This blogpost inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic tells the story of how outbreaks of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ from 1889 to 1893 in Britain brought about a personal crisis in the life of Francis Jenkinson, Cambridge University Librarian 1889-1923.
At the end of 1891 Francis Jenkinson, aged 38, had been working at the Cambridge University Library for just over two years. Then in its original location in the Schools building near King’s College, the old library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way’ (Whitelock). Jenkinson’s prestigious position of University Librarian was the job he had been born to do. He had been mentored by a previous holder of the post, Henry Bradshaw, and knew the contents of every book in the library; as well as deeply knowledgeable about early printing, Jenkinson was practical and had a warmth and generosity that made him as popular with his colleagues as he was with scholars and students. He had an uncanny, almost symbiotic connection with the library itself. One friend recalled how ‘he would rise from his bed when his subconscious mind told him there was a window left open, and go down in the small hours to shut it’ (H.F. Stewart). But during the darkest part of the winter of 1891-92, Francis Jenkinson seriously considered giving it all up.
He had taken up the role of University Librarian during a time of great personal sadness. His wife Marian Sydney Wetton had died aged thirty in January 1888, just six months after they married. Marian was one of seven sisters from a musical family who lived in Surrey: her older sister Jennie had married Jenkinson’s friend, the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. After Marian’s death, Jennie and her unmarried sisters remained in close contact with Jenkinson, often dropping in at his home on Brookside, near the Fitzwilliam Museum, to play the piano and sing together. Early in December 1891, Francis confided in his friend Ida Darwin a momentous piece of news. He had fallen in love with Marian’s younger sister Mildred Wetton, a twenty-eight year old governess who worked in London, and they planned to marry.
Ida had met Francis shortly after she moved to Cambridge as a new bride in 1880. Jenkinson was a Trinity College fellow at the time, and supplemented his income by teaching Classics to students at Newnham College, one of the first women’s colleges. He tutored Ida in Ancient Greek and she and Francis became good friends, united by their love of music and gardening as well as literature. Francis was a frequent visitor to the Orchard on Huntingdon Road, where Horace and Ida lived with their three young children.
In early December 1891, love was in the newspaper headlines. Prince Albert Victor, who was Queen Victoria’s twenty-seven year old grandson and second in line to the throne, became engaged to Princess Mary of Teck on 3 December 1891. The royal family heaved a collective sigh of relief. Albert Victor was usually associated with rather more unwelcome publicity, including affairs with chorus girls and his name being linked to the Cleveland Street scandal after a male brothel there was raided by police. What Queen Victoria privately described as Albert Victor’s ‘dissipated life’ began when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1880s. It’s not known what Francis Jenkinson thought of him, but one nameless tutor complained that the college’s royal student ‘hardly knows the meaning of the words to read‘ (Magnus, 178). After Albert Victor’s unsuccessful stint in the army and lengthy trips overseas, it was decided that he needed to settle down with a sensible wife, and his distant cousin Princess Mary of Teck fitted the bill perfectly. Their marriage date was set for 27 February 1892.
The royal engagement was the good news story that the nation badly needed. That winter the papers were full of reports of a new wave of influenza that was killing people in England in ever larger numbers. This was the second of two epidemics that followed on the heels of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ of 1889-90, the pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. In 1890 Winston Churchill, then a fifteen-year old schoolboy at Harrow, wrote a poem called ‘The Influenza’ about it: ‘The rich, the poor, the high, the low/Alike the various symptoms know/ Alike before it droop.’ As Mark Honigsbaum writes in his essay ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’, ‘the Russian flu was extensively documented and seen to spread rapidly between European capitals via international rail, road and shipping connections in a westward progression that was the subject of widespread commentary in both the daily and periodical press.’ According to a report published by the Wellcome Institute, 1892 was characterized by ‘a marked excess of deaths from influenza and pneumonia.’ It was a frightening time for people of all social classes, as the young Churchill was aware.
Ida was worried for Horace and their small children as well as their household staff, as more and more people they knew fell ill. But she was aware that, if word about Jenkinson’s engagement got out, it would cause a scandal in Cambridge that would be as shocking as Albert Victor’s rumoured visits to Cleveland Street. Under the Marriage Act of 1835 it was still illegal in the United Kingdom and colonies for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife. In his book, Marianne Thornton 1797‒1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) EM Forster wrote about how much unhappiness this law caused, describing it as ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’ (see my article here). Throughout the Victorian period the issue was hotly debated every year in parliament, but Anglican bishops in the Lords helped to ensure that the prohibition remained until the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907.
If the law did not change, Francis and Mildred would have to go abroad to marry and would be ostracized if they ever returned to England; any children they might have would be considered illegitimate in the eyes of most Anglicans. Ida was afraid that if others heard of his engagement, Jenkinson might lose his job as University Librarian. The situation would have to be managed in the most inconspicuous way possible. Ida needed to stay at home to care for her household, and so was not able to go to visit Francis as much as she would have liked. So she did the next best thing: she wrote to him, hoping that she could change his mind.
All through December and into January, letters flew back and forth between Brookside and the Orchard. The normally mild-mannered, bookish Jenkinson raged against the Anglican Church and its bishops, while Ida remained calm and sympathetic, soothing him like a feverish child. The only other people who knew about the crisis were two family members who could be trusted to be discreet: his sister Nelly Jenkinson, and his distant cousin Daisy Stewart. Daisy had grown up in Edinburgh but now lived in Grantchester, where she worked as a music tutor. She had been in love with Francis for years, but accepted that he saw her only as a friend. She hated to see him so unhappy.
Why did he behave so recklessly, and risk losing the job he had worked so hard for? I think that the answer might lie in how the repeated flu epidemics affected the way that people thought during this time of national crisis. Jenkinson’s appointment as University Librarian in 1889 had coincided with the ‘Russian flu’ pandemic, which was the first recorded outbreak of influenza in England since 1848. Four million Britons fell ill and 127,000 died. Then another killer wave of flu struck the country in May 1891. Six months later, as the third epidemic reached Cambridge, Jenkinson must have wondered if he would live to do the work that he wanted to do. Overwork and anxiety were considered to be contributing factors in those who caught the flu, and for all his energy, Jenkinson had frequent bouts of illness. In 1890 The Times warned that the influenza’s impact on the imagination was ‘disproportionate to its actual destructiveness’ (Honigsbaum), but the fear that gripped everyone was very real. The number of deaths peaked in London in the third week of January 1892, when it was recorded that over five hundred people died of influenza and pneumonia. The poor suffered most, of course, but no one was safe. Prince Albert Victor became ill with flu symptoms at a shooting party at Sandringham in early January. Pneumonia set in, and he died a week after his twenty-eighth birthday on 14 January 1892.
There would be no royal wedding that year, and the nation went into mourning. In the months following Albert Victor’s death, his younger brother George, the Duke of York, became close to his (almost) sister-in-law. There was no taboo on their love, and in May 1893 they married with Queen Victoria’s blessing. In 1910 he was crowned George V, and she became Queen Mary (the present Queen is their granddaughter). Some twentieth-century historians have rather unkindly suggested that Albert Victor’s early death was ‘a merciful act of providence’ (Magnus, 239) allowing his sober brother and his equally responsible wife to steer the country through the crises of World War One and the depression of the 1920s and early 1930s.
By the middle of January 1892 in Cambridge, there was a gap in the storm clouds for Ida, as her household slowly recovered from the flu. Now she decided to take action. First, she wrote to Mildred, who replied with a subdued note of thanks and promised not to visit Brookside for a while. Then she wrote to Mildred’s older sister Jennie. Her husband Charles Stanford’s mother and two of aunts had died of the flu just a few weeks before, and Jennie herself had been very ill, so it’s likely that Ida did not want to involve them earlier. But now the Stanfords took charge. It seems that they persuaded Francis to give up his plans to marry Mildred, and by February their secret engagement was quietly dropped. The storm had passed, and most of their friends, family and work colleagues never even knew that it had happened.
Francis Jenkinson would continue to work as University Librarian for the next thirty years, until shortly before his death in 1923. His contribution to the library was immense. He sorted and catalogued valuable acquisitions, including 140,000 fragments of the ancient Cairo Genizah and the contents of Lord Acton’s library, and appointed one of the University’s first woman librarians, the Sanskrit scholar and former Girton student, C.M. Ridding. In 1910 he was sent a collection of suffrage posters, which he carefully preserved in the library’s archives. This rare collection was recently displayed at the UL to mark 100 years since some British women got the vote (read more here).
Unusually for the time, Jenkinson was passionately interested in collecting ephemeral matter such as flyers, postcards, and posters. He felt that such “unconsidered trifles” told stories about people’s lives that would be lost otherwise. During the First World War he gathered a huge collection of this so-called disposable literature, and his War Reserve Collection is now an invaluable source for researchers. In 1915 the American artist John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint Jenkinson’s portrait to mark his twenty-five years as University Librarian, and this beautiful painting still hangs in the library today.
In 1902 Jenkinson married his ‘dear friend’ Daisy Stewart. The couple spent over twenty happy years together, travelling to the Alps with Ida and Horace and marking Mozart’s birthday with a piano concert at Brookside on 27 January every year. Mildred Wetton continued to teach English literature, and eventually became headmistress of her own private school in Kensington. She never married.
In his biography Francis Jenkinson (1926) Hugh F. Stewart reflects that, until his second marriage, his brother-in-law lived a solitary life on Brookside, ‘save for the occasional presence of his sister, or of a sister-in-law, or of a scholar on bibliography intent.’ Perhaps this casual mention of ‘a sister-in-law’ is a quiet acknowledgement of Mildred Wetton’s ephemeral, but important, place in Jenkinson’s life.
©Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)
Notes: My warm thanks to Frank Bowles, Karen Davies, Carolyn Ferguson, Eve Smith and Jill Whitelock for their help. Any errors are my own.
Online sources (all accessed 2 April 2020):
Karen Bourrier ‘If this be error: marrying the sister of a deceased wife was illegal in Victorian England’ History Today, 11 April 2018, https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/if-be-error
Stephen Gaselee, ‘Francis Jenkinson, 1853-1923: an address to the Bibliographical Society, 15 Oct. 1923’, Trans. Bibliog. Soc. . N.S.; v. 4, no. 3, Oxford, 1923
Mark Honigsbaum, ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’, Social History of Medicine, Vol 23, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 299–319 https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkq011
Mark Nicholls, ‘A Reason for Remembering: Francis Jenkinson and the War Reserve Collection’, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41154886?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents Jill Whitelock, ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blogpost https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=18923
‘Albert Victor, Prince, duke of Clarence and Avondale (1864–1892)’ and ‘Jenkinson, Francis John Henry (1853–1923)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://www.oxforddnb.com/
‘Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, London 1892’, https://wellcomelibrary.org/moh/report/b18252412/1#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=4&z=-0.3124%2C1.3883%2C0.6249%2C0.2439
‘The modern library’ on Cambridge University Library’s website; https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/about-library/historical-sketch/modern-library
‘Francis John Henry Jenkinson’ memorial on Trinity College Chapel website http://trinitycollegechapel.com/about/memorials/brasses/jenkinson/
‘Mr F.J.H. Jenkinson’, obituary in The Times, 22 Sep. 1923.
Books: Margaret Clifford Jenkinson, A Fragrance of Sweet Memories [Reminiscences of Francis Jenkinson], unpublished memoir, Cambridge University Library; P. Magnus, King Edward the Seventh (1964); H. F. Stewart, Francis Jenkinson: a memoir (1926); Francis John Henry Jenkinson by H.W. S[impkinson], Marlborough , 1923 [1 v.] ; 19 cm. Repr. from The Marlburian, 28 Nov. 1923.
Cambridge University Library Archives: Jenkinson, FJH to Ida Darwin, MS Add 9368.1: 16513 & ff.; letters from Jenkinson, Margaret Clifford ‘Daisy’ (1858-1933) née Stewart to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/40; from Jenkinson, Eleanor Louisa ‘Nelly’ (1855-1948) to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/42; Wetton, Mildred to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/70; Stanford, Jennie to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/67; FJH Jenkinson’s diaries and letters held at Cambridge University Library.