Ethel Birks and Dora Painter – Lifelong friends

My great-aunt, Ethel Birks was born in Portsea, Hampshire in October 1884.  She was the daughter of William Birks, a Unitarian Minister, and his wife, Jane Elliott Stevens.

Dora Painter

Dora Gladys Painter was the lifelong companion of Ethel Birks.  Dora and Ethel were both teachers and eventually ran a small, well-respected school together, Victoria College at 154 Laburnum Grove, Southsea.  The Birks family, a large and happy family, treated Dora as one of their own, and she is present in photographs, mentioned with affection in letters and clearly accepted as their daughter’s close friend.  Younger members of the family referred to her as ‘Aunt Dora.’  Ethel’s niece describes Dora as a slender, lightly built woman with a distinctly oriental cast of face and Ethel as a stout woman.  She notes that they were inseparable, loved children and were highly considered as teachers.

There was a story openly discussed by the Birks family that Dora was the daughter of a married woman and a Japanese naval officer.   The Japanese navy certainly would have had ships in Portsmouth Dockyard during the late 19th century and Japanese naval officers were training in Britain during this period.  The story told how her mother’s husband had nobly accepted the child as his own.  However, as with many of the stories that families tell, a little investigation suggests a much more complex story.

Dora was born in Portsea in 1888.  Her legal father is James A Painter b. 1854, a naval architect and her mother Maria Amelia Whittle b.1859.  James is the son of William, a rigger, and in 1861 the family are living in Portsmouth at Glendon House, Somers Road.   Maria was born in 1859 the daughter of James, a caulker in the dockyard and his wife Maria. In 1861 the Whittles are living in Gloucester Street; Maria has a sister Harriet Louisa who is a couple of years older than her.  By 1871 she has five siblings and her father has become a ‘General Dealer.’  In 1881, a year after Maria married, her father is a victualler at a public house called The Hearts of Oak at 483 Commercial Road, Mile End.  In the same year the newly married James and Maria are living in lodgings in Portsmouth.

It is interesting that in the 1891 census the three-year old Dora is living with her great-aunt Amelia Broman, a widow ‘living on her own means’ at 2 Hampshire Terrace, Portsea.  This arrangement might suggest  some difficulties in the family and that Dora was not accepted by her father.    In the same household are Amelia’s own daughters, Florence and Dora, along with her grand nieces Victoria and the young Dora.  Amelia Broman had been born in Portsmouth Amelia Whittle, marrying Richard Broman. In 1871 she is the head of household and a publican.  The pub is Blue Anchor Tavern in Cross Street.  Earlier, in 1861 Amelia and her husband Richard are running the Lucknow Tavern.  She lives until 1914.

In 1891 James Painter is described as naval architect in HM Dockyards and is a boarder at 28 Hampshire Terrace, he is noted as married although his wife is not present at that address.  Maria is a boarder at 157 New Road, Portsmouth with a retired schoolmaster and his unmarried daughter, she is described as married.  With her is her one year old daughter, Flora.  Clearly the couple have split up.

In the 1901 census James is living a Cowes, Isle of Wight; with him are his son, William, 19, and his daughters Victoria and Dorothy as well as Harriet Whittle his sister-in-law.  Neither Dora nor her mother is present.  Maria is still a boarder, still described as married and ‘living on her own means’.  Dora is boarding at school in Sydenham Terrace along with her sister Flora.

In 1911 James A Painter, now ‘foreman of the yard’ is living at 28 Lawrence Road, Southsea, with him is Victoria M now a governess, Flora, 21, a music teacher, and Dorothy, 14, a school girl.  Harriet L Whittle, Maria’s sister, is housekeeping; there are three servants.  In the same year Maria is a visitor to Victoria College, 170 Chichester Rd, Portsmouth where her daughter Dora is working as a governess.

Maria dies in 1911 in Portsmouth Lunatic  Asylum  leaving her effects of around £400.00 to Josiah Fennall, schoolmaster; she has no obvious relationship to him or his wife.  Soon after, in 1912 her widower James marries her sister Harriet.  Marriage to a deceased wife’s sister had only become legal in 1907 , when the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was finally passed.  In a further twist James has already had another daughter, Dorothy Hettie, in 1896.  She is living with her father and siblings in both 1901 and 1911; however, her birth and marriage records give her surname as Painter and Whittle, so it can be assumed she is the daughter of Harriet.  James Painter died in 1919.

Dora Painter and Ethel Birks remained together until Ethel died of MS in 1958.  Members of the Birks family recall that Dora devotedly looked after Ethel during the final years as her health failed.  Ethel left all her effects to Dora in her will.  One of her relations describes her as grief-stricken and lost after the death of her partner.  For a period after Ethel’s death Dora stays with William Birks in Derby.   Dora died in 1975.

In a coda to this story is another link to the Birks family.  Gilbert Birks, one of Ethel’s younger brothers, married Millicent Mary Painter in 1927.  Gilbert had survived serious injury in World War I and gone on to university.  Millicent was the daughter of Dora’s brother, William James Painter.  Their marriage formalised the link between the two families.

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