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

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