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Stephen Spender’s amazing ancestors

Sent in by Robin, a serious jot fan, scholar and idler. It is reassuring to see people investigating their own collections and archives and then sharing the results..

I recently rescued from a job lot of books this Birthday Book designed by HRH the Princess Beatrice, which appeared in 1881. It looks exactly as the title suggests it would look---a largish, heavy gift-book in high Victorian taste bound  in light tan cloth embossed with a repeating floral pattern in gilt and with gilt edged pages.

Open it up and there are 365 pages—one for each day of the year with twelve very typical German chromolithographs introducing each month. After a cursory inspection I put this scented confection aside without a single glance at the ink inscriptions on many pages and the ostentatious presentation inscription on a flyleaf. Big mistake! 

Recently, for some reason, I decided to re-examine that flyleaf. Here’s what I read:

To my mother, on her birthday, Caroline Spender, from her eldest son, John Kent Spender and his wife, Lily Spender. In commemoration of September 29, 1885. 

Spender is not a common name, so I Googled away. What a result! It turns out that Caroline was Stephen Spender’s  paternal great grandmother , which makes John Kent Spender his grandfather, and Lillian (1835 – 95), a prolific novelist, his grandmother, which could explain where some of Stephen’s creative talent came from. We may assume that on 29 September 1885 a large birthday party was held, possibly in the family home at Bathwick, near  Bath, and that all those present—friends as well as relations -- left their tributes in the form of a signature plus an  extract from the works of an admired  writer-- on the pages reserved for their own birthdays.  

The poet’s ancestors were a fascinating bunch. Stephen’s uncle, John Alfred Spender (1862-1942), son of John Kent Spender and Lillian, was a well-connected newspaper editor. The signature of Stephen’s dad, Edward Harold Spender, a journalist who was to die when the future poet was just 17, is also here.  Stephen’s great uncle, William Saunders, seems to have had even more in common with his great nephew. Born in 1823, he became both a Liberal MP and a newspaper publisher.

Friends of the Spenders in 1885 included a few very distinguished figures and a few less so. Little could be found about Ethel Margaret Buckeridge, although someone of that name was later married in Australia. When Alfred Henry Robinson Thornton signed his name at the age of 22, he had not yet made it as an artist. However, the fact that Urijah R. Thomas, a nonconformist minister from Redland Park, Bristol, and a leading figure liberal thinker in the city, should also leave his tribute, seems perfectly in line with the Spender family’s freethinking principles.

But perhaps the most exciting non-family name in the Birthday Book is that of Lilias S. Ashworth Hallet. Born in 1844, and from a Quaker background, she went on to marry a professor from Bristol University and when she later inherited a large amount of money from her parents, she spent much of it campaigning for women’s rights, especially female suffrage. She lived long enough to see the vote given to most women in 1918.The Women's Library contains many of her letters. Her being a member of the Spender circle in the 1880s is highly significant.

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