Notes on the Family of Phelps of Madeira
The following was sent to Mr Noël Cossart of Funchal in 1956 by my Aunt
Joseph Phelps, born 24th 8ept. 1791 died 3rd April 1876, came of an old
family which was established for many years at Dursley in Gloucestershire. He
was born in Madeira the seventh child of his father, who had emigrated to
Madeira in 1784, where he founded the firm of J. and W. Phelps in 1786. Joseph
Phelps succeeded his father as head of the firm. He married on 17th Aug 1819,
Elizabeth Dickinson, born 16th Nov. 1195 died 14th April 1876, youngest daughter
of Captain Thomas Dickinson R.N. (1753-1828) and Frances do Brissac (1760-1854)
and sister of John Dickinson (1782-1869) the, founder of the firm of paper
manufacturers which still bears his name. Another sister, Anne (1791-1883)
married the Rev. Arthur Benoni Evans, and was my great grandmother.
In 1821 Joseph Phelps became the first Treasurer and one of the Founder Members
of the Funchal Association, which was formed for the promotion of education in
the island. At his own expense he established a school for boys in 1822, which
was known as the Escola Lancasteriana.
The Phelps family lived for many years in the Carmo House, Funchal, Madeira,
their country house being the Quinta de Praza. During this time they appear to
have been the leading English family in Madeira, for it fell to them to house
and entertain all the visiting royalties and notabilities, In the last years of
her life, Aunt Janey (Jane Phelps, youngest child of Joseph and Elizabeth
Phelps) told me that she remembered, as a small child, being brought down to the
dining-room after dinner, and sitting upon the knee of the Emperor Napoleon III.
and being fed by him with dessert and nuts.
During the early part of the last century Madeira was almost entirely denuded of
trees, owing to fire, and the ravages of earlier settlers. Elizabeth Phelps
realised that reforestation was essential to the well-being of the islanders,
and frequently sent to England for suitable trees, seedlings and seeds, which
were planted all over there estates. When she organised their customary enormous
picnic parties, each of the guests would be given a seedling tree and required
to plant it at the spot before returning home. In after years these clumps of
trees grew and flourished, and to within living memory were always known as
“Mrs. Phelps’ picnic places.”
Joseph and Elizabeth Phelps had a large family of seven daughters and four sons,
the eldest of the family being Elizabeth (1820-1893) the founder of the now
famous Madeira Embroidery Industry.
The family owned very large vine growing estates in the island. As the native
workers were at that time in a state of great poverty, Elizabeth, (always known
in the family as Bella) started in 1854, a little school for the women and girls
on their estates in which they wore taught to work embroideries from original
designs drawn by Bella Phelps herself. A large folio of these original drawings
was in the possession of the youngest member of the family Jane de Brissac
Frederica Phelps (1842 - 1926) with whom I went to live immediately on leaving
school, and whom I knew intimately during the last years of her life and from
whom I leaned most of the information contained in these notes. This folio
unfortunately disappeared when her house and possessions were dispersed after
In the early days the embroideries were sold privately among personal friends of
the family, and later, on becoming increasingly popular, they were entrusted to
an agent in England who handled them on a commercial basis for the benefit of
the native workers. A great quantity of the early embroidery was in the
possession of members of the family at the time of my birth, and as, by then,
most of the older generation had passed away, all this embroidery was sent to my
mother by the surviving members, for my use, I being by a long way the youngest
female descendant. I well remember being told that the trimmings on my childish
frocks and underwear were “real Madeira work”, though at the time it meant
little more to me than the discomfort of starched and scratchy frills.
Mrs. Phelps’ sister, Anne, married the Rev. Arthur Benoni Evans, and of their
surviving children the two eldest died unmarried. The third was Sir John Evans
K.C.B. the famous archaeologist and scientist, and father of Sir Arthur Evans,
the discoverer of the Minoan civilization at Knossos in Crete. The fourth child,
George (1825-1847) became a Medical Student at Guy’s Hospital, but there
contracted tuberculosis. In April 1846 he was invited by his aunt, Mrs. Phelps,
to come and stay with them in Madeira in the hopes that the climate would prove
beneficial, but by October he was so ill that it was decided that Mary Wade, who
had been nurse to the whole family, should go out to him. The old lady sailed
alone, a great adventure at that period, but George died in her arms on the 25th
Jan. 1847. He was buried in the English Cemetery Funchal, where a tablet
commemorates his short life. While in Madeira, Mary Wade had the accompanying
sketch made on the corner of cemetery, showing the tablet, and brought it home
for his sister Emma Evans, who became my grandmother.
When visiting Madeira in the autumn of 1954, I found the tablet in the wall
of the English Cemetery, but was puzzled by being unable to recognise the
surroundings, which I fully expected to do, I have known this sketch all my
life. It hung, framed, in my parents' bedroom, and was a frequent subject of
study. I learned later that the English Cemetery had been altered at some time
and this corner out away to make a roadway, so this sketch is of interest as
showing the Cemetery before alteration.
Emma Evans was the fifth child of Anne Dickinson and Arthur Benoni Evans. In
1855 she married Dr. John Waddington Hubbard, and their eldest child, Arthur
John Hubbard. M.D. was my father. In 1870 John Waddington Hubbard contracted
tuberculosis and was invited by the Phelpses to come and stay with them in
Madeira, as in the case of his brother in law George Evans, a quarter of a
century earlier. However the same sad story repeated itself, and my grandfather
is buried in the English Cemetery, the tablet to his memory standing at the side
of that in memory of George Evans. He died on the 15th of June 1871, leaving my
grandmother with four small children.
The Phelpses returned to settle in England towards the end of the last century,
and made their home in one of the big house facing Clapham Common which was at
that time one of the smartest and most exclusive residential areas. All the
members of the family became very stout with advancing years, and it was a
family joke that “a ton of Phelpses" went to Church each Sunday in the family
Elizabeth (1820-1893) the eldest child of Joseph and Elizabeth Phelps,
died unmarried. Apart from the fact of her being the originator of the Madeira
embroidery, the only other thing I know about her is a story which was often
told to me with great delight by my father and his brother, George Hubbard.
F.R.I.B.A. This story was always known as “Bella and the Bath”, and runs as
After the return of the family to England, Aunt Bella, like the rest of the
family, became extremely stout. One evening she retired early to her room, for
the purpose of taking a bath. At that time, of course, baths were always taken
in the bedroom in the small hip bath of the Victorian period. Shortly after Aunt
Bella had gone upstairs, the family below in the drawing room wore alarmed to
hear cries for help, accompanied by strange knockings and bumpings. Several of
the sisters ran upstairs to see what was the matter, and found Aunt Bella
sitting in the bath with her feet on the floor, which was swimming with water
The bath was firmly fixed around her like the shell of a snail and she was only
liberated by the concerted action of the entire family. The standard sentence
descriptive of the painful incident was “When Bella got into the bath the water
got OUT”. This story was very popular all round the large circle of cousins, but
when once, with youthful temerity, I ventured to mention it to Aunt Janey, I was
snubbed with the full weight of the old lady’s forceful personality.
Mary (1822 - 1896) the second child, also died unmarried. All that I have
heard about her is the odd fact that she never wore corsets, but supported the
voluminous nether garments of the period by means of braces of masculine design.
In that much corseted age, this speaks volumes for share of the family
characteristic of strong-mindedness and originality.
Anne (1824 - 1895) Married Robert Bayman, and had two children. One of
them, Arthur, was surrounded by a mystery which I never penetrated, but he was
ostracised by the entire family, with the sole exception of Aunt Janey. She was
the only one who showed him any kindness in his later years, and I remember him
as a sad silent old man on the occasions of his rare visits to her. He died in
dire poverty while I was living with Aunt Janey, and as she was then too old and
feeble to go and see him herself, she sent me, as representative of herself and
the family, to visit him on his death bed in Leytonstone Workhouse Infirmary. It
was a strange experience for a youngster fresh from school as I was.
Frances (1826 - 1890) married her cousin, Sir John Evans, as his second
wife. His first wife, another cousin on the Dickinson aid had died, leaving him
with five children under seven years of age. To these she became the ideal
step-mother devoted to them and beloved by all, though she had no children of
Harriet (1828 - 1925) Married the Rev, J.L. Crompton, and had ten
children. They settled in Natal, South Africa and one of her children, a Mrs.
Pennefather, also visited Aunt Janey during my time with her.
Joseph Francis (1829 - 1922) the first son, took Orders and later in life
be came Rector of Iffley, Oxfordshire. He had nine children, one of whom, Frank,
became Bishop of Grahamstown, South Africa, and finally Archbishop of South
Africa. Frank, whom I met a number of times at Aunt Janey’s, was badly deformed
and had spent most of his younger years in irons. He was one of the most
charming and saintly men I have ever met.
Clara (1831 - 1897) married the Rev. (later Dean) John Oakley, and had
seven children. One of these, Violet, made her permanent home with Aunt Janey
whom she adored to such an extent that she could not endure that the old lady
should show any kindness or affection towards me, and made my life a perfect
misery. In order to keep the peace, Aunt Janey always adopted a stern and almost
harsh manner towards me in Violet’s presence, which was more than compensated my
the kindness, deep understanding and love which she showed when Violet was out
of the way.
Charles (1833 - 1911) married but had no children, and I never heard
anything about him.
William (1836 - 1911) married but had no children. He entered the Army as
a young man, and ended his life as a General. At the time he entered the Army
the sight test consisted merely in describing the view from the window of the
Examiner’s room. Willy like most of the family, was very short sighted and he
knew that this test would be far beyond his capacity, and that he would
certainly be rejected that on that score. He therefore arranged with a friend
who was entering at the same time that the friend should go to the Examiner just
ahead of him, and relay to him all the necessary features of the view. When
Willy's turn came, he described the view which to him was no more than a blur,
with quite remarkable accuracy passed the test triumphantly, and went on to a
long and successful career in the Army.
Arthur (B.1837) married and had four children one of whom I vaguely
remember as a middle aged man who visited Aunt Janey occasionally but I know
nothing of Arthur's profession or career.
Jane de Brissac Fredrica (1842 -1926) the youngest, never married but she
was all the mother they ever knew to many hundreds of children. Strong-minded,
original, capable autocratic, and extraordinarily loveable to those who found
favour in her eight, she was quite the most remarkable character I have ever
known. As a young woman in her early twenties, she had left the comfort and
luxury of her Madeira home, and had come to England and founded an Orphanage
with her own private fortune. The children she had collected in the slums of
London, which she visited alone and unattended, an unheard of thing for a young
lady in the 1860's At that time no provision was made for children in bad homes,
or who had one parent living, and it was upon this type that Aunt Janey
concentrated. From small beginnings the Orphanage grew rapidly, till for many
years she had over a hundred children, and a big establishment in Kilburn. At
about the end of the century, when public opinion was beginning to awaken the
numbers began gradually to lessen and she moved from Kilburn to the big house
near Peckham Rye where she lived till her death, housing on an average about
From the beginning, Aunt Janey's staff had always been recruited from
gentlewoman who worked on a voluntary basis, and until after the end of the 1914
war she had never had the least difficulty in finding plenty of able assistants
of this type.
After the war, however, changing conditions made it more and more difficult for
her to get helpers, and then it was that she wrote to my parents asking if I
might go and help during a temporary difficulty over Christmas. My parents had
always bad the greatest regard and admiration for Aunt Janey and her work, and
agreed at once, even though it meant curtailing my schooling. They felt, and
rightly, that her influence would be worth more to me than another year at
school. Fortunately I satisfied Aunt Janey's critical eye and exacting
standards, so I stayed on, teaching and helping: in the care of girls of any
ages, many of whom were older than myself. At first I was frankly terrified of
the stern old lady, but after a time an affection and mutual understanding
developed between us, which was quite remarkable in view of the fact that we
were separated by two generations.
An enormous amount of furniture and family relics had devolved on Aunt Janey, as
the last survivor of her family and the private rooms at the Orphanage were
filled to overflowing with treasures from the Carmo, ranging from huge tables,
sideboards etc. of Maderian timber and workmanship, to an infinitude of family
portraits miniatures, and knick-knacks of every description. As I rose in Aunt
Janey's esteem, so she manifested it by putting more and more odd jobs upon me,
till eventually I was the only person who was allowed to handle her treasures,
which honour entailed the daily dusting of the huge drawing-room with all its
assimilations. This in addition to my routine work with the children.
Between my intimate knowledge of the family treasure and Aunt Janey's stories of
Madeira and life at the Carmo, it is small wonder that I developed a deep
interest in the family history, and in the island of Madeira together with a
firm determination that, by hook or by crook, I would visit Madeira before I
died, and see as much as I could of the places of which I had heard so much.
This I have at last achieved after thirty years. It is as a tribute to the
memory of Aunt Janey and her family that I have written this brief account of
the Phelpses of Madeira which together with such photographs and sketches as I
have been able to collect, I am presenting to Mr. Noel Cossart of Funchal, to be
preserved by him together with the other early records in his possession, of the
English families of Madeira.
See also Victorian Hangover Chapter
14, and Madeira diary