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Lil was born Elizabeth Brevoort Coolidge on 24th August 1857 in Newport, Rhode Island, USA, and was the fourth child and second daughter of Frederick William Skinner Coolidge and his wife Elisabeth Neville (née Brevoort).
Lil’s father had been born in Boston, Massachusetts, where his family maintained deep New England roots since his earliest American ancestor, John Coolidge, emigrated from Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, England, around 1630 and settled in Watertown, Massachusetts,[i]. Her mother, Elisabeth, although born in Charleston, South Carolina, had strong links to New York as she was descended on her father’s side from Dutch settlers who had landed in New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 1640s. Their descendants prospered from the ownership of land in New York City (present-day Manhattan)[ii].
Lil’s grandfather, Henry Brevoort Jnr, a wealthy landowner, patron of the arts and general bon vivant, died in May 1848 – just over a month after the Married Woman’s Property Act was passed in New York. This ground-breaking Act recognised women for the first time as individuals for economic purposes after marriage. A married woman was no longer automatically liable for her husband’s debts; she could enter contracts on her own; she could collect rents or receive an inheritance in her own right; and she could file a lawsuit on her own behalf[iii]. Prior to the Act, married women were assumed to take a subordinate role in family matters, were not permitted to vote, and could not purchase or hold property. A similar Act would not be passed until 1870 in the UK[iv].
Sadly, Lil’s brother Fred died in 1860 aged 5 and her sister Laura died in 1861 aged 8 and were both buried at Trinity Cemetery, Manhattan close to their maternal grandparents.[v] We don’t know what lead to the children’s deaths, but in the 1860s New York had among the worst health statistics in the nation, despite being the foremost centre of trade, industry, finance, and communication[vi].
New York, which would soon become one of the most densely populated cities the world has ever known, had begun to build upwards due to the small space provided by city plots, but sanitary conditions were simply appalling as the sewerage system was poorly designed and most of the population depended upon outdoor “water closets” and privies in the courtyards of the tenement buildings, close to wells used for drinking.[vii] Meantime, the commercial streets were paved with cobblestones which, in turn, provided deep cracks in which refuse collected and rotted. The streets were filthy “with accumulations of manure from the horses that traversed the area, dead dogs, cats and rats, household and vegetable refuse that in winter accumulated to depths of three feet or more”.[viii]
Lil’s mother Elisabeth had not been in good health for many years and relied on her younger unmarried sister Marguerite, known as Meta, to help her care for her surviving children. Both women were of ‘independent means’ thanks to income received from property rental and investments inherited from their father. This allowed them to take a certain amount of control over their lives, but we can never know for sure what prompted the sisters to apply for passports in the summer of 1864[x]. Some published sources state that they left New York on account of young William’s health, but our own family lore was that they were fleeing as refugees from the American Civil War – which is possible as Elisabeth and Meta had family on both sides of the line. I believe it more likely that a marriage breakup was involved as, in October 1864, an advertisement appeared in the New York Times appealing for Frederick Coolidge’s whereabouts concerning unclaimed mail. Certainly, by 1880 he is living in a hotel in Conway, Carroll, New Hampshire, and his marital status is given as ‘divorced’[xi].
Whatever prompted the decision for them to leave New York, it’s hard to imagine how Lil must have felt, just a few weeks before her seventh birthday, as she boarded the Inman Line steamship ‘City of Baltimore’ with her mother, aunt and brother.[xii] The ‘City of Baltimore’ carried mail backwards and forwards across the Atlantic and typically carryied around 25 passengers in three class of cabins plus over 200 potential immigrants packed into steerage on the Liverpool to New York leg of the journey[xiii]. The passage would take around ten days[xiv] but there would have been fewer passengers on the eastward route as the main business of these ships was bringing thousands of immigrants from Europe to the USA.
The ‘City of Baltimore’ featured a large well-lit and ventilated saloon which took up the whole width of the vessel amidships, where the least noise and motion would have been felt. The saloon, fitted with long fixed tables, benches and some revolving armchairs, served the purpose of dining room, drawing room, parlour and study and was where passengers spent most of their time reading or playing cards. Lil and her travelling companions probably occupied two or more of the first-class cabins, impressively named ‘staterooms’, which were also amidships, but the accommodation was physically tiny, with each cabin fitted with two narrow berths – one above the other – some storage space opposite and a single stool. The Inman line proudly boasted cabins equipped with electric bells and “water laid on, and every requisite to add to the comfort of an ocean passage. Ladies’ sitting and retiring rooms, gentlemen’s smoking room, pianos, libraries, bathrooms, barber’s shop, &c., provided. Special attention has been paid to the sanitary arrangements. The cuisine has always been a speciality of this Line’[xv].
No doubt Lil would have been excited as they set off on their journey as she would have heard stories about Europe from her mother and aunt who had grown up there in the 1830s, when they attended the fashionable Convent of the Sacred Heart in Paris and spent their family summers in Switzerland.[xvii]
After leaving New York, for the first six hundred miles of the three-thousand-mile journey, the ship headed north along the coastline of America until the easternmost point of Newfoundland, when the ship changed course to cross the open seas bound for England. Perhaps, for Lil, the excitement of travel would already have begun to wear off by the time the ship docked at Liverpool and the party headed on towards Paris. By the 1860’s Britain and France had an extensive network of railways and some of the saloon cars benefitted from lavatories but sleeping cars had not yet been introduced. Their journey would have taken several tedious days as they travelled first to London[xviii], then on to Dover before catching a ferry to Calais, and then on to Paris again by train.
Soon after their arrival in Paris, young William became ill with typhoid fever, which must have caused great anxiety to his travelling companions. Typhoid fever was, and still is, a potentially life-threatening illness caused by a bacterial infection that spreads through contaminated food and water. With an incubation period of up to about four weeks, it’s quite possible that Will caught the disease before leaving New York.
Fortunately for Will, Meta had several years’ nursing experience working in a charity hospital in New York City and, perhaps thanks to her care, he began to recover. By September 1864, he was well enough to travel, and the party set off once again, this time heading south for the French Riviera[xix]. This time, their journey would have been a relatively quick and easy since a direct railway line had opened the previous year, significantly decreasing the travel time from Paris to Cannes to just 2 hours and 20 minutes.[xx]
As Lil descended from the train, she might have noticed the bright light, clear air, and dry warmth from the Riviera sun. Although Cannes was rapidly growing in popularity with wealthy visitors seeking to escape the harsh Northern European winters, it was then still a small fishing town on the French coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Set in the picturesque region of the Alpes-Maritimes and surrounded by a continuous amphitheatre of hills, covered in rich vegetation and olive trees, rising up to stony mountains – it could not have been more different to the densely populated and foetid smelling streets of central New York.
They could not have known it at the time, but none of the travellers would ever leave Europe and return to their country of birth.
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[i] Descendants of John and Mary Coolidge of Watertown, Massachusetts, 1630 by Emma Downing Coolidge
[ii] Brooklyn Historical Society Guide to the Brevoort family papers 1977.285 last accessed 22 Dec 2021
[iii]http://users.hist.umn.edu/~bywelke/New%20York%20Married%20Women’s%20Property%20Law%20(1848).htm last accessed 05 Feb 2022
[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/aug/11/women-rights-money-timeline-history last accessed 06 Feb 2022
[v] Gravestone Inscriptions of Trinity Cemetery, New York City Vol II (pub 1931) page 49: Brevoort Henry, b.New York, Sept. 26, 1782; d. May 17 1848. Laura E. Carson, wife, b. Charleston, N.C. Feb. 14, 1799; d. June 8, 1845 Coolidge Fred, son Frederick and Elizabeth B Coolidge b. New York, June 27, 1855; d. Apr. 25, 1860 Laura, daughter (same parents), b. Oct. 25, 1853; d. July 20, 1861.
[vi] http://livingcityarchive.org/htm/decades/1860.htm last accessed 29 Jan 2021
[ix]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_in_the_American_Civil_War#/media/File:NewYorkCity1860.jpg Public Domain
[x] US Passport Applications Passport Applications, 1795-1905 | 1861-1867 | Roll 124 – 01 Jul 1864-31 Aug 1864
[xi] 1880 United States Federal Census | Place: Conway, Carroll, New Hampshire; Roll: T9_760; Family History Film: 1254760; Page: 230.1000; Enumeration District: 16; Image: 0463
[xii] New York Times archive last accessed 12 Mar 2016
[xiii] https://immigrantships.net last accessed 01 Feb 2022
[xiv] https://transportgeography.org/contents/chapter1/emergence-of-mechanized-transportation-systems/liner-transatlantic-crossing-time/ last accessed 31 Jan 2022
[xv] https://www.norwayheritage.com/p_shiplist.asp?co=inman last accessed 01 Feb 2022
[xvi] https://www.clydeships.co.uk/view.php?ref=22562#v last accessed 29 Jan 2022
[xvii] 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
[xviii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_01.shtml last accessed 6 Feb 2022
[xx] © Archives municipales de la ville de Cannes, droits réservés Last accessed 04 Feb 2022
[xxi] Maps-prints.com Last accessed 06 Feb 2022