The Girl in the Dolly Varden Hat, or, The Suicide of Alice Blanche Oswald

A desperate Alice Blanche Oswald jumps off Waterloo Bridge.  Image in The Illustrated Police News 21 September 1872.

Thomas Ingham, a printer’s compositor, was walking home from work just before six o’clock on the evening of Thursday the 5th of September 1872.  His journey to 80 Webber Street in Waterloo taking him south over the old bridge.  He saw a woman walking briskly towards the second recess from the Middlesex side.

The woman was young and petite—just over five feet tall—with regular features and bright brown hair.  She was fashionably attired, wearing a black dress with a violet skirt and a straw Dolly Varden hat, and carrying a green silk umbrella.  Then, as Thomas Ingham watched in horror, the young woman threw down her umbrella, climbed on to the stone parapet and rolled herself forward and down into the fast-moving River Thames below.

Almost immediately she appeared to change her mind, and began to call for help.  A passing steamer threw lifebuoys to her, but she could not reach them, and within minutes the only part of her that could be seen was the “Dolly Varden” hat floating on the cold grey water.  But a man by the name of Richard Fane, who was on board the Royalist, a ship that was used as a floating police station by the Thames River Police, attempted a rescue.  He rowed out in a scull, and, putting to, he pulled the young woman into the boat with the aid of grappling hooks.  She was taken to Temple Pier, where for forty-five minutes attempts were made to revive her, sadly to no avail.

View of Temple Pier on the occasion of the opening of the Thames North Embankment to foot passengers.  Image in The Illustrated London News 8 August 1868.

SAVING DESPERATE LONDONERS
It is likely that the attempted revival took place in one of the Royal Humane Society receiving houses, or medical stations, one of which was at Temple Pier.  Originally founded in 1774 as The Society for the Rescue of Persons Apparently Drowning this altruistic organisation established receiving houses in places where water accidents might commonly occur, such as near ports and rivers. There was one in Hyde Park, the Serpentine being a hugely popular place for boating in summer and ice skating in winter, and the following description appeared in the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction in 1835:

The interior of the receiving-house consists of an entrance-hall, with a room for medical attendants on the left, and waiting-room on the right; parallel with which are two separate wards for the reception of male and female patients.  Each contains beds warmed with hot water, a bath, and a hot-water, metal-topped table for heating flannels, bricks, &c.; the supply of water being by pipes around the walls and beneath the floor of the rooms.

View of Waterloo Bridge by Charles Deane.  Painting dated 1821.

The Society also gave—and continues to give—medals to the brave souls who often put their own lives at risk to rescue others.  Many of the nineteenth-century recipients were policemen who tried to save desperate Londoners from committing suicide in the capital’s rivers and canals.

As for Old Waterloo Bridge, it had been a popular site for suicides from the moment that it opened in 1817.  Having been built originally as a penny toll-bridge, its traffic was quieter than that of other bridges, and so a suicide was less likely to be prevented from carrying out the fatal act.  Contemporary newspapers provide a mournful litany of those who tried to kill themselves: the poor, the pregnant, the homeless and the mentally ill.  And in 1844 Thomas Hood published “The Bridge of Sighs“, a poem about a homeless woman who jumped from Waterloo Bridge, in Hood’s Magazine.  The first two stanzas are as follows:

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

In turn this poem inspired paintings by George Frederic Watts and Augustus Egg—as well as the lost Drowned, Drowned by Abraham Solomon—and one of the plaques on Hood’s grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.  Sadly the plaque is now missing—possibly stolen—as is the bust of Hood that once stood on top.

View of Shadwell High Street in about 1865 by J T Wilson.

AN END FORESEEN
An inquest was held at the Essex Head tavern—now the Edgar Wallace—which stood near Temple Pier in Essex Street.  The tragic tale was revealed.  An inspector of the Thames River Police, William King, reported that the woman was wearing a ring with seven diamonds or glass brilliants, gilt earrings, and a small black locket brooch with a cross on the outside and a photograph of a gentleman within.  In her pocket was a purse containing a bronze halfpenny, a pawn ticket for a shawl, a wedding ring, a small box key and some papers.  These included a suicide note written two days before the act:

178 Shadwell High Street 3rd September. 

The crime I am about to commit, and that I must suffer for hereafter, is nothing compared to my present misery.  Alone in London, not a penny, or a friend to advise or lend a helping hand, tired and weary with looking for something to do, failing in every way, footsore and heart weary, I prefer death to the dawning of another wretched morning.  I have only been in Britain nine weeks.  I came as a nursery governess with a lady from America to Wick, in Scotland, whence she discharged me, refusing to pay my passage back, giving me my wages, which amount to £3 10s.

After my experience in London I found myself in this great city with only 5s.  What was I to do?  I sold my watch.  The paltry sum I obtained from that soon went in paying for my board and in looking for assistance.  Now I am destitute; every day is a misery to me.  No friends.  No hope.  No money.  O God of Heaven have mercy upon a poor helpless sinner.  Thou knowest how I have striven against this; but fate is against me.  I cannot tread the path of sin, for my dead mother will be watching me.  Fatherless, motherless, home I have none.  Oh, for the rarity of Christian hearts.  I am not mad.  For days I have foreseen that this would be the end.  May all who hear of my death forgive me and may God Almighty do so before whose bar I must so soon appear.  Farewell to all, to this beautiful, and yet wretched world.

Signed Alice Blanche Oswald.  I am 20 on the 14th of this month.

More information emerged about Alice Blanche Oswald’s ill-fated employment in Wick.  A nursery governess would be responsible for educating young children, while domestic and menial duties were left to a nursery maid.  However, on her arrival in Wick Alice was informed that most of the indoor servants had left or been dismissed, and, while others were being recruited, she was expected to help with household tasks. Unhappy at being downgraded—a governess was an “upper servant”—Alice resigned from her post.  Her wages were paid—as she would say in her suicide note—but not her passage back to America.  (Newspapers hoped to identify the heartless former mistress—she was American, after all, and Wick had a relatively small population—but drew a blank.)

The Langham Hotel in Portland Place.  Image in The Illustrated London News 8 July 1865.

OPENING THE DOOR
By the middle of July Alice was in London, where she tried to contact the American vice-consul, whose name was Nunn.  As Nunn was out of town, Alice was initially thwarted.  When she finally got to see him she asked not for her passage home but for help in finding work in London, in response to which the vice-consul arranged an interview with a Mr Gascoyne, the manager of the Langham Hotel in Portland Place.  We do not know if Alice attended the interview.  But we do know that by the middle of August she had taken lodgings under the name “Miss Lockie” at Mrs Eliza Castle’s coffee shop at 178 High Street in Shadwell.

Shadwell, in the dockland area of East London, was not exactly salubrious, and certainly not somewhere a man or woman of means would choose to live.  But Alice, who by now had begun pawning her belongings, was desperately poor.  We get a glimpse of her world in the pages of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, a pamphlet written by the Congregationalist minister Andrew Mearns ten or so years after her tragic death:

A nightmare vision of squalor and degradation in Shadwell.  Image in Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold London: A Pilgrimage (1872) between pages 138 and 139.

To describe … Shadwell, would, in the main, be but to repeat the same heart-sickening story.  Heart-sickening but soul-stirring.  We have opened but a little way the door that leads into this plague-house of sin and misery and corruption, where men and women and little children starve and suffer and perish, body and soul.

Even so in the days leading up to her death Alice appeared to her landlady generally to be in good spirits and health.  In this time she received two visitors, as Mrs Castle would later testify.  One was a “very dark” gentleman, but not the gentleman whose photograph the river police found in the locket brooch.  The other was a lady asking for “Mrs Oswald”, who left a card in the name of Miss Nellie Morton of 22 Market Street in Southwark Bridge Road.  (The first visitor might have been sent by Nunn.  Equally, he might have been a prospective employer, as might the second visitor.)  Then on the day of the tragedy Alice received a letter, which she read in the presence of Mrs Castle in some distress.  Declaring that the letter “should have arrived an hour ago” she went out into the street.  When she was pulled from the river, later the same day, there was no sign of the letter among her belongings.  What was written in it remains a mystery.

MUDDYING THE WATERS
No doubt the initial newspaper reports of the tragedy led readers to think that the victim was either a prostitute or a girl who had “fallen into sin”—a euphemism for “unmarried and pregnant”.  And maybe that was why she was dismissed from her post in Scotland.  But Alice’s note makes it clear that even in the desperate straits in which she found herself she could not “tread the path of sin” knowing that “my dead mother will be watching me”.  During the inquest the surgeon who carried out an autopsy put a stop to these suppositions when he stated that Alice was neither pregnant nor had she been married.  She was a virgin, and the verdict was reached that she had committed suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.

A grim depiction of suicide.  Image in George Cruikshank The Drunkard’s Children (1848) plate 8.

The parishioners of nearby St Clement Danes collected money so that this pure young woman, who had been friendless in life, should not be so in death.  The collection, organised by the Reverend Mr Simpson and the formidable Miss Stride, Superintendent-Matron of the Miss Stride’s Homes for Destitute Girls and Fallen Women, ensured that she would not be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.  And on Tuesday the 17th of September, at eleven in the morning, a sizeable crowd gathered outside the Necropolis Railway Station in Waterloo to try to catch a glimpse of Alice’s coffin—a double coffin of elm with black ornaments—before it was steamed down to Woking (now Brookwood) Cemetery.  Meanwhile a more select party gathered in the station waiting room: Mr Simpson and Miss Stride; the Reverend Horace Roberts, who would conduct the service; and various American ladies, among them a Mrs Henry Altman of New York (wife of an export merchant), a Mrs Estella Anna Lewis (poetess and friend of Edgar Allen Poe), a Mrs Calahan, a Miss Voller and a Mrs Tribe.

In the days that followed information emerged in connection with Alice Blanche Oswald’s identity.  The Daily Telegraph reported in depth the contact a gentleman in Edinburgh claimed to have had with a Lilian Lockie, who had replied several times, and with growing desperation, to his advertisement for a housekeeper.  She said that she had been a manager in a hotel in Australia—in Melbourne in Victoria—but she made no mention of America.  She added that at the age of seventeen she had become estranged from her family, who had packed her off to relatives in New South Wales when she became engaged to a solicitor, a Roman Catholic, who subsequently died.  She also claimed to have a connection with Scotland—her relatives were buried in Melrose Abbey—and to have had her poems—she sent a sample—published in an Australian journal.  If Lilian Lockie was indeed Alice Blanche Oswald she had certainly changed her mind about domestic service.  She begged the gentleman in Edinburgh to give her a trial.  Her final comment was that if she had been “less plain” she might have attracted more sympathy.  To muddy the waters further, the London correspondent of the Melbourne Age declared that her description reminded him of a barmaid in a hotel.  And in 1883 the Westminster Gazette stated without much evidence that she was in fact an adventuress.

View of Waterloo Bridge by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.  Image in James Elmes Metropolitan Improvements (1828) page 251.

SADLY INSPIRING
Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify Alice even after tracking various combinations of “Alice”, “Blanche”, “Lilian”, ”Lillian”, “Lily”, “Oswald”, “Lockie” and “Lockey” in records covering America, Australia, England and Scotland.  Most of the candidates born around the same time were married, and I have no reason not to trust the police surgeon’s belief that the drowned woman was not.  But whoever she was Alice Blanche Oswald inspired a clutch of poems, and, more sadly, a glut of copycat suicide attempts from Waterloo Bridge in the months immediately after her demise.  Her marble memorial at Brookwood—a rustic cross atop a cluster of rocks, sculpted by Samuel Horner of Bournemouth—bears the inscription:

Waterloo Bridge.
Alice Blanche Oswald, kithless, kinless orphan,
died of despair in the Thames, 5 September 1872
aged 19  on 20th of the month*.
In thy Infinite goodness forgive me.

*The inscription is inconsistent with the suicide note, in which Alice stated that would turn twenty on the 14th of September.

A girl dressed in the “Dolly Varden” style.  Oil painting by William Powell Frith.  © Tate Gallery

A NOTE ON THE “DOLLY VARDEN” HAT
Curiously I came across this story when researching Victorian hats.  In case you are wondering about the type of hat poor Alice was wearing when she jumped off Waterloo Bridge, it was named after a character in Barnaby Rudge.  Charles Dickens published the novel between 1840 and 1841, but the story is set in the 1780s, and so the “Dolly Varden” style, which was popular from about 1869 to 1875, was something of a fashion revival.  The hat was a flat straw bonnet decorated with ribbons and flowers, and it shared its name with a brightly patterned dress consisting of a polonaise skirt worn over a separate underskirt.

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