A most difficult year

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The family dynamic changed forever when Lil’s mother Elisabeth died suddenly at home in Museum Terrace on 4th January 1875.  Elisabeth had celebrated her 53rd birthday the previous day, and the medically certified cause of her death was ‘gouty pericarditis’[i].  Pericarditis is an inflammation of the lining around the heart so Elisabeth, often described as a ‘semi-invalid’, could have suffered from gout, a type of arthritis which causes sudden attacks of severe pain and swelling and can increase the risk of several disorders including cardiovascular disease.   However, whatever the cause, her death was completely unexpected and left Lil quite bereft as she had been her mother’s constant companion and carer since they left New York.

Elisabeth was buried four days later in the outstandingly beautiful cemetery of St Sepulchre’s in the Jericho area of Oxford.  The inscription on her headstone reads Elisabeth Neville Brevoort | Wife of Frederic W. Coolidge | Born Jan 3, 1822 in Charleston | South Carolina, United States of America | Departed this life Jan 4 1875 and I think it is quite curious that her family chose to perpetuate her memory with her maiden name and as the wife of a man with whom she had no contact in over ten years.

Elisabeth Brevoort’s grave (click on an image above to open a full size) | all from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

Just a few months after their mother’s death, Will was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College – the first ‘foreigner’ to achieve the distinction in the College’s long history – and took up rooms within the campus which would become his permanent home for over twenty years.  Lil, who was now seventeen, accompanied her aunt Meta to Park End, described as a pleasant house on the outskirts of Dorking[ii], in Surrey.  Park End was the home of long-time family friends from New York, Thomas Winslow, son of Octavius Winslow who was a prominent 19th-century evangelical preacher in New York[iii] and more recently an Anglican minister in Brighton.  Thomas Winslow’s wife Eliza was the niece of Washington Irving, the American writer and diplomat who had been Lil’s maternal grandfather Henry Brevoort Jnr’s closest friend.

Historic postcard of Dorking from Boxhill [iv]

The following summer, Lil, together with her brother, and aunt, returned to the Bel Alp in Switzerland.  Meta reluctantly agreed to stay behind with Lil at the hotel despite still harbouring ambitions to be the first person of either sex to reach the top of the Meije, then still unclaimed, however she hints at tension between herself and Lil and financial worries.  In a letter to her nephew, Meta asks him to leave her Tschingel (their dog) ”my great comfort, and at times my only companion, for you know how Lil is…. I am not going to Zermatt not because I think you don’t want me, although I do think you don’t, but because of the expense.  This autumn will cost quite enough without that, our journey home, your September trip, and the furnishing of the house… God bless you dear old Will.”[v]

Meta did not get to climb that year and, by autumn 1876, Lil and Meta had returned to Dorking where they began to settle into the quiet routine of a small market town in Surrey.  Described at the time as having ‘brilliant environs, of hill and wood and mansions, around a sandy valley, [Dorking] is a fine centre for tourists desiring to see the best scenery of the county.  It comprises three chief streets, wide, well-paved, and clean, and presents a pleasant, cheerful appearance.[vi] 

Within easy reach of London by train and coach, the population of Dorking was expanding rapidly thanks to its growing popularity with the new wealthy of London had begun to build country residences within reach of their business interests in the capital.  The town had also gained some notoriety as the location of the fictitious alarmist tale of ‘The Battle of Dorking’, first published anonymously in 1871, when it caused great controversy with its depiction of a German-speaking country’s invasion and subsequent conquest of an unprepared and under-resourced Britain, leading to the forfeit of the British Empire.[vii]  Even today, it’s an interesting story with an underlying theme of contemporary Englishmen being complacent and lacking the ‘stiff upper lip’ of their ancestors – ironically quite at odds with the spirit and stoicism which seems to characterise Lil’s immediate family.  

(click on the image to read the full text of the Battle of Dorking) [viii]

These first few weeks back in Dorking would have been an exciting time for Lil as she and her aunt were welcomed by their new friends and neighbours.  No doubt, as newcomers to the parish, and friends of the Winslow family, Meta and Lil would have attended the local parish church regularly as part of their induction into local society.  The young curate of St Martin’s, 26-year-old Henry Walter Brock, known as Walter, was rapidly establishing himself as a well-respected member of the community.  Coincidentally, he had been one of Will’s contemporaries from his time at Elizabeth College in Guernsey and, more recently, they had both attended Exeter College in Oxford together.

The new curate was the eldest son of the Very Reverend Carey Brock, Dean of Guernsey and leader of the Church of England in Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, and his wife, Frances Elizabeth Georgina Brock (Mrs Carey Brock), popular author of charming moralistic novels and hymn books for children.   Walter’s father Carey and his grandfather Thomas Brock had close links to prominent members of the clergy, including the late Charles Sumner, former Lord Bishop of Winchester and his elder brother John Bird Sumner, former Archbishop of Canterbury.  

The Brocks were certainly an influential and well-connected family, descended from ancestors who had settled in Guernsey during the sixteenth century.  It seems that Dean Brock and his wife were ambitious and encouraged their sons and, surprisingly for the time, their daughters to spread their wings from the rural parish of St Pierre du Bois in West Guernsey and relocate to England where greater opportunities might present themselves.  All seven of their children would leave Guernsey, but only one would return to live in the parish many years later.

Meantime, now that Lil was becoming a young woman, and after such a peripatetic childhood, I suspect she might have been eager for a future of feminine domesticity and moral duty, such as was often depicted in popular advice literature, domestic novels, and advertisements of the time.  Perhaps she was looking forward to receiving invitations to balls, parties and other social events held in the town and – not necessarily something her aunt or brother might have approved of – dressing up in pretty clothes and being whirled around a dancefloor by handsome young suitors…

However, less than three months after their return to England in 1876, Lil’s normally robust aunt Meta became unwell with a throat infection but, within a few days, rheumatic fever was diagnosed.  Although she was not initially thought be in any danger, quite without warning, on 19th December 1876 aged just 51, she collapsed and died suddenly at her home in Dorking[ix]

Her nephew Will immediately arranged for her body to be removed to Oxford where she was buried just three days after her death next to her sister – and the ceremony was performed by none other than the Reverend Walter Brock.[x]

Meta Brevoort’s grave next to her sister (click on an image above to open a full size) | all from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

Nineteen-year-old Lil was now an orphan, very much alone, and entirely dependent upon the generosity of others. 

Although the mid-Victorians’ had a somewhat romantic view of young women without a family, such as Charlotte Brontë’s character of Jane Eyre who overcomes tragedy and hardship through her own determination, loyalty, and courage, Lil would have been in a very vulnerable position.  To find a suitable husband as an orphan would be difficult, as men and their families at the time tended to choose a suitable wife based upon her dowry, which was a sum of money that the husband received from the bride’s family at the point of marriage. 

It must have been a desperately traumatic and difficult time for Lil. Not only had she lost the two most significant women in her life within less than two years, but also any prospect of a suitable marriage would have been greatly reduced due to her circumstances. Her best option may have been to seek employment as a governess or a lady’s companion to enable her to earn a living in her own right.

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[i] Elisabeth Neville Coolidge’s Death Certificate

[ii] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[iii] Wikipedia Octavius Winslow last accessed 27 Feb 2022

[iv] Dorking from Box Hill postcard – last accessed 25 Feb 2022

[v] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[vi] The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5

[vii] The Battle of Dorking by Sir George Chesney last accessed 27 Feb 2022           

[viii] Image in the Public Domain

[ix] Meta Brevoort’s Death Certificate

[x] Burial 22 Dec 1876 – From St Giles Church Parish Register