Sunday, 23 February 2014

Who was Miss Lea Winter?

A postcard sent to Lea Winter from her friend Sal Hatch, c 1905
 Last weekend I bought five old postcards from a local secondhand shop. I chose these particular cards because I liked the images and messages on them but also because they were all addressed to the same person: Miss Lea Winter.
     Who was Lea Winter? I thought I'd try to 'bring her to life'. All five cards are addressed to Lea at the Three Counties Asylum. This was a huge 'lunatic asylum' not far from where I live which was built to house psychiatric patients from the three counties of Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire. It opened in 1860 and only closed in 1999, having gone through a name change as well as notable changes of approach to mental illness.
Nurses walking in front of Three Counties Asylum in 1912
All the postcards seem to date from 1905 and by that date the asylum was running at full capacity with hundreds of patients of both sexes. At first I thought that Lea might have been a patient at the asylum but it's clear from the messages written to her on the postcards that that was not the case. The messages indicate someone who still had their freedom, who could make plans and have relationships with people 'on the outside'.
     The message on the back of the postcard at the top of this post (sent from Arlesey, the village closest to the asylum) reads:
Dear Lea
Just a snap-shot of Sal Hatch and her friends from Leister Square [sic], having afternoon tea upstairs on the bricks. I should be very pleased if you would call for me about 6am in the evening.
Yours to a cinder,
Sal Hatch from the Bone Yard
 I like the way Sal goes to the trouble of specifying the time of her next meeting with Lea as 6am in the evening. Apart from meaning 6pm, I don't suppose the friends were in the habit of meeting at daybreak. Is Sal Hatch in the photo of the waitresses taking afternoon tea or is it a joke? I'm not sure and I haven't been able to identify Sal (or Sarah) Hatch. Hatch is a more common surname than I realised.
But to find Lea Winter was the challenge. At first I just couldn't track her down in the usual places (census returns and birth, marriage and death records), so I looked instead for 'Miss Sansbury', with whom Lea seems to have lodged or perhaps shared a room. 
     I soon found Kate Sansbury, who from at least 1901 to 1911 was employed as a dairy maid at Three Counties Asylum. She is listed in both the 1901 and 1911 censuses. I find it fascinating to trace people back through their records so couldn't resist doing a quick bit of research on Kate (jump to the next paragraph if you just want to know about Lea). Kate's family came from Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. Her mother was Sarah Holtom, born in 1836 to a farm labourer's family. Sarah was recorded as a domestic servant in both the 1851 and 1861 censuses -- the latter for a household in Banbury but in 1863 she married Thomas Sansbury, a local blacksmith, and by the 1871 census they were living in Castle St, Banbury and they had two children, one of whom was Kate, born in the winter of 1869. Interestingly she seems to have been baptised Kate rather than Catherine. By 1881 the family had moved to Ashwell in Hertfordshire but although Thomas is still recorded as married (as opposed to being a widower), his wife Sarah is not recorded, nor is she recorded on the 1891 census, even though she didn't die until 1903 (in Headington, Oxford). She vanishes from all records for the last decades of her life, so perhaps she left Thomas and was living as the commonlaw wife of another man, using his name. Meanwhile, Kate was perhaps hindered in her passage through life by the demands made on her by her mother's absence: in 1891, when she was 20, she was still living at home and listed as 'housekeeper', looking after her father and her brother. But by 1901 she had got herself a job at the Asylum some six miles away. 
     Now to hazard a guess as to how Kate Sansbury and Lea Winter ended up sharing lodgings at the Asylum. Back in 1881, when Kate was ten, the Sansburys were living in Ashwell End, just outside Ashwell, next door to the family of Samuel Winter, a shoemaker. Lea is not one of Samuel's children but perhaps Samuel and his wife were relatives (an uncle and aunt, perhaps) and Lea met Kate when she visited them?

Lea Winter was born in 1880 in Melbourn, a village in Cambridgeshire near the border with Hertfordshire, about ten miles from Kate's home in Ashwell (she was 11 years younger than Kate). She was ultimately one of a family of ten or eleven children. Lea was named as Liza Winter in the 1881 census return and for most of her life she was known as Lizzie, but all the postcards are addressed to'Lea' and perhaps this was a youthful affectation, a name that made her feel more glamorous... Her beginnings weren't very glamorous: her father, Joseph Winter, had been born in Melbourn and her mother Eliza had only come from Meldreth, a nearby village. (Eliza's mother had apparently given birth to her two children out of wedlock -- Eliza was the younger of the two -- so this may have carried something of a stigma as she grew up.) Lea's father was a 'fossil washer' by trade, which sounds very exotic but turns out to be a role in the coprolite industry.
Coprolite miners in South Cambridgeshire, mid-19th century
In the mid-nineteenth century coprolite mining was a shortlived boom industry which exploited a seam of coprolites that ran roughly from Royston in Hertfordshire to Soham in Cambridgeshire, on a south-west/north-east axis. Coprolites are nodules of fossilised dung (some scientists believe they are also fossils of material other than dung) which, when washed (Joseph's job), ground into powder and dissolved in sulphuric acid, are a rich source of phospates, an important component in fertilizer. The home-sourced coprolites were a cheaper source of phosphates than guano (bird droppings) which had previously been imported at great expense. The coprolite industry made landowners whose land was on the seam very wealthy for a few decades until the coprolites began to grow scarce and, not only that, but a bad agricultural depression at the end of the nineteenth century dampened the market for fertilizer as well. By the 1890s the industry had more or less died out.
     Lea must have needed a job. The Asylum would have been an obvious place to try -- it was a massive employer in the area. Her sister Minnie had a job at the Three Counties Asylum as a Ward Attendant and Kate Sansbury worked there as a dairy maid. The hospital employed hundreds of people in many different capacities, including those who grew food for the patients in the extensive grounds, clerks and other administrators, laundrywomen and dozens of kitchen staff. In both the 1901 and the 1911 census, all the staff are listed first, in descending order of importance, followed by the patients (over 1000 of them), who are identified by their initials, their previous occupation (or, in the case of women, their father's or husband's occupation) and whether they were a 'lunatic', 'imbecile' or 'idiot'. Lea (or Lizzie, to give her her real name) and Kate are the last two members of the staff listed before the patients -- they are the two lowliest employees on the payroll -- and their job titles haven't altered in ten years.
Top page of the 1901 census return for the Asylum

Lizzie and Kate's entries in the 1911 census return. One inmate is identified by name before all the others are listed by initials only.
Lizzie/Lea was 25 when she received the postcards I now have in 1905. Definitely marrying age, in those days, but you get a sense that she was living a carefree and possibly rather heady existence. One of the postcards is from one of her siblings in Felixstowe (possibly her brother Albert, who I think may have been in the Royal Artillery Regiment based in Suffolk from 1904). It has a rather gloomy photo of the sea front shelter and gardens in Felixstowe and the message reads, 'Dear sister sorry couldn't write a letter that gives me the pip writing perhaps this will do as well'. I can't make out the signature -- 'Your B A W'? (Your brother Albert Winter, perhaps?). This non-message amuses me.

The remaining three postcards hint tantalisingly at Lea's romantic life. First this one:

The message reads:
Dear L
Should like to come and have another look around sometime, when convinent [sic]. Please let me know and bring a friend, male.
From C Hundall, Russell St, Woburn Sands, Beds
In the corner it says 'One of my moonlight walks'. The picture on the postcard is of Apsley Guise Woods, near Woburn Sands, which is where the card has been sent from.
 I guess there was a degree of titillation to be had from a visit to the lunatic asylum. I see Mr or Ms Hundall has misspelt 'Asylum' in the address. Is he a he? Were women relatively unlikely to be taking midnight walks  in 1905? Also, the slightly pompous way he signs off -- I don't think a female friend would give their name and address in this way. Or is this a Miss Hundall who hankers for male company? Perhaps her midnight walks were with gentlemen? I wish I knew!
     The next card is a copy of Greuze's wonderfully over the top painting 'Un Souvenir', also known as 'Fidelity', in which a maiden clutches a little dog to her breast and rolls her eyes heavenwards.

 On the back is just the message, 'Semper Fidelis', no doubt from a beau. The postmark is local to the asylum.

 Finally -- and I've kept the best one till last -- this fantastic card of an Edwardian coquette resisting the attentions of a young man. The caption is 'What a tease' and the rather sinister woods look just like the ones in the postcard of Apsley Guise:

And the message on the back, in pencil, reads:
Don't do it cause I don't like it

With just initials as to the sender! Oh Lea, whose approaches had you rebuffed? Whoever he was, I don't like him! His message sounds curt and sulky. 
     I bet Lea and all the other members of staff at the asylum lived an unusually free life there. It was like a town in its own right and you would have been quite independent of family, with a corresponding level of freedom. I would love to know more about life there. 
     Lea reverted to Lizzie eventually and she married a clerk at the asylum, Herbert Lester, in 1914 when she was 34 -- quite old for the time, I think. Perhaps she thought she had better settle down. They had at least two children, Dorothy and Geoffrey, and they ended up living in a very nice street in Hitchin where Herbert died in 1946. Lizzie lived on until 1964 in the same house. 
     I wish it really was possible to bring people to life but I have done my best to tease a life out of these five postcards. 


Gill said...

Fascinating Jane!!

Noelle the dreamer said...

And you certainly brought them back to life for us! Who would have thought so much would emerge from a few postcards?!
Ex-RAF flyboy is from Worcester and thoroughly enjoyed reading your post!
Thanks for sharing,

Linda said...

What an intriguing post, you certainly did a lot of research. I really enjoyed reading about Lea.

LAC EMP 2020 said...

You've done far more than tease out the story! I feel like you've fleshed Lea/Lizzie out very well from just 5 postcards Jane. It was fascinating and my favourite had to be that last 'teasing' card. Don't do it because I don't like it.... there's a sense of menace in that line there isn't there? What a girl she must have been. Oh to know more!!!

colleen said...

There's something a little bit Sarah Walters about this, don't you think?

When we were travelling - this would be the winter of 1978 - we spent some time in Arlesey, stopping by the Blue Lagoon, and very close to the Asylum. It was very dark and rather creepy. It wasn't a place I liked to be on my own! I used to get letters from my friend addressed to the Blue Lagoon, Arlesey, I seem to recall.

Vanessa said...

Fascinating reading, but you have done all the research for me!! I am also an addict for postcard history and anecdotes and bought three postcards addressed to Miss L Winter only this week, probably from the same shop in Hitchin. Only one, of Kings College Cambridge, has a comment - "still alive". All three are dated 1905, could be the same or a different hand. I've tried to contact a great nephew of Lizzie in Cheshire, but did you find out if she had any children? Apparently you got more money as a kitchen maid at TCA than you would in domestic service, but you had to be 18 to work there. Kind regards Vanessa

Jane Housham said...

Hi Vanessa

Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I can reply via email -- a 'no-reply' address comes up. But fancy your buying some of Lea's postcards too! And being a postcard history addict. Are you local to Hitchin? I do mention Lea's two children at the end of the post, both now deceased, alas. I haven't looked for grandchildren. Hope you see this.


Vanessa said...

Hi again Jane,
My apologies! Within your detailed research, of course you do mention Lea's children. I think I was racing ahead to grandchildren and my 'send' finger preceded my brain, (not unusual!)
I wonder who sold her prized postcard collection? If it was a relative, how could they part with it?! I have to admit I went back to buy a few more.
I could only find a Florence, Beatrice and Bessie listed as Lea's sisters, but definitely now have a card from the sister who worked at TCA, mentioning brothers Bert and Len. Will send you an email with more.
Thanks for your superb blog. Good luck with the Open Studio. Vanessa