Friday, December 7, 2012

Bloomin' Kewriosities

In December, 1868, a very ordinary woman took her first steps into history when she rescued a seedling from what was kitchen scraps or compost and nurtured it into a tree. She was Maria Ann Smith, an immigrant to Australia and mother of nine. The seedling went on to become a new variety of apple called the ‘Granny Smith’ and ultimately world-famous as it was especially suited to baking. Granny Smith herself can be read about here and here.
Sadly, she never knew about the great commercial success of her discovery, although her granddaughter who lived to be 101 carried on the tradition of apples and on her final birthday in 2011, one of Australia’s top chefs baked (naturally!) an apple pie in celebration.

This led me to wonder about other women who have left legacies in the way of commercial horticulture, especially having new varieties of fruits named after them, but they are not that easy to find.

Catherine Horwood has written a book on the history of women in gardening, how difficult and controversial just having them involved in horticulture could be, as can be seen by this observation in the Guardian:
" ... But after training, the problem was still where to find work – and what to wear. The first female gardeners taken on at Kew in 1896 (dubbed the “Kewriosities” by the London press) were attired in bloomers. When passing omnibuses were crowded with rubbernecking sightseers and songs were published with such refrains as “Who wants to see blooms now you've bloomers at Kew?”, the girls were quickly told to wear knickerbockers (not trousers) instead. ..."

Here is an extract from Woodward’s Record of Horticulture by A.S. Fuller, published in 1866 which considers whether it is a suitable occupation for women. For all its amusing, quaint and patronising content, it was also a valid attempt to improve the lot of women, to get them out into the open air and away from unhealthy, poorly paid and soul-destroying indoor occupations like sewing. Aside from curious notions such as agriculture being “repugnant” to most women and“Fashion” being often responsible for degradation, there is also the positive suggestion that more women in horticulture would be a good thing for the profession, that it would make men improve their behaviour as well.
Is Horticulture a suitable occupation for women? Is there anything degrading in the cultivation of fruits and flowers? We are told in sacred history that the first gardener had a woman given him for a helpmate and partner; then why should we not only admit, but encourage women to assist in producing those blessings that our Creator in his beneficence has given to mankind? We have some excuse for not urging women to engage in general agriculture, for besides needing strength in that position, she would come in contact with many things repugnant to the finer feelings of her nature. But in Horticulture she would seldom meet with anything distasteful. True, we would not ask or expect her to do the coarse drudgery of the business, leaving that for such men as seem to have been created to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. But what could be more agreeable to refined tastes than to cultivate and handle our ordinary fruits, especially the smaller kinds? Is it less noble than sitting idle, or waiting upon customers in some close, half stifling shop in a city, or plying the needle for sixteen hours a day, for scarcely enough to keep soul and body as partners for a few years, with no time for relaxation from toil or to enjoy the exhilarating pleasure of breathing the free air of the country?
Fashion, the tyrant, and the near relative of Want, has excluded woman from many channels of usefulness, and often compelled her to walk the downward road to degradation. Shall these influences continue to exist when her labor and society are needed in many positions of life where at present she is seldom admitted? Would not the very presence of women in horticultural society be a benefit to the profession? for out of respect for the ladies some of us would be more gentlemanly in our deportment, and more civil in all of our dealings with each other. We think that it would have this desirable effect, at least it is well worthy of a trial.
This is no insignificant subject, nor one that should be passed over with indifference. We do not wish to harp upon the already much abused subject of women's rights or wrongs, but we respectfully submit these remarks in behalf of the general welfare and progress of Horticulture. If our mothers and sisters are so fortunate as to have been born in or raised to a position of comparative freedom from manual labor, we should not forget those who are not so well situated, but endeavor to find or make employments that while they furnish the means of subsistence will be the less arduous because of their congeniality.
Our government has liberally endowed the prospective agricultural colleges of our country for the education of men; would it not have been well to give a portion to the endowment of horticultural departments for the education of both sexes? Must the mothers of great men, yes, of nations, be circumscribed in their usefulness, and be compelled to walk in channels unsuitable to their proper development because of fashion or false education of both their own and the ruling sex? Thousands of women, old and young, are now crowded into our cities who would gladly seek employment in the fruitful fields of the country if they could be assured that the finger of scorn would not be pointed at them.
We all honor a Mrs. Loudon who did not think it beneath her dignity to prosecute the work her much lamented husband had begun. There are a few such noble examples in Horticulture, and we have to regret that the record contains so small a number. At the time Mr. Loudon published his “Encyclopedia of Gardening”, there had been about four hundred authors of works on gardening in England;out of this number only five were women. We do not doubt they had given assistance in many instances in which they have received no credit.
We are glad to record the fact, that within the past year one lady has announced herself a member of the horticultural profession. We refer to Miss J. L. Waring, of Amenia, Dutchess County, N. Y.
Miss Waring has built four large propagating houses, which cost nearly $10,000, besides purchasing ample grounds for carrying on an extensive business. The propagation of grapes has been the main business the past season, and we believe her success has been excellent. From a very slight personal acquaintance with this lady, we do not hesitate, in behalf of horticulturists in general, to welcome her among us, believing that she will be an honor to the profession and of benefit to the country at large.
As to the two women mentioned in this article, Miss Waring is difficult to find, but Mrs. Loudon became famous for her gardening books and is also interesting as being the author (as Jane Webb) of early science fiction, in particular her book The Mummy, written in 1827.

More about the early UK horticultural college for women here.
Plus this document on other notable early women in horticulture.
Library of Congress reading list.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Links to extraordinary women

Research into a new writing project has kept me from regular updates of late but, in the meantime, here is a miscellany of links to sites that are worth browsing. Through them you will find famous and little-known women who have been, or still are, an inspiration in their own countries and around the world.

From Myhero

There are numerous American websites devoted to women’s history or achievements but here are some for countries that hold special interest for me, and there are bound to be many more.



South Africa

International Women's Day links

And some quotes to contemplate

To celebrate great warrior women of history, this stirring imagery can't be beaten and has always been a great favourite of mine.

It may be fanciful, but Thomas Thornycroft's statue of Queen Boadicea/Boudicca and her daughters on Westminster Bridge still has undeniable power. (This photo is one of many to be found on Flickr pages.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The marrying kind ... Hannah Mary Anson

Following my earlier blog on the lady of a thousand names, if not faces, Hannah Mary Anson, more has come to light on this remarkable woman.

A friend who is a researcher of Tasmanian family history tells me that the convict indents give us yet another surname that could be "Jerusalem" and a home of Paris, instead of Madras! In the indents, Hannah gave the following information about herself and her family. As no father is mentioned, he was probably deceased.
"Husband Henry Wyatt Ville deserted me this 8 years. Mother Grace Emma Jerusalum in Paris. Brothers Henry, David, Samuel [indecipherable] rest abroad."
I have also found a second convict application for permission to marry dated 16 October 1855, this time to one Jean Lanzin, a free man, with the proviso "will be recommended if clergyman is satisfied". Clearly, the earlier request to marry Edward Gregory didn't come to fruition due to Hannah's misbehaviour and one has to wonder if the clergyman had any idea about her amazing marriage track record back in England. But maybe he was suspicious, as there doesn't seem to be any Tasmanian marriage record in the names of Lanzin and Anson.

Curiously, the only mention of anyone called Jean Lanzin that I can find through the usual research sources is a person of that name who died in Belleville in France. And Belleville just happened to be another one of Hannah's aliases. Did they know each other previously? There is a lot more to this story yet to be uncovered.

Also, in December, 1865, at Port Sorrel, Tasmania, a John Shaw married a Mary Ann or Ann Mary Anson. Until proved otherwise, there is every possibility that this, too, could be our lady.

Research ongoing ...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Specious and extraordinary pretensions ... Hannah Mary Anson

The word ‘adventurer’ is usually defined as someone who undertakes exciting enterprises, often involving risks and in dangerous circumstances, the sort of person who is envied by others whose lives may seem dull.  Add ‘female’ in front of the word - or use its slightly archaic feminine version, adventuress - and it takes on quite a different meaning.

The 19th Century public loved to lap up lurid tales of female adventurers. They were usually free spirits or con-women who snubbed their noses at the laws and morals of the day and in the process often bamboozled many people – the rich upper classes being a favourite target - and they were sure to generate columns of print when they got caught out.

Some of them became exceedingly famous for their exploits that might include bigamy charges, such as Lola Montez (on whom I have written at length under my other hat as historical novelist – see here) but there have been others whose actions are just as extraordinary in their own way. The sheer chutzpah of some of these women is breathtaking.

It was this report on the trial of Lady Ada Alice Wyattville in The Morning Post of January 17 1848 below a story about Lola that caught my eye. What I discovered about her bigamy shenanigans would put Lola in the shade.

So who was Lady Wyattville?

19th Century Cadogan Square
A detective of the time stated that she was just plain Sarah Moore, originally from India, and had worked as a maid in a house in prestigious Cadogan Square in London. Given her track record, however, this can't be relied on either.

What is likely is that she was able to observe and study the behaviour and manners of high society in great detail somewhere in her past, and this was how she later managed to pass herself off so convincingly as all manner of posh characters, from the daughter of a Marshal of France to grieving widow of a British colonel.
"Queen of watering places" - Cheltenham

The newspaper reports in that era are frustrating as the accounts of her exploits vary wildly. Her age is described as anything from 20 to 35 and is even more complicated by the fact that the spellings of all the names involved, including the witnesses, are inconsistent so tracking her progress through the press can be difficult.

But it seems she first “excited much notoriety in Cheltenham” at her trial for bigamy, and some reports even go so far to suggest her three husbands were all resident in the same establishment in Cheltenham while she was on trial! Could that possibly have been true? No wonder the gossips were titillated by the event. As far as can be ascertained, this is her marriage track record:
8 November 1838 - married in Kensington under name of Octavia Sarah Moor de Bellvue/Bellven to to Mr Henry Wyatt, architect.
About June 1847 - at St James, Westminster, as Octavia Sarah Wyatt married Anton Joseph Koller, hair artist. 
30 Dec 1847 - as Ada Alice Wyattville, married at St Mary’s, Devizes, to Thomas Hinckley, Esq, civil engineer.
And here are just some of her aliases:
Sarah Wyatt, Mrs Colonel Ferguson, Mrs Colonel Coyney, Lady Ada Alice Wyattville or Adaria Wyattville, Sarah Hinckley, Ada Alice Hinckley, Sarah Collard or Kolles, Octavia Sarah Moore de Bellville/Belle Ville/Bellone, Anna Mary Anson, Ann Ellis, Grace Ada Ville/Addavillby … and probably many more.
For some bizarre reason, the bigamy case came to nothing and the court did not pass sentence due to a technicality. Perhaps Lady Ada’s acting talents with copious amounts of waterworks got the members of the court thoroughly flummoxed.

However, within a short time she was back, this time as plain Ada Hinckley, and for nicking a gold watch. She was sent to Gloucester gaol for twelve months and the judge described her as a woman with “specious and extraordinary pretensions”. But she didn’t serve her full sentence and was allowed out due to an outbreak of cholera within the gaol. Then -
 “... no sooner was she released, however, that she was at her dirty work again; and having paid a flying visit to Cheltenham, she succeeded in ‘doing’ two or three of the tradesmen there, but finding the ‘Queen of the watering places’ too hot to hold her, she returned to Gloucester.”
There, it seems she did some more fiddling and diddling and even had the nerve to visit her former turnkeys at the gaol who did not recognise her before she managed to flit off elsewhere.

Within a year she was up again in Wandsworth police court on two charges of robbery, under the name of Anna Mary Anson, having stolen “a handsomely bound church service” from a boot-maker, also a purse and a miniature from a Mrs Reeve (Reid in some reports) who told of hearing an elaborate tale about her having been in India, that she had family links to the high-and-mighty, including the Duke of Wellington and even the Queen herself. Mrs Reeve seemed to have been totally hoodwinked by her story, also that she lived at a prestigious address in Pall Mall, and only discovered the loss after her visitor had left.

A young woman in Chelsea, Elizabeth Edwards, had found the missing purse and told the police of this same woman arriving on her doorstep seeking accommodation with the sob story she was a governess who had been burnt out of house and home. She managed to finagle bed-and-board and even a new dress out of Elizabeth and her mother. Needless to say she flounced off wearing the new dress, never to be seen again.

Our enterprising adventuress pleaded the court’s sympathy due to her earlier incarceration at Gloucester, even though it had only been for three months, and because she was “enceinte” (pregnant). But Anna Mary Anson was finally done for and remanded to appear again a few days later when several other cases were brought against her, including stealing gold studs or cuff-links from a Mr McGregor while on the pretence of finding accommodation for the son of an aristocratic gentleman of her acquaintance.

It was on this latter charge as Hannah Mary Anson, she came up before the Old Bailey and on 6 May 1850 was sentenced to transportation for 7 years to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Old Wharf, Hobart Town, c 1850
Samuel Prout Hill, Tasmanian Archives

The convict records for Tasmania are well-documented, and from them we can find out more about Hannah. The charge sheets tell us she was a woman aged about 30, 5ft 1in in height, with light brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion, oval face, medium mouth, pointed nose, large chin, and with one mole on her left cheek, two smaller ones on her right. She could read and write and states her former profession as Governess. The records also describe her as married with two children - unfortunately no mention of their names.

She was granted a ticket-of-leave in 1853 and recorded for a pardon in early 1854, but soon had it rescinded. It may seem harsh to our modern eyes that she was sentenced to an additional four months of hard labour simply for “being found in bed with a man” but her ticket-of-leave was revoked and she was considered so “bad” that she was not permitted to enter services again in Hobart. (William Seccombe, the surgeon who signed this document was a dodgy individual in his own right, but that’s another story.)

The last newspaper mention of her as Hannah/Anna is in the Colonial Times of Hobart in April 1856:
LARCENY. Anna Maria Anson, a ticket of leave holder, was yesterday charged at the police office by Constable Dorset with larceny, in stealing on or about 20th March one gold ring, value £1 the property of one Sydney Barnham. The prisoner pleaded guilty and received a sentence of twelve months’ extension to her existing sentence of transportation. Another charge was afterwards preferred against the prisoner, that of illegally pawning on or about the 24th of March one muslin de laine dress, the property of James Waldy [or Mrs Lockwood in another paper], to which she pleaded guilty and received a sentence of six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Messrs Henslow and Dowling adjudicated in this case.
Murray Street, Hobart c. 1850, artist unknown
Crowther Collection, Tasmania 
Other Tasmanian newspapers offer a few extra details, that both larceny events took place in Murray Street, Hobart.

Another interesting fact is that the Tasmanian records also show that at the time she received her first ticket-of-leave she had received approval to marry a non-convict man named Edward Gregory, subject to her being free of offence, but there is no evidence of this marriage ever taking place as she clearly got herself locked up again.

So what happened to Hannah and/or her children? After yet another bout of imprisonment with hard labour, did she finally learn her lesson and reform? 

And whether or not she did, whatever her next steps in life were, they were probably under yet another alias.

Transportation to Tasmania had ended by this time and the Gold Rush in Victoria on the Australian  mainland was attracting thousands of free settlers, and a new society was being created that had opportunities for everyone to improve their lives, including ex-convicts.

If she ever managed to overcome her urges to steal or defraud, with her literacy and intimate knowledge of English high society, Sarah/Hannah/Anna et al had already demonstrated attributes that could have been used in a positive way to lift herself out of the gutter. Unless she had been thoroughly destroyed by her treatment with years of hard labour, or had died quite young, perhaps she was able to follow a better path in life.

My research continues and if anyone reading this has any clues as to what happened to this particular female adventurer, I would dearly love to know.

Another example of her fantasies in this newspaper report on her final downfall 

Follow these links to find out more:

All newspaper reports online via

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

“Eleftheria y Thanatos” (“Freedom or Death”) The first woman Admiral

How come I didn’t know that?! …

I’m always excited when I discover fascinating women from history of whom I was previously unaware. And in this case, I have to thank Joanna Lumley’s delightful and informative TV documentary series about Greece for introducing me to the extraordinary Admiral Laskarina Bouboulina.

On following up the episode, I discovered Bouboulina’s links to Russia that added another dimension of interest – her connection with the diplomat Count Stroganov[off] - who may, or may not, be the one associated with that beef recipe - and who saved her from the Turks by sending her to an estate owned by Tsar Alexander I. It was the Tsar who bestowed her with the title of “Admiral”, the only woman to become one.

This webpage offers a good summary of her life and actions taken from information that is also available at the Museum dedicated to her on the Greek island of Spetses.

Bouboulina's flagship, Agamemnon (A. Milanos)

Otherwise, there little else to be found on Bouboulina and there does not appear to have been any English-language biographies or, better still, a blockbuster historical novel.

In 2005, a documentary about her by April Householder was presented as part of a dissertation at University of Maryland but I haven't been able to find out whether this documentary is accessible to the general public.

But Boubalina wasn’t the only sea-faring female champion of Greek Independence.

Another was Manto Mavrogenous, the “Heroine of Mykonos” who was equally fearless and gained her own title of “Lieutenant-General”. Most of the online references to her are in Greek, and there was a film made about her in 1971.

Read all about her here and at Mykonos.

Both Bouboulina and Mavrogenous are highly esteemed by the Greek people and they both appeared on drachma coins prior to Greece's now seemingly unfortunate decision to join the Euro. Perhaps they could do with some more feisty women like these two to help to restore the country's confidence and  pride.

Manto Mavrogenous, Mykonos

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cairo Home for Freed Women Slaves

Mention the slave trade and most people are likely to envisage images of the infamous “middle passage” - sailing ships laden with black people heading out from the west coast of Africa across the Atlantic and destined for the Caribbean, North and South America.
But a fascinating website created by the New York Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on the African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean tells another less well-known story on what happened to slaves sent from East Africa - from places like Zanzibar or Mozambique - to India and countries as far away as Palestine, Iraq and Iran. 
This image from the website shows routes of that slave trade and the rough estimate of number of slaves shipped to the various countries between 1500-1900 - nearly 1.5 million to Egypt alone.

The real figure is probably far more as it may be astonishing to many people to read that “Slavery continued in Muslim lands in the Indian Ocean world well into the 20th century: Saudi Arabia did not abolish slavery until 1962, and Oman did not officially do so until 1970.” And the sad truth is that it still continues today in some form in war-torn or un-policed remote areas that are well away from the prying eyes of investigative journalists.

But with the main purpose of this blog to focus on women, a photograph of a Mrs. Crewe with some of the slave girls at the Cairo Home for Freed Women Slaves, caught my interest. When was the Home established, who was Mrs. Crewe, and how did she come to have the position of matron? But there is little to be found online, apart from reports in British newspapers of the era.

(Copyright Getty Images)

The Home was founded in 1884 under the auspices of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society with a committee that included many great philanthropists of the day including Mrs. Sheldon Amos (nee Sarah Maclardie Bunting) – a remarkable and far-sighted woman who warrants a future blog entry of her own. Queen Victoria donated £100 - or about £5,000 today . The committee then appointed a “Mrs. Crewe – an Englishwoman born and bred in Egypt and speaking Arabic with perfect fluency” as the matron, and a suitable house was found in a “healthy quarter of Cairo” where:
“Mr. and Mrs. Crewe, with their family of young children, were installed in January 1885, and on the 16th of that month the first girls were received, these being two Circassian slaves who had escaped from the palace of a well-known pasha.”
Various subsequent reports detail some of the dreadful conditions, cruelty and brutality from which the girls had escaped, also this:
“Mrs. Crewe has had to exercise great caution before complying with the requests of Mahomedan gentlemen for servants, as it might mean simply giving the girls back to slavery; most of them have, therefore, been sent to the houses of Christian Syrians or Copts. The girls give satisfactory proof of their appreciation of the slave Home. They often leave little articles of property – even their freedom papers – with Mrs. Crewe. They come back from time to time to see her, to ask her advice, to show her new clothes, to get her help in changing situations, etc., so that although they may not reside long in the home itself they continue to recognize it as, in fact, a home to which they can return in time of need.”
Charles H. Allen, the Secretary of the British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society kept up a regular correspondence to the Editor of The London Times about the Home, pleading for extra funds while updating the readership on its operation. By April, 1900, he was able to announce “the complete success of this important philathropic undertaking”. Up to 1,000 women were rescued from slavery during the twenty years of the Home’s existence.  Many of the women had married and had families.

After the closure of the Home, Mrs. Crewe slips out of history, but probably remained in Egypt and was the sort of woman who would have always involved herself in good works. 

With the increasing interest in the subject of the slave experience, there is much scope here for the lives of these rescued women to be investigated in depth and written about.  Follow this link for an academic paper by Eve Troutt Powell on Slavery and Empire in Egypt which details an infamous trial involving six slave women and the powerful pashas and which created a scandal of international proportions. 

Etching from a photograph, The Graphic, May 10, 1890

Utopia Girls

Not many women will know that Australia was the one of the first countries to give women the vote.
An excellent documentary “Utopia Girls” fronted by historian Dr Clare Wright was screened on ABC TV on June 14, 2012, the broadcast coinciding with the 110th anniversary of the day when women were granted the right to vote at a federal level and to stand for election to the Parliament of Australia via the Commonwealth Franchise Act.
This is a documentary that all women should watch – the young in particular who may take their voting rights for granted and know nothing of the great struggle involved.
It should be available to view in its entirety, in Australia at least, via ABC’s iView for a short period.
Also see this website for more information and an interactive experience:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Another forgotten heroine

In the Agenda section of Melbourne's Sunday Herald Sun yesterday, Sunday 20 May, was a story about one woman's quest to have an unmarked grave of her great-aunt a World War 1 nurse, Estelle Lee Archer, rehabilitated by the Office of Australian War Graves Office.

There is much history waiting to be rediscovered on nurses who won the Royal Red Cross, the majority of whom have slipped into obscurity or were just overlooked, so this is a story that should be publicised more. I'd have liked to post a web link to Margaret Leyden's campaign here but am unable to do so as it is not available online, so include a scan of the article instead.

Most articles in daily newspapers are freely available online on the day of publication - or for at least a week or two afterwards but News Limited's webmasters probably don't consider stories like this to be of much interest and if you want to read this article online, you have to pay for it again even if you've already bought the print version!

Even the ghastly UK Daily Mail regularly publishes historical gems free online and although you often have to wade through a ton of unbelievable trash to find them, they can be found.

Rant aside, here are the scans.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nuns on the run

With the Catholic Church in damage control all around the world over revelations of child abuse going back decades, one can’t help wondering if there might also be a cause for women who were bullied into the convent life in times past to seek some kind of apology.
How many unmarriageable daughters or immature teenage girls who were yet to know their own minds ended up behind locked doors through family and/or priestly coercion?
When they realised they were unsuited to convent life, a few were brave enough to walk -  more likely run -  away, but many others would have been so indoctrinated by the system or maybe even too afraid of the wider world to have even tried. How many ended their lives in frustration and bitterness that resulted in mental disorders or harsh treatment of others, including children,  in their care? (Many members of the older generation who had nuns for teachers will know all about it!)
In our modern secular age, it’s easy to forget the bitter sectarian divisions that once raged in society between Catholics and Protestants and that the press was often the major battleground. Reports of “escaped nuns” were guaranteed to inflame passions.
Protestant editors liked nothing better than having some sensational story of a woman defecting from imagined wicked and secretive Romish practices with salacious tales to tell of what really went on in convents.
On the other hand, Catholic Church spokespersons (usually men of course) would proclaim that there was no compulsion on any woman to remain in a convent, that she was always free to leave should she choose. The reality was probably quite different.
The mud-slinging and accusations from pulpits of both persuasions were remarkable. Catholic defectors would be condemned with hyperbole such as describing them as “the foulest weeds in the Pope’s garden” (Fr. Cleary, Minneapolis) and every effort was made to show them to be liars, lunatics, or just simple-minded innocent girls whose heads were turned by money-makers and con-men (no doubt Protestant.)
And of course there was nothing better for restoring Catholic esteem than reports of these poor misguided souls retracting their defection on their death beds and accepting the last rites of their original church.
Researching these women through the digital archives of newspapers can make for eye-opening and fascinating reading. In Chronicling America, there are reports on a number of them such as one Sister Mary Ethel (surname unknown) who came from India and lectured in America on her “10 Years in Hell” and other inflammatory topics, also a Mary Windsor White who retracted on her deathbed.
Some of the more famous “escaped nuns” who published books were Edith O’Gorman and Josephine M. Bunkley (Andrews) and both women were later mired in sensationalism or controversy as to their truth. 

Early in the 19th Century, Maria Monk and Rebecca Reed fuelled anti-Catholic hysteria with their writings.
There was a 1869 British court case known as the "Great Convent Case" that can be read at the Internet Archive - Saurin vs. Star & Kennedy – which still generates academic works on the topic.
In Australia as recently as the 1920s, columns of newsprint were devoted to the case of “the nun in the nightgown”, Sister Ligouri, or Bridget Partridge, whose sad story makes for sober reading. 
In modern or open societies, one hopes that any woman entering a nunnery these days is able to make her own own informed choice. In other cultures, there could still be clouds hanging over convent life. Just recently, this report appeared in the Indian Telegraph -  and thereby hangs another nun's tale.

Further reading:

Ruth Seddon’s biography of Edith O’Gorman

British nun, Margaret Mary Moult.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

In a puff of smoke

There is one field of entertainment where women still don't have a major profile, even today, and that is in performance magic. All the great and famous magicians have been men although there is almost always a woman - often exotically named or scantily clad - as their support. 
Finding out about historical female magicians has been quite difficult. Adrienne Herrmann (1854-1932) seems to have been one of the better-known and the subject of a new biography. 
The "Magicpedia" has a listing of several others, but many of them were wives or partners, e.g. Bess Houdini, and some are only listed under one-word names, such as Mystia, Talma, and Zirka. Their biographies are as shady and thin as some of their outfits. No doubt many of them would have been run-aways to the music hall or the circus.
Madame Cora, State Library of Victoria
One woman with hints of a particularly intriguing past was Cora de (du) Lamond, or Madame Cora, the Magicienne 
According to her slim entry in Magicpedia, she was born in America and off-stage she was just Ursula Bush - the name she used when called to account for her actions in Ballarat, Victoria, where it seemed the authorities were suspicious about her motives in giving away all kinds of prizes to her audience from silverplated tea sets to card tables, brooms, lamps, and even pickled vegetables. 
How and when plain Ursula turned into Madame Cora, and where she learnt her amazing skills in mesmerism, levitation and legerdemain is a mystery. 
Although she is supposed to have performed around the world, other than entries in Australian and New Zealand newspapers (see TROVE and PAPERSPAST) the only mention of her in America that I can find is in The Hawaiian Gazette of September, 1871 in which she is called an Illusionist and performed to capacity crowds at Buffum's Hall in Honolulu. 
Her manager in Australia appears to have been Mr T W Bush, possibly her husband.
But the trail goes cold by the 1880s and according to the Magicpedia entry, she killed a female vocalist in her troupe in South Africa in 1877 but her death sentence was commuted and she died in Durban in 1902. 
This type of tantalising snippet is like a red rag to a bull for me but I can find nothing - online at least - about this murder, or what happened to Madame Cora afterwards. 
Just like many other "magiciennes" before and since, she appeared on stage as if by magic and then just as swiftly disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Photo taken at Ballarat c. 1869-75  of Madame Cora wearing the same outfit as in the etching
 State Library of New South Wales

The New Zealand newspaper, The Nelson Evening Mail of August 2, 1873, offers this introduction to her performance at the Odd Fellows' Hall.

Click here for another magic site that has biographies of various past and present woman magicians (but not Cora).  The tendency for tacky stage names and hazy backgrounds hasn't changed. 

[On checking, it seems as of August 2017 the above link has also disappeared in a puff of smoke.]

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cynthia Stockley - "The dark ages of shackled womanhood"

Cynthia Stockley (1862-1936) was a once popular writer to whom time and changing perceptions have been rather unkind.  She doesn't even rate a Wikipedia entry of her own.

She was prolific and it's interesting to see her name listed as a film writer on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and that several of her stories were made into films during the 1920s featuring silent super stars like Marion Davies, Norma Talmadge and Bebe Daniels

Cynthia's misfortune was to write largely about white people in Africa and a country destined to go the way of the dodo, being Southern Rhodesia, later to become Zimbabwe. 

Always a depressive character it seems even by the mid-1930s, she said she "felt out of touch with the modern world" just before she gassed herself at her little flat in Bayswater, London.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson details something of Cynthia's life and books on her Violet Books website via this link and discusses the reasons why Cynthia is ignored or forgotten today. 

The Rhodesian writer, Jeannie M. Boggie * chatted to Cynthia Stockley at her home in Gwelo (now Gweru, Zimbabwe)  for her book Experiences of Rhodesia's Women, first published in 1938 which was two years after Cynthia's death, although that fact isn't mentioned in the article. 

There are some tantalising snippets in it about Cynthia that are not covered in the limited biographical details elsewhere, such as how she began her literary career:
"It was while in Natal, after my first stay in Rhodesia, that I began to write. A newspaper proprietor gave me a position on one of his papers as a political reporter. I knew nothing of politics ... but I would go to Parliament each day and listen to the speeches; and then write columns of personal comments on the speakers. This was far from being expert political journalism perhaps, but it was, I may say, extremely popular, as personalities always are - especially to the persons not directly involved.

In those days, when I first began to write, journalism for women was all in the dark ages of shackled womanhood, and as a pioneeer woman journalist, I was looked upon by the women of Natal with suspicion, and with disapproval ..."
She goes on to say that after a year of this she gave it up and went to Europe to try her luck, but it was a hard struggle and it was two years before she found a publisher for her first book. She also says that in America her book was pirated and she never received a penny and ...
"I was indeed so poor that I had to stop writing and go on to the stage. I joined Benson's Shakespeare Company ... also toured in America ... But I prefer to forget that period of my life which was both difficult and unhappy ..."
Her first book (image from
Poppy was her first big success and Hollywood took notice. Cynthia also said that nearly all the events and situations in her books were "founded on fact" and many of the incidents were from her own experience of life in Africa, London, Paris and New York. 

Jeannie Boggie adds a comment that "such facts have been surrounded and embellished with fancies and day dreams, wonderful fancies from Cynthia Stockley's own rich, vivid imagination and her winged pen of inspiration; from her sympathetic insight into human nature ..."

Her two marriages are completely glossed over and also her daughter who was born in the Umtali laager during the Mashonaland Rebellion of 1896 and later became a Mrs Wymer. **
 (People may forget that the Scouts movement had its origin in such African wars. See this story of the Rebellion as written by Colonel Baden Powell)

These images are from The London Times archives. One wonders what Cynthia had to say in the Daily Express Lectures about "The Other Man" - is this a hint as to something she had experienced in her own background? Also another advertisement for one of her novels being serialised in Nash's magazine in 1922 which indicates her popularity at the time.

There is much about Cynthia Stockley's personal life and early years that are unknown, and perhaps some day her books will also be rediscovered.

Images of Cynthia and her books at the website

As to where to find Cynthia's books - the Nabu reprint POD editions (Amazon) of her books seem to be over-priced. Many of her works are available for free reading online via the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg, also as free Kindle downloads, and even her first editions are available from book dealers at modest sums. 

*  Jeannie Boggie wrote a number of books on Rhodesian women and was an eccentric and larger-than-life figure herself worthy of remembrance.  I can add nothing to this most comprehensive blog on Rhodesian Heritage

**   Dorothy May Joan Stockley, married in London at the age of 21 to British major, Hubert Julian de Crespigny Wymer, and presumably later they lived in South Africa.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"A personality seldom to be met with"

A visit to the Love & Devotion Exhibition currently on at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, featuring exquisite illustrations from the history and epic myths of the Persian, Ottoman and Mughal Empires reignited my interest in women who were drawn to inhospitable or dangerous foreign locations that would have been well out of their comfort zones.

I have written about several of them previously, such as Alexine Tinne, and recently added to my collection of books on the topic with Barbara Hodgson's Dreaming of East - Western Women and the Exotic Allure of the Orient, a lavishly illustrated work that features many other adventurous women, some of whose names still resonate today, such as Gertrude Bell, Jane Digby, Isobel Burton and Hester Stanhope, and who have all been much written about.

But it's the other women who are less well-known that also intrigue me. 

The new graduate (Glasgow University)
One whose adventures had a more altruistic and practical basis than some of the romantic notions of earlier travellers, was Elizabeth Ness Macbean Ross, a pioneering woman doctor who had a short but valuable life that is still celebrated today in Kragujevac, Serbia, of all places. She was born in London in 1878 (although her family home was at Tain in the Scottish Highlands) and graduated in medicine in 1901.

Dr Ross in Bakhtiari costume c. 1909 (Tain Museum)
Dr Ross in a ship's surgeon uniform (Tain Museum)
A copy of the book she wrote about her Persian experiences A Lady Doctor in Bahktiariland is available to read online. These ancient nomadic people are said to be descended from the mythical kings of Persia (Iran) and their country remains enigmatic and remote, perhaps even more than it ever was given the current fragile state of affairs in that part of the world. 

More detailed biographical details of Dr Ross can be read both here and here. Also see this news report from 2010.

Brave and unconcerned for her own health, Dr Ross undertook charge of the typhus wards in Serbia in 1915 only to succumb herself to the disease. 

Here is the obituary that appeared in the 13 March, 1915 British Medical Journal.
[The death of] Dr. ELIZABETH NESS MACBEAN ROSS, daughter of the late
Mr. MacBean Ross, manager of the London branch of the
Commercial Bank of Scotland, has just been announced.
In 1901 Dr. Ross took the degrees of M.B. and Ch.B.
Glasg. and in 1914 the diploma of Tropical Medicine.
She was medical officer at Colonsay for some months,
and practised for a year and a half in East Ham;
she then went to Persia, holding appointnments in Ispahan,
Shiraz, and the land of the Bakhtiari, a semi-civilized
tribe inhabiting the mountains and upland valleys
between Ispahan and Khuramahlad. Dr. Ross wrote a
history of the tribe. Her health failing, she went to
Japan as surgeon in a Glasgow Line boat, and returned to
Ispahan in April, 1914. In January she went back to
Europe and procceded to Servia [Serbia] where she worked first
at Nish and then at Kragujevatz. At the latter place she
volunteered to take charge of the typhus wards; after a
week of heavy work she contracted the disease, and died
after an illness of thirteen days. The esteem which she
and her colleagues of the Scottish unit have won was
shown by the remarkable demonstration made at her
funeral, which was attended by many Servian nurses
and officers. The native clergy took part in the funeral
procession, which was headed by the band of the Guards
of the Crown Prince of Servia; a service was read at
the graveside by Colonel Harrison, the British military
attache. Dr. Ross leaves a widowed mother, two
brothers, and five sisters; one brother and one sister are
members of the medical profession.