Survival of the Fittest – Historical Widows In Business

Who Do You Think You Are? is a programme on BBC1 which helps celebrities to trace their roots and this week’s episode was particularly fascinating for those of us who enjoy tales of women doing well in business against the odds.

It followed the story of actress, Alex Kingston, famous for her portrayal of strong, feisty women on the small screen and herself now a single mother trying to support herself and her child.

Looking back through her ancestors, she came upon Nan, her great grandmother, who was widowed when her husband was killed whilst helping to map the positions of enemy guns during the Third Battle of Ypres (Paschendale) in the First World War. Finding herself the sole provider for her four young children, Nan began taking in lodgers to help to make ends meet.

Successfully as it turned out because her children all grew up to have children of their own.

But there was a continuation of this thread a century before in Alex’s family tree.

Women doing well in business in unusual circumstances

Elizabeth Braham also found herself widowed at an early age with four small children to support. And her listing on the census following her bereavement showed her as a boarding house owner too. We all marvelled at how these two strong women had fought not to slip into poverty by taking their future into their own hands.

However, Elizabeth’s story was slightly different – as was revealed in two newspaper cuttings several decades apart. In the latter, a man was reported to have committed suicide by poisoning himself at her establishment whilst in the company of the rather gaudily named Polka Pol. It became apparent that her boarding house was something a little more raunchy but she herself was not mentioned in the proceedings at the Inquest.

This was due to the fact that she was clearly trying to keep out of the limelight, having had an encounter with the legal system some years earlier when she was found guilty of owning a house of ill repute. We do not know whether she was put into a House of Corrections as a result of this conviction.

But we do know that, when she died, she was the owner of several such houses, as evidenced by her address in census records – and each one she purchased was in an increasingly more salubrious area. In her Will she was stated as living in St John’s Wood and she left property worth over £1500 to her granddaughter. Now, this might not seem particularly unusual unless you understand that the famous explorer, Dr Livingstone, who died the same year left a similar sum to his beneficiaries.

Why many successful Victorian business women remained widows

Elizabeth had done very well for herself – but she had never remarried.

This was because a married woman in Victorian times was not allowed to own property. Any houses she might possess would revert to her husband’s ownership on their marriage. So, Elizabeth remained resolutely single whilst slowly making her way up in the world. supporting her daughters to make good marriages and taking care of her granddaughter, the only offspring of an errant son.

In her Will, she made a determined effort to ensure that Rosa, her granddaughter, would become a wealthy woman in her own right. The property that she left her was in the form of a Trust. This was the only way that Elizabeth could ensure that Rosa would remain the owner but still be able to get married. And no future husband would be able to filch this fortune. A factor of which she was acutely aware since her own son had been something of a chancer.

It was a fascinating programme, full of revelations. As Alex said: “At times, it was a bit like opening the News Of The World!” But, despite the improprietary of some of her four times great grandmother’s doings, both she and I could not help but be extremely impressed and proud of her financial achievement in such male dominated times.

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