Stephanie Richards, Curator of Costume at Henfield Museum, on the story of local recluse Ada Tobitt and her unused ‘trousseau’ – the clothes, linen and other bridal belongings – she left behind
Miss Ada Tobitt lived her long life in the West Sussex village of Henfield. Her family were well off, owning shops and other property. Her home was a Georgian house in the High Street where she lived with her parents and siblings. She was born in 1873 and died a recluse in 1969 at the great age of 96 years.
Those are the facts. This is the story.
I first spotted the name Ada Tobitt in 2015 when I began looking after the costumes at Henfield Museum. There in the records were the words ‘Ada Tobitt unworn trousseau c1890..See Boxes etc’
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A trousseau is the collection of clothes, linen and other bridal belongings collected by a woman before her marriage. I made a bee line for the boxes and pulled out (gently) four fragile garments. A first glance revealed that Ada had been a fine needlewoman. There were two nightgowns, a pair of drawers and an exquisitely sewn pair of ladies combinations.
Underwear was an important part of a trousseau and one of the only items of clothing where lace and elaborate decoration were deemed seemly at this time. Ada had certainly not stinted on the lace and ribbon, the pin tucks and the drawn thread work. None of these clothes had ever been worn.
I was intrigued from the start. Who was she? Why was her trousseau unworn? Why did she keep it but never wear it? This is what I have found out.
Ada lived in this house in Henfield High Street. The house is still there and still a private home. The Tobitt family were Samuel, ( b.1836 baptised Wisborough Green 26 Nov 1837) and his wife Sarah, (née Sarah Ward 1833 Henfield) who married in 1860. He was a grocer and draper.
They went on to have seven children, of whom Ada was the youngest (baptised 9th March 1873) and the second daughter.
The family became wealthy, owning shops and property. When Ada died probate lists her wealth as £65,463, an enormous sum in 1969.
Her obituary in the Parish Magazine tells us that she was generous and would sometimes gift a cottage to someone she liked.
An event that might shed some light on the existence of the unworn trousseau items is the subject of reports in the Sussex Express of September 12th, and the Mid Sussex Times of September 15th 1891. The reports give a detailed description of the wedding, celebrated in delightful weather, of Miss Annie Tobitt, elder sister of Ada.
Annie married the Rev. William Duke-Baker, curate of St Paul’s Church Southsea. The service was held at St.Peters in Henfield and a great number of village folk turned out to witness the event.
Ada was one of the bridesmaids. They wore blue and pink shot silk dresses in the style of Louis XIV, accessorised with cream shoes and hats.
Ada would have been eighteen then. Did she sit and sew clothes of her own to keep her sister company whilst she made her bride clothes?
In a quirk of history, I have discovered that one of the wedding presents given to Annie and her husband ‘a luminous painting’ still resides in Henfield. This art work was painted by the Rev. Alfred Barwick. He taught village children painting and one of his pupils was Ada Tobitt.
Years later the painting came back to the family of the artist and so the tranquil scene of the moon on water still hangs in Henfield. It is in the home of another Barwick ; Alfred’s great great grandson, Alan. Who just happens to be Henfield Museum’s curator…
Ada remained at home for the whole of her life, apart from having her education ‘ finished’ in France and Italy. Unlike her brothers she never worked in the shop. She looked after her father until his death in 1921 and then cared for her unmarried brothers Charles and Frederick. After her last brother Frederick died in 1957 she was on her own and became a recluse.
Her obituary in the Parish Magazine of 1969 tells us that she played the pianoforte and musical evenings were commonplace in the family home and by all accounts she was a very stylish dresser. She was reported as completely changing her ensemble for evensong from the outfit worn to morning prayer. I have yet to discover any other clothing items attributed to Ada in the museum collection.
Apart from the mystery of the unworn trousseau, another piece of the jigsaw is still missing. Sadly I have been unable to find any photographs of Ada.
So why didn’t she wear her trousseau? Maybe Ada had a young man and he deserted her? Or he died? Maybe she was just laying down a bottom drawer for the future, a future that didn’t happen ? We shall never know.
Her final resting place is in Henfield cemetery, reunited in a triple grave with her brothers Charles and Fred. The plot next door is where her parents Samuel and Sarah lie.
So a village life lived from one century to another and full of music and generosity. Just leaving us with the unsolved mystery of her unworn trousseau….
Discover Henfield Museum’s current costume exhibition ‘WHAT WE WORE IN THE WAR’ via the website www.henfieldmuseum.org Museum reopening details and contact information can be found on the website.
Stephanie Richards has a blog featuring the story of special items of costume from both the Henfield Museum collection and beyond letterstoadress.blogspot.com
The author acknowledges the generous assistance given by Alan Barwick and Liz Steven in the research for this article.
Henfield, West Sussex
The museum is owned and run by Henfield Parish Council. It began in a small way in 1948 gaining its first permanent site when the new village hall was built in 1974. The present building was opened in 1994. The objects exhibited range from early fossils and flint implements, through…