The honest biographer

My latest essay for the Dublin Review of Books is about the American biographer Deirdre Bair, who did her best to write an honest and thoroughly researched biography of Samuel Beckett in the 1970s. Although Beckett promised neither to ‘help nor hinder’ her work, there were plenty of others in his circle and in the academic world who put obstacles in her way, before and after her book was published.

In her memoir Parisian Lives, published by Atlantic Books in 2020, and shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize in biography, Deirdre Bair gives an account of the beginnings of her career as biographer, and the crimes of sexism and academic snobbery that she had to endure. It’s a fascinating account and a testament to Bair’s endurance and over forty years of success as a biographer. My take on how she dared to write the first biography of Samuel Beckett, and seven years later movingly discovered that ‘his word was indeed his bond’, is here:

‘The Other Eglantyne’, by Carolyn Ferguson

I’m delighted that Carolyn Ferguson has contributed a second blogpost, linked to her Masters’ Wives quilt post last month. Her article below introduces us to one of the women who may have contributed to, and certainly influenced, this important Cambridge textile from 1892. Eglantyne Louisa ‘Tye’ Jebb (1845-1925) is less famous than her namesake daughter, the founder of Save the Children Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928), but Carolyn Ferguson makes the case that her contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement should be better known.


Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel from the chapel of Mill Road cemetery. Photograph credit: Peter Nixon, reproduced by kind permission of the Museum of Cambridge.

In August 1874 Caroline Slemmer and Richard Jebb went from Cambridge to Shropshire for their wedding. She described their arrival as ‘just like the novels we read of English life … none of the places in novels are near the station and no more was ours’[1]. There was a cart to take the boxes and a carriage with liveried coachman and footman to take the couple through miles of romantic countryside to an avenue of trees which lead to ‘The Lyth’, the home of Richard’s sister Eglantine Louisa and her husband Arthur Jebb. This then was Caroline’s introduction to the wider Jebb family. This post looks at the work of Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, Caroline’s sister-in-law, whose important influence in the world of Arts and Crafts largely goes unnoticed.

Eglantyne Louisa Jebb (1845-1925), known to her family as ‘Tye’ or ‘Tiny’ was an Irishwoman from Killiney who had married a distant cousin Arthur Trevor Jebb. She was no Victorian ‘angel in the house’, preferring to indulge her passions for poetry and painting and delegate the running of the household to her Newnham-educated and efficient sister-in-law, Louisa. ‘Tye’ would shock people by being unconventional and sit on the floor in front of the fire reading the paper or painting at the kitchen table amid the servants. So in this respect she would have been a bit like Caroline who was told off by her husband for informality early on in their marriage. The Jebb family were comfortably off but not rich – an old established family of gentleman farmers rather than landed gentry. Arthur at first practised at the Bar but from 1874 the family estate in Shropshire was his to run. Farming was not easy in the early years and Arthur was apt to complain about the laundry bills; one servant in particular had sent 70 handkerchiefs and as many aprons to the laundry in a 90 day period.

By the 1880s things were easier and their brood of six children, four daughters and two sons, were growing  ; Eglantyne was then able to champion more formally Women’s rights and Women’s work. Dreamy and artistic she might have been, but this did not prevent the emergence of the philanthropic ideals and missionary zeal that were common to many women in the late Victorian period. As a result of arranging to give a local lad lessons in woodcarving, she had realised the importance of maintaining local craft practices, giving people skills and marketing the produce of the labours. So in the last half of 1882 the Cottage Arts Association, Shropshire was born. Eglantyne appears to have been the founder and mainstay of this particular association although similar organisations were springing up round the country. She clearly found the experience fulfilling, for on Christmas Eve she confided to her diary that 1882 had been ‘the most wonderful year of my life. A lifetime of experience crowded into six months’. A few years later, in 1885, Cottage Arts moved under the umbrella of the Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA) which promoted historical home arts and crafts throughout England, Scotland and Ireland until the advent of WW1. Eglantyne is credited with being one of the founders of this nationwide network of craft classes and organisations along with Mary Seton Watts. She publicised the Association in The Magazine of Art (1885) and the first volume of Woman’s World (1888) .[2] Interestingly this latter article appeared under Oscar Wilde’s editorial reign; he too was a champion of the Arts and Crafts movement. Little did Eglantyne know how influential her initial work in helping to promote classes in rural crafts was to become; by 1890 there were more than 450 classes running throughout the UK. The Association that she helped to begin was a forerunner to the Arts and Crafts movement run by William Morris.

In 1904 The Art Workers Quarterly described HAIA as ‘ a society for teaching the working classes handicrafts such as wood carving, inlaying, metal repoussé , basket weaving, leather work, book binding, and for encouraging these and others such as lace, embroidery, spinning, weaving, pottery etc, by means of an annual exhibition’; the first exhibition took place in 1885 and it proved so popular that the Royal Albert Hall was used as a venue from 1888. It is not clear where the initial ‘craft’ emphasis lay, as the legacy seems largely to be objects made from wood and metal, but the 1880s was a fertile time for ladies of a certain class to get involved in philanthropy and needlework organisations. An 1883 list of work societies (to promote needlework, sell work and give jobs to the distressed) by ‘Dorinda’  quotes 31 such societies round the UK[3]. There are obvious complications with this type of model for as Janice Helland  says ‘it revolves around the troubled relationship between philanthropy and its lower-class subjects, the complicated nature of beneficence, and commonly held opinions about the differences between the Arts and Crafts Movement and home arts’.[4] There seem to have been a large number of ‘ do-gooders’ among the leaders (rather than practising artists/craftswomen) and this may well have been why Eglantyne stepped back from active involvement. Her role in the Association was comparatively short lived as family pressures made her withdraw publicly in 1886 . From accounts ‘Tye’ seemed to have suffered nervous exhaustion but it could just have been that the nationwide craft was just too complicated for her to continue. She was though involved in the important craft exhibitions of 1885 and 1886. No records of these exhibitions have been found but a contemporaneous article on the 1900 exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall is critical of the carving, metal work and furniture but extols the virtues of the hand weaving and stitched items. It is unclear whether these crafts were exhibited from Tye’s classes.

EJ flower block top right

It is however pertinent that the work of women is applauded, as many of the blocks of the Masters’ Wives quilt seem to have Arts and Crafts leanings. We do not know if this particular quilt was Tye’s idea, as the precise paths which give rise to embroidered signature quilts are unknown. I like to think that the still unknown ‘EJ’ was her monogram (see red flower block above, bottom right) and that in December 1891 her Cambridge sister-in-law Caroline Jebb might have asked for her assistance, knowing how talented and enthusiastic craftswoman Tye was. There were also further Cambridge connections as an HAIA metal work class, the Newton Class, was being run in Cambridge the city by John Williams (the ‘Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel’, pictured above, and held in the Museum of Cambridge, is typical of this style). It is known that the class regularly featured at the HAIA exhibitions; and in a review of 1896 the Studio wrote: ‘The Newton (Cambridge) metal work included a fine panel of peacocks, part of a scheme for a complete decoration of a fireplace.[5] In 1901 Tye and her daughter Eglantyne moved to Cambridge to be near her brother Richard and his wife Caroline. By that time Tye was a widow and the children were largely off her hands; in time all four daughters were to become significant in their own right. Eglantyne and Dorothy co-founded the Save the Children Fund in 1919, Emily (Em) her eldest daughter was involved in Irish independence and wrote books, while Louisa (Lill) became the founder of the first Women’s Land Army in WW1.[6]

However we must not forget the achievements of Eglantyne Louisa ‘Tye’ Jebb, their mother. She was certainly an accomplished teacher, organiser, philanthropist, artist and likely to have been a creative sewer too!

© Carolyn Ferguson 22 May 2020 (all rights reserved)



‘Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel’, photographed by Peter Nixon, reproduced by kind permission of the Museum of Cambridge.

‘Capturing Cambridge’ website:

[1]Mary Reed Bobbit, With Dearest Love to all: The Letters and Life of Lady Jebb, (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1960), p 94.

[2] Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, ‘The Home Arts and Industries Association’, The Magazine of Art, 1885, p 294-298; Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, ‘The Home Arts and Industries Association’, Woman’s World, Vol 1, p 418-422.


[4] Janice Helland (2012) “Good Work and Clever Design”: Early Exhibitions of the Home Arts and Industries Association, The Journal of Modern Craft, 5:3, 275-293


[6] Clare Mulley The Woman who Saved the Children (Oneworld Publications, 2009), p. 195.


Archiving the pandemic


Francis J.H. Jenkinson by John Singer Sargent (1915), Cambridge University Library

‘His long librarianship was uneventful on the whole’ (Gaselee)

In an April blogpost, I described how in 1915 Cambridge University Librarian Francis Jenkinson began work on a groundbreaking project to commemorate the First World War. Throughout the war years he gathered a huge collection of flyers, posters, pamphlets and books in English, French & German to produce as detailed a documentary record as possible of the European conflict. Cambridge residents were invited to take part in the project. “Such flying pieces as those which are dropped from aeroplanes or posted on hoardings would be particularly welcome”, read a 1915 advertisement in the Cambridge Magazine.

The material that was amassed by members of the public and Jenkinson’s worldwide contacts (one librarian was even sent to France to buy material) includes trench journals and pamphlets in German, French and English, produced by soldiers at the front line, magazines from internment camps, official histories and reports and propaganda posters. The collection was carefully preserved at the University Library as the ‘War of 1914-1919 Collection’ or War Reserve Collection, and today most of the material is so fragile that it has to be consulted on microfilm.

Now Francis Jenkinson’s unique archive has inspired a new collaborative project at the Cambridge University Library, which aims to document our experiences during the coronavirus crisis. Called “Collecting Covid-19”it involves the University and the wider Cambridge community in collecting material that will be used by future historians. It is organized by Caylin Smith, the UL’s Digital Preservation Manager, and Jacky Cox, the Keeper of the University Archives. They want to collect all kinds of digital and physical materials, including (but not limited to) videos, photographs, leaflets, journals and diaries. In London the Wellcome Collection is expected to coordinate efforts to collect similar material on a nationwide basis. We are all invited to act as our own archivists, and to store our individual collections safely until the libraries and museums open their doors again.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 3 May 2020

Sources: 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

More about Francis Jenkinson’s War Reserve Collection here:

‘Collecting Covid-19’ Cambridge University website:

Endell Street


In 1915 Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson were the first women doctors to be formally sanctioned to run a military hospital for the British Army. They were life partners and active suffragettes who, before war broke out in 1914, were considered enemies of the state. But their pioneering medical work throughout the Great War at Endell Street, the army hospital they set up in a former workhouse in Covent Garden, earned them the respect of medical men and the wider public alike. They were featured in newspapers hungry for ‘good news’ stories during the time of national crisis. In 1917 the Tatler called them Murray and Anderson “men in the best sense of that word, and yet women in the best sense of that word also”, while the Daily Star described Endell Street as “no amateur hospital, though it may be run by mere women, and without masculine interference.” I’m delighted that today, another newspaper (The Guardian) has published my review of Wendy Moore’s book Endell Street: The suffragette surgeons of World War One: here’s a link to the online version.

The ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ of 1892: a detective story

A guest post by Carolyn Ferguson (textile historian, independent scholar and Adviser to the Board of the Museum of Cambridge), which examines the clues in a historic quilt. This post is based on a talk that Carolyn was to have given at Cambridge University Library as part of ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ series. Unfortunately this has had to be postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, so I’m delighted that Carolyn has provided us with this account of her fascinating detective work.

Whole coverlet

In 1985 an important piece of Cambridge history came up for auction in London. It was not a written document or a painting or a piece of pottery but a textile that had been given the moniker ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’. In 2012 the Museum of Cambridge acquired it (Museum of Cambridge Collection: 1.2014). An embroidered ‘1892’ suggested a likely date but who made it, and why, was a mystery. As an inveterate quilt and fabric researcher I have been lucky enough to be able to study this historic textile closely during the past eight years. Along the way there have been many red herrings and blind alleys; it has been quite a journey, involving both hard graft and incredible good luck.

The so-called ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ is an embroidered coverlet with a chequerboard design of alternate ‘Turkey red’ and white blocks. It belongs to the genre of ‘signature quilts’ where individual blocks have multiple names or initials that are written with ink or stamped or embroidered on to the fabrics in some way. Signature quilts form important primary historical documents that give insights into communities, neighbourhood groups, relationships, family history and important historical events. They were made either for fund-raising or for commemorative purposes, and in the UK the heyday of production was the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


There was no provenance to support the name, other than scant information from the seller’s family. The ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ differs from the norm as each block has an embroidered motif and/or initials. I have studied the iconography of its 475 embroidered blocks, about half of which have initials as well as stitched motifs, and I now believe that there were more than 200 individual stitchers – a much larger group than the 13 or so Cambridge Master’s Wives that existed in 1892! I have discovered that the quilt’s makers also included wives of Fellows and other University employees and town dignitaries, as well as women members of charitable organisations and neighbourhood and friendship groups. In addition there are initials of children.

What clues can be found in the individual blocks? 55% of them illustrate the Victorian love of flowers. Their content is, as we might expect, symbolic; there are daisy motifs representing the innocence of young love (and also the floral emblem for Girton College); ivy for fidelity and marriage; tulips for romantic love; corn to give riches and fertility and pomegranates for fertility and marriage. As an emblem of the Christian Church pomegranates represent hope for eternal life; in the near East, the abundance of seeds gives it the meaning of fertility.



Birds and animals also feature; love-birds, swallows, swans and storks all echo the sentiments of love, good fortune and fertility. Horse-shoe blocks suggest good luck wishes, and there are blocks that show 1890s fashions in sporting pastimes and motifs from oriental china and fans. There are also national flags for the US and Germany, religious symbols, Cambridge college crests and symbols  and hot air balloons.


Many people do not know that Cambridge has a history of ballooning. In 1829 saw the first balloon ascent in Cambridge, from the Seven Sisters Brewery in Newmarket Road. Thereafter this became an annual event. At Queen Victoria’s Coronation celebration, on Parker’s Piece in 1839, some 30,000 people saw a balloon ascent by Britain’s most famous balloonist, a Mr Green. This ascent cost 70 guineas – about £6000 today – and so was clearly very special. A balloon ascent also featured at the public festivities to celebrate the wedding on Prince George, later King George and Princess May (Mary of Teck) in July 1893.

It seems likely that this ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ of 1892 was made to celebrate a wedding, and that given that the quilt’s makers were important people from Cambridge town and gown, this wedding must have been significant. Two blocks offer important clues: one containing an obscure Welsh runic alphabet and another, poorly executed block of a slightly different colour, with a simple chain stitch cross. It’s likely that this ‘cross’ block was a replacement for an earlier one identifying the recipients. This suggests that the wedding never took place, as it would have been bad luck to keep the couple’s initials in place.

Cross block

There is a further vital clue in the Welsh runic block (see below), which follows the ‘Coelbren Y Bierdd’ or Welsh Bardic alphabet. The words ‘duw a digon’, translate as ‘God is enough’ or ‘God and Plenty’. Additionally this block has the initials, ‘m’ and ‘e’ above the runic letters and the initials AWT below. The top initials might represent ‘m’ for Princess May (Mary of Teck) and ‘e’ for Eddy, the name by which Prince Victor Albert of Wales, Duke of Clarence was commonly known.

RUNEAt the time of their engagement in early December 1891, Prince Albert Victor was second in line to the throne and would have been Prince of Wales after the death of Queen Victoria. The Welsh motto has a royal connection, for the National Trust collection has a George V Jubilee mug of 1935 showing a picture of the King and Queen with a ‘duw a digon’ inscription. I suggest that the quilt was made as a wedding gift by the Royal Borough of Cambridge for the royal marriage between Prince Victor Albert and Princess May (Mary) of Teck, due to take place on 27 February 1892. After the engagement was announced, committees were set up in December 1891 by societies, royal boroughs and masonic lodges across Britain, all keen to contribute to impressive wedding gifts.

As we know, this royal marriage never took place because the Prince died of influenza some weeks before the wedding date. You might say that the time between the news of the royal engagement and the projected wedding was too short to complete such a detailed quilt. However, given the timing of the engagement in just such an influenza epidemic as we are experiencing today, perhaps the women who made it were at home trying to amuse their children and needed a creative outlet. You, the reader, must make up your mind as to whether my argument is convincing or not.

© Text and photographs by Carolyn Ferguson, all rights reserved 14 April 2020. (Next post: about the quilt’s makers)

Carolyn Ferguson’s publications include ‘A weave of words: fabric print and pattern in mid-nineteenth-century women’s writing’ in Fashion and Material culture in Victorian Fiction and Periodicals ed. Janine Hatter and Nickianne Moody, Edward Everett Root, 2019, p 67 – 85.