“How do you find your stories?”

I was asked recently how I manage to find all these interesting stories about women of the past who haven’t been profiled before.

The short answer is because they are out there. Another short answer is because I look with a different lens, and don’t assume that because there’s nothing written there’s nothing there. Yet another short answer is that they’re happy accidents.

A longer, more considered, answer would be that I am – and always have been – extremely curious about people’s lives and what drives people and makes them tick. I worked as a journalist for many years, and therefore like to dig deep to find a story. Combined with an all-consuming drive to prove that women’s history is so much more than just suffrage and a fight for equal rights, and you’ve got the right conditions for turning up real and interesting stories.

However, I’m sure that my questioner wanted actual details about how I found people rather than technical musings on the drive behind the project, so let’s explain a bit further about how I’ve found people…

If you’ve been to one of my talks, you’ll have heard all about serial criminal Mary Ann Fairlie, as we build her story together through newspaper reports and other documents. Mary was found in the prison records for Gloucestershire, when she’d been arrested for breaking a window while drunk and assaulting a police constable. I happened upon her because I was in those records researching someone in a friend’s maternal genealogy line, she was on the next page (adjacent to a man who’d been had up for “interfering sexually with a sheep”) and I wondered what sort of woman would beat up a police officer in the 1890s and looked her up. And what a tale she had.

She in turn led me to two other women. One of the newspaper reports mentioned that she’d beaten up a female prison warden, “Mrs M Redding” in 1883, and I wondered about women becoming prison wardens at that time – so tried to find her. I found a child in the area called Maud Redding, who was far too young to have been the warden, but discovered that she and many of her siblings had been born in India – so had a look at why that had happened, and what the reality of that was for her mother Helena. And then I discovered the great tragedy at the heart of Helena’s family. Later on I did find the female prison warden – Marion – and she turned out to have come through the workhouse system.

Marion wasn’t a matron of a workhouse though, and through that I wondered what background might lead someone to take that role on, and what the duties were. So I duly looked up the various matrons (and masters – they were usually a married couple) of my local workhouse in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and happened across Martha who held that role for nearly 30 years. In one of the newspaper articles I used to research her, I came across a mention of a “crippled” woman giving birth to triplets while in that workhouse – Rosanna – so researched her too.

Public buildings in Chippenham have been a source of lots of women in the project, mostly as I am surrounded by the places that they lived and worked and can’t help but wonder who lived there. I’ve done research into one of the local primary schools, and looked at several teachers from there – Ruby (who was divorced in 1930) and Marion (who was part of a new epoch in art teaching in the 1920s alongside Robin Tanner, but didn’t get any credit for it) – as well as teachers and university lecturers from elsewhere. I’ve also researched the chain of barkeepers at a couple of local pubs, and have looked for the most interesting landladies from those lists – as invariably it was the husband who officially held the alcohol sale license but his wife ran the pub, so Lilian and Sarah are a couple of stories from that haul. I also went and looked up the woman who gave a set of almshouses to the town – Elizabeth – because I realised I walked past regularly and saw her name but knew nothing about her and why she gave the properties to the town – and in a local history book found a reference to Priscilla, wife of a local industrialist, whose husband was given endless credit for having produced a cricket team of sons but the woman who carried and birthed them was barely mentioned.

Marion Young

Marion Young, teacher of Chippenham, who was part of a new epoch in art teaching in the 1930s

On another tack, sometimes I hit upon an important part of women’s history that is barely talked about in personal terms, and try to find someone to help me illustrate it. For example, the unfairness in standards for divorce law between men and women in the mid-19th century, which is often generalised, didn’t really have a face to it so I found Diana by going through the UK Civil Divorce Records and her political connections came to light later. Female anti-suffragists boggle my brain, so I researched Gwladys to try to find out what drove her (actual conviction, economic necessity or familial revenge – you decide). The profession of a monthly nurse went out with the ark, and no-one these days knows what one did (she came into a woman’s home after the birth of a baby to do her chores and feed her other children), so I looked up Elizabeth. Ballet’s association with prostitution turned up Susannah. Abortion and what you did with an unwanted pregnancy – before the advent of Levonelle or mifepristone and misoprostol – is another issue that I wanted to highlight. I had one credit left on the British Newspaper Archive before having to top them up, so searched “Wiltshire abortion” and found the tale of Harriet and Mary Ann.

Gwladys

Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, later Cowper

Other women I turn up in books – Amy Bell, the first UK female stockbroker – came from Jane Duffus’ book The Women Who Built Bristol, while Hannah Young I found in a BBC book to accompany a series on the Victorian kitchen, and turned up more than gas cookery when I discovered her husband had taken her name when they married, and she recommended do-it-yourself enemas.

Amy Elizabeth Bell

Amy Bell, first UK female stockbroker

Enquiries also turn up interesting stories. A friend’s father suggested that I look for a nun, which turned up both Sister Josephine and Mother Superior Amy, and in turn a penitent woman – Cecelia – who was being reformed in a convent, because I wondered what she’d done to earn her place there. An enquiry from the Women’s Engineering Society’s centenary project turned up the wonderful Maysie – actress-cum-socialite-cum-pilot-cum-engineer – and in turn also Lillian Haskins, wife of the director of civil aviation in the 1930s.

And then there’s just plain curiosity that a stray record brings on: what on earth did a woman called Hephzibah get up to? Running a home for fallen women, it appears. And how did a white woman born in Sierra Leone end up in Victorian Chippenham? (Annie’s dad was a missionary in Freetown at the time of her birth).

Then the final part of the answer is YOU, gentle reader. I am genuinely interested in what your grandmother (and your mother, and your maiden aunt, and your second cousin three times removed) got up to, because oral history is the dog’s bollocks and adds so much more colour and life to women’s stories than bare records and salacious newspaper reports ever could. So please, #tellmeaboutyourgranny, ask your great aunt what she did in the war, write down your mother’s experiences for posterity, and tell your daughters just what women’s history is all about – more than just suffrage and women’s lib: it’s endless housework and varicose veins, back street abortions and fiddling with a knitting needle, doing a great amount of your husband’s work and never getting the credit for it, balancing books but never being called an accountant, not being able to marry and keep a job you love, swearing in front of a police station in order to be arrested and therefore get a bed for the night, being stoic when your infant dies of an illness we could easily prevent now, finding a way to keep an income when your husband dies, and many many more things besides.

So that’s how I find my stories, and populate my project. It’s for you, and it’s for everyone. Help me to find more.

Elise G’s story

Imagine being intelligent enough and working hard enough to achieve a doctorate in mathematics, in an era where women were only just allowed to earn them, and then being denied the title by some foreign men because you were a) from a different country and they weren’t sure they recognised the institution you earned your qualification in, and b) a married woman. This happened to Elise – a well deserving holder of a PhD, but referred to as Mrs (despite a divorce) when she found work as a maths teacher.

The second daughter of a Czechoslovakian lawyer, Elise was born at the turn of the 20th century in Most, a Bohemian city in the northern part of what is now the Czech Republic. The region was German-speaking – Most’s German name is Brüx – and Elise grew up speaking that language. Her family was Jewish, well-educated and quite well-to-do.

During the first world war, when the situation for Jews in that area was good, she and her sister Kathe attended high school in their home town, with Elise showing a particular aptitude for mathematics. She went on to study at the local college at 16, graduating in 1923, and then went on to the University of Vienna for four further years – gaining a distinction in maths – and achieving a doctorate in 1928. At the time, women were only admitted to doctorates in certain subjects at the University of Vienna. Somewhere along the way she’d met and married Ernst, a junior lawyer in her father’s office, in about 1924 and gave birth to a daughter around 1928. However, the marriage did not work out and ended in divorce.

After qualifying for her doctorate, and gaining the first part of a teaching diploma, she spent eight years as visiting lecturer at the University of Prague, and then moved to be the Statistical Expert at the Institute of Market Research in Vienna. Her father died in 1931, but her mother continued to live in Most. By this point, the situation for Jews in this part of Europe was getting dangerous. Her daughter, then around 10, was excluded from her school in Vienna on the basis of her Jewish background, so she and Elise returned to Prague. Her daughter managed to escape in January 1939 as part of the Kindertransport with the help of the Barbican Mission to the Jews, based in London’s East End, who saved around 100 children in the nine months up to the outbreak of World War II. The idea of the mission was that the Jewish children should convert to Christianity, which did not particularly bother Elise or her ex-husband as – though Jewish by birth – they were agnostic. Elise was able to follow her two months later, on a domestic permit – presumably with the idea of being able to care for her – but left her mother and ex-husband behind. Her sister had married and moved to Chile with her husband, which may have been considered as another avenue of escape, but ultimately the domestic permit provide Elise with the means to leave.

England at the time was not a particularly cosmopolitan place. Many people had not been abroad – the country was decades away from package holidays – and much of the news from the area that Elise came from centred on Hitler and the activities of the Nazi party, so even rescued Czech Jews could be viewed with suspicion. In addition, Elise’s doctorate came from a non-British university, so many might doubt the rigour of that education as it was “different” to that which they had experienced.

Therefore, Elise had to find work in England as and where she could. With the help of people within the Barbican Mission for the Jews she began working as a chamber maid, then a cook and a governess, and the 1939 register – taken a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War – has her performing domestic duties for a female accountant in London, though the register acknowledges that she is a statistics expert, and she probably helped the accountant as well as doing the cleaning. But on this form her doctorate is not acknowledged. Her daughter lived separately, with the mission in a home in the Brockley area, and Elise’s access to her was restricted.

In January of 1940, with many of the male teachers starting to be taken into the forces as the war got underway, there were starting to be shortages in teaching staff in many schools. She managed to gain a position as temporary science mistress at Thorn Bank school in Malvern-Wells, Worcestershire. This was a small private school for girls, which did not have a great deal of funds for equipment. Elise taught here on her wits and vast knowledge, as her only scientific equipment was pieces of litmus paper. However, the stability of this job meant that her daughter was returned to her care, and they lived together in Malvern-Wells and later in Carlisle where Elise held a mathematics teaching position for a year from September of 1940 that was slightly better than the previous post but not by much.

From here, she had an interview with the head of a town grammar school in Wiltshire on the railway station platform at Derby with a view to replacing his head of maths who was serving in the RAF, and got the job. Whereas the governors of that school were not particularly worldly at that time, the head teacher was young and a Quaker, part of the Rowntree chocolate manufacturing family of York, and as part of the company business had even been abroad. He recognised that a doctorate from the University of Vienna was equal to one from a British university, and persuaded the governors to take on Elise – though in a nod to their reservations she was still referred to as Mrs and not as Doctor. They may also have had reservations as the previous replacement was also a German Jewish refugee and had been interned in an Enemy Alien camp for a few months in 1940, and they may have feared losing Elise to this fate too – although it was only the men who were interred in the end.

Elise became the senior maths teacher of the school, in Bradford on Avon, and her daughter enrolled too. She was well liked by staff and pupils alike, and respected by all. Her heavy accent apparently was difficult to understand at first, but many students found her lessons inspirational. She was paid on the standard scale, with slight deductions for being in a temporary position and technically an alien, but was awarded a special payment for her exceptional qualifications – which they still weren’t formally recognising – in 1943.

During this period, both her mother and ex-husband – who had not been able to escape the Nazi regime – were placed by the Third Reich. Communication would have been non-existent, so she probably would not have known of their fate until after the war. Her mother was sent to the Theresienstadt Jewish ghetto, with other Czech Jews, which eventually became a labour camp. She was then sent on to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers sometime in either 1943 or 1944. Ernst, Elise’s ex-husband, was sent to the ghetto at Łódź, Poland, where he died of starvation in 1943. Her teaching position, and life in the UK, must have included hope that her family and friends had somehow survived.

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Elise, left, with other grammar school staff in 1944

Elise remained at the grammar school in Bradford on Avon until the end of the school year in 1945, when – the war having ended in May, at least in Europe – it was expected that the head of maths would return from RAF duty and take his place again at the school. In practice, this did not happen until 1946, and another German refugee was employed until then. The job did belong to the original head of maths, but it is fair to say that Elise was far better qualified for the role than he was.

She moved to be maths teacher at the Greenford County School, in Middlesex, and her daughter moved with her. After a few years here she was able to make the switch back into working in higher education in London, although an exact institution remains elusive. She was active in both the English and German language fields of maths, and here reclaimed the title of Dr again as it was finally recognised.

Elise 1961

Her daughter lived with her in Wembley until her marriage in the late 1950s, after which she appears to have lived alone. She visited her sister Kathe in Chile in the late 1950s and early 60s. After Kathe’s husband’s death in the early 1970s Kathe went back to Germany and lived in Munich, so Elise had a ready made base there when she travelled for work. She eventually had two grandsons.

elise edinburgh

She also continued her research while working in higher education. There is a picture of her attending the Edinburgh Mathematical Society Colloquium in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1976. She is also mentioned as a member of the Austrian Mathematics Association by the International Mathematical News published in Vienna in 1977. By this point she was living in Latymer Court in Hammersmith, built in 1934 and described at that time as the largest single luxury block of flats in Europe.

latymer court

In 1978 she was awarded a Golden Doctorate from the University of Vienna, an accolade given to those who have reached 50 years since their original doctorate and are still continuing to research and push the boundaries of their subject. She still did not stop there – in 1983, at the age of 80, she delivered a paper in Germany on “The practical treatment of stress concentrations and singularities within the finite element displacement algorithms”, and there is mention of her having delivered lectures for the Open University.

She died in 1991, aged 88, and was buried close to home in London.

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.

Helen T’s story

A food technician is a job that most people would associate more with the 1970s and various lurid additives and e-numbers, rather than the 1920s and the “household arts”, but that is perhaps the best way to describe the work of Helen T.

For many years Helen lectured in the Department of Household Arts at Kings College For Women – now just Kings College, in London – and experimented with the science of particular ingredients and nutrition, with a view to improving advice given to school girls and therefore influencing the nation into better health. Since cooking and food had long been regarded as “women’s work”, this was an area where the growing number of female scientists were starting to make their mark at the time – although it is unlikely that Helen regarded herself as a scientist but more of an experimenter.

She was Scottish by birth, having been born into a landed family at the tail end of the 1890s. Her father – English by birth but Scottish by family – owned a large farm in the Scottish borders where he bred Leicester sheep and exhibited horses, and her mother appears to have done her fair share of work on the farm too. However, by the time Helen was two the flock of sheep had been sold, and the farm was let to a man from Edinburgh. Her father went to fight in the Boer War, leaving Helen and her mother living on the farm. Her mother called herself the head dairymaid, indicating that she was in charge of this operation, but clearly did not own the property herself. There were also two servants living with Helen and her mother, but possibly not working for them and rather perhaps for the farmer himself.

Helen and her mother then disappear from the British records for quite some considerable time. The best guess is that after the Boer War her father settled abroad somewhere and they went to join him, as later records do not appear to indicate a parental split. This may well have been in southern Africa, as there were many farming opportunities and perceived fortunes to be made across the former British colonies, but there is no indication of exactly where.

It is known that Helen travelled though, as there is a shipping record of her coming back to the UK from Gibraltar when she was in her mid-20s, and she must have studied in Paris at some point as she gained a diploma in cookery from the Cordon Bleu school based there. Her mother took up residence in Glasgow, it appears, when back in this country, and her father’s brother was quite prominent in life in County Durham, but Helen based herself in London.

She became a lecturer in the Household and Social Science Department at Kings College for Women in 1924. At this point the school was attached to that institution, but it became an independent entity in 1928 called King’s College of Household and Social Science. This meant that in 1929 the school was part of the University of London in the Faculty of Science. They also offered short courses in Institutional and Household Management, and a science course for nurses to enable them to gain a position of Sister Tutor.

Kings College 1938

The staff of King’s College in 1938. Helen is almost certainly included, somewhere.

Girls had been taught household skills at schools for many years – they were seen as an important part of the elementary school curriculum, undertaken by older pupils, either to prepare the young woman for running her own household when she married or for a skills base to enable them to take a placement as a domestic servant. Girls learnt cookery, how to stretch a household budget, sewing and textile crafts, laundry management and skills, and how to clean various different items. The advent of technology has meant that today these skills can be accomplished quickly and easily, but back then these jobs were often manual labour – cleaning silver cutlery, washing with a copper and a mangle, cooking on a range, and so on.

The Kings College of Household and Social Science took these tasks further, pushing the boundaries to find new ways of providing good nutrition, efficiencies in laundry tasks, science of food preservation, and many other ground-breaking ideas. Helen was involved in this end of the academic research, teaching the students and helping them to develop their own ideas.

Food was undoubtedly her speciality, both as an academic exploring nutrition and a cook working in the teaching kitchen. She also broadcast on her subjects as part of her job. A 1927 festive programme on BBC radio records that she was offering advice on how to “provide a party of children with a spread that will satisfy their keen sense of what is due at Christmas-time, without making them ill.” The accompanying blurb says that at this time she was an examiner in sick room cookery at Middlesex Hospital – nutritionists played an important part in helping the sick get well – and that she was presently engaged in working at the Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge. Cooking at lower temperatures would have meant using less fuel, which would have helped household budgets – therefore Helen’s research would have directly impacted on women’s daily lives.

Cookery students at Kings in the 1930s

She worked closely with Miss Jessie Lindsay, who was head of the Household Arts department, and later became the only woman member of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition for the Ministry of Health. Jessie was also an examiner in sick room cookery, and an expert in dietetics. Together they collaborated on two books. The first, What Every Cook Should Know, appeared in 1932. Rather than being a recipe book, it instead looks at the underlying basic principles of preparing food – handling yeast, how different parts of an animal have different cell structures so behave in disparate ways when heat is applied, commonly observed faults in recipes, and so on. In this sense, the work is far more about the science rather than the art of cookery, and thus goes way beyond the usually assumed remit of housewifery and domestic arts.

Their second book, Modern Cookery for Schools, was published in 1934, and instructed teachers on how best to instruct their students in meal preparation and planning. This was considered a definitive work in the teaching of domestic science, and was a popular tome for many years after publication.

Miss_Jessie_Lindsay,_Head_of_Household_Arts,_1924-1948_(Ref__Q_PH4_7)

Jessie Lindsay, Helen’s co-author and colleague

As for her personal life, Helen never married. She lived with a woman, Margaret, at addresses both in London and a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Margaret worked as an arts auctioneer. There is no indication whether that this was a romantic relationship, and if it was it would have flown mostly under the radar, but it is equally possible that this was a close friendship. There was a marriage bar on female teachers in schools until 1944, and although it depended on the institution whether this applied to female lecturers it often meant that these guidelines were socially followed, and Margaret may have been a close companion rather than a lover. Her mother spent some time in Glasgow, and some time with her sister in Kent, meaning that she was close if Helen needed her. There was also a third member of their village household, an arts master named William, who may have had some connection to either Margaret’s work, or taught at a London university himself alongside Helen.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Helen was still working at Kings College, but referred to herself as a journalist as well as a lecturer, so may well have been contributing to various publications. Kings College and its students was evacuated from London, first going to Cardiff – where Jessie Lindsay can be found on the 1939 register – and then subsequently to Leicester.

Helen did not go with the college, however. She resigned her position to take a role in the newly re-established Ministry of Food, under its first director W S Morrison and then under the more famous Lord Woolton. Using her expertise on nutrition and household economics, she organised a nationwide propaganda campaign on food advice aimed at housewives, and gained a promotion to Head of the Food Advice Division. Much of this advice probably found itself into war-time food leaflets, although these did not bear Helen’s name.

In this new role, amid the introduction of rationing in January 1940, Helen flourished, from all accounts.

It was her personal qualities which gave to her work so great a measure of inspiration,” recalled former colleague Howard Marshall. “She saw in the Food Advice movement an opportunity for service to the community. She realised that the guidance she was able to give to housewives through her Food Advice centres would result in better standards of living.

Her mother died in Kent, in the first year of the war, leaving her effects to Helen. Her father appears to have been dead for quite a while before this, but there is no British record for what happened to him.

However, this job – though it appeared to be a great fit for Helen’s skills and personality – did not last long enough. She died suddenly at her village home in 1942, aged only 44, shocking the staff of the Ministry of Food.

“She was passionately sincere and entirely selfless in her approach to the problems created by war-time conditions,” said Howard Marshall, in letters. “Her humour, her enthusiasm, her wide humanity, and her energy will be sadly missed by all those who were privileged to work with her…. She was, I believe, too modest ever to have known how important her contribution was or how much it was appreciated… I feel as if a light had gone out… The best tribute we can pay to her memory is to continue the service to the community which is represented by Food Advice with our utmost energy.”

Her funeral was quietly held in the village, and her effects were handled by Margaret and a Scottish Writer to the Signet. There was a considerable amount of money that she had accumulated during her life.

Her former colleague Jessie Lindsay resigned her post from Kings College in 1948, though her books continued to be published for many years. She lived to be 100. Margaret lived on in their house until the mid-1970s, dying in her 80s.

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.

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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.

Diana W’s story

Appearing in the UK divorce courts just once in the 1880s was scandalous enough. But three times seems beyond the pale, particularly as one of those appearances was for an accusation of adultery with six different men. But Diana’s life in Victorian London appears slightly more bohemian than most for the time, as were the circles she moved in, and this slight relaxation of what was considered “proper” for that period was found in pockets around the country – Dr Price of Llantrisant, for example.

However, Diana’s life started off conventionally enough. She was the youngest of five daughters born to a journeyman lawyer and his wife in mid-Sussex, in the early 1850s. Her father seems to have worked between jobs in London and Brighton, and all his daughters were sent away to school to be educated – hence he was earning a reasonable living for the time.

The family adopted her mother’s nephew, who was the same age as Diana, and grew up with them. Her elder sisters Ellen and Matilda grew up and left home, the first to be a housemaid in Brighton, and the second to run a boarding house in London. Her sister Eunice died in 1864, when Diana was around 12, and her fourth sister Eliza married a stonemason and moved in next door to her parents.

Diana, however, appears to have started her exploits at an early age. Described as “very young” when this occurred, she eloped out a dormitory window at a school in Holloway, London, with a gentleman and travelled with him to Germany. However, she did not actually marry this man – whose name remains elusive, but lived with him as his wife for a while in Germany. There were two children – the older of which appears to have been fathered by the man she eloped with, but given his mother’s maiden surname – and another born later, possibly to a solicitor. By the age of 20 she was back in the UK, however, and resident at her sister Matilda’s boarding house on Devonshire Street in London. Her son, Henry, born in Halle, Germany, in April of 1872, appears to have lived in that country with friends. The younger child, who was known to exist but not referred to by name, was born later when Diana was living in Pimlico, and its father provided for the child, who lived elsewhere.

In the early 1870s, Diana passed herself off as a widow called Mrs Shelley, but there was no-one in her life called Mr Shelley, and it’s unknown exactly how she supported herself – although she appears to have regularly lived at her sister’s boarding house. Another regular boarder at Matilda’s house was Henry Hyndman, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, and reporter at the time for the Pall Mall Gazette, who was starting to build a political career. This would have meant various learned and diverse visitors to the house where Diana was living. Henry and Matilda were lovers for several years, and married on Valentine’s Day in 1876.

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Matilda’s husband Henry Hyndman

It may be that Matilda’s marriage awakened the same desire in Diana, or that she needed an alternative means of support, as she attempted to find a husband of her own the following summer. To this end, she visited the offices of a publication called Matrimonial News to place an advert for a husband.

It was there, on the stairs of the publication, that she met a widower nearly forty years her senior – John Ambrose. He had also come to the Matrimonial News to place an advert. The two fell talking, and Diana presented herself as a widow with two children – her former husband, she claimed, was from America and had died just before the birth of their second child – and in possession of a considerable amount of money. She also gave a false name and profession for her father.

However, John believed her and they were married in the February of 1877, and honeymooned at the Louvre Hotel in Paris. And it was there that the trouble began. Diana’s lies gradually fell apart, and both of them expressed some extremes of temper. John had previously been a clergyman, but had given it up to become a farmer and held some strong views about religion. They apparently entered a church, and John began verbally abusing the priest. Diana attempted to remove him in vain, and eventually left him and bolted back to the hotel – where he apparently eventually appeared and threatened her with violence when she returned to England. However, John maintained that Diana flirted with all the waiting staff in the hotel, and caused him considerable embarrassment.

Things only got worse when they returned to the UK and lived in John’s rectory seat in Essex. Diana later claimed that after only seven weeks of marriage he started to threaten and beat her, pulling her hair out on one occasion, and making an attempt to break her wrist. In addition, his home was ruled by his long-time housekeeper Ellen, who appears to have resented his new young wife, and helped John keep all kitchen equipment locked up away from Diana, so that she couldn’t even get a cup of tea unless Ellen allowed it. He invited a man called Oliver to live with them, and put everything under his control, so Diana had to ask for permission to do anything in the house. On another occasion she went to Southend for a break, and he followed her there and threatened her.

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However, this state of affairs was not one-sided. John later alleged that Diana had destroyed his books and papers, and china, opened his letters, disturbed family prayers, pawned his property and threatened to kill him. On one occasion she threw a teapot at him. She knocked him over and scratched his face, and pulled his whiskers. And she insisted that he had committed adultery with Ellen and locked them in a room together. On another occasion, she refused to give him sheets for the bed, and he slept without for two nights. And apparently she swore, using “Billingsgate language”.

Violence from either side is a sure sign that a marriage is not working, and should not continue, but it does appear that Diana and John were particularly ill-suited, with little in common and a huge age gap, and each had a temper and gave as good as they got. It was after he apparently beat her up at home in April of 1880 that Diana left him, and went back to her sister’s boarding house.

It was from there, in the summer of 1880, that Diana filed for divorce.

At this time, UK divorce law was unequally weighted towards the man in the relationship. Since the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a man could divorce his wife on grounds of adultery alone, but a woman had to prove both cruelty and adultery on the behalf of her husband to achieve a dissolution. And unfortunately Diana, though she had a great deal of evidence of cruelty, could not prove that John was adulterous. Therefore, she was awarded a judicial separation – a section of the law which meant that the parties were legally separated, and had to live apart, but did not dissolve the marriage. Legislation around divorce only came over from the ecclesiastical courts with the act of 1857, and the religious sanctity of marriage and “to death do us part” still had an influence on the judgements that were made. Many judicial separations were granted at this time, as it was clear to judges in cases of extreme cruelty that parties wishing for divorce couldn’t continue to live together – and this often acted to increase the safety of the women involved. It also meant that they could continue to live with their children. And the estranged husband would have to continue to contribute towards his wife’s upkeep.

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John was therefore ordered to live apart from Diana, and to give her £200 per year, so long as she remained chaste and unmarried. He went back off to Essex, in the company of his niece and nephew and his loyal housekeeper.

Diana, newly released and solvent, found herself a position as a lady’s help in the household of a German Count living in Surrey. Having lived in Germany probably meant that she was fluent in the language and could therefore communicate with her mistress with ease. Once that job finished, she lived at several different addresses in London, including her sister’s boarding house. It was from there that Henry and Matilda founded the Democratic Federation – Britain’s first left wing political party – in 1881. This would have brought Diana into contact with a great many different people, with liberal thinkers of the day almost certainly meeting and socialising at the house. Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member and personal friend of Matilda, as was the artist William Morris. This new political party would have seen itself as progressive, and not in-line with the majority of society of the time, which meant that those associated with it would have considered themselves different to what was thought of as “proper” at the time. The party became the Social Democratic Federation in 1883.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Diana’s next appearance in the divorce courts, in the spring of 1884, involved a charge of adultery with at least six men – John had clearly been watching her movements closely, and had various witnesses and specific dates – as many would have been coming and going to the boarding house. She’d also briefly lived in other places, and he’d found witnesses to her activities at these too, including a street artist. It appears, from this action, that he resented supporting her financially, and was prepared to go to court to end that arrangement.

Of the six men Diana was accused of having relations with, two were struck off by the judge. Another two did not enter any evidence or plea – one, an Argentinian businessman, was in Ireland at the time, and the other, possibly a Goan sailor, was presumably not in the country either. The other two both entered a denial, as did Diana. The most prominent of these, a dress salesman called John, had apparently been observed entering a “private hotel” with her on numerous occasions. The judge in the case decided that the hotel was a brothel, and that both Diana and the dress salesman were lying, and therefore granted the decree nisi.

How Diana supported herself in subsequent years isn’t known, but she appears resourceful and able to get by. There was a rumour that she had been an actress at certain times, so she may have appeared on the stage – though there’s no record of that apparent. She also, like her sisters, went into domestic service – and it’s in this profession that she appears next. The 1891 census finds her as a housekeeper to a grocer, having brought her son Henry – who had taken his ex-stepfather’s surname – over from Germany to live with her.

It may be that the title of housekeeper was a front for what was really going on in the house, as Diana married the grocer – Alexander – in the spring of 1893. He appeared to be a buyer for a larger firm, but also had a reasonable-sized household with several servants so lived comfortably. Diana said on this second marriage that she was a widow. This was technically true, as John had died in 1888, and therefore she could present herself a little more respectably than a divorcee.

However, Diana again filed for divorce only a few months later. The fact that she could afford to take out these proceedings indicates that their financial situation was comfortable. She claimed that on the night before their wedding Alexander had committed adultery with a housemaid named Florence – which appears particularly cruel given he was to marry her the next day. The affair continued through the spring and into the summer. Alexander did not deny the allegations.

Again, as the divorce laws were weighted in favour of men at that time, the judge was unable to end the marriage. Alexander was judged not have raised a hand to Diana, although she did claim some violence in the month before the marriage, and as such she could not end the marriage as one of the two conditions for women – adultery AND something else (cruelty, incest, etc) – was not met. Therefore, the judge threw the case out in the December of 1893, and Diana and Alexander had to stay married and living together. Quite what this meant for the state of their relationship is unknown, but it is doubtful that it was very happy after this.

Henry married in 1899 giving his mother’s first husband as his father – which he clearly wasn’t. He made a living as a florist, and later as a commercial traveller. Diana remained with Alexander at Gower Street in London, and her life seems to have taken a quieter turn.

She took in two illegitimate girls – relatives of her mother – and raised them to adulthood. Alexander gradually took a back seat in the household, and she came to the fore. She ran a boarding house herself, like her sister Matilda – who by this stage was particularly active in the Social Democratic Federation and was involved in a scheme providing free school meals and seaside holidays for poor school children. Unlike Matilda’s establishment, and the private hotel that Diana had once frequented, her boarding house had a full cohort of staff – including Italian waiters – and catered for retired men from the legal profession.

Matilda Hyndman death

Her sister Matilda died in 1913, and the newspapers referred to her as “the mother of socialism” for her activities in the Social Democratic Federation. Henry Hyndman apparently mourned her deeply, but was married again within a year. The fact that she left no diary or letters means that Matilda Hyndman, neé Ware, has virtually been forgotten in the history of the socialist and labour movements in the UK.

As for Diana, the two girls in her charge moved away, and Alexander died in Eastbourne – where they appeared to keep either a town house or a seaside boarding house – towards the end of the First World War. Diana kept going until her 80th year, dying in Surrey in the early 1930s, but living at her house in Eastbourne. She left her money to her son Henry, whose son Emile went on to become a vet.

Mary H’s story

It is a bit of a myth that married women didn’t work in Victorian times – they often did, whether it was acknowledged or not. Unacknowledged roles might be serving behind the bar in the family pub, having their own jobs on a farm, or doing the accounts for her husband’s business. All these would still leave the profession box blank on a census return – the job was their husband’s, and therefore the work was attributed to him.

When it came to acknowledged work, low pay on behalf of their husbands would often mean that married women had to juggle childcare alongside a job, whether it was taking in laundry to make ends meet, or having a more formal role in a factory. However, respectable married women were not supposed to work in polite society – but if you had faced stigma from various different sources all your life, this probably mattered less as to how you saw your place in the community, and you carried on regardless. And this work ethic could help inspire those who came after you.

Mary was a married worker, with 14 children under her belt by the time she’d reached her 40s, and continually worked as a cloth weaver throughout her life. But she probably had faced enough stigma through her earlier life that any censure for working was water off a duck’s back.

The fact that she was a cloth weaver came from her parentage. Her father William had worked as a cloth weaver himself since his early teens, and many of his nearest and dearest worked throughout their lives too, whether they were male or female.

Women-Mill-Workers

Mary was born in Rhydyfelin, South Wales – in modern day Rhondda Cynon Taff, not far from Pontypridd. The cloth industry at that time (late 1850s), in that area, was small. There was one mill, at Upper Boat and Rhydyfelin on the banks of the river Rhondda, which was run by Evan and James James. This had a small workforce, of which Mary’s father William, and possibly her mother Fanny, was part. Evan and James James, though cloth factory owners, are better known as the composers of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or Land of My Fathers, the Welsh National Anthem, and a statue commemorates them in Pontypridd.

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Fanny was William’s third wife. Mary had a living brother from his first marriage, no siblings from his second, and then an older brother – Edward – from his marriage to Fanny. They were joined by sisters – Frances and Sarah, who lived, and Ann, who didn’t. Though William came from Wiltshire and Fanny from Somerset, the family moved around a great deal, going where the work was. They spent time around Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Tiverton and Chard in Somerset, and Cam and Wootton Under Edge in Gloucestershire, but Mary was the only child born in Wales.

Fanny died in 1869, when Mary was around 10, and her father very quickly married a fourth time – to Caroline. Mary gained a step-brother near her own age, and four siblings, all but one who lived.

On the face of it, this appears to be a fairly normal working class childhood for the period, but William’s four wives and the speed with which he mostly married the next after the previous wife’s death could point to something a little out of the ordinary, or even sinister.

Clarity is gained when it becomes more obvious that the family were early converts to Mormonism. William’s brother Samuel had left the Trowbridge area for Utah and Salt Lake City in the early 1850s, and their father Edward and other siblings were also known to have been members of that church. Five years before Mary’s birth there were around 50,000 Mormons in the UK. The earliest establishment of Mormon worship in Wiltshire was in the mid-1840s at Steeple Ashton, just outside Trowbridge, which fits with where the family were based. Mormons, as it was a fairly new faith with different interpretations and customs from established Church of England practices or even non-conformist groups, met a fair amount of suspicion and stigma in their community. At that time the church had not yet renounced polygamy, so it is possible that William and his wives may have had arrangements that were not recognised in the law of the time.

Samuel E. Harding and siblings 001

Growing up in this community, wherever you were based, could not have been easy for Mary and her siblings. Indeed, a great many Mormons emigrated to Utah from the Steeple Ashton area in the later part of the 19th century, having faced persecution. It is therefore no surprise that Mary’s choices in adulthood flew against society’s norms, whether the family needed the money or not.

The family settled at Drynham, to the south of Trowbridge – a town with many cloth mills – during Mary’s teens, and then into the town centre itself. She married Frederick, another weaver, in 1878 when she was around 19. Her father and stepmother and siblings were still in the area at the time, but they shortly emigrated to Utah themselves, leaving Mary behind. Her wedding doesn’t appear to have taken place in Mormon premises, however, as they married in a non-conformist chapel.

Frederick, a cloth worker who had been brought up purely in Wiltshire, does not appear to have either shared Mary’s faith or been particularly wedded to non-conformism. This is evident in that their first son, Thomas, who was well on the way by the time they married, had a Church of England baptism in Trowbridge.

Thomas, Mary’s first born, did not live very long. He was dead within a month of birth. The same fate awaited her second child, Rosa Augusta, who followed just over a year later – though she managed to last three months. Throughout, Mary worked at the clothmill, alongside Frederick.

Her third child, a daughter named Rose, was the first to survive babyhood. By the time of the 1881 census she was 3 months old and living with her parents in a two-up, two down property in the southern part of Trowbridge. Even this early in her babyhood, Mary was working as a woollen spinner, attached to one of the many nearby mills. The next two children, Laura and Frederick, also survived early childhood, but a third daughter – Florence – did not, dying in the winter of 1886 aged around 5 months.

Mary’s husband Frederick died shortly afterwards in early February, aged 32, leaving her cloth work as the only means of support for her and her three children. Another baby, Herbert, followed in the Spring of 1887. Mathematics would indicate that he was not Frederick’s child, since he was born 13 months after his father’s death, but he bore Frederick’s surname. In later life, when he signed up for the marines, he added a year to his age – but since this would put his birth at barely seven months after that of Florence, it does not work out. Exactly who Herbert’s father was is lost to time.

Around a year later, Mary’s daughters Rose and Laura enter the Union Workhouse at nearby Semington. Day books of entries have not survived, so their records of entry come from the workhouse school. It seems likely that Mary also entered, along with sons Frederick and Herbert, who were too young for schooling, but no record survives of this. To have at least some of the family in the workhouse means that she was struggling financially to keep going.

semington workhouse

Four years later though, Mary had come to Chippenham to work in the Waterford Cloth Mill there and can be found on the 1891 census. Her two surviving sons were with her, but her daughters were not. Both still remained in the workhouse, and had been baptised from there too. In addition, there was a new baby, Walter, from her second husband Jacob – another worker at the cloth mill. However, there is no formal record of their marriage evident. Jacob had also been married before – his first wife Elizabeth died in 1888 – and Mary inherited six step-children. Despite a new baby, she was still working in the cloth mill. The fact that both daughters were still in the workhouse meant that there was not enough money coming in to support their upkeep.

After Walter she had five more children, taking her personal total of pregnancies to fourteen and her combined total with Jacob’s first family included to twenty children. The first was Florence, then Wilfrid (named after her brother, and who only lived a few months) then Wilfred, Lily, Ernest and William. William, the youngest, born in 1902 when she was around 43, again did not survive early childhood. So, although Mary had given birth to fourteen children, she had only nine that lived past infancy.

Throughout all these pregnancies Mary continued to work in the cloth mill. One of her earlier daughters, Laura, came to live with the new family and worked at the nearby condensed milk factory. The other from the workhouse seems to disappear – but may have been known as Annie rather than Rose, so may be in records under a different name. Jacob, who was also a hard worker, also sometimes worked at the cloth mill, but in addition worked as a carter for a local coal merchant. He is known to have been quite politically active, taking his children to see future Prime Minister Lloyd George speak in around 1903. His father was also living on the same street, which was known for poor quality housing that would often flood on the ground floor when the river was high, so it is possible that he helped out with childcare for Mary and Jacob’s children. Most of the children worked in local industries as they grew up – the cloth mill, and the milk factory invariably.

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In 1910, at the age of 53, Mary died. Her daughters Florence and Laura therefore took on much of the household and care for the children, as Jacob continued to work for another three years until his own death. Two of her sons were killed in the First World War, and the rest of her children all worked hard throughout their lives – mostly around Chippenham. It’s her daughter Florence that is best remembered however, being extremely active around workers rights, and an eventual president of the TUC. She was later made a Dame.