This is a cautionary tale to fellow family historians in the dangers of filling in the gaps in our ancestors lives when we look back with 21st century stereotypical views of the past.
In my previous blog For God and Country – a sibling tale I wrote about the 15 offspring of the Rev Thomas Le Mesurier and Margaret Bandinel. I concluded that the secret to a long life seemed to be being female and unmarried and thereby avoiding the dangers of military duties or civil service in foreign climes with nasty diseases which had wiped out most of the sons of the family, and avoiding marriage and childbirth which had possibly contributed to the early demise of several of the daughters.
I had pictured the genteel and devout life of three of the sisters, Martha, Henrietta and Charlotte based on an image culled from a period drama. From the hard data of the censuses I could see that they had independent means so they were not poverty stricken but I imagined them as needing to be careful. They fitted my vision of typical maiden aunts – slightly unfulfilled lives but of valuable service to their married sisters and their offspring.
So I had somewhat of a shock when rooting through an old box of family photos that my sister had discovered in her loft I found an old browned newscutting – an obituary of Henrietta from an unknown newspaper. For it revealed that far from sitting at home darning socks both she and her sister, Charlotte, had “offered their services as nurses in the Crimean War, and were sent out to Smyrna, where a hospital was established for the care of soldiers suffering from fever or the after-effects of wounds. Miss [Henrietta] Le Mesurier was appointed lady superintendent of this hospital and held the appointment until the hospital was closed, on withdrawal of our troops”. Wow!
I knew nothing of this. I had found their baptisms, census entries and deaths – and concluded there was not much more to know – because I had filled in the gaps from my own stereotypical views of Victorian maiden aunts! So whilst I had visited the National Archives and found the record of brother, Tom, being buried at sea and had found newspaper obituaries of him and several of his brothers I had failed to look any further at all into the admittedly less well-documented lives of these remarkable women.
Subsequently I have found further evidence such as that of a testimonial reported in the Illustrated London News of 16th August 1856 which included the image of silverware they were presented with by the medical officers of the Smyrna hospital on their “retirement”. I have also found other secondary references and have been researching archival sources including records of the establishment of the Smyran hospital held at the National Archives and Bandinel & Le Mesurier family papers which are deposited in a USA University Library but available to view on microfilm at the British Library.
I learnt a salutary lesson from this and hopefully one I will remember in future – to be open-minded and avoid easy generalisations. I feel very drawn to Henrietta and her story and hope to be able to do her justice with a full account of her life – when I’ve exhausted all avenues of research this time;)
Next task is to try and positively identify her as one of the 3 Victorian ladies in this photograph – also uncovered in the same shoebox and by a Clevedon photographer which was where Henrietta spent the last 18 years of her life (if the census is to be believed!)