Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler

17. Tragic daughters – Florence Sophia McLauchlan Backler and Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler

It was something of a shock when my eyes landed on the Probate index book entry for Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler of “Norland”, Champion Park, Denmark Hill in the County of Surrey Spinster: ‘died on the 8th day of September 1909 by drowning in a lake in Richmond Park in the said County’.

Laura was the younger of two daughters of Henry McLauchlan Backler, the successful gas company man whose life I described in two previous blogs. Laura’s older sister Florence Sophia McLauchlan Backler married, aged nearly 19 years, to William Griffin Davis in the Parish Church of St Giles, Camberwell, on 16 August 1866.  Witnesses included her parents and sister, as well as her father’s maternal uncle, Henry McLauchlan, and Sarah Davis.  William was an engineer, resident in Tipton, Stafford. His father John Griffin Davis was a Gentleman.  But the Davis’ do not feature long in our story, because alas, Florence died aged 21 and was buried on 11 June 1869 in Nunhead Cemetery, where William was buried in the same plot in October 1886. He had married Laura Louisa Potter in 1872, but by the time of the 1881 census, he was widowed again, having had a son, William Griffin Parkes Davis in around 1873.

Florence pre-deceased her parents by some years.

At the time of her sister’s death, Laura was aged 19.  Was it this event which led to this young woman devoting her life to piety and good works?

Poetess’ Tragic End:  The headline in the South London Press of Friday, September 17, 1909 read: ‘Poetess’ Tragic End. Camberwell Lady Wanders into a Pond and is Drowned.  Life and Work of Miss Backler’.  At Nunhead Cemetery, ‘the grave was surrounded by a crowd of poor women among whom the deceased was accustomed to work, and one of whom started the hymn “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”, which was taken up by all present and sung with wonderful pathos.’

The mystery of Laura’s death caused considerable concern among her friends and acquaintances, but the report of the inquest reveals undercurrents of mis-trust among her various supporters.  And her Will reveals an interesting relationship which remains unexplained.

The picture which can be drawn of Laura is of a young woman in a very prosperous family, who devoted her life to writing and good work.  As far as can be seen, her writings were of a pious nature, including ‘ “Issy” A Story of Trust and Triumph’[1], the title page of which cites other works by the author: ‘Light and Shadow’ and ‘Heart Musings’ etc.  The title page of ‘How I was turned inside out’[2] also cites her authorship of ‘The Cry for Christ’, while the text of this 14-page tract describes how one man saw the light and reformed his ways from being a bullying husband and father to becoming one who ruled his spirit and ‘came to Jesus’.

Her piety was combined with concern for those who were oppressed in a poem about the ‘sweating system’ quoted in the South London Press report of her death:

‘Marvels of cheapness! Look at the price!  Ah! look at it once again:

See it in sorrow, starvation, vice, And ruin of heart and brain.

See it in girlhood sunk in the mire, the terrible slough of sin;

And manhood checked in each right desire, Scarce able a crust to win.

‘Remember the solemn warning cry Of the prophet’s voice of old,

And refuse persistently to buy Where lives count less than gold.

Give to the labourer what is due, Pity the weak and poor,

Let the world behold Christ’s life in you, With no soul’s blood at your door.’

Both her piety and writing talents permeate the reports about Laura after her mysterious death.  She had invited the local vicar, the Rev John Robert Porte D.D., to lunch on Wednesday 8 September 1909, having only two days previously returned from a five week break with him and his family in Buckinghamshire.  The Rev Porte conducted the ceremony at the graveside, and had identified Laura’s body and given evidence at the inquest into her death, at which he noted ‘she has written beautiful poetry and books, which have been printed. She was a brilliant speaker on religious and social questions. Conversationally she was most delightful in every way…she was a most earnest and devoted Christian woman.’

The South London Press report says Miss Backler was ‘known throughout the Camberwell district for her benevolence, her untiring efforts to advance the moral and spiritual welfare of the poor, her zeal as a Churchwoman, and her power of producing poetry that sounded trumpet notes of earnest protest against wrong and evil’.

Body found at Dann’s Pond, Richmond Park: Some clues as to her behaviour on that day are seen in reports at her inquest and afterwards of her poor health, including among other things, diabetes, and previous instances when she had seemed to suffer from loss of memory.  Saying she was going to the bank in the morning, she had proceeded to Blackfriars Station and purchased a return ticket to Richmond. How had she reached the station from Camberwell?  And why had she purchased a ticket to Richmond?  And how had she then covered the distance to Dann’s Pond on the far side of Richmond Park, near to Kingston Gate?  None of those questions were answered in the subsequent inquiries into her death.  (The pond can be seen in the southwest corner of the park at this link: )

What did emerge was that James Harmsworth, of 5 New Road, Kingston, was crossing the Park near White Ash Lodge, passing Dann’s Pond at 6.30 in the morning, and ‘saw some clothes on the ground with an open sunshade over them. They were under a tree, and consisted of a jacket, hat, waterproof and boots, and spectacle case.’  He then saw the body of a woman in about eight feet of water, using ropes to bring the body ashore, and calling the police.  The report goes on to summarise the belongings on the body of the deceased: ‘a gold signet ring, gold dress ring set with pearls, another set with diamonds, and another set with sapphires and diamonds, 32s 3d silver, and 1s bronze, a silver chain purse, a return half of a railway ticket (Richmond to Blackfriars), black cloth purse bag, three lead pencils, and some memos, two bunches of keys, and one pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, a stone brooch and gold scarf pin’.

The Inquest – dispute over Will and the role of the Rev Porte: When Laura had not appeared for lunch on the Wednesday, she was reported missing by the Rev. Porte, and the next day he travelled to Richmond to identify the body. The inquest was held on the evening of Saturday, 11 September 1909.  A number of people known to Laura Backler were present, including the Rev. Porte and ‘Mr. Davidson, a relative’.  He was in fact Walter Davidson, the nephew of Laura’s mother, and during the inquest there was an atmosphere of mis-trust between him and the long-standing family solicitor, Mr. Cowland on the one hand, and the Rev. Porte and Mr Chester, another solicitor, on the other.  The first area of contention was over the Will.  Cowland solicitors had drawn up the wills of Laura’s father and mother: ‘The Coroner asked if anyone else wished to speak, and Mr. Cowland said that his firm acted for the family for last thirty years, and made a will for the deceased four years ago.  Mr. Chester interrupted and said that could not be correct, for he had acted for Miss Backler for the last six years and held her will.  The Coroner: ‘I am willing to give you all a hearing if you can help me.’  Neither gentleman, nor Mr. Williams, another trustee [of Laura’s Will, and Secretary to the European Gas Company],  however, could add anything to what had been said.

The second, rather more mysterious note of disagreement was as follows:

‘Mr Davidson, a relative: May I suggest you ask the witness…

The Coroner: Will you allow me to examine the witness in my own way? (To Dr. Porte): Was there anything wrong with her mind? – Several times she had a bad memory. She was rather ill two or three years ago, and there was no question she was wandering in her mind.

Would you say her mind was affected? – I would not say that but her brain was clouded…

…Mr Davidson was then asked if he had any questions, and said that Miss Backler had suffered a good deal with her head.

Dr. Porte said that he thought that in the last few years she had been better in that respect.  Some years ago she had suffered from headaches and loss of memory and that was due to a constitutional cause.

Mr. Davidson asked Dr. Porte to read a letter dated December 31st, 1908, in which the words occurred: “Not feeling very well.” He then asked witness to read another, but the Coroner said if he wanted the letters read he could go into the witness-box himself later on.

Mr. Chester: It was about seven years ago that Miss Backler did not enjoy good health.  She was perfectly able to transact business.

Mr. Cowland.  I think he has made a little mistake about Miss Backler’s health. (Mr. Davidson: Hear, hear.)

Mr. Chester: I am sorry to interrupt but the evidence may hereafter –

The Coroner: It is a matter of no importance to me what takes place hereafter. I am trying to find out the cause of the lady’s death.

Dr. Porte: Her doctor can give evidence on that. He is present.

The Coroner: Very well.

After this exchange, Louisa Baughem, the parlourmaid, said Miss Backler’s headaches were usually worse on Wednesdays, and it was unusual for her to go to the bank – she usually sent her companion.

Witnesses described instances when Laura had gone astray in previous years, once being found at her mother’s grave in Nunhead Cemetery, and once in a pond, rescuing a dog.  However, the general sentiment was that there was no obvious explanation for her behaviour at the pond, her doctor suggesting that she might have thought she was going to bed.  Summing up, the Coroner was reported as saying ‘that if the deceased lady had thought she was going to bed she would hardly have opened an umbrella and put it over her clothes. Had she been going to bed she would have probably taken off all her clothes. However, if the jury were in doubt as to her actions, and there was no direct evidence that she committed suicide, they could return an open verdict.’

‘The jury could not at first agree, and the foreman said nine were for a verdict of “Found drowned,” and the other six disagreed.

‘The Coroner: I must have twelve for one verdict. Surely there is no difficulty in agreeing.

‘The jury then retired, and after a short time the foreman returned and agreed on a verdict of “Found drowned”.’

Laura, her sister and parents are all interred in the ‘nature reserve’ section of Nunhead Cemetery.  But her story does not end there.

Laura’s Will – suspiciously favouring the Rev. Porte? Reading the comments about the Will at the inquest, and the comments there and at the graveside by her ‘intimate’ friend The Rev. John Robert Porte, one is led to speculate about his influence over Laura after the death of her mother in December 1903 – roughly the time at which the Laura’s ‘health’ problems were said to be at their worst.  The change of solicitors from the Cowlands to Chesters could have been influenced by Rev. Porte, and when one reads Laura’s Will, one can certainly see that the Porte family benefited handsomely from it.  This friendship, though, was not new.  The Rev. Porte was also an executor of Henry’s and Eliza’s Wills, along with William Williams, the Secretary to the European Gas Company.  But the size of the parents’ bequests was small compared to that which Laura left the Porte family, and Rev. Porte in particular.

Although she was said to have many charitable and benevolent interests, Laura made no such bequests in her will. Her first legacy from her £23,000 estate was for £8,000 to the Rev Porte, and if he should have died, to his wife. In addition there was £1,000 for the Rev. Porte’s wife, £4,000 to their daughter Leonie Sybil Edith Porte (Laura’s god-daughter); £2,000 each to Monica Vera Porte, another daughter, and to each of the four Porte sons; and small bequests to friends, servants and the other executor – the total of which seems to be more than the value of the estate!

Laura’s Bequest to Leslie George Panton – who was he? A sting in the tail for the Executors, however, was contained in fully two pages of the 3 page will.  Laura had inherited the leasehold of the large house ‘Norlands’ from her parents.  In her Will she bequeathed the leasehold premises to her Executors, first so they pay all covenants etc from the rents and proceeds from the leasehold, and secondly so they pay out of rents and profits the yearly sum of fifty pounds, clear of any deductions whatsoever, to a certain Leslie Panton, ‘at present [1906] residing with Mrs. Hanbrin of No 2 Paulet Road, Camberwell and of the age of seven years’ so long as he shall be under the age of seventeen and as long as he ‘shall conduct himself in every respect to the reasonable satisfaction of the said trustees’ in or towards his maintenance, clothing, education, advancement in life and general benefit, accumulating any residue of the said profits and benefits, making payments after age 17 as needed until the said Leslie Panton is age 25, and then after that the moneys to be held in trust for Leslie Panton absolutely, so long as he conducts himself in every respect to the reasonable satisfaction of the trustees!

Leslie George Panton was born on 15 June 1897 at 42 Chelmsford Road, Walthamstow to Jacobina Panton, with no father shown on his birth certificate.  In 1891, Jacobina Panton was a 22 year old dressmaker, living in Dalston with her father James and her siblings.  She is nowhere to be seen by the 1901 Census, when Leslie was living at the ‘Haven Home for Little Ones’ in Banstead, Surrey.

Haven of Hope: In 1893 Janet Ransome Wallis (1858 – 1928) had founded what was then known as the Haven of Hope (later called The Haven of Hope for Homeless Little Ones) in a small rented terraced house in 4 Shernall Street, Walthamstow, London E17.  Soon it had outgrown its premises and moved to Walton Heath, later becoming Christian Family Concern.

What had led Laura to bestow some of her wealth on young Leslie, who would have been about 11 at the time of her death?  Records show he went on to serve with the Army Service Corps in World War I, and to marry Ethel Watson in Tynemouth on 2 June 1923.  Did he continue to benefit from Laura’s generosity?  He died in Newcastle in 1984.

The South London Press Report of Friday, September 17, 1909 had listed some of the many organisations in which she had had an interest.  They included Mr. Fagan’s Home for Boys, Southwark; The British and Foreign Bible Society; The London City Missions; the Rescue Society’s Homes; Miss Steer’s work in Ratcliff; and, tellingly, Mrs. Ransome Wallis’ Babies Home.  Clearly this latter interest had led to Laura’s interest in Leslie George Panton, but what singled him out from all the others she might have supported? And, indeed, why was there no legacy in her will for any of these charities?

Rather tantalisingly, there was a short piece in the Law section of the Times of  9 December 1909, suggesting that the terms of the Will were in dispute.  Under Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, in Chancery Chambers, was to be heard before Master White for Master Burney, at 12.45 Re Backler (Williams v. Panton).  Alas, no record of what transpired has yet been found.

[1] “Issy” A Story of Trust and Triumph, by L.L. McL. Backler. S.W. Partridge and Co., 9 Paternoster Row, London. 1886

[2] How I was turned inside out by Laura L McL. Backler, Marshall Bros, 3 Amen Corner, Paternoster Road, London. 1887.  Price Twopence, 12s per 100.

16. Legacy of a gas man – the Wills of Henry McLauchlan Backler and his wife Eliza (nee Cole) Backler

In which we look at the Will of Henry McLauchlan Backler, with news of his siblings and wife, and preceding a look in my next blog at the fate of his two daughters.

In my previous blog, I described the life and times of Henry McLauchlan Backler, successful businessman in the 19th century municipal gas industry.

Henry’s Will

Henry’s Will was written on 13 February 1891, revealing helpful genealogical details.  Henry was of ‘Norlands’, Champions Park – now opposite Denmark Hill railway station, the houses having been destroyed.  He was also of No 11 Austin Friars, City of London (then the address of the European Gas Company, of which he was still Chair).  At the time of probate, his estate was valued in excess of £34,000.His Executors were to be:

‘my dear wife Eliza; my dear daughter Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler, and my friends John Blacket Gill of the Stone House Caterham Esquire and William Williams of Number 11 Austin Friars, Secretary of the European Gas Company’.

John Blacket Gill was made a liveried member of the Guild of Merchant Tailors in 1867, later to become Master. In 1891, age 51, he was living on his own means with his 39 year old wife, three children and 4 servants in The Stone House, Caterham, Surrey.  Ten years before, he was shown as a coal factor, living in Croydon, Surrey, with a similar number of servants.  His occupation as ‘coal factor’ provides a link with Henry’s gas interests.  William Williams will also feature in Laura’s story.  He was the Secretary of the European Gas Company.

The Will provided for:

–  the leasehold home [Norlands, Champion Park, Denmark Hill] absolutely to my wife and all possessions.  Residue of estate to Trustees. After death of wife, £500 legacy to daughter and £200 to each remaining trustee.

The Trustees should sell property and invest the proceeds to pay:

  • -An annuity of £100 to wife’s sister Louisa Smith, now residing at Croydon House, Britannia Terrace, Upper Westbourne Park,widow, during her life;
  • ‘the same income’ to daughter Laura for her life – she shall not be able to dispose of it in anticipation thereof;

–  after Laura’s death the capital held in Trust for any children she will have; if no child, Henry bestowed legacies on a number of the many charitable pension funds and healthcare providers:

£100 each to Peckham and Kent Road Pension Society; Camberwell and Dulwich Pension Society; the Surgical Aid Society;  the Provident Surgical Appliance Society;

£500 to the Provident Clerks Association Benevolent Fund, 27 Moorgate Street, City of London;

  • to sister Susannah Maria Huxtable of Ashbourne, Lawrie Park Gardens, Sydenham, widow, £1000 (see my previous blog about this wealthy, multiply-married sibling);
  • to sister Sarah Knowles, widow of the Reverend William Knowles, of New Shoreham, Sussex, £1000;
    • Having worked as a domestic servant since returning to London from Paris, Sarah married at about age 50 to Christopher Knowles, schoolmaster of the Protestant Free Church.  After she was widowed, she appeared in 1891 and 1901 censuses living with her sister, Sophia Matilda Beaumont.  Sarah died in 1905.
  • to sister Sophia Matilda Beaumont of Hampton Villas Park Road Worthing, Widow, £1000;
    • No marriage is evident for Sophia and William Beaumont.  In later years, Sophia was to live with ‘daughter’ Eleanor Beaumont, born in Leeds in 1855.  Whether she was Sophia’s daughter is not yet known.  Sophia left £11,000 at the time of her death in 1913.
  • to Gertrude Baddeley daughter of my deceased friend Henry John Baddeley £500; to Annie Grace Perrier Wagstaff (my wife’s god-daughter) now a minor residing with her parents at Ashbury Cottage Forest Hill Kent, £500;  to Fred Hersee, eldest son of deceased friend Alfred Hersee £500, and to his sons Arthur and Stanley, £100, and to his widow Ellen, £500;  to Madeline, Dora and Ida, daughters of my friend Robert H Crowder now of the Larches, Newlands Park, Sydenham, £100 each, and to his son Albert £100; and to Maria Victoria Crowder now living with her mother at Rosedale, Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, £100.  All legacies to minors to be paid when they reach 21.
  • All the rest residue and remainder in trust for my niece Eleanor Beaumont, daughter of my said sister Sophia Matilda, for her heirs etc.
    • The fate of Eleanor Beaumont remains unkown…

Norlands:  And what about Norlands? Some flesh is put on the bones of this splendid home by the land valuation survey map and records at the National Archives.  The houses in this tract and others in the area were owned by, and owe the name of their area to, Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, whose claims to fame were first that he was seriously rich, then a steeplechaser, hunter, and balloonist, and the owner of Champion Lodge in Essex.  Taking up ballooning in 1882, he was the first man to cross the north sea in a balloon in 1883.

The Land Valuation survey (IR 58/78070/2696) for 6 Champion Park puts the gross land value at £110, and that the leasehold owner was J.R. Porte D.D., with a superior interest held by De Crespigny [?name followed by a mark].  The occupier was responsible for rates and taxes and insurance, but it is not clear if Porte was actually resident there.  By the time of this survey, The Rev Porte would have taken on the lease after Laura’s death in 1910.

The description of the property is as follows:  Detached, double fronted, cement faced & painted. Bst. Servants Hall. Kitchen scullery w.c. & large domestic office.  Grd. 4 very fine rec rooms. conservatory w.c.  1st w.c. 5 very good bed. dressing room & Bath room.  Top 4 rooms.

The building and structures were given a market value of fee simple of £1090, and the whole property a gross value of £1910.  On the reverse page, under a date of 1909, the first name to appear is ‘Sir C.C. de Crespigny 87 years, 25/12/1842  £27.15

The second name is J.R. Porte, Occupier.  Further down this page we find that J.R. Porte was deceased on 1 October 1922, giving up his leasehold interest, and the freehold was taken by the Salvation Army, which now owns the whole site.  One of the houses is pictured in Camberwell records, but is not double-fronted, as Norlands was said to be.

Eliza Cole Backler:  I conclude this blog with details of Henry’s wife Eliza’s Will.  These details could equally be contained in the tale of their daughter Laura.  The Rev J R Porte comes to the fore here, first as Executor and then as beneficiary.  This might be the time when he began to assert himself as an influence in Laura’s life – or had he already done so for many years before?

The Will was dated 19 November 1902, with Codicils 11 February 1903 and 24 February 1903.  Eliza died on 19 December 1903, and was interred with her husband and daughter Florence Sophia McLauchlan Backler Davis in Nunhead Cemetery.  At the time of probate her estate was valued at nearly £32,000.  Executors: Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler, spinster, daughter; the Rev John Robert Porte of St Matthews Vicarage Champion Hill; William Williams of Finsbury House, Blomfield St, City of London, Secretary.

  • £100 to male Executors.
  • Bronze statue of David and Goliath and pedestal to my friend and medical adviser Dr Bramley Taylor;
  • to William Williams the bronze group in my hall which was presented in 1872 to my late dear husband Henry McLauchlan Backler;
  • to John Robert Porte the silver service of three pieces for flowers and fruit which was also presented to my late husband – all subject to my daughter having use for her life.
  • To my friend Mrs Porte (wife of J R Porte) £100;
  • to Royal Hospital for Incurables at West Hill Putney £200;
  • leasehold dwelling house and appurtenances to daughter absolutely and all cash, household effects etc;
  • request her to distribute among ‘my and my husband’s relations and dearest friends such articles of jewellery and of personal or artistic value as she may not desire personally to retain’.
  • Desire Trustees during joint lives of my daughter and of my nephew Walter Davidson as they shall think proper and at their discretion to make allowance to the said Walter Davidson or his wife (if any) not exceeding £100 in any one year.
  • Trustees to pay interest of invested funds to daughter during her life and then each child of Walter Davidson gets £500; during his life he gets annuity of £200 per year unless the Trustees think there is reason not to pay it; the rest to be distributed as daughter from time to time says.

Witnesses J A Cowland Solr. 56 Ludgate Hill; Frances Ann Northern 58 Hogarth Road, South Kensington SW.

  • Codicil revokes £200 annuity to Walter Davidson and bequeaths him £500 only if he survives daughter;
  • further codicil Royal Hospital for Incurables now gets £100, and £100 to Surgical Aid Society.

Henry McLauchlan Backler and his wife had prospered, although they had lost their older daughter at a very young age.  They were not to know the fate of their other daughter, Luara, who although a wealthy woman, had a sad but pious end –  the subject of my next blog.