Requiem for Mignon - 1

Shortly after Michael Kennedy published his biography of Sir Edward Elgar, "Portrait of Elgar", in 1968 Sir William Walton suggested he should contact Sir Kenneth Clark, later Lord Clark, to pursue an extraordinary story. Walton had been a friend of Clark's in the 1940s when Clark had been Director of the National Gallery. (Lady Walton's biography of her husband reveals that he had briefly had an affair with Lady Clark.) Walton told Kennedy that it was known to Clark’s family and friends that the family's cook, Mrs Nelson, had been Elgar's mistress and that her daughter was Elgar's daughter. Michael Kennedy had heard rumours of an illegitimate daughter. Jerrold Northrop Moore mentions these rumours in his "Elgar, A Creative Life" and claimed that they always involve a daughter. I have found no evidence of any other rumours which predate this story. It does seem probable that there has only ever been this one story, and only one person who has ever been claimed to be Elgar's illegitimate child. Elgar was a complex and emotional man married to a wife nearly ten years older than himself. The idea that he might have had a relationship with another woman, perhaps when he was in his fifties and his wife in her sixties, seemed credible to Michael Kennedy.

There were some periods in the composer’s life when a serious personal drama might account for creative or emotional crises. Most dramatic was the time in 1906 and 1907 when Elgar was suffered a kind of breakdown. He was under immense stress while trying to complete his oratorio "The Kingdom" and his mind was moving away from epic sacred works to far more personal abstract works, particularly the first and second symphonies and the violin concerto. This is the most extreme of a constant series of periods of self-doubt and what were probably psychosomatic illnesses. What is understood of Elgar's character has changed considerably in recent years with the rediscovery of Elgar's intense relationship with the very much younger Vera Hockman in his seventies. He was highly strung and moody but also very fit and active. Around the time of his fiftieth birthday he set off to cycle from Hereford to London. Considering his character it is possible to imagine him having a secret life. Against this is the fact that his life is recorded in detail in Lady Elgar’s diaries and many letters. It is possible to know what he was doing on almost any day. Another fact that has to be made clear at the very beginning of this story is that the two principal characters, mother and daughter, continue to be mysteries in themselves. It is impossible to connect them directly with Elgar or to disprove a connection. Though they emerge from the shadows as fascinating and vivid characters their origins are completely hidden.

There is no certain date of birth known for either of them. There is no trace of where they came from, or even of what name they might have had at the start of their lives. Considering the amount of material that is available for family history researchers this is curious and tantalising. The story begins with this rumour passed on by Sir Kenneth Clark but it is not a story about Elgar. It is the tragic story of two women who are fascinating in themselves.

It is important to consider that Elgar's reputation was at a low ebb in the 1940s and his romantic and emotional personality would not have been understood by many people at that time. He would have been an unlikely subject for such a story if it were an invention. Why would someone choose his name, of all the possible celebrities who were no longer around to answer for themselves? Kennedy wrote to Lady Clark, who would actually have been the cook’s employer, asking for any information about the mysterious Mrs Nelson. It was Sir Kenneth who replied, on September 13th 1968, confirming Walton’s story and giving a few clues. In the traditional style of cooks the supposed mistress of Elgar was only referred to as "Mrs Nelson" in Clark's letter and in other evidence that has come to light which has made identifying her difficult. It was not until September 15th 1992 that the story appeared in print in an article by Michael Kennedy "The mysterious Mrs Nelson" in the Sunday Times. This gave the basic evidence from Clark’s letter and some speculation on Elgar's various muses and love of cryptic dedications. No further information about Mrs Nelson had appeared since 1968 and Kennedy thought it was time to air the story and see if anything more would come to light. At that point Kennedy thought it possible that the daughter could still be alive. After this article the quest for Mrs Nelson took a dramatic turn.

A Rupert Nelson contacted the Sunday Times and suggested that Mrs Nelson was his mother, Dora Adeline Nelson. Dora was a cook in smart houses in the 1940s. Rupert had a sister, born twenty years earlier than himself, in 1907, whom he rarely saw. His mother was fascinated by the theatre and kept her shorn Titian tresses in a box. She would not speak of the past. In 2011 Ismene Brown, the Sunday Telegraph's deputy arts editor who worked with Michael Kennedy on his article, published an update on the story on
www.theartsdesk.com. I had found a cutting of Michael Kennedy's article and this led me to Ismene's follow up. "Elgar's Enigma was a Lovechild named Pearl" Fascinated by the puzzle I worked with Ismene to find out more about Dora Adeline Nelson. Dora's story could be traced through archives accessible on ancestry.co.uk .

She was born in Newport, Wales. Long periods were a blank, but her daughter’s birth in a "home for girls" in Wimbledon showed that she would have been conceived at a time when Elgar was visiting London for rehearsals. Dora must have been a remarkable woman as both her children did well for themselves. I was particularly intrigued that Sir Kenneth's letter mentioned, though this was not included in the 1992 article, that "Mrs Nelson" had previously worked for Lord Berners. Berners is a fascinating character as a composer, writer and artist. He was also a practical joker and some have suggested that this story grew from a joke. As more information emerges this possibility becomes less credible. Dora's career seemed to fit perfectly. Her son was unaware of her wartime career as he was away at school and in the services. Electoral rolls, which had helped trace Dora's career, revealed that Lord Berners' cook, at his London House, 3 Halkin St, was not Dora but a Lillian Nelson, living there from 1936 to 1939 with a William Nelson. Dora was a complete red herring. Her son was, sadly, mistaken. Dora and her family had been surprisingly easy to trace through censuses and birth marriage and death certificates. The real "Mrs Nelson" and her daughter are far more elusive.



The conversation that Kenneth Clark remembered may have been meant to be in confidence. If Clark had not found it irresistible to gossip as he clearly did the story would never have emerged. It seems that Clark did tell some musical friends what he had heard. Clark's letter to Michael Kennedy is the only direct evidence for the Elgar story. Though friends of Clark, including William Walton, and Clark's son Alan, confirmed that the story was common knowledge in the family this gossip only circulated in the family and with very close friends. It probably stems entirely from the occasion described in this letter. Sept 13 1968, from B5 Albany, Piccadilly W1

Dear Mr Kennedy, I am afraid I have been travelling about the country for some time and so have not been able to answer your letter to Lady Clark.

During the war we had a cook called Mrs Nelson. She had been cook to Lord Berners and was an extremely good one. She had dyed red hair and the remains of considerable beauty, and in her youth had been on the stage in Paris. She claimed to have been a great friend of Jeanne d'Avril. She had a daughter, whose age appeared then to be about forty, who was also on the stage but without her mother's advantages. The daughter was acting with ENSA, required a passport, and I had to sign the necessary form. She said, and her mother confirmed, that she was a daughter of Elgar, and indeed her name appeared as Elgar on the passport. I only saw Elgar once or twice, but to judge by earlier photographs she certainly had a strong physical resemblance to him. I used to pretend that Mrs Nelson must have been one of the unknown characters in the Enigma Variations, but of course the dates are wrong, as the Miss Elgar whose passport I signed cannot have been born much before 1905.

Yours sincerely, (signed) Kenneth Clark.


Clark refers to the cook only as "Mrs Nelson" and does not give the daughters name, referred to here only as "Miss Elgar." The letter implies that Clark was signing a passport form. Passports require a signature of a guarantor, someone who knows the applicant and is of respectable status, on the form and on the photograph.

The application for a passport is a serious legal business and is not something people can take flippantly. Sir Kenneth Clark, is having to sign the form, and the photograph, to confirm the facts. Clark would, though, even during the war, only have been signing to identify the applicant. There was, then, no need to provide proof of birth or parentage. The one puzzling feature of this story is the statement that it was the name "Miss Elgar" that appeared on the passport. If this is true it would explain why Clark needed to know why she was calling herself by this name. No passport records survive for this period so it cannot be proved that this was the name that was used. There is no evidence that "Miss Elgar" ever used this name at any other time so this detail has to be left as an open question. It does not affect the story that Clark and his friends believed that "Mrs Nelson" had been Elgar's mistress or that her daughter "said and her mother agreed that Elgar was the father.”
There is no doubt that this event, the matter of the application, occurred. The only document known to exist in Mrs Nelson's writing is a letter about this passport application now in the Kenneth Clark archives in the Tate Gallery. The letter originally enclosed the forms and photograph for Clark to sign.
The letter is undated but almost certainly dates from 1941 or 1942, which is how it is indexed in the Clark Archive in the Tate Gallery. Clark, writing to Kennedy, is remembering an encounter with “Miss Elgar” in 1941/2. He had tried to connect the mother and daughter with the characters in Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”, of 1899, but he realised that the daughter was too young to have been born around that time. She appeared to be “about forty” he says, and yet he says she “cannot have been born much before 1905”. He was clearly unable to judge her age. At the very oldest, according to this, she might have been about 37. Clark is possibly trying to stretch her age as far as possible to make it fit in with an idea of an Elgar connection at the turn of the century.
The question of “Miss Elgar’s” age is critical in establishing her origins. It is impossible to answer. The only legal record of her existence is her death certificate which gives an age which would place her birth in 1907/8 but this is not a reliable document. Tragically, as will be explained later, there was no one at hand who knew how old she was, and, extraordinarily,  no documents to give a true age or date of birth. There are good reasons to suppose that she was several years younger than this, and it is possible that she looked older than her years. She might well have been 30 but looking “about forty.”   In any investigation like this it has to be accepted that people do not always tell the truth and that memories fail. Clark’s letter to Michael Kennedy was written 26 years after the event. He might have misremembered a detail. Did the daughter really call herself “Miss Elgar?” The story as whole, though, was something that had been talked about nearer the time and remembered by Walton, and Clark’s son Alan.  There would be no real justification for believing that any of the witnesses are lying deliberately unless something they said was provably untrue. In this story there are certainly signs that truths are being hidden, but there is nothing that can be shown to be untrue.  If all the clues from witnesses, as well as hard facts, are accepted they can all be fitted into a coherent story. On her letter to Kenneth Clark, the only document that exists in her own writing the mother signs herself "Lilian Nelson." This is not the only name she used in her known career. She may have been married more than once. She may well have used stage names. For convenience I will refer to her as Lilian throughout this article.     Sir Kenneth Clark’s letter to Walton gives some surprising information about the mother.   "In her youth (she) had been on the stage in Paris. She claimed to have been a great friend of Jeanne d'Avril." This is an extraordinary claim. "Jane Avril (she used the English form of the name) was a star of the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. Avril was a dancer of a wild and original kind. She is most famous from the series of posters and portraits of her by Toulouse Lautrec.

Clark does not say "Mrs Nelson "claimed these things, but states them as accepted facts. If there is any truth in this it links the 1940s cook to a world which seems a very long way from wartime London. Was it possible that Lilian could have been a "great friend" of Jane Avril, whose career had been at its height over forty years before?

Jane Avril was closely associated with England. In the late 1890s she was a sensation at the Palace Theatre. When she returned to France in 1899 she took with her a troupe of English dancers. Her closest friends throughout her life were English. After touring France in 1901 she worked in New York and then returned to Europe, appearing again at the Moulin Rouge and the Bal Tabarin. She toured as one of a quartet of dancers, her Quadrille. Jane Avril died during 1943. She was still alive when Lilian talked about her to Sir Kenneth Clark.
Dancers started very young. Even star dancers in the London theatres could be in their early teens. Even if Lilian had been a dancer at the time that Jane Avril returned to Paris from a very successful period in England she might still only have been in her fifties when Clark knew her. She might have been some years younger than this and known Jane Avril at a time when the famous dancer was making one of her “comebacks”. The story is surprising but not impossible. The idea that Lilian had been a dancer is supported by the fact that her daughter was, in fact, a professional dancer whose career turns out to be recorded in startling ways. The daughter may well have been following in her mother’s footsteps.

 Lilian's life is a blank between this early career and 1925, by which time she was already a successful cook. Her stage career may have ended many years earlier. She was something more than one of the many domestics service working over steaming pans in basements. She was a very successful professional working for very demanding employers. Wilhelmina Harrod, in an unpublished interview with Gavin Bryars, who was researching for a proposed book about Lord Berners, called her a "frightfully grand cook".
Her character emerges in comments like this. Kenneth Clark was aware of "the remains of considerable glamour.” What kind of person would she have been when and if Elgar had encountered her? He might have known her as a performer, on the stage or in a social context, but it is possible that she was already a cook when her daughter was born. If so, she was an unusually glamorous cook, and someone with a very strong personality. She was well established by 1925. By that time she was most probably in her mid thirties at the youngest. She might well have been working as a cook for ten or fifteen years before that, even after having time for several years on the stage. Most domestic staff were hired through domestic agencies who would handle the payment and references and give a guarantee of standards and reliability. The most famous of these was Mrs Hunt's Agency. Their archives were partly destroyed in the Second World War but an index card does survive for Lilian, but not, at least originally, as "Mrs Nelson." The name at head of the card is: Mary Lilian Josephine Alice Harman      

At some point during the period the card covers, December 1925 to January 1930, she has changed her name and become "Mrs Nelson." The surname Harman has been crossed out and replaced by Nelson at a later time. After 1930 Lilian and William Nelson worked together as a cook/housekeeper and butler but there is no trace of any marriage. The "Mrs" is the conventional courtesy title of a cook. A cook, even a fairly young one, would be known as "Mrs".

It is, of course, possible that Lilian had been married earlier and that she had a different maiden named. Perhaps a first husband had died in the Great War. The fact is that she, and her daughter, cannot be identified in the birth and marriage records or the censuses. Her daughter first appears on the stage as “Harman”, which might suggest that this was the name her mother had when she was born. There are other possibilities and complications. The reverse of the record card from Mrs Hunts Agency gives a correspondence address. This might be expected to be a very important clue to Lilian's origins. In fact it seems to lead to an impenetrable brick wall in Wimbledon. The address is: Loynton, Cliveden Road Wimbledon. This was no. 17 Cliveden Road.

The local directories and electoral rolls (the Wimbledon rolls are not on ancestry.co.uk) reveal that this is the home of a Mrs Annie Harman. Annie Harman appears in the Kellys directories for 17, Cliveden Road, Wimbledon from 1916 to 1940 which is the latest year available and also the year of Annie's death. She is also shown at this address in electoral registers from 1927 to 1939 inclusive. Between 1930 and 1935 she is listed with Mabel Emma Harman and Lilian Bertha Harman and between 1936-39 with only Lilian Bertha.  

The names of these two daughters, who may well have been living there from 1916 when Annie first moved there, make it possible to identify this Mrs Harman as the widow of a long serving soldier who had been killed in action, Captain Arthur Harman, in 1915. It would be very reasonable to assume that Lilian gave this address when she signed up at Mrs Hunts agency because she used it as her own base while taking on short term jobs, or because this was a close relation with whom she would be in regular contact and who could pass on correspondence. Annie's own immediate family is easy to trace. She had eight children, six of whom were living at the time of the 1911 census. The first of the children was born in 1893.

They are too young to be Lilian under another name or, in the case of the boys, to be married to Lilian. I can find no-one connected with these Harmans who could be Lilian. Wimbledon seems to be a tantalising red herring.

Wherever Lilian's career as a cook began she must have gained a very good reputation, and good references, by the time her work through Mrs Hunt's agency begins. She must have been someone who was seen as completely trustworthy and reliable. A cook of this kind, and a housekeeper as well, as she was later, would be expected to be someone of impeccable honesty and any criticism would be reported to the agency who handled the bookings and payments.
The record card suggests that Lilian was highly paid. These bookings may have all been for fairly shorter periods than the dates on the card imply. They may not have lasted until the start of the next booking. It is also possible that she may have done other work, not through the agency, between these bookings. The fees listed vary from £80 4s 5d to £93 10s 6d with a note "vivre dans" which may mean living elsewhere rather than living in. These are all crossed out and followed by a scribbled in figure of £100 10s 6d. What exactly does this rate mean? Is it a “pro rata” figure or a total of actual earnings? In 1925 the average (male) weekly wage was £5. Go to Part 2      

Footnote:

The Harmans of Cliveden Rd.

Annie's daughter Lilian Bertha married a George Goodfellow Buckham Mackenzie in 1936. The amount of information that can be found about this family on ancestry.co.uk, including censuses, Birth, Marriage, Death and probate records, gives an interesting contrast to the absence of records for Lilian. If there is a family connection between Annie and Lilian where could it lie? The simplest possibilities would be that Lilian was a sister in law of Annie, being either a sister of Captain Harman or married to one of his brothers. In the 1911 census, when Arthur was in Alverstoke barracks, Gosport, his age gives a date of birth of 1866 and London as the place of birth. There are several Arthur Harmans born around 1866. An Arthur born in Haggerstone, London in April 1866 had siblings named Lydia (also his mothers name) Florence and Bertha and these names reappear in the names of Annie's children, including her first child Lydia (born 1893) and her younger daughter Lilian Bertha. In 1881 this  Arthur is a "Parcels Delivery Messenger but he vanishes from the family census records after this. It seems reasonable to assume he is the one who joined the army in 1883 (aged 17) and had a long career, eventually becoming an officer, until he was killed in 1915. Could Lilian have been Annie's sister-in-law, either as one of Arthur's siblings, or as the wife of one of his brothers? Arthur's mother, Lydia, was still alive in 1911 and her census shows that she had had eight children of whom six were living, the same number of children born alive and children surviving as Annie.

These are all traceable and provide no possible link to Lilian. The two children who appear to have died before 1911 are a Henry J who is not traceable after 1871 and William. William is listed on the 1871 census as "blind from birth and may be the William who is in the Shoreditch Infirmary in 1881. It is very hard to go beyond this immediate family. Lilian might have been a first cousin. To confirm or disprove this possibility one would have to trace any brothers of Arthur's father, Henry J Harman, and their children. Taking the search this far back is a far more difficult prospect. Even such a close relationship may be lost in the complexities of family history. There is no evidence to suppose that Annie had any family link with Wimbledon until she moved to Cliveden Road after her husbands death. Until 1911 Annie and her family were living in military accommodation. In 1911 Annie and all six surviving children were living in Alverstoke Barracks, Gosport.

Why did she choose Wimbledon? There were other large Harman families in Wimbledon, none of who appear to be connected with Annie. There might, though, be an as yet invisible connection between Arthur and Annie's family, the various other Harman families in Wimbledon, and with Lilian. 

There are other more remote possibilities which should not be completely discounted considering the strangeness of this story. It is possible that LIlian was not a relation at all and that it was purely coincidental that she formed a relationship with Annie, perhaps as a lodger. It is even possible that Lilian, and her daughter, adopted Annie's name as a convenience. This might have avoided confusing the postman when he delivered communications from Mrs Hunts agency but it does seem a fairly fetched possibility. There is no doubt, though, that Annie Harman, and her family in Wimbledon, would have known who Lilian really was.

A further  tantalising clue on the back of the record card is that the Wimbledon address is numbered "1" and there is a "2" which is simply "Winchester." Winchester, by coincidence, was the home of Arthur Harman's regiment, The Queens (King's) Royal Rifle Corps. This may or may not be relevant. It is quite possible, though, that Lilian had previously been working out of London, perhaps in a permanent post in Winchester, and had come to London at the time that her daughter had begun her stage career.