2 Family

 7 Barnett family7 Lawrence & Sarah Barnett with Muriel & Vivian

Muriel appears to have had a comfortable background, growing up with servants in the house. From her first memories, she would have been accustomed to the presence of a cook, a housemaid and a nurse for the baby, Vivian. Rather in the tradition of the upper middle classes, the nurse, Alice Carson, stayed with the family for the rest of her life. Muriel calls her ‘Nan, dear’ in an affectionate postcard from San Remo in 1931 and took her to live in Bournemouth with herself and Mrs Barnett after Lawrence’s death. There, Nan, ‘a rare person’, ‘ran everything’ [i] with thoughtful efficiency until old age defeated her.

But the family wasn’t upper middle class. In the 1920s many merely middle class professional families had servants, not necessarily living in, but coming in as daily helps. Lawrence was, indeed, a professional man, a doctor. However, his father had been a pawnbroker, as had his immigrant grandfather, Joseph. The Barnetts were Jews from either Russia or Poland[ii], who came over, probably in the early 1830s, to Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, a mining area badly in need of craftsmen, shop-keepers and moneylenders. The Industrial Revolution had created vast pockets of intense production; in Merthyr’s case it was the iron industry, whose fast expansion devastated the land and caused tightly packed slums to grow up. A huge majority of people lived in dire poverty there. For them, regular visits to the pawnshop would have been the norm.

Joseph’s son Henry was born in Wales in 1832 and helped his father in the Merthyr pawnshop, before setting up on his own. A story comes from Merthyr that folks were so poor they sometimes took parcels containing nothing but rags to the pawnbroker; a compassionate man would accept the parcel without opening it, and the family would redeem it when they could. We can’t tell whether Henry allowed pity to touch him, but at some stage he moved away to Swansea and evidently became affluent.

[Barnett family tree in Section 12]

Henry’s sons – with the exception of Lawrence – seem to have stayed in Wales all their lives:

In the 1881 Census, David, the eldest (born less than a year before Lawrence), is shown as a moneylender in Swansea at the age of 21.

Solomon starts off as a pawnbroker’s assistant, probably with his father. Ten years later he is calling himself a financier or broker and living in Swansea with his wife, daughter and no fewer than three servants; while five and ten years later still, in Newport (still with three servants), he terms himself first ‘furniture dealer’ then ‘house furnisher’ – both occupations connected with money-lending or pawnbroking.

The youngest son Ernest must have been the artistic one. At 21 he gives his occupation as flautist. At 31 he’s having a go at the family trade of financier, but by 41 he has returned to his art. He’s a ‘Musician’, still single and apparently living at home with his unmarried sisters, Esther and Beatrice, and his widowed father, Henry.

The two ‘girls’ are 47 and 45 in 1911, and neither has had an occupation. At one stage in their lives a ‘lady’s companion’ lives in the house, perhaps giving a clue to their social status and their father’s income.

Lawrence is the odd one out. In 1881 we find that although he’s visiting his grandfather Joseph in Swansea on the day of the Census, he is, at twenty, already a medical student at University College Hospital in London. He would certainly not be making money, and his training would continue for some years. Was his father proud of this son’s entry into a very different profession, or disappointed that his eldest failed to follow him in the family firm?

Ten years on, at 30, Lawrence has become a practising doctor, living just off Oxford Street in London – rather a good address, although single men did tend to live in ‘rooms’, rather than own their accommodation.   Two servants (a general servant and a kitchen maid) are listed on the premises, and no other residents, which suggests he might have been well off enough to have the place to himself.   A nice detail in the census return tells us that a doctor friend from Wales, James Couch, was visiting him that day, while Dorothy Richards, a dressmaker, was calling on one of the servants. After all, it was a Sunday.

Lawrence Barnett married Sarah Beirnstein in 1895 when he was thirty-four, and by 1901 had moved to Hampstead, to that part known as Swiss Cottage, where the two of them lived in Hilgrove Road in a large house with a cook and a housemaid, while he worked from home. At some stage he also practised in the East End, where, with the greatest of tact, he treated patients for free, and we’re told that this is where he felt his real vocation lay.[iii]

In 1901 Muriel was still five years from being born.

Her mother, thirteen years younger than Lawrence, came from a family background not unlike the Barnetts’. Sarah’s father, Aaron Harris Mark Beirnstein, is listed in the 1881 Census as ‘Russian, born in Poland’ (‘Kalwaria’ in 1911 Census). He too describes his occupation as moneylender, and Sarah’s birthplace was Dowlais, now part of Merthyr Tydfil.   By 1911, Aaron Harris Mark is doing extremely well, living with his family in a six-storey house in Redcliffe Square, Kensington, London. He is now a house furnisher, employing five servants in the home. Even in 1895 a discrepancy in financial status existed between his daughter, the prospective bride, and her groom, and it seems the match was frowned on by Sarah’s parents. Family legend says that she threatened to run away and become a nurse if she wasn’t allowed to marry Lawrence. The parents gave in.

This, then, was the family Muriel joined on July 6th, 1906. Her parents had been married for over ten years and her father was 45. He had followed his star to achieve his aim, and his two children would do the same. Vivian became a high-achieving doctor, ‘probably the only doctor in Britain who had a merit award as a consultant and a seniority award as a general practitioner’, according to his obituary in 1994. And Muriel – well, Muriel danced with Pavlova.


[i] Grace Greenway

[ii] The birthplace of Muriel’s great-grandfather Joseph Barnett is listed as Russia in the 1861 Census, and thereafter as Poland.

[iii] Grace Greenway, later confirmed by Julia McLaven


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