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The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Sissieretta Jones, a Musical Pioneer to Be Remembered


By Maureen D. Lee

Sissieretta Jones by Maureen Lee

When Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933, is published May 15 by the University of South Carolina Press, it will be the culmination of a nine-year effort to bring this outstanding African American soprano the historical recognition she deserves. I began this project in 2003 after seeing a photograph of Sissieretta, who grew up and lived in my home state of Rhode Island. I was fascinated by her accomplishments, particularly in light of the many obstacles she faced because of her race. I’ve heard some biographers say that their subjects chose them and this describes my experience after seeing Sissieretta and learning more about her.

Few people today know about Sissieretta Jones, yet she was one of the first African American female vocalists to sing at Carnegie Hall and she performed at Madison Square Garden, London’s Covent Garden, and the White House. The first part of her career, 1888-1896, she sang opera selections, concert ballads, and European art songs on the concert stage. She was called “Black Patti,” a comparison to the famous European opera star Adelina Patti. She toured some in the West Indies, parts of South America, and Europe, and extensively throughout the United States and Canada.

The second half of her career, 1896-1914, she was the star of an all-black musical comedy company called the Black Patti Troubadours and later the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. This company, owned and managed by two white men, provided her the opportunity to continue singing operatic arias and serious music when there were fewer concert opportunities available to her. The troupe entertained in hundreds of American and Canadian opera houses and theaters. The company, which toured by private railcar, performed in almost every one of the lower 48 states and was particularly popular in the South and Southwest. Sissieretta’s company provided a training ground for many African Americans to break into the entertainment field and some became famous in their own right.

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War. Both her parents were former slaves. In 1876, her family had an opportunity to move north to Providence, Rhode Island. She got her start singing in Providence churches. She received vocal training in Providence and later in Boston and New York. At the age of fifteen, she married David Richard Jones. Her first big break came in 1888 when she was hired as the star of an African American troupe that toured throughout the West Indies. Throughout her 28-year career Sissieretta lived in Providence when she was not on the road entertaining. She retired there in 1915 and lived in Providence until her death in 1933.

Sissieretta, often billed as the “greatest singer of her race,” was the pride of African Americans during her day. She was highly successful, well-paid, and greatly admired for her work. Her concert performances were well attended by both black and white audiences. Her beautiful voice, singing operatic arias rather than minstrel songs, gave white audiences a new appreciation for the talent and potential of African American vocalists. She helped to pave the way for other African American opera divas who would follow her such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and Marion Anderson. She deserves to be remembered as one of the first African American entertainment superstars.

My new biography, Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868-1933, (ISBN 978-1-61117-072-6, $39.95) will be available May 15 from the University of South Carolina Press, ( and Amazon. I will have signed copies available for purchase through my website,, or you can order the book from your favorite local bookstore. Like the official Facebook page.

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Fascinating Women: Helen Gwynne-Vaughan


Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan represented the flower of the New Woman–gently-bred, but very well educated–and further established herself as one of the many heroines of WWI. Before the war, Gwynne-Vaughan made her mark as a botanist and mycologist, earning her Doctor of Science in 1907 at the age of twenty-eight. She was soon given her own research school of fungal cytology at Birkbeck College in London, and in 1909, she was named head of the botany department. She married David Thomas Gwynne-Vaughan, a prominent paleobotanist and fellow colleague, in 1911, but her academic studies were cut short by the war, and her marriage ended by Dr. Gwynne-Vaughan’s premature death in 1915.

Gwynne-Vaughan threw herself into war work and public duties, and she was tapped to lead the newly-established Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in early 1917. The WAACs were created to free up even more men for fighting, and “the plan was for these women to serve as clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks, and as instructors in the use of gas masks.” March of that year saw 14 cooks and waitresses sent to France, but by the time of the Armistice, “there were 1058 controllers and administrators, 8529 members serving abroad and 30,155 at home” for a total of 39,742 women serving with the WAACs. Gwynne-Vaughan’s administration earned her high praise, and on April 9, 1918, as a mark of favor, Queen Mary assumed the position and title of Commander-in-Chief of the Corps, and it was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

There was a bit of a shake-up in the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in 1918, and Gwynne-Vaughan was appointed Commandant, replacing the beleaguered Violet Douglas-Pennant, and remained at that post until 1920. For her war work Gwynne-Vaughan was named a Dame of the British Empire in late 1919. She returned to her academic studies after the war, but her efficiency and skill in steering both the WAACs and the WRAF did much to change male attitudes towards women in the military, and she continued to remain active in women’s military involvement through WWII.

Further Reading:
Women of the Air Force
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps
Women and War: a Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present by Bernard A. Cook
A Historical Dictionary of British Women by Cathy Hartley
Monstrous Regiment: The Story of the Women of the First World War by David Mitchell

Fascinating Women: Rachel Beer, the First Lady of Fleet Street


Rachel Beer, First Lady of Fleet Street

In an age where women entered the field of journalism in significant numbers, only to be largely marginalized in “women’s issues” or to force attention only through the short-lived craze of stunt reporting, Rachel Beer’s ascent to editor of not only one, but two newspapers was a marvelous feat. Beer was born a Sassoon, one of the fabulously wealthy Jewish families whose entry into Victorian high society was facilitated by the Prince of Wales’s love of splendor. However, Rachel broke with tradition, and faced near exile from her family, when in 1887 she married Frederick Beer and converted to Christianity. Granted, Frederick Beer’s family were of Jewish descent, but the act of marrying out of the faith and the family was unconscionable, and the only contact she retained was her brother Alfred (father of WWI poet Sigfried Sassoon), who also married a non-Jew.

One can only imagine Rachel’s isolation, but she found solace in her husband and in his support of her desire to be more than a pretty ornament. In the growing turmoil of late Victorian British society, Rachel’s political views verged on socialism; “[s]he wanted equality for women, she was an advocate of trade unionism, suffrage for women and a universal state pension.” The outlet–her husband’s family newspapers–she chose was not revolutionary by the 1890s, but her installment as editor of The Observer in 1891 was. The Observer was a liberal paper, and Britain’s oldest Sunday paper, and under the hand of Rachel Beer, its reputation was strengthened.

One of Rachel’s scoops was the championing of Alfred Dreyfus, whose trial and accusation of espionage was one of the great scandals of Belle Epoque France. British papers largely ignored “l’affaire Dreyfus“, so Rachel’s stance was radical and placed her support of Jewish causes and even an interest Zionism at the forefront of her paper’s agenda. She was also the editor of the Sunday Times (acquired ca 1893), and successfully ran two of Britain’s venerable Sunday papers for most the last decade of the 19th century.

However, through all of this, Rachel’s husband Frederick came down with tuberculosis, and Rachel’s desperate ideas for treatment proved futile. Frederick died in late 1901, aged 43, and Rachel returned to editing her papers, only to collapse with grief. Her family stepped in at this point, not to help her, but to have her declared insane. All of Rachel’s accomplishments and even control of her wealth, disappeared overnight, and she spent the remaining years of her life cared for by three mental-health nurses in her brother’s house in Tunbridge Wells. Her papers were purchased by Alfred Harmsworth of the Daily Mail, and when she died in 1927, her family had her buried in unconsecrated ground, denying her the plot placed beside her husband in the Beer family mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery. But the Sassoons had already erased Rachel’s story from the annals of history long before they treated her as an outcast even in death. Fortunately, her story has been revived after over eighty years, and you can read more about Rachel’s life in the new release, The First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life of Rachel Beer: Crusading Heiress and Newspaper Pioneer by Yehuda Koren & Eilat Negev

Further Sources:
Witness: Rachel Beer – First Lady of Fleet Street – BBC iPlayer
Rachel Beer: Fleet Street’s first woman editor – The Jewish Chronicle
The Real First Lady of Fleet Street – The Guardian
The life and death of Rachel Beer, a woman who broke with convention – Haaretz Daily Newspaper
The woman who smashed the glass ceiling – The Daily Mail
The First Lady of Fleet Street – Virtual Victorian
JEWISH BOOK WEEK: Story of Rachel Beer, the unlikely national newspaper editor – Camden New Journal