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A portrait of a mother: the story of Edward and Rebecca Dowler

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As a genealogist I come across many fascinating stories and was lucky enough to be involved in some interesting pieces of research.

One which always comes to mind is the story of Edward Dowler. Edward was born in Worcester in 1870 the illegitimate son of Rebecca Dowler, and like many families in those days he was passed off as being the son of his grandparents. In actual fact it wasn’t long after his birth that his mother, as discovered in the 1871 census, obtained the position of a maid for a family in London and, from what was subsequently discovered, never returned to Worcester.

Edward was to meet with his mother just once. As a young man he visited her in London but the meeting was not what he expected and he never saw her again. Rebecca had estranged herself from her family and didn’t want any contact. It wasn’t until Edward was an old man that he started talking about his mother. He told his grandchildren of the large house he had visited. They accepted this as, after all she had probably progressed from being a maid to a housekeeper. But it was the story of the huge portrait of her he said he had seen on the staircase which they found hard to believe. After all she had only come from humble beginnings and was only employed as a maid. Granddad was obviously getting confused in his old age.

Eventually a family member decided to research his family history and naturally was very interested in the story which had been handed down from his great-grandfather. He easily found Edward Dowler’s birth certificate, which told him Edward’s mother was Rebecca Dowler. Did Rebecca die a spinster or did she marry? After searching through the GRO marriage indexes, sifting through all the Rebecca Dowlers he’d found, cross-referencing them in the census, he eventually found one which matched his Rebecca’s details - her age and her place of birth and just for good measure the name of her father on her marriage certificate.

Rebecca had married in 1874 to Henry Hicks, a young businessman from a reasonably wealthy family. How they had met will never be known but as the years progressed the young couple prospered and were soon living in an elegant house in Belgrave Square. Rebecca had no more children, perhaps the knowledge of deserting her son stayed with her, who knows, but she did live the life accustomed to a wealthy lady.

It was when her death was found, and then subsequently her will, that the family realised what Edward had witnessed all those years ago. With no family, her son was not named in the will, all her friends benefitted from what she left behind. Friends, who from their titles of Lady, Duchess, Sir or Lord, showed the circles she was accustomed to mixing in. They benefited from sable coats, mink stoles, diamond necklaces and ruby brooches, among other things. But it was the words “my painting by James Shannon” which caught the family’s eye.

At the time the internet was still in its infancy as far as many households were concerned but it was decided to search online for James Shannon and see who he was and what sort of painter he was. Described as a portrait and figure artist, Sir James Jebusa Shannon was born in New York in 1856 of Irish parents but lived in Ontario, Canada as a child. Encouraged by his teacher he came to study in England, at the Royal College of Art, or the South Kensington School as it was known then. At the age of nineteen he painted the portrait of one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting and his reputation soon took off and he went on to paint the portraits of many of the elite in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

But it was one particular page which caught the eye of the researcher. It was advertising an auction of paintings, which had already taken place, but one of the items to be auctioned was “a painting of Mrs Henry Wicks by Sir J.J. Shannon.” A letter was sent to the auction house asking if there were any catalogues left which showed a picture of the painting. The letter was forwarded to the American buyer and sometime later an envelope was received from America. It contained two photographs. One an image of the portrait, the other showing the whole of the painting being held up by, presumably, the now proud owner. And judging from that photograph the painting certainly was as Edward Dowler had described it - huge.

But this isn’t the end to the story. Very recently the painting was again included in an auction and this time a family member found out before it was too late. A successful bid was placed and now Rebecca is back with her family.

The names of Edward, his mother and her husband have been changed at the request of the family.

By Vanessa Morgan

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