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Jemima's Daughters.

Anne-Marie Ford    -    2 December 2017

In 1815 Jemima Fletcher, a daughter of Gypsies Selbea Stanley and William Fletcher, had married Henry Cox, a farm labourer, and had chosen to settle. Henry had been born in Sturminster Marshall, Dorset, a county the Stanleys considered home territory, and here Jemima’s children would be also be born, baptised at the local church of St. Mary the Virgin.

By the 1851 census the widowed Jemima is living at the delightfully named Pye Corner, in Wimborne, Dorset, with two grandsons, Tom Martin Cox and Robert Miller Cox, sons of her daughter, Tamar. What is surprising, perhaps, is that she is receiving an allowance. This might be supposed to be parish relief, but in fact Jemima’s improved situation owed much to her younger daughters, who had gone to London to make their fortunes.

In 1852 Jemima, in her fifties, remarried, and the next recorded evidence of her changed life is the 1861 census, which finds her and her husband, William Farrell, a stonemason, living in a renovated cottage at Hook Heath in Surrey, with a servant. Having begun life as the child of travelling Gypsies, before marrying an agricultural labourer and knowing considerable financial hardship, Jemima was now living in comfort with her second husband. How this dramatic change had come about can be best explained by a note written by a cleric against the baptism of Jemima’s second daughter, Catherine, in October 1826. ‘Married the Earl of Stamford and Warrington, and I believe all the sisters married husbands of high social standing.’

This scribbled and later comment against Catherine’s baptism is true - Catherine Cox did indeed marry George Harry Grey, the extremely wealthy seventh Earl of Stamford and Warrington, in 1855, and was said to be instrumental in the unions of her younger sisters, Susan and Mary. She seems to have taken responsibility for both her sisters, as well as her young niece, Sarah Letitia, the daughter of her eldest sister, Tamar Cox, and brought them to London at the beginning of 1847, where Catherine and her sisters found work at the riding school of the jockey Jem Mason, in Mount Street, near Oxford Street in London. Here they learned sophisticated and daring riding techniques and displayed their horses to the gentlemen who visited and the military men who came to learn greater skills with their own horses.

Soon the sisters were appearing at Astley’s Amphitheatre, where the social elite came to enjoy the indoor circus, its feats of daring, wire walking, and displays of horsemanship. The aristocratic audience who attended included the Queen, and those who performed nightly at Astley’s were feted and admired. For the Cox girls, performing as Kitty, Sukey and Polly Fleming, it must have seemed a world away from the poverty of their cottage in Dorset, and extremely desirable. Fortunately, Catherine had a plan. She engaged tutors in French, literature, music and drawing in order to prepare her sisters, her niece and herself to be able to enter a very different social world.

Susan married Greville Morier in 1852; he was the son of a diplomat and worked at the Foreign Office; Mary formed a union with a member of the aristocracy, Henry Hervey, in 1857. This marriage was probably extremely satisfying for Catherine, since by this time Mary had already had three illegitimate children, two sons and a daughter, with her lover, Lord Ribblesdale.

The same year Mary had married was to also see the union of Tamar’s daughter, Sarah Letitia, with the Reverend Alfred Payne. Sarah Letitia and Alfredr Payne had two children, Catherine Sarah Payne, who would become Catherine’s heiress and marry a baronet, and Harry Alfred Payne. So although Tamar herself, having finally married in 1850 to a fireman named George Low, did not, like her sisters, make a socially superior marriage, her daughter and particularly her granddaughter, were certainly to do so.

Mary’s decision, meanwhile, to elope with her lover, Lord Ribblesdale, within a year of her marriage to Henry Hervey caused a scandal in the law-courts and probably exasperated Catherine. Mary was to eventually remarry, in 1864, a surgeon, Dr. Henry Walter Kiallmark. He acted as step-father to Mary’s youngest child with Lord Ribblesdale, Mary Lister, who, following her mother’s early death, went to live with her aunt Catherine, where her two older brothers, George and Thomas, were already being cared for.

Catherine’s sense of responsibility toward her family and her determination to lift them out of poverty was a singular success, and it was through her that her mother, Jemima, achieved a more comfortable existence in her later years. It was a course which Jemima could never have imagined her life would take; living in comfort, with a servant, seemed almost as extraordinary and unlikely as the lives of her three younger daughters were to prove to be.

Perhaps Catherine became concerned about her mother’s health, for she moved Jemima and William Farrell to London following the 1861 census. Here Jemima was closer to Catherine’s London residence and those of her sisters, and Jemima remained in a comfortable London establishment until her death in 1863, caused by pulmonary congestion. Catherine arranged for her mother to be buried in the superior Kensal Green Cemetery, where her memorial stone reads ‘Sacred to the memory of Jemima Farrell, the beloved wife of William Farrell.’

The lives of Catherine and her sisters were to prove amazing, although of course there had been great difficulties in the Cox girls invading the social world of the elite, and the manner in which they had achieved this was interrogated by many. There was resentment and anxiety, too, and some gossiped that they were Gypsies, others whispered that they were courtesans. In fact, there were both.

The Gypsy Countess, the story of Catherine’s adventurous life and times, is recounted in a biography which is expected to be published next year by the RTFHS, of which much more later . . .

Copyright © 2017 Anne-Marie Ford