The Artist and the Pacifist — Two brothers’ WW1 stories

Last year I wrote about the WW1 experiences of my great grandfather Harry Underwood, a POW, and his older brother Harold, a recipient of the Military Medal who was killed in action in 1918. 

In honour of Remembrance Day 2022, I’d like to tell the WW1 stories of two of my husband’s great uncles, brothers Algernon and Sidney Saword. Their experiences couldn’t be more different from each other: Born in England, they were recent immigrants to Canada when war broke out; Algernon (‘Algy’) was quick to sign up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and soon found himself back in Britain and on the battlefields of Europe, while Sidney, whose religious beliefs made him a non-combatant, served with the CEF in Canada on the railways. 

Growing up in Southend

Sidney James Saword (b. 1894) and Algernon Leslie Saword (b. 1895) were the two oldest surviving sons of James Saword, a builder’s clerk/agent/merchant, and Jennie Saword (née Read). Their first baby boy had died in 1892. James and Jennie’s oldest child was Daisy, and their younger children were Edith (‘Edie’), Edward (‘Ted’), and Alfred — my husband’s grandfather. 

Daisy, Sidney and Algy were born in Thornton Heath near Croydon, but the family moved to Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea in about 1897. From 1901 until 1912, James, though not trained as an architect, designed several local buildings, eventually taking an office in Council Chambers. By 1904 the family had moved into a brand new home that James Saword had designed himself. He named 53 Bournemouth Park Road ‘Saxted Villa’. Next door were Jennie’s parents, retired detective inspector George Read and his wife Mary Ann, in an identical house called ‘Alpha Villa’.

In 1908, Sidney and Algy (aged 14 and 12) were in court charged with letting off fireworks in the streets! They were cautioned and discharged. By 1911 the boys had become young men, and embarked on careers: Sidney, 17, was working as a clerk and Algy, 15, was an Architect’s Pupil. 

Algy had artistic flair from a young age. Alfred recalled that when the family moved into Bournemouth Park Rd (before Alfred was born), Algy ‘persuaded my parents to let him paint a frieze all around the front living room, between picture rail and ceiling. They agreed on condition that he restricted it to rural scenes, with no soldiers or battles.’ Two of Algy’s cartoons, which were pasted into family photograph albums, are treasured possessions.


It seems that life in Southend was good for the Saword family. However, in 1912, they decided to up sticks and emigrate to Canada!

James left first, followed by Algy (who traveled from Southampton to Quebec, in July, on the Cunard SS Ascania). Finally, the rest of the family followed. According to one account, Jennie sold their furniture to pay for their passage, but Sidney paid for his own ticket. The Sawords settled in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. They owned a house at 953 Banning Street, which still exists today (the photo below is from Google Maps). A photograph from c1914-16 shows James sitting on the porch step; above him are other family members, a dog and two Union Jack flags.

One possible reason for their emigration was religion. James and Jennie were stated to be Baptists in 1916, and may also have been associated with the Plymouth Brethren, which Sidney had embraced in his youth. I would like to research that aspect of their lives, to find out if there was a mission movement within their church community that might have led them overseas. Alternatively, they might have moved for economic opportunities. Jim Blanchard, author of ‘Winnipeg 1912’, describes a boom period in the city:

At the beginning of the last century, no city on the continent was growing faster or was more aggressive than Winnipeg. No year in the city’s history epitomized this energy more than 1912, when Winnipeg was on the crest of a period of unprecedented prosperity. In just forty years, it had grown from a village on the banks of the Red River to become the third largest city in Canada. In the previous decade alone, its population had tripled to nearly 170,000 and it now dominated the economy and society of western Canada. As Canada’s most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse centre, with most of its population under the age of forty, it was also the country’s liveliest city, full of bustle and optimism.

Sidney soon found work with the railways, and Algy pursued his ambition to become an architect, working for Icelandic architect Paul Clemens. Clemens designed numerous structures in the Winnipeg building boom from 1908-1914. In 2019 I was contacted by Christian Cassidy, a blogger of historical Winnipeg who has researched Clemens’ work and architectural legacy (which he describes as ‘strong, middle class buildings’) and also researched Algy’s life as part of a series on Manitobans in WW1. He lives just a block from Algy’s former home, and told me that Algy would have worked at the Argyle Building, designed by Clemens, which is a landmark historic building in Winnipeg.

The Saword family photograph album shows them enjoying summer picnics and a winter tobogganing party in Winnipeg. However, they apparently found the winters very hard; on average, January days in Winnipeg don’t get above -10 celsius. 

Canada at War

When Britain declared war on Germany, Canada, then a British dominion, was automatically at war with Germany as well. Sidney and Algy were both old enough to enlist. However, as Alf tells us, although just 19 months apart in age, his big brothers were ‘very different. Sid became religious when in his teens, and joined the Plymouth Brethren. Algy liked the outdoor life, first in the Scouts, then the Canadian Territorials, and finally volunteered for war at the age of 18.’ The brothers who had once set off fireworks together in the street now embarked on very different journeys with very different outcomes.

*I believe I have identified them correctly but all four Saword brothers looked so alike that in family photo albums it is hard to be certain who is who!

Algy’s War

Digitised service records for Canadians who served in WW1 are available to download for free from Library and Archives Canada. Algy’s service record comprises 32 pages, beginning with his Attestation Paper when he enlisted at Valcartier, Quebec on 23 Sept 1914. Valcartier was the primary training base for the first Canadian contingent. His medical exam reveals that at 18 years and 8 months old he stood 5 feet 7 inches tall, with light brown hair and grey eyes, and smallpox scars on one arm.

As Alfred had said, prior to the war Algy had been volunteering with the territorials. He joined the 90th Winnipeg Regiment (founded in 1883) in 1913, and took part in regimental sports days, including a boxing match and 200-yard footrace. 

Christian Cassidy told me that Algy ‘likely would have taken the streetcar [from home] down to the Osborne Barracks which is long gone. Camp Hughes is just a field now, but I think there are tours of it and some virtual mapping is being done.’ According to the Canada Parks website, Camp Hughes ‘contains the most intact First World War battlefield terrain created for training purposes in Canada.’

When war broke out, Private Algernon Saword was assigned with many other volunteers from the 90th Regt. to the 8th Battalion (also known as the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion). They were nicknamed the ‘Little Black Devils of Canada’ because of their distinctive dark rifle green uniforms, which looked almost black. Their cap badges featured the Devil holding a cup. Algy was in E Company; reflecting emigration to Canada in that period, a list of soldiers in E Company revealed that many of them had been born in England, as well as in other British and Commonwealth countries.

Altogether, 30,000 Canadian volunteers sailed for Canada in October 1914. Algy’s company left Quebec on 1 October on the Franconia and arrived in England on 14 October. They trained for combat on Salisbury Plain, where they practiced bayonetting with sacks of straw. At Christmas, Algy sent a portrait of himself in uniform as a postcard to Sidney with a note: ‘have spent a proper good time in London and Southend – I could not get leave for xmas. Best love – Algy’. In January 1915, the 8th Bn. had a church service and parade at Stonehenge. It must have seemed quite an adventure.

8th Battalion – Winnipeg Rifles on Salisbury Plain – Bayonet practise with bags of straw, Canadian War Museum
90th Rifles of Winnipeg, 8th Battalion on a parade at Stonehenge, Salisbury Plains, England printed on a postcard, Dalhousie University Archive

The 8th Bn. were shipped to France in February 1915 and from there travelled to Belgium, where they remained, literally entrenched, until the Armistice. The Canadian Expeditionary Force Research Group 1914-1919 (CEFRG) has published details of the 8th battalion’s movements on their website. I found it particularly moving to see photographs of groups of ordinary soldiers sitting by their tents and playing cards. There are even photographs of the battalion’s ‘trench hound and regimental mascot’, the latter being a small monkey. A slideshow of photographs set to soldiers’ songs, ‘8th Battalion, 90th Winnipeg Rifles in the Great War‘ can also be viewed on YouTube.

Algy, no. 900, was a Signaller. Signallers were close to frontline troops, providing communications back to the Company and Battalion HQ. They sometimes used wired telephones, and  at other times sent messages by morse code or using lights. ‘Signallers were also used in forward positions to assist the artillery and provide information on their enemy targets.  In these positions, often isolated, the signaller became vulnerable to enemy shelling and attack, and many signallers lost their lives.’1

In May 1915 Winnipeg newspapers reported that Algy had been wounded. That report was followed by others in July that he was missing, and then a POW.

Winnipeg Tribune, 18 May 1915 (Algy is on the far left)
Winnipeg Tribune, July 22, 1915 — Algernon’s first and last names are incorrect (with thanks to Christian Cassidy)

Algy’s service records show that there was indeed considerable confusion over his status. He was ‘unofficially reported to be a prisoner of war’ and although he did have a POW record, which stated that he was ‘Blessé et fait prisonnier avril 1915 combat d’Ypres.’ (wounded and taken prisoner April 1915 while fighting at Ypres), later records show that he could not be found: ‘Originally reported missing and subsequently unofficially P of W. Every effort has been made to locate as P of W, but without success’. Finally, records stated that ‘for official purposes [Algy was] presumed to have died on or since 24-4-15’.

In other words, by the time news reports appeared in Winnipeg listing him among the wounded/POWs, he had already been deceased for three months. 

Part of Algernon Saword’s service record, Library and Archives Canada

Canadian Unit war diaries have been digitised and are available to download for free from Library and Archives Canada. The CEF 8th Battalion’s war diary is very faint and difficult to read, but records that in late April they were fighting at Gravenstafel. Their actions were part of what would later be known as the 2nd Battle of Ypres.

War diaries – 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 1915 p. 6, RG9-III-D-3, Volume number: 4918, Microfilm reel number: T-10710–T-10711, File number: 369, File part: 1=1914/10/18-1915/12/31;2=1916/01/01-1916/06/30, Library and Archives Canada.

There, on the 22nd April, the Germans employed gas (chlorine) as a weapon on a large scale for the first time in the war (learn more about this terrible milestone at the Canadian War Museum’s website). The battalion diary states that evening that ‘Reports reached Headquarters that trench on left of [3rd brigade?] had returned from the trenches overcome by gas’. 

On the morning of 24 April, 1915 [Battle of St. Julien], the Germans released another cloud of chlorine gas, this time directly towards the re-formed Canadian lines just west of the village of St. Julien. The diary states that they saw a ‘bluish cloud’. On seeing the approach of the gas cloud, word was passed among the Canadian troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs and place these over their noses and mouths. The unit’s popular commander, Lt. Col. Lipsett, earned credit for quickly suggesting this primitive form of protection, though it has also been attributed to the Head of the CEF’s Field Laboratory. Either way, it was insufficient; ‘after the Germans had retired most of our men collapsed from the effects of the gas’. Overnight, another attack filled the trenches with gas and as you can see in the diary excerpt below, ‘all the men in the trenches except the reserves were dead from fumes.’2

The CEFRG website describes the terrible impact of the attacks on 24 April: ‘in a few moments the 8th had its first experience of this ghastly new weapon of modern warfare. The effect was paralyzing. Half the Little Black Devils succumbed to the poisonous fumes.’ Chlorine gas destroyed the mucus membrane and caused soldiers to cough and spit blood. After death they immediately turned black. A soldier arriving at Ypres on the 22nd was haunted by seeing the aftermath of a gas attack: ‘When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I’ve never forgotten nor ever will forget it.’

Although Algy had died on (probably) 24 April 1915, his family continued to receive monthly salary payments for him until 1916 and it was not until November 1916 that his official status was changed to ‘presumed dead’. The family’s hope of his survival must explain the very poignant census record taken on 1 June 1916. Algy was listed with his other family members at his home address in Winnipeg. The ‘O’ next to his name indicates that he was serving Overseas. However, in fact he had died more than a year before.

Census of the Prairie Provinces, 1916, Image No.: 31228_4363961-01016, Library and Archives Canada

Registers were made of death and initial burial information for CEF soldiers who were killed in action in WW1 and WW2. These have been digitised and are available for free from Library and Archives Canada or via Algy’s entry in this ‘Circumstances of Death’ Register provides scant details, with no burial information.

Page 1 of 2, Circumstances of Death, Volume Number: 31829_B016701 Page 673, from

Later in life, Alfred knew that his brother had died of gas poisoning, so somehow this fact must have been reported to his family. Perhaps, as was often the case, a surviving officer wrote to Algy’s mother. I hope that this insight gave the family some closure, though it cannot have brought them much comfort.

When Algy was killed in such a terrible way, he was only 19, a creative young man with a promising career ahead of him. Returning to Christian Cassidy, he wrote: ‘Had the war not taken place, I think Algy would have received a decent education in the “bread and butter” projects a working architect or draftsman would need to do to earn a living. Clemens seemed to stay connected with the architecture community through his involvement with the architecture association and I think the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture was in operation by that time, so that would have bode well for him completing a formal education in the field.’ Perhaps, without the war, there would be Saword-designed buildings in Winnipeg today.

Algy has no known grave and is commemorated at the Ypres (Menin Gate) memorial, Belgium and on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.  

He was eligible for the 1914-15 Star, which was sent to his parents in England (they returned there in 1916), along with a memorial cross, and a plaque and scroll — which were not despatched until December 1925. 

Algernon Leslie Saword (1895-1915)

Sidney’s War

Due to his religious beliefs, Sidney didn’t volunteer for military service, and halfway through the war, in the 1916 census, his occupation was a stenographer for CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway).

In October 1916, the Saword family sold their house in Winnipeg, and all of them except for Sidney left Canada, traveling third class on the Andania from New York to Plymouth. The passenger list stated that their future intended residence was in ‘British possessions’ (ie Canada), but in fact, they lived in England for the rest of their lives.

Although I don’t know for sure why they returned to England, I feel it’s likely that they wanted to find out what had happened to their missing son. Canadian Military HQ and hospitals were in the UK. In England they would also be in a more familiar setting, with wider family on hand for support.

They could not immediately move back into their home in Southend (wartime rules prohibited renters from being evicted) but in 1917 James Saword was awarded government contracts building aerodromes in Dymchurch, Hythe, and Folkestone, so the family lived for a while in Kent.

James Saword (right) at Dymchurch aerodrome, c1917

I assume that Sidney stayed on in Canada alone because conscription had been introduced in Britain in January 1916, but hadn’t yet come to Canada. It is also possible that Sidney stayed for work. However, I do wonder if his refusal to fight due to religious principles, in the light of his brother’s service and death, made family relationships deeply strained. Having lost one son, were James and Jennie relieved, resentful, or ashamed of their other older son’s unwillingness to sign up? Was it easier for everyone at that time to put an ocean between them? Or, conversely, did he offer to stay in Canada in case any news was sent there?

Plymouth Brethren, like many other non-conformist denominations in Canada, had hoped for exemption from conscription, but above all that conscription would not be implemented at all. This was not only due to a pacifistic stance but also an unwillingness to accept government authority versus divine authority. My knowledge of Brethren doctrine is minimal, but I was struck by the letter that two Plymouth Brethren in Canada wrote to the country’s Prime Minister in 1916. The writers reminded the PM that conscientious objection had been permitted in Britain, and asked for the same ‘liberty of individual conscience’ to be protected in Canada. At the same time they emphasised their patriotism.


Despite their efforts, conscription did arrive in Canada in August 1917 and Plymouth Brethren were not exempt. Sidney, then 23, was not in good health — he had taken time off work due to anemia — but he was declared fit for service and was drafted in October 1917. The attestation paper states that he was a rate clerk, 5’7.5”, 126 pounds, with brown hair and grey eyes — almost identical to Algy.

When Sidney refused the draft, he was taken to court. However, ‘The Brethren took the ground of being recognized as non–combatants as distinct from conscientious objectors.’ Sidney therefore joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force like Algy, but rather than fight the enemy directly, he would help with the war’s administration.

Nevertheless, when Sidney wrote about his stance decades later in his autobiography, he thought of himself as a conscientious objector:

‘When World War I broke out and conscription was put into force, a number of us young Christians had prayer together to determine what the mind of the Lord was and most of us applied for exemption as conscientious objectors. Proving God in those trying times was a great help to me spiritually and many opportunities of witnessing for Christ were presented.’

In March 1918 Private Sidney Saword was assigned to the 1st Depot Battalion Manitoba (DBM) Regiment, working as a railroad employee. Despite his non-combatant role, Sidney’s digitised service record still contains 26 pages. Unfortunately, it reveals nothing of the nature of his work, or where he was posted. However, it does reveal that throughout Sidney’s short service he suffered from some nasty skin problems, diagnosed as impetigo, scabies over acne, and furunculosis (boils). He received medical attention until he was ‘much improved’. Within three weeks of the end of the war in November 1918, Sidney was discharged.

Part of Sidney Saword’s service record, Library and Archives Canada

After the War

Sidney Saword stayed in Winnipeg, working for the CPR, until 1920. In March 1919, he placed an ad with the Winnipeg Tribune; he was ‘anxious to get information’ about the fate of his brother Algy, who ‘was considered killed in action’. It suggests that he still hoped that Algy might have survived. Algy’s regiment was welcomed back to Winnipeg on 6 May 1919. The men left behind them 1,633 fallen comrades. Perhaps it was Sidney who was finally able to find out some details of his brother’s death from those who returned, and could put his family’s minds at rest.

Winnipeg Tribune, March 4, 1919 (with thanks to Christian Cassidy)

From about 1920, Sidney felt a calling to become a missionary. ‘After Armistice, I was reinstated in my former office and although I was being prospered materially, I had great exercise about discerning the Lord’s will for my future.’ He had been interested in ‘outdoor work’ (mission work) since learning about it in Sunday School. However, I wonder if the untimely death of his brother also spurred him to leave his commercial day job in Canada and take on this spiritual quest. 

Sidney travelled back to England in 1921 to operate a Gospel tent in Essex (Sidney is pictured left next to a large tent, place and date unknown). He considered mission work in Japan, before deciding to go to Venezuela. He arrived in Puerto Cabello a week before Christmas, 1922. Four years later he married Eleanor Christine Scott in Canada and the couple became missionaries together in Venezuela. They welcomed five children by 1936.

Sidney’s autobiography, Fifty Years with the Gospel in Venezuela (1975), recounts his life as a missionary. Many of his descendants still live in South America and Canada. Sidney Saword died in 1988, aged 94.

Ted Saword

Very sadly, Algy was not the only Saword brother to die fighting for his country. Algy and Sidney’s younger brother Edward, known as Ted, died at sea serving with the RASC near Greece in WW2. Ted’s official date of death was 26 April 1941 — exactly 26 years and 2 days after the death of his brother. Like Algy, he was missing for a long period before being presumed dead, which created a period of financial hardship for his widow and children. 

Edward Saword, 1905-1941

Just as Algy and Sidney were close in age and shared a strong brotherly bond, Ted was very close to Alfred, (‘Alf’), who was just 14 months his junior. And in another parallel, while Ted was deployed on active service, Alf didn’t see combat due to his protected work as a Sanitary Inspector. Instead, he volunteered on the home front as an APR Warden. Had Alf not returned to England in 1916, and had he been called up in WW2, my husband might not be here today.

On this Remembrance Sunday, I think especially about the bravery and sacrifice of Algy and Ted Saword, while also reflecting on the courage of Sidney’s convictions.

I’d like to end this post with a poem. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian physician who volunteered for service at the age of 41. He treated the wounded in the Second Battle of Ypres, during which his friend was killed, about a week after Algy. The day after burying his friend in a makeshift grave with a wooden cross, McCrae sat on the back of a field ambulance, looking out at a field of crosses, among which poppies were blooming, and he wrote the poem that would forever link WW1 remembrance with the poppy. In 1918, while commanding the Canadian Field Hospital near Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia. 

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

–John McCrae, 3 May 1915


  1. A signaller in World War One,
  2. Second Battle of Ypres, Wikipedia
  3. Amy J. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War (UBC Press, 2009, via Google Books)

William Gunton Saword: Part 1 — Clerk of the Royal Yacht Augusta

On 21 June 1764, William Gunton Saword, 24 years old, boarded the Royal Yacht Augusta, where he was to fulfil the duties of clerk. From her Greenwich mooring, close to the Royal Navy Dockyards of Deptford and Woolwich, the Augusta sailed up-river to the City of London or down-river to the mouth of the North Sea, frequently making the crossing to the Continent.

Royal yachts provided private, convenient and comfortable transport for members of the royal family on personal trips and to political appointments. They also had a diplomatic role, providing stylish transportation for British and European nobility, ambassadors and other dignitaries, along with their numerous servants. Yet another task of the yachts was to help mark important royal events and anniversaries with glitz and firepower.

In 1764, the House of Hanover included the royal family of Great Britain and Ireland and the monarchies of many other European states, and inter-marriage was the norm. Indeed, just a few months earlier, HMY Augusta had transported the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick and his attendants to England for his marriage to Princess Augusta, sister of King George III. William was to be right in the midst of these important international alliances.

One of five views of Royal dockyards by Richard Paton, painted for George III c1770-1775. This view of Deptford Dockyard looks down the river towards the church of St. Alphege and Greenwich Hospital; a royal yacht is firing a salute and a barge, flying the Royal Standard, is apparently returning to it.
Royal Collection Trust

The crew of forty was mustered every other month, sometimes on land and sometimes at sea, and taking the muster roll would have been one of William’s responsibilities. On his second day as clerk the roll recorded that the ship had her full complement of 40 men. Muster rolls and paybooks show that while many of the crew came from the local area — William himself had been born in Deptford in 1739 — others came from further afield — like James Sutton from Normskirk in Lancashire, Thomas Garman from Pembrokeshire and Thomas Kindred, the Gunner’s Mate, who hailed from Dublin. 

As you’ll see in the paybook below, when William distributed wages to the crew, he also included a ‘Widow’s man’ — a fictitious crew member whose salary and rations were saved up and given to the widows and families of deceased seamen.

Ship’s paybook for the Augusta showing William Saword and some other crew, including the ‘Widows Man’.
The National Archives, ADM 33/628: Augusta paybooks 1763-9.

William, my husband’s 5x great grandfather, almost certainly had his sea legs before this appointment, and the world of the Royal Dockyards would have been second nature to him. His father and grandfather, both also called William Saword, had worked at Woolwich and then Deptford in different aspects of shipbuilding for the Navy. They were skilled craftsmen and masters of their trades, but they were also literate and business-savvy, carefully negotiating their relationship with the Admiralty, on whom they relied for steady work. 

In 1667, William’s grandfather (b. 1640), a blacksmith, sent a ‘humble petition’ to the commissioners of the Navy at Deptford. He had delivered reeds to His Majesty’s yard at Woolwich and trunnel wedges to Deptford, and these goods ‘were all used since his Majesties blessed Restoration’ but he hadn’t been paid. Moreover, 10,000 spiles had been requested from him by Mr Pett the builder (the ‘Pett Dynasty’ was a famous family of naval shipwrights). William made it clear that although he could make the items cheaply and well, he was unwilling to deliver more goods without at least a warrant showing that the previous goods had been received. He reminded them that he was ‘a poore man, and more a Cripple.’ Additional pieces of naval correspondence indicate that by 1700, he was in a more administrative position, responsible for contracting others to produce supplies. In spite of being disabled as a young man (and possibly from birth), he had his son and heir, William, at the age of nearly 60, and lived to the age of 78. William Gunton’s grandfather died before he was born, but it was his skill and determination that enabled the Saword family to flourish in the royal dockyards.

Petition of William Saward, for a warrant for goods he has delivered to Woolwich yard, and to serve stores into the yards. (1667).  
The National Archives, SP 46/136/472.

William’s father (b. 1700) started out as a shipwright, but by his mid thirties, he was a Clerk in the Store Office, King’s yard. (The Great Storehouse at Deptford, built in 1513, was a two-story building with an attic that stood 35 feet high. It survived until the 1950s.) By 1739, when William Gunton was baptised, his father was a ‘gentleman’. 

John Boydell, A view taken near the Storehouse at Deptford, 1750.
Donald A. Heald Rare Books, Prints and Maps.

Now, three decades later, William was following in his father’s footsteps. But his father hadn’t been his only mentor. At the age of about 15 he had started a seven-year apprenticeship with Charles Carne, his father paying Carne a premium of £21. Charles Carne, gentleman of Paddington, was a master draper and at one point the joint owner of the linen-drapers Carne and Ellison. He was later a Master of the Drapers’ Company. While linen might seem far removed from shipping, Carne’s merchant business required the ownership of sea-faring vessels such as the Grantham. It could well be that William learned the art of a ship’s clerk from him.1

However, William didn’t complete his apprenticeship; on 4 November 1761, two years before his apprenticeship was due to end, he married Frances Raggett, signing the marriage allegation at St Holy Trinity Minories with a flourish. Frances, who signed her own name in the parish marriage register too, was the daughter of Edward Raggett, a master joiner in Deptford dockyard (by 1765, her father retired on a pension after serving there for 63 years). There’s no sign that William took up the Freedom of the Drapers’ Company or of the City of London. Perhaps his father secured him the position on the Augusta before his term ended, or perhaps his desire to marry was so strong that he was willing to break his indenture. Either way, the newly-weds settled in Greenwich, and William embarked (ha!) on his new career. 

As clerk of the Augusta, William had one foot on land and one at sea. The position was based at the Clerk of the Cheque’s office in the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich (now known as the Old Royal Naval College), which was not a hospital in our modern sense, but rather a retirement home for hundreds of naval pensioners. William’s boss, the Clerk of the Cheque himself, was a scotsman, John Maule.

The Royal Kalendar, 1769, p. 138
Google Books.

The Clerk of the Cheque was responsible for mustering and paying workers and managing expenses, such as maintenance and food (victualling).

A document from 1772 lists items that William had purchased for the Augusta — knives and sieves for the cook, a large white stone teapot and a large tin coffee pot, sheets for the state bed, towels, six decanters, two dozen plates and five dozen ‘dorlies’ (doileys (with various spellings) were fashionable ornamental dessert napkins).

(John Cross. Account of timber for which William Saword has been paid for the Augusta yacht and asks for it to be received at Deptford and a bill to be made out. 1772 Oct 14. The National Archives, ADM 106/1208/272).

However, the Augusta was also moored at the hospital when she wasn’t in service — Greenwich Hospital was ‘the London base for the royal yachts from the 17th century to the end of the age of sail.’2 — and William was frequently on board the yacht, whether on a local journey on the Thames, or en route to and from Europe. On water, William’s commander was the ship’s captain, Charles Wray. Earlier in his naval career, Wray had been deployed to America, where in 1748 he captured Spanish and French privateers and took them to Charlestown. In the 1750s he served in the Mediterranean and by 1761 he was in command of the Augusta. Although Capt. Wray was twenty-five years Saword’s senior and an experienced naval officer, he later appointed William Saword as his executor, suggesting a relationship of mutual respect and even close camaraderie. 

The Augusta was one of several royal yachts; a list of the entire naval fleet with every vessel’s commander was published every year in the Royal Kalendar.

The Royal Kalendar, 1769, p. 144
Google Books.

Muster rolls indicate that William also spent time on the Royal Charlotte. He was ‘presst’ from there in 1765. At other times, he was pressed from Paybooks. I rather think he would have been glad to get out of the office.

The muster roll entry for William Saword, April-May 1765.
The National Archives, ADM 36/7109: Royal Navy Ships’ Musters, Augusta muster book 1764-6.

HMY Augusta, which weighed 184 tons and was armed with eight four-pounder guns, was rebuilt from the Charlotte and renamed the Augusta in 1761 (possibly when the engagement was announced between Princess Augusta and the Duke of Brunswick). At the same time, HMY Caroline was renamed HMY Royal Charlotte. The sumptuous refurbishment and new names were in honour of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, bride of George III. The Royal Charlotte conveyed her from Kiel (in present-day Germany) to Harwich, accompanied by warships as well as royal yachts Augusta, Mary, Katherine, and the oddly named Fubbs. Although the Augusta had been renamed before William’s tenure, he was still listed as clerk of the Queen Charlotte in some muster rolls, whether due to habit or confusion!

In 1771, the Augusta was again rebuilt at Deptford. This painting of her launch, purportedly (but quite unbelievably) painted by the 8-year-old son of the king, was not an accurate portrayal.

(Launch of the Royal Yacht ‘Augusta’, Deptford 1771. Royal Museums Greenwich.)

Sources of information on who travelled on the Augusta include the muster rolls, ship’s logs and publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine.

In musters, anyone on board who was not a member of the crew was referred to as a ‘supernumerary’. A list of the supernumeraries on 24 August 1765 included a group of 15 men who worked for the ‘Board of Green Cloth‘ (officials of the Royal Household). They comprised an entire team of kitchen staff, including cooks, pastry chef, baker, poulter, butler and butler’s mate, and several scullery men. Other local passengers recorded in the muster books included Customs & Excise men, and pilots, one of whom was travelling from Trinity House. That institution licensed the pilots who helped navigate shipping in and out of ports and along waterways safely. (To this day it is also the official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, Channel Islands and Gibraltar.)

More pilots were on board the Augusta on 4-5 September, including Cornelius de Boo and Arey Pleuyer, who seem to have travelled between Helvoet Road and ‘Helvoet Sluyce’. Then, on 6 September 1765, at Helvoet Sluyce (Helvoetsluis), a royal party came on board, consisting of ‘His Serene Highness the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick’ and numerous attendants, valets, pages and others.

The master’s and captain’s logs of the Augusta are held at the National Archives. They give a flavour of both the mundane and thrilling activities on board. Thanks to mudlarker Nicola White, who I recently met at an exhibition in Watermen’s Hall, I know that the logs were initially taken on chalk slate boards, and then copied neatly into books later.

Weather was reported obsessively (they were very fond of the word ‘squaly’!) and each day began with an obligatory reading of the ‘Articles of War’. As the muster rolls had shown, many trips were extremely short and mundane, simply delivering people from the dry dock to a moored ship, or between venues along the Thames, but the Augusta also went on longer voyages and was involved in significant events.

On 3 October 1766, the Augusta picked up the newly-wed Queen of Denmark and her entourage at Harwich, where she received a 21-gun salute from the whole fleet. The queen was a British princess, Caroline Mathilda. The prior year she had been engaged to her first cousin, Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, when Christian was 15 and Caroline just 13. In January 1766, wedding preparations were in full swing when Christian’s father, the king, died suddenly. Christian, a teenager, was now King Christian VII of Denmark. On 1 October, the marriage of Christian and Caroline was held by proxy in London (with Caroline weeping violently). Two days later the 15-year-old queen boarded a royal yacht (possibly Mary), which was to take her across the sea to her husband and her throne.

Sadly, although Caroline gave birth to the future Frederick VI of Denmark, the marriage was a desperately unhappy one that ended in divorce, imprisonment, execution of her lover, and banishment, before her death of scarlet fever, aged just 23. She became known as the ‘Queen of Tears’.

(Portrait of Caroline by Catherine Read, 1767 (Public Domain).)

In 1767, the Augusta transported the body of Edward, Duke of York and Albany (younger brother of the king, who had died at sea near Monaco) to Greenwich Hospital, where each royal yacht fired 20 minute guns3. Although it was peacetime, William would have often heard the sound of gunfire — in salutes for royal passengers and also to mark important dates, such as the King’s birthday (on 4 June), the anniversary of the King’s ascension to the throne (25 March), and on the 5 November, the ‘papist conspiracy’ (i.e., the gunpowder plot).

Log book for the Augusta, 3 November 1767, describing the transport of the Duke of York’s body to Greenwich Hospital.
The National Archives, ADM 51/3776.

The King and Queen (George III and Charlotte) travelled on the Augusta several times. The ship’s log records one occasion on 26 September 1771:

At anchor off Deptford Yard at 7am. Lieutenant Perry came on board …  At 10 Capt Wray went on shore, received instructions and Signals…….At 2 o’clock His Majesty accompanied with the Queen and Duke of Cumberland came into the stage, manned the yacht and gave 3 cheers, saluted and immediately displayed our Colours which made a magnificent appearance.

It must have been exciting for William to travel to cities in Europe collecting princes and princesses, queens and dukes. I like to think that his responsible position meant that he was able to interact with the yacht’s prestigious passengers, or at least with their entourage. Even if he was not permitted to engage with the royal family, he would have been able to observe members of the nobility at close quarters. I imagine he was immensely proud of his position.

During William’s time on the Augusta, he and his wife Frances were also trying to start a family. Sadly, their first child, Frances, was buried in 1765, and a son, William Henry, was buried in 1771.4 Soon after his son’s death, William Gunton made a significant change to his life that would have enabled him to spend much more time on land; on 5 Feb 1772 he was appointed Butler of Greenwich Hospital. There was more good fortune to come … Just over a week later, he finally inherited his maternal grandmother (Eleanor Wheatley)’s property in Deptford, 16 years after her death. And in 1773, William and Frances had a healthy son, Edward William Saword, who would carry the family’s naval tradition forward another generation. 

At around the same time, the Augusta was renamed the Princess Augusta to mark the occasion of the King reviewing the fleet at Portsmouth. I wonder if the name change was also in honour of Princess Augusta, mother of George III, who had died the previous year. George had also named his second daughter, b. 1768, after her: Princess Augusta Sophia.

On 25 June 1773, King George III boarded the Princess Augusta to review his fleet at Spithead, an event captured in a painting by Francis Holman. 

Richard Holman, The Royal Yacht Princess Augusta with His Majesty King George III on board, reviewing his fleet at Spithead on 25 June, 1773, dated 1774. Mutual Art.

On 24 October 1773, William and Frances Saword baptised their son Edward, probably in the beautiful chapel of Greenwich Hospital. Just a week later, on the last day of October, Charles Wray, Captain of the Princess Augusta, died. William Saword, ‘Chief Butler of his Majesty’s Royal Hospital at Greenwich’, was an executor of his will, a task for which he received £20.

William worked as the Butler at the Greenwich Hospital for more than 32 years. He was there when a major fire destroyed the chapel in 1779, witnessed the lying-in-state of Nelson in the Painted Hall in 1805 and gave testimony in two enquiries into alleged corruption at the institution. He also married two more times. (Part 2 of William’s story, ‘Butler of Greenwich Hospital’, is coming soon!)

Meanwhile, the Princess Augusta continued to play a significant role in British history. In 1795, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (daughter of the Duke of Brunswick and Princess Augusta) travelled on the Princess Augusta to Greenwich Hospital on her way to marry her cousin, the Prince of Wales and future George IV. The marriage would be a disaster. But the optimism and pomp of her arrival was captured in this dynamic engraving by Isaac Pocock, which appeared in the Naval Chronicle. It was fully titled ‘View of the River Thames, with Greenwich Hospital in [the] distance and the ‘Augusta’ Yacht as she appeared on the Fifth of April 1795, with Her Serene Highness the Princess Caroline of Brunswick on board….’ A print of this picture has pride of place above my fireplace.

Isaac Pocock, Greenwich Hospital in the distance and the ‘Augusta’ royal yacht , 5 April 1795.
Royal Museums Greenwich

In 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to build a new royal yacht to replace the famous royal yacht Britannia. The lavish project was heavily criticised, but following the death of Queen Elizabeth II just three days ago, will HMY Elizabeth now be built and launched in Her late Majesty’s honour?

Hanoverian family tree, adapted from


  1. The information I have on William’s apprenticeship bond, published on, is derived from ‘Boyd’s Roll’, 1934 and does not state what art he was to learn; I don’t know if any original sources have survived. Charles Carne was listed as an owner of the Grantham in London Merchant 1695-1774: A London Merchant, by Lucy Stuart Sutherland.
  3. All of the references I have found to ’20 minute guns’ are from interments (on land or at sea). I’m not sure exactly what form this salute took.
  4. Frances and William Henry’s father was William Saword, ‘joiner of Greenwich’; although the timing and place match, the occupation does not, so this may have been another William Saword; research is ongoing.

Please note: I have endeavoured to decode the naval records of the Augusta to my best ability. Useful sources included the Captain Cook Society’s webpage on Musters. However, it is possible that some details have been misinterpreted. I will continue to update this blog as I increase my understanding.

Updated on 16 October 2022 to add information about the Widow’s Man and details of supernumeraries.

Who Was Harriet Horlock? Part 3: Harriet’s Secret Is Revealed!

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. 

William Henry Fellowes, second Baron De Ramsey (photo from Fellowes family collection)

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. 

Lord and Lady De Ramsey in their youth (newspaper clipping from Fellowes family collection)

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.

Globe – Monday 23 December 1901 via Accessed 4 June 2022.

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.

This and all letters and reports below are published with permission from the Fellowes family.

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.

The National Archives MH 12/7392 (Correspondence with Poor Law Unions): Islington 271 (my own photograph)

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. 

The National Archives MH 12/7392 (Correspondence with Poor Law Unions): Islington 271 (my own photograph)

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.

‘Bethnal Green Guardians’, Eastern Argus and Borough of Hackney Times – Saturday 16 July 1887, © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, via

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.

Royal employee?

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!

Marriage of the Hon. Alexandra Fellowes (possibly Violet’s half-sister) witnessed by ‘Alexandra’, Queen of the United Kingdom. City of Westminster Archives Centre; London, England; Westminster Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: CCB/PR/2/1. Digital image via, accessed 4 June 2022.

Picturing Violet

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, 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!

William Henry Fiveash (1894-1956)

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!

Read Part 1: A genealogical puzzle

Read Part 2: The skeleton in the cupboard

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.

A Sense of Duty: 1907 triple drowning in San Francisco Bay

This is a true California story of heroism, murder, and tragedy — with a Hollywood ending. It was first published on Medium in February 2017 and then in the St Paul’s Episcopal Church magazine, Epistle, December 2017.

For four years, I sang at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Burlingame, California. Outside the choir room, there is a plaque that I always found very moving:

In a brave but vain attempt to save the life of Clarence Marshall Dell a cadet of this school George William Smith and John Thomson Brooke both instructors were drowned in the bay of San Francisco on the Fifteenth of August 1907

To the dear memory of the boy and his heroic friends this tablet is placed by the alumni of St. Matthews School

How did a boy and his teachers come to drown in the Bay? Who were they? What was a cadet? Why is the plaque at St. Paul’s, rather than at St. Matthew’s Episcopal School or church, just 1.5 miles south?

As I explored the details of this triple drowning, I discovered incredible heroism, a family beset with tragedies, a connection to New York’s finest architecture, and a link to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

St. Matthew’s Cadets

Cadets in 1907; enrollment was about 120 boys; one of these is probably Clarence Dell (image courtesy of San Mateo County History Museum)

In 1865, St. Matthew’s church was built in San Mateo, which then had a population of about 150 (now >100K). The following year, Rev. Alfred Lee Brewer established a military boarding school for boys, St. Matthew’s Hall (also known as the St. Matthew Military Academy, or Brewer Academy), which offered a classical English education with military discipline. An 1873 marketing piece called it a “family boarding school” where the principal “exercises a fatherly care and discipline … seeking to influence and kindly lead, rather than drive”. However, one former student from the 1880s recalled punishments including whippings, solitary confinement, reduced rations, and weekends of marching.

Most students were boarders from around the West and the Pacific, and even included three Hawaiian princes — nephews of Queen Kapiolani — and the first surfers in California! In 1882, the school moved to an 80-acre site “on the first rise of the foothill”. In 1891, Rev. Brewer’s son, The Rev. William Augustus Brewer, took over as headmaster, and by 1902 the school was called “the best known private educational institution upon the west coast.” When President Roosevelt visited Burlingame en route to San Francisco in 1903, the school’s cadets acted as Guard of Honor.

President Roosevelt greeted by St. Matthew’s cadets

Tragedy Comes to St. Matthew’s

I was able to find seven news articles about the “deplorable tragedy” that occurred at San Mateo Beach on 15th August, 1907. Every report contained some unique information, and there are some inconsistencies (and in one case, what I would deem “alternative facts”!). I have pieced together the events as best I can …

Some of the newspaper headlines

It was the first day of term, a Thursday, at about 5 in the afternoon. A large number of students were “in swimming attended by two instructors”, “where the cadets are accustomed to go swimming” after each day’s session. The teachers were warned by the manager of the beachside swimming baths “to be careful of the rush tide and to keep a close watch over their charges.” The 5-foot waves were “unusually high”.

Clarence Dell, 19, was the first in the water, and “struck out for a raft some distance away”, followed by fellow cadet Earl L. R. Askam, 17. Dell was an “excellent swimmer” and Askam had received one of the school’s military honors in Easter term. However, “shortly after the lads had plunged into the surf piercing screams came from Dell and Askam.” Dell “became exhausted in his struggle against the high waves that persistently tugged him seaward” and called for help. At that time they were 30 feet from the safety of the pier.

Teachers Mr. Smith and Mr. Brooke hastily removed their coats, vests, and trousers, jumped from the pier, and flung themselves into the surf. They “made frantic efforts to reach the boys, both of whom had been carried under by this time.” Smith was unable to reach the boys, but Brooke “snatched [Askam] from the waves as he was on the point of sinking”, removing him from Dell’s grasp. He swam beside Askam, encouraging him to swim to the pier, and eventually managed to push Askam up the pier steps to safety. He then “returned to render further help to Mr. Smith and Cadet Dell.”

“Smith and Brooke were both expert swimmers but they were overwhelmed by the currents” and “the fight against the angry breakers.” “The high tide that was running made further help impossible, and before assistance could be brought all three had lost their lives.

”The description of the drowning in the San Mateo Times is quite horrific.

Rev. Brewer (who had retired as headmaster in 1905 but remained the school’s Rector/Chaplain) hurried to the beach and searched with others for their bodies. They soon found Dell’s, and three physicians were summoned; they attempted resuscitation without success. Search parties sent out several launches, finally recovering the teachers’ bodies at about 10 pm, 8 feet apart and 100 feet from where they had disappeared. “It was 2 in the morning before Mr. Brewer reached home, crushed with the weight of the calamity and worn out with the fatigue from his strenuous labors.”

The following day, the San Francisco Call reported that Rev. Brewer had “telegraphed Smith’s mother and Brooke’s father regarding the catastrophe, but … does not expect to hear from them for a few days.” However, a funeral for Dell was held on the 17th, and he was buried in the Masonic cemetery at Colma.

San Mateo Beach?

The location of the incident was a beach within the Howard Estate — referred to as “San Mateo Beach” or “Burlingame Beach” — located “some two miles from the school”. A late 19th century map (below), shows the “Brewer School”, and “San Mateo Pt.” — now Coyote Point.

U.S. Geological Survey San Mateo Quadrangle, posted to Flikr by Eric Fischer

Coyote Point was an island in 1850, when it was purchased by the shipping firm of Mellus & Howard. The Howard family connected it to the mainland in 1850, and built a pier there to ship out lumber. In 1880, a swimming pool and large bathhouse were added, and the beach attracted large numbers of San Franciscans at the weekend.

Today, Coyote Point Beach is still open for swimming, and there are plans to expand it. However, the informal “Coyote Point Swimming Club” posted this warning about water conditions:

Currents are usually pretty mellow to nonexistent, but can occasionally pull hard, particularly past the rock as you head toward the breakwater/jetty guarding the marina. Note: on a flood tide, the current will be flowing east, out of the Coyote Point cove, which is the opposite of what you might expect. Pay attention — it might be a lot harder to swim back than it was to swim out!

Life Saving Appliances

Both newspapers made a point of stating that in the school’s 40-year history, this was the first fatal accident. I wouldn’t be reassured by that defensive statement coming from my kids’ school today, but perhaps, for a military school that gave regular swimming lessons in the Bay, and considering that the Great 1906 Earthquake had shaken the peninsula just 16 months prior, this was in fact a striking achievement.

Nevertheless, an inquest was held the following week. The coroner’s jury concluded that the drowning was accidental. However, the Howard Estate “was censured for not having a telephone installed at the bathhouse, for calling doctors in case of accident, and also for failure to provide lifelines along the bathing wharf.” By Sept 2, the Howard Estate “installed life saving appliances. They have placed life buoys along the pier and a seaworthy boat is hanging from davits on the wharf.”

Clarence Dell’s Famous Uncle

According to the San Francisco Call “Young Dell came from a prominent family in San Francisco. He was a bright student and had spent several terms at St. Matthews.” Dell’s parents’ names were not reported, but The Churchman highlighted that he was a nephew of “Mrs John M. Carrère, of New York City”, while the San Mateo Times also noted that he was “a nephew of the famous New York architect, John M. Carère.[sic]” Western Architect and Engineer even reported the drowning, in conjunction with the famed architect:

John Merven Carrère (1858–1911) and Thomas Hastings headed Carrère and Hastings, “one of the outstanding Beaux-Arts architecture firms in the United States”, which rose to national prominence by winning the competition for the New York Public Library in 1897. Other notable civic projects included the House and Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill, and the Manhattan Bridge.

Carrère was involved in city planning throughout the nation, helped establish the Art Commission of New York City, and worked with other leaders of the American Institute of Architects to persuade the US Treasury Department to implement the Tarnsey Act, which allowed the federal government to award architectural commissions for its buildings through open design competitions. John Carrère married Marion Sedonia Dell of Jacksonville, FL, in 1886, and they had 2 surviving daughters. Sadly, he also died in a tragic accident, just 4 years after his nephew, when a streetcar collided with his taxi.

Dell Family Secrets

I wondered why, since Dell was from a prominent SF family, his parents weren’t named. A dig into genealogical records revealed several tragedies and scandals in the Dell family’s past.

Clarence’s father, Charles Love Dell, was born in Texas, the son of Colonel Charles Love Dell, a “famous slave owner and rancher”. When Charles Jr. was about 3, his father died, and his mother Amanda married Lewis Birdsall Harris. In 1860, Charles and his younger sister, Marion (the future Mrs. Carrère) were living in Sacramento, CA, with their mother and stepfather, and stepbrother, Lewis. L.B. Harris, a trader from NYC and a VP of the State Agricultural Society, had real estate worth $300K and a personal estate of $50K — about $10M today.

(As an interesting side note, the Harris household also included Hagar Harris, a black woman who was unable to read/write, and her daughter Ina (recorded as “Ind” — denoting a native American), who both came from Georgia (as did Amanda), where it would be 5 more years until the abolition of slavery.)

When Charles was 12, he broke his arm very badly, and was left permanently disabled. Nevertheless, in 1870, his stepfather was the Deputy Secretary of State for California, and Charles, known as “Charley”, was studying medicine. He seemed to have a bright future, but later that year, at the age of 21, he made the front pages of national newspapers — when he was charged with MURDER!

THE SACRAMENTO LOVE TRAGEDY. The Business Manager of the Daily Reporter canes his daughter’s lover, and is shot dead — the young man badly beaten (Chicago Tribune)

This was a famous case in its time, and absolutely deserves its own post. But here’s a concise account: Charles was in love with Miss Sallie Fisher, a “fine looking” girl of 18, and the daughter of the Business Manager of the Daily Reporter, Charles E. Fisher. Mr. Fisher did not want Charles Dell to see his daughter, and warned him that if he found them together, he would beat Dell. On December 14, Dell went to visit Miss Fisher, along with another male friend. Mr Fisher came home, discovering Dell with his daughter, and hit him on the head with a heavy cane, seriously injuring him. Dell warned Fisher that he would shoot if Fisher hit him again. Fisher continued to strike Dell, and Dell shot him. Fisher still continued to attack Dell, and Dell shot him two more times, killing him. Dell then returned to his home, covered in blood. A doctor found that Fisher’s attack had severed an artery in Dell’s head and fractured his disabled arm. At an inquest two days later, four witnesses gave statements, including Dell’s stepfather. Dell was found responsible for Fisher’s death, but due to his physical injuries at Fisher’s hands, he was acquitted on December 29th.

After this disturbing event, Charles Dell abandoned medicine (perhaps due to injuries to his body or reputation) and moved to San Francisco. He seems to have married twice, to Sara and then Alice A. Aylett. Charles and Alice had two sons, William Aylett Dell and Clarence Marshall Dell. In 1874 he formed a business partnership with William Van Buren Wardwell, a wealthy civil war veteran. However, the business must have failed, because by 1880 Charles had become a clerk with the California Pacific Railroad. Wardwell also became a clerk. Within 10 years, both men’s lives were ruined; Wardwell embezzled his employer, was arrested in 1884, and poisoned himself; and by 1890, when Clarence Dell was just a baby, Charles Love Dell became a patient in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane.

Exercise yard at Napa State Hospital for the Insane. By 1891 the asylum had 1,373 patients, double the amount it was built to accommodate. (Napa County Historical Society)

Worse was to come … In 1900, Charles was still in the Napa asylum. Alice was renting a home in Oakland with a daughter, Marguerite (b. 1895 — so presumably Charles was not her father), and poor Clarence and his brother were living in the Ladies Relief Society Children’s Home in the same city. In 1902, Charles Love Dell passed away, and then in 1904, Alice was herself committed to Stockton Insane Asylum! Newspaper articles state that Charles had also died at Stockton Asylum, where his widow was now a patient. Bizarrely, her father, Dr. W.D. Aylett, had been the superintendent of the asylum decades earlier (and I can’t resist mentioning that the resident physician he replaced had been dismissed after shooting his assistant physician in a duel!)

San Francisco Call, May 6, 1904

Newspapers explained that Alice had inherited $20,000 on the death of her father, and her husband had inherited $50,000 from his, but they had lost all of the money on the stock market.

According to the San Francisco Call: “Mrs. Dell is afflicted with the hallucination that she is being pursued by people who wish to do her bodily injury. At night she imagines that they search for her with policemen’s pocket lamps and in order to keep from being awakened by their flashing she sleeps with a light in her room. She has three children. William, the eldest, who is 16 years of age, is away and it is not known where he is; Clarence, a year younger, is at Dr. Brewer’s school in San Mateo, and Marguerite, the girl, is attending the Sacred Heart Convent in this city. Three years ago Mrs. Dell attempted suicide by jumping from a ferry-boat into the bay, but was rescued.” 

The Oakland Tribune reported that the children are “now under the care of L. M. Hoefler in San Francisco”, and that Alice had gone to Sacred Heart to try to remove her daughter from the school; she wouldn’t leave, and instead was “placed in charge of an officer and taken to the Receiving Hospital.” Clarence and his siblings were effectively orphans.

However, by 1904, Clarence’s luck had changed, and he was enrolled at St. Matthew’s. School prospectuses from 1904–5 list his guardian as L. M. Hoefler, and in 1907, Dell’s guardian was his uncle John M. Carrère.

Hoefler was a prominent San Francisco attorney and vice president of the San Francisco Club, under Alma Spreckels. As well as acting as Clarence’s guardian, he represented Clarence and his siblings in their claim to a share of their grandfather’s Texas estate. They were awarded $30,000 in 1908 — too late for Clarence to receive his share.

The San Mateo County History Museum Archives hold hundreds of photographs of St Matthew’s students and teachers from 1900–15. Sadly none of the pictures are named (it was a spooky feeling knowing that I must have seen Dell among them), but they show that school life, though strict, was a privileged and healthy one, full of outdoor sports, military exercises, and even theater. St. Matthew’s cadets went on to study at America’s best colleges. After years of hardship, Clarence, on the brink of adulthood, finally had an opportunity to improve his life — but it wasn’t to be.

The HEROES — Mr. Smith & Professor Brooke

Mr. Brewer “said that he had never known an instance of greater fidelity to simple duty than was shown by these two teachers.” He continues with touching testimonies to their character:

“Mr. Brooke had been with me but two days” “but he had already won my heart.” “Mr. Smith was one of the most lovable characters I ever knew. He had been with me two years and as his character unfolded I daily discovered new traits to admire. I am sure they went to their death with a smile and a sense of duty performed.”

(The idea of them dying with a smile, at performing their duty, seems rather macabre to us now, but fits perfectly with the rhetoric of the “Great War” that lay only 7 years ahead).

Mr. Smith, Assistant in Mathematics and Director of Athletic Sports, was 25. Professor Brooke, an English teacher, was just 22. These brave teachers were just three and six years older than the student they tried so hard to save.

George William Smith hailed from a “noted family” in Colorado Springs, and was a Stanford electrical engineering graduate (1905). Known in college circles as “Denver” Smith, he was a “famous football player” and “college athlete” who had played end on the Stanford Varsity 11 in 1903–05. In a winning Thanksgiving game against The Indians, “Smith kicked goal each time.” Writing this as I watch the 2017 Superbowl, I’m struck by this summary: “Besides the good quality of football that Stanford men displayed, their work was remarkable for its extreme fairness and absence of all unsportsmanlike actions.”

Learning about Denver Smith revealed how common drowning was in that era. A player who played the same position as Smith a year later — “Brick” West — also drowned (in a storm on Eel River) a few months afterwards. Additionally, The Stanford Daily, 27 Aug, 1907, reported that as well as the recent death of George W. Smith, the “famous varsity end”, three undergraduates had also met their deaths that summer — all by drowning! Two were drowned in Lake Washington, when their boat overturned, since neither was able to swim. Like Smith, they were members of the university’s Encina Club. Another was drowned in Lake Young, near Astoria; he was sailing when wind caused him to hit his head, which rendered him unconscious, and he was thrown into the lake. “A Brief History of Drowning” on Medium sheds some light on the past and present dangers of water recreation — with swimming lessons only becoming formalized in the early 20th C.

“Denver” Smith was engaged to Miss Lois Mayhew of Stockton. They had met in San Francisco, where she had resided with her mother “who at that time, kept a private boarding house, catering only to the patronage of college students.” The couple were expected to marry in San Francisco “before the close of the holidays”. Friends of Smith broke the news of his death to her “as softly as possible.” Miss Mayhew was described as “very beautiful”, a “prominent society girl” with “a large circle of friends.” She was “heart broken over the sad and untimely death of her heroic lover”. Poor Lois did not marry until 1912.

John Thomson Brooke II was born April 22, 1885, the only son of the Right Rev. Francis Key Brooke (named for Francis Scott Key, a relation, and the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”!). Rev. Brooke’s church became the Episcopal Cathedral for OK that same year, which made him Episcopal Bishop of Oklahoma. His son’s drowning was reported in The Churchman, an Anglican journal, and the Bishop of California “read brief services over the body of Mr. Brooke before it was sent on to [Ohio].”

John Thomson Brooke had heart trouble, which makes his bravery even more poignant. As a youth, he had attended Kenyon Military Academy in Gambier, OH. He then attended Kenyon College, where he was a member of Alpha Delta Phi, and he had just graduated before moving to California. After his death, he was remembered fondly and with great pride in the Kenyon Collegian.

The Editor opens by asking: “will not his heroic and God-inspired example always serve as an inspiration to all true Kenyon men to give even as if they have been given to? We feel for Bishop Brooke and his family the sincerest sympathy and assure them of the secure place that their noble son has in the hearts of Kenyon men.”

Brooke’s stirring epitaph eulogized him as a man who lived to serve others, and who made the ultimate sacrifice — an example for all Kenyon men to follow. Here it is in full:

Memorials in Glass and Stone

George Smith is buried at the historic St. John’s Cemetery in San Mateo, close to what is now known as the “Brewer Subdivision”. He has a small, simple headstone in the “Brewer Plot.”

“George William Smith/ Nov 24 1881 Aug 15 1907”, Clare Kirk, Feb 4, 2017

At the Episcopal Cathedral of Oklahoma, John Brooke’s parents gave a window on the gospel side of the altar in his memory.

Kenyon College also remembers the Brooke family.

John Thomson Brooke’s rose window

John’s grandfather, John Thomson Brooke I, was a professor at Kenyon, and his father Francis also attended the school. The three generations of Kenyon men are honored in the Brooke Memorial Windows in the Church of the Holy Spirit there, commissioned by John Thomson’s sister, Louisa Brooke Jones, and unveiled in 1931. John is remembered in a rose window, which “depicts a youth running along a rocky beach toward the setting sun.”

Brooke is buried at Kenyon College Cemetery with his parents. A cross over his grave states simply and powerfully “HE GAVE HIS LIFE”.

The base reads: “John Thomas Brooke/ Kenyon 07/ Apr 22 ’85 Aug 15 ’07/ Son of Francis Key Brooke”

Let’s return to the plaque at St. Paul’s, Burlingame:

Three weeks after the tragedy, The Churchman reported that “the citizens of California have recognized the splendid heroism of these two men, and steps are already being taken to provide at the school a suitable memorial.”

I wondered how that memorial from St. Matthew’s Hall came to be at St. Paul’s, rather than St. Matthew’s church. In fact, the school and both churches are very closely tied.

St. Matthews Episcopal Church, April 1906 — San Mateo County Library collection

The year before the drowning, the infamous 1906 earthquake seriously damaged St. Matthew’s Church, and the Vestry chose to raze the church rather than attempt to repair it.

By 1908, St. Matthew’s rector, the fabulously named Rev. Neptune Blood William Gallwey, raised funds to build a new church. They salvaged many parts of the original building and fixtures.

While St. Matthew’s was rebuilding, Rev. Gallwey founded 3 missions, including St. Paul’s, to minister to the large number of people who moved to the Peninsula from San Francisco after the great earthquake. He passed away in 1910, just 11 days after new St. Matthew’s church was consecrated.

In 1915, the City of Hillsborough had plans for a major thoroughfare that would pass through St Matthew Hall’s land. Rev. Brewer decided to close the school (which was presumably razed). He then became the first rector of St. Paul’s, still a simple wooden structure. He also became mayor of Hillsborough. The present St. Paul’s church was built in 1926, with Rev. Brewer still at its helm.

Perhaps the plaque was placed in St. Matthew’s Hall, and when the school was closed, Rev. Brewer brought it with him to St. Paul’s, where it was kept safely until it could be finally placed into the new St. Paul’s church in 1926. I like to think that Brewer wanted to have it close by, to remember the selfless sacrifice of his teachers and tragic loss of his student.

Carnegie Awards

In 1913, Brooke and Smith were posthumously awarded medals by the Carnegie Heroes Fund, which had been established by Andrew Carnegie in 1904. Brooke’s father received a silver medal and Smith’s mother a bronze medal. Each was also awarded $1000.

Sacramento Union, 1913

The Carnegie Hero Fund website maintains a page about the heroic acts of every recipient. This account of the tragedy helped clarify other sources.

John Brooke’s Carnegie medal page

George Smith’s Carnegie medal page

Earl Askam

Finally, you may be wondering what became of Earl Askam — the boy who was rescued by John Brooke. (Or perhaps it’s just me?!)

Earl Leslie Rengstorff Askam was born May 10, 1891 in Seattle, WA to Dr. Oliver & Helena Askam. They lived in Fremont, CA, by 1900, and then settled in Mountain View. However, his mother died in 1902 and father in 1906. Like Clarence, Earl was an orphan.

But this cadet’s story has a remarkable and happy ending, because, believe it or not, he went on to become an opera singer and Hollywood actor!!

Askam attended Santa Clara University, where he trained as a singer (and was also an athlete). He and his younger brother Perry both became members of the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1939, Earl was even a principal in a stage version of Verdi’s Aida at the Hollywood Bowl!

Earl often performed in concerts and shows with Perry, who was the bigger star of the two. He also took time out from the stage to act in many Hollywood movies, and was best known for Flash GordonTrail Dust and Empty Saddles (all 1936).

Askam as Officer Torch, the captain of Ming the Merciless’s guards, in the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.

Here he is in Red River Range, 1938, standing behind a young John Wayne, who was born just two months before Askam’s teenage brush with death, and would become a big star in Stagecoach the following year.

Askam also served in the US Army as a lieutenant in World War I, and married a German woman called Wally Ella.

In total, Askam clocked up 42 acting credits, continuing to work until his death at the age of 48 on April 3rd, 1940, of a heart attack — while playing golf in Los Angeles with fellow actor Kermit Maynard. His funeral was held in Mountain View, CA, and he is buried in Oakland.


Updated on 2/27/17 to include additional information provided by Kenyon College Archives. Re-published on on 17 April 2022.

Special thanks to:

Carol Peterson, Archivist at San Mateo County History Museum

Kathy Wade, Superintendent at St. John’s Cemetery, San Mateo

Liam Horsman, Student Manager, Kenyon College

Sources in addition to links embedded in the article:

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church website

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church website

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School website

St. Matthew’s Episcopal School Wikipedia entry

Military-style academies on the march in 1800s (The Mercury News)

History of Coyote Point

Online Archive of California

Carrère and Hastings on Wikipedia

History of Sacred Heart

Stockton State Hospital: A Century and a Quarter of Service


Stanford Daily Archive

Stanford University Annual Register 1903–4

Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin

Earl Askam on IMDB

Earl Askam bio on

Perry Askam on IMDB

Newspapers & Periodicals accessed on microfiche, via Google, or the California Digital Newspaper Collection:

San Mateo Times, The Churchman, Western Architect & Engineer, Chicago Tribune, Daily Alta California, Sacramento Union, San Francisco Call, Press Democrat, Oakland Tribune


The case of Maultby v. Skinner

When 19-year-old Hannah Maultby became an unmarried mother in 1866, the father promised to marry her. But two years later, he had failed to keep his word, and Hannah’s mother took him to court for seduction. 

I think most of us have discovered children in our family trees whose parents weren’t married when they were born. Until 1834, bastardy laws pressed reputed fathers into providing financial support for their children. After the end of those laws, coinciding with the creation of the poor law unions, single mothers found society even less sympathetic to their plight. If they weren’t able to marry the father, families sometimes stepped in to help care for the children (this was the case with my paternal grandmother). But that support network was not always available, and the stigma and financial hardship associated with being a single mother meant that very occasionally, unmarried mothers took desperate measures raising an illegitimate child — like my ancestor Fanny Talmer, accused of infanticide in 1851. 

On another branch of my family tree, teenager Hannah Maultby found herself ‘in the family way’ in 1866. But this time, her family was not content to let the father of her child off the hook. Hannah’s pregnancy led to a remarkable court case heard at the Court of Common Pleas.

Childhood — a Bedfordshire baker’s daughter

Hannah Maultby was born in 1846 in Leighton Buzzard, a market town in Bedfordshire. She was the youngest of four children of my 4th great grandparents: Richard Maultby, a second-generation master baker, and Martha (née Hopkins), who had joined the family business when she married Richard in 1838. 

Hannah had an older sister, Ann, and two older brothers, William and Thomas — my 3rd great grandfather.

A booming market town

Hannah’s grandparents Thomas and Anna Maultby established their bakery on Friday Street, Leighton Buzzard before 1830 (having previously run a bakery in Shrewsbury), and the Maultbys were still on Friday Street in 1851. However, by 1861 they had moved to North Street, and Hannah’s two eldest siblings were also working in the family business. 

It’s likely that the Maultby bakery business was thriving due to the town’s modern transport links. The 1864 Post Office directory described Leighton Buzzard’s rapid growth: ‘This town (so much increased in importance since the opening of the London and North Western Railway, of which it is a principal station) … consists of one wide street, branching off north and south at the market place. … The Grand Junction Canal runs between the railway and the town. The canal and railway give to the inhabitants a ready communication both with the metropolis and the northern counties’. 

Leighton Buzzard’s booming economy and convenient location brought newcomers into the town, like George Skinner and his sister Elizabeth, who opened a grocery shop next door to the Maultbys’ bakery in about 1858.

Skinner and Maultby households, North Street, Leighton Buzzard, 1861. Census of England and Wales, The National Archives, RG 9; Piece: 1006; Folio: 6; Page: 6; GSU roll: 542735. Via

George was the son of a customs excise officer from Devon, and the Skinner family had moved around frequently — he was born in Bristol in 1836, was living in Bucks in 1841, and in Deptford in 1851. His new business in Leighton Buzzard was evidently successful, as by 1864, he opened another shop in another part of town.

At the same time, the Maultby family’s horizons were rapidly expanding; Thomas jumped aboard the travel and communications revolution, working as a telegraph clerk. In 1865 he left home to marry and forge a career in the exciting railway industry. 

Meanwhile, however, Hannah’s opportunities were much more constrained. It seems that she wasn’t needed in the bakery, and in 1861, aged 14, she was working as a bonnet sewer. Most working women in Leighton Buzzard were straw plaiters, and the industry required piece workers like Hannah to sew plaited lengths together into the final products, though within a decade, this work would start to be replaced by hat sewing machines.[1]

1866 — a death and a birth

In the summer of 1866, two events had a huge impact on the family. On 10 July, Richard Maultby died, leaving an estate of less than £200 to support his family. It was now up to Martha, Ann, and William to run the bakery without him.

Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette – Tuesday 24 July 1866. Via

It’s possible that 19-year-old Hannah was also working in the bakery by this time, or that she stepped in after her father’s death to help keep the business afloat. But however Hannah was earning her keep, she couldn’t be a breadwinner for long, because she had her own bun in the oven. On 17 September, she delivered a baby boy: Sidney Skinner Maultby.

At that time, fathers’ names were not allowed to be included on birth certificates of illegitimate children, but his father was, of course, Hannah’s next door neighbour George Skinner. George was at that time 30 or 31 years old — more than a decade older than Hannah (and much closer in age to her older sister Ann).

Birth certificate of Sidney Skinner Maultby

To find out what happened next, we need to leap forward 17 months to February 1868. 

A ‘rather peculiar case’

On 15 February, 1868, newspapers across the country reported that ‘a rather peculiar case was heard before Mr. Secondary Potter and a jury, on Wednesday. It was on a writ of enquiry sent down from the Court of Common Pleas to assess the damages in a seduction case, “Maltby v. Skinner.”’ (although my ancestors consistently spelled their name ‘Maultby’, some newspapers misspelt their name).

The article continued by describing ‘the story told in evidence’ as follows:

The plaintiff, Mrs. Maltby, a baker and flour dealer, residing in Leighton Buzzard, has four children, two of them daughters. One of these daughters, named Hannah, was in her nineteenth year in 1866, and was at that time engaged to the defendant, who had a shop next door to Mrs. Maltby’s, as well as one in another part of the town. In September of 1866, Hannah gave birth to a child, of which the defendant is alleged to be the father. The defendant promised, soon after the birth of the child, that he would marry its mother, and the peculiarity of the case consisted in the fact that Mrs. Maltby was unable to state whether he had fulfilled that promise or not. In August, 1867, the girl Hannah left home to visit some friends in Essex, and has not since returned to reside with her mother. She is now living with the defendant in his house at Leighton Buzzard, while her child is still with Mrs. Maltby. Although evidence had been obtained to show that Banns had been published at St. Pancras Church and at Shoreditch Church, and although the marriage had been notified in the local papers, yet no statement had been made as to where the ceremony had been performed.

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 15 February 1868

In a nutshell, George had promised to marry Hannah, and the marriage was announced in papers, but no ceremony had actually taken place. Instead, Hannah had simply moved in with George and left their baby to be cared for by her mother. Martha Maultby courageously responded by taking George to court. 

Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette – Tuesday 22 October 1867. via

The tort of Seduction

Based on the newspaper report, she first brought her action against George Skinner to the Court of Common Pleas. Founded in the 12th century (and only to continue operating for five more years), this court in Westminster Hall heard cases brought by one subject against another. 

The tort of seduction originally allowed a father of an unmarried, pregnant woman to sue for the loss of her chastity, which was viewed as his property. Later, the father sued for the loss of his daughter’s working services. If the father was deceased, the mother could sue for her daughter’s seduction.[2] However, if the seduced woman was in service, the right to sue for her seduction, and resulting loss of her services, passed to her employer.

Over time, attitudes changed and ‘although damages were nominally awarded for the financial loss to the claimant, by the 19th century they tended to reflect more the social embarrassment and stigma associated with pregnancy out of wedlock that was suffered by the claimant.’[3]

Nevertheless, I suspect that Martha’s decision to sue was driven by financial need — though to help pay for her grandson’s upbringing rather than to compensate for the loss of her daughter’s work contribution.

Secondaries’ Court

Following the judgement of the Court of Pleas, a writ had been issued to assess the damages awarded to Martha. She had then returned to court. The newspaper article doesn’t state what court it was. However, I’ve found details of other contemporary cases in which a case at the Court of the Common Pleas led to a writ being issued, followed by another hearing at the Secondaries’ Court of London. Those cases were presided over by ‘Mr Secondary Potter’, the same judge who heard Martha’s testimony. That was Judge George William Potter, who was Secondary of the City of London. I conclude that Maultby v. Skinner must also have been heard at the Secondaries’ Court. But where and what was it?

According to an 1865 article in The Solicitor’s Journal and Reporter, the court was something of a curiosity, taking place in a back room of the Secondary’s offices on Basinghall Street, in a former wool warehouse. Since 1830, ‘the learned Secondary [had] …heard cases at times involving, upon writs of inquiry, very large sums of money.’

Punch magazine poked fun at the shabby Secondaries Court in 1842: ‘The structure itself is decidedly rude, but the clerks inside are ruder.’ The full article is great fun.

Punch, Or, The London Charivari, Volume 4

It’s been really hard to find information about this court, but it seems that in about 1867, the building, which was owned by the Mercers’ Company, was pulled down, and the court had to convene temporarily in a small room of the Mason’s Hall Tavern, before being moved into the justice room at the Guildhall. Whether Martha would have been at the Guildhall, or a room in the back of a pub, I’m not sure.

The wide variety of cases heard at the Secondaries Court in the 1860s and reported in newspapers included a woman suing a bank, a man suing a railway for injuries to his wife and child, cases of libel, and several actions for ‘breach of promise of marriage’. 

Martha’s story

On 12 Feb 1868, Martha Maultby stood in the Secondaries’ Court before Secondary Potter and the jury, to present her grievance for the second time. Her legal representative in court was Donald Browne, instructed by her solicitor, Mr Shepherd of Luton. Another newspaper report gives Martha’s first-hand telling of the story. In her own words, she states that there had in fact been no engagement prior to the birth of her grandchild. 

With the headline, ‘EXTRAORDINARY ACTION FOR SEDUCTION’ it opens by saying that the case was ‘probably of an unprecedented character’ …

Mrs. Maltby, the mother of the girl who had been seduced, said: I am the plaintiff. I live at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, where I carry on business as a baker and flour dealer. I have four children, two boys and two girls, who were all living with me in 1866. I know defendant, who at that time lived next door to me. He carried on the business of a grocer, and had a fancy basket business in another part of the town. My daughters’ names are Anne [sic] and Hannah, and the latter was in her nineteenth year at the time this affair happened. There was no engagement between defendant and my daughter. He was friendly. My husband died in July, 1866, and in September of the same year Hannah was confined. I did not know she was in the family-way, but suspected it, and challenged her with it. She denied it a week before. The defendant is the father of the child which I am now keeping. I was almost out of my mind when this occurred, and the more so that defendant had always acted in so friendly and kindly a manner towards me. When my husband died he helped me to get him into bed. I made a complaint to the defendant, who came into my house when Hannah was confined, and he said to me and before the doctor, “Do not make a noise; as soon as she can be moved I will marry her.” I was of course very much agitated, and he took me into his house next door, and kept me there two or three hours, until I became calmer. I always looked upon him as a gentleman, and this came upon me like a thunderbolt. In August 1867, my daughter paid a visit to some friends in Essex, and never returned to my house. I expected her back in October, but she never came, and she is now living with defendant at his house in Leighton Buzzard. I know that, because I have called at his house and seen my daughter there. Defendant has been in the town ten years, and is now living on his means.

Cross-examined: Defendant’s sister used to keep his house, and after she left my daughters were often there. I have not received one penny from the defendant, but my daughter has for clothes for the child. I know that marriage banns were put up at St. Pancras church. I know that my son wrote to the clergyman of that church. The marriage of my daughter and the defendant has been notified in the local papers.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 16 February 1868

This report gives me insight into Martha’s state of mind and her motivation. Primarily, she was looking for financial support, since, as she says, she was keeping her grandson. However, her anger and sense of betrayal are palpable. She had trusted George Skinner — he had even helped her to lay out her deceased husband. He had, in her eyes, taken advantage of her daughter and then, worse still, not taken any responsibility for his child. The strange uncertainty about whether a marriage had taken place suggests that Hannah had become estranged from her mother and family, even though they lived in the same town.

One further news article reveals that my 3rd great grandfather Thomas had spoken for his mother in court. It also goes some way to explaining why the marriage didn’t take place, and sheds light on what Martha hoped to receive from George Skinner:

“my son wrote to the clergyman of [St Pancras] church, stating that the defendant and my daughter lived at Leighton Buzzard, and in consequence of that communication the clergyman refused to marry them at S. Pancras church.”

Thomas Maultby, son of the plaintiff, was called to confirm the testimony of his mother, and he also stated that the defendant had disposed of his business, and gave evidence as to the supposed extent of his property.

Other witnesses having been called, Mr. Browne, in addressing the jury for the plaintiff said that £200 had been offered, but under the circumstances that sum could not be accepted, as the child had been left behind and the mother could not ascertain whether the marriage had really been performed.

Mr. Willis, in addressing the jury for the defense, contested that there really had been no seduction, and that the plaintiff had suffered no damage. The defendant did not cast the girl aside after the birth of the child, but, although he never promised her marriage, he married her. …The defendant regretted the circumstances of the case as much as any person in court, and had made what amends he could. He had offered the plaintiff £200, which Mrs Maultby had refused to accept, and asked for a most exorbitant sum [of £500].

The Leighton Buzzard Observer – 18 Feb 1868

The article also reports that Mr Willis (Skinner’s attorney) claimed that a settlement of £200 had already been reached, but Martha’s defense attorneys had dissolved their partnership and this had stalled the arrangements. It could well be that Martha had accepted the offer after the first court session, thinking that her daughter was married (and perhaps that she would take back her child). However, circumstances had changed.

I’m proud of my 4th great grandmother Martha. She had been so determined to get financial support for her grandson, and, I think, a sense of justice, that she had taken time away from her demanding business and travelled from Bedfordshire to London twice (presumably by train). She had also had to publicly air her family’s dirty laundry. But Martha returned home without the comfort of knowing that her daughter was truly married, and with only £50 (about £3000 today) — not a trivial amount, but only a fraction of what she hoped for, and quarter of what she had previously been offered. Furthermore, her action was likely to estrange her from her daughter permanently.

More cases of seduction

Many other cases of seduction were reported in newspapers. Although headlines were designed to shock, the women at the centre of the stories were usually treated with sympathy. They were typically young, and said to be ‘respectable’ and ‘educated’, whereas the man was usually older, and often portrayed as a heartless swine.

Several cases were heard at the Secondaries’ Court. Of those I’ve found in newspapers, damages awarded ranged from just £9 to £500. However, the larger amounts seem to have been awarded in cases of ‘breach of promise of marriage as well as seduction’. It seems that a promise had to be proven to have taken place prior to the seduction.

Looking for evidence

After learning about the case of Maultby v Skinner in the newspapers, I wanted to find more evidence about the events that transpired after Sidney’s birth. 

However, so far, my search for evidence in original legal sources hasn’t been fruitful. I identified several Court of Pleas records which covered Hilary term, 1868, in the collection of The National Archives. But when I reviewed the documents last year, I found nothing about Maultby v Skinner. Frustratingly, I don’t know how long it was before the case came to the Secondaries Court that it had been heard in the Court of Pleas, or when the Writ was issued. In one case heard at the Secondaries Court in 1861, about ten months had passed since the writ had been issued. I plan to search more indexes to the books of judgments at my next visit.

I’ve not yet been able to establish where records of the Secondaries’ Court are held; the National Archives has records only up to the 1820s. I think they are most likely to be at the London Metropolitan Archives and I’ll be heading there soon to investigate.

Another illegitimate child, and a marriage

The exact events that transpired after Sidney’s birth in 1866 are hazy, but by 1868, Hannah and George seem to have been living together in London — not only were banns read there, but around the same time that Martha Maultby was seeking financial compensation in the Secondaries’ Court, Hannah gave birth to a second child with George Skinner, in St John’s Wood, Westminster. Harry Maultby Skinner was born in Q2 1868. Hannah and George still weren’t married, but this time, their son received his father’s surname. 

Finally, on 1 March 1869, Hannah Maultby and George Skinner married at St Luke’s, Finsbury. It’s worth pointing out that although it might have made them more socially accepted, this didn’t change the illegitimate status of Sidney or Harry — both born before the marriage. It wasn’t until 1926 that children born out of wedlock could become legally legitimate after their parents married.[4]

Marriage of Hannah Maultby and George Skinner. London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: p76/luk/057. Via

When Hannah walked down the aisle, she was possibly already pregnant with what would be her first legitimate child, Herbert Oxenham Skinner (b. Q4 1869), whose middle name came from George’s mother. Herbert was born in Horsham, Suffolk, where the Skinner family — George, Hannah, Harry and Herbert — resided in 1871. The census shows that George was a master grocer employing two men. 

Skinner family at 9 Westgate, Horsham, Surrey, 1871 Census of England and Wales, The National Archives, Class: RG 10; Piece: 1097; Folio: 15; Page: 6; GSU roll: 827507. via

Five more children soon followed: Isabel Skinner (b. 1871), Thomas Skinner (b. 1874), Bertha Skinner (b. 1875), William Maultby Skinner (b. 1877), and Kate Skinner (b. 1878).

Unfortunately, Hannah and George only had a decade of marriage. On 21 November 1879, George Skinner died, aged only 44, and Hannah was left a widow with her youngest child just a baby. However, Hannah was resilient; in the 1881 census, she was working as a grocer and raising six children, with the help of two domestic servants and two grocers’ assistants.

A second marriage

The following year, Hannah remarried. Her second husband, Walter Joyes, was a corn merchant and agent for agricultural machinery, and like George Skinner, he was a decade older than Hannah. With Walter, she had two more children, Frederick Richard Walter Joyes (b. 1883) and Charles Maultby Joyes (b. 1885). Frederick was the only one of Hannah’s ten children not to survive childhood; he sadly died aged about 14.

Hannah and Walter Joyes, 1911 Census of England and Wales, The National Archives, Class: RG14; Piece: 5281; Schedule Number: 153. Via

Hannah and Walter lived at Hereford House on Station Road, Billingshurst, Sussex. They enjoyed 37 years of married life until Hannah’s death in 1919, aged 72. She and Walter share a grave at St Mary’s, Billingshurst.

Sidney Skinner Maultby

The curious among you might have wondered what happened to Sidney, Hannah’s first child. 

After being abandoned by his parents, Sidney was raised by two very strong women — his grandmother Martha, and her eldest daughter Ann, who never married. After Martha died in 1867, when he was 12, Sidney lived with his aunt Ann, who continued to work as a baker in Leighton Buzzard. 

Ann Maultby and her nephew Sidney Maultby, Leighton Buzzard, 1881 Census of England and Wales, Class: RG11; Piece: 1641; Folio: 55; Page: 5; GSU roll: 1341392. Via

Sidney married at just 19 years old. The space on his marriage certificate where his father’s name should appear was left blank. Though George Skinner was deceased, Sidney surely knew who his father was, so this omission suggests that George had never been involved in Sidney’s life.  However, Sidney, like his absent father, was a grocer.

Marriage certificate of Sidney Skinner Maultby and Frances Sarah Ann Blades

Sidney went on to have a long and interesting life. He spent time in Argentina at the turn of the century, and married his second wife, Mary Jane Turner in St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Buenos Aires, 1897. The marriage was probably bigamous. Sidney and Mary returned to England and had nine children. Surprisingly, they gave three of their four boys the middle name ‘Skinner’. 

Sidney worked for London County Council for many years as an Inspector of Weights and Measures. He was also a freemason. 

When Sidney’s aunt Ann Maultby died in 1915, she made Sidney her executor, and bequeathed the remainder of her estate to him. Her will states that his name was ‘Sidney Skinner, commonly known as … Sidney Skinner Maultby’. 

Excerpt of Ann Maultby’s will, proved 4 January 1916

Sidney experienced personal tragedy in 1944, when his daughter Mabel, a Red Cross nurse, was killed in the bombing of the Guards Chapel.

Sidney Skinner Maultby died a few days before Christmas, 1952, aged 86. The tort of seduction was not abolished in England and Wales until 1971.

[1] Luton: Hat Industry 1750 to 2000

[2] Reports of Cases Decided in the Court of Common Pleas of Upper …, Volume 11


[4] Probert, R. Marriage Law for Genealogists (Takeaway Publishing, 2016).

The brother who never came home

My great grampy, the father of my maternal grandfather, was the only great grandparent I ever met, and he died when I was nine years old. Just before he passed away in 1985, he revealed a story of courage and compassion from his time as a soldier in WW1. This post pays tribute to his service, but also to his older brother, Harold. Harold was the only relation I know of who was awarded a gallantry medal. And Harold never came home.

Before the war

Harold John Underwood, the first child of Harry and Eliza Underwood, was born in Tring, Hertfordshire in the summer of 1893. His parents (my 2x great grandparents) were second generation grocers and lived at their shop on Tring’s Western Road. Harold soon had two sisters, Lily May and Marjorie Pearl. And in December 1898, he gained a brother, Harry Neville — my great grandfather — who was known as ‘Neville’. By 1908, the family was complete, with two more girls, Ivy Laura and Kathleen Enid, and between them one more boy, Warren Roy (‘Roy’).

In 1911, the Underwood family was living in the village of St Leonards, near Tring, and Harry senior described himself as an ‘English & Fancy Fruit Salesman (Wholesale)’. Lily was a school monitress, while Neville and his younger siblings were all of school age.

However, Harry and Eliza’s eldest son and daughter had moved away from the family home and business; 17-year-old Harold was a carpet salesman at J Fisk & Sons in St Albans. He lived on site with many other employees, and his 15-year-old sister Marjorie was a live-in cashier’s apprentice at a different store on the same street.

When war broke out in 1914, Harold was employed as a draper at Grose Brothers department store in Walworth, East London. Whatever dreams and ambitions he may have had, they came to an abrupt halt that autumn when Harold enlisted.

Grose Brothers department store, Walworth, 1916 (via @eddurotriges on Pinterest)

Signing up

When Harold attested (enlisted) in London on 10 Nov 1914 he was 21 years and 4 months old and 5’10 tall. Although a Bucks man, he then went to Winchester where on 12 Nov he joined the historic King’s Royal Rifle Corps 12th Bn (60th Brigade), B Company, as a Private (service number R/6760).

Harold’s younger brother Neville was keen to join up too. But he was only 15, and the minimum age to enlist was 18. So, together with a pal from St Leonards (possibly called Gilbert/Ginger) he ‘ran away’ from home and enlisted in Wiltshire. Neville was a tall man, and perhaps already tall at the age of 15, which may have helped him convince the recruiters that he was old enough. Neville joined the Wiltshire regiment as a Private (service number 36962 or 36963).

Harold’s service

Thanks to The Long, Long Trail, I know that Harold would have had his training at Blackdown and Hindhead in Surrey and finally Larkhill on the Salisbury plain in Wiltshire. Perhaps it was Harold’s location in Wilts that prompted his younger brother to head there to enlist. On 22 July 1915 the 12th battalion landed in Boulogne. However, Harold may have arrived in France later as he wasn’t declared fit for foreign service until 6 August.

Harold’s service records reveal very little about his military experiences. However, they do offer information about his health. In March 1916 he was off duty for three days with laryngitis. In September 1916 Harold was wounded at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Battle of the Somme. His record states that he was at that time in the 9th Bn. C company.

He was admitted to Brook War Hospital in Woolwich with a fractured arm, and later transferred to the auxillary hospital in Bromley, spending 70 days in hospital in total. When he was discharged in December he was granted a furlough to spend his leave in St Leonards. I hope that he was able to spend that Christmas with his family. However, his arm hadn’t fully healed because he was back in hospital for another 43 days in April and May 1917. Finally, he returned to France ready for duty on 5 July 1917.

Brook War Hospital

If Harold returned to the 9th Bn., he would have fought in the Battle of Langemarck in August and the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, in November. Or, if posted to the 12th Bn. he would also have been fighting at Ypres. Either way, by January 1918 he was with the 12th Bn. once again.

The Military Medal

The K.R.R.C. 12th Battalion’s war diary describes the events leading up to Harold’s act of bravery. On 10 January, 1918, they were in the middle of a six-day tour of duty on the Menin Rd in Ypres, Belgium, at a chateau called Beukenhorst, nicknamed ‘Stirling Castle’. There had been a heavy snowstorm and the ground was frozen. B Company was digging; ‘every available man was at work at night. Three American Officers came to learn the ways of a battalion in the Line: they seemed very interested and anxious to pick up ideas.’ The next day they marched to Manor Halt, and entrained there in three trains for Puzeville Station, arriving in camp at Reninghelst between 10 p.m. and 2.30 a.m. ‘The night was very cold and the men were glad of the hot porridge which was awaiting them’. Although the description of activities mentioned no attacks or enemy engagement, ‘The total casualties during the 6 day tour were 2 killed, 1 died of wounds and 5 wounded.’

On the morning of 13 January there was a voluntary church service, and that afternoon, four different medals were awarded to 18 soldiers. Nine of them received the Military Medal including L/Cpl. Harold Underwood. The Military Medal was created in March 1916 and awarded for ‘acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire’. More than 115,000 were awarded during WW1. Harold may have been promoted to Lance Corporal prior to this award, or perhaps simultaneously.

The diary doesn’t give any details on why the medals were awarded. Instead, the battalion’s losses and honours are immediately followed with reports of yet another night of snow, followed by a morning lecture about trench foot.

K.R.R.C. 12th Battalion War Diary, January 10-15 1918. National Archives WO-95-2120-1.

As well as the Military Medal, Harold received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal — the trio of campaign medals nicknamed ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’.

Neville’s service

‘He had gone over the top, and come face to face with a German, and had to bayonet him, as it was “either him or me.”‘

Unfortunately, Neville’s service record hasn’t survived. Our knowledge is based on what very little he told his family about his experiences.

It seems that Neville’s company knew that he wasn’t old enough to fight. Even if they believed him to be 18, he had to be 19 to be sent overseas. So, at first, Neville was assigned to looking after horses. He may well already have had experience with horses; I do know that when he was a boy, he and the same friend he enlisted with had once mischievously unharnessed a horse, turned it around, and harnessed it backwards! Neville developed a life-long love of horses, and in later life would attend the Horse of the Year show every year. When I watched War Horse in the theatre a couple of years ago (an incredibly moving show), my great grampy’s experiences were very much on my mind.

Later in the war, Neville was trained to become a Lewis gunner. A Lewis gun was an early light machine gun. In 1915 each battalion only had 4 such guns, but by 1917 each infantry section had its own gunner and backup, totaling 46 guns per battalion. Each Lewis gun required a team of two gunners: one to fire and one to carry ammunition and reload. All of the members of an infantry platoon would be trained in the use of the Lewis gun so that they could take over if the usual gunners were killed or wounded.

Lewis gunner on firing step of trench, 1916
[NAM Collection, Image number: 103983]

In addition to these roles, Neville was also sent out of the trench and into No man’s land at least once. My mum remembers her gramp (Neville) telling her that he had gone over the top, and come face to face with a German, and had to bayonet him, as it was “either him or me.” As a child she couldn’t comprehend how that experience would have affected him. It’s discomforting to realise that when Harry had to take another man’s life (or perhaps more than one) in the line of duty, and for his own survival, he was only really a child himself.

Harold’s death, and a letter from his officer

Harold’s medal award was announced in The Gazette on 19 March (J.R.R. Tolkien’s promotion is listed in the same issue). Tragically, less than a week later, on 24 March 1918, Harold was killed in action.

From 21 March his battalion had been engaged at Offoy in the Somme. Operation Michael was underway in the ‘First Battles of the Somme’ — the British name for the German spring offensive called the Kaiserschlacht, over wasteland at the Somme. On the 22nd, as the Germans attempted to penetrate a gap in the wire in front of them, Lewis gunners successfully held them back. ‘The position, however, was becoming untenable. All the officers had been wounded or killed.’ There was also a dense mist and German planes overhead. On the 23rd, they were ordered to defend a bridge-head. This required them to cross a canal via a bridge that had been blown up. Meanwhile, the enemy was ‘close and organised’. On the day of Harold’s death, B Company (which may still have been his company) was deployed in a counter-attack. ‘It was a great charge. The bayonet was used with wonderful effect.’ However, ‘the Germans came on in greater numbers than before’. Somewhere amid the chaos and intensity of fighting, Harold was one of hundreds killed. He was 24 years old.

K.R.R.C. 12th Battalion War Diary, March 1918 (p. 33). National Archives WO-95-2120-1.

On 4 May 1918 the Bucks Herald reported on Harold’s death and memorial service . Thanks to this article, I was able to discover what Harold had done to earn the Military Medal, and how he had died. The piece also included the full text of a letter that Harry’s officer had sent to his mother after his death.

I transcribe the article here in full:

His many friends and neighbours have heard with deep regret that L. Corpl. Harold J. Underwood, M.M., of the K.R.R.C., was killed in action on March 24. Deceased, who was 24 years of age, and the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Underwood, of this village, was prior to the war with Messrs. Grosse Bros. of London, E.C. He answered his country’s call early in November, 1914, and went to France in August, 1915. He was wounded at Fleurs [sic] in September, 1916, and after some months in hospital again went to France in July, 1917, when he won the Military Medal at La Vacquerie, in December, for ‘conspicuous bravery on the field’ and for ‘bringing in the wounded at great personal risk.’ He was home on leave in February, 1918. The greatest sympathy is extended on all sides to Mr. and Mrs. Underwood in their bereavement, especially as it is known that they are terribly anxious about their second son, Neville, who has just been officially reported “Missing: believed to be a prisoner of war.”

A memorial service was held in the Parish Church on Sunday evening, April 28, by the Rev. J. A. Walker, Vicar; it was well attended and most impressive.

The following is a copy of a letter received by his mother from the deceased soldier’s officer, Lieut. A. Cree: — “DEAR MRS. UNDERWOOD, Ere now you may have heard the very sorrowful news I must send you. I have just returned from England to the Company, or I would have written long ago, hard as it is to convey that your boy has been killed in this present great struggle. He died a brave soldier, while doing an important duty. His party came under heavy machine fire, which caught your boy, and, from another lad who was present at the time, I learn he died instantaneously. I cannot hope to tell you how I grieve his loss, for the mere name of ‘Corpl. Underwood’ was a bye-word in the Company for efficiency and bravery. He was easily one of the very best boys of a splendid Company, and one who uncomplainingly kept that ideal in mind which many of us are apt to forget—That we are fighting for our own country’s safety and for those whom we love. My sympathy goes out to you in this great trial; but I hope you can be brave and bear the loss, with God’s help, as willingly as your dear boy gave his life for his country’s cause. The battle was at its height at the time he died. Beyond that the information is meagre indeed: but if I can give you any further information please don’t hesitate to write and ask me, as I will only too willingly do anything which may in the slightest help to alleviate your great sorrow.”

Of course, the letter that Harold’s commanding officer had written to his mother was meant to reasssure her that Harold hadn’t suffered, and to fill her with pride that he was highly regarded among his fellow soldiers and doing useful work when he had been killed. Nevertheless, I find it very moving.

Eliza would also have received Harold’s possessions after his death, according to his military will. His hand-written note feels very personal and poignant.

Neville — Prisoner of War

‘They are terribly anxious about their second son, Neville, who has just been officially reported “Missing: believed to be a prisoner of war.”‘

As per the Bucks Herald article, at the same time that news came of Harold’s death, his grieving parents learned that Neville was believed to be a POW. We can only imagine how harrowing this must have been.

Nearly seven decades later, on his deathbed, Neville revealed to his son, my grampy, that he had been a POW in the war, and had worked in the mines. He had escaped with the help of a German soldier, and had made his way across Belgium and Holland to allied territory. On his journey he had been helped by two ladies, who sheltered and hid him in their home for several days. Once back to ‘safety’, he was deployed back to the front lines again! In spite of all of these ordeals, Neville survived the war. It’s an incredible story, which Neville had kept from his children or grandchildren all his life, and his family wondered how much of it was true. Unfortunately, we have only been able to corroborate a small portion of his story.

A POW index card confirmed that Neville was a prisoner of war in Germany. It also filled in a gap by letting us know which battalion he fought with — the 1st Wilts. In spite of the seriousness of Neville’s situation, I smiled when I saw that he had given his birth date as 5.12.1891 – seven years earlier than his actual birth date!

He had been taken prisoner at Vaulx (Vaulx-Vraucourt) on 24 March 1918. The battalion diaries on 23 March describe heavy attacks and note that ‘the Battalion suffered considerable casualties from shellfire’ but also that ‘the Battalion lewis gunners did great execution amongst many parties of the enemy’. The night was ‘somewhat lively owing to the enemy continuously trying to creep up and cut the wire.’ On the morning of the 24th, the whole trench system was shelled by the enemy, aided by ‘hostile aeroplanes’, their own planes meanwhile noticeably absent. The afternoon brought intense bombardment, followed by an assault. During the fighting, they received an order to pull out, but as some battalions returned, they broke, leaving some companies unable to get back to the trenches. They were then ‘practically exterminated by machine gun fire.’ 413 casualties were reported.2 Perhaps Neville was one of those trapped soldiers. If so, he was fortunate to have been taken prisoner, when so many were killed. However, his capture seems to reflect a general trend at that time; according to The Long, Long Trail, more than half of British POWs during WW1 fell into captivity between March and November 1918.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Neville had been captured on the same day on which Harold had been killed. At first I wondered if the similarity in their first names (Harold and Harry) could have led to a bureaucratic mix-up. However, the location of Neville’s capture on his index card matches the battalion diary entries that day. It’s a dreadful coincidence that just as Neville was being taken prisoner, his brother was killed in action at Offoy, about 50 km (30 miles) to the south.

Area of Operation Michael, showing where Harold and Neville were deployed on 24 March 1918
Neville’s POW index card from

The index card shows that Harry’s sister Lily, with an address in London, was the point of contact for news about her missing brother. Communication between Britain and Germany about the location of POWs would have been made by neutral intermediaries, especially the Red Cross.

On 13 June, Neville was at the Münster II camp. This was one of four camps at Münster, on the site of a racecourse. There was indeed mining there. However, POWs could also join an orchestra, participate in theatre shows, play football, write and read a weekly newspaper, and send postcards home. Contemporary inspections found conditions and treatment to be acceptable.

On 20 June he was transferred, for unknown reasons, to one of three camps at Sennelager (Senne I, II, or III), 100 km away. Sennelager was reputed to be the most brutal of Germany’s POW camps. One POW who spent time there wrote of the desperate condition of British wounded, and starvation of POWs. He said ‘Sennelager has the most evil reputation among the German prison camps for systematic brutality and unprecedented ferocity.’ Another prisoner who absent-mindedly went too near the fence, had a bayonet stuck through his shoulder. However, all camps were subject to neutral inspections, so had to meet minimal standards. The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum has a collection of 200 photos and drawings that belonged to a sergeant who had spent most of his three years as a POW at Sennelager (I’ve shared three of them below). Although most of the men photographed are officers, they look well fed and apparently were free to walk around the camp.

In 1918, a German, Oxford-educated linguist spent time at the Sennelager camps recording audio of British and Commonwealth voices. This one from Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire is the closest I can get to how Neville might have sounded. It’s part of the oldest collection of English dialect recordings in the world, available for free at the British library website (a fascinating rabbit hole!)

During the time that Neville experienced life in the camps he was still just 19. His POW record ends at Senne, so unfortunately we don’t have any evidence of his daring return to his battalion. If he was helped to escape by a German soldier, could it have been because he had heard about his brother’s death and was anxious to get home to his family? I will never know the name of that sympathetic soldier, or the identities of the kind and brave women who helped him on his way.

Neville received the Victory and British medals for his service. At the end of the war, both he and his boyhood friend came home to St Leonards.


Lance Corporal Harold John Underwood is commemorated at Pozières, France (on panel 62.B). This memorial commemorates over 14,000 casualties of the United Kingdom and 300 of the South African Forces who have no known grave and who died on the Somme from 21 March to 7 August 1918.

He’s also commemorated on the War Memorial in St. Leonard’s churchyard, Bucks. Another name on the memorial is also a relation of mine — Fred Osborn (my great grandmother’s cousin).

Harold has a gravestone at St Leonard’s as well, which he shares with his youngest sibling Kathleen. Harold and Kathleen both died on the 24th of the month aged 24. Kathleen was a keen rower, and was killed by a very different deadly enemy — tuberculosis. For years after her death, her beau (possibly fiancé) continued to visit the family home. I wonder if Harold also had a sweetheart in London or back home in St Leonards, whose life was shattered by his death.

After the end of the war, Eliza had to deal with the administration of Harold’s medals, and requested that his Military Medal be sent to them by post. She also completed the necessary paperwork to receive a memorial plaque, hand-calligraphed scroll and King’s message (these were offered to the next of kin of soldiers who had died). All of these items were sent to Harry and Eliza Underwood at Craven Cottage, St Leonards. Sadly, I have no idea where Harold’s medals and plaque have ended up, but I have the scroll and King’s message in their original cardboard postal tube, which is one of my most treasured possessions.

After the war

The Underwood family, like millions of families in Britain and around the world, had to endure a tremendous loss. Eliza lost her eldest son, but also her younger brother, Richard William Maultby, who died at Ypres in 1916. Both Harry and Eliza had experienced many tragedies already in their lives, and these new losses must have been hard to bear. In 1920, 53-year-old Harry Underwood was caught red-handed stealing a pack of cigarettes from a shop in Wendover. The grocer had been his employer and suspected Harry of stealing stock from him over a period of time. Harry protested that he ‘had been about the district for about 20 years, and had nothing against him. He was supposed to have been respected, he believed’.1 However, he was sentenced to 21 days with hard labour. This crime seems completely out of character for Harry, and possibly an indication of how much the loss of his son had impacted him.

When the war ended on 11 November 1918, Neville a month shy of turning 20. I imagine that war had in some ways made him old beyond his years, and yet coming home to his parents and siblings must have been an occasion of joy, comfort and relief. I’m looking forward to seeing his entry in the 1921 census to see what he did next.

In 1925, Harry Neville Underwood married Dorothy Georgina Alexandria Taylor. Their son, my grampy, was born in 1927. The name they chose for him — Neville William Harold Underwood — honoured Neville’s brave brother Harold, the brother who never came home.

Neville Harry Underwood and Dorothy Georgina Alexandria Taylor on their wedding day

Credits, sources and further information

The lead image in this post is a silhouette of the KRRC memorial which faces Winchester Cathedral. Photograph by Dave via Flickr.

  1. Bucks Herald, 11 September 1920
  2. Wiltshire Regiment 1st Battalion War Diary, Nov 1915-Jun 1918. National Archives WO-95-2243-3.

As well as the Long, Long Trail, I referred to The Wartime Memories Project for battalion movements.

See Harold’s page on Lives of the First World War

See Harold’s page on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website

Five reasons why ancestors used surnames as middle names

For several months this year I worked with the Grinling Gibbons Society on the tercentenary of illustrious 17th century carver Grinling Gibbons. I was already familiar with Gibbons’ incredible work but didn’t know where his unusual name came from. In fact, he was named Grinling after his mother, Elizabeth Grinling (though his mother’s family name was recorded as Grinling, Gorling, Grilling, and other variations). He also had a brother, Dingley Gibbons (chuckle) who was named after his grandmother’s family line. Grinling also named a son Grinling, but his namesake didn’t survive childhood.

In Grinling Gibbons’ case, surnames were used as first names. I only have one example of that in my family tree (a Hull butcher who probably endured a lifetime of teasing for his name: Flower Callis — after his grandmother Sarah Ann FLOWER). However, I have a wealth of ancestors who had surnames as middle names. It got me thinking about why these names were used, and how they were sometimes passed down multiple generations.

Naming traditions vary from country to country, but in England, having one or more middle names became increasingly common from the 19th century. According to the National Institute of Genealogy, ‘Middle names were chosen for a reason, not just on a whim, and this is important to bear in mind when elucidating relationships.’1

Drawing from my own family history, which is almost entirely in England, I’ve come up with five reasons for parents choosing surnames as middle names. And I’ve shared some examples of each from my family tree. Perhaps they will inspire you to think about where some of your ancestors’ middle names came from too!

1. Illegitimacy

One of the most common reasons for a child to be given a surname as a middle name was when the parents weren’t married. If a child had the same surname as his/her mother, and a middle name that looked like a surname, there’s a very good chance that the child’s middle name was the biological father’s surname. In some cases, the middle name of an illegitimate child may be the only clue, other than DNA, to the father’s identity.

Delia Raby Munday

The closest example of this to me was my paternal grandmother, whose birth name was registered as Delia Raby Munday in 1927. In Delia’s case, her father’s identity was included on her birth certificate — Walter Emmanuel RABY. My granny may have met her father as a toddler before she was sent home from Canada to England to be raised by an aunt and uncle. However, she had no memory of him and her mother and other family members refused to tell her anything about him. I’ve wondered how she felt about having this name throughout her 86 years of life — the surname of a man who had perhaps refused to have any responsibility for her and who remained a mystery to her.

The Skinner Maultbys

Hannah Maultby, a sister of my 3x great grandfather, had an illegitimate son, Sidney Skinner Maultby, in 1868. Hannah, only 18 years old, soon abandoned baby Sidney, leaving him to be raised by her recently widowed mother, and ran away with George SKINNER, the next door neighbour. The case of Maultby vs Skinner, a case of ‘seduction’, was heard at the Court of Common Pleas2, and is a story I plan to tell in a future blog post. Hannah had two more sons with George Skinner before marrying him. The first was Harry Maultby Skinner (b. 1868) and the second Herbert Oxenham Skinner (b. 1869). It seems that the format of the three illegitimate boys’ names moved increasingly towards the appearance of legitimacy, even without a legal marriage in place. However, while Harry and Herbert were raised by both of their parents along with several younger legitimate siblings, Hannah and George never took responsibility for their first child, Sidney Skinner Maultby.

Nevertheless, Sidney held on to the name Skinner. With illegitimacy, the line between middle and last names isn’t always clearcut, and the baptism of one of his daughters gave the surname as ‘Skinner Maultby’. However, the middle name ‘Skinner’ was officially registered with the births for three of his four sons, William, Harold and John, the youngest of whom, John Skinner Maultby (b. 1911), only died in 1997 — 131 years after Sidney’s birth. 

Fred Clark Homan aka William Taylor

My 2x great grandfather was registered at birth in 1863 as Fred Clark Homan, the son of Sarah Homan. However, no father’s name was included on his birth certificate. Sarah Homan was from Waddesdon, Bucks, where she was living in 1861. There were four ‘Clark’ males (excluding children) in the village in that census — a teenage boy, a married man about Sarah’s age, a married man in his mid forties and a man in his fifties. The man of a similar age, James Clark, seems the most likely to have been Fred’s father. However, this is only speculation. Whoever the father was, it doesn’t seem that he supported Sarah, who gave birth in Aylesbury workhouse. Fred (known in early life as Frederick) never used the name Clark in any other official records, and by adulthood had adopted the name William Taylor — but that’s another story! 

Harold Gayhart Bateman

Another illegitimate child in my family tree, Harold Gayhart Bateman, was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1926. Harold was a year older than his mother’s cousin, my grandmother Delia, but unlike Delia, he was raised by his mother. I don’t know whether Harold knew his biological father, but I discovered by searching the Canadian census of 1921 that there was one Gayhart family in Hamilton at that time. The most likely candidate for his father was Vincent Anthony Gayhart, who would have been 20 in 1926.

So, why were illegitimate children sometimes given the father’s name as a middle name? Until 1926, an illegitimate child couldn’t be legitimised even if the parents later married. Therefore, if the couple were planning to marry, it could be a way to express their joint commitment and to give an air of legitimacy to the child. However, if the father was unwilling or unable to marry the mother, the mother might have hoped that using his surname would strengthen her claims for maintenance or parish settlement. Of course, the use of the name had no legal bearing and must also be treated with caution by family historians. Although it could provide a substantial clue, it may be that the mother was not truthful about the identity of the father, or wasn’t aware of the truth herself.

In one case, it seems that the illegitimate child himself, rather than the mother, chose to use the father’s name:

Thomas Maultby Green

My 5x great grandfather was known throughout life as Thomas Maultby, except in his marriage record in Soulbury, Bucks, 1813, which named him Thomas Maultby Green. All searches for the baptism of Thomas Maultby in about 1783 (his birth date based on his death certificate) had drawn a blank. So, was Maultby in fact his middle name, and was he illegitimate? Thomas died before the 1841 census, so I didn’t even know in which county he was born. Unfortunately, finding the right ‘Thomas Green’ would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

However, after a stint running a bakery in Shrewsbury, Thomas Maultby and his family settled in Leighton Buzzard, Beds. And as it happens, a woman called Sarah Fosket, whose maiden name was Maultby, lived in the same town. Sarah was just two years younger than Thomas, and had been born and baptised in Wingrave, Bucks, where her father William Maultby was a farmer (and the only male Maultby for miles around). My hunch was that Thomas was also from Wingrave, and since the Wingrave parish records have not been digitised, I was excited to be able to examine the baptism register at Bucks Archives earlier this year. 

As I had hoped, I found a baptism for Thomas Green to Jane Green in 1783. William Maultby, who I am confident was Thomas’s father, had married a few months later, but not to Jane. The Greens were poor members of the Wingrave community, and I can understand why Thomas would have preferred to use the surname of his much more well-to-do father instead. Unfortunately, no bastardy records have survived for Wingrave, and William Maultby’s will makes no mention of Thomas. However, Thomas married into a good family (his wife was the daughter of a Gentleman) and started a successful baking business which continued for several generations. I believe that William must have acknowledged his son privately, and provided him (and hopefully his mother) with some financial support. Perhaps until his marriage, Thomas felt obligated to retain the name ‘Green’, but later had the confidence to consistently use the name Thomas Maultby.

2. Honouring Mothers

For a legitimate child, it seems that the most common reason for parents to use a surname as a middle name was to pay tribute to the mother, and therefore to her parents, family and ancestry, by using her maiden name. This became especially fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. A famous example is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose middle name came from his mother, Sophia KINGDOM.

William Maultby Skinner & Charles Maultby Joyes

I’ve already shared the case of Hannah Maultby and her illegitimate sons. Hannah and George Skinner later used her maiden name as a middle name for another (legitimate) son, William Maultby Skinner, b.1877. Hannah later remarried to Walter Joyes and had two more sons; her last child was Charles Maultby Joyes, b. 1885.3 She seems to have been extremely proud of her family name. I wonder if she knew that her grandfather Thomas was in fact illegitimate, and that her birth name really should have been Hannah Green!

A Tip: Hints for Charles Maultby Joyes in named him ‘Charles Maultby Ryelands Joyes’ and ‘Charles Maultby Elkham Joyes’. In fact, these were transcription errors from Kelly’s Directories, and ‘Ryelands’ and ‘Elkham’ were places where he lived. So do check that a middle name that looks like a surname, especially if it only pops up in one source, isn’t just a transcription error!

Arthur Edwards Saword & William Gibson Saword

Arthur Edwards Saword (b. 1853) was the eldest son of Edward W.T. Saword (my husband’s 3x great grandfather) and Sarah Ann Gibson, so you’d be forgiven for assuming that his middle name was simply meant to be ‘Edward’. However, in fact, his middle name was the surname of his father’s first wife, Emma EDWARDS, who had died in 1849. Arthur was the first son born to Edward and Sarah, his second wife. As well as this being a touching way to honour his late wife, Edward may have wished to highlight the name of her family, as the Edwardses were a fairly distinguished dynasty of potters. However, Arthur didn’t use his middle name throughout his life, and his probate record notes that he was ‘SAWORD Arthur Edwards otherwise Arthur’.

Edward and Sarah’s third and fourth sons, born in 1860, were twins, William and Walter. Their birth registrations didn’t include middle names but when William got married in 1888 he used the name William Gibson Saword.3 Unfortunately I haven’t found a baptism record, so I don’t know whether Edward and Sarah chose this name for him, or if he chose it for himself.

Ann Slatter Eaton

In places where families often intermarried, having surnames as middle names could lead to some unfortunate duplication. Ann Slatter Eaton, b. about 1785, was the daughter of Deodatus Eaton, a wine merchant, and Mary SLATTER. Her uncle was the Rev. John Slatter Eaton (though in his case I don’t know why he had the Slatter name). The Slatters were a prolific Oxford family, many of whom were freemen and had fingers in a lot of pies. Mary Slatter’s brother, William, even became Mayor in 1825. In 1814, Ann Slatter Eaton married (another) William Slatter (relation to Ann unknown), becoming Ann Slatter Slatter!5

However, going by the 1821 electoral register of Christ Church College, Oxford, it seems that repeated names in that era may have been perceived as a sign of good breeding (or in-breeding?!). You’ll find such delights as ‘Love Parry James Parry’, ‘Clinton James Fynes Clinton’, ‘Walker King King’ and ‘John Buller Yarde Buller’. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more first and middle names you have that are surnames, especially when repeated, the higher your chances of having your own Wikipedia page. 😉 These repetitions among the landed class were usually due to inheritance reasons, as the ‘squierarchy’ often required surnames to be adopted or reinforced by beneficiaries. (for more plumped up names from this register see the end of this blog!)

Some other examples from my family tree, perpetuating the mother’s maternal name:

  • Robert Bakewell Muggleston (b. c1831) — son of Henry Muggleston and Pascha BAKEWELL
  • Henry Marshall Kirk (b. 1854) — my husband’s 2x great grandfather, the eldest son of George Frederick Kirk and Sarah Ann MARSHALL
  • Edward Bruce Gibson Lankford (b. 1863) and Leonard Gibson Lankford (b. 1879) — sons of my 3x great grandparents Alfred Lankford and Matilda GIBSON; akin to the Skinner Maultbys, Edward was born illegitimately, and Leonard legitimately.
  • Laura Priest Underwood (b. 1871) — daughter of my 3x great grandparents John Underwood and Hephzibah PRIEST
  • Marion Gifford Martin (b. 1909) — my husband’s great aunt, daughter of James Martin and Ida GIFFORD
  • Nora Saword Greenwood (b. 1909) – daughter of Robert Henry Greenwood and Sarah Cecile SAWORD
  • Winston Gifford Watts (b. 1911) — son of William Watts and Millicent GIFFORD

Anecdotally, it seems that the mother’s maiden name was most commonly given to first-born sons. I’d be interested to hear any other evidence for or against this observation.

Tip: If you have an ancestor with a surname as a middle name, and can’t find them in an index search, try searching with the middle name as the surname. They may have been either entered, or transcribed, incorrectly. Henry Marshall Kirk was enumerated as ‘Henry Marshall’ in the 1881 census, with all his family members also entered as ‘Marshall’.

3. Honouring Maternal Ancestors

Just as using the mother’s maiden name could both honour the child’s mother and call attention to the prestige of her family, using a grandmother’s or even great great grandmother’s name could be chosen for the same reasons. With the English patrilineal system of passing down only the father’s family name, this was one of the few ways in which the female lines could be acknowledged and celebrated. For genealogists, a mystery middle name can provide a fantastic clue to a maiden name of an earlier direct ancestor, and might be the key to helping you firmly establish the correct pedigree. However, as you’ll see from my experience, the reason behind a name might not be as straightforward as it seems …

Richard Towers Carr Kirk

The next youngest brother of George Marshall Kirk, Richard Towers Carr Kirk (b. 1860) was named after his grandmother Mary Ann CARR. However, the origin of ‘Towers’ is as yet unknown. Two middle names made this a very posh-sounding name for the son of a tailor! Sadly, Richard died as an infant. 

Joseph Goldney Munday and Cecil Goldney Munday

The only two sons of Joseph Munday and Edith Everett were called Joseph Goldney Munday (b. 1905) and Cecil Goldney Munday (b. 1907). Joseph’s mother (the boys’ grandmother) was Sarah Ann GOLDNEY. The Goldneys were an ordinary working class family (Sarah Ann’s father George was a shoemaker turned brickmaker), so why did Joseph and Edith choose to give the Goldney name to both of their boys (and not Edith’s maiden name, for example)? 

Sarah Ann Munday née Goldney had tragically died in childbirth in 1880 when Joseph was a child, and although Joseph’s father (my 2x great grandfather, also called Joseph) quickly remarried, Sarah Ann’s widowed father, George Goldney, was the head of their household in 1881 at the Plume of Feathers Inn, Aylesbury, Bucks.4 I don’t know how long this arrangement lasted, but Joseph may have grown up under his grandfather’s watchful eye, or at least received a helping hand from him in their time of crisis. George Goldney passed away a decade after his daughter Sarah Ann, in 1898. Perhaps Joseph Munday named one of his sons after his mother, and one after his grandfather.

Thomas Bowen Maultby & Emily Langford Maultby

Thomas Bowen Maultby (b. 1869) was the first-born son of my 3x great grandparents Thomas Maultby and Eliza Randall, and Emily Langford Maultby (b. 1870) was their third daughter. The siblings were baptised on the same day at Newport Pagnell Independent Chapel. I long suspected that Bowen and Langford were family names, but only confirmed their origins several years after adding Thomas and Emily to my tree. 

Thomas Jr.’s middle name, Bowen, pays homage to his great grandmother, Anna Maria BOWEN (the wife of Thomas Maultby Green, who I’ve talked about already). The Bowens came from Shropshire, and Anna’s father was a Gentleman. Emily’s middle name, Langford came from her great great grandmother, Sarah LANGFORD, who was Anna Bowen’s mother. Spanning four generations, this is the largest generational gap that I’ve found between an inherited middle name and the ancestor who inspired it. 

Why was it important to Thomas and Eliza to use their ancestors’ names? My mum (the Maultby expert in our family), believes it’s because they were Nonconformists and didn’t have the established history that many families had within an Anglican church.

Ever since I started researching my family history I’ve wondered how much ordinary people in the past knew about their forebears, and the Maultby example suggests to me that they may have known more about their ancestry than most of us (at least before taking up family history as a hobby) know today. The Maultbys’ pride in their well-off Shropshire ancestors must also explain why in 1901, Eliza Maultby (Thomas Bowen Maultby’s widowed mother), lived in a house in Bedfordshire called ‘Bowen Villa’. (though perhaps Eliza was not aware that her own maternal grandfather was a Ronksley from Yorkshire — a member of the landed gentry with a family tree that has been traced back to the 12th century!) On the subject of house names, I recommend a read of genealogist Judith Bachelor’s blog about the significance of house names in your family history

George Benwell Prickett & Alice Benwell Hitchings

George Benwell Prickett (b. 1827) was the eldest son of James Prickett and Elizabeth Hitchings, and his cousin Alice Benwell Hitchings (b. 1830) was the youngest daughter of Dr. George Hitchings and Sophia Halse. Elizabeth and George Hitchings were both children of Sir Edward Hitchings and Lady Elizabeth Hitchings née BENWELL (Edward was knighted during a royal visit to Oxford while he was Mayor of the city). The Hitchings, Benwell and Halse families were of equal social status, but the Hitchings’ titles must have given their family name particularly caché. 

So why were George and Alice named after their grandmother Elizabeth Benwell? Could Elizabeth’s children have been hoping that their mother would remember their children especially fondly in her will? In fact, when Sir Hitchings had died in 1825, his will had stipulated that after his wife’s death, the value of their goods and property would be divided equally between all of the grandchildren. So, it could perhaps have simply been a way to pay their respects to their elderly mother. Or perhaps I was barking up the wrong branch of the tree. 

George Hitchings and Elizabeth Prickett née Hitchings also had wealthy and influential Benwell cousins, particularly Elizabeth Benwell, a spinster, and Thomas Benwell, a solicitor. When Elizabeth died in 1844 she left legacies to 20 people, including siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, godchildren and friends. Her cousin George Hitchings was a beneficiary, but not George Benwell Prickett or Alice Benwell Hitchings. Nevertheless, she or Thomas could have been godparents or simply treasured friends. 

If I’d been working backwards from George or Alice, I would have felt very reassured to find supporting evidence in their names that Elizabeth Benwell was their grandmother. However, it does not necessarily mean that she was the specific person honoured by their names. Ultimately, I don’t need to know the exact reasons behind their names. But for me, it’s a reminder to look at my ancestors not in straight lines but within their multi-dimensional networks of family and friends. Which brings me to reason 4 …

4. Tipping the Hat to Other Important Connections

Although middle names can be particularly valuable clues to a biological father, or to the maiden name of a mother or other direct maternal ancestor, children could also be named after other family members, as well as godparents, benefactors, colleagues, or friends. Highlighting these relationships could express love, loyalty, gratitude, pride, or perhaps a hope for a future return on investment!

One famous example is Arthur Conan Doyle — ‘Conan’ being the surname of his godfather, Michael CONAN. Another interesting case is that of Alexander Graham Bell, who at ten years old asked his father if he could have a middle name like his brothers. The name ‘Graham’ was then chosen out of respect for a family friend, Alexander GRAHAM.

Edward William Turner Saword & Henry Turner Saword

Remember Edward Saword, who touchingly gave his first wife’s surname to his first son by his second wife? His full name was Edward William Turner Saword, and he was born in 1810, the only child of Edward William Saword and Sarah Benwell.

Two months after Edward was baptised, Sarah’s sister Mary Benwell married Thomas TURNER, a goldsmith, who was the Sheriff on Oxford’s city council. Although Thomas Turner was not quite a member of the family by the time of Edward’s christening, he was presumably already on close terms with the Benwell family. Thomas Turner had two sisters and a brother, any of whom could have also been family friends. His brother John Mathias Turner (pictured above) was a witness to Thomas and Mary’s marriage, and he may have been particularly highly regarded, as he was at that time a fellow of Christchurch College (his name appears alongside the many double-named MAs there in 1821). Any one (or more) of these Turner siblings could have been Edward’s godparent. 

Alternatively, it may have been their mother, Ann Turner, who provided the inspiration. Ann had managed to keep the family’s gold- and silver-smithing business afloat after the premature death of her husband (probably by suicide), and she had died in 1809, the year before Edward’s birth.

The Turner family continued to flourish. Thomas Turner was appointed as the King’s Consul to Ragusa, Dalmatia (Dubrovnik, Croatia — pictured at the top of this blog) and later to Panama. John Mathias Turner was a tutor to the future prime minister William Gladstone and went on to become Bishop of Calcutta.8 Tragically, both men died of illness while in their overseas posts, in the 1830s. Either or both of these eminent men could have inspired Edward William Turner Saword to pass on his middle name to his own son, Henry Turner Saword, in 1846. 

However, personal family letters also suggest that Edward may have had an affair with his first cousin, Emily Turner (Thomas and Mary’s daughter) — a less noble reason for him to favour the Turner name. Of course, Edward may simply have wished his child to have his own middle name. Whatever the reason for passing the name on for one more generation, Henry Turner Saword sadly didn’t survive his first year, and the middle name didn’t continue in the Saword family.

The Vlako Turners

This next example looks at an unusual middle name, which may have been a surname, and was proudly used in three generations. In the previous example I mentioned Thomas Turner, who was a Consul in Ragusa and Panama in the early 1800s. Thomas and his wife Mary apparently liked to give their children names with a local flavour. Their daughter, born in Venice in 1816, was named Marietta, and a son born in Dalmatia, Ragusa in 1826 was given the name William Vlako Turner. Vlako (or usually Vlatko) is a diminutive for the male name Vladimir (which means ‘peaceful ruler’) and it can be a first or last name. Thomas may have had a respected colleague in Dalmatia with that name, or perhaps it was inspired by one of several historical figures in the region.

A generation later, Marietta Turner and her husband followed fashion by giving her maiden name to their son, Alfred Turner Twyford-Jones, who then called his daughter Marietta. However, William Vlako Turner took the inherited middle-name idea to a whole new level!

William took Holy Orders in 1849 and in 1850 he married Emma Pitches. They had five children together, ALL of whom, male and female, had Vlako as a middle name:

  • Harriet Anne Vlako Turner (b. 1851)
  • Emma Vlako Turner (b. 1853)
  • Henry ‘Harry’ Vlako Smedley Turner (b. 1855)
  • Edith Vlako Turner (b. 1863)
  • Percy Vlako Turner (b. 1868)

As if that weren’t enough Vlako’s, the Rev. William Vlako Turner also gave his middle name to his wife! At first, I thought that the census entry for 1861, which listed her as ‘Emma Vlako Turner’ was an error. However, Emma had the middle name Vlako in every census of their married life except 1881, when she was a visitor far from home. She even used it in 1901, which was two years after her husband’s death. It seems that the family used ‘Vlako Turner’ almost as a surname, though births were registered as ‘Turner’ and it was never hyphenated.

And the Vlako name obsession continued … Out of what I interpret as courtesy to his father, as well as pride in his grandfather’s role in Ragusa, the Rev. Harry Vlako S. Turner gave the name ‘Vlako’ to his children, Ruby Vlako Turner (b. 1899) and Harry Percival Vlako Turner (b. 1905), AND to his wife Elizabeth!7 The Vlako Turners were all set for world domination. But in 1919, tragedy struck the family. Harry Jr., aged 14, attended school in the home of another clergyman, who had, one afternoon, fallen asleep in the garden after shooting at rooks and starlings, with his loaded gun at his side. Harry ran through the garden, tripped on the firearm and accidentally shot himself. It was a fatal accident. No more Turner descendants, or their wives, would be given the middle name Vlako again.

5. Inspired by Heroes and Happenings

I’ve looked a lot at different personal connections. But although it was much less common in the past than it is today, babies’ forenames could also be inspired by world events, celebrities, or just a word that their parents thought sounded nice!

Leslie Kitchener Wilkin 

Leslie Kitchener Wilkin was born on 23 September 1914. However, Leslie wasn’t named after a family member but after Field Marshall KITCHENER, who had been appointed Secretary of State for War at the outbreak of the conflict a few weeks before.

Jessamy Carsson researched ‘Battle Babies’ — with names inspired by war and peace from 1914 to 1939 — and found that 166 babies were given the first name ‘Kitchener’ from 1914-1919. (I encourage you to read the full fascinating blog post at TNA’s website.) It wasn’t possible to reliably analyse the number of babies who had been given ‘Kitchener’ as their middle name, but it must have been hundreds, perhaps even thousands more.

Joseph Melbourne Kirk

Joseph Melbourne Kirk was a brother of Richard Travers Carr and Henry Marshall Kirk, both of whom I mentioned earlier. He was born on 17 January 1862 in Hull, and his middle name is a mystery. The most likely source of ‘Melbourne’ is that it was a family name (a great grandmother?), as there were twenty Melbournes/Melbourns in Hull enumerated in the 1861 census. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for Melbournes while researching this line further back.

However, Hull newspapers in the weeks before Joseph’s birth carried stories of intrepid explorers in Melbourne, and also reported on a ship called the Melbourne that had been dispatched with brave soldiers from England to frozen Canada to help defend British territory against the Americans (during the upheaval of the Civil War). So, if no family connections can be found to his unusual middle name, perhaps these newspapers hold clues to his parents’ inspiration.

Joseph, a railway carriage cleaner, must have liked his middle name, or been proud of the person he was named after, because in 1883 he named his first son Melbourne Kirk. Unfortunately, like so many other babies, all of whose parents chose their names with high hopes and expectations, Melbourne died when he was just one year old.


Surnames as middle names can be very useful clues in tracing families forwards and backwards and I hope that my own examples spark some ideas of possible sources for middle names in your family. Many of my theories about why names were chosen are only speculation, and I pose as many questions as answers, but I believe that pondering the question of why a middle name was chosen can help us to get to know our ancestors better. I still have many more middle name puzzles to solve, such as Amelia Hatton, my husband’s great great grandmother, who never gave a middle name in life, but was registered as Amelia Seaman Hatton when she died.

And finally, there is one more very special person on my family tree who inherited a maiden name as a middle name. Inspired by my ancestors, I named my own son Stanley Wyatt Kirk, after my birth surname, WYATT. Since I and my children use my husband’s surname, and I have no brothers, or male Wyatt first or second cousins, I am the end of my Wyatt family line. This way, my surname continues as a personal name for another generation. We also chose ‘Wyatt’ because he was born in the United States, where it is more common as a first name. Two hundred years from now, I hope that my descendants will smile and nod when they realise that their ancestor Stanley’s middle name came from his mum, and possibly had a hint of the Wild West as well.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (Wyatt Earp) was named after his father’s commanding officer, Captain Wyatt Berry Stap, who was himself named after his mother, Lucinda Berry.

*Off-topic and just for fun bonus bombastic names from the 1821 University of Oxford Electoral Roll: ‘Granville Venables Vernon’, ‘Onesipherous Tyndall Bruce’, ‘Wadham Knatchbull’, ‘Bickham Sweet Escott’ and ‘Egerton Arden Baggott’. Plus, don’t miss Charles Dodgson, the father of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll (Lutwidge being the maiden name of his mother and grandmother).


  1. England Given Name Considerations (National Institute)
  2. Newspaper clipping about Maultby (Maltby) vs Skinner: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 16 February 1868 (
  3. WW1 medal roll for Charles Maultby Joyes: The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; War Office and Air Ministry: Service Medal and Award Rolls, First World War. WO329; Ref: 1853 (
  4. Marriage of William Gibson Saword and Minnie James: Brecknockshire, Wales, Anglican Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1994 (
  5. Marriage of Ann Slatter Eaton and William Slatter: London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: DL/T/092/005 (
  6. Goldney/Munday family in 1881 England Census: Class: RG11; Piece: 1472; Folio: 22; Page: 37; GSU roll: 1341356 (
  7. Vlako Turner family in 1911: The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911 (
  8. Portrait of John Matthias Turner printed by Engelmann, Graf, Coindet & Co, after Daniel Maclise lithograph, circa 1827-1832, NPG D39452© National Portrait Gallery, London

My strangest (and spookiest) heirloom

When I watch ‘The Repair Shop’ or the ‘Antiques Roadshow’, I can’t help feeling envious of some of the treasures that people have received from their great aunt Phyllis or cousin Bert. Most of my ancestors were poor, so it’s not surprising that there aren’t any Fabergé eggs or Steiff bears gathering dust in the attic. A few ancestors did have some money several generations ago, but the silver spoons and carved coat of arms that they left in their wills certainly didn’t come down my line!

However, I do think I might have one of the strangest heirlooms: because 24 years ago I inherited a set of psychic drawings by a famous spiritualist! And as it’s not long until Halloween, this seemed like a good time to share them.

The pictures belonged to my great grand aunt, Margorie Pearl Fish née Underwood (1895-1986). Marjorie was the older sister of my great grampy — my maternal grandfather’s father (the only great grandparent I ever met). 

My relationship to Marjorie

Marjorie’s only child, Peter, was my grampy’s cousinm making him my first cousin twice removed. When I was 10 years old, I started to take an interest in my family history, and my sister and I wrote to Peter, since his mother was the only one of her generation still alive. At that time, Peter and Marjorie lived together in North Kensington. Marjorie was by then 90 years old and very hard of hearing. Peter was a retired school teacher and a very kindly man, who replied to us girls with several pages in beautiful handwriting, sharing lots of stories and facts about the Underwood family. It really was Peter’s letter (which I still treasure) that got me hooked on family history. I spoke to Peter once on the phone and remember how warm he was, and his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge of the family’s origins with me, even though I was so young.

Peter invited my mum, myself and my sister to visit him and Marjorie in London. They had Underwood photograph albums he wanted to show us. However, my mum was a busy teacher with busy children, and we weren’t able to take up his invitation. Then, sadly, Marjorie passed away in December, just four months later.

In my teens I continued to research my family history, but as the years passed I didn’t get back in touch with Peter. Then, one day in 1997, I came home from university to a letter from his neighbour, who informed me that he had died two years earlier. She had had no idea that Peter had any relations, and although many of Peter’s things had gone to his close friends, some had been thrown away. Unfortunately, that included his photograph albums. We were also dismayed to learn that a family bible had been sold at auction. But, thankfully, the neighbour had held on to two items, and when she discovered my letter among Peter’s possessions, she was glad to forward them to me. The first was a scroll sent to my great great grandparents (Marjorie’s parents) when Marjorie’s brother Harold was killed in WW1. It’s very precious to me. The other was a very unassuming brown envelope addressed to Marjorie and postmarked June 1965. Inside it were seven drawings of faces, and a letter from the artist, Coral Polge — all of which I have scanned and shared below. On the back of each picture were Coral’s handwritten ‘impressions’ of that character, which I have added as captions (just click on the image to see it a larger view without the caption over the top).

Coral Polge (1924-2001) was a British psychic artist who was well known to those interested in spiritualism, and also known to anyone who watched popular TV shows about the unexplained. One of her cases was featured on the American show ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ in 1990. According to the Unsolved Mysteries fan wiki, ‘Coral first learned of her talent shortly after World War Two, when she met with a psychic medium who told her that she would become a famous psychic artist. Within a few years, she began to accurately draw deceased loved ones and friends. Coral claims that she has made over 10,000 accurate drawings.’ In 1991 Coral published her autobiography, ‘Living Images: The Story of a Psychic Artist’. In 1995 she appeared on the British programme ‘Beyond Belief’, presented by David Frost. In the 5-minute clip below, Coral demonstrates her drawings and shares her impressions of each spirit, while her frequent associate, the psychic/medium Bob Landis, receives additional information that helps audience members connect the drawings to their loved ones.

When it comes to spiritualism, I’m very much a skeptic, but a fascinated skeptic. I’ve been very interested in all things supernatural, especially ghosts and the afterlife, since about the time I got the family history bug. As a teen, I subscribed to the Fortean Times, and last year I became a subscriber again. In their January 2021 issue, Robert Weinburg, in his article ‘The Medium Is the Message’, wrote about one of the earliest British artists who produced spirit drawings, in the mid 1800s: Georgiana Houghton. Georgiana’s art, which was abstract rather than portraiture, was ‘automatic’, and she claimed that it was being channelled through her by a spirit called Angelo, who had been an artist in life. Tellingly, Georgiana had abandoned early art training when her beloved sister had died in childbirth, and she had also mourned the death of another young brother. These tragedies ‘had led Georgiana to search out comfort – as so many prematurely bereaved Victorians were doing – in spirit mediumship.’ A later spirit artist, Madge Gill, began to work ‘under the control of an ancient babylonian high-priest’ after her son died in the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918.

Indeed, the immense losses from WW1 and its aftermath generated a huge wave of interest and belief in spiritualism. With so many young people dying suddenly, often far from home and without recent communication, the families they left behind were desperate to make contact with the spirit world. Sadly, many charletans were willing to take advantage of their grief.

Marjorie had certainly had more than her fair share of bereavement. She had lost four of her six siblings in young (or relatively young) adulthood; Harold, the eldest, was killed in the Great War aged 24; her older sister Lily died from cancer in her mid 40s, younger sister Ivy of heart disease at 40, and youngest sister Kathleen of TB at just 24. Between 1944 and 1953 Marjorie also lost both of her parents and then her husband, John. John was five years younger than Marjorie, and only 52 when he died, so his death must have come as a huge shock. Twelve years on, her grief may still have been sharp enough to drive her to seek communication, reassurance, or guidance from her family members beyond the grave.

However, Coral’s comment on one picture suggests that Marjorie may have believed she too had psychic abilities, and that this was part of her exploration of those powers. In 1968, Coral Polge was the speaker at a public religious service of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, which took place at 33 Belgrave Square. The SAGB is still based there today. I don’t know whether Carol was a regular speaker there, but I wonder if Marjorie was a member, had attended ‘services’, and had deep and long-held spiritualist beliefs. Or had she simply contacted Corol Polge in the spur of the moment?

Kensington Post – Friday 20 September 1968
Image © Reach PLC via

Whatever Margaret’s motivations, I hope that she didn’t pay a lot for the drawings, and that she found some comfort or inspiration in them. If she did recognise anyone, that information has gone with her to her grave.

But did I recognise anyone, you might ask?

OK, I’ll admit that I have looked at the pictures and descriptions with an eye to finding possible connections and similarities to my Underwood ancestors. Unfortunately, I have very few photographs to compare them with. One man was said to have been connected to a shop, and Marjorie had grown up in the family’s grocer’s shop in Tring, Herts. As a teenager she worked as a cashier’s apprentice in a department store in St Albans. The two older women’s faces seem oddly familiar, and the lady with the ‘iron grey’ marcel waves has features of Underwood women. Marjorie did not, as far as I know, lose a baby son or brother, though her uncle Hedley died just days after his second birthday. The key to a medium’s success (I believe) is creating names, faces or facts generic enough to resonate with many members in a willing audience. Still, it was fun to suspend my disbelief for a while!

I’ll always regret that I didn’t meet Peter and Marjorie and get to know them in person. However, I have Peter’s letter and Marjorie’s pictures in my possession, which gives me a lasting connection to them. I also have the life-long gift of a love of family history that Peter Fish inspired in me all those years ago. Although I don’t believe that I can commune with the spirits of people who’ve died, I would suggest that researching the lives of the ancestors who came before us, and empathising with the events that shaped their lives, is a different way of making a meaningful connection that transcends space and time, and helps keep their memories alive for generations to come.

But on a less serious note, I think these psychic drawings are just deliciously spooky and good fun. And I hope you enjoy them too!

If you have any thoughts on these drawings, and the beliefs that underpin them, please do add a comment or drop me a line.

And do you have an unusual or spooky heirloom? I’d love to hear about it!

Polly Smith & ‘the Gosling’ (Servants & Employers Part 1)

Chances are, you have ancestors who were domestic servants, or who employed domestic servants. Have you taken the time to look at who their employers or servants were, and how the ‘other half’ lived?

Although it may seem that life upstairs and downstairs was very separate, many domestic servants lived and worked at close quarters with the family of the house. The status, lifestyle, and interests of an employer could have had a significant impact on servants, but servants also deserve recognition for their invisible role in wealthier ancestors’ history; their hard graft enabled their employers to enjoy a better quality of life and leave their much more visible legacy.

By including employers and employees, servants and masters/mistresses in your FAN club (Friends, Associates, Neighbours) you might uncover some rich and surprising stories. Here are two from my family tree …

Part 1: Polly Smith and the Gosselins

My great grandmother was named Mary Smith on every official record, but she was known to friends and family as Polly. Polly was born in 1878 in Stoke Mandeville, Bucks, the daughter of an Ag Lab and an ‘Ag Lab’s Wife’. However, changes in farming methods reduced the need for women and girls to work on the land, which presented a challenge to large families. In 1891, at the age of 13, Polly was enumerated in her parents’ home in Stoke Mandeville but was already working as a domestic servant. Her two older brothers, Edwin, 20, and William, 16, worked as wheelwrights. Her older sister, Annie, 19, was a domestic servant in Aylesbury for the family of a banker’s clerk. Only her two little sisters, seven-year old Emma and two-year-old Lizzie, weren’t contributing to the family’s income. (And two, or possibly three, more younger sisters had sadly died). The family of seven lived in four rooms.

Stoke Mandeville parish had a population of under 500, as well as an ebbing number of cholera patients who were treated in an isolation hospital on its border with Aylesbury. After WW2, Stoke Mandeville hospital became world-renowned for treatment of spinal injuries and as the birthplace of the paralympic movement. However, as the Victorian era came to an end this was still a very quiet, rural location. Although Polly had found work, and gained skills, her opportunities in Stoke Mandeville would have been very limited.

By 1901, Polly had left Buckinghamshire behind for Battersea, 40 miles away. In leaving the village of her birth, whether by choice or necessity, she was part of a local and national trend. Stoke Mandeville’s population more than doubled from 1801 to 1871, but since 1871 it had declined by one fifth. From 1891 to 1901, the population of England and Wales grew 12%, but Bucks only grew its population by 1.5% compared with London’s 7%.1 The numbers show plainly that people, including young women like Polly, were leaving the countryside for urban areas. In industrial towns, women found work in factories, but elsewhere, women’s work was dominated by domestic service. In 1891, 1.38 million people in Britain were employed as indoor domestic servants.2

What was it like in London at the turn of the 20th century? The air was full of soot and smoke, and 300,000 horses were creating 1000 tons of dung on the roads every day.3 Battersea, which only 60 years earlier had been much like Stoke Mandeville, still had some green spaces, but was now packed with industrial buildings, railway sheds, and in some areas, slums. Nevertheless, there were plenty of comfortable new homes there for middle class people who could afford the convenience and status of employing a general servant.

In 1901, Polly, aged 22, was employed as a housemaid by the Gosselin family in York Mansions, 132, Prince of Wales Road. The family consisted of Nicholas Gosselin, 63, a ‘Retired Major of Infantry Army Man’ born in Plymouth, his wife Catherine Rebecca ‘Kate’ Gosselin (née Haslett), 57, from Londonderry, Ireland, and their unmarried daughter Selena Frances, 33, also from what’s now Northern Ireland (County Cavan).

Mary ‘Polly’ Smith in the Gosselins’ household, 1901.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1901 England Census; Class: RG13; Piece: 442; Folio: 99; Page: 9 (via

York Mansions was constructed in 1897 and completed in 1901, so it was brand new when Polly moved in. The building consisted of 100 flats arranged around courtyards. Flats at the front overlooked Battersea Park. The apartments were purposely designed for a family with a live-in maid, and thanks to Wikipedia I have a detailed description of the layout, including the spaces that Polly would have lived and worked in:

Flats measured approximately 1,500 square feet (140 m2) for a 3-bedroom flat, and 1,800 square feet (170 m2) for a 4-bedroom flat, and included a drawing room, dining room, bathroom and rooms for a maid to live and work. A below-ground corridor ran the full length of the building, which provided internal access to the three separate courtyards and also acted as a servant’s corridor (servants did not use the main entrance to the building). In addition, the building was equipped with service lifts which led directly from the courtyards to the kitchens.

As had become standard, a small servant’s corridor was separated off within each flat and a separate servant’s lavatory (but no bathroom) was provided. Except at the ends of the building where it would have been considered too public and unseemly, the servants’ lavatory was outside, accessed from the balcony beside the kitchen door.

No separate scullery was provided and the original plans show the kitchen sink in the same room as the range and always in front of a window. At the time this was an unconventional arrangement, and was later termed ‘American style’. The flats at the rear corners of the building offered an unusual scenario where the maid, working at the sink, looked out at Battersea Park and had one of the best views in the whole flat.

When built the flats were modern, and had Queen Anne and Kate Greenaway style fire-surrounds, corrugated brass finger plates and plain ceilings. Ceiling roses were still being installed in many new houses but, by this date, were increasingly being viewed as somewhat “lower middle class”. The flats also had a chrome postal handle, some of the York Mansions’ flats still make use of the original fitting (the postal handle is a horizontal post flap with a fixed handle just below the opening, which is used to pull the flat door shut).

Although electricity appears to have been laid along Prince of Wales Drive, London at a very early stage, it was not extended into York Mansions until after the First World War. Lighting was by gas, utilising the new incandescent mantles, which concealed the naked flames and produced a softer, pleasanter light. Cooking was by solid fuel, using the rather square-rather-than-wide kitchen ranges. A coal-bin for each flat was provided in a cupboard outside the kitchen door in the servant’s corridor.4

York Mansions, early 1900s

From this description, I can tell that my great grandmother, though living in a family home, would (probably) have been kept as separate from her employers as possible. And unlike the family, she had no bathroom. Nevertheless, at least she could enjoy the view while she worked at the sink! Thankfully, Polly would not have been completely isolated, as she was not the only servant in the home. There was also a cook — 32-year-old Mary Stoat, from Ireland. Two servants for a family of three may sound very comfortable, but in 1891, the Gosselins had had three live-in servants — a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Even if their previous home was larger, Polly was doing the work that had previously been done by two women.

A housemaid typically rose by 6 am and worked until late at night. Her responsibilities would have included cleaning and polishing, lighting fires, setting and clearing tables, bedmaking, and needlework.5 Without a parlour maid, she would probably also have answered the front door, attended to guests, and served meals. Although there isn’t room in this blog to go into more detail on domestic service, I can recommend a very evocative book, a day in the life of a Victorian Domestic Servant, by L. Davidoff & R. Hawthorn (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1976), which, although set a few decades earlier, really brings their world to life.

As a working-class woman, Polly would probably have known about Battersea’s reputation for political activism. Britain’s first socialist party was founded there by John Burns in the 1880s, and in 1892, Burns became one of the first Independent Labour Party members of Parliament.6

Ironically, Nicholas Gosselin, the head of Polly’s household, had made his career leading efforts to suppress the ‘radical’ political movement for Irish Home Rule. Gosselin, the son of an Irish Army Major, had joined the army at 16. He later served as an Irish magistrate before being head-hunted in 1883 by the Home Office, who put him in charge of the newly formed Special Irish Branch. Their mandate was to gather intelligence on Fenian organisations operating in Glasgow and northern England. The Fenians were a secret political umbrella organisation with members in Ireland and the United States, dedicated to Ireland’s autonomy. Seen as freedom fighters by some, and terrorists to others, between 1881 and 1885, the Fenians launched a series of dynamite attacks on England’s urban centres, terrifying the public. Over 80 people were injured and a young boy was killed.

The Illustrated Police News reports on the ‘Dynamite Outrages’ – Saturday 07 February 1885 (BNA)

Gosselin, nicknamed ‘The Gosling’, coordinated covert intelligence agents across Britain and Ireland, and worked closely with Dublin’s Metropolitan Police. Gosselin’s correspondence with Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland (and later PM), shows that he had an agent working within the Irish Party, code named ‘L’, whose palm was ‘itching’ for bribes. His papers also reveal that he employed agents provocateurs, including an American ex-Fenian, to seed conspiracies about Fenian dynamite threats. He was also instrumental in bringing down Parnell, head of the Irish Nationalist Party, who, with the support of Liberal leader Gladstone, hoped to achieve Home Rule for Ireland. By exposing more details of Parnell’s long-term affair with his mistress, Gosselin helped stoke the scandal that ultimately stalled Home Rule, removing an option that could have avoided another century of bloodshed. Fenian bombing campaigns continued in England and Ireland until 1900, but in the 1890s Gosselin turned his attention to Irish republican organisations like Clan Na Gael. Athough Gosselin claimed to be simply a retired army man in the 1901 census, he continued to work for Irish Special Branch until his retirement in 1904/5.

I studied the ‘Irish Question’ in A Level History, but that was a long time ago, and this is an extremely complex subject, so I can’t claim to fully understand the role that Gosselin played. However, I’ve included some links to learn more about him below.

I wonder what Polly felt about Major Gosselin. Was he a hero? A man to be feared? Or simply an employer who paid her wages? Did she, in fact, have any contact with the ‘man of the household’, or only with the women of the family? After all, it was the lady or ladies of the house who typically oversaw its management. Unfortunately, I know much less about Kate and Selina Gosselin. Kate was the eldest daughter of William Haslett, a JP and the Mayor of Londonderry, so I imagine that she was a confident and educated woman who had always had servants at her beck and call.

After Nicholas Gosselin retired from special branch, he was knighted, and he and his wife moved to Kent. However, he continued to be politically active. In 1911, Deputy-Lieutenants and magistrates of Co. Monaghan met to discuss their approach to an imminent visit by the new King George V. Sir Gosselin expressed his wish to ‘pour oil on the troubled waters’; ‘they were assembled there to congratulate the king upon his succession to the Throne of this mighty Empire’ and ‘they should stick to that one subject.7 You can watch a newsreel of the royal visit to Ireland in 1911 here. In 1916, Gosselin’s was a prominent (and controversial) voice calling for conscription in Ireland.8 Lord Gosselin passed away in 1917, followed by Lady Gosselin in 1920. Selina never married, and passed away in 1955.

In 1906, Polly Smith married William Wyatt, my great grandfather. William was born two miles from Polly, but had lived and worked in London as an engine driver on the Metropolitan Line, which connected Bucks to central London. They settled in Willesden and raised a family before finally returning to Buckinghamshire. My dad, their grandson, had no idea his grandmother had worked as a domestic servant. Polly’s death certificate gave her occupation as ‘wife of William Wyatt a Retired Railway Engine Driver’.

Death certificate of Mary ‘Polly’ Wyatt

I’m proud that Polly had the courage to go to London to find work as a young woman, and the strength to carry out such physically demanding work. I now know that Polly also played a role, albeit behind the scenes, in the complex history of Irish independence.

Mary ‘Polly’ Wyatt née Smith

Learn more about Nicholas Gosselin and the Fenians:

Further Reading: Christy Campbell, FENIAN FIRE: The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria (HarperCollins, 2011)

In Part 2, discover the story of Millicent Gifford and the D’Arcy Ferrars.

  7. Belfast Telegraph – Wednesday 28 June 1911 (BNA)
  8. Freeman’s Journal – Tuesday 15 August 1916: Reviving the Conscription Cry (BNA)

Millicent Gifford & D’Arcy de Ferrars (Servants & Employers Part 2)

In Part 1, I shared the story of my great grandmother Polly Smith, who was employed as a housemaid by the head of the government’s Irish Special Branch. Now we turn to another ancestor who worked in service, whose charismatic employer was a nationally renowned organiser of Tudor-style pageants …

Millicent Gifford and D’Arcy de Ferrars

Millicent Clara Gifford, my husband’s great grandaunt, was born in Bream in the Forest of Dean in 1873, the third child of Mark Gifford, a miner, and Harriet Ann Jones. Sadly, Millicent lost her mother when she was just over a year old, and her father remarried within the year. Millicent’s first-born step-sibling, Ida — my husband’s great grandmother — was sent to Lancashire to be raised by an aunt and uncle as a young child, but Millicent was able to stay at home with her father and step-mother; she was a scholar, aged 8, in the family home in 1881.

Whereas some Forest of Dean families passed down free mining rights through the generations, Mark Gifford was the son of a labourer; he had worked in the mines since he was a child and he toiled for the profit of colliery owners. After decades as an iron miner he switched to coal mining in the 1880s, as the region’s iron ore output plummeted. His occupation was both dangerous and precarious. 

Foresters were renowned for being insular, and even as an increasing number of railways connected the area to the rest of the country, it was primarily coal, not people, that travelled beyond its borders. The tight-knit mining communities were also judged by outsiders to be uncivilised, even savage, especially after the infamous ‘killing of the bears’ in 1889.

However, young women did leave the Forest in search of new opportunities. Millicent’s teenage older sister, Elizabeth, had left home by 1881, and by 1891 she was a general servant in Liverpool, working for her step-mother’s niece. Then, Millicent too left her village and her family to work in domestic service far from home. Only a teenager, she found a position as a cook in the elegant spa town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, more than 50 miles away — but, really, worlds apart — from Bream and the Forest of Dean.

I wondered how Millicent had found a placement in Cheltenham, and how she had learned to cook well enough to prepare meals for a middle class family. Another Gifford descendant seemed to have the answer. She had discovered that Millicent’s step-mother, Phoebe Morse, had also been a cook in her youth, working for a clergyman and his family in a village just four miles north of Cheltenham. I assume that Phoebe had prepared Millicent for work as a cook, and it seems possible that Phoebe could have maintained connections in the Cheltenham area, or at the least, encouraged her step-daughter to seek work there.

Cheltenham’s heyday as a spa town was over by the mid 19th century, but the town continued to attract wealthy families, especially those who had served in the colonies, including the Army and East India Company. The town also attracted evangelical Anglicans, who established several new educational establishments such as Cheltenham College and Cheltenham Ladies College. Another, very different branch of my husband’s family — wealthy and devout — lived in Cheltenham in the 1840s, and sent a son to Cheltenham College. By the 1890s, genteel Cheltenham also had three railway stations (and a special one at the racecourse for race days), an opera house, theatre, free library, art gallery, parks, and even some new bath houses. The Montpellier Rotunda, built in the early 1800s and set in the Montpellier Gardens, had a dome inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Formerly a pump room and ballroom, by the 1890s it was used as a concert venue. (it’s now the location of one of The Ivy chain of restaurants). 

Cheltenham had a vibrant music scene. During the early 1890s, numerous renowned musicians came to perform in the town, and there was also a wealth of local talent. A bandstand was installed in Montpellier Gardens and used for regular concerts. Sacred music also thrived. The organist and choirmaster of All Saints’ Church was Adolph von Holst, whose wife Clara was a talented pianist and singer. Their son Gustav, now best known as composer of The Planets, was born in Cheltenham in 1874. In 1890, father and son gave a piano concert together in the Montpellier Rotunda, and in 1891, Holst performed his own composition there.

That same year, Millicent, aged 18, was a domestic cook in the household of the exotically named ‘E.R. Darcy de Ferrars’, who was a 36-year-old Professor of Singing.

The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891; Class: RG12; Piece: 2048; Folio: 25; Page: 9; GSU roll: 6097158. Via

Their address, 3 Montpellier Grove, an elegant townhouse of four floors, was just a short stroll away from the Montpellier Rotunda and Gardens.

Detailed Old Victorian Ordnance Survey 6 inch to 1 mile Old Map (1888-1913) of , Cheltenham, Gloucestershire via

Ernest Richard D’Arcy Ferris, as he was named at birth, really was a fantastic character. He was the son of Samuel Ferris of the Indian Civil Service, and Fanny — a schoolteacher and the daughter of the hilariously named Reverend Evill. Born in Bath in 1855, D’Arcy (his preferred first name) lost his father at the age of three. While his older brothers went into conventional careers, he moved to London and worked as a ‘violinist and professor of singing’. In 1878 he sang in the chorus of the world premiere of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.

D’Arcy Ferris, from The Gilbert And Sullivan Archive

In the 1880s Ferris relocated to Cheltenham, where as well as continuing to teach, conduct, and perform as a singer, he advertised himself as a ‘Designer and Director of Fetes, Festivities, Festivals, and Functions’.

In 1885, he was hired by Lord and Lady Wantage to organise a summer garden party at Lockinge House, Wantage in Berkshire. Lord Wantage was looking for something a bit different, and D’Arcy Ferris conceived of an Elizabethan-style pageant which he called ‘The Festival of ye Summer Queene’. I first heard about this lavish and exuberant party, which became widely known as the ‘Lockinge Revels’, when I was volunteering at the Vale & Downland Museum in Wantage. The two-day event included morris dancing, a Robin Hood play, a hobby horse tournament, and a spectacular procession of the summer queen, in which Lady Wantage was carried through the gardens surrounded by costumed attendants and entertainers. Hundreds of guests — the movers and shakers of the day — attended in costume. The Vale & Downland Museum has an 18th century sackback dress on display which was worn to the party, and the Oxfordshire Museums Service also has in its collection this piece of costume from the pageant:

In addition to the hundreds of wealthy and influential guests, local workhouse children were ‘invited to the park, and duly regaled’, and tea was served to the villagers. According to several reports, spectators numbered in their thousands.

Thanks to the ‘technical knowledge and unwearied exertions’ of Master of the Revels D’Arcy Ferris, the Lockinge Revels were a huge success, and were reported in newspapers across the UK, with a wonderful illustration published in The Graphic. I have a framed copy in my living room. The Pictorial World also offered ‘numerous sketches by special artists’ of guests in costume. It was soon after researching the Lockinge Revels for the museum, that I discovered my own connection to D’Arcy Ferris!

The Graphic, 12 September 1885 (BNA) 
Berkshire Chronicle, 29 August 1885 (BNA)
The Graphic, 12 September 1885 (BNA) 

I should note that not all coverage of the event was positive. The London Evening Standard published a very sardonic piece.1 However, the event captured the public’s imagination, and buoyed by the nation’s interest in the Old English Revels at Wantage, D’Arcy Ferris then took a part of his show on the road, presenting the ‘Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers’ at ticketed events in 16 different venues across the country, including Cheltenham. As Master of the Revels to be hosted in Ripon in 1886, he proposed a grand performance of ‘Robin Hood’ near the Abbey with a chorus of 50 foresters and forest maidens, and offered to write to Oscar Wilde, then a little known poet, to ask Wilde to write the play! 

D’Arcy Ferris’s morris dancing troupe, formed from working class ‘rustics’, helped to revive this ancient tradition in the UK. He also showcased sword dancing, which also received fresh interest, particularly by the aptly named folklorist Cecil Sharp. (For family and local historians, an online database of hundreds of working class people that Sharp met while touring England from 1903-1923 is a fantastic resource). Ferris’s passion for traditional music, dance and art was part of a national trend that encompassed the Arts and Crafts movement and the folksong revival that in Britain was led by composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holst, a friend of Vaughan Williams, also composed settings of traditional songs. It may be a coincidence, but in 1901, Millicent’s older sister Elizabeth was working as a cook in the household of Dr Edwin S Harland in Gloucester. A solicitor by profession, and the city’s mayor, Harland was also a founder member of the Folk-Lore Society and author of works on folklore.

D’Arcy Ferris as the Lord of Misrule
(de Ferrars family collection via Roy Judge: ‘D’Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris’, Folk Music Journal (see Further Reading below))

In 1888 D’Arcy legally changed his surname to ‘de Ferrars’. It was fashionable for professional musicians to add an exotic touch to their names but the change to Ferrars was also a reference to George Ferrars, who had been appointed as Master of the Revels/Lord of Misrule to help entertain the teenage King Edward VI in 1552-3.

The following year, D’Arcy de Ferrars organised an ice carnival at the Albert Hall and also got married to Isabel Browne. In 1891, Millicent Gifford was cooking for the newlyweds and their first child, Mary M. Joan D’Arcy de Ferrars (known as Joan), just ten months old. The only other servant recorded in the household was a 15-year-old nurse (presumably to help care for the baby). Her name was Blanche Foster and she came from Gloucester, so I do hope she recited ‘Doctor Foster Went to Gloucester’ to baby Joan.

In 1892 D’Arcy de Ferrars and Adolph von Holst hosted and performed a benefit concert together at Cheltenham’s corn exchange2, and the following year in the same venue, de Ferrars produced and conducted Gustav Holst’s early (and mostly forgotten) comic opera, Lansdown Castle, written when Holst was just 18.

Gloucestershire Echo, 7 February 1893 (BNA)

Unfortunately I don’t know how long Millicent Gifford worked for the de Ferrars family, but I do like to think that she would have met Gustav Holst, and perhaps cooked for him.

What would Ernest and Isabel de Ferrars have been like as employers? 

It’s very hard to say what Millicent’s time in Cheltenham was like. Life as a domestic servant is never easy, but in a home with just three family members and one other servant, she must have experienced the sights and sounds created by her multi-talented and probably larger-than-life employer. Perhaps the monotony and physical exertion of daily cooking and cleaning would have been lifted by music drifting, or even loudly reverberting, around the house.

D’Arcy de Ferrars was also known to be passionate about the welfare of the working classes. In 1886, he attended a meeting to discuss the Kyrle Society in Cheltenham. This society had been set up in 1877 by Octavia and Miranda Hill with the aim of enhancing quality of life in communities through music, art, literature and open spaces. William Morris was a key supporter. Ferris (as he was then) ‘made an impassioned plea for the teaching of beauty, and for the improvement of the social condition of the people, especially urging the revival of old English games and sports to encourage a “spontaneous attempt among the masses of the people to amuse themselves”.’3 This could be viewed as rather romantic, since it didn’t address people’s basic needs — food, shelter, and clothing (or, in the longer term, employment and education). I hope that de Ferrars paid Millicent well and provided her with opportunities for leisure and intellectual stimulation.

Nevertheless, Millicent would not have enjoyed those benefits for long. In 1894, aged 21, she married collier William Ellway aka William Watts, at Viney Hill in the Forest of Dean. After several years in the household of a musician and party host, a short walk from a beautiful park and concert hall, she returned to live in a rural mining community, and raised six children — four girls and two boys. I hope that she was happy as a wife and mother, in the place where she had grown up, but it must have been a stark contrast.

The de Ferrars family also grew, adding two more daughters and a son. In 1911, the family lived in Highgate, and D’Arcy stated his occupation as ‘Pageant Master’. No servants were enumerated with them. D’Arcy de Ferrars also continued to compose and produce. His eclectic projects included an operetta, ‘Japan in Cheltenham’, in 1901. He was responsible for the ‘spectacular’ Liverpool Pageant of 1907, and his last major venture, the Worsley pageant, was held in 1914. 

Cheltenham Looker-On, 2 November 1901 (BNA)

D’Arcy de Ferrars spent his retirement years in Padstow, Cornwall, and passed away in London in 1929. Surprisingy, an obituary in the Cornish Guardian remembered him above all as a singer. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Excerpt of de Ferrars’ obituary, Cornish Guardian, 11 July 1929 (BNA)

D’Arcy’s eldest daughter, Joan, whose first meals were cooked by Millicent Gifford, grew up to be a popular coloratura soprano. In 1925 her performance as Marguerite in Faust at London’s Old Vic, was broadcast by radio, and heard ‘throughout the West of England’.

Cornish Guardian – 9 January 1925 (BNA)

Millicent was widowed in 1917. She remarried to widower Reuben James, another colliery worker, in 1930, and she died in 1947. Millicent’s eldest son became a miner working underground. However, her youngest son, Winston Gifford Watts, took a leaf out of his mother’s book and worked as a butler in Anderson Manor, Blandford, Dorset. He lived to be 101, only passing away in 2012. 

Sources and Further Reading

Lockinge Revels complete programme and guest list printed in the Berkshire Chronicle, 29 August 1885 (p.8) and Reading Mercury, 29 August 1885 (p.4)

R. Judge, ‘D’Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris’, Folk Music Journal Vol. 4, No. 5 (1984), pp. 443-480 (38 pages), Published By: English Folk Dance + Song Society.

Judge, R.  (2004, September 23). Ferrars, Ernest Richard D’Arcy de (1855–1929), musician and pageant master. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Entry for Ferris, D’Arcy on Cecil Sharp’s People

  1. London Evening Standard, 28 August 1885
  2. Cheltenham Looker-On, Saturday 21 May 1892 (BNA)
  3. R. Judge, ‘D’Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris’ (see sources above)

Updated 9 Oct 2021 with information about Phoebe and Elizabeth Gifford, provided by Janet Rigby (Phoebe’s great granddaughter).