The epitaph reads:
In Loving Memory of my dear wife STELLA LAVINIA SPENCER born in England March 9th 1884 died April 14th 1930 age 46. Her nobility of soul was shown as an an ideal wife and in her endeavours for the welfare of others. A pioneer and tireless worker for the social and political emancipation of women. Poetess and artist whose devotion to the good and the beautiful was the constant striving of her life. Even in adversity.
I recently had an enquiry, emanating from Uruguay, as to whether I knew of Stella Lavinia Spencer, who had died in Montevideo in 1930, was buried in the city’s British Cemetery, and had, perhaps, been a suffragette. Well, the short answer was ‘No’ – the name rang no bells – but a quick search showed that a Stella Lavinia Spencer was indeed listed in the Roll of Honour compiled by the Suffragette Fellowship. So the hare was ready to be chased.
Identifying her as a possible suffragette was the easy bit. The attempt to untangle the identity of Stella Lavinia Spencer has been a good deal more complicated. No-one of that name appears in the list of ‘Suffragettes Arrested’ compiled by the Home Office, nor does she appear on any census. It is obvious from the wording on the tombstone that ‘Spencer’ was her married name and the Probate Register revealed that her husband’s name was ‘Alberto John Spencer’. So the hunt was on to establish her maiden name.
One would have thought that, with the relatively unusual forenames of ‘Stella Lavinia’ and a firm birth date of 1884, this wouldn’t be difficult. But, in fact, no-one of those names appears to have been born in England (or anywhere else) in 1884. Was she perhaps a child registered before her parents had selected her name? It’s possible. Or could she have refashioned herself, selecting names more appealing than those with which she had been furnished by her parents? Again, a possibility. There’s probably a quite straightforward reason for her absence from the various registers, civil or ecclesiastical, but, if so, I haven’t found it.
However, thanks to a general Google search for ‘Stella Lavinia Spencer’ I encountered an article (‘You Are Not a White Woman’) by James Heartfield (The Journal of Pacific History, vol 38, no 1, 2003) which sketched something of my quarry’s biography – as well as telling a rather riveting story. The article concerns the trial in Fiji in 1915 of Stella Spencer, which makes clear that she was by now married. But it turns out that ‘Spencer’ was not her husband’s family name; ‘Alberto John Spencer’ was originally ‘Alberto John Sangorski’. This was a surname I knew very well, as Sangorski and Sutcliffe was the leading firm of ‘art’ bookbinders in England at the beginning of the 20th century. Research quickly revealed that Stella’s husband, Alberto Spencer, was the son of Alberto Sangorski, renowned as the firm’s illuminator and calligrapher.
Anyway, armed with this new knowledge, I was now able to search for the marriage of Alberto Sangorski and, sure enough, found that he had married in Kensington in the summer of 1910. But even now matters were complicated by a quirk in the listing on the register that didn’t make clear the name of his bride. I won’t bore you with the ramifications of my further searches but only say that I finally decided that a likely candidate was a ‘Stella L. Mahny’. Needless to say I could find no other record of a woman with that rather unlikely surname, but with this faint lead I returned to the ‘Suffragettes Arrested’ register and discovered that a ‘Stella O’Mahoney’ had been tried in Westminster on 1 July 1908. Without the tedious unravelling of the link to the Spencer surname I could not have been certain that I had the right ‘Stella’. But I am sure now that I have.
And what was it that she had done to merit arrest? Votes for Women (9 July 1908) reported that, on 30 June 1908, Miss Stella O’Mahoney had taken part in a demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union in the vicinity of the House of Commons and that, with 26 other WSPU members, had been arrested. She was ordered to give a surety of £20 not to take part in any other militant activity, but refused, and was instead sentenced to a month’s imprisonment in Holloway. At the trial she gave her address as that of the WSPU office, 4 Clement’s Inn, so, once again, I could get no closer to her.
There is no other record I can find of Stella O’Mahoney’s involvement with the WSPU but I would presume that she had been a member both before and after this incident. However, a couple of years later, soon after her marriage, she and Alberto set off for Australia, landing in Sydney on 17 November 1910.
The Heartfield article mentions that Stella Spencer had worked as a journalist, but I have been unable to find any articles written by her. The tombstone describes her as a poet and an artist, but, yet again, I can find no trace of her work in any medium.
So, Stella Spencer would remain something of an enigma were it not for the reasons behind her trial in Fiji in March 1915 that James Heartfield reveals in his article. She had arrived with her husband from Melbourne about seven months earlier because he had been employed in a new venture, the Fiji Produce Agency. This organisation had been set up as a means for Fijians to market their own produce, in competition with European traders. The background rivalry, both economic and political, was complicated, but the upshot was that Stella Spencer stood trial, accused of slapping a Fijian in the face. He was a henchman of the European faction and had accused her of being ‘a bad woman’, the implication being that she was sexually involved with a Fijian. The ensuing trial – of a white woman accused of assaulting a Fijian – was remarkable, motivated not from a desire to protect Fijians, but to punish those Europeans who failed to observe the policy of separation from the indigenous population.
Stella Spencer was found guilty but apparently, Heartfield reports, did not have sufficient funds to pay the fine levied and was, therefore, imprisoned. I have no evidence whatsoever for querying this, but did just wonder if, as in 1908, it was rather that she had refused to pay a fine. It seems very surprising that no funds could be mustered if she had been minded to pay. Stella then went on hunger strike, perhaps in emulation of the suffragette stratagem, adopted subsequent to her 1908 imprisonment. However, she abandoned the hunger strike after four days and wrote to the governor asking for passage to Melbourne for herself and her husband. This was granted at the end of April 1915. I don’t know when and why she and Alberto eventually made their home in Montevideo but he remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1954, twenty years after Stella, and is buried in the same cemetery.
It is not difficult to detect a parallel between Stella Spencer’s interest in the emancipation of women and that of improving the lot of the native population of Fiji. Whatever her background, she was clearly imbued with a spirit of rebellion
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