Spinster sisters’ life-long service to the Girls Friendly Society

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: A small brass plaque in a corner of Croydon Minster was only the beginning of the story of a life of service to the church and community, as uncovered by DAVID MORGAN

Honoured: the plaque to Ethel Cooper, in the Lady Chapel at Croydon Minster

On the wall of the Lady Chapel in Croydon Minster is a small brass memorial, dedicated to Ethel Cooper, who died in 1936.

The wording etched into the metal states that Ethel Cooper gave 50 years of devoted service to the Girls Friendly Society in Croydon.

There were only a few memorials erected in the church during the 1930s, so who was Ethel and what was the significance of her work in the Girls Friendly Society that merited a such an honour?

Ethel Cooper and her family lived in the same Croydon house, 10 Dingwall Road, for many years. The 1881 census recorded her parents, William and Emma, together with their five children: Agnes, Emma, Melicent, Ethel and Alfred. They also had a domestic servant, Clara Watts.

Thirty years later, the 1911 census recorded a much-changed family group at the same address. William Cooper had died in 1908 leaving Emma as the head of the household. Two of her daughters who hadn’t married, Melicent and Ethel, still lived with their mother. By then Melicent and Ethel would have been described as “spinsters of the parish”.

Cooper census: this document from more than 110 years ago reveals much about the lives of those at 10, Dingwall Road

It needs saying, but this was a different age – especially so for women. Some, if their families could afford it, might stay living with their family if unmarried. But most girls at that time received little, if any, education, and whether they got married or not, most faced a hard life working in the factories or mills of the industrial revolution that had begun a century or so earlier. For thousands of other young women in London and the towns just outside the capital, such as Croydon, a life’s work in “domestic service” awaited.

At 10 Dingwall Road in 1911, according to the census, here was a different domestic servant, Louise Rushden, but there were also two of Emma’s grown-up grandsons living there: Francis Rogers and his brother Richard, sons of Agnes and her husband Francis Rogers. Both Francis and Richard worked in the electricity business, Francis as an electrical engineer and Richard as an electrical draughtsman.

The 1911 census provided further information about the ages of the family. At 77, Emma was the grand old lady. At 33 and 26, Francis and Richard were looking forward in their lives. Melicent at 54 and Ethel at 46 probably had their jobs and interests well set.

Ethel’s occupation was given as a music teacher and her sister, Melicent, a wood carver.
Family letters reveal much about the background of the family, as well as a photograph taken in the 1890s showing William and Emma, with Ethel, Melicent (Millie) and Alfred.

The treasured photo shows William with a magnificent beard, Emma her hair tied up with a little lace cap and the three of their grown-up children who lived in Dingwall Road. Their son Alfred William, generally known as Willie, was a pupil at Whitgift Grammar School and in 1884 was the secretary of the Chess Club for current school members as well as alumni.

Ethel’s parents were married in 1853 in St John’s Church, West Meon, in Hampshire. This was the part of the country where her mother grew up and had attended a school run by her aunts in Alton. William, on the other hand, came from Chester and was described as a “gentleman” on the wedding certificate. However, on subsequent census returns he was recorded as a brewer’s clerk and then as a commercial clerk.

Treasured: the Cooper family, photographed in the 1890s, a picture of Victorian middle-class respectability

The family moved around quite a bit before coming to settle in Croydon in the 1870s. Ethel and her younger brother were baptised in Brixton and her elder sister Millie in Bexley, Kent.

It is likely that Ethel and her sister first volunteered to help in the Girls Friendly Society through attending what was then known as Croydon Parish Church. Her 50 years of service would have begun in 1886 when she was about 25. The society was still in its infancy then, having been founded in 1875.

An article explaining its work was included in the Parish Magazine of 1877: “We are requested to remind our readers that there is a branch of the GFS at work in Croydon. The objects it seeks to accomplish are manifold.

“Primarily it befriends young girls of the Working Classes, by providing an organization whereby they may find a friend in any part of England and Wales to which they might remove; it endeavours to stimulate young servants by offering premiums for good service; it encourages them to begin to save; it helps them in sickness by means of a Sick Fund.

“It arranges classes for their instruction in religious and secular knowledge; it provides them with healthy reading; and in short it extends a helping hand and keeps a watchful eye over the young people, just at the critical period when they are leaving our schools and are about to enter upon their life’s work.”

Wedding day: St John’s, West Meon, Hampshire, where William and Emma Cooper married in 1853

Further details could be obtained from the Society’s Honorary Secretary, Mrs Salter, of Croham Lodge, Croham Lane. There was also a free registry for young servants. The Lady Registrar was Miss Prickett of Apsly Cottage. A shilling was charged to any lady obtaining a servant from this scheme.

Wellesley House was a grand Victorian mansion, on Wellesley Road, that was once the home of the notorious Mayor of Croydon and embezzler, Jabez Balfour. From 1908, Wellesley House was being used as a women’s hostel by the Girls Friendly Society. Ada Lanchester, 37, was the head. The household also included a matron, nine domestic servants and 13 women aged between 18 and 48 who were described as “inmates”. About half of these so-called inmates worked as teachers.

A map of Croydon from around 1960 – before the great redevelopment of the town centre – shows that the house was still a women’s hostel.

Wellesley House was the centre of operations for the GFS locally, while most Anglican churches in Croydon had their own GFS group.

In February 1882, the then Bishop of Croydon, Edward Tufnell, opened some new premises for the society in George Street, intended for recreation and classes. He suggested that classes should be held not only for music but also for history and French.

Bishop Tufnell thought the teaching of French would be a good thing for any of the young women seeking employment in West End shops.

Wellesley House: the Girls Friendly Society base in Croydon for more than 50 years, the building was demolished in the 1960s

The Croydon GFS had a number of needleworkers who met to sew and make garments and it was announced on the evening of the official opening that a parcel containing more than 36 articles of clothing would be sent to poorer branches of the GFS in the East End of London.

By 1905 Ethel had become the branch secretary of the Girls Friendly Society at the Parish Church. She had a letter published in the Croydon Guardian:

Dear Sir
We the undersigned wish to warn the inhabitants of Croydon and especially those connected with the Girls Society against giving any assistance to a girl using the name of the GFS in order to raise money to pay her railway fare, having lost her ticket and money. The story is entirely fictitious.
Your etc
Ethel Cooper, GFS Branch Secretary, Parish Church Croydon
Elizabeth Curling, GFS Branch Secretary, St Mary Magdelene, Addiscombe, Croydon

So that was them told.

Another letter published in 1912 was informing the readers about the Wellesley House Girls Club:

Dear Sir
May I, through your columns, make known the work that the Girls’ Club, Wellesley House, Wellesley Road is doing for Croydon? To girls living in the town away from their homes in business or otherwise, it should be of great benefit and interest. Ambulance classes, conducted by Dr Genge will be held every Monday Evening at 8.15 beginning on October 15th. Recreation nights every Wednesday from 7 to 9.45. Drilling and calisthenics on Thursday from 8 to 9.30. Extra classes and lectures on other nights. We have a large hall and will gladly welcome any who care to come. Thanking you for giving us this opportunity of making the club known.
Yours etc
Ethel Cooper (hostess)

In one sense little has changed since the publication of that letter, inasmuch as we still encourage young people to learn First Aid, as well as providing opportunities for them to burn off calories.

Ethel represented the GFS at many meetings. One of them was at the Horniman Hall in 1911. A large gathering attended to find out more about how the recently passed Insurance Act affected domestic servants.

Grand affair: the great and the good from Croydon society, including ‘the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury’, were at the GFS’s opening of Wellesley House. Sir Frederick Edridge, after whom the town centre road takes its name, was Mayor of Croydon five times

The meeting was held under the auspices of the Croydon Branch of the National Union of Women Workers and Ethel was one of the platform party, supporting the speaker Miss Constance Smith, from the NUWW national committee. Ethel would have discovered that, with a few exemptions, all servants from the age of 16 upwards had to be insured at the same rate of 6d a week. Half that amount was to be paid by the employer who was made the responsible party. Miss Smith advised servants that they ought to join approved societies who could help them in times of particular need.

In late Victorian times and into the pre-World War I era, it was the parish church who organised and ran many social support organisations for their communities. The Girls Friendly Society was just one of the many initiatives run by Croydon Parish Church.

Leonard Burrows, the vicar, in his 1906 report spoke of his praise for the GFS, as well as the Mothers’ Union, for their work with the women of Croydon.

A year later Burrows was writing, “The Girls Friendly Society with its admirable Lodge and manifold activities is one of the best creations of modern times.” Burrows’ praise for the society was reflected in the fact that he was invited to open the 30th GFS Branch Secretaries’ Conference in Chelsea Town Hall in June 1905.

‘Not to be taken away’: a service sheet for the GFS from 1927

Wellesley House was able to provide accommodation for young women coming to Croydon for work. We know this from details of a pageant largely organised by Ethel Cooper and her sister Melicent.

Entitled “Women who have made English History”, the pageant was held in the grounds of the lodge in June 1909. Whilst the Parish Church group were responsible for “Queen Bertha”, the boarders of the Lodge presented “Lady Godiva”.

When Melicent Cooper died in 1913, her obituary included a recognition of her creativity and organisational skills for such events and thanks for all she had done for the parish, including teaching in the Sunday School. Ethel Cooper would have been left devastated by the loss of her sister, as the two of them were stalwarts in church and parish life.

It was noted in family correspondence that it was through a family loan that Emma and her remaining family could continue living in Dingwall Road after the death of her husband. The landlord wished to sell the property but with the family loan, Emma and her daughters were able to buy the property.

Ethel Cooper and her sister never earned much money. They could be described, like the Brontes, as living in “genteel poverty”. The richness in their lives was what was achieved through serving others. Melicent never shrunk from that challenge and neither did Ethel, who continued the work with the GFS until her death.

The Girls Friendly Society still exists today, though not in Croydon. It offers opportunities to girls and young women to develop their skills, self-esteem and confidence. Ethel Cooper and her sister would take comfort in that.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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