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.

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. She became an actress, with the Louis Waller Players, and toured with his company around the country to good reviews. In 1915 she was featured as a beautiful woman on a series of cigarette cards.

maysie burlingham

Cigarette card photo of Maysie, April 1915

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. She had previously been engaged to his brother, but on meeting John – more often known as Bill – this fell apart. The brother married someone else. Bill 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. She wanted to continue acting, and indeed did so for a time, but Bill disapproved and she ended this part of her career.

Maysie Tatler April 1915

While her new husband was sent to France on active service, Maysie appears to have spent 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 entirely how she spent this time its certain she had a beautiful view during these years. There was a baby who apparently lived for a day, and a subsequent miscarriage, but no further children. Maysie 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. She took a correspondence course in engineering at some point during these years.

Indeed, it’s as an electrical engineer that Maysie first comes to the fore as Mrs Pender Chalmers. She and Bill – 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. Bill 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 Bill 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 Bill 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, Bill 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. Bill arrives back from a period in Brazil in June 1937, and then the next record to feature either of them is their remarriages. According to people that knew them, Bill had had an affair with his secretary and she had ended up “in the family way”, and things had to be sorted out quickly. Maysie remarried first, just before Christmas 1937, and Bill a short 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, 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 away from London society. 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. They both were members of the South West Electricity Board, however.

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 has not come to light, but she was known as an engaging public speaker on behalf of the South West Electricity Board, and conducted training for them in marketing and publicity.

Maysies two husbands

Maysie, and both her husbands.

In later life she lived with her first sister-in-law, the woman who had married Bill’s brother, in the Lyme Regis house. They would spend the winters in Portugal together, and then the rest of the year living in England. She would hold large fancy garden parties for the great and the good of the town, and was extremely good at gardening – even keeping it up into old age as her eyesight failed with the help of a faithful housekeeper. She and her sister-in-law became ladies who lunched, going to Exeter once a week to dine at a hotel and go shopping.

She died herself in Lyme Regis in the early 1980s, and is buried next to her second husband and faithful housekeeper in the village of Uplyme, just outside the town.