Friday 12 May 2017

Like Nutmeg for Rheumatism

I am irresistibly drawn to historical figures who everyone hates.  It's an odd thing to admit, but if a figure, usually a woman, gets dismissed, made fun of, or generally loathed by subsequent biographers then I cannot help but want to know more. That is how I ended up in the company of Miss Mary Francis Vivian Lobb...

Miss Lobb and dog
As Jan Marsh says in her 1986 biography of Jane and May Morris, 'Miss Lobb has received an unsympathetic press.' From the very earliest accounts of her at Kelmscott to modern retellings of May Morris' life, Miss Lobb is a figure of fun at best and a murderess at worse.  Yet amongst those lurid tales of drink, lesbianism and gardening there are gems of kindness and understanding that make me question our attitude to May's companion. It is an easy comparison for me to make between sturdy, jolly Miss Lobb and Fanny Cornforth and I definitely think it is time that Miss Lobb was given more time, so let's make a start...

Actually, before I start I need to direct you to the work already done by Simon Evans at the National Library of Wales, which can be found here.  I stumbled across Simon's work recently and cursed him verily as I had spent a year doing exactly the same research but his work is wonderful and the collection they have sounds amazing.  He's helped me fill in a couple of gaps and as it is rare that I have used someone else's work on the internet, I am delighted to thank him here. Anyway, onwards...

May Morris (1890s) Frederick Hollyer
I wrote about May Morris in 2013.  She was a young woman who seemed to spend her life overshadowed by a great father and a famous mother, who strove to continue her father's work and somehow never owned it herself and had her mother's talent for picking dodgy men. Her 'spiritual marriage' with George Bernard Shaw amounted to very little and her actual marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling lasted only 6 years, barely outlasting her father.  By the new century May had become isolated, psychologically if not physically, in the Morris household at Kelmscott.

Jolly times at Kelmscott, c.1905
I've always felt the above picture made Jane look like a spider in a web, keeping everyone with her.  I was once told that if you sit on the floor in the presence of your parents it signifies that you always see yourself as a child, so make what you will of May's position next to her mother as opposed to Jenny, sitting on the chair beside them.  I get the impression that the Kelmscott life continued through the first decade of the new century, forever celebrating the achievements of William as if to emphasise his absence.  As war approached Jane died in Bath just as May was working furiously on a collection of her father's works, published finally in 1915.  Jenny retired to a collection of caring homes that kept her at a distance for the rest of her life.  Outside Kelmscott Manor, the world was changing and it was bringing change to May's door. Off to Cornwall we go!

From The Graphic 1878

Mary Francis Vivian Lobb was born 16 years after May, in 1878.  Her father, Nicholas William Lobb, was a financial negotiator and inventor, patenting things such as dried milk, vermin traps (the 'Holdfast', in 1891) and a preparation of farinaceous (starchy) foods (1878).  Both of Miss Lobb's parents were originally from Cornwall, and though she and her older brother Nicholas were born in Surrey, by the 1881 census they were all living at Mary's maternal grandparent's farm at South Petherwin in Cornwall.  In the 1891 census, Mary Lobb was attending a small private school which had only 10 pupils, girls between the ages of 12 and 15.  This was St Thomas' College, under the headmistress Caroline Stringer, in nearby Launceston, but after her academic career she was back at home in Trewen, less than 10 miles from Launceston and South Petherwin by the 1901 census.  Whilst Nicholas Junior was keen to leave the confines of rural Cornwall, first as a apprentice railway engineer, then immigrating to Canada, second son George Leopold remained on the family farm with his mother.  Arabella, the youngest, also remained in Cornwall for the whole of her life.  By the 1911 census, George, Arabella and Mary all live with their widowed mother on their farm, 'Trenault' but all that was about to change...

Miss Lobb and her mechanical skills (c.1914)
Back to Gloucestershire for the outbreak of the First World War: After the death of Jane Morris in the January of 1914, May attempted to get help in the home by advertising for a cook.  Jane had been forced to buy Kelmscott from their neighbour Robert Hobbs after he could not guarantee that they could live their for their entire lives. There is no mention whether this was a bone of contention between the Morris family and the Hobbs family but I can't imagine the effort Jane went to to be able to secure her daughter's home was seen as an enjoyable thing.  Also in June of 1914 May wrote a letter in the Gloucestershire Echo about  local farmers' 'ruthless cutting of the hedges, which are becoming an eyesore instead of a beauty'.  May concludes that 'ruthlessness is not really required for good farming'.  You do have to wonder if she was referring to her neighbour.  During this time Robert Hobbs was making changes to his farm's working hours in order to make the hours female friendly.  These concerns were reflected in reports from Cornwall where the skills of female farm workers were becoming news-worthy.  In the West Briton newspaper, in a piece about what would happen on farms 'if men were taken wholesale', it boasted of 'highly skilled' ladies but also complained that farmers were unaware that their skills could be utilised and that some women would be tempted to leave the county.  In the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph of March 1916 there was concern that munitions factories were tempting women off the land with good wages and promises of work, whereas farmers refused to take women from labour exchanges and complained they were short-handed.  Possibly this was what led to Miss Mary Lobb being sent out of Cornwall to Gloucestershire, more precisely to Kelmscott village.

The Hobbs family, Robert is seated, centre
On page 2 of the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser of Monday 11 September 1916, there was a short piece entitled 'Cornish lady drives a steam roller' - 'Miss Lobb of Trenault, a lady of independent means, is to be seen every day driving a steam roller on the main roads near Launceston.'  This was such a gripping news story that they ran it again on the Thursday of the same week.  Around the same time Miss Lobb competed with other women to win £5 by binding up 12 bundles of wood in the quickest time.  When she received her posting to Gloucestershire, she was put to work immediately.  In Robert Lusty's memoir Bound to be Read (1975), he remembers going with his aunt to collect Miss Lobb from the railway station.  Lusty's mother was Winifred Hobbs, pictured seated on the far right of the above picture. His memory of his first sight of Miss Lobb is particularly vivid:
'And where', she inquired, 'is our Miss Lob [sic]? We looked around for a likely land-girl and could see none.  The platform slowly emptied, leaving only one memorable figure upon it.  It was extraordinary even to my innocent eyes: squat, mannish and a little threatening. 'That,' said my Aunt Helen, 'cannot surely be Miss Lob?' But indeed it was and with her odd baggage she heaved herself into the back of the car and we drove in silent contemplation back to Kelmscott.' (page 15)
  Lusty's memories of Miss Lobb at his grandfather's farm paint a picture of a strong-willed woman who put people's backs up.  I don't think it was long between her hiring and her firing, but the versions of events are quite different depending on who you believe.  Lusty tells of a woman who was so foul-mouthed 'that it quickly became imperative for her to work in the fields alone' driving away even the seagulls (p.15-16 of Bound to be Read).  In fact, the local blacksmith, who was well-known for 'the ferocity and ingenuity of his own vocabulary' might have had a hand in her dismissal, as Lusty reports he 'felt unable to tolerate so formidable a competitor.'  Lusty accompanied his grandfather when he went to sack Miss Lobb who was out on her tractor, ploughing:
'He looked relieved on returning to the car. 'I have sacked Lob,' he said and we proceeded on our quiet way to Bampton.' (p.16 of Bound to be Read)
 It is easy to find accounts that Miss Lobb had been asleep or drunk at her tractor and that was the cause of her dismissal, but I believe the account of the man who was present and it would seem a woman, capable but difficult and as foul-mouthed as the blacksmith would be a divisive figure.  There is an interesting account of the Hobbs' farm here and it would seem that Robert Hobbs had worked hard to make his farm commercially viable, notwithstanding the pressures of war.  The last thing he needed was a woman who offended his male farm workers and might endanger the smooth working of the farm.  So Miss Lobb left, but didn't go far...

Miss Morris and Miss Lobb, c.1920s
It's a bit of a mystery why May Morris would swoop in and immediately employ a recently sacked, difficult land-girl. One explanation might come from Marjorie Breakspear in this account of meeting Miss Lobb at Kelmscott.  Breakspear was the niece of Lily Huntley, school teacher in Kelmscott, and in her memoir she records how May Morris and Mrs Hobbs both stood as president of the Kelmscott Women's Institute - 'There seemed to be a little rivalry about the office.' (page 11 of 'My Memories of Kelmscott').  If May had intended to complain about Hobbs in her letter about hedge trimming and to actively compete with Mrs Hobbs over this aspect of local role, possibly her acquisition of Miss Lobb into the household at Kelmscott Manor was done out of mischief as much as necessity.  As May was listed as an attendee, she might have already met Miss Lobb at the demonstration of 'Women in Farm Work' on the farm in Kelmscott, as recorded in the Banbury Guardian in June of 1916.  How ever it occurred, Miss Lobb entered Kelmscott Manor in 1916 and only left it after she and May had died.

Miss Morris and Miss Lobb (c.1920s)
The most striking thing about most people's account of Miss Lobb is the physical descriptions of her.  Much like Fanny Cornforth, no account of Miss Lobb can exist without extensive and often derogatory reports of her appearance which are often contradictory.  One thing that everyone agrees with is that her hair was cropped.  In Teresa A Lock's account Miss Lobb's hair was 'cut very short', in Marjorie Breakspear's account it was 'black curly hair, cut short as a man's'.  She is also always in male attire, wearing plus-fours or 'knickerbockers' (as Lily Years recalled in this article and Sir Geoffrey Mander in a 1945 Spectator article on 'Pre-Raphaelite Links').  This is confirmed in Sir Sidney Cockerell's memories of Kelmscott (as written in Cockerell by Wilfrid Blunt) who writes that she was always dressed in man's clothes. Also, the tie in the above photograph can be presumed to be red as both Lily Years and Alan Kitching separately recall her wearing a tie of this colour)  Her height is one that varies, some recalling her as tall (from Gudrun Jonsdotir's account of May and Lobb in Iceland) and Marjorie Breakspear, but then others describing her as 'squat', such as Robert Lusty, but all accounts describe her as masculine and also fat, weighing over 20 stone (as remembered by Teresa A Lock).  All use adjectives such as 'startling' (Geoffrey Mander MP) to express just how unexpected and powerful a presence Miss Lobb was at the Manor, amongst the Arts and Crafts needlework and Rossetti oils.  Cockerell goes further and calls her 'rather violent in some of her behaviour and perhaps a little mad' (Cockerell, p.65).  Her level of education was sneered at by Lily Yeats and Marjorie Breakspear reported that Miss Lobb had 'pretended to know a great deal about William Morris', yet others such as George Bernard Shaw's biographer Margot Peters state that Miss Lobb privately considered 'Morris to have been "an awful bore"' (Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, p.398).  I don't believe the two to be incompatible, and it might have been that Miss Lobb did know a great deal about Morris but just didn't really feel the enthusiasm of May's friends. One of her few defenders, Basil Blackwell wrote two articles in The Bookseller during the early 1960s.  He denied he ever heard her speak an 'improper word'. Even though Simon Evans has an account of Miss Lobb calling William Morris a 'dreadful old bore', Miss Lobb defended and bullied Blackwell into supporting May in her work on her father.  There is a wonderful anecdote in the Garden History Society Newsletter about a tea that May and Miss Lobb attended where Miss Lobb was asked if May would like to see the garden - 'The formidable Miss Lobb peered out of the window and said firmly, 'No, it is too mauve - the Morrises don't like mauve, you know.'' (Issue 61, Spring 2001, p.22).

May Morris (left) and Miss Lobb (right) with friends at Kelmscott
Miss Lobb joined the Kelmscott household as a gardener but swiftly became May's companion and close friend who ably fought May's battles, kept away anyone who she felt was bothering May.  That included Lord Berners MP, who had allegedly planned to install a siren at his home nearby.  Lord Berners, who knew Miss Lobb in person, replied 'It would be better is Mr [sic] Lobb had ascertained the facts before writing a letter which sounded as though it had emanated from the brain of a crazy spinster.' (from Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric by Mark Amory).  Miss Lobb continued her interest in her family land in Cornwall, advertising it to be let for £2 a week (Sheffield Daily Independent, Tuesday 12 April 1932).  May and Miss Lobb lived simply at the Manor, using the kitchen as a living room, lit by lamp as there was no electricity in the Manor as yet.  It is interesting how her friends responded to the presence of Miss Lobb in her life.  In George Bernard Shaw's account, Miss Lobb is merely a guard dog who knew nothing of the deep 'mystical betrothal' that existed between himself and May.  Janis Londraville, in On Poetry, Painting & Politics: The Letters of May Morris and John Quinn states that May, by the time she met Miss Lobb, knew her dreams had all vanished into 'thin air' (p.27).  May herself had apparently grown 'masculine and moustached' (George Bernard Shaw's account) and Miss Lobb's company seems to diminish May Morris in the eyes of others, reducing them both to 'two lesbian ladies of Llangollen' (William Morris: A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy, p.679).  I have often wondered if the characters of Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced were based on Miss Morris and Miss Lobb.  If not, that stereotype of a lesbian couple, one masculine, one more fluttery and girlish, is how Miss Morris and Miss Lobb are often pigeonholed and reduced.  May Morris herself found the village interest in her relationship with Miss Lobb amusing (according to Marjorie Breakspear's account).  When the village found out that the couple shared a room and Miss Lobb kept a loaded gun by her bed to ward off intruders 'the village folk had a lot to say about it.' I bet they did...

May Morris reading in bed, allegedly taken by Miss Lobb
In truth, May Morris had found someone who actually made her happy.  The couple were devoted to each other. There was no 'mystical betrothal' nonsense or unhappy marriage and after the unease of her parents' marriage and the disaster of her own, it must have been utter joy to find a soul mate.  I love the image from Marjorie Breakspear's account, of May and Miss Lobb allowing the grasses and flowers in their field to grow long and then cutting them with scythes. May continued to work hard for her father's memory and took Miss Lobb on a trip to Iceland, wonderfully recorded by Gudrun Jonsdottir:
 'Two foreign ladies came riding up the lane leading to the manse where I lived with my parents ... one was rather small, slim and grey-haired ... the other lady was tall and rather fat with short, black hair that curled around her chubby face.  She did not change for dinner except putting on a different kind of trousers.  She talked rather loudly and laughed often. Her name was Miss Lobb.'
Rather than the rather patronising summary by Cockerell, that if May had 'married the right man' 'how much happier, more effective, and - different - she would have been.' (Margot Peters (p.398), I see May and Miss Lobb as perfectly happy and industrious and it is obvious that we are only just beginning to appreciate the scope and depth of May's work, let alone the positive implications of her relationship with Miss Lobb.  Whilst I don't really share the enthusiasm for labelling people, I don't think there is any doubt that the latter years of May Morris' life were improved beyond measure due to the equal and abiding love of Miss Lobb.

May Morris on a Pony in Iceland, presumably taken by Miss Lobb
 May wrote her will in 1929, correctly assuming that it was likely she would outlive her sister, and leaving the bulk of her estate to Miss Lobb.  Jenny too had made this assumption even before her mother's death in 1914, writing a will leaving her belongings to May (there is a wonderful piece on Jenny here).  May's serious illness of 1928 made the local papers but she was not to die until a decade later.  When she died after a short illness on Sunday 17th October 1938, the newspapers reported her exquisite needlecraft, how she was a pioneer in jewellery, her work with SPAB and her role in the founding of the Women's Guild of Arts (from the Gloucestershire Echo, 18 October 1938).  It was rumoured by some villagers that 'Miss Lobb 'has summit to do with it'' (from Bound to be Read, p.17) or, in James' Laver's Museum Piece - 'they do say as she done away with the old lady.' (p.196), but mostly the accounts are of a woman so broken-hearted that she got drunk and killed herself, possibly with the loaded gun by the side of her and May's bed.

May Morris' funeral, almost identical to her father's
The truth is of course somewhat more complicated.  It is true that Miss Lobb, and possibly May, liked her drink.  There is a jolly advert in the 29th September 1933 Western Gazette which reads 'WANTED, 60 Gallons of NEW CIDER, made from Blenheim Oranges only, casks provided - LOBB, Kelmscott, Lechlade, Glos.' Well, that's the weekend taken care of.  On her death certificate her death is due to conditions that have connection associated with her smoking, drinking and weight but according to Simon Evan's research, Miss Lobb had been ill in her last years and May Morris had paid for her to receive medical help on several occasions.  Had they been husband and wife we would not blink at the fact that they could not survive apart for long, but for some reason we wonder at the devoted pair perishing months apart.  As it was, Miss Lobb was not drunk and idle in her last months.  In an article for The Burlington Magazine (1976) Shirley Bury writes that Miss Lobb responded to the letters of condolence she received at the death of her companion, including one from the director of the V&A.  She also wrote letters to the local newspapers on subjects such as the patterned quilts she had found in the attic chest at Kelmscott (Western Morning News and Daily Gazette 2 February 1939) and the medicinal quality of nutmeg for rheumatism (same paper, the day before).  These may indicate a lonely soul at the end of her life, but also continues a family tradition as it is possible to read letters from her sister Arabella to her local papers on such matters as aquarium keeping, the 'ashen fagot' and when her father caught a white mole.  

Miss Lobb and May Morris, camping
When Miss Lobb finally joined her beloved in the hereafter, her Will caused much interest. Under the headline 'NO HEARSE OR COFFIN', the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic (October 7 1939) reported that Miss Lobb's dying wishes were to be placed in 'just a plain, oblong box of deal, rough but strong.' and it was to be conveyed to the crematorium not by a hearse but a 'motor lorry'.  Furthermore she wanted to be cremated without a religious ceremony, no mourning or flowers and her ashes to be sprinkled back in Cornwall, preferably Bosporthennis Moor.  It is interesting that most biographies that include Miss Lobb do not know or arguably care what became of her.  The versions of the story where she dies of drink, gunshot or something equally dramatic proliferate, including a very exciting postscript in Haunted Cotswolds by Diz White which records that Miss Lobb's ghost roams the attics of Kelmscott calling for May.

The trouble with Miss Lobb is that she has thus far mostly been a humorous aside in the story of May Morris.  Much like Fanny and Rossetti, Miss Lobb is used to undermine May and by extension William Morris, showing foolishness, bad judgement, questionable taste.  For some, Miss Lobb emphasises May Morris' inability to find 'the right man'.  Miss Lobb is a polar opposite to the waiflike Pre-Raphaelite maidens, lumbering around Kelmscott secretly hating William Morris whilst driving away May's former friends with the gun that would end her own life.  Miss Lobb, like Fanny, is a misunderstood caricature, willfully misrepresented in order to pander to the prejudices and vanities of people like George Bernard Shaw.   John Betjemen and his friends travelled to see May and Miss Lobb, a couple of old lesbians, as if they were some sort of tourist attraction. Evelyn Waugh visited Kelmscott in 1927 where he found May Morris and her 'hermaphrodite' (quoted in Jan Marsh's Jane and May Morris).  Sidney Cockerell saw May as a beautiful young woman who was psychologically flawed and full of discontent (p.66 Cockerell by Wilfrid Blunt).  During the 1920s and 30s, when all that the Pre-Raphaelites had been was substantially dismantled in the wake of war, it seemed almost obligatory to poke fun at the last remnants of a previous era.  There is no excuse for us to continue doing so.

I find Miss Lobb's letter about the benefits of nutmeg to emblematic of what I want to say here.  It reads:
Sir;- Two years ago I met at a friend's house a Roman Catholic priest, who told me that some years previously he had been laid up with rheumatism for many weeks with doctors in attendance.  He was finally cured. After a while he met a friend who told him about nutmegs.  he thought he would try them.  He was free for a long time so he forgot about his nutmegs.  Soon he began to get rheumatic twinges.  He returned to nutmegs.  The twinges went.  Now he finds if he goes without nutmegs for long rheumatism returns.  I personally find they keep rheumatism at bay, but I have friends who find them no use at all.  MFV LOBB, Kelmscott Manor, Glos
  I don't know how well known Miss Lobb's love of the nutmeg was known, but I am forced to wonder if a story in a 1940s copy of Punch magazine refers to it.  In 'Working Party', Miss Lobb goes to her grocer in search of a nutmeg grater (Punch 8 April 1942) and if a generation of post war writers, like Betjeman and Waugh, went in search of the Lesbian Ladies of Lechlade, I can't imagine Miss Lobb would have any qualms about sharing her views on a great many things. But the nutmegs say something about Mary and May and their relationship.  If we believe that May was unhappy at the way her life had dissolved, then Miss Lobb might have been her nutmeg.  Miss Lobb freed May of pain and unhappiness, she gave her devotion and company and a defense against the world which can't have been easy, even for a woman of independent means, however slim. Like nutmeg for rheumatism, even if others found her disagreeable or unfathomable, Miss Lobb was May's way to find ease at last.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    You have done it again - championing a hitherto underdog who had a huge impact on members of the Pre-Raphaelite (or post Pre-Raphaelite) circle. A really interesting and thought provoking post about a fascinating person.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Best wishes

  2. How sad that she killed herself. I think people underestimate the value of a close friendship especially for single and widowed people in their old age. It is typical of our age that people can't appreciate that two people can be close without being lovers.

    1. Well, she didn't, that's the point. She died of her lifestyle and the loss of May, which is pretty tragic. The rumours of her brandy-and-shotgun death were greatly exaggerated.

  3. Ah I see! Just one question: I see from your previous post on May Morris, that she left the manor to Oxford University. Does that mean that Lobb would have had to move out ie losing both friend and home, or was it that she could continue to live there?

    1. I believe there was an understanding that she could continue living there but I can't imagine she would want to. Or maybe May knew that Miss Lobb was unlikely to outlive her by much because May had paid for some of the medical treatment her friend had received. I can't imagine for a moment that May would have kicked her out but she certainly left her well provided for financially. I look forward to visiting the exhibition on Miss Lobb at Kelmscott Manor from 10th June.

  4. Love,love,love! I would have enjoyed greatly knowing Miss Lobb.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx