Friday, 29 June 2012

The second strand

I've been reading anything at all vaguely connected with Isabella's story, so I was browsing the biography section in the library last week. 'Fathers and Sons', Richard Madeley - It was the blurb that begged me to examine the book. It claimed to be the story of the effects on subsequent generations of a traumatic event that took place in 1907. Ok, Isabella was a woman, but what's the difference in this context? Straight onto my pile it went.

In some ways I only needed to read the Preface where I came across this:

‘........ Fathers and sons, four generations strung together like beads on a twisting double helix of shared DNA. Utterly unalike when regarded from some angles; almost clone-like in their similarities when viewed from others.  
Climbers roped together through space and time, mostly barely conscious of distance twitches on the line, but sometimes pulled up sharp by a sudden unmistakeable tug from the past.’

I was to Google. Was this just one author's imaginative idea? No. There were articles in scientific journals as well as Wikipedia. 

'Envision DNA as a very long string, wrapped around millions of beads made of proteins. To regulate genes, cells use thousands of different proteins. 
Imagine the beads are made of thousands of combinations of different colors and designs.'

Electron micrographs show how the idea was born:

I'm well and truly hooked. I wanted a second strand to Isabella's string of beads, and now I've got it.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


The V and A experts pointed out to me something I had deliberately blanked: one of the sets of beads is woven to create a swastika. 

But of course, at the time of WW1, a swastika didn't have the connotations it has had since the Nazi party adopted it. 

A quick glance at Wikipedia revealed:

'The symbol appeared in many popular, non-political Western designs from the 1880s to the 1920s, with occasional use continuing into the 1930s.'

'By the early 20th century, it was widely used worldwide and was regarded as a symbol of good luck and success.'

There's a picture of Mathilde Moisant wearing a swastika emblem as a 'Good Luck' charm, as was common amongst early aviators.

I guess that now I need to find out what all the other patterns and symbols along the string of beads mean.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Saga of the Beads continues

I've scoured the internet for information about woven beads, visited local bead shops, looked at bead books, and got nowhere, so I was very keen to follow up my discoveries at the Antiques Roadshow.

The Victoria and Albert Museum hold a monthly 'Opinions Day', so last week I boarded the coach for London to see what they could tell me. Antiques Roadshow had told me the beads were a woman's belt, but I wanted to know where and when was it made and was the idea that it had been carried by a German Prisoner of War viable?

Travelling so far, I decided to make a day of it and arrived hours before the Opinions sessions began. I wandered around looking for anything from 1887-1920ish, the early years of Isabella's life. And in the jewellery display cases, I saw it - a necklace made of beads in exactly the same way as Isabella's were.

Same length, same width, same bead size. Ok, this one had a more coherent design and pattern, the beads were brighter, but I couldn't expect Isabella's beads to be of museum quality. The label said the museum piece had been made in 1920 in Vienna and gave a proper designer's name. Oh yes, and it was true a necklace, a complete loop with a tassle on the end, not simply a string of beads. If Isabella's beads were broken, that would explain why it had been so hard to work out what they were.

I was confident now that I needed to visit the jewellery expert rather than a fashion specialist. It felt a little odd  being nodded past No Entry signs in a museum, up the stairs to the back offices. Signing in, the beads were taken away and I had to wait, watching the museum academics and researchers moving about, doing mundane things like getting cups of coffee rather than being erudite.

It wasn't long until two people emerged carrying my beads and a book. They were the most unlikely looking jewellery pundits - middle-aged, slender, stereo-typical academics, even the woman looked as if she had never worn a piece of jewellery in her life. But they were lovely, and incredibly helpful.

"You've found ours," they began. And they showed me their book, and quite happily agreed to Isabella's beads being earlier than theirs, quite happy that they were of German origin, and saw no reason to doubt the PoW story. 

And they assured me they were not broken. They were used as a slender scarf, and could be draped in all manner of ways. But what came next was even more exciting. They were explaining about the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Deco, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, secessionism in Vienna and Germany......and the woman suddenly said, "This would have been a statement piece of jewellery. The debate as to whether jewellery had to be made of precious metals and stones or could be simply a beautiful art object made of simple materials was as live then as it is now, and the woman who chose to wear this was making a statement. She was not wearing riches but beauty." (Well that's my paraphrase. I'm sure she didn't say that diamonds and such like weren't beautiful. That's reflects my own opinion.)

I asked what sort of woman might have owned them, wondering if that would give me a clue to the soldier. Had he been an officer or in the ranks? They were not sure. The beads might have been purchased, or she might have woven them herself, since beading was a skill cultivated by some young ladies. And if she made them herself, she must have had some time on her hands. I guess she couldn't have been poverty stricken.

I was suddenly given a real character, a girl who liked what I like, who chose to be different. I like that. 

My mind drifted.... If I was going to give a soldier something to take to war, I would not choose a string of glass beads. Maybe a Bible or a poem or card...but not glass beads. Too tricky and potentially dangerous. So it must have been a spontaneous gift. Maybe romance blossomed the night before the soldier left, he demanded something to remember her by. Or did she press them onto him? However it took place, it was a token of love and affection.

And then he gave them to Isabella. Hmm. What would I think about that if I was the girl? He gave away my gift! The happiest version I can imagine is that he was overwhelmingly grateful to Isabella for making him well enough to go back to his beloved girl, and it was the only remotely feminine thing he could lay his hands on. The less happy version, for the girl, is that he fell in love with Isabella.....

But I like happy endings.

Afterthought and diversion

Knowing that education was not always customary for women of that era, I glanced at this old book.

To my surprise, there was a sticker inside:

Jane Stenhouse, Isabella's aunt, her father's sister, had won a prize in 1871 for 'Excelling in English Writing...' from Leith Academy. But here's a mystery. Leith Academy is a very old school and still exists. It worked from this building, just across Leith Links from Isabella's home:

But it was a boys school, and the website says it didn't change its name to Leith Academy until 1888. How on earth did Jane get a prize from a school that did not take girls and did not exist? Were there open summer competitions, like cake baking, flower-arranging and such like and jane now a prize for the beauty of her hand-writing? Was it the school her brother attended? Or was there another girls' school called Leith Academy at that time which has nothing to do with the historic school? Somehow I can't imagine that.....I think it would have called itself 'Leith Academy for Girls' or 'Leith Academy for Young Ladies'......

Were they an enlightened family where women's education was valued? Or not?

Sunday, 17 June 2012


This was Isabella's school; an old house on a steep hill in the Georgian part of Edinburgh known as New Town.

To my eyes, the road reminds me of Bath.

Four storeys visible from the road, but look over the railings and there's not one but two basements:

From the back of the building, there are stunning views across the Firth of Forth.

A school that was a wonderful place for day-dreaming?

The view from the front was no less delightful; there were gardens where I can imagine crocodiles of little girls being taken for exercise of some sort or another.

How do I know this? How can I be sure?

When I arrived in Edinburgh, my first stop was the University Archive to look at the record of Isabella's medical studies. The first document recorded her matriculation - the qualifications that made her eligible to study for a degree. It said, 'School Education: 11 Abercromby Place'.

Each student's record was in different hand writing, so I was looking not at the work of a University administrator, but at a declaration by Isabella in her own hand writing. That gave me a thrill, I can tell you. But 11 Abercromby Place is a strange name for a school. Thankfully more help was available. 

I'd already been in touch with Irene Townsley, a family history researcher. She pointed me towards a street directory held in the Central Library. Off I went to look up 11 Abercromby Place. 'Miss Williamson,' said the directory. Well that wasn't very helpful. A dead end? 

Time for a ponder. Wandering into Waterstones, I spotted a book entitled 'Crême de la Crême', which claimed to be a study of girls' schools in Edinburgh. Being mean and stingy, I didn't buy it, but ordered it for study in the National Library of Scotland. A short wait and there it was for me to examine. 

Go to the back, search the index: Miss Williamson. p.32

"The 1901 census recorded 16 rooms in the house and six boarders from counties as far apart as Sutherland and Devon. One girl was born in India. The sister of another pupil helped Miss Williamson in class, and there were two resident governesses - one for music and the other teaching the language of her native France. Miss Williamson's old aunt lived among these young people, and the household was completed by a cook and two maids."

It reminds me of the school in the film of 'A Little Princess'. 

'Crême de la Crême' describes the development of the school, which thrived and grew under Miss Williamson's direction. In honour of the magnificent view of a particular church across the water, it was renamed St. Serf''s in the 1920s. How many successful students emerged in those early years? None of Isabella's sisters went to University. It would probably be hard to find out, because sadly the present incarnation of the school, Clifton Hall, has no record of their past pupils.

The census record only tells us of the people who actually lived in the school. What about day visitors? Isabella and her sisters were living in their parents home in the 1901 census, but they were all described as scholars. Were they day pupils? At what age did they begin attending the school? How many other such pupils were there? And how did they get to school? It was a couple of miles from home. Did they walk to school? Were they alone or accompanied by an adult? Which adult - their mother or a servant? Or did they go in a carriage?

And what did they learn apart from French and music? Isabella's University record says she had passed school examinations in the traditional subjects of English, Latin, Mathematics and French 1904, when she would have been 16 or 17 years old. And that was enough to get her into Medical School.