Debt collecting might not be an obvious career choice for genteel ladies but by 1915 the old social order was on the way out as women took to the streets demanding equality and the vote.
In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst established the Women’s Social and Political Union at her home in Nelson Street, Manchester and at Oxford House, 57 Victoria Road, Swindon three sisters established their own financial business.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales set up in 1880, discussed admitting females in 1895. However it would be 1919 before the first woman became a member.
Rosa, Mabel and Florence Clarke were three of William Clarke’s four daughters. At the time of the 1881 census the family lived at 17 Wellington Street. William worked as an Iron Turner in the GWR Works, but he was an ambitious, intelligent and determined young man.
Ten years later William had moved his family up the social ladder and up the hill to a house in Victoria Road where he worked as a solicitor’s clerk. Oxford House dates from around the end of the 19th century when development at the northern end of Victoria Street began. Known first as New Road and then later as Victoria Street North the road was eventually renamed Victoria Road in 1903.
When William died on December 16, 1898, the obituary in the Advertiser recalled how for many years he had been employed as a mechanic in the GWR Works. ‘But eventually [he] resigned his post to act as an accountant and debt collector. In the latter capacity he has worked up undoubtedly the largest business of the kind in the county, and has been of great assistance to the business men of the town,” the report continued.
The sisters took over their father’s business following his premature death and in the 1901 census Rosa states her occupation as accountant working from home ‘on her own account,’ Lily and Mabel do not state an occupation. Florence, however, who was staying with friends in Devizes on census night 1901, also describes herself as an accountant.
Rosa died in 1904, leaving the administration of her will to Florence. The two remaining sisters kept Rosa’s initial letter R in the company name.
While the campaigning suffragettes boycotted the 1911 census, refusing to be counted without representation, Florence and Mabel Clarke are recorded still in business at 57 Victoria Road.
In 1918 Mabel died, leaving an estate of £2,609 4s to her surviving business partner and sister Florence. Interestingly, when Rosa and Mabel died neither sister received the press recognition that their father had.
Lily was the only one of the four sisters to forego a career in favour of a husband and family. In 1901 she married Charles Rix Jeyes, a quantity surveyor for the London & North Western Railway Co. At the time of the 1911 census the couple were living at The Hollies, Priests Lane in Shenfield, Essex with their four young children.
Florence carried on the business following Mabel’s death in 1918 but by 1920 the North Wilts Trade Directory records that H.T. Kirby, registrar of births and deaths, living at 57 Victoria Road.
The subject of numerous unsuccessful planning applications in recent years, Oxford House today is boarded up and derelict.
Number 57 in happier times as captured by www.cartercollectables.co.uk December 1983.