Ellen Munday: Life as an independent servant

Research today, comes from our wonderful volunteer Elizabeth, who has worked hard to track down information about a lady from the collection, Ellen Munday, as well as the family for whom she worked for during the time the photograph was taken.  The story leaves many questions still to be answered but certainly gives a fascinating insight into the lives of two independent women… 


This is Ellen Munday – photographed in November, 1911.  She is about 26 and in 1911 she is working as a domestic servant in a large house, Ravenscroft, in Stanley Road, Sutton. Ellen was probably born in Dartford, Kent into a large family – her father was a county bailiff – and by 1901 she was working as a servant for a family in Rochester.  The records are not clear – either she changed her name or, more likely, she changed her date of birth. Her story is an interesting one of an independent women.

In the 1911 Census the Head of the household is listed as Caroline Gunner – a single woman aged 53 from Winchester living on her own means. Where did she get her money from?  It is possible that she is related to the Winchester banking family – Gunner and Company – a Caroline Gunner became one of the first women partners in the bank when her husband died.  This Caroline Gunner died in 1909, so she is not the Caroline Gunner living in Sutton. It is possible that the Sutton Caroline Gunner was working as a teacher in Frensham in 1881, but she does not appear in any further census records until 1911.

Also living at Ravenscroft in 1911 is Eleanor Bessie Gunner – who is listed as Caroline’s niece.  Bessie’s father was a bank clerk from Winchester living in Tunbridge Wells and is Caroline’s older brother. There is a visitor staying at the house in 1911– Robert Henry Knowles Shipp – who is a bank clerk from Oxford. Bessie will marry him a few months


later. The couple moved away and by the start of the war they were living in Wallington with their two young sons. Did they stay in contact with Eleanor’s aunt?  Did the boys come to play in the large garden in Stanley Road?  It is possible that this  is a photograph of Robert.  It was taken in November 1915 – which is when Robert joined the London Regiment.

But who is the fourth woman listed in the Census – Harriet Alexander, a widow from Whitechapel?  According to the Water Rates it is Harriet who owns the house.  Harriet was born in 1832 and had married Frederick Alexander from Hoxton in 1851.  He was a coffee and tea dealer and they had no children.  The Sutton house – Ravenscroft – was probably purchased in about 1907 or 1908.  Frederick died at the end of 1908, and by 1910 Harriet’s name appears on the electoral roll as a woman of property. Why did Harriet and Frederick move to Sutton? How did Harriet meet Caroline?  Was Caroline a lodger?  Why is she listed as Head of household when the property is owned by Harriet? And where was Caroline between 1882 and 1910?

Harriet died in March 1917 and left everything to Caroline Gunner. She appears on the electoral roll in 1918 – one of the first women to gain the vote under the new legislation.  Suddenly she owns property and has her own income – she is an independent woman and does not marry.  And what of Ellen?

In November, 1911 Ellen is 26 and single –what were her dreams for her future?  Why had she moved from Rochester to Sutton? One of Caroline’s sisters had married and moved to Dartford.  Perhaps the families knew each other and Ellen concluded that Sutton offered a brighter future. Did she dream of marrying? Of having a home of her own?  Or children? Perhaps Ellen has had her photograph taken to give to someone special, or to send to her family in Kent.

Ellen never married, but she stayed working for Caroline in Stanley Road until Caroline’s death. Did Ellen have a sweetheart who did not return from the war? Was she one of the ‘surplus’ women after the war? Or did she see how a woman could live independently? Ellen came from a large family –did she value the peace and quiet of a large house without any ties?

Ravenscroft, now demolished, was a very large Victorian detached house in leafy south Sutton.  What type of relationship did Caroline and Ellen have?  They lived together for nearly forty years – did they always maintain a strict distance between employer and servant?  Or did they eat together or go out on visits together?   The war broke down many barriers and it is probable that Caroline had to rely more and more on Ellen as she grew older. How did the two women cope during the war? Records show that many bombs fell in the vicinity in 1940 and a public shelter had been built in nearby Ventor Road – did the two women go there during the intensity of the Blitz, or did they have their own shelter in the garden?  Did they see the shell shocked patients dressed in blue from the nearby Belmont Military Hospital, or the Canadian soldiers billeted in empty houses?  The war came to Sutton with night-time raids, bombs and RAF planes flying overhead during the day on their way to Germany.  Windows were shattered, roofs were damaged, houses destroyed, and many lives were lost. Their quiet life in Stanley Road – where the milk was delivered by horse and cart, the rag-and-bone man walked the streets with his cries and coal was delivered by a shire horse – was coming to an end.

Caroline died in 1942 leaving everything to her son-in-law Robert Shipp – who by now was a bank manager. Did she leave anything to Ellen?  In 1942 Ellen was nearly 60 – how would she live?  She would have a small pension, but would probably need to live carefully. By 1945 she had moved to rooms in a large Victorian house in West Street sharing with another woman.  This house is one of the last remaining Victorian houses left on West Street with many rooms for lodgers.  In 1949 she was sharing with the cricket bat maker, Montague Odd, and his wife Patience until his death in 1951.  Ellen then moved to rooms in a house across the road which she shared with different lodgers until her death in 1964.

Their story ends here as Caroline, Harriet and Ellen did not have any children.  The house in Stanley Road has now gone – along with many of the other houses in the road. All that remains of Ellen’s life in Sutton are these three photographs taken in 1911.

One thought on “Ellen Munday: Life as an independent servant

  1. Well done Elizabeth for the research you did into this group of people from Sutton area.

    I so enjoy reading about the research all being done on the Knight-Whittome photos.

    Thank you

    Barbara Holmes


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