Mary Ann Hopkins’ story

The latest exhibition at Chippenham Museum is a display on 180 years of Wiltshire Police. One of the exhibit is a prison record book, open to a page on Mary Ann Hopkins. She’d committed larceny in 1864, had been locked up for seven years, and was released in 1869.

Basic maths will tell you that 1864 to 1869 is five years, not seven, so who was she, why was she a criminal, and why did she get an early release?

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Mary Ann was born in Lewes, Sussex, in around 1844. Her father, William, worked as agricultural labourer but had served as a soldier – he was made a Chelsea Pensioner in 1836, at the age of 43. Her mother, Sarah, had been born local to Chippenham at Bremhill, and it appears held a desire to come home – while Mary and her older siblings William, Jane, George and John were all born elsewhere, the 1851 census has the family settled in Reybridge, between Lacock and Chippenham.

Reybridge_c.1900

Reybridge in c1900

Mary Ann at this point was just six. Her elder sister had been sent out to work at 13 as a nursemaid to a local baker, while her eldest brother – just a year older – was working the local fields. This paints a background of a family just about surviving on her father’s pension and the little money her siblings were able to bring in.

chelsea pensioners

Mary Ann’s father was a Chelsea Pensioner

Unfortunately, her father – who was twenty years older than her mother – died in the early spring of 1852, which would have thrown the family’s finances into dire straits. Most of her brothers went back to Sussex, presumably to receive some support from their father’s family, and its unknown exactly what happened to her mother. Sarah definitely didn’t die around this time, but completely disappears from records – so it may be that she remarried, or moved away.

What is certain is that Mary Ann remained in the Chippenham area. By 1861 she claims to be 18, when she was actually nearer 16, and was resident in the town’s union workhouse. She had previously been working as a domestic servant.

It’s after this that Mary Ann’s trouble began. If she was in the workhouse she would have been desperate for money. So desperate that she would steal it to keep herself going. And that’s what happened.

In the summer of 1863 she was convicted of larceny from a person, and was imprisoned for six months. A year later she was in the courts again for an identical charge, but on this one was found not guilty. And then later in 1864, in the early autumn, she was tried again for larceny and found guilty – this time receiving the seven-year stint in gaol.

The local newspapers, reporting the case, described her as a “prostitute” – which didn’t necessarily mean that she was selling sex for money, but more that she was considered a fallen women in the eyes of the sort of educated and moralising people who were able to read the newspapers, and who had the potential to act as a sex worker. However, she had stolen 7 shillings and 6d from a labourer called Mr Pinnegar that she had been associating with in Chippenham, so it may have been that this was what she’d been given for her services but she hadn’t fulfilled the deal. Whatever the circumstances, Mary Ann was locked up.

The records describe her as five foot six-and-a-half inches in height, quite tall for a woman of this time, with a fresh complexion, light brown hair, large grey eyes, and long fingers and nails. She was sent to prison – at Winchester, over in Hampshire – from the Marlborough courts. And as we said before, served five years of a seven-year sentence.

winchester prison

Winchester Prison, where Mary Ann was held.

Being released for good behaviour was unheard of at this time. If you were convicted, you served the full sentence unless you were let out on licence. And this is what happened to Mary Ann. Exactly why she was given a licence to be released becomes clearer in the month following her release. She was released on June 21 1869. On July 17 1864, she married a brickmaker called John Griffin in Chippenham’s St Andrew’s Church. This was after banns, so she would have had to be present to hear them read in the three weeks prior to the ceremony. Effectively, she had been released to allow her to get married, as she would therefore be under her husband’s correctional influence rather than the judicial system’s. It’s probable that she knew John, who lived at Englands or Wood Lane, before she was incarcerated, and he probably stood by her while she was in prison.

Tellingly, on her marriage certificate, Mary Ann did not give her father’s name or profession. It may have been that she was too young when he died to know them, and it gives more weight to the theory that she was the only one of her immediate family left in the area.

They moved to Swindon together – probably as much for John’s brickmaking work, as the construction of the new town was booming, as to escape her local notoriety. Their first daughter Mary Elizabeth was born in 1872, and another – Emily – followed in 1874. They returned to Chippenham to have both girls baptised in St Andrew’s Church.

Thereafter, Mary Ann had several more children – three boys and three girls. However, only one of these six children survived more than a few months, and she would have experienced a great deal of sorrow. John kept his work as a labourer, but it is unlikely that it brought in a great deal to live on. Beatrice Ellen, born in 1883, was the only other child of Mary’s to live to adulthood.

Her last child, Edgar, died in the later part of 1885. And within a few months Mary was dead herself – it may be that she was pregnant again and experienced complications, as she was only 39 years old, or it may be that her health was suffering from all the repeated pregnancies and she wasn’t strong enough to fight off winter ailments.

Mary Elizabeth and Emily found work, while Beatrice was brought back to Chippenham to be raised by her father’s brother on Wood Lane. John Griffin continued to work as a brickmaker in various places, and did not remarry.

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Sister Josephine’s story

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

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

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

st mary's chippenham

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

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

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

Mother Athanase and Sister Stanislaus

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

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

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

Catholic church devizes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

newport school

The Newport Convent

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

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

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

Maysie’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maysie and John Pender Chalmers 1932

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

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

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

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

De Havilland Moth Coupe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Electricity kill your wife

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

yellow kitchen

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

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

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

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

Maysies two husbands

Maysie, and both her husbands.

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.”

sierra leone 1840s

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.

Elizabeth Utterson’s story

As accolades and memorials go, a street and five houses named after you is fairly high ranking. Elizabeth Utterson, who has these to her memory in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham, is remembered for her generous gift to the elderly women of the town towards the end of the 19th century – but actually only bore that surname for a few years at the end of her life.

For someone to make a charitable gift to the poor and impoverished at that time, there generally has to be no living descendants to pass any monetary gift to – and this was exactly the case with Elizabeth. The generous gift of money and land to the women of the town was in part because both her child and her step-children had not lived long enough to inherit it, and instead the needy received the benefit.

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She had been born in Peterborough – then in Northamptonshire – in the mid-1820s, the younger daughter of two from a greengrocer and his wife. Her father was dead before the 1840s, and her mother made her living by selling sweetmeats. Elizabeth was sent to Chippenham to be under the charge of her father’s brother, who kept an inn in the town marketplace, and became a barmaid. Her older sister Susannah remained at home to assist her mother.

It was in Chippenham, a few doors away from her uncle’s inn, that Elizabeth met her first husband. William was a master shoemaker, employing several staff, and they returned to her family home in Peterborough to get married in the mid-1850s, then settled in Chippenham. Their son William followed a year or so after the marriage, and he lived for twelve years before dying suddenly. Within a year or two, Elizabeth’s husband William was dead too, at the age of 36.

Elizabeth, suddenly with no dependents, became an annuitant. William’s business had been relatively successful, and she inherited a fair amount of money for the era. She took a servant from the Chippenham area and moved to the Somerset coast, setting up home in a house by the seafront, which was terribly fashionable in the 1870s.

By the beginning of the 1880s, however, Chippenham had drawn her back in. She had almost certainly been acquainted with the local registrar of births and deaths, a gentleman named James Utterson, during her earlier life and on the 1881 census can be found visiting him at his house on the town’s Causeway. James was a widower, born in southern Scotland, and had been living in Chippenham for many decades. He’d married his first wife Sarah in London during the 1850s, and they’d had two children – a son who lived to the age of 20, and a daughter who had died shortly after birth. James had raised his son on his own for many years after his first wife’s death, and after his son’s death he was suddenly left alone for his final years.

James, at this point aged 75 (which was a very good age at this time), and Elizabeth married at Chippenham’s St Andrew’s church in the summer of 1881. She was 59. They had no dependents and were well-placed in town society with a fair amount of money behind them. In addition to registering births and deaths for the town, James had also acted as agent for a mining company in Devon.

James only lived for another three years, dying in 1884 and leaving Elizabeth a considerable amount of money. Rather than living the high life, Elizabeth instead decided to found a charity and build some almshouses on Chippenham’s Lowden – a street community just outside the main auspices of the town, which at that point was home to around 1,000 people. The street was undergoing a major change in the 1880s, having previously been quite impoverished and home to many receiving poor relief, a programme of building to raise the social condition of the area was undergoing at this time. New houses were being built to house workers on the Great Western Railway, an embankment of which ran parallel to the street, and new retail premises were included. The almshouses were a continuation of the social improvement of the road.

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There were four almshouses, with a fifth dwelling in the middle to be occupied by the custodians of the project. These caretakers were allowed to be a married couple, but Elizabeth’s bequest stipulated specifically that the four houses were for women – elderly and infirm, and in need of a bit of looking after. James’s will had left over £2,000, so Elizabeth invested the excess after the houses were built to continue the upkeep of the cottages and provide a small sum of money each week to the inhabitants. This was 3 shillings and six pence in the winter, and 3 shillings in the summer.

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Two years after the almshouses, in 1886, a church was built next to them. This helped the elderly, sick and infirm attend church more regularly, since the next nearest church – St Paul’s, on Malmesbury Road – was a considerable walk away. The custodian role of the almshouses also took on the upkeep of the church, which was named St Peter’s Mission Church.

Elizabeth died in the 1890s, but her charity lives on. The almshouses still exist, and house Chippenham’s elderly female residents. The church has become the New Testament Church of God, after St Peter’s moved to the outskirts of the town. A street – Utterson View, named after Elizabeth and her almshouses – was built alongside her bequest.

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Martha S’s story

The view of a Victorian workhouse we carry today is often informed by Dickens’ Oliver Twist – brutal treatment, poor quality food, not-particularly sanitary living conditions – but rather than deliberately designed to de-humanise people, workhouses existed to provide relief for the poor and ostentatiously to get them back on their feet and a useful member of society again.

Chippenham’s Union workhouse, formalised after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, initially used a building at Lacock and several smaller buildings in The Butts which had been the workhouse provision for several decades, but in the 1850s the decision was made to build a purpose building – now Chippenham Community Hospital on Rowden Hill.

Workhouses were usually run by married couples, with the man being the master – in charge of the management of the institution and its inmates – and his wife being the matron, who was the deputy manager and looked after female inmates and children, and was in charge of the building’s domestic arrangements.

The matron of Chippenham’s workhouse from some point in the 1860s was Martha Elizabeth Gane, alongside her husband James.

She’d been born Martha Elizabeth Smith in Bath, one of two surviving children of an accountant and his wife, and spent her childhood living in grand Georgian houses in the heart of the city during the 1840s and 50s. She and her brother George were educated at home, and continued this education well into their teens – unusual in an era where most schooling finished around 12. Their household has a servant but no sign of a governess, indicating that it was their parents – probably their mother – who provided this education.

At the age of 21 she married James Gane at St Swithin’s Church in Bath. He was an accountant, living in Temple Cloud, so she had probably met him through her father. They married by special license rather than by banns, which meant that the marriage could happen quickly. In some cases this could have been marriage by necessity, but since their first daughter Rosetta was born the requisite nine months later perhaps a judgement of whirlwind romance might be the better one.

Although marrying an accountant sounds grand, and monied, for this age, James did not stick this profession out and did not provide the sort of lifestyle that Martha had grown up knowing. Their second daughter’s (Constance) birth, in East Brent, has him as a clerk, while their third (Georgina) sees them back in Bath with him working as a victualler – usually either a publican or keeper of a shop that sold alcohol. Martha would have assisted him in this by serving customers.

By 1861 the family were in Chippenham, on the Causeway. Martha was helping James to make ends meet by taking in work as a dressmaker and milliner (hat maker), alongside her sister and her sister in law, while he worked as a solicitors’ clerk. They also lived in Castle Combe for a while, as their son Percy was born there, but by the time their final child Claude appeared the family are back in Chippenham and Martha’s husband James is recorded as the master of Chippenham Union Workhouse.

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As Matron of the Workhouse Martha had jurisdiction over the whole complex. This included accommodation for vagrants in the entrance block, and a main block with an infirmary, a chapel, a dining hall and several service buildings. Her staff included a schoolmaster and schoolmistress – responsible for educating the inmates’ children and possibly Martha’s own too, a porter, and nurses. Later on the workhouse also had an industrial trainer – passing on new skills – and a bandmaster, who presumably ran a workhouse band with the inmates as a form of entertainment and rehabilitation. On the 1871 census the workhouse has 201 inmates, many of them women and children – who would have been looked after by Martha. Several of the inmates are given as “idiot from birth”, “lunatic” or “imbecile”, indicating long term learning difficulties and care needs, and probably had lived in the workhouse for most of their lives. Others were widows with no visible means of support once their husbands had passed away, and there was at least one unmarried woman with a tiny illegitimate baby.

All three of her daughters continued to be educated until their later teens, like Martha had. During the 1870s they all married from the workhouse: Rosetta to a schoolmaster, and she became a schoolmistress at Yatton Keynell; Constance to a Poor Law Officer from Newbury, and she went on to become matron of the workhouse herself; and Georgina to the church organist from St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham.

Martha’s sons, who were considerably younger, still lived at home at the Workhouse until they were grown, and then one of them ran his own workhouse for many years. She stayed at the Chippenham workhouse, alongside James, working as the matron until 1898. This meant she had served as matron for around thirty years. Towards the end of her tenure she took on an assistant matron to help her with the role.

On retirement, she and James moved back to Bath. He had a pension as a retired poor law officer, and this enabled them to afford a reasonable house and the services of a servant. A young married couple in their 20s, the Whittakers, took over the running of the Chippenham workhouse which had been their domain for so long.

Martha died in 1916 in Bath, aged 82, leaving around £300 to her husband James.

Several masters and matrons of the workhouse followed the Ganes. In 1911, Arthur Shirley Fussell and his wife Frances were in position, but by 1915 William Humphries was in charge. And by 1923 James Burnett Pierce and his wife Ethel were in situ. No-one stayed as long as the Ganes, however. In the 1930s the workhouse was known as Chippenham Institution, and it became St Andrew’s Hospital in 1948. When other hospitals in the town had closed, the building became Chippenham Community Hospital and still serves the town.

Elizabeth W’s story

With the advent of the NHS, and better social care, and many labour-saving devices for housework, the role of a monthly nurse has become quite lost in obscurity. However, back in the days where women had a lying in period – of at least ten days if not longer – after having a baby, a monthly nurse was an extremely desirable person to employ. She was paid to assist a woman and her family in the post-partum period. Household jobs still needed to be done, and men would generally not do them – so they’d either get a female relative to help out, or pay a monthly nurse for a period of time if they could afford it. This woman would also assist with some of the body effluent after a birth, and look after the new mother. Sometimes they would also assist with laying out the dead. Often they’d live with the family.

Invariably, the monthly nurse was a slightly older woman, who had had all her children and raised them to a reasonable degree of independence – so therefore could leave their own family and jobs to a young adult daughter while she went out and earned money for the family. This was the case for Elizabeth, a monthly nurse from New Swindon – as it was called in the later 19th century.

Elizabeth really had grown up alongside the town of Swindon. She’d been born into a rural community to the west of the modern town, to a single mother in the late 1840s. On her christening record she’s given as the base-born daughter of Martha, who appears on the 1851 census as an agricultural labourer living with her sister Mary and various children – some of which are hers. Elizabeth had a sister called Maria, and a much younger brother called Thomas. She was brought up with Mary’s daughter Harriett, who was very close in age. All the children were illegitimate.

The arrangement where unwed siblings would bring up their illegitimate children together does not seem to be uncommon in rural communities in the Victorian era. Much of the moralising tone attributed to Victorian society really stems from an educated class who sought to differentiate from and rise above the illiterate working classes and were able to write that stigma down, and it is possible that the stigma for children out of wedlock was slightly less sharp in the rural and agricultural communities.

By the time she was 14, Elizabeth had left home and moved into Swindon – which was growing rapidly on the back of the Great Western Railway. The original settlement, now known as Old Town, was on the hill while the newer development was separate and on the flatter land next to the railway works. In the 1860s Elizabeth got a job as a servant at the Ship Inn on Westcott Street, part of this new town, while her siblings remained with their mother.

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In 1866, around the age of 20, she married Edward – a grinder for the GWR – and settled in the purpose-built railway village, to the south of the train tracks. They had ten children: four boys initially (although the second of these died aged less than a year), then two girls, another three boys, and finally another girl. The cottages were two storey and quite cramped, so Elizabeth’s growing family would have been all on top of each other. The young men of those streets at the time also had a bit of a reputation for wild behaviour.

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Eventually they moved a few streets away from the railway village to a slightly bigger house. It’s likely that Edward’s job probably didn’t bring in a great deal of money for such a large family, so Elizabeth supplemented the family finances by taking in washing and called herself a laundress. Her eldest son had also started at the railway works himself by the age of 13, which helped support the family.

Edward died in the autumn of 1887, leaving Elizabeth a widow at the age of 40. She would have relied on her laundry earnings and that of her children to support the family. Particularly as her youngest daughter was barely a year old.

By the 1891 census several of Elizabeth’s sons were employed at the railway works. However, both of her elder daughters had not found employment in Swindon – whether that was for a lack of opportunity for young women in the area at the time (there were cloth works employing women at the time, but the steam laundry was not set up until that year), or Elizabeth encouraging them to spread their wings and go elsewhere.

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Lizzy, the older, ended up in the workhouse in London for three weeks at the beginning of the 1890s, with a tiny illegitimate baby of her own. Elizabeth took Lizzy’s daughter Dorothy in, and raised her with the others, while Lizzy went off to become a cook in a private girls’ school. After that, she emigrated to Wisconsin, USA, to become a nurse. Dorothy remained in Swindon with her grandmother and grew up there.

In the late 1890s one of her daughters became ill, and the family participated in an advert for “Dr Williams’ Pink Pills For Pale People” in the newspapers, claiming that she was near death but the pills saved her. While outlandish, in an era where the general understanding of medical science was poor and advertising was unregulated, this probably helped Elizabeth’s standing in the community.

Most of Elizabeth’s boys married, and kept stable jobs at the railway works, and lived very close to their mother – either in the same street or a neighbouring one. One son appears to have been in regular trouble with the police over disorderly behaviour. Her daughter Martha also married, but moved back home with her husband to keep house with her mother. They never had any children. Her son George’s toddler twin daughters died of a terrible burning accident in 1896, after playing with matches, and Elizabeth was involved in caring for them, showing that she had a trusted degree of medical skill.

By this time most of Elizabeth’s children had grown up enough to either take care of themselves day-to-day or be looked after by Martha – which meant Elizabeth was freed from her home to be able to take on the more lucrative work of a monthly nurse. The fact that she was able to make a living from this profession – which relied on local families having enough income to take a monthly nurse in, rather than calling in a female relative.

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Elizabeth’s choice of profession may also have been influenced by a deep love of children. She appeared to collect them. Alternatively, she may have been religiously atoning for her own illegitimate start in life – or perhaps a bit of both. In 1908 her youngest daughter Amy followed the path of her sister Lizzy, and went over to the USA to work as a nurse. This did not work out so well for her though, and she came back and presented Elizabeth with another illegitimate grandchild – Walter – in 1910.

Again, Elizabeth seems to have taken care of the child and let her daughter go off elsewhere while she brought up the child. Amy went to be a parlour-maid on the Isle of Wight, and married there a couple of years later. However, she returned to Swindon in the middle of 1916, and died young. Elder daughter Lizzy died in Chicago in 1913.

So, by 1911 Elizabeth had acquired two grandchildren to bring up, and had adopted another, Ruby – who was born illegitimately in her house to an Agnes, who then disappears – so it’s probable that Elizabeth had volunteered to bring up Ruby too and let Agnes go off to a different life.

Her monthly nurse work will have undoubtedly brought her into contact with many women struggling after having a baby, whether married or not, and it is possible that her two grandchildren and adopted daughter were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the children she took in. We are lucky enough to know about these three from census records, but there may well have been others. Adoption and fostering processes were not formalised at this time, and relied upon good will – which Elizabeth clearly had in abundance.

She died in 1924, having outlived many of her children.