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Charlotte Rolfe, dressmaker – “So fair is the earth, both by night and by day!”

H Dominic W Stiles14 February 2020

Charlotte Rolfe, or Lottie, was the youngest daughter of Charles Rolfe, a tailor, and his wife Maria Rolfe.  She was born in Bury St. Edmunds on the 2nd of February, 1856.  There is no suggestion on the census returns that she was deaf until the 1901 census, so we may assume she had a form of progressive hearing loss, though it rendered her almost completely deaf.  At earlier stages of life she was a servant, but later worked as a dressmaker.  There were a lot of Rolfes in Suffolk, so they can be confusing, but I am sure of my identification of the right Charlotte Rolfe.

I came across her in the British Deaf Monthly (BDM), where she wrote what might be considered an anti-war poem –

LONGING FOR PEACE.
BRIGHT is the moon, and the wind, softly blowing,

Wafts the sweet scent of the newly mown hay :

I feast on the scene till my heart is o’erflowing—

So fair is the earth, both by night and by day!

 

So peaceful the scene, can it be (ay, too truly !)

That War’s mighty standard’s still reared o’er the world ?

Oh, when will the nations become less unruly,

And the Banner of Peace be for ever unfurled ?

 

Who can forget how our soldiers are lying

Sick, wounded, distressed, from their friends far away ?

And daily are added more sick and more dying—

For them and their kindred I’ll cease not to pray !

 

In war a dear brother—I still mourn him—perished,

Who toiled and served nobly his Queen for awhile—

Deep, deep in my heart is his memory yet cherished

While he peacefully sleeps on the bank of the Nile.

 

‘Tis late, nay, ’tis early ! soon day will be dawning :

I’ll rest for awhile—gather strength for the day,

And in the bright sunshine I’ll spend the glad morning,

Then Zephyrus ! winnow my sorrow away.

CHARLOTTE ROLFE

I think that is a very good amateur poem.  That she submitted a poem to the editors, suggests that she was familiar with the BDM, and felt herself  a part of the larger deaf community.

I take it her brother had died a few years before, perhaps serving under Kitchener, but I have not identified him – her parents had a lot of children and I have only a limited time to research this.  I then found nothing more, until, that is, I looked in the British Newspaper Archive.  That turned up another sad story, this time concerning Charlotte’s sister.  I think the writer or printer added an incorrect age for her sister, who was I think 47 rather than 57. *

This story appears in the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, for Wednesday the 9th of September, 1903 –

HOMERTON WOMAN’S SUICIDE

A SAD STORY

An inquest was held the Hackney Coroner’s Court Monday morning on the body of Mary Ann Dennison. 57, the wife of John Dennison, a silver finisher, of 31. Church-road. Homerton, who died from the effects of oxalic acid poisoning.

The husband of the deceased said his wife had no trouble of which was aware. When he left home on Friday morning she appeared all right, but returning the evening he found the room in darkness. He struck a light and then saw his wife lying dead on the sofa – dressed, with the exception of boots and stockings. On a chair near was a bottle and beside it a bill in which the bottle had evidently been wrapped by the chemist. Curiously enough, however, the name of the chemist had bean cut out. On the back of the bill the following note had been written to deceased’s sister, Miss Charlotte Rolfe, of Kentish Town : –

“Dear Lottie, – My head has been bad for years, and then I say and do foolish things. Poor old Jack is not to blame; he has been goodness itself to me! I can’t do so — l am best out of the way. God will call for my dearest of children! Don’t let them know I have taken my own life. – Tiny.”  Tiny, explained the witness, was the name by which his wife was familiarly known.

The Coroner: The jury will naturally ask, “Why did she take her life?” What reason can yea give for that ?

Witness; Well, sir, I can only say I have found her come home now and again the worse for drink. And that upset her mind ?- I don’t know, sir, but I have seen her reeling now and again.

How often ? Pretty often, lately, sir.

Once a week ? -Once a day, sir, and been going for years on and off.

During that time she has threatened to take her life several times ? -Yes, sir.

What reason did she give ? -She said she was tired. I always asked her what she meant by it, and I never could get anything out of her.

Charlotte Rolfe, to whom the note was addressed, said she last saw her sister on Friday week, when she made the curious remark that a number of people had committed suicide lately. This witness was so deaf that the Coroner had write down the questions he wished her to answer.

Dr. J. C. Baggs said he found the bottle referred to contained a small quantity of oxalic acid. Deceased’s mouth was burned by some corrosive poison, and death was due to oxalic acid poisoning.

A verdict of Suicide whilst temporally insane was returned.

Mary Ann clearly had a form of depression of long standing, and was unable to articulate it, even to her family.

She was retired at the time of the 1939 register, and living at The Sycamores, Beck Row, Mildenhall.  Her death was registered in Birmingham – perhaps she was visiting family or friends – noted in the Suffolk paper The Bury Free Press,

ROLFE.—On January Ist. 1945, CHARLOTTE ROLFE passed peacefully away, aged 89 years.  Service at St. Marylebone Crematorium. North London, Jan. 22nd.

but she was cremated in London.

If you discover more about Charlotte, please  do contribute in the comments field below.

* NOTE: Thanks as ever to Norma Mcgilp who found her in the 1939 Register, and when she died.

Also, apologies but I somehow lost the ends of two sentences in this version, now corrected.

1861 Census – Class: RG 9; Piece: 1141; Folio: 142; Page: 22; GSU roll: 542762 

1871 Census – Class: RG10; Piece: 14; Folio: 7; Page: 8; GSU roll: 838752

1881 Census – Class: RG11; Piece: 863; Folio: 73; Page: 42; GSU roll: 1341204

1891 Census – Class: RG12; Piece: 1451; Folio: 152; Page: 30; GSU roll: 6096561

1901 Census – Class: RG13; Piece: 204; Folio: 10; Page: 11

1911 Census – Class: RG14; Piece: 9881; Schedule Number: 76

BDM vol: 9, no. 107, September 1900 p.245

Charlotte O’Brien, a Social Worker, Amateur Botanist and Writer

H Dominic W Stiles27 July 2012

Charlotte O’Brien was born on 23rd of November 1845 into an Anglo-Irish protestant family that was a branch of the Dromoland O’Brien Baronets. Her father William was an M.P. and Young Ireland nationalist moved by the great famine  to take part in the 1848 rebellion. He was condemned to be hanged drawn and quartered for treason but was however reprieved and allowed to return to Ireland after a period in exile. All of his children had some hearing problems, with his son William being deaf from birth. Charlotte had a form of progressive hearing loss, and as we see from her poem below (dated 1879) by her mid 30s she had become deaf.

Charlotte devoted many years to helping the poor emigrants who were pushed off the land firstly by the famines and then by other social pressures. These people had to endure further privations in lodging houses and then on board ships to America and Australia, and she tried to alleviate their suffering. Her nephew says in his memoir (1909, p.75),

None of her letters tell of the sharp struggle she had to face in Queenstown itself when she actually started. […] when she and her man John went down to the station to meet arrivals they were hustled violently and threatened with worse. She described to me a perfect pandemonium, poor creatures from the wilds of Kerry or Connaught emerging like cattle from the crowded carriages, sick with hunger or fatigue, stupefied with grief ; and then the mob of lodginghouse runners seizing them, dragging them this way and that, with noisy exhortations.
Thus she began her work of love in a turmoil of mean and jealous hatred, bullied and browbeaten.

Charlotte was criticised for helping emigrants who accepted the £5 ‘bribe’ that some English philanthropists paid to every person who would leave. This was seen by nationalists as a form of  social engineering to remove trouble makers. She went to America to promote her cause. Here is her nephew Stephen Gwynn again (ibid. p.86);

when I look on the record of her work in America, as I find it in old newspaper cuttings, it is amazing how little physical disabilities weighed on her. She had never spoken in public; yet she addressed great audiences successfully; she was extremely deaf, yet she went everywhere making acquaintances, making friends, entering into the whole life of the place as very few women could do with every natural advantage.

Continuing to write all her life, she was however never successful at it according to Gwynn, for “She was too busy living to concentrate her powers on the special task of bringing an art to it’s completeness.” Charlotte’s best work is where she was constrained by metre he says. He calls her writings on deafness “vehement Brontësque outpourings: and of such there is a good deal among her unpublished papers, though none else so poignant.” (ibid. p.131-2)

She died in 1909 having converted to Roman Catholicism. Back in Ireland she did a lot of work on the botany of her beloved Limerick.

The important thing about her is “not what she did but what she was” says Stephen Gwynn (ibid.p.133-4), but “a true portraiture would show, I think, two chief excellencies, a nature unstunted by an infirmity which went to the very core of life, and a passionate love of her country with a sense of kinship with its poorest people.”

DEAFNESS THE PAST AND THE PRESENT

The woods are silenced for me, and the streams
Ripple no more for me along the leas;
No more for me the birds sing melodies
To greet the morn, or give the sun good dreams;
No more the circling rooks in heavy crowds
Beat homeward cawing, ‘neath the wind-swept clouds.

Where are the sweet sounds gone ? Are they all gone ?
Gone from the meadows deep with swathes of hay:
There the blithe corncrake woke the summer day.
Or startled the still air the whole night long.
Now silent in their beauty they bend low
While the rich-scented breezes o’er them blow.

Oh ! merry voices of the world of life,
From the warm farm, the byre, the hen-roost shed ;
There nesting swallows flashed above my head,
And all about the air with sound was rife;
With din of sparrow hordes, incessant, shrill,
Debating, scolding, loving then so still.

So still, for I had called them ! Breathlessly
I stood awaiting the oncoming burst
And rush of rival voices, all athirst
To fill the air with carols mad with glee
Set with dark globes and crowns, the burnished leaves
Now sway in silence ‘neath the silent eaves.

O earth ! what murmurs sweet beguile thy rest,
Ere yet the thrush his glorious matin rings;
Ere yet the goldfinch on his glittering wings
Brushes the jasmine stars from round his nest;
Ere yet the daisy leaves turned toward the sun,
Bid night ” Good night,” and speak his day begun.

Oh, bitter loss ! all Nature’s voices dumb.
Oh, loss beyond all loss ! about my neck
The children cast their arms; no voices break
Upon my ear; no sounds of laughter come
Child’s laughter, wrought of love, and life, and bliss;
Heedless I leave the rest, had I but this !

1879.

For me, her best poem is ‘Glenville’

The shadows flicker on the coltsfoot sheaves :
There ‘neath the bridge and o’er the sparkling  stream,
Often we traced the water’s wavering gleam
Amid long trailing branches and green leaves ;
Often we rested, where the beech tree weaves
A liquid web for every wandering beam
O’er deep dark pools wherein the old trout dream,
And oft a shining foot the water cleaves.
A stream o’ergrown and shadowed all its length,
From the fairy fort and glen, to the old bridge,
Bringing its amber waters from the strength
Of yonder brown, bare, boggy, heathery ridge,
To where the fat land’s heavy-footed kine
In their rich beds of luscious green recline.

The library copy of her book shows it came from a member of her family – her cousin was Professor Stockley.

The library copy of her book shows it came from a member of her family – perhaps a niece?

http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/Media,4182,en.pdf

http://www.limerickleader.ie/news/local/worthies-of-thomond-no-3-charlotte-grace-o-brien-1-2186248

http://herbariaunited.org/collector/12644/

Gwynn, Stephen, Charlotte Grace O’Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence, with a memoir by Stephen Gwynn. Dublin, 1909