Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Wimbledon's Pioneering Victorian Female Champions

As the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships begin this week, I decided to look at the lives and sporting careers of some of England and Ireland's pioneering female Tennis players from the Victorian era. 

Here are some of their amazing stories - just remember that these women all played Tennis wearing boned corsets, bustles and long dresses!

Maude and her sister Lilian Watson
Maud Edith Eleanor Watson MBE (9 October 1864 – 5 June 1946)
Maud Watson was an English tennis player and the first woman to be crowned as a female Wimbledon champion.

Born in Harrow, London, she was the daughter of a local vicar Henry William and Emily Frances Watson. At the age of sixteen Watson played her first match at the Edgbaston Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club. It was a successful debut, winning the singles competition by defeating her sister Lillian in the final and winning the doubles competition with her.

In 1884 Maud participated in the Irish Ladies' Championship and defeated the reigning Irish champion May Langrishe 6–3, 6–2, 6–2. She was also victorious in the mixed doubles tournament winning the title with multiple Wimbledon champion William Renshaw. Undefeated in tournament play, in 1884 the nineteen-year-old Watson won the first ever Ladies' Singles title at Wimbledon. Playing in white corsets and petticoats, from a field of thirteen competitors she defeated her sister  Lilian 6–8, 6–3, 6–3 in the final to claim the title and a silver flower basket valued at 20 Guineas.

1885 was a year of great success for Maud, who remained unbeaten in singles and lost only one set. Maud repeated her success at the 1885 Wimbledon championships. In a field of just 10 entries she easily won the quarter- and semi-finals and in the final defeated Blanche Bingley 6–1, 7–5. She successfully defended her title at the 1885 Irish Championships against Louise Martin. For two sets there was little to choose between them but in the decider Maud outstayed her opponent to win 6–2, 4–6, 6–3. In 1886, the year the Challenge Round was introduced for women, Bingley turned the tables, defeating Watson 6–3, 6–3 in the final to take the title.

In 1887 and 1888 Watson was handicapped by a sprained wrist which worsened with time. Her final competition came at the Edgebaston tournament in June 1889. She entered three events (doubles, mixed doubles and handicap singles) and won them all. While on holiday in Jersey she went swimming off the coast and nearly drowned. She was rescued with difficulty and suffered an illness afterwards which took a number of years to completely recover.

Watson worked as a nurse during the First World War for which she was rewarded as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Maud Watson, who did not marry, died at Hammersmead House in Charmouth on 5 June 1946, at the age of 81.

Blanche Bingley Hillyard
Blanche Bingley Hillyard - 3 November 1863 – 6 August 1946
Born in Greenford in the London Borough of Ealing, Blanche Bingley was a member of the Ealing Lawn Tennis & Archery Club. In 1884, she competed in the first ever Wimbledon championships for women, and two years later she captured the first of her six singles titles. A seven-time finalist, Bingley's 13 finals remain a Wimbledon record as is the 14-year time span between her first and last titles.

Bingley's Wimbledon record suggests that she was the second strongest female player of her day, only behind Lottie Dod, who defeated her in five finals.

Once married to Commander George Whiteside Hillyard (in Greenford on 13 July 1887), Bingley was recorded with her husband's name and is usually listed in various records as Blanche Bingley Hillyard. At age 36, she again won the Wimbledon final and continued to compete until age 49, playing her last Wimbledon in 1913.

During her career, she also won the Irish championships on three occasions (1888, 1894, 1897) and the German championship, played in Hamburg, twice; in 1897, defeating Charlotte Cooper Sterry in the final in three sets, and in 1900 against Muriel Robb, also in three sets. Additionally, she won the South of England Championships at Eastbourne, then a major event, 11 times between 1885 and 1905.

Blanche Bingley Hillyard died in London in 1946. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.

Charlotte "Lottie" Dod
Charlotte "Lottie" Dod (24 September 1871 – 27 June 1960)
Chatlotte was an English sportswoman best known as a tennis player. She won the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles Championship five times, the first one when she was only fifteen in the summer of 1887. She remains the youngest ladies' singles champion, though Martina Hingis was three days younger when she won the women's doubles title in 1996.

In addition to tennis, Dod competed in many other sports, including golf, field hockey, and archery. She also won the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship, played twice for the England women's national field hockey team (which she helped to found, and won a silver medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics in archery. The Guinness Book of Records has named her as the most versatile female athlete of all time, together with track and field athlete and fellow golf player Babe Zaharias.

Dod was born on 24 September 1871 in Bebington, Cheshire, the youngest of four children to Joseph and Margaret Dod. Joseph, from Liverpool, had made a fortune in the cotton trade. The family was wealthy enough to provide for all members for life; Lottie and her brother Willy never had to work. Besides Willy, Lottie had a sister, Annie, and another brother, Tony, all of whom also excelled in sports. Annie was a good tennis player, golfer, ice skater and billiards player. Willy Dod won the Olympic gold medal in archery at the 1908 Games, while Tony was a regional level archer and a chess and tennis player. The Dod children received a private education by tutors and governesses.

In her childhood Lottie played the piano, banjo and she was member of a local choir. When Dod was nine years old, two tennis courts were built near the family's estate, Edgeworth. Lawn tennis, invented in 1873, was highly fashionable for the wealthy in England, and all of the Dod children started playing the game frequently. Tennis parties were occasionally organized and among the invited guests were future Wimbledon champions Joshua Pim and the brothers Herbert and Wilfred Baddeley. 

When she was eleven Dod joined the Rock Ferry Tennis Club in Birkenhead, Together with Annie, who was eight years older, Dod entered her first tennis tournament, the 1883 Northern Championships in Manchester, at age eleven. They had a bye in the first round and lost in the second round of the doubles tournament to Hannah Keith and Amber McCord, but won the consolation tournament. One journalist, Sydney Brown, noted that "Miss L. Dod should be heard of in the future".

 The following year, 1884, she participated in two tournaments, the Northern Championships, played that year in Liverpool, and Waterloo. With Annie she reached the doubles finals in both tournaments and with Tony she was defeated in the first round of the mixed doubles event at Waterloo. At the Northern Championships in 1885, she came to prominence when she nearly beat reigning Wimbledon champion Maud Watson in the final, losing 6–8, 5–7. Dod would win the doubles event (with Annie). Earlier she had won the first singles title of her career at the Waterloo tournament where she was also victorious in the doubles and mixed doubles events. These performances earned her the nickname "Little Wonder" in the press.

In 1886 Dod won the singles title at the West of England Championships in Bath where she defeated Watson in the final and ending the latter's run of 55 consecutive victories. That year she played tournaments in Liverpool (Northern), Cheltenham and Derbyshire but won no further singles titles. In 1887 Dod became an established first-class player, illustrated by the fact she partnered then seven-time Wimbledon doubles winner Ernest Renshaw at the mixed doubles event of the Irish Championships. She won the singles in Dublin defeating Watson in the final in straight sets.

She again won the singles title at the Northern, defeating leading players Louisa Martin, May Langrishe and Watson without losing a set and conceding no more than two games per set. Encouraged by these results she decided to enter the 1887 Wimbledon Championships. Only six competitors, not including Martin and Watson, had entered. Dod had a bye in the first round and easily advanced through the semifinal and final of the All-Comer's tournament to earn the right to challenge the defending champion, Blanche Bingley. She defeated Bingley in straight sets 6–2, 6–0, the second set lasting just ten minutes. At 15 years and 285 days she was the youngest ever winner of the ladies' singles championships.  During the match, Dod wore a metal-and-whalebone corset which punctured her skin and caused her to bleed as she played.

The two met again in the final of the 1888 West of England Championships. Although it was designated an "open" tournament, the officials made the remarkable decision to impose a handicap of 15 on Dod. She still managed to win against her opponent, now known by her married name, Blanche Hillyard. The Wimbledon final of 1888 was a rematch of the previous year, and Dod, this time defending her title in the Challenge Round, again emerged victorious (6–3, 6–3). During that year she won several doubles and mixed doubles titles with her sister Annie, May Langrishe and Ernest Renshaw.

Lottie Dod's style of play, then regarded as unorthodox, now seems notably modern. She was perhaps the first player to advocate hitting the ball just before the top of the bounce and to adopt a modern, albeit single-handed, racquet grip. Her ground strokes were reported by contemporaries to be unusually firmly hit by the standards of the time, but – like many female players of the day – she served underhand and only rarely employed spin.

Dod only entered one open tournament in 1889 (the Northern Championships, which she won), and failed to attend Wimbledon, much to the disappointment of her fans. Together with Annie and some friends, she was on a sailing trip off the Scottish coast, and didn't want to return in time for Wimbledon. This was followed by a complete absence from the game in 1890.

Lottie Dod
After failing to do so in 1889, Dod was determined to win Wimbledon three times in a row, starting in 1891. Although it was her only competitive appearance of that season, she won her third Wimbledon title by defeating Hillyard (6–2, 6–1) in the final of the All-Comers tournament. The reigning champion Lena Rice did not defend her title. 1892 saw Dod's first singles defeat in an open tournament since 1886 when she lost to Louisa Martin of Ireland in the second round of the Irish Championships. It was the last of only five losses in her entire tennis career and her only defeat after the age of 15. She continued the year strongly, culminating in another easy straight-set Wimbledon victory over Hillyard. Dod's last tennis season as a competitive player was 1893, and she played in just two tournaments, The Northern in Manchester and Wimbledon, winning both. On both occasions, she defeated Blanche Hillyard in three sets, despite a heavy fall in the Wimbledon final. Her record of five Wimbledon titles would not last for long, as Hillyard, after losing in the final to Dod five times, won her sixth title in 1900. Suzanne Lenglen broke Dod's record of three consecutive singles wins by winning from 1919 to 1923.

Apart from entering women's tournaments, Dod sometimes also played and won matches against men (who usually played with a handicap), and on one occasion defeated star players Ernest Renshaw and George Hillyard (the husband of Blanche) when doubling with Herbert Baddeley.

This was actually the all-comers final as Helena Rice did not defend her 1890 Wimbledon title, which resulted in the winner of the all-comers final winning the challenge round and, thus, Wimbledon in 1891 by walkover.

Although tennis would remain Dod's favourite sport, she shifted her attention to other activities in the following years. In 1895, she joined her brother Tony on a trip to the winter sports resort of St. Moritz, which was very popular with English travellers. There, she passed the St. Moritz Ladies's Skating Test, the most prestigious figure skating event for women at the time. Dod also rode the toboggan on the famous Sankt Moritz Cresta Run, and began mountaineering with her brother, climbing two mountains over 4,000 m in February 1896.
After a long cycling trip in Italy, Lottie and Tony returned to England, only to come back to St Moritz in November, now accompanied by their mother and brother Willy. This time, Dod took the St. Moritz Men's Skating Test and passed, as the second woman ever. She also competed in curling. In the summer of 1897, she and Tony again ascended several mountains, this time in Norway.

The sport of women's field hockey was still rather young when Dod took up the game in 1897. She was one of the founding members of a women's hockey club in Spital. Playing as a central forward, she was soon named captain of the team. Club matches in which Dod played were won, while losses happened only in her absence.

By 1899, Dod had made it to captain of the Cheshire county team, and represented her club at meetings of the women's hockey association for the northern counties. She first played in the English national team on 21 March that year, winning 3–1 over Ireland. Both English goals in the 1900 England and Ireland rematch were scored by Dod, securing a 2–1 victory. Dod failed to attend the match against Wales, suffering from sciatica attacks which kept her from sporting for months.
Although she had recovered by 1901, Dod would not play again in national or county matches. All members of the Dod family stopped attending sports events for a while after their mother died on 1 August 1901, and Dod apparently lost her interest in field hockey during that period, although she did occasionally play for Spital Club until 1905.

Few golf clubs allowed women to play around the time Lottie Dod first played golf at age fifteen. Unlike tennis, Dod found golf a difficult sport to master. By the time she got seriously interested in the sport, the Ladies Golf Union (LGU) had been founded, and women's golf had become a real sport.

Dod helped establish a ladies' golf club at Moreton in 1894 and entered that year's National Championships (match play) at Littlestone (Kent). She was eliminated in the third round, but Dod's interest in the sport grew, and she became a regular competitor in the National Championships and other tournaments for the next few years. In 1898 and 1900 she reached the semi-finals of the National Championships, but was defeated narrowly both times. In 1900, she also played in an unofficial country match against Ireland, which the English won 37–18.

Dod did not compete in golf in 1901, and hardly entered major tournaments in the next two years, but she did play in the 1904 British Ladies Amateur, held at Troon. She qualified for the semi-finals for the third time in her life, and won it for the first time. Her opponent in the final was May Hezlet, the champion of 1899 and 1902. The match was very close, and the two were tied after 17 holes. Hezlet missed her putt on the final hole narrowly, after which Dod grabbed an unexpected victory, becoming the first, and to date only, woman to win British tennis and golf championships.

Following her victory, Dod sailed to Philadelphia, where she had been invited by Frances C. Griscom, a former American golf champion, to attend the U.S. Women's Amateur as a spectator. Upon arrival, Dod found out the tournament regulations had been changed to allow for non-Americans to compete, and she was requested to compete. Her loss in the first round was a disappointment, but Dod persuaded several Americans to come and play in the British championships the following year.

In the week before these 1905 championships, three international matches were planned, starting off with the first British-American international match. Dod was the only British player to lose a match, as the United Kingdom won 6–1. Dod then played for the English team in a 3–4 defeat against Scotland and a 4–3 win over Ireland, although she lost both her matches. Dod was then eliminated in the fourth round of the National Championships. It was to be her last appearance in golf.

In the autumn of 1905, Dod and her brothers sold "Edgeworth" and moved to a new home near Newbury, Berkshire. They had been practising archery from the times before, but all three became more serious now and joined the Welford Park Archers in Newbury. As one of their ancestors was said to have commanded the English longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt, they found this an appropriate sport.

Women's Olympic Archery Team 1908
Lottie Dod won her first tournament by 1906, and finished fifth in the Grand National Archery Meeting of 1906, 1907 and 1908. Dod's performances in the 1908 season earned her a spot on the British Olympic team. The field in the women's archery event consisted only of British women, but without the best archer of the era, Alice Legh. Dod led the competition,  after the first day but was surpassed by Queenie Newall on the second day, taking second place with 642 points to Newall's 688. Her brother Willy secured the gold medal in the men's competition.

In 1910, Dod came close to winning the Grand National, which would have made archery the third sport in which she became a national champion. Both Lottie and her brother William led after day one, but moved down to second on the final competition day. After the Welford Archers were disbanded in late 1911, the Dods' interest in archery faded, meaning the end of Lottie Dod's long competitive sports career.

In 1913, Willy and Lottie moved to a new house in Bideford (Tony had married in the meantime). When World War I broke out, Willy enlisted with the Royal Fusiliers, while his sister worked for the British Red Cross from November 1916 at Chelsea VAD Hospital and in a military hospital in Speen, Berkshire.

Dod wanted to be transferred to the war zones in France but was hampered by sciatica and never served as a nurse outside England. She did receive a Service Medal by the Red Cross for serving more than 1,000 hours during the war.

She then lived in London and Devon, and she never failed to attend the Wimbledon Championships until she was in her late eighties. After her brother Willy died in 1954, she lived in several nursing homes on the English south coast, eventually settling at the Birchy Hill Nursing Home in Sway, Hampshire. There she died, unmarried, at age 88, passing away while listening to the Wimbledon radio broadcasts in bed.

Dod was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1983.

Lena Rice
Helena Bertha Grace "Lena" Rice (21 June 1866 – 21 June 1907)
Helena “Lena” Rice was an Irish tennis player who won the singles title at the 1890 Wimbledon Championships. She is to date the only female player from Ireland to ever win a singles title at Wimbledon.

Lena Rice was born the second-youngest of the eight children of Spring Rice and Anna Gorde in 1866. Her family lived in a two-storied Georgian building at Marlhill, half a mile from New Inn, County Tipperary. When her father died in 1868, her mother struggled to manage the household. Lena learned to play tennis with her sister Anne in their large garden at Marlhill, and both girls entered the Cahir Lawn Tennis club.

Rice's first tournament outside County Tipperary were the Irish Championships at Dublin in May 1889. There she lost 5–7, 5–7 to Blanche Bingley Hillyard in the semifinals. In doubles competition, she reached the final partnering Hillyard, and in mixed doubles she won the title along with Willoughby Hamilton.

Later that year, Rice played at the Wimbledon Championships. She reached the final where she met Hillyard once again. She won the first set 6–4 and had three match points at 5–3, 40–15 and advantage in the second, but Hillyard managed to come back and eventually won 4–6, 8–6, 6–4.

The next year, only four players participated at the singles event at Wimbledon. After winning over Mary Steedman 7–5, 6–2 in the first round, her opponent in the All-comers final was May Jacks. Rice won 6–4, 6–1 and as defending champion Blanche Hillyard was pregnant and didn't enter the tournament, Rice won the title, the 50-guineas challenger trophy and a cash prize of 20 guineas.
After her 1890 Wimbledon title, there is no record of Rice ever again playing tennis at a tournament. As her mother died in 1891, it seems likely that family ill health prevented her from continuing her tennis career.

Rice, who never married, died of tuberculosis on her 41st birthday in 1907. She was buried at the New Inn cemetery, close to her parents, her brother Samel and her sister Agnes.

A Typical Victorian Tennis Match
Edith Lucy Austin Greville (née Austin; 15 December 1867 – 27 July 1953) 
Edith Greville was English female tennis player who was active from the 1890s until around 1920. She was married to fellow player George Greville.

Between 1893 and 1919 she participated 16 times in the single event of the Wimbledon Championships and achieved her best result in 1894 and 1896 when she reached the final of the all-comers tournament. In 1894 she lost to Blanche Hillyard in straight sets, winning just two games and Hillyard became champions as the title holder Lottie Dod did not defend her title. In 1896 she lost the all-comers final in three sets to Alice Pickering, In her last two Wimbledon appearances in 1913 and 1919 she also played in the doubles and mixed doubles events.

She won the singles title at the Kent Championships on six occasions (1894-97, 1899, 1900).
In 1894 she defeated May Arbuthnot in a three-set final to win the singles title of the British Covered Court Championships, played on wood courts at the Queen's Club in London. Arbuthnot failed to convert two matchpoints. The following year, 1895, she lost her title in the challenge round to Charlotte Cooper. From 1896 to 1899 she won four consecutive titles, defeating Cooper twice in the final. In 1894, 1899 and 1901 she won the Queen's Club Championships grass court tournament.
In 1896 she was a runner-up at the South of England Championships in Eastbourne, losing the final to Blanche Hillyard in three sets.

Charlotte Cooper Sterry
Charlotte Cooper Sterry ( 22 September 1870 – 10 October 1966) 
Charlotte Cooper Sterry was a female tennis player from England who won five singles titles at the Wimbledon Championships and in 1900 became Olympic champion. In winning in Paris on July 11th 1900, she became the first female Olympic tennis champion as well as the first individual female Olympic champion.

Charlotte Cooper was born on 22 September 1870 at Waldham Lodge, Ealing, Middlesex, England, the youngest daughter of Henry Cooper, a miller, and his wife Teresa Georgiana Miller. She learned to play tennis at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club where she was first coached by H. Lawrence and later by Charles Martin and Harold Mahony. She won her first senior singles title in 1893 at Ilkley . 

Between 1893 and 1917 she participated in 21 Wimbledon tournaments. At her first appearance she reached the semifinals of the singles event in which she lost to Blanche Bingley Hillyard. She won her first singles title in 1895, defeating Helen Jackson in the final of the All-Comers event. In that match she was down 0–5 in both sets but managed to win in straight sets. 

In 1896, she successfully defended her title in the Challenge Round against Alice Simpson Pickering. Between 1897 and 1901 the titles were divided between Cooper Sterry (1898, 1901) and Bingley Hillyard (1897, 1899, 1900). The 1902 Challenge Round match against Muriel Robb was halted on the first day of play due to rainfall at 6–4, 11–13. The match was replayed in its entirety the next day and Robb won 7–5, 6–1, playing a total of 53 games which was then a record for the longest women's singles final. 

In 1908 as a mother of two she won her last singles title when she defeated Agnes Morton in straight sets in the All-Comers final after a seven-year hiatus and at the age of 37. She is the oldest Wimbledon's ladies’ singles champion and her record of eight consecutive singles finals stood until 1990 when Martina Navratilova reached her ninth consecutive singles final.

In addition to her singles titles, Cooper Sterry also won seven All-England mixed doubles titles; five times with Harold Mahony (1894–1898) [10] and once with Laurence Doherty (1900) and Xenophon Casdagli (1908).[c] In 1913 she reached the final of the first Wimbledon women's doubles event with Dorothea Douglass, 18 years after winning her first Wimbledon title.

She won the singles title at the Irish Lawn Tennis Championships in 1895 and 1898 - a prestigious tournament at the time . At the 1900 Summer Olympics, where women participated for the first time, Cooper Sterry won the tennis singles event. On 11 July 1900 she defeated Hélène Prévost in the final in straight sets and became the first female Olympic tennis champion as well as the first individual female Olympic champion. With Reginald Doherty, she won the mixed doubles title after a straight-sets victory in the final against Hélène Prévost and Harold Mahony. In 1901 she won the singles title at the German Championships, and in 1902 she won the Swiss Championship. Cooper Sterry remained active in competitive tennis and continued to play in championship events well into her 50s.

On 12 January 1901 she married Alfred Sterry, a solicitor, who became president of the Lawn Tennis Association. They had two children: Rex (born 1903) who was the vice-chairman of the All England Club for a period of 15 years during the 1960s and 1970s and Gwen (born 1905), a tennis player who participated at Wimbledon and played on Britain's Wightman Cup team.

Cooper Sterry had an offensive style of playing, attacking the net when the opportunity arose. She was one of a few female players of her time who served overhead. Her main strengths were her steadiness, temperament and tactical ability. Her excellent volleying skills stood out at a time when this was still a rarity in ladies tennis.

Cooper Sterry, who had been deaf since the age of 26, died on 10 October 1966 at the age of 96, in Helensburgh, Scotland

She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.

Alice Pickering (1860 – 18 February 1939 née Alice Simpson) 
Alice Pickering was an English tennis player who played at the Wimbledon Championships from 1895 to 1901. In 1896, she won the all-comers-competition at Wimbledon 1896, but lost the challenge round against Charlotte Cooper 2-6, 3-6. She again reached the all-comers final in the following year, but this time lost to Blanche Bingley. 

In 1896 she won the doubles competition at the Irish Championships partnering Ruth Durlacher.

Mary Louisa "Mollie" Martin (3 September 1865, Newtowngore, Ireland – 24 October 1941, Portrush, Northern Ireland) 
Mary "Mollie" Martin was a tennis player from Ireland. In 1898 she reached the final of the Wimbledon Championships, but was beaten 6-4, 6-4 by Charlotte Cooper.

She won nine singles titles at the Irish Lawn Tennis Championships.

In my next blog post I will be examining some early 20th century female tennis players from the Edwardian and post war era's. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

The #MonthofMillie & Processions 2018 - Celebrating Women's Suffrage in London


As 2018 is the centenary of some women in the UK getting the vote, I decided I wanted to get involved in the celebrations and learn much more about the history of the women's suffrage movement.

I wanted to add to the things I thought I already knew and discover some of the lesser known stories that I didn't know. As a self-employed woman of 53, whose offspring have all flown the nest, I was fortunate enough to have time to devote to this personal project. The positive things I have gained from doing it, have far exceeded my expectations and have inspired me to do much more in the future.

As June marked Suffragist Millicent Fawcett's birthday, completing some of these things during the #MonthOfMillie was also part of the "Votes for Women" Suffragette challenge I had set myself.

Through my blog I researched and told the stories of many lesser known Suffragettes and Suffragists from Essex, Wales, and Scotland. Ireland is coming in a future blog post!

I discovered many stories of women whose names are not as well remembered as The Pankhursts or Millicent Fawcett. I learned that  refusing to pay taxes or not filling in a census form was just as much a part of the fight for suffrage as smashing windows, planting bombs and slashing works of art.

I read Dr Fern Riddell's superb biography of Kitty Marion - Death in 10 Minutes. I read Sarah Jackson's fascinating book on the East End Suffragettes. I read Jenni Murray's  History of Britain in 21 Women and then gave it to my daughter for holiday reading as instructed! I read Anita Annad's biography of Sophia Duleep Singh alongside Emmeline Pankhurst's own autobiography to get a fuller, more rounded view of events.

I studied the iconic suffragette photography of Britain's first female press photographer, Christina Bloom, and fell in love with it so much that I bought a coffee table book!

I watched all the TV shows on the BBC that were
dedicated to telling the stories of the fight for women's suffrage. There was Lucy Worsley's exciting drama-documentary on militant suffragettes to soak up, Sally Lindsay's 30 minute biographical study of Emmeline Pankhurst, the Suffragettes Forever series presented by Amanda Vickery and special editions of Antiques Roadshow and the genealogy show Who do You Think You Are.

As a dedicated life long leaner, I signed up for a free online course on the Suffragettes and I also volunteered to help with spreading the word on social media about Snapping The Stiletto - a brilliant local women's community history project in Essex that celebrates strong women and offers free training on how to research archives in conjunction with local museums and Essex Records Office.

I went to see the free Museum of London suffragette collection and attended the talk 'How the Vote was won' hosted by the Fawcett Society with key speakers Elizabeth Crawford and Sumita Mukherjee - two very knowledgeable historians that I have followed on Twitter for some time

With my daughter, I visited Millicent Fawcett's statue - and also the Pankhurst statue nearby. I also took her to The Women's Hall re-creation in Tower Hamlets Local History Libray - just a stones throw from where she attended university at Queen Mary's over 12 years ago and also where my grandmother's working class family grew up in the East End in the 1900's through to the 1940's.

My daughter was only the second woman in our family to get a degree after me, but her grandmother and her great grandmother left school at 16 and 14, and their only option was factory or office work before marriage and having children. The significance of all of this was not lost on my daughter who, in her 30's has become a strong, focused, independent, politically aware woman who is not afraid to express her own opinions and fight for what she believes in.

Although spending quality time with my daughter was really special, the highlight of my suffragette fest, and the most immersive, uplifting and inspiring part of the experience was taking part in Processions 2018 in London,

It's not everyday that you get the chance to participate in a nationwide event, creating a living piece of art, that commemorates one of the most important moments in women's history! I grabbed that opportunity with both hands, after watching the build up to Processions 2018 on social media. I registered online and looked forward to attending my first ever "March" but I really wasn't sure what to expect!

I was staying with friends on the South Coast on the Saturday evening, and was stopping off in London to take part in Processions on my way home to Essex on the Sunday.

I did the whole walk from Hyde Park to Parliament Square carrying a large handbag AND an overnight bag. Thanks to Processions I more than met my daily step count on the Samsung Health App. I learned that history can keep you healthy physically as well as mentally fit - really important for a 50 something blogger like me who spends a LOT of time sitting in front of a laptop screen!

I had arranged to meet another woman from Essex at the entrance to Hyde Park. After connecting on social media a few days before the event, we had decided to keep each other company rather than walk by ourselves. We made our way to the start to collect our scarves. We were in with the Purple contingent. We remarked to each other that connecting with a random stranger was quite a radical thing for us both to do - but we had a lot of interests in common, and a friendship was quickly formed which I hope will continue.

 As we both waited with bated breath for the procession to get underway, the atmosphere was electric and full of happy, positive vibes. Hundreds of colourful banners with great women's suffrage slogans were being waved and carried aloft  as thousands of women gathered at the starting point, wearing green, purple or white clothing.

People were cheering, laughing, linking arms, sharing the experience together, and taking pictures and videos on their phones.

 As we moved en-mass through the streets of London past Trafalgar Square, towards the houses of parliament, we truly were a great and wonderful spectacle to behold! To hear younger women, some less than half my age leading chants

demanding "equal pay" made me realize how far we have come since the 1970's and how far we still have to go to close the gender pay gap for our daughters and granddaughters.

For just one moment, when we stopped for a short break, I took a minute to frame a lasting image of Processions in my mind - rather than on my phone. I let the reality of what was happening wash over  for posterity. I studied the people behind me, in front of me, and all around me and it made me proud.

There were women of all ages, shapes, colours and sizes. Marching side by side with radical
feminists and LGBT community leaders, and political groups, were ordinary mothers and grandmothers like myself. Sisters walked besides sisters. Best friends strode arm in arm and bought their daughters along. Students, teenage girls, children of both genders, babies in buggies sleeping soundly through it all  - and even few MEN showing their support too!

There were people from every single social, religious and ethnic group  - ALL with a scarf either around their shoulders, tied upon heads or held aloft overhead. The beautiful thing was that regardless of our own lives and backgrounds, we all joined together as one  -for a just few hours - to do a positive, creative, memorable respectful thing in celebration of women's achievements  - and that can only bring hope for a better future and lead to a fairer, more equal society for all the coming generations.

As I marched beside a host of women dressed in full suffragette outfits - one actually had a model of the houses of Parlimament on her head -it was almost like being transported back 100 years! I felt a shiver go down my spine as the ghosts of all those women who fought for the right to vote marched beside us in spirit. It bought it home to me how hard that battle had been and how every single woman in the UK should use her vote to bring about change and never ever take it for granted.

The Suffragette battle cry was DEEDS NOT WORDS - but as a blog writer I think I fulfilled my suffragette challenge with both deeds AND words. At times it was hard, but never the less - I persisted!

When I got home, my feet were aching, I was really tired but I'd had such a totally amazing time, I really didn't care. I spent the rest of the evening watching the excellent coverage of the event on BBC iplayer - and kept thinking to myself, "I was actually there - that will be something to tell people about when I am older and greyer!". Getting more involved with history, sometimes mean that you also end up making it too.

The whole experience has given me the confidence to take the #HiddenHerStories blog to the next level. I am now really excited about working with a female business mentor and self-publishing my first collection of women's biographies later this year.

I am connecting with more and more historians, writers, women's history bloggers & podcasters. I am going to be hosting and collating the first #WomensHistoryHour on Twitter next Sunday (1st June) from 7pm-8pm GMT.

Please feel free to join us online for this brand new online discussion hour.

Thank you Processions for giving me a wonderful opportunity to take part in something really creative that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am keeping the purple scarf
safe in my box of memories.

You can find other stories, photo's and videos from Processions as well as souvenir merchandise at

Here are some other useful links to places and organizations mentioned in the blog:

Enjoy my personal video and images of Processions 2018. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Louisa Nottidge & The Spiritual Brides of The Agapemone

Louisa Nottidge was a young Victorian woman whose unjust detention in a lunatic asylum attracted widespread public attention in mid-19th century England. Her family had her committed after she and three of her sisters joined a Victorian Cult called The Agapemonites or Community of The Son of Man that was created in 1846. In this blog article we will not only uncover Louisa's hidden herstory - we'll also be finding out more about some of the other women who were part of this unique and bizzare isolated religious community.


The Cult was named after Agapemone meaning "Abode of Love" in Greek. The ideas of the community were based on the theories of various German religious mystics and its primary object was the spiritualisation of the matrimonial state and the submission of women. The Agapemone community consisted mostly of wealthy unmarried women and the cult’s two main male leaders took many spiritual brides.

In that same period, several sensational cases came to light in the newspapers of sane women - and a few men - being incarcerated against their will in lunatic asylums - just for the convenience or financial gain of their immediate families or spouses. The public hysteria surrounding these dramatic and shocking stories was further exploited by the writer Wilkie Collins, who published the best-selling novel The Woman In White in 1860 which features the female character of Laura who is imprisoned in an asylum for the insane. 

What happened to Louisa Nottidge is still of interest today with respect to the rights of psychiatric patients, women's rights, and the conflict between freedom of religion and the legal process. Despite this her name is little remembered, and her story has almost faded into obscurity, along with the notorious Agapemone cult. 

Louisa Jane Nottidge was born in 1802 at her grandmother's abode, Mill House in Bocking, Essex. Her parents, Josias and Emily Nottidge were wealthy and respectable merchants who lived in a large house on an eight-acre estate, in Wixoe, Suffolk. From her early youth Louisa’s reading had been directed towards religious texts & she attended church regularly, along with her six sisters and four brothers.

Henry James Prince was born in 1811 in the city of Bath. His family owned property in Jamaica which included slaves and they were financially compensated when slavery was abolished. Prince’s father died when he was a young man, and Prince’s mother took in a lodger - a wealthy older woman named Martha, who was a devout Catholic. She soon converted to Christianity and became Prince's first wife. Prince studied medicine at Guy's Hospital, qualifying in 1832 and was appointed medical officer to the General Hospital in Bath. Abandoning his profession due to his own ill health, he then went to St David's College, Lampeter to study Theology where he gathered together a band of  religious enthusiasts known as the Lampeter Brethren. 

The  vice principal of the college contacted the Bishop of Bath and Wells who, in 1846, installed Prince as the curate of Charlinch in Somerset, working alongside the Rev. Starkey who seemed to be struggling to maintain his duties alone. Prince was considered to be a holier-than-thou troublemaker, and the church authorities packed him off to a quiet rural parish hoping that he would fade away into obscurity.

Attendances at the church had been small until, during one of the services, Prince acted as if he was possessed, throwing himself physically around the church and talking in tongues. The Congregation grew steadily each week as the "possession" stunt was constantly repeated. The new flock was then divided, with separate services for men and women. Subsequently, Price separated them again into the sinners and the righteous, the latter of which generally included all the wealthy or single females. 

Eventually, the bishop was summoned to investigate these unusual practices. By that time, Prince had contracted his first "spiritual marriage" and had persuaded himself & all his loyal followers that he had been absorbed into the personality of God and had become a visible embodiment of the Holy Spirit to be worshiped and served in luxurious surroundings by all his followers. His justification for this was:

    “If Prince was the visible manifestation of God on earth, the Holy Ghost - how could he toil in the same vineyard as these sinful mortals?” (The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love, C Mander)

The Reverend Starkey fully embraced Price’s doctrines and had become became a devoted disciple too. Together they procured many conversions in the countryside and in the  towns. The rector was subsequently deprived of his living and Prince was  defrocked by the Anglican Church but this action failed to stop either of them preaching. 

Together with a few other disciples, Prince and Starkey formed the Charlinch Free Church, which had a very brief existence, meeting in a supportive farmer's barn. During his time at Charlich, Prince’s wife Martha died. He had married her in order that she finance his way through college. Prince used money inherited on the death of Martha, to then marry Julia Starkey - some said with indecent haste. She was the sister of the Rev. Starkey and was yet another older woman with her own income. 

Riding high with a full church and a clutch of wealthy patrons, Prince’s licence to preach was suddenly revoked by the Bishop of Bath and Wells amid rumours of 'carnal insinuations' with the converted ladies of Charlich.  Again this failed to stop Prince. He and his disciples all moved to Stoke-by-Clare in Suffolk where Prince started again to build up a congregation, which grew over the couple of years he was there. It was here in Suffolk that the Nottidge Sisters first heard Prince preaching and came into contact with him.

The Bishop of Ely then expelled Prince & Starkey from the Anglican Church. Undaunted, Prince opened Adullam Chapel in the North Laine area of Brighton, whilst Starkey went to set things up in Weymouth. Amongst the many elderly spinsters and young unmarried ladies of respectable Victorian society, who either lived or visited the south coast, Prince found more potential members of his congregation. 

In a large house in Belfield Terrace, Weymouth he set up an embryonic version of the cult that was to follow. The idea of the Abode of Love was not Prince's invention however - similar experiments, inspired by the text of the Song of Solomon, had been conceived before and were heavily condemned by the church as sinful and degenerate. 

"The Abode of Love did not mean, as it seemed to imply, unlimited sexual freedom. Love at Belfield Terrace and later at Spaxton was to be spiritual. In the course of time Prince constructed an elaborate system of Angels and Archangels, a celestial hierarchy promoting and demoting the faithful at will according to their favour and the cash at their disposal. This was to be a commercial as well as a spiritual venture. Not even the Holy Ghost could build an earthly paradise on faith alone."
( C.Mander)

At one meeting in Weymouth, a number of followers & disciples - estimated by Prince to be 500 but said by his critics to be but one fifth of that number - were gathered together, and were instructed by "The Lamb" "to divest themselves of their possessions and throw them into the common stock”. This was done, even by the poorest members of the congregation. Persuading rich and poor alike that 'in the day of wrath all property would be dirt'  swelled the group's bank balance further. 

The revelation that Prince was the son of God   took place at the assembly rooms in the Royal Hotel Weymouth. The congregation were told that only those who received Prince as the son of God would be saved from Armageddon. It was estimated that many hundreds of souls were saved that day - mainly aging spinsters but it was certainly enough to begin to finance a proper place of worship on a much grander scale than a rented house in Weymouth. It was said that Prince collected the considerable sum of £30,000 from his time on the South Coast.

  “From Brighton, Prince returned to Somerset with 30,000 pounds in his pockets, most of it contributed by his society admirers. He and his followers travelled in a long procession of carriages with liveried coachmen. At Weymouth the entourage stayed at the Royal Hotel, where Prince held a reception and announced his plans for the setting up of an Agapemone or Abode of Love. Some 200 local people of influence, invited especially for this purpose, crowded into the ballroom and agreed to give up all or part of their worldly possessions in order to be saved.”

Two hundred acres of land was purchased in the Spaxton Valley and plans were drawn up to create a new Abode of Love. Whenever more finances were needed to keep the construction of paradise on schedule, Prince exhorted his followers to sell a little more for the Lord, or simply demanded that "The Lord had need of fifty pounds Amen,". Then he finally hit upon the ingeneous idea of marrying his most devoted followers and preachers to the wealthy older spinsters to secure even more funds.

On the death of Josias Nottidge in 1844, his unmarried daughters had each inherited the sum of £6,000. The charismatic Prince wasted no time in persuading four of them to contribute it all towards the founding of his new religious community in Somerset. They agreed in order that they would be saved on judgement day.

Extensive building work was undertaken to accommodate all the new members and existing followers at Four Forks in Spaxton.

 Behind 15-foot high walls Prince built a multi-bedroomed house with an attached chapel, as well as a gazebo, stables, and cottages, all set within landscaped gardens that were called “Eden”.

The buildings were designed by follower Rev. William Cobbe, the brother of early feminist and suffragist supporter Frances Power Cobbe. The buttressed chapel, with its pinnacles and stained glass, was completed in 1845.

Prince and all his favoured women lived in the 16-bedroom gabled house with the turreted bay windows. The stone chapel was adorned with a rampant lion growling in the direction of the former Charlinch parish church. The walls were built not only to keep outsiders out, but also to keep Agapemonites in. Price cut them off from their families and the outside world so he could have complete power over them all.

The best place to observe the comings and goings at the Abode of Love was at the Lamb Inn, located next door to the main house. The bar served many a journalist covering the numerous scandals that would surround the self-appointed son of God and his cult over the ensuing years.

In 1845 three of the Nottidge sisters travelled to Somerset - along with Prince - with a view to residing at the new community. During the journey, Prince persuaded Harriet, Agnes and Clara Nottidge to marry three leading clergymen from the Agapemone. They all wed in Swansea, on 9th July 1845. The sisters were steamrollered into these spiritual unions, and were not allowed to contact their family beforehand. Harriet married Rev. Lewis Price, Agnes married Rev George Thomas and Clara married Rev. William Cobbe. 

Clara and Harriet would live happily in the Abode of Love with their spiritual husbands for many years. Agnes, would later be banished from the church – with no rights to remove her cash  - after angering Prince and being branded a “fallen woman”. Knowing there was another £6,000 still up for grabs, Prince was quick to encourage Louisa Nottidge to come and join her three sisters at The Agapemone. 

Once she was a part of the community, Agnes, who was the eldest and most rebellious of the Nottidge sisters, objected to the spiritual marriage and celibate lifestyle demanded of her and became pregnant. If she committed adultery with another follower, her husband never openly accused her of it, and she later gained sole custody of the child in 1850 after proving herself of good moral character before a court. Having her doubts after experiencing life at The Abode of Love for herself, 
Agnes had initially written to Louisa warning her not to come to Spaxton but Louisa ignored her advice and travelled to Somerset anyway. Prince had demanded her presence at Spaxton and once she arrived he lodged her in one of the cottages in the grounds whilst he searched for a suitable spouse. 

Understandably, Louisa’s widowed mother Emily was worried about the great spiritual and financial influence that Prince had established over all of her daughters. At her wits end, she instructed her son Edmund, her nephew Edward Nottidge, and her son-in-law, Frederick Ripley, to travel down to Somerset to rescue the yet unmarried Louisa.  What they did next, I am sure they all genuinely believed was for Louisa’s own good.

Despite the high walls, the three men succeeded in removing Louisa from Prince’s cult - against her will - in November 1846, Locals drinking at the Lamb Inn heard frantic screaming  coming from within the great wall as she resisted the attempts by her family to 'rescue' her. When they got outside they saw the young woman being bundled - still screaming - into a coach that disappeared into the night.

The family liberators promptly turned into her captors and imprisoned Louisa in Ripley's villa near Regents Park in London. Following Louisa's persistent claims regarding the divinity of Prince, her mother enlisted medical help and had Louisa certified insane. She then placed her in Moorcroft House Asylum in Hillingdon. Dr. Stilwell, the presiding physician, made notes on Louisa's condition and treatment which were recorded in The Lancet. Whilst in the Asylum, Louisa continued to maintain that Prince was a holy reincarnation. She repeatedly told people that God would eventually save her and judge them when Armageddon came.

On Prince's orders envoys were sent out to scour the country looking for Louisa. She finally managed to escape from the asylum in January 1848. After 18 months of fruitless searching, word reached Prince that Louisa had was hiding out in a Hotel in Cavendish Square, London so he sent her brother-in-law there to escort her back to the fold. As she waited at Paddington station to return to The Agapemone with Rev. William Cobbe, she was picked up by asylum officials and was locked up once again. Prince made an immediate application to the Commissioners of Lunacy who declared Louisa to be sane. A detailed report made by Bryan Procter led to her release in May 1848. 

Louisa then sued her brother, cousin and brother-in-law, Ripley, for abduction and false imprisonment in Nottidge v. Ripley and Another (1849); the trial was reported daily in The Times newspaper. In 1850 Charles Dickens also reported on the case too. 

Bryan Procter was called as a professional medical witness and The Lord Chief Baron pronounced a famous dictum that stated: "You ought to liberate every person who is not dangerous to himself or to others."
Louisa won the case with damages, proving that she had been illegally detained and was of sound mind. On her release, Louisa immediately transferred all her inheritance money to Prince's bank account and retired behind the walls at Spaxton for the rest of her life but she was never married off to anyone - perhaps as a punishment, or because her cash had been obtained anyway. Some money from her inheritance was used to buy two bloodhounds to protect the faithful from any further 'kidnappings" 

Wilkie Collins went on to dedicate his novel The Woman In White to Bryan Procter. Harriet Martineau wrote a biography of Procter and said the following:

"For many years Mr Procter held the lucrative but not very congenial appointment of Commissioner of Lunacy; the responsibility of which was irksome, and occasionally - as in the case of Miss Nottidge, who was carried off from The Agapemone - alarming to a man of sensitive nature, and a hater of conflict."

Despite - or perhaps even because of - the scandals, there was no shortage of eager new converts desperate to pay money to get into what they saw as a Utopian religious paradise where they could be saved from sin. What they didn't realize was that Prince ruled in such a despotic & dominant style that they soon became heavily intitutionlized. 

The membership went from 60 to over 200 in the first few years. Some of his followers were treated likes slaves, Nobody was paid a penny for administering to Prices needs and whilst he lived in comfort surrounded by the most attractive women in the main house, the other 'saints' worked on the farm or in the gardens, living in the small cottages, husbands separated from wives. Nobody dared question Prince just as no one dared questioned the word of God.

"Prince of course, enjoyed himself immensely. He ate well, drank well - he had left his total abstinence period far behind - and stocked his cellars with the best wines, Above all he exercised absolute authority over a large number of men and women who worshipped him as God. Life was pleasant, heavenly perhaps, and some of the women were most desirable."  (C.Mander The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love.)

Carried away by his notion that he was the son of God, Prince wrongly believed in his own infallibility and assumed that he could do whatever he pleased and get away with it. Prince persistently claimed that as the Holy Ghost, it was his duty to bring heavenly love to earth and to 'purify' virgins He would later publish convoluted theological justifications for his rape of a young virgin in front of his gathered congregation.

In 1856, described as both the 'Great Manifestation' and a 'divine purification’ Prince had devised an elaborate scheme to enable him to carry out one of his many sexual obsessions - the sacrificial deflowering of a beautiful young virgin. He demanded that a selection of suitable girls be made available in the chapel so he could choose the one to be 'favoured”. 

He then engaged in public ceremonial rape and had full sexual intercourse with a 16-year-old follower Zoe Patterson, on a billiard Table, in front of a large congregation. His seemingly "hypnotized" victim was sexually violated to the accompanying sound of the chapel organ and the singing of hymns while Prince wore flowing red velvet robes. 

In his own account he simply said ‘Thus the Holy Ghost took flesh in the presence of those whom he had called as flesh. He took this flesh absolutely in his sovereign will, and with the power and authority of God.’

The resulting child that was born nine months later was called Eve. She was condemned and denied by Prince as a “devil child” and was not recognized by him as his own flesh and blood. He had assured his followers that as a “God” he could not impregnate any women - only purify them.

The scandal led to the condemnation and voluntary leaving of the cult by of some of his most faithful followers, who were unable to endure what they regarded as “the amazing mixture of blasphemy and immorality offered for their acceptance”. Those that left also took their money with them. The most prominent of those who remained - along with their cash - were rewarded by Prince and given titles such as the "Anointed Ones", the "Angel of the Last Trumpet" or the "Seven Witnesses". 

Zoe Patterson’s child grew up in the community, and not surprisingly, was a quiet shy girl.  Zoe, meanwhile took her place at 'Beloveds' right hand as a Bride of the Lamb. There were other ‘Brides’ too - quite how many is hard to unravel. The embroidered bacchanalian stories about the cult normally started in the Lamb Inn and but the cries of moral outrage from society at large that greeted Prince's pamphlets justifying his sacred sex life were widespread and loud.

As a result, a siege mentality came over the community. Locked away behind the high brick wall they refused admittance to all outsiders - a hand would shoot out through a trap to collect goods delivered by local tradesmen. This self-imposed isolation only fueled the exaggeration of the stories about what debauchery really went on behind the closed doors. 

A favourite locals tale described how Mr Prince would choose his next female companion by sitting on a revolving stage and seeing who was in front of him when it stopped turning. The young ladies were said to have then stripped naked to bathe him.

Prince's claims of divinity, his erratic behaviour, and the sexually provocative nature of his group always garnered a lot of newspaper headlines. 

Few outsiders succeeded in visiting this secretive community but one who did was a journalist and student of religious cults, William Hepworth Dixon, who gained an audience with Prince after writing a letter addressed to "The Lord God, Spaxton, Somerset". 

He discovered that the interior of the chapel was not quite in keeping with the sect's pious image: it was furnished with comfortable easy chairs, a rich red Persian carpet and a billiard table. Far from being invited to pray, Dixon was offered a sherry. Eventually, he was introduced to Prince, who received him in a black frock coat and white cravat and was surrounded by his female admirers. Dixon published a measured account of the community in his book Spiritual Wives. Dixon records a picture of a thriving, if somewhat depleted, community with a middle-aged Prince at the centre surrounded by doting billiard-playing beauties. 

He gives a pictures of a group whose great days are past, of men who have spent their lives seeking to save the world but who now wait for what they see as the inevitable end:

 “A dozen ardent clergymen…run away from their posts, shut themselves up in a garden, surround themselves with beautiful women, muse and dream…and waiting in the midst of luxury and idleness for the whole world to be damned. …[I]n the meantime, the reverend gentlemen play a game of billiards in what was once their church…”

In reality, Prince, the ultimate religious con-man had grown a large following while operating a extortion scheme which systematically manipulated women – and  men - from within the group by controlling them both financially and sexually. Prince met young or wealthy older single women, and "by affectation of extraordinary piety, inoculated them with his peculiar tenets". 

After that, he cornered them and bullied them into marrying men who were also under his control and insisted that the Brides wear black dresses for the weddings. After the marriages, Reverend Prince would use his status as a messiah and apply some more group intimidation. He fully exploited the lack of any rights for women in Victorian Britain in order to separate the women from their money – and in the case of Zoe Patterson – from her virginity. Some would say these women must have been totally mad to stay there and just give him all their money, but Prince had such a strong religious hold over them all, that they were blinded to his real intent and purposes and believed what he told them to be the truth.

Two years after Louisa Nottidge’s death in 1858, her brother and will executor, Ralph Nottidge, sued Prince in order to recoup the money that Louisa had given him as a result of his undue influence over her. The case of Nottidge v. Prince (1860) was reported heavily in The Times newspaper. The Nottidges won the case, with costs. Punch Magazine then launched a campaign to encourage Prince to move to America, to join Brigham Young and his Mormons in the Utah desert. 

Despite the fact that Louisa had already proved that she was sane and could act as her own guardian, 10 years earlier when she was abductedm Mr. Nottidge claimed that his sister was not of sound mind while giving the gift of her money, since she was seduced by Prince's claims of divinity. The lawyers discussed whether or not Prince's claims of being the Messiah constituted fraud. They decided it did. The vice-chancellor in the case is quoted as saying "By imposing a belief in his supernatural character upon her weak mind...the imposter was the influencing motive for the gift, therefore vitiating it entirely."

'Prince outlived many of his 'saints' giving further credence to his claim that he was immortal. In 1896 aged 85 he emerged from behind the walls of Spaxton to initiate the building of an ornate church in Clapton in North London complete with a 155ft tower of Portland stone, intricate oak hammer-beam roof and stained glass windows depicting the submission of womankind to man. The church was dedicated to the Ark of the Covenant and one of the first preachers appointed was the Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Pigott. He was in his forties and had been an academic and a sailor before entering the church. 

The church drew a fair crowd, though it probably helped that Pigott was still an ordained Anglican priest. As such the Agapemonite influence was kept discreet, while the respectability he brought with him, elevated Pigott still further within the sect. 

The development of the Clapton Church was all the more surprising since in Prince’s later years the Agapemonites had done little in the way of evangelistic preaching. It is uncertain whether the founding of this new church, at which non-resident sympathizers of the Spraxton community also occasionally met, had any direct connection with the choice of Prince’s successor, or whether Prince had any plans for the continuance of his sect after his death.

In 1899, Prince finally died at the age of 88. His death came as a devastating shock to the community. They were thrown into complete confusion and with no funeral plans for one who many seem to have genuinely believed to have been immortal they hurriedly buried him in the grounds of the chapel, with his coffin positioned vertically so that he would be standing on the day of his resurrection. Reeling from the shock some members packed their bags and left whilst others tried to contact their Beloved through spiritualist séances. 

On hearing the news that the bereaved sisters of the Abode of Love were in need of a new heavenly bridegroom a light lit up in the eyes of the Reverend Smyth-Piggot - said by some to be a divine light. 

Reverend Smyth-Pigott started leading meetings of the community. With the help of Douglas Hamilton, Prince's faithful retainer, Smyth-Piggot was enthroned as the new Saviour of Mankind at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant in Clapton in September 1902 before a not entirely friendly crowd of 6000 who booed and jeered during the inauguration and who had to be pressed back by a group of mounted police to allow the new messiah to leave. 

The riotous scenes that followed made it into the papers, and the following week an alleged three thousand protestors gathered outside the church to declare Pigott a heretic. The whole thing allegedly culminated in Pigott attempting and failing to “walk on water” on Clapton Pond.

After this, Smyth-Piggot moved to Spaxton permanantley with his wife Catherine and slipped into Prince's shoes with consummate ease sparking a mini-revival in the cult's fortunes. He recruited 50 new young female followers to supplement the ageing population of Agapemonites.  All were vetted by Sister Eve Patterson the now grown-up 'Devil child' who had come to hold a senior clerical and administration position in the community.

Smyth-Piggot set about his new role with great expense and energy; he bought a motor car and telephone, added a laundry and commissioned new cottages in the Arts and Crafts style to be built at Four Forks by members of the Agapemonites, including Joseph Morris and his daughters, Olive & Violet. They were the family building firm chosen to design the Church in Clapton and they had a strong connection with the sect. 

Violet Morris was an architect and her sister Olive was an engineer, and both put their skills to use in service of the brotherhood when they had helped design the new church in London. Their father was a Quaker, but he still helped to purchase the grounds for the Agapemone Cult. The church in London was decorated with statues and stained glass images that, while all still strictly Christian in nature, all held great symbolic meaning for the cult too. Statues drawn from the Book of Revelations adorned the towers, while above a door was written “LOVE IN JUDGMENT AND JUDGMENT UNTO VICTORY”. A Pelican and Phoenix representing sacrifice and rebirth were shown in mosaic, perhaps being an indication of Pigott’s ambitions.

The stained glass windows were designed by Walter Crane, a well-known illustrator. The most famous of these is “The Rising Sun of Righteousness”, showing a sun heralded by angels as it rises from the sea. To this day it is considered one of the finest examples of Victorian stained glass.

Violet as an architect was involved with the overall design of the "Ark." Olive, a wood-carver and an engineer, also contributed. She is thought to have carved the pulpit and the lectern. Looking at the iconography of the church, it is still possible to sense something of the heady atmosphere which the charismatic leaders of the cult had created, and which drew such people as these extraordinary women into it's orbit.

Smyth-Piggott introduced new stock to the run down farm back in Spaxton and most of all busied himself in his capacity as the heavenly bridegroom. The numbers at Spraxton were sometimes reinforced by visitors from a Norwegian sister house which Smyth-Pigott also frequently visited. He was "If not a sexual maniac at least a man obsessed with sex in his daily life" ( Donald McCormick.Temple of Love). 

Smyth-Piggott took Ruth Anne Preece as his second wife and she had three children by him, named Glory, Power and Life.  By 1902 his fame had spread as far as India, from where another self-proclaimed Messiah from the Ahmadiyya movement - an offshoot of Islam - warned him about false teachings.

 In Deluded Inmates, Frantic Ravers and Communists: A sociological Study of the Agapemone, a sect of Victorian Apocalyptic Milleniars’. Dr. Joshua Schwieso, a local west country historian writes: 

We can see traces of Agapemone activities in India in 1902…in this very year another claimer to messiahship in India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, chief of Qadian, Punjab, published an announcement in which Pigott was given a warning that…….if he did not abstain from his claim to godship then he would immediately be destroyed/turned to dust and bones.’

This was also published in newspapers in America and Europe. Due to the fact that Pigott had access to the outside world, he was informed about this announcement and knew about the death prophecy against him. Meanwhile, Catherine Smyth-Piggot the long suffering first wife busied herself with charity work in the area and was remembered with great affection by locals for many years after. 

In 1905 the registrar was called to Spaxton to record the birth of Glory, the daughter of Pigott and his “spiritual second wife” Ruth. Pigott’s legal wife Catherine was also present at the ceremony, in which Pigott made no secret of his Messianic pretenses. The registrar also noted that apart from Pigott and his secretary, the rest of the congregation seemed to be entirely female. In fact it seems that almost the entire male part of the flock had left on Pigott’s accession to the throne. 

Glory’s birth was immediately followed by tragedy, however, when an ex-Agapemonite and alcoholic drowned herself in Clapton Pond, leading to much condemnation of Pigott’s teachings.

The cult's secretary was Charles Stokes Read, and some journalists later claimed that he was the true power in the Agapemonite church at this time. He was the one who arranged for announcements to be made to the journalists, and he was the one who told them that Ruth had borne her “spiritual husband” two more children. The latter story included the detail that Pigott was still an accredited Anglican priest, and created enough of a scandal that a motion was raised to defrock him and an angry crowd gathered to lynch him. 

Fortunately for Smyth-Piggott, he had been sent off to Norway by Read in order to keep him out of the way during the church hearing. Unfortunately for Read the mob then decided Read would be a worthy substitute for tarring and feathering and he was subjected to the indignity, something which may have contributed to his death the following year.

Smyth-Pigott died in 1927 and after this the sect membership declined rapidly. 

The sect did gain certain respectability in it's final years, under the leadership of Douglas Hamiliton who was a secretive man with very puritanical leanings. He ran things at Spaxton with Sister Eve but by 1929 only 33 women, 1 girl and 3 men were left and the community became a sort of liberal finishing school reportedly full of "disillusioned old women and frustrated and disappointed young women."  

As the old guard died, Sister Ruth became the leader and when she died in 1956 the community finally closed. Her funeral was the only time when outsiders were admitted to the chapel. 

The property was finally sold off in 1958. The complex of buildings became known as Barford Gables and the chapel was later used as a studio for the production of BBC animated children's television programmes in the 1960’s - including the classic Trumpton and Camberwick Green. Curious viewers may have wondered why, in spite of boasting a rich assortment of people from various trades and occupations, neither Village seemed to have a vicar. Now you know why! 

In 1976 Bridgwater Author Charles Mander wrote a book called ‘The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love‘ and subsequently turned this into a play for the Bridgwater Youth Theatre. This was immediately banned as blasphemous by the principle of Bridgwater College.

On January 10th 1981, exactly 82 years after the death of the Son of God in Spaxton, the Bridgwater based Sheep Worrying Theatre Group put on the banned play. Scripted by Charles Mander with music by Brian Smedley the large cast had a capacity audience with people being turned away at the door. The theatre group had been formed by ex-members of the Youth Theatre that had been axed in the first wave of Tory cuts in 1980 and now, independent, they found that they could put on whatever plays they wanted.

The 1980’s were about to herald Mrs Thatcher’s espousal of ‘Victorian values‘ and so Charles Mander declared in the programme notes “The story is an outrage against the Victorian establishment, Victorian morals and Victorian hypocrisy“ describing Princes actions as a “supreme confidence trick“he aptly quoted from Aldous Huxley’s essay about Prince saying “There is no dogma so queer, no behaviour so eccentric or even outrageous but a group of people can be found to think it divinely inspired.“

Smyth-Pigott's grand daughter, Margaret Campbell, recalled that her grandmother Ruth Preece had warned her that there were many stories made up about Smyth-Pigott but that essentially he was a 'good man'

Campbell argued that Smyth-Pigott did not have affairs although he did have two bigamous wives. She claimed that both wives were happy with the arrangement - Catherine being older and unable to have children - and that the sect had to be viewed in its original historical context, emerging shortly after religious emancipation in the 1830s.

Campbell said that it allowed many women an opportunity to lead an alternative lifestyle to their only other options of becoming either a governess or a wife and stated that, like Louisa Nottidge, many of the women lived in luxury at the Agapemone until their deaths. She recalled growing up in the cult as a very happy experience in an interview to the Henley Standard in 2016, shortly before her death. 

Campbell argued that Beloved had once given a sermon in which he said, 'Christ is no longer here (pointing skywards) but here (pointing to his chest),' thereby expounding the central Christian doctrine of Christ within every Christian. She claimed that this had been twisted by the media for their own aims. 

In 2006 Glory’s daughter, Kate Barlow published an account of her life as a child with her family in the sect. She wrote of visiting her grandmother at the  “Abode of Love” after World War II.
The book includes family photographs and details of conversations she had as a child with the then elderly sect members. Kate Barlow deftly dispels the stories of a 'revolving stage of virgins' as described by one newspaper at the time. She dismisses this as myth in her memoir 'The Abode of Love' but details many other interesting aspects of the cult such as its own signature tea which was served at 4pm every day. 

The “Ark of the Covenant” in Clapton went on the market in 2010, and was sold to the Georgian Orthodox Church for £1 million. It was this sale that led to the final piece of drama in the history of the Agapemonites and their brides. The deeds of the church claimed that the proceeds of its sale should be put “to the benefit of the Agapemonites”, and with the church defunct the six grand-daughters of John Hugh Smyth-Pigott appeared in court to claim the money. However the judge in the case ruled against them, because thankfully they could not find any charity or organisaton in the modern day that had anything like the same ethos of the Agapemonites. It was decided that the Charity Commission would distribute the funds to many good causes.



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Baker, T. F. T., ed. "Hackney: Protestant Nonconformity." A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 10, Hackney. London, 1995: 

Barlow, Kate. The Abode of Love: The Remarkable Tale of Growing Up in a Religious Cult. Pbk ed. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2007

Betjeman, John. "City and Suburban." The Spectator Archives. 3 February 1956,

"The case of 'NOTTIDGE v. RIPLEY.'" The Times. 29 August 1849: 4. The Times Digital Archive.

Dixon, William Hepworth. Spiritual Wives. Vol. I. 4th ed. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1868. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of Californai Libraries.

"The Former Ark of the Covenant." Historic England.

"It is now some twelve or thirteen years ago that." The Times. 12 June 1860: 4. The Times Digital Archive.

Mander, Charles. The Reverend Prince and His Abode of Love. East Ardsley: E. P. Publishing Ltd., 1976.

Schwieso, Joshua J. "The Founding of the Agapemone at Spaxton, 1856-6.". Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society: 113-21.

Stunt, Timothy C. F., "Prince, Henry James (1811–1899)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Wise, Sarah. Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England. London: Bodley Head, 2012

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