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.

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Harriet and Mary Ann’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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