The first twenty one years of this former pupil’s life could be subtitled ‘The Case of the Mysterious H’. From 1909 onwards, she was consistently Sara but the spelling of her name before that appeared down to the vagaries of whoever was writing it! Born in St Servan, Brittany, the consular record of her birth gives her name as Sarah Elizabeth Wise, daughter of William Wise and his wife Sarah Ann Wise, nee Humphreys. After her father’s death in 1898, Miss Wise became a pupil at the Royal Masonic Institute for Girls, then at St John’s Hill, Battersea, London. In 1901, her name appears in the census return, quite clearly written as Sara.
In 1903, she was confirmed at St Paul’s, Battersea and recorded in the Chaplain’s book as Sarah. St Paul’s church no longer has services but for many years it served the community and was one of a number of churches RMIG used for services.
In the Matron’s book in 1905, when she had been delayed in returning to School after the holidays (because she had been in contact with measles), her name is given as Sarah. In that year too she was awarded a prize and her name entered on the School’s honours boards, where she is recorded for all time as
From 1909, when she began her life in Australia, Our Girl used the spelling Sara and, as this appears to be her clear preference and the name her family and descendants know her by, this is the name this story will use.
But let us return to the beginning. Sara was the third of six children of William & Sarah Wise. All barring one had been born in St Servan, Brittany. Helen, the oldest, had been born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the hometown of her father and where her parents had been living since their marriage in 1880.
Mrs Wise, formerly Miss Humphreys, was not from Ashbourne but from Llanddulas in North Wales. “a village and a parish in St. Asaph district, Denbigh. The village stands on the coast, adjacent to the Chester and Holyhead railway…” (from John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales 1870-2). Her father was the Rector of St Cynbryd.
How the couple met is not recorded but it is worth noting that the daughters of Erasmus Darwin set up a school for girls in Ashbourne and perhaps, maybe, who knows, Sarah Humphreys became a pupil there and thus met her future husband?
Aerial image copyright G.Hobster from http://ashbourne-town.com/villages/ashbourne/index.html.
In 1880, Mr & Mrs Wise were living in Church St which is the road leading (bottom left) out of the aerial view above.
William’s father was also a lawyer in Ashbourne and the family plans were that William and his father would be in practice together. Unfortunately, after his father died, William and the partner in the firm did not see eye to eye. William decided that he would sell his assets in the practice, bought an annuity and he and his little family went off to St Servan in Brittany to live. They were there by 1886 as the next child of the family was born there.
Sara’s own recollections, written in the last year of her life, pick up the story.
“In S. Servan there was what was called a “British Colony” – consisting mainly of retired Indian and other Army officers and others of their kind, who found living abroad congenial and cheap (free from British tax) and within the limit of their means or pensions.
Father did not practice his profession, but joined in the pleasant life of the Colony – who passed their time in the usual activities of “Gentlemen of Leisure,” such as tennis, golf, boating, fishing, musical and whist evenings etc.
There was a very nice English Church with a chaplain appointed in England. Mother played the organ and Father sang in the choir.”
There were many English communities in places on the continent as shown in this rather waspish extract from the Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review of 1843:
The family resided “a mile or two out of S. Servan, real country with farms around – small farms, with peasant type farmers and we got on well with them and were always welcome to watch the milking and cider making and pig killing and any other activity.”
The address was Le Petite Villalie, Le Treherais, St Servan but it was known more formally as Manoir Tréhérais. In 1955, Sara and her sister went to visit St Servan “and found this house again, and were happy to find it wasn’t just a dream … It was, or is, a lovely home with lots of nice garden.” It had been restored but there was still “the same solid cedar staircase”. The biggest change had been in the kitchen “which we remembered as being rather primitive, with flagstone floors”.
http://www.infobretagne.com/saint-servan-sur-mer.htm [in translation] states that the “former mansion Treherais or Tréhairais, Route Saint Méloir of Waves … once had a private chapel … rebuilt in 1653 and restored in 1769.” The area called Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes today is connected by a road to St Servan and it seems likely that the Wise residence was on or near this road.
Map from Google Earth
The house does not appear to exist today but it could have changed its name and therefore be ‘invisible’ to searches. According to infobretagne, the chapel of the house was used by the Daughters of Charity established in Tréhairais but the owners retained the rights to the building and lands. “The mansion served as a school to the Sisters of Saint – Vincent – de – Paul from 1697 to 1781” but the French Revolution altered everything.
The house that was occupied by the Wise family was three storeyed “and our nurseries were on the top floor, I suppose in deference to my father’s idea that children should be seen and not heard, and not too often seen.” Very Victorian! There were six children in total. By 1898, their ages ranged from 2 to 15 years old. As Sara recalls, “[we] made our own fun, mostly out of doors where there was plenty of scope with lots of good climbable trees, and yes – even in those days – we played such things as cops and robbers, Indians and cowboys with bows and arrows and built forts and even started to build a tunnel so as to be able to get from A to B without disturbing the master of the house.” So they sound a fairly lively bunch.
The servants also slept in the attic. Sleeping quarters for six children and room for servants implies a not insubstantial building. The servants would have been hired for about 5 francs a month and they would have been “country girls who had to be trained … We picked up French from them, but it was the rough ‘patois’ dialect, which had to be knocked out of us later, along with being made to speak English.”
This idyllic childhood was slightly marred by “a lot of ill feeling for a time between the English and French. I was too young to know what it was about, something to do with the war in Soudan, and the ‘Dreyfuss[sic] Case.’”
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183917
Quite why the Dreyfus Affair caused bad feelings between English and French is unclear as it turned the French nation into Dreyfus supporters and anti-Drefusards rather than setting the French against any other nation. However, the infamous matter went on for 12 long years and perhaps the bitterness had an overspill: “Groups of cheeky French boys used to waylay us and throw stones and abuse us” Sara recalled.
But the childhood really did come to an end in 1898 when William Wise died. He was buried in St Servan on 1st June 1898. William’s annuity ended with his life.
“We left our lovely home and moved to a house nearer the town; another nice three storey house, and Mother had to find a way to make some money, and also for us to get more education – a necessity now we had no provider.”
Sara’s older sister became a pupil teacher in England and later gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music; her younger sister went to a school in Wales run for the descendants of Welsh clergy and Sara became a pupil at RMIG. Her father had probably first become a Freemason whilst he was at Trinity College, Oxford and then continued as a member of St Oswald’s Lodge in Ashbourne. Upon his death his children became eligible for support from Masonic charities and Sara and her brother Tommy went to Masonic Schools in London.
And here we will leave them and pick up Sara’s story in Part II.