Lillian H’s story

Society magazines have always been known for being a little bit stretched with the truth in the pursuit of a chink of glamour, and their words accompanying Lady Shelmerdine’s portrait in a 1938 edition of Tatler are no exception.

Lillian, Lady Shelmerdine, it says, was “before her marriage Miss Lillian Haskins of Warmley Towers, Gloucestershire”. But the magazine fails to mention which marriage – since her nuptials to Sir Francis Shelmerdine, at the time director general of civil aviation in Britain, was her third – and although she was part of the Warmley Towers Haskins family her father was the youngest son and a grocer, and did not actually live at the grand property.

Lilian Shelmerdine Tatler 1938

However, not letting truth get in the way of a good story, this papering over of Lillian’s past would have been commonplace at the time, as the wife of a knight of the realm should appear respectable and her own activities around supporting women in aviation meant that she was someone that young girls should look up to. So, two divorces were not mentioned. Nor was her husband’s previous drug habit, in contrast to the coals that would have been raked over today.

She was the oldest child of six, born in the late 1870s in Warmley – a village now part of great Bristol, but at the time just outside the city. As mentioned, her father James Haskins was a grocer. However, as part of the Haskins family, who ran a pottery and pipe making works in the area, he was a high-class shop keeper. The family had servants. His older brother Joseph had previously run the family grocery business while their father William had had charge of the Haskins works, but that changed when Joseph took over in 1881, and James was given the shop. Joseph’s daughter Minnie, an academic, became a celebrated poet and was Lillian’s first cousin.

Warmley House

Warmley House, where Tatler claimed Lillian was brought up. She wasn’t. (Credit Brizzle Born and Bred)

From a later census return, it appears that Lilian’s siblings were not brought up in the shop premises – and it is probable that Lillian wasn’t either. Her mother’s mother, a widow, brought up the children in Devon, and employed a governess to educate them. At the age of 12 she’s back home, and still referred to as a scholar, so it is likely that she continued with her education past the required point rather than starting work.

At the age of 17, having secured the required permission of her father, Lillian married a gentleman farmer – Joseph – at least 19 years her senior, at St James in Bristol. Today that amount of age gap at that age might be considered grooming, but back then she would have been seen as having made an advantageous match, and he would have gained a young and healthy wife. Joseph, who was based in Glastonbury but appeared to have taken up residence in Bath – not too far away from Warmley – had been married before, but his first wife had died a year before. He also had two surviving daughters in his care (two more had died young), the older of which only five years younger than Lillian.

Around about the same time, Lillian’s father took the rest of her siblings out to live in South Africa – but if Lillian had not wanted to come it might explain why she married so young and to someone so much older. It is uncertain whether her mother accompanied the rest of the family or stayed behind – the next record for her is the 1901 census when she had clearly suffered some mental health issues, and had been admitted to an asylum in Berkshire – so there may have been a parental split around this time that influenced Lillian’s choice, and it’s certain that her mother’s mental health would have had a bearing on some events.

Lillian’s marriage to Joseph was precarious from the get-go. Within four months of the union he had “infected her with a venereal disease of a very severe nature”. Lillian also said he was habitually drunk, and treated her with extreme cruelty. They lived at Kingswood Hill, on the edge of Bristol, and Lillian gave birth to a daughter – Irene – at the end of 1897, when she was just 19 years old. There were further instances of abusive and violent language, and he struck her on several occasions and threatened to shoot her. Unsurprisingly, she left him, taking Irene with her, in February 1899. His daughters were apprenticed to tradespeople in Bath, and he went to South Wales and took up with a woman there. Lillian moved to Reading – close to where her mother was being treated – and filed for divorce in 1901, asking for the marriage to be dissolved and for her to be given custody of their child. Though the request was filed in 1901, the divorce wasn’t granted until 1904. Joseph did not offer any evidence against Lillian’s claims.

Very quickly afterwards, Lillian married for a second time. This time the age gap was considerably smaller, as he was just three years older than her. Somerset was the son of a gentleman, and kept a hotel in Lourenço Marques, now named Maputo in modern-day Mozambique. They married at the British Consulate, and lived together in Durban, South Africa – near the rest of her family. Lillian appears to have travelled widely while married to him – there’s a record of her arriving back in Bath from Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1908, and they spent time in British Central Africa (later named Nyasaland, today modern-day Malawi). It’s likely that Somerset was involved in colonial interests in that area – mostly growing cotton, tea or tobacco – alongside various members of Lillian’s extended family.

british-consuls-residence-lourenco-marques-now-maputo-capital-of-mozambique-HH4HTC

The British Consulate in Maputo, where Lillian married Somerset.

At some point, Somerset left Africa for New Zealand, to become a publisher – he specialised in books on African flora and fauna, it appears – and Lillian took up with someone else. Whether the marriage to Somerset was over, or the affair was the nail in the coffin is open to question. Her paramour was Oswald, a former navy captain, who had retired from the service. He had also been married to someone else since 1907.

Lillian and Oswald lived together in Blantyre, in the southern part of Nyasaland, from late October 1912 onwards. They went back to the UK for a while, then returned to Africa via Southampton. Somerset filed for divorce from New Zealand in the Spring of 1913, on the grounds of Lillian’s adultery. Oswald was mentioned in the case, but not charged as he had died around a month before, aged 34, of heart problems and gouty kidneys. The divorce was granted in the spring of 1914. Somerset married again a year or two later.

Presumably Lillian spent much of the first world war in Africa – her family had a base in Durban, and business interests in Nyasaland. It is probable that she met Francis, her third husband, in one of these places as he also had business interests in the area. However, he was on active service with the Royal Flying Corps and then the RAF during the war, so wouldn’t have been with her much during this time.

The first mention we have of them together is in 1918, when Irene got married. As she was slightly under-age, she applied for a licence saying that her father was dead (he wasn’t), and her mother was Mrs Shelmerdine. The actual Mrs Shelmerdine at the time was Francis’s first wife Mary. They had been split since 1912, after a paternity suit muddied by the fact that he couldn’t remember fathering his daughter due to his drug habit at the time (this was probably cocaine, which was not illegal at the time, or another opiate), but did not divorce as he had not exhibited cruelty to his wife. To compensate for the legal problem of not actually being married, Lillian sometimes claimed to be called Sylvanie on legal documents. It is assumed that he somehow managed to end his drug habit, as it is not mentioned again after the paternity case. Irene and her husband and children also lived in South Africa, and were involved in family businesses.

Francis Shelmerdine

Francis Shelmerdine

They were able to finally marry in 1925, after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 enabled Mary to bring divorce proceedings against Francis. This took place in London, where they had set up home together. On Francis’s demobilisation from the army in 1919 he went to work at the Civil Aviation Department of the Air Ministry, and rose to become Controller of Aerodromes and Licences. As his wife, Lillian attended various events and became involved in encouraging women in aviation. His work took him to Egypt, and then to India, but she does not appear to have lived there with him – their official residences were fashionable places in London. While he was out of the country, she probably officially represented him at many aviation events, and on that basis became involved in women’s aviation.

Francis returned to the UK in 1931 when he was made Director of Civil Aviation, and then became Director General of the organisation in 1934. There were trips to Canada and other places that Lillian didn’t accompany him on. She looked after her granddaughter Yolande when she came to visit London in the mid-1930s. In terms of women’s aviation, she presented the trophy to the winner of the women’s race at the opening of Woodley Aerodrome near Reading in 1931. She also attended a women’s air meeting at Atlantic Park in Southampton in 1932, and was complemented by aviator Amy Johnson at the Women’s Engineering Society Annual Dinner at the Forum Club in 1937 for all she’d done for women’s aviation (after her husband had made a bad insinuation about women flyers always getting lost). From this we can surmise that she was a prominent presence in the early days of flying, probably attending a great many other meetings, and offered continual support and encouragement to women aviators.

Lilian Shelmerdine

Lillian in at the opening of an aerodrome in Reading in 1931

Atlantic Park Southampton 1932

Lillian, seated, third from right, at Atlantic Park Southampton in 1932

Her mother was taken dangerously ill in 1935 when she and Francis were on holiday in Sweden. Thanks to their flying connections she was able to fly home directly to her bedside in Truro, and the incident was reported in many of the newspapers of the day. In 1936 Francis was knighted, so Lillian became Lady Shelmerdine, and therefore more of interest to publications like Tattler. They had property in Pershore, Worcestershire, and at the outbreak of World War 2 were resident in Bristol, near her family.

Francis was forced to retire on age grounds in 1941, and died in 1945 in hospital in Bideford, Devon. Lillian was not an executor of his effects. She appears to have spent her dotage in both South Africa and the UK, spending time in both Pershore and Durban and travelling on ships in-between. She had not long returned from a four-month stint in the UK when she died in South Africa in 1956, in her late 70s. Her remaining money was left to the Bank of South Africa.

Gwladys S’s story

Understanding where someone else is coming from in political matters is hard enough at the best of times, but Gwladys’ position – against the background of a militant fight from women to gain the vote at the beginning of the 20th century – is particularly boggling. She was an active anti-suffragist at the point where the WSPU were at their height.

Today, with 100 years of women having the vote behind us, the idea that an educated woman could somehow oppose the idea of enfranchising herself and her sisters beggars belief. However, this is exactly what Gwladys did. Often vociferously.

Her background appears to have been somewhat small-C conservative. She was the second daughter of a congregational minister and his Welsh wife, born in Wales towards the end of the 1870s. The family had enough money to afford a couple of servants, and spent time in South Wales, London and Kent – as Gwladys’ father’s job moved. Both Gwladys and her elder sister were educated at boarding school, while her brothers appear to have gone to school closer to home.

After school Gwladys became a teacher, holding a position at a school for daughters of the clergy in Bristol. The school building no longer stands, but the school still exists.

In the mid-1900s, she married a South African artist who was living in the UK after the death of his father. A son followed, but the couple separated only after a few years together.

In some cases, after separation in an era when divorce was hard and costly to obtain, and carried considerable social stigma, the estranged husband would often maintain his wife. However, this was not the full case for Gwladys. The 1911 census sees her in London, supporting herself and her son with a job – as organising secretary for the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage – and she states on the form that she is estranged from him.

At this point, the National League had recently amalgamated from the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, and its president was Lord Cromer. The 1911 census is the first readily-available document linking Gwladys to the League, but newspapers have her appointment as honourable secretary of the Hampstead branch of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League from March 1909.

However long she had been involved, Gwladys came to more prominence under the leadership of Lord Curzon and Lord Weardale, who took over in early 1912. An educated, articulate woman actively opposing something that others of her sex were prepared to fight and be imprisoned for must have been extremely useful for their cause.

She had been an Anti-Suffragist correspondent to a publication called The World, and is mentioned as such in a letter to that publication by Emily Wilding Davison in 1911. She writes:

“To turn to (Gwladys’) second point, which is ‘that all the reforms women might bring about with the vote they can certainly bring about without it.’ No doubt they can do so, but only by an iniquitous waste of energy and time. Here is an anti who probably believes ardently in woman keeping to woman’s sphere, telling us to choose the longer, the more cumbrous, the more nerve-wearing, the more doubtful, method of working, by means of stirring public opinion (which, of course, can be stirred, but it is often a killing process), instead of using the obviously practical, effective, and easy way of the vote.”

Gwladys would often write into publications at the time, stating the anti-suffrage point of view and refuting anything that pro-suffrage supporters said about her activities that she felt was inaccurate.

In 1912, Gwladys wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, later Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, at least twice. Her letters give a further clue to her reasoning:

“As a typical women householder and rate and tax payer I beg you – a typical man – to take upon your stronger shoulders the burden of responsibility for the safety of the Empire, the Army, Navy, Trade, Shipping, Mining, Railways etc. I am too thankful to pay my taxes in return for your protection, if only you will leave me to look after my home and my child. It is true that I am in the unfortunate position of having to earn a livelihood as well as perform the duties of a mother, but why, why on that account do you want to add still more to my responsibilities and duties?”

The second letter elaborates further:

“The great difficulty in my work has been that people think it is so preposterous to suggest giving women control of Imperial affairs which they do not administer, that there is no danger of “votes for women” becoming law. If woman suffrage is put into the Reform bill the Liberal Government will be wrecked. Are we to lose the Insurance Bill, Home Rule, Welsh Disestablishment, and Land Reform, for the sake of a mere quarter of a million of misguided women who most of them only want to enfranchise the women of property for the sake of the Conservative Party? Are the other 12 ¾ millions of women to be utterly ignored?”

On the back of this growing notoriety, Gwladys embarked on visits to many towns and cities in the UK during 1912-14, setting up and speaking at anti-suffrage meetings. Sometimes she was invited to speak, and at other times she would turn up in a town, advertise a meeting via men with sandwich boards, pitch up in the market place and speak for an hour.

This took place at a time when the suffragette campaign was at its height, and the suffragettes were often targets for her ire, newspaper reports of her speeches indicate.

““We are not asking for votes,” declared the speaker. “we are asking that you will save us from the suffragettes.” Women had their own work, and could not, even those who called themselves sportsmen, afford to take over the risks of men. Women knew nothing of the laws – many suffragettes had never read a single law – and thought they could make them better. Why did they not come forward with some of their ideas on legislation? As to the economic argument, women were not worth as much as men, and so long as men were obliged to support their wives and children they ought to be paid more. Then they said they would bring purity into politics. They had made a good start, hadn’t they? Their methods were the most degrading and debasing the world had ever known. They said they would not take human life – no, because they might get hanged. We were supposed to be a nation of sportsmen, and a sportsman could not hit in the dark, stab in the back, or hit anyone who could not hit back, and the suffragettes did all these things, and what was so disgraceful, they did it in the name of the women of England. The suffrage was a retrogressive movement (Loud applause). The suffragettes were trying to shift the women’s movement on to the wrong lines, just when women were beginning to take their right place. But women were going to advance, and in spite of the suffragettes. They now had the municipal vote, leading them to a useful field. It was so awful to think how the world, whole world was laughing at women. They all knew what was thought of the hen-pecked husband? Then they must not let their glorious nation do down to posterity as the hen-peck nation.”

The Cambridge Independent, March 7 1913

Other arguments she used included that women’s interests would result in too many insignificant and cluttering bills being brought into parliament – like the dangers of flannelette clothing – and that giving women the vote might adversely affect the birth rate at a time when there was a great deal of rhetoric about breeding a strong nation. She felt that women could be more effective in – and improve – society if they were given more control over domestic affairs, and brought up better people by focusing on their children, and that having the vote would distract from this.

The way in which Gwladys appears to argue – from the newspaper reports of her speeches – shows her to be intelligent and articulate, and she states on several occasions that she doesn’t see women’s intelligence to be inferior to men. It is therefore hard, from a modern perspective, to see how she can have arrived at these conclusions about the role of women in society. Her background may have had some bearing on it. So also may have been the fact that her ex-mother-in-law and ex-sister-in-law were prominent suffragettes – the former being jailed for breaking Black Rod’s windows at the Houses of Parliament, and the latter mailing herself to 10 Downing Street – and it is always possible that this, combined with the fact that she was estranged from her husband and former family, added fuel to her fire.

The First World War midway through 1914 brought an effective end to the suffragette campaign, with activists devoting themselves to the fight for the country. As the war went on, women filled many jobs that men off fighting had previously undertaken, and proved that they were perfectly capable of undertaking this work, and public opinion started to change. Many prominent female anti-suffrage speakers drifted away, but Gwladys – perhaps due to economic necessity – stayed loyal and continued to campaign and speak. An article from a suffrage supporter to a publication called The Vote in 1917 makes mention to her still being active in the campaign, at a point where the bill to give women the vote, which came in early February 1918, was being drafted.

With the right to vote in general elections given to certain groups of women – and virtually all men over 21 – in 1918, the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage had lost their impetus and gradually disbanded, taking Gwladys’ job with it. Her son would now have been in his early teens, and still in need of support and care.

She now gave occasional talks on educational subjects, and turned to writing educational books – although her 1939 register entry also calls her a public speaker, so it appears that she still addressed meetings – on language teaching to children. Her books included three on early French teaching, one on German, one on Spanish, and one on Esperanto. The Esperanto book, which included Mary Had a Little Lamb in translation, was intended to create unity of language among the children of the world and thus end war. To that end, free copies were sent around the globe. Some of her books remained in publication until at least 1970.

In the 1920s she wrote a play, Aunt Priscilla’s Will, which was performed in amateur dramatic circles. She was active in local educational circles in Hendon in the 1930s, and stood as secretary for the Golders Green Literary Society too. In the late 1930s she was also involved in the Shaftesbury Society, now Livability, which offered support and services for disabled children.

Just before the Second World War, she changed her surname by deed poll. She resigned the married name she had used during her anti-suffrage days – she does not appear to have ever divorced, so this would have been the next best thing – and instead became known by part of her former maiden name. Around the same time, she appears on the electoral registers – so perhaps had mellowed on her previous stance.

Her son fought in the war, and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. In later life Gwladys moved to Cheshire, close to where her son was employed, and also spent some time in some African counties – possibly accompanying her son, who conducted research into tropical medicine. She died in a nursing home in the mid-1960s.

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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.

Erin’s story

Submitted by Helen:

Erin was born in the late Victorian era in South Africa, where she was an actress, and very beautiful in her day. She fell in love with John who had been disowned by his own father, a vicar, when he became an actor. Her mother had died and her father refused to let her marry for many years because he needed her to help look after her younger brother.

John waited for her and finally, when her brother grew up, they were allowed to marry, and they moved to London where John tried to further his acting career. They lived in a very small flat. John struggled to get work as an actor, but acted regularly every summer in Regents Park outdoor theatre, Shakespeare season. They both regarded Shakespeare very highly and my grandmother, their only child, could quote large speeches, until fairly late into her dementia.

Erin helped make ends meet by making costumes for theatre productions, for which she was well regarded. She was a terrible snob and was always ashamed of her work because it was manual labour, but she was very good with her hands.

She was a Christian Scientist, although after John died she became a Quaker. She said she loved the meeting houses because everyone sat in silence, and it was quiet.

She was always slightly ethereal. My grandmother remembers their love as being particularly strong and romantic throughout their marriage.Erin finished her life in a home for retired actors, where she used to talk to ‘John’ all the time.

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