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Part Three: The Briggs Sisters

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 19/03/2021 11:47:23

To recognise and celebrate Women’s History Month, this blog will acquaint us with the Briggs sisters, the aunts of last month’s subject Mary Butts, and described by her as “accomplished, gifted, travelled women.” 

Sarah Ann Ellis married James Briggs in 1859. They went on to have five daughters: Ada Elizabeth (1862-1951), Mary Jane (1863-1944), Emma Irlam (1867-1951), Ebba Monica (1871-1901) and Agnes Everildus (1872-1940).  The Reverend James Briggs died in 1874, in Bournemouth, leaving his wife and daughters, who would remain together, with only Mary Jane going on to marry and have a family of her own - Mary Butts and her brother Anthony. 

By 1891 Sarah and four of her daughters are living at Milnthorpe, on what would later become Alton Road.  Mary Butts describes Milnthorpe in her memoir The Crystal Cabinet; as “a large comfortable house of peculiar architectural dreadfulness. Glorious in situation, built on a sandy hill, its front door filled with coloured glass and reached by a flight of balustraded steps.  But from each of its comfortable, shabby, sun-steeped rooms you looked out on to a scene of extraordinary splendour, at the utmost expanse of Poole Harbour and the Purbeck Hills.” 

Mary Butts portrayed her aunts in The Crystal Cabinet.  She wrote that her aunt Irlam was “on her way to becoming a painter of distinction.”  From the little evidence that can be pieced together it is possible to perceive that Irlam was a talented painter. The Art UK website reveals: 

The artist, who went by the name Irlam, was trained first in Bournemouth and then went on to South Kensington, and also studied in France and the British Royal Academy. Due to childhood measles, Irlam was partially deaf and used an ear trumpet when conversing. Irlam Briggs painted many of her family members, including her other sister Ada.”  Three of her paintings can be seen here: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/briggs-emma-irlam-18671950  

The Index to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, found here: https://chronicle250.com/ reveals that Irlam Briggs exhibited in four different years: 

  • 1892 Petronell, daughter of Mr and Mrs Francis Barrett 

  • 1893 - My Sister Agnes

  • 1894 - The Lost Bower 

  • 1901 - Elizabeth, second daughter of King Charles I, dies Sept 8, 1650 

Mary Butts vividly conjures up her aunt Irlam’s portrait of her sister Agnes, now called The Violinist https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-violinist-58322  “Aunt Agnes, just grown up, in a dress of copper velvet and a sash of copper silk, her red curls strung with sunlight, the wood of her instrument glowing, her blue eyes bright with music.”  Agnes was talented in her own right, as an amateur violinist, and was known to give public concerts. 

In 1901 a tragedy befell the family when Monica drowned in a pond close to their home.  She was described in the newspaper as “the light of the house” and by her niece Mary Butts as “vivid, gifted, gay.”  The Bournemouth Echo reported an open verdict from the inquest. Monica was fond of botany and would search the ponds for weeds and it was surmised that when doing this she may have fainted, leaving her family heartbroken.   

The 1911 census lists the family all together at Milnthorpe.  In 1919 Irlam is mentioned in the Western Gazette, she contributed a painting to the reopened chapel at the Missions to Seamen in Poole.  “A feature of the decoration of the chapel […] is an oil painting of Christ walking on the sea, the work and gift of Miss Irlam Briggs, of Parkstone. […] The picture itself bears the inscription ‘in memory of brave Seamen’, with the words beneath, ‘it is I, be not afraid.’” 

1919 was also a significant year for Ada Briggs, the favourite aunt of Mary Butts, who depicts her as “a deeply intelligent and cultured woman, with a genius for teaching, encouraging, solving the difficulties of small children.”  She goes on, “she never married, pouring out to this day her unstinted usefulness on a neighbourhood.” And ruminates, “I know no more grievous loss to the world than what it has forgone in the narrow scope and under-employment it has offered such women.”  However, in 1919, Ada became Poole’s first woman councillor.  The Bournemouth Guardian declared that the Poole no. 6 ward was won by Miss Ada Briggs, an independent candidate and “hon. Secretary of the East Dorset Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers.”  In 1927 Irlam painted Ada’s portrait’ Ada E.Briggs, Poole’s First Woman Councillor, 1919-1925.  Ada Briggs also had a novel published. 

Sarah Annie Briggs died in 1924 at the age of 92.  By 1939 her daughters are no longer living together at Milnthrope, but have their own homes in Parkstone, Ada in Rossmore Avenue, Irlam in Balmoral Road and in 1940 Agnes dies in Devon.  The story of the Briggs sisters is fascinating and illustrates how small pieces of women’s lives can be pieced together from a number of different sources.   

I would like to thank Charlie Lord for their help and guidance with newspaper articles and the family tree.   




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