This remarkable monument to two women’s shared life stands out amongst the fallen Victorian obelisks and angels in the woodlands of Abney Park, one of the non-denominational cemeteries established when nineteenth-century London outgrew its parish churchyards. Its modernist sculpture of a mourning woman and elegant mid-century lettering commemorate two Hackney women, Harriet Delph (1862-1944) and Frances A. Garlick (1880-1947). I’ve admired it for thirty years, but only the repetitive circuits of state-sponsored walks under lockdown, and the blossoming of the digital archive, drove me to find out more about its names.

Photo: Laura Gowing

The first revelation was that Harriet Delph was blind. Born in Pimlico in 1862, the 1871 census, which describes her as ‘blind from birth’, recorded her alongside her widowed father, a blacksmith, and her sister Mary staying in Battersea. Four months later, when she was eight, her father died in the Battersea workhouse. By the next census, Mary had become a maidservant and Harriet, aged 17, was at the Sussex Asylum for the Blind, perhaps chosen by Poor Law officials because it was the nearest such institution listed in the Local Government Almanac. Founded by William Moon, inventor of a simplified alternative to Braille, its schoolrooms were accompanied by a music room and a willow-soaking room for basket-making.

From there, somehow, Harriet won a scholarship to the Royal Normal College for the Blind in Upper Norwood, where she studied in her twenties in the 1880s. The College, later the Royal National College, had been established ten years earlier by two American pioneers who planned to provide a high level of education and self-supporting careers for the ‘poorer class of the Blind’. Scholars were required to be already proficient in Braille and other subjects. By 1883 there was a preparatory department, a college, and a technical school; gymnastics, bicycling, roller-skating and snowball fights in the extensive grounds accompanied a full school curriculum for both sexes and specialist training in music, piano-tuning, and teaching. Visiting lecturers included Millicent Garrett Fawcett on political economy.

Girls’ Geography Class, Royal Normal School for the Blind, c. 1870-90. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.

Delph qualified as a teacher and from 1892 she taught in Hackney, at the LCC Morning Lane School for the Blind, becoming its head until she retired in 1927. Frances Annie Garlick joined her as the school’s other, sighted, teacher in 1902. A farmer’s daughter from Wiltshire, she had trained in North Wales, with a certificate in P.E. which perhaps enabled the women to encourage their Hackney pupils in the physical activities that were so important at Norwood. Frances taught at Morning Lane until 1925, and then moved onto a series of other blind schools across London’s suburbs.

Harriet Delph’s first working years in the 1890s and early 1900s had been spent in the new housing being built for London’s working women. Along with clerks, machinists and dressmakers, and a domestic servant who was deaf and dumb, she lived in the new Working Girls’ Home on Well Street, and later in the YWCA on Lower Clapton Road. By the 1911 census, though, she and Frances Garlick had moved in together, into part of a tall house at 12 Sutton Place, next to Hackney’s one surviving Tudor house. Their census form labelled Frances ‘Head’ and Harriet ‘Friend’: we will never know whose choice this was and what combination of partnership and ability it reflected. The rest of the house was occupied by another largely female household composed of two widows and their children and boarders, working as clerks and typists; next door was another household of two women. At the end of the war, aged 38 and 56, they gained the vote. Harriet retired ten years later, and they moved to a purpose-built two-bedroom flat in Cavendish Mansions, Clapton Square. Emma Garlick, Frances’s younger sister, joined them there as ‘companion housekeeper’.

In the last year of the war the household was still in Clapton Square. Harriet Delph died in December 1944, bequeathing most of her £4,000 estate to Frances, ‘as a mark of my affection she having lived and worked with me for so many years’. London’s women teachers were well paid, with headmistresses’ salaries set at £140-£300 in 1899, and they also had a good pension scheme. Harriet left sums between £20 and £50 to six female friends, all single blind retired teachers, alongside the widow and daughter of a blind man who had lived near her in her teaching years in Hackney. The other teachers had mostly also trained at Norwood, though not all at the same time; the college had a strong Guild of Former Students which may have helped forge connections, and as the college expected its scholars to do as a way of repayment, Delph made continuing contributions to its funds. Delph’s friends lived across the south-east, one alone and the rest with other women, but most had taught in London and they must have managed to stay in touch in the years of their teaching careers and in retirement.

Frances, we can assume, commissioned the sculpture for the tomb, which was the work of a young sculptor, the son of a local monumental mason; her own epitaph was added three years later. The abstract sensuality of the carved Portland stone feels particularly appropriate for two women who knew the experience of blindness so deeply. Modelling had been on the curriculum at Delph’s college, noted by the South London Press whose reporter attended the prize ceremony in 1886: ‘the girls were engaged in kindergarten work and modelling, the clay being deftly moulded into most artistic designs and with perfect finish, the only guide being the sense of touch’. That day Harriet won prizes for grammar and geography, and Lily Bell, one of the friends remembered in her will nearly sixty years later, in geometry and algebra.

Photo: Laura Gowing

Harriet’s will suggests a lifelong community of friends with a shared experience in a profession that offered independence to both blind and sighted women. It was not so unusual to be buried with a friend. There is at least one other grave of two women in Abney Park, this one commemorating two Methodist church workers, ‘lifelong friends and companions’. Frances’s monument to Harriet has inspired many passers-by to wonder about their story; the history of their conjoined lives and work, touching so many points of contact for single women’s lives from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, has turned out to hold more than I could have imagined.

Laura Gowing is Professor of Early Modern History at King’s College London, an editor of History Workshop Journal and the author of several books and articles on early modern women’s history including Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England.

5 Comments

  1. Janet Pearce

    I’ve often wondered about this lovely statue as I also enjoy a daily route through the wonderful and restorative Abney. It seemed so different to other statues – softer and more modern or very much older. Thanks so much for this article which has given me so much more understanding of this statue and the lives of women in those times. My aunt was a woman who loved her career and independence but was at odds with so many of her contemporaries during the 1940s onwards as a rural Irish woman. It didn’t stop her though.

  2. What a wonderful read! The history is great and one can imagine all kinds of stories. Maybe a book? Well done Laura Rowing, solving a curiosity and igniting more of them!

  3. Annie Moreton

    Thanks so much, really illuminating and and informative, and well told

  4. Helen Bishop

    This is great. Many years ago i tried to find out more about them. I got as far as them living together in Cavendish mansions and then got stuck. I didnt have the historian skills to know where to delve next. So thank you Laura Gowing!

  5. Lynn Alderson

    I lived in a house that bordered into the cemetery for some years in the 80’s. At that time this statue was largely hidden by undergrowth and I thought I’d discovered it all by myself! It’s very beautiful. As a lesbian it also held a special meaning for me and spoke very clearly about closeness between women. Thank you so much for doing the research. I visited it many times and often wondered about them.

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