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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Matthew’s Cadets

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

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

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

President Roosevelt greeted by St. Matthew’s cadets

Tragedy Comes to St. Matthew’s

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

Some of the newspaper headlines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Mateo Beach?

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

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

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

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

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

Life Saving Appliances

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

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

Clarence Dell’s Famous Uncle

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

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

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

Dell Family Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco Call, May 6, 1904

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

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

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

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

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

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

The HEROES — Mr. Smith & Professor Brooke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorials in Glass and Stone

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

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

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

Kenyon College also remembers the Brooke family.

John Thomson Brooke’s rose window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carnegie Awards

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

Sacramento Union, 1913

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

John Brooke’s Carnegie medal page

George Smith’s Carnegie medal page

Earl Askam

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

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

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

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

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

Askam as Officer Torch, the captain of Ming the Merciless’s guards, in the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. http://flashgordon.wikia.com/wiki/Earl_Askam

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

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

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


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

Special thanks to:

Carol Peterson, Archivist at San Mateo County History Museum

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

Liam Horsman, Student Manager, Kenyon College

Sources in addition to links embedded in the article:

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church website

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church website

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School website

St. Matthew’s Episcopal School Wikipedia entry

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

History of Coyote Point

Online Archive of California

Carrère and Hastings on Wikipedia

History of Sacred Heart

Stockton State Hospital: A Century and a Quarter of Service



Stanford Daily Archive

Stanford University Annual Register 1903–4

Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin

Earl Askam on IMDB

Earl Askam bio on b-westerns.com

Perry Askam on IMDB

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

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


The case of Maultby v. Skinner

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

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

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

Childhood — a Bedfordshire baker’s daughter

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

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

A booming market town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1866 — a death and a birth

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

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

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

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

Birth certificate of Sidney Skinner Maultby

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

A ‘rather peculiar case’

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

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

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

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 15 February 1868

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

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

The tort of Seduction

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

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

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

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

Secondaries’ Court

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

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

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

Punch, Or, The London Charivari, Volume 4

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

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

Martha’s story

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

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

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

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

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 16 February 1868

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Leighton Buzzard Observer – 18 Feb 1868

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

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

More cases of seduction

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

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

Looking for evidence

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

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

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

Another illegitimate child, and a marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second marriage

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

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

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

Sidney Skinner Maultby

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

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

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

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

Marriage certificate of Sidney Skinner Maultby and Frances Sarah Ann Blades

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Luton: Hat Industry 1750 to 2000

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

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_(tort)

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

The brother who never came home

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

Before the war

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

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

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

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

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

Signing up

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

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

Harold’s service

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

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

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

Brook War Hospital

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

The Military Medal

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

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

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

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

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

Neville’s service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold’s death, and a letter from his officer

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

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

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

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

I transcribe the article here in full:

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

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

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

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

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

Neville — Prisoner of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

Area of Operation Michael, showing where Harold and Neville were deployed on 24 March 1918
Neville’s POW index card from https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

After the war

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

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

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

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

Credits, sources and further information

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

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

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

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

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

Five reasons why ancestors used surnames as middle names

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

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

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

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

1. Illegitimacy

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

Delia Raby Munday

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

The Skinner Maultbys

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

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

Fred Clark Homan aka William Taylor

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

Harold Gayhart Bateman

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

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

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

Thomas Maultby Green

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

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

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

2. Honouring Mothers

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

William Maultby Skinner & Charles Maultby Joyes

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

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

Arthur Edwards Saword & William Gibson Saword

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

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

Ann Slatter Eaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Honouring Maternal Ancestors

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

Richard Towers Carr Kirk

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

Joseph Goldney Munday and Cecil Goldney Munday

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

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

Thomas Bowen Maultby & Emily Langford Maultby

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

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

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

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

George Benwell Prickett & Alice Benwell Hitchings

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

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

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

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

4. Tipping the Hat to Other Important Connections

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

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

Edward William Turner Saword & Henry Turner Saword

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

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

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

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

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

The Vlako Turners

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Inspired by Heroes and Happenings

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

Leslie Kitchener Wilkin 

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

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

Joseph Melbourne Kirk

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


  1. England Given Name Considerations (National Institute)
  2. Newspaper clipping about Maultby (Maltby) vs Skinner: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 16 February 1868 (britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
  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 (ancestry.co.uk)
  4. Marriage of William Gibson Saword and Minnie James: Brecknockshire, Wales, Anglican Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1994 (ancestry.co.uk)
  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 (ancestry.co.uk)
  6. Goldney/Munday family in 1881 England Census: Class: RG11; Piece: 1472; Folio: 22; Page: 37; GSU roll: 1341356 (ancestry.co.uk)
  7. Vlako Turner family in 1911: The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911 (ancestry.co.uk)
  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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

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

But did I recognise anyone, you might ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Polly Smith and the Gosselins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

  1. https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/census/EW1901GEN/4
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19544309
  3. https://www.npr.org/2015/03/12/392332431/dirty-old-london-a-history-of-the-victorians-infamous-filth
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/York_Mansions
  5. http://www.avictorian.com/servants_maids.html
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battersea
  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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 archiuk.com

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 (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

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 (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

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 (paperspast.natlib.govt.nz)
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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

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 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 lee.org.uk

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 Ancestry.co.uk, 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.

Birth certificate of Henry Talmer (Tarmer)

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. On a recent visit to York Castle Museum, I also learned about the case of teenager Mary Burgan, who was accused of infanticide at the beginning of the 18th century. While awaiting trial in prison, she was impregnated by a member of prison staff. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the pregnancy saved her life. It seems that the situation for women accused of this crime, and imprisoned women in general, had changed little since then.

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 However, a woman’s fate could be determined by the attitude of a particular judge; this was the case for Mary Morgan, a 17-year-old executed in 1805. Though the death penalty was rare, 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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

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), AmershamMuseum.org
  2. Impressive history of old Amersham workhouse, Bucks Free Press
  3. Medical Care in the Workhouse, workhouses.org.uk
  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.

Updated 7/1/22 with the earlier cases of Mary Burgan and Mary Morgan

‘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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 Ancestry.co.uk.

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 BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

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 (Workhouses.org)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_England
  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.