The housemaid and the confidence trickster: an exclusive guest post from Michelle Higgs, author of Tracing Your Servant Ancestors - out now!
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The Illustrated London News, 26th April 1890 (Author's Collection)
As board and lodging was provided for them, domestic servants could potentially save significant sums of money; this was important for those who wanted to marry. Unfortunately, these savings could attract the wrong kind of man as shown in a
court case in December 1881. 25-year-old Ellen Holley, ‘a fresh, pretty girl’,
was a housemaid at a fashionable London Park
Lane residence where she had worked for six years.
She was swindled out of her life savings by Henry Cook, a dancing master using
the alias of Pearson.
The Times (11 January 1882) described Henry as a ‘well-dressed man, wearing a heavy moustache and with hair beginning to turn grey’. According to the Western Mail (2 December 1881), he met Ellen when leaving church one Sunday evening and struck up a conversation. After winning her trust, he asked her to go for a walk with him, telling her he earned £4 10s per week, had shares in the Great Northern Railway, and that his employer wanted him to get married.
|Carte de visite of a servant inscribed |
‘Alice White, 1 October 1892’.
The following Sunday, Ellen met Henry again and he asked if she had any jewellery he could put his photograph in. Trustingly, she lent him her gold watch worth £6 10s which he promised to return. A week later, he did not have the watch but pledged to marry her. Shortly afterwards, he told her he had been security for a friend’s loan and was being pressed for payments. Henry asked how much money she had. Ellen had £47 in the Post Office Savings Bank and £5 on her person (which she gave him). After further assurances from Henry, Ellen gave him £40. Unsurprisingly, he did not keep their next appointment, and after making enquiries with his supposed employer, she quickly discovered he had used an alias.
The Western Mail reported: ‘Instead…of sitting down and weeping and wringing her hands, fair Ellen…put the matter into the hands of the police, with the excellent result that Cook, alias Pearson, was shortly afterwards arrested.’
In January 1882, Henry Cook was convicted of obtaining money and jewellery by false pretences at the Central Criminal Court and sentenced to five years’ penal servitude. It turned out he had a wife and six children, and Ellen was just one of many victims.
Justice was done but Ellen’s life savings were not recovered. She was still single on the 1891 census working as a cook for an American journalist, and it is not known if she ever married.
Tracing Your Servant Ancestors is available from Pen and Sword Books or you can pick up a copy from Amazon!