Archive for category Lock-Down Research

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: elizabeth.crawford2017@outlook.com.

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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.

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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: https://www.openbookpublishers.com//download/book/1204 

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 ancestry.co.uk 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.

I don’t know where Winifred Castle was educated but it is likely that she stayed on at school until she was 17 or 18, for by 1925 she was working as a bank clerk for the National Provincial Bank, banks at this time tending 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.

Winifred Hartley was probably a founder member of the Banstead Arts Group c. 1949. Certainly by 1950 she was the group’s treasurer, a former banker being an eminently sensible appointee. I don’t know whether she had taken any professional art training but 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 died there in January 1994. A descendant has produced a family tree on Ancestry, which even includes photographs of Winifred. However, although I sent out a message I’ve so far had no response, so cannot include any of the images here.

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?

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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 – https://tinyurl.com/w3ofoaz – 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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