Rex Needle: Mystery of Worth family grave is solved

Charles Worth EMN-141121-105110001
Charles Worth EMN-141121-105110001

The grave of Ann Worth, mother of the international fashion designer Charles Worth, has been found in a London cemetery.

Until now, her whereabouts after leaving Bourne in 1836 were unknown and so the discovery has solved the long-standing mystery that has puzzled biographers writing about the life of the man who founded his famous Paris fashion salon and became the father of haute couture.

Ann was deserted by her husband, local solicitor William Worth, and presumably left penniless. They had lived at Wake House in North Street where he also had his law practice, but he had been leading a profligate life which resulted in his downfall and the family had no alternative but to seek refuge with relatives.

Soon afterwards, their son Charles left for London to start work with a linen drapery firm in Regent Street and then in 1845, at the age of 20, he boarded the cross Channel ferry to France hoping to make his mark in the millinery trade and so began his illustrious career in the world of international fashion.

William Worth died in obscurity at Billingborough on November 12, 1878, aged 89, but there has been no record of the fate of his wife, Ann (nee Quincey), a local girl he had married on December 2, 1816. New research by the Quincey family earlier this year however, revealed that she died at Highgate, London, over 160 years ago from sub-acute gastritis and was buried in the local cemetery.

Now further investigation has actually located her grave where it has remained hidden in Highgate Cemetery for decades by dense undergrowth. Paul Quincey, aged 52, a scientist, of Hampton, Middlesex, a direct descendant of Ann’s elder brother Jeremiah, enlisted the aid of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery who identified the plot which is situated a short distance from that of the family of the Victorian novelist Charles Dicken. It was completely overgrown but they cut back the vegetation to reveal a single stone slab discoloured with age although the inscription was still readable: “In memory of Mrs Ann Worth, formerly of Bourn, Lincolnshire, who died in Highgate 3rd September 1852, aged 59” - Bourne being spelled without a final “e” which was added in 1893 to avoid confusion with Bourn in Cambridgeshire.

A few days ago, Paul Quincey paid his first visit to the grave and placed some flowers on the tombstone on behalf of her surviving family both in England and in Western Australia as a reminder that she had not been forgotten.

But although one mystery has been solved, another remains unexplained and that is what she was doing in London in 1852. Her address on the death certificate is given as North Road, Highgate, and it is believed that she may have recently returned to England after attending the wedding of her son, Charles, who was then working for Gagelin and Opigez in Paris, the leading fashion fabric retailers of the day, where he met Marie Augustine Vernet, an attractive sales girl, who became his wife. They were both 26. It would seem to be a natural conclusion that his mother would be invited to the wedding although her later presence in London remains unexplained.

Paul Quincey, who has been concerned with reports that the family had been mean to her after the crisis in 1836, suspects that Charles Worth may have created a few myths about this period of his life, perhaps because he did not go to Paris with his mother’s blessing, a move that was not without its risks at that time, and he may have felt guilty that she had died before he had made a success of his career and could offer her tangible help. “It is also notable that he seems to have avoided providing any checkable details about his mother”, he said, “and although biographers have since suggested that he was generous to her, that would have been difficult given his circumstances at that time.”

The new evidence is nevertheless encouraging for her descendants who have until now believed that because of her uncertain situation, her final years and eventual death may have been in humble, even dire conditions. “Highgate cemetery was never a cheap place to be buried”, said Paul, “and the grave is substantial so I think this indicates that Ann Worth did not end her life poor and neglected as was previously suspected although how she lived between 1836 and 1852 remains a mystery.”

Charles died in France from pneumonia on March 10, 1895 at the age of 69 when 2,000 mourners attended his funeral, including the mayor and civic officials from Paris and the French Assembly together with the President of the Republic himself. He was buried at Suresnes and his wife was placed in the same grave three years later but his name remains a byword in world fashion which he did so much to modernise and where his influence is still evident.

Although Charles Worth moved to France as a young man, he maintained his links with Bourne where he had forged lifelong friendships so many years before. He was a pupil at the Old Grammar School which still stands in the graveyard adjoining the Abbey Church together with several other notable people from our past and he returned often to Bourne to meet his old friends and chat about their youthful escapades.

Among his fellow pupils were Robert Mason Mills, founder of the town’s aerated water business, Henry Bott, landlord of the Angel Hotel, and John Bellairs Roberts, a chemist and druggist with a shop in North Street, and Worth found great pleasure in meeting with them over a glass or two of wine, burning the midnight oil while reminiscing about their early experiences and their days attending the 
school.

The school closed in 1904 and has since become neglected but ambitious plans have been drawn up by the Bourne Preservation Trust to restore the building with the re-creation of a Victorian classroom complete with desks, slates and chalks and the chance for visitors to sit an examination exactly as Charles Worth and his friends did in the 19th century, a unique learning opportunity for visitors to step back in time whether they be children or their parents.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM.

An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.