Friday, July 3, 2020

Britain’s Radium Spas

By Lucy Santos

The discovery of the radioactive substance radium in the late 19th century prompted a flurry of experiments to scope the limits of its potential applications. Scientists and, in turn, medical practitioners and entrepreneurs would struggle to understand the complicated properties of radioactive elements.

It had taken Marie Skłodowska Curie four years (and eight tons of source material) of hard work to isolate one- tenth of a gram of radium chloride (RaCl2– a compound of radium and chlorine which takes the form of white crystals or powder).

With such a protracted production process further experimentation would prove difficult.
Owning radium salts conferred great social and professional prestige. In the early years of the 20th century it was the most expensive, and most desirable, substance in the world.

Access to radioactivity became logically easier in 1904 when scientists tested water from nineteen hot mineral springs in France and Austria and declared that most were radioactive. How this was possible was thanks to the radioactive decay chain. Whilst this is quite a complicated process (and wasn’t fully understood in the early 1900s) put simply radioactive elements are radioactive because they exist in a state of perpetual breakdown: constantly evolving into something else and discarding their excess parts as they decayed. As one shortened example: uranium (one of the most common metallic substances in the Earth’s crust), decays into thorium, which in turn becomes radium. After radium comes radon: the only link in the chain that is a gas. That then turns into polonium. Eventually, after multiple transformations, the uranium decay chain ends with a ‘stable’ element – lead – which stays put and emits no more radiation.  Each of these parts of the chain has a distinct and varied ‘half-life’: the average amount of time it takes for half of the atoms of the original element to turn into a new element. Radioactive water, therefore, could be found present in the environment naturally wherever deposits of uranium rocks were found. Radon, because it is a gas, is easily released into the environment through human disturbance such as mining or by escaping through natural cracks in the ground, where it emerges onto the surface or into the water. Radium could also be present in the rocks that mineral waters trickle over: in which case it infuses the water with radioactivity.

In Britain alone places such as Harrogate, Matlock Bath, Matlock, and Buxton were established to have radioactive waters of one kind or another. Facilities and treatments sprung up all based on the theory of mild radium therapy, that exposure to radium in small doses (most commonly administered by drinking radium laced water or by breathing in radioactive gas) is beneficial: triggering a chain of physiological reactions that boosts the immune system in many different ways.

Britain’s Radium Spa

The ancient spa town of Bath in Somerset began marketing itself as ‘Britain’s Radium Spa’ and the spa which was ‘Richest in Britain in Natural Radium Emanation’ and in doing so saw a significant upturn in the numbers of people visiting the town (which had been known for its beneficial waters since the Romans developing an extensive bathing complex there).

Such was the demand for radium water and associated treatments that the Great Western Railway added new services to the city as well as a new coach with a ‘ladies’ attendant for the comfort of lady invalids travelling alone’ between Paddington and Bath.

‘Radium water’ was on offer at the Pump Room in the town for two pence a glass. The practice of drinking the waters in the Grand Pump Room had been a popular past time for the fashionable elite for centuries in its luxurious surroundings. It was used by Jane Austen (who lived in the town from 1801 to 1806) in the novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as the central setting for social activities and the meeting place for characters. Visitors could take out a subscription to the Pump Room which entitled them to drink the mineral waters often accompanied by the music of a small orchestra who performed during the ‘morning drinking hour.’ The cost was per glass, or you could buy a book of coupons that permitted you to have fourteen glasses of water in the ‘yellow looking tumblers’ that Dickens refers to in The Pickwick Papers.

The mineral water is drawn directly from the spring beneath the Pump Room: a powerful supply of over eight gallons per minute and then received into a circular marble basin surrounding a beautiful fountain.

Buxton, in Derbyshire, also had its own Pump Room, were health seekers could take a table overlooking St Anne’s well to watch the Well Attendants (an official title for the women that held this role), smartly dressed in their uniforms, dip a long-handled tool with a small glass attached into the warm water before serving. The well, which had been installed in 1912, was cleverly designed to form a showcase for the ‘constant flow of radioactive water’ and was also left open so that the visitors could breathe in the radioactive emanations at the same time as drinking them, for double the health benefits.   There was a small charge to enter the Pump Room, but once inside, drinking water was unlimited.  The water was particularly recommended for its diuretic properties:  it helped increase the amount of urine you produced and was therefore recommended as a treatment for heart failure, liver cirrhosis and some kidney diseases.

As at Bath, Buxton Natural Mineral Water (the forerunner of the ever-popular Buxton Mineral Water) could also be bought directly from the Spa’s General Manager or from shops in the town. The official guide to Buxton, in an excellent piece of cross-promotion, advertised the radioactive water as: ‘A British Water for British Whiskey!’

Reliance on water treatments and visits to spas dramatically declined in the 1940s and 1950s as conditions such as polio, tuberculosis and diphtheria were gradually conquered by the widespread use of vaccines. The introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 and a comprehensive range of healthcare meant people were even less willing to pay money to take a water cure.

But the town of Bath still proudly proclaimed its radioactive waters as a marketing tool well into the 1950s until it was forced to change its practices rather dramatically following Britain’s worst nuclear accident, at Windscale.  Over three days in October 1957, a fire raged at the Cumbrian nuclear site.

The resulting release of radioactive contamination (the main component was the artificial  isotope iodine-131) and the publicity surrounding the fears of radioactivity caused the staff of the spa treatment centre and the guides of the Roman Baths to request clarification on the risks they were exposed to in the course of their employment. The Medical Officer for Health at the time, Dr Astley Weston, called in the Radiological Protection Service, which made careful measurements of the waters. The results would have been a relief to the concerned staff members and their families: the levels of radium in the waters at Bath were one-tenth of what had been reported in 1912. With more powerful measuring devices, Dr Weston and his team concluded that the air and the water at Bath showed little likelihood of causing any harm. And implicit with this, there was no real prospect of them doing any good either.  Any mention of radioactivity was dropped from the spa brochures and the radium inhalatorium was turned into a gift shop before being demolished a few years later.

St Ann's Well, Buxton. Constant Flow of Radio Active Thermal Mineral WaterCredit: Credit: Collection of Derbyshire County Council, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
Britain’s Radium Spa. Credit: Collection of Lucy Jane Santos.
Radium Trink Kur. Credit: Collection of Lucy Jane Santos. Photograph: Sonee Photography
For more images from my collection visit


Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium.
Museum of Radium:
Twitter: @lucyjanesantos_
Instagram: lucyjanesantos_

Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Schools of Gardening for Ladies

By Judith M. Taylor

“Ladies” are rather thin on the ground these days but in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras middle and upper class women were usually known as ladies. We are all staunchly just “women” now. That had nothing to do with any sort of special title but was purely a matter of upbringing and status. As such they were largely unable to do many things we all enjoy today because it is was not “ladylike”. Only men were supposed to earn the family’s living. Overcoming that taboo began gaining traction during the time that women’s suffrage was on the horizon. I do not believe that was coincidental.

Until the recent past an unmarried woman of the more refined classes could not look forward to a rich and fulfilled life. If she lacked a dowry she was out of luck. The work open to her was very restricted. All that the Bronte sisters could do officially was to become teachers or governesses. The other choice was to become companion to a wealthy woman, as a “gofer”. Both occupations were lonely and considered declassé.  These women were invisible. Think of the poignant scene in “Jane Eyre” when the county ladies and their guests from London visit Mr Rochester in their elegant riding habits. Jane simply shrivels up.

An alternative title for this essay could be “Headstrong Women of Means”. Two such characters emerged in England at about the same time with very similar goals.  Both had the idea that training women of that sort to be gardeners would allow them to find rewarding work.

Frances, Viscountess Wolseley

Frances, Viscountess Wolseley, 1872 – 1936, viewed these women with a very sympathetic eye. She did not hesitate to call them bluntly surplus but unlike some of her consoeurs she took action. In her case she saw salvation for them through horticulture. Although she had been presented at court she never wanted to marry but instead devoted her life to horticultural education. She wrote several books but “Gardening for Women” and “ Women on the Land” are the best known and most germane. Her father, General Sir Garnet Wolesley was elevated to the peerage for his services to the country. She was his only child and quite unusually was allowed to inherit the title. After her death it went into abeyance.

Frances Evelyn Maynard, Countess of Warwick, always known as “Daisy”, 1861 – 1938, inherited very large fortunes from both her father and grandfather at the age of three, providing an income of £30,000 per annum, an astronomical sum back then. When she married Lord Brooke, who became the Earl of Warwick, this money was combined with that of her husband, also a very wealthy man.
At first she used the money to enjoy herself, throwing extravagant parties and disporting herself with men like the Prince of Wales. Contemporary portraits show her to be a very lovely young woman. She also wanted to create beautiful gardens and displayed her skill at the family estate at Easton in Essex.

Countess of Warwick - c. 1895

A severe scolding by the editor of the Socialist newspaper The Clarion, Robert Blatchford, about her wastefulness and how the money used for such a party could have fed hundreds of poor people or helped to educate some of them in the 1890s opened her eyes.  She had naively thought that the classic “trickle down” system would help to alleviate poverty in her area. It is eternally to her credit that she took the criticism to heart and mended her ways. Countess Warwick became a card carrying Socialist and thus an enemy of her class.

In a strange echo of Ellen Willmott’s fate she too ended up quite poor but for different reasons. The bulk of her income came from the products of her lands. When the agricultural depression hit in 1893 and lasted for several years her income dropped sharply. Huge quantities of grain from Ukraine and Canada were a glut on the market, driving   down prices. She also spent very freely but not as wantonly as Miss Willmott. She used her money to benefit others less fortunate than she was. Her younger son only inherited the rather paltry sum of £37,000 when she died.

Among her significant projects were a school for fine needlework to encourage young women to earn a living and the school for agriculture and gardening which she began in Reading but later transferred to her husband’s estate at Studley in Warwickshire. This was not too far from Birmingham. The countess campaigned for better housing and many basic improvements in the Darwinian world of late Victorian Britain.

From about 1890 to 1930 schools of this type thrived. They were not unique to the British Isles but could be found on the Continent and to a lesser extent in the rest of the English speaking world. Some graduates did indeed go on to find work but it took time to overcome built in prejudice. Sir William Thistelton -Dyer, who took over direction of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from his father in law Sir Joseph Hooker, grudgingly hired a small group of women as general gardeners in about 1900. To keep prurience at a minimum he insisted they wear long brown knickerbockers and strong boots while they worked. This policy backfired. It is said that trainloads of frisky men would travel down to the gardens and leer at the women as they worked.

Dyer expected the women to do exactly the same work as the men and gave them the same pay. In the evenings they had to join study groups and improve their education.  It could be a very long day. The experiment lasted for a few years. Some women left to get married, some found gratifying work but a small number stayed on to enjoy tiny promotions. They came back into their own very strongly once Word War I got under way. The men all left to sign up for the forces and women became essential to keep the garden running.

Eventually it was no longer bizarre for women to hold important gardening positions both private and public and the schools started to merge with colleges and universities or other large organizations which now would accept their candidates.

In all there must have been between twenty five and thirty schools. The number is not exact as some schools run out of her own house by an amateur only lasted two or three years and were not counted. Some graduates left to found their own schools in the United Kingdom and abroad. A graduate of the Studley School, Miss Judith Waldron-Skinner, founded the California School of Gardening for Women in Hayward, California, not far from San Francisco. It lasted from 1921 to 1936 when it merged with Stanford University. The premises are now a shopping mall with its parking lot.

One of the most famous of these schools, Waterperry near Oxford, was started in 1932 by Miss Beatrix Havergal, a graduate of Studley. She was taken on as the groundkeeper at a private boarding school for girls where she laid out the tennis courts. While there she became friends with the woman in charge of the housekeeping. They left together and pooled their savings to start their own school of gardening. Vita Sackville West,1892 – 1962. creator of the astonishing gardens of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, managed to snag two of Miss Havergal’s best students, Pamela Schwerdt and Sybille Kreuzberger. They ran Sissinghurst for more than thirty years after Vita’s death. Waterperry closed at the end of 1970 and Miss Havergal died in 1971.

Beatrix Havergal

Lady Wolesley opened her school in 1901 at her own estate in Sussex, Glynde. At first she ran it from her house but two years later took on property about five miles away to be the college proper. All the schools required a certain level of discipline in order to function but the pupils were there by choice, paying hard earned money and not likely to mess about. Lady Wolesley came from a military background and set up much stricter rules with rewards and punishments for good or bad behaviour. She created a board of very prominent honorary directors to indicate the high level of her aspirations. They included Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and Ellen Willmott. The latter was rather a joke as Ellen Willmott wanted no part of women gardeners at any time.

The curriculum at each school tended to be much the same but there was a broad range of optional subjects which varied with the vision of the principals and what was available in their districts. Apart from botany and all the requirements to pass the examinations of the  Royal Horticultural Society, young women could learn how to manage a market garden, keep bees, keep poultry or run a dairy farm. Market gardening was an important reality. In some cases selling their produce at local market helped to fund the school. That was the case with Miss Havergal at Waterperry. Formal landscape architecture was also taught by specialists like Edwin Lutyens who came just for those sessions.

All these private schools required a fairly substantial fee for several reasons. It could be up to £100 per annum which was a lot in those days. One reason was simply to pay the expenses. The other was to keep the clientele at a distinct social level. The daughter of a farm labourer or cook could never save up enough money to enroll in such a school.

 In 1870 Parliament passed the Education Act. While it had many shortcomings it was the first step in making public education free for all children up to the age of fourteen. Previously elementary education had been solely in the hands of the Church of England which only let go kicking and screaming. Groups like the Fabians were also busy trying to get adult education adopted as a principle. 

The London County Council was an enlightened body and set up institutes for adult learning at strategic points across the city. It was there that a shop assistant or solicitor’s clerk could go after work and learn enough to get a better job. Gardening and horticulture were taught at some of these places, mainly in the south of London. For a fee of five shillings rather that many pounds they could learn botany, nature study, elementary gardening skills and other necessary subjects. As it is stays light until 10 pm in the summer such classes were possible.

Another public institution accepted women graduates very early. The University College at Reading had an agricultural department whose classes were open both to men and women over sixteen years of age from 1893. The director was the highly qualified John Percival from Cambridge. This college had very extensive grounds and also took advantage of its proximity to a major seed company, Messrs Sutton and Son. The field trips were very educational. Eleven acres were devoted to orchards and the curriculum was broad. Students were prepared for the higher horticultural examinations. The  cost was intermediate between the expensive private schools and the subsidized LCC classes.

Recalling this era is a labour of love. Women were really getting into their stride. If you wanted to earn your own living in an honorable and productive way what better than to become a professional gardener. Its freedom compared very favourably with working in shop or an office. The results were very rewarding in so many ways and quite often included a nice cottage on the bigger estates.


Wolesley, Viscountess Frances Garnett 1908, re issued  2012

Gardening for Women

London               Forgotten Books     

Way, Twigs  2006

Virgins, Weeders and Queens

Gloucester        Sutton Publishing Limited


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989. This book has recently been shortlisted for a prize from the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

Monday, June 29, 2020

When Kensington Palace became a Royal Residence

by Andrea Zuvich

There’s something about Kensington Palace that immediately conjures up the word glamorous. Perhaps it is because in recent memory, it has been the home of notable, glamorous royals such as the late Princess Margaret, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and also because of its current inhabitant, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. But what we now know of Kensington Palace is very different from what it once was. As I had the great honour to have been on the original team that developed the Garden History Tours at Kensington Palace, I learned first-hand about the history and rather more humble origins of the great royal palace – and I hope to share some of that here with you all today. 

Before modern Kensington became the playground of the world’s richest people, it was a sleepy verdant little village renowned for its purity of air. Royals have only inhabited the house since the late 17th-century, when William III and Mary II moved in. But the history of the land goes back farther than that. According to Kensington Palace by W.J. Loftie, a late Victorian historian, the land upon which Kensington Palace now lies was (in the 14th century) on an area called Neyt Manor, one of three manorial estates owned by the Abbey of Westminster. Indeed, archival documents and archaeological assessments from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea state there was a Neyt Manor in 1386. Whatever building was left standing is believed to have been demolished in 1602.

A Jacobean house was built in 1605 for Sir George Coppin three years after the Neyt Manor structure was razed. Following Coppin’s death in 1619, it was purchased by the Finch family. Much later on, the house was named “Nottingham House” because Sir Heneage Finch was the Earl of Nottingham (since 1681).

In 1688, what is known as the “Glorious Revolution” occurred in which James II was ousted from power by his nephew/son-in-law William of Orange and James’s daughter/William’s wife and cousin, Mary. In 1689, William and Mary were crowned King and Queen, and they soon set out to find where to live. Why? You may well wonder, considering that they already had St. James’s Palace and Whitehall Palace. But Whitehall rested in an area by the River Thames that was full of fog, smoke, and generally unpleasant air. This wreaked havoc with King William’s chronic asthma and so more verdant climes were sought. They soon purchased Nottingham House from Daniel Finch, the 2nd Earl of Nottingham (who happened to be his Secretary of State), for a whopping £14,000-18,000.

After this, they hired Sir Christopher Wren to expand and modernise the Jacobean building into something bigger and more fashionable. Construction work went on between 1689-1690. Unfortunately, Mary was a bit impatient with what she perceived to be the slow progress of the building. This can probably be attributed to her desire to make a comfortable home for William. She wrote to her beloved:

“the schafolds are up, the windows must be boarded up, but as soon as it is done, your own apartment may be furnished.”

Her over-eagerness to get the building works completed meant that the workman built too quickly, and so the quality of their work became a secondary consideration. Mary wrote (original spelling maintained): “This made me go often to Kinsington to hasten the worckmen, and I was so impatient to beat that place, imagining to find more ease there.”

As a result of this, sadly, November 1689 saw part of the newly-built building fall down ‘killing seven or eight workman’ – and this tragedy also occurred during renovation work to Hampton Court Palace. Mary characteristically blamed herself for these deaths.

Her diary continues: “This I often reproved my self for and at last it pleased God to shew me the uncertainty of all things…All this much as it was the fault of the worckmen, humanly speacking, yet shewed me the hand of God plainly in it, and I was truly humbled.”

The gardens were redone at this time as well, with heavily manicured box hedging – elaborately formed in the formal Baroque (modern) style which was then so popular. William and Mary spent nearly the same amount on these magnificent gardens as they did on the house! They both loved gardening and their previous homes in the Dutch Republic (The Netherlands), especially Paleis Het Loo, also had wonderfully symmetrical parterres in this elegant style. Sadly, none of their Kensington gardens exist to this day!

In 1690, the interior of the house began to be decorated with glorious woodcarvings from Baroque carver Grinling Gibbons. Visitors to Kensington Palace’s State Apartments can see these for themselves, in the King’s Presence Chamber and in Queen Mary’s Gallery. Outside the Queen’s Entrance, the monogram (entwined initials) of William and Mary is clearly visible above the doorway.

Mary died from haemorrhagic smallpox in 1694, plunging her husband into a deep grief. John Evelyn, the diarist and courtier, visited the now-sole-monarch William in 1696 at Kensington House and said of it:

“I went to the King’s house at Kensington with some Ladys: The House is very noble, tho not greate; the Gallerys furnished with all the best Pictures of all the Houses, of Titian, Raphael, Correggio, Holbein, Julio Romano, Bassan, V. Dyke: Tintoret, & others, with a world of Porcelain; a pretty private Library; the Garden about it very delicious.”

King William III died in 1702, leaving the throne to his sister-in-law, Anne, who became the last of the Stuarts. The famous statue of William III that faces High Street Kensington is a 20th-century addition – a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1907. I hope that those who are able to visit Kensington Palace in the future will take a moment and think about this – about the time when Kensington Palace first became a royal residence.

All photos © Andrea Zuvich.
·         Ashworth, Helen. York Place Kensington. The Heritage Network, via Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Access date: 27/02/2015.
·         Beard, Geoffrey. The Works of Grinling Gibbons. John Murray Publishers Ltd, London, 1989.
·         Evelyn, John. Diary.
·         Faulkner, Patrick A. Nottingham House: John Thorpe and his Relation to Kensington Palace.  Archaeology Data Service. Access date: 27/02/2015.
·         Howard, Philip. The Royal Palaces. Hamish Hamilton, London, 1970.
·         Loftie, W.J. Kensington Palace. 1898.
·         Mary II, Queen. Letters & Memoirs, 1689.
·         Tinniswood, Adrian. His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren. Pimlico, London, 2002.
·         Williams, Neville. Royal Homes of Great Britain from Medieval to Modern Times. Lutterworth Press, London, 1971.
·        WORK 38/428. Sir George Coppin’s House, Kensington. National Archives, Kew, UK.

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published February 28, 2015.


Andrea Zuvich is an independent seventeenth-century historian and anthropologist specialising in the House of Stuart (1603-1714). Zuvich obtained degrees in History and Anthropology at the University of Central Florida and is the host of the popular ‘The Seventeenth Century Lady’ blog. Zuvich is also a historical consultant for TV, film, and radio. She most recently appeared in BBC Four’s ‘Charles I: Downfall of a King’. She was one of the original developers of and leaders on the award-winning Garden History Tours at Kensington Palace and has written six books about the Stuart period. Zuvich is also a trained actress and professional voice-over artist, narrating audiobooks and providing voice work for several mobile apps.

Connect with Andrea on social media:

Friday, June 26, 2020

Elizabeth Evans, Businesswoman and Philanthropist

By Lauren Gilbert

Elizabeth Evans was the daughter of a wealthy, self-made businessman.  She married a man who was the son of a businessman, who was successful himself in his family's business, and, after his death, married his half-brother.  During her second marriage, as a partner in the bank and businesses, Elizabeth utilized talents to make her mark as a businesswoman and as a philanthropist.  During the Georgian era, women were theoretically subsumed into their husbands.  However, there were some women who managed to make their marks in the business world.  Elizabeth Evans was one of them.

Elizabeth Strutt was born sometime around 1755-1758 at Darley, Derbyshire, England. She was the second child and first daughter born to Jedediah Strutt and his wife Elizabeth Woollatt. Jedediah was born to a farming family on July 25, 1726 in South Normanton, Derbyshire, England. He became a cotton spinner and invented the Derby Rib Machine for making stockings, and was in partnership with Richard Awkright in cotton manufacturing. In partnership with his wife’s brother, Richard Awkright and others, Jedediah built mills, becoming a wealthy and influential man. He died May 6, 1797 in Derbyshire and was buried in the Unitarian chapel in Field Row, Belper. Elizabeth’s mother Elizabeth Woollatt was born in 1729 in Belper, Derbyshire, England. She married Jedediah on September 24, 1755 in Blackwell by Ale, Derbyshire, England, and died in May 1774 in London.

Photo of porttrait of Jedediah Strutt by Joseph Wright of Derby
taken by Nero Reising-Wikimedia Commons-Creative Commons license
Jedediah became a member of the Unitarian Dissenters, and had a strong belief in philanthropy. His church founded schools and churches, and supported reform. Among other things, Jedediah built housing for workers. He built and educated his family on the Unitarian principles.

Elizabeth had three brothers and one sister: William Strutt (born July 20, 1756, died December 9, 1830), Martha Strutt (born 1760, died 1793), George Benson Strutt (born 1761, died in September, 1841) and Joseph Strutt (born 1765, died Jan 13, 1844). After their mother’s death, her father did not return to his young family for nine months, leaving Elizabeth (in her mid-teens) responsible for her brothers and sister as well as the family home, farm and dairy.

Jedediah Strutt believed in education. Elizabeth’s father may have provided her with a governess or sent her to school. He provided her with books, which he expected her study, and she also had French lessons. She also encouraged her younger brothers William and Joseph in their studies.

Jedediah Strutt subsequently married Anne Cantrell in 1781; she died in 1802 (they had no children).

William Strutt, oldest son of Jedediah Strutt,
by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain

Elizabeth married William Evans on October 30, 1785 at St Peter’s Church, Derby, Derbyshire England. William was born about 1755, and was the elder son of Thomas Evans who had founded a bank in 1771, owned paper mills at Darley and other ventures. William and his half- brother Walter were partners in the bank with their father by 1780. The family built the Boars Head Cotton Mill, which was fully operational in 1782-1783 at Darley Abbey, where they had other business interests.

Darley Abbey-Boars Head Mills
taken by Dave Bevis August 21, 2015-
Wikimedia Commons-Creative Commons license
Thomas Evans and his children first lived at Darley Fields (later renamed Darley House), construction of which had begun in 1791. William and Elizabeth took up residence at some point. The Strutts and the Evans families were known to one another.  They were involved in various improvements in the community of Derby, such as streets, lighting bridges, etc. and did business together. (William and Walter’s sister Barbara married Elizabeth’s brother William, so there were other family as well as business ties.) 

William and Elizabeth had six children: Elizabeth (Bessie), born in 1786; William, born in 1788; Frances, born in 1790; George, born in 1789, died in 1804 (he drowned at the age of fifteen); Ellen, born in 1795 and Thomas, born in 1796, died April 4, 1797. Upon her marriage, Elizabeth also took on Samuel Evans, her husband’s illegitimate infant son born in 1785. Samuel was raised by Elizabeth, but not as the eldest son and heir. 

According to the DERBY MERCURY of Thursday, March 24, 1796, William died the previous Friday (March 18, 1796). Upon William’s death, Elizabeth was appointed a partner in the bank. Their infant son Thomas died not long after William. Their combined deaths were devastating to Elizabeth.

There was a connection at that time to Samuel Taylor Coleridge through their Unitarian faith and ideals. He became acquainted with the Strutt family in 1796. Elizabeth wanted to engage him as tutor to her children, and he intended to accept, but both families objected (possibly because of Coleridge’s political ties, possibly because of a concern that Elizabeth might be too fond of him), so the plan was abandoned.

Subsequently, Elizabeth married her late husband’s half-brother Walter two years later in 1798. They had one child, Arthur, born in 1800. Available data indicates Elizabeth began to become active in the bank with Walter at this time. Massive expansion of the mills occurred between 1818-1821. She also had partnership in other Evans businesses. Her brother William continued the cotton factory and paper mills at Darley. She and Walter and their family lived at Darley House.

Elizabeth continued in the Unitarian faith, and both she and Walter were deeply involved in philanthropy. Elizabeth was also interested in political reform (her correspondence indicates Elizabeth had abolitionist sympathies). The Evans family also built workers’ homes, with homes at Darley Abbey as early as 1795 and possibly earlier. School rooms were also built between 1797-1800. Walter also oversaw the building of a church.

In her mature years, Elizabeth continued in the bank partnership until she retired from that in 1808. She retired from her other business activities gradually, and was completely retired by 1810. Her father-in-law Thomas Evans died March 1, 1814 in Derby. Elizabeth died in early 1836 at approximately age 78, and was buried March 24, 1836 at Darley Abbey. According to the DERBYSHIRE COURIER of September 14, 1839, Walter died the previous Monday, (September 9, 1839) at Darley. He was buried at Darley Abbey on September 14, 1839.

Her stepson Samuel was an active partner in the bank. Her son William took less interest in the bank and other family businesses. He was knighted, served as a Member of Parliament, and settled into life as a politician and country landowner at Allestree Hall.


Dawes, Margaret and Selwyn, Nesta. Women who made money WOMEN PARTNERS IN BRITISH PRIVATE BANKS 1752-1906. 2010: Trafford Publishing, Bloomington, IN. Derwent Valley Visitor Centre. “Jedediah Strutt” (pamphlet-pdf). HERE “Belper Unitarian Chapel” (pamphlet-pdf). No author or date of publication shown. HERE “Darley House” by Steve Orme, posted February 27, 2017. HERE DERBYSHIRE MISCELLANY. Vol. 8 Autumn 1979, Part 6. “The Borough of Derby between 1780 and 1810” by John E. Heath. PP. 181-197. HERE Burke, Sir Bernard. A GENEALOGICAL AND HERALDIC HISTORY OF THE LANDED GENTRY OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, Volume 1. 1882: London: Harrison, Pall Mall. HERE ; Lee, Sidney (ed.). DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, Volume 19. “Strutt, Jedediah (1726-1797). Pp. 64-67. 1909: London, Smith, Elder and Co. HERE THE COLERIDGE BULLETIN The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge, NS 28 Winter 2006. “Coleridge and the Unitarian Ladies” by Felicity James. HERE “Evans, William (1788-1856), of Allestree, Derbys. by Simon Harratt. HERE “W & W Evans & Co.” (no author or post date shown). HERE

An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented a number of programs. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available. A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is her newest release. Both can by found at Amazon and other booksellers. A long-time contributor to the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also working on a nonfiction book about powerful women in Regency era Europe for Pen & Sword books. For more information, visit her website HERE.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Maud Has No Statue

By Dr John Little

In these days of falling statues we have a timely reminder that such public edifices are erected for a purpose.

The Romans put up statues of all of their gods, and just in case they had missed one out, they also bought insurance against divine wrath by erecting one to the ‘unknown god’. There are lessons to be learned as well, from those people that society did not choose to honour in such a way. The First World War was the cause of many statues being subscribed for, and many of the great commanders now stand in bronze, in marble and acting as rests for weary pigeons. In Whitehall we see General Haig on horseback, whilst Foch sits outside Victoria Station. Joffre has his statues, and Admirals Jellico and Beatty have their busts in Trafalgar Square. To complete the set of armed forces commanders the founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, has his own likeness towering by the embankment. It is ironic that perhaps the most successful commander on the Western Front from 1914- 18 has no statue, her contribution being marked solely by a blue plaque on the wall of her former home. Equally ironic is that whilst some of the others are still virtually household names, hers has been almost forgotten.

Dame Emma (Maud) McCarthy already had a distinguished career behind her as matron of large military hospitals before the War Office appointed her principal matron of the British Army in 1910. Born in Australia, she commenced a nursing career in 1891 but then left the London Hospital to serve in the Boer War in South Africa. To say that her service was outstanding would be a small understatement as her actions won her the King’s medal for nursing, the Queen’s medal for nursing, and the Royal Red Cross. She was also very active in the setting up of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. (QUAIMNS)

When she arrived in France in August 1914, there was no organization in place that could possibly cope with the rapid expansion  of the British Army from 200,000 to 2.5 millions within the space of eighteen months. The scale of the casualties and the accompanying medical requirements were gargantuan. To be sure the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) had doctors and began to set up hospitals, but as with so many things it could have been chaotic. A casualty on the Western Front would receive their first medical attention at a regimental aid post run by the RAMC. There were no women there as essentially they were on the battlefield. From the aid post they were stretchered to Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS); here were doctors under the command of the army surgeon general, and nurses who now came under the command of Maud McCarthy. There were fifty six CCS’s in France staffed by QUAIMNS and Red Cross nurses. Later in the war, selected and suitably trained volunteers from the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) were also allowed into the CCS’s.

From a CCS, casualties were taken either by hospital barge or train to a base hospital; each barge and train was staffed by nurses. The casualty would arrive at one of ninety eight general or stationary hospitals; some were Red Cross, some were QUAIMNS and some were funded privately by organizations such as City of London Guilds like the Drapers. Other hospitals were slotted into the organization as they arrived from places like Canada and Australia. All had to be kept up to numbers with staff, supplied, fed, billeted  and their comforts looked after. Procedures had to be standardized, standards had to be kept up and medical supplies had to be assured. The responsibilities attached to the task of coordinating all this were almost endless. From the Mediterranean Sea to the Western Front Maud McCarthy was directly responsible to the War Office in London and over this vast area commanded over six thousand nursing staff. She was everywhere and soon had a name for the most ferocious efficiency, though she herself was quiet and softly spoken.

One army general reportedly said of McCarthy: “She’s perfectly splendid, she’s wonderful … she’s a soldier!… If she was made Quartermaster-General, she’d work it, she’d run the whole Army, and she’d never get flustered, never make a mistake.” Her base was at Abbeville and many of the base hospitals were within easy reach, but she was no remote administrator. She toured the front and the back areas constantly and local matrons never knew when the Matron in Chief was about to descend on them. She was no shouter, but had her own quite standards upon which she insisted. She did not baulk at taking on authority either; she reported directly to the Secretary for War and regarded herself as being of equal rank to any general in her own field.

As she toured she carried on a practice which she was long used to, and kept a diary. This begins from when she was first posted to France and may be found here. It is a revealing testimonial to the ability and energy of the woman.

She did not choose to limit her visits to safe areas as this extract perfectly illustrates.

‘Left for Ypres – thawing and fearfully muddy. Arrived at about 11 o’clock and drove and walked all round the town, inspecting the ruins and all the terrible desolation. We were constantly stopped and asked whether we were in possession of steel helmets and gas helmets. We tried to visit the cemeteries and see the graves of some of the officers and men who fell at the First Battle of Ypres, but it was not considered safe to do so as the bombardment was considerable. ‘

Her inspections included hospital ships, laundries and facilities of any kind that were concerned with the care of the wounded, and she was determined to impose the highest possible standards wherever she went. This was especially so in the well being of her nurses, who were not always given the attention they deserved. One ongoing problem was the distance her staff were expected to walk from their quarters to their work.

‘The same difficulty exists as always here and that is the long distance the nursing staff have to go to their quarters. I asked the OC to see if it could not be arranged to transfer the huts on the top of the hill to the open space in the compound left vacant by No.30 CCS.’

Some of the abuses she had to deal with were more blatant and she did not hesitate to ring General Haig to complain in person. This was in January 1918 and the nurses must have been frozen during their mealtimes.

“The nursing staff are accommodated in small rooms at the ends of the big wards and their mess and ante-room was in a single-lined marquee in the grounds, badly lighted and with not even suitable or adequate heating conveniences, whereas the Medical Officers had a large hut, with kitchen, scullery, ante-room and mess, with fine big open brick grates in each room. Here we had lunch. I reported this matter to the General later as it is one of the exceptions in all the Armies where the Medical Officers have failed to consider the comfort and actual necessities of the nursing staff.”

She did not scruple about what she thought either and if necessary said it; this of one hospital,

‘The sick officers’ accommodation at this unit is not satisfactory. The division is at the top of the hotel and is not in any way up to the standard of other hospitals in France. There is a lack of interest and a want of knowledge of what is really required for officers.’

Of another, 

‘There is a great deal which requires improvement in this unit. The few wards I went into were not up to the mark. I pointed out that the Matron must do more inspections and must look into cupboards, etc. The Officers’ equipment had been certainly neglected and the femur wards were not satisfactory in any way.’

Sloppy nurses were interviewed and grilled as to their reasons for not doing their job properly. Dancing was forbidden, as were bicycles. Nurses were in France for a serious purpose and the job came first.

Maud was not above a touch of professional pride either. The Harvard Medical Unit was an American outfit which did some cutting edge and pioneering surgery, but it fell under Maud McCarthy’s aegis when she inspected it at the beginning of 1918. Her exchanges with the American nurses are quite revealing.

No.13 General Hospital (5th Harvard Unit, USA). The difference in the organisation and management was remarkable, and the American ladies kept whispering to me why was it that our units were so different to those run by American personnel. I explained that they had all to learn and get into the ways of military and active service conditions, which it had taken us many years to accomplish.’

The organization of the nursing force in France and Belgium from 1914-1918 stayed in Maud McCarthy’s hands almost the whole time save for one bout of illness when she had to take time to recover. The formidable administration she built up simply kept functioning. There can be little doubt that hundreds of thousands of wounded men, whose lives were saved because of the efficient medical care she organized and ensured, owe their survival to her. A general, as Ambrose Burnside said in the US Civil War, wins battles by getting there fustest with the mostest. That is exactly what Maud McCarthy did; as much a soldier and a warrior as Haig or any of the others, her enemies were infection, wounds, pain, suffering and disease. In a hard campaign she won many battles against them, her final struggle being against the great flu epidemic that gripped the armies in 1918 and even in this she had some success, one of hospitals even producing its own pioneering vaccine.

Maud ended the war in 1919 and went home to Chelsea; she was seen off in a ceremony where representatives of the French government and medical services did her honour. She also had a chest full of medals and had been created a Dame. It does seem strange that there are so many statues to men who organized the mass slaughter of thousands, yet a woman who organized and enabled the saving of hundreds of thousands does not have even one. Maud McCarthy never married and died in 1949 at the age of 89.

Perhaps on this one we need to examine what society’s parameters are for meriting such a thing?


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. Maud McCarthy features in his book, The Light Over The Solway

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Smuggling Gangs

by Helen Hollick

Brandy Kegs - a smuggler's treasure chest!
© Nctfalls – Purchased Adobe Stock

Fiction, movies and TV tend to portray the smugglers of the past as small groups of local fisher-folk from isolated coastal villages hoping to make an extra penny or two to feed their starving children. Or you see the lone villainous ruffian out to bully some vulnerable young lad into breaking the law by smuggling in a keg or two of brandy in his poor, very ill pa’s rowing boat. Both are true to a point. But only to a point.

The Big Trade, the big money-makers were very far from this romantic idealistic view. The smuggling gangs were little more than vicious thugs, especially when smuggling became organised by efficient gang leaders – an 1700-1800 Mafia equivalent.

The ‘smuggling companies’ mostly operated in the south-east of England, from Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. (Not our fictional vision of a rugged, isolated Cornish cove as in Poldark… although the West Country did have smugglers – but that will come later in a different article!)

Gang members were not always seamen, but landsmen based along the roads leading to London and the larger, inland towns. Seamen brought the cargo in, the gangs collected and dispersed it, and if there was trouble from the Revenue Men... the gangs were well ready for them!

These gangs often comprised of forty to fifty men, but on a prosperous run with a large haul of contraband the different gangs would unite into as many as two or three hundred men. The Revenue, ill-informed, under-manned, under-armed and under-paid rarely had any hope of intervening, let alone putting a stop to such formidable opponents, especially when burly smuggler bodyguards formed two lines of protection by wielding stout ash poles. (Think Robin Hood fighting Little John and his quarterstaff on the bridge in Sherwood Forest.)

Smuggling soon started to hit the purses and coffers of the government, and the wealthy. Something had to be done. By the mid-to-late 1780s the militia and customs men were getting their act together. Better equipped with better firearms, better ships, with better firepower and more reliable ‘intelligence’ meant they stood more chance of stopping the gangs and seizing the contraband. Even so, these gangs were no pushover. They were armed, rough, tough men, and were ruthless when ensuring potential informers kept their mouths shut. Betray a gang, and it was very likely you would end up dead with no hope of your murderer even being identified, let alone caught.


The Colonel of Bridport Gang operated in Dorset, under the leadership of ‘The Colonel’. One contraband cargo was nearly intercepted by the revenue men, and had to be hastily sunk in the sea to hide it, but it floated free of its makeshift anchor and was washed ashore near Eype Mouth, not far from West Bay and Bridport, to the great delight of the locals who discovered and ‘liberated’ it!

Lyme Bay, Dorset
© Tony Smith 

Apart from this mishap, the Colonel’s gang was highly successful, and were never caught. They supplied many of the taverns in Bridport and the Lyme Bay area with contraband liquor from France.

The Groombridge Gang named for a village a few miles west of Tunbridge Wells were active from about 1730. Several of them had wonderful nicknames such as ‘Yorkshire George’, ‘The Miller’, ‘Old Joll’, ‘Towzer’, ‘Flushing Jack’ and my favourite, ‘Nasty Face’. Nicknames, were commonly used among smugglers and highwaymen not as familiar terms of friendship but because they hid a true identity.

The Groombridge Gang was first mentioned in legal documents in 1733 when thirty men were bringing a cargo of tea inland using fifty or so horses. A group of eager militiamen challenged them, but outnumbered, were disarmed and forcibly marched en-route at gunpoint until the cargo was safely delivered. An inconvenience for both sides, for the whole affair lasted four hours. The militiamen were eventually set free, unharmed, but on oath not to renew their interfering.

The oath was made, but did not last long.

The Hadleigh Gang from the Suffolk town of the same name were known for fighting against the local dragoons in 1735, with the intention of recovering a seized cargo that had been confiscated and stored in a local tavern. More than twenty men of the gang were determined to retrieve their property. In the fight which followed several dragoons were injured and one was killed, the smugglers, however, managed to reclaim their goods. Seventeen of them, alas, had been recognised and were arrested, with two of them hanged immediately after their trial.

The interesting thing about Hadleigh is that it is not a coastal town, but lies a good forty miles inland!

The North Kent Gang worked along the coast from Ramsgate to the River Medway. In 1820 their use of violence increased when the Blockade Men came across the gang. A fight followed in which one officer was seriously injured, but the gang fled with their cargo. During the spring of 1821 forty of the gang gathered at Herne Bay to land a cargo, with more than twenty more men armed with bats and pistols to protect them.

Unfortunately for the gang, the batsmen had partaken of too much pre-run ‘hospitality’ at the nearby inn. Led by Midshipman Sydenham Snow, the men of the blockade appeared - drawn by the rowdy noise that the drunken smugglers were making. Eighteen of the smugglers were arrested. Four went to the gallows, with the others transported for life to Tasmania.


The Northover Gang were from Dorset and named for their leaders. In December 1822 Preventative Men, William Forward and Timothy Tollerway were on patrol: hearing whistling they saw two boats coming into shore with four men already on the beach. Forward and Tollerway then met with three of the men who dropped the kegs they were carrying and ran off. Tollerway kept guard on the abandoned contraband, while Forward seized a dozen more kegs after firing his pistol to summon help, but the gang surrounded him and forced him towards the waterline. Tollerway ran to give assistance. The gang leader, James Northover Junior, was subsequently arrested when more Preventatives arrived, and he was sentenced to fourteen months in Dorchester gaol.

Lessons were obviously not headed. James Northover was to serve time in gaol twice more and was then impressed into the Royal Navy in 1827 for yet another offence. We do nor know what subsequently happened to him.

The Hawkhurst Gang. Hawkhurst is about ten miles inland from the Kent and East Sussex coast, and between 1735-1749 the gang became known as the most notorious and feared in all England. They brought in silk, brandy and tobacco which had been landed at Rye or Hastings, with up to five-hundred men able to help out when needed.

Tobacco. The smuggler's fancy
© Stephen Orsillo –  Purchased Adobe Stock
The gang joined with the Wingham Gang in 1746 to bring ashore twelve tons of tea (that is a lot of tea!) but the Wingham men were set upon by their so-called partners. Seven Winghams were injured and the Hawkhurst lot made off with the tea and several valuable horses. There is no account of whether the horses were ever returned, either amicably or by stealth.

Inevitably, despite the benefits of smuggling, villagers grew fed-up with the gang’s increasing tyranny and led by local militiaman, William Sturt, a retaliation was made in April 1747. Confident of their power the gang jauntily marched to the village not expecting to meet with a small army of people determined to put a stop to their bullying. One of the gang’s hierarchy, George Kingsmill, was shot dead and he is buried in Goudhurst churchyard. His brother, Thomas, was later arrested and hanged at Tyburn in London, with his body taken back to Kent to be hung in chains and left to rot on the gallows.

Does his ghost linger in the village I wonder?

  © stocksnapper
Smuggling in Fact and Fiction by Helen Hollick is due to be published by Pen & Sword Press in January 2019


Smuggling In The British Isles by Richard Platt
Smuggling: A History 1700-1970 David Phillipson
Smuggling In Fact and Fiction Helen Hollick (not yet published)

This article is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published April 20, 2018.

Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction.

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Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, submissions welcome.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Anglo-Saxon Women who left their Husbands

By Annie Whitehead

When were women legally allowed to petition for divorce? Perhaps one might guess at the late nineteenth or even early twentieth century?

In fact, the laws of King Æthelberht of Kent (c. 589-616) state that ‘if [a maiden married with proper payment of bride-gift] wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods.’ I must admit, though, this is a little vague and hard to interpret.

However, even up to the eleventh century, women couldn’t be forced to marry a man whom they disliked, and widows could not be forced into remarriage. Women were not necessarily trapped in wedlock.

There are certainly a number of high-profile cases where women decided that married life was not for them. True, their (eventual) destinations were abbeys. But ‘Get thee to a nunnery’? No, it was more a case of ‘I’m off’. They weren’t banished, they chose to go. And in rather spectacular style, too...
Let’s meet some of them.


Wimborne Minster (Image credit)

Cuthburh was a West Saxon princess, a sister of King Ine of Wessex. She was instrumental in founding the first West Saxon monasteries. The Anglo-Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury recorded that she ‘was given in marriage to Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, but the contract being soon after dissolved, she led a life dedicated to God.’ William’s notes echo the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which tells us that Cuthburh founded a monastery at Wimborne, and that she had been married to Aldfrith but that they separated ‘during their lifetime’. Clearly then, it was acceptable for a marriage to end and although the result was the religious life for Cuthburh, we don’t know if that’s the reason why the marriage was dissolved. It was, remember, ‘soon after’ dissolved, so maybe the couple took an instant dislike to each other?

In the next case, the yearning for the religious life probably was the driving force behind the divorce, but the route to that life was rather more dramatic.

Domneva (Sometimes Domne Eafe, or Eormenburg)

The Saxon remains of Minster (in Thanet) Abbey
by kind permission of the Sisters

Domneva, daughter of a king of Kent, married Merewalh, who might have been the son, or son-in-law, of Penda of Mercia. The marriage lasted for a little over a decade before Domneva left Mercia and returned to Kent. The circumstances under which she left are recorded in a text known as the Mildrith Legend and the story concerns the murder of Domneva’s brothers by their cousin, Ecgberht, or rather by a servant of his, Thunor. Whether he ordered the killings, or was merely guilty of failing to stop his servant from committing murder, King Ecgberht was deemed liable. A wergild (man price) was owed in compensation, and Ecgberht paid this wergild to Domneva in the form of land on Thanet for her to found a monastery.

According to the Mildrith Legend, Domneva requested that she have as much land on Thanet as her tame hind could run around. As the hind ran, it was followed by the king and the court, but Thunor attempted to stop the animal and was swallowed by the earth. When the hind had finished running, Domneva was able to claim forty-eight hides of land, compensation had been duly paid, and Thunor got his comeuppance. As we’ve seen, seventh-century traditions allowed for royal couples to separate in pursuit of the religious life and Domneva would have been free to leave Merewalh even without her brothers being murdered. Were their deaths really the catalyst, and is the story true? If it is, it shows a shrewd woman who was wily enough to ensure the maximum grant of land for her religious foundation.

Perhaps the most fascinating story, though, is that of our next lady.

St Æthelthryth

Æthelthryth (Image info)

Æthelthryth was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and in fact she was married twice, the first time to a man named Tondberht who was a high-ranking member of an elusive tribe known as the South Gyrwe. That first marriage lasted only a few years and she was apparently still a virgin when Tondberht died. Given what we know of her later life and the fact that, according to one source, she resisted for some time before agreeing to her first marriage, it is perhaps surprising that she agreed to the second, but it’s interesting to note that this indicates a certain amount of choice in the matter of marriage. She had retired to Ely Abbey and been a widow for five years before her marriage to Ecgfrith of Northumbria.

Ecgfrith was young, perhaps around 15, when he married Æthelthryth in 660. Æthelthryth was older than Ecgfrith by some margin, perhaps as much as a decade. Bede records that Æthelthryth refused to consummate her marriage and was encouraged in this by St. Wilfrid. In around 672, Æthelthryth became a nun, and apparently received her holy veil from Wilfrid.

Bede relates a simple tale, that ‘at length and with difficulty’ Æthelthryth gained her husband’s permission to enter a monastery, staying first with the abbess at Coldingham and then becoming abbess of Ely.

But what of her initial escape from the clutches of her husband? There is another version of her story. The Liber Eliensis, (the history of Ely Abbey) relates how Ecgfrith, having initially agreed to the divorce, then tried to remove her forcibly from the convent. The abbess of Coldingham advised Æthelthryth that her only option was to escape. The king set off in pursuit, but Æthelthryth and her two lady companions climbed to the top of a steep hill where divine intervention caused the water levels to rise. The king could not get near, and eventually returned to York.

In reality, it’s likely that Ecgfrith would have been glad to be rid of an older wife who refused to give him children. Nevertheless, whichever version one chooses to believe, note that even in the more dramatic version, Ecgfrith had initially agreed to the divorce. Æthelthryth clearly had a lot of say over her marital status.

(Incidentally, it is from her that we get the word ‘tawdry’ from her modernised name, Audrey. A fair held in Ely on her feast day became popular and items which had apparently touched her shrine were of low quality, hence ‘tawdry’.)

It must be remembered that life as an abbess was no punishment. Many of the abbeys were double houses, where monks and nuns lived, and it was not an isolated life. Abbesses ruled rich estates and were highly influential politically. They just didn’t always retire quietly!


Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA.  She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Annie’s new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

For more information, visit Annie's Website or her Author Page. Also connect with Annie through her Blog and Twitter (@AnnieWHistory)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Hot-beds of fake news and misogyny? The rise of the Coffee Shop in 17th century London

By Kate Braithwaite

Coffee was not new to England when Pasqua Rosee opened the first London coffee shop in 1652. Coffee houses had gradually spread from the Muslim world in medieval times, finding their first European home in Venice in 1645 and from there to Oxford. But Rosee’s business in St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, at the heart of the City of London, although probably little more than a stall initially, advertised by a sign portraying a Turk’s head, marked the beginning of an explosion of popular coffee shops across the capital.

Initially coffee shops were hailed as a positive new force in London life. Rosee claimed his brew would cure hangovers, dropsy, gout and even scurvy. Coffee shops predominantly did not sell alcohol and had at least those grounds on which to claim to be healthier than the already well-established taverns and ale houses. A penny entry fee was charged – to keep the poorer Londoners at bay – and a list of rules was displayed in many coffee houses, calling on patrons not to shout, quarrel or gamble. Smoking, on the other hand, was almost compulsory and almost all early descriptions of London coffee shops, describe a fog of pipe smoke hanging in the air. Coffee shops were the province of men only, the sole female presence, likely a woman employed as the “dame de comptoir” with the work of grinding, brewing and serving the coffee being the responsibility of coffee boys wearing long aprons. Patrons sat at long tables to talk and debate with strangers and friends, sharing news, gossip, business deals and more.

Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century - Attribution
The diarist Samuel Pepys makes frequent mention of Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, where the celebrated poet and playwright John Dryden held court. Often named after their proprietors, coffee shops quickly gathered clique-ish clientele. While literary types chose Will’s, stockbrokers were drawn to establishments near the Royal Exchange such as Jonathon’s and Garraway’s on Exchange Alley in Cornhill. Sir Isaac Newton preferred the Grecian Coffee House in Devereaux Court by the Strand, with its reputation of drawing an intellectual crowd. During the Restoration years after 1660, a time of fomenting political thought and debate, coffee shops were the perfect place for thinking men to collect their letters, read newspapers and pamphlets and share opinions and news. But they were far from popular with everyone.

In 1675, worried that coffee shops were hotbeds of plot and sedition against his rule, Charles II issued A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses which, although it had little legal impact or effect, clearly demonstrates the concerns felt in government about the impact of Coffee Shops on London society. They were centres, the authorities believed, for the deliberate spreading of false news and anti-government sentiment. But they were also places where government spies could be placed and whispers of conspiracies and plots could be heard and acted upon. Despite Charles’ frustration, coffee shops continued to thrive but they had already attracted criticism from another part of the population – women.

The Women’s Petition against Coffee, featured here in more detail, claimed coffee made men not only anti-social and unsupportive of their families, but also impotent: “as unfruitful as the sandy deserts, from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” The response was swift and The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition was direct to a fault. After claiming that coffee rather aided men’s ability to perform under the bedcovers, its author went so far as to claim that coffee increased the chance of fertility, adding “a spiritual escency to the Sperme, and renders it more firm and suitable to the Gusto of the Womb.”

Such criticisms had no effect on the growth of the coffee shop however. In 1681 when the Thames froze from December to February and a Frost Fair was established on the ice, a central feature was Duke’s Coffee Shop a temporary building erected mid-stream. By the turn of the century it is estimated that there were at least 1000 coffee shops in London, vital to the economic and cultural life of the city.

In The London Spy, published in 1703, Ned Ward gives the following colourful picture of typical establishment:
“Come, says my Friend, let us step into this Coffee-House here, as you are a Stranger in the Town, it will afford you some Diversion. Accordingly in we went, where a parcel of Muddling Muck-Worms were as busie as so many Rats in an old Cheese-Loft; some Going, some Coming, some Scribbling, some Talking, some Drinking, some Smoaking, others Jangling; and the whole Room stinking of Tobacco, like a Dutch-Scoot, or a Boatswains-Cabbin.”
Suggestions for further reading:

Life in a 17th Century Coffee Shop by David Brandon

1700, Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller

Ned Ward, The London Spy, published 1703 text available online at

[This is an archive Editor's Choice post originally published on EHFA 13 June 2018]


Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the author of two historical novels set in the 17th century.  The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in the time of the Popish Plot, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate and her family live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.