Archive for category Lock-Down Research

Lockdown Research: Switching The Lens – And Discovering William Antonio, A Black Butler

Original page containing the baptismal entry for William Antonio, 17 March 1833

I recently noticed that the London Metropolitan Archives has launched a new database – Switching the Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1561 to 1840. This is an aspect of history that captured my imagination some time ago [ see, for instance, Suffrage Stories: Black And Minority Ethnic Women: Is There A ‘Hidden History’?]  and I was interested to see whether this new database would make the uncovering of individual histories any more possible. Through the centuries there have always been some men and women of BAME heritage living in Britain whose lives have, for one reason or another, been recorded in some degree of detail; the great majority, however, have hitherto remained untraceable. I gave details of the Switching the Lens website in my previous post and can now tell something of another life I encountered there, represented by a single entry in the database.

This image at the head of this post is, in fact, the first record of William Antonio’s baptismal entry in the register of St Peter’s Church, Regent Square, in the northern section of Bloomsbury, London. For whatever reason, the whole page was amended and in the process the entry for William Antonio was slightly altered.

Amended page containing the baptismal entry for William Antonio, 17 March 1833

As you’ll notice, the original entry described William Antonio as ‘a slave’. That epithet was removed when the entry was finalised, although I doubt that was the reason for the page being rewritten.

At the time of his baptism William, who was born of unknown parents in Africa, though where we do not know, was reckoned to be about 27 years old, indicating a birth c. 1806. His age and, of course, that date varied a little in the censuses taken over subsequent years and when he died in 1868 his birth date was estimated as 1808.

As you will see, at the time of his baptism William Antonio was living as a servant in a house in Wellington Square, now demolished but then very close to the church in Regent Square. Although we don’t know for which family he was then working, in 1841 he can be found on the census as the only live-in manservant in the home of James Fordati in Upper Bedford Place, Bloomsbury. In the years between his baptism and the 1841 census he had married ,the wedding having taken place in 1834 at St Giles in the Fields. The bride was a widow, Mary McDonald, and the marriage register reveals that neither party could write. However, by the time of the next census in 1851 William Antonio is now a widower, although I cannot find a record of the death of his wife.

It would seem that for at least some of his marriage William Antonio lived in the home of his master and, presumably, his wife lived elsewhere as she is not recorded in the 1841 census for the Fordati household, However, the 1841 census gives no indication of marital status and it could, of course, be that she was already dead. James Fordati was a general merchant living, with his young family, in a Bloomsbury town house, close to Russell Square.

By 1851 William Antonio had moved households. On census night, however, he was not in post but was a visitor in the home of Robert Whurl, a tailor, at 2 Colbridge Place, which appears to have been a section of Westbourne Park Road, Paddington. William Antonio is described as a widower, aged 34, born in Africa, and by occupation a butler. My supposition is that he may at this time been butler in the household of Anselmo de Arroyave, a merchant living at ‘7 Palace Gardens, Paddington’, now known as 7 Kensington Palace Gardens. For, although on census night a manservant and a page were present in that house, no butler is recorded. It was most definitely a household that would require the services of a butler and my deduction is that this merely happened to be William’s night off.

I am making the suggestion that William Antonio was by 1851 a member of de Arroyave’s household based on a reading of his will, dated 21 September 1868, four days before his death. By this document William Antonio left a number of items he prized to Anselmo de Arroyave, his ‘old master’, and other members of the family. This, I feel, indicates a very close association with this particular family over a considerable period of time.

So, to recap, we know that in 1841 William Antonio was a manservant in a merchant’s household in Upper Bedford Place and that by 1851 his position had been elevated to ‘butler’, probably to the de Arroyave family. I know that in 1843 the de Arroyaves were living in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, and my guess is that it was around this time that William Antonio changed masters. I feel it would have been unlikely that he would otherwise have looked for a new situation outside the area of London with which he had, for at least ten years, been familiar.

6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens

The de Arroyaves moved to 7 Palace Gardens in 1847, as the first occupiers of the grand, stuccoed house that is now part of the Russian Embassy. And then in 1852/4 de Arroyave built 9 Palace Garden, a similarly imposing pile, into which the family moved. A butler would have played a very important part in running a house such as this; William Antonio was clearly a man o’parts. It might have been fashionable for an owner of a grand London house to employ a black page or footman, considering them a decorative asset, but I’m sure a butler would only have been appointed on his merits.

But it is clear that, however well-positioned he was as a butler in a wealthy household, William Antonio had a dream of becoming independent. For by 1861 he had left a life ‘in service’ and set himself up. the census tells us, as a ‘bath chairman’. He had moved only a very short walk away from Palace Gardens and was now living at 10 Royal Hill, the name then of the southernmost stretch of Queensway, leading down to Bayswater Road. William Antonio was now a lodger in the home of Charles Pendal (sometimes spelled Pendall), a trunk maker, and his wife, Matilda. He had, presumably, saved sufficient money to purchase at least one bath chair, offering his services to those sufficiently incapacitated as to require some vehicular assistance.

A 19th-century bath chair

William Antonio had picked a good position from which to carry out his new business – situated as he was just across the road from Kensington Gardens. One can imagine that a bath chairman would be much in demand with invalids (so plentiful in the mid-19th century) wishing to take a breath of fresh Kensington air. In fact, his business did prosper, enabling him to purchase a second bath chair and, presumably, employ another man as a chair pusher.

Until a few days before his death we know no more of William Antonio, other than at some point after 1861 he moved to 85 Moscow Road, a few minutes walk away from Kensington Gardens. The house was multi-tenanted and it is doubtful that he occupied more than one room. He did, however, value his few possessions and took great care, on his deathbed, to apportion them to those he esteemed.

The first few lines of his will deal with items he is leaving to members of the de Arroyave family. Just to give a little background: Anselmo de Arroyave (1778-1869) was a merchant, born in Spain and naturalised in Britain in 1833. By his second marriage (his first wife had died young) he had four daughters who survived infancy. One incident in his long life is particularly apposite in connection to William Antonio’s circumstances for in 1843 de Arroyave was one of several character witnesses for the defendant in the trial at the Old Bailey of another Spanish-born British merchant, Pedro de Zulueta, who was charged with slave-trading. Zulueta was, in the event, acquitted, but there was a general feeling that this was only because of the difficulty of proving his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. And the doubt seems to have most certainly been there in the minds of anti-slavery campaigners, such as Thomas Clarkson, who cross-examined de Arroyave as to the extent and nature of his support for Zulueta.

But, whatever the rights or wrongs of that trial, there is no doubt that de Arroyave was held in considerable regard by his one-time butler, himself a former slave. For in his will William Antonio left de Arroyave ‘my watch and appendages’ and to Mrs de Arroyave ‘one of my Bath Chairs’. To the former Inez de Arroyave, now Mrs Travers, the youngest daughter of the family, he left ‘one gold pin’, to Major Puget, the husband of another daughter, Florence, he left ‘one gold pin and two scarves‘, and to another daughter, Georgiana, he left a ‘silk umbrella’. I do hope these bequests were received in the spirit in which they were given. William Antonio’s estate was valued at under £100; when Anselmo de Arroyave died the following year he left the equivalent of £2 million.

William Antonio itemised many other of his possessions, for instance leaving his ‘pictures, window blind and wash stand’ to ‘Mr Casey’, who I think must be Henry Casey, gas fitter, who in 1871 was living at 85 Moscow Road. The executor of the will was William Jackson, a watchmaker, who lived at 2 Queens Road (that is, Queensway), and to him was left £10 and a ‘frock coat and plaid scarf‘, and to his daughter, ‘the cane armchair’. Other names are mentioned, but they are either too common or else the legal hand has rendered them too illegible for me to be able to identify them with any certainty. After all the bequests, William Antonio asked one of the women mentioned ‘to dispose of [the residue] in charitable purposes’. By the tone of the will it would appear that William Antonio took a quiet satisfaction in remembering his friends and patrons. The will, signed only with his mark, as he obviously never did learn to write, is a testament to the life of a survivor, a man who emerged out of slavery and then out of ‘service’ to lead an independent life.

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Lockdown Research: Switching the Lens:Beyond Elizabeth Purves

In my previous post, ‘Discovering Elizabeth Purves’, I described something of the life of the Anglo-Indian daughter of Richardson Purves, who, c. 1806, having made his fortune in India, had brought her with him when he returned to England. While undertaking this research I was intrigued to discover that he had left behind at his indigo plantation in Tirhoot a man named John Purves, who had been listed in the New East India Kalendars for 1801 and 1804 as being in his employ. I thought it might be interesting to see what I could find about this branch of the Purves family, for it really would be too extraordinary if John Purves, who records show had arrived in India in 1797 specifically to assist Richardson Purves at Tirhoot, were not related to him in some way.

What I do know is that John Purves did remain in Tirhoot as an indigo planter, dying there in 1820. In the accounts drawn up after his death there is note of a payment to be made to ‘Bebee Razoo’, ‘bebee’ or ‘bibi’ being the term for an indigenous female companion/mistress. This is the only entry for a payment to an Indian woman. As I noted in my previous post, the name of Elizabeth Purves’ mother was rendered on the entry in the St Giles Cripplegate baptismal register as ‘Rajoo’. I did just wonder if that could have been a mis-transcription and perhaps the name should have been ‘Razoo’ (the name in John Purves’ accounts is written with a long tail to the ‘z’). That is, could the woman who appears as a payee in the 1820 accounts of John Purves be the mother of Elizabeth, the payment an indication of long-term maintenance ? Or, after Richardson’s departure, could she have then become the ‘bebee’ of John Purves? Or was she, perhaps, ‘bebee’ to John Purves, but an entirely different woman? Well, as usual with these attempts to peer behind the curtain that separates us from a different time and a different culture, who knows?

However, digging into the digitized India Office records I did find further evidence of the continuing existence of members of the Purves family in Bengal. For there is an entry for the baptism in 1825 of Mary, ‘daughter of John Purves, indigo planter, and a native mother’. There is no other mention at this time in the records of any John Purves other than the indigo planter at Tirhoot and I think it is safe to assume that the father of Mary is the man who was in the employ of Richardson Purves twenty years earlier.

John Purves died intestate so an inventory of his goods, as compiled for auction after his death, is the only surviving record of his life, providing a fascinating insight into the goods with which an indigo planter was surrounded. His extensive library, in particular, interested me. How did one amuse oneself in Tirhoot in the first decades of the 19th c? Why, by reading the Spectator, Edinburgh Review, Blackstone’s Commentaries, Smollett’s Works, Godwin’s Political Justice, Sporting Magazine, Debrett’s Peerage, Poems of Ossian, Smith’s Wealth of the Nations, Swift’s works, Farley’s Cookery etc etc – and numerous Voyages, Gazetteers and atlases. The household inventory does not, however, make any reference to Mary or any other child.

Seven years later the accounts drawn up, in a similar fashion, after the death of another Tirhoot indigo planter, Edward Egerton, do reveal something further about members of the Purves Indian diaspora. The first thing to note is that an 1829 announcement in the London Gazette discloses that one of the two men nominated as Egerton’s next-of-kin was his uncle ‘in England’, Richardson Purves. And, secondly, Edward Egerton’s accounts mention sums paid for the board and tuition of Miss Mary Purves, Mr William Purves, Mr James Egerton, and Miss Fanny Egerton. Extrapolation leads me to surmise that Edward Egerton was a relation of the late John Purves and, since his death, had been charged with care of his children.

I have explained that I’m pretty certain of the parentage of Mary Purves, who must have been born sometime before the death of John Purves in 1820, but what of William Purves? I can find no record of his birth or baptism but from the record of his death at Allahabad in 1870 I think we was born c 1812/1813 and, because he is recorded in Egerton’s accounts alongside Mary Purves, I cannot help thinking he must be her brother, another child of John Purves and ‘a native mother’. There is no record of John Purves having been married to a European woman.

Edward Egerton’s accounts reveal that in the early months of 1828 Mary Purves and Fanny Egerton received board and tuition from a Mrs M. Moore, but that, after November 1828, their care was transferred to Theophilus Reichardt. A little research showed that he was the Rev Reichardt, who had been born in Wurttemberg, trained in Basle, and had arrived in Calcutta in 1822 as a missionary under the aegis of the Church Missionary Society for India and the East. This was the society to which Richardson Purves and his family were generous donors. However, just at the time when he undertook the tuition of Mary and Fanny, Reichardt had left the Mission after a disagreement. He and his wife had then, as his obituary in the Calcutta Christian Observer (1836) reported, ‘entered upon the conduct of a seminary for young ladies in the city [Calcutta] where ‘he spared no toil, no pains, no watchfulness, to promote the improvement and comfort of his young charges’. I was pleased to note that the obituarist particularly mentions that ‘his was no stinted board at which his pupils fed sparingly’. Reichardt clearly remained close to Fanny Egerton for in the records of her marriage in Calcutta Cathedral in 1835 he stood as her ‘Next Friend’.

In 1840 Mary Purves married Richard Thaddeus Rutter and had two daughters – Mary, 1844, and Ellen, 1848. James Egerton was born in 1821, the son of James Egerton, an indigo planter. This information comes from his baptismal record, a ceremony he undertook late in life, in 1862. For this record he chose to give his father’s name, but not his mother’s. I think this indicates that he was certainly illegitimate and I am assuming that, therefore, his mother was Indian. I can find no trace of Fanny Egerton’s birth or baptism, but suspect she was sister to James. Her husband, Edmund Watterton Johnson, died in 1839. She had one son, born in 1837 and named for his father. She never remarried and died in 1872.

Edward Egerton’s accounts show that c.1828 young William Purves and James Egerton were receiving board and tuition from ‘Messrs Drummond and Wilson’. David Drummond was a Scotsman whose Calcutta school, Dhurmotollah Academy, offered the best English education, open to both European and mixed-race boys. Equipped with this excellent education William Purves entered government service, rising to become Registrar of the Board of Revenue in Allahabad. He married Harriette Ereth and had a numerous family, among whom the names ‘Richardson’ and ‘Egerton’ are threaded. One son, Robert Egerton Purves (1859-1943) became a renowned hydraulic engineer in the Punjab. I suspect that an effort was made to eliminate knowledge of an Indian ancestor; in his ‘Who’s Who’ entry Robert Egerton Purves merely described his parentage as ‘European’. He retired to England in the mid-1920s, bringing his family ‘home’ and ending an involvement with India that had lasted c 120 years. Although accompanied by children, unlike Richardson Purves he had made no fortune.

I daresay this post seems a little pointless, a good deal being, if not guesswork, then informed conjecture. But I have found the research instructive; on the way I’ve read something about the place of indigo in the 18th and 19thc Indian economy, the way in which the indigo factories were managed, and gleaned something of the position of those then known as ‘Eurasians’ and now as ‘Anglo-Indians’. Although I have absolute proof of the mixed parentage of Mary Purves, I cannot be sure of that of William Purves, or of Fanny and James Egerton. But it has been interesting attempting to unravel the truth. I wonder if Elizabeth Purves, an illegitimate Anglo-Indian living in England, knew anything of relations in India? There is a fascination about lives lived on the cusp of two civilisations.

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Lockdown Research: Switching The Lens – And Discovering Elizabeth Purves

Baptism of Elizabeth Purves at St Giles, Cripplegate, on 28 August 1807.

I recently noticed that the London Metropolitan Archives has launched a new database – Switching the Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1561 to 1840. This is an aspect of history that captured my imagination some time ago [ see, for instance, Suffrage Stories: Black And Minority Ethnic Women: Is There A ‘Hidden History’?]  and I was interested to see whether this new database would make the uncovering of individual histories any more possible. Through the centuries there have always been some men and women of BAME heritage living in Britain whose lives have, for one reason or another, been recorded in some degree of detail; the great majority, however, have hitherto remained untraceable. I gave details of the Switching the Lens website in my previous post and can now tell something of another life I encountered there, represented by a single entry in the database.

This entry in the St Giles baptism register tells us that Elizabeth Purves, born on 19 October 1799, was the daughter of ‘Richardson Purves, Merchant, and Rajoo, a Native of Hindostan’. But what is her story?

Richardson Purves, born c1764, perhaps in Scotland, was by 1789 an employee of the East India Company working in Bengal. By 1797 he was overseeing the Company’s indigo works at Patnah (now Patna, capital of Bihar province). Indigo was a very lucrative product and by 1801 Purves had established himself as an indigo planter at Tirhoot (450km from Patna). He remained there until about 1806 but then ‘retired to England with a considerable fortune derived from the indigo manufacturies’ (as quoted in a footnote in Singh, History of Tirhoot, 1922).

A view from ‘Middleton’s Complete System of Geography’, 1779

So it was as a nabob that, after c 17 years in the East, Purves returned, accompanied not only by a fortune but also by a 7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. We know nothing of her mother other than the one name ‘Rajoo’, which was probably her surname. As in the case of Africa-born Eliza Herbert, we don’t know for certain whether Elizabeth Purves’ mother had died, or whether, when the child’s father decided to return to England, she had felt compelled to part with her daughter. However, in such cases it is obvious that the contest was unequal; the wealthy European father held all the cards. In my next post I will attempt to shine a tiny glimmer of light on the situation, over two hundred years ago, at Tirhoot after the departure of Richardson Purves. But I think it is incontestable, and is as poignant now as then, that Elizabeth was old enough when she sailed from India to carry with her clear memories of her mother, whom she would never again see.

It would appear that Richardson Purves was a diligent father, wasting little time after his arrival in England in arranging the baptism of his daughter. She could, of course, have been baptised in India but, for whatever reason, he had waited until the ceremony could be conducted in London. Because I have been unable to uncover reliable details of his parentage I cannot guess why he chose ‘Elizabeth’ as her name. It would have been interesting to know if it was a family name, his mother’s perhaps.

Three years later, on 24 October 1808, Richardson Purves married Jane Hyde (1781-1853) in St Margaret Pattens, Eastcheap. At the time he was a resident in the parish of St James, Clerkenwell, and it is to be presumed that young Elizabeth had been living with him since their return from India. Richardson Purves proceeded to father two legitimate daughters, Jane in 1810 and Frances in 1813. The latter was born in the family’s town house in Bedford Place, Bloomsbury, they moved later to Harley Street. With his Indian fortune Richardson Purves had also purchased a large estate, Sunbury Place, at Sunbury-on-Thames. That house, now known as Sunbury Court, still stands, owned for the last 100 years by the Salvation Army.

Sunbury Place, shortly before it was bought by Richardson Purves (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum)

There were, of course, no censuses during the first third of the 19th century to give us proof that Elizabeth Purves was living with the rest of the family, but I believe she was. She certainly acted in concert with the other members, included, along with Mrs Jane Purves, Miss Jane Purves, and Miss Frances Purves, as a generous donor to a number of worthy causes, such as the Anti-Slavery Reporter (1831), to which she gave a two-year donation of four guineas, and to the Church Missionary Society to Africa and the East.

In 1841, when the first census was taken, Elizabeth Purves is listed at home with the rest of the family in their Harley Street house. However, when, in 1848, Richardson Purves died he made no mention of Elizabeth in his will, while going to considerable lengths to settle money on the unmarried daughters of another family, the Boldings. I have been unable to establish why this was but there must have been some underlying family or business connection that resists my attempts to tease it out. Provision must have been made for Elizabeth Purves in some arrangement that lay outside the terms of her father’s will because there is no suggestion whatsoever of anything other than that she was a completely integrated member of his family. When the 1851 census was taken Elizabeth is a ‘visitor’ at Sunbury Place, living there with the two Janes, her stepmother and half-sister. But yet again, when the senior Jane Purves died in 1853 there is no mention of Elizabeth in her will.

The mid-1850s saw the marriages of both Purves half-sisters. They were now in their mid-fifties and I had wondered if illegitimacy and her Indian heritage had hindered Elizabeth’s marriage prospects – but Jane, too, despite what I know to be her sizeable inheritance, had, for whatever reason, not married before now. Thus, on 4 July 1855 Jane Purves married a widower, Alexander Beattie, and on 31 July 1856 Elizabeth Purves married John Parker Bolding, widower of Mary* (nee Richardson). Mary’s brother, William Richardson, was the husband of Eleanor, John Bolding’s sister, at whose wedding Richardson Purves had been a witness. It is obvious that the Bolding, Richardson, and Purves families (very much including Elizabeth) had been closely entwined over a period of many years.

Elizabeth Purves was married in the parish church at Tunbridge Wells, the witnesses being Elizabeth Bolding (John’s sister) and Sidney Roper Curzon. Both Elizabeth Bolding and the Beatties lived in Tunbridge Wells, Elizabeth Bolding at Osborne House and the Beatties at Sunbury Place (presumably named in honour of Jane’s former home) and it was presumably with one or the other that Elizabeth Purves was staying at the time of her marriage. The Hon Sidney Roper Curzon, son of the 14th Baron Teynham, was the husband of the bride’s half-sister, Frances. I imagine that Richardson Purves, the nabob, was gratified that one of his daughters had married into the aristocracy, albeit into its lower echelons.

John Parker Bolding was a solicitor and the couple, with his three young children, lived for a time in Croydon, in a house named ‘Eversholt Lodge’. Eversholt in Bedfordshire was the parish in which John Bolding had been born and where his father had held an estate [see here for more about the Bolding family]. They later moved to 3 Bromfield Gardens, Richmond where, in 1888, John Parker Bolding died.

Sometime after Elizabeth moved to a house in Cambridge Road, Norbiton, a few minutes’ walk from the home, ‘Norbiton Place, London Road, of her widowed half-sister Frances. Elizabeth, supported by a cook and a parlour maid, lived alone, dying there in 1898. She left over £14,000, her executors being her stepson and the two stepsons of her half-sister Jane. Frances when she died shortly after, left only something over £200. Aristocratic connections had presumably proved expensive.

It was not, perhaps, unusual for a man in Richardson Purves’ position to choose to bring his child by an Indian woman back to England, but it would appear that the great majority of the offspring of such relationships did remain in India after the father’s departure. Moreover, a brief survey of the literature available to me (during a period when I cannot access a library) leads me to the conclusion that Elizabeth Purves was more fully integrated into her father’s subsequent family than many other mixed-race children. (See, for instance, here). This could have been a factor of wealth – Richardson Purves could certainly afford to support his illegitimate daughter – but it also must have been a matter of temperament.

Although Richardson Purves made his fortune in India and then returned ‘home’, there were certainly members of the East India Company connected to him wo continued to live and work in India in the second half of the 19th century and early years of the 20th. I wonder if Elizabeth Purves knew anything about them? I will do what I can in my next blog to follow the shadows they have cast, as revealed in documents created in India in the 19th century.

*UPDATE: Not that it’s particularly relevant to the life of Elizabeth Purves, but I’ve now worked out that Mary Richardson (her husband’s first wife) was a cousin of John Ruskin and from the age of 15, after her mother’s death, until her marriage to John Parker Bolding, lived with the Ruskin family in Herne Hill. Ruskin’s father, John James Ruskin, was brother to Jessie Richardson, Mary’s mother.

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Lockdown Research: Who Unfurled The Manchester ‘First In The Fight’ WSPU Banner?

Manchester WSPU Banner,, c. 1908

A reader of this blog has asked me to confirm who was the ‘Mrs Rachel Scott’ who unfurled the ‘First in the Fight’ Manchester WSPU banner in 1908.

You will remember that I wrote here about the discovery of the banner and the subsequent appeal that resulted in it being acquired by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. In that piece I wrote that I suspected that the woman given the honour of unfurling the banner was the Mrs Rachel Scott who had been the WSPU’s first honorary secretary, rather than Rachel Scott, wife of C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian. And, of course, the merest further investigation showed that it was indeed Mrs ‘Secretary’ Scott who had unfurled the banner – not least because Mrs C.P. Scott had died three years earlier, in 1905.

But my enquirer was still interested in finding out something of Mrs Rachel Scott, the ‘unfurler’….so I have done a little delving. For, although her name has often been mentioned in studies of the early days of the WSPU, she has not, as far as I can see, hitherto been credited with a real life.

I can report that she was born Rachel Lovett in Chorlton, Lancashire, in 1863, one of the many (at least 9) children of Thomas Lovett and his wife, Elizabeth. Her father was a labourer in the oilcloth industry and in 1871 the family was living next to the Marsden oilcloth factory at Canal Side, Newton Heath. Rachel’s older sisters became weavers or winders as soon as, aged 14, they left school. However, the 1881 census shows that Rachel had escaped this fate and, aged 17, was working as a pupil teacher. She presumably continued teaching until her marriage in 1890 to Henry (Harry) Charles David Scott, the son of a schoolmaster. Harry was at this time described as a ‘cashier’ but by 1901, when the family, now with four children, was living at 5 Duncan Street, Broughton, he was ‘managing director of an engineering firm’. In fact, he worked for the Manchester firm of Royles for most of his life, becoming chairman of the board of directors. At the turn of the 20th century he was a strong supporter of The Clarion, the socialist newspaper, and was a member of the Independent Labour party, paying the rent of the Party’s Manchester meeting room.

For we know it was through the Manchester ILP that Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst encountered Rachel Scott, who was one of the women she invited to the meeting at her house in Nelson Street, Manchester, on 10 October 1903, at which the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded. Mrs Scott was appointed the WSPU’s first secretary and had a letter published in the 30 October 1903 issue of The Clarion alerting fellow Socialists to the existence of this new organisation and appealing ‘to all women Socialists to join in this movement to press upon party and community the urgent need of giving to women the vote, that they may take their share of the vote for social emancipation’.

Rachel Scott maintained her involvement with the Manchester WSPU for some years, noted as present at various meetings and demonstrations, for instance appearing on Platform 12 at the WSPU Hyde Park demonstration of Sunday 21 June 1908 (described in Votes for Women, 18 June 1908, as ‘well-known as a capable speaker and hard worker in the Manchester district’) and, of course, was singled out to present the banner to the Manchester WSPU on 20 June 1908, the day before the Hyde Park meeting. The banner hadn’t been ready in time to be unfurled with others in the Queen’s Hall in London.

Rachel Scott was on the platform at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 19 January 1909 when Christabel Pankhurst received a rapturous welcome but I get the impression that after this she rather fades from view, perhaps less interested as it became clear that the WSPU was no longer a supporter of the socialist movement with which, in 1909, she was still actively involved. Certainly, she did not boycott the 1911 census and was at home (‘Arrandale’, Crofts Bank Road, Urmston) on census night with her husband and by now five children. Her eldest son was a ‘student of chemistry’, another was an ‘engineering apprentice’, and a third was a clerk. The other two children were still at school.

One of Rachel’s sisters was living with the family in 1911, as she appears to have done all their married life. Another of Rachel’s sisters died that year but had previously worked as a superintendent in the ‘Imbecile Wards’ of the Crumpsall (Manchester) Workhouse. Yet another sister had for a time been employed as a nurse in the same workhouse. Presumably both positions had been an improvement on the sisters’ earliest employment in the cotton industry. Doubtless both from her own experience and that of her sisters Rachel Scott was well apprised of the state of the poor and afflicted and had hoped that the WSPU would be a means of improving their lot. She may have become disillusioned.

Rachel Scott died in 1925. Of her sons, one was killed during the First World War, one became an analytical chemist, another an engineer designer, and the fourth emigrated to Australia. Her daughter married, but died in 1935. Harry, still a director of Royles, was appointed a magistrate in 1931 and died in 1937.

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Lockdown Research: Stella Spencer, Suffragette: From Holloway To Montevideo

Tombstone of Stella Lavinia Spencer in the British Cemetery, Montevideo, Uruguay
(photo courtesy David Rennie)

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


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement



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Lockdown Research: Switching The Lens – And Discovering Eliza Catherine Herbert


I recently noticed that the London Metropolitan Archives has launched a new database – Switching the Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1561 to 1840. This is an aspect of history that captured my imagination some time ago [ see, for instance, Suffrage Stories: Black And Minority Ethnic Women: Is There A ‘Hidden History’?]  and I was interested to see whether this new database would make the uncovering of individual histories any more possible. Through the centuries there have always been some men and women of BAME heritage living in Britain whose lives have, for one reason or another, been recorded in some degree of detail; the great majority, however, have hitherto remained untraceable. I gave details of the Switching the Lens website in my previous post and can now tell something of another life I encountered there, represented by a single entry in the database.

Above we see the entry for the baptism of:

‘Eliza Catherine Herbert, illegitimate daughter of Henry Bennett Herbert, Secretary to the Committee of Merchants trading to Africa, by a Woman of Colour passing under the name of Nance, and born 29 May 1798 at Cape Coast Castle, Africa.’  

This entry in the baptismal register of the church of St John, Wapping, made in, I think, August 1805, allows us a glimpse into the history of a London family involved in the African slave trade, a story that shuttles between Wapping and Cape Coast Castle, the ‘Grand Slave Emporium’ built on what was then known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana.

Let’s start with Henry Bennett Herbert, the father of the girl who is being baptised. His position as stated, ‘Secretary to the Committee of Merchants trading with Africa’, suggests a man of authority. However, the reality was rather different. In fact, Henry Bennett was only 22 years old and was already dead by the time he was appointed Secretary to the Committee of Merchants trading with Africa’. He had been born in 1777, baptized in St John’s, the  Herberts’ family church, and had travelled out to Cape Coast Castle in 1795, aged 18.

Henry’s father, James Herbert (1735-1789) had been a cooper (a barrel maker) who ran his business from Brewhouse Lane, Wapping, and had been a freeman of the Committee of Merchants trading with Africa. Indeed, it is possible that the family connection may go back even further as various ‘Herberts’ are noted as serving with the Royal African Company in the early decades of the 18th century. Although, I haven’t found evidence that James Herbert had any direct investment in a slaving ship, the barrels his company made would most certainly have been the means by which goods were sent out to Africa on ships that, when they returned across the Atlantic, were carrying slaves. Brewhouse Lane, where the company remained until the 1830s, is very close to the Thames at Wapping, in an area then dominated by businesses supporting maritime trade.

After the death of James Herbert in 1789 the coopering business was inherited by Henry’s elder brother, another James (1764-1830). As the younger son, Henry had to seek his fortune elsewhere and doubtless felt himself fortunate to be able, through his family connection, to offer his services to the African trade.  When approaching the Governing Committee in the Africa House he had no difficulty in finding the necessary guarantors; his brother James and another Wapping merchant put up £500, to which he himself added the same amount.

It was only after I had begun this research and was thinking about Henry Herbert’s situation that I remembered that somewhere on my bookshelves was a copy of William St Clair’s The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British slave trade, bought when it was published in 2007. Fortunately I was actually able to find it (not an occurrence that I necessarily take for granted). Re-reading it illuminated both Henry Herbert’s short life and the near-miracle, as it seems to me, of his daughter’s appearance at the Wapping baptismal font.

When he arrived at Cape Coast Castle in, I think, October 1795, Henry Herbert’s first position was as a ‘Writer’, that is, a clerk, but within a year he had been promoted to ‘Deputy Secretary to the Committee’. Promotion was swift in Cape Coast Castle; the death rate was very high among the young men who arrived full of hope. In fact, Henry Herbert was appointed secretary to the Governor and Council on 5 April 1800 but the news of this appointment arrived only after his death. He had ‘Drown’d in Bathing at Cape Coast Castle’ on 23 March 1800. Henry Herbert had weathered the ‘seasoning’, the period during which new arrivals succumbed to the multitude of diseases infesting Cape Coast Castle, only to be felled by the surf. In fact, I found that William St Clair, too, had noticed the cause of Henry’s death and in his book mentioned that ‘there are few records of officers swimming for pleasure – Mr Herbert, who defied the dangers, was duly drowned.’ 

Cape Coast Castle (mid-19th c)

Henry Herbert’s time at Cape Coast Castle coincided with the peak of the British slave trade and, to understand a little of what he would have seen and done, I would urge you to read The Grand Slave Emporium in which St Clair describes in quotidian detail both life there and the economy, more complicated than one might imagine, on which it was based. It is perfectly clear that Henry Herbert knew exactly what was happening in the dungeons hewn into the rock several stories below his airy officers’ quarters and was complicit in sending men, women and children out through the Door of No Return to the slavers’ ships waiting in the roads. However, the notice of his appointments and death can only furnish a very general picture of his years at Cape Coast Castle. The entry in the Wapping baptismal register adds a more personal dimension.

William St Clair describes how ‘It was part of the welcome for a young officer arriving in the Castle to be supplied with a local sexual partner, one of the ways in which the British embraced local laws and customs without attempting to change them.’  He stresses that the arrangements made with ‘wenches’, as such women were known, while not regarded as marriages were certainly not informal casual sexual encounters. ‘Wenches’ were free women, not slaves. So, ‘Nance’, the woman named as Eliza Catherine’s mother in the baptismal register entry, was very likely Henry Herbert’s ‘wench’ and may have remained so for most of his time at the Castle. I noticed that St Clair, quoting from the will of a Castle officer who died in May 1795, mentions that in his will the man left a bequest to ‘my wench Nance’ and I did just wonder if she had found a new protector in Henry Herbert after his arrival a few months later. It may be a coincidence that two ‘wenches’ were named ‘Nance’, although most whom St Clair cites have African names. The Europeanised name may suggest that ‘Nance’ was of mixed race, as, naturally, there were by now numerous offspring of officers and ‘wenches’ living in and around the Castle.’ 

The news of Eliza’s birth in May 1798 must have been relayed to Wapping, a letter then taking about three months to travel between Africa and London. It is to be supposed that Henry’s mother, Elizabeth Herbert (for whom Eliza was obviously named), took a very real interest in the welfare of her grand-daughter and on hearing, in mid-1800. of the death of her son planned to bring young Eliza to England. My research leads me to think that this was probably not a very common occurrence. The Monk children, of whom I wrote here, were brought from India by their father, but in the case of Eliza Herbert it would seem that her family would have had to negotiate at a distance with ‘Nance’, if she were still alive, or, if not, with the officials of Cape Coast Castle, in order to take custody of the child and had then to arrange for her to be accompanied on the long sea journey to London. We do not know when exactly she did arrive for, although her baptism took place in 1805, she shared the occasion with a cousin, Susanna, daughter of her uncle James. It may merely have been convenient to baptise the two girls at the same time. 

Detail of John Rocque’s Map of London (1746) showing Princes Square


Princes Square (now renamed Swedenborg Sq) in 1921 (London Metropolitan Archives) 

But we can say with certainty that by 1805 Eliza Catherine Herbert was a most welcome member of the Herbert family and remained so for the rest of her long life. When, in 1817, her grandmother wrote her will it was to Eliza (‘the natural daughter of my son Henry Bennett Herbert) that she left all her personal and household possessions, in addition to setting up a financial trust in her favour. She also appointed guardians for her,  because Eliza was at that time a minor. The will makes clear that Eliza was then living with her grandmother in her house in Princes Square (later renamed Swedenborg Square and now erased). As Land Tax Records show that at the time Eliza was baptised Elizabeth Herbert was living on the north-west side of Princes Square, in one of the early-18th-century houses built for prosperous merchants, we can assume that Eliza had been brought here when she first arrived in London 


Wapping, 1896, showing, to the left of the image, Brewhouse Lane and area marked ‘Cooperage’ (Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Scotland)

The Herbert coopering business continued to be successful under the management of Eliza’s Uncle James, who in the early 19th century owned three ships involved in the British South Seas Whaling trade. The firm also, of course, produced the containers necessary for transporting the fishing products. His son, James Henry Herbert, inherited the business, moved out of insalubrious Wapping to Tottenham, and had retired by 1851, dying 20 years later by no means a wealthy man. Such is the fate of family businesses; they rise and then they fall. The unmarried women of such families have little agency in creating wealth, relying on the investments made for them. However, with the money inherited from her grandmother Eliza Herbert was able to lead what would appear to have been a reasonably comfortable life.

I cannot discover where Eliza lived after her grandmother’s death in 1827. She was now 29 years old and may have been able to continue living in the Princes Square house for a while but I next found her in the 1841 census living at 10 Holland Place, in north Brixton. The street has now vanished, but was in the area between Clapham Road and Brixton Road, south of the Oval. The 1841 census does not produce much information and we learn from this only that Eliza was of ‘Independent’ means’ and had not been born in Lambeth. At first I assumed she was living in this house as a lonely boarder but further investigation into the ramifications of the Herbert family revealed to me that Arthur French, the 70-year-old head of the household, had been a Wapping cooper, whose aunt was mentioned as a friend in the will of Eliza’s grandmother and that Anna Maria Pillar, the other woman of independent means listed as living in the house, was actually one of Eliza’s many cousins. So, although it’s ridiculously sentimental, I was pleased that she was  living among friends and family.

Ten years later Eliza was still in the same house, although the head of household had changed. (In fact Arthur French had died barely a month after the 1851 census.) She is now described as ‘Fundholder’ and her place of birth is given as ‘Africa’. I have, however, been unable to find any link between Eliza and the other two women living as boarders in the house. Life may not have been quite so comfortable as it had been ten years earlier; there was now only one servant rather than the three who had previously waited on the household.

By 1861 Eliza Herbert had moved a short distance and was living at St Ives Cottage, St Anne’s Road, now obliterated, but it was just south of Holland Place. Once again she is a boarder, now described as ‘Lady’ and with her birthplace as ‘Africa’.  Besides the householder (a commercial traveller), his wife and daughter there was only one other boarder, a teenage  ‘shipbroker’, and one servant. Ten years later she had moved again, further west to 2 Grosvenor Place, a boarding house in a terrace on Camberwell Road (now demolished, but it was opposite Addington Square)  Here she gave the 1871 census enumerator her exact place of birth, ‘Cape Coast Castle’.

Thus it would seem that for about 40 years (between the 1840s until the late-1870s) Eliza Herbert lived alone, as a boarder, occupying a room or two in the homes of strangers. This, doubtless, was the lot of hundreds of thousands of unmarried women, but I don’t think the actuality was as forlorn as it might appear because my researches show that during this time Eliza Herbert was always living close to ‘family’. For it is likely that the reason she remained in the Brixton area for so much of her life was because she was still very much in touch with the descendants of the French family, friends of her grandmother.

You will remember that in 1841 Eliza Herbert was living in the Brixton home of the former Wapping cooper, Arthur French.  Also in the household was Arthur’s daughter, Grace, who by 1861 she was married to a successful building contractor, Benjamin Gammon, and living in Loughborough Park Road, in the northern part of Brixton. Interestingly, their house was named ‘Herbert Lodge’. Grace’s son, born c 1852, had been given ‘Herbert’ as a first name, suggesting to me there was a strong connection between Grace and Eliza. 

The bond was made manifest by 1881 when the census finds Eliza Herbert, now 82 years old, living in the home of a young couple, Johanna and Robert Pearce, at 8 Church Road, Brixton. For Johanna Pearce was the daughter of Grace Gammon (nee French) and, with ‘Elizabeth’ as her second name, was Eliza Herbert’s god-daughter.  Church Road is now St Matthews Road, running between Effra Road and Brixton Hill. No 8 was a charming early-19th century villa, long since demolished.

Josephine Avenue, Brixton, photographed c 40 years after Eliza’s death. It was noted on the Booth’s Poverty Map (c. 1898) as a ‘middle-class, well-to-do’ street

By 1886, when Eliza Herbert wrote her will, she had moved with Johanna and her husband to a new house, close by, in Josephine Avenue. It was here that, on 21 March 1890, she died. Her estate amounted to over £800 (roughly £100,000+ in 2020) – suggesting that the funds she had inherited had served her quite well during her extremely long life. She left her personal effects to be divided between Johanna Pearce and Herbert Gammon. Incidentally, I can’t help wondering what happened to all the household and personal possessions she inherited from her grandmother. Did she carry any Princes Square furniture and china with her from house to house or had everything been long since scattered?

And what, you might ask, is the point of all this? Well, I suppose it shows that a child, born in a far off country, out of wedlock, to an African mother, far from being repudiated by her British family, was welcomed and cherished. Knowledge of her unorthodox origin, which transgressed early 19th-century ideas of both morality and race, does not appear to have affected her family relationships. Her grandmother, referring to her as ‘the natural daughter of my son…’, was quite open about her status. Indeed, Elizabeth Herbert allocated far more care in her will to Eliza’s wellbeing than to those of her other grandchildren, the assumption being that they would be provided for by their fathers. And, as we have seen, care for Eliza continued down through the generations of the French/Gammon family. 

And what of Eliza’s appearance? Was her genetic inheritance obvious? We don’t know. She lives now only in official documents and that is not the kind of thing of which they speak. Nor do we know anything about Eliza’s attitude to her origins, other than she was quite happy to admit to having been born not only in Africa, but specifically in Cape Coast Castle. I am assuming that she left the Castle when too young to retain any memories, but she could not have escaped thinking about her mother. Was ‘Nance’ a name that Eliza knew? Was she talked of when, as a child, Eliza  lived with her grandmother in the house in Princes Square? Did Eliza subsequently take an interest in Africa, read books about it, or, perhaps, support missionary work?

As to her personality, we can only assume that Eliza was amiable, capable of maintaining family friendships throughout her long life. In her will she made bequests not only to Johanna Pearce and to Herbert Gammon, but to a number of cousins. Alas, it is the fate of single women that their memory disappears so entirely. If she had married and had children Eliza’s story might have been handed down, even surviving into the 21st century but, as it is, only an outline of her life can be resurrected, mapping a journey that brought her from Cape Coast Castle to Brixton, via Wapping.

And, of course, Brixton in the late 19th century being very different demographically, it is entirely a coincidence that this child of Africa, born above slave dungeons, should have spent her last years living a stone’s throw away from Windrush Square, now an implicit memorial to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

Apart from re-reading St Clair, The Grand Slave Emporium, research for this article has, of necessity, been drawn from online sources. I have, in particular, mined a plethora of records held by and While doing so I realised that numerous family researchers have fatally muddled their Herbert family trees. The secret, I find, is to read all available wills. 


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.


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Lockdown Research: Switching The Lens – And Discovering Myra Jane Monk

I recently noticed that the London Metropolitan Archives has launched a new database – Switching the Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1561 to 1840. This is an aspect of history that captured my imagination some time ago [ see, for instance, Suffrage Stories: Black And Minority Ethnic Women: Is There A ‘Hidden History’?]  and I was interested to see whether this new database would make the uncovering of individual histories any more possible. Through the centuries there have always been some men and women of BAME heritage living in Britain whose lives have, for one reason or another, been recorded in some degree of detail; the great majority, however, have hitherto remained untraceable.

The database has its inherent limitation in that the 2600 names listed are drawn, over a period of nearly three centuries, from Anglican parish registers. As such it deals only with those who were baptised, married or buried in a parish church in the London area. Nevertheless it contains a wealth of information.

Because I was particularly keen to see if information available on Switching the Lens could be amplified by that already held on genealogical sites such as Ancestry and Findmypast, I concentrating on reading entries in the later period covered by the database, running from 1801-1850. Would it be possible to follow up the lives of any of those people on the Switching the Lens database by, for instance, finding them on the census (from 1841) or identifying them on other national registers?

At a first glance the answer, briefly, is probably not. In general, names are too common or the information is too scanty  for it to be possible to identify individuals with any certainty in later official registers. But that is only my finding after a cursory scan. It may well be that keen application will bear fruit. And I shall certainly take a closer look.

As a result of my first venture into the database one entry did attract my attention and I have taken pleasure in unravelling a little of the lives thereby revealed.

The entry is a baptism that took place on 26 June 1828 at St Pancras Church in the Euston Road, of ‘Miya Jane, illegitimate daughter of William Garrow Monk and Coopoo, a native of the East Indies’. In fact I quickly realised that the girl’s name had been mis-transcribed and she was ‘Myra Jane Monk’, born in India on 3 August 1826. The baptismal register identifies William Garrow Monk (1785-1859) as a ‘Judge’, living in Enfield. Born in Hertfordshire, Monk had been an employee of the East India Company from the age of 20, rising to become a judge in the Madras Presidency.  It would seem that he finally returned to England c 1828. If it had not been for the fact that the British Library is closed at the moment I would have enjoyed spending time in the East India Company archive finding our more about William Garrow Monk. 

However, the online research that I could do revealed that Myra was not Monk’s only illegitimate child –  because William Garrow Monk’s aunt, Elizabeth Monk (d 1832), in her will left money in trust ‘for the benefit of George Monk, Charles Monk and Myra Jane Monk, being the children brought from India by my nephew William Garrow Monk.‘ 

The inclusion, by name, in their great-aunt’s will, suggests that ‘the children brought from India’ were embraced by the wider family. It is not known whether or not all three children had the same mother, although I would think it right to assume that they did. But of her all that we know is that her surname was Coopoo. We do not know what position she held in Indian society, although it is likely that she was a bibi, living with William Garrow Monk in a marriage in all but name. Nor do we know if she was still alive when her three children sailed for England with their father, or, indeed, if she, perhaps, may have accompanied them to England. In his excellent book, The White Mughals, William Dalrymple relates the fascinating histories of some of the Indian wives and bibis whose lives were intertwined with those of employees of the East India Company. 

The names ‘Myra’, ‘George’, and ‘Charles’ were Monk family names – in fact, all three were the names of William Garrow Monk’s siblings. Myra’s second name, ‘Jane’, was that of William Garrow Monk’s mother, born Jane Garrow. The Garrow family had a long association with India.  It is notable that neither of the boys was named for their father. As we shall see, that name was reserved for his legitimate first-born son.

George and Charles were older than Myra, but I have not been able to trace entries for them on London baptismal registers. They may have been baptised in India or at an English church, the register of which has not been digitised. The 1891 census does reveal a Charles Monk, born in Madras in 1823,  whom I am certain was Myra’s brother. In 1841 he was living in the Chelsea home of a surgeon, apprenticed as a medical assistant. When, now a ‘chemist’, in 1846 at St Paul’s, Deptford, he married, his father’s name is given on the marriage register as ‘William Monk, Gentleman’. However, as William Monk was not one of the witnesses it is impossible to know whether or not he attended the wedding. Charles and his wife had several children and he continued to live in Deptford until his death in 1899. In the 1891 census he is described as ‘retired medical assistant’.

Of George Monk I have been unable to find any convincing trace.

UPDATE: A descendant of Charles Monk has established that George Monk emigrated to Canada sometime before 1859.

In the year before the death of Great-Aunt Eliza, William Garrow Monk had married, on 26 April 1831, Eliza Ann Archer, 20 years old to his 46  She was the daughter of Thomas Archer, principal clerk to the Treasury. Barely three months later. Archer, a widower, married Myra Charlotte Monk, sister to William Garrow Monk. 

William Garrow Monk and his wife were to have at least 6 children, the eldest being William, born in 1832. Some time after his birth the family moved to Hersham, Surrey,, to Hersham Lodge, on the south-east side of Hersham Green. It is not known whether Myra and her brothers spent any time living with their father’s new family. In the 1841 census Myra, aged 14, was boarding at a ladies’ school run by a Miss Chownes in Holly Road, Twickenham.

It is unsurprising to discover that, after her schooling ended, Myra earned her living as a governess. This was just the employment I had imagined would be her lot and was, therefore, satisfied to find her on the 1851 census with the occupation as ‘governess’, a visitor in a house in Camden Terrace, Peckham. She was still living in the area (in Camberwell New Road) in the following year (1 July 1852) when she married Arthur Turley in the church of St Giles, Camberwell,  Arthur, living in nearby Champion Grove,  was described as a ‘brewer’, although he later worked, perhaps not very successfully, as an architect and surveyor. Myra admits to no occupation. Interestingly the box on the marriage register for her father’s name has no writing – merely a line through it – although in the ‘Occupation’ column he is described as ‘Gentleman’ However her father was there in the church, signing himself ‘W.G. Monk’ as one of the witnesses. I was ridiculously pleased to know that this father appears in no way to have rejected his illegitimate, half-Indian, daughter.

Arthur Turley was originally from Yorkshire and after their marriage the couple moved north to Bradford where the aMyra was supplementing their income by running a school, presumably in their house. A year later the 1871 census shows that the family had moved to Halifax and the older three children were already in employment. Myra, the eldest (17), was a weaver, Evelyn (15) a boot stitcher, and Arthur (12) a telegraph messenger boy.

By this time Myra’s father, William Monk, had been dead for 12 years and I wondered how his legitimate family was faring without him. He had left under £1000 and by 1861, two years after his death, Eliza, his widow, and three of her now adult children had moved to a Brixton villa, The sons were all then described as ‘unemployed’ but by 1871 one was a stockbroker and his brother and sister were both ‘music professors’. The fact that the daughter, Mary, had an employment perhaps indicates a degree of financial necessity and makes her class position not much different from that of her illegitimate half-sister, who  worked occasionally as a teacher. Nevertheless Mary’s life was made more comfortable for her by the cook and housemaid whom her mother was able to employ. Myra had no live-in help.

UPDATE: A descendant of Charles Monk has established, from a codicil to William Garrow Monk’s will, that the following bequests were made: £500 to Charles Monk and £50 each to Myra and George. The latter was, however, regarded as unreliable and the money was only to be given to him in small sums. The £500 bequest to Charles does seem very generous – amounting to half his estate. The remainder went to his wife, to be passed to his legitimate children after her death. What is clear is that William Garrow Monk was intent on caring for his illegitimate Indian children.

After Arthur Turley’s death, Myra, now living in Leeds, once more became a schoolmistress, the 1881 census showing that two of her daughters were also now teachers. It is probable that she had again resorted to setting up a school in her home, with two of her daughters, Evelyne and Agnes, to help her. In the next census, in 1891, still living in Leeds but with only Evelyne now at home, Myra is described as a ‘boarding-house keeper’. Her one boarder is, however, a professor at the Yorkshire College (later University of Leeds) so one imagines she ran a house that had a slight social cachet. Her eldest son, Arthur, followed in his father’s footsteps as a land surveyor, eventually achieving the position of surveyor to the city of Canterbury.

Three of Myra’s daughters, Myra, Evelyne and Laura, married and emigrated to the USA, although Evelyne and Laura returned eventually to live in north Wales.  The US census in the early 20th century took note of race/colour and, interestingly, in all the censuses in which they feature the grand-daughters of Coopoo are classified as ‘white’.

I have found a photograph of Laura Garrow Cullmann (nee Turley), taken, with her husband, in 1920, nearly 100 years after the birth of her grandmother in India





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Lock-Down Research: ‘Elena Shayne’, The Intriguing Author Of ‘Everyday’

Elena Shayne in her dancing years, With her husband, Paul Barel (image courtesy of Louise Baghurst)

Even though ‘lockdown’ has officially been eased, my physical freedom is not as it was but, as compensation, and fuelled by an insatiable curiosity and the wonders of the internet, I’ve had no shortage of time and opportunity to wander through time and space in pursuit of  various chimera.

One such is a young woman known as ‘Elena Shayne’, author of a single published work, a roman à clef entitled Everyday (Jonathan Cape,1935). As she explained at the outset, ‘Elena’ planned to write about ‘the things that happen to me for a year’. And that, simply, is what she did. Everyday is the book of that year.

(image courtesy of Scott Thompson)

But, to begin at the beginning, I knew nothing of Everyday when I first encountered it, described in a post on the ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ website. I am not sure what exactly caught my attention, probably the author’s rather unusual name for I began idly to research Elena Shayne on and quickly realised that she had a rather slippery attitude to names. This was rather intriguing. The name she had used as an author she had also used in Real Life, but it was not the name with which she had been born, and was by no means the only one she was to adopt during her lifetime.

I was sufficiently amused by my genealogical research to pass on an outline to Scott, the owner of the ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ website, and was delighted when he offered to send me a scan of Everyday.  It was only then, on reading the novel, that my research took wings, transporting me back to 1931-1932, and embedding me in the life of a north Devon village.

‘Elena Shayne’ was born Louise Crawshay Parker in September 1909 in Plymouth, Devon. Her mother was Mrs Gertrude Hermione Thomas (née Crawshay), who had been separated from her husband, William Morlais Thomas, a civil engineer, since c 1901. They had married in 1892 and a daughter, Grace Morlais Thomas, had been born in 1893. Gertrude’s father, a member of the Crawshay family of wealthy Welsh ironmasters, had not approved of her marriage and had lived just long enough to see it fail.

At some point Mrs Thomas met, and then lived in Plymouth with, John Thomas Parker, the father of Louise. The family story is that they met on Plymouth Hoe, while each speaking for their Cause – he for Socialism and she for Suffrage. Gertrude Thomas died in January 1911 and when the census was taken three months later baby Louise was living in Plymouth with John Parker, his elderly mother, his sister, and his brother, a house decorator. Parker was described as a ‘commission agent’, but at the age of 13 in 1881 had worked as a box maker. The Parkers clearly belonged to a class very different from that of the Crawshays.

The 1911 census shows that Louise’s half-sister, Grace Thomas, was then living with Gertrude Thomas’ sister, Louise Crawshay, at Batheaston Cottage, Batheaston (on the outskirts of Bath). Poor Grace died in June 1911, aged 18, a couple of months after the census. At this time Grace’s father, William Morlais Thomas, was living in the seaside town of Paignton, Devon, attended by a nurse. He died there in 1914. I have not ordered death certificates for the sad trio (Mr and Mrs Thomas and Grace) but curiosity might yet get the better of me. I’m pretty certain, though, that TB was the culprit.

These are all facts I established in the course of my genealogical research and I was then delighted to find the details vindicated in Everyday where, in a few paragraphs, Elena Shayne relates much of the story of her birth and parentage, telling how she was rescued from the backstreets of ‘Rymouth’, as she calls Plymouth, by her great-aunt Louise, and taken to live with her at ‘Westwater’ (Batheaston).

Elena was five years old, when, after the death of William Morlais Thomas, a court case established that, although she was now known as ‘Louise Crawshay Thomas’, she was not, in fact, his daughter, but that of John Parker. The court case, at the root of which lay a dispute over an inheritance, was widely reported and my supposition that her illegitimacy – or, at least, the widespread knowledge of it – shaped Elena’s life has been borne out in conversation with her daughter. In Everyday Elena certainly blames it for the ostracization she believed she experienced from some sections of ‘society’.

Although she did not inherit from William Thomas’ estate, Elena was subsequently left money by a Crawshay uncle and her aunt Louise, on her death in 1943, left Elena her entire estate, which amounted to something over £4000. So, she was not, I think, without means in her younger years. I only mention finances because in Everyday Elena evinces a delightfully vagabond spirit, something we all know is only possible if the basics of life are covered.

Other than a mention in the press that Elena Shayne had attended school in Bristol, I don’t know anything of her life between the ages of 5 and 22 when, in December 1931, described as ‘Writer’ and with her aunt Louise, she sailed, second-class, to Marseilles. It was the information in the Ranpura’s manifest that was the key to unravelling the roman à clef – for the address supplied by the two women was ‘Lundy House, Croyde Bay, north Devon’. This was the lightbulb moment (to mix the metaphors) which unlocked Everyday, for the address of the author – and central character – as it appears on the opening page of Everyday, accompanying the date of her first diary entry, 23 June 1931, is ‘Hartland House’, Grebe Bay, North Devon’.

I had now anchored Everyday in time and place. For ‘Grebe’ read ‘Croyde’. Lundy is an island in the Bristol Channel; Hartland Point is a rocky outcrop sticking out into the Channel, some miles south of Croyde. By studying online maps and photographs I have become closely acquainted with this north Devon coastal village as it developed through the course of the 20th century, and, with Google Earth, have explored the neighbourhood as it is today. In Everyday the local towns and villages are given pseudonyms, thus, for example, ‘Barum’ is Barnstaple, ‘Barnham’ is ‘Georgeham’, ‘Brandon’ is Braunton, ‘Sandon’ is ‘Saunton, and ‘Hutley’ is ‘Putsborough. Moreover, judicious study of the 1939 Register (a census taken in England at the outbreak of the Second World War) has enabled me to identify many of the people whom Elena encounters. She uses pseudonyms, but her code is easily broken.

Why had Aunt Louise and ‘Elena’ chosen to move from Batheaston to Croyde? In Everyday the move appears permanent, but was not so in Real Life, for Aunt Louise retained Batheaston Cottage and left it to Elena on her death. In Everyday Elena implies that the move had been made because knowledge of her illegitimacy was causing her harm in Batheaston – ‘at last I could hardly bear to go out because of the slights and insults I received’.  Croyde was familiar territory to Aunt Louise Crawshay, whose maternal grandfather and an uncle had, in succession during the second half of the 19th century, been rectors of Georgeham, the adjacent village. This family association, it was hoped, would provide protective cachet.

Lundy House 2020

Lundy House, where Elena and Aunt Louise were living, is situated on Moor Lane, a minor road running north out of Croyde and was rented from a farmer who lived in an adjacent house. In Everyday the farmer was ‘James Fisher’, in reality, George Bertram Fowler, who lived there with his aged mother and ran the farm with help from one of his sisters, Mrs Ivy Reed (aka ‘Mrs Rush’ in Everyday). Elena describes the Fisher/Fowler family and its history in some detail, all borne out by my research in genealogical records and newspaper reports. She even mentions that ‘James’ was unlikely to marry while his mother was alive and, sure enough, I see that it was only in 1937, a few months after her death, that he made it to the altar. Remember that Everyday was written some years earlier; Elena could read a situation. Moreover, George Fowler lost no time in selling his farm. His mother died on 30 January 1937 and the 27 March 1937 issue of the North Devon Journal carried an advertisement for the sale of all the livestock and agricultural implements of Lundy House Farm on the instructions of Mr George Fowler (‘giving up farming’).

Looking out of her ‘abode-in-attic’ window in Lundy House, Elena describes her uninterrupted view over bracken and stream to the bay, rejoicing in her solitude. The sea is still there and Lundy House still stands, but over the past 90 years Elena’s world has vanished. The house, available to rent, is now at the centre of Ruda Holiday Park, a sprawling collection of chalets, caravans, and camping pitches, where holiday makers are serviced by all the entertainments thought necessary in the 21st century. Where there was farmyard there is now the Cascades Tropical Adventure Pool, complete with flumes.  Everyday describes a landscape and a society on the cusp of change.

In the early 1930s Croyde was already attracting holidaymakers. Elena refers to the ‘Season’, noting that cottagers were keen to let rooms to summer visitors. When describing the great flood that engulfed Georgeham and Croyde in June 1931 she mentions that the damage done was of real consequence to cottagers hoping to profit by the ‘Season’. She, naturally, found the drama of the situation irresistible. Somewhere a postcard may exist of Elena, her dress rolled to her waist, wading, with a friend, through the waters. She describes how ‘some thirty or forty people on the far side of the bridge greeted us with cameras and cheers, and picture-postcards of us were on sale in Grebe and Barum soon afterwards’. I think the postcards were published by Arthur Gammon, who ran the Croyde post office. Wouldn’t it be a coup to unearth this image?

At the time that Elena was writing, Croyde had just, in 1930, become the site of a permanent holiday camp run for its members by NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers). This was an indication of how holidaying would transform the village after the Second World War. But in 1931 there were only two shops in Croyde (‘three if you count the butcher’s hut’), the local economy was based around farming, and the ‘Devon bus’ ran from Barnstable ‘four times a day in winter and four or five times an hour in the “Season”’.

Croyde Village in the Interwar Years

St Mary’s Road, the main street through Croyde, did not yet have a name; Elena merely refers to ‘the village’. Several of the farms she mentions fronted onto this street. Many of them, still there, retain their original names but have turned themselves into B & Bs, their back lands now filled with holiday lodges. I was amused to note that the carpenter, ‘Mr Flower’,  whom Aunt Louise employed to do work in ‘Hartland House’ was undoubtedly William Budd, after whom a restaurant, ‘Billy Budd’s’ (formerly the Carpenter’s Arms), is now named. This seemed a very satisfying conjunction of local history, fact and fiction.

Croyde Village – a postcard posted in 1933

Everyday is packed with details of the lives of both local cottagers and farmers and of those who felt themselves to inhabit a higher echelon. I have deduced that ‘Miss Hunter’, prominent in local society, was Miss Constance Hyde, who lived with her brother and sister in a large Victorian house (‘Mole Manor’, notable for its ‘crude colours’) on the cliff north of Lundy House. ‘Miss Hunter’ comes in for some particularly scathing comment, Elena recounting that she was one of those who ‘would not recognize me’. If she had lived to have known it, I think Elena might have taken some satisfaction in the fact that the Hydes’ ancestral home, built a couple of generations back by the founder of the Birmingham Post, has been swept away, demolished to make way for ‘Baggy Point’, one of the more remarkable of Britain’s modernist houses.

Among others who attract her ire are ‘Cuthbert Fitz-Potter’, in Real Life George Pitts-Tucker, a retired businessman and general manager of the Saunton Golf Club. He organised the Ladies’ Championship, held at Saunton in 1932 and mentioned in Everyday. Elena makes clear she thinks that Pitts-Tuckers, who lived a little further up Moor Lane in Middleborough House, with three unmarried Pitts-Tucker sisters living opposite in Middleborough Cottage, had forgotten that it was only two generations back that, as leather drapers, they were mere Tuckers.

Elena was well-acquainted with Saunton and its golf links, for in a house opposite the entrance to the club lived her dearest friend, ‘Lilian’. In Everyday the Saunton house is ‘Inverary’, in Real Life, ’Knockbeg’. ‘Lilian’ was Margaret (Peggy) Lilian Longfield, daughter of an Anglo-Irish family whose home, Kilcolman House in Co Cork, had been burned down in 1921 during the ‘War of Independence’.  Everyday is threaded through with mentions of ‘Lilian’, although we never really get close to her. The two young women seem to have periods of unexplained estrangements, one certainly being when ‘Lilian’ became entangled with a young man, ‘Philip’. But at the close of the book Elena came to the conclusion that ‘…whatever she might do or leave undone, Lilian would always be Lilian to me, to be helped and comforted should she need help and comfort.’ And this turned out to be true, although, from what I have been told, it was ‘Lilian’ who was more often the one who provided the help and comfort.  For I have been in contact with Elena’s daughter and grand-daughter and with Peggy Longfield’s niece, all of whom tell me that the two women remained close friends for the rest of Elena’s life and that, after her death, the relationship was continued by her daughter. Indeed, Elena’s daughter stressed her own love for Peggy, who helped bring her up, working as a secretary to support her and Elena.

Knowing how closely Elena’s account of her life in Devon appears to be related to Real Life it would seem wilful to doubt the accuracy of the middle section of Everyday, describing the holiday she spent with Aunt Louise, voyaging  to Marseilles and then on to Majorca. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the two can be spotted disembarking from the Ranpura at Marseilles in December 1931. Elena recounts that this was where they transferred for the onward journey to Majorca. Needless to say, on that island and on the return journey by train via Paris she had no end of romantic adventures – adventures that led the Western Press and Bristol Mirror (30 March 1935) to describe her as a ‘modern girl’ [who] ‘obviously knows the art of living as well as the art of writing’. Other reviewers compared her style to that of E.M. Delafield  (‘without the coruscation of arrows’) and  Beverley Nichols (‘without the mawkishness’). A.G. MacDonnel (The Observer, 17 March 1935) acknowledged her charm and sense of humour, and, presumably rather satisfying to a young writer, The Morning Post applauded her ‘aptitude for pithy, picturesque English’. In fact, Everyday was well and quite extensively reviewed, with hope being expressed for future works. Alas, it was not to be. Her daughter has stressed to me how very prolific Elena was as a writer throughout her life, producing vast quantities of poems and novels, including an updated treatment of Pilgrim’s Progress, and was mortified that, despite being on the books of the Hope Leresche Literary Agency, she never again achieved publication. And this leads me to consider how it was that Everyday ever, as it were, saw the light of day.

Well, among the characters Elena encounters in Devon was one Cocbarlie Bilfather who, living in ‘Torr Cottage’ in the neighbouring village of ‘Barnum,’ she describes as ‘our Novelist, who came to Barnham sixteen years ago, penniless, obscure, and twenty-two, and is now perched upon the rail of fame – chiefly by studies of our local ways’. It was instant recognition – ‘Bilfather’ is, of course, Henry Williamson, of Skirr Cottage, Georgeham. I do have a copy of Patriot’s Progress on my bookshelf but have not yet read The Village Book (1930) and The Labouring Life (1932), which tell of Georgeham life. If it had not been for Covid-19 I would most certainly have already hastened to the British Library and devoured them, as well as other local histories of the area, but such a treat has not yet been possible.

In a few paragraphs Elena paints a seductive picture of Williamson, the man of letters, and his sanctuary, ‘a curious room which smelt of musk and mould’. Thus, it is perhaps no coincidence that Everyday was published by Jonathan Cape, publisher of Williamson’s two Georgeham books. Although I have no proof, I would be amazed if, at the very least, Williamson was not prayed in aid when Elena was looking for a publisher.

However, although Elena Shayne had no further success as an author, she did shine in another sphere. For from 1939, having returned with Aunt Louise to Batheaston and after an interlude in London, she became a leading light of the Bath ballroom-dancing scene. A holder of a Gold Medal from the Imperial Society of the Teachers of Dancing, throughout the war she organised a dance club for soldiers on leave in Bath. She married in 1944, soon after Aunt Louise’s death, but the marriage was short-lived (her daughter tells me that the young man in question, to whom she remained close throughout her life, was gay) and then married again in 1947.

Her second husband, a Bristolian, Paul Barel (1917-2007), was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and had transformed himself from costing clerk to dancer. In 1946, at Elena’s insistence, he changed his name by deed poll from William Cyril Barrell. For a few years the couple ran a health club, ‘Rhythm Therapy’, from Batheaston Cottage and in 1948 had a daughter, Pauline Louise Crawshay Barel. The birth notice in a local north Devon paper made special mention of the fact that the baby was a great-niece of ‘the late Miss Louise Crawshay of Batheaston’. Elena had dedicated Everyday to her great-aunt and there is no doubt of the love between them. However, this second marriage, too, did not last; there was a divorce and in 1957 Paul Barel remarried. Elena Shayne Barel died in 1984 and is buried in Georgeham Cemetery on Incledon Hill.

In my pursuit of Elena Shayne I have, as I’ve mentioned, been in contact with two or three people who remember her very well, each having a special name for her to add to all the others she accumulated in her earlier years. All confirm that she was a very interesting woman, by no means easy, but most definitely memorable. Certainly, her joie de vivre  and carefree vagabonding have enlivened my lock-down summer as I accompanied her along country lanes, over the dunes and reefs, up on the cliffs, into dimly lit cottages, on country buses, in tea rooms, on horseback, on ships, in trains, not to mention on a short but lively visit to a Parisian bordello. And for all this entertainment, I offer my appreciative thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow without whom ….



All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.




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Lock-Down Research: A Hull Mystery. What Do You Think You Are Seeing Here?

I have had this postcard in stock for about 20 years but, because I couldn’t identify either the women or the occasion, I have never catalogued it. Now, however, ‘Lock-Down’ has given me plenty of time to puzzle and ponder.

The only clue is on the reverse, where the photographer’s name, ‘Duncan, 15 Anlaby Road, Hull’, is printed. William Harper Duncan photographed the people of Hull in the early 20th century, advertising that he specialised in ‘outdoor photography’. He was clearly the obvious man for this commission.

But who are the women? Where are they massed? And why?

When I bought the card I had no magnifying glass with me and had to rely on my eyesight to decipher the partial lettering on the poster on the left of the photo. The one very clear word is ‘Women’s’, while another looked as though it might be ‘Demonstration’. Anyway, the combination caught my attention and was sufficient to entice me to make a purchase, thinking I’d be able to puzzle out the story behind the picture.

Well, as I say, that was 20 years ago and it is only now that I’ve arrived at a partial answer. I’ve spent ages with the British Newspaper Archive trying to figure out what possible Hull Women’s Demonstration I was seeing.

From the weight of the costumes the women are wearing I deduced that it was taken in autumn/winter and from the style that it could be dated to c 1902-1908.

It was clearly an occasion that meant enough to the organisers for them to arrange for Mr Duncan to attend with his camera. However, although I investigated every women’s meeting in the period I couldn’t marry the season and time of day – for it was obviously not taken in  the evening – to any significant occasion. Of course I was hoping that I was looking at a suffrage demonstration but could not find evidence of any gathering that fitted into either the suffragist or suffragette campaigns. Nor was there any figure I recognised in the gathering – such as a visiting speaker sent to rouse the local society.

However, I had scanned the photo and blown it up to study the poster’s few visible letters and was once more wrestling with this puzzle when, yesterday, my eye strayed back to the figures wrapped in their winter coats and muffs and was suddenly caught by little dots of white that appeared on a fair number of breasts and lapels.

And there it was. The mystery was solved.

Those white ‘dots’ are in fact white badges – white ribbon badges – the insignia of the British Women’s Temperance Association. So this is a gathering – perhaps a Demonstration – of Hull Temperance women. Many of them may well have been supporters of the suffrage movement, but I think I can be fairly safe in assuming that they were gathered that day in Hull in a temperance capacity.

I have to confess that I’ve not been able to identify the building in front of which the women are standing. The obvious candidate would be the former Assembly Rooms, later rebuilt as the New Theatre, but the arrangement of pillars and steps doesn’t really fit. In the early years of the 20th c women’s groups met in a wide variety of halls and institutes around Hull, but this would appear to be grander and more municipal than most. Perhaps some Hull reader will be able to identify it?


And perhaps a reader, either from Hull or from anywhere else, might be interested in purchasing the card (£20 in fine condition, unposted) and carrying on the research. If so,  email me:


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

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Lock-Down Research: The Case Of The Mysterious Suffrage Banner

I find it so satisfying when I am able to bring a photograph such as this to life. I acquired it two years ago but have not yet catalogued it because I could identify neither the banner nor the occasion. However, a little tenacity, a few idle lock-down hours and – EUREKA – I have found the answer.

The card came, with many others, in the collection of suffrage postcards compiled by the Hodgson Sisters . From this context I assumed the card had a suffrage connection, but I had never seen or heard of the banner. The photographer, as you will see from the imprint, was A. Dron of Brondesbury – so, as the Hodgsons were living in West Hampstead, I assumed the occasion pictured occurred in the area.

Even with a magnifying glass I couldn’t make out much more detail and it was only when I scanned the card and blew up the image that I found at the bottom right of the banner what seemed to be the artist’s monogram and a date – W E G S 1910.  I felt I was making progress, but I’d never come across those initials when compiling my Art and Suffrage: a biographical dictionary of suffrage artists  –  and so was not much further forward.

I had tried searching for variations of ‘The Old Order Changeth’ in the British Newspaper Archive, but nothing relating to a banner had emerged. It was only when I searched for ‘banner’ in what I thought might be the local paper for Brondesbury in 1910, that the answer emerged. And it all seems so easy now.

The newspaper report in the Kilburn Times, 17 June 1910, revealed that the banner, a present to the North West London Union of the Women’s Social and Political Union, had been unfurled by Mrs Saul Solomon and was to be carried in the WSPU ‘Prison to Citizenship’ procession on Saturday 18 June. The artist was William Ewart Glasdstone Solomon [WEGS] (1880-1965), Mrs Solomon’s son.

Mrs Georgiana Solomon (1844-1933) was the widow of the governor-general of Cape Colony and had for many years been active in social reform and suffrage movements. By 1910 she was living in West Hampstead and had already been arrested once. Five months after the photograph was taken she was assaulted in the course of the notorious ‘Black Friday’ debacle in Parliament Square and in March 1912 was imprisoned after taking part in the WSPU window-smashing campaign. Her daughter, Daisy, who was also an active WSPU member, featured in one of their publicity stunts, sent in 1909 as a ‘human letter to 10 Downing Street. She also served a prison term and by 1912 was organizing secretary of the Hampstead branch of the WSPU.

Given the family association, it is not surprising that Mrs Solomon’s son, who had been a student at the Royal Academy Schools, should have put his art to the service of the Cause. He later became director of the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay (Mumbai) before eventually returning to South Africa, the land of his birth. He is classed as a ‘South African artist’ but we can now appreciate that one of his earlier works was in support of the British women’s suffrage movement.

The newspaper article includes the information that the banner depicts ‘two life-size figures, a man and a woman, and the idea which the artist apparently means to convey is the dawn of a new era of political sex equality. The lettering ‘Political equality’ and ‘The old order changeth, giving place to new’ is conspicuous on the canvas’. I haven’t been able to spot the words ‘Political equality’, but perhaps they are on the reverse.

The Kilburn Times report tells us that the unfurling of the ‘Old Order Changeth’ banner took place at ‘Plympton House’, 154 Willesden Lane, which was the home of Mr and Mrs A.A. Jones, and that speeches were made by Helen Ogston and Flora Drummond. Mrs Eleanor Penn Gaskell was also present. Alas, I cannot identify the two young women holding the banner. Possible candidates that spring to mind are Daisy Solomon and Helen Ogston, but neither look quite like the women in the photograph. Nor are they, I think, any of the Hodgson Sisters.

I now see that the report for the WSPU N.W. London branch carried in the issue of Votes for Women for17 June 1910 declares ‘Let no local women miss the chance of walking in the great Procession under Mr W. E. Gladstone Solomon’s most beautiful banner’.

And there I rest my case…so pleased to have retrieved the story behind this most intriguing of photographs.


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

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Lock-Down Reviews: The Lives And Work Of Two Garrett Cousins: ‘Endell Street’ and ‘Margery Spring Rice’

Serendipitously, lock-down has given me the opportunity of making closer acquaintance with two cousins, products of that ever-interesting family – the Garretts.

Louisa Garrett Anderson and Margery Spring Rice, members of the generation that came after the pioneering Garrett sisters Elizabeth, Millicent and Agnes, are each the central figure in new books spotlighting aspects of ‘women’s work’ that, although not forgotten, have hitherto not received detailed attention. The books differ in concept in that one is a study of an enterprise and the other is a straight biography, but central to both is evidence of a steely Garrett determination.

Endell Street by Wendy Moore is a study of the military hospital opened in London during the First World War by Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson and her companion, Dr Flora Murray. The hospital was exceptional in that it was the first in which women doctors were able to treat male patients. In fact, the entire staff (with the exception of a few orderlies) consisted entirely of women. Although Dr Murray recounted the work of the hospital in Women as Army Surgeons, published in the immediate aftermath of the war, it is certainly time, a hundred years later, to look at it with fresh eyes.

Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873-1943), daughter of Britain’s pioneer doctor, Elizabeth Garrett, and Flora Murray (1869-1923), daughter of a retired Scottish naval commander, had both studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, with Murray finalising her degree at Durham University. At the turn of the 20th century women doctors still faced considerable difficulty in advancing their careers and Garrett Anderson and Murray, denied positions in general hospitals, were restricted to treating women and children. The professional difficulties with which they had to contend forced them away from the constitutional suffrage movement, led by Louisa’s aunt Millicent, and into Mrs Pankhurst’s  militant WSPU. Garrett Anderson even spent time in prison after taking part in a 1912 protest.

Medal issued by the Women’s Hospital Corps. For sale 0 see item 512 in my Catalogue 202 Part 2 

The outbreak of war in August 1914 offered an opportunity to escape the medical cage, an opportunity seized by Garrett Anderson and Murray with both hands. Their offer to help in the war effort having been repudiated by the authorities, they struck out on their own. travelling to France in September 1914 to tend wounded soldiers in hospitals they set up themselves, first in Paris and then in Wimereux. They named their outfit the Women’s Hospital Corps and It was the success of these first, small, French-based operations that led them in 1915 to be invited by the War Office to run a military hospital in London. They opened it in an old workhouse in Endell Street, Covent Garden, convenient for the trains bringing the wounded back from France. All involved with the Endell Street hospital were aware that they were operating on sufferance and that any lapse of standards would damage the professional chances of future women doctors

The author has researched diligently, enlisting the aid of diaries, letters and family memories of both staff and patients to paint a more inclusive picture of the hospital and its occupants than that depicted by Dr Murray. These reveal how demanding the work was of all the women. Stretcher bearers and surgeons alike tackled situations they had never previously encountered. Louisa Garrett Anderson was the hospital’s main surgeon and Flora Murray its anaesthetist. Obviously neither they, nor the other women doctors on the staff, had any previous experience of the types of wounds – and patients – they were now treating, but proved very competent in developing the necessary skills. From mid-1916 the hospital trialled  the use of a new antiseptic paste, known as BIPP, which proved very successful when used on men sent back to them from the Somme battlefield.

As neither Garrett Anderson nor Murray left direct descendants or private papers it is difficult to get close to them. The image they presented is the one that survives and suggests that both were reserved, with Murray the more resolutely aloof and Garrett Anderson slightly more approachable. These characteristics, while perhaps natural, were also necessary in giving the women the credibility with which to operate such an establishment. Yet it is clear they were greatly appreciated by both staff and patients. Endell Street appears to have been comfortable and sociable, the male patients soon becoming entirely at ease with the idea of being treated by women.

Although it is perhaps difficult to bring the principals to life, Endell Street is characterised by the more personal stories of young women who, travelling from all parts of Britain, Australia, Canada and the US, had the foresight to record their experiences. These are enlivened by the revelations of all-too-human work-centred discontents. The novelists Beatrice Harraden and Elizabeth Robins clearly managed to wring a good deal of drama out of running the hospital library.

Endell Street was decommissioned in the autumn of 1919. During its final year the hospital treated victims of the three waves of the ‘flu pandemic, in February 1919 experiencing more deaths than it had in any month during the war. These deaths included a significant number of staff members.

But, as the author comments, as far as women in medicine were concerned, ‘The war had changed everything, and nothing’. After the war, while some professions were opened up to women for the first time, it was once again made very difficult for women doctors to build a hospital career and young women were again barred from many medical schools. Sadly, after a brief effort, Murray and Garrett Anderson were unable to continue running the hospital for children that they had founded before the war. In the final chapter the author assuages our curiosity and details the ‘afterlives’ of Garrett Anderson and the other women with whom we’ve kept company during the war years in Endell Street.

In the summer of 2017 I very much enjoyed taking part in a a performance of ‘Deeds Not Words’, an immersive drama staged by Digital Drama in the Swiss Church in Endell Street, opposite the site of the hospital. Belief was suspended, and I really felt myself walking through the hospital wards, encountering staff and patients. You can watch a Digital Drama film about the Endell Street hospital here. This is based on some of the material used by Wendy Moore in Endell Street.

See also a post on this website  Women and the First World War: the work of women doctors

Apparently Louisa Garrett Anderson’s one venture into print, a biography of her mother, was prompted by learning  that a cousin, Margery Spring Rice (1887-1970), was considering Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as a suitable subject for just such a work. Now Margery, in her turn, has had her life placed under the spotlight-  by Lucy Pollard, a grand-daughter. And what a rewarding subject she is. Here all is drama – love, death, affairs, court cases, divorce, blighted lives – set alongside the achievements of a life spent working to improve the lot of working-class women.

Margery Garrett was the daughter of Sam Garrett, a favourite brother of Elizabeth and Millicent. He seems to have been easy going; his daughter was rather more volatile. She was educated at Girton, married in 1911 and had three children before her husband was killed on the Somme in 1916. A disastrous second marriage produced two more children. Equipped with an abundance of energy Margery Spring Rice, as she now was, chanced on the cause of birth control as the subject of her life’s work. This was a subject shunned by the medical profession but one which she recognised as an imperative if poor women were to retain their health and any ability to care properly for the children they did bear.

In 1924, with two friends, she founded a ‘contraception clinic’ in north Kensington, a notoriously impoverished area, retiring only in 1957. It proved very successful with Margery ‘wholeheartedly encouraging and supporting the liberal attitude prevalent among its staff’. In 1939 she wrote Working-Class Wives: their health and conditions (Penguin) which has become a classic, re-published by Virago in 1981.

Margery Spring Rice is a delight to read. Well-written and Impeccably referenced, this is no hagiography, Lucy Pollard making clear that Margery Spring Rice was a difficult woman ‘not much given to self-reflection or self-doubt’, ‘full of contradictions’, and, to my mind, all the more interesting for it. She spent much of her life in Suffolk and for a time was close to Benjamin Britten, although, rather poignantly did find herself dropped in later years. I love the cover illustration showing ‘Margery pushing a young friend along the Crag Path in Aldeburgh, New Year 1968’ (Christopher Ellis).

Wendy Moore, Endell Street: the trailblazing women who ran World War One’s most remarkable military hospital, Atlantic Books, 2020, £17.99.

Lucy Pollard, Margery Spring Rice: pioneer of women’s health in the early twentieth century, Open Books Publishers, 2020.

Free download: 

Hardback: £29.95

Paperback: £19.95

For full details see here


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Lock-Down Research: Winifred Hartley and ‘Housewives’ Choice’

‘Housewives’ Choice’

I bought this painting about 30 years ago – on an impulse – from a pavement stall in Islington’s Camden Passage market. It hangs in the hallway and I’ve passed it umpteen times a day ever since but it was only at the beginning of this week that I paused on the way to bed to see if it carried a signature . I suppose, back c. 1990, I must have noticed the artist’s name but, if so, I hadn’t given it much thought, it then being a near impossibility to research the ‘unknown’.

There, In the bottom right-hand corner, is, indeed, a very clear and neat signature – ‘Winifred Hartley 1956’.  So, rather than going to sleep, I then spent an hour or so with searching for a likely Winifred Hartley, only to realise that not only was the name fairly common but I didn’t even know whether she was married or single.

Frustrated by this apparent brick wall, the next morning I made the bold (but entirely obvious) decision to take down the picture, which had hung undisturbed for at least 20 years (that being, I have to admit, the last time the wall was painted). And, there on the reverse were the two labels that are the key to the identification of the artist.

One gives her address: Mrs Winifred Hartley, ‘Oakfield’, Woodmansterne Lane, Banstead, Surrey’ and the other, with the heading ‘Banstead Arts Group’, the painting’s title, ‘Housewives’ Choice’. There had also been a handwritten note of the price but this has been torn off, presumably by the dealer who sold it on. But its presence did indicate that the painting had originally been included in a selling exhibition.

It was then, thanks to Ancestry, only the work of a moment to uncover an agreeable depth of information about Winifred Hartley.

She was born Winifred Amy Castle on 29 June 1907 and by 1911, an only child, was living with her parents and maternal grandmother in a pleasant end-of-terrace house, 15 Bourne Road, Crouch End. Her father was clerk to a firm of hardware exporters. By the late 1920s the family had moved to 61 Park Avenue North, close to Alexandra Palace.

Winifred’s son tells me that she was educated at Crouch End High School and then attended Sutton School of Art, but by 1925 was working as a bank clerk for the National Provincial Bank. Banks at this time tended to recruit young women only if they had received a thorough education. She was employed at the Bank’s headquarters, 15 Bishopsgate, and clearly took her work seriously, in 1929 passing the examination to become an Associate of the Institute of Bankers. The Institute’s examinations had been open to women since 1919, but I think ten years later it was still relatively rare for a woman to take the Part 2 to qualify as an Associate.


Former headquarters of the National Provincial Bank, 15 Bishopsgate

However, Winifred Castle’s banking career ended on 8 October 1932 when she married Richard Crozier Hartley (1901-1967), a fellow bank employee. At that time women were required to resign on marriage. The couple set up home in Banstead, at the address on the back of the painting, ‘Oakfield’, Woodmansterne Lane.  On the outbreak of war in 1939 Winifred was contributing to the war effort by working for the Women’s Voluntary Services in the canteen set up for Banstead’s Air Raid Post, while her husband was an air raid warden for the bank in Bishopsgate. Their only son was born in 1943.

By 1950 Winifred Hartley was treasurer of the recently-formed Banstead Arts Group, a former banker being an eminently sensible appointee. In the 1950s the Banstead Arts Group held classes in painting and drawing several times a week and in the summer organized outdoor sketching expeditions. The Group’s first exhibition, held in October 1949, attracted over 500 visitors and I assume that ‘Housewives’ Choice’ was on display and probably bought at a similar exhibition, c 1956.

In 1982, fifteen years after the death of her husband, Winifred Hartley emigrated to South Africa, to be near her son and his family. She continued painting, clearly, from images I have been shown, delighting in the bright colours of Africa, and died there in January 1994. 

I am very fond of the painting which, to my untutored, eye, strikes me as very well executed. I like the composition and the sense of movement. I love the colours and the costumes, particularly the duster coat. I like the idea of gossiping housewives, especially, I must confess, if they’re safely situated in the 1950s. I don’t know Banstead at all, so have no idea if this streetscape is based on reality. Certainly it seems to bear no relation to Banstead High Street as it is now, as shown on Street View. Does anybody recognise this corner (if it is a corner)? Does anybody else have a Winifred Hartley hanging on their wall?

UPDATE: July 2021

I have now been put in touch, via Sweden, with Winifred Hartley’s son, living in South Africa -and with her grandson, living in the USA – such are the wonders of the internet. Her son has given me permission to include this photograph of his mother, taken in her youth – and her grandson has told me how encouraging his grandmother was of his own artistic endeavours. Winifred Hartley was clearly very much loved – and I now know that at least two other families have paintings by this artist hanging on the wall.

Winifred Hartley


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Lock-Down Research: From Owen’s Row To Van Diemen’s Land: A Sad Story

The New River running beside Sadler’s Wells, 1792.  Owen’s Row can be seen in the background – at the right-hand side. The grating at this side of the St John’s Road bridge is visible. It was against the equivalent at the other side of the road that in 1841 the drowned baby was found. Credit: Wellcome Images

While researching my previous ‘Lock-Down’ post (see here ) I came across a story that is haunting me. Looking through mid-19th-century newspapers for mentions of Owen’s Row, Islington, I noticed a flurry of articles in 1841 – both in London and in national papers – concerning the sad story of Harriet Longley, on trial at the Old Bailey on a charge of infanticide.

The trial revealed that at about 8 o’clock in the evening of 19 March 1841 Harriet had arrived at Islington Green police station saying ‘she had murdered her child’ ‘by throwing it into the river’. A policeman had then gone with her to Owen’s Row. Once there she had pointed to the spot where she had thrown the baby into the New River, which at that time ran in front of the houses.

She said she had been sitting on the doorstep of no 19 ‘and the child had been crying the whole time she had been sitting there, and had been crying all the afternoon – she said she had no food for herself, and no milk to give to the child.’ 

A witness described seeing Harriet nearby at sometime just before 7 o’clock. In March it would by then have been dark, and, doubtless, chilly. I cannot imagine that that stretch of Owen’s Row, half-way between St John’s Street and Goswell Road, was well lit. Presumably that is why Harriet had chosen to sit there. She was noticed by a woman who was visiting number 14 and was still there when the visitor left. But, naturally, that woman didn’t think to speak to her. [Incidentally number 14 Owen’s Row reappears 40 years later in another of my posts, see here. Although totally unrelated that story, too, ended in tragedy.]

Harriet’s was the usual sad story. She was about 22 years old and was herself illegitimate. It would seem she had been brought up by her mother in Clerkenwell but was working as a house maid in Marylebone when she became pregnant. Around 6 months into the pregnancy had left, under what circumstances isn’t revealed, and, for whatever reason, had travelled to Kent. There she had been picked up for vagrancy and imprisoned in Maidstone Jail  as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. It was in the prison that, towards the end of February, she had given birth to a girl, whom she named ‘Eliza Harris’. Leaving prison with 18 pence and her baby she had returned to London. She had not seen her mother as she was worried about being ‘scolded’.

By the time she arrived at the Islington police station Harriet had neither money nor baby. All she possessed was ‘a small parcel in her hand, containing a small quantity of bread’. The policeman went on to describe how ‘I offered her some food, some meat, which she had, she appeared to swallow it all whole, without chewing it, till she could swallow no more, and she had some coffee.’

Earlier in the day Harriet had been to the Marylebone workhouse but was refused entry and ‘referred to another parish’.

During the trial the wife of one of the sergeants at the police station told how ‘I was sent for when the prisoner came there – I undressed her, and examined her – I asked her how she came to do it – she said poverty had made her – I thought she had milk – I found her breast in a painful state – she said the child would suck a little, but not much.’ 

The policeman who went with Harriet to Owen’s Row found the baby ‘between fifty and sixty yards from the place where she pointed out as having thrown it in – the child was on the surface of the water, stopped by the iron grating that goes across the bridge, near St John-street-road – it was dressed in the clothes which I now produce – it was a female child.’

As I explained in my previous post, the New River, bringing water to London from Hertfordshire, used to run right in front of Owen’s Row and wasn’t covered in until 1862. There are no extant images of that precise stretch of the river but the scene was probably similar, if less bucolic, to that depicted in the engraving at the head of this post. There certainly could have been little to separate the path in front of the Owen’s Row houses from the river. In the 1830s the death was reported of a young boy who had drowned after falling into the river while playing there. So, dreadful as it is, we can imagine that it was the work of a moment for poor Harriet, in despair at her situation and tormented by the cries of her starving child, to drop the bundle into the water. By going straight to the police station she made no attempt to avoid the punishment that she must have known would follow.

And so it was that, at the Central Criminal Court, on 5 April 1841 Harriet Longley was sentenced to death. The jury, however, ‘recommended [her] to mercy in consequence of her distressed state’. The plea was accepted by the judge, who was indeed sympathetic to her plight and ‘in an affecting addresss to the prisoner, told her that he and his learned brother (Mr Justice Patteson) would attend to the humane recommendation of the jury, and represent her unhappy case to her Majesty, for the purpose of saving her life’. ‘Oh’ [he said] ‘that young women would take warning by your unhappy fate when listening to the voice of seduction, and remember to what dreadful and fatal consequences the first false step but too often leads!’ [Bell’s Messenger, 11 April, 1841.]

That ‘first false step’ was to take Harriet Longley half way round the world – to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Her sentence was commuted to transportation for 10 years, a comparatively light sentence. One of 180 women convicts, she set sail from London on 14 June 1841 on the Garland Grove, bound for Australia’s prime penal colony. Coincidentally, just 10 days earlier a group of my own ancestors had embarked on the journey to Australia – to Melbourne – from Glasgow. You can read about their perilous adventure here.

Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, 1844

Harriet Longley arrived at Hobart on 10 October 1841. Tasmania’s online records (utterly fascinating) now conjure her up for us. She was 5 feet and 1 inch tall, with a fair complexion, brown hair, a high forehead, grey eyes, a straight nose, a small mouth….and 2 moles on her stomach.  She was, I think, based at the main women’s prison, the Cascades Female Factory, but was probably allowed (‘assigned’) to work outside. Her conduct record tells us that in general she appears to have behaved well and that in 1846 she was recommended for a pardon, which was approved on 23 November 1847. For details of life at the Cascades Female Factory see here.

The convict records also show that in May 1843 Harriet Longley was given permission to marry another convict, Thomas Jarvis. He had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1833, transported for stealing a handkerchief from a clerk as he walked across London Bridge. For that Jarvis, who was then 19, had been given a sentence of transportation for life. When one sets this sentence against that meted out to Harriet Longley, we can, perhaps, recognise that mid-19th-century justice, while harsh in so many ways, had taken into account the dire straits in which that young woman had found herself. And had had some pity.

The granting of her pardon is the last glimpse I have of Harriet Longley. Now free, she fades once more into the past.I wish I could see for her a happy future.

The Female Convicts Research Centre, Inc is packed with interesting information about transported prisoners and Libraries Tasmania is a model provider of freely-accessible online records.


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Lock-Down Research: The Sitting Room, 7 Owen’s Row, Islington, 1855

Drawing, Sitting Room, 7 Owen’s Row, Islington; Richard Parminter Cuff (British, 1819 – 1883); brush and watercolour and gray wash over graphite; 2007-27-57. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

I have a memory of this watercolour coming up for auction in the early 1990s, although I can no longer identify the sale. It caught my attention then because it is showed the interior of a house that once stood next-door-but-one to my own. At that time I was unable to contemplate buying it, even though it was so decorative and apposite, but the memory of it stayed with me and yesterday, now in lock-down, I idly searched the internet and with pleasure found that the image was now in the public domain, part of a Smithsonian collection.

The caption to the water colour gives some information but I thought I would see what I could do to amplify it now that so much material is available on the internet and I have plenty of time to indulge in idle research.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised how easily I uncovered the reason why the artist had painted the scene. For in the 1851 census I found the artist, Richard Parminter Cuff, living in that house, 7 Owen’s Row in Clerkenwell, a short distance south of the Angel, Islington.

This is the earliest photograph I have found of Owen’s Row, showing it in 1946 after the ravages of war had taken their toll. 7 Owen’s Row is the 5th house from the right, the second in the row of lower houses. Built in 1775, it comprised a basement, ground floor, first floor, second floor and attic, with two rooms to each floor. The photograph shows the damage done to the row during the 1940 Blitz. In fact, by then three houses (numbers 11 to 13) had been demolished – you can see the wooden buttress supporting the end wall of the terrace. To the far left of the photograph had stood Dame Alice Owen’s Girls’ School, opened in 1886.

Dame Alice Owen’s Girls’ School at the beginning of the 20th century. No 7 Owen’s Row will be on the far right of the photo

The basement of the school was being used as a public air raid shelter when, in the evening of 15 October 1940, it received a direct hit. The building collapsed, killing about 150 people.

Until 1959 numbers 6-10 Owen’s Row remained standing but were then demolished because a new building for Dame Alice Owen’s Girls’ School was to be built on land immediately opposite.

Although in the late-18th century the Owen’s Row houses do seem to have been in single occupation, by the second decade of the 19th century most contained at least two households. This remained so until towards the end of the 20th century.  At the time when Richard Cuff was living at number 7 the local papers frequently advertised rooms – or floors – to let in Owen’s Row. In the mid-1850s the weekly rent for one room on the second floor of an Owen’s Row house was 5 shillings. This is now my bedroom.

The majority of the male occupants of the houses were printers, jewellers, clockmakers, or workers in allied trades. The women were lodging house keepers, dressmakers and milliners. The households at no 7 might, in 1851, have been considered slightly more genteel than most. For when that census was taken Richard Cuff, described as ‘artist, engraver (architectural etc)’, was living at number 7 with his younger brother,William, a ‘bookseller -collector’. They constituted one household. The other was headed by John Peacock, ‘Baptist minister at Spencer Place Chapel’, and comprised his wife, son (a printer) and an 18-year-old ‘house servant’. The Chapel was small and situated in a very poor, densely populated area a little to the south of Owen’s Row. That the Cuff brothers should be sharing a house with a non-conformist minister may not have been entirely fortuitous their father, John Harcombe Cuff (c.1790-1852) being a dissenting minister back home in Wellington, Somerset.

Thus, we know that when he painted the watercolour in 1855 Richard Cuff had been living in 7 Owen’s Row for at least four years. However, sometime between 1855 and the next census in 1861 he moved, becoming a lodger in a house in Cumming Street, off the Pentonville Road. By this time his brother William had gone into business as a bookseller with another of their brothers, first in Preston and then in Dover. This could have been a factor in Richard Cuff’s decision to move.

From my knowledge of the proportions of the houses I would suggest that the watercolour is of the front first-floor room of number 7, showing just one of the room’s two windows. Although It is impossible to tell from the 1851 census how the two households were deployed around the house, I suppose we must assume that this room was most likely to have been one of those rented by the artist and his brother. In a search through the local paper, The Clerkenwell News, I found, dated 5 June 1858, an advertisement, headed ‘Unfurnished Apartments’ –  ‘To be let, at 7 Owen’s Row, near the Angel, a First Floor and another Room, with use of Kitchen; healthily and cheerfully situated; good references given and required. No other lodgers’. Could this have been inserted at the time when Richard Cuff left the house? Were these his rooms?

Now that we know a little more about the background of the house and its inhabitants let’s look more closely at the decoration of that room in August 1855. Here’s the watercolour again.

Note the plaster moulding frieze, with dentilling, around the ceiling edge, and the marble fire surround. These look entirely typical of the late 18th century but, alas, the originals have long since vanished from the remaining houses so I’m unable to make a direct comparison.

I suspect that there would originally have been a wooden dado rail running round the room but that, considered dated, had already been removed, allowing the wallpaper to flow from ceiling to skirting board.

The wallpaper looks fairly typical of that fashionable in the 1840s/1850s, at a time when printing machines had brought the use of wallpaper within the reach of all but the poorest.

The window we see is hung with light curtains – perhaps those reserved specially for the summer -and are of printed chintz or muslin.  They fall generously, as was fashionable, held back by metal (brass?) tiebacks. As I mentioned, the room has two windows, so the volume of the material in that area would have seemed generous as it pooled to the floor. We can see one shutter in the embrasure; these would, of course, have been pulled across in the evening.

The furniture dates from the earlier part of the 19th century, falling under the general heading of ‘Regency’. The 1858 advertisement that I quote above indicates that the first floor of 7 Owen’s Row was let unfurnished so perhaps we are reasonably safe in concluding that the furniture belongs to the Cuff brothers. In which case to my mind they show rather good taste in matching the style and simplicity of the furniture to the proportions of the room. I’m a little intrigued that one of the pieces, that standing under the window, is a work – or sewing – table. Was it merely decorative? The feet both of it and of the central table end in neat brass castors, facilitating easy movement.

The floor appears to be covered, right close to the skirting board, by a carpet – doubtless of English make – light in colouring. The drugget, rather oddly placed between the worktable and the central table is, of course, lying in front of the artist as he works and is, perhaps, there to protect the carpet from his paints. More usually one might expect to find it under a dining table, catching stray crumbs. A patterned hearth rug with a green border lies in front of the metal fender.

Because it is summer the grate is covered with a chimney board, to provide decoration and give some protection against the intrusion of falling birds and insects at a time when the chimney was not in use.

Among the ornaments on the mantle piece are, at each end, a pair of hand-held fire screens, probably made of papier-mache. Tasselled bell pulls hang at each side. Did the Cuffs ring and young Eliza, the ‘house servant’, answer?

As to the room’s decoration as it relates to the Cuff brothers’ trades – were the books lying on the central table part of William’s stock or collection? And was the picture hanging over the mantle piece one of Richard’s engravings, for it certainly appears to be in black and white. And are the other two, more colourful, pictures examples of his painting?

I do wish I could exercise a Street View-type camera and swivel the room around to look out of the window. For the view in 1855 would have been so very different from that of the present day. For then, running along the other side of the narrow Owen’s Row street, was  the New River,  bringing water from Hertfordshire to its final destination, the New River Company reservoirs just across the road, behind Sadler’s Wells. It was only in 1862 that the New River outside Owen’s Row was covered in. So, looking out of that window, Richard Cuff’s gaze would have travelled over that narrow width of running water and onto the gardens of houses fronting St John’s Street, which led up to the Angel.

And what of the rest of Richard Cuff’s life? I can see that by 1871 he was living at 101 Englefield Road, still in Islington, but to the east of Owen’s Row. He and two of his sisters were the only occupants, apart from a servant, of a comparatively large house. And then by 1880 he had moved again and was now the sole lodger at 5 Thornhill Square, Barnsbury, the house of a ‘commercial agent’and his family. There Richard Cuff occupied two rooms on the first floor and one on the second. All were unfurnished, so perhaps we can picture his elegant Regency furniture, his pictures and his matching papier-mache handheld fire-screens decorating those rooms. It was here that he died on 11 October 1883. He left well over £6000 and, to the British Museum, two letters he had received from John Ruskin, together with many proofs of engravings he’d made for Ruskin. The latter being an exacting master we can assume that Cuff’s engravings were of a high quality.

We’ve caught the merest glimpse into the life of Richard Parminter Cuff and, along with everything else that we will never know, I am left wondering about the woman standing in the sitting room of 7 Owen’s Row in August 1855? On the reverse of the watercolour is a study of the head of a young woman. The information given here – – gives the date ‘1885’, but that must be a typo for 1855 – the artist died in 1883. Was the head intended for the figure of the woman? Who was she? and why was she left unfinished? There is a novel to be teased from this picture.


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