The African Mahler

Many have heard of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), but how many people know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer and conductor? Known in America as the “African Mahler”, Coleridge overcame the constraints of his race to succeed in his career as a classical composer and musician. African people considered Coleridge-Taylor a beacon of hope for the future and continue to remember him as an iconic figure of Black British history.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born on 15th August 1875, the son of a white British woman and an African-American man from Sierra Leone. His father, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, met his mother, Alice Hare Martin (1856-1953), whilst studying medicine at King’s College London. After a short relationship, Taylor returned to Africa, unaware that Alice was pregnant. Alice, who lived with her father and step-mother in Croydon, South London, named her son after her favourite poet, although she preferred to call him Coleridge.

Coleridge’s grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, worked as a farrier, but also taught the violin. After his fifth birthday, his grandfather began giving Coleridge violin lessons and, after noticing the young boy’s talent, insisted he receive professional training. Coleridge also enjoyed singing and joined the local church choir.

In 1887, Alice Martin married a railway worker called George Evans and moved out of her father’s home. Although he no longer lived with his grandfather, Coleridge’s maternal family encouraged him to continue his music studies and arranged for him to attend the Royal College of Music. At only 15 years old, Coleridge began studying under the composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), one of the founding professors of the college. For his degree, Coleridge opted to focus on composition rather than the violin and, after graduating, began teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He also worked as a professional musician and became the conductor of the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. Due to a printing error in which a hyphen was added to his name, people came to know him as “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor”, which he kept as his professional name.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor c. 1893

In 1893, Coleridge-Taylor published his first composition, Piano Quintet in G minor. Following this success, he produced nonets, suites and symphonies for a variety of instruments. In 1896, his growing reputation caught the attention of English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Noticing the young man’s talent, Elgar recommended Coleridge-Taylor to the annual Three Choirs Festival, one of the oldest classical choral music festivals in the world. Dating back to 1715, the festival was instrumental to the careers of some of the most famous composers in history, including Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

After Coleridge-Taylor premiered at the Three Choirs Festival with Ballade in A minor, Elgar introduced him to August Jaeger (1860-1909), an Anglo-German music publisher. Impressed, Jaeger called Coleridge-Taylor “a genius” and offered to guide the young man in his professional career. With the help of this influential editor, Coleridge-Taylor produced one of his most successful series of works, The Song of Hiawatha.

Written between 1898 and 1900, Coleridge-Taylor based the trilogy upon his favourite poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). The Song of Hiawatha relates the fictional adventures of a Native American called Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha, whose life comes to a tragic end. The first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), consists of nine sections for orchestra and voice. The premiere, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford, took place on 11th November 1898 at the Royal College of Music and was attended by many famous names.

Before the performance, the English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote to Coleridge-Taylor, “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried.” He later mentioned in his diary, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original – he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour – at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done.” Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), a contemporary of Elgar, also praised Coleridge-Taylor and described the performance as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.”

Initially, Coleridge-Taylor did not plan to compose a trilogy, but the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned him the commission for a sequel. The first part rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity, but the second part, The Death of Minnehaha (1899), did not receive as much praise. The third part, Hiawatha’s Departure, which premiered in 1900, received the least admiration due to Elgar and Jaeger’s open criticism.

Christmas greeting card displaying the Coleridge-Taylor family, 1912

In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, who he met while studying at the Royal College of Music. Her parents tried to prevent the marriage because they did not want a man of mixed-race to marry their white daughter, but they soon relented, most likely on account of Coleridge-Taylor’s musical success. In 1900, Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie welcomed a son named Hiawatha (1900-80) after the protagonist of Longfellow’s poem. Three years later, Jessie gave birth to a daughter, Gwendolen Avril (1903-98). Both followed in their father’s footsteps to have careers in music.

Invitation to the Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, London, 23–25 July 1900

The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned Coleridge-Taylor the opportunity to tour three times in the United States of America. He also participated in the 1900 First Pan-African Conference, of which he was the youngest delegate. Organized by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1867-1911), the conference took place at Westminster Town Hall (now Caxton Hall) between the 23rd and 25th July. According to the chair, Bishop Alexander Walters (1858-1917), it was “the first time in history black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.”

The conference aimed to improve the treatment of Africans in Britain and the British Empire but also attracted many American attendees. Coleridge-Taylor became acquainted with the civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), who inspired the young composer. Working together, the 37 delegates penned a petition to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) to look into the treatment of African people, particularly in South Africa and Rhodesia, where they faced segregation, could not vote and had difficulty purchasing properties. The Queen responded positively towards the cause but passed away not long after.

In 1904, on a tour of the USA, Coleridge-Taylor met President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) at the White House. Whilst Roosevelt invited Coleridge as a result of the success of his music, African-Americans also viewed this as an achievement. At that time, black people very rarely received invites to meet the President. Encouraged by this, the American civil rights movement adopted The Song of Hiawatha as their “battle song”. Coleridge-Taylor also met with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who despite his skin colour, often advised the President on racial matters. Coleridge-Taylor shared his experiences of racial abuse with Washington and other members of the Black community, which inspired him to demonstrate his African heritage through his music.

In England, Coleridge-Taylor collaborated with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems represented the lives of African Americans. Coleridge-Taylor set many of Dunbar’s works to music, which they performed in London at a joint recital under the patronage of John Hay (1838-1905), the US Secretary of State. Encouraged by the praise and support he gained from black people, Coleridge-Taylor endeavoured to integrate African music and themes into his compositions. In doing this, Coleridge-Taylor said, “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

As well as introducing African culture to classical music, Coleridge-Taylor based some of his compositions on historical events, for instance, his concert overture Toussaint L’Ouverture (1901). François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was a prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave in the French colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, Louverture rebelled against the government and led a successful revolutionary movement, earning him the epithet “Father of Haiti”. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor’s overture did not prove as successful as The Song of Hiawatha. Whereas the BBC Proms have performed the latter over 60 times, Toussaint L’Ouverture only appeared at the music festival once in 1919.

In 1902, Coleridge-Taylor composed the march Ethiopia Saluting the Colours to commemorate the Ethiopian victory over Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The outcome secured Ethiopia’s independence and made the country a symbol of Pan-Africanism. A few years later, Coleridge-Taylor composed Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1905), which also celebrated Pan-Africanism. Coleridge-Taylor based the melodies on 24 tunes sung by slaves across Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America. Slaves sang while labouring in the fields or in the evenings to express their pain and weariness. The songs also spoke of hope for the future and encouraged all slaves in the vicinity by letting them know they were not alone in their plight. In concert, the orchestra tended to play all Twenty-Four Negro Melodies in one sitting, but each piece differs in sound and style. Many Thousands Gone, for example, was based on a Negro spiritual, whereas Deep River sounded like a church-hymn and Warriors’ Song like a battle cry.

Coleridge-Taylor’s third tour of the USA took place in 1910 when he performed at the Litchfield Festival in May 1910. He also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which at the time was directed by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Initially, the musicians expressed concern about having a black conductor, but only one person refused to play. The success of the concert earned Coleridge-Taylor the sobriquet “African Mahler”.

When in England, Coleridge-Taylor worked at the Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music in London. Many described him as a shy person but an effective conductor, particularly for the Rochester Choral Society and the Handel Society. He often received invitations to judge music competitions around Britain, although he still faced racist abuse due to his mixed heritage.

Despite the racist judgements, Coleridge-Taylor’s works were undeniably successful, and he became an inspiration to a new generation of musicians. Unfortunately, composers earned very little, often selling their compositions outright when low on funds. Coleridge-Taylor sold his most successful work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a mere 15 guineas. The publishers, on the other hand, sold many copies of the music, thus reaping all the royalties. Although Coleridge-Taylor learned from this mistake and insisted on retaining his rights for future compositions, his financial situation remained precarious.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s grave at Bandon Hill Copyright © Peter Hughes

In 1912, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor contracted pneumonia and passed away at the age of 37. Many blame the stress of his finances for his early death. On his gravestone at Bandon Hill Cemetery in Wallington, Surrey, are engraved the words of his friend and poet Alfred Noyes (1880-1958): Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him.

Concerned for the welfare of Coleridge-Taylor’s wife and children, King George V (1865-1936) granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual pension of £100. A memorial concert held at the Royal Albert Hall raised an additional £300 for the family. Although they could not benefit from the sales of the Song of Hiawatha, which soared following the composer’s death, musicians formed the Performing Rights Society in his honour, which campaigned to gain revenue from all performances and publications.

A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review

The death of Coleridge-Taylor attracted attention across the world with news reports and obituaries appearing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church ReviewSierra Leone Weekly News and Crystal Palace Reporter, amongst other papers. He was mourned by many, particularly those who considered him a beacon of hope for Black lives as well as those who admired his music. Schools in Kentucky and Maryland were named in his memory, and the 200-voice African-American chorus established in 1901 continued singing under the name of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. In London, a blue plaque adorns the wall of his childhood home in Dagnall Park, South Norwood, and another where he lived and died in St Leonards Road, Croydon.

Both Coleridge-Taylor’s children followed in his footsteps to attain a career in the music industry. Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor adapted many of his father’s works for various performances, and his daughter, Gwendolen Avril, became a composer and conductor. Coleridge-Taylor did not live to hear his daughter’s first composition, which she wrote aged twelve. This song, Goodbye Butterfly, won her a scholarship at Trinity College of Music.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

In 1924, Gwendolen married Harold Dashwood but continued to compose under her maiden name. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and, after her divorce, she officially dropped her first name and worked professionally as Avril Coleridge-Taylor. In 1933, she made her first debut as a composer at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by becoming the first female conductor of H.M.S. Royal Marines.

During her career, Avril composed many successful songs, orchestral pieces, chamber music and keyboard compositions. Yet, Avril did not have as much success as her father due to her gender. On occasion, this forced her to compose under the pseudonym Peter Riley. Unlike her father, Avril did not experience racial abuse in England, so she was unprepared for the reaction she caused during a tour of South Africa in 1952. South Africa, which was in the grips of apartheid, treated Avril as a white woman until they learned of her one-quarter black ancestry. Immediately, the government banned her from composing and conducting in the country. From then on, Avril supported the efforts of Black African movements and composed the Ceremonial March to celebrate Ghana’s independence in 1957.

History books record little else about Avril’s career other than she wrote a biography of her father in which she recorded her memories. She passed away aged 95 in 1998 at a nursing home in Seaford, Sussex. Until recently, her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was also an unfamiliar name, but the Black Lives Matter movement has unearthed him from the archives. Whilst Coleridge-Taylor is celebrated for his involvement with Pan-Africanism, we ought to remember him for his talent irrespective of his skin colour.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor produced over 80 compositions during his short life, which is more than some composers write during a much longer period. Nicknamed the “African Mahler”, Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way to joining Gustav Mahler amongst the ranks of top composers and conductors. Unfortunately, he died before he could fully realise his potential, but his surviving achievements are evidence of his talent and genius.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Lady Godiva

Famed for her naked ride through Coventry, Lady Godiva has inspired many artists and storytellers, but how much of the legend is true? According to Anglo-Saxon legend, Lady Godiva or Godgifu rode through the streets of Coventry covered only by her long hair in protest of the taxes imposed by her tyrannical husband. Today it is uncertain whether this event really occurred or if a pagan myth became medieval propaganda. Nonetheless, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry owns dozens of artworks on the subject, suggesting Lady Godiva is one of the most popular figures in ancient British history.

It is difficult to write of Lady Godiva’s life to any degree of accuracy since much remains uncertain. According to records, Godiva married Leofric, an Earl of Mercia, who established a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Evidence suggests that Leofric and his wife, whose name meant “gift of God” in Old English, donated generously towards religious establishments and they are listed as benefactors of several monasteries. English monk and chronicler John of Worcester, who died in c.1140, wrote about Coventry, “He and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.”

Leofric had nine children, including Ælfgar, who succeeded him as Earl of Mercia. Whether Lady Godiva was the mother of these offspring is unknown but records state she was a widow when she married Leofric at Ely Abbey. Godiva allegedly encouraged her husband to construct the monastery at Coventry, at least according to the 13th-century monk Roger of Wendover (d.1236) and appeared on the deeds of land belonging to other religious buildings. Reports of Godiva’s generosity are abundant, particularly in the form of jewellery, which she donated to the people of Coventry, Evesham and St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, all traces of these gifts became lost after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Lady Godiva lived for some time after the death of her husband in 1057. Her name appears on a survey taken shortly after the Norman Conquest, which lists her as the only woman to remain a major landholder. Yet, her name is missing from the Domesday Book compiled in 1086, suggesting she died before the “Great Survey”. The whereabouts of her body are still under debate. The Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, a medieval chronicle about Evesham Abbey between 714 and 1539, insisted Godiva rested in the Church of the Blessed Trinity, which no longer stands. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography disagrees, saying, “There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry.” Leofric’s burial took place at St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral.

The surviving documents from Lady Godiva’s lifetime mention nothing of her alleged naked ride through Coventry. The story first appeared in writing in the 13th-century book Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), created by Roger of Wendover and continued by other medieval historians. According to the story, Lady Godiva felt sorry for the people of Coventry, who suffered under the oppressive taxes imposed by her husband. Given the records of Leofric’s generosity, this claim is suspect. Nevertheless, in the tale, Godiva appealed to Leofric to lower the taxes, but he refused. Godiva continued to plead until her husband, growing weary of the argument, agreed to her request, but on one condition: Lady Godiva must remove all her clothes and ride a horse through the town.

If the legend is true, Leofric did not expect his wife to take him at his word. Yet, according to the typical version of the story, after issuing a proclamation instructing everyone to stay in their houses with their windows closed, Lady Godiva rode through Coventry with only her long hair to protect her modesty. Roger of Wendover’s record, on the other hand, states people filled the streets to watch Lady Godiva. Presumably, the outcome remained the same, and Leofric lowered the taxes.

Not included in early accounts of the legend is the character of Peeping Tom. He first appeared in written narratives during the 18th-century but the people of Coventry included Tom in verbal and dramatic versions of the story much earlier. When Lady Godiva instructed “all Persons to keep within Doors and from their Windows, on pain of Death”, everyone obeyed except a tailor named Tom. This “Peeping Tom” could not resist looking at the naked woman and, according to the historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), was instantly blinded by God. Other writers suggest the Coventry natives blinded the man for his insolence.

Many historians dispute the reality of Godiva’s naked ride and relate the incident to a pagan fertility rite where the participants led a maiden to “Cofa’s Tree”, from which Coventry got its name. The history of this ritual is undetermined, but a similar tradition, known as the “Godiva Procession” began in 1678. A woman dressed in flesh-coloured clothing reenacted the Lady’s legendary ride, while a grotesque wooden effigy represented Peeping Tom. In an 1826 article by W. Reader, Tom wears a style of armour dating to the time of Charles II (1630-85).

There are many alternative tellings of the legend of Lady Godiva. One suggestion is she did not ride naked but rather in her underwear. At the time the event purportedly took place, the Church instructed penitents to prove the purity of their soul by publically appearing in their “shift”, a sleeveless white garment. At the time, seeing someone in their underwear was akin to nudity. The name of Peeping Tom also differs between storytellers. A 17th-century letter, for instance, suggests his name was Action or Actæon, Lady Godiva’s groom.

In 1586, the County of the City of Coventry commissioned Flemish artist Adam van Noort (1561-1641) to produce a painting of Lady Godiva. The artist, famed for teaching the influential Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), depicted Godiva as a voluptuous woman with long golden hair sitting upon a white horse. In the background, which the novelist Dame Marina Warner (b.1946) describes as a “fantastical Italianate Coventry”, a figure peers out of an upstairs window. This could be the earliest reference to Peeping Tom.

Adam van Noort’s painting is the earliest artwork of Lady Godiva, but the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum contains many more on the theme, which Warner described in an article for The Times as “an oddly composed Landseer, a swooning Watts and a sumptuous Alfred Woolmer.” The majority are by Victorian artists who took inspiration from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem Godiva, published in 1840.

A painting of Lady Godiva by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Collier (1850-1934) portrays Godiva as a romantic heroine rather than an Anglo-Saxon woman. Her slender body is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite style, as is the red-tone of her hair. Despite her nudity, Lady Godiva conceals her modesty by the placement of her arms and riding position. Traditionally, women rode side-saddle, but Collier depicts Lady Godiva sitting astride her horse. She appears young and shy, although no one is on the street to see her pass by.

In contrast to the nude woman, Collier decorated the white horse with a silk cape and decorated reins. Although Lady Godiva wears no jewellery to mark her as a member of the upper class, the luxuriousness of the horse’s “clothing” indicates her wealth. These elements add to the romantic heroine appearance of Godiva and emphasise her purity. Leofric did not expect his wife to agree to his challenge due to the shamefulness of the task, but there is no sense of humiliation in this painting.

Marshall Claxton (1811-81), a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted Lady Godiva as she mounted her white horse to ride naked through Coventry. Similarly to Collier’s painting, the horse is covered with an ornate red blanket, indicating Godiva’s wealth. Claxton painted the lady from behind, wrapped in a white sheet from the waist down to protect her modesty. Although the legend usually indicates Lady Godiva removed all her jewellery, Claxton’s Godiva wears a gold crown on her head and a gold armband.

Whilst there is no one else in the painting, Godiva glances over her shoulder as though fearful of being caught. The dog in the painting, is the “barking cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem, but the small animal is also a symbol of marital fidelity. Nudity is often associated with sexual relations, but in this story, nudity is a sign of purity.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) took inspiration from a different section of the story. The English painter decided to depict the moment Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to abolish the taxes. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum does not own Leighton’s painting but rather a copy by Frank Albert Philips (1831-1905). Nonetheless, it shows that Leighton paid close attention to Tennyson’s poem and tried to make the painting historically accurate. He dressed Lady Godiva and Leofric in authentic clothing, or at least what he believed Anglo-Saxons wore. Leighton also made the setting look convincing, basing it on medieval English architecture.


Alfred Joseph Woolmer (1805-1892), on the other hand, did not attempt to make his painting historically accurate. Inspired by the 16th-century artist Titian (1488-1576), Woolmer used rich colours, emphasising the animal furs and silks of Godiva’s clothing as well as the sunset in the background. The half-dressed Lady Godiva, who Marina Warner describes as “sumptuous”, takes on the appearance of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, thus presenting her as an object of desire. This is a stark contrast to the woman in the story who wished no one to see her ride through Coventry.

Woolmer’s paintings typically portrayed the concept of “ut pictura poesis“, which means “as is painting, so is poetry”. He wanted people to interpret his work as they would a poem. Although the image is static, it tells the story of Lady Godiva undressing before her ride through Coventry. No one else is in the painting because she has instructed everyone to remain at home. Unfortunately, Woolmer’s depiction of Lady Godiva evokes eroticism rather than her pious nature.

A plaster sculpture by John Thomas (1813-62), of which the museum owns a miniature copy by Philip Pargetter, depicts the naked woman sitting side-saddle on a horse. Walking on a cobbled ground, the horse, a stallion, is caught mid-step with its head straining forward. The visible veins on its body are suggestive of his exertion.

Upon the horse, Lady Godiva bows her head in modesty, obscuring one side of her face with her loosely braided hair. This meekness gives off an air of piety rather than shame and embarrassment, which along with her youth and natural beauty, matches the Victorian ideal of femininity.

John Skinner Clifton (1822-89) attempted to illustrate a faithful representation of a verse of Tennyson’s poem. “…he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’ She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before, and his hair A yard behind…” Clifton depicted Leofric as a large man with similar hair to his wife in length and colour. His blond beard rests on his chest, and one of his large dogs sits at his feet. Beside him, the pale Lady Godiva stands with a crowd of mothers and children on whose half she pleads.

Clifton used bright coloured paint made from aniline dyes, a relatively new invention at the time. Whilst these colours are historically inaccurate, they emphasise the difference in classes. Lady Godiva and her husband are dressed in rich colours, whereas the poor women and children wear dull, dirty tunics. The vivid dyes also contrast with Godiva’s pale skin, emphasising her beauty and purity.


Lady Godiva’s Prayer by Edward Landseer (1802-73) introduces another character to the story: Lady Godiva’s maid. The scene depicts Godiva sending up a prayer before setting off on her journey. In the background is the spire of St Michael’s Church, the cathedral of Coventry, which unfortunately makes the painting historically inaccurate because the church was built in the 14th century. During Lady Godiva’s life, St Mary’s Priory, of which she was a benefactress, was the only cathedral in the city.

Critiques suggest Landseer took inspiration from Marshall Claxton’s painting of Lady Godiva because there are some similarities. Landseer protects Godiva’s modesty by depicting her from behind, and he included the dog or “cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem. The horse, whilst not white, is draped with material, but this is where the similarities end. Landseer may have added the ermine drape at a later date after Queen Victoria (1819-1901) viewed the painting at his studio in 1866. The artist was the Queen’s favourite, so the ermine likely honours her visit.


The actress Eliza Crowe, better known as Madame Wharton, posed as Lady Godiva for Landseer. In 1848, Crowe played the part of Godiva in the annual Godiva Procession in Coventry, so she was an obvious choice of model.

English oil painter David Gee (1793-1872) produced several paintings of Lady Godiva but based these on the processions rather than Tennyson’s poem. One artwork from 1829 shows Lady Godiva starting on her journey. Unlike other paintings on the subject, the lady wears white, and several people carrying banners follow in her wake. The identity of the actress in this painting is unknown, but presumably, she is a woman. In earlier processions, a boy played the role of Lady Godiva.

Gee’s paintings reveal the Godiva Processions were popular events attended by crowds of people. The processions often became rowdy and, on several occasions, ended with riots. Whether the legend is true, the people of Coventry take great pride in their history. Processions still regularly take place in the form of a carnival on Dame Goodyver’s Daye. Coventry also organises a Godiva Festival, offering three days of music, food and drink, and a funfair.

It is impossible to prove the myth of Lady Godiva. Whilst there is no evidence of the famous ride through Coventry, the legend must stem from some form of truth or story. Coventry do well to honour a woman who may (or may not) have saved their ancestors from extreme poverty, but the legend is likely much altered and embellished since its first telling several centuries ago.

Mentioning Lady Godiva today raises a few eyebrows. She is often associated with scandal and eroticism, which those familiar with the story know is not the case. Lady Godiva is one of several legends that people have passed down through generations, but we cannot rely on them for historical accuracy. Evidence suggests Godiva existed, but did she really ride naked through the city? We will never know.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler c. 1908

Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a well-known name amongst classical musicians, but far less are aware that his wife, Alma Mahler, was also a talented composer. During her career, Alma wrote approximately 50 works for voice and piano, but only 17 survive today. Unfortunately, Alma’s reputation in society had little to do with her talent, but rather her romantic liaisons with many men, three of whom she married. As singer and satirist Tom Lehrer (b.1928) said before singing a song about the lady, “Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe.”

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well,
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.
Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between…

Alma – The loveliest girl in Vienna – Tom Lehrer (1965)
Alma, Anna and Grete

Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was born in Vienna on 31st August 1879 to landscape artist Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-92) and Anna Sofie Bergen (1857-1938). Alma and her sister, Margaretha Julie (Grete, 1880-1942), received home tuition rather than enrol in a school but regularly attended the Catholic Church, which played a significant role in their early upbringing.

In 1886, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (1858-89) commissioned Alma’s father to paint landscapes of the Adriatic coast. The whole family accompanied Schindler on this trip, and his artworks featured in the Kronprinzenwerk (Crown Prince’s Work). This encyclopedia, officially named The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, is a 24-volume written and visual description of the countries, regions and people of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Lands. Schindler was one of 587 contributors, and his paintings joined the 4,529 images that illustrated the work.

Despite spending a year travelling with their father, Alma and Grete saw little of his work after Schindler rented Castle Plankenberg, near Neulengbach, as his studio, where he also established an artist colony. Yet, Schindler adored his two daughters and arranged for them to have piano lessons with Adele Radnitzky-Mandlick. Their mother had a musical background but retired from public performances shortly after marriage. Some believe Schindler felt jealous of the attention his wife gained from her career, so forced her to quit the stage. Nonetheless, he encouraged his daughters to perform, and they made their public debut at the ages of ten and nine. Although the girls received homeschooling in their early years, their father insisted they obtain the best education, so he enrolled them in a private women’s academy, which was not common practice at the time.

Schindler monument by Edmund Hellmer

During a family holiday to the German isle of Sylt in 1892, Schindler passed away. Following his death, Alma concentrated on her musical education, studying composition with a blind organist called Josef Labor. Despite his disability, Labor also provided Alma with education about a “great deal of literature”. Although Alma attended school, she quit at the age of 15 in favour of Labor’s teaching. Yet, learning to play and compose music had its difficulties due to Alma’s decreasing hearing following childhood measles.

Max Burckhard (1854-1912), the director of the Burgtheater in Vienna and friend of Alma’s late father, became Alma’s music mentor. He also catered for her passion for literature and presented Alma with two large baskets of books on her 17th birthday. Shortly before this, Alma’s mother married Carl Moll (1861-1945), a former student of Schindler. In 1899, Alma gained another little sister, Maria (1899-1945).

Alma’s step-father Carl Moll was one of the founding members of the Vienna Succession, an Austrian art movement closely related to Art Nouveau. They were “a group organized for the purpose of breaking with Vienna’s tradition-bound Imperial Academy of the visual arts.” Through Moll, Alma met several painters associated with the Succession, including the symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who professed his undying love for her. Alma enjoyed the attention but did not desire him as a lover or husband. Nonetheless, they remained firm friends for the rest of Klimt’s life.

In 1900, 21-year-old Alma began composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), who also fell in love with her. Alma reciprocated his feelings but wished to keep their relationship secret. Zemlinsky had a Jewish background, of which Alma’s Catholic family disapproved. The few friends who knew about their romance urged Alma to end things, which she eventually did after the relationship grew strained.

Gustav Mahler 1909

Through her musical connections, Alma met the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) at a party in November 1901. By early December, Alma and Mahler were engaged, although they kept this secret for a while. Alma and Zemlinsky’s relationship had not long ended, and it went against societal etiquette to fall in love so soon. They eventually announced their engagement two days before Christmas.

Friends of both Alma and Mahler expressed surprise about their engagement, especially because Mahler was Jewish. Also, Mahler’s family thought Alma a flirtatious, unreliable young lady. Nonetheless, they married on 9th March 1902, and the birth of their first daughter, Maria Anna (1902-07), followed in November. Their second daughter, Anna Justine (1904-88), became a successful sculptor, despite her parent’s musical backgrounds.

Alma Mahler with her daughters Maria (left) and Anna (right), 1906

“The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner.” This was Mahler’s view of marriage, and he refused to allow Alma to compose music. Alma expressed in her diary, “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart”, but obeyed her husband’s wishes. As time passed, Alma grew resentful of Mahler, who insisted his music career came before his family’s needs.

In Vienna, anti-semitic activities made it difficult for Mahler to work in operatic theatres, so he took his family to Maiernigg in 1907 to have a break from the hostilities. Unfortunately, not long after arriving, both daughters contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria. Whilst Anna recovered, Maria grew steadily worse until she passed away on 12th July. Soon after this tragedy, Mahler learned he had a defective heart and needed treatment from specialist doctors in Vienna.

The death of Maria left Alma depressed and placed a strain on her marriage. She sought attention elsewhere, beginning an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1910. On learning of this, Mahler sought the advice of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), although the precise reason is unknown. Some suggest Mahler asked for help with his troubled feelings, whereas others believe he wanted marriage advice. The film Mahler on the Couch (2010) takes a different view, suggesting Mahler wished to curb Alma’s musical passion. Whatever the reason for the visit, family life changed a little in the Mahler household.

In an attempt to save his marriage, Mahler paid more attention to his wife, particularly her musical abilities. He claimed to regret his earlier attitudes towards Alma’s compositions and insisted on studying and editing them for publication. Mahler also encouraged her to write five more songs, which, under his guidance, were published at the end of 1910. Sadly, this newfound affection in their marriage lasted only a year, after which Mahler fell ill with an infection in February 1911. By May, he was dead.

Following Mahler’s death, Alma entered a stormy affair with the Austrian expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Lasting from 1912 to 1914, the relationship grew from one of passion to one of possessiveness. In 1913, Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut), an allegorical artwork featuring the figures of Kokoschka and Alma in a loving embrace. Realising that Kokoschka was obsessed with her, Alma brought the relationship to an end.

Alma Mahler Fan

Kokoschka’s infatuation with Alma continued long after their breakup. In the early months of their relationship, Kokoschka produced portraits of Alma, such as one in the pose of Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, and later, romantic paintings featuring them as a couple. He illustrated stories about their time together, which he printed on fans and gifted to Alma as presents. He described them as “love letters in pictorial form” and continued to produce them after Alma had left him.

Dramatic sketches of Alma and Kokoschka suggest they conceived and lost a child in 1912. Some interpret from the images that Alma had an abortion, which caused Kokoshka emotional pain. Nonetheless, this event did not diminish Kokoschka’s love for Alma, and he continued to produce portraits of her. After their breakup, Kokoschka expressed his heartbreak and depression through his artwork, often using rapid brushstrokes.

Alma Doll

Unable to get over his obsession, Kokoschka commissioned Hermine Moos (1888-1928), a German doll maker, to produce a life-size doll of Alma. He wished to use the doll as a replacement for Alma, both in his portraits and, presumably, in his bed. “Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly.” He sent Moos strict instructions and several paintings of Alma, hoping for a replica of his former lover. Unfortunately, Kokoschka’s expressionistic painting style was hardly realistic, and neither was the doll. After expressing his disappointment, Kokoschka tried to make the best of it, including the doll in his paintings.

At the end of 1918, Kokoschka declared the doll had “managed to cure me completely of my Passion”. He held a champagne party, during which he displayed the doll dressed in beautiful clothing. The party lasted well into the early hours of the following day and, as dawn broke, a drunken Kokoschka took the doll into the garden and beheaded it.

Gropius and Alma with their daughter Manon, 1918

Meanwhile, Alma resurrected her relationship with Walter Gropius, who she married on 18th August 1915 in Berlin. In 1916, Alma gave birth to their daughter, Alma Manon (1916-35). Manon, or “Mutzi” as she was often called, spent the majority of her infancy with her nurse, Ida Gebauer, with whom she followed her mother between her many houses. Alma owned three homes in Vienna alone, and the family often visited Weimar in Germany, where Gropius founded the first Bauhaus school of art.

In 1918, Alma gave birth to a premature son, Martin Carl Johannes (1918-19). After a few months, rumours reached Gropius that the child did not belong to him. For some time, Alma had conducted an affair with the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Alma eventually admitted that Werfel was the father of her child. Naturally, the relationship between Alma and Gropius broke down, and they agreed to divorce. Sadly, before these divorce proceedings could be set in progress, Alma’s son developed hydrocephalus and died before his first birthday.

To protect Alma’s reputation, Gropius staged a meeting with a prostitute so that he could be caught in the act of infidelity, thus giving Alma the means to file for divorce. He did not do this out of kindness, but in the agreement that he would have custody of their daughter. After the divorce became final in 1920, Gropius took Manon to Dessau, where he married her step-mother, Ise Frank (1897-1983). Alma fought back over this decision and brought her daughter home to Vienna, where she allowed Manon to do as she pleased, including running around naked as much as possible.

Werfel, Alma and Manon

After divorcing Gropius, Alma openly lived with Franz Werfel, although she refrained from marrying him until 6th July 1929. During this time, she supported Werfel’s career, helping him become an accomplished novelist, playwright and poet. Alma encouraged her daughter Manon to play the piano like her older daughter Anna, but Manon prefered performance arts over music. Unfortunately, Manon’s soon-to-be stepfather did not think Manon had the talent for acting and discouraged her dreams.

Alma’s early years as Mrs Mahler-Werfel were made difficult by the increasing activity of the Nazi party in Europe. Werfel, who lectured across Germany on the topic of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government, was branded a propagandist. Nazi members burned many of his books, and he lost his job at the Prussian Academy of Arts. To escape the antagonism, Alma took Manon to Venice for a short holiday in 1934. Little did Alma know, life was about to become much worse.

While in Venice, Manon contracted Polio, which left her paralysed. After returning to Vienna, Manon regained some movement in her limbs but remained severely disabled. Alma tried to boost her 18-year-old daughter’s morale by arranging frequent visitors to the house. She also instigated a romance between Manon and the young autocrat Erich Cyhlar (d.1969), hoping for a future wedding. Despite Werfel’s dissuasion, Manon never let go of her desire to act, so Alma arranged for well-known acting teachers to make house calls. Almost a year after contracting Polio, Manon acted out a private performance for her mother and step-father. Sadly, she passed away a few days later from organ failure on Easter Monday, 22nd April 1935.

Manon’s grave in Grinzing Cemetery

Manon’s death greatly affected Alma, who outlived three of her four children. Werfel, who had been like a father to the young woman, dedicated his future novel The Song of Bernadette (1942) to Manon. Anna Mahler sculpted a young woman holding an hourglass to mark Manon’s grave, but Nazi activity prevented it from being installed. The triangular slab that now marks Manon’s resting place was designed by her father, Walter Gropius, and put in place during the 1950s.

Life continued to grow difficult for Werfel, who had Jewish roots, and after the Anschluss in 1938, Alma and Werfel decided to flee Austria. With the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry (1907-67), they secretly fled to the French Riviera, where they stayed until 1940. Finding themselves in danger again, Fry organised a secret crossing over the Pyrenees on foot, from where they made their way to Spain then Portugal. On 4th October 1940, Alma and Werfel boarded the S.S. Nea Hellas and arrived in New York nine days later.

Alma and Werfel finally settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel found work as a playwright. One of his successful plays, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, later became the 1958 film Me and the Colonel, and his book The Song of Bernadette became a film in 1943. Alma, meanwhile, opened their home to visitors, many of whom were also escaping persecution from the Nazis. Guests included German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Austrian film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). As Werfel’s reputation grew, so did their social circle, but before he could publish his final science fiction novel, Star of the Unborn, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945.

Alma with a score of Gustav Mahler’s

Although a widow twice over, Alma did not shy away from society. Thomas Mann nicknamed her the “Great Widow”, and people easily recognised her from her gigantic hats with ostrich feathers. In 1946, she became a US Citizen and eventually moved to New York, where she befriended composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). Bernstein greatly admired the music of Alma’s first husband, and Alma often attended the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic to watch him conduct. Alma also met the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76), who dedicated to her his Nocturne for Tenor and Small Orchestra.

In 1947, Alma briefly returned to Vienna to settle some financial matters. Her mother had passed away in 1938, her sister Grete had died in a mental institution in 1942, and her half-sister Maria, a member of the Nazi Party, committed suicide in 1945. Back in New York, Alma celebrated her 70th birthday and received a birthday book full of greetings from past and present friends and acquaintances. Amongst the signatures were messages from her ex-husband Gropius and former lover Kokoschka, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, and Igor Stravinsky. German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) composed a birthday song containing the lyrics “Centre of gravitation of your own solar system, orbited by radiant satellites, this is how your life appears to the admirer.”

And the Bridge is Love

During the 1950s, Alma worked on her autobiography And the Bridge is Love. She based it on the diaries she kept throughout her life, although employed ghost-writers to help her put them into book format. The first ghost-writer, Austrian writer Paul Frischauer (1898-1977), fell out with Alma over her anti-semitic ideas, which had become ingrained in her character from her parents’ strong opinions. Her second ghost-writer, E. B. Ashton (1909-83), also pointed out the discriminatory terminology and suggested censoring some of her thoughts, especially sections about those people still alive. 

Reactions to Alma’s biography were varied. Walter Gropius felt hurt about Alma’s portrayal of their relationship, and others felt awkward about her racist political views. Before the German version entered print, Alma told the editor to “Please remove all traces of the whole Jewish question.” The German biography was published under the title Mein Leben (My Life) but did not garner any praise. Critics called it salacious and egocentric, pointing out that Alma contradicted herself many times. She lost many long-term friends as a result.

Alma Mahler, New York 1962

Alma Mahler-Werfel passed away on 11th December 1964 at the age of 85. Her funeral took place two days later, but it was not until 8th February 1965 when her body was buried in Grinzing Cemetery, Vienna, in the same grave as her daughter, Manon. Many obituaries appeared in newspapers following her death, although they were based upon her autobiography and focused on her love affairs. Tom Lehrer wrote the song Alma in response to one of the obituaries, singing about Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel “as each in turn came under her spell”. 

Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg (1908-79) offered an alternative view in his obituary about the late Alma Mahler-Werfel. He claimed that, although there is no denying she had many lovers, Alma was not the flirtatious, promiscuous woman the world observed. Creative men were attracted to her because she inspired them; she was their muse. She enthused over their work and made personal sacrifices to ensure they achieved their goals. Once her husbands and lovers became successful, Alma no longer felt needed and moved on. Only those who acknowledged Alma’s contribution to their careers retained her friendship, for instance, her third husband, Werfel.

Alma on her deathbed

It is difficult to ascertain Alma’s true character because her memoirs are considered an exaggerated truth. For years, Alma’s account of Gustav Mahler was the basis of the composer’s biography but recently discovered letters and documents suggest an alternative history. Was Alma Mahler-Werfel the woman her obituaries claimed or was her outward persona a mask to cover the tragedies she experienced? Alma lost three children, four if you include the miscarriage, she lost her home, she lost two husbands, and she had to flee from danger more than once. Life was certainly not kind to Alma.

A young Alma once aspired to be a composer. She learned to play the piano as a child and began composing in 1888. Up until her marriage to Gustav Mahler in 1902, Alma produced several songs, twenty piano pieces and a scene for an opera. Her husband put an end to her aspirations, and Alma did not compose again until Mahler attempted to save their relationship in 1910. After 1915, Alma stopped composing altogether. The work of her husbands always took precedence, and only seventeen of Alma’s songs survive today. Attempts to reestablish Alma as a composer in her own right have been underway since the early 21st century.

Whatever personal opinions people hold about Alma Mahler, it remains certain that she did not receive the opportunity to realise her talent as a composer and musician. Arguably, the main reason for this is that she was a woman, and by marrying, she gave up her right to have a career. In today’s world, Alma could have had more success than her husbands, but the world will never learn of what she was capable. Some of Alma Mahler’s surviving compositions are available to listen to on Youtube, for instance, Die stille Stadt, Kennst du meine Nächte? and Hymne.


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!


You can listen to this blog post on my podcast.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

“Innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute,” is how the Poetry Foundation describes the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. Highly regarded in the 20th century, although less known today, Mansfield experimented with modernism and brought new genres to the short story format. Writing about relationships, sexuality, the middle class, war, and everyday life, Mansfield was welcomed by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Sadly, her untimely death at the age of 34 prevented Mansfield from rising to the celebrity ranks of her friends, such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Born into a wealthy family on 14th October 1888, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (Katherine was a pseudonym) grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, with her four siblings: two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp (1858-1938), was a successful businessman and, later in life, the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp (1827-1910), briefly stood as a Member of Parliament, and her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), became a well-known author and, briefly, conducted an affair with H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

Mansfield’s happy childhood memories made their way into several short stories, which she began writing in the late 1890s. Her first written works appeared in the magazine of Wellington Girls’ High School, which she attended until 13 years old. In 1900, Mansfield submitted a story to the children’s page of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, which they published the day before her 12th birthday. The tale, His Little Friend, described the relationship between a man and a young child he met on the road. The man, John, came from a wealthy background, whereas the little boy lived in poverty and had nothing to eat. John gave the child food from his garden, but it was not enough to save the boy from a fatal illness. The sad story revealed Mansfield’s awareness of her parent’s wealth and the poverty of the working-class members of society.

As a child and teenager, Mansfield kept a private journal, in which she jotted down personal experiences and story ideas. They reveal her infatuation with the son of her cello teacher, who did not reciprocate her attention. As she got older, she wrote about the mistreatment of the indigenous Māori people, who she believed were repressed by society. To counteract this, Mansfield portrayed the Māori in a positive light in her stories. On these occasions, she painted white people in a negative light.

Katherine and Ida

In 1903, Mansfield travelled to London with her sisters to attend Queen’s College, an independent school for girls aged 11 to 18. As well as academic studies, Mansfield focused on practising the cello, which she dreamed of playing professionally. Her aspirations soon changed after contributing to the college magazine, which she later edited. Many commented on Mansfield’s aptitude for writing, particularly her friend Ida Baker, who also loved to write.

After completing her schooling, Mansfield returned to New Zealand, where she concentrated on writing short stories. Many of these appeared in the Native Companion, for which she received payment, thus cementing her ambition to be a professional writer. She published these works under the name “K. Mansfield”, her first initial and middle name. 

Mansfield’s journals from 1906 to 1908 suggest she had many romantic relationships. Whilst the majority were male, Mansfield wrote about two women and her conflicting feelings towards them. Same-sex relationships were illegal, but Mansfield felt unable to repress her feelings. On one occasion, she wrote, “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952) was a Māori woman who Mansfield knew from childhood. They became close after Mansfield’s return to New Zealand, but their relationship ended when Maata married in 1907. The other woman Mansfield wrote about was called Edith Kathleen Bendall, but there is very little information about her.

Growing wearing of life in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to London. Her father agreed to send her an annual allowance of £100, although she quickly took up a bohemian lifestyle. After moving from place to place, Mansfield decided to seek out the son of her cello teacher, Arnold Trowell. Just as before, Arnold did not return Mansfield’s advances, but his brother, Garnet, did. After a brief but passionate affair, Mansfield realised she was pregnant. Sadly, Garnet’s parents, who disapproved of the relationship, forced them to split up.

Not wishing to have a child out of wedlock, Mansfield hastily accepted a marriage proposal from George Bowden, a singing tutor. They married on 2nd March 1909, but regretting her decision, Mansfield fled shortly after the service. For a while, she found solace at the house of her friend Ida. When her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in England after learning about the failed marriage, she blamed her daughter’s “lesbian relationship” with Ida. Angrily, Annie packed her pregnant daughter off to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany, and cut Mansfield from her will.

While in Bad Wörishofen, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage. After recuperating from the trauma, she returned to London in 1910. Mansfield’s experiences in Bavaria, which included learning of various European authors, prompted her to start writing again. Before her marriage to Bowden, Mansfield only published one poem and one story in London. Her new literary outlook resulted in a dozen short stories, which she submitted to The New Age, a socialist magazine owned by Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). Through Orage, Mansfield met the English writer Beatrice Hastings (1879-1943), with whom she developed a close, possibly romantic, relationship.

In 1911, Mansfield published a series of short stories about life in Germany under the title In A German Pension. Some of these tales reference her plight, but most satirically represent the habits of German people and the state of their unhealthy sewage system. On occasion, Mansfield mentioned the misrepresentation of women and how men exploit them.

Mansfield in 1912

For some time, Mansfield attempted to get her work published in the literary, arts, and critical review magazine Rhythm. The editor rejected her first attempt for being too “lightweight”, so she responded with a darker, Fauvist story titled The Woman at the Store. Set in the desolate New Zealand countryside, three friends stop to rest at a store owned by a mentally deranged woman. Whilst the woman attempts to woo the visitors, her neglected daughter reveals to them through her drawings that her mother killed her father.

In 1912, Mansfield joined Rhythm as an associate editor. She developed a close relationship with the main editor, John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), and they had an on and off affair, which inspired the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

Rhythm magazine folded in 1913 after the publisher Charles Granville absconded, leaving them with many debts. Around this time, Mansfield experienced bouts of ill health. A friend persuaded Mansfield and Murry to rent a cottage in Cholesbury, Buckinghamshire, where Mansfield could recuperate. When her symptoms did not alleviate, they moved to Paris, hoping a change of setting would boost Mansfield’s health or at least inspire her to write again. Mansfield succeeded in writing a short story titled Something Childish But Very Natural, but it was not published until after her death.

In 1914, Mansfield and Murry briefly split up when Murry returned to London to declare bankruptcy. Remaining in France, Mansfield conducted an affair with the French author Francis Carco (1886-1958), which she narrated in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. The tale describes the journey of an English woman on her way to meet her lover on the front line during the First World War, and the people she met along the way. 

Mansfield and Murry reunited in 1915, but Mansfield’s outlook on life changed after receiving the news of the death of her younger brother Leslie. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Ypres Salient, Belgium, Leslie suffered fatal wounds during a grenade training exercise. His death made Mansfield nostalgic about her childhood in New Zealand, which she reflected in her writing.

Katherine Mansfield

In 1917, Mansfield and Murry split once again. Mansfield purchased an apartment where she lived for a time with her friend Ida, who she referred to as “my wife”. Although no longer together, Murry visited Mansfield regularly and eventually won back her heart. During this time, Mansfield wrote prolifically, often on themes of marriage or lost love, and published many stories in The New Age Magazine.

Later that year, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard (1880-1969) approached Mansfield to ask for a story. They needed writers for their new publishing company, Hogarth Press, and Mansfield happily presented them with her work in progress, Prelude. Woolf encouraged her to finish the story, which Mansfield based on her childhood, particularly the family’s move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Eventually published by Hogarth Press in 1918, Prelude encompasses themes of feminism, isolation, freedom, servility and familial relationships.

Katherine Mansfield Portrait

In December 1917, Mansfield received a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis. For the rest of the winter and following spring, she stayed with the American artist Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959) in Looe, Cornwall, hoping the sea air would aid recovery. While there, Rice painted Mansfield’s portrait, which the author requested in vivid red. The painting now lives in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mansfield’s health continued to worsen, but she refused to enter a sanitorium. Instead, she moved to Bandol in southeastern France, where she resided in a quiet hotel. Whilst feeling isolated and depressed, Mansfield focused on her writing, producing short stories, such as Je ne parle pas français and Bliss. The latter became the title story of her collection Bliss and Other Stories, published in 1920.

In March 1919, Mansfield suffered a lung haemorrhage, which prompted Murry to urge her to marry him. As soon as her divorce papers came through from Bowden, the couple married in April in London. Murry’s financial situation had much improved, and he worked as the editor for the literary magazine The Athenaeum. Mansfield contributed over 100 book reviews to the magazine, and many well-known authors submitted short stories and poems, including T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and Virginia Woolf. 

Mansfield travelled to San Remo, Italy, with Ida to avoid the harsh English winters. Murry joined them for Christmas but returned to London soon after. It became normal for Mansfield and Murry to live apart, which Mansfield used as the basis of her story The Man Without a Temperament. Swapping tuberculosis for heart disease, Mansfield wrote about a man who is scorned for leaving his poorly wife behind while he goes for a walk. 

In May 1921, Mansfield and Ida visited the Swiss bacteriologist Henri Spahlinge in Switzerland in search of tuberculosis treatment. In June, Murry joined her, and they rented a chalet in the canton of Valais. While undergoing treatment, Mansfield wrote rapidly, fearing she had little time left. The majority of her short stories from this period were published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This publication received mixed reviews from critics. Some argued it left them cold, and others claimed it to be a selection of her best works.

One story, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, is regarded as Mansfield’s finest work. It concerns the lives of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their father. Mansfield emphasised that middle-class women brought up in old-fashioned ways do not know how to fend for themselves. Their father always made decisions about their lives, and without him, the sisters are lost. Readers have interpreted the story differently. For some, this is the sisters’ chance to live their life as they wish; for others, the sisters face perpetual misery, unable to live without their father. Although she did not make it clear in her writing, Mansfield favoured the latter outcome, saying to a friend: “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now’. And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.”

In early 1922, Mansfield gave up on tuberculosis treatment in Switzerland and searched for alternative methods. A form of x-ray treatment in Paris caused her painful side effects and failed to improve her condition. Mansfield and Murray briefly returned to Switzerland, where Mansfield finished her final short story, The Canary. After this, they visited London before moving permanently to Fontainebleau in France. Here, Mansfield lived as a guest at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man under the care of Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg (1898-1985), the future wife of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Katherine Mansfield’s Tombstone at Cimetiere d’Avon in Avon France

On 9th January 1923, after running up a flight of stairs, Katherine Mansfield suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. Her husband failed to pay for her funeral expenses, so she was buried in a pauper’s grave until he rectified the situation. After this, Mansfield was interred at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Many of Mansfield’s stories remained unpublished at the time of her death. Gradually, Murry compiled them into volumes and printed them as The Dove’s Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924. He also published a collection of her poems (The AloeNovels and Novelists), letters and journals.

Despite spending half her life in Europe, Mansfield is most known in her home country. About ten schools in New Zealand have a school house named in her honour. Her birthplace is preserved as the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is open to the public. There is also an award called the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which allows a writer from New Zealand to work in one of Mansfield’s former homes in France.

In the 1970s, the BBC serialised Katherine Mansfield’s life in a miniseries called A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, starring Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937). Apart from this, little is done to keep the memory of Katherine Mansfield alive in Britain. For such a prolific writer, she remains unknown to many. If Mansfield had lived longer than 34 years, she would easily have exceeded the number of works by some of today’s most loved writers. 


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

During his career, English architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, worked on several buildings, including the New Bodleian Library, Battersea Power Station and Liverpool Cathedral. He blended Gothic and modern styles in his architectural designs, resulting in many well-known landmarks. Yet, it is not only these buildings for which we remember him. Scott’s most famous creation was the iconic red telephone box, which still appears on streets in the United Kingdom, Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Born in Hampstead, London, on 9th November 1880, Giles was one of six children born to George Gilbert Scott Jr. (1839-1897) and Ellen King Sampson. Both his father and grandfather were architects, and the latter, Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78), produced designs for the Albert Memorial in Kensington and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station. Yet, neither man inspired the young Giles’ interest in architecture; that was his mother.

In 1883, Giles’ father experienced a mental breakdown, which resulted in a lengthy stay at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. The children rarely saw their father and grew close to their mother, who lived in a flat in Battersea. At the weekends and school holidays, they often visited Hollis Street Farm, near Ninfield, Sussex, bequeathed to them by their uncle. On such occasions, Ellen took her sons on trips around the county to study the architecture of impressive buildings. No doubt she wanted her children to learn about their father’s passions rather than his mental illness.

The Scotts were Roman Catholics and Giles attended Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus. Yet, the choice of school had little to do with religion, but rather the architecture of the establishment. Due to his father’s reputation and his mother’s encouragement, Giles naturally sought an apprenticeship with an architect after finishing school. In 1899, Giles joined the office of Temple Moore (1856-1920), who once studied with his father. As well as teaching Giles about architecture, Moore taught his pupil about his father’s work, making him feel closer to the man who had been absent for most of his childhood.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning design

In 1901, the diocese of Liverpool announced a competition to design a new cathedral. Two well-known architects were assigned to judge the submissions: George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), who had connections with the decorative arts manufacturer Morris & Co., and Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), the designer of the Piccadilly Hotel in London. At least 103 architects entered the competition, including Temple Moore who also allowed his pupil to submit an entry. Remarkably, Bodley and Shaw selected Scott as the winning architect.

Unsurprisingly, many contested the result, arguing that a 22-year-old with no experience was not a good enough architect for the job. Nonetheless, the diocese accepted Bodley and Shaw’s choice, although asked Bodley to oversee the work. Unfortunately, Bodley had commitments in the United States and was rarely on hand to support the young architect. As a result, the process was slow and frustrating, causing Scott to contemplate handing in his resignation. Before Scott could put this thought into action, Bodley unexpectedly passed away in 1907, leaving Scott in charge of the project.

Scott’s 1910 redesign

Without Bodley to hold him back, Scott made rapid progress with the cathedral, but he no longer liked his original idea. After receiving permission from the diocese, Scott redesigned the building, making it simpler and symmetrical, allowing for more interior space. By the end of 1910, the first part of the building – the Lady Chapel – was constructed and consecrated, but the First World War slowed down the rest of the work.

The main body of the cathedral was erected in 1924 and consecrated in the presence of King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953). The Second World War caused problems with the construction and, although Scott worked on the project for the rest of his life, he never saw the finished cathedral. The building works finally came to an end in 1978.

Although Scott spent his entire career working on Liverpool Cathedral, he simultaneously produced designs for other buildings. His first completed construction was the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Bournemouth, followed by other churches in Norfolk, Kent, and the Isle of Man. He also worked on a house in Surrey with his brother, Adrian (1882-1963). During the First World War, while work on Liverpool Cathedral slowed, Scott became a Major in the Royal Marines and oversaw the construction of sea defences on the English coast.

While working in Liverpool, Scott met and married Louise Wallbank Hughes. His mother expressed disapproval about their relationship because Louise was a protestant, but the marriage was a happy one. The couple had three sons, although one died in infancy. One son, Richard Gilbert Scott (1923-2017), worked on several buildings at the London Guildhall amongst other constructions.

During the 1920s, Scott’s reputation as an architect soared, earning him many commissions. Cambridge University, for example, hired him to design a memorial court outside Clare College. Several churches also sought Scott’s expertise, including the Benedictine monastery Downside Abbey, for whom he produced a new nave. In Bath, Scott received the commission to design the Church of Our Lady & St Alphege, which he described as his “first essay into the Romanesque style of architecture.” He later declared the church one of his favourite works.

Chester House

Scott did not produce many domestic buildings during his career, but he is celebrated for the Cropthorne Court mansion block in Maida Vale. Scott also designed a house for his family in Clarendon Place, Paddington, called Chester House, where he lived for the rest of his life. The construction earned him the medal for London street architecture of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1928 and is now on the Grade II list for the National Heritage List for England.

K2 red telephone boxes preserved as a tourist attraction near Covent Garden

Scott’s most iconic design of the 1920s was his entry to a competition held by the Royal Fine Art Commission. They asked architects to submit ideas for the General Post Office’s new public telephone box. The first standard public telephone kiosk (K1) installed in 1921 did not meet everyone’s approval, particularly in London. The competition of 1924 aimed to find a design that suited the London Metropolitan Boroughs.

The dome of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum

Shortly before the competition opened, Scott became a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. The museum, formerly the home of the neo-classical architect, John Soane (1753-1837), contains drawings and architectural models of Soane’s projects, plus the paintings and antiquities he collected throughout his career. With this new position fresh in his mind, Scott based his entry on the dome of Soane’s mausoleum, which Soane designed before his death. 

The Post Office selected Scott’s entry as the winning design, although they wished to make a few changes. Whilst they kept the shape, they decided to paint it red like their postboxes, rather than silver with a greeny-blue interior as Scott suggested. They also rejected Scott’s proposal to build the kiosk from steel, in preference to cast iron. By 1926, the new telephone box (K2) appeared on the streets of London. Over time, alterations were made, but the general shape of Scott’s design remains the same. K4, for example, combined the telephone box with a stamp-machine, but various technical issues rendered them useless. K6, a shorter, streamlined version, appeared in 1936 to mark the Silver Jubilee of George V (1865-1936), and it is this version that proved most popular. Examples of the original K2 boxes are displayed near Covent Garden.

Battersea Power Station

At the beginning of the 1930s, the London Power Company hired Scott as a consulting architect for their new power station at Battersea. Electrical engineer Leonard Pearce (1873-1947) had already drawn up designs for the building, but they desired Scott’s input on the external appearance. The public was not happy about a coal-fired power station appearing on their doorstep, so Scott’s task was to make it look as attractive as possible. Scott opted for a brick-cathedral style, remodelling the four chimneys to look like classical columns. The interior designer tried to match Scott’s design by adding Art Deco components to the control rooms. When Battersea Power Station opened in 1933, critics labelled it “one of the finest sights in London”.

In 1933, the Royal Institute of British Architects elected Scott as their president. He encouraged architects to think about their choice of technique and materials to create practical but beautiful buildings, as he was then doing in Cambridge. The University asked Scott to build a library next to the memorial court he developed the previous decade. The library was to replace the old, impractical building that did not have room for Cambridge University’s growing collection of books. Scott designed a large reading room featuring a 12 storey tower, which is visible for several miles around the city.

Weston Library, Oxford

After completing the Cambridge University Library, Scott travelled to Oxford to work on their main research library. The Weston Library, or New Bodleian Library as it is also known, needed to be large enough to accommodate several millions of books. So as not to produce a construction that towered high above the surrounding buildings, Scott dug deep into the ground so that only part of the library is visible at street level. Conscious that the rest of the street featured a mix of architectural styles from Gothic (16th century) to Victorian (19th century), Scott opted for something in between: Jacobean (17th century). Unfortunately, it is not considered one of his greatest works.

Scott often searched for the “middle line” when producing designs. He combined modern architecture with the age of the surrounding buildings. Whilst this technique generally worked well, the Bishop of Coventry, who wished him to draw up plans for a modern cathedral, rejected his proposals. The Royal Fine Arts Commission, on the other hand, thought the new cathedral should resemble the old and not contain any contemporary elements. Despite working on the project for five years, Scott resigned in 1947 because he felt unable to satisfy both parties.

The Second World War temporarily halted many projects, but in the aftermath, many bombed-out buildings needed reconstructing. The House of Commons hired Scott to rebuild the Commons Chamber at the Palace of Westminster. On this occasion, Scott decided not to search for a middle line, but rather design something that complemented the rest of the palace. After a fire in 1834, British architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), remodelled the building in a Gothic style, which designer Augustus Pugin (1812-52) augmented with the interior design. Scott argued that any other architectural style would clash with the surviving parts, and after much discussion, Parliament approved his proposal.

Tate Modern

Gradually, post-war repair work died down, and Scott became available to accept other commissions. Although he opposed the mass construction of industrial buildings, Scott agreed to redevelop Bankside Power Station on the River Thames. In some ways, Scott’s design resembled a modern church, with the 99-metre tall chimney standing in the centre. Nonetheless, it was a stark contrast with the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite bank. 

Bankside Power Station closed down in the 1980s, and the Tate Modern art gallery took over the building in 2000. Despite disliking industrial buildings, Scott agreed to design North Tees Power Station in Durham and Rye House Power Station in Hertfordshire. Neither building still stands today.

Scott worked as an architect for the rest of his life, mostly on religious buildings. He designed many Roman Catholic Churches, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Kensington and St Anthony’s Church in Preston. He worked on two Anglican churches: St Leonard’s Church in Sussex and St Mark’s Church in the London Borough of Bromley. Scott also drew up the plans for the Trinity College Chapel in Toronto, Canada.

During his late seventies, Scott developed lung cancer, but he was determined to finish all his design projects, even if he would not live to see them built. When he was admitted to the University College Hospital in London, Scott took his plans for the Church of Christ the King in Plymouth with him and worked on them from his hospital bed. By the time he passed away on 8th February 1960 at the age of 79, his final design was complete.

Scott’s grave at Liverpool Cathedral

Giles Gilbert Scott’s funeral took place at St James’s Roman Catholic Church, London, on 17th February 1960 before his body travelled north for burial outside Liverpool Cathedral. Although the cathedral was Scott’s first project, the construction did not finish until 1978, 18 years after his death. In the plans, Scott stipulated that burials were not to take place inside the church because he did not want the cathedral to become a mausoleum. Nonetheless, the Diocese of Liverpool honoured the architect with a memorial stone set into the floor of the cathedral.

For an architect, Scott’s gravestone is rather modest, but who needs a monument when buried next to a cathedral of his own design? Since not many people know his name, Giles Gilbert Scott was probably not a great celebrity during his lifetime, but he did win a few awards. Early in his career, Scott received a knighthood from George V. In 1944, George VI appointed Scott a Member of the Order of Merit (OM).

During his career, Scott designed many buildings, including some that are now familiar landmarks. Arguably, his most famous design is the K2 Telephone Box. Although it is rare to see one in use, the design is synonymous with London and a great tourist attraction. But how many people look at a telephone box and think about the man who made them? The same goes for buildings. We are aware buildings do not just appear, but without the vision of an architect, they would not be built. We must remember and celebrate the lives of people such as Giles Gilbert Scott, for, without them, many famous landmarks would not exist.


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest

Hazel, Lady Lavery

“The most beautiful girl in the Midwest” is how the Irish historian Dr Sinéad McCoole (b.1968) describes Lady Lavery, an American woman who became the face of Ireland in the 20th century. Married to a painter, Lady Lavery sat for over 400 paintings, including one reproduced on banknotes for more than 50 years. How did an American woman become the most recognisable face in Ireland?

Lady Lavery was born Hazel Martyn in Chicago on 14th March 1880. Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was a descendent of a Galway tribe that dominated the Irish county between the 13th and 16th century. Hazel and her sister Dorothea Hope (1887-1911) grew up in relative comfort due to their father’s success as a businessman. Sadly, Edward passed away when his eldest daughter was only 17 years old, but his wealth allowed Hazel to attend finishing school in the city. She earned a reputation in Chicago high society circles for her beauty, which attracted many suitors, including Edward “Ned” Livingston Trudeau Jr, the son of the doctor who made progress with tuberculosis treatment.

Hazel and her sister enjoyed the arts and, whilst Dorothy aspired to be a playwright, Hazel set her sights on becoming a painter. She regularly visited Europe in pursuit of her dreams, while her fiancé Trudeau waited for her return. On one trip, Hazel attended an artists’ retreat in Brittany, France. Here, she met the Irish painter John Lavery (1856-1941), famed for his portraits and landscapes. Writing home to her mother, Hazel described Lavery with great fondness. Her mother disapproved of the relationship because of their 24 year age difference and urged Hazel to return home to her fiancé.

In 1903, Hazel and Trudeau married in New York. Sadly, five months later, Trudeau tragically died, leaving behind his widow and unborn child. On 10th October 1904, Hazel gave birth to Alice, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and she took several months to recover. In June 1905, Hazel and her mother travelled to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, to aid her recovery. While there, she received several visits from Lavery, with whom she had regularly corresponded since her husband’s death.

On one visit, Lavery painted his first portrait of Hazel and made his affections clear. Hazel’s mother continued to oppose the match and rarely let the couple spend time alone. On a trip to Italy in 1906, Hazel accepted a marriage proposal from Leonard Thomas, a wealthy diplomat, but the relationship did not last. Meanwhile, Hazel remained in contact with Lavery and, after her mother passed away in 1909, they married and moved to London. For a brief time, Hazel divided her time between England and America. After her sister died in 1911 from anorexia nervosa, Hazel cut ties with her birth country.

John Lavery

Whilst born in Belfast, John Lavery grew up in Scotland where he associated with the Glasgow School of art. Lavery launched his career as a society painter after receiving the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. After moving to London in 1889, Lavery befriended artists such as James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly influenced his work.

In London, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott with whom he had a daughter, Eileen (1890-1930). Sadly, Kathleen passed away from tuberculosis shortly after the birth of her daughter. By the time Lavery met and married Hazel Martyn, he was a well-established artist in the capital city.

Mrs Lavery sketching, 1910

During their early years of marriage, Hazel acted as a London society hostess, welcoming prestigious guests to dinners and soirees or her husband’s studio for a portrait sitting. Whilst Hazel sat for the majority of Lavery’s portraits he also took on commissions. Flirtatious in nature, Hazel enjoyed being the centre of attention, particularly around male guests. Lavery tolerated this vice, but others gossiped about rumoured affairs.

There is no evidence that Hazel did conduct an affair, although she did correspond with many men. Amongst those to whom she regularly wrote are the authors Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). She also knew many politicians due to her husband’s position as an official artist for the British government during the First World War. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) famously asked Hazel to teach him to paint during his portrait sittings.

The Artist’s Studio: Lady Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Step-Daughter Eileen

In 1918, John Lavery received a knighthood, making him and his wife Sir and Lady Lavery. The same year, Hazel and John took an active interest in their Irish roots, particularly after the Sinn Féin election victory. Churchill mentioned in his letters to Hazel about his concerns over the growing tensions between Britain and Ireland. The Lavery’s had many social and political contacts in both countries and wished to help bring peace between the nations.

The Laverys lent their house at 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington as a neutral location for negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) led the British side with Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins (1890-1922), an Irish politician, headed the Irish delegation. Both Churchill and Collins were regular visitors to the Lavery’s house and were grateful to Lady Lavery for her hospitality.

Collins grew fond of Hazel and rumours flew about a potential affair. Some biographers claim Hazel loved Collins, whereas others say there is no proof of a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, members of the delegation questioned their closeness, fearing Hazel to be a spy. She appeased them by calling herself a “simple Irish girl” and converting to Catholicism.

Due to their connections with both British and Irish politicians, the Lavery’s home became a safe place for discussions away from the hostile environment of the courts. Hazel’s presence often diffused bitterness, allowing peaceful talks to take place. Many letters written by Hazel reveal her organisation skills and a gift of persuasion, which helped the negotiations run smoothly. Although Hazel came from America and lived in England, her Irish roots bridged the gap between the warring nations.

Michael Collins: Love of Ireland by John Lavery

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6th December 1921, thus ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. Ireland gained its freedom, although arguments regarding the status of Northern Ireland continued. Civil War broke out in Ireland and, despite attempts to talk peacefully, Michael Collins was assassinated on 22nd August 1922. Rumours of an affair between Collins and Lady Lavery flew once more when a letter addressed to “Dearest Hazel” was found on his body. Yet, the gossipers were silenced at his funeral when Collins’ fiancé Kitty Kiernan embraced Hazel as though a close friend. As the Irish biographer Anita Leslie (1914-85) put it, Hazel and Collins were “soul mates rather than bed mates”.

Until 1922, Ireland used the British pound; after gaining independence, they wished to create a new currency. Many discussions took place within the Irish government until September 1927, when they publicly introduced their idea of a “Saorstàt Pound”. (Saorstàt is the Irish word for “free state”.) The government planned to issue new coins and banknotes but needed to think carefully about their design. Joseph Brennan (1887-1976), the Chairman of the Currency Commission, set up an advisory committee to discuss design proposals.

Lavery’s portrait of Hazel for the Irish banknotes

The committee approached several artists and printers before commissioning John Lavery to paint an “emblematic female figure” to appear on the new notes. They chose Lavery due to his ongoing support during the war and peace talks as well as his artistic ability. Whereas British notes featured the reigning monarch, the Irish government wanted “an archetypical Irish Cailín or Colleen, symbolic of Irish womanhood.” (Cailín is the Irish word for “girl”.) As the committee expected, Lavery asked his wife to sit for the portrait.

“I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve perhaps, would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction …”

Lady Lavery in a letter to Thomas Bodkin on the advisory committee

Having her portrait painted by her husband was not a new thing for Hazel, but knowing she would soon be on every banknote in Ireland was a little unnerving. Nonetheless, Lavery produced a faithful likeness of his wife with her arm resting upon an Irish harp. In the background, he included an Irish landscape. The shawl Hazel wore was also typical of the country. The government paid Lavery 250 guineas for the painting, and the first notes featuring Hazel’s face arrived in September 1928.

The public automatically assumed the portrait on the new notes was Hazel Lavery. Not only had John Lavery painted it, but the likeness was evident. The government attempted to protect Hazel’s identity by openly denying that she was the sitter. They worried people would not accept the notes because of Hazel’s reputation as a flirt and the rumours surrounding her relationship with the late Michael Collins. Fortunately, the public readily accepted the new notes, and the identity of the sitter remained anonymous.

Following the success of the new banknotes, John Lavery received the Freedom of Dublin. Despite this, the Laverys decided to remain living in London, although they frequently visited Ireland. Initially, Hazel remained involved with Irish politics, but changes within the political parties distanced her from those in charge. Lavery continued to paint portraits of his wife and produced other artworks for exhibitions. During this time, Hazel’s health, which had never been good, began to deteriorate.

After a routine operation to remove a wisdom tooth, Hazel passed away on 1st January 1935, aged 54. Her funeral took place at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Knightsbridge area of London, followed by a simple burial in Putney Vale Cemetery. In Ireland, her death received more attention, and the government arranged a memorial service.

Lady Lavery by John Lavery

Although many portraits survive of Lady Hazel Lavery, the paintings she produced during her lifetime are missing. As Churchill’s cousin Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971), said, “Had it not been for Hazel’s portrait as the colleen of Irish banknotes, her features and even her name would now be forgotten in a land which has never accounted gratitude amongst its theological virtues”. Without the banknotes, which Ireland used until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Hazel’s involvement with the Anglo-Irish Treaty would remain unknown.

In many cases, women are written out of history, not out of malicious intent, but because society did not consider them important at the time. It is with thanks to historians who wondered about the identity of the Irish Cailín on Ireland’s old banknotes that we know anything at all about Lady Lavery. As a result, we have an intriguing story about an American woman who became the face of Ireland. It is a great shame Hazel’s paintings are lost, and that we know little else about her personal life. Hazel’s story contains many unanswered questions but also opens our eyes to the possibilities of many more hidden histories.


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart, c. 1781, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

“Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years,” wrote Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) after the death of the classical composer, Mozart. As a child prodigy, Mozart composed music for the keyboard and the violin from the age of five. Thirty years later, he had completed more than 600 works, and many admired his talents, including royalty. Then he died. Many conspiracy theories suggest jealous contemporaries poisoned the young musician. Although people have tried to prove Mozart died from an illness, there is not enough evidence to eradicate these theories. Yet it is not his death that makes Mozart so famous; it is his music. Two-hundred and thirty years after his death, we are still playing his tunes. Mozart’s music lives on. 

Mozart as a child

Online biographies of Mozart tend to disagree about the birth name of the child prodigy. His baptismal records, written shortly after his birth in Salzburg on 27th January 1756, list his name as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. As an adult, he styled himself as Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, although, at some point, the middle name evolved into “Amadeus”.

Mozart was the youngest son of Leopold Mozart (1719-87) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720-78). Of the seven children, only Mozart and his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), survived infancy. Leopold, a German composer, conductor, and violinist, taught his children to play and write music. Although the young Mozart became the most famous of the two, his sister, nicknamed Nannerl, was also a proficient musician. Leopold also gave his children instruction in academics and language studies.

As child prodigies, Mozart and Nannerl were exhibited across Europe, beginning with a concert for the much-beloved Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria (1727-1777), in 1762. Over the next three and a half years, the siblings toured several European cities, including, Munich, Vienna, Prague, London, Dover, Paris, The Hague, Amsterdam and Zurich. They met with several notable musicians, including J.S. Bach (1735-82), who greatly influenced the young Mozart. During the tour, Mozart composed his first symphony at the tender age of 8.

Mozart, age 14

After the success of this first tour, the Mozart family agreed to more concerts. The journeys were often long and challenging for the young musicians. In 1769, Leopold left his daughter at home while he and Mozart toured Italy until 1771. Leopold aimed to advertise his son’s compositions as much as his performance. During the trip, Mozart became a member of the Bologna Academy of Music and accepted an invitation to attend a concert at the Sistine Chapel. On this famous occasion, Mozart heard Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), a piece of music closely guarded by the Vatican City. The Vatican forbade anyone from sharing the transcript outside the country, but Mozart made an illegal copy of the music from memory.

At the age of 14, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto, which told the story of Mithridates, the King of Pontus (135-63 BC). The success of this opera prompted many commissions, resulting in Ascanio in Alba for Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) and Lucio Silla, which critics considered a moderate success. 

In 1773, Mozart gained employment as the court musician of Prince Hieronymus von Colloredo (1732-1812) of Salzburg. Mozart composed several symphonies, sonatas and serenades for the prince, but he also developed a preference for violin concertos. He wrote the majority of the latter between April and December 1775 before changing tune again in favour of piano concertos. Unfortunately, Mozart received very little money for his efforts and longed to find a position elsewhere. He visited Munich and Vienna in search of work but with little success.

Determined to find a better position, Mozart resigned from his job in Salzburg and continued to travel in search of work. He hoped the orchestra in Mannheim would accept him, and he briefly had a romance with the German soprano Aloysia Weber (1760-1839). When both these liaisons came to nothing, Mozart left the country and headed to Paris. Here, Mozart stayed with the French-journalist Melchior Grimm (1723-1807), while he pawned personal items to pay his growing debts. During this time, Mozart learned of his mother’s death, which added to his despair.

The Mozart Family, 1780

Meanwhile, Mozart’s father pursued employment opportunities for his son in Salzburg, eventually regaining him a position as court organist and concertmaster to the newly styled Archbishop Colloredo. Mozart felt reluctant to return home and the job did not excite him, but with no money he had little option. He took up his new appointment in 1779, earning 450 florins a year.

In 1781, the Archbishop and Mozart travelled to Vienna to witness the accession of Joseph II (1741-90) to the Austrian throne. Colloredo wished to show off the talents of his concertmaster, but Mozart aimed “to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that’s what he likes.” Mozart eventually attained the goal, despite Colloredo’s attempts to drag him back to Salzburg. 

Now free of both Colloredo and his father, Mozart pursued a career in the capital and soon established himself as “the finest keyboard player in Vienna”. He performed the piano for the Emperor and composed the successful opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). His reputation as a composer soon spread throughout the German-speaking world.

Constanze Mozart, 1782

Whilst in Vienna, Mozart reunited with the Weber family who had moved to the city from Mannheim. He became their lodger and, although he once had eyes for Aloysia Weber, he turned his attention to her sister, Constanze (1762-1842). Mozart lodged with the Weber family and sought Constanze’s hand in marriage. He finally won her hand, and they married on 4th August 1782 in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The couple went on to have six children: Raimund Leopold (1783), Karl Thomas (1784-1858), Johann Thomas Leopold (1786), Theresia Constanzia Adelheid Friedericke Maria Anna (1787-88), Anna Marie (1789), and Franz Xaver Wolfgang (1791-1844). Sadly, only Karl and Franz survived infancy.

After his marriage, Mozart continued to pursue his music career, often studying works by Bach and Handel (1685-1759). The influence of these Baroque composers is evident in several compositions by Mozart. In 1784, he became friends with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), to whom he dedicated six string quartets. Haydn allegedly told Mozart’s father: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

To earn money, Mozart performed many of his solo works for the public. Since he could not afford to hire theatres, he played in private apartments and restaurants instead. The concerts proved popular, and he soon had enough money to rent an expensive apartment with his wife and children. He furnished his rooms with items of luxury, including a fortepiano and a billiard table. Rather than saving any of his earnings, Mozart hired servants and sent his eldest surviving son Karl to a prodigious boarding school.

In 1784, Mozart became a Freemason. Typically, Mozart produced four piano concertos a season, but he also composed several pieces of Masonic music, including the Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music). Records state this music featured in memorial services of at least two of Mozart’s fellow Freemasons. 

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Mozart gradually moved away from piano concertos to focus on operas in 1785. Collaborating with the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), Mozart produced the four-act opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The work contained over 900 bars of continuous music, including some of the lengthiest pieces Mozart ever wrote. After its successful premiere in Vienna, the opera moved to Prague, where it received great praise. The Emperor also requested a performance at his theatre in Laxenburg, Austria.

Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni, received as much acclaim, earning him the patronage of Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor also hired him as “chamber composer”, but this success was bittersweet, for Mozart’s father did not live to see it, passing away earlier in the year on 28th May 1787. Mozart’s new role involved composing dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal (the concert hall at the Emperor’s residence). 

Drawing of Mozart, 1789

The Austro-Turkish war between 1788 and 1791 made life difficult for everyone. The aristocracy no longer had the funds to support musicians and theatres were closed. Mozart’s income diminished significantly, forcing him and his family to move to cheaper accommodation in Alsergrund, in the suburbs of Vienna. Unfortunately, this did not decrease Mozart’s spending, only lessening the housing space to store his purchases. Although he still composed symphonies and operas, including Così fan tutte (1790), Mozart frequently borrowed money from his friends to meet his needs.

A burst of activity in 1791 resulted in some of Mozart’s most famous works, including the opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The opera has many Masonic elements, evidencing Mozart’s connection to the Freemasons. The librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812), also belonged to the fraternal organisation. Alongside the successful opera, Mozart composed another piano concerto, the motet Ave verum corpus and began working on a requiem. 

Due to the success of these works, Mozart no longer needed to ask for monetary loans from his friends. Wealthy patrons gradually reappeared after the war ended, asking him to write music for dances and suchlike. Sadly, Mozart could not enjoy his regained wealth on account of his poor health. He fell ill in September 1791, although he managed to conduct the premiere of The Magic Flute at the end of the month. Mozart continued to work as much as he could, but by November, he was bedridden with swollen limbs, severe pain and frequent vomiting.

Determined to finish his Requiem, Mozart worked from his bed. As time passed, his condition worsened, making it impossible to complete his final piece of music. His wife, Constanze, acted as his nurse until he passed away in the early hours of 5th December 1791 at the age of 35. The illness that caused his death remains unknown, and researchers still argue over hundreds of diagnoses, including infections, influenza, kidney complaints and poison.

“Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December.” A report of Mozart’s funeral in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians caused many to believe Mozart had a pauper’s burial, but this is not true. The term “common grave” means an individual grave for a common person, i.e. someone who did not hold an aristocratic rank in society. At the time of his death, Mozart’s financial situation was improving, and his family was by no means poor.

“Mozart’s work is beyond all praise. One feels only too keenly, on hearing this or any other of his music, what the Art has lost in him.”

Emanuel Schikaneder
Antonio Salieri

The death of so talented a composer shocked many people in Europe, particularly one so young. Although fatal illnesses were common at the time, many believe Mozart’s death was unnatural. Researchers have generally ruled out murder, but early rumours accused Mozart’s colleague Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) of poisoning him. Despite the 1979 play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer (1926-2016), in which Salieri confesses to the murder, Mozart’s symptoms did not correspond with the side effects of poison. Nonetheless, the accusations damaged Salieri’s reputation and triggered a mental breakdown later in life.

Salieri was not the only person rumoured to have poisoned the great composer. Others suspected the involvement of the Masons and some went as far as to blame the Jews. In reality, Mozart suffered many illnesses during his short life, most likely due to a deficiency in vitamin D. Researchers suggest his final illness had a similar cause.

Rumours that Mozart died a poor man stem from the misconception of a “commoners grave”. He indeed left his family with outstanding debts, but his income had significantly risen over the past year. Constanze appealed to the Emperor, who provided her with a widow’s pension, which helped her feed and clothe her two children. She managed to pay off the remaining debts by arranging concerts of her husband’s music and publishing many of Mozart’s works.

As is often the case, Mozart’s popularity increased after his death. According to a biography by Maynard Solomon (1930-2020), Mozart’s compositions received an “unprecedented wave of enthusiasm”, both from musicians and audiences. Mozart’s work changed the style of popular music, which until his birth was typically Baroque. Mozart’s influence is evident in many composer’s works, such as Beethoven (1770-1827), Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), who wrote several variations of his themes. Tchaikovsky (1840-93) composed the orchestra suite Mozartiana as a tribute to the talented musician.

Mozart continued to influence many people throughout the 19th, 20th and into the 21st century. His music is widely recognised throughout the world, often topping the Classical Music charts. Mozart not only impacted the lives of musicians but of writers and artists too. Mozart appears as a character in novels by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and plays by Shaffer and Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Several films and television programmes have focused on the composer’s life, and The Wombles borrowed Mozart’s 3rd movement of the Jupiter Symphony for their song Minuetto Allegretto

Although the interesting aspects of Mozart’s life, or rather his death, are largely mythologised, Mozart is an intriguing person. Composing from the age of 5, Mozart had an exceptional talent, making him a unique individual. Despite dying at 35, Mozart lived a full life, resulting in over 600 compositions. Not only did he have an impressive output, but he also produced masterpieces that still survive 230 years after his death. Unknowingly, Mozart single-handedly influenced and changed the world.


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future. 

Portrait by Richard Stone, 1986

Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.

Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”

George VI in the uniform of a field marshal

As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.

Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.

In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.

Portrait by Philip de László, 1925

Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.

In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.

Elizabeth in Queensland, 1927

After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).

On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.

Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.

Portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly.

Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.

Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74). 

Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.

Southern Rhodesian stamp celebrating the 1947 royal tour of Southern Africa

After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.

In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.

As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).

Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis CBE

Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.

After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.

Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.

Elizabeth at Dover Castle

The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.

On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.

In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.

The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.

Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.

On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.

Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”

Sir Hugh Casson

When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.

Bronze statue of Elizabeth on The Mall, London, overlooked by the statue of her husband King George VI

Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).

In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.

Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.

Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.

As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.

The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft
Sylvia Pankhurst


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Grace Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy

Grace Darling became a national hero after rescuing the survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Northumberland. Living with her father in a lighthouse, Grace often experienced stormy weather, dangerous seas and damaged sailing vessels. Her life, in comparison to the average Victorian, was far from normal, but it was her daring act of bravery that brought her to the attention of the nation.

The Darling family lived on the Farne Islands, a group of 15 or 20 islands within 5 miles of the mainland. Today, they are uninhabited except for the National Trust rangers who look after the remaining buildings. Grace’s grandfather, Robert Darling (d.1815), moved to Brownsman Island, one of the largest islands in the group, in 1795 to look after the lighthouse. Robert prepared his youngest child and only son, William (1786-1865), to take over the job when the time came.

During his teens, William worked as the assistant lighthouse keeper. He also worked as a labourer in Bamburgh on the mainland where he met his future wife, Thomasin Horsley (1774-1848) whose father, Job Horsley, worked in the gardens of the Bamburgh Castle Estate. Aged 31, Thomasin was an unlikely match for 19-year-old William, but she agreed to his marriage proposal and move to Brownsman Island.

The Darling family cottage on Brownsman Island

In 1806, Thomasin gave birth to her first child, William (1806-69), nicknamed “Laddie” to differentiate him from his father. Soon, five more children came along: twins, Thomasin (1808-86) and Mary Ann (1808-43); Job (1810-30); Elizabeth Grace (1812-44); and Robert (1814-77). On 24th November 1815, Thomasin gave birth to her fourth daughter, naming her Grace after her twin sister, who died at birth. Shortly after, Robert Darling passed away, making his son the new lighthouse keeper. The large family made the lighthouse their home and soon welcomed two more sons, twins George Alexander (1819-1903) and William Brooks (1819-70).

The children paid regular trips to the mainland to visit their maternal grandfather. They enjoyed exploring the gardens he looked after, helping him sow seeds and pick fruit. Although their father grew vegetables on the island, fruit did not regularly appear in their diet. Surrounded by water, the Darling family usually ate fish and the eggs of local wildfowl. Eider ducks and puffins were among the creatures that inhabited the islands.

Victorian children typically played in the streets or countryside, but not the Darling children; the water was their world. They learned to row from a young age, frequently accompanying their father on fishing trips. Fearless of the waves, the siblings often ventured out on their own, visiting the other rocky islands, searching for eggs and shells while investigating caves and climbing rocks.

For running the lighthouse, built as early as 1795, the keepers earned £70 per year (the equivalent of £6,300 today). Whilst the job did not pay particularly well, the family made do with the simple accommodation that came with the role. Whilst the responsibility for working the lighthouse fell to their father, the Darling children frequently helped out when needed, for example, when a ship failed to miss the warning about nearby rocks. The boys accompanied their father in the lifeboat to rescue sailors and salvage goods, whilst the girls helped their mother prepare food and warmth for the sodden men, plus keeping the lantern burning.

Although many ships crashed into the rocky islands, the lighthouse provided safe passage to the majority of sailors. Statistically, the most shipwrecks occurred around the easterly rocks, and William Darling noted the lantern failed to reach that area. He attempted to make some beacons to place on these rocks, but they frequently fell into the sea during storms. Soon Darling approached Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses, and warned them of the danger. Architects drew up proposals for a new lighthouse, and construction began on Longstone Rock in 1825.

Longstone Lighthouse

The Darling family moved into the new lighthouse, then known as the Outer Farne Lighthouse, in 1826. A second lighthouse was soon built on one of the inner islands and managed by another keeper. Longstone Lighthouse reached a height of 83 feet and contained five floors, three of which the large family used for bedrooms. Grace, then aged ten, shared the third floor with her sister Elizabeth. The family used the ground floor of the lighthouse as their living room, kitchen and dining room.

Whilst the lighthouse on Longstone provided a more visible warning to sailors of hidden rocks, the surrounding land was desolate and unsuited for growing crops. William Darling sought permission from Trinity House to continue using the land on Brownsman Island as an allotment and place to keep animals. He and the children regularly rowed back and forth between the islands, collecting vegetables and bird eggs for their meals.

Some of the older Darling children decided to move to the mainland, rather than live on a barren rock. William Jr found an apprenticeship in Alnwick. Here, he met his future wife Ann Cobb, who he married in 1837. William did not forget his former life and regularly returned home on visits. In 1839, the Duke of Northumberland appointed William as the first lighthouse keeper on Coquet Island, one mile from the coast of Amble. He lived there for the rest of his life with his wife and six children.

Job Darling followed in his older brother’s footsteps and found an apprenticeship in Newcastle. He began training as a joiner at the age of 15 and wrote to his father about the enjoyable experience. He planned to return home in 1830 to celebrate Christmas and his 20th birthday but succumbed to an illness a few weeks before.

Thomasin Darling

Thomasin Darling, Grace’s favourite sister, believed she would never attract a husband on account of her cleft lip. She moved to the mainland to set up a dressmaker’s business in Bamburgh. She kept in touch with her family, regularly writing to Grace. She later wrote the book Grace Darling, Her True Story. Thomasin’s twin sister, Mary Ann, also moved to Bamburgh, marrying George Dixon Carr in 1832. After four children died in infancy, Mary Ann finally conceived a healthy baby. Unfortunately, George died at the age of 32 before the birth of his daughter Georgiann. Mary Ann moved back to the lighthouse following his death but passed away three years later, leaving her orphan child with her grandparents. 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Darling shared a room with her younger sister Grace when they first moved to Longstone. Betsy was 14 at the time and a year or so later moved to North Sunderland to work as a maidservant. She married a draper, John Maule, and had two children: James and Thomasin.

Unlike the other children, Robert Darling attended boarding school at Bamburgh Castle. In 1831, he apprenticed as a stonemason in Belford but moved to Newcastle after marrying Elizabeth Pye (1803-1881). Like his other siblings, Robert often returned to the lighthouse for family celebrations. He had one daughter, Elizabeth Grace.

Grace never went to school but received an education at home from her father. William taught her to read and write and gave her lessons on arithmetic, geography, history and the bible. Whilst the family were religious, they could not all leave the lighthouse to attend church. Instead, William read from the scriptures and wrote sermons. The history of the Farne Islands frequently cropped up in Grace’s lessons. This included the names and lives of saints and monks who once lived on the islands. William taught his children that Christianity first arrived in England on the nearby shores of Northumberland. He also gave them musical instruction and wrote marches and airs for them to perform. The Darling children, but particularly Grace, had fine singing voices.

By the age of 15, only Grace and her younger twin brothers remained at the lighthouse with their parents. As the only girl, Grace spent the majority of her time helping her mother with domestic jobs. She felt unable to leave the island as her older siblings had done because she believed her parents would need her in their old age. She learnt to maintain the lighthouse lantern, mend fishing nets and watch the sea for signs of ships and danger. Grace also helped to look after the garden and livestock on Brownsman Island, often rowing there alone.

William Brooks Darling

In 1834, George Darling left the family home to work as a ship carpenter’s apprentice in Newcastle. Allegedly, George, his twin and his father rowed from the islands to the city. With George away, William relied heavily on Grace and William Brooks to help out around the lighthouse. Having lived on the islands her entire life, the sea was Grace’s world, and she knew the tides like the back of her hand. She could detect changes in the weather and climate by intently studying the surrounding waters and happily spent hours watching the horizon for ships with a telescope.

In the early hours of 7th September 1838, Grace woke during a storm. Peering at the waves from her bedroom window, she saw a dark shape in the distance near one of the rocks. Believing it to be a ship, Grace woke her father, and the pair kept an eye on it through the telescope. There did not appear to be any sign of life.

SS Forfarshire, circa 1835

The ship was the SS Forfarshire, a paddle steamer belonging to the Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company. Built in 1834 by Thomas Adamson, the Forfarshire carried passengers along the North Sea Coast from Hull on the River Humber to Dundee on the River Tay and back again. SS Forfarshire held at least 40 passengers and crew each trip, as well as animals and cargo.

On 5th September 1838, the SS Forfarshire set sail from Hull at 6:30pm and reached the open seas three hours later. During the night, one of the boilers sprang a leak, which the crew hastily repaired. In the morning, the crew discovered further issues with the boilers and the frightened passengers urged the captain to dock in the nearest port. Captain John Humble assured them the ship was safe and continued the journey.

The ship continued to face problems, but the captain encouraged his crew to keep sailing. The Forfarshire could have reached its destination if the weather had not at that moment changed from a gentle breeze to gale-force winds. The added pressure on the ship caused more leakages in the boilers. They could not produce enough steam to travel forward. At 11 pm, the captain, realising his mistake, stopped the engines and the ship began to drift south.

With the wind forcing the ship further south, the captain decided to turn around and search for shelter. Using a makeshift sail, the crew pointed the SS Forfarshire in the direction of the Farne Islands. The wind, rain, darkness and choppy sea made it extremely difficult to navigate. Finally, in the distance, the captain spotted a light. He steered the ship towards what he believed to be the Inner Farne Lighthouse, but he had widely miscalculated. It was Longstone Lighthouse which, unlike the Inner Farne, is surrounded by sharp, dangerous rocks.

The wind shunted the ship into Big Harcar Rock, one mile from the lighthouse, causing the vessel to split in half. The front became wedged into the rock, but the aft and lower deck swept away into the sea. Many passengers were thrown overboard or drowned in their cabins, including the Captain. Those on the deck managed to avoid a watery fate, but the gale threatened to blow them into the sea. The ship’s carpenter, John Tulloch, decided to jump from the deck onto the rocks. Steerage passenger, Daniel Donovan, followed suit and encouraged a few others to jump to safety, including a woman and two children. Soon, all the surviving passengers were on the rock, plus the body of Reverend Robb, who had died while in prayer.

The Rescue of the SS ‘Forfarshire’ – Francis Sebastian Lowther

Back at the lighthouse, Grace and her father sat at the telescope searching for signs of life. For hours, they saw nothing. Around 7 am, Grace finally spotted some movement on one of the rocks. The storm was still raging, and William knew it would be too difficult for the lifeboat in North Sunderland to sail out to sea. Grace pleaded with her father to do something, suggesting they take their rowing boat, which they had with them at the lighthouse. Before he could refuse, Grace was already getting into the boat.

Father and daughter rowed towards the wreckage, taking a long way round to avoid getting crushed against the rocks. In the gale, the mile journey took a long time to complete, but they persevered. On reaching the rock, they found nine survivors, too many to fit into the rowing boat. Positioning themselves as close to the rock as possible, William jumped ashore while Grace fought to keep the boat in place. William spoke to the men and argued about who he should rescue first. Eventually, William helped the only woman, Sarah Dawson, into the boat after forcing her to part with her children, James and Matilda, who had died during the night.

An injured man joined Mrs Dawson in the rowing boat and William enlisted John Tulloch and another crew member, John Nicholson, to help him row back to the lighthouse. The remaining survivors waited on the rock for their return. On reaching the lighthouse, Grace helped Mrs Dawson and the injured man into the lighthouse where she and her mother cared for them. William returned to the rock with the two crewmen to rescue the other survivors. They left the dead bodies behind, planning to collect them when the storm abated.

When William and Grace set out on the first trip to the rock, Thomasin Darling tried to contact the lifeboat station in North Sunderland, fearing that her husband and daughter would perish during the rescue mission. William had been right about the harsh weather making it difficult for the lifeboat to sail, and they did not arrive until 9 am, by which time the rowing boat had brought everyone to safety. With the storm raging on, the lifeboat team sheltered at the lighthouse until safe to leave. Grace’s youngest brother William Brooks was one of the lifeguards that day.

Grace Darling at the Forfarshire by Thomas Musgrave Joy

Since the event, people conducted several attempts to name everyone that perished at sea. The Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company kept no passenger list, so it is uncertain how many people were on board the SS Forfarshire. Reports list at least 43 casualties but some remain unnamed.

As soon as the press found out about the disaster, the list of survivors appeared in the newspapers. For a while, these men and woman were famous throughout the country. The Darling’s rescued five crewmen, all coincidentally named John: John Tulloch, John Kidd, John Nicholas, John MacQueen and Jonathan Thickett. The other four survivors were passengers: Thomas Buchanan, a baker; Daniel Donovan, a fireman, James Kelly, a weaver; and Sarah Dawson, the “wife of a labourer, formerly of Dundee, but then working in Hull”.

Unbeknownst to the Darlings at the time, eight crewmen and one passenger managed to escape the ship on a quarter boat. As soon as they reached the shore, they reported the incident but believed they were the only survivors. Before long, word spread about the men and woman rescued by the Darlings and journalists rushed to the scene to interview them. One man told a reporter that a young woman in a rowing boat saved his life.

“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”

The Times

The news story spread like wildfire with accounts in local and national newspapers, such as The Times. The articles emphasised the storm, the dangerous rocks, and the fate of the ship and its passengers. Many people declared Grace Darling a heroine; not only did she put her life on the line, but she did so for strangers. Although Grace’s father did the majority of the rescue, rowing back to collect the rest of the survivors, the media focused on Grace’s involvement. 

The public believed Grace should be rewarded for her actions and sent her presents and monetary donations. Even the young Queen Victoria (1819-1901) sent £50 to express her thanks. Hundreds of letters addressed to Grace arrived at the lighthouse, each one hoping for a reply. Some asked her to kiss the paper and return to the sender. As well as letters, visitors arrived en masse to get a glimpse of the heroine.

The fate of the SS Forfarshire spread across the continent, eventually reaching people as far as Japan, Australia and America. Now a celebrity, everyone wanted to read about Grace Darling. They yearned to know what she looked like and, unsatisfied with the written descriptions in news articles, commissioned artists to paint her likeness. Although William Darling gave his consent, he soon put a limit on how many times Grace would sit for portraits.

Grace Darling by Henry Perlee Parker

Some artists became friends with the Darling family, for instance, Henry Perlee Parker (1785-1873), who named his daughter Grace after Grace Darling. John Wilson Carmichael (1800-68), a maritime painter who visited the Darlings with Parker, continued to send them presents of books after finishing the painting. The sculptor, David Dunbar (1792-1866) travelled from Newcastle to produce busts of Grace and her father.

Other artists preferred to paint the rescue scene with Grace in the rowing boat and the waves rising above her. Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866) lodged with the Darlings for several weeks to paint as accurate a painting as possible. He quizzed William Darling about the position of each person in the boat and on the rock. He also requested details of their appearances. Pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott (1811-90) produced a mural of the rescue, which now hangs in Wallington Hall.

As well as letters and requests for paintings, Grace received numerous invitations, many of which she rejected. Theatres across the country invited her to act out her heroic rescue on stage. The Adelphi Theatre in London offered her £10 a week to act in The Wreck At Sea. She refused, and an actress took her place. Grace accepted an invitation to visit a circus, but when she learned they wished to make her the highlight of the show, she declined. 

Grace Darling – Heroine of the Farne Islands by Eva Hope

Songs, poems and souvenirs quickly appeared around the country in celebration of the young heroine. They continued to crop up long after her death, including a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who lost his brother in a shipwreck. All this attention may have been nice, to begin with, but Grace soon hated all the attention. Marriage proposals arrived from men of all stations, all of which Grace rejected. She did not wish to leave the lighthouse and did not understand why they celebrated her actions. The nation hailed her a heroine, but all she was doing was her job.

On a visit to relatives in Alnwick, Grace met Hugh Percy, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847) who insisted on becoming her guardian. He wished to protect Grace from the people who wanted to exploit her, for example, the circus owners and theatre managers. William Darling readily agreed to this proposal and the Duke appointed trustees to look after Grace’s affairs. The Duke provided the Darling family with regular gifts. He also ordered and paid for the construction of a lighthouse on Coquet Island, of which he appointed William Darling Jr as the first lighthouse keeper.

Even with the Duke’s protection, life became difficult for Grace. As a celebrity, she found it impossible to go to the mainland without someone recognising her. Initially, Grace did not wish to leave the lighthouse, but her home no longer resembled a peaceful place. Her youngest brother and his family moved into the lighthouse, as did her widowed sister, making it a noisy, bustling place.

In March 1842, Grace braved a trip to Coquet Island to spend time with her eldest brother. News of her voyage spread fast, and crowds turned up to see her off on the steamer ship. After her break away, she visited her cousins in Alnwick before returning home. During the trip, Grace caught a virus and developed a persistent cough. She wished to rest at home, but frequent visitors, letters and money matters needed her attention. Gradually, Grace withdrew into herself, becoming weak and unwell.

The Darling family thought the atmosphere at Longstone Lighthouse contributed to her poor health, so sent her to stay with friends in Wooler near the Cheviot Hills. During her stay, she rallied a little and decided to risk the journey home via her cousins in Alnwick. Soon after her arrival, her health rapidly declined, and the Duke of Northumberland sent his physician to attend to her. The doctor diagnosed Grace with tuberculosis, and she became sicker as the days went by.

William Darling decided to move his daughter closer to home, hoping that familiar surroundings would revive her. Grace moved in with her sister Thomasin in Bamburgh Village, but her health did not improve. She had frequent nightmares and hallucinations about people watching her, and constant visits from well-wishers upset her. Grace understood the seriousness of her illness and asked for her family during her final days. Grace Darling passed away on Thursday 20th October 1842, aged 26, in her father’s arms.

Monument in St Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh

“…at the hour appointed, 3.o’clock p.m. the village was crowded with strangers, both rich and poor, many of whom had come a long way…the coffin being carried by four young men belonging to Bamburgh…followed by ten of her relatives…and a young man from Durham, who wore the mourning emblem of intimate friends of the family.”

The Berwick Advertiser, 24th October 1842

Grace Darling’s funeral took place four days after her death at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh. As reported in the Berwick Advertiser, hundreds crowded into the village to watch the coffin process from the cottage to the church. The young man wearing a mourning emblem has not been identified but may have been one of Grace’s many marriage proposals. 

The family plot in St Aidan’s churchyard contains Grace’s coffin, with some of her family members. Within a few days of the burial, donations began pouring in to raise a monument to the young heroine. They commissioned an architect to design and build a stone structure containing a life-size figure of Grace lying with an oar by her side. Rather than erecting the monument over her grave, they placed the structure at the west end of the churchyard where it can be seen by passing ships. Over time, the weather damaged the figure, and the village raised funds to make another with more durable stone. The original now lies inside the church building.

Memorial window to Grace Darling

The village raised more than enough money to replace the statue of Grace Darling, so the Reverend of St Aidan’s Church installed a stained-glass window in her honour. Situated in the North Transept, the window features three female figures, each representing the virtues charity, fortitude and hope. They hold a heart, oar and anchor as symbols of Grace’s heroic act. Below these women, three angels hold banners containing Grace’s name, date of birth and death, and the date of the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.

Even in death, Grace Darling has not escaped fame. In Bamburgh, the RNLI Grace Darling Museum tells the story of her short life, focusing on rescuing nine shipwreck survivors. Artists and writers have produced fictionalised versions of the story, leading to images of Grace as “the girl with windswept hair”. Many poems about Grace Darling appeared in the 19th century and, in the 20th century, songwriters took inspiration from her life. The English rock band Strawbs released a song called Grace Darling, which contains the lyrics “You are my saving grace/Darling, I love you.” Further honours include an RNLI lifeboat, which holds her name; and the Grace Darling Hotel in Melbourne Australia, which opened in 1854, thus emphasising the extent of her fame.

When Grace Darling begged her father to rescue the SS Forfarshire survivors on 7th September 1838, she did not imagine the fame that could follow. Grace did her job as an assistant lighthouse keeper, putting aside thoughts of herself as she put herself in danger to save the lives of others. Becoming a celebrity overnight may have been exciting, at first, but the constant attention it brought eliminated any privacy. Even before she contracted tuberculosis, Grace struggled to live in the public eye. Fame destroyed the quiet girl who grew up only knowing her family and the sea.

Should we continue to remember Grace Darling as a hero or respect her wishes to be treated as a “normal” Victorian woman? Her fame emphasises the rift between men and women in the 19th century. Her father, who did twice the work, received little recognition. Rescuing stranded sailors was William Darling’s job – a man’s job. No one expected a woman to do the same, and it is for that reason that Grace reached celebrity status. Both William and Grace should receive recognition for their heroic actions, but through Grace, we should remember the detrimental effects of fame.


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!