Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 4 - The problems of getting domestic help in early 20th century Australia

On Saturday 7th June, 1913, two weeks before Ethel made landfall in Adelaide, the Adelaide Daily Herald had carried a lengthy article entitled “Our Adelaide Women of Interest”, and coyly subtitled: The problem of domestic help – a little chat with Mrs Moore, the superintendant of the house at 5 Charles Street – the hostel where Ethel undoubtedly first lodged. The superintendent was an apparently worthy, motherly figure called Bessie Moore.

Further research turned up a letter to the Adelaide Register in July 1906, where the correspondent praised the influence of Mrs Moore and others like her, in creating positive and intellectually nourishing environments for the rising generation. She was then teaching at a school in Upper Sturt, a suburb of south Adelaide, a school which was founded in 1878 and still operates today. Bessie Moore began her teacher training in 1884 and thus had been in teaching for over 25 years before she was appointed matron-in-charge of the immigrant domestic helpers. After that scheme ended, presumably after the end of WW1, she was made officer in charge of the women’s department of the South Australian Government Labour Bureau. Her last position was as housekeeper at the Adelaide Hospital, where she died on 31st March 1923, probably only in her mid to late fifties.

The domestic helpers’ hostel in Charles Street would appear to have been in the process of preparation during 1912: it was located in a former “gentleman’s residence”, and the Adelaide Advertiser, in November of that year, describes it thus:

The interior architectural adornment of the place is in keeping with the pleasing exterior view, so the house lends itself admirably to beautification. On many of the door panels there are artistic hand-paintings. From the high balcony, which faces Charles Street, one gets capital views of the Mount Lofty Ranges. This fact specially appealed to the English girls, some of whom had expected to find Australia to be flat country. The roses and other bright blooms in the garden also appeared to give them much pleasure. The home will always be available to the girls during the intervals between changes of employment, or when they are in need of a rest.

The Adelaide Daily Herald article confirmed Bessie Moore’s bona fides as a former State School headmistress, and that the hostel had been at the Charles Street address for only seven or eight months:

Previous to this it had been located at the Exhibition, [a complex of buildings erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee] but it was decided to find a more suitable place to carry on the work on a more comprehensive scale, and the present building was rented by the Government for a period of three years, and if this experiment is successful, it is probable that at the end of that term the building will either be purchased or suitable premises erected to carry on the work successfully.

Ethel had confided to her Journal that she was “leaving Home and Dear Ones far behind, to commence life in a Strange Land”. It’s comforting to note that, as far as we can possibly know after a hundred years, efforts were made to make that emotional wrench less distressing for the British girls:

The home is a link in the great chain of organisation of the immigration to Australia, and its object is to provide a suitable place for domestic helpers coming from overseas where they can be provided with employment under the direct supervision of the Government. The domestic helpers are originally selected by Miss Walker in Great Britain, who interviews every candidate personally, and they are then conducted to Australia under the care of matrons fully qualified to take charge of them and deal with all the difficulties that confront the domestic helpers in their change of country and the different conditions prevailing in Australia as compared with Great Britain.

And the above extract seems to identify one of the mysterious contacts Ethel writes of in her postcard correspondence to Minnie two years beforehand. From time to time other accounts of the house in Charles Street and its occupants appear in the pages of Adelaide newspapers, and they mostly speak of positive experiences:

There is a young lady, Miss Eaton, at the Immigration Home for Domestic Helpers in Charles Street, Norwood, who came out to Adelaide in the steamer Irishman to take a position as a domestic servant, and who says she cannot speak too highly of the treatment accorded her during her residence in the State. Evidently she is the right type of girl to introduce - industrious, ladylike, and careful. She landed from the Irishman in November, 1912, a stranger in a strange land, but not altogether friendless, because she was one of a batch of immigrant girls brought out by the Government. [Adelaide Advertiser Nov. 1912]

Note from the tone of this extract how the South Australians were looking for “industrious, ladylike” girls to offer to their usually middle class clientele: they would not have wanted women of doubtful morals in any way. Of course, the authorities could not completely be sure of the girls’ backgrounds, but much care was taken to cultivate and maintain a respectable ambience, so that prospective employers could comfort themselves they were allowing ‘proper’ young ladies into their households.

We work under splendid conditions, I think because everyone is only too pleased to do everything possible to make our attempts a success. We have a strong committee of ladies, representing every religious denomination, with Mrs. Nutter Thomas as president, [Staffordshire-born wife of the Bishop of Adelaide] and on the first evening of arrival they come in to see the girls and find out which church they attend, and so forth. Then when the girls find situations they find her church and write to the ministers, and perhaps put her in the care of other church friends, and so give her an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome in her new sphere. Every Tuesday evening Miss Boyer, B.A., gives us a talk on literature and books, on Wednesday we have a dressmaking class, and on Fridays a musical evening. [Adelaide Daily Herald June 1913]

Curiously, the article from which this last extract is taken, Our Adelaide Women of Interest: a little chat with Mrs Moore, goes on to state the following:

One very sensible thing I was quite glad to hear about – the girls are allowed and encouraged to bring friends of the opposite sex to spend afternoons or evenings at the home. They gladly avail themselves of this privilege, and spend the evening playing games or chatting over the fire. There is little need to enlarge on the value of this.

This would seem to have been designed to stop the girls from venturing out alone of an evening, and to cater for the natural urges of young people far away from familial influence. Even more curious, however, is the conclusion of the article which sees the worthy Mrs Moore confiding to the interviewer that she was:

a student of many occult sciences, deeply interested in the great questions of the day, which no open mind can afford to leave undiscussed with its fellows. As we turned over magazines and books concerned with psychic matters and talked of experiences that transcend the common daily round, we drifted far away from the solution of the domestic problem.

Perhaps those sentiments merely reflected nothing more sinister than the turn-of-the-century fascination in western society with spiritualism. The movement appealed to women, and to those who supported specific causes such as suffrage. But well-known figures, such as the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had also taken it up to console themselves in bereavement. There was another surge in the popularity of spiritualism during and after the approaching World War, of course. Anyhow, from these accounts we can be fairly certain that Ethel met Mrs Bessie Moore, was welcomed and advised by her, and was sent out to her first position.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 3 - The Voyage to Australia

On Thursday 15th May Ethel took a bus, then a train, crossing London to the Albert Dock, from where a small steamer took the passengers out into the Thames to board the SS Beltana. As can be seen from the photograph below she was not a glamorous vessel, but she was sturdy and serviceable enough for a tricky voyage to the Antipodes. She had been launched on 24th January 2012, so was relatively new. Her maiden voyage came just over six months later on 9th July, and it seems she had always been intended for the UK to Australia emigrant service. She was over 500 feet long and 62 feet wide, and was owned by P & O. After the outbreak of WW1 she became a troop transport, and in 1917 was requisitioned to ferry munitions and supplies across the Atlantic. By 1919 she had been superseded by larger and more economical ships, but nevertheless carried on serving a useful purpose until 1929. Having cost £179,365 to build in 1912, she was rather ignominiously sold for a mere £27,000 to a Japanese company, whose intention was to convert her for the whaling trade! However, and happily in a way, she was laid up and never used as such, finally being sold to another Japanese firm for demolition in 1933. But, in that May of twenty years earlier, she and Ethel were at the start of exciting adventures.

In her Journal, optimistically entitled “Items of my 1st voyages”, Ethel sadly neglects to provide us with many details of life on board the Beltana over the ensuing six weeks. It has only been within the last year that my sister Terri and I have discovered the name of the captain – W.G. Lingham.  Ethel tells us he conducted the morning act of worship on their first Sunday at sea, after an unexpectedly calm crossing of the notorious Bay of Biscay. More puzzling, however, is Ethel’s omission of the briefest description of her fellow passengers. Naturally there were other young women destined for domestic service in Australia. But an Australian genealogy site tells us there was also a large group of British youths who were heading out to Australian farms as labourers. I first thought that they may well have been part of what has more recently been revealed as a pernicious trade in disadvantaged or orphaned children carried on by Britain up to the 1960s. But an article in the parish magazine of the East Yorkshire community of Snaith, home of two of the lads in that group, reveals a more worthy purpose and destiny for them. How sad that Ethel could not give us some insight into their voyage together. History has recorded that:

They were part of a group of 35 Boy Scouts who sailed on the SS Beltana in June 1913, on the scheme supported by Lord Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Movement. The boys had to be between the ages of 15-19 and would be apprenticed to farmers within South Australia. The Scouts were from various parts of the UK with three being from Yorkshire. They formed themselves into a troop while on board ship and named it after the ship, becoming the Beltana Troop.

On Wednesday 21st May the SS Beltana arrived at “Las Palmas situated in the Country of Spain” according to Ethel’s journal. In fact they had arrived in the Canary Isles, a province of Spain off the west coast of Morocco, which had been finally settled by the Spanish in the last quarter of the 15th century.

The port’s full name was Puerto de la Luz de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, at the time one of the busiest in the world. The above image shows it in 1910, as Ethel would doubtless have experienced it. The “many small boats around the Beltana” that sold goods to passengers are known as bumboats, a sometime feature of many ports around the world, but now most usually found in the Far East.

The voyage had so far been blessed with fine weather, but, as they sailed on down the African coast, the ship encountered its first storm at sea between May 24th and 26th. Ethel’s journal describes the effects this had on the passengers, many of whom were sleeping on deck. Perhaps this had been to lessen discomfort from the increasing heat as the ship approached the Equator, but Ethel does not reveal this, only to say that, on top of a drenching, they had to cope with the inevitable sea sickness. The seas calmed down, and in the afternoon of 4th June the Beltana docked in Cape Town.

South Africa probably posed the most significant cultural shock of Ethel's journey so far. In her Journal she reports that she found it "strange to see the many dark Natives about", which revealed, perhaps, her unconscious assumptions about the white British Empire. White Europeans had exerted their influence over the area since 1647, the British since 1814. And Ethel had arrived here in the same year the Natives Land Act was passed, limiting land ownership for blacks to black territories, a precursor to the apartheid system that operated for so long in South Africa. Above are views she would doubtless have seen from her electric car trip around the Lion's Head, a 2000 foot sugar-loaf peak, supposedly named after the last peninsula lion shot there. The second image shows the city and the bay, the panorama that had been described in the 16th century by Sir Francis Drake as:

          The most stately, the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.

The YMCA hostel where they all took tea had been a feature of Cape Town since the 1860s. Below is an image from 1905 showing a typical street view of the Cape Town around which Ethel and the intrepid Boy Scouts would have strolled. The passengers returned to the Beltana around eight that evening, and set sail for the last stage of the voyage at 4 am on Thursday 5th June.

The Final three weeks of the voyage would take Ethel and the Boy Scouts round the Cape towards Durban, then on across the vast expanse of the Southern Indian Ocean towards Australia. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and strong winds began to blow. As the season progressed, so Ethel's journey became first uncomfortable, then dangerous. Five days out of Cape Town she records fearful storms, merciless waves and even damaged steering gear on the ship. Were the Beltana Troop among the panic-stricken passengers she writes of, or had they taken to heart Baden Powell's philosophy and prepared themselves for all eventualities? The Snaith Parish magazine assures us that:

       Captain Lingham of the SS Beltana spoke highly of their conduct during the voyage. They                  were under the charge of Assistant Scout Master Howell and had provided a number of concerts         for other passengers.

If any of the Beltana's complement were recalling the horrifying disaster of the previous year when the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic with the loss of 1500 lives, Ethel was certainly not letting on in her Journal. The Titanic's Captain Smith was said to have delivered a last order to "Be British!", as the ship's bandsmen played 'Nearer, my God, to Thee'. But Beltana did not go down to meet the waves, which simply came on board and flooded some cabins. However, fate had one more shock three days later, significantly Friday 13th June, when the ship, according to Ethel, was nearly capsized and people almost flung from their berths. 

They survived, and six days later Ethel notes the Great Australian Bight to be "beautiful and calm". When Ethel eventually docked in Australia on the 23rd June, after 6 weeks at sea, her world had turned topsy-turvy. She had voyages around Africa and across a stormy Indian Ocean to find that an English summer had become an alien winter, having left "Home and Dear Ones far far behind, to commence Life in a Strange Land". And the Beltana Troop, younger and more vulnerable, bravely disembarked and was: 

           met by the Adelaide Boy Scouts where greetings by bugle were exchanged. These were the first            Boy Scouts introduced to the state.

as Ethel and her female companions made their way to Charles Street, Norwood, a suburb of the city of Adelaide, South Australia.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: part 2 Emigration Societies

So, what of these emigration societies and the ladies who operated them? There had been government assisted passages to South Australia up until the late 1880s. These began again during the early 1910s, and this must have been the chance that Ethel took. Young boys, who were destined to work as farm apprentices, often shared the sea voyages with the many hundreds of British women who sailed away to become ‘domestic helpers’ until the start of the Great War. One of the first stopping-off points for those who sailed to Adelaide was the Domestic Helpers’ Home at 5 Charles Street, Norwood, in the suburbs of the city. Fortunately there is a wonderful on-line historical resource called Trove[1] which has allowed me to discover how these emigration societies worked, and the motivations and attitudes of those involved, even down to interviews with the young émigrées themselves. A word of warning, however – these contemporary accounts seem to have been written with the aim of bolstering the emigration schemes supported by the South Australian government: it would have been regarded perhaps as disloyal to the ‘new’ Australia for the press to paint in all the ‘warts’.

Australia in 1913 has been described as a land of tremendous optimism. It was a pivotal year in its development, progressive and free, embracing the new technologies of motor and air transport, the culture of cinema, and was a country where women could express themselves politically: the state of South Australia had enfranchised them as early as 1895, and the entire adult female population could vote by 1911. Of course some of the prejudices of the previous century were still in evidence, but women were not afraid to speak out and work towards further change. The South Australian women who were looking to employ the British domestic helpers were generally married and comfortably off, but did not see wedlock and families as the be-all-and-end-all of their destinies: they wanted to go out into society and work for the good of their country. Women like Ethel Shorthouse would help them achieve their goals. This is, of course, ironic in that Ethel had been doing much the same at home in England. The difference for Ethel may have been that she could realise some goals of her own in a more socially mobile environment.

Australia’s exciting, emerging society, often anxious to break from the influences of the Old Country, nevertheless needed the services of Britain’s Christian maidens to help it on its way. Newspaper articles of the time emphasised the scarcity of domestic help. Large numbers of British women were leaving for such work in Canada. It seems that a keen sense of competition between the Dominions spurred South Australia into reviving the assisted passages scheme of the late 19th century in order to relieve its hard-pressed mothers. Committees were formed, Ministers lobbied, letters written to the Press. It also appears that the Australian government not only encouraged applications from adult females, but were not averse to plundering British orphanages for willing sixteen year olds. A name that occurs most frequently in discussions of the problem is that of a Mrs Maud Hume Lindsay, the globe-trotting agent for the British Women’s Emigration Association, and an associate of the Royal Sanitary Institute of London. It seems likely that it would have been one of Mrs Lindsay’s colleagues who met Ethel after her arrival from Tamworth at the hostel in Victoria, London, on that Wednesday in 1913.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Shorthouse: self-discovery and endurance in post-Edwardian Australia

Part One: Attitudes to single women in late-Victorian England

By the 1850s the British Empire had reached a high point of achievement and influence, as evidenced in the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace. The displays of arts, crafts and manufacturing from all corners of the world encouraged British men to sail off and seek fortunes in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. At the time these countries were considered “young” and in need of being filled with enterprising British manhood. As men departed for the colonies they left behind a vacuum in the marriage market, creating an imbalance of the sexes. This vacuum expanded further as a result of casualties in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Social commentators feared for the moral health of the motherland, which now had large numbers of unattached females unable to fulfil perceived wifely destinies. One of the most influential of these commentators was William Rathbone Greg, a Manchester-born essayist and former mill manager. He set out schemes for dealing with these “abnormal” women, as he viewed them, in his essay of 1869, Why are women redundant? He was convinced that a truly civilised society should be able to solve its problems, and ashamed that more was not being done to solve the problem of single, and evidently purposeless, British women:

The problem, which is so generally though so dimly perceived … appears to resolve itself into this: that there is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state, and is both productive and prognostic of much wretchedness and wrong.

Poor Mr. Greg – he saw Britain on the verge of some kind of nasty social ‘epidemic’ that only white middle-class males would be capable of curing! He goes on to write of working girls earning wages in mills instead of “learning to perform the functions and labours of domestic life”; of ill-paid seamstresses “wasting life and soul”; of “beautiful lay nuns, involuntary takers of the veil”; of wretched and deteriorating old maids. But Greg’s fantasy of the “angel in the home” was simply that – a fiction. Women had always worked, even when married. The majority of ordinary British women, even if unable to go out to work, took on ‘homework’, assembling small artefacts, stitching shirts, laundering and so on.

In the 1860s there had been a rise in active female suffragism, and campaigns to improve female health, by Josephine Butler and other broad-minded women. Some were able to see past their moral blinkers and comprehend that, if Britain could find productive, not just re-productive, roles for women with time on their hands, then so much the better for society and Empire. Thank goodness for modern historians like Martha Vicinus. She reminds us that:

Feminist journals … were filled with success stories. Tales of heroines from the past, and “First woman to…” accounts … Heroic individualism, of course, fit the dominant ethos of the times, which idealized the individual man who made his way in politics, business or the jungle. The female version was more religiously inclined, but she too was expected to overcome opposition for the sake of her vision.

Ethel Shorthouse had been born on February 15th, 1886, at Castle Gresley, Derbyshire, the eldest of twelve children of hard-drinking colliery stoker John Shorthouse and his wife, Mary Jane Lees. I like to think of Ethel passing her spare hours in the Free Library at Hyde, Manchester, from where she sent a postcard to her sister Minnie, and reading such accounts of female derring-do, feeling bolstered against the pitying attitudes of writers like Greg. Something certainly spurred her to eventually contact one of the proliferating ladies’ emigration societies. These societies remained active right up until the outbreak of the Great War, an event that would contribute another blow to the unbalanced male/female demographic. In another postcard to Minnie in November 1911, Ethel bemoans the fact that she cannot get hold of “information from London till I know the number and Company, so will have to give it up.” Minnie’s response that same month was that she was “very glad to hear that you have altered your mind in going away”. I think it is reasonable to assume that, given what we later learn about Ethel’s actions, they are referring to emigration, and that perhaps Minnie was anxious not to lose her supportive older sister to a household on the other side of the world.

Ethel seems to have left behind very few written clues about her plans, and we have to await confirmation from her Australian Journal. She begins it by recording her twelve hour overnight journey from Tamworth railway station, arriving in London at half past six on the morning of Wednesday 14th May, 1913. She then “was met by a Lady at the Station, who took me to the Victoria Hostel for refreshments, and to await further instructions before leaving England.” The sketchiest of details, and Ethel is on her way to heaven knows what she dreamed of. This was to be the end of the round of ‘positions’ in the North Staffordshire and Manchester areas, and the beginning, at the age of twenty-seven, of a new life.

[Above images taken from “Around Tamworth in old photographs” by Richard Sulima]

Monday, 22 September 2014

Recalling the Unstoppable Ethel Shorthouse

It is fifteen years since I transcribed the pages of the Australian Journal of my great aunt Ethel Lees Shorthouse, and viewed the postcard correspondence between her and my grandmother, her younger sister, during the years leading up to the voyage to Adelaide in 1913. Since that time I have frequently mined her writings as sources for college and university assignments, slowly building up a body of research, and have tried to tease out Ethel’s motivations for her big pre-war adventure.

I met Ethel only once, when I was a teenager, and probably not long before her death in 1966. At that age I had little interest in this outwardly timid woman who, I was told at the time, had undergone horrifying privations and deportation during World War Two at the hands of occupying German forces in her home of Jersey, the Channel Islands. What an opportunity I missed then! But teenagers live in the moment, with little thought for past or future. Maturity eventually brought me to ‘connect’ with this extraordinary and long-suffering woman. I learned to empathise with her as a mother, and to appreciate her strength in trying to keep her family together.

Now my sister Terri has also drawn on Ethel’s experiences to inspire a piece of glass sculpture for her end-of-degree exhibition at Sunderland University. The amount of data available on the internet during the fifteen years I’ve worked on Ethel’s Journal has expanded enormously. Terri and I have benefited from the new resources available to ordinary, not just academic, historians to expand sketchy family history, and produce validation of and insight into Ethel’s life. Although this volume only covers her emigration to Australia, and its effects on her life between the two world wars, I hope it will provide new insights into her character, and fill in some ‘blanks’ left in her Journal.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Ethel Lees Shorthouse – commemorating a family centennial

As 2013 was drawing to a close I began thinking and writing again about my Great Aunt Ethel Lees Shorthouse (1886 – 1966). A hundred years ago in May 1913 she had set out adventurously to change her mundane existence in Manchester, England, an adventure that would lead to, amongst other things, a bigamous marriage and deportation by the Nazis! Her “new” life began in Adelaide, South Australia and ended in Jersey, the Channel Islands.

For a long time Ethel had been this teenager’s vague recollection of a timid old lady on a visit to her sister, my grandmother Minnie, just a few years before her death in the Bellozanne Valley, Jersey. I never thought of her again until Minnie herself died in 1982, and a cache of old postcards was discovered by her daughter, my mother Dorothy. Most of the cards bore messages sent to Minnie by Ethel during the years 1907 to 1915. They provided tantalising glimpses into Edwardian life in Staffordshire and Manchester, unresolved because the responses from her younger sister were clearly elsewhere, or had even been thrown away. I did eventually get to read some of these in 2011, cards that had been saved by one of Ethel’s granddaughters living in Southampton. Then, about 10 years after reading the “Ethel to Minnie” messages, I was lucky enough to be sent a photocopied version of Ethel’s Australian Journal from another Southampton granddaughter. Ethel had called this document “Items of my first voyages”, so, in 1913, she had plainly intended to take up travelling seriously.

These precious resources would enable me to make a first attempt, in 1998, at a kind of family history. I look back at it now and see the gaping holes, but I was untutored and working with little material and mainly faulty, fading memories. Later that year I plundered Ethel’s scant history to produce a final project for my Access to Humanities course. Ethel popped up once more to help me out with a First Degree module. And probably the best piece of academic analysis I created for my 2006 Master’s degree examined Ethel’s psychological state through three lengthy postcard messages she’d sent home from faraway Australia to Staffordshire as World War One broke out. I so wish now that this grateful and humble great niece could have appreciated her great aunt when she had the chance as a teenager in the 1960s.

My latest effort to do justice to Ethel’s memory has been interrupted by Christmas, but the research is done, and a document should materialise in the New Year. In recent years my sister Terri has discovered online archives of Australian newspapers. Contemporary articles exist which describe the rationale behind the emigration of thousands of domestic helpers to the Colonies around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the movement that took Ethel to Australia. We’ve even discovered articles directly linked to events recorded in Ethel’s Journal. So a more three dimensional person is emerging from the family mythology, and the bonds of familial empathy are strengthening in ways we never dreamed.

Next year is another centenary, that of the outbreak of World War One. Whilst I have evidence that Ethel and Minnie’s brothers fought in and survived that conflict, a great uncle of mine, Harry Mattison, brother of my grandfather Bert, Minnie’s husband, died aged twenty, less than a year after the war broke out. I will mark this upcoming anniversary with little pride, rather a sense of frustration – firstly at the loss of so many other young men that, when Ethel returned after the war, she married a man much older than she, a man who, unknown to her, had abandoned his first wife and family and dishonoured himself in his own military service; secondly because the women of that time are often depicted as deliverers of white feathers, or as armaments manufacturers, then perhaps as widows. No-one remarks on those shiploads of young women who’d ventured out into the Dominions at that very time to help build successful societies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia – they provided the support necessary to “liberate” bright, articulate women from domestic chores so that they could found charitable organisations, run newspapers, or campaign for political change. These “new” women of what would become the Commonwealth owed their freedom to women like my great aunt Ethel, who then found themselves marooned abroad, often feeling guilty, and unable to support their own families in the years from 1914 to 1918.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The "hunt" for Alice Debenham (1867-1940) - a self-effacing pioneer

Six months ago I was winding up my involvement in the project to erect a blue plaque at Walnut Tree Manor, Haughley Green in Suffolk to honour the memory of the founders of organic farming in the UK (see my previous two blogposts). But Alice Debenham has kept slipping through my researcher's fingers. I'd hoped that there would have been some feedback from the two files I left in the Maxwell Charnley Room in Haughley, but no-one has so far contacted me or the others involved. So I now post the following thoughts, and hope for the same success I had when searching for the almost forgotten author, Dorothea Rutherford (see some posts from 2012).

Time and again in the course of my research the figure of Lady Eve Balfour looms over the more shadowy figure of Alice Debenham. Yet Lady Eve referred to her as the “Raleigh” to her own “Columbus” – the person who followed on from the inspired explorer and made reality of his dreams. What were the reasons for Alice’s apparent reticence? To begin with she was the much older of the two women, by 31 years in fact.  The portrait of Alice, painted by her niece Alison, which now hangs in Briantspuddle village hall, Dorset – I’ll explain the significance of that location later – shows a woman well into middle age, unremarkable of appearance in many ways. She seems in sharp contrast to the young Lady Eve who was strikingly attractive in her youth, and forceful and distinctive in later portraits and photographs.

A distant relation of Alice, Michael Debenham, has provided sketchy details from the Census:
She was born 9 July 1867 in Finchley Road, Hampstead, and was baptised 11 September 1867 at All Souls Church, South West Hampstead. She is recorded in the 1911 census as living at 1 Fitzjohn Avenue, Hampstead, employed as an employer in agriculture. This was the address of her parents, Frank Debenham and Emma Folkard Debenham (nee Ridley).  Frank’s parents were William Debenham and Caroline Freebody, founders of the Debenhams stores group, sometime known as Debenham and Freebody. One of Alice’s brothers was Ernest Ridley Debenham, (1865-1952), successor to Frank as the big cheese of the stores, and created first baronet in 1931.

So was she farming in Hampstead? That seems unlikely. It’s probable that she was simply visiting her parents on Census day. So where was she farming? Her brother Ernest was a clue, particularly when linked to the portrait in Briantspuddle. John Vallins, writing in The Guardian in 2010, explains:

Until the First World War, it was a village of 12 cottages, mostly ancient and thatched, several of which survive. Then Sir Ernest – an idealistic reformer with a vision of increasing agricultural production, attracting people back to work the land, developing scientific methods and making rural Dorset self-sufficient in food production – bought land in the valley and set out to create an ideal agricultural community.

And it seems that, from 1914 to 1919, Alice was the farm manager of this Debenham Estate land.

A cursory search of census indexes online seems to indicate she had at least this brother Ernest, whose character and career tend to eclipse Alice’s. Then there may have been Mary, and Edith (born about 1869), and, of course Agnes, whose publishing contacts ensured that Lady Eve’s The Living Soil came to the notice of the public in 1943:
Miss Agnes Debenham, sister of the now-deceased Alice Debenham, sent a copy of a private memorandum to an acquaintance who was a director at New York-based publishing firm Harcourt, Brace & Co. Agnes Debenham simply wished to assist in securing publication of a new, revised edition of the memorandum, since copies of the original were dwindling, and she was willing to provide some financial backing. Agnes Debenham's New York contact forwarded her request, in early 1942, to Faber & Faber in London. Before long, one of the founding editors of Faber & Faber, Richard de la Mare [son of poet Walter], was in communication with Eve.

(p. 88 of Erin Gill’s doctoral thesis )

Erin Gill also notes that Alice Debenham, who died in autumn 1940, purportedly left £1,000 to Haughley Research Trust, although this may not have become available for some time. But her influence remained:

Another important event of the mid-1930s was Eve's purchase of the next door farm, Walnut Tree, and the arrival of Alice Debenham. According to Brander, the 80-acre Walnut Tree Farm was a victim of the depression and "Eve was able to purchase the farm at the foreclosed price of five shillings an acre". Eve did not have the capital to buy the farm but borrowed it.191 At about the same time, Alice Debenham, an arthritic 68-year-old who had studied medicine in her youth and who had experience of farm management, visited and agreed to rent the house at Walnut Tree Farm and to spend several thousand pounds modernising it. It would seem that Alice Debenham came to hear of Eve and Walnut Tree Farm through Eve's long-term companion Kathleen Carnley. Debenham quickly became Eve's "benefactress" and would prove a great ally at the end of the decade when Eve encountered organic theories about compost-based farming. Benefactress is the term used by Eve's mother Betty to describe Alice. Betty also described Alice as "the Fairy Godmother". She was clearly a wealthy woman as she paid for electricity to be installed at not only Walnut Tree farmhouse but also at New Bells farmhouse.

(p. 58 of Gill’s thesis)

As an experienced farm manager she had been well placed to be a mentor to Lady Eve, and together they set about transforming New Bells and Walnut Tree farms in Haughley Green into the site of a research project aimed at comparing organic and non-organic farming systems. Alice Debenham transferred ownership of Walnut Tree farm and the house that went with it to the “custodian trustees”, who secured support at some point during the war from the legal custodian. Further research is needed, Gill writes, to trace the ownership history of both farms. For instance, Walnut Tree farm appears to have been purchased by Eve, with borrowed funds, at some point during the 1930s. However, by the end of the 1930s the leasehold, if not the freehold, appears to have been held by Alice Debenham.

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