“Lax Ladies, Liquor, Loafing, Lechery and Lust – Dire Doings of Dour Dunedin’s Doleful Daughters”

Sadly, it is not always possible to research the subjects of our plates in as much detail as we would like. In 80% of cases this is purely because there is a lack of available information but in the other 20% we sometimes really have to ask ourselves how relevant the details of a particular story are to our project. As much as it may be interesting to trace the family tree or history of a particular individual, it is a time consuming and absorbing task and with a list of names which number over 10,000, we do have to be selective about the details and information we collect and follow up.

The case of Rose Letitia Berkley, pictured below, was just such a conundrum. On the one hand, the information we have found specifically on her is limited and contains large intriguing gaps, but on the other hand, delving into her family history has revealed a fascinating and nail-biting back-story which is not necessarily relevant to the project at all, but has proved impossible to leave un-investigated. Project volunteer Kevin McDonnell has been working hard on researching this individual and in today’s blog post he looks at this unassuming portrait and reveals the turbulent history behind the uniform.


Miss Rose Berkley, photographed 17th May 1917 by David Knights-Whittome

In the Knights-Whittome plate held in our collection, Rose wears a nurse’s uniform. We were able to read the letters ‘VAD’ on the buttons which took us to the British Red Cross. A search of the Red Cross records reveals that she became a part time Red Cross nurse in Sutton in June 1915 and full time in June 1916. In June 1917 she transferred to work in the Southern General Hospital in Plymouth. We were lucky that the Plymouth records gave her age as 23 enabling us to work out an approximate date of birth.  She stayed in Plymouth until April 1919, five months after the end of WW1 hostilities. She always gave her home address as “Harcourt”, Christchurch Park, Sutton (now number 9).

For many of our successfully researched subjects, this is as much information as we have been able to glean, and is sufficient, as it establishes an identity and a link to the area, but something about this individual struck a chord. Perhaps it was because we couldn’t find her on the census, but some element of her story provoked further investigation and it did not take much digging to uncover more of her background. A last ditch search on Google led me to uncover a sensational back-story.

Rose Letitia Berkley was born 21 May 1894 in North East Valley, a suburb of Dunedin, a city towards the bottom of South Island, New Zealand. On Rose’s birth certificate her father is named as Francis Berkley, “Gentleman”, aged 39 and born in London, England. Her mother is Letitia Berkley, nee Cumberland, aged 31 and born in Waikouaiti, within today’s city limits of Dunedin. But a birth certificate is really just a dull document registering the birth of a child, telling us little about the child’s parents, and nothing about the child’s future. It may not even tell the truth and can paint a very misleading picture. Who was this uniformed young woman and what was she doing in Sutton?

First to be researched was Rose Letitia’s Mother. Letitia Lillian Cumberland was born to Henry Fleming Cumberland, aged about 30, and Mary Ann Alice Cumberland (nee Shead), aged about 18 in 1862 in Waikouaita, New Zealand. Letitia’s mother Mary had been born in Hackney, London and died within 2 years of Letitia’s birth.

In March 1876 Henry Cumberland placed a brief ad in a New Zealand newspaper saying that his 14 year old daughter, Letitia Cumberland was missing and asking for information. Within a year of this ad in 1877, aged about fifteen, Letitia Cumberland married William Cleaver. Over the next nine years they had four children, the last of whom, also Letitia, born in 1886, lived less than a year. In 1887 William Cleaver placed an advertisement in a newspaper stating that he will no longer pay his wife Letitia’s debts. It looks as if their marriage was foundering and Letitia may have left her husband holding their three surviving children. By the 1890’s Letitia has met and is in a relationship with Francis Berkley. Their daughter Rose Letitia Berkley was born on 21 May 1894. She was presumably named for Francis’ sister, Rose Berkley, and her mother Letitia. On Rose Letitia Berkley’s birth certificate her parents claimed to have married in London on 19 January 1880 but no trace has been found of this and it seems highly unlikely that they would have travelled all the way to London to get married and then back to New Zealand for the birth of their daughter.

Francis Berkley, Rose’s father, was born into an upper middle class family in about 1854. His father, George, was to become a knight and president of the Institute of Civil Engineers. We can see Francis in the 1861 UK census living with his parents, two older and two younger siblings, one of who was named Rose, in Upper Hamilton Terrace, Marylebone, London.

In the 1871 UK census Francis Berkley is boarding on a farm in Dumfriesshire, Scotland and is described as an “Agriculturist Student”. We then find Francis Berkley mentioned in a New Zealand newspaper article dated 1 August 1878. Between 1880 and 1884 from various directories we find Francis Berkley as a sheep station manager in the Hawke’s Bay region of North Island, New Zealand, but we do not yet know when Francis Berkley went to New Zealand, or what prompted him to leave the UK.

In 1892 we find him mentioned again in various newspaper articles. In one, an announcement is made of the dissolution of a business partnership between Francis Berkley and William Burley of Balclutha, South Island, New Zealand. The business is taken over by William Burley. In another, Francis Berkley is selling his “superior” household furniture and effects at public auction as he is leaving Balcluthain Balclutha. The furniture includes; “Piano in a walnut case, handsome red pine Suite in leather, Superior suite in tapestry….” This is indeed superior furniture and effects, and lots of it. It looks as if Francis Berkley’s life is changing.

Around this period and in this area Francis Berkley met and developed a relationship with the still married Letitia Cumberland. In 1893 the electoral roll has Francis Berkley living in Dunedin with his “wife” and working as a (sheep) station manager, just as he did in North Island. Rose would be born the following year.

Very suddenly, in June 1899 we find Francis Berkley’s death announced at Oamaru Hospital, South Island, and a year later an In Memoriam from his Letitia is published in the local newspaper, with the words:

“ ‘Tis hard to break the tender cord
  When love has bound the heart
  ‘Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words:
  We for a time must part.”
Inserted by his loving wife Letitia Berkley

 Letitia’s life is falling apart. Her mother died when she was two. She ran away from home at the age of 14, married within a year and had four children, the last of whom died within a year. She left her husband and three surviving children. She met and fell in love with an Englishman, Francis Berkley. They lived together as man and wife in a bigamous marriage and had a daughter that they named Rose Letitia Berkley. Five years later, in 1899, Francis died suddenly and Letitia lost the love of her life.

And then things got worse!

In early 1901 Rose Letitia, aged six, is taken away from her mother and placed in care in the “Nelson Industrial Home”. This is because of her mother’s “….habitual intemperance….” The child’s aunt, Lady Rose St George (nee Berkley) married to an Irish Baronet, sends for the child to bring her to England with the intention of adopting her. Letitia at first objects to losing her daughter in such a way but eventually agrees, on the condition that she will have a final meeting with her daughter before the child sails for England. A date for the meeting is set and arrangements made to take Letitia to see her daughter in Wellington, North Island, where she is by then staying. But the day before the visit Letitia is again taken to the Police Court and charged with drunkenness! Did she ever get to see her daughter again? Sadly it seems doubtful.

Rose Letitia Berkley is put into the care of Captain Lapham and sails to England and to a family she has never met. The journey by sea, which took her to the other side of the world, will have taken at least six weeks.

And what happened to her mother Letitia, left behind in New Zealand? She descended in to a life of drunkenness, vagrancy and prostitution and appeared in the New Zealand press many times in ever more lurid articles. One article entitled “Bacchanalian Beauties” on 24 Oct 1914 refers to Letitia being “decorated like a wedding cake… and in answer to charges of drunkenness and smashing her “order” she politely remarked that a taste came her way and upset her… She has been very boisterous in the police cells, considerably upsetting the night watch cop by her abuse of the chorus of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “I Walked Right In” and other favourite ditties. Letitia was fined 10/-, or could have in preference the stone jug for 48 hours. She was very thankful.” Another article entitled “Lax Ladies, Liquor, Loafing, Lechery and Lust – Dire Doings of Dour Dunedin’s Doleful Daughters” describes in detail her renown and habitual behaviour in the town.


By 1909 she was living with another man, and still featuring in press articles for years afterwards. She married again in 1923, probably again bigamously. She died in 1927 aged 64 and is buried in an unmarked grave.

But what of her daughter, our unassuming sitter? What happened to Rose Letitia Berkley when she arrived in the UK? Surprisingly we know very little. We know that she arrived just after the 1901 census but we cannot find her in the 1911 census, when she would have been about 17. We don’t know where she lived between the years of 1901 and 1915.

She suddenly bursts in to our view when she became a part time Red Cross nurse in Sutton. We know her career history from the Red Cross Records, and that she always gave her home address as “Harcourt”, Christchurch Park, Sutton – the home of Sir John St George and his wife, Lady Rose St George, the family who brought her over from New Zealand. This couple married quite late in life and had no children of their own. Rose Letitia was probably adored and indulged by her adopted family. But did she miss her mother and father, and did she miss New Zealand? Did she ever go back? Where did she go to school?

We know that her mother Letitia was a Catholic and that when Rose was taken into care, in New Zealand, she was raised as a Catholic. Her aunt and adoptive mother, Rose St George, converted to Catholicism on her marriage to Sir John St George, who was an Irish Baronet and almost certainly a Catholic. The St. George family moved to Harcourt, Christchurch Park by 1904.

After 1919 Rose Letitia Berkley, just as suddenly as she came in to focus so briefly, slips out of view again.

In early December 1925 we find her as a passenger on the “SS Balmoral Castle” sailing to Madeira. Strangely her age is given as 21, she is in fact 31, and she states her profession as “nil”.  In January 1926 she sails back to the UK on the “SS Windsor Castle” this time accompanying Elizabeth and Philip Leacock who are using the same address as Rose. We assume she was accompanying them back to England to go to school.  This time her age is taken down correctly and she states her profession as “Nurse”. On both legs of the journey she gave Harcourt, Christchurch Park, Sutton address.

Our final view of Rose Letitia Berkley is in Paris in 1928 when she was 34 – and it’s completely final. She is dead.

Rose died on 9 August in the Hotel Viator in the south east of Paris (which is still there). Her death was only registered in the British Consulate on the 18 August. Her residence at the time of death is given as 3 Rue des Champs, Levallois-Perret in north west Paris, though this street is now in the district of Asnieres, probably due to district boundary changes.  How did she die? Why did she die in a hotel on the other side of Paris from her residence? Who was with her? Is she buried in England or France, or even in New Zealand?

We know quite a bit about Rose’s mother and father and we know where they are buried. But all we really have of Rose Letitia Berkley, the pretty Red Cross nurse who served her adopted country in WW1 half a world away from her birth place, is a black and white photo on a glass plate negative, a few brief glimpses of her short but well travelled life and a long list of questions.

If anyone reading this has any further information about this individual, or her family, we would love to hear from you.  Please do leave a comment below or get in touch with project officer Abby Matthews directly via email below.

Special thanks to Tony McGarry helped with research at TNA and Don Hansen of New Zealand who helped me trace Rose’s parents in New Zealand, in particular her mother Letitia. Throughout I have been able to find out a lot about Rose’s parents in New Zealand from “Papers Past“, a free to use site which contains over 3 million pages of New Zealand newspapers from 1839 to 1948.


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