Those of you who are interested in the history and philosophy of housekeeping will have read about Wilena Hitching on this blog. She wrote the little blue book that my grandmother gave me, which was to inspire my housekeeping practice over the years, and which found its way here, albeit in a rewritten form suited to the 21st century. It struck me that we ought to know a little bit more about this person, given that her home management books seemed to influence the nation’s schoolgirls so significantly during the period 1910-1930. So with that in mind, I have been doing a little digging. Here is her timeline, and the remarkable story of a family who started from humble beginnings and who ended up in the peerage. You’ll find the information very dense, and I have tried to stick to literal reporting of facts as far as possible, with minimal interpretation. My motive in doing this is to lay out what I know about her, in the hope that other people reading this are able to offer me more information to flesh out the bare details.
Wilena Hitching in 1911, upon appointment as Organising Inspector of Home Management to Derbyshire County Council
Wilena was born almost exactly a century before me, on 26th August 1867 at 19 North Castle Street, Halifax. This street no longer exists on modern maps, but in 1861 and 1874 it was recorded as being off Stannery Road. She was the daughter of John Walter Hitching, a Wool and Waste Dealer, and Susan Hitching, formerly Wadsworth. She came from a family of three girls and two boys, and she was the middle child. From descriptions of the area, this was a respectable upper working class/lower middle class family. Indeed until 1864 her father had been in a business partnership with James Midgley, but this was dissolved in March 1864.
By the 1891 census we find that the family had moved to a back to back house at 3, Bayswater Avenue, Potter Newton, Leeds. This road had a real mix of occupants, including a clerk, a bookbinder, professor of music, plumber, bricklayer, mechanic, engineer, and a police constable. The head of the household was now her mother (by now aged 54), as her father had died. At this time she was 23 and working as an elementary school teacher (her brother Herbert, 17, was a Tea Merchant’s Apprentice, and her elder sister Mary, 26, was a Confectioner’s Assistant). Her younger sister Lily, 21, had no occupation. Their home was still modest, but it is likely that the family owned it themselves, as her mother was registered to vote in local elections. The question we must ask is where is the apparently missing brother, Thomas Henry Hitching (33)? Keep reading …
By the 1901 census they family was living at 30, Banstead Street, Potter Newton, Leeds. Herbert had become a commercial traveller in the tea trade, Mary had become the manageress of a confectioner’s shop. and Wilena was a board school teacher. Lily was still not gainfully employed, which might have been for health reasons, or perhaps she stayed at home to help her mother.
By 1911, much had changed in Wilena’s life. On the day the census was taken, she was listed as being in Chiswick in the household of John Wallis Hitching, aged 51, who was presumably a relative on her father’s side. They lived at 28 Netheravon Road, which still appears to exist, and which is a substantially grander property than the ones she had lived in while in Leeds. John was a commercial traveller in the chocolate trade, so the family were dealing increasingly in luxury goods. He was married to Mary, who was 54. Their children were Leonard (23), a salesman for fancy embroidery, Ethel (21), a stay at home daughter, Arthur (17), a junior clerk (suggesting the family had become more middle class), Gertrude (25) and her husband Horace Aggett (22) who was a commercial traveller in costumes. Wilena, by now 42, is listed as a schoolmistress. It may be that she was not actually living with her relatives at the time the census was taken, however, and just visiting. We know this because an article appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 3rd July 1911 announcing that she was head mistress of the Meanwood Road Girls’ School in Leeds, and had just been made Organising Inspector of Home Management for Derbyshire County Council at a salary of £250 per annum. As it says in the article regarding her book ‘Home Management – A Three Years’ Course for Schools’, “The whole purpose of the book goes to show that housewifery is honourable and not menial, and the course would seem to be a development to domestic proficiency from the earlier teaching of Froebel”.
Meanwhile her brother, Thomas Henry Hitching, had done extremely well for himself. He had married Sarah Kossuth from Halifax in 1878, who was the daughter of David Brooke of Stannary, and a descendant of William the Conqueror. This represented a very good marriage and helped his prospects for advancement considerably. Thomas clearly liked collecting titles, honours and prestige positions. He had been a Sheriff of London in the early 1900s, and was knighted in 1902, becoming Sir Thomas Brooke-Hitching.
Lord and Lady Brooke-Hitching on 13 March 1903 in full court dress.
The image to the left dated 13 March 1903 shows the aspirational couple in full court dress, that gives an indication of the status they had attained by this time. Thomas is dressed in velvet and sports his ceremonial Chain and Badge of Office. Sarah is dressed almost in the manner of a contemporary bride at a society wedding, in ‘ivory satin embroidered with ivory velvet flowers and pale green leowes; the ivory brocade train displayed a design, pink and mauve flowers, lined satin dress, veiled with emerald and opal embroidery, trimmed with chiffon and emeralds, with full Court train of emerald green satin’, which was featured in the magazine The Queen on 21st March 1903. From what I know about couture wedding dresses (which are the nearest we get to this style of clothing), in modern day prices we are probably looking at something that would cost about £10,000-£20,000 to commission, and formal male outfits for court, for example for Lieutenants who are representatives of the Queen, today cost in the region of £15,000 to have made up, so it is clear that this couple had considerable means at their disposal.
Thomas was an Officer of the Legion of Honour and of the Order of Leopold II of Belgium, a possessor of the Grand Cross of St Seba, Servia, and the Grand Cross Danillo of Montenegro. More locally Thomas was one of the King’s Lieutenants for the City of London. He was also a member of the London County Council from 1904-7, Mayor of Marylebone in 1907, and had properties in the Isle of Wight (Corston House, Spencer Road, Rye – his wife had a love of the Isle of Wight) and in Cavendish Square, London. Thomas was one of the prime movers in the creation of separate municipalities for London. The boy from Leeds by now had his own coat of arms, and this was engraved on a silver tray by Mappin and Webb, the Royal jewellers, and the tray was presented to him by the Borough of Marylebone. (This seems fitting as in 1911 he was made Master of the Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers, so obviously this was his original trade). In 1912 he career seemed to stutter as the Court of Aldermen found him unfit for office in Farringdon. He died on 4th February 1926 and is buried in the Cimitiere du Trabuquet, Menton, on the French Riviera, where the family had a home.
(An aside – in her obituary in the Isle of Wight County Press, 29th October 1932, his wife Sarah was alleged to be the inventor of the modern type of perambulator, presumably the coach built type with suspension, and was considered to have a sound business mind).
Back to the main subject of our interest now, namely Wilena Hitching. In 1935, at the age of 67, the intrepid Wilena set off from Southampton for Vancouver, Canada, on the ship Lafayette, one of 32 passengers on the voyage. She may have been visiting her fellow home economist Alice Ravenhill (1859-1954) who was based at Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island. Alice had been instrumental in influencing Wilena’s career, including writing a preface to her Home Management series of books. (The group of home economists based there also had links to the Eugenics movement, but that is no doubt a subject for a blog post in its own right, being highly controversial).
On 27th August 1952, Wilena died at the age of 86, the day before her 87th birthday. She was living at 3 Bedford Road, Torquay by this time, and died at home attended by a nurse. She was suffering from cancer and Paget’s disease .