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Tag Archives: 19th Century

  • Dresses and Dressmaking by Pam Inder

    Clara Dare's dress, c. 1868. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Late Georgians to the Edwardians

    In my working life I was a museum curator, looking after collections of ‘applied arts’ – which means furniture, ceramics, glass, silver, textiles, dresses and so on. I soon realised that when we put on an exhibition of ceramics, silver, glass, or furniture the display labels concentrated on where and when the item was made and by whom. With dresses, the information we supplied was largely descriptive – ‘Dress of cotton printed with small pink and green flowers, c.1790’, for example. If we knew anything about where the garment came from it usually related to the wearer – so the label would then be something like ‘Wedding dress of ivory silk worn by Jane Smith when she married John Robinson in September 1863’. Not until the late 19th century when makers began to put labels in their garments did we have any knowledge of the firms or individuals who made the dresses in our collection.

    Yet making a dress of expensive fabric that fits and flatters the wearer, is robust enough to withstand years of wear and conforms to the fashion of the day requires as much skill and knowledge of materials as, say, fine wood carving or glass blowing, particularly as dress patterns as we know them did not come on the market until the 1870s. Prior to that there had been a few books with diagrams that had to be scaled up and adapted to fit, but most dressmakers made their own patterns, either from an old dress that they unpicked or by pinning and draping material on their clients.


    Dress of white tambour-embroidered muslin, early 1850s. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    I became interested in the women who made our clothes – and given that most of the dresses I was curating were made post-1770, dressmakers were nearly always women. Up to the 1690s those women’s dresses that were not made at home were made by tailors, and tailoring was a guild occupation so tailors were almost invariably men. By the 1690s some women, calling themselves ‘mantua makers’ after a new style of dress that had originated in France in the mid-1670s and become very popular, began to infiltrate the trade, though not without considerable opposition from the tailors who saw half their trade disappearing into the hands of pesky women! However, by 1800, women had a near monopoly of the dressmaking trade.

    I wanted to know more about these people. Who were they, how did they learn their trade, how much did they earn? How did they take over the trade? I soon learnt that it was not the feminist triumph it might at first appear. Dressmakers, particularly in the first half of the 19th century, worked unbelievably long hours, often in wretched conditions, and earned very little. The making up of a dress often cost no more than the price of a single yard of the fabric from which it was made. The trade was oversubscribed – it was one of the few ‘respectable’ occupations for women – so there was intense competition and many businesses went under.

    Back view of Purple dress of ribbed silk, c. 1895. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    It turned out there were not a great many actual records for me to examine. ‘Scissors’ writing in 1895 in a pamphlet entitled ‘Why Dressmaking does not pay’ claimed that Many dressmakers keep no book – in other words, many dressmakers did not keep records - even though by 1895 the law obliged them to do so. However, such records as I found presented a coherent picture and I was able to create a fairly full picture of the development of the trade in the 19th century. For the earlier period much less survives – but it is reasonable to suppose that things did not change radically between the 1780s and the early 1800s.

    I became fascinated by account books. In the 18th and 19th centuries many women kept detailed records of their weekly expenditure, probably so they could account for the money they were given by their husbands and fathers. These not only tell us what individual items cost but also enable us to work out how much these individuals spent on dress in total over the course of a year. One such set of accounts – kept by Eliza Stone of Knighton in Leicestershire in the early 19th century is included in the present work.

    Fashion plate from the Dressmaker and Warehouseman's Gazette showing dresses with kilted trimmings. Undated, but mid-1870s. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    No account of the dressmaking trade would be complete without an examination of the actual garments dressmakers made, and this study concentrates on garments in the Leicestershire museums’ collections. These are among the items I used to curate so I know them well and include details and descriptions showing how they were constructed. Because the dresses are nearly all from Leicester and Leicestershire, much of the rest of the book refers to the city and county. This is not as limiting as it might at first sight appear. Leicester was as fashionable as any other county town, it was a wealthy city and much of that wealth came from the manufacture of garments, particularly boots and shoes and knitwear. The county of Leicestershire is a typical English county with its fair share of big houses, stately homes and gentry families. It is also a hunting country and was visited in the winter season by keen huntsman and their families, fashionable people from all over the country, including royalty. A study of dress in the city and county can therefore stand as a study of dress in much of England.

    This is a slim volume and limited in scope. There is much more that could be written about the makers and making of our ancestors’ clothes – and it is hoped that this work will whet the readers’ appetites and encourage them to learn more.

    Pam Inder's new book Dresses and Dressmaking: From the Late Georgians to the Edwardians is available for purchase now.

  • Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman by Don Chapman

    As the first book to trace the history of the women’s rights movement through the prism of women’s dress, Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman makes a fascinating curtain-raiser to the celebrations next year to mark the centenary of women gaining the vote.

    Mrs Amelia Bloomer Engraving of Mrs Amelia Bloomer, from the daguerreotype by T. W. Brown. (Water-Cure Journal 12, October 1851, p. 96) (Wearing the Trousers, Amberley Publishing)

    Women’s trousers, of course, have been everyday wear in the orient for centuries. But by promoting Turkish trousers in her American women’s rights and temperance journal, The Lily, in 1851 Mrs. Amelia Bloomer ignited a firestorm in the west. Central to the shock-horror of the idea was the notion, firmly entrenched in Victorian minds, that man was the dominant species in God’s creation, woman his inferior helpmate. The very thought of the latter adopting trousers was a threat to his authority.

    In an age when no journalist bothered his or her head about plagiarism the story went viral, rapidly crossed the Atlantic and within a few months was titillating and shocking readers in Australia and New Zealand. There was no television or Facebook to publicise what the press christened bloomers, no Twitter to provoke Likes or Dislikes. It was the entertainment industry that went into overdrive. Hack playwrights scribbled farces featuring the costume, Madame Tussauds featured waxworks wearing it, prostitutes and barmaids adopted it to attract customers, and Staffordshire Potteries even produced a figurine of Mrs. Bloomer sporting a cigar.

    I first became interested in what later became known as the rational dress movement — rational being the Victoria buzzword for any idea right-minded people should adopt — in 1971. At the height of the hot pant craze an Oxford Mail reader came to me with his grandparents’ papers relating to the Western Rational Dress Club. It made three stories for the daily column I wrote for the paper, primarily because in 1897 the grandfather, the eminent Victorian geologist, Sydney Savory Buckman, helped organise a rational dress cycle ride from London to Oxford. The date he and his fellow-organiser chose it was blowing a gale and raining in torrents: the last ladies arrived for an 8.30pm dinner at 3.30am the next morning!

    Really I said the subject deserved a book and at last I’ve written it. At its heart it is the story of two unsung heroines of the women’s rights movement, neither of them militant feminists, both of them passionate champions of women’s liberation. The first was Caroline Dexter, an obscure but surprisingly well- connected Nottingham woman. In the autumn of 1851 she toured the length and breadth of Britain drawing audiences of up to 4,000 to her lectures promoting the virtues of trousers, inveighing against constricting corsets and voluminous crinolines.

    Caroline Dexter Caroline Dexter, daguerreotype. (Art in Australia 15 February 1931) (Wearing the Trousers, Amberley Publishing)

    After she emigrated to Australia in 1854 she declared: ‘I do not trouble myself about what “woman’s rights” may be... I have lamented and fear that I shall still have to lament the… evils resulting from “woman’s wrongs”… Women have a higher destiny than a mere maker of puddings and sewer on of buttons.’

    The craze was comparatively short-lived. Critics blamed its demise on the notorious Bloomer Ball in Hanover Square, London, in the autumn of 1851 when nearly all the few women who turned up were of questionable character and some of the disappointed males resorted to fisticuffs. Or, like Mrs. Dexter, they attributed its decline to the numerous actresses and other cheapjack entertainers who jumped on the bandwagon.

    But male chauvinism persisted and Bloomerism became a stick to beat the growing army of forward-thinking females campaigning for equal rights. Away from the public gaze women taking the water cure continued to wear trousers. In occupations like coal-sorting, fishing and agriculture they remained more serviceable than skirts. As more women took to sport the braver of them realised it improved their mobility whether they were playing tennis, climbing mountains or simply taking a walk.

    The second woman to promote rational dress was Lady Harberton. Sensitive to the ridicule Bloomerism had provoked, in 1880 she launched a campaign for what she called the divided skirt —NOT trousers! She insisted: ‘Women are far too much afraid of what others may say and think. They do not like to go to a theatre or concert alone in case people should think it odd; but if everyone did it there would be nothing odd about it.’

    In 1881 she became president of the Rational Dress Society, which in due course boasted its own quarterly magazine, the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette, edited by Mrs Oscar Wilde. That lasted only six issues and in the 1890s the Society itself fizzled out as a result of the ridicule its members attracted, but thanks to my reader’s grandfather and the publicity the ill-fated cycle ride to Oxford attracted a year later the movement revived, the Rational Dress League came into being and soon had its own journal, the Rational Dress Gazette.

    Lady Harberton Lady Harberton riding in the rational dress costume she didn’t like and replaced. (Lady Cyclist 21 January 1897, courtesy of cycling historian Sheila Hanlon) (Wearing the Trousers, Amberley Publishing)

    Sydney Buckman’s interest in rational dress was personal. It enabled his wife and four daughters to accompany him and his four sons from their home in Cheltenham on cycling expeditions in search of fossils in the Cotswolds. That work brought few rewards. His far-sighted ideas were too hard for most of the geological establishment to swallow. He earned most of his income from freelance journalism. Hence his enthusiastic promotion of the Western Rational Dress Club, of which Lady Harberton became president.

    She was a surprisingly late convert to cycling, the activity that added a whole new dimension to the women’s rights and rational dress movements. She was already in her fifties when she first took to the wheel in 1895. She rapidly became an energetic cyclist and in October 1898 provoked the case for which her name would go down to history by cycling from London to Ockham in Surrey and demanding lunch at the Hautboy Hotel.

    The landlady refused to serve her in rationals in the coffee room and insisted she eat in the bar. ‘Of course it was physically possible for me to have lunched [there],’ she told Buckman. ‘So one might in a pigsty!’ The Cyclists Touring Club, which had an agreement with the hotel, took up the case and the following May sued the landlady for failing to provide victuals to a traveller. Martha Jane Sprague got backing from The Road, a journal that was worried about the impact the bicycle was having on the horse trade. Its lawyers were a great deal savvier than the CTC’s, arguing that the landlady had not refused to serve Lady H lunch, only done so in a room she did not like.

    Such was the worldwide interest the case excited, it was the only thing most journalists remembered when they came to write her obituary. A pity. She was active in a great many spheres from funeral reform to women’s health and in particular deserves greater recognition for her lifelong interest in the women’s rights movement. She rubbed shoulders with everyone involved from Barbara Bodichon to the Pankhurst family, led one of their deputations to parliament, campaigned tirelessly throughout her adult life for votes for women and, exasperated with the Liberal Establishment’s failure to act, late in life withdrew her backing from every other body and devoted her giving to the Suffragette cause.

    She died in 1911 as a result of her doctors’ failure to diagnose a fracture to her arm that became septic. Had she lived she would have welcomed women taking to trousers in 1914 to aid the war effort. She would have thought it only right the Government should reward them by granting women over 30 the vote in 1918, but one senses she would not have been completely happy until they achieved parity with men ten years later. As for rational dress, the last article she wrote appeared in the vegetarian journal, the Herald of Health, a month after her death championing what she now called the Syrian skirt.

    By a bitter irony Syria is one of the countries where the Taliban and Islamic State are now banning women from wearing trousers, insisting they swap the garments they have worn for centuries for the shapeless abaya.


    Don Chapman's new book Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman is available for purchase now.

  • The Real Persuasion: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine by Peter James Bowman

    The Real Persuasion 2 Katherine1 Katherine Bisshop. Crayon sktech. Castle Goring MSS/PD/100, West Sussex Record Office, Chichester. (The Real Persuasion, Amberley Publishing)

    I first read the typescript diary of Katherine Bisshopp (1791-1871) many years ago in the hope of finding references to the subject of a book I was then working on. I found nothing, but the forthright, colourful, often humorous tone of Katherine’s writing made me want to find out more about her. This proved easy: the kind couple in Worthing who had let me see the diary and the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester had so much material on the Bisshopp family in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the only problem was getting through it all.

    Gradually it dawned on me that Katherine’s life resembled that of Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, to an astonishing degree. And yet Jane Austen did not know Katherine, while the only Austen novel Katherine seems to have read was Mansfield Park. My biography contains splinter chapters that set out the correspondences between fact and fiction, and in the conclusion I reflect on the different but complementary ways in which social history and literature illuminate the way people lived in the past.

    In telling the story of Katherine Bisshopp’s life I have interwoven my own narrative with letters and diary extracts that reflect the way she and other members of her family thought, felt and wrote. After Katherine the most important characters are George Pechell, the dashing, self-confident man she marries many years after her family rejected him, and only after he returns from a long naval service with a fortune in prize money – like Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion; and her sister Harriet, who weds Robert Curzon, a kind but rather limited country squire, has two sons who turn out disobedient, and becomes an invalid whose mysterious ailments come and go without explanation – like Mary Musgrove in the same novel.

    The Real Persuasion 1 Parham Neale Parham Park, Sussex. Engraving by Archelaus Cruse after John Preston Neale. (The Real Persuasion, Amberley Publishing)

    Katherine and George marry in 1826, when she is thirty-five and he thirty-seven. At this point the parallels with Anne Elliot cease since we take our leave of her, as of all Jane Austen heroines, at the point of her marriage. But if we imagine these heroines as real people they would probably have lived on well into the Victorian era. So would Jane Austen herself had she not died aged forty-one exactly two centuries ago in 1817. The continuing stories of Katherine and Harriet therefore allow us to imagine futures for Anne Elliot and Mary Musgrove, for several other characters in Persuasion, and even for other inhabitants of Jane Austen’s Regency world.

    The Pechells’ union is a happy one and produces three children. George becomes an equerry to Queen Adelaide, an MP for Brighton, and later a vice-admiral, and he and his wife relish family life at Castle Goring, their home near Worthing. However, not long after Katherine’s marriage she falls out with Harriet over the partition of their father’s estate and the payment of his debts, and although they patch up the relationship their subsequent letters never regain the warmth of their early exchanges.

    Both women endure severe trials as mothers: Harriet’s elder son Robert, a distinguished Orientalist, grows frosty towards his parents, and her favourite Edward elopes and scandalises the whole family; and Katherine is devastated by her son William’s death in the Crimean War but consoled by her close bond with her two daughters and their husbands. As the years pass the contrasting characters of the two couples change their relative fortunes, with the energetic and resolute Pechells gaining greater status and wealth while the initially far richer but feckless Curzons descend into financial difficulty and discord.

    I hope that the documentary style of my book will allow the reader to feel at home in the world it depicts and closely acquainted with the two sisters and their families.


    Peter James Bowman's new book The Real Persuasion: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine is available for purchase now.

  • The Servants' Story by Pamela Sambrook

    There were several reasons why I wrote my new book on the servants of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, the country home of the Dukes of Sutherland. In the early 19th century they were reputed to be the richest non-royal family in England and the largest private landowners in the UK, thanks to their huge land holdings in Scotland. But this is not what attracted me to them. Trentham itself is now only a ruin set in a beautiful landscape and garden, home to a bustling shopping centre. What draws a historian’s interest, however, is the huge family archive which survives in public ownership in the Stafford Record Office. This contains a wide range of records, including a large collection of letters between agents about servants. Surely, I thought, there is enough there to enable research into the people who worked for the family, and in particular enough to let us see them as real individuals, not just caricatures or fictitious representations on television.

    the-servants-story-1 Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, in the mid-ninteenth century, after the rebuildings by Sir Charles Barry. (The Servants' Story, Amberley Publishing)

    I was right! Helped by a good friend of mine, Linda Barton, it has taken the best part of five years to piece together mini biographies of a number of servants. Some of them have their family origins in Staffordshire. One of these was the Penson family, who provided men and women as both indoor and outdoor staff to work for the Sutherlands for at least 200 years. Some of them were highly successful, some had terrible stories to tell. One who experienced both was Mary Penson. She was born in the rural heart of Staffordshire in the hamlet of Standon, a member of the Wrights, another of the long-serving families of Trentham. In 1822 she was just twenty-one when she married Thomas Penson, a quarryman on the estate. In August of the following year she gave birth to a daughter, Frances, who tragically died before she could be baptised. Almost exactly one month later Mary buried her young husband, killed in an accident in the estate quarry. Widowed so young, Mary inevitably fell back on family tradition and went into service. After a couple of years she was set on by the Sutherland family as a children’s nurse, later became the nanny and eventually, in 1847 was taken over by the Duchess of Sutherland as her personal lady’s maid. She became close to the Duchess, accompanying her on her many travels both in the UK and on the continent. It was on one of these journeys that Mary was taken ill. The whole holiday was abandoned, Mary brought back to London, but after a short while the family had to announce that their ‘dear old friend Penson’ was dead. She was buried in the quiet country churchyard at Standon, in a tomb provided by the Sutherlands, for whom she had worked for forty years.

    By contrast many of the Sutherland servants were recruited in London, some from exotic foreign countries. One such was known as Zenon Vantini, described as an Italian, who in 1833 took the post of house steward to the family. No doubt his knowledge of a variety of European countries made him both attractive and useful to the Sutherlands, but the correspondence in the archive shows that he never really fitted into the household. He did not get on with the Duke’s private secretary, a powerful and discreet figure whose letters have a careful, measured tone in great contrast to those of the excited, emotional Vantini. Over a period of ten years they were constantly at war, mainly over the household accounts, usually under the same roof as each other in London or Trentham, sometimes on the family travels through Europe.

    the-servants-story-3 The front entrance to the North Euston Hotel, Fleetwood, opened 1841. (The Servants' Story, Amberley Publishing)

    Vantini eventually made his escape from this unfortunate situation in 1841, investing in the newly built Euston hotel, where he installed his wife and eldest daughter as managers while he went north to help set up another huge hotel at the other end of the railway going north-west, the North Euston Hotel at Fleetwood. Although this last was not a success for the Vantini family, Zenon went on to found other hotels, at Folkestone and Paris. He also founded and ran the first refreshment rooms attached to a number of railway stations including Manchester and seems to have been the first to organise an all-in package holiday to Paris and the battlefield of Waterloo, several years before the launch of similar holidays by Thomas Cook.

    the-servants-story-2 Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon's formal house on Elba and the young Vantini's workplace as courier. (The Servants' Story, Amberley Publishing)

    All the time Linda and myself were picking our way carefully through this research we were intrigued by the problem of Vantini’s early life. Where did he learn his skills at running such a sophisticated household to the standards expected by the Sutherlands? There was just one clue, something Vantini had let drop during his stay in Fleetwood – as a young man he had been associated with the household of Napoleon! Neither of us really believed this – he was good at telling jokes was Vantini – but imagine our amazement when, through family history sources, we found this to be true. He was in fact born on Elba, brought up as a page by Napoleon’s sister’s household in Tuscany, and returned to Elba when Napoleon landed as an exile. He became one of the emperor’s couriers, accompanying him on his tours of the island and walking with him along the shore. He even played a part in Napoleon’s escape from Elba. What happened thereafter to the young Vantini, still only in his late teens, is unknown until he turns up in various records in London in 1825.

    Vantini’s career both before and after the Sutherlands is a complex story which I summarise in the Trentham book but which I am now following up in greater detail, to be published later. The story of both him and Mary Penson are just two of a number of narratives of the servants of Trentham which I have included. Individually they are intriguing, heart-wrenching, often frustrating, but together begin to sketch in some of the details of this amazing household.


    Pamela Sambrook's new book The Servants' Story is available for purchase now.

  • The Beauty of Her Age 'Yolande Duvernay' by Jenifer Roberts

    The Beauty of Her Age 1 church Cambridge The church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge. (© John Hagger)

    The Catholic church of our Lady and the English Martyrs is a major landmark in the city of Cambridge. Completed in 1890 when it was known as the pro-cathedral because of its size, the church was built at the sole expense of a Frenchwoman, Mrs Yolande Lyne Stephens.

    Countless scandals in Victorian England involved sex; others involved money; and the juiciest scandals involved both sex and money. Of these, the story of Yolande Lyne Stephens, the ballerina who became the richest woman in England, is perhaps the most extraordinary.

    Born in poverty in Paris in 1812, Yolande Duvernay entered the School of Dance when she was six years old. Under the control of a powerful stage mother, she was sold for sex when she reached puberty, and after the revolution of July 1830 toppled the Bourbon monarchy, she became the mistress of a new director of the Paris Opéra.

    The Beauty of Her Age 2 Yolande by Princess Victoria Yolande Duvernay in ballet costume, painted ‘from recollection’ by Princess Victoria, 5 April 1837. (© Royal Collection Trust, The Beauty of Her Age, Amberley Publishing)

    Described as ‘the most ravishing woman you could wish to see … with charming eyes, an adorably turned leg, and a figure of perfect elegance’, she became a star of the Opéra at the age of nineteen. She conquered London too, appearing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, and soon became the favourite dancer of Princess Victoria.

    In 1837, her favours were bought by the sole heir to the largest industrial fortune in England, an unassuming young man who paid the equivalent of £1.5 million in today’s money for the privilege of keeping her as his mistress. This was scandalous enough – but society was scandalised still further when she trapped him into marriage a few years later. It was acceptable – if improper – to keep a mistress with a sexual history; to marry her was social disaster.

    There is a rumour in Cambridge, still prevalent today, that Yolande’s husband made his money by the invention of moveable eyes for dolls. The legend had its roots in the words ‘Dolls’ eyes for idols’, a catchphrase used by Protestants in the city offended at the building of a large Catholic church. The words referred to the manufacture of glass, the source of the Lyne Stephens fortune, and the legend became enshrined in literature when E. M. Forster’s novel The Longest Journey was published in 1907.

    The Beauty of Her Age 4 Yolande by Carolus-Duran Yolande Lyne Stephens, painted by Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, spring 1888. (© private collection, The Beauty of Her Age, Amberley Publishing)

    Like many such rumours, the story has no basis in fact. Yolande’s husband never worked for a living and had no interest in inventing anything. He was a cultured but indolent man who enjoyed spending money; his activities were restricted to hunting, shooting, building grand houses and buying expensive works of art, a lifestyle subsidised by a fortune made in Portugal.

    The wealth had been accumulated by his one of his grandfather’s cousins, the illegitimate son of a schoolmaster and a Cornish servant girl. William Stephens was sent to Portugal as a boy, survived the earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755, and scraped a living during the next fourteen years burning lime to provide mortar for rebuilding the city. In 1769 he was asked by the Marquis of Pombal, first minister and virtual dictator of Portugal, to reopen a derelict glass factory in the village of Marinha Grande, ninety miles north of Lisbon.

    William was given ownership of the factory, together with 15,000 acres of land, and Pombal granted him a number of important – and lucrative – privileges: exemption from all domestic taxes; a monopoly of glass supply in Portugal and its colonies; freedom to set his own prices; and free use of fuel from the royal pine forest.

    Pombal fell from power when the king died in 1777, succeeded on the throne by his eldest daughter, Maria I, who loathed the minister and all his policies. In order to retain his privileges, William set out to woo the new queen. He charmed her so successfully that she not only renewed his privileges, she also made two visits to the glassworks – the second of which lasted for three days.

    The Beauty of Her Age 3 Marinha Grande house William Stephens’s house in Marinha Grande, Portugal. (© Câmara Municipal da Marinha Grande)

    Maria was an absolute monarch, ruling by divine right. Yet she was happy to sleep for two nights in the house of an Englishman, a man who was not only low-born and illegitimate, but also a Protestant, a heretic in the eyes of the Portuguese. As William’s sister wrote a few days after the visit: ‘My brother has attained what nobody else in the Kingdom can boast of, the honour of entertaining the Royal Family and all the Court for three days, and given universal satisfaction to everybody from the Queen down to the scullions and stable boys.’

    These royal visits added prestige to the factory and ensured that William retained his privileges for almost forty years. This enabled him to accumulate one of the largest industrial fortunes in Europe. After he died unmarried and childless, his massive wealth was bequeathed to a cousin in London, Charles Lyne, who added the name Stephens to his own and became the richest commoner in England.

    Charles Lyne Stephens died in 1851, followed nine years later by his only son, Yolande’s husband, who bequeathed her a life interest in the entire fortune. This gave her three stately homes in England and Paris, and an income of almost £7 million a year in today’s values. With an excess of income over expenditure, she soon built up a fortune of her own, allowing her to subsidise the Catholic diocese of Northampton, building churches and chapels and a new bishop’s house.

    In Cambridge, for the pleasure of ‘indulging my own taste and fancy,’ she paid for the entire cost of the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, together with its adjacent rectory. She paid for the furniture and furnishings in both buildings and selected the design of every detail, including the shape and size of the altar rails, the style and decoration of vestments for the clergy, and the rugs laid on the floors of the rectory.

    To give some credence to the legend, it would be nice to think that William Stephens made glass eyes for dolls in his factory in Portugal. But sadly not.


    Jenifer Roberts new book The Beauty of Her Age is available for purchase now.

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