Henry Selby Hele-Shaw: a sequel from Canada

April’s history essay on Henry Hele-Shaw, the pioneering research engineer and one of the RSSAf’s founders, has an interesting sequel. While helping her son research a family history project, it was read by Christine Caroppo, a gallery text editor at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Hele-Shaw plays a role in Christine’s family not as a relative, but as the employer of her grandmother, Lily (Cook) Bollard, and also of Lily’s aunt Bess and her uncle Frank, Bess’s brother. Bess was the housekeeper of long standing to the Hele-Shaws – and tussled with Hele-Shaw’s secretary over who took precedence in caring for the scientist’s general welfare – and Frank was their chauffer. Lily Cook was born in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, England, in 1908 and went into domestic service in 1920 at the age of 12 or 13 under the supervision of her aunt in the London home of the Hele-Shaws. In 1929, Lily left their employ and emigrated to a new life in Canada armed with a letter of introduction from Hele-Shaw to a doctor in Toronto who gave Lily her first job there. When recollecting her teenage years with the Hele-Shaws, Lily spoke kindly of Dr Hele-Shaw whom she considered to have been kind and nice, although his wife could be rather cold and disdainful. Lily’s daily tasks included the usual household chores and she was also responsible for walking the family dog.

Wye River Water Meadows/Wilton Castle Ruins

Wye River Water Meadows/Wilton Castle Ruins

Hele-Shaw’s enthusiasm for the scientific involved his entire household. According to Christine, Lily recalled the time when “all of the servants were awakened in the middle of the night and taken up to the roof to view an eclipse of the moon with a telescope that Dr Hele-Shaw had set up. She remembered that he was very excited but that she was just sleepy and wanted to go back to bed. Morning came early for the youngest maid in the house!” In later life Lily suffered from dementia and, not recognizing any of the people in her photograph albums, she destroyed them all. They included photographs of herself as a young girl and one of the Hele-Shaws who had played such a large part in her early life.

In 1941, aged 86, Hele-Shaw died at Ross-on-Wye just a year after his retirement. As far as is known, he had no prior connection with the area and one might speculate that he went there on the recommendation of the Cook family who had strong ties to the district. In the 1960s, on a visit to London, Lily went to see the Hele-Shaw’s London house. It had, however, been destroyed during the War. It may be that the bombing of London was the reason why the Hele-Shaws had left London for Herefordshire in 1940. Retiring to the relative safety of the countryside would have been appealing during the height of The Blitz.

In her emails, Christine has told me that her two aunts treasure three charming watercolours done by Hele-Shaw of the Ross-on-Wye area and they kindly allowed her to photograph two of them – see below. One of these was a retirement gift from Hele-Shaw to Bess, his housekeeper; the others (Wilton Bridge, Ross-on-Wye, and Wye River Water Meadows/Wilton Castle Ruins) were given to Lily when she struck out for Canada on her own. Lily always proudly displayed these intensely personal and thoughtful gifts that Dr Hele-Shaw had given his former maid – whom he had observed grow from a young girl to womanhood. It was all the more meaningful to her since he had painted them himself. We are very grateful to the family of the late Lily Bollard for allowing us to use these images on our website.

Jane Carruthers, August 2014.