The Edwards Mystery: The further adventures of Mrs Leather

Miss Elizabeth Mary Edwards, the woman at the centre of the “Liverpool Mystery”, had disappeared from a busy street in Liverpool on 3 September 1879. After nearly seven weeks of intense interest from the press as the story was discussed across the country, she was found in London by a private detective, Richard Alfred Lloyd, who claimed to have found her on Oxford Street on the very first day that he looked for her. Although her family tried to maintain that she had been drugged, “ill-used” and forced to go to London against her will, the press quickly began to doubt her explanation. Then on 27 October, an actress called Lizzie Pickford gave an interview describing how she met Miss Edwards in London and allowed her to live with her until she found a job; Miss Edwards told her she had run away because she had no parents, and the “unkind” old lady with whom she lived was trying to force her to marry an old man. Her intention was to find a job on the stage or as a barmaid, and she clearly had not planned to return home. This final piece of the jigsaw established that Miss Edwards had left Liverpool of her own free will; there the matter rested.

What happened to Miss Edwards afterwards? Over the course of November 1879, the press reported that her friends had written to thank Lizzie Pickford, and her father arranged for Lloyd to be given his £100 reward. The family made no further statements, but when these stories were reported, it was said that Miss Edwards remained in a “depressed and melancholy condition” and there were doubts that she would “ever recover the use of her mental faculties.” However, she most certainly did: this was far from the end of Miss Edwards’ adventures.

She eventually seemed to recover from her ordeal – whatever the ordeal was. It seems more likely that her reactions after being found reflect her unwillingness to return home, rather than horror at what she had gone through while missing. Her mother also recovered from whatever had made her an invalid before Miss Edwards disappeared, giving birth to two more daughters – Mabel in 1880 and Elsie in 1881.

At the time of the 1881 census, Miss Edwards still lived at 35 Rufford Road with her parents and seven of her siblings. Later that year, she married Isaiah Leather, a veterinary surgeon, who was born in Eccles, near Manchester, in 1858. Although his name was never mentioned in the newspaper coverage of the Edwards Mystery, he was almost certainly her fiancé in 1879. Perhaps conclusively, Leather’s birthday was 4 September, and the first reports into Miss Edwards’ disappearance said that she was buying a birthday present for her fiancé which she planned to give him on 5 September.

Isaiah Leather, generally known as Arthur, was the son of Joseph Leather, who was born in Liverpool but later moved to Eccles. Originally, Joseph was a smith, but in the 1860s, when he was in his 40s, he studied to become a veterinary surgeon in Edinburgh, leaving his large family behind while he studied; when he was qualified, he practised as a vet in Liverpool. Isaiah followed his father into veterinary practice and at the time of the 1881 census was away in Edinburgh himself; when he qualified, he worked with his father and brothers in the veterinary firm Joseph Leather and Sons. He was registered at various times in at least two Liverpool freemason’s lodges.

In the 1880s, Leather placed advertisements in newspapers – calling himself both Isaiah and Arthur, once using both names within the space of a week in May 1881 – which allow us to trace him a little. In May 1881, he lived at 7 Chester Road, Tuebrook. His brother William, who had also worked for Joseph Leather and Sons, died of heart disease aged 35 in January 1885. In May 1885, Leather was a defence witness in a claim for damages at Liverpool County Court against another veterinary surgeon; he was used as a witness in several other court cases in the 1880s and 1890s. By 1891, he was the president of the Lancashire Veterinary Medical Association. A notice in the Liverpool Mercury on 1 September 1892 stated that the firm Joseph Leather and Sons, run now by Arthur alone, would in future be known simply as Arthur Leather’s; at the time, there were two branches of the business, at Tariff Street near Vauxhall Road, and Forge Street in Bootle. At this stage, it seems that Isaiah/Arthur Leather was distinctly successful.

In 1891, Mr and Mrs Leather lived at 83 Great Mersey Street; that road runs horizontally across this 1893 map (Image: Ordinance Survey 25-inch map for 1893, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

The marriage of Miss Edwards – or Mrs Leather as she now was – and Arthur Leather is more of a mystery. They never had any children whose births were registered. In 1891, the census records them as living at 83 Great Mersey Street in Kirkdale, Liverpool, where he was listed as a veterinary surgeon. Mrs Leather does not have an occupation listed, as was common for a wife at the time. There is one curiosity; her age is given as 26. Leather would have known her real age (she would have been 30), so this alteration is strange. It would not be the last time she altered her age.

Whatever the state of their marriage, it must have deteriorated throughout the 1890s. Towards the end of that decade, Mrs Leather once again departed on an adventure, albeit more permanent than her previous one, and of a very different kind. She became a stewardess.

The job of stewardess was mainly to support female passengers on ocean liners, whether this was being a domestic servant for first-class passengers, or looking after women emigrants who were required by law to be segregated from men. According to Find My Past, 453 women listed their occupation as “stewardess” on the 1891 census, and 461 did so in 1901. This would necessarily exclude anyone at sea at the time. A 2004 study uses various sources of data to estimate 900 women working as stewardesses in 1891, increasing to 1,160 in 1901. That study, by Sari Mäenpää, outlines the roles of a stewardess as mentioned in contemporary accounts: these included attending ladies, particularly regarding “intimate needs”; looking after the linen store; serving meals to first-class passengers and assisting them with matters such as dressing; looking after seasick women and children; and, for the stewardesses working with third-class passengers, acting as a point of liaison and according to Mäenpää, “acting as a ‘domestic instructor’, who was to oversea the chastity and segregation of the women travellers.” Stewardesses were often older than their male counterparts, with an average age around 40, and generally unmarried or widowed.

It is fairly indisputable that the job of stewardess was unconventional. We cannot be certain why Mrs Leather – or anyone else – chose this career, but it does not seem unreasonable to assume that a desire to see the world played a part.

The first available record on the Ancestry website (and she may have made other voyages before this) shows Mrs Leather serving as a stewardess on the ship Cuban which sailed from Liverpool to the West Indies in October 1897. Her address is given as 15 Cambridge Road, Liscard, but it is unclear whether she lived there with her husband or as a boarder. The voyage lasted until December and she was paid at the rate of £3 per month; while hardly a huge wage, it would have been comfortably more than she could have earned working in domestic service, particularly when potential tips are included.

Over the following years, she served on various ships, including the Majestic and the Cedric; her destinations included New York and Quebec. Just from the records available on Ancestry, which only go as far as 1904, Mrs Leather travelled on a minimum 35 voyages as a stewardess; after this date she must have made many more. On each available record, she had reduced her age by two, three and sometimes four years. But these do allow us to trace a few more details about her life. By 1900, her address was 28 Park Road, Port Sunlight; this was the address of her mother – her father had died in 1893. If she had not left Isaiah Leather before this (and it seems likely she had done so when becoming a stewardess), their marriage was certainly over by then. We shall return later to possible reasons for the break-up.

The 1901 census records Mrs Leather as a visitor at the house of Thomas Byrne, a sailor from Ireland. He lived in at 23 Wood Street, Garston, with his wife, six children and a boarder. Also present with Mrs Leather was another boarder – 11-year-old Anna Leather. It is uncertain who this was; she cannot have been Mrs Leather’s child, but could perhaps been a relative of her husband, which would suggest that the couple were not completely estranged. Under occupation, Mrs Leather is listed as “living on own means”, which usually meant someone not working, but she was certainly a stewardess at this time. Her age is accurate on this occasion. But her permanent home, according to her records as a stewardess, remained in Port Sunlight with her mother.

The 1901 census also records that Isaiah Leather was a boarder at 46 Irlam Road, the house of William Muse, a labourer, in Bootle, Liverpool. He was still practising as a vet. In March 1902, he placed advertisements in several newspapers in the Southampton and Bournemouth areas offering a £1 reward for the return of a light brown Gladstone bag lost while disembarking from the Roslin Castle in February. He gave his address as 2 Hatton Garden, Liverpool.

Mrs Leather continued working as a stewardess, although further records are not easy to locate. The 1911 census records her still living at 28 Park Road, Port Sunlight, with her mother. Her sister Martha also lived there, along with a servant. Martha died in March 1912, and her gravestone says “Patient in long suffering / now at rest” which suggests she was ill at the time. Meanwhile, Isaiah Leather was now a boarder at Victoria House temperance hotel in Bootle.

Mrs Leather’s signature when she joined the Titanic

Around this time, Mrs Leather was working on the Olympic. But now, 33 years after her mysterious disappearance, she once more found herself in newspapers. It again becomes possible to follow her movements quite closely. Transferring from the Olympic, on 6 April 1912 she signed as a stewardess on the Titanic

The Titanic leaving Southampton on 10 April 1912 (Image: Wikipedia)

There are innumerable books, websites and museums dedicated to the infamous Titanic and the events of 14 April when it struck an iceberg and sank. We do not need to go into too much detail about what happened – information is readily available elsewhere. Our concern remains Mrs Leather, the woman who ran away from home in 1879. In total, 1,514 people died that night and only 710 were saved; however, all but three of the twenty-three female crew members survived. One of those rescued was Mrs Leather.

When she signed on as a stewardess, her address was still 28 Park Road but she lied about her age, stating that she was 41 when she was actually ten years older; to manage this deception, she must have looked considerably younger than her years. After the sinking, Mrs Leather’s survival gave her some measure of fame once again. And like everyone else who was onboard, she remains of interest to researchers. For example, the website Encyclopedia Titanica has a biography of her. Most of what is known comes from her testimony before the Board of Trade enquiry which investigated the sinking. Her somewhat brief and monosyllabic evidence is available online at the Titanic Enquiry Project.

On the night of the sinking, Mrs Leather was asleep when the ship struck the iceberg but was sufficiently unconcerned to remain in her cabin for at least a further half-hour. She eventually went on deck before returning to her cabin for a time; all the first-class female passengers – for whom she was a stewardess – were on deck by this point, being looked after by the crew. Eventually, Mrs Leather was helped into the Number 16 lifeboat and after the sinking was rescued by the Carpathia. Her evidence to the enquiry cannot have been too helpful except in general terms. Another crew member on Lifeboat 16, Ernest Archer, told the American enquiry into the sinking how one female passenger suggested they row back for survivors, but no-one pressed the issue. He also recalled how a stewardess took one of the oars; “I told her it was not necessary for her to do it, but she said she would like to do it to keep herself warm.” There were at least three other stewardesses on board Lifeboat 16, but as we shall see, it was passed down as a family story that Mrs Leather assisted with rowing.

Violet Jessop (Image: Wikipedia)

Other possible facts have emerged about Mrs Leather. One of her fellow-stewardesses, Violet Jessop, wrote her memoirs some time in the 1930s (as well as surviving the Titanic, she also onboard the Britannic when it struck a mine in 1916). These were eventually published in 1997, more than 20 years after her death, as Titanic Survivor: The Memoirs Of Violet Jessop, Stewardess. Jessop rarely used real names, possibly because she was still working at the time of writing and wished to avoid controversy. On the Titanic, she shared a cabin with a woman she calls Ann Turnbull, whom she describes as “a staid, placid, good soul, most restful and of a certain dry wit, a wit that bore not a trace of malice.” According to Jessop, Turnbull had problems with her feet, and was stoic, “silent” and “unmoved” throughout the sinking. She gives no other biographical information about her. The editor of Jessop’s memoirs, John Maxtone-Graham, spoke to her nearly 40 years after she wrote them. She told him that she was on Lifeboat 16, information he includes in a note but which forms no part of Jessop’s own text. From this he deduced that Ann Turnbull must have been Elizabeth Leather as she was the only other stewardess on Lifeboat 16.

However, Encyclopedia Titanica names four stewardesses, including Mrs Leather but not Jessop, on that boat (Jessop’s boat number is unlisted). Even if Jessop was on Lifeboat 16, there are four candidates for the pseudonymous Ann Turnbull. Additionally, I wonder if the Mrs Leather who ran away from her family aged 18 and who left her husband to become a stewardess would have been the “stoical and silent” type. While we only get the faintest echo of what she was really like, she does not give the impression of being calm and emotionless. Such a person was perhaps unlikely to have done the things that the real Mrs Leather had done. And we can be fairly certain that the real Mrs Leather, either from an eagerness to help, or just from a need to do something in very traumatic circumstances, took an oar and helped with the rowing of her lifeboat: something Jessop does not mention, and which does not sound like something her Ann Turnbull would have done. Overall, I am not convinced that Ann Turnbull was Mrs Leather.

The author John Welshman in Titanic: Last Night of a Small Town has followed the line that Ann Turnbull was Mrs Leather. He discusses her briefly in his book (Violet Jessop is his main focus in those parts), suggesting that Arthur Leather was a drinker who died young, and Mrs Leather went to sea to support herself after his death. However, Arthur Leather lived two years after the Titanic sank and Mrs Leather was a stewardess for many years beforehand so this cannot be entirely accurate; but as we shall see, the claim of alcoholism is much stronger.

One other source of information is, rather bizarrely, an episode of the long-running BBC television series Antiques Roadshow. The episode, the seventh of season 37, was broadcast on 26 October 2014. One of the people featured said Elizabeth Leather was his great aunt, and joined the White Star Line of ships (which included the Titanic) when her marriage broke up. He mentioned that she rowed onboard the lifeboat – in this case, he claimed for two hours as she “wanted to do her bit and to try to keep warm.” She left two items to his mother: a medal commemorating the Titanic and a locket which she was wearing when the ship sank. The locket was engraved with her initials, E. M. L., which rather neatly closes a circle: when Miss Edwards disappeared in 1879, she was wearing a locket decorated with her initials E. M. E. (which she almost certainly sold). She clearly replaced it after her marriage, using her new initials, and was wearing it in 1912.

The photograph that Miss Edwards’ great nephew brought to the Antiques Roadshow shows a woman of indeterminate age, but maybe in her 30s or 40s, looking a little thin and not entirely happy. It is the only definitive photograph of Miss Edwards generally available. She may appear in photographs of the surviving stewardesses from the Titanic, taken when they returned to Plymouth. Users of the Encyclopedia Titanica website have tentatively identified some of the women photographed; but the one suggested as Mrs Leather bears no resemblance to the photograph from Antiques Roadshow. The Plymouth photograph is not clear enough to be certain if Mrs Leather is pictured at all: one woman looks slightly similar, but has been identified as Alice Pritchard and may be too young. Mrs Leather, at the age of 51, was the oldest stewardess onboard; but if she felt confident enough to give her age as 41 when she joined the Titanic, perhaps she looked a lot younger.

Two photographs taken of the surviving Titanic stewardesses when they returned to Plymouth

Mrs Slocumbe on the right, with an unknown stewardess (Image: the journal.ie)

There is another photograph showing Mrs Slocumbe, the manageress of the Turkish baths on the Titanic and another woman in Plymouth: the other woman bears a resemblance to the photograph of Mrs Leather, but once again looks too young.

Whatever horrors Mrs Leather may have seen or heard that night, she continued working as a stewardess. After a handful of newspaper articles at the time that mention her survival, she once more slips into anonymity.

Meanwhile, her husband met an unfortunate end. Arthur Leather, still living at Victoria House, admitted himself to the West Derby Union workhouse at Walton on 20 January 1913. The reason for his admission was “alcoholism”; under “friends”, he lists Isabella Hill (his widowed, 71-year-old sister), but he could not give her address. On 23 May, he was sent to the workhouse hospital at Mill Road; under “disease”, he was listed as “delirious” (perhaps connected to alcohol withdrawal). Someone had found his sister, and her address was added to his admission notes. He was finally discharged on 2 June. On 24 February 1914, he again admitted himself to Walton Workhouse, suffering from “sickness”.  He left on 26 March. His address was 2 Bower Street, but he “cannot give address of friends.” He admitted himself once more, this time as he was “destitute” on 28 July 1914, and remained until 24 October. Now, he had “no residence” and still could not give the address of any friends.

The former Walton Workhouse, West Derby, where Isaiah Leather was admitted in 1913 and 1914, photographed in 2006. (Image © Sue Adair [cc-by-sa/2.0])

On 13 December 1914, Leather was found on Tithebarn Street in Liverpool and admitted to Liverpool Parish Workhouse. His nearest relative was named as his brother-in-law at 100 Smithdown Road. Arthur Leather died the day after being found; the governor of Liverpool workhouse reported the death and the cause was recorded as a malignant tumour of the jaw. From being a successful veterinary surgeon with two premises, it was a huge fall to be found dying, penniless and friendless on the streets. Alcoholism is perhaps the most likely reason for his decline; maybe the tumour in his jaw contributed, but alcohol can also cause oral cancer. Overall, it seems a reasonable assumption that Leather’s alcohol problems were long-standing, and very likely contributed to the break-up of his marriage. That is why Mrs Leather left him.

Mrs Leather’s mother, Martha Edwards, died either in 1914 or in 1924: a transcription of her gravestone is available online; she was buried in Anfield Cemetery with her husband and three of their children. This gives her date of death as 1 December 1924, but this could be a mis-transcription: the death of a Martha Edwards was registered in the last quarter of 1914 at Birkenhead.

And what of Mrs Leather, the former Miss Edwards? According to the Encyclopedia Titanica, she served with the merchant fleet in the First World War: there is a record of one E. M. Leather working as a stewardess on the Megantic in 1915. In 1917, she served aboard the Baltic, giving her address as 100 Smithdown Road; this was the address that the dying Isaiah Leather gave for his brother-in-law so she may have been living with her brother in 1917 – perhaps even when her husband died. The Encyclopedia Titanica says that afterwards she worked on the Olympic until at least 1923, and that her records for that ship give her height as 5 feet 11 inches (1.8 metres) and her weight as 8 stone 13 pounds (57 kg). As this is tending towards being underweight, it reinforces the impression given by her photograph that she was not overly robust, and rules out most of the stewardesses in the Plymouth photograph. She lived until 1937, spending her last year at Manor Hill Nursing Home in Birkenhead, where she died on 29 June 1937. Her death was reported in the Liverpool Echo, where “Mrs Arthur Leather” was described as a “Titanic Survivor”. She left £849 15s 6d in her will, worth just over £50,000 in 2019, split between Charles Robinson, a shipbroker, Richard Robinson, a dentist, and Frederick Dickinson, an engineering salesman. She was survived by at least four of her sisters (one is untraceable), the last of whom, Mabel, lived until 1967.

And so we return to the question of what happened to Miss Edwards in 1879. Does the later part of her life shed any light on what happened in those seven weeks in September and October that year?

It seems safe to discard the explanation that she gave the Edwards family (or at least the one they promoted): that she was drugged, “outraged” and effectively kidnapped. Neither Robert Welsh on the Shrewsbury train, the witnesses at Beddow’s Temperance Hotel in Shrewsbury, nor Lizzie Pickford thought that she looked distressed or seemed to have suffered a traumatic experience – in fact the only time she exhibited signs of distress was when she returned to her uncle and when her family arrived.

What other reasons did she give at the time? She did not really tell Welsh, when they were on the train together, what she was doing other than going to London. However, she said far more to Lizzie Pickford. In fact, she invented a whole life for herself: she was an orphan living with an unkind old woman who was forcing her to marry an old man. This was the reason she ran away. While this was obviously a lie, does it tell us what she was thinking? Although her parents and friends painted a picture of her as a devoted daughter who was slightly spoiled, or as one person described her, “high-spirited”, could it be that her parents were more demanding than they would admit? Two of their sons had died in 1877; another daughter had been born months before the disappearance; Martha Edwards was “somewhat of an invalid”, forcing Miss Edwards to take over the household. Is this why she claimed to live with an unkind old lady? And were they forcing her to marry Isaiah Leather? Perhaps it is relevant that she ran away around the time of his birthday. Maybe also that they were only engaged a short time before her disappearance, according to the initial reports.

It may be that the reason she eventually left Isaiah Leather explains why she did not want to marry him. Perhaps even then he drank too much. In any case, it seems likely that her recent engagement played some part in her decision to run away – possibly a large part.

The other possibility is that she really did want to become an actress, or go on stage in some capacity. Whether this was because she loved theatre, or the idea of running away to start a new life in this fashion appealed to her, we can only guess. But perhaps her eventual choice to leave her husband, become a stewardess, and see the world suggests that she simply did not want to sit at home. Whether she left Isaiah Leather in order to do this, or decided to follow that path after they separated is unclear.

There are, of course, other unanswerable questions. Who was the clergyman seen with her in Shrewsbury? Did she leave Shrewsbury on that first day, or did she linger longer as one or two witnesses suggested? How did Richard Alfred Lloyd really find her? What did she and Lizzie Pickford do every day when they left their apartment? Why did they go to Brighton? Who was the “fellow who had had his dinner” that Miss Edwards and Pickford saw on Brighton Pier, and how did he recognise her? Was Pickford really an actress? And what exactly did Miss Edwards do in those 17 days before she met her? If she really did suffer from a form of epilepsy (as John Henry Wilson suggested when he diagnosed her with petit mal), why did this not manifest itself in London or in later years? How much of her illness afterwards was an attempt to deflect questions? What did her family know or suspect? And why were they so determined, from the very beginning, to convince everyone that she had somehow been forced into prostitution on Blandford Street?

Finally, where was she actually going on the day she disappeared? Why was she heading towards the notorious Blandford Street? She told her family she was going to visit a friend, but her real intention was always to go to London. Stafford Street was a strange route to take to go to any shops she wished to visit, for example to pawn her ring as she told Pickford. And it was completely the wrong direction to get the ferry to cross to Birkenhead, which was what she told both Welsh and Pickford that she did. Why did she tell Pickford that she was worried that she might be followed? Perhaps she just wished to get away from the people who recognised her on the omnibus. Or maybe something else entirely was going on that we can only guess at. But as there is no evidence, any attempt to answer these various questions would be entering the realm of pure speculation. We will never know.

If we cannot entirely solve the Edwards Mystery, and if we cannot really know whether Miss Edwards had a happy life in the end, we can be certain of one thing. Whoever Miss Edwards really was, whatever was in her head during her many adventures, she does not seem to have been content with a quiet and uneventful life; in that sense, perhaps she found what she was looking for, either in 1879 or when she became a stewardess and saw the world. And maybe that is all we need to know.

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