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 efficient 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 was still a month shy of turning 18, not yet an adult. 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 Christchurch College 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!

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).

Deodatus Eaton: A Life of Scandal

This article was first published in Oxfordshire Family Historian, the journal of the Oxfordshire Family History Society, April 2021 (Vol. 35 No. 1).

Deodatus William EATON was born in Oxford in 1819 — the fourth generation of Oxford men with this unusual Christian name, which means ‘God-given’.

His great grandfather, the first Deodatus (1700-1758), was a wood and coal dealer, a business continued by his widow Joan. Their son Deodatus (2) was born in 1746 (his twin sister Elizabeth was the first wife of my husband’s 5x great grandfather). He was apprenticed to a tailor, but took over the family’s coal merchant business after his mother’s death. Deodatus (2) married Mary SLATTER and they had six children, baptising Deodatus (3) in 1778. Deodatus (2) died in 1796, and Deodatus (3) continued the family coal business, but by his late thirties, when he married Ann HAYCOCK, he was selling coal and wine! By the birth of their first son Deodatus William in 1819, Deodatus (3) was solely a wine merchant. The family — with 10 surviving children — lived in St Aldate’s. 

As business thrived, Deodatus (3) became increasingly influential. Soon after being elected as a Common Council-Man in 1820, he became a Chamberlain and Auditor of the House of Industry. In 1825 he was promoted to Bailiff. Newspapers reported on several of his speeches, including one in 1831 to the Freemen of Oxford about parliamentary reform, of which he was a ‘strenuous advocate’. He became an Assistant of the City in 1834, as well as Commissioner of the Sewers, and in 1835 he served in the Mayor’s Court.

In 1836, the City Council passed a resolution to build a railway linking Oxford to London and joining the Great Western Railway. Deodatus was one of 17 men, including Oxford’s Mayor and two MPs, who formed a committee to see this through. The Consulting Engineer on the project was none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel!

Deodatus (4), b. 1819, who attended Aynho School (a free grammar school near Banbury), was the first of the family to attend the University of Oxford. He matriculated at Lincoln College as a Lord Crewe’s Exhibitioner at the age of 14, graduating with a B.A. in 1838 and M.A. in 1841. His brother John Slatter EATON, one year younger, received a B.A. from Worcester College in 1844, becoming Rev. EATON.

In 1841, the family of 13 lived at 3, St Aldate’s with five servants, and also had an address at Southampton St, Bloomsbury Square, London. However, their comfortable existence came to an abrupt end when Deodatus (3) died in 1845. Sadly, due to a complex inheritance issue, Deodatus’s widow and children were forced to leave their home and the city of Oxford. ‘The solicitor of all parties induced her to leave the house in which [Ann] resided in Oxford, called D. Eaton’s house, and come to London, and from that time to the present, she never received a sixpence from the settled property.’ (Morning Post, 15 Dec 1852). 

The family’s substantial moving sale shows that they had a very luxurious home and a staggering amount of wine and liqueurs (presumably for sale rather than personal consumption), but it also suggests that they needed to raise cash urgently:

Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, 17 May 1845. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( 

Ann had several children to care for, the youngest, Reginald, being only about six years old when his father died. At the age of 12, Reginald was apprenticed to the Merchant Navy and set sail to Australia, where he tragically died at the age of 20. Another son emigrated to the USA.

Deodatus (4), the eldest surviving child, had been fortunate to graduate from the Royal College of Surgeons just before his father’s death. He then secured the position of Assistant Surgeon to the 70th Regiment. In 1849 he married Sarah Lydia ALCOCK, youngest daughter of James ALCOCK, Grand Jury Treasurer of Waterford, near Dublin. The couple spent their first three weeks in Cork and then left for India, living in Calcutta, then Cawnpore (Kanpur) – a major site in the ‘Indian Rebellion’ of 1857 – and other places in East India. 

However, Deodatus’s career and personal life were suffering. Possibly due to ill health, he was placed on half pay. At the same time, he was announced in newspapers as a bankrupt. Deodatus and Sarah seem to have spent time in Kent and Dublin during this period. By 1862 he was back at work, posted to Jamaica and Barbados with the 3rd West India Regiment — an unpopular appointment. In 1862 Deodatus, based at Parkhurst Barracks, Isle of Wight, was once again announced as a bankrupt, and he blamed his wife: ‘The bankrupt attributed his embarrassment to the extravagance of his wife, Sarah Lydia Eaton, who had since eloped from him.’ (Hampshire Advertiser, 23 Aug 1862). In fact, the couple had separated in 1859.

On 13 December, it was reported in the Naval & Military Gazette that ‘Staff-Surg Deodatus William Eaton has been removed from the Army, Her Majesty having no further occasion for his services.’ Ouch! It was practice at the time for the military to dismiss bankrupts, though their salary could be used to liquidise debts. Officers could also sell their commissions. However, these options weren’t available to surgeons. Deodatus’s case, which raised questions about fairness, was discussed in the House of Commons.

Home News for India, China and the Colonies, 18 Jul 1863. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( 

In 1862, Deodatus filed for divorce, and it’s my belief that Deodatus was financially motivated to pursue the case in court.

The first petition claimed that in 1858-59 Sarah EATON had ‘committed adultery with one the Honorable James MacDonald of the Albany Chambers Piccadilly’. The Hon. James William BOSVILLE-MACDONALD was the son of Baron Macdonald, and Private Secretary and Equerry of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, with whom he served at the Crimea. He married the daughter of a baron in 1859.

Hon. James William Bosville-Macdonald (‘Men of the Day. No. 128. “Jim”‘)
by James Jacques Tissot
chromolithograph, published in Vanity Fair 1 April 1876
NPG D43738
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC: 3.0)

Deodatus also claimed that in 1860, in Barbados and on board the Himalaya — a Royal Naval vessel, Sarah ‘had committed adultery with one James Hamilton Bews Staff surgeon in Her Majesty’s Army by whom she was pregnant.’ Since then, Deodatus believed that Sarah had been living with BEWS in New Zealand ‘and leading an adulterous life.’ (Sarah and James had indeed had an illegitimate child — James Hamilton Heaton BEWS — born in New Zealand in 1861.) BEWS had been promoted to Assistant Surgeon at the same time as Deodatus in 1844. Perhaps as well as professional peers, they were friends. 

Concluding the application, Deodatus requested not only the dissolution of the marriage, but also £1000 in damages from James MACDONALD!

The case was unsuccessful, and in 1863 Deodatus, then a surgeon on Sloane Street, tried again. This second application made no mention of Col. MACDONALD, but provided additional details of his wife’s relationship with James BEWS, revealing that they had lived together in Chelsea for three months in 1861. Deodatus’s petition again requested financial compensation — this time asking that James BEWS pay the legal fees and provide ‘other relief’. Neither petition mentions Sarah’s ‘extravagance’ — though that would have had no legal bearing on the case. The marriage was finally dissolved in November 1863. I don’t know if Deodatus received any compensation, but James BEWS died the following year with an estate of less than £200.

The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, later Supreme Court of Judicature: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files, J 77; Reference Number: J 77/16/E32

Whether due to scandal or opportunity, Deodatus now decided to leave Britain and start afresh in Tasmania. On New Year’s Eve 1864 he embarked on the Dauntless, serving as the Surgeon Superintendent for 420 passengers — primarily government immigrants. A description of the 135-day voyage said, with understatement, that it was ‘not by any means a peaceful one’…

Just a week into the journey, the Dauntless encountered a ship in distress; the Pryne of St John’s, transporting timber to Liverpool, was missing its rudder and sails. The captain declined assistance but ‘tea, sugar, water and tobacco were sent on board’. 

Throughout the voyage, the sailors, unhappy with living conditions, were on several occasions ‘in a state of mutiny. They threatened to take the ship into the Cape of Good Hope. The captain broke open a case of rifles consigned to the Colonial Secretary, and he and the officers always went around armed.’ Six crew members were put in irons during the voyage, and taken off the ship into police custody.

Finally, just off the coast of Tasmania, they rescued 17 crew and the mate of the Fiery Star, an unfortunately named liner that had been destroyed by fire with a large loss of life.

It was a perilous journey for passengers too. Tragically, three women and 17 children died on the voyage. Nevertheless, Dr. EATON, who attended to 17 births (including twins) and solemnised two marriages on board, was presented with a ‘complimentary testimonial’ signed by almost all of the passengers:

Image and description of the voyage from Daily Southern Cross, 16 May 1865 (
Deodatus also served as doctor on the Anglesey (pictured here) in 1865. State Library of South Australia.

Deodatus must have arrived in the New World feeling relieved and optimistic about his future. Six months later, a newspaper announced him as a ‘NEW MEDICAL PRACTITIONER’ who ‘has been en-rolled in the list of the legally qualified Medical Practitioners of Tasmania.’ (Cornwall Chronicle, 18 Nov 1865) His medical expertise must have been respected, as he was called on to give evidence in two murder trials in 1868 and 1870.

However, not long after arriving down under, Deodatus was in and out of court for insolvency yet again. Perhaps this explains why he left Tasmania for Victoria in mainland Australia. Once there, he possibly ‘did a runner’ from the town of Donald to Geelong, 160mi away, as his whereabouts were sought in the paper. In Geelong he incurred yet more debts due to ‘adverse judgment in the Court of Petty Sessions at Donald, pressure of other creditors, and bad debts’. (Geelong Advertiser, 20 Feb 1878). It seems that Deodatus’s own poor financial management was at the root of his chronic debts.

Deodatus William EATON died in Koroit, Victoria, Australia on 14 July 1879, aged 59 (all four Deodatus EATONs died in their fifties). The circumstances of his ‘DEATH BY POISON’ prompted a four-day inquest. He had seemingly been accidentally poisoned by taking oxide of zinc, rather than carbonate of soda. Dr. EATON had made up the prescription for himself at the local chemist’s, as he was ‘suffering from the effects of whiskey’ (though was said to be sober). The jury found that his death had been caused by a diseased heart and ‘some irritable poison administered by himself’, and the chemist was criticised for his carelessness. However, the newspaper reports also hint that Deodatus’s ingestion of the poison may have not been accidental. Noone knew much of the doctor’s past, though he claimed to have been a widower for 10 years, but they knew he was ‘in difficulties’ and ‘a lawyer had his business in hand’. Additionally, it was stated that ‘anyone’ (especially a doctor) ought to know the difference between the two white powders, and Deodatus seems to have taken an unexplained high dose. (Portland Guardian, 19 Jul 1879). Even more suspiciously, when a doctor called on Deodatus two hours before his demise, Deodatus ‘asked for a certificate that illness prevented him from answering a fraud summons at Beaufort on that day.’ (The Age, 17 Jul 1879)

The last Deodatus had no children to carry on the name, and he died intestate, with only £30 14s 2d to his name (in cash, clothing and a few surgical instruments). He was survived by his ex-wife, mother, and several siblings, the last of whom, Charlotte Ellen EATON, a spinster, died in Oxford in 1908. Despite being a divorcé, persistent bankrupt, and emigrant to the other side of the world, the death of ‘EATON, Deodatus W., M.A., M.R.C.S.E., son of the late Mr. Deodatus, of Oxford’ received a brief notice in London’s Pall Mall Gazette

Pall Mall Gazette, 3 Oct 1879. Via

This article has been edited slightly since publication in Oxfordshire Family Historian with the following additions: family’s relationship to my husband, images of the Anglesey and of Bosville-Macdonald, death notice from the Pall Mall Gazette, and a note about the family’s substantial wine cellar.

‘Peculiar’ & ‘Unnatural’ Crimes (Part 2)

In Part 1, Fanny Talmer, a young unmarried woman from a Buckinghamshire hamlet, gave birth to two boys in Amersham workhouse — Richard in 1845 and Henry in 1850. Tragically, Henry died at nine weeks of age, and following an inquest, Fanny was charged with his murder. After several harrowing weeks in Aylesbury Gaol, and a trial at the Assizes, she was acquitted, and returned to the workhouse. Fanny and Richard were both recorded there just two weeks later in the 1851 census. It’s possible that Richard had not lived outside of the workhouse since his birth. In 1855, Fanny’s luck changed, when she married a local labourer. However, after only three years of marriage, she died of tuberculosis. Although Richard’s step-father was still alive in 1861, Richard was once again (or still?) in Amersham workhouse when the 1861 census was taken. Effectively an orphan, he seems to have been all alone in the world.

Part II: Richard Talmer

Growing up in the workhouse

Richard Talmer (Tarmar) in Amersham Workhouse, 1861.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Class: RG 9; Piece: 847; Folio: 108; Page: 9; GSU roll: 542710. Accessed via

When the 1861 Enumeration Book was filled out for Amersham Union Workhouse, there were nearly 200 paupers housed there, along with the workhouse master and matron (husband and wife), nurse, porter, and schoolmaster. Richard, aged 15, was a scholar, as were 61 other girls and boys aged 3-15 (the only exceptions in this age range being a 4-year-old whose place of birth was unknown (perhaps she had learning difficulties?), and a 15-year-old girl who was a domestic servant). The Poor Law Act of 1834 had many flaws, but it did require unions to hire a schoolmaster or schoolmistress, and to provide workhouse children with 3 hours of schooling per day.1 Richard was, in some ways, lucky to receive an education at this age, as few children attended school after 12, and nearly half of primary age children in England and Wales in this period still had no access to education at all.2 The workhouse schoolmaster was not much older than Richard — the 20-year-old son of a Sussex schoolmaster. (Later in his career he worked as a Relieving Officer, so I like to think that he was sympathetic to the difficult circumstances that forced people to seek poor law relief). The rest of the day, Richard, on the cusp of adulthood, probably would have been put to work doing manual labour, though he may also have been trained in industrial work, in preparation for life outside the workhouse.

Amersham Union Workhouse (Gilbert Scott Court)

Unfortunately, the next record I have of Richard isn’t a workhouse discharge, apprenticeship, employment record, or even a marriage. Instead, on 20 July 1867, Richard’s name appeared in the papers, publicly accused of a shocking and serious crime.

Bucks Herald – Saturday 20 July 1867. Via

Richard was to be tried at Bucks Summer Assizes, which was to start on 22 July. What was this crime that he had committed with William Jennings, and that was so serious that it would be tried at the Assizes?

An unnatural crime

An ‘unnatural crime’, ‘unnatural act’, or ‘crime against nature’ was used euphemistically for a range of sexual activities (and also for suicide and child murder), but as a legal term, ‘unnatural crime’ was synonymous with buggery or sodomy — usually between people (regardless of consent), and, rarely, in cases of bestiality. Although noone had been executed for sodomy since 1838, it was only six years earlier that the Crimes Against the Person Act of 1861 had revoked the death penalty for this sexual act and replaced it with a minimum of 10 years’ hard labour, and as much as life imprisonment.

Technically, sodomy applied to oral as well as anal sex, and to heterosexual as well as homosexual unions. However, ‘convictions between men for sodomy were by far the most common and well publicised.’3 The newspaper report showed that Richard had been charged with another man. If intercourse with penetration could be proven, Richard faced a long prison sentence, even life. Even if he was acquitted, his name had been publicly and humiliatingly associated with a sex act with a man or beast; both were seen as abominations.

Who was William Jennings?

William Jennings, who faced trial with Richard, was another long-term or repeat inmate of Amersham workhouse. In 1861, when William was a workhouse schoolboy, William was also enumerated at the workhouse — a 31-year-old unmarried sawyer from Chesham. In 1867, when Richard and William were charged together with committing an unnatural crime, Richard was about 21, and William about 37.

William Jennings in Amersham Workhouse, 1861.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1861 England Census; Class: RG 9; Piece: 847; Folio: 106; Page: 6; GSU roll: 542710. Accessed via

William had also been in trouble with the law before. In the 1851 census he was a prisoner in Aylesbury Gaol. I’ve not been able to find out what his crime was.

William Jennings in Aylesbury Gaol, 1851.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1851 England Census; Class: HO107; Piece: 1721; Folio: 419; Page: 7; GSU roll: 193629. Accessed via

A search of historic newspapers revealed that William had also been committed to Aylesbury Gaol in 1859, sentenced to 21 days for ‘misbehaviour in the workhouse’. The gaol receiving books record that William was a wood splitter, age 29.

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 29 January 1859. Via

Trial & Punishment

On 22 July 1867, the Bucks Summer Assizes opened for business.

Newspapers reported in detail on the trials heard that day for a wide variety of crimes including attempted murder and highway robbery. When it came to Jennings’ and Talmer’s case, newspapers revealed little about their crime, simply reporting their sentence — 12 months for Jennings and 3 months with hard labour for Talmer. However, although newspapers refrained from salacious details, I was shocked by one headline:

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 27 July 1867. Via

I had assumed that the men had been accused of homosexual sex. Had they in fact been charged with a sexual crime involving an animal? I examined other ‘bestiality’ cases reported in Buckinghamshire newspapers in the 1860s and found that there were just two (thankfully), and in each case, only one person was tried and convicted.

When I first researched and wrote this blog post in April 2021, I took the newspaper headline literally, with the same meaning of bestiality as we understand it today. However, I have since reviewed surviving records from the trial, at the National Archives, and thanks to this additional research, I now know that my original hunch was correct; Talmer and Jennings had been charged with the crime — as it was then — of homosexual sex.

Reading the indictment increased my sadness and anger at how the two men had been treated. Like Fanny, William and Richard were subjected to language that was fanatically religious:

‘the said Richard Talmer, not having the fear of God before his eyes nor regarding the order of nature but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature was consenting to and did permit and suffer the said William Jennings … to have a venereal affair with the said Richard Talmer and then and there to carnally know him … and with him the said Richard Talmer … to commit and perpetrate the most detestable horrid and abominable crime called Buggery … to the great displeasure of Almight God to the great scandal of all human kind.’

William Jennings’ and Richard Talmer’s indictments

The bombastic phrases stuffed with moral outrage and dripping with disgust were repeated several times over. Listening to the indictment before the judge, jury, and presumably friends, family, members of the public and newspaper reporters, must have been humiliating in the extreme.

According to notes added to the indictment, the men were found ‘not guilt of the felony [but] guilty of attempt to commit the same.’ The distinction was critical; if proven to have committed the act fully, the men could have faced life imprisonment.

Richard and William were tried and sentenced together. However, the fact that Richard was only sentenced to three months, compared with William’s 12 months, suggests that his actions he was judged to be less responsible, whether due to his age or some other factor. It is impossible for me to know what the relationship was between the two men; whether a one-off encounter or one of many, it could have been anything from abuse to mutual romantic love. Records also don’t tell me how their intimacy was discovered, though privacy in the workhouse must have been hard to come by.

The same day they were sentenced, they were registered on arrival at Aylesbury Gaol following their conviction for ‘Attempt to Commit B-y’. Their time in prison would be physically gruelling. The 1865 Prisons Act stated that prisons should be ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board‘, and the men would have possibly been put to work on stone breaking, quarrying, or road building.

William Jennings and Richard Talmer committed to Bucks County Gaol, 22 July 1867. England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892. Class: HO 27; Piece: 146; Page: 40. Via

Richard had received an education and would have been able to read, so I take a modicum of comfort in the likelihood that he had no access to newspapers in gaol, and therefore didn’t have to endure seeing his name associated with an act that was viewed as bestial. However, I can imagine that his treatment in prison, by both officers and inmates, was extremely unpleasant.


After William Jennings and Richard Talmer served their sentences, it’s very likely that they immediately returned to the workhouse. In 1871, both men were enumerated there again — William a 41-year-old sawyer and Richard a 25-year-old Ag Lab. In spite of Richard’s stated occupation, I have no evidence that he ever worked in the outside world. If the men were friends or lovers, Richard would not have William’s company for long; the same quarter that the census was taken, William Jennings died, aged just 41.

However, for the first time since he was a child, Richard was with family members, as his grandparents William and Frances Talmer had (sadly) joined him at the workhouse. Nevertheless, though the three appear together, the inmates were enumerated alphabetically, so they may not have had a warm relationship. Frances died in 1876, and Richard and his grandfather were still in the workhouse in 1881, that time appearing on separate pages. William passed away in 1885 aged about 90.

Richard , William and Frances Talmer (Tarmar) in Amersham Workhouse, 1871.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 1395; Folio: 56; Page: 19; GSU roll: 828502. Via

Richard was still in the workhouse in the censuses of 1891 and 1901. In 1901, his place of birth was unknown, and a note in the last column (illegible to me) suggests that his health was failing.

Richard Talmer in Amersham Workhouse, 1901.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1901 England Census; Class: RG13; Piece: 1335; Folio: 88; Page: 5. Via

In 1908, Richard Talmer died in Amersham workhouse, from acute catarrhal enteritis exhaustion. He was 62 years old. My 1st cousin 4x removed was born and died in Amersham Workhouse and was there for every census from 1851 to 1901.

Richard’s story is truly tragic. He was born into poverty and stigma, and his unmarried mother was so overwhelmed after having a second illegitimate baby that she probably caused that baby’s death. When he was a little boy, his mother spent months away from him in prison, and just a few years later she seems to have left him in the workhouse when she married. Richard was able to be a ‘scholar’ at the age of 15, so it’s unlikely that he had any mental disabilities, and he was described as an Ag Lab, so seems to have been physically able. However, he may well have been institutionalised at a young age, and it is likely that such a taboo crime, and his long association with the workhouse, would prevent him from gaining employment or any other support in his local community. It’s incredibly sad that Richard may have stayed in the workhouse for his entire adult life, anonymous and isolated, simply because he was gay.

Therefore, I was very surprised to see that Richard’s death was mentioned in a local newspaper. The notice of his death among other local obituaries was discreet, since it only included the workhouse’s street: ‘Whieldon Street, Amersham.’ However, elsewhere in the same paper, a notice of his death was also given by the workhouse Board of Guardians. I noted that in spite of Richard living his entire life in Amersham workhouse, he was said to be formerly of Great Missenden. By this time, my direct Talmer ancestors had moved from The Lee to nearby Great Missenden. I like to think that this tiny detail meant that Richard was still connected to his family, and that when he died, both he and his mother Fanny were remembered.

South Bucks Standard – Friday 12 June 1908. Via

In 1867, Richard Talmer’s personal affairs brought him public shame and a criminal sentence, and were likely to have kept him in the workhouse for the rest of his life. Richard’s trial was held on 22 July 1867. On 21 July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 in England and Wales finally made it possible for two consenting men over the age of 21 to have sex privately without breaking the law.

  1. Education in the Workhouse (
  3. The Buggery Act 1533 (British Library article

Featured image = A convict sitting in a bare room on a stool with some work in his hands. Lithograph by Paul Renouard. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Wellcome Collection.

‘Peculiar’ & ‘Unnatural’ Crimes (Part 1)

Fanny Talmer and her son Richard were both charged with felonies in the mid 1800s. In the first part of this blog, I explore Fanny’s story, looking at her crime in the context of early Victorian society. In today’s Britain, Fanny would have had a drastically different experience, both in her life opportunities, and within the justice system.

Trigger Warning: Please note that this blog post includes details of infant deaths and possible physical abuse towards infants.

Part 1: Fanny Talmer

Frances Talmer, known as Fanny, was a half-sister of my 3x great grandfather, William Talmer. She was born in about 1824 in The Lee, Buckinghamshire — a village and group of hamlets in the Chiltern Hills. Fanny was the second child of William Talmer, an agricultural labourer, and Judith Pierce (or Pearce). The Talmer family (also spelled ‘Tarmer’ and ‘Tamer’, but I’ll use ‘Talmer’ throughout), had been in The Lee for at least one prior generation, and my grandmother, Joan Talmer, was born and raised there over 100 years later. They were a poor family, in a small close-knit rural community where everyone would have known everyone else’s business.

The Lee, from the

When Fanny was just four or five, her mother died, leaving three children motherless, and the following year her father remarried to Frances Holmes, also known as Fanny. William had three more children with his second wife, including my ancestor.

It’s unlikely that Fanny received any education as a child; the first school in the village opened in the new Methodist Chapel in the 1840s. In the 1841 census, the Talmers were two of a dozen households in the hamlet of Lee Common. Fanny, 16, lived with her grandfather Thomas Talmer and 45-year-old spinster aunt Mary. Her father, step-mother and siblings are the preceding family enumerated, and probably lived next door. No occupation is listed for Fanny or her aunt. However, the same page shows that many of the women in The Lee were working as lace makers or straw plaiters, skills they could learn as children and use to help supplement the family income. It’s possible that Fanny and her aunt were in fact engaged in these cottage industries, though it seems likely that this would have been recorded as it had been for their neighbours. Unfortunately, Fanny’s grandfather died soon after the census. If Fanny had no commercial skills, this might have left her in difficult circumstances, even homeless. The paper trail next picks up in 1845 in Amersham workhouse — where Fanny, age 20-21, gave birth to an illegitimate child.

Fanny’s child, born on 16 May, was a boy whom she named Richard. There are no hints as to the father’s identity on his birth certificate, or in his entry of baptism.

Birth certificate of Richard Talmer (Tamer).

A bit of background on Amersham Workhouse

The Lee was part of Amersham poor law union, which covered 111 square miles and a population of 18,000. Until 1835, paupers from The Lee went to Chesham workhouse, about five miles away, but by 1838 they had to go two miles further, to Amersham. From 1835-1838, while a new workhouse was constructed in Amersham, the Board of Guardians decided to house all male inmates in the current Amersham workhouse, and females at Chesham.1 On 23 May 1835, when elderly male inmates were loaded into carts to take them from Chesham to Amersham, a whole two miles away, it caused rioting. Locals pulled paupers from the wagons and beat up the magistrate! A detachment of the new Metropolitan Police was sent from London to restore order.2

In 1838, the new Amersham workhouse opened, an imposing Tudor-style building of red brick and flint. Paupers who entered the workhouse wore a numbered uniform and could have no personal possessions. They followed a strict timetable, and took their meals in silence. Fit inmates performed ‘harsh difficult work … at all times.’ 1 But what was the workhouse like for a woman who went there to deliver her baby?

Birth in the workhouse

Women would spend confinement (labour, childbirth and recovery) in the lying-in ward, which was supervised by the workhouse physician. A ‘nurse’ would attend the birth and the newborn child. However, ‘early nursing care in the union workhouse was invariably in the hands of female inmates … such nurses were also often drunk, with commonly prescribed spirits such as brandy either being purloined in transit to the patients or traded by their recipients in return for food or attention from their carers. Before 1863, not a single trained nurse existed in any workhouse infirmary outside London.’3

Even as late as 1898, Louisa Twining (philanthropist and workhouse reformer & member of the Twinings tea family) reported that ‘The lying-in ward … which was only a general ward without even screens, had an old inmate in it who we discovered to have an ulcerated leg and cancer of the breast; yet she did nearly everything for the women and babies, and often delivered them too. The women’s hair was not combed, it was “not lucky” to do so, and washing was at a discount. The doctor and myself could not imagine at first why the temperatures went up, and the babies nearly always got bad eyes and did badly.’4

In the opening of Oliver Twist, first published in 1837, Dickens describes Oliver’s birth in brilliantly sardonic fashion:

‘Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter. … he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.’

Unfortunately, almost no records from Amersham workhouse have survived. However, Richard was baptised two years after his birth at Amersham, not The Lee, which suggests that they stayed in the workhouse until at least 1847. The next record I have is from census night, 30 March 1851, when mother and son were once again in Amersham Workhouse. Fanny, 27, unmarried, stated she was a bonnet plait maker, while 5-year-old Richard was a scholar. It seems that Fanny had, after all, acquired skills in straw plaiting, and perhaps she and Richard had been able to return to The Lee for some time.

Fanny and Richard Talmer in Amersham Workhouse, 1851.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1851. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Class: HO107; Piece: 1717; Folio: 460; Page: 12; GSU roll: 193625. Accessed via, 22/3/21.

It’s always sad to see ancestors, or anyone, listed as paupers in a place of last resort, but Fanny’s situation was even darker than the census could reveal. Just two weeks before, Fanny had been tried at the Bucks Assizes for ‘wilful murder’ of another ‘bastard child’.

A second illegitimate child

On 2 November 1850, Fanny had delivered a second baby at Amersham workhouse, whom she named Henry. As with Richard, there was no information about Henry’s father. It’s always worth a reminder that conception was not necessarily the result of a consensual relationship. I also note that although women and men were ‘strictly segregated’ in the workhouse, that did not necessarily prevent sexual encounters. I was disturbed to read about an ex-Grenadier Guard Sergeant who had been appointed to supervise the female paupers in the Chesham Workhouse; he was dismissed in November 1835, after making one of the inmates pregnant.1 And when I reviewed the Amersham Union Minute Books at Bucks Archives, I came across another incident of the workhouse master being dismissed for making an inmate pregnant in the 1860s.

Birth certificate of Henry Talmer (Tarmer)

Charged with ‘wilful murder

On 6 January 1851, when Henry was nine weeks old, he sadly died. Fingers were pointed at Fanny, and an inquest was held at the workhouse. The outcome was published in local newspapers: ‘After a lengthened investigation, and a post-mortem examination of the body, the jury were unanimous in their verdict, which was “Wilful Murder” against the mother, Frances Talmer. The woman belongs to Lee Parish, but has lately been an inmate of the Amersham Union. She was committed on the coroner’s warrant to take her trial at the ensuing Spring Assizes.’5

Henry’s death certificate, registered the day after his death, shockingly states his cause of death in black and white as ‘Wilfully murdered by his mother Frances Talmer’:

Death certificate of Henry Talmer

On 9 January, Fanny was committed to Aylesbury Gaol. Another woman was committed the same day; Mary Smith from Upton-cum-Chalvey was accused of the exact same crime of ‘murder of her male bastard child.’6

Aylesbury Gaol (public domain)

When Fanny entered the gaol, she became one of 198 prisoners.7 The number of women incarcerated in the separate women’s wing is unknown. However, Fanny would have had almost no contact with other prisoners. A new prison building had opened in Aylesbury in 1847, one of dozens built across the country from 1840-60 modelled on the pioneering design of Pentonville.8 The layout of the prison was intended to support the solitary regime, which kept prisoners alone and apart from each other as much as possible, with the aim of forcing them to reflect on their crimes and mend their ways. Prisoners spent much of their day in their own cells performing gruelling, monotonous activities, especially oakum picking. This routine started at 5 am daily, and the tedium was only broken for meals (mostly of bread and gruel) and chapel9 — in which seats were arranged in such a way that prisoners could see the chaplain, but not each other.10 Fanny, a mother who had recently lost a newborn, endured this harsh environment — even worse than the workhouse — for two months. Meanwhile, I assume that Richard was alone at the workhouse. He was just 5 1/2 years old.

Leading up to the Assizes, newspapers listed the cases that would be heard. On 1 March, the Bucks Herald speculated that ‘There is every probability of the business being rather heavy, including cases of a peculiar nature; already 4 prisoners stand committed for child murder.’

The crime of infanticide

The murder of a child under 12 months of age was known legally as ‘infanticide’. It’s believed that cases of infanticide and abortion increased sharply after 1834, when the New Poor Law Act’s ‘Bastardy Clause’ made illegitimate children the sole responsibility of the mother. Poor-law authorities no longer tried to identify a father or attempt to obtain the father’s financial support, since this support was believed to have encouraged illegitimacy.11 The new law left pregnant women in a dire situation, with no financial support, and the intense stigmatisation and marginalisation faced by unmarried mothers. It’s not surprising that some women, particularly single women and domestic servants, took desperate measures. Between 1838 and 1840 there were 76 confirmed cases of infanticide in the UK (one third of all murders).12 However, the actual number was probably much larger, as coroners found it difficult to be absolutely sure that a baby’s death was intentional.

Nevertheless, newspapers also exploited and amplified these intimate tragedies: ‘sensational news reports of illicit sexual liaisons, of childbirth and grisly murder, appeared regularly in the press, naming and shaming transgressive unmarried women and framing them as a danger to society.’13 By stoking terror and outrage, I can’t help but think that newspapers helped to create a climate of moral panic and misogyny in which women were more likely to be suspected of murdering their unborn child or infant. It became, essentially, a witchhunt. The only positive aspect of the emotive coverage is that it did help to highlight the negative repercussions of the Bastardy Clause, and increase support for its repeal.

Infanticide was a felony and capital crime, which is why Fanny’s case would be heard at the Assizes rather than the Quarter Sessions. If found guilty, Fanny could potentially face the gallows. However, infanticide was viewed as so ‘peculiar’ and contrary to nature that the mother must not be in her right mind (similarly, women who mistreated older children were known as ‘unnatural mothers’). Therefore, most women who were found guilty escaped execution.14 Nevertheless, Fanny, and the other women who waited for their trials, must have felt real dread.

Fanny’s Trial

On 11 March 1851, at 10 am, the Bucks Lent Assizes commenced at Aylesbury, as the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Jervis, Knight, took his seat. As reported by the Bucks Herald, business opened with a proclamation against vice and immorality, read by the clerk. The Lord Chief Justice then addressed the Grand Jury of 22 men, providing an overview of the cases they would hear. ‘The calendar’, he informed them, ‘contained three cases of child murder, unfortunately an offence too frequently found in the calendars at the present time; if they were substantiated, they would call for an example to be made, in order, if possible, to prevent their recurrence. There might be doubts in the minds of the Grand Jury in those cases. There was also among them a peculiar case of an attempt on the part of a mother to strangle her child: if the attempt was proved, it was a felony under the Act of Parliament, but they must be satisfied of that fact before they found a bill: in the other cases it was necessary that they should be satisfied that the children were born alive.’15

The Crown Court opened on 12 March at 9 am precisely, with the first woman accused of willful murder of her illegitimate child — Mary Johnson, a servant. The Lord Chief Justice noted that the coroner’s report was inconsistent and did not include the names of the jury. She was duly acquitted. Next up was Mary Clements aka Mary Smith, also a servant. She had attempted to conceal her pregnancy and delivery from her employer. However, when she was found ill in bed, childbirth was suspected, and a doctor was called to examine her; he confirmed she had indeed given birth. A police officer then found the body of a child in a closet [water closet, i.e., toilet] with a piece of bed lace wrapped tightly around its neck. The doctor who had examined the baby’s body gave his testimony; it was his opinion that the infant had been born alive, and that the lace had caused the child’s death. However, the doctor who had examined Mary Smith was also called to give evidence. It was his opinion that ‘she had gone only six or seven months’. He could not swear that the baby was born alive, and thought it possible that Mary had used the piece of lace to help deliver her own baby.

The Lord Chief Justice addressed the jury, pointing out that there was no evidence of murder. However, he reminded them that they could find her guilty of another crime, ‘concealment of birth’. This offence was first formally enacted in 1803, and was only applicable to unmarried women. It was effectively a way to punish a woman for suspected foul play, when murder couldn’t be proven.16 However, in these circumstances the baby could certainly have died from natural causes, as many legitimate babies sadly did. In Mary’s case, ‘The jury accordingly acquitted the prisoner of the charge of murder, but found her guilty of concealment of birth. … The Lord Chief Justice addressed the prisoner very feelingly, remarking upon the frequency of the offence in this locality, and observed that it was absolutely necessary that an example should be made, and sentenced the prisoner to be imprisoned with hard labour for six months.’

Next, it was Fanny Talmer’s turn to face the judge and jury. I have recently reviewed the surviving records from this case, consisting of an indictment, and the coroner’s inquest from which the indictment was drawn. I was shocked by the language used, which was positively medieval:

‘The Jurors for our Lady the Queen upon their oath present that Frances Talmer late of the Parish of Amersham in the County of Buckinghamshire Singlewoman not having the fear of God before her eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the Devil … did Kill and Murder against the Peace of our said Lady the Queen her Crown and Dignity.’

The same language about the influence of the devil was also used in the indictments against Mary Johnson and Mary Smith. It’s startling that in what was then one of the most industrially advanced countries in the world, a court of law was still steeped in superstition.

Both the indictment and inquest stated that Fanny … ‘feloniously wilfully and of her malice aforethought’ violently clasped, forced, pressed and squeezed this child of a ‘tender age’ with both of her arms, and violently shook him several times causing a ‘mortal congestion of the left lung and right lobe of the liver.’ The inquest also reported that the infant ‘did languish and languishing did live’ until the following day, when he died. It made for upsetting reading, not only to hear about the suffering of baby Henry, but also to read the inquest jury’s unequivocal conclusion that Fanny had murdered her child.

Indictment against Frances Talmer
Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Henry Talmer, with jurors’ signatures and seals

Newspaper reports of the trial show that Fanny appeared in court without any legal representation. They also included witness testimonies, which shed much more light on the circumstances of this tragedy:

Bucks Herald – Saturday 15 March 1851 , retrived on 21 Mar 2021 from

The witnesses described Fanny’s attempts, and sometimes refusals, to nurse her baby. Another woman in the workhouse had started to feed him (perhaps with gruel?) from around 1-5 January. Fanny had tried again to nurse him on the 5th. But that afternoon, three women saw her shaking her baby. One of them, Mary Hazel, had two illegitimate children of her own. Mary Cox, a widow in her thirties with the workhouse position of ‘Pauper Nurse’, who had assisted Fanny with her labour and delivery, reported that as Fanny shook her baby she said “it should not suck her for she would shake its inside out.” Henry died early the following morning, and was found to have injuries to his lungs and liver.

I can’t possibly know whether Fanny intended to injure her baby at that moment. However, I think it very likely that she was overwrought with not only post-natal physical and mental exhaustion, and the difficulties of feeding a newborn — within the stark confines of the workhouse — but also the stressful prospect of caring for a second illegitimate child. She desperately needed help.

A public health nurse who read this story provided expert insights into the physical and emotional effects of the situation faced by both Fanny and her child: ‘I wondered if she shook baby out of frustration with feeding (very plausible given the conditions these women were in). Problems with breastfeeding and feeding him gruel could have led to failure to thrive; gut and organs are not mature enough to cope with solids, risk of choking would be high, and baby would quickly become nutritionally deficient, dehydrated and at high risk of infections. … Additionally, PTSD as a result of birth is common, and also as a result of conception after rape, which can cause attachment and bonding difficulties, breastfeeding difficulties and post natal depression. It seems that baby had a number of high risk factors going on.’

Returning to the newspaper report, I was confused to see that Fanny’s indictment was in fact manslaughter. It seems that that in spite of the coroner’s jury accusing Fanny of murder, a grand jury at a second inquest had not found there to be sufficient evidence to support that charge, and instead charged her with manslaughter. The judge summed up the case by stating that in his opinion, it was ‘wilful murder’, and that the other juries hadn’t done their jobs properly. However, he added that the jury at the Assizes should only look at the evidence presented. Evidently, the jury did not find the evidence to be robust enough for a conviction even of manslaughter. They found Fanny ‘Not Guilty’.

Fanny’s case was immediately followed by that of Ann Addison, another servant, charged with attempting to suffocate and strangle her child. Like Mary Johnson, Ann had concealed her birth until she went into labour, and a child was found in a closet with a cord around its neck. The indictment charged her with ‘attempt to choke suffocate and drown … the male child … by casting and throwing [him] into and amongst the soil waters and filth then being in a certain Privy.’ However, someone retrieved the infant from the closet, which fed into a ditch, and the child survived. Ann was found to have several items of baby clothing in a box, suggesting she intended to keep her baby, and she stated that the muslin around his neck was used ‘to release her of her pain.’ Ann, the only woman accused of infanticide who was not deemed to have been seduced by the devil, was found ‘Not Guilty’.

After the trial

Very surprisingly, four years later, Fanny — mother of an illegitimate 10-year-old child and a once-suspected murderer of another illegitimate child — married. Her husband, George Wright, was a farm labourer four years her junior. However, on 3 June 1859, after only three years of marriage, Fanny died at Great Missenden (between Amersham and The Lee). She was 36 and had suffered with phthisis (TB) for three months. Fanny and George don’t seem to have had any children.

Death certificate of Fanny Wright nee Talmer

I don’t know whether Richard Talmer, Fanny’s surviving son, ever lived with his mother and her husband, because Fanny and George’s short marriage took place between two censuses. However, it doesn’t seem that George took any responsibility for his step-son after Fanny’s death. On census night 1861, George was living alone in Great Missenden, while Richard, by then a teenager, was again an inmate in Amersham workhouse. And soon, he too would be featured in the newspapers, charged with a serious and ‘unnatural’ crime.

Read Part 2: Richard Talmer

Read about Dickens’ inspiration for the workhouse depicted in Oliver Twist, at the British Library’s blog.

Learn more about the Chesham Riots of 1835 here and here.

  1. Gilbert Scott Court (Workhouse),
  2. Impressive history of old Amersham workhouse, Bucks Free Press
  3. Medical Care in the Workhouse,
  4. Workhouses and pauperism and women’s work in the administration of the poor law, Louisa Twining, 1898
  5. Bucks Herald – Saturday 11 January 1851
  6. Bedfordshire Mercury – Saturday 11 January 1851
  7. Bucks Herald – Saturday 11 January 1851
  8. 10 Historic Urban Prisons, English Heritage
  9. Victorian Crime and Punishment, Buckinghamshire Archives
  10. Monument Record for HM Prison, Bierton Hill, Bucks County Council
  11. Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, Wikipedia
  12. Infanticide and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century Britain, R. Sauer
  13. Infanticide in 19th-Century England, Nicolá Goc
  14. Bad or Mad? Infanticide: Insanity and Morality in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Paige Mathieson
  15. Bucks Herald – Saturday 15 March 1851
  16. Concealment of birth: time to repeal a 200-year-old“convenient stop-gap”?, Emma Milne

Featured image = Woking Convict Invalid Prison: five women prisoners convicted of infanticide. Process print after Paul Renouard, 1889. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Wellcome Collection.

Blazing Dresses (Part 2)

Part 2: Lucy & Charlotte Bridgman, Eliza Maultby

In Part 1 I shared the tragic story of Anne Benwell, whose dress caught fire in 1819, causing fatal injuries. In Part 2, we move from the Regency to the Victorian era, looking at three more accidents in which dresses caught fire.

On 15 November 1858, two daughters of the Earl of Bradford, Lucy (b. 1826) and Charlotte (b. 1827), pioneers in photography, were involved in a ‘CALAMITOUS ACCIDENT BY BURNING’ in their home, Weston Park, Staffordshire. The two ladies were talking with their mother and sister in the drawing room, when one of their dresses ‘came in contact with the fire, and was immediately in flames.’ (another account states that a candle, not a fireplace, was responsible). One report states that Charlotte caught fire first and rushed into the hall, followed by Lady Lucy, ‘who, in her vain attempt to help her, likewise caught fire.’ Another version claimed that Lucy’s dress had been set alight first. Whichever was accurate, the ‘terror-stricken ladies’ were ‘fearfully burned’ and tragically did not survive the ordeal; Charlotte died on 26 November and Lucy on 10 December.

Ladies Lucy and Charlotte died when crinolines were in vogue (see Part 1). However, the only detail I have seen about their clothing when the accident occurred, is in the Wikipedia entry for the family which states that their dresses were made of cotton. Photographs taken by Lucy, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, give us a sense of the clothing worn in the family at that time. Skirts were certainly very full, but there are no huge crinolines to be seen.

Lady Charlotte’s diaries from 1846-1857 are available to peruse online at Here I learned that only ten years before Charlotte and Lucy died, their grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Moncreiffe (nee Ramsay), also died due to her clothes catching alight, at the age of 78. Lady Charlotte recorded the event in her diary on 3 June 1848 as follows:

When we came home we were much alarmed to hear that Grandmama had set herself on fire & was much burnt. We drove immediately to her lodgings & learnt then the particulars from Lucy & Miss Baker who had gone there immediately on hearing it. She did it about 9 ock. while arranging some flowers in a glass, she set fire to her cap & collar, & the curtains of the room. Her neck & hands are dreadfully burnt & the side of her face. Mr. Scannell (?) had been sent for (Mr. Hunter being out) but knowing nothing of him Papa went to Mr. Greufell’s to ask him if he knew anyting about him. He was spoken highly of, so no one else was sent for tonight.

Over the next several days, Charlotte wrote that her grandmama was ‘going on well’, but on 17 June, ‘We were sent for to go to Grandmama who was sinking rapidly. We sent to Louisa Moncreiffe immediately who came directly & Tom followed shortly. Newport also went with us there. She died about 1/2 past 1 having been totally unconscious of anything all the time we were with her & for some hours before.’

Illustrated London News, 24 June 1848, via

In the week following Lucy & Charlotte’s deaths, The Medical Times issued a statement that women’s dresses ought to be made ‘blaze proof’. Other readers wrote to their newspaper with their own advice, like L.J., who advised, ‘SIR – if ladies would always keep the wire fireguard on their fire bars, we should hear no more of burnings to death, arriving from collision of their light dresses with live coals or flame.’

The tragic deaths of Ladies Lucy and Charlotte Bridgman and Lady Moncreiffe made national news and inspired efforts and ideas to reduce the risks. However, accidents continued to happen, and papers continued to report them. In 1873, a local Bucks paper reported on an accident that involved my 3x great grandmother, Eliza Maultby.

Eliza Maultby (nee Randall) and Thomas Maultby were married in 1865, and in 1867, after the sad loss of their first child, they moved to Newport Pagnell in Bucks, where Thomas took up the post of Station Master at the new station. By 1873, they had four children aged five and under, the oldest being my great-great grandmother. Thomas soon became manager of the Newport Pagnell Railway Company, and newspaper reports indicate it was a very busy job which also required him to travel. On the evening of 30 September 1873, Thomas was out, perhaps working, leaving Eliza, then 35 years old, at home to care for their children. Eliza had just tucked in her youngest child, Richard, who was almost two. Suddenly, Richard called her attention to a light in the room. In the next few minutes, Eliza’s quick reactions saved her and her children’s lives:


A narrow escape from a serious fire occurred on Tuesday evening last, on the premises of Mr. Thomas Maultby railway manager, who was from home at the time. Shortly after Mrs. Maultby had put her youngest child to bed her attention was called by the child to a light in the room, and on going there she found the window curtains and blind in a blaze. She set to work to arrest the progress of the fire, which she succeeded in doing, but not before her own dress had caught. She however had the presence of mind to wrap herself up tightly, and thus preventing further danger, although her hands were considerably burned. the curtains and blind were completely destroyed, the dressing table was charred, and the carpet scorched. It was very fortunate that the fire was discovered so opportunely, or the consequences would no doubt have been serious, if not disastrous. It is conjectured that it was caused by a spark from the candle used by Mrs. Maultby in putting the child to bed.

Croydon’s Weekly Standard (a Newport Pagnell paper), 4 October 1873

Sadly, I have no photographs of Eliza, and it’s difficult to know what kind of dress a lower middle class woman would have been wearing at home on an autumn evening. The 1870s was a bustle era, but a house dress would surely have been simpler and more practical. I imagine her looking much like Harry French’s 1870 engraving for Hard Times, included at the top of this blog. Perhaps she wore a shawl or short jacket for warmth. To extinguish the flames, she may have wrapped herself in more curtains and drapes, bed linens, or simply folds of her skirt that had not yet caught fire. By keeping her wits about her, and possibly following advice she had one day read in a newspaper, she prevented a tragedy that was far too common. My brave 3x great grandmother may have had burn scars on her hands for the rest of her life, but she went on to live another 44 years, until 1917. Tragically, though, her son Richard was ultimately killed by another type of fire – enemy fire in the First World War.

Blazing crinolines have become the stuff of legend, and even jokes – from Punch in the 1800s, to favourite fodder for online historical entertainment articles. However, throughout the 19th century, women’s clothing, in a variety of styles, and a naturally hazardous environment, put them at risk of fire-related injuries and death. Learning about accidents that befell my own ancestors has helped me understand just how dangerous it could be to simply go about your life in a dress.

Have you come across any stories of women whose clothing caught fire? I’d be very interested to hear about them. As I have no expertise whatsoever in fashion history, I would also love to hear from any fashion historians on how styles and fabric preferences could have contributed to Anne Benwell and Eliza Maultby’s accidents.

Harry French wood engraving 1870,  Illustration for Dickens’s Hard Times  | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Blazing Dresses (Part 1)

Part 1: Anne Benwell (1818)

The ubiquity of naked flames and open fires prior to the early 20th century presented a continual hazard to people in all walks of life. To keep warm, and to follow fashions, people wore many layers of clothing, which added to the danger. Certain fabrics, such as muslin and flannellette, were particularly flammable. Infants and young children were most at risk, as described in a blog by Dr Vicky Holmes. Women, who typically spent much of their time in the home close to candles and hearths, and who wore long skirts and shawls, were also at high risk of fire-related accidents.

A number of blogs, articles and even whole books have been written about the dangers of fire to Victorian women. Many of them focus on the crinoline, a fashion of the late 1850s. The crinoline was a petticoat cage which gave skirts a bell shape; at their widest, crinolines reached a circumference of six yards. In 1860, at the height of crinoline chic, The Lancet reported that 3000 women had been killed in the UK due to their dresses catching fire. Famous victims included Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet, and two half sisters of Oscar Wilde. However, women’s clothing and primarily domestic environment put them at risk throughout the 19th century, and indeed in earlier centuries.

In this two-part blog I’ll look at four specific incidents in which women’s clothing caught fire in the 1800s, including two from my own family.

The first accident occurred in 1818, fatally injuring Anne Benwell (a sister of my husband’s 4x great grandmother). It would be a disservice to her to only describe the incident that caused her death, so I’d like to first tell you a little more about her life and family.

Anne, b. c1788, came from a family of many independent and mostly very long-lived women. Her father William Benwell, an eminent Oxford university tailor and senior city council member, had passed away suddenly in 1802. Anne’s mother Sarah (nee Tredwell) continued the family business for several years while raising six surviving children, before moving with her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to Canal Place in Camberwell. Sarah remained a widow and lived to be 98, while Elizabeth stayed single until her death at 63. The second eldest daughter, Sarah, married Edward ‘William’ Saword, Clerk of Greenwich Hospital. William and Sarah Saword were my husband’s 4x great grandparents. After William died in 1815 aged 42, possibly at sea, Sarah also remained a widow, and lived to be 89. Mary, the third daughter, married Thomas Turner, a King’s Consul. The family lived in Ragusa on the Adriatic Sea and then Panama, until Thomas died prematurely of cholera in his fifties. Mary did not remarry, and lived to be 88. Surviving evidence from these women shows that they were literate, managed their own money (e.g., making investments and purchasing property), were charitable and well-connected, and possessed skills expected from ladies of their class, such as playing the piano (Elizabeth bequeathed her pianoforte to her sister Sarah). Anne Benwell was the youngest daughter in the family. In 1818 she was 29, single, and living in Holborn, London – seeming set to be another independent and long-lived woman.

Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary and Anne Benwell also had two brothers. The eldest son and eldest child, Thomas, left Britain in 1812 to fight in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and America. The youngest son and child, Charles Benwell, was involved in overseas trade.

Anne’s activities and whereabouts as a young woman are largely unknown to me. In 1811 she was a witness to her sister Mary’s marriage and in 1812 she witnessed a contract for the exchange of property from her brother Thomas to their mother Sarah and sister Elizabeth, drawn up hurriedly before he departed for War. The document was prepared by George Hester & John Brooks. The Hesters were family friends and relations.

In 1818, Thomas returned to England and was indentured for seven years to the same George Hester, of High Holborn, London – ‘one of the attorneys of his Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench at Westminster and a Solicitor of the High Court of Chancery’ and his clerk John Brooks … for the full term of seven years in the practice of an attorney and Solicitor’, thus becoming an ‘Articled Clerk.’ Anne Benwell witnessed the Article of Clerkship (contract).

Anne’s address at that time was 56 High Holborn, which was directly opposite Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1819 Messrs Hester & Brooks were listed at the same address. Although I have no evidence that Thomas lived there too, it seems fair to assume that Thomas was living on site with his mentors in 1818, and that Anne was living him. Was she there to support Thomas, or was he there to chaperone her? Perhaps Anne lived with him but had her own occupation, for example as a governess for a local family.

(As a side note, architect and art collector Sir John Soane lived right around the corner, at 12-13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, having moved in five years earlier. As his former house has long been one of my favourite museums, I do like to think that Anne and Thomas may have known him!) 

One day in May 1818, three months after witnessing Thomas’s indenture, Anne’s clothes caught fire. I have no details about how, where or at what time of day it occurred. Was she perhaps sitting reading or embroidering by the fire, dancing at a party, or asleep in bed? Though it may seem frivolous to think about fashions in this context, Anne comes to life in my mind when I picture her in a typical dress of the Regency era – a single shift (rather than separate skirt and bodice), high-waisted, loose and flowing, following classical ideals. Day attire called for a high collar and long sleeves, even in the summer, while in the evening the decolletage and arms were exposed. At night she may have worn a full-length cotton nightdress and, for decency on leaving her bed, a silk robe. I can picture Anne as an educated and independent young woman in Regency London, but I can also imagine how easily her long, flowing dress could have caught fire through direct contact with a flame, or a stray ember, and how difficult it would have been to remove it.

1818 fashionplate (public domain)

Anne was very badly burned, but did not die immediately. Who found her first? Perhaps Thomas? Was a doctor quickly called for, and how were her burns treated? She probably received ointments and pain relief. However, prior to antibiotics, skin grafts and other medical advances, people who sustained burns extending over a high portion of their body were unlikely to survive.

Sheffield Independent, 26 October 1822,

In 1822, this advice on the treatment of burns and scalds was printed in the Sheffield Independent in response to ‘the melancholy account of the death of Miss Eastwood*, by her clothes taking fire’. The recommendation was first for a large quantity of vinegar to be thrown over the clothes without any being removed. Any broken blisters should afterwards be ‘dressed with ointment usually used for burns’. They also wished all children, especially girls, to know that ‘if their clothes should catch fire, they must throw themselves on the ground, and endeavour to smother the flames by rolling over’. They cite a case in which a woman’s life was saved by her fainting from terror, which extinguished the flames, and only her muslin dress was destroyed.

*This was 19-year-old Margaret Eastwood, who died in Dublin three days after her apron ignited while taking a tea-kettle off the kitchen fire:

Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 9 September 1822, via

Poor Anne Benwell endured her injuries for 17 days before dying on 7 June. Her death was reported across the country among viscounts and colonels.

Bury and Norwich Post, 17 June 1818, via

However, in Jackson’s Oxford Journal (13 June 1818), in her home town, she was more than just a name and a horrible death. Her short obituary recalled her ‘truly amiable disposition and sweetness of temper’ and praised the ‘unexampled patience and fortitude‘ with which she ‘bore the most acute sufferings’. Although these sentiments reflect the style of the period, I find them very moving.

It’s impossible for me to know what Anne had hoped and planned for her future life. Was she like Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (published in 1817) – prevented from marriage due to issues of money and suitability? Or was she independently-minded with no interest in marriage? In my mind’s-eye, she was spirited, intelligent, kind, and respected, a woman who would, given more time, have made a mark on the world.

Anne’s burial was recorded in the register of St Andrew’s, Holborn on 13 June 1818. The church’s primary burial ground at that time was nearly a mile away in what is now St Andrew’s Gardens, a public park. I plan to visit when I can, and search for Anne Benwell among the remaining (re-sited) headstones and chest tombs.

Unfortunately, Anne’s untimely death was soon followed by another tragic accident in the Benwell family, but this time it was caused by water, rather than fire. Just seven months after Anne’s death, the youngest sibling Charles was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, travelling on the Calcutta. As he and ten crew boarded the ship, the boat was upset, and although he was an excellent swimmer, he was drowned. He was 20 years old. A passenger sent news of his death to England via a letter, ‘in which he is spoken of in the highest terms, for his talents, activity, and kindness of heart, which had caused the strongest attachment to him on the part of the whole of the sailors. It is some consolation to his afflicted relations, to remember that his life, though thus early closed, was passed in active and useful exertion; that his deep sense of religion was shown by his exemplary morals, and that his heart was influenced by every noble, manly, and generous sentiment.’ (Oxford University & City Herald, 15 May 1819)

In Part 2, we leave the Regency era and move forward to the 1840s-50s, when two generations of a noble family met with fiery accidents, and finally to 1873, when my 3x great grandmother, tucking her child into bed, suddenly found herself on fire.

Read Part 2