Ela and Rosamond Talbot –A brief snapshot of their lives
Ela Therese Talbot, born 1836, and Rosamond Constance Talbot, born 1837, were two of four children born to William Henry Fox Talbot and his wife Constance. These two young ladies were born into a wealthy family at a time of huge changes in Great Britain. Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the railways were expanding in Britain and abroad, industrialisation was taking place and the Great Exhibition opened in May 1851.
Ela and Rosamond were educated at home by their mother and a governess named Amelina Petit de Billier. She had been the governess to William Henry Fox Talbot when he was a boy and after a period of time back in France, which was her original home, she was asked to return to the family to become a companion to Fox Talbot's wife and children. She spoke French, Italian and German. She was an accomplished musician and played the piano and the harp. Amelina's harp is still kept at Lacock Abbey. This talented lady was also an excellent artist and could draw and paint. Ela and Rosamond were very lucky to have this lady in their household and she stayed with the household until she died in 1876.
Although born into comfortable circumstances these two young ladies were aware that their lives were not the lives that everyone lived and that there was much poverty in Britain both in cities and in rural areas. Their father had been a Liberal MP for Chippenham, between 1832 and 1835, and there was much talk in their household about how housing and working conditions should be made better for all working people.
Between 1st May 1851 to 11th October 1851 The Great Exhibition took place as a showcase of the arts, manufacturing, industrial technology and design of Britain. As the Fox Talbot family were interested in all these areas it is highly likely that they were one of the six million people, equivalent to a third of the population, that visited the Exhibition.
In September 1852 the death of the Duke of Wellington was announced and his spectacular funeral took place in November 1852. He was a grand hero of England's bygone Romantic age which finally and decisively gave way to the pressures of commodity, celebrity and spectacle that would characterise the increasingly modern tone of Victorian England. Two of the large candlesticks which were used in Wellington's funeral were also used in the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965.
In later life Ela and Rosamond worked in various areas in London doing charity and parish work and very much admired the work that Miss Octavia Hill was doing. She was a Quaker and later in life went on help found The National Trust. She worked tirelessly to increase building decent housing for workers. She realised better housing would mean better living conditions and therefore better health.
She also pressed businesses to pay their workers higher wages so that they could buy food for their children. In one letter home to Lacock Abbey Rosamond mentions the many drunks in London and that no one knows what to do with them. She says "the utmost we can achieve is to warn those who are slipping into these habits of the danger". She went on to say that she "sincerely wishes all women were abstainers as they have so many troubles and difficulties enough to contend with".
Whilst working in London Rosamond and Ela lived at 42 Grosvenor Road. Ela loved to grow hyacinths as she enjoyed their scent. The girls loved being on the river and enjoyed the fact that they could come onto the balcony at night and watch the lights of the barges as they travelled up and down the Thames. The Tate Gallery now stands on this site.
Due to expansions in travelling Ela and Rosamond were able to travel widely in Britain and abroad. They were both very interested in art, architecture and history and visited Italy, France and Germany. There are various letters home to family members at Lacock Abbey or wherever they were visiting. They wrote about the weather, the stars, the architecture, the visits made to various churches and buildings of interest. They met other members of the extended family in various countries and compared notes about hotels and houses they had stayed in. Charles, their brother, was also travelling at one point and although the sisters recommended that he go via Holland to see the hyacinths he decided to go to the River Rhine. The girls said they thought the river would have been dismal at that time of the year and were glad they had not seen it like that. They also visited Denmark and Norway. They were both accomplished artists – Ela preferred drawing and painting plants and flowers and Rosamond preferred landscapes and architecture. They bought many items whilst travelling and had them shipped home.
Their letters mentioned the weather, talked about storms, lightening, heavy rain, snow and frost. Not much seemed to stop these two ladies travelling anywhere. They clearly felt very safe and trains arrived and left on time so they could almost guarantee when they would arrive at their destinations. In one letter from Rosamond she mentions that the Chapel in Padua is kept shut and wonders why the tourists don't complain about it. In another letter written to Charles she asks what he thought about the city of Nuremberg as she had heard it was a most interesting old city.
In September 1877 following a letter from Rosamond to Charles, who was in London, stating how ill their father was, Charles returned home to be with his father and family a few days before his father died.
In June 1887 the whole country celebrated Queen Victoria's Jubilee, fifty years on the throne. Ela wrote to Charles at Lacock Abbey telling him that she and Rosamond had secured seats, through the Archdeacon, in a covered area in St Margaret's Church yard – she enquired what arrangements had been made for the celebrations in Lacock. There were celebrations in Lacock village and the local press wrote an article and took some pictures showing bunting being put up in the village.
In 1893 Ela became seriously ill with influenza and died in April following a severe attack and very high temperature. She is buried at Lacock Abbey.
Following Ela's death Rosamond moved to a smaller flat nearer to her work and Westminster Abbey where she went every Sunday.
In later life following a request from her brother Charles she went back to live at Lacock Abbey and help him. He was not a very robust person and needed help with his work and looking after the Abbey and the estate.
Rosamond died in April 1906 of heart problems while she was visiting Italy. She is buried in the Campo Santo between the cypresses and the sea in a spot which then was very beautiful and untouched.
The letters between the various family members show a very close family who were caring about each other. As well as communicating interesting information to each other they also conveyed all the mundane every day things which happen to all families.
These two ladies lived very privileged and interesting lives in a time when they could just have occupied themselves with painting and sewing and music. But they chose to travel here in Britain and abroad and increase their knowledge and experiences and therefore had a very wide range of interests and accomplishments. I think the word indomitable would describe them very well.
Jackie Butler (volunteer)