A Victorian lady, a siege and a forgotten school
by Adrian Bean
We often have a stereotypical view of all things Victorian. In photos, the men are straight-laced with fashionable muttonchop whiskers, dark clothes and have an aura of high seriousness. The women are silent and anonymous, rarely known for much more than keeping in their place and producing children. But of course, behind those images the women might have been enthusiastic activists and acknowledged as such in their time.
One such woman was Annette Sparks. Her memorial is very noticeable: a large cross set in a plot too large for just one person and with a tree that is gradually taking over. It’s next to the well-used path that runs parallel to Bedford Park, so many people must have read the inscription:
He Giveth His Beloved Sleep
ST AGNES SCHOOL BEDFORD
I suspect that no passers-by will have heard of this school that seems to have been the most important thing in her life, and most, if they think about her at all, will have categorised her as “perhaps just another schoolteacher. Nothing special.”
Well, not many mere schoolteachers would have had a funeral service in a packed St Paul’s church, attended not just by her family, friends (and servants) but also by many of the “Great and the Good” of the town, such as the Higgins family, clergy from many denominations and by the respected community worker and deaconess, Sister Fanny Eagles. Notice of the funeral was advertised in the London Evening Standard…itself an indication that this was someone to be respected.
After the service at St Paul’s, she was buried in a brick-lined grave at Foster Hill Road cemetery. The grave was intended to be big enough to take a second burial, possibly for her sister Ellen. Grave ref I2 94.
From a well-to-do family, she had for many years been a parish visitor and church worker for St Paul’s church. Although there is no firm evidence for this, it’s quite possible that she was one of Sister Fanny’s Associates in her social work with the poor of the town, especially around St Paul’s. This involved helping the sick as well as holding mothers’ meetings and organising elementary education for the poor.
In particular, according to her obituary, she was “a generous supporter and superintendent of St Agnes School, Castle Hill, Bedford.” This was originally a militia depot, and was used by the Bunyan Meeting as a Sunday School from 1848 until 1866, when it was bought by George Higgins. Annette Sparks used it as an Elementary School from 1877, and it was used for religious purposes until 1914 when it became a billiard hall. For some time the Higgins used it as a kitchen space, and from 1949 as a gallery, office and educational activity area. It was then developed as a hexagonal gallery housing the William Burges collection in the modern day Higgins complex.
So was she just a Victorian “do-gooder” or was there more? There was.
During the Franco-Prussian war, she was one of the British subjects besieged in Paris by the invading Prussian army between 1870 and 1871. Although the Prussians were quite capable of taking the city, they held off and besieged it for four months, with the population gradually running out of food, until the French surrendered. Conditions in the city were desperate.
Zoo animals were eaten, including two elephants. Horses, dogs, cats and rats were used as human food, as shown on restaurant menus.
* Consommé de cheval au millet. (Horse)
* Brochettes de foie de chien à la maître d’hôtel. (Dog)
* Emincé de rable de chat. Sauce mayonnaise. (Cat)
* Epaules et filets de chien braisés. Sauce aux tomates. (Dog)
* Civet de chat aux champignons. (Cat)
* Côtelettes de chien aux petits pois. (Dog)
* Salamis de rats. Sauce Robert. (Rats)
* Gigots de chien flanqués de ratons. Sauce poivrade. (Dog, rats)
* Begonias au jus. (Flowers)
* Plum-pudding au rhum et à la Moelle de Cheval. (Horse)
Annette and her sister Ellen were members of the British Charitable Fund, set up to relieve distressed British citizens in Paris, and as such she visited and helped provide finance for people to survive, especially those who were ill. In all, 1600 were helped in this way, including 80 directly by the group of Rev. Dr. T W Smyth, of which she was a member. He was the British Chaplain in Paris, made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, and later became rector of Steppingley. Both sisters were well respected for their work as nurses during the siege.
And what of the photograph? It shows members of Sir Richard Wallace’s Charitable Fund group during the Paris siege. He was a generous philanthropist, financing the costs of field hospitals for the French as well as British nationals. His family’s extensive collection of artwork was given to the nation on his death in 1890, and he was buried in Paris.
In the photograph, the men have whiskers and dark clothes and look serious. The women have clothes that might be appropriate for a funeral, but they look determined and not out of place in such a group photo to mark the happenings of 1870/71. Ellen and Annette are arm in arm.
Significantly, they are actually included in this group of important men…indicating that they were considered worthy of inclusion, and not just people who should know their place and have children.
As a footnote, Annette seems to have had a rather broken family life. She was one of ten children born to Sarah and Thomas Hougham Sparks in the space of twelve years between 1825 and 1837. Described on Census records as “gentleman,” he had “a lewd and adulterous connection” with Amelia Box who lived next door. Amelia already had a family of many daughters and he married her in 1838. With her, he had another seven children. It’s not clear from the records, but he may well have divorced Sarah with the condition that neither should remarry if the other party was still alive. However, one record shows that he changed his surname to Seymour before he married Amelia. They lived mainly in France and Belgium, before moving to Jersey and then Hampshire. Thomas’ parents lived in Paris, and his first wife Sarah Sparks died in Paris in 1871, so there is the interesting possibility that during the Paris siege, there was contact between members of this large family, including Annette and Ellen…did they get on well, or was there still animosity? We’ll never know.
Research by Adrian Bean and Bob Ricketts
Sources: Bedfordshire Mercury
London Evening Standard
The Wallace Collection
Many thanks to Pamela Birch of Bedfordshire archives and staff at Bedford Central Library
October 01, 2023
September 02, 2023
August 21, 2023