IN THE BLANCHES:
(Last Update - 1/25/04)
|hen I was growing up in Southern California my family made frequent trips from San Bernardino to visit my grandmothers in Pasadena just east of Los Angeles. We called my father's mother "Little Grandma" because of her diminutive stature and to distinguish her from "Nana" my mother's mother, who was considerably taller. Little Grandma lived in a large, rambling two-story house with an enormous backyard, an elaborate fish pond populated by various ceramic gnomes, a separate flat occupied by my Uncle Norman and his wife, Emma, and a garage the size of a barn. Coming from our brand-new, suburban tract house Little Grandma's house, with its dark stairwells, four-poster beds, and exotic artifacts was like being transported to an Old World castle. And, of course, in many ways it was, for Little Grandma was very English. She had been born in England and had only come to the United State in 1920 with her two sons and her Swiss husband, Adolf Müller.|
|As a kid I never heard much about Little
Grandma's origins aside from the fact that she had been born in London, had met my
grandfather in Cairo, and had lived with him in Switzerland for about a dozen years
before immigrating to California. Most of the family stories and most of the "old
country" furnishings that adorned the Pasadena castle had to do with Switzerland
or Egypt. When Little Grandma died in 1960 I knew little more about her than that
her maiden name had been Alice Mary Blanche and that, according to my uncle Norman,
her father had been "Scotch" and a member of the British Royal Navy.
So it was a complete surprise, when in 1999 in the Family Records Centre in London, I discovered the name and birth place of Grandma Blanche's father. It has been an ever-increasing thrill to uncover, with the help of vital records, old censuses, internet resources, and email correspondence with 4th and 5th cousins living in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., the story presented below.
The name of Alice Blanche's father was Thomas "Blance",
originally spelled without the "h". Thomas Blance was born in 1842 in Shetland,
the northernmost part of Great Britain, 100 miles north of Scotland and just below
the Arctic Circle. Tom was the youngest of five children born to Robert Blance and
|Thomas Blance's early years were spent in Calback, a small community of some fifteen families on Mainland, Shetland's largest island.6 Calback was7 located at the far north of Mainland in Delting Parish on the northeastern shore of the Sullom Voe, the longest and widest inlet of the North Atlantic cutting into the Shetland Islands. Shetland is a beautiful but austere land. It is cool, moist, windy and in the depth of winter graced with only six hours of sun a day. Raising any crops beside potatoes here is difficult but fortunately the North Sea has blessed Shetland with an abundance of fish, and it was fishing that formed the base of the economy.|
|For most of the18th and 19th centuries the kind of fishing practiced
in Shetland was extremely arduous. "Haaf" or deep-sea fishing required
the men to row 40 to 50 miles from shore in open boats, 25 to 30 feet long, to catch
ling and cod with lines 7 to 8 miles long and bearing more than 1000 baited hooks.8
The haaf season lasted from May through August and during this time the men usually made two trips a week, sometimes going without sleep for two nights at a time and surviving on only water and oat cakes. Once the catch was landed the fish were sold at a fixed, artificially depressed price to the landlord who owned the land where the fisherman lived. The fishermen were then free to spend the money they had earned at shops run by the same Scottish lairds. It was a hopelessly oppressive system, leaving most Shetlander deeply in debt.9
Reminiscences of a Voyage to Shetland,
|During the 1830s the Blance's life in Shetland was poor but tolerable.
Like most of the men of Calback Tom Blance's father, Robert, made his living primarily
as a fisherman and secondarily as a crofter (tenant farmer), with his wife and three
daughters supplementing the family income by knitting. The women were not able to
help with the haaf fishing, however, and Robert had always hoped for sons to assist
with fishing and other heavy work. When Peter was born in 1839 and then Thomas in
1842 there came the hope that the Blance's lot would improve, but the 1840s brought
deepening problems. There was increased pressure from the Shetland landlords to subdivide
the crofts and between 1846 and 1849 the same infamous blight that ravaged Ireland
ruined Shetland's potato harvests.11 Then in 1853101 Robert died leaving the croft and a mountain of debt to his wife, three
teenage girls, and two young boys.
Thrust thus into manhood at an early age, Tom and his brother Peter tried as best they could to fill the void left by the loss of their father. Although still too young for haaf fishing the boys were quite capable of helping their mother and sisters with the hundred-and-one other things that were always in need of doing around the croft. Plus, they were fortunate to have the support of four experienced uncles living in Calback. Two of Robert's younger brothers, Magnus Blance and Scollay Blance, and their families lived nearby, as did the large families of two of mother Ann brothers, Alex Laurenson and Laurence Laurenson. And then there were the cousins! In contrast to life today in the 21st century, when Tom Blance was young he would have called just about every one in his world "Aunt" or "Uncle" or "Cousin." Of the 67 residents of Calback enumerated in the 1851 British Census 43 were Blances and 19 were Laurensons from the family of Tom's mother. The Gray family was the only exception to this tribal pattern, and in later years they too married into the Laurenson clan.
ï both Peter and Tom went on to work with wood - perhaps they began to learn the skills on the beach in Shetland.
ïTom would have been 14 (and old enough to begin to exert pressure on his mam to geng ta da fishin) in 1856, three years after his father's hypothesized death.
ïEven though much of the Calback economy would have been a barter/subsistence economy, they would have needed cash to pay the rent (ca. £3.0/year) and for that they would have needed male contribution from da fishin.
|During his tour of duty Tom served on the same ship with Richard Sauvage, an experienced seaman and shipwright from London. Henry had come from a long line of British sailors and he entertained Tom on many evenings with tales of various Sauvage mariners, including one who had served with Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Tragalgar, another who had been a pirate, and yet another unsavory character who Henry claimed had been a "blackbirder", meaning the captain of a slave ship.31When they came ashore in London Tom would be a frequent visitor to the Sauvage home in Bromley, a dockside community in London's East End.|
|Richard Sauvage was a bachelor whose earnings went to support his widowed mother, Mary Ann.32 His younger brother, Henry, a seaman, and his younger sister, Margaret33 also lived at home in Bromley. During these visits in the 1860s Tom took a fancy to Margaret. She was just 21 when he proposed marriage in 1869 and they were married the following year.34|
|Tom and Margaret set up house on the west side of Poplar just north of East India Dock Road in a small two-room appartmen35 but since Tom was away at sea much of the time, Margaret still spent much of her time on the other side of town, with her mother in Bromley. In fact, it was there, that their first two children were born36. A son was born in 1871. They named him Robert Henry37, after Tom's father back in Shetland and after Margaret's brother, Henry, who had brought Tom and Margaret together. With the birth of their first child they adopted the more common spelling of Thomas' surname -- "Blance." Two years later their first daughter was born; they named her Andrina38 after Tom's older sister back in Shetland. After Andrina's birth, the Blanches entered a period of relative stability in an otherwise difficult East London existence. They moved across the street to a house at 124 Canton St., Poplar. It was a humble, working-class neighborhood dominated by a variety of ship building, warehousing, dockside, and animal products businesses40 but one described as "fairly comfortable"39 and not as deeply mired in poverty and crime as other Tower Hamlets neighborhoods, such as Stepney, Bethnal Green, and Whitechapel, that bordered it.|
|An author of the time described a nearby Poplar street as "stretched out in an endless procession, as alike as peas in a pod, with no individuality whatever. Each front window was draped with lace curtains looped back sufficiently to reveal an aspidistra in an art pot bravely facing whatever light might penetrate the dark interior of the parlour, made still more dark by the venetian blinds...Each front door was exactly like its neighbour. The street was deadly monotonous in appearance."40|
|Four more daughters were born at the Canton St. house in Poplar; Margaret Ann in 1875, named both for her mother, Margaret Sauvage, and for Tom's mother, Ann Laurenson, back in Shetland; Alice Mary, my grandmother was born in 1879; Lilian Ursula, born in 1881 and named after her aunt Ursula Blance from Shetland; and Elizabeth Sauvage born in 1883.41||
|Although life was fairly stable while the Blanches were at the Canton St. house, it was quite crowded. In order to afford it, the eight Blanches had to pool resources with two other families -- the Hallet family and the Palmer family. Ben Hallet was a local shipwright that Tom knew from work on the docks. He occupied a portion of the flat with his wife and two children. Charlotte Palmer was a missionary, who also lived at Canton St., along with her adult daughter, Eliza.42|
|Shortly after my grandmother, Alice's birth in 1879 Tom's career as a seaman was cut short. He was returning to ship one night after having a few too many in a local pubHe caught his foot in an anchor chain and was hauled overboardAfter they pulled him out he was taken to the Poplar Hospital for Accidents but his leg was broken and when it healed it was found to be shorter than the other. No longer a perfect specimen for the Royal Navy he was retired on a pensionFrom that point on he supplemented the pension as house painter, a store keeper and as a wood carver.43 His skill as a woodcarver gained him quite a reputation and, ironically, he was best known for making cleverly carved wooden chains.44|
|After bearing five straight girls Margaret gave birth to another boy, Thomas, in 188545, and then to another, Arthur, in 188846. Life had become increasingly difficult for the 10 Blanches by this time. They moved first to Bromley and in 1888 to Plaistow on the east side of the River Lea47. Then, when Alice was just eleven years old, the bottom fell out of the Blanches' lives. After Arthur's birth Margaret became increasingly weak and was soon diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1890, leaving Tom to raise eight children between the ages of 2 and 19.48|
The older children tried to help their father as much as they were able. Robert, 19, had already begun work on the docks when his mother died and Andrina, 17, brought in a few shillings as one of three domestic servants in the grand home Mrs. Kate Lenior on East India Dock Road just around the corner from the Blance's old house on Canton St,49 Fortunately, Tom's Royal Navy pension allowed him to stay at home most of the time with the youngest children, Thomas, 5, and Arthur, 2, and the four middle girls were attended during the day while at school. Tom's style of fatherhood, however, was rather loose. Alice often told the story of a day not long after Margaret's death when the younger boys were home with their father in his woodshop. Arthur, always curious about the workings of his father's machinery poked his finger a bit to close to one of them and lost a digit. Amidst Arthur's plaintive wails and the gasps of the other children Tom calmly plucked the finger tip out of the sawdust bin and reattached it with some adhesive tape and later hauled Arthur off to the local surgeon. Under the bandage the doctor proclaimed that the finger appeared to be setting well, but Tom secretly worried during the weeks that it was under wraps whether he had attached it with the nail side up or down. Fortunately, Tom's emergency instincts had been correct and the finger healed properly, always a bit stiff but anatomically correct. 50 One can only imagine Margaret spinning in her grave to have witnessed all this from the other side.
Alice, ca. 1895, Dundee
|In 1891, when Alice was 13, the Poplar Blances received a bit of unexpected help from Tom's kin in Scotland. Tom's older brother, Peter, wrote offering to have Alice come live with his family in Leith. Peter had been working as a ship carpenter in the Leith shipyards on the edge of Edinburgh since 1870 51, and he had experienced his own heavy dose of family tragedies there. In 1871, his first wife Barbara from Shetland, had died 52 while giving birth to their son, Peter Jr. In 1879 Peter remarried, this time to a local woman from Edinburgh, Annie McDowell53, but in 1888, she died too54. It would have been nearly impossible for Peter to have raised the three children alone, if it had not been for the help of his mother who had moved from Shetland after life alone in Calback became too difficult.55 Peter's sisters, Ursula and Andrina, who also had moved from Shetland and worked as domestic servants in several establishments in South Leith were nearby as well.56 So, when Peter learned of his brother Tom's plight in London he responded immediately and suggested that Alice travel to Edinburgh to join his family and attend high school there.57|
|In his letter Peter emphasized that Alice would fit easily into his new family since he had remarried again and his wife, Jessie, had two children of Alice's age from a former marriage and that she and Peter had recently given birth to twins.58,59,60|
Return to London
|When Alice finished high school and returned to Poplar from her sojourn
with the Edinburgh Blances she was 18. Her oldest sister, Andrina, had opened a beauty
parlour in Poplar and offered to train Alice in the trade, so it was then that she
began to learn the skills that would support her in London and later in Paris and
the United States.61
Although only four years had passed since Alice had left for Scotland, much had changed in London - an occasional motor car was seen in the streets, electric lights were more common, Queen Victoria had celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and just west of Poplar on the Thames, the Tower Bridge had been inaugurated.
|Life in the Blance household, however, was much the same as when she
had left. It was still Tom's Royal Naval pension that provided the main support for
the family, and it was still an open question whether on payday all the money would
arrive safely at home.
On one particular payday in the midst of a snowstorm Tom is reported to have visited the pay master and headed home by way of the fish market and a local pub. At the fish market he purchased a large frozen fish for supper and proceeded to his favorite pub for a pint or two. At the pub he was joined by an old mate of his. He laid out the fish on the bar and his coins in several little piles, designating one for rent, one for food, one for himself, etc. After a few drinks Tom got up briefly to use the WC only to find on his return that his money had disappeared. Figuring he knew where his erstwhile friend was headed, he slung the frozen fish over his shoulder and headed out into street. When he caught up with the thief he demanded his pay back and smashed him upside the head with the fish. Within minutes a constable arrived on the scene to find Tom's coins strewn about and the thief dead in the snow. The evidence thus displayed, the death seems to have been attributed to street justice for Tom was never charged with a crime.62
Margaret Blanche Shelton, 190065
|During the late 1890s Alice's sister, Margaret, worked as a sewing
machine operator for a local clothing manufacturer.63 She was working there in 1899 when she met Frederick Shelton, a young warehouseman63 who had grown up
in the Poplar area as well.64 On July 22, 1900 Margaret and Fred were married at the Church of St. Stephen
in the old neighborhood with much of the Blanche family in attendance, including
Alice and Thomas Sr. as witnesses.63 The new couple took up residence at 12
Pekin St,63 just a block from where Margaret had been born and it was here that they
began their family.
After Margaret's wedding and the turn of the century the Blance records trails grows cold. Only Alice's stories survive. From those stories we know that Alice worked in her sister, Andrina's, hair salon for several years and then, somewhere after the turn of the century, traveled to Paris for specialized training in hair dying and the manufacture of wigs or "transformations" as she called them. She may have intended to return to London after her training, but while in Paris she accepted a position as a paid companion to a rich young woman who was traveling to Egypt. After arriving in Egypt she was hired as a governess for the children of an English family and had to resist the advances of an Egyptian sheik who "offered to make her the number one lady in his harem."
|It is unclear exactly when all this occurred, but by 1905-06 Alice had met Adolf Arthur Müller a Swiss businessman, who was working in a bank in Cairo. They fell in love amd at that point Alice apparently lost any inclination she might have still had to return to London They were married in Paris and returned to live in Switzerland near Adolf's family by 1907 or 1908. There they had two sons, Norman and Leo, and in 1920 they emigrated to the United States.|
The fate of Alice's seven siblings is not known. Alice told her sons that two of her brothers had died in World War I, sunk by a German U-boat, and that the other brother had emigrated to Canada to become a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The names of these various brothers was never specified. Likewise, no specifics were ever related about her sisters; so it came as complete surprise to learn in 1999 that she had two younger sisters in addition to the the older sister(s) who had trained her.
Given the size of the family and the large number of potential records that still could be investigated (1891 census, 1901 census, other marriage records, possible birth records from the Margaret Blanche-Frederick Shelton marriage, city directory information, police/newspaper records from the Tom Blance frozen fish incident, Royal Navy pension and death records, etc.), it should be possible to trace the fates of at least some of Alice's siblings. That story and the possibility that we have Blanche cousins living in London, however, will have to await future research.
There is very little about Thomas Blanche and his family that we know for fact. What I have written here will be an evolving story. It should not be viewed so much as a history but as a developing historical fiction, a framework for reconstructing the Blanche-Sauvage family of late Victorian London, Poplar and what happened to the descendants. It is based upon a variety of family stories (mostly related by Norman Miller, the son of Alice Blanche) combined with a developing body of documentary facts (vital records, census records, etc.). Inevitably as more facts are discovered the reconstruction will change, and as will be noted above, the story stops short a full century ago.
2Birth dates came from a search of the online International Genealogical Index (IGI), on the Family Search site, http://www.familysearch.org
3 Death dates came from correspondence with Alan Beattie, a Blance 5th cousin in an England and a recently created Blance web site, http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/t/h/o/Karen-B-Thomas, created by Karen Blance Thomas, a Blance 5th cousin from new York.
7 Calback no longer exists, having been destroyed in 1975 after the discovery of North Sea oil to the northeast of Shetland and the construction of the Sullom Voe Oil Facility which was created to accommodate the tankers (Alan Beattie email, 7/99).
31 Norman Miller often repeated this as a story that his mother Alice Blance Miller had told him. He remembered it well because he was something of a swashbuckler himself. He also lamented that he used to have a folding secretary (writing desk) that had been aboard with the ancestor who sailed with Nelson but that in a fit of generosity he had given it to his attorney sometime during the 1980s.
On the other hand, I was not able to find the Mary Ann Sauvage household in the 1871 census (when Margaret had married Tom), and I have not yet been able to search for the 1861 census when Margaret would still have been at home with her mother.
35 125 Canton St., Poplar according
to the 1871 (April) census.
40 E.M. Page East London Papers (quoted in bu Isobel Watson in "Poplar
1914 Old Ordnance Survey Maps, London Sheet 65"
50 This was one of the standard family stories that Leo and Norman Miller often repeated from their mother's original telling. She did not specify the chronological context when the event occurred nor that it was specifically Arthur. It seems likely to me that the story would have occurred during a time when vigilance was lack (after Margaret's death) and
52 ScotsOrigins online record, www.scotsorigins.com
54 ScotsOrigins online record, www.scotsorigins.com
57 That Alice attended high school is Scotland was repeated often by her son, Norman Miller. He said nothing about her visiting relative there and he never mentioned Leith or Edinburgh. In fact, one time he said that "she went to high school in Dundee, Scotland." However, I suspect that that statement was based on the fact the studio photograph shown above of Alice as teenager is impressed with "Dundee" and that he simply interpreted the place as Dundee. My searches for evidence of Blances in Dundee using ScotsOrigins have been unsuccessful, so I'm assuming that Alice lived with her relatives in Leith/Edinburgh and simply had the opportunity at some point to have a photograph taken in Dundee. On the other hand, further research may reveal that a completely different story.
Conjecture = that the sister was Andrina, that she actually owned the shop, that it was in Poplar.
63 Marraige Certificate for Margaret Ann Blanche and Frederick James Shelton, 22 July 1900. The certificate lists Margaret as a "Machinist." I have interpreted this to mean a sewing machine operator, probably in a clothing shop.
64 The Fredrick James Shelton-Margaret Blance Marriage Certificate shows that Frederick James would have been born in 1872 and that his father was "Edwin Shelton." The 1881 census shows the household of Edwin Shelton in Aldgate (to the west of Poplar) with a son born in 1872 named "James F. Shelton."
65 It is unclear whether this is a photo of Andrina or Margaret Blance. It was identified by Norman Miller simply as "one of mother's sisters back in London." I judge it to be Margaret because the white gown could be her wedding dress.
101 Robert's date and cause of death are unknown. He is enumerated in the 1851 census and absent in the1861 census. Although Robert's date of death could have been anytime during this 10 year period, I have placed it at 1853 because it is consistent with the mounting list of stresses that overcame Calback and Tom's family durin the 1850s and eventually caused all but mother Ann and sister Ursella to emigrate by 1861.
Miller Home Page