Census data identifies mystery sender, and reveals a lifelong friendship

Palm House at Kew, dated June 1865Palm House at Kew Gardens
c. 1865

Today sees all people living in the UK complete their census returns, an event that happens just once every ten years.  Whilst everyone (except perhaps statisticians and genealogists) perhaps wonders why, here’s a little tale of how historic census data has identified the mystery sender of some delightful early cartes de visite, and also revealed a little about her life history.

Working at Kew Gardens, and being a keen collector of vintage photographs, when four early and unusual topographical cartes de visite of the gardens came up on eBay I knew I had to have them!  They are all images taken in the 1860s by F York of Ladbroke Grove (as a little aside, English Heritage have a large collection of Kew images by York). Two of the cartes de visite are of Kew’s iconic glasshouses, the Palm House and the Temperate House, and two are of what is now known as Cambridge Cottage, then the home of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Kew Cottage, Kew Green, home of the Duchess of Cambridge, dated June 1865
Cambridge Cottage, exterior
c. 1865Interior of Kew Cottage, Kew Green, home of th...
Cambridge Cottage, interior
c. 1865

On their own they are very nice, collectable images, but a further dimension is added by the hand-written inscriptions on the reverse (click on any image shown here to enlarge).  They are all dated June 1865, which would suggest that they were sent together as one batch, but curiously they all have subtly different notes on the reverse, and each reveals a different clue. Intrigued, I set out to find out as much as I could about them, and aided by fellow Flickr members the story started to unfold.

Image 1. The image of the Palm House, it was sent by a Mrs Davidson to ‘Caroline’. That isn’t really enough to start any sort of search from.

Image 2. So we turn to the second image, of the exterior of Cambridge Cottage (captioned here as “Kew Cottage, Residence of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge”), which adds a little more to what we know, as we now have from “EHD to CH”.

So, we’re now at Mrs EH Davidson sending the images to Caroline H.

Maybe some online resources would suggest some possibilities for a Mrs EH Davidson at around that date, but I’m sure there’ll be more than one possibility, especially when we can only speculate as to a location.

Image 3. Our third image, of the interior of Cambridge Cottage, doesn’t add anything more, being to “CH from her friend Mrs Davidson” (though there is a wonderful tale linked to this image and German art history that I’ll tell another time).

Temperate House (Winter Garden) at Kew Gardens...
Temperate House, Kew Gardens c.1865

Image 4. So we turn to our fourth and final image, depicting the then newly built Temperate House (or Winter Garden).  This is inscribed “Mrs Davidson to C Hodgson, her guest, Kew Green” which give us two vital clues.  Firstly the presence of recipient’s surname means that she can be identified as Caroline Hodgson.  But crucially we now know that Mrs Davidson must have been living on Kew Green.

So, with all that evidence as to their names, can we discover more about them and is there a story behind all this?

The process of the discovery of what follows is a whole story in itself, but I’ll let readers click on each image and read the comments on Flickr to find out about that.  I’ll just summarise the end results here.

Mrs Elizabeth Henrietta Davidson (nee Philipps) lived on Kew Green (I believe what is now number 71*) with her husband, the prominant lawyer Septimus Davidson. Septimus was present at the last public hanging in 1868, but had also been responsible in part for the excavation of the Snape Boat Grave in Suffolk in 1862.

The 1871 census shows them living on Kew Green with nine children and four staff.

They had married in Cheltenham in 1846, and this is where the connection to Caroline Hodgson comes in. It appears that Elizabeth and Caroline had been neighbours in Berkeley Place, Cheltenham. Elizabeth, although born c. 1823 in India, spent some of her childhood at number 3 Berkeley Place and Caroline lived at number 5, not just at that time but at various points in her life.

So, it is clear that they were friends from the time that they had lived there, and that that friendship continued throughout their lives, even when they moved apart.  I wonder if Caroline was living at 5 Berkeley Place in June 1865, and this very letterbox is the one that these lovely images were posted through over 145 years ago?

* as one final twist to the story, there’s a little uncertainty whether the Davidsons lived at 71 or 73 Kew Green, as the one census that the Davidsons appear in, in 1871, appears to be missing one property between the ones that are identifiable based on house names – Abingdon House on the corner of Ferry Road, and the Rose and Crown pub, about ten doors along. But for various reasons that I won’t go into, my money is on 71!

I should just add that particular credit goes to Flickr member EastMarple1 for much of the detailed research that led to the discovery of the information behind this post.

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