A Cambridge woman’s business: Louisa Greef (1829-1913)

Louise Rayner, King’s Parade, Cambridge (c.1901) Watercolour

In 1950, Florence Ada Keynes published her memoir, Gathering Up the Threads: A study in family biography. It paints a memorable picture of her time as one of the first students at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1870s, when she recalls being amused by the names of ‘Greef’, ‘Sadd’ and ‘Pain’ over the shops in King’s Parade, Cambridge (see Rayner’s watercolour from the early 1900s, above).

As part of my research into the early years of women at Cambridge, I was looking through Newnham College’s account books from the 1880s when the name ‘Greef’ caught my eye. There was a carefully written note of a payment made to ‘L. Greef, painter’, and I assumed that this referred to a man. After some further research into Greef’s college account books dating bak to 1798 held at Cambridge University Library (see below), I discovered that Louisa Greef was a woman. She took charge of a long-established family business that had provided plumbing and glazing to the men’s colleges for over a hundred years, and she successfully took it in a new direction.

Louisa was born Louisa Headdey in Cambridge in 1829, the fourth and youngest child of William Headdey, a butler at Clare Hall (now Clare College) and Elizabeth Headdey (1807-1887). She married Robert Greef at All Saints’ Church in 1863 and moved into his family home at 4 King’s Parade. There, the Greefs’ home and business was situated between John Swan, a retired bootmaker and his wife, and Mary Careless, a bedmaker with her five student lodgers. The Greefs had a cook and a housemaid, and three undergraduate lodgers. Louisa’s mother Elizabeth Headdey who was living with them was listed as an ‘assistant’. Robert Greef ran the long-established family business that provided plumbing and window glazing services to the colleges.

A year later Robert and Louisa’s only child, Louisa Ellen Greef, was born, but sadly she died just a few weeks later. The family grave is in Mill Road Cemetery, and there is more information about the Greefs on this excellent website. In the 1871 census Robert Greef was listed as a ‘Plumber Master employing 10 men’. In 1872 the couple were joined by Louisa’s 17 year old nephew Arthur Headdey (the son of Louisa’s brother William) who came to work for them as a trainee accountant, and his younger cousin Henry Edward Fuller (born 1858) the son of Louisa’s sister Elizabeth. He started working for the firm as an apprentice plumber.

In 1876 Robert died aged 43, and Louisa, aged 47, took charge. It was not unknown for a widow to take over the family business in this way. After Robert’s father died in 1838, his mother Ann run the business while bringing up three children, and Louisa’s sister Elizabeth Fuller, also a widow, had been running her husband’s bakery and brewery business at 45 Sidney Street since 1869. Her older son was now working as a college cook and her daughter Annie was a music governess.

With the help of her two nephews, Louisa soon expanded the business. According to the 1881 she employed thirty men, meaning that within five years, the company’s size had tripled. This was largely thanks to her decision to move into the area of painting and decorating, to cater for the growing demands of colleges and domestic customers in the new family houses springing up around Cambridge. Among them was the Keynes’s house in the new development of Harvey Road. Louisa was ambitious: ‘L.Greef, Plumber, Glazier, Plain & Decorative Painter and Paperhanger’ was advertised in Spalding’s Almanack stating that they provide window glazing for ‘Public and Private Buildings’, and in 1882 hers was one of three companies to tender a quotation to refurbish the Guildhall (now demolished). Unfortunately for her, the contract went to F. R. Leach instead.

But there was plenty of work to go around for both firms in the busily expanding Cambridge of the 1880s, and Leach and Greef worked together on a decorating and bathroom refitting job for Trinity Hall in 1882. Soon afterwards Louisa Greef’s firm took on new work at Newnham College. They had been employed there since the mid 1870s as a plumber and glazer, but from Michaelmas term 1885, L.Greef was referred to as ‘painter-plumber’, having taken over the painting and decorating work previously carried out by F.R. Leach.

It may have been that the Leach firm had become too expensive for Newnham, who had to manage their finances very carefully in the early years. The Vice-Principal and mathematician Eleanor Sidgwick, in charge of the accounts, called this ‘chasing twopences’. As I turned over the pages of the Newnham College account books, I thought about how hard Eleanor Sidgwick, Anne Clough and Helen Gladstone worked to expand the college during those years. Did they also want to support a decorating company run by a professional, independent woman? It is possible.

In 1891 Louisa handed over the management of her business to her nephew Henry Fuller, the former plumber. She continued to live at King’s Parade while Henry managed the business, and his commitment to the firm (and to his aunt Louisa) can be seen by the fact that he later changed his surname to Greef. Louisa had a long and, it seems, happy retirement, living with her two unmarried nieces, Annie and Alice Fuller. She died in 1913.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2022

Gathering Up The Threads by FA Keynes (W. Heffer & Sons, 1950); cover illustration by Gwen Raverat


“Only connect”

This week I wrote a short piece for the Royal Society of Literature‘s online series, “Only Connect” which is sent out by email three times a week and has provided a connection to the RSL community throughout the pandemic. In each edition, a member of the community introduces a recording or article from the RSL’s library that means something to them. My piece, #OnlyConnect276, takes the theme of exile and is reprinted below with the RSL’s permission. The link to the complete series is here, and well worth exploring for further recommendations.

Today’s Only Connect comes from writer and researcher, Ann Kennedy Smith, who has chosen our 2017 event, ‘The Art of Non-Fiction’ with Hisham MatarLara Feigel and Deborah Levy, chaired by RSL Vice-President, Lisa Appignanesi.

“Listening to this wonderful RSL recording brought back the pleasure of attending it in 2017, and the happy anticipation of more such events in 2022. It made me think about the exciting possibilities of non-fiction, ‘as various certainly as the great mansion of fiction’, as RSL Vice-President Lisa Appignanesi says. She brings her expertise as a non-fiction author to chair this lively discussion that ranges from questions of style to the layered nature of the ‘I’ as narrator, with RSL Fellows Deborah Levy, Lara Feigel and Hisham Matar. Towards the end, Matar, who previously won the RSL Ondaatje Prize for his novel, In The Country of Men, reads from his 2016 memoir, The Return. It’s a moving and resonant reminder of how so many people, recently forced to leave Ukraine, now face a life in limbo: ‘What do you do when you cannot leave and you cannot return?'”

Where I’m Writing From…

Ann Kennedy Smith is a freelance writer, RSL member, and researcher, with essays and reviews in the TLS, Guardian and Slightly Foxed. She’s working on a book about women at Cambridge – her blog ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914‘ can be found here and she tweets at @akennedysmith. She enjoys writing in the ‘stacks’ of the University Library (especially at sunset with its views of Cambridge spires) and is currently reading Lennie Goodings’ fascinating memoir A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (OUP), and re-reading F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (Persephone). It’s a ‘forgotten’ gem from 1924 that fortunately keeps being rediscovered.

There are still lots of pieces in the RSL’s Library to be written about and contributions are welcome from all. If you would like to write for Only Connect, please contact keira.brown@rsliterature.org

‘A great deal of taste’: Mr Leach’s houses

Leach & Simpson tradecard, © David Parr House Cambridge

“Mr. Leach is a man who has a great deal of taste & people send all over England for him to do their houses.” Maud Darwin (UL, DAR 251: 778)

I’m giving an online talk for the David Parr House on 28 April 2022 about the Leach firm’s domestic commissions in Cambridge in the 1880s and 1890s (more details and booking here). After the university permitted its academics to marry, the late Victorian saw substantial family homes springing up around Cambridge in areas including Grange Road, Madingley Road, St Paul’s Road, Brooklands Avenue and the De Freville Estate. The Arts and Crafts movement had also begun to catch the public imagination, and the ‘university brides’ and other women who made their homes in the town wanted their houses to be both artistically beautiful and up-to-date, with modern drainage, heating and lighting.

Since the late 1860s the Cambridge-based ‘artworkman’ Frederick Leach had become well known for his work in decorating churches, grand houses and civic buildings all over England. In 1867 Leach worked with the Gothic Revival architect G.F. Bodley and the stained glass artist Charles Eamer Kempe at St John the Baptist, Tuebrook in Liverpool. In his book Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe (Lutterworth, 2018), Adrian Barlow describes this work as ‘one of the greatest schemes of painted decoration in any nineteenth-century British church’ (you can read about Kempe’s pelicans in Adrian’s excellent blog here).

In Frederick Leach, A Cambridge Artworkman and his Firm (Casita Press, 2021) Shelley Lockwood describes how although Leach continued to work with William Morris and others, he also wanted to expand his business closer to home, and to tap into the growing interest in home decoration. In 1880 he opened a fashionable shop and showroom, to be run by his sister Isabella Simpson Leach, at 3 St Mary’s Passage. It was an elegant showroom that showcased finely crafted tiles, paperhangings, cabinetwork and picture frames; the ‘Leach Simpson’ business card pictured above gives an idea of the range of items for sale.

In my talk on 28 April I’ll be exploring the stories of some of the fascinating women behind Leach’s domestic commissions, including Maud Darwin, Caroline Jebb, Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton. Louisa Greef, a Cambridge-born woman who ran a successful decorating business at the time will also feature. She took over Leach’s work at Newnham College, and went on to become his rival for larger commissions in Cambridge too.

You can find out more about the talk, including booking details, by scrolling down the David Parr House website here.

F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1924)

Flora Mayor (1872-1932)

The Rector’s Daughter belongs to the finest English tradition of novel writing. It is like a bitter Cranford… Mary Jocelyn’s ‘nothing’ is a full and rich state of being.’ Sylvia Lund, Time and Tide, 18 July 1924

When F.M. (Flora Macdonald) Mayor’s second novel, The Rector’s Daughter, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1924, the Woolfs were surprised to have a bestseller on their hands. ‘Lytton Strachey, my sister and Duncan Grant have all been reading it with great interest’, Virginia Woolf wrote. E.M. Forster described it as ‘a very great achievement’, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised it. The Rector’s Daughter was a runner-up for the 1925 ‘Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse’, a literary prize for a work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’ (Forster’s A Passage to India won that year instead). Then, for almost fifty years, F.M. Mayor’s novel was out of print and apparently forgotten, although reading it during the Blitz did give the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann some comfort: ‘In its quiet and personal way The Rector’s Daughter is a piece of history’, she wrote in 1941.

But it’s not exactly a neglected twentieth-century classic. After Penguin Books reissued it in their Modern Classics series in 1973, The Rector’s Daughter hasn’t been out of print for the last fifty years. In 1987 the new publishers on the block, Virago, took it over and reissued it in their own highly successful Virago Modern Classics series, with its distinctive bottle green spines, and it was reprinted in 1999, 2008 (twice) and 2009 (three times). The Rector’s Daughter has the rare distinction during the same period of being one the few novels that merited new editions as a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic (1992) and a Penguin Modern Classic (2001). Even so, in 2010 BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ described it as ‘an unfairly neglected classic’ when it was read in ten episodes by Juliet Stevenson (it’s still available on BBC Sounds, and well worth listening to). In 2021 The Rector’s Daughter was reissued by Persephone Books in an elegant new edition with a biographical foreword by Flora’s great-niece, Victoria Gray, who in 1992 wrote a radio play based on the book with her late husband, the dramatist Simon Gray.

Yet, for all this, The Rector’s Daughter is still a novel that seems to exist just below the literary radar, much loved by its readers, but also, somehow, not widely read. Little has been written by scholars about this or F.M. Mayor’s other works, perhaps because she produced so few in her lifetime (a collection of her ghost stories, said to be admired by M.R. James, was published posthumously). Her two other novels, The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Squire’s Daughter (1929), were also reissued by Virago Modern Classics in the 1980s.  Sybil Oldfield’s Spinsters of this Parish: the life and times of F.M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks (Virago, 1984) is a well-researched dual biography that provides a fascinating social context for Mayor’s life and unsuccessful attempt to make a living as an actress. The chapter on her four years at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s is particularly revealing, including the revelation that Mayor and her former tutor, Mary Bateson, remained close friends until Bateson’s early death in 1906.

Flora Mayor’s lifelong poor health made her unable to fulfil much of her literary promise, sadly. However, she was a successful author with a three-book contract with Constable when she died of pneumonia in 1932, aged fifty-nine. In a recent piece for The Times, the writer D.J. Taylor describes The Rector’s Daughter as ‘one of those curious novels in which a cauldron of suppressed emotion and unrequited love boils away behind a landscape in which, for all practical purposes, hardly anything happens’ and says that as a novelist, F.M. Mayor ranks with Jane Austen and George Eliot.

I would agree, and The Rector’s Daughter is Mayor’s masterpiece. My essay on it will be published in a forthcoming issue of Slightly Foxed.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Mary Bateson (1865-1906): an invigorating life

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Thirty years before Woolf gave her 1928 lecture to students at Newnham and Girton – published the following year as A Room of One’s Own – a young Cambridge historian called Mary Bateson became convinced that women researchers would never be able to pursue serious scholarship without the professional and financial support of an academic institution, and so she decided to do something about it.

Mary Bateson was born in Yorkshire in 1865 and grew up with her brothers and sisters in the Master’s Lodge at St John’s College, Cambridge, where her father William Henry Bateson was Master from 1857 until his death in 1881. Mary’s mother Anna (née Aikin, 1829-1918) was a lifelong suffragist, and her parents were among the group who founded the residence for women that became Newnham College in 1871. They probably always assumed that their daughters would study there, and the oldest, Anna, began her studies in natural sciences at Newnham in 1882. Two years later Mary followed her there, taking the new subject of history as her subject. She achieved the equivalent of a distinguished First in 1887 (placed second in the whole University), and her dissertation ‘Monastic Civilisation in the Fens’ impressed Mandell Creighton, the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, so much that he advised her not to expend her energies on women’s suffrage, but to become a scholar and ‘write true history’. Bateson took his advice, but only up to a point: while she went on to research and publish many scholarly books and papers, she never gave up her suffrage campaigning or her lifelong fight for greater rights for women at Cambridge.

While a student at Newnham, Bateson had discovered her skills in debating, so it was not surprising that in 1895, now a college lecturer, she became one of the leaders of the campaign to give women the title of degrees at Cambridge. When in 1897 the Senate House vote was heavily defeated, after thousands of men crowded into King’s Parade to protest against it (see ‘No Women at Cambridge: the 1897 protests’) Bateson’s energies turned instead towards a less visible change, but just as significant for the status of women at Cambridge in the twentieth century: raising funds for the first research fellowship at Newnham.

She wanted to establish postgraduate funding for the women who didn’t have her own advantages of an academic background and private means. As a child of St John’s, Bateson knew that a college wasn’t just about bricks and mortar but about a fellowship of proven academic distinction. One of the criticisms made in 1897, and well into the twentieth century, was that women students only got their good exam results by hard work with no original talent, and could be dismissed as ‘hard swotters’. This view conveniently did not take into account the fact that women were routinely excluded from scientific societies, scholarships and prizes, and as non-members of the University, could only work in the U.L. in restricted ways (see ‘Locked Out of the Library, 1891‘).

Newnham College, Cambridge

Mary Bateson knew that although she was able to pursue her own research and writing thanks to her family connections (her older brother was the famous biologist William Bateson), other women required the financial and professional support of an academic institution. Even though Newnham was run on a shoestring, there was no time to waste. The historian Alice Gardner wrote that Mary Bateson never allowed Newnham students or staff to ‘rest on [their] oars, to be satisfied if [they] produced good tripos results or merely came up to an ordinary college standard.’ Bateson insisted on academic excellence in her own work, and she wanted the same for her college. Under her influence (and active fundraising) the first research fellowship for former students was established at Newnham in 1898: Jane Ellen Harrison was appointed, and the formal recognition of her college gave her the confidence to produce her groundbreaking Prolegomena to the Study of Greek religion (1903). Harrison’s books on the origins of Greek myths and rites wrote women back into history, and influenced Woolf and others. ‘Few books are more fascinating,’ wrote T.S. Eliot in a graduate paper at Harvard University, ‘than those of Miss Harrison’.

By 1903 Bateson’s research interests had turned from ecclesiastical history to municipal customs and laws, and she worked closely with F.W. Maitland, who had been appointed Downing Professor of the Laws of England in 1888. Her most important work was the huge two-volume Borough Customs (1904 and 1906) which brought together texts from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries, and from 1890 she also published an article or edited text almost every year in the English Historical Review, including her 1899 essay ‘Origin and History of Double Monastries’, rewriting gendered assumptions by establishing that many houses for monks and nuns were ruled by an abbess. From 1885 to 1900 she also contributed 108 articles to the original edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen (see my post ‘An invasion of croquet’). None of Bateson’s entries in the DNB were on women: her subjects are all men, including saints, monks and noblemen.

Although close to her family, Bateson did not want to live the typical life of a Victorian spinster and set up home with her widowed mother. Instead, Mary bought her own little house at 74 Huntingdon Road and was very happy there. Her individuality was reflected in her approach to her work, too: as well as scholarly tomes and research articles, she wrote history for the general reader. Her book Mediæval England 1066-1350 (1905) originally appeared in the popular Unwin history series The Story of the Nations in 1903, and was  ‘an original and brightly written survey of mediaeval social life’, according to historian Thomas A. Tout. Unusually for a history book of the time, it had more than 90 illustrations, some clearly chosen for their humour (such as the giant chicken from the Luttrell Psalter, below).

In her introduction, Bateson writes that ‘there is not one way, but rather there are many ways of telling a nation’s story’, and regrets that so little is known about lives of ordinary people: ‘of the lives of women, outside nunneries and outside courts, there is little recorded.’ By writing this book, Bateson was implicitly pioneering a new approach to historical research and writing: away from a largely political, narrative-driven style, and towards a granular investigation of social and economic history that would become the twentieth-century model.

She never stopped fighting for equal rights for women. ‘Mary Bateson did not spend her life in a library’, as Dockray-Miller puts it, but ‘lived in a world that was overtly political, activist and liberal as well as traditionally academic.’ Her mother and sister Anna were founding members of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association, and another sister, Margaret Bateson Heitland, was a campaigning journalist and political writer. On 19 May 1906, Mary Bateson gave a speech in support of suffrage to the Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and presented a petition signed by 1,530 university women graduates, among them professors and lecturers, teachers, civil servants and doctors. It was absurd that these women could not vote, she told Campbell-Bannerman. Less than six months later, at the age of just forty-one, Mary Bateson died of a brain haemorrhage following a nine-day illness. Her death deeply shocked her friends, fellow scholars and students. She left her house, library and financial resources to Newnham, and obituaries appeared in the Times, the Manchester Guardian and the English Historical Review.

It’s bittersweet that, following her untimely death, Mary Bateson was among the first women who was not a royal or noblewoman to have an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Her entry in the Supplement of 1912 was written by her good friend at Manchester University, Thomas Tout, who also wrote her obituary in the Manchester Guardian. Throughout his article he lists evidence of her dedicated scholarship and extraordinary output, and his concluding lines pay warm tribute to her personal qualities too. ‘High-spirited, good-humoured, and frank,’ he writes,

she was innocent of academic stiffness, provincialism, or pedantry. She delighted in society, in exercise, in travel, in the theatre, in music, and in making friends with men and women of very different types. Outside her work, what interested her most was the emancipation of women and the abolition of imposed restrictions which cripple the development of their powers.

A ‘Mary Bateson Fellowship Fund’ was set up at Newnham College in 1909 and still supports a Research Fellow in History today. Her teaching, scholarship and the influence of her life rippled outwards to inspire generations of women who followed her, both in and outside academia.  ‘When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own,’ Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, ‘I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.’ It was exactly how Mary Bateson lived her life.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, March 2022, all rights reserved

With thanks to the staff of Newnham College Library and its archives.

Bateson, Edith; Mary Bateson (1865-1906); Newnham College, University of Cambridge; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mary-bateson-18651906-272928

Sources: Mary Bateson, Mediæval England 1066-1350 (1905); William Bateson digital archive, Cambridge University Library; Mary Dockray-Miller, ‘Mary Bateson (1865-1906), Scholar and Suffragist’ in Jane Chance, Women in the Medieval Academy (Wisconsin 2005); Alice Gardner, ‘In memoriam Mary Bateson’, Newnham College Letter 1906; Ann Hamlin, Pioneers of the Past (Newnham College, 2001); Ellen A. McArthur, ‘In Memoriam: Mary Bateson’ in The Queen 8 Dec 1906; Reginald L. Poole, ‘Mary Bateson’ The English Historical Review, Volume XXII, Issue LXXXV, January 1907, Pages 64–68; E. Sidgwick, ‘Report of Principal’, Records of Newnham College 1907; T.F. Tout, ‘Mary Bateson’ in Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 Supplement; ; A Room Of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf