By Rosemary Bailey
This article was published in the August 2017 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
In Part 2 of her article about the Sewells of Hitcham, Gabrielle Stevens mentions a scrap book that Harriet Sewell had made to give to a relative. That sounded right up my street so I spent a lovely afternoon with Gabrielle looking through it.
Born in 1842 Harriet died in 1936, never married and obviously knew a lot of people that we would probably call B or C list celebrities these days! The scrap book is full of newspaper cuttings of their doings, including reports of weddings and christenings, along with poems, photos and correspondence. She was also very interested in the royal family and there are many cuttings relating to them. One thing that fascinated me was an invitation to lunch from one of Harriet’s friends dated and posted on the morning of the proposed lunch. The post was much better obviously in those days! One sad item I found was a letter with Easter greetings from the lady Harriet lived with, at the bottom of which Harriet has written ‘Dear Miss Compton’s last Easter greeting to me in 1912 after our 27 years sharing the same house’. Interestingly both ladies referred to each other as Miss …… despite sharing a house for 27 years. Here I am 100 years later referring to Harriet by her first name, what would she think?
Harriet was, for many years the Lady Superintendent of The Incorporated Homes for Ladies based in Wandsworth. The 1922 Annual Report (found in the scrap book) gives her progression to Secretary of the organisation and then, as described in the annual report, Universal Advisor before she retired in that same year.
The charity was founded in 1875 by Miss Jessie Lee (see photo) and was designed to provide homes for governesses and other poor ladies who were left without the means to support themselves as they got older.
The charity didn’t support the ladies fully, but supplemented their incomes by not charging rent, and by providing coal, gas medical advice etc. The Lady Superintendent was responsible for the housekeeping and servants and reported to the committee of the charity. In 1922 the charity owned five houses which were close together, providing accommodation for 29 ladies in separate rooms. However subscriptions had declined and one of the houses had been sold during the year the report covered. The committee had foreseen that this might be necessary and for a while beforehand as the ladies had died they hadn’t replaced them so there was accommodation for four of those from the house being sold. Another lady was offered a home elsewhere and one had an increase in income and was able to live independently. To do their bit and help raise money the ladies of the home had held a sale of work and raised £119.
To be eligible for entry the ladies had to be aged between 50 and 70, members of the Church of England or other protestant denomination and have an income of between £25 and £60 per year. They needed a testimonial from a clergyman, a medical certificate, letter of recommendation from a lady, and a relative or friend had to be responsible for expenses incurred for a severe illness or death.
The rules for the ‘Lady Inmates’ are fascinating and include:
Every lady furnishes and provides everything for her own room, but this must be limited to only what is necessary
Each lady is expected to make her bed and keep her room in order, and to wash her breakfast, tea and supper things; greasy plates and dishes excepted
Dinner is cooked, plates, etc. are washed, fire places done up and the rooms made tidy every morning by the servant who also cleans each room thoroughly once a week
No greasy water or tea leaves to be put into sinks or water-closets
The ladies to take alternate days for hot meat at dinner. Nothing is cooked on Sundays except potatoes. Dinner hour from one to two o’clock
Each lady to pay one shilling per month. No pets permitted except small birds
The gas is turned off at the meter every night at ten, the bell being rung five minutes before by the Housekeeper
No orders are to be given to the Housekeeper, or faults found, except through the Lady superintendent, who will communicate with the Honorary Secretary if necessary
Daily visitors are required to leave the ‘Home’ before ten o’clock pm
Each lady is expected to vacate her room for three weeks during the time of spring cleaning in June
I wondered how many of the ladies had friends or relatives to stay with during the three weeks they had to leave the home. However, as we looked further through the scrap book we found a photo of a large house with the hand written caption saying ‘Cathorpe Court – where Mrs Yerburgh invites many of the Home Ladies for three weeks in the summer’.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Geffrye Museum in London which explores the home and home life from 1600 to the present day. The Museum is based in an old Almshouse and I bought a book about its history which showed that very similar rules applied there. I really feel as if I have been looking into social history of the impoverished gentlewomen of the last few centuries over recent weeks.
The scrapbook gives a fascinating insight into the life and times of someone who had clearly managed to rise out of the poverty into which she had been born, had gained an education, travelled around Europe at a time when such travel may well have been quite hard for a woman, and then found a role at the charity for which it would seem she was ideally suited. I think it would have been a real privilege to have known her.