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The Misses Hart of Saffron Walden

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The Saffron Walden Historical Journal was launched in 2001 by the Saffron Walden Historical Society and all issues to date have been kept in print. It is now proposed to discontinue reprints of the early issues and instead provide the articles online, via the Recorders of Uttlesford website. Articles are reproduced by kind permission of the authors and remain the copyright of the Journal. Their publication on this website does not constitute permission to copy into any other medium, without the express permission of the Editor, who can be contacted through this website. Permission will normally be granted for non-commercial usage. The articles may be used for educational and research purposes by bona fide researchers. They can be found either under the place to which they relate or, if covering a wider area, under the Uttlesford history section. Further articles will be added twice a year, but only several years after original publication. Those wishing to contact the authors can do so via the editor. Please note that in most cases the original illustrations are not included but can be seen by consulting the original journals held at Saffron Walden Town Library.

Jacqueline Cooper, Editor

Article from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 2 (2002)

The Misses Hart of Saffron Walden

by Jacqueline Cooper & Marcia Abcarian


The story of Hart's is well known: of how Henry Hart, a carpenter's son from Linton, was apprenticed as printer in 1814 to George Youngman in Market Hill, Saffron Walden; and of how he bought his own printing press in 1836 and set up a stationery shop.

Henry died in 1883 and son William carried on and diversified into musical instruments and fancy goods, then the business passed to his son Ernest, but declined and after his death, daughters Margaret and Barbara sold it to the Turnbull family, who still run it today. It is a tale of male entrepreneurial flair in the first generation, followed by consolidation in the second, decline in the third and break-up in the fourth generation, a familiar enough pattern in family firms.

Little is recorded of William, although there still exists a child's notebook, dated 1841, in which he copied some proverbs. Henry's grandson, Ernest is a better-known figure, through his activist involvement in Walden life, as a staunch Dissenter and strict Radical. This comes over very clearly in two tiny diaries, dated 1886 and 1887, donated a few years ago to Saffron Walden Museum archives. As a single young man in his mid-twenties, he recorded his activities with the local Liberals, dissenting chapels, the temperance movement, evening lectures, Masonic lodge meetings, social visits to the coffee tavern, outings, rambles, tricycle rides, violin lessons and much else.  At a time when Walden had no newspaper, his first-hand observations are valuable: Jubilee Day in June 1887, when 1500 children marched in procession around the town; the devastating fire at Copthall Buildings in July 1887, when 18 families lost their homes followed by another fire which burnt down Wesley Buildings in August. Electoral violence is detailed: gangs of 'roughs' constantly barracked the triumphing Liberals during the 1886 election campaign, and Ernest was physically thrown out of a meeting by  '6 drunken and inebriated half civilized Barbarians'. With a large business to run as well, Ernest was often 'very busy', but never too busy to record affectionate comments about his parents and siblings, their business trips, visits to relatives and holidays in Harwich. The Harts appear to have been a close, loving family.

What is less well known, as so often in history, is the female side of the story. William & Fannie Hart had at least nine children, of whom Henry died aged five and Arthur at 22. Likewise, one of the six daughters, Bertha, passed away aged only 15: 'Bertha sinking all day', recorded Ernest in his diary for 26 May 1887, 'Bertha died at 8.20 in the evening. Bertha’s death a very beautiful falling asleep. She died without a twinge, or a movement at all. RIP.' Town shops along the funeral route closed in respect for the tragic loss. The remaining five sisters, Fanny, Gertie, Effie, Annie (alias Nancy) and Agnes, far from being spoilt ladies of leisure, became working women, initially involved with the family firm in King Street which also sold musical instruments (at that time in the double-fronted building now a wine shop/shoe-shop).

The pretty and talented Hart girls must have been eyed by many a Harts apprentice and shop-boy. Gertie, a delicately attractive girl, with lighter hair and eyes than her sisters, also married into the retail stationery business, E.B. Henderson, and moved to Royston where Henderson's store became a landmark. The one sister who did not marry, Effie, helped by at least one of her sisters, ran a wool and fancy goods shop in the High Street, then at 26 Church Street (now Bush Antiques). In the family tradition, she was a staunch member of Abbey Lane chapel and as a young woman for many years served as a popular Sunday school teacher.

Fanny, the oldest, had grown up as childhood sweetheart to one of the Saffron Walden apprentices, William Harber, son of the Walden town missionary, but he emigrated to the Far West of America, arriving by stagecoach in Montana.  Five years later, however, Will returned for his 'estimable' bride: 'he determined to go back to England and claim the hand of his faithful sweetheart and bring her to adorn his mountain home', as the press put it. They were married in 1889 and sailed from Liverpool to New York, and thence out west. In Will Harber, Fanny had a man of special worth, 'one of the most loved men in Northern Montana… tender hearted and true'. Will owned and edited the River Press (their grandson, Bill Johnstone, became a noted athlete and university administrator in Montana, and visited Walden a few years ago.)

What was it like for this middle-class, well-bred young woman from a quiet English market town to go to one of the harshest albeit beautiful environments in the pioneering West, the remote outpost of Fort Benton? A vivid description has survived in a detailed travel log (now in Saffron Walden Museum) kept by Effie Hart, who also travelled to Montana in April 1898, apparently to emigrate, no doubt making use of the Gladstone bag given to her by a grateful Sunday school. It was an incredibly arduous journey, particularly for a young woman travelling alone, but Effie noted every detail with the eager eye of the traveller. Seen off by her family, she took the boat at Liverpool but soon after leaving Ireland, hit the worst storm for years and became very seasick: 'dreadfully rough, could hardly keep in my berth', she recorded. But eventually they passed the Statue of Liberty, and Effie disembarked to explore, though feeling lonely and lost. She provides an interesting picture of end-of-century New York, its immense buildings, its teeming humanity, noisy streets, overhead railways and electric trams, the amazing food ('they seem to eat butter with everything'), the 'wonderful' stores: 'they certainly beat the London shops into fits', she exclaimed, particularly struck by the largest store, Seigel Coopers where 'the bottom floor I am sure is nearly as large as the Common'.

Then it was time to board the train to Pittsburgh, thrilled by the luxurious cars with red plush seats, electric light, carpeted walkways and hot-water piped heating. En route she marvelled at streets hung with electric light on wires, at the best lavatories in America, at the 'graphophon', played by putting ten cents in the slot. She met 'very rough men on their way to Klondike' (the famous gold rush territory), coughed as a prairie fire filled the train with smoke, noted columns of black soldiers and the tents of an Indian settlement. Once she had to get out and take a terrifying walk across a fire-damaged bridge above a deep river with strong winds almost blowing her over, 'an experience which I hope I shall never have again'. Finally, after an exhausting, 16-day journey, Effie met Will and Fanny, 'not altered one bit', and, after another trip on rough roads, reached their home, 'Walden Lodge' in Fort Benton, beside the Missouri. Montana, vast and still little populated, the scene of 'Custer's Last Stand',  is known as the 'Big Sky Country', with spectacular panoramas, forests and rolling hills. Although she clearly intended to emigrate, something must have made Effie change her mind, for she is recorded back in Walden in 1901.

Back in Saffron Walden, Effie's younger sister Annie, usually known as Nancy, gave up helping in the family firm and married Herbert (Jack) Bunting. Unfortunately, Herbert's younger brother, Arthur, a bad-tempered, heavy drinker who lived in the same house in London, became obsessed with his sister-in-law. Herbert turned him out, and forbade him ever to speak to Nancy again. In October 1901, she visited her Walden relatives and then Agnes came up to spent a day with her sister, shopping in London. That was the last time they saw Nancy. After waving goodbye to Agnes at Liverpool Street station, Nancy was shocked to find Arthur waiting for her. However, she allowed him to accompany her to Blackfriars Station where Herbert, after finishing work (as shop walker in Spiers & Ponds photographic department in Queen Victoria Street), was waiting to take her home. All the way along, Arthur was threatening her life.

Herbert, having earlier been abused by his drunken brother while at work, was appalled when he saw Arthur with Nancy on the staircase to the platform, and told her she was forbidden to go with him: 'As I said this I looked at my brother and saw his right hand go stealthily down to his trousers pocket feeling about for something inside', Herbert reportedly told the press afterwards. 'I knew instantly what he was going to do, and I dashed forward toward my wife, who was about two yards away from me. At the same moment I saw him steadily raise his arm and simultaneously a flash and a report followed.' Without realising it, Herbert had also been shot at, but the bullet was deflected by a waistcoat button and embedded in a pocket-knife in his pocket: 'I felt nothing, however and grasping my wife's arm I began to run with her towards St Paul's station, shouting to her "Come Nancy come. We must run for our lives". Before she had time to turn he fired again and she put her hand to her breast and moaned "Oh! Jack, I'm shot". I caught her up in my arms and again he fired, and I felt her start and shudder as another bullet hit her in the back.' Herbert helped his wife to get away, and behind them in Queen Victoria Street, Arthur turned the gun on himself.

Poor Nancy was taken by taxi to Bart's Hospital, with wounds in her lungs and back. At first it seemed she might recover: ' When she opened her eyes I said to her "Nancy what was the cause of this?" She just had strength to reply "He was jealous of you living with me, Jack. He gave me five seconds to stay with you, or to come and live with him!" '. Arthur, he said, had a long-standing drinking problem, and was 'mad drunk' when he shot Nancy.  Her condition deteriorated and she died 10 days after the shooting. A huge wave of sympathy enveloped the Hart family, with 700 people gathering at Saffron Walden Cemetery for the funeral, and 'profuse floral tributes including from her sorrowing sisters, Fannie, Gertie, Effie and Agnes'. Even allowing for press exaggeration, it was a shocking and cruel tragedy. As a postscript to recent tragic events in America, which re-emphasise the strong links with England, it was not without irony that Nancy was shot with an American Smith & Wesson revolver, a victim of domestic violence and lack of gun control, still issues today of great importance.

Somehow the Harts carried on. A few years after the murder of Nancy, the youngest of the sisters, Agnes decided to follow Fanny out to the wilds of Montana. The family story is that she worked at the Church Street wool shop, thereby getting to know the local policeman whose beat covered the area, P.C. Patrick Egan, an Irish Catholic son of a Devon police superintendent. They married in 1900 in Fulham, a Roman Catholic ceremony not entirely to the approval of her Dissenter family. After living for a time at Brightlingsea, in 1907 Agnes and Patrick with their two children emigrated, also to Fort Benton. While Patrick worked as a clerk, Agnes got involved in the community. A proficient pianist and transposer of music, as proved by her surviving music books, her gifts were put to good use with the Catholic Church choir, and she ' won the respect and esteem of a large circle of friends. A devout member of the Catholic church, and possessed of those womanly virtues and traits of character that appeal to good citizens everywhere…'

This was her obituary, for once again tragedy struck the Hart family, when Agnes died in 1910, soon after giving birth to her third child, Gerald. Her young husband, unable to cope alone with three children, placed them in a Catholic orphanage, from where Gerald was adopted. He lived in California, where his children, Dennis and Marcia grew up with very distinct English influences, hearing often of Saffron Walden, but knowing little about it. However, other relatives had rescued the Harts documents and photographs which, coupled with the excellent archives in Walden, have recently revealed the story above.

Ernest's diaries suggest that the Harts were a close-knit family, and the loss of three sisters in such tragic circumstances must have affected those who remained. It was during Ernest's tenure that Harts' veered towards bankruptcy, and after his death had to be sold. It is said that he neglected the business through being so deeply involved in community affairs. While it would thus appear that he undid the achievements of his forbears, the business did survive under new ownership and thankfully flourishes today, a much-loved part of the town fabric.

Whatever his failings on the business front, Ernest's was no wasted life. For a period of 30 years, he visited patients in the town hospital every Sunday and served on the hospital board, and on the town council for 15 years. He also supported the Literary & Scientific Institute, Grammar School, Congregational Chapel, Board of Guardians and other bodies. As an Almshouse trustee, he stood up almost alone, towards the end of his life, against the controversial sale of the historic Mazer Bowl. He was a man of principle and courage, 'an interesting personality', as the press commented when he died in 1930 at the age of 68.

With the sale by his daughters of the family firm, founded a century before by their great-grandfather Henry Hart, it was the end of an era. Hart’s original printing press can still be seen at Saffron Walden Museum, the old shop lettering survives above an archway in King Street, and of course the business still carries their name. The stories of the Hart girls provided some new dimensions to a familiar tale.


Barbara Hart's scrapbook (Saffron Walden Town Library).

Museum archives: W.E. Hart diaries 1886/87: 1994, 27.1 & 27.2.

Museum 41519 – Log of a journey from Saffron Walden to Fort Benton, Montana, USA: April 6th to 21st 1898.

Saffron Walden Census 1861-91.

Donna Sharp – 'Spotlight on Harts', 1997 Saffron Walden Directory.

Herts & Essex Observer 19 October 1901.

Saffron Walden Weekly News, 25 October & 1 November 1901.

River Press, Fort Benton, Montana: 7 December 1910.

Ellis Island website: www.ellisislandrecords.org 

© Saffron Walden Historical Society 2002