This pandemic-inspired blogpost tells the story of how, in December 1891, a third outbreak of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ in Britain brought about a personal crisis in the life of Francis Jenkinson, Cambridge University Librarian 1889-1923.
In December 1891, Francis Jenkinson, 38, confided in his friend Ida Darwin a momentous piece of news. He had fallen in love with Mildred Wetton, a twenty-eight year old governess who worked in London, and they were considering becoming engaged to be married. It was a secret love that no one else must know about for the time being, and Ida would understand why.
Jenkinson’s position as Cambridge 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, still 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). In this dark place, Jenkinson had a warmth and generosity that made him as popular with his colleagues as he was with scholars and students. He also had what seemed 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, Jenkinson seriously considered giving it all up for love.
When Jenkinson was appointed Cambridge University Librarian two years previously he was delighted, but it was also a time of great personal sadness for him. His first wife, Marian Sydney Wetton, had died suddenly 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, and her older sister Jennie was married to Jenkinson’s close friend, the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was also the organist at Trinity College. After Marian’s death, Jennie Stanford and her unmarried sisters remained in regular contact with Jenkinson, often dropping in at his home on Brookside, near the Fitzwilliam Museum, to play the piano and sing together. Francis and Mildred Wetton had become close in their shared grief.
Twenty-seven-year-old Prince Albert Victor was the eldest child of the Prince and Princess of Wales. What Queen Victoria privately described as her grandson’s ‘dissipated life’ began while 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 Trinity College’s royal student ‘hardly knows the meaning of the words to read‘ (Magnus, 178). No one knew what to do about irrepressible Eddy, the future king. After an unsuccessful stint in the army and lengthy trips overseas, it was decided that what the Prince needed was to find a sensible wife and settle down. It was decided that his distant cousin, Princess Mary of Teck would fit the bill perfectly, and 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 Britain in ever larger numbers. The country was in the grip of 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. Everyone was affected by fears of contagion. Winston Churchill was a fifteen-year old schoolboy at Harrow, when he wrote a poem called ‘The Influenza’ about the flu in 1890: ‘The rich, the poor, the high, the low/Alike the various symptoms know/ Alike before it droop.’
As the medical historian 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, the winter of 1891-1892 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.
During December 1891 Ida Darwin was worried about the influenza infecting her husband Horace, so often poorly with mysterious illnesses, and their small children as well as their household staff, who one by one were falling ill. She also knew that, if word about Jenkinson’s engagement got out, it would cause a scandal in Cambridge that would be almost 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) E.M. 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 continued to be 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.
In 1891 Ida knew that, despite Francis and Mildred’s hopes, the law was unlikely to change imminently. The Jenkinsons would have to go abroad to marry, and would be ostracized if they ever returned to England, and any children they might have would be considered illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Also, Ida feared that if others heard rumours of the engagement Jenkinson would 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 Brookside to see Francis in person, and persuade him to rethink his engagement. So she did the only thing she could; she wrote to him, hoping that she could change his mind.
All through December and into January, letters flew back and forth, sometimes several times a day, 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 who lived in Grantchester. Daisy had grown up in Edinburgh, but now worked as a music tutor in Cambridge. She had been in love with Francis for years, but accepted that he saw her only as a good friend. She hated to see him so unhappy.
Why did Jenkinson 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, and the country was hit be another major wave of flu in May 1891. In December of that year, 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 1892. Pneumonia set in, and he died on 14 January 1892, one week after his 28th birthday. There would be no royal wedding that year, and the nation went into a prolonged period of mourning. In the months following Albert Victor’s death, his younger brother George, the Duke of York, became close to Mary, his (almost) sister-in-law. Because she and Albert had not married, there was no taboo on their love, and just over a year later, in May 1893, George and Mary 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 recent 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 about Jenkinson. 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 to tell her of the possible engagement. Jennie’s 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’s likely that they persuaded Francis to give up his plans to marry Mildred, and their secret engagement was quietly dropped.
The storm had passed, and most of Francis and Mildred’s friends, family and work colleagues never even knew that it had happened. In 1902 Jenkinson married his ‘dear friend’ Daisy Stewart and the couple spent over twenty happy years together, travelling to the Alps with Ida and Horace Darwin and marking Mozart’s birthday with a piano concert at Brookside on 27 January every year.
Jenkinson was known for his support for women’s rights, and he appointed one of the University’s first woman librarians, the Sanskrit scholar and former Girton student, C.M. (Caroline Mary) 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 evidence of everyday life. 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 flyers, postcards, and posters, 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. He continued to work as University Librarian until shortly before his death in 1923, and 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. Mildred Wetton never married, but continued to teach and eventually became the headmistress of her own private school in Kensington. In his biography Francis Jenkinson (1926), Hugh F. Stewart reflects that, prior to 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 loving, place in Jenkinson’s life.
©Ann Kennedy Smith, December 2021 (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.