Charlotte C W’s story

One of the ways a gently-born Victorian woman who’d fallen on hard times could make an income respectably was to teach creative skills. In a society where women were expected to be decorative and provide entertainment, there was always a demand for those skills – from peers and for those who aspired to climb the social ladder.

That’s the route Charlotte took when her merchant husband returned to India without her, leaving her to bring up her small son alone. She claimed widowhood, taught piano and singing in fashionable circles, and gave recitals – in London, Chippenham, and Bristol. Except the qualifications she traded upon were actually later proved to be fake. And there is a question mark over whether she actually married her husband at all.

She was the daughter of Edward Peagam, a lawyer who occasionally called himself a gentleman, and his wife Mary. She was their eldest child, born about five years after they married (in London in 1846, with Edward calling himself a gentleman), in Sandbach in Cheshire – a pretty market town to the north-east of Crewe.

However respectable and middle class her background was, it does not appear to have been financially stable. Her father spent as much time becoming bankrupt as he did defending those with debt issues, and his name was often splashed all over the newspapers as owing money to creditors.

It was during one of those periods of bankruptcy that Charlotte was removed from the family home, and sent to Devon to be brought up by her grandmother and aunt Ann.

Her widowed grandmother, Mary Peagam, had been making a living as a hosier – someone who made legwear, so socks and stockings – but had acquired enough of a cushion to live off if wisely invested. Ann was her eldest unmarried daughter. Together they brought up Charlotte in Plymouth, and even when her parents’ financial situation was more stable she wasn’t returned to them.

By 1861 Charlotte’s parents had moved to Bicester in Oxfordshire, where her father was working as a solicitor. They had had two further daughters – Julia and Laura – so Charlotte had younger sisters, but she did not grow up alongside them.

At some point in the 1860s Charlotte’s mother had had enough of the constant financial fluctuations, and left her father. She returned to the Plymouth area with her two younger daughters, and they lived apart thereafter, and she may have seen Charlotte more regularly.

After her grandmother’s death in 1864, Charlotte’s aunt Ann moved into the supporting role for her. They boarded in Plymouth with another family, living off the interest of money, and at some point before 1879 moved to London.

Somewhere around this point, Charlotte met Cowasjee Wookerjee or Wookergee. He gave himself in trade directories as an East India Company merchant, but since that company had ceased to operate by 1874 it is likely that he was using the name and trading by association.

He had some sort of merchant business, importing products from India – possibly textiles – which was based in Leadenhall Market in the City of London. This was likely appealing to exclusive clients. However, since he was only there in the 1880 trade directory, he probably wasn’t there for long.

Leadenhall Market in London, where Cowasjee Wookerjee had a business in 1880

There’s no marriage record for Charlotte and Cowasjee in the British Isles, but it’s always possible that they did marry elsewhere. They certainly regarded themselves as married. Their first son, Pheeroze, was born in Paddington in 1879. They had a second son, Khoosow, in London in the summer of 1880, but later on that year Pheeroze died at just over a year old. The family do not appear on the 1881 census, taken that April, possibly due to poor transcription, but if they were in the country they were most likely in London.

There is a slim possibility that Charlotte had travelled to India with Mr Cowasjee Wookerjee and Khoosow, however. An article from an Indian newspaper in June 1881 says that he had selected and brought out machinery from Europe to start Scindia’s Paper Mill.

This, probably established by the Scindia family in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, made paper from rags and karbi (exactly what that was isn’t clear).

The article said:

“Great praise is due to Mr Wookerjee for the untiring zeal and energy he has show in connection with this scheme from which considerable results may be expected. The mill, indeed, promises to be a great success, especially as skilled European engineers and workmen have been employed to carry on the work.”

Whether or not Charlotte and Khoosow went to India, Charlotte’s marriage fell apart and they separated. She gave herself as a widow, but there’s another mention of Cowasjee Wookerjee in the Indian press in 1896, so that probably wasn’t the truth. She and her son were definitely in the UK by 1885, as the first evidence of Charlotte’s new career is reported upon then.

Giving herself as Mrs Cowasjee Wookerjee, Charlotte is reported as having sung at a Cricket Club concert in Monks Risborough, Buckinghamshire. This means that she and Khoosow were probably living nearby.

By February 1886 though, Charlotte had moved to Ealing and was starting to become more established as a teacher of music. She also had a stage name, Madame Elcho, which she used for performing and teaching purposes.

Her main qualification for teaching – she called herself a professor of music – was as a Fellow of the Society of Science, Letters and Art.

This society, which allowed Charlotte to put the letters F.S.Sc. after her name, was run by Dr Edward Albert Sturman from his house in Kensington. It allowed its members to wear academic dress and take exams that were not even marked, resulting in bought diplomas. Charlotte was thus duped, and traded on these qualifications for many years. The society was eventual exposed as bogus in 1892.

After only a couple of years in Ealing, she moved to Southall, where she further promoted herself as Madame Elcho and taught piano, organ, singing and music theory. She also performed once a week at Mr Adler’s Music Repository, in Uxbridge. George Louis Adler was a pianist, music dealer and composer, and used to run entertainments from his shop on St Andrew’s. Charlotte would have been part of a community of musicians and performers who worked out of here, and this would have enabled her to bring in new pupils.

After a year or two in Southall, Charlotte decided to move again. She chose Chippenham in Wiltshire for her new base, and set up home with her son Khoosow, who was then around 9. Her aunt Ann still lived with them, and would have helped her out with childcare and house duties.

In Chippenham she seems to have dispensed with the Madame Elcho name, and instead traded as Mrs Cowasjee Wookergee – a name that might have sounded quite exotic to the locals. She was initially based in Patterdown, from where she briefly advertised herself as a piano and artistic singing teacher, and said that she could travel to Corsham and Melksham for lessons. After that she moved to a house on Cook Street called East View, in the historic part of the town. Cook Street is now part of Chippenham’s St Mary Street, and is part of a particularly beautiful stretch of houses off the town’s market place.

From here she and Khoosow and her aunt Ann appear on the 1891 census together, on which Charlotte gave herself as a professor of music, and Khoosow would probably have attended the local elementary school by the church.

She had days of the week when she would teach in Trowbridge and Melksham, but seems to have been mostly based teaching Chippenham citizens to sing and play the piano. She also gave regular public performances. There is a report from 1890 of her singing as part of a concert at the Congregational Church, alongside other local performers. She also ran a series of piano concerts in the town hall, and tutored a choir of children to perform too.

When advertising her teaching services, Charlotte would occasionally submit testimonials to tempt potential pupils.

According to her, Musical World said of her: “In all she does a true and artistic feeling is made manifest.” Similarly, The Era apparently said that she had “grace and elegance” in her method. And the Court Circular said: “Can sing from D on the bass staff to B flat above the treble line, and she has been well trained in the Italian School of Art. Three recalls at the end of the evening rewarded her efforts to please.”

She was in Chippenham until at least 1892, but by 1895 her services are being advertised from Keynsham, to the west of Bath. Here she was directing concerts, and also performing throughout the 1890s at the Hamilton Rooms, which were on Bristol’s Park Street. There are also newspaper reports of concerts in Bristol’s Staple Hill, and one where she and others were entertaining inmates of Bristol’s workhouse infirmary.

It’s therefore no surprise to find her living in Bristol on the 1901 census. She and her son Khoosow and aunt Ann had set up home in Cumberland Street, in the city’s St Paul’s district. This would have been a relatively fashionable address for the time, even if the houses were in multiple occupation. Charlotte continued to give herself as a professor of music, while Khoosow, now aged 20, was a clerk at the post office. Ann still had no profession given, but would have been occupied with home duties.

After this point, Charlotte seems to have been starting to live a quieter life. There are no reports of concerts in the press, but she probably still taught.

Khoosow married in 1907, and went to live in the St Philips area of Bristol, where he worked as a packer for a printer. His wedding certificate gave his father as Cowasgee Wookergee, a general merchant. He and his wife Laura had several children who grew into quite a dynasty.

The following year, Charlotte’s aunt Ann died. She was quite elderly, and it’s likely that Charlotte may have had to do some considerable nursing in her twilight years. In 1909 Charlotte’s father died at Lutterworth. His financial situation does not appear to have settled entirely – he’d operated out of Southampton, Torquay, north Wales, and Rugby. His death was remarked upon in the press, and it sounds like he was well respected despite his monetary failings.

Charlotte herself is illusive on the 1911 census, but we know from an advert in the newspapers of that year that she had moved to Frampton Cotterell, in South Gloucestershire. She appears to have run some sort of market garden, offering baskets of produce for delivery. This is considerably different from teaching music, and perhaps reflects a more settled way of life.

Charlotte died in 1914, not long after the outbreak of the First World War. She was 62 and still living in Frampton Cotterell, though she was buried at a church in nearby Coalpit Heath.

Ethel B’s story

It is relatively well known that English universities would admit women to study during the late 1800s, but would not award them their degrees or admit them to the university. Newham College in Cambridge is a good example. Founded in 1871 as the second women’s college at the University of Cambridge, and amalgamated into the university in 1880, women could sit university examinations from 1881 and their results were recorded in lists separate from the men. Various attempts were made to persuade authorities to give women their full degrees and privileges rather than just a certificate, one in 1887, another in 1897, and a further attempt during the first world war. Oxford – which had similar rules, capitulated in 1920 but it took until 1948 for the change to happen at Cambridge.

In contrast, the situation in Ireland was different. The Royal University of Ireland Act 1879 allowed women to take university degrees on the same basis as men. However, Trinity College Dublin – also known as Dublin University – which was seen as a sister institution to Oxford and Cambridge in the pre-split British Isles, was still a sticking point. They might have been comparatively late in admitting women to study in that it took until 1904, but unlike the English schools women were allowed their degrees from the get go. So much so that women who had gained their degrees at Oxford and Cambridge but had been denied their award on the basis of their gender could travel to Trinity to be awarded it. These women were known as the steamboat ladies, and the arrangement continued until 1907.

It was against that background that Ethel studied at Trinity College, entering around 1908 at the age of 18, one of the first groups of women to do so – but had had involvement with the college earlier via her later schooling – which took place at Alexandra School and College, a Protestant foundation intent on furthering women’s education that offered an equivalent education to that afforded to boys at the time, with a grounding in maths, philosophy, history and the classics. Lecturers at Trinity College would also provide tutoring for girls at Alexandra, and the two schools enjoyed close links.

Alexandria_School's_(18727590293)

She’d been born in Ballycastle, in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, the daughter of a Church of Ireland Reverend who had also studied at Trinity College. She was the fourth of six children – four girls, two boys – and led an extremely musical upbringing. Her father was a renowned authority on church music, one of her sisters studied at the Royal College of Organists, and another was a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music who specialised in putting contemporary lyrics to old Irish airs. The girls of the family were educated by governesses at home in Ballycastle for the most part, but Ethel went off to Dublin to board at Alexandra College at about the age of 14.

In 1908 she moved to study at Dublin University, based at Trinity College, where – interspersed with some secondary school teaching (presumably to fund her studies) she achieved a BA (Hons) degree in French and English in 1912.

MS EX 02

In the years between women being admitted to universities to further their studies and the growth in women’s employment of various types during the First World War, teaching in schools was the best possible place for educated women to continue learning and flex their grey matter. The only trouble was that the marriage bar was in place for women teachers – so at the point when Ethel entered the profession if she found a relationship she would have to give up her learning and research. The idea that women went to university just to find a husband seems to have originated in this era, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case for Ethel.

As it was, she began working for her Master of Arts while simultaneously taking on a teaching position at the County School (later Fitzmaurice Grammar) in the picturesque Wiltshire town Bradford-on-Avon. She started work here in 1915, and was awarded her MA at Christmas in 1916, which is proudly remarked upon in their staff register. Most female teachers in this era did not hold degrees, let alone post-graduate ones. Some were even uncertified, and had learnt their skill on the job starting as a pupil teacher, whereas others had undergone some training at teacher training colleges. Ethel would therefore have been a rare and prized member of the school’s female staff.

This school had been going for nearly 20 years at this point, under a male headteacher. Many of the teaching staff were female, however, as was fairly usual in schools of the time. This school was mixed gender, and selective based on ability, as during the pre-1944 grammar and elementary system many schools were. Here Ethel taught French and History, in conjunction with stalwart school deputy head Julia Blake. Both are given as languages and literature specialists in the town’s trade directory for 1915.

Fitz Aerial view

Both brothers fought in the war. The elder rose to a high rank, whereas the younger was badly injured in 1917 and became a senior classical music master at a school in Mauritius. Both musician sisters appear not to have married, since that choice would have meant giving up their playing by the rules of society of the day. Her mother died in 1919, just after the war ended, and her father followed her in 1921.

This appears to have instigated a change for Ethel. She left Bradford on Avon in the September of 1921 to become French mistress in the next town over at Trowbridge Girls High School. This was a single sex, fee paying school – not necessarily a step up for her, but a different position in a slightly bigger town. She appears to have been here until around 1926.

trowbridge girls high

In the mid-1920s she chose to follow her faith and became a missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) at their base in Cawnpore (now Kanpur), India. Now called United Society Partners in the Gospel, the organisation was a high church group based in the teachings of the Church of England – not too far away from the Church of Ireland organisation that Ethel was brought up within. Here she was given a head teacher position, as head of the SPG School of the Epiphany, working with elementary school-aged girls.

Although the position in India fulfilled her desire to bring the Bible and its teachings to a different part of the world, her school position here did not particularly suit her as she was teaching to a much younger age group and found this frustrating. While there she was offered the secretaryship of the local YMCA, various jobs at the Indian girl guiding headquarters, a position at one of the biggest women’s colleges in India, and even the position of headmistress at one of the most prominent girls’ schools in North India. She refused all these, remaining loyal to the SPG mission, but hoped that the society might help her find a better post within their ranks.

A keen member of the girl guiding organisation, she asked mission if they would lend her to be a guide trainer for three years with the United Provinces Educational Department while she remained at Kanpur, but this was not allowed and she stayed with the Epiphany School and committed to her role as missionary.

At some point between 1929 and 1932, however, she felt she had given enough in Kanpur, and returned to the UK. She lived for a time at a prominently designed youth hostel in London, and in September of 1932 was appointed headmistress of a private girls’ school in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

This school, which again was private and fee-paying, catered for older girls who had already gone through the elementary education system and was particularly renowned for the arts when Ethel took it over, which would have suited her perfectly. She ran the school with a full complement of female staff, and appears to have relished teaching older girls again. The outbreak of war in 1939 shows that she was also an air raid warden as part of her role in the school and the local community.

The school decided to move from Aldeburgh – which was on the coast and probably directly under the flight path of German aircraft from the continent – to a priory in Mountnessing, Essex, in 1940. This would have been a quieter location, with less disturbance from the war, and more rural for protection. It is unclear whether Ethel went with them, however, as records were scarcely kept during the conflict. In 1943 she did step down and took a degree of retirement.

She moved to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire for the last bit of the war, becoming housemistress for St Helen’s, one of the boarding houses of Cheltenham Ladies College – another prestigious seat of female education. It is unclear whether she took a teaching role at the college in the way that modern housemistresses do, but she had a full time role looking after the pupils assigned to her care and took on a role of district commissioner for the girl guides at the school for the benefit of the girls. As part of this she gave various prominent talks and organised events on the guides behalf. She also worked coaching the choir.

guides 1940s

Around 1953, she left Cheltenham and again headed to the coast – but this time to Devon. She lived in Colyton, on the county’s southern edge, in a church cottage, and spent seven years in retirement. She died there, leaving her money to a nephew – the son of her eldest brother – and Violet, Baroness Merthyr, another prominent girl guiding commissioner.

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.

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.

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.

Edith C’s story

Edith led a varied life as a prominent anti-suffragist, a mathematics book author, and the wife of a renowned British composer. In addition, she was a mother, and had a foreign upbringing.

India-born Edith was the daughter of a British engineer, who had been posted to the British Raj hillpost of Mussoorie – in the northern part of the country – in the early 1860s. He was employed by the East Indian Railway, and travelled around the country working and advising on the early establishment of track and engines, and Edith’s mother therefore gave birth to her children in various different places – including Mayapore and Allahabad – and then the more conventional Kent and London.

Edith spent her early childhood in the heat of India, and then returned to London for a while. Her father was posted back to India, so she and her siblings went to live in Hove – at the British seaside – with their mother. Her eldest sister married back in India in the mid-1870s, so it’s probable that the whole family returned to India for a time during that decade, and there is absolutely no sign of Edith and her siblings on the 1881 census so it’s probable that they remained there for several years.

By 1885 one of her brothers was admitted to Cambridge from Bromley, so the whole family had returned to the UK for good, and it was from Bromley that she married in 1890. Her husband was employed at the Royal School of Music in London, and from this point onwards Edith became outwardly known by his name.

They moved into Kensington, the fashionable part of London, and over the next few years Edith gave birth to four children – two girls, and then twin boys. They had a full complement of servants – including a nurse and nursery maids – to give them a very comfortable life.

In 1906 Edith published a book on rhythm in mathematics, perhaps taking on some background from the musical atmosphere in her home. The idea, which originated with Mary Everest Boole, was that children should be taught musical rhythmic patterns in mathematics first, before moving on to more intellectual concepts. The book came with a set of punched sewing cards that enabled children to create curves and designs that encouraged patterns and harmony. Edith’s introduction to the work said of the idea:

“Beautiful curves are produced by a process so simple and automatic that the most inartistic child can succeed in generating beauty by mere conscientious accuracy; and the habit of doing this tends to produce a keen feeling for line. It has also been noticed in 649 some cases, where clean, pure, and strong colour has been used, that a remarkable sensitiveness to colour relation has grown.

“The results obtained by a child, of exquisite curved and flower forms on the ‘back’ of his card, by faithful obedience to a dull little rule in making straight stitches on the ‘front’, is of the nature a miracle. It should, therefore, be hardly necessary to insist that the less said the better, when the little worker produces anything especially beautiful or unexpected.”

The book was still being reprinted, with no real modernisation, until the mid-1970s.

A mid-1970s reprint of Edith’s book

The next phase of Edith’s life began as the campaign for women’s suffrage began to escalate. She opposed women’s suffrage, and was involved in the early days of the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League. She attended a meeting hosted by the Countess of Jersey in London in November 1908, and by the spring of 1909 she was honourable secretary of the league. In this role she spoke at West Hampstead Town Hall:

“… the Suffragists made the mistake of being unduly influenced by special instances rather than considering the community as a whole. The statement that women paid for the vote and therefore they ought to have it was, she thought a very mean conception of citizenship. It had never been our principle in this country. There were two classes of qualification for the vote. The first was that the voter should be a man, and, secondly, he should give some good ground for believing that he would take a permanent and stable interest in the good government of the country. The cry of the Suffragists for the vote on the same terms as men was absurd, because the first term on which men were given the vote was that they were men. (She) then spoke briefly on the subject of the vastness of our Empire, and stated that in all the Suffragist literature there was none upon the subject of women’s franchise and the Empire. Suffragists proposed to alter the whole Constitution upon which that great Empire had been built up without showing its effects upon the Empire. She also referred briefly to certain Suffragist literature, the under-trend of which, she said, seemed to be the destruction of the thought of motherhood as the highest ideal for women.”

Edith Lance Collet
Edith at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1909

She continued to be very involved in the work of the league, proving to be a well-known and rousing speaker for their ideals, and – like her rising counterpart Gwladys – believing that women had an important role in improving society by breeding and raising better people rather than influencing politics. Her platform was presented at various meetings around the country, often working with and speaking alongside with Mary Ward, better known as Mrs Humphry Ward, including at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in late October 1909:

“… (she) said Miss Robertson (Margaret Robinson, one of the speakers for the cause of women’s suffrage) made some good debating points without upsetting Mrs Ward’s argument. “We say (she said) that government depends on the consent of the majority, and that is one of the reasons we oppose the extension of the franchise”. Nobody seemed to know what she meant, and she passed on to consider Miss Robertson’s higher view of motherhood. Miss Robertson said this high ideal was only to be attained through the vote. But it is, and always has been, attained by making better men.

“Women are always in the foreground of reforms, not that men are more evil, but because women have the whole future of the world in their hands. Reforms have been won by women influencing the good men to help. She appealed to all the women to do the work which men have given them to do, and wait till they were invited to take their place in the foreground.”

She also toured Scotland for her cause, speaking at meetings of her league and also being present at a meeting in Edinburgh where Christabel Pankhurst was speaking for the cause of women’s suffrage, and proved to be a vociferous opposer and no shrinking violet:

“In the course of her address, Miss Pankhurst was interrupted by a lady, and she said if the interrupter had been at a Liberal meeting she would have been thrown out. The lady, who afterwards gave her name as (Edith), of the Anti-Suffrage League, said she was interrupting a meeting which had to do with women’s suffrage. Miss Pankhurst and her friends interrupted meetings where Cabinet Ministers talked about something else.

“Miss Pankhurst retorted that a Cabinet Minister could not talk on any political question which was not connected with votes for women. Miss Pankhurst was severely “heckled” for about half an hour. (Edith) was prominent at this part of the proceedings, and for some time she sustained a vigorous argument with Miss Pankhurst. (Edith) challenged directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration of women engaged in the textile industries, and gave as her authority the Board of Trade Blue-book on the subject, which she advised the audience to read. (Edith), in reply to Miss Pankhurst’s declaration that taxation without representation was tyranny, pointed out that citizenship was not a matter of paying money; and Miss Pankhurst replied that men had laid down that taxation and representation must go together. (Edith) then asked, if that was so, why only 6 ½ millions of the men who paid taxes had the vote? Miss Pankhurst said it was not their business to complain of the way men worked out the general principle they had laid down. They wanted for women the principle men had set up for themselves.”

A report from the Northern Chronicle and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland – Wednesday 10 November 1909

However, despite the prominence of her role in the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League, whether she found the work incompatible with her family life, or changed her views, Edith stood down as secretary at the beginning of 1910, claiming health grounds. She made one more appearance on an anti-suffrage platform, and then disappeared from view.

Interestingly, however, she appears on the first electoral role that she could appear on, in 1918. This may indicate that she had changed her views, but there is no way of knowing whether she actually did vote or not.

She and her husband, once their children had grown and left home, appear to have lived quietly supported by domestic staff in their fairly grand townhouse in Kensington. They gradually downsized their properties as their needs grew less, though some remember her as quite extravagant and not particularly supportive of her husband’s musicianship. Her husband was knighted for his work in music in 1929, and Edith became a Lady.

She was widowed a couple of years before the Second World War, and again downsized, living with a parlour maid and a cook/housekeeper until her own death at the tail end of the war.

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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.

Maud R’s story

Born in India, to an English family, Maud R spent her earliest years in a military camp and then underwent a long sea voyage back home before she was three. She was her parents’ fourth daughter, but only three survived to adulthood.

Settling in Yorkshire during the 1880s, initially both parents were involved in her upbringing, but when she was three her father committed a serious crime and was sent away. Her mother subsequently moved the family, and started taking in boarders to make ends meet. Maud and her siblings went into work when they had finished school, in order to help family finances – Maud went into domestic service, and her two surviving sisters became elementary school teachers.

During the first years of the 20th century, Maud travelled across the Atlantic Ocean. She was initially bound for New York, but ended up in French-speaking Québec, Canada. There, a year or so later, she met and married a soldier of Irish descent, and settled in Québec City, on the banks of the St Lawrence River.

A month later, their first son was born. Two further sons followed over the next five years.

Her husband gave up his job as a soldier, and became a labourer, which would have meant a difference in family finances.

Maud died in Québec, in the months before the start of the First World War. She was 27 years old.

Helena M’s story

Losing a child under the age of five was a common occurrence in Victorian Britain, with high infant mortality rates, and virulent diseases that we can cure easily today. Helena M lost a daughter in this way, but the death of her young son was not normal for the times and had a shocking twist.

Helena possibly came from Yorkshire, or Ireland – her census records can’t agree on a birthplace. She was the daughter of a steward, so her upbringing would have been a good few steps above the base-poor level. At the age of 24 she married a carpenter’s son turned soldier. Their marriage was reportedly a happy and affectionate one, and several children followed – the first two in England while he was stationed in cavalry barracks – and then more in India when he was posted to the Bengal army at Muttra, now Mathura in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1870s.

Her husband’s military rank – that of sergeant and then sergeant major – meant that he was an enlisted grade soldier, not officer class, and therefore his family would have lived with the military rather than a settled house. Although it is hard to know for sure, his status, and wages, would have been above those of the privates and corporals, and he was certainly not at the level of the poorest white people in India. The fact that three of Helena’s children were born in Muttra suggests that she probably stayed at camp, even if her husband travelled elsewhere. Other accompanying wives and children – and there were restrictions on numbers of women allowed to travel with their menfolk  – would have been nearby.

Later on, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband – who at this stage was in the 10th Hussars – was moved on to train in the Muree Hills, now in Pakistan. The battle of Ali Masjid, where her husband saw action, took place six months after her daughter’s birth. He was also involved in other action during the second Anglo-Afghan War, at one point going to Jalalabad, but it is unknown how far wives like Helena followed their husbands.

Although the climate could have been slightly more temperate for British women used to the Yorkshire rain, the sun was no less strong. Her husband suffered severe sunstroke while here, alongside other ailments, and required care. His commission came to an end, and together with Helena and the children returned to Britain via a long sea voyage to survive on his military pension.

Helena gave birth to another child at the turn of the 1880s, and the family briefly moved to the Scilly Isles where her husband took up a short-lived position that didn’t suit him. Instead, they settled back in Yorkshire – where the experience in India served to increase the family’s social class standing, and her husband gained a stable job.

However, this state of affairs did not last long. Within a couple of years, Helena’s youngest son died – murdered by his father.

Newspaper reports of the crime say that her husband had suffered from “vertigo” since the incident of sunstroke, and this had led to depression. Helena stated in court that he was a temperate man, not given to drinking, and had said “very strange things” to her in the week leading up to the murder. She had been afraid that he would do himself an injury for some time, so she had moved all objects that might do him harm out of his reach. He had been attended by the doctor, who had told her to keep an eye on him, but she had not been advised that he might do any of the children harm so had left all but one with him while she went out on an errand. The boy, who wasn’t yet two, was found in the cellar with massive head injuries, which his father fully admitted to causing.

Reports of the trial indicate that her husband appeared confused, and not all there. It is possible that the diagnosis of vertigo with melancholia masked deeper health problems, possibly influenced by battle experiences. His children, as witnesses, reported that he was not a violent man and that he had always exhibited great kindness towards them and their siblings.

Helena’s husband, who called himself a “maniac” and a “lunatic” during the trial, was found insane by the jury. He was not detained in gaol, instead spending the remaining 26 years of his life in a prison asylum. Helena and her children are reported to have been tearful, but embraced him in the dock.

Within a few months of the murder, Helena gave birth to her final child – another son. She received a great deal of support and sympathy from the community. The increase in social standing and her husband’s former job enabled her to keep the family home and not fall into poverty. They moved away from the house the murder took place in. To make ends meet she took in boarders, and as her children grew up they contributed to the family finances.

In later life, Helena continued to live as a boarding house keeper, supported by her children – two of whom at least never married – which suggests she was making a reasonable living and the family were relatively comfortable. She called herself a widow from at least the turn of the 20th century, despite not actually being so for many years. She died in the mid-1920s.

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