It’s always gratifying when my amateur, part-time family history research is found useful by professional researchers. For example, I was pleased to find this blog linked to by the excellent Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, run by a research team at University College London, and by a site about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. It was also nice when a ‘proper’ historian tweeted a link to something I’d written about my ancestors, citing it as a good example of ‘microhistory’. And I like it when I’m approached by postgraduate researchers seeking help with tracing the subjects of their study. Some time ago, I was contacted by a PhD student exploring the work of a minor sixteenth-century poet with links to one of the Sussex families I’d been researching. Then, a few weeks ago, I had an email from Katherine Mansfield, a postgraduate student (with a wonderfully appropriate name) investigating the life of a little-known Victorian novelist, whose mother’s name featured in my family tree at Ancestry.

The name of the writer was Florence Wilford (1836 – 1897), and her mother was Jane Drew (1802 -1836). Jane was the daughter of John Drew, a wealthy lighterman and factory owner, and his wife Mary Cole Akid. Among their other children was Admiral Andrew Drew (1792 – 1879) who in 1837 (as I wrote in an earlier post) commanded the party that seized the US vessel Caroline and cast her adrift over the Niagara Falls.

William George Bonner (photograph courtesy of Jill Crawford, via Elizabeth Cherry)

The link to my family comes through another of the Drew children, Caroline, who in 1816 married William George Bonner (1795 – 1863). William, a ship broker, was the son of Michael Bonner junior (1768 -1811), a mariner like his father and namesake, Captain Michael Bonner (1733 – 1802), who was married to Frances Gibson (1735 – 1802). Frances was the sister of my 5th great grandmother Elizabeth Gibson (1733 – 1809).

Florence Wilford was born on 29th February 1836 at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where her Dublin-born father, Edmund Neal Wilford (1800 -1881), was a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. Florence’s mother Jane Wilford née Drew died shortly after giving birth to her and was buried on 21st March 1836 at East Wickham. She was just 33 years old. Florence was actually christened on the day after her mother’s burial.

At the time of the 1841 census five-year-old Florence was living in Woolwich with her father, her three older siblings, Adelaide, Emma and Ernest, and a number of other relatives, including her maternal grandmother, Mary Drew. Later the same year, her father Edmund would marry again, to Ann Swan, and they would have two more children, Edmund junior and Percival. The 1851 census finds 15-year-old Florence visiting a house in Bromley with her grandmother. I haven’t managed to find her in the 1861 census, but in 1871, aged 35 and unmarried, Florence was a visitor in another house, this time in Marylebone. By 1881, Florence’s father had retired from the army and was living in Hastings, where Florence and her sister Emma, both unmarried and now in their forties, were living with him. At the time of the next census, in 1891, the two sisters were visitors at a house in Bournemouth. Florence Wilford died in 1897, aged 61, in Brislington, Somerset, leaving effects valued at more than £4000 to her sister Emma.

Victorian cartoon, borrowed from Katharine Mansfield’s blog post about her PhD research

Florence Wilford’s probate record describes her simply as a ‘spinster’ (it seems that only men were described by their occupation), but by the time of her death she had written and published more than a dozen novels. These include Nigel Bartram’s Ideal  which Katherine recommends for readers new to Wilford, describing it as ‘a little-known sensational Künstlerroman that explores a woman’s struggle to align her literary ambitions with social expectations of femininity’ and as demonstrating ‘the importance of writing in allowing women to shape their own identity’. I’ve already added it to my Amazon basket.

It’s good to discover another published author in my family tree, even if she was only (according to Ancestry) the niece of the wife of my second cousin five times removed!

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