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The death of Ellen Thomas-Stanford at Preston Manor

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Lady Ellen Thomas-Stanford died on Friday 11 November 1932 at Preston Manor, her family home. With Ellen’s passing a door closed on the Edwardian age. But bodily death leaves a legal paper trail from which much can be discovered.

Photo of death certificate

Copy of Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s death certificate

Ellen’s place of death

Four poster bed in highly decorated bedroom

18th century mahogany four poster bed at Preston Manor

Ellen-Thomas-Stanford died in her bed, but not the grand four-poster you can see today in her immaculately preserved bedroom at Preston Manor. This bed is a Stanford family heirloom, and possibly the bed in which she was born in 1848. By the 1920s, however, Victorian wooden framed beds had gone out of favour for reasons of hygiene.

All 19th and early 20th century households, rich and poor alike, lived in fear of the common bedbug. Once present in a house these unpleasant creatures lived in every crevice of wooden bedsteads and the never washed hangings of the attractive but potentially verminous four poster. An infested bed could harbour hundreds of insects.

Cimex lectularius the common bedbug

Iron bed for servants

Servants were often suspected of bringing bedbugs into the house and many employers insisted that a new servant’s belongings should be fumigated on arrival. An infected bed would be taken apart and soaked for days in strong and noxious poisons containing camphor, spirits of naphtha, and oil of turpentine. The smell of these substances would have been unbearable. Better to invest in brass bedsteads for ‘upstairs’ and iron beds for servants ‘downstairs’.

The Book of the Home, 1902

The Book of the Home

The Edwardian household management manual, The Book of the Home, recommends wiping iron beds with a cloth damped with paraffin. Oxalic acid was advised for cleaning brass with the proviso that one must wear gloves as the substance is poisonous. Rubber household gloves were not commercially available until the 1950s so much damage was caused to skin and health in earlier times.

A less harmful method of bug eradication was achieved by dousing mattresses and bedding with Keating’s Powder. This product was advertised as killing ‘bugs, fleas, moths & black-beetles,’ and although the tin looks ominous, the powder was made from the pyrethrum daisy which is non-poisonous to humans and still used today.

Tin of Keating’s Powder

When Preston Manor became a museum in 1933 curator, Henry Roberts decided Ellen’s brass bed was too modern and so had the frame dismantled and deposited in the cellar where it remains.

Brass bed in the cellar at Preston Manor

Certification of death

Ellen’s death was certified by David W Livingstone MRCS (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons). Dr Livingstone is not to be confused with his celebrated namesake, the missionary and explorer famously addressed by Henry Morton Stanley in central Africa in 1871.

A woman of Ellen’s wealth may have employed a trained sick room nurse to be in attendance during her final illness. Dr Livingstone was certainly paid, as prior to the creation of the National Health Service in 1947 Britain had a private health care system (although the very poor could attend charity clinics).

The Book of the Home informs its reader of cost calculations.

‘In the matter of doctor’s fees there is no fixed standard. Each individual practitioner has his own charges. Generally speaking, however, they are calculated on the rental of the patient’s house.’

Regarding medical fees the book advises:

‘…it is best to ask the doctor what they are when first he is called in. There is no discourtesy in doing so, and it prevents the possibility of any subsequent unpleasantness.’

Present at death

Photograph of Lily by society photographer Alfred D Kissack, 130 High Street Eton, Windsor

Ellen’s husband Charles pre-deceased his wife, dying at Preston Manor on 7 March 1932. From that date onward Ellen had been ill and largely bedridden so her death was expected. Present at death, as certified, was CBA Macdonald, Ellen’s half-sister Christiana Blanche Ashworth Macdonald, known as Lily. Lily and her widowed twin, Diana Magniac. were 66 years of age and residing in London in 1932.

According to a local newspaper report Ellen died at 10pm. One can only pity Lily that long November night but she was not alone in the house. Preston Manor still kept a retinue of servants. Devoted butler Maurice Elphick was without doubt awake and probably waiting anxiously nearby as Ellen faded away. Various female servants were under the roof including Drusilla Wooller (née Wood) who was interviewed in 1985 about her time as fourth housemaid.

1930s housemaids at Preston Manor

Aged 16 in 1932 Drusilla lists the names of fellow servants:

‘There was Edith the head housemaid, Florence the second housemaid; her sister, which I’m not sure of her name was third housemaid…and there was Mrs Storey the cook, Mr Elphick the butler and there was a Mademoiselle who was the lady’s maid, Beatrice was one of the parlour maids.’

Drusilla left Preston Manor six months after Ellen’s death stating, ‘we were allowed to stay on until we found another occupation.’

Cause of death

Ellen’s death certificate gives her cause of death as ‘1a, cerebral haemorrhage 1b, Atheroma. 2. Myocarditis’.

A cerebral haemorrhage or bleeding in the brain is a type of stroke; an atheroma a narrowing of the arteries; and myocarditis an inflammation of the heart. The certificate note ‘no p.m’ means no post-mortem was carried out.

Ellen’s narrowed arteries and inflamed heart would have caused her to suffer chest pain and palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue.

The Book of the Home gives the symptoms of apoplexy (an outdated term for a stroke) as: ‘unconsciousness, heavy breathing, blowing out and in of the cheek, and usually paralysis of one side of the body.’

When asked what food the Stanfords ate Drusilla Wooller said of Ellen, ‘she ate very little. She was in bed most of the time I was there.’

Dr Livingstone would have attended Ellen in the months she spent as an invalid, as he was no doubt the trusted family doctor.

The Book of the Home recommends choosing one’s medical man carefully.

‘It has been said that next to the choice of a profession and a wife comes the choice of the family physician…this choice is too often put off until someone has been taken ill. Such a course is unwise.’

There was little Dr Livingstone could do for Ellen in her decline apart from prescribe bed rest and good food.

The Book of the Home devotes a whole chapter to invalid cookery. Edwardian delicacies to temp the appetite include raw beef balls, game cream, calf’s feet jelly, steamed pigeon, tapioca pudding, and sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are often erroneously believed to be the testicles of an animal, but they are more commonly the thymus gland from the throat or the pancreas gland from the heart or stomach of a calf or lamb.

Drusilla remembered Ellen calling for a more palatable-sounding snack.

‘There used to be chaos in the kitchen because Lady Thomas-Stanford wanted one anchovy sandwich. So the butler used to rush down and have the silver salver polished up and everyone out the kitchen while one sharpened the knife, and one cut the bread and butter, one opened the tin of anchovies.’

An Edwardian recipe: toast water for invalids

Registering Ellen’s death

Brighton Town Hall, 1896

Ellen’s death was registered on 14 November 1932 within the legally required five days. It is very likely that Lily registered her sister’s death,  which would have meant a trip to Brighton Town Hall and the office of FGS Bramwell, registrar. Lily would have been asked the following particulars: date of death, name of deceased in full, sex and age, rank or occupation, and cause of death as certified by a qualified doctor.

Ellen’s occupation is given as ‘widow of Charles Thomas-Stanford, Baronet’.

Women of Ellen’s era and social position lived their entire lives without experiencing employment except for the duties involved in running their homes and raising children. Being a wife was deemed a full time occupation.

The Book of the Home usefully informs the reader of all points of law in the marriage contract.

‘The wife is presumed to be proeposita negitiis domesticis, that is, authorised to act in domestic affairs, and the husband is bound by contracts she may make in this capacity.’

In the chapter entitled, ‘Husband’s Legal Position’, his obligation to support his wife is set out thus:

‘The husband is bound to supply his wife with necessary food and clothing, and the failure to discharge this natural obligation would constitute cruelty justifying an action of separation.’

FGS Bramwell: Brighton Registrar

Ellen’s death was officially recorded by FGS Bramwell.

Pike’s Directory of 1910 lists him as living at 1 Dyke Road Drive and describes him as:

‘F G S Bramwell, registrar of births, marriages and deaths for Preston and Patcham and vaccination officer and collector to Steyning Union Guardians.’

The Steyning Union Guardians were the elected persons who managed the workhouse at Shoreham. Opened in 1901 the institution provided Poor Law relief to 23 parishes including Preston and Patcham. Such was the demand that men’s accommodation alone numbered 240 inmates, saying much about poverty in Edwardian Sussex.

A workhouse vaccination officer was not a medical man. His job was to oversee the administration of the smallpox vaccine to poor persons (especially babies born to paupers in the workhouse) as required by the 1853 Compulsory Vaccination Act.

Bramwell’s job as collector meant he was involved with collecting rates in the 23 parishes to pay for the upkeep the workhouse.

It is easy to stereotype Bramwell as a conscientious public servant, but his life had other passions. By the breadth of his interests it seems he was even something of a Renaissance Man. He was a keen amateur archaeologist, astronomer, and windmill enthusiast, as well as being the 1910 secretary of the Brighton Cruising Club (later the Brighton Sailing Club).

FGS Bramwell’s Astronomical diaries (1882-1905) held at The Keep, Falmer include colour impressions of sunrises over the Race Hill, sunsets over Dyke Road, and planetary alignments. He pasted into his diary local newspaper reports relating to sun spots and the weather, along with a colour impression of the moon rising over the workhouse on Elm Grove on Good Friday 1894.

Between 6 and 13 July 1938 the Brighton Herald newspaper published a series of articles by Bramwell entitled ‘The Windmills of Brighton.’ He will have remembered the last working mill in central Brighton, Tower Mill on Roundhill Road, for it was demolished in 1913.

Roundhill Road windmill, c1900

Becoming Lady Ellen

Ellen Thomas-Stanford died a titled Lady but she was not a Lady born. Ellen was independently wealthy, being heiress to the vast Stanford fortune. The Stanfords were landed gentry, which put them socially below the peerage or aristocracy. The term ‘landed gentry’ refers to persons who lived on income derived from land they owned, usually via rents, but sometimes by sale of land.

Sensitive to nuances of rank, plain Mrs Ellen Thomas-Stanford longed for a title, though none came through marriage; both her first husband, Vere Fane-Bennet, and second husband, Charles Thomas, were not titled men.

Ellen’s son John writes of his mother in a letter to Henry Roberts dated 26 September 1933, that she was the biggest snob in the world, and loved anybody with a title’.

Plaque at Preston Manor (no longer on view)

Satisfaction for Ellen came following the 1929 New Year Honours when Charles was made a baronet for his public services to Brighton and district. As the wife of a baronet, Ellen was entitled to call herself Lady Ellen Thomas-Stanford and this she did with pride in those last three years of her life.

Life expectancy

Ellen was born in 1848 making her 84 years of age at death. To live to 84 in 1932 was to live nearly twenty years beyond average life expectancy, the equivalent today of living to 100. Ellen’s long life was without doubt attributable to her being born into a wealthy family, and able to enjoy a better quality diet and housing. However, genes probably also played a part. Her mother, Eleanor, was born in 1824 lived to 79 (and safely gave birth to healthy twin girls in 1866 at age 42).

Life expectancy in Britain rose sharply in Ellen’s lifetime with improvements in living standards, public health and nourishment. In 1900 average life expectancy was about 47 for a man and 50 for a woman. By 1932 the average life expectancy for a woman had risen to 67.

Ellen lived through a period of huge social change. Queen Victoria was a mere 29 years old in the year of her birth. She was a middle-aged woman of 40 when reports of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders in Whitechapel appeared in the newspaper columns, and she was 66 when the First World War broke out. Within two months of Ellen’s death, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and BBC TV was being broadcast in London.

By 1932 the world had transformed to one we would recognise today; there were cars, flight, cinema, telephones and electricity. We don’t know how Ellen felt about the fast moving modern world of her later years but we can guess how she felt about ageing by the entry she made on the 1911 census.

In the column marked  ‘age last birthday’ Ellen’s age is clearly entered as 55 when in fact she was 63. Was this a small vanity, or a genuine mistake by whoever completed the form? Pertinent to the matter could be the age of her husband, Charles. Born in 1858 he was 53 in 1911 (and this is correctly entered on the census return). Possibly Ellen felt this ten year disparity in age with her younger husband, was somehow immodest and so allowed the error to slip through. Another intriguing possibility is that Charles Thomas-Stanford did not know his wife’s age. The census form is signed by him under the affirmation, ‘I declare this schedule is correctly filled up to the best of my knowledge and belief.’

Charles was a Justice of the Peace and Mayor of Brighton in 1911. I find it hard to believe such an upright citizen would knowingly lie on an official document. He was also a keen historian, so a man accustomed to scrutinising dates. Either the mistake slipped through unknowingly or Charles made the chivalrous decision to permit the error in his wife’s favour.

In 2022 when the 1921 census records are made public it will be interesting to compare the two returns.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor