Thermuthis and Lucy’s stories

Some siblings luckily share a tight sisterly bond, others are as different as night and day – and while they love each other and share a background, other values like politics can vastly differ within family members of the same generation. And this is equally true for those born of a privileged background as well as those from more modest beginnings.

Thermuthis and Lucy were sisters who exemplified this difference between siblings. Two of three daughters born to a landed squire in Wiltshire at the tail end of the 1850s, they had a comfortable upbringing for the time, and a great deal of money and influence behind them. But where Thermuthis followed the typical politics and activities of landed gentry at the time, Lucy turned her back 180 degrees on this lifestyle and instead worked tirelessly with the poor and underprivileged to make the world a better place.

Both women make brief appearances in Francis Kilvert’s diaries of the 1870s, as Squire Reverend Robert Martin Ashe – their father – was part of the landed gentry circles that Kilvert moved in at that time. Kilvert mentions dining at Langley House, their home, on several occasions during the diary, and there is a detailed description of Thermuthis in his writings.

Thermuthis Ashe was the eldest sister, born in 1856. She was her parents’ second-born child, but her older brother – named Robert after his father – had died a year earlier of whooping cough and convulsions aged about 18 months. Another sister – Emily Ashe, known to the family as Syddy or Syddie – followed in 1857, and then Lucy Ashe was born in 1859. There were no further children, and no boy to inherit the house and title, so Thermuthis became heir apparent until such time as she married, as under the law at the time a husband would assume the wife’s property.

Ashe and daughters

Thermuthis is on the left, Lucy on the right.

The three sisters would have enjoyed the best of country life growing up at that time, going into the nearby market town at Chippenham for anything that they needed, as Langley Burrell where they lived was a small village. Kilvert described Thermuthis, known as Thersie, on a visit to their house in January of 1871, when she would have been around fifteen.

“25 January 1871

A fly took Fanny, Dora and myself to dinner at Langley House at 7.30. The Ashes were very agreeable and Thersie Ashe was in the drawing room before dinner sitting on an ottoman in a white dress, white boots and gloves, almost a grown-up young lady and looking exceedingly nice with her long dark hair and brilliant colour.”

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Kilvert’s gaze also fell upon Emily Ashe towards the end of that year, when she was around fourteen:

Wednesday 27 December 1871

After dinner I went with Dora to call at the John Knights’ at the farm on the common. At the cross roads we met Mrs Ashe with Thersie and Syddy going round to the cottages giving the invitations to the New Year’s supper at Langley House. Syddy is magnificent entirely, splendidly handsome. I never thought her so beautiful before. Her violet eyes, her scarlet lips, the luxuriance of her rich chestnut curling hair, indescribable. She is said by my mother to be very like her great grandmother, especially in her chestnut curling hair.

Youngest sister Lucy does not appear to have been mentioned at all, at least in the published portion of Kilvert’s diaries.

Both the 1861 and 1871 censuses find the family at home in Langley Burrell with eight servants in residence – in the early years the girls would have had a nursemaid, and later on a governess, and the house had a housekeeper, a cook and various other domestic maids. Their father, who though a reverend who could technically be in charge of the local St Peter’s Church, concentrated mostly on the running of the parish and passed the church over to Kilvert’s father. He was also a magistrate and justice of the peace in Chippenham. A newspaper report of the time says that Robert Ashe suffered some ill health and spent time abroad in better climates. Thermuthis, Emily, Lucy and their mother would also have played a great part in the parish life growing up, and the sisters by the standards of the day would have been expected to grow up into genteel young ladies and marry well, probably from among the local gentry. Their father apparently did not approve of mixed dancing, or even mixed tennis for his daughters, so it is likely that their contact with young men was limited.

Langley House

However, their mother died at the end of 1884 – when they were around 27, 26 and 24 – and their father a month later in January 1885, supposedly of a broken heart following his wife’s death. Thermuthis then inherited the house, and became the landowner, and Emily and Lucy lived at the house with her just as before. None of them showed any inclination of marrying for a good while. Emily eventually did marry, in 1891 to Edward Scott, a soldier. She then moved away, and had children of her own, living for a time in India. Neither Thermuthis nor Lucy ever married.

Thermuthis, as lady of the manor, assumed various duties of public life. She was deeply involved in village affairs, donating and supporting the poor and needy within the community, and a supporter of the village church that had been in her family for generations. Clearly extremely religious, she acted as a church warden, and one of the few female wardens in the diocese in the early 20th century (it was part of the wider Bristol diocese), attending the diocesan conference regularly. She also served on the ruri-decanal conference, an event concerning rural parishes.

Langley House remained a focal point for the community under her tenure as it was during her father’s day. The extensive grounds were used for political meetings, village and church fétes – there are mentions of her having entered gardening competition categories at various fétes and produce shows in the newspapers of the time. Her other chief hobby was archery, and she was often seen practicing this in the grounds of the house, right up until several months before her death. At her demise she was one of the oldest members known of the Society of Wiltshire Archers. She was also a member of the local Beaufort Hunt, but did not actually ride with them – instead providing land for the practice.

Politically, she was a staunch Conservative, perhaps typically for a landowner of her background, and was head of the local Women’s Conservative Association. Lord Londonderry – a cousin of Winston Churchill – once addressed a political meeting at her residence. She gradually sold off pieces of land that she had inherited – she’d owned West Kennet Manor through a connection of her great grandmother, but sold it in 1921. She also owned a local patch of woodland – Bird’s Marsh – and various extensive parcels of land via the church holdings that extended down into Chippenham itself, as part of what is now the town was a section of Langley Burrell Within parish. Several of these were sold off in the later years of her life, and her name is now remembered on streets created on the land itself – so Ashfield Road, Ashe Crescent and Ashe Close stand as memorials.

Thermuthis Ashe died in 1935 after a short illness, aged 78. She is buried at St Peter’s Church in Langley Burrell.

Her younger sister Lucy, in complete contrast, turned away from the Conservative and landowning lifestyle of Thermuthis in the early years of the 20th century, and instead moved away to live in London and perform social work among deprived communities. She had intended only to stay in London for a week or so, but ended up staying for more than forty years. She was visiting Emily and her family in Kent on the 1901 census, with no profession given, but ten years later she was resident at the Twentieth Century Club in Notting Hill. She apparently said “I throw in my lot with yours. I stay among you.” when she experienced life in Southwark, and did so wholeheartedly.

Lucy Ashe

This residence was a ladies club, founded in 1902, which had 105 bedrooms and was there for the purpose “to provide furnished residential rooms and board at economical prices, for educated women workers engaged in professional, educational, literary, secretarial or other similar work.” Lucy’s profession on the 1911 census was given as a Honorary Secretary of a Charity Organisation living on private means, which fits the remit of the club. While she lived there, she had income from another London property and presumably some inheritance to live on which initially gave her means to survive while working, but within a short time she largely financed her own work. The club had ceased to exist by 1924, so after this point Lucy lived elsewhere in Southwark where most of her work took place.

She is remembered as a particularly dedicated and tireless worker, regularly putting in unpaid 18-hour days for the benefit of the borough’s poorest residents. Southwark of the time was known for being a place of poor housing and tough living, with parts regularly flooded by the Thames and families crammed into one room in back to back accommodation and sharing one toilet with several neighbours. A large drive was underway to remove the slums and replace them with better quality housing – this was a big part of Lloyd George’s Liberal government – and Lucy joined this effort.

Southwark around the middle of the 20th century

At the beginning of the First World War she concentrated on helping the families of the borough who had their main breadwinner serving overseas – so focusing on mothers and children in the most part. This work led to being made the first Chairman of the Child Welfare Committee in 1919. She was also on the very first Pensions Committee in the early 1920s and – in direct contrast to her sister Thermuthis – was elected as a Labour Party member of Southwark Council. In later years she served as an Alderman for Southwark. Her work passions also included the health of residents, particularly around the care of people who had contracted tuberculosis.

She had a small office in Steedman Street from where she offered advice and help to the people she represented and served, and would paint and sell pictures to finance the help she was able to give. Hundreds of people benefitted from her work, and knew her as “the lady with the satchel”.

Lucy Ashe headline

She was only persuaded to leave Southwark and the people and streets she loved at the height of the Second World War blitz, with bombs regularly falling into the nearby roads. Six people took over the work that she had done alone. At this time she was into her 80s, and her health was beginning to suffer after all the years of hard work. Some residents thought she had succumbed to a bomb, but in reality she moved home to Langley House in Wiltshire – which at this time was owned by Emily’s son Major Charles Scott-Ashe – for the duration.

Her office in Steedman Street was bombed, as were many other places in the borough. After the war, she was remembered by a block of flats bearing her name in Peacock Street.

Her health was not good enough for her to return after the war, and she lived quietly at Langley Burrell for the rest of her life. She died in 1949, on her 90th birthday, and was remembered later that year with a memorial in the grounds of St Peter’s Church. In her will she left £150 to the Southwark Labour Party. A primary school now sits on the site of the block of flats in Peacock Street.

Charlotte Marvelous’ story

Charlotte Marvelous sounds like a rather fantastic stage name for a Victorian circus performer. Or possibly a burlesque dancer.

In reality, however, she was the faithful housekeeper to a Sheffield bookseller, and almost certainly never saw as much as a prancing pony or a nipple tassel. But Marvelous wasn’t her real surname, and was probably a mark of deep affection given to her by her employer.

She’d been born in Eydon, a rurally-set village in Northamptonshire, towards the end of the 18th century. She was her parents’ seventh child of at least eleven, and not the first to have the name Charlotte – there’d been an older sister called Charlotte who’d died at a year old a few years earlier. While calling a child after one who’d died might seem a little morbid, this was relatively common at this time, with a far higher rate of infant mortality than today. Charlotte was not even the only child in the family for this to happen to – she had two brothers named John, one being born just over a month after the first one died at the age of seven.

Her parents, William and Maria Hunt, don’t appear to have been anyone particularly of note in the village – which mostly had a mixture of agricultural workers and house-based weavers – although towards the more well-to-do end of the scale given the professions of the men their daughters married and the fact that many of them were able to write their names on their wedding records so were at least partially literate. Charlotte was a witness to her sister Lavinia’s wedding in 1808, and was able to write her name.

In 1812, at around the age of 23, Charlotte married James, an agricultural labourer, in her home village of Eydon. James’ surname was Marvesley, so she became Charlotte Marvesley. There are no children in the baptismal records that fit, so it’s likely that their marriage was childless. As a farm labourer’s wife, it’s likely that Charlotte stayed at home doing domestic duties – which would have been considerable at the time – but it’s possible that she may have had some duties on the farm too.

However, after 13 years of marriage, her husband James died and was buried in their home village. With no children, and no visible means of support, Charlotte would have had to find work of some kind. Her mother died a year later, so she may have supported her father until his death in 1833. Her sisters Lavinia and Maria had married, as had her sister Diana, and her surviving brother John was living in Oxfordshire with his wife. What exactly happened to Charlotte next is unclear until she appears on the 1841 census in Sheffield, in her forties and in the employ of a bookseller.

What is likely is that she somehow came across George Brown, the book seller, through her brother in law Thomas. Thomas, also a book seller although formerly a tailor, had married Charlotte’s sister Diana. They’d moved around Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire, after leaving Eydon and the clothes business behind, and it’s probably that Thomas came across George through his work, and knew that George needed a housekeeper as much as Charlotte needed a comfortable position.

George had never married, it appears, so as a 19th century bachelor would have needed some help around the house – both in terms of housework and food preparation. A Victorian housekeeper would also have run the financial aspects of the household, so Charlotte would have had some financial nous and book-keeping skills. It’s also likely that she would have kept the books for his business, a role that many wives took on in small businesses at this time. So, to many intents and purposes Charlotte was George’s wife, without the benefits.

Housekeeper-3-220x300

In 1841 they are living in Arundel Street, in the centre of Sheffield. Her sister Diana and her husband and children are nearby. Both men are working as booksellers. Diana died in 1847. By 1849, Charlotte and George had moved to Eyre Street, and it’s there they can be found on the 1851 census. On this record George claims to be married, but there’s no sign of a wife.

It appears to have been George that coined the name Charlotte Marvelous, as she’s not referred to as Marvesley after she enters his employ. It would almost certainly have been George that provided the information for the census enumerators, so using the name Marvelous perhaps speaks of the great esteem he held Charlotte in. So, rather than a stage name, the moniker refers to her personal traits and how well she supported him in his life, and speaks volumes for their relationship. The first use of Marvelous occurs when she witnesses her niece’s wedding in Eydon in 1830.

In 1851 one of Charlotte’s sisters, Maria, left the UK with her husband and children to join the Latter Day Saints in America, settling initially in Missouri and then in Illinois. Another sister, Lavinia (by this stage a widowed lacemaker still based in Eydon) did the same in 1854, and was eventually claimed by the LDS. Her sister Diana, while she was alive, had been a member of the Moravian church – so it appears that many of the family, despite being baptised into the Church of England, questioned the traditional way of faith. Whether this was Charlotte’s way is open to question, but like most people of the time it’s probable that she had deep Christian faith.

By 1857, trade directories show that George – and therefore Charlotte – had moved to Bridge Street, and he had taken up bookbinding in addition to selling tomes. However, both of them are elusive on the 1861 census – it’s always possible that they’d gone to visit her family in America, as shipping records are unavailable that early. Their Bridge Street premises has a brewer in residence instead.

Later that decade Charlotte and George were living at Park Wood Springs, a piece of woodland and open space just outside central Sheffield at that time. This may have been a deliberate move on George’s part to help Charlotte’s health – as she was now in her mid-70s, considerably aged for the time – which was starting to fail. By 1863 she was suffering from a liver complaint, which was recorded as hepatitis, but is unlikely to have been the sort of hepatitis we would recognise as such today. It’s possible that Charlotte could have been an excessive drinker, but it seems unlikely that she’d have lasted to a ripe old age if she had, so it is more likely that she had a viral type of hepatitis that was passed on somehow – possibly infected blood – which would have led to jaundice.

Charlotte died at Park Wood Springs in early October 1864, aged 78. George registered her death, and said that she’d suffered chronic hepatitis for a year, which had led to anasarca – a liver-based problem associated with the condition that finished her off. Very telling is that he registered her as “widow of ________ Marvelous, farm labourer”, which indicates that she never referred to James by name to George and instead called him “my late husband”. This may indicate that the relationship between Charlotte and George, who were around 12 years apart in age, was very proper and more like mother and son than anything else.

George buried her in Sheffield’s Burngreave cemetery, at the time a new and extensive facility outside the rapidly growing town, and marked her grave with her place of birth to tie her forever to the place she grew up. In many ways he was the only family she had left, particularly locally. He also had “she was faithful in all her dealings” carved on the stone, which again speaks of the affectionate partnership they must have had for many years.

George continued to run his book business in Sheffield’s Orchard Street for a few more years, but died himself in 1868 and was buried alongside Charlotte. Dear friends of his, John and Elizabeth Parr, also took the same grave when their time came, leading to a rather disparately related monument in the cemetery that shows the ties and bonds that were made as the industrial nature of the 19th century took hold and many – like Charlotte Marvelous – came to the big city for work leaving family behind.

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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.

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 was one of the first sisters from the English mission of the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, and went on to lead a prominent 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 arrived at some point later. Her parents did not live long over in England, and left Josephine alone to educate her sister, and she was placed in a convent. Maria later joined the Sisters of Charity. 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 – taught. it was there that she first met Father Larive, missionary of St Francis de Sales. 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 UK census to feature her is the 1861. She had 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 habit herself. She had been recommended by Father Larive. She went to the founding convent in Annecy, France, and became a novice in the congregation. She took the habit herself in September 1863. 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 but had grown up with the sisters in India – travelled from the congregation’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

Mother Athanase

The impetus for founding the mission came from a British Army officer, Captain Dewell, who had seen the good work of the sisters in India 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 it was here that Josephine took her vows in November 1865. The three nuns 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, apparently at 11 and 12 that road, 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 community moved to a house made available by Captain Dewell 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 Father Larive – a missionary of St Francis de Sales – 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 new way to devote her to Jesus.

By 1897 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 community 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 was no longer 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 mother superior in Newport.

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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.

Josephine, as she was starting to age and lose her sight, went on to be mother superior at a much smaller community in Wincanton in 1912, and then on to a boarding school in Clifton, Bristol. She then moved back to the Newport convent to be a part of that community again, and served as a councillor in the town.

She lived to be 97, and in her last years was cared for by her community at the convent. She died in 1933, and is buried in Newport.

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.

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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.

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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.

Annie P’s story

Annie’s father’s position – a reverend with the West African Mission supported by the Church Mission Society – led to her unusual place of birth for a British Victorian woman. Both she and her older sister Mary were born in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, as their parents had gone out to help educate and convert the local residents to Christianity.

Her father had been stationed in Sierra Leone since 1837, returning to the UK only rarely, and was responsible for setting up the Freetown Grammar School. He was the first principal, with Annie’s mother running the girls’ section of the school.

The idea of the grammar school was that by educating the people of Sierra Leone in a manner similar to that taught in “civilised” Western Europe, the boys would therefore serve as a beacon for the spread of Christianity in the country. To achieve this, pupils were taught all aspects of English grammar and composition, Greek and Roman history, Bible and English history, arithmetic, geography, classics and mathematics. They all had to convert to Christianity to receive this education.

The girls’ section of the school, opened slightly later, aimed at giving a higher degree of education to “those promising native girls, drawn from the village schools, who might afterwards be employed as teachers and school-mistresses.”

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Annie’s parents reputedly compared their students – who included sons of tribal chiefs – favourably to English students during a time when European racial prejudice against Africans was extremely high.

However, even their liberal-for-the-time views and their success with the school did not stretch to the education of their own children or them sharing in the instruction given to the Sierra Leone students. Rather than being brought up alongside them, Annie’s parents brought her and Mary back to London to be educated. The girls were housed at the Missionary Children’s Home in Islington, alongside children of others serving the Church Mission Society, and can be found there on the 1851 census. Annie was only four, so at an extremely young age would have been separated from her parents as they travelled many thousand miles away.

The missionary home was a temporary measure, founded in 1849, and provided accommodation for around 50 children – all from similar backgrounds and separated from their parents. It was run by a clergyman and his wife, who – although clearly competent in spiritual matters – must have been spread very thin in loco parentis. The society started work on a more permanent premises in later 1851, completed in 1853, and it’s likely that Annie and Mary were moved there with the rest of the children. This new premises housed around 100 children.

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In the summer of 1853, their father died in Sierra Leone, after a three-week fever, and their mother appears to have come home – although she did have business still in Africa and returned periodically over the next few years. She then took up the parental duties for Annie and Mary again, moving them to Gloucestershire and the rural life in which she herself had grown up. This was a far cry from the sultry climbs of Sierra Leone, where she had paid a worker from the local cotton gin a farthing for every cockroach he could catch in her house. In later life, Annie’s mother described her as a sharp and intelligent child.

Mary went to reside with relatives of her father for a while, while Annie appears to have lived with her mother. She also boarded at a private school in Weston-super-Mare for a time in her teens, spending further time away from home, which would have been intended to finish her education.

At some point in the 1870s, the family – Annie, Mary, and their mother Maria – moved to the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham. They took up residence in fashionable St Paul’s Street, which had an array of recently-built quite grand (for the time) houses, and lived off Maria’s inheritance from her husband and anything she earned from the Church Missionary Society.

Around 1874 Annie suffered a prolonged gastric fever herself, which was said to have left her mentally weak. The family moved from their original Chippenham house to another a street or two away. Two years later, while her mother was out of the country, she was sent to the care of her maternal aunt in London, while there, aged in her late 20s, she had a love affair that sadly ended, but was said to have “conducted herself well” for the duration, as might be expected from a good Christian girl from her background.

However, it was this experience – combined with the ill health that had plagued her since her fever, that seems to have exacerbated a mental health breakdown for Annie. She began writing letters filled with delusions that were sent to family and friends. She insisted that neighbours were passing evil thoughts to her by extra-sensory projection, and was afraid that someone was trying to injure her. Another delusion was that she had once died and came back to life again. She also wrote out texts of scriptures and would pass them to people in the street. She slept badly and lost weight.

Her aunt referred Annie to Bethlem Hospital in the July of 1876, where she was described as the “orphan daughter of a clergyman” and diagnosed with melancholia via unceasing debility. Melancholia, in Victorian terms, generally meant depression and low spirits. The hospital records describe her as a “small thin individual with very dry skin”, who spent most of the day sewing. Today there are many different treatments available for the illness Annie had, but back then very little was known about how to approach mental health.

Upon her mother’s return to the UK, Annie was released from Bethlem and put under her care. They returned to their life in Chippenham. However, Annie’s illness soon became too much for her mother to cope with, and she was admitted initially to the workhouse – where she threw things and attacked an attendant – and then to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Roundway, near Devizes.

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Here records show that Annie’s problems had exacerbated since her removal from Bethlem. She was exhibiting symptoms of pica – eating soap, pig swill and unmentionable things from wastebaskets – and having no concern for her personal hygiene. She would also become violent and begin breaking household objects. This was now classed as mania. Her delusions and melancholia continued, and she often did not eat properly or at all, resulting in extreme thinness and weight loss.

The asylum considered that she was in good physical health, had been well off and had led a moral and temperate life.

Her mother briefly attempted to remove her from the asylum again, insisting that she could cope and that her “darling Annie” would be better off at home, but it appeared that the burden on Maria and Mary was too great, and Annie returned to Roundway around three months after she left, with little change in her condition reported. She would often keep her eyes covered, and repeat the same phrases.

Her mother died in Chippenham in the early 1880s, and was buried locally. Mary left the area after her mother’s death. Annie remained in the asylum, with no reduction in symptoms and no successful treatment for a further 32 years. She died in her sixties of pneumonia, just before the First World War, and was reportedly severely underweight at that time.