Queer Places:
Old Battersea House, Vicarage Cres, Battersea, London SW11 3LG, UK

A.M.W. Stirling (26 August 1865, London – 11 August 1965) was the author of several books dealing mostly with the lives and reminiscences of the British landed gentry of Yorkshire. She was also the founder of the De Morgan Centre for the Study of 19th Century Art and Society. Jane Hales looked after and became the companion to the Pickering's daughter, Evelyn (later De Morgan, wife of the potter and novelist William De Morgan), often posing for her during her art school studies in London and later in her career. Later, she became the companion to Evelyn's sister Anna Maria Wilhelmina Stirling, continuing to live with her after Wilhelmina's marriage in 1901.

Evelyn (1855-1919) and William (1839-1917) met at a fancy-dress party, marrying in 1887. Evelyn, born Mary Evelyn Pickering was the elder sister to Wilhelmina Stirling. It was after the couple died that she made it her mission to secure their artworks and reputation, creating a legacy that she left in trust for the public, the De Morgan Foundation was formalised in 1967.

Wilhelmina, christened Anna Maria Diana Wilhelmina Pickering was born 1865 in London to upper middle-class parents. Her father was a barrister, Percival Andre Pickering (1810-1876) and her mother, Anna Maria Wilhelmina Spencer Stanhope (1824-1901), the sister of the renowned artist John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and a descendant of Coke of Norfolk, an Earl of Leicester. Wilhelmina’s parents married in 1853 and had four children, Mary Evelyn (Evelyn De Morgan), Percival Spencer Umfreville (1858-1920), Rowland Neville Umfreville (1861-1931), and Wilhelmina was the youngest. Her father employed the fifteen-year-old live-in nursery maid Jane Hales, who modelled for Evelyn De Morgan, when Wilhelmina was just a year old. Jane never married and stayed as a companion to Wilhelmina until her death in 1925. The family regarded Jane so highly that she is buried close to Evelyn and William De Morgan at Brookwood cemetery.

Wilhelmina Stirling, by Vanessa Cumper

Wilhelmina married Charles Goodbarne Stirling (1866-1948) in 1901, William De Morgan gifted the couple a leopard and stag dish as a wedding gift. Wilhelmina and Charles were huge collectors of art and antiques, with both delighting in hosting tours of their home Old Battersea House. Wilhelmina kept carefully documented records of all the treasures, one of them being a black oak cabinet by Morris and Co. hand decorated by William De Morgan in oils, of George and the Dragon. This cabinet is currently at The National Trust property, Standen House and Gardens used to display some of William De Morgan’s ceramics.

In her later years, Stirling took interest in ghost hunting. She wrote the book Ghosts Vivisected (1957). A review in Western Folklore concluded that "the book is not terribly strong, and it falls short of presenting a convincing argument that will win over a skeptical reader."

The BBC interviewed Wilhelmina Stirling when she was in her nineties (1961), director Ken Russell was intrigued not just by Wilhelmina, but also her home Old Battersea House. Wilhelmina and her husband saved Old Battersea House from demolition in 1931, they were given a lifetime lease and paid only a nominal rent. She was a well-known icon in Battersea, continuing to give tours of her house, while her manservant Mr Peters held a lamp to light the way. In the clip (see link below) she talks to Ken Russell about the hauntings at Old Battersea House, the interview concludes with a tale about her bed where the ‘Naughty Lord Dorchester’ died looking straight at the camera she asks ”One thing I do want to know, is can you catch a cold from a ghost?”. I find her deadpan humour endearing, so much so I just had to get a copy of her book, ‘Ghosts Vivisected: an impartial inquiry into their manners, habits, mentality, motives and physical construction’, published in 1957, it did not disappoint from the pre-face which she calls ‘the explanation’ had me chortling out loud.

She was a prolific writer, widely published from 1890 at the age of just 25, until her last book ‘A Scrapheap of Memories’ in 1960. Wilhelmina’s first novel, ‘The Adventures of Prince Almero: A Tale of the Wind-Spirit’, was written to entertain her cousins when she was a child, re-finding and editing the book some years later it was published in 1890. Her novel ‘A life Awry’ published in 1893, writing under the pseudonym ‘Percival Pickering’, to honour her father, it became a stage production in 1899. Her writing was not just fictional with most of her work about the landed gentry; her mother’s ancestors, artists that she met including her sister and brother-in-law Evelyn and William De Morgan.

Wilhelmina died in Germany in 1965, just 15 days before her one hundredth birthday.

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