From the Archive: Women of Insole Court

At Insole Court we are fortunate enough to have many women, both past and present, who were and are an integral part of the Insole Court Story. Today, on International Women’s Day, we wanted to highlight some of their stories.

The Archive Research group was formed in 2010, after a grant was awarded to the Friends of Insole Court from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create interpretation and visitor information for the site. Over 10 years later, the group are still going strong, caring for our collection and exploring further into the history of Insole Court.

Violet Insole
Violet Insole in 1910, seated at the top of the steps of Insole Court. From an album compiled by Agnes (Nan) Richardson née Thackeray.

Violet Lilly Insole (1883 – 1932)

Our first story is that of Violet Insole. Violet was the second daughter of George and Jessy Insole. Her father was the son of landowner, art collector and philanthropist James Harvey Insole, who made his fortune as a colliery-owner and coal shipper. Violet’s family lived at Fairwater House; a property just a stone’s throw away from Insole Court. Violet moved, with the rest of her family, to Insole Court when her father inherited the property. Violet was a very strong character and was often noted for her directness. A neighbour whom Violet accompanied on a cruise remembered her as ‘an alarming woman with red hair and a bitter tongue – but a heart of gold’.

Violet enjoyed dressing up and transforming herself into someone rather different from the obedient, stay-at-home daughter that society expected her to be. Throughout her childhood, Violet was at the centre of many performances, from amateur productions to providing entertainment for the troops on leave at The Soldier’s Rest in central Cardiff. Her main contribution to the war effort was in the Red Cross. She immediately signed up as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse, at first on a part-time basis and later full-time. By the end of the war, she was officer in charge of a local convalescent home, the Lodge in Cardiff Road, Llandaff, providing twenty-five beds for wounded servicemen.

Violet was frequently a bridesmaid but never a bride. We do not know whether she regretted her lack of partner or children. It may be that she revelled in the opportunities offered by her single status and her assured income from the trust set up under the will of her father, who died in 1917. This gave her the independence to travel widely in search of rare plants both abroad and at home, while maintaining her traditional domestic role as companion to her aging mother.

By the time of Violet’s death at the shockingly young age of forty-eight, the development at the Court of alpines and irises, and the raising of new species, had become her most engrossing pursuit. The details of Violet’s death have encouraged local legends that still persist. One story is that her irises were responsible for her death. A former neighbour, writing many years later, maintained that she had ‘refused to have the operation until after the iris season was over. She was then operated on, on the kitchen table, and unfortunately died. It was not uncommon in those days to be operated at home on the kitchen table, infections and post- op health issues were not unexpected.

Magaret Evans 1
Margaret Evans as a girl

Margaret Evans (1909 – 1995)

The steep fall in the viability of the coal industry in the 1920s affected all who lived by it, both rich and poor. The Insole family, after three generations of enjoying great wealth, found themselves unexpectedly worried about money. At the other end of the social scale, their employees in the collieries faced severe hardships and difficult choices. The bright daughters of mining families who might in more prosperous times have hoped for secondary education had little choice but to go into service. One such was Margaret Evans.

At the time of Margaret’s birth in 1909, her father had been employed at the Insoles’ Cymmer Colliery as a fireman, working underground. Naturally, Mrs Insole looked to Cymmer as a possible source for domestic servants, and Margaret went to work at the Court in Llandaff.

By the mid-1920s, the Insoles’ way of dealing with their declining fortunes was clear: they would maintain their standard of living at the Court by selling off their assets. Though family numbers were reduced at the Court, Mrs Insole continued to maintain a staff of twelve gardeners and ten indoor servants; among the latter was Margaret, now working as a maid. During her work, Margaret would probably have heard gossip in the servants’ hall about the Insoles’ finances, and no doubt absent members of the family would also have been eagerly discussed. Over the coming years, Margaret went on to become Violet Insole’s personal maid.

In the extensive gardens around the Court, Violet Insole had every opportunity to indulge her horticultural passions. The Irises themselves were planted ‘in two irregularly shaped raised beds with narrow paths winding through them’. A picture showing this was published in the Iris Society’s yearbook. After Violet’s death the Insoles presented Margaret with a copy of this photograph, which she treasured all her life. It is now in the Insole Court archive.

In 1932, the Insoles’ chose to sell the entire estate by compulsory purchase to the Cardiff Corporation. The price, at the time, was £26,250. By that time, the Insole family had shrunk to one old lady and her often absent son. Eric and Jessy chose to stay on as tenants at the Court for a few years, while the Corporation, which had no immediate need for the house itself, sold off the surrounding parkland as building plots.

Margaret Evans 2
Margaret in later life. Behind her is the dinner service presented to her father by Insole’s Ltd

By 1937, plans for departure had been made. Harrods was to hold a two-day auction at the Court, when pictures, silver, furniture, a grand piano, ornaments, toys and even the billiards table would be offered for sale. Before that, it was Margaret’s job to help with the packing up of personal items. It was she who remembered to remind ‘Mr Eric’ of the need to empty the fur room and the jewellery safe within it. For this sensible and helpful behaviour, Eric presented her with a cymophane cat’s eye tiepin set in gold, which she later had made into a ring.

Now aged twenty-seven, Margaret’s own future was certain. At a dance at the Llandaff village hall, she had met a young telephone engineer, George Thomas Stanton Batchelor. A few weeks after the Harrods sale, they were married. In the garden of their first house in Canton, Cardiff, they planted iris bulbs brought from the Court. Interestingly, they did not choose to take them with them to their next home. The young couple were not impressed with them: ‘just dull yellows and browns’.

The dinner service in the photo was gifted to Margaret’s father, an underground fireman at Cymmer Colliery, by Insoles Ltd for averting a disaster and saving the lives of some miners.

Margaret died in 1995, at the age of eighty-six. Although throughout her long life she had retained some treasured souvenirs of her time in the Insoles’ service, she never expressed any wish to revisit the Court.

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