Who Was Harriet Horlock? Part 1: A Genealogical Puzzle

I have a tantalising family legend I’ve wanted to tell, which includes generations of independent women, rumours of royal affairs, emigration to America, a letter to the President, and even the birth of the movie industry. However, the relationships between members of this family are so confusing that I have been hesitant to share it.

A recent blog post by David Annal of Lifelines Research – ‘Don’t Believe the Hints‘ – gives an account of the meticulous research he did to trace a female ancestor for whom records were inconsistent and elusive. Ultimately, this painstaking work and creative problem-solving avoided him ending up ‘with someone else’s ancestors!’ It inspired me to tackle my story in two parts; in Part 1, I’ve challenged myself to explain the work I have done to find the true origins of my most enigmatic and intriguing ancestor. As in David’s excellent example, shortcuts such as Ancestry Hints were not equipped to the task of unpicking the complex threads of her family. For anyone with a brick wall, I hope that this might give you both some ideas of new places to look, and hope that a stroke of luck may be all it takes to finally find answers! In Part 2, I’ll investigate the legends and stories that were passed down about the mysterious Harriet.

My interest in (obsession with?) Harriet started several years ago, when I started researching my husband’s ancestry. My mother in law gave me copies of a tree and some letters about her family, both written by her father, Alfred ‘Alf’ Saword. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet my husband’s grandpa, so I am very grateful that he wrote so much down for future generations.

Alf’s tree revealed that his parents were first cousins. However, I’ve since discovered that they were (probably) also second cousins. His parents were James Saword & Mary Jane Read – who always went by ‘Jennie’. James was the son of Charles Saword & Emma Read, while Jennie was the daughter of George Read & Mary Ann Knights. Emma and George Read were siblings, and Mary Ann Knights was first cousin to both of them!

James Saword & Jennie Read – first cousins & probably second cousins (I have not found baptisms for Charlotte & Jane Brightan)

In Alf’s letter, he addresses some errors he has noticed in an autobiography that had been written by his brother in 1975, and tells a very intriguing story:

‘He refers to my mother being Grandpa [George] Read’s only daughter, but my chart shows two others, Emma and Harriet. … These were children from an earlier marriage. Soon after Harriet was born his first wife died, leaving him with 2 young children so he re-married. I do not know the name of his first wife but my mother told me this and I did know Emma and Harriet.

When they grew up and left home, Harriet became a well qualified nurse working with Sir Frederick Treves, the foremost surgeon of his day in England. He operated on the king for appendicitis in 1902 and Harriet stayed with him during his convalescence and with the family for some years after. She travelled with the Royal family to their various castles and estates in England and Scotland, and when they entertained parties for pheasant or grouse shoots, their retinue would send unwanted birds to relatives and friends. I can remember a decorative display of pheasant tail feathers on the wall of our house at Southend-on-Sea which came from that source.

After Sir Frederick Treves retired Harriet emigrated to the U.S.A., married, and had one child (Violet) who grew up to be a film actress in the days of silent films. Her ‘stage name’ was Violet Vale. Violet died early from tuberculosis and soon after her death her mother returned to London and lived in a hotel for a short while and died from a heart attack. My mother and Uncle Jim Read arranged for her funeral and disposed of her few possessions in accordance with her Will. My mother brought back a few mementoes to Ramsgate, including Violet’s cremated ashes in a small urn. She sprinkled the ashes over our rosebed. Aunt Emma left home and married Mr. Horlick but he died after a few years and she was left a widow, without children, …’ He ends by explaining that Emma had cared for his grandparents George & Mary Ann Read in their old age.

On Alf’s tree, Harriet and Emma Read were squiggly names floating sideways next to a confident row of George & Mary Ann’s children. I had to find out more!

I got to work and soon learned that the name of George Read’s first wife was Emma Elizabeth Pearl. George and Emma married in 1853, and in 1855 they had a daughter, Emma Jane Read. So far, so good. However, Emma (George’s wife) died less than a month after her giving birth to baby Emma, and there were no records of Emma and George having a daughter called Harriet. I searched for Reed and Reid as well as Read. I looked at records back several years before they married. I looked at Harriet Reads with a different mother’s maiden name, and traced each possible candidate forward either on censuses or by infant death records, to rule them all out. And I drew a blank. I also looked for an adult Harriet Read on censuses, as well as any records for her daughter Violet. Finally, I searched for Harriet Read’s death. Again, just crickets.

Next, I turned my attention to George and Emma’s daughter Emma. I found that Emma Read had married William Horlock (not Horlick) in 1890, when she was 35. He was 56 and a widower. Emma’s father, George Read, was an Inspector with the Metropolitan Police, and William Horlock was a Police Sergeant. There is an oddity on the marriage certificate. You can see that Emma has signed her name ‘Emma Jane Read’. However, the witnesses are George Read and Emma Horlock. Was this down a clerical error?

William Horlock & Emma Read’s marriage, showing Emma Jane Read and Emma Horlock’s signatures
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: p93/pau1/036

William Horlock and George Read were work colleagues, and, I imagine, good friends, but they had also been family long before William married George’s daughter. William Horlock had in fact been married twice before. His first wife, Emma Priest, had died in 1875. William and Emma Priest had three chidren, the oldest named Emma. By 1890 she was 26, and this was the Emma Horlock who had witnessed her father’s third marriage. In other words, William’s daughter and his new wife now had the same name (which is not uncommon). William’s second wife was Eliza Knights, who he had married in 1876. She had died just the previous year (1889), having given William only one child, who didn’t survive. Eliza Knights, William’s second wife, was the sister of George’s wife Mary Ann. So, William had been George’s brother in law, and was now his son in law. This also meant that his daughter Emma was marrying her step-uncle!

Multiple connections between the Reads, Knights and Horlocks

I was able to follow Emma and William Horlock’s story beyond 1890. Alf had said they were childless, and that William died after a few years of marriage. In fact they had three children, and though two died as infants, one lived to be 70. They also enjoyed more than 20 years of marriage, until William died in 1911. So, it seemed that I had found Emma and disproved some of Alf’s story while uncovering another complex family branch. Meanwhile, Harriet, with her fascinating life story, was still a complete mystery.

Then, in 2018, I connected online with someone else trying to answer the question ‘Who Was Harriet’! Julia was the wife of another descendant of Charles Saword and Emma Read. Although our families had had no recent contact, she had been in touch with Alf back in the 1990s, and had received another much shorter version of Harriet’s story from him, with the added detail that Harriet was nurse to both King Edward & Queen Alexandra. Like me, Julia was determined to find out more. Most excitingly, she also had a version of the Harriet story from another relation – Alf’s cousin. Just to confuse things, the cousin’s name was Violet Read. However, she was a granddaughter of George & Mary Ann Read, born in the 1900s. It was in fact Violet’s father, Jim Read, who had arranged Harriet’s funeral.

Violet’s letter provided a lot of additional details. She reveals that Harriet in fact had two children – Violet and Dorothy (Dolly) (and to add even more confusion, letter-writer Violet also had a sister called Dorothy!) According to Violet Read, Harriet was known to her as ‘Aunt Harriet Horlock’, but was referred to by her father as ‘Cousin Harriet’, though Violet believed that Harriet was in fact her father’s half-sister; clearly there was much confusion and a sense of secrecy regarding the exact relationships. Violet Read stated that when Harriet died in England, her father, Jim, had to contact Dorothy in Chicago – now a married woman. She also stated that Violet, who as well as being an actress was a ‘very good swimmer’, married a Mr Katz but then died in her early 20s of TB, shortly after childbirth (the child didn’t survive). 

There were even family rumours that Harriet’s daughter Violet was the illegitimate daughter of a member of the royal family. Violet Read referred to it as a ‘skeleton in the cupboard’. ‘The story is that she [Harriet] had the girls by the King who financed her and when she came back to London she was quite rich and was known as ‘Mrs Horlock’ but as far as I know she never married! She had a flat in Cambridge Terrace Paddington and I remember going there with some of my family to watch the Funeral Cortege of King George V in 1936. We watched from her balcony. Edward VII had a penchant for lovely ladies! (Lily Langtree!)’

As you can see, Violet’s version of the story was much more colourful but also had a very significant difference from Alf’s – the Harriet in her story was not Harriet Read, but Harriet HORLOCK.

With this piece of information, Julia had made significant progress in finding actual recorded evidence of Harriet’s life in England and America, including census records and her daughter Violet’s birth certificate. In Part 2, we’ll look at Harriet’s unusual life – but here, I’ve simply summarised her name, estimated year of birth, marital status and place of birth in ten records:

Throughout these 65 years of records, Harriet consistently gave the name Harriet Horlock, both as a single and married/widowed woman. We know she was an unmarried mother, so it is likely that she went by ‘Mrs Horlock’ later in life for appearances’ sake. Harriet was inconsistent with her age. However, the occupation of nurse gives confidence that we have the right woman. And earlier records consistently place her birth at around 1863 in Bow (which has fallen within Stepney and Tower Hamlets)- which seemed likely to be her true time and place of birth.

However, before 1881 the trail was cold. There was no sign of Harriet Horlock in the 1871 census, when she would have been a child. And I still had no idea how she fitted into the family. She was not a Read like her sister, Emma. However, since Emma Read had married William Horlock, was Emma her sister in law?

The records gave some additional clues that suggested I was on the right track:

When Violet was born, Harriet gave her home address as the address of William & Emma Horlock. She clearly was closely related to them.

In 1901, Harriet lived with Frederick Alfred Horlock – her ‘brother’ – and his wife Emma Rebecca Horlock – her ‘sister’. I theorised that Frederick must be a brother of Harriet (and Emma her sister in law) – a lead at last!

Harriet, Emma Rebecca and Frederick Alfred Horlock at 20, Ivydale Rd, Camberwell
Class: RG13; Piece: 508; Folio: 60; Page: 4, Ancestry.com. 1901 England Census, 19/6/20

With a bit of research I found that Frederick was the son of Richard Horlock – a brother of William. In other words, he was William Horlock’s nephew. Aha! Harriet must be Frederick’s sister & William’s niece! Adding weight to this theory, Frederick’s mother was called Harriet, and there was a gap among Richard & Harriet’s children where our Harriet fitted nicely. But alas – she was not with the family in 1871, and no birth or baptism (for Harriet Horlock or any name variant) could be found anywhere!

I started to resign myself to Harriet’s identity being a mystery forever.

I decided to put the Reads and the Horlocks on ice for a while and research the Knights family. When looking for Jane & James Knights, the parents of Mary Ann (George Read’s wife) and Eliza (William Horlock’s second wife), I found that in 1891 they had a 9-year-old grandson living with them called John Knights.

I had previously noticed that in 1901, William and Emma Horlock had an 18-year-old son with them – John Horlock – who had not lived with them in 1891. I had assumed he was a son of William & Eliza (and most other researchers on Ancestry have made the same assumption), but I had not been able to find him in 1891. I now felt that this could be the same John who was with his Knights grandparents in 1891. But why had they given him the name Knights? I knew that his birth had been registered as John William Horlock but I now looked carefully at his birth registration at GRO.gov and saw that the mother’s maiden name was blank. This was odd. Next, I searched for more records about John, and fortuitously discovered his baptism. Rather than being the son of William and Eliza, he was the illegitimate son of Harriet Eliza Horlock!

John William Horlock’s birth certificate
Certificate ordered via GRO.gov.uk, 2020

If John was the son of Harriet, and he was the grandson of James & Jane Knights, was Harriet the daughter of James & Jane Knights? That just didn’t add up; Jane was born in about 1813, which would have made her at least 50 by the time Harriet was born. It also still didn’t explain why Harriet had the name Horlock. However, I now knew that Harriet’s middle name was Eliza, and I knew that Eliza Knights, James & Jane’s daughter, was married to a Horlock. Therefore, could Harriet be Eliza’s daughter (making her son John the great grandson, rather than grandson, of James & Jane)?

I realised I had never looked for records of Eliza Knights before she married William Horlock. I found her in 1871, living in Mile End. She claimed to be a widow, and there were two daughters living with her; one was Emma Knights, born about 1855, and the other, a 7-year old girl with the surname Knights, who would have been born in about 1863. Yahoo! But wait, her first name was … Thompson!!?

Eliza, Emma and Thompson Knights – close-up (source reference below)
Eliza, Emma and ‘Thompson’ Knights at 59 Jubillee St. Mile End. Her sister Harriet is listed next to her in the same house.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 556; Folio: 95; Page: 11; GSU roll: 823398, ancestry.co.uk 19/6/20

Since Thompson is not a common name for a little Victorian girl I was convinced this was in fact Harriet, and it was very much a EUREKA moment! Sure enough, I found a birth record for Harriet Eliza Knights, which proved that Harriet was born illegitimately to Eliza in Bow, in 1863.

Harriet Eliza Knights’ birth certificate
Certificate ordered via GRO.gov.uk, 2020

Harriet had taken the name Horlock when her mother married William Horlock in 1876, and she used her step-father’s surname for the rest of her life. I had finally identified Harriet Horlock!

Harriet’s name and birth certificate give no clue to her father’s identity (at that time the father could not be included on a birth certificate of an illegitimate child), though the odd name ‘Thompson’, found only in the 1871 census, may be a clue. Interestingly, though possibly coincidentally, Eliza’s sister Harriet, who lived in the same house as her in 1871, had married a Thomas Thompson in 1861, but he seems to have died in 1870.

Although Harriet’s father was unknown, I could finally place Harriet in the family tree. I could also verify and dimiss some of the information from Alf & Violet. She was not George Read’s daughter from a previous marriage. This meant that Jennie Read was indeed George’s only daughter. And she was the cousin of Violet Read’s father Jim, as Jim had said. She was also the cousin of Alf’s mother Jennie, as per Harriet’s death certificate. ‘Cousin’ had not just been used loosely in these cases.

Simplified family tree showing that Harriet and Jennie were first cousins

However, no sooner had I solved one puzzle, than another emerged:-

I had already found Harriet’s ‘sister’ Emma, so I thought – and just as Alf had described, she was the daughter of George Read & his first wife, and she married a Mr Horlock. I had therefore already assumed that Alf had therefore been wrong about Harriet and Emma being sisters, thinking they meant sisters in law. So who was this Emma Knights, apparently a real sister to Harriet?

I couldn’t find the birth of Emma Knights. But then, a lightbulb illuminated over my head! Now that I knew Harriet was not the sister of Frederick Horlock, she MUST be the sister, not sister in law, of his wife Emma Rebecca. However, I had already located Frederick and Emma’s marriage record, and knew that she was the daughter of George Jones. On a hunch, I decided to search for an Emma Jones with mother’s maiden name Knights; BINGO! Emma Rebecca Jones was another daughter of Eliza Knights, b. 1855, making her the sister, or more likely half sister, of Harriet.

Her first names now also had extra meaning – Eliza’s younger sisters Emma and Rebecca had died just five weeks apart in 1853 (aged 12 and 10), so it makes perfect sense that she would name her daughter in their honour. Although Emma’s birth was purportedly legitimate, there is no marriage record (that I can find) for Eliza and George Jones, she does not use the surname Jones on the 1871 census, and when she married William Horlock she stated she was a spinster. However, it is likely that Eliza had a significant relationship with George Jones, because while looking in vain for a marriage, I discovered that they had had another child together in 1853 – a boy also called George Jones – whose birth was registered in Wingfield, in Eliza’s home country of Suffolk. In both of these birth certificates, George Jones’s occupation was Butler. I have been unable to find a convincing candidate for him in the census records.

In 1861, Eliza Knights was working as a servant, using her maiden name, and the census states she was unmarried. Meanwhile, her children George and Emma Jones lived with their grandparents James and Jane Knights in Mile End, but, like John in 1881, were recorded with the surname Knights. A third grandchild of James and Jane, Eliza Knight aged 1, also lived there. This turned about to be yet another illegitimate child of Eliza! Eliza Jane Drew Knights was born in Mile End in 1859. Sadly, she died in 1865, aged 5, when Harriet was still a toddler. I have found no records of a Mr Drew in Mile End.

Knights family with three of Eliza’s children
1861 England census, Class: RG 9; Piece: 296; Folio: 88; Page: 4; GSU roll: 542609, accessed via ancestry.co.uk 23/6/20

So, Eliza had four illegitimate children. It seems that her first two children, George & Emma, had the same father, George Jones. Her third child, Eliza, may have been the daughter of a Mr Drew, and finally, Harriet’s father may have been a Mr Thompson. It’s noteworthy that Eliza went from being a servant in St Pancras 1861, and living separately from her children, to being a flower maker living with her daughters Emma and Harriet in 1871. In between, Harriet had been born at Bellevue Place – a pretty row of Victorian terraces that still exists today, hidden behind a wall (see picture below). According to one website, these were cottages for employees of Charrington Brewery. It seems likely that the father of at least one child was helping to fund her improved circumstances. It is less likely that her parents – East End grocers – were in a position to support the family.

Just five years later, Eliza, a four-times unmarried mother, became the wife of a police sergeant. Earlier, I mentioned that Eliza and William Horlock had just one child, who didn’t survive childhood. It’s particularly sad that she named this child Eliza Jane, like her daughter who had died aged 5, and this Eliza Jane also died, aged 3 1/2.

Children of Eliza Knights

Returning to Harriet’s sister Emma, when she witnessed her mother Eliza’s marriage to William Horlock in 1876, she signed her name Emma Rebecca Knights (I only viewed this record online for the first time this week – showing that evidence can be right under our noses). In 1881, Emma lived with her mother and stepfather, and gave the name Emma Horlock. Given that she was an adult when her mother married, and William already had a daughter called Emma Horlock, it’s surprising that she (or whoever filled out the census return) used the name Horlock, though using the name of her legitimately married mother and step father would have provided some respectability and prevented questions about Eliza’s previous relationships. Emma’s whereabouts and choice of surname in 1891 are unknown, but in 1898 Emma used the name Jones when she married her step father’s nephew Frederick Horlock, and through their union she became once again … Emma Horlock! Frederick and Emma Horlock did not have children together – so this may have been the couple Alf was thinking of when he said Emma and Mr Horlick [sic] were childless.

After William Horlock died in 1911, his widow Emma Horlock nee Read moved to Southend to care for her father and stepmother George & Mary Ann Read at 53 Bournemouth Park Road. Confusing matters once again, Emma Horlock nee Jones/Knights, and her husband Frederick, had also moved to Southend (17 Guildford Road) by 1911, and the two Emma Horlocks, exactly the same age, now lived less than a mile from each other! They were step-cousins, as well as Emma Read being, technically, Emma Jones’s step-mother. I would love to think that they were also best friends and met up several times a week for tea.

Thankfully, in 1893, William’s daughter from his first marriage, also Emma Horlock, married, becoming Emma Fiveash, and taking one of three Emma Horlocks out of the equation. Still, Alf and Violet had clearly fused the other two Emma Horlocks – Harriet’s sister and George’s daughter – into one. Although they may have known both Emma Horlocks personally, their letters were written many decades later, and it’s easy to see why they were confused.

If you’ve read this far, thank you, and I welcome feedback about whether I have effectively explained the relationships in this very complicated family. In Part 2, many of these names will resurface, so this detailed background information will be useful as we investigate the tantalising stories about Harriet and continue to unravel a very tangled and secretive web of relationships, which, I’m afraid to say, continues into the next generation!

Was Harriet a nurse for Sir Frederick Treves and the King?

Did she have two, or three illegitimate children?

And was her daughter Violet a silent movie star?

Some answers are coming soon!

Read Part 2: The Skeleton In the Cupboard

This blog is dedicated to Julia Greenwood, a wonderful partner in sleuthing who passed away in 2018 before we were able to solve the puzzle.

10 thoughts on “Who Was Harriet Horlock? Part 1: A Genealogical Puzzle

  1. This is an impressive piece of research into the mysterious Harriet. I have to confess that I’m glad I didn’t have this puzzle to solve! However, Harriet sounds an intriguing person to investigate. She certainly had a colourful life. With regard to her identity, there were some classic problems of illegitimacy leading to different surnames at birth, faulty family information and a lot of inter-relationships to untangle. It was really interesting to see how you managed to unpick all these knots and get to the truth. It must have taken a lot of determination and hard work. Looking forward to hearing more about Harriet in your next blog.


  2. Please contact me on. I have some information about Harriet and violet Horlick that may only be known to my maternal family. Many thanks Christian


  3. Hi,
    I am really interested in your story as I have been researching Harriet Horlock for a couple of years now. Alfred Charles Saword is my first cousin (2nd removed) and I have just stumbled upon you blog page. It would be great if you could contact me.

    Best wishes,
    Alison Hughes


  4. My grandfather was William Fiveash son of Emma Horlock and HenryFiveash . She married Henry when 8mohths pregnant in Nov 1894 and gave birth in January. I have had my DNA done and I am not related to Henry Fiveash. Was this an arranged marriage of convenience? Henry was a valet.. to who? There was always talk that I was descended from royalty! I need to find my heritage.Emmas father was a mason and in the police he brought up William her son… was there a cover up.


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