May 25, 2015 by auntkatefirmin
Harriet was the ninth of the ten Firmin children, born in 1862. Known to her siblings as the “Duchess,” she led a less conventional life than her siblings and tracing her movements has not been straightforward. There are no photographs positively identified as Harriet. Reading between the lines, she was an loving child and she and Eddie may have been close in both age and affection. Certainly in later years there was a rift between Harriet and her sisters, but there’s no way of knowing whether it was because of her unconventional choices, ill-feelings from the time of her mother’s death, or whether she deliberately distanced herself in order to keep parts of her life hidden from the family.
Harriet was not quite 13 in 1875 when her mother died. Her mother’s will left provisions for the education of the younger children. The exact timing of the breakup of the household cannot be traced, but in the next six years Harriet and her siblings had gone their separate ways. The best fit for Harriet in the 1881 census is as a teacher at a small boarding school in Church End, Finchley, North London. Although she padded her age to 22 (from 19), that is understandable as she needed to appear older than the students who ranged in age from 10 to 19.
Two years later, at the time of her marriage to Francis Blackley, Harriet gave her address as Lyndhurst Road. Maybe she had moved to Camberwell, maybe she planned to live there as Mrs. Blackley, it’s hard to be certain. Her sister Kate (Mrs. Baynham) also lived in Camberwell at 6 Rye Lane in 1883, and her sister Emily had lived there with their uncle Henry’s widow Ellen Firmin as late as 1881, prior to marrying and moving to Bath. Her brother Eddie signed as a witness at the wedding as did her brother-in-law John Marshall Trotter (the husband of her sister Emily). Shortly afterward, Francis or Frank Blackley disappears from the picture although other members of the Blackley family can be found.
Harriet and Frank appear to have been matched in social standing and may have been introduced by members of Harriet’s family living in Camberwell, or it’s possible the Firmin and Blackley families had connections that went back to Stepney where Frank’s family lived before moving south of the Thames. Frank was a licensed victualler (as was his father) and perhaps could be traced through the licensing records, or city directories. To sum up, it’s clear her family was aware of her marriage to Mr. Blackley and at this point in her life she appears to be on the road to a standard middle-class London life and in touch with Emily and Eddie, but what happened after the wedding is more of a blank.
There is an eight-year gap in the formal documents searched so far. Nothing is indexed in the civil registrations that looks like the death of Francis/Frank Blackley or the birth of children to the couple. Harriet next appears in the 1891 census under the name of “H G L Firmin” as a widow boarding at 13 South Grove in Camberwell and earning her living as a schoolteacher.
Then we reach a point in Harriet’s life which I believe she hid from her family and which was certainly unknown to the generation of the Kate Firmin’s correspondents. There are two marriages for Harriet Georgina Lane Firmin – one to Francis (aka Frank) Blackley in 1883, and one to George Herbert Armitage in 1893. Harriet divorced George for cruelty and the decree became final in October 1896. In her divorce papers she claimed she was a spinster when she married George and that she and George had no children. However, on the parish register she named herself as Harriet Georgina Lane Firmin, widow – none of the witnesses were from the Firmin family.
The marriage of Harriet to Mr Armitage took place in Kennington, where Harriet was living at the time. This is also south of the Thames but a bit west from her earlier residence in Camberwell. George, who gave his occupation as secretary, was from Hampstead, six miles north and a world away. It’s difficult to imagine how they met. George, a vicar’s son, had attended school in Oxford and was part of a different social set than a school teacher – however charming. They appear to have been married by George’s father in Harriet’s parish church. George Herbert Armitage died shortly after the divorce on 4 August 1897, at age 33, in Hampstead, possibly at a home owned by his parents who had retired to Hampstead.
It’s clear that Harriet considered her time as Mrs Armitage a very closed chapter in her life. I’ll wait to post my thoughts on the reasons for her silence. She returned to the name of Blackley (mostly) and began to reinvent herself.
At the time of her brother Mick’s visit from Africa in 1905, there’s no evidence that Harriet was at any of the family gatherings. While this is not conclusive, it does add to the suspicion that she was no longer close to the family at that time – she may have wanted to distance herself from friction between the other sisters. On the other hand, it’s possible she was simply a busy woman trying to promote the careers of the children she had adopted.
By 1911, Harriet had one son, Reginald, and a daughter Felicia, all appearing in the census with the surname of Blackley. Marriage had not brought her children, so she found them for herself. (This occurred prior to formal adoption laws in England.) For some time after reading the Firmin cousins’ correspondence, I assumed that Reginald (born 1898) & Felicia (born ~1894) were jointly adopted by Harriet and her first husband because of the Blackley surname. After finding and reading the Armitage divorce papers it became clear that Harriet had no children until after 1896. Her siblings most likely knew that she was single when she adopted the children, although the cousins in the next generation probably were not aware of the details. I think it’s quite possible that the more conventional family members disapproved of Harriet’s choice. Even years later adoption was a barrier between the cousins; Harriet’s children had not been close to the Blackley cousins in their youth and their different lifestyles continued to separate them as adults.
In 1911 Harriet was listed as an independent widow lodging with a harness maker, George Henry Musson and his wife (who had several other boarders). Reginald was at school and Felicia was working as an actress. How much of the family income was based on Felicia’s work as compared to Harriet’s efforts? Harriet’s transformation from schoolteacher to Felicia’s agent was complete and Felicia was making a name for herself in the provincial pantomime circuit.
Felicia was born about 1894 and was part of Harriet’s household by 1904 when she first appeared onstage as “Little Felice.” Exactly when or how she came to be adopted remains unknown. There is enough material about Felicia’s career for several posts! The papers of Felicia & her husband Roy Hill are preserved at the V & A Theatre & Performance archive. Felicia and Roy had a daughter, Felicia Lorraine-Hill, who wrote two letters to her American cousin Kate.
Reginald’s vital statistics are somewhat simpler, but again it is unknown how he came to be adopted by Harriet. When Reginald Blackley enlisted in the army in 1916, he stated that he was exactly 18 and born on May 14, 1898. The 1898 birth date does agree with Reginald’s age in the 1911 census; he listed Harriet as his mother and next of kin and gave his occupation as musician on his enlistment papers. If Harriet tried to promote him on the stage he was not as successful in getting the same billing status as Felicia. Reginald did not marry and lived with his sister’s family. There is less detailed evidence for him, although there is a possibility that he could be the man who appeared on stage as Reg Lorraine. Either way his career was not as public as that of Felicia.
In early 1916, a Mrs. F Blackley traveled to Australia. If this was Harriet she would have traveled because Felicia was on the stage there, but no confirming details have turned up. By 1916, Reginald lived with Harriet at 212 Brixton Road. At the time they were the closest to the center of London of any of the ten children of George & Emily as the rest of Harriet’s siblings had gradually moved to more distant suburbs.
In 1925, (when the American Kate visited London and looked for relatives) Harriet Blackley, Reginald Blackley and Roy Lorraine-Hill were listed as voters at the same Brixton address. Harriet and Reginald were voters at the same address through 1933. As performers, Felicia & Roy often traveled and one guess is that Harriet maintained a home for the entire family where they could conduct business and return after touring.
Harriet and Felicia (but not Reginald) are said to have visited her niece Fanny (Firmin) Hall during the period after 1939 when the estate of Constance Trotter was being settled. The description “flash” was used in the correspondence when speaking of Felicia and the visits do not appear to have continued. The cousins lived in different worlds.
At her death in 1942, Harriet Georgina Lane Blackley left her estate to Felicia Lorraine Hill, wife of Thomas Taylor Hill. Her daughter’s husband’s stage name was Roy Lorraine – but he may have been born as Thomas Taylor Hill, and I’ll leave the details for another post. To make it all more confusing, the family correspondence from Fanny (Firmin) Hall refers to Harriet’s daughter as “Connie” which appears to have no foundation at all in fact and is, instead, evidence of Fanny’s distance from her cousin. On top of all that, Harriet’s granddaughter was another Felicia Lorraine-Hill, born in 1919.
Harriet’s son Reginald continued to live at 201 Ross Road in South Norwood with his sister and niece – he most likely died in 1964 but since he does not appear in the probate record the details cannot be considered confirmed. His sister died in 1951, his brother-in-law in 1967, and no record has been found of the death of his niece, Felicia, who is possibly still alive and if so would be the last surviving descendant of George & Emily Firmin of her generation.
Harriet’s life included many disappointments including the early death of her father and mother, the two short marriages, and possibly the estrangement from some of her siblings. She seems to have been resourceful and resilient enough to make a new life with her adopted children. It must have been hard work, and she made the unconventional choices not only to adopt as a single parent but to involve herself in the world of theatre – either because of Felicia’s talents or from some desire of her own. She overcame many challenges on the way and hopefully was proud of her legacy.
Was she the woman in the photo? I hope so!