngest sister Louisa married a wine merchant in 1864, although this did not work out (and is a subject for another blog), and her older sister Sarah appeared to leave the family – but whether this was marriage, death or work is unclear. However, things changed completely when Susannah’s father died in 1868.

Her mother suddenly lost her source of income and the lifestyle they had previously enjoyed. She moved the family to Drury Lane – the heart of London’s theatre district – and put Susannah, at this stage aged 27 and unmarried, and her younger sister Emma on the stage. The 1871 census describes Susannah and her sister as “performer”, although it is not specific which theatre they are working in. Their younger brother – Edward – is bringing in money as a fishing rod maker, so it is clear that all three children are supporting the family by whatever means possible. Susannah and Emma must have had enough talent and instruction from their more privileged former life to gain jobs as performers – and its Susannah’s later description of herself as a ballet dancer that leads to the assertation that they were probably taking part in the more music hall/pantomime productions of the era.

Pantomime and light entertainment ballet was flourishing at this time. Many new venues had opened in preceding years – Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, the Oxford near Tottenham Court Road, South London Palace near the Elephant and Castle, and the Adelphi Theatre. But Susannah and Emma were more likely employed at the Alhambra Theatre and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square. The Alhambra had a reputation for lavish ballet “spectaculars”, performed by vast numbers of dancers exhibiting entertainment that promoted patriotic pride and the culture of the day.

Three clowns 1870s

This was a precarious life, and not without its dangers. Gas lights in theatres and flammable fabrics used in costumes made burns a constant risk. The most famous victim of this was Emma Livry – who was burned after an accident with a gas lamp in a rehearsal at the Paris Opera in 1862, and died following the wounds in July 1863. However, an account of a fire during a pantomime of Richard Coeur de Lion, at the Surrey Theatre on Blackfriars Road in 1865, gives an impression of the sort of performance Susannah and her sister Emma would have been part of. The show’s clown, Rowella, was performing a burlesque solo on the trombone when the fire was noticed, and it was thanks to his efforts and other pantomime performers that the troupe of flimsily dressed ballet girls also appearing in the entertainment were saved. Thankfully, Susannah and Emma were not part of this world at the time, but the backstage world could be a risky place.

While Emma married in 1875, and left performing, Susannah continued. Her mother died in 1879, which may well have made her even more reliant on her income from the stage.

However, by the 1880s this stopped. The 1881 census finds her in the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution, the origins of which was explored in Hephzibah’s story. While this, by modern standards, may seem an odd place to find a ballet dancer, the moral background surrounding performers did not sit well with society’s improvers. Male theatre patrons would buy sexual favours from ballet dancers and actresses – this was part of the lifestyle and a way to make extra money. Therefore, Susannah was, whether she engaged in this practice or not, a fallen woman in terms of the society surrounding her.

As someone who had previously been of a good family, Susannah was ideally placed to be taken in by the ideals of the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution. Those who ran the programme, who actively recruited women on the streets and around the theatre district, felt that those who had been brought up morally but had fallen into disrepute could be saved by their good work.

The work of the institution trained inmates for a new and moral life, offering them preparation for work as domestic servants and finding them good positions when they had reformed. Susannah, at this time, was 37 but claimed to be 30. It may be that she was getting tired from the rigors of performing, and was looking for a way out – so, whether she worked as a prostitute as well as a dancer or not, she may have felt that this was a chance at a new life.

After her retraining was over, she was supposed to be found a domestic placement to support her going onwards. Whether this happened or not isn’t clear – there are a couple of plain Susans (rather than the more flamboyant Susannah) on the 1891 census, working as cooks in big houses, but no one answering her exact name. It’s also possible that she was using her middle name – Elizabeth – for this new life, but there isn’t an exact fit for her here either. There is a reference to a Susannah of about the right age entering the workhouse in 1882, declared insane. This woman was removed after a while by “friends” – who, if this was our Susannah, could have been either from the theatre or the reformatory. But again, there is no definite proof this is Susannah the dancer.

What is certain, however, is that she lived to a great age and was buried under her own full name. She died in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, aged 92. And is buried in Greenwich.

Hephzibah C’s story

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a “fallen woman”.

Today we’d probably think of that term applying to a sex worker, or perhaps someone involved in drug dealing or organised crime.

To educated and aspirational social climbing Victorians however, with their drive to live godly and moral lives, the term had many different connotations. Fallen women were not necessarily prostitutes, but those women who had been “ruined” in some way – those who had lost their innocence (whether by accident or design) or virtue, or extreme poverty, and had therefore fallen from the grace of God. Fallen women were considered to have stepped outside the boundaries of what was socially and morally acceptable – therefore rape victims and those engaging in extra-marital affairs would also be included in that bracket. Just the women though. Not men who engaged in visiting prostitutes or extramarital sex. Which is a damning double standard. Theatre types – dancers and actresses, who would often perform in clothing that was more revealing and/or were known for entertaining patrons – were also included in the fallen women bracket.

Hephzibah was involved in the mid-Victorian drive to try to improve the lives of fallen women – or indeed eradicate this scourge from society. She was the youngest of several children – mostly girls – being brought up by non-conformist parents on the outskirts of London. Born in the late 1820s, her labourer father died when she was 17, and her widowed mother moved the family to West Ham. Hephzibah and her next oldest sister Betsy kept the family solvent by making dresses and hats, while their mother continued with her domestic duties. Neither of them ever married. With their mother, Hephzibah and Betsy helped to bring up their widowed brother’s children.

After their mother died at the tail end of the 1860s, Hephzibah moved in with their brother to keep house for him and continue to raise her nieces and nephews, while Betsy took her dressmaking business to her sister’s house.

During the 1870s the movement to improve society by rehabilitating women deemed fallen was gaining traction, and in London Hephzibah and Betsy – as virtuous unmarried women in their 40s with deep Christian faith – were well placed to become part of the process.

The midnight meeting movement, known for carrying out its work at night when those it was attempting to save, would hold events for fallen women in the less salubrious London districts. Street women would be invited to a lecture hall and then given food. Afterwards they would addressed by various gentlemen present in the hall in order to get them to repent and change their ways. One newspaper article at the time said that great emotion was shown on the part of some of the women, who had evidently been trained by Sunday Schools or brought up by Christian parents. If they were willing to be rescued they were sent to live in a premises belonging to the Female Preventative and Reformatory Institution. For each woman saved, the secretary of that organisation received £5 from the midnight meeting movement.

By 1881 Hephzibah was a housekeeper in charge of one of these homes for fallen women on Euston Square in London, rehabilitating women and training them to be placed in domestic service or other gainful employment. Her sister Betsy was the matron of the same institution. This was not unlike the Catholic system of penitentiaries at convents for young women and girls who had strayed away from the path of “good morals”, but was accessed by those of all denominations, and were seen more as social reform than purging evil from the spirit.

EustonLFPRI1

The homes for fallen women were part of this educated Victorian drive to improve society – whether religion-driven, or based on social reform principles – by returning these women to a moral life. Some were reportedly stricter than others, while at least some appeared understanding as to the factors and needs that had driven their inmates to the place they had found themselves.

This was usually by strict, structural measures for living, with a good dose of Christianity, and very little wriggle room for inmates. There were many such establishments in cities of the time, particularly in London, and the most famous of these was Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, set up and run by Charles Dickens and Lady Burdett-Coutts, and was set up in the 1840s.

Prostitution-Victorian-Era-1-1usitsq

This particular home in Euston Square had been founded in 1857, as one of five by 1863, as the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution. By this point the homes were run under Reverend Edward W Thomas, alongside his wife Maria, and were dependent on voluntary contributions from the public to keep going. Euston Square received and dealt with all the applications for the whole suite of homes, so part of Hephzibah and Betsy’s jobs would have been welcoming new inmates into the system. They employed a female registrar to help with the paperwork and placing.

Inmates at Euston Square were given “womanly” tasks to undertake – domestic work, laundry and needlework – during the day, then in the evening they were also taught to read and write. Hephzibah and Betsy would have been at the forefront of this drive for a moral pathway, exhibiting deep faith and “proper” behaviour for women, but also would have been involved in the care of women who had lived at the sharp end of poverty and neglect – so would have seen and known a great deal of what went on in the less-documented reaches of Victorian society. Once the inmates had been reformed and were considered to be back on a moral pathway, they were found suitable situations – usually domestic servant positions in the houses of the wealthy.

Initially the Euston Square home had been intended for “the unfallen”, so poor rather than immoral women, whereas the other four were designated as reformatories. It’s possible that this distinction had gone by 1881, however. Adverts portrayed the homes as for the “Friendless and Fallen”. “Nearly 200 poor young females are fed, lodged, clothed, and instructed, and, after probation, are provided with suitable situations,” says one of the adverts appealing for donations. More about the home and the institution as a whole can be found here: http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonLFPRI/

Under Hephzibah and Betsy’s care on the 1881 census there are 29 women. Most are training to be general servants, though there is one ballet dancer there. By 1891 the situation is very similar, as the inmates include an actress, but Hephzibah and Betsy have left the home and a Sarah Hamer has taken over instead. At this time there were at least six homes in the scheme, plus an all-night refuge that anyone could wander into. An advert asking for donations at Christmas in 1884 says that they had 192 women and girls in the homes at that point, and 5000 meals needed to be provided each week.

Hephzibah, after leaving the employ of the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution, founded a lodging house in Lewisham – putting her considerable housekeeping skills to good use, but perhaps with less troublesome boarders. However, most of her residents were her sisters – Betsy, widowed Eliza, and Susannah who had worked as a servant and never married.

As she aged, Hephzibah’s deep faith and Christian good works meant that she was an ideal candidate for an alms house. She moved into the Bethel Asylum, a set of twelve dwellings intended for aged women, on Havil Street in Camberwell. Though called an asylum, it was actually just a more comfortable place for women like her to spend their final years. The building, now private housing, is two storeys high and grade II listed. She lived with a group of other elderly women together in the building.

Hephzibah died in 1918, aged 89. She was still living at the Bethel Asylum at the time. Betsy had predeceased her in 1912.