Henrietta Vansittart – Female engineer of the Industrial revolution

Industrial Revolution and James Lowe

When you think of the Industrial Revolution what images do you conjure up?  For me its the hardship and bleakness of smoke infested towns, enormous brick buildings pumping, whirring, grinding and shunting – coal, tin, wool, cotton, iron and steam. But its not only the bleakness of the places, it’s also the bleakness of the people – lined, weary faces of those trying to many a penny to survive, fresh faced excitement of those arriving from the countryside, and aristocratic men, in crisp, starched shirts and waistcoats inventing and creating new and even more fabulous inventions.

James Lowe was one such inventor.  Lowe had worked as a mechanist and smoke jack maker and invented a screw propeller for ships.  On the 23 March 1838 he took out a patent for a new screw propeller which ensured his place in history.  New inventions were taken to the Royal Navy weekly, and at this time there was very little money to be made from such things.  But Lowe would not give up and he spent all his wife’s money on his experiments and a succession of patents reducing the family to complete poverty by the early 1850’s.  Therefore it might seem strange, that his daughter, Henrietta Vansittart (nee Lowe) excelled herself to become a respected engineer and inventor in her own right, at a time when Victorian women should have been doing anything but science.

Henrietta Vanisittart nee Lowe

lowemarinepropellerHenrietta was born in 1833, to James and Marie Lowe (nee Barnes) – she did not have the most fortunate of circumstances, she was the third daughter of six sister and two bothers, and her father had almost bankrupted the family by 1852 through his desire to invent.  However, Henrietta it seems was a social climber and had dreams of grandeur, and by 1855 she had married a lieutenant in the 14th Dragoons, Frederick Vansittart who had been based in Paris.  Soon after they bought a house in Clarges Street, London and it seems he sold his commission to they could set up home.  But, this was not good enough for Henrietta and in 1859 she started an affair, which lasted 12 years with the novelist and politician, Edward Bulwer Lytton.  Lytton was a man of social status and Henrietta clearly had an effect on him, although perhaps not to Disrealis liking and is said to have blamed Lyttons absences from the House of Commons on his association with Henrietta.  Lytton became ill and in 1873 died, leaving Henrietta £1200 in his will and very oddly her husband, £300.  She returned to her husband and lived in Twickenham.  Henrietta was clearly a highly charismatic and feisty young lady who knew what she wanted and did not allow things to stand in her way.  (Image 1 – see source

During this time, Henrietta took a keen interest in her fathers work and accompanied him on the HMS Bullfinch in 1857 to test out the new screw propeller.  She had her own ideas for how it could be developed, and after her father was tragically killed by a cart crossing the road in London in 1866, she took on her fathers work without any formal scientific or engineering training.  Within 2 years she had patented another propeller to allow ships to move faster and smoother and use less fuel.  In 1868, the Vansittart Propeller was patented and was used on HMS Druid – she won numerous awards for this, had articles written on her in the Times Newspaper and attended exhibitions all over the world. She was clearly a remarkable woman.   It is believed that she was the only lady who ever wrote, read and illustrated with her own drawings and diagrams a scientific paper before members of the Scientific Institution.

Henrietta and Twickenham

Of course, no street or person would be complete without some intrigue, mystery and scandal and Henrietta certainly had some interesting moments.  It is one of my favourite things about researching a house history – the stories of the people who lived there.  The little scraps that give us a glimpse into the past – of squabbles and stand offs, intrigue and intellect, parties and politicians. Montpelier Row has certainly had its fair show of arguments,

Henrietta seems to have lived a colourful life in all areas.  It is perhaps strange that she left her husband to have her affair with Lytton in this age, and that Lytton then left both Henrietta and Frederick money in his will, £1200 to her and £300 to him, no small sum in 1873.  Stranger still perhaps that she then went back to her husband. Happily or not, who knows.

Mr & Mrs vansittart appear to have become property owners owning a number of houses in Montpelier Row Twickenham as well as on Maids of Honor by Richmond Green.  These were and still are desirable and expensive addresses.

Maids of Honor Row – Richmond Green.

.  The 1871 census lists them at 4 Maids of Honor Row although records suggest she was there in 1869 without her husband.  Perhaps she had bought it with funds from her patent, inheritence or from Lytton. Henry George Bohn in a letter to the Richmond Twickenham Times in 1879 states that she arrived in Twickenham around 1874.  In a later letter by Bohn he talks about 4 houses that she had purchased in complete squalor for between £200-£300, and which had then been converted into two, these appear to have been Number 4 and 5 which later became Seymour House and 1 and 2, which were known as Bell House and St Maur’s Priory.  It seems by 1880 she had No 1, St Maur’s Priory (Which had been named by her) and 2, Bell House left in her possession as she had sold the others off.  The 1881 census, shows that Frederick and Henrietta were living at No 1 Montpelier Row whose main frontage was on the Richmond Road.

The 1881 census shows that Frederick and Henrietta were now living at No 1 Montpelier Row, known at this time as St Mary’s Priory, or St Maurs Priory which had been named by Henrietta.

1 Montpelier Row, Twickenham (Originally Numbers 1 and 2)

 In 1878, Bell House, Number 2 was offered for lease for the sum of £100 and Seymour House, Number 3 was also offered for sale for £73,10s.  Both properties were owned by Henrietta at this time and were offered for sale by Mr Fowler on 25 June 1878.  It appears that a neighbour, Henry George Bohn, the infamous fine art dealer, publisher and book collector, with whom there seems to have been some rivalry and dispute purchased Seymour House from Henrietta in 1879, paying £1100.00 – a vast increase on the alleged two hundred pounds she had spent only a few years earlier.

Henry George Bohn was the Vansittarts neighbour, living at North End House, just the other side of the Richmond Road.  There appears to have been a great deal of rivalry amongst the two households, not least perhaps because of Henrietta’s desire to own and lease property – the same property that Bohn also wanted to own and lease.  There was some argument with the local council in 1879, as the row had been changed to Montpelier Row to which Bohn took great displeasure and wrote to the Richmond Twickenham Times.(5)  He had erected a sign on the from of the wrought iron railings of No 1, Henrietta’s house which stated Montpelier Row,  He claims this had been agreed with Henrietta and that they had been on speaking on terms about it.  However, to his annoyance, early one morning he had spied from his house, Mr Vansittart at the top of a ladder, painting the sign out!  I can quite imagine the surprise and intrigue of curtains twitching as the early morning sun rose in Twickenham, to reveal an ageing Mr Vanisttart balanced among the top of a ladder, with an incensed wife in her long skirts, swishing in the dust at the bottom issuing her instructions.

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Bohn took to paper soon after, seemingly to air his grievances about Henrietta in public – entitle ‘The Montpelier Row Difficulty’, he writes that:

‘It is with great regret that I find myself brought once more into a verbal conflict with Mrs Vansittart, but she is inexorable, and by way of publicly introducing, what appear to me to be mere figment of the brain, contrives to make me the scapegoat.  I have no choice, therefore, but to reply to her, and bring out what may well be called the facts of a Tweedledum affair’ (6)

It seems that Henrietta had claimed that she had spent thousands of pounds on improving the row, both the buildings she had purchased but also the area of land opposite, which Bohn claims that he had in fact sectioned off and made good to stop costermongers and other nuisances taking over himself.  She stresses that she has done so much more for the neighbourhood than Bohn has ever done – keeping up with the Jones of the Victorian age.

He also airs in public his annoyance at her private affairs about the purchase and sale of her properties, and mortgages she had taken out.  Indeed, what obviously had been private discussions seems to have reached a head in 1879/1880 as both wrote backwards and forwards to the paper airing their grievances of one another’s behaviour over several years. A very public affair!

Sadly Henrietta met a very unhappy end.  In the autumn if 1883, it seems she was attending the North East Coat Exhibition of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineer at Tynemouth.  She was, found wandering the streets in a very confused state of mind and was consequently committed to the Tyne City Lunatic Asylum, where she died early in 1883 on anthrax and mania.  A sad end to an eventful life. One wonders why she was not moved back down South, had she fallen out with her husband again? Had she of lived one wonders what she would have gone on to achieve as a great woman engineer.

SOURCES

1.Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, James Lowe and his daughter Mrs Henrietta Vansittart, http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/Lowe.html, first accessed 15/2/2017

2.Howes, A, Capitalism’s Cradle – An Economic History Blog, http://antonhowes.tumblr.com/post/115859870959/female-inventors-of-the-industrial-revolution-part

3.Intriguing History, Henrietta Vansittart Enginner, http://www.intriguing-history.com/henrietta-vansittart-engineer/, first accessed 10/2/2017

4.Wikipedia, James Lowe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lowe_(inventor), first accessed 10/2/2017

5. Richmond Local Studies Library, Richmond Twickenham Times, extract from a letter written to the paper from Henry George Bohn, dated 1 July 1879.

6. Richmond Local Studies Library, Richmond Twickenham Times, extract from a letter written to the paper from Henry George Bohn, entitled The Montpelier Row Difficulty.

7. Photographs are all taken from my own personal archive and are copyright to Emma Louise Tinniswood

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William Wordsworth – Daffodils

Spring has to be one of my favourite seasons of the year.  I always feel a little like Mole, from the Wind in The Willows as he comes out of the ground and into the spring sunshine for the first time.  That wonderful fresh new smell of flowers bursting open, grass growing, the damp soil springing to life and the soft fragrance of early spring flowers that float on the breeze.

For me the first sign of spring is seeing the great swathes of golden headed stems adorn roadsides and riverbanks.  Driving round the windy roads of the Lake District in April, Daffodils popped up everywhere; in fields, beside lakes and in craggy rocks.  It is easy to see why William Wordsworth was so inspired by the landscape and county he grew up in to become one of the English languages most famous poets.  In fact, it is not difficult to see why the Lake District has inspired and nurtured so many artists and writers who have used the beauty and drama of the landscape to develop their art.  Wordsworth’s poetry is wholly encompassed by the landscapes that surrounded him and Dorothy’s journals give us a great insight into the flora and fauna of the area.

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William Wordsworth grew up in Cockermouth, the second of five children born to John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson.  His father was the legal representative for John Lowther, the 1st Earl of Lonsdale.  Due to the importance of his job, the family were granted a beautiful Georgia home in Cockermouth.  Wordsworth initially had an idyllic childhood, with days spent playing in the gardens of the family home with his brothers and sisters. Situated on the banks of the River Derwent, William developed his love of nature here as a young boy.   But the untimely death of first his mother, and then his father led to a dramatic change in the family’s circumstances and years of unhappiness.   A far cry from the happy days in Cockermouth as the much loved home was taken away, the family was split up and they left the house for good in 1784.  William and Dorothy, who had always been close as siblings were not reunited until 1795 having been sent to live with varying relations.

Wordsworth finally found solace and happiness once again with his sister Dorothy, when they purchased Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1799, just weeks after William had walked past it with his brother.  From his cottage window he would have had an unadulterated view of the Lake at Grasmere and its beauty in all seasons with the mountains and hills beyond.  Both William and his sister, the diarist Dorothy, loved the outdoors and once again as adults they enjoyed each other’s company exploring the wilds of the mountain peaks and the pleasures of the lakeside walks.  She was for life, his mentor and confidante, and it was her journals and observations of the rugged terrain of Cumbria that often became a source of inspiration of Williams writing and a great passion for him.

Perhaps one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, I wandered Lonely as a cloud was inspired by the daffodils of springtime in the Lakes.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffoldils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’

William was inspired to write his famous ‘daffodils’ poem after a walk along Ullswater with Dorothy in 1804.  He actually wrote the poem, about two years after their walk and his inspiration came from Dorothy’s account in her journal from April 15th 1802.  She wrote that the daffodils ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the Lake.’  Dorothy’s journals clearly depict the wonder of seasons amongst the Lakes and were often a source for inspiration for William.  His poem was first published in 1807 and his final edited version was published in 1815.

“ When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the waterside. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.”

This beautiful, eloquent observation of the flowers in spring show her connection to nature and the powerful descriptions must have been wonderful for William to read upon his return from his travels.  Dorothy maintained her journal throughout her time at Dove Cottage.

As Wordsworths family expanded, Dove Cottage became too small and the family moved locally before settling finally at Rydal Mount, only a couple of miles down the road from Dove Cottage, facing Rydal Water.  Whilst there he purchased a piece of woodland beside the property, originally called Rashfield.  Initially this purchase was a defence mechanism, when he was faced with eviction from Rydal Mount.  He planned to build a house on the plot.  However, in the end this was not needed and instead he gave the land to his daughter Dora.  When she tragically died, Wordsworth’s wife and their gardener had the woodland planted with hundreds of daffodils in honour of her.  It is known as Dora’s Field, to this day.  There is a wonderful oasis of calm as you sit amongst the trees and daffodils, overlooking in the distance the hills behind Rydal Water and breathe in the damp smell of woodland moss.  The field was left to the National Trust in 1935 so that future generations could enjoy this haven.

‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’

Yet it wasn’t just the beautiful of the spring daffodils that inspired Wordsworth.  Throughout his works, we see references to other flora and fauna which surrounded him. His poem, ‘Lines Written In Early Spring’, mentions the smaller wildflowers which would have carpeted woodland paths, and roadsides;

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 

And ’tis my faith that every flower 

Enjoys the air it breathes.’ 

For me Spring, is the long awaited breath of fresh air after the cold, dark winter.  A time to take stock of life, plan for the summer, look forward to warmer and lighter evenings and a sign of happy times to come.

‘And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils.’

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For the Adventure

Dove Cottage is run by the Wordsworth Trust is open is to the public.  I thoroughly recommend visiting the house and the museum as a fascinating insight into the life of William and his family.  The house operates on a timed ticket system, as it is very small.  but the museum, which houses a wonderful array of archives from the Wordsworth Family can be visited while you wait.

Visit https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html

For details of Rydal Mount visit http://www.rydalmount.co.uk/

Dora’s Field is owned and looked after by the National Trust https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ambleside/features/daffodils-at-doras-field-

The Hum of The Bees

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Last May, in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, I braved the crowds on the District Line and made my way to the Chelsea Physic Garden to attend a writers workshop with the Journalist and Author, Jackie Bennett.  I had been looking forward to this for months.  A day away from the toils and tribulations of everyday life and a day for me to just have the time to write.  I had never been to the Physic Gardens before, despite a lifetime of wanting too.  I remember as a child, every time we drove past the gardens my mum would point them out to me and tell me of the times she had been there when she was younger, when she lived in Chelsea.  I’d always had a picture in my head of this very small garden with neatly manicured flower borders and a few greenhouses.  How wrong I was!  These gardens are a truly wonderful little haven of peace amongst the busy throng of the London streets.  It instantly became my new favourite place.  I felt that I had  been transported into a little oasis of calm, with individual gardens, greenhouses full of geraniums, a woodland walk alive with blue tits and bees, a beautiful lawn glistening with the morning dew, a wall of apothecary’s bottles and jars to remind us of the history of the gardens.  I couldn’t have found a better spot to learn about Writers and their gardens and indeed do some writing myself.  I would therefore like to share my ‘Literary Landscapes’ story, The Hum Of The Bees inspired by the Chelsea Physic Gardens.

There was a moment of stillness as Elizabeth stood putting her ticket away.  The rush hour commuters heaved and squeezed their way through the gaps around her but today she would not be hurried.  The light was dingy inside the station but outside she could see the warm hazy brightness bouncing off windows and cars signalling that summer had finally come.  Elizabeth took a breath and walked towards the main road, her stick making a distinctive click on the pavement amongst the perpetual drone of the buses and cars.  It was busier than she remembered – and faster.  As if time sped up as the years increased.  She paused and glanced towards the central square.  Everywhere around her cars, bikes, taxis, buses seemed to be weaving at such a speed in and out of such small spaces.  It reminded her of the fear she had encountered trying to cross the Piazza Venizia in Rome.  Why was everyone in such a hurry.  Life passed so very quickly as it was, without trying to hurry it up even further.

She glanced at the familiar and not so familiar shop fronts and tutted at the inflated prices of simple luxuries.  Peter Jones still stood in pride of place at the corner of the square, but Woolworths and the Old Kentucky had been replaced by Georgio Armani and Radley.  At least The Worlds End was still there – although Elizabeth had imagined that it was probably some gastro restaurant now, rather than a traditional pub as it had been all those years ago.   It seemed not everything improved with age.

Presently she turned off the main drag of Kings Road and ambled down a residential street lined with red brick mansion houses. Perfectly manicured topiary and bay trees in slate grey tubs adorned the porches atop the black and white marble steps.  Elizabeth reflected as she walked, on her own crumbling steps and tubs crammed with fuchsias and erysiums, over-spilling onto the gravel pathway.  So many years ago she’d had her own marble steps and hallway, not far from here – but now the thought of her dilapidated cottage was far more appealing.

She turned a corner into Royal Hospital Road and presently Elizabeth spotted the hole in the wall, the black wrought iron gate firmly fixed in its frame. For a moment she could not move, for concern that the gate would not open.  Perhaps she’d written down the opening times wrong. Elizabeth began to fumble in her pink shopper bag that her daughter had given her last year for her birthday. It was a Radley bag with a white scotty dog on it.  Apparently it was all the rage in London last year.  Elizabeth liked it as it held all those things you needed when out and about, but couldn’t fit in your handbag.  She found the piece of paper, she had written down 10am to 5pm.  She checked her watched – it was only 9.55am.  She would wait.  Elizabeth leant against the old stone wall which surrounded the garden of one of the old Georgian houses on Swan Walk.  She looked up at the beautiful buildings.  As a child she had always imagined that one day she would be old enough and rich enough to buy one.  Elizabeth chuckled.

She turned back to the garden and thought.  There was a fear that her memories maybe more beautiful than the reality.  Was this perhaps a very silly idea after all.  Maybe she should have listened to her daughter.

Elizabeth was on the verge of turning and finding a quite backstreet coffee shop when a young boy appeared with a wheelbarrow.

“We’re just opening, go in if you want.  You’ll have the garden to yourself for a bit, before the hoards arrive.”

Elizabeth smiled and mumbled an embarrassed thank you as if she knew he had been watching her debate this journey.  The young boy stood holding the gate open.  He smiled.  Now she would have to go in.

She made her way down the stone flagged steps, tinged with the delicate dew soaked heads of ladie’s mantle.  For a moment she couldn’t look up, partly because she was trying to negotiate an uneven floor with her stick and partly because everything was starting to ache from the walk.  But when she did, it was as if a great haze of confusion and pain had suddenly just disappeared.  She straightened up and saw the garden through the eyes of a curious 7-year-old once again.  Her stick was cumbersome and she lifted it, held it firm in her arthritic grip and walked with purpose down the main avenue to the fountain.

The tiny bubbles frothed and erupted on the water.  Lying on the moss coloured floor were hundreds of coins – pennies, two pence, five pence and even the odd fifty pence.  Thrown by children and maybe a few adults too who wished for something else, maybe wished for something better in their lives.  Elizabeth reached into her pocket and found a 20p, she tossed it and watched, as it sank out of sight and joined the sea of dusty silver. Yet she didn’t make a wish, what good were wishes at this time of life?  She might not be around to see if it came true and what a waste of a wish that would have been.  The bright emerald grass stretched out from either side of the quadrangle around the fountain, bordered on each side by borders fit to bursting with every colour imaginable.  The gentle hum of the bees was just starting to come to life, as they swooped on every bud they could find.  It was so much the same, yet there were small differences, which, except to the familiar eye would have passed unnoticed. Wooden carts with the history of past gardens and apothecaries could be found at the corner of footpaths as they meandered to a new part of the garden. Modern sculptures which represented elements of the garden and its medicinal usage were hidden amongst the borders and glasshouses.  Again Elizabeth chuckled to herself.  When she was a child it was her mother who taught her about the history of the gardens and the names of all the plants.  She had learnt it from books.  Now, it seemed everything had to be created and put in front of you.

Elizabeth sighed. She loved this part of the garden, but it was the woodland at the far end that she wanted to see.  She followed the path with its purple headed alliums and small button head daisies and presently found herself in the cool shade of the woodland, on the far side of the garden which bordered the main embankment road.  The dappled shade landed on the leaves of the hostas and the tips of the ferns with their uncurled tongues, glowed as if burning torches to light the way.  Elizabeth found a bench and sat down.  The drone of the cars disappeared. The woodland smelt of damp bark and a sweet scent came from a cluster of tiny pink flowers currently under attack from two busy blue tits.  Elizabeth looked around, nothing had changed.  For the first time in what seemed a lifetime, Elizabeth closed her eyes without thoughts of the present blocking the way.  She took a deep breath and slowly drifted away.

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Margaret placed the flower on the floor beside the bench, she fought hard not to let the tear roll down her cheek.  This was the right thing to do.  The man who stood solemnly a little way away, moved forward and slowly unpeeled the plastic coating of the brand new golden plaque at the top of the bench.  Elizabeth looked up at her mother and slipped her cold hand in hers.

“Don’t worry mother,” said Elizabeth “This is such a beautiful place, Grandma will always be here.”

“I know darling, and we can always come to this place when we need to talk to her or think about her.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment, “I can think about her anywhere, I just close my eyes and she’s there in front of me, but I think this would be a good place to talk.”  Margaret smiled, and hugged her daughter close.

“Can we go and play now?”

“Yes we can,” said Margaret, “and after we’ve played and explored the gardens then we can go up the Kings Road and get some chocolate in Woolworths, and if you’re really lucky then maybe we can go and do some window shopping in Peter Jones.”

Elizabeth’s eyes shone brightly.  This had been one of those days where she felt happy and sad all at the same time.  She hoped that one day when she was old, she’d be able to come and sit in these gardens all by herself and listen to the bees too.