The credit for the discovery of this story must go to one of our keen volunteers, Jean Gitsham. It is a tribute to the almost archaeological tenacity required to locate and uncover the burial sites of people who have an historic attachment with Teignmouth. Like many such discoveries serendipity places a part. In Jean’s own words:
“I was looking at section SS grid given to me by Dave T, probably when I should have been sorting my own house and garden. Anyway I started googling unusual names and amazingly all the Harry Welchman info appeared ..… cemetery record of death date made it likely we had Harry. So Geoff and I at next FOTC work session tried to work out where grave was likely to be. It was in area where graves covered under dense ivy and brambles ..… foliage so thick definitely no sign of either headstone or kerb. However at following work session I told Selina about the possibility of us having famous music hall star; she was determined and we both set to clearing the grave with Selina doing majority of clearance work. When I pulled back the brambles covering the horizontal inscription stone we had a bit of a giggle when the first words seen were ‘he gave pleasure to many’.”
The story became even more fascinating though on reading the rest of the stone which revealed that the remains of three people were interred in the plot – Janet Sarah Coke, Henry Arthur Welchman and Sylvia Forde. The immediate intriguing question was how three lives became intertwined so closely that their epitaph remains on a single grave in Teignmouth Old Cemetery.
This is what this tale attempts to unravel, in three parts starting with Janet Sarah Coke.
Thanks to Dave Tovey and Geoff Wood for their industrious research into official records which was of immense value in putting a time-line together.
Part 1 – Janet Sarah Coke
Janet Sarah Coke died in October 1945, aged 92. She left £4438 in her will “all of which she bequeathed to Harry Welchman, the actor, desiring him to dispose of the same in accordance with any memorandum left by her”.
According to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of 26 March 1946 Harry Welchman told a reporter that his real mother had died when he was quite young and Janet Coke had been his foster mother. He said “I lived with her and her sister until I was 16 years old when I went on the stage ….. during the last year or so Miss Coke has lived with my wife and me”.
Little has been discovered about Janet Coke’s own life other than that it seems to have been shaped by the ups and downs of her father’s occupation as a photographer. They travelled around the country and at some point must have become acquainted with the Welchman family for the fostering arrangement to have happened. So the rest of this part of the story sets the scene and time-line of the Coke family movements.
Janet’s parents were Archibald Lewis Coke (also spelt as Cocke in various references) and Janet MacKay. He was the youngest son of a surgeon, Arthur Coke, whilst she was the daughter of a Captain MacKay RM and they married at St James, Picadilly, in December 1852. Janet, their youngest daughter, was born two years later in Hammersmith followed by sisters Edith in 1856 and Alice in 1858.
Photography was in its infancy in the mid-19th century and Archibald Coke was one of its pioneers. Judging by the references to him, he was also one of the leading exponents in this exciting new artistic medium. He was certainly one of the earliest British photographers to make a living from his art. The photograph here is apparently what we would now call a selfie of Archibald Coke.
He opened his first photographic studio with his brother Arthur in 1847 at 44 Regent Street. At that time it would have been known as a “daguerrotype” studio because of the original technology invented by Louis Daguerre that resulted in photographic images being produced on silvered copper plates. Archibald soon adapted to a new medium though – the calotype, which involved the production of an image on paper coated with silver iodide.
It is in this medium that Archibald gained his reputation. He submitted fifteen calotypes to the “Exhibition of Recent Specimens of Photography” which is regarded as the first exhibition in the world dedicated to photography and ran in the House of the Society of Arts in London from December 22 1852 to January 29 1853. The University of Princeton has a collection of his works and writes:
“Of many highlights in Princeton’s album of early photography compiled by Richard Willats (ca.1820-after 1881), the calotypes by Archibald Lewis Cocke (1824-1896) are among the most important.”
He was also lauded in the 1854 Arts Journal:
“one of the oldest photographers whose landscape subjects on paper are unsurpassed for truth and beautiful detail,”
In 1850 his brother left the business but by 1854 Archibald had teamed up with another photographer, Thomas Nashum Kirkham, to form the Institute of Photography at 179 Regent Street. His interests were also moving towards architecture and historic buildings, pictures of which he exhibited in the 1855 exhibition at the Photographic Institution in London. He also took part in the 1861 Architectural Photographic Exhibition with a series on Exeter Cathedral.
All of the above sets the scene for Janet’s family early background – daughter of a successful commercial photographer who appeared to have been well regarded in London and by professionals in the arts world. But 1861, or thereabouts, seems to have marked a turning point in the family’s fortunes.
The 1861 census records Archibald and his family (wife, three daughters and a servant Jane Merrifield) as living at East Wonford Cottage, Heavitree, Exeter. Archibald’s parents came from the West Country, his father from Cornwall and his mother from Bradford in the district of Torridge, Devon. His uncle through his mother’s side was Lewis Risdon Heysett so he himself was a descendant of the renowned Devon historian Tristram Risdon. But what now caused Archibald to give up an apparently successful commercial enterprise in London and move down to Exeter is a mystery. Maybe he had been commissioned to produce his series of photographs of Exeter Cathedral and had decided to stay.
Within a year though Archibald had filed for bankruptcy. According to the Exeter Flying Post of 16 April 1862:
“Mr Commissioner Andrews granted an order of discharge to A L Cook, a photographer of Wonford. The bankrupt owes his creditors £769 1s 9d, to meet which there are assets amounting to £115 12s 2d.”
Whatever the outcome of that bankruptcy it is clear that Archibald was still able to support his family. The 1871 census shows the family as living at Endfield Cottage, Stokeinteignhead and they now had a fourth daughter, Amy Harriet, who was either born in 1864 in Heavitree, Exeter, or in 1865 in Newton Abbot depending on which census transcript you choose to believe.
Archibald was still in the photography business but had obviously left the London life behind and there appear to be no further references to his works in London exhibitions etc. But in the North Devon Gazette of 24 August 1869 we read that:
“A large number of photographers have competed for the £5 prize offered for the best photographs of Westward Ho! and consequently a large number have been sent in for approval. Those of Mr Archibald Coke, of Newton, however, stand out from all the rest as being superior in every respect. We inspected the photographs yesterday , and quite agree with the judges in their decision; they, together with the scientific committee in connection with the British Association Excursion having unanimously awarded the prize to Mr Coke. They are really splendid pictures, and compared with them many of the others are mere daubs.”
By 1881 the family had moved to 19 Goldney Road, Clifton, Bristol and were still in Clifton in 1891. All four daughters were living there, none had married and by this time Janet Sarah Coke was 36.
Archibald continued to be mentioned in despatches. The following advertisement of Heard and Sons comes from The Cornish Telegraph of 26 May 1880:
“Royal Visit to Truro. Preliminary Announcement. Very successful negatives of the Triumphal Arches have been taken in two sizes by Mr Archibald Coke of Clifton, the well known landscape and architectural photographer under the special direction of Mr Trevail, the architect. As soon as they can be properly printed proofs will be exhibited in our windows and orders taken. Each arch has been photographed on both sides with flags and mottoes complete and the entire series will comprise ten views in each size.”
Archibald died on 26th February 1896 but curiously his address in the probate register was given as Barton Regis workhouse (St Thomas, Eastville, Stapleton, Gloucestershire). The probate showed him as leaving an estate of £343 14s so why was he living in the workhouse? Had something happened to break up the family between 1891 and 1896?
Certainly by the time of the 1901 census the family had split. The mother, Janet, was now living in Congresbury, Somerset, with her two eldest daughters Janet Sarah and Edith. Living with them now was Harry Welchman, age 15. Meanwhile it appears that the youngest daughter, Amy, had married but by the time of the 1911 census she was a widow living in Horfield, Bristol, with her sister Alice. At the same time, 1911, Janet Sarah and her sister Edith had moved back to Maida Vale, London, and Harry Welchman was still living with them, now aged 25. On the census they were described as Harry’s aunts although there is no evidence of a family connection.
By 1939 all four sisters had returned to Devon and were living within several miles of each other. Amy and Alice were living in Devon Square, Newton Abbot whilst Janet Sarah and Edith were in Barton Crescent in Dawlish. Edith died in June 1941 and was buried in Teignmouth Old Cemetery. It would appear that Janet Sarah subsequently returned to London. The probate registry gives her address as 39 Marryat Road Wimbledon at the time of her own death in 1945. We can only imagine that it was her wish to be buried close to her sister from whom she had not been separated throughout their family life, hence her appearance in Teignmouth Cemetery.
From this time-line and background to Janet Sarah Coke’s life we still do not have a definitive explanation for the link with Harry Welchman. We do know though (as we’ll see later) that Harry Welchman was born in Barnstaple which is about 25 miles north of Bradford where Janet’s mother came from. And we also know that Harry came to live with the family some time between 1896 and 1901.
The story continues in Part 2 with Sylvia Forde, Harry Welchman’s second wife.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – approved biography
The History of Photography, Helmut Gernsheim, Thames & Hudson, London
The Athenaeum (Journal of Literature, Science and the Fine Arts), 1855 – advertisement