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Maiden Posies: The life of Elsie Jean Craxford

by Alan D. Craxford

Foreword

Fairy by Elsie Jean Craxford

Fairy

Every form of human endeavour is characterised by long periods of the mundane interspersed with a few high points of pulse racing interest. The pursuit of genealogy is no exception to this observation. I am sure all amateur explorers have spent their time wading through tracts of dusty archives perusing one humdrum reference after another waiting for that moment of excitement when a brand new branch of the family tree opens up before them.

This has certainly been my experience since I took over the research of my own surname and ancestors. I too have found the occasional individual who has proved more interesting than most - but there is one, just one, name from the archives who keeps coming back to haunt my thoughts. Her name appears in the results from internet search engines and literary archives. Her pedigree, like mine, traces directly back to Richard Craxford of Gretton around 1620. Tiny nuggets of data gleam through the mists of time giving tantalising glimpses of a brilliant young woman achieving beyond her time and years - and of a life tragically spent almost before it was begun. Beyond the few meagre references that I quote here, I know nothing more about her.


Who was Elsie Jean?

Prime Minister

P.M.

The release of the 1911 census for England has allowed me to correct a major mistake and fill in a few blanks in my understanding of this story. Elsie Jean Craxford was born in London in 1902. Her father, Arthur, was working as a book publisher's clerk in St Pancras and there is some evidence that he wrote a childrens' book "Little Olaf and the Bears" (1) (a copy of which is lodged in the British Library). It is tempting to speculate that it was written for Elsie. The Craxford family was originally from Northamptonshire but this branch moved to the capital at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Her mother's name was Jane Onn but little more is known of the maternal branch of the family.

Beyond this, little information exists until she went up to study at Furzedown College, London (an establishment which has been subsequently associated with teacher training courses in its history). From there she went on to King's College, London. At least part of the course involved the Classics and also the History of the Eighteenth Century. That she was an able and gifted student, an agile debater and a creative writer is clear from the tribute (see below) written by one of her tutors, Professor Reed. Given the state and provision of higher education for females after the first World War and at the beginning of the 1920s this is surely an out of the ordinary accomplishment and high praise indeed.

It is clear too that her life, so full of promise according to her peers, was cut tragically cut short on June 21st 1927 - just three months before her 26th birthday. I have found no indication of why this should have been.


Maiden Posies: Verses and drawings

The Doge

Doge

The Pope

Pope

I had seen Elsie Jean’s book “Maiden Posies: Verses and Drawings” (2) listed on a number of websites including Amazon.com. It is also listed in the catalogues of the British Library. When my curiosity finally get the better of me I decided that I would obtain a copy for my small but growing archive of Craxford memorabilia. I am most grateful to Mark Killingray (3) for his speed at sourcing the little volume which is now in my possession from the second hand market.

My copy of the book is a first edition, sixty pages in length, octavo in size, bound with buff coloured stiff boards and an ivory covered spine with a turquoise label at its upper end. It contains 43 verses written and a number of pen and ink illustrations drawn by Elsie Jean. These were gathered together in the year after her death by her friends and college associates and published posthumously as a tribute and lasting memorial.

I have illustrated this article with a number of those sketches. From top to bottom these are 'The Fairy', 'The Doge', 'The Prime Minister', 'The Pope', 'My House', 'Nelson at Trafalgar; Napoleon at Waterloo'

My copy has the handwritten inscription “Nan. With Love and Best Wishes. From Joan. Xmas 1928” on the inside cover. I do not know who the sender or receipient were.


The foreword by Professor A.W. Reed, D.Lit.

The cover
The fly leaf

The Maiden Poses: Cover and fly leaf

"This little collection of verse, gathered by her friends of Furzedown College, will preserve and keep fresh the memory of Elsie Craxford, one of the most sensitive and eager natures that ever found delight in writing. Time brings its changes, and those who knew her may one day be scattered; but while they are together they want to pay this tribute to her memory.

In this tribute I am very proud to be asked to join, for although we could not hope at King's College to know her so well as she was known at Furzedown, she became as one of ourselves at once. And, looking back over many years of teaching, I place her apart as the pupil who most has aroused my interest.

My house

My house

In class or out of it, wherever one met her, one felt that her mind was aglow. Yet when she spoke it was always deliberately and with restraint. I believe she thought in words, that her mind worked in speech, for her thinking and utterance fitted like hand and glove. Her thoughts, consequently, had definiteness. She was no vague dreamer. Her reading and writing similarly were inseparable. Week by week the essays she wrote for me reflected her reading. They were generally creative, original and ingenious; but always appropriate and relevant. The period we were studying was the eighteenth century, and I was trying to overcome the reluctance of my young people to allow that that great age had its inspirations. Elsie Craxford's essays seemed to spring from the very century itself. She appeared to be living in it, she could have joined Clarissa's circle of correspondents very naturally, or complimented Pope on the art with which he had concealed some warmth of emotion.

Even in the atmosphere of a University Examination room she was untroubled. An essay of three hours that she wrote in her final examination won from her examiner, a distinguished Professor, the comment that she showed unusual promise as a writer and should one day be heard of. The truth is that on the last afternoon of a trying examination she accomplished a piece of creative writing singularly graceful in design and detail. It was written in her unvaryingly firm, open and attractive hand, without blot or erasure, deliberately, just as she always spoke and thought. It was Elsie Craxford talking an essay gravely and prettily to an unknown Minos.

Her life was, I believe, supremely happy. If she had lived she would have enriched many lives. Ours already she has enriched; for it is as though we had been granted a fleeting vision of intellectual beauty."

Continued in column 2...



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The contents

I have transcribed here four of Elsie Jean's verses. The second pair are the first two stanzas of the six part "WISHES". The remaining verses are dedicated to 'Fireman', 'Shopwalker', 'Potato Man' and 'Dean'.

TO THE SHADES OF FAIR WOMAN
LUCRETIA wore a band of gold,
The Queen of Sheba, pearl;
Cassandra left her tresses free
While Helen bound each curl;
But Rosalinda's braids were set
Within a gem-encrusted net.

Lucretia, lay aside your gold
You, Eastern Queen, must mourn;
Cassandra, Helen, take each tress
And sadly wish it shorn;
While, Rosalinda, let your eyes
Shed tears, and your own braids despise.

For Beauty now foreswears the wealth
That used to weight her down,
Rippling from breast to hem and shoe
Beneath a golden crown.
Alas fair ghosts, when all is said,
You cannot have a shingled head!
JUNE
NOW bush and tree are green with June,
They toss their boughs for laughter;
But all that rhymes with June is moon,
So moon must follow after,
That like a goblin melon glows
Or an unprecedented rose.

And grasses reach up to one's chin
And country roads say "Follow:
I've little nooks for dreaming in,
And inns where you may swallow
Cider, icy-cool and tart,
Out of a Ribstone Pippin's heart."

Gardens unutterably bright
At afternoon are sunning;
But I will turn for my delight
Where lazy brooks are running,
And all the world can dream, and drowse
Under the shadow of green boughs.

WISHES I - DOCTOR
I'D like to be a doctor
And know of every ache,
And order stuff for other folks
I shouldn't have to take;
I should have a surgery,
The best you ever saw;
A boy in buttons, four abreast,
Should answer to the door.
He should answer to the door
With manner suave and kind,
Taking care to shut it fast
Lest patients changed their mind
Seeing me with instruments
So grimly and so tall;
They might change their minds and say
They never meant to call.
WISHES II - CHEMIST
I'D like to be a chemist in
A hat and velvet gown
A-stirring up potatoes for
Consumption in the town.
I'd have nineteen hundred bottles
All sealed in gold and red,
And a stuffed-up alligator
A-hanging overhead.
And when November comes with fog
And streets get dark o' nights
I'd light my biggest bottles
With red and yellow lights;
I'd sit me in a black oak chair
Where all the world could see,
Relaxing of my mind upon
Nine books of Alchemy!

The remaining questions

Nelson and Napoleon

Nelson and Napoleon

This short life with its overtures of happiness and promise, tragically cut short before its full flowering intrigues me and inspires me to find out more about her and to use the resources of the modern day to preserve and perpetuate her memory. Now nearly eighty years on from those events, those who knew her will have been well and truly scattered.

Does anyone still remember her? What did she look like? Do any photographs or other mementos - apart from this book - of her still exist? There are no suggestions that there was time or inclination for dalliances, marriage or offspring amongst this high flying academic achievement. That said, are there any remaining cousins, nephews or nieces who can help to paint further colours onto this Maiden's posies?

Note: Higher resolution copies of the photographs from the book are attached to Elsie's database page.

Appendix: The source of the 'Maiden Posies'

TO VIOLETS: Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
WELCOME, maids of honour!
You do bring
In the spring,
And wait upon her.
She has virgins many,
Fresh and fair;
Yet you are
More sweet than any.
You're the maiden posies,
And so graced
To be placed
'Fore damask roses.
Yet, though thus respected,
By-and-by
Ye do lie,
Poor girls, neglected.

He also wrote the poem "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May"


Page april 21st 2005
Last updated: April 2nd 2012


Postscript 1

I had sight of Elsie Jean's death certificate recently which emphasises the tragedy witnessed all those years ago. She was killed as a result of a motor vehicle accident when she was run over as a pedestrian. She suffered shock and haemorrhage and died from multiple injuries in New End Hospital, London on June 21st 1927. The inquest convened by Sir Walter Schroder, the London coroner, on June 23rd 1927 recorded a verdict of accidental death.

A.D.C. May 17th 2005

Postscript 2

The initial but wrong attribution of Elsie Jean's background has been copied here for completeness (and to warn the unwary!). It was only through study of the early releases of the 1911 England census that my mistake was noted and has been corrected.

Solomon Craxford (Elsie Jean's grandfather) was born in Northamptonshire in 1830 but moved to South Wales, married, brought up his family and spent his adult life in Monmouthshire. Charles (his second son) was born in 1866. Charles married a local woman, Annie Louise Rees in the winter of 1899. They were both in their early thirties at the time of the wedding and continued to reside in South Wales. Elsie Jean Craxford was born on September 2nd 1901 although her birth was registered in St Pancras London. The 1901 census returns also show that she was born into a large household which included three half brothers and three half sisters from her mother's previous marriage.

A.D.C. January 15th 2009

References

(1) Craxford, Arthur: "Little Olaf and the Bears" (Illustrated by Henry Austin): Published by James Nisbet & Co (1905); British Library Ref: 012808.e.59
(2) Craxford EJ: "Maiden Posies: Verses and Drawings": The Utopia Press; London (1927)
(3) Bodhran Books: Walshford, Wetherby, W Yorks. Web site: www.booksandwriters.co.uk

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