The Queen of the Australian Gold Fields who made Hove her Home

NPG Ax5458; Alice Ann Cornwell (later Mrs Stannard Robinson) by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by  Eglington & Co

by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by Eglington & Co, carbon print, published 1889

One week to go before my first ‘Notorious Women of Hove’ walk and I’m still marvelling at the incredible number of Hove related women who’ve made their mark on the world. Given that I’m supposed to be planning a nice one and a half hour amble rather than a full day’s trek, I’m having to make hard decisions about which of the pioneering doctors, surgeons, educators, suffragettes, poets, singers, social campaigners and plain, old-fashioned trouble-reapers to include and which I can only give a cursory mention to? One woman I definitely want to tell people about is Alice Ann Cornwell (above) who came to live in Palmeira Square in the early 1900s. Hardly a house-hold name, Alice’s list of achievements is impressive: industrialist, gold-miner, entrepreneur, newspaper proprietor and, ultimately, the originator of the Ladies Kennel Association.

Born in Essex in 1852, Alice spent most of her childhood and teenage years in New Zealand. She returned to England in 1877 and showed great promise as a musician, training at the Royal Academy of Music and composing music and songs. Finding out that her father, now a gold prospector in Australia, was in financial trouble, however, she abandoned her music career in order to help him. Once back in Australia, Alice took a practical course of action: she decided to study geology and mining. Unafraid to get her hands dirty, Alice often rolled up her sleeves up and got involved in the hard and dirty work of mining itself. Women weren’t as rare in the mid to late nineteenth century Australian goldfields as you might imagine. The 1854 census of the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria, where Alice worked, revealed 4,023 women compared to 12,660 men living on the ‘diggings’, with five percent of them single.


Whether these women were wives of miners or mining themselves, it was far from being an easy life. Intensely hot summers, freezing cold winters, lawlessness, little, if any, infrastructure or facilities, the remoteness and lack of transport meant that in some of these communities minor illness or pregnancy could be death sentences. A woman by the name of Ellen Clacy wrote these vivid observations of life on the Victoria goldfields in 1852: Night at the diggings is the characteristic time: murder here-murder there- revolvers cracking-blunderbusses bombing-rifles going off-balls whistling-one man groaning with a broken leg…..Here is one man grumbling because he brought his wife with him, another ditto because he left his behind, or sold her for an ounce of gold or a bottle of rum. […] In the rainy season, he must not murmur if compelled to work up to his knees in water, and sleep on the wet ground, without a fire, in the pouring rain, and perhaps no shelter above him more waterproof than a blanket or a gum tree…..In the summer, he must work hard under a burning sun, tortured by the mosquito and the little stinging March flies…..” Despite these hardships, Alice worked hard and struck gold. So much gold that soon she was able not only to sort out her father’s hardships but make an excellent living for herself too. With her business-mind swinging into action, Alice quickly established a company that was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Fantastically wealthy, shrewd, and with a big personality to match, Alice was soon a celebrity, dubbed the ‘Lady of the Nuggets’, even, in 1888, inspiring a novel, ‘Madame Midas’ by Fergus Hume.

madame midas

Back in London with her fortune, Alice turned her mind to other business opportunities. In 1887 she bought the ailing Sunday Times and, installing her fiance, Frederick Stannard Robinson, as editor, managed to quadruple circulation. In 1894 she founded the Ladies Kennel Club. This organisation, still going strong today, describes Alice as ‘formidable’ on their website. She set up the organisation ‘in defiance of the gentlemen of the Kennel Club of the day’ with the aim to put on dog shows ‘run by Ladies for Ladies’. Unusual for the day, its offices were staffed entirely by women. Cats got a look in too, as Alice later became involved with the National Cat Club, as well as the International Kennel Club. Widowed in 1902, Alice settled in Hove where she bred pugs until her death in 1932. Despite making huge strides in worlds only sparsely populated by women, a New Zealand newspaper, the Otago Witness, chose to focus more on her looks in an 1889 profile: ‘Miss Cornwell is, if not a prepossessing woman, at least not unhandsome. Her face and features somewhat irregular and undefined, it is true, harmonise well with her symmetrical and well defined picture.‘ I’d like to think that ‘formidable’ Alice Cornwell was too busy to let this bother her.

Notorious Women of Hove – guided walk during the Brighton Fringe Saturdays 30th April, 7th May, 14th May, 28th May, 4th June at 10.30 a.m from the café in St Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove.  Thursday evening 12th May, Tuesday evenings 17th May, 31st May at 6.30 p.m from the same place.



Brighton’s Cross Dressing Music Hall Star

vesta 1


OK, so this post might be a bit late for panto season but it’s always a good time to think about the magnificent Vesta Tilley, music-hall star and one of the most successful male impersonators of the late Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall, later resident of Hove. Below is the only slightly changed article I wrote for the Brighton and Hove Independent newspaper, published in early January 2016.

Christmas means it’s almost panto time again. As a host of pantomime dames and girl-boy heroes prepare to tread the boards, it’s a great time to remember one of the most famous cross-dressing performer who delighted Victorian and Edwardian music-halls, such as Brighton’s Hippodrome, before retiring to Hove. Vesta Tilley- real name Mathilda Powles – was born in Worcester in 1864. With her father a comedy actor and music-hall chairman, she appeared on stage dressed as a boy from the age of three and was so successful she was the family breadwinner by the age of eleven. By the time she was an adult Vesta was drawing crowds with her drag act, performing songs and sketches dressed as one of many – usually poorly behaved or morally dubious – male characters. During the rowdy golden years of music-hall an act would be sharing the bill with anything from acrobat-trampolinists to escapalogists to comedy pianists to illusionists. Performers who hoped to have staying power were the ones who had nerves of steel and could stand out from the crowd. The sight of Vesta, who never tried to hide her womanly singing voice, a woman swaggering confidently on stage in trousers was notorious enough to send a frisson through the audience without straying too far from the boundaries of the double-entendre ridden, saucy music-hall world. One of Vesta’s most popular characters was ‘Burlington Bertie’, a well-dressed yet idle toff about London who lays in bed until late in the morning and spends his inheritance ‘Along with the Brandy and Soda Brigade’. As ‘The Seaside Sultan’ Vesta poked fun at the pretensions of male office clerks on seaside holidays, ‘a flannelled fool from an office stool’. Audiences lapped it up and, all through her career, adoring fanmail arrived from both men and women. For men, Vesta was a fashion icon and many men would take her picture to their tailors demanding a suit ‘cut like Vesta’s.’ Unisex fashions were a long way in the future and I wonder how many women sitting in the audience in their long frocks, unending layers of petticoats, corset and padding underneath, envied the freedom of Vesta’s masculine clothes. Vesta wasn’t to everyone’s taste, though. Apparently, during the 1914 Royal Command performance, Queen Mary and the women in her entourage preferred to look away rather than watch the shocking sight of a woman in trousers. They were in the minority, however. By then Vesta was the highest paid female performer on the British stage, regularly making £50 per week. During the early days of the First World War Vesta, dressed as a soldier, put her act to the service of army recruiting. Singing songs such as ‘We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’, sometimes urging men to come onto the stage and join up there and then, she became known as ‘Britain’s Best Recruitment Sergeant’.
In 1919 Vesta decided to hang up her trousers for good. The proceeds from her farewell tour, which lasted almost a year, were given to different children’s charities. She made her final performance at the London Coliseum at the age of 56. Her husband, Walter De Frece, ex music-hall entrepreneur and one time co-owner of Brighton’s Hippodrome in Middle Street, had been knighted for his efforts for the war effort. He was soon to become Conservative MP for Blackpool. As the very feminine Lady De Frece, Vesta spent the rest of her life until her death in 1952 between Monte Carlo and her flat in St Aubyn’s Mansions on the Hove sea-front. Vesta wasn’t the only cross-dressing female music-hall star. Bessie Bellwood, the American Ella Shields, Hetty King and Millie Hylton also enjoyed success.

vesta 2

Vesta’s – or should that be ‘Lady de Frece’s’ – former residence, St Aubyn’s Mansions on Hove sea front, has been commemorated with a blue plaque.

vesta 4

A Lady Poisons – The Case of Christiana Edmunds


At the start of every Notorious Women of Brighton Walk I always tell people not to expect a parade of role-models, that some of the women I’ll be talking about haven’t earned their place on the tour through doing good works and achieving great things.  Christiana Edmunds, Brighton’s famous chocolate murderer, is a case in point.  In 1870 and 1871 the hitherto respectable Christiana struck terror through Brighton when she took a liking to lacing chocolate creams from the famous Maynard’s sweet shop on West Street (near today’s Waterstone’s) with strychnine.  These she sent anonymously in parcels to prominent people in the town.  Apparently, some she just took back to the shop, after injecting with poison, saying she’d bought the wrong chocolates and would like to swap.  In order not to arouse suspicion she slipped money to unwitting beggar children to go to the sweet shop for her.  Police in the town were nonplussed and at a loss to explain why noteable Brightonians were suddenly receiving these ‘gifts’.  It wasn’t until the four year old Sidney Barker died from eating one of the contaminated chocolates that the finger of blame at last came to rest on Christiana’s head.  Her motive, apparently, was revenge.  After Dr Beard, the married doctor with whom she was having an affair, decided to finish things, what better way to get back at him than poisoning his wife?   Maybe she roped in the others to create a smokescreen or just discovered a taste for poisoning and couldn’t stop herself.


Do we seek to explain her motives because she’s a woman?   Would we be looking into her background and trying to analyse the choices she took if she’d been a man?  It certainly seems that her gender and the fact that a woman (a woman!) could do such harm kept the Victorian public riveted through her murder trial at the Old Bailey in 1872.  See the headline above ‘The Extraordinary Charge of Poisoning by a Lady’, that ‘Lady’ the most attention grabbing factor in the business. The Victorians loved stories of true crime and we can only imagine the extra frisson a female perpetrator would have added to this already smouldering cocktail of lust, forbidden love and jealousy.  Christina was found guilty of murder but, being declared insane, managed to avoid the death penalty, finishing her life at Broadmoor, then a criminal lunatic asylum, until her death in 1907. In a daily mail online article Tony Rennell writes  ‘she was one of the most notorious inmates of Broadmoor in Victorian times, her name a byword for something that hidebound era found impossible to comprehend or forgive — a woman’s unbridled lust.’

Kate Elms tells Christiana’s story on the Brighton Museum website and also on the website of the Keep

Queen Victoria and the African Princess

1. St N church

St Nicholas Church, built in the middle of the 14th century, is one of the oldest buildings in Brighton. It has also seen its share of some of our city’s most interesting women. In 1726 a baby called Martha Killick was christened here. She was later to find fame as Martha Gunn, the most successful of Brighton’s formidable bathing women who reigned supreme during the craze for wealthy Londoners, the Prince Regent among them, to take the fashionable sea water cure in Brighton.  89 years later Martha was buried right there in the churchyard in a shady plot that happens to be –  appropriately for the ‘Queen of the Dippers’ – on one of the highest pieces of ground. Not far from Martha’s grave is that of the legendary Phoebe Hessel who, aged 15 and disguised as a man, ran away to join the army.  Phoebe managed to lead a military career for 17 years until a bayonet wound revealed that she was a woman, leading to her services as a soldier being swiftly dispensed with. In more recent years, Flora Robson, one of the most iconic British actresses of the twentieth century, known locally as much for her charity work as her acting, spent the later years of her life at nearby Wykeham Terrace and was a regular member of the church’s congregation. I’d be surprised, however, if any visitor to St Nicholas Church, caused quite as much of a stir as a certain Sarah Forbes Bonetta, whose wedding ceremony was held here in August 1862. Sarah was as close to the heart of British upper-class society as it was possible to get, having been virtually adopted at an early age by Queen Victoria. But don’t let her typically English name fool you, because Sarah Forbes Bonetta was from Africa.

NPG Ax61384; Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy

It’s thought that Sarah was born in 1843 in what is now southwest Nigeria of royal blood. Aged eight she was orphaned in inter-tribal warfare and captured by slave raiders. When she was found by Captain Frederick Forbes of the Royal Navy, she was a prisoner of King Gezo of Dahomey, who, according to American website was ‘the most notorious slave trading monarch in West Africa in the early 19th century.’ Captain Forbes had been sent to Dahomey by the British government in an attempt to persuade King Gezo to give up slave raiding and trading. When he came across the 6 year old Sarah – known as ‘Ina’ – he persuaded King Gezo to release her by suggesting that she would make an excellent ‘gift’ for Queen Victoria. ‘A present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites’ was how he put it, thereby securing her rescue. Before setting sail for her new home, the girl was baptised Sarah and given Forbes’s surname,  ‘Bonetta’ coming from the name of his ship. Forbes wrote in his diary that his young charge was a ‘perfect genius… far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…’ Sarah’s first meeting with Queen Victoria took place on November 9th, 1850 at Windsor Castle. She would have been aged about seven or eight. What on earth would such a young child, African born, and having spent the last couple of years of her life as a captive of slave traders, have made of suddenly being launched into the heart of regal pomp and power in England on a cold November day? Queen Victoria, who always took a shine to genuinely talented people, instantly liked Sarah, declaring herself impressed by her regal manner and intelligence. Following Captain Forbes’ death in 1851, the Queen entrusted Sarah to the care of a family in Gillingham, paid for her education, and regularly welcomed her at Windsor Castle where she delighted in her company and musical talent. When Sarah developed a cough a year later, concerned that the English climate wasn’t good for her health, she arranged for her to continue her education in Sierra Leone. In 1855, however, despite excelling academically, Sarah chose to return to Britain and the care of her unusual god-parent. In August 1862, not long after attending the wedding of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, Sarah was given permission to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a 31-year-old Yoruba businessman from Sierra Leone who was based in London. There are a lot of websites telling Sarah’s story and many question whether ‘permission’ in this case would be better described as ‘pressure’ because it seems that, initially, Sarah’s interest in Captain Davies’ proposal was lukewarm. If she was as academically gifted as described, and having had the best education (for a woman at the time) that it was possible to have, it’s tempting to think that the life of a respectable and subservient Victorian wife wasn’t such an attractive destiny. Living through the dramatic events of her childhood and then being thrown into a completely different culture must have made her a resourceful and practical young woman. I wonder if she saw a more useful outlet for her remarkable skills? While deliberating on her choice she was sent to stay with a couple of older women in Clifton Street, Brighton. Whether this was a deliberate gesture to persuade the twenty-year old Sarah of the virtues of making a respectable marriage, the wedding went ahead. It must have been one of the most elaborate ceremonies ever seen in Brighton at the time. No less than ten horse-drawn carriages transported the wedding party, complete with sixteen bridesmaids, from West Hill Lodge to St Nicholas Church. The Brighton Gazette describes watching the procession of ‘White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen’.


This photo of Sarah and her new husband was taken just a month after the wedding by French photographer, Camille Silvy, a popular photographer of the royal family, in his London studio. The couple went to live in Sierra Leone where Sarah worked as a teacher (hopefully finding a fulfilling outlet for her skills). Queen Victoria gave her permission to call her first daughter Victoria, and became her godmother. In 1867 Sarah returned to England with her young daughter and the Queen took immediately to her namesake, pledging to support her education. Sarah and her husband had two more children and moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Unfortunately, in 1880, while only in her late thirties, this talented and clever woman, whose life had been so eventful, succumbed to tuberculosis and died on the island of Madeira. Queen Victoria continued to support and take a real interest in the achievements of the young Victoria (below), who like her mother, was a talented musician and was a welcome visitor to the royal household for the rest of her life.


I have Brighton and Hove Black History to thank for reminding me of the story of Brighton’s African queen. I bumped into Bert Williams of Brighton and Hove Black History just the other day at the Museum’s War Stories Open Day. I’m always pleased to see Bert as he’s a treasure trove of local history. He’d brought along some really interesting panels that told the story of the 16,000 men, two-thirds from Jamaica, who came from the Caribbean to fight in the First World War, many forming the British West Indian Regiment in Seaford in 1915.  Sarah Forbes Bonetta is one of the people featured on the Brighton and Hove Black History leaflet. To find out more about Brighton and Hove’s black history, go here

Here’s another great link – 10 minute footage of Kamal Simpson talking to Clare Gittings, Learning Manager at the National Portrait Gallery, about Sarah.

A not so guilty pleasure…

lady audley

During my walking tours last year I was often asked ‘who’s your favourite Notorious Woman?’  Easy question.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Sometime actress turned novelist, Braddon (1835 – 1915), who once lodged in Brighton’s New Road with her mother, managed to write over 80 novels in her lifetime, including the spectacular ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, which rocked Victorian readers with its disturbing portrayal of a ruthlessly ambitious woman who will stop at nothing – bigamy, deserting her child, pushing an inconvenient husband down a well – to get on in life.  In 1862 when the novel was published (Braddon was only 27 at the time and had rattled off the final third of the book in a fortnight), the home and the woman’s peaceful and stable presence in it were sacrosanct to the Victorians.  Scary, nasty things were only supposed to lurk in haunted castles, windswept Gothic mansions, or abroad.  The thought that a woman – a wife and mother at that – could generate such horrific acts and murderous chaos was shocking indeed.  Lady Audley is presented unapologetically as just a ‘bad girl’ and – worryingly for the Victorians – there is no attempt to engage our sympathy for her by heartfelt descriptions of a sad childhood to blame it on.  Braddon was a pioneer of the Victorian ‘Sensation’ novel that specialised in people falling off cliffs, houses being set fire to, hauntings and general Oh My God moments.  The titles of some of her novels practically come with their own drumroll…. ‘To the Bitter End’, ‘Taken At the Flood’, ‘Dead Love Has Chains’.  I’m not an expert on Braddon’s life story but a few online accounts I have read  (a good one here – that, for her, life imitated art, if not the other way round.  ‘Crooked solicitor father’, ‘struck up a friendship in a graveyard with a man known as the ‘Don Juan of Coventry’,  ‘struck up a friendship in Yorkshire with a shadowy figure called John Gilby,’, ‘lived in sin with a married publisher’, ‘had a career on stage with the pseudonym Mary Seyton’ (was the resemblance to ‘Satan’ deliberate?), ‘mother of many illegitimate children’ are sentences that crop up in enough accounts of her story to suggest she was familiar with the boundaries she stretched in her works.  What really impresses me about Mary Elizabeth Braddon, though, is just how good a writer she was.  When I set about reading Lady Audley’s Secret last year for research, I expected something either longwinded in the Victorian why-use-three-words-when-fifty-five-will-do’ way, or, taking account of the subject matter, a breathless and hysterical melodrama.  What I didn’t expect was a perfectly polished, immaculately plotted work that would have me sailing past my bus-stop, arriving late for work and once cancelling a perfectly good evening out with friends just so I could get to the end.  How did she do it?  Of course she was remorselessly criticised and looked down on – much as chick lit authors are these days – for not being clever or literary enough, for catering too shamelessly for the masses.  Now, a hundred and fifty years later, where are these cleverer and more literary contemporaries of hers?  A great deal of them are forgotten, while Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley is still going strong in any number of stage plays, film versions and, of course, the book that’s never been out of print.  Did these criticisms upset her?  Did she have the time to let them upset her?  Hopefully she just shrugged her shoulders and laughed all the way to the bank.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

(Incidentally, Braddon may have taken some inspiration from the real life Constance Kent murder case which occurred in 1860 and similarly shocked Victorian society with its young female murderer who was accused of disposing of the body of her young step-brother down a well.  This has a Brighton connection, which I will be exploring in a future post)