Thanks to the power of blogging, a 120-year-old family mystery was finally cracked.
Family lore asserted that a mysterious relation called Harriet had a lovechild with Edward VII, and that their daughter, Violet, became a silent movie star. In 2020 I told their remarkable true story, but the identity of Violet’s father remained a mystery. Then, in 2021, I received a startling message from someone who could finally reveal his true identity …
Back to the beginning
Letters from my husband’s grandfather told the story of two mysterious relations — sisters Emma and Harriet. Tantalising tales about Harriet claimed that she had been a nurse to Sir Frederick Treves and had cared for King Edward VII during his famous appendectomy. Afterwards she had stayed with the royal family, but had become pregnant, perhaps by the king himself, and had moved to America, where her daughter, Violet, had become a silent movie star called Violet Vale.
But who exactly was Harriet, and was anything about this unbelievable story really true?
For years, her relationship to my husband and any evidence of her life eluded me. Then, in 2020, I smashed a long-standing brick wall and finally found Harriet’s place in the family tree — she was a first cousin of my husband’s great grandmother. Born ‘Harriet Knights’ to a single mother, she used her step-father’s surname, Horlock, all of her adult life. With that knowledge I was also able to piece together much of her life story. And it turned out that many of the rumours were rooted in truth; Harriet was indeed a nurse, and she was the mother of not just one illegitimate child, but three (a boy and two girls)! She and her two daughters, Violet and Dolly, had indeed emigrated to America, where Dolly and Violet performed not as silent movie stars, but featured dancers on Broadway.
However, many questions remained unanswered. In particular, I had no proof that Harriet had nursed the king, and certainly no evidence to suggest that he was Violet’s father … though Harriet had worked as a masseuse not far from royal residences. Sadly, she has no living descendants, so DNA analysis is impossible. My research also brought up several new mysteries. For example, why could I find no record of Dolly’s birth, why did both of Harriet’s daughters call themselves Violet, and why had Violet’s young widower travelled to London in 1931 and donated a letter from President Roosevelt to the British Library in her memory?
Despite there being many threads left untied, I shared Harriet’s story here on my website in a two-part blog with a belief that I had found as much as it was possible to know without a time machine. But I was in for a HUGE surprise …
An exciting message
On Easter Day 2021, I received an intriguing message via my website from Christian Moxon; he had found my blog posts about Harriet and Violet, and had some information about them to share. I replied immediately, and within hours, I received some astonishing news: Violet was (most likely) the daughter of a baron!
Christian believed Violet’s father to be his ancestor William Henry Fellowes, the second Baron De Ramsey. He put me in touch with his uncle, the Hon. Andrew Fellowes (brother of the current, fourth, Baron De Ramsey), who was able to tell me their family’s side of the story …
Introducing Lord De Ramsey
William Henry Fellowes was born in 1848, the eldest son and heir of the first Baron De Ramsey. He was MP for Huntingdonshire and then for Ramsey, and entered the House of Lords in 1887 when he inherited the barony on his father’s death.
Lord De Ramsey, whose seat was Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire (now Cambs), had been a Captain of the Lifeguards prior to his marriage in 1877 to Rosamond Spencer-Churchill, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. Rosamond, Lady De Ramsey was a sister of Lord Randolph Churchill, making Winston Churchill Lord De Ramsey’s nephew.
From 1891-2, Lord De Ramsey served as Lord-In-Waiting to Queen Victoria. But by the turn of the century, he began to lose his eyesight due to a detached retina. Andrew Fellowes suggested that Harriet might have been his private nurse during this difficult time. … Her daughter Violet was born in a discreet residence on the south coast in September 1900.
Lord De Ramsey’s family, and most of their staff, divided their year between Ramsey Abbey in the summer, Haveringland Hall, Norfolk, in winter (pronounced and often spelled ‘Haverland’; now sadly demolished), and 3 Belgrave Square, London for the social season. Harriet’s Kensington residence, from about 1905, would have been a pleasant two miles’ walk away from the Fellowes’ London address, via Hyde Park.
In 1915, Harriet and Violet travelled to New York to start a new chapter in their lives. Meanwhile, Lord De Ramsey was a civilian POW in Germany. He had travelled there for eye treatment in May 1914 and was detained in a sanatorium when war was declared. During his detention he ‘became quite blind’. He returned to England in October 1915 after fifteen months in captivity; tragically, exactly one week earlier, his son and heir, the Hon. Coulson Churchill Fellowes, who had been a military POW, had died in London from war-related illness.
By now you might be wondering how the Fellowes family knew about Harriet and Violet. How exactly do our family stories come together? About thirty years ago, they received a mysterious packet of letters from their solicitor’s vault …
Letters from America
After the death in September 1924 of Lord De Ramsey’s brother, Lord Ailwyn (who had served in Arthur Balfour’s cabinet), Ailwyn’s son and heir Ronald Fellowes, the second Baron Ailwyn, began to receive letters from New York. The writer, Harriet Horlock, claimed that Lord Ailwyn had been paying her a twice-yearly allowance on behalf of his brother and had promised Harriet that she ‘could always depend upon receiving this money’. Her last payment had been in June 1924.
Violet also penned a letter on her mother’s behalf. She wrote:
[My mother] tells me that Lord De Ramsay [sic] agreed to pay £100 yearly to her for life. Such a sum I think you will realize is not sufficient to support one’s self and also rear a child with. Any education which I have had has been paid for by my mother with money she earned from her duties as a nurse.
Now that she is past the days of active work, and also in very poor health, it seems very unfair that her only means of support should suddenly cease.
I, of course, do my best to help her, but my means of earning a living – I am a dancer – is not conducive of a steady income.
Lord De Ramsay, although responsible for my being in this world, has done nothing at all to aid me in living a happy life, which I think is most unfair and now for my mother to be so treated seems too much. Perhaps if you would discuss this with him, he would be willing to do something – if not for me, at least to protect my mother from want in her declining years.
I hope you will be so kind as to give me an early reply, as it is causing my mother much unhappiness.
Lord De Ramsey knew the truth, of course, but he may not have been well enough to discuss it with his nephew; he passed away in May 1925. The news of his death soon reached Harriet, who wrote that this was a ‘very serious matter’ to her. Harriet evidently became increasingly frustrated by the silence from the Fellowes family, and in July she intimated that if they didn’t act soon, she was willing to go to the press: “I hope you will be able to arrange this matter for me as I don’t wish to make it public for my daughter’s sake and also for Lord de Ramsey’s family. If I do not receive a satisfactory reply from you, my friends are willing to assist me to return with my daughter to England and have this matter settled fairly.”
A private investigator on the case
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Fellowes family was understandably suspicious of what was, at that time, a common scam. Their lawyers, Messrs. Trower, Still & Keeling of Lincoln’s Inn, contacted counterparts in New York, Laughlin, Gerard, Bowers & Halpin, who hired a private investigator. The detective was instructed to ‘follow Miss [Violet] Horlock for some time to see with whom she associates away from home.
On 1 April 1925 the investigator, H. C. Craig (HCC), sent his first brief report. He had confirmed that Harriet and Violet lived at 302 West 73rd Street, Manhattan, where they had resided for six months. Violet, a dancer known on stage as ‘Vale’, was single and Harriet was a widow, who was hard of hearing. Violet had finished an engagement with the Ed Wynn company at the Globe Theatre on 25 March and was seeking another engagement. Prior to this address they had rented a furnished apartment at 72 Riverside Drive, Manhattan and the janitress there called them ‘very nice people’.
The detective’s next report of 10 April 1925, along with the lawyers’ accompanying letter, show that rather than seeking evidence for the credibility of Harriet and Violet’s claims (which was probably impossible), the women’s moral characters were under scrutiny. Violet’s prior theatre company was ‘favourably known for the clean type of its stage productions’ with ‘nothing of a suggestive character ever being permitted in the lines or the performances.’ Violet was said by unknown sources at the Globe Theatre to be ‘very well thought of’ and a ‘very good girl while she played in the Grab Bag Company’. She ‘did not have any man call on her at the Theatre after the show.’ Their former landlady confirmed that the women ‘did not have any parties or men call’ and she ‘considered them respectable persons.’ Violet was also said to have ‘made good money while working’ and ‘paid the rent very promptly’.
In spite of these complimentary testimonials, HCC concluded that ‘There remains only one thing left to do and that is to have her shadowed in order to further support the information obtained.’ However, the packet of letters does not include any further communications from the private investigator or American law firm.
Violet’s Broadway career
As well as shedding light on the Fellowes’ investigation of Harriet and Violet, the investigators’ reports confirmed my prior research about Violet’s work as a dancer on Broadway. She was indeed the Violet Vale whose entry on the IBDB database listed credits in five productions from 1921-25, the last of which was The Grab Bag, which ran for about six months until March 1925. According to the investigator, in that show Violet had ‘played in a special act with two other girls, and … her pay was above that of the regular chorus girls.’ The show had then gone on the road to Boston but Violet had not gone with the company as she did not want to leave her mother.
While in The Grab Bag, the only person who called on Violet after the show was another performer, Catherine Earl, who ‘was playing with Elsie Janis at the Fulton Theatre’. (Elsie Janis was starring in her own revue, Puzzles of 1925, in which she was attempting to popularise the tuxedo for women). No further credits are listed in IBDB for Violet Vale after The Grab Bag, probably because she married in 1927. (I wrote about Violet’s marriage in Part 2 but it’s worth mentioning again here that her marriage record stated that her father’s name was William — ).
The De Ramseys had received reassurance that Harriet and Violet were ‘respectable’, but unfortunately, the surviving communications do not reveal whether Harriet’s allowance was ever reinstated. Tragically, Violet died of TB in 1929 two years after the death of her only child, an infant son. However, after Harriet returned to England in the 1930s, she lived comfortably in Paddington until her death in 1945, which suggests that someone was still supporting her.
Meanwhile, the potentially scandalous papers (six letters and the detective reports) were placed into a vault by Lord De Ramsey’s solicitors, where they stayed for several decades in a sealed envelope, until they were rediscovered in the 1980s. The Fellowes family had been searching for information on Harriet and Violet for many years before Christian stumbled across my blogs. It is marvellous to realise that if I hadn’t posted about this story on my website, I would never have heard from them.
Looking for evidence
Now that I knew that Violet’s father was likely to be William Henry Fellowes, Baron De Ramsey, could I find any more evidence to place Harriet in his household in around 1899-1900? Unfortunately, Andrew informed me that the De Ramsey archive at Huntingtonshire Archives offered no further clues. However, since the last place I could pinpoint for Harriet’s employment was Islington Union (workhouse) Infirmary in 1892, one potential source of evidence was employment records of the Poor Law Unions.
Harriet had worked as a nurse in workhouse infirmaries since at least 1881, when she was enumerated in the census at Poplar & Bow Sick Asylum. When she registered the birth of her first child, John, the following year, she gave her occupation as Workhouse Nurse. The 1891 census showed that she was employed at Islington workhouse, and in July 1892, newspapers reported that she requested a testimonial from the Guardians of Islington Union. Did she leave Islington workhouse infirmary at that time for employment with the De Ramseys? It might sound unlikely that a workhouse nurse could find employment with such a prestigious family. However, in the 1901 census, Harriet, then the head of a household, stated she was a private nurse. Could she have worked as a private nurse for Lord De Ramsey, helping him as his eyesight deteriorated?
I headed to the National Archives to pore over the Poor Law Union correspondence books in series MH 12 as I knew that they often recorded employment details of staff. As well as looking at Harriet’s departure from Islington in 1892, I hoped to learn more about her entire nursing career. For anyone whose ancestors were employed by a Poor Law Union, I highly recommend dipping into this resource.
When Harriet began working for Islington Union two days before Christmas Day, 1890, her application showed that she was to start on a salary of £20 per annum, and would receive rations, lodging, washing and a uniform.
Harriet’s employment record revealed all of her experience as a nurse thus far. I discovered that she had joined Poplar Union as an assistant nurse just two days before the 1881 census. Over the next decade she had worked at the union hospitals of Holborn, Chelsea and Camberwell, and also been engaged twice as a private nurse.
Each time she had changed jobs, the reason given was ‘voluntary resignation’. Although better opportunities might have fuelled some of the transitions, Harriet’s pregnancies also made it necessary for her to leave her positions. A gap in her employment record from 1882-3 aligns with most of her pregnancy and the first four months after the birth of her first child, John, while her first period of ‘private nursing’ from 1884-5 very possibly coincided with her pregnancy with Dolly, and indeed may have been a cover for that ‘indiscretion’. However, the second private nursing engagement, from 1886-7, was stated to be for William Robinson of 2 Cornwall Rd, Notting Hill, whose testimonial secured her next position at Camberwell in 1887. (It may have been a very short-term post, as in July 1887 Harriet applied for a nursing position at Bethnal Green, though her application was unsuccessful — see clipping below). Unfortunately I have been unable to trace Mr Robinson to gain insights into his social status. Charles Booth’s London poverty maps of the 1880s-90s show that Cornwall Road (now Westbourne Park Rd) was primarily ‘Middle Class, well-to-do’, but fringed with pockets of extreme poverty.
In the Correspondence book for Islington Union, June-December 1892, I saw that Harriet had offered her voluntary resignation from her post as a Day Nurse on 4 July, and that she had been replaced by one Emily Smith. However, no information was provided about who would receive the requested testimonial. My next hope was that information about where Harriet went next might be found in the Islington Union Minute Books for 1892, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but unfortunately they gave no further insights. Nonetheless, it was satisfying to see Harriet’s resignation and request for a testimonial recorded in the Minutes.
If Harriet was in the baron’s service, she must have worked for him between 1892 and 1899. However, I still have no proof that she was ever his nurse. Neither do I have definitive proof that Violet was Lord De Ramsey’s daughter, but in my opinion, the letters are very compelling.
So, the mystery of Violet’s paternity appeared to be solved. But what about the claims by my husband’s grandfather that Harriet had worked in the royal household? Was that simply a part of her story that had become confused over time? After all, a baron was considered a member of the aristocracy.
Amazingly, only four days after I received the first message from Christian Moxon, I was alerted to another comment on my blog, which led to exciting new clues suggesting that she did indeed provide services to the royal family.
The message came from a third cousin of my husband, who was also looking into Harriet’s story. Firstly, I was delighted that she was able to provide me with my very first photograph of Harriet. I believe that it shows Harriet standing in front of her home in Paddington — I visited her 1939 address recently and took a picture of the doorway (numbering may have changed since then but it is a row of nearly identical houses). I know from a passenger list that Harriet was 5’3, so the next time I’m on the street I’m tempted to measure the height of those railings!
The cousin also provided me with a new photograph of Harriet’s oldest daughter Dolly with her husband, Orville. You can learn more about Dolly in Part 2.
I was also thrilled to learn that some royal heirlooms, believed to be Harriet’s, had been passed down that branch of the family. This beautiful brooch was a piece of royal presentation jewellery, which I discovered was given to staff by Princess Mary of Teck (later Queen Mary) between 1901-1910.
The family had also once owned what they knew as “Queen Mary’s umbrella”. And they had a postcard, sent by Harriet at New Year 1904 to Mary Ann and George Read (her aunt and uncle and my husband’s 2x great grandparents) from Sandringham — the winter residence of the royal household!
FindMyPast has a database of Royal Household Staff up to 1924. It’s interesting that a Harriet does appear in lists in 1901, but there’s no surname, and the context and salary suggest that the Harriet recorded there was doing a much more menial job than private nursing. However, perhaps Harriet provided nursing care at Sandringham unofficially while visiting as nurse to Lord De Ramsey. The De Ramseys’ summer home, Haveringland, was only 30 miles from Sandringham, and the royal family and De Ramseys were well acquainted. As well as Lord De Ramsey’s role as Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra was a godmother to Lord and Lady De Ramsey’s eldest daughter, also named Alexandra, and the queen attended her wedding in 1904 and signed the register. Alexandra Fellowes’ autograph book is packed with signatures of royals, and even some of their famous mistresses!
Andrew Fellowes asked me if I had any photos of Violet, who might have been his grandfather’s half sister. I was sad to say that I did not have a single one. However, it made me more determined to mine any theatre archives for any surviving images.
The New York Public Library has a huge archive of photographs from Broadway and I was able to find several images from one of her shows, Poppy. However, there was no individual photo with Violet’s name attached.
But finally, in the New York Evening Post, via nyshistoricnewspapers.org, I found what I was looking for. Violet is named in a photograph of four bloomer-clad dancers in Poppy (1924). I assume from the list of names that she is the woman furthest on the left. Although her features are indistinct, I was absolutely over the moon to see her face for the first time.
Thanks to messages from the Fellowes family, I now know that my husband’s second cousin twice removed was probably the daughter of a baron and a step cousin of Sir Winston Churchill! It’s been absolutely fascinating to learn about the De Ramseys and to hear their side of the story; I really felt like I had found the other part of a two-piece puzzle. I was equally delighted to find out more about Harriet and Violet as individuals. Harriet had raised Violet (and her first daughter Dolly?) with the funds from her nursing career, and both daughters had enjoyed careers on Broadway. They were strong, independent women who weren’t afraid to fight for what they believed was owed to them. It’s amazing to think that Harriet, an illegitimately born single mother of three, once an East End workhouse nurse, might have worked for a baron, stayed in the royal household and received a thank you gift from the future queen. And I suspect that she ultimately secured the financial support that she politely demanded, enabling her to finally live out her retirement comfortably until her death in 1945.
The End. ?
Bonus Story: The Mystery of William Henry Fiveash
Since writing my blogs about Harriet I’ve also heard about another royal rumour in the family!
Harriet had three close relations all called Emma Horlock. One of them was her step-sister, the oldest child of her step-father William Horlock, whose name Harriet adopted. Emma was just a few months older than Harriet.
As a young woman in 1891 she was working as a housemaid at Byron House School in Ealing, and in 1893, she married a valet, Henry Fiveash. Just one month later, she gave birth to a boy, William Henry Fiveash. But within a year, Henry Fiveash died at Mount Vernon Consumption Hospital in Northwood, leaving Emma a widow with a baby.
In 1900, Emma remarried to James Erasmus Woollard and they had two daughters. In the census the next year, teenage William Henry Fiveash was living with his grandfather, William Horlock. William had also raised Harriet’s illegitimate son, John, so he was clearly a very generous family man.
William Henry Fiveash married and had a family, and his granddaughter Judi contacted me last year after reading my blog. She had always been told that Henry Fiveash was not William’s real father, and moreover, that his biological father was in fact a member of the royal family! I wondered if this could have been a version of Harriet’s story attached to the wrong person, but Judi has discovered that she does not share any DNA with descendants of Henry Fiveash’s siblings. So who was his father? There’s no sign of Henry in the 1891 census, and no clue as to who he was a valet for. Could his employer have been an aristocrat? And is it possible that he could have arranged a marriage of convenience between a heavily-pregnant Emma, and Henry, who must have already been very ill with TB?
In the 1940s, Emma and her husband and daughters emigrated to South Africa, where Emma lived until her death in 1948. Emma’s descendants in South Africa knew nothing about her first child William Henry Fiveash until her great grandson Gary researched her family history. Gary also found me through my Harriet blogs!
So, the family legend continues to evolve. What more is yet to be discovered?! I have a feeling that any day now, another exciting message about Harriet or her relations will appear on my website. And if it does, I’ll let you know!
Thank you very much to the Fellowes family for their generous permission to share family photographs and records, to brilliant genealogist Kelly Cornwell for consulting the Islington Union Minute Books at the LMA, to a cousin (who wishes to remain anonymous) for the photos of Harriet, the brooch and postcard, and to cousins Gary and Judi for sharing the story of their great grandmother Emma and the mystery of William Henry Fiveash’s origins.
A version of Harriet’s story was published as ‘In Search of a Legend’ in Family Tree Magazine, November 2021. For movie rights, please contact me. 😉
Updated on 21 Oct 2022 with newspaper cutting about Bethnal Green Board of Guardians.