The sibling suicides

The sibling suicides

Bloomsbury in London once had an unenviable reputation for suicide - including the tragic case of two acting sisters

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

It was an otherwise normal evening in Bloomsbury, in 1908, with plenty of pedestrians making their way home from work or back from early evening drinks or dinner. Some of these individuals may have noticed a taxi-cab driving down Montague Street, off Bedford Square, but they would have thought nothing of it – until, at least, there was a noise that they would have assumed was that of a tyre bursting, and the cab suddenly came to a stop in the road. Then, the cab driver suddenly leapt from his seat, and rushed to the door – stopping abruptly as he saw what had happened within it.

Edith Yeoland
Edith Yeoland – the two girls found the profession difficult, and engagements sometimes hard to find British Library Board
 Ida Yeoland
Ida Yeoland, a struggling actress, committed suicide with her older sister Edith. The two ingested poison in their Bloomsbury boarding house British Library Board

Luckily, a police constable was nearby, and he ran to the scene. Seeing the inside of the cab, he ordered the shocked driver to drive the cab straight to the Royal Hospital on Great Ormond Street. Shocked doctors then saw what had horrified the driver and the policeman so much: inside the taxi were a couple, in their early 20s. They were both dead – the ‘burst tyre’ had actually been the sound of two gunshots, close together. It was not surprising that onlookers had made an assumption based on probability, and a familiar noise, not on the more alien sound of a gun. That gun was also found in the bottom of the cab – the young man had killed his partner, before committing suicide.

This was not an isolated incident; there were several suicides in the area over the last decade of the 19th century and into the first of the new one. These cases showed the mix of individuals living in the area; there were people from elsewhere in London, from around the UK, and across the world, crammed into the area’s many boarding houses. People rarely stayed in the same lodgings for very long, and might find themselves isolated. One suicide, Andrew Pattullo, had been widowed, something he had understandably found hard to deal with, and had since been subject to fits of depression. He would then drink to make himself feel better. It didn’t. On the last occasion where he failed to feel better, he slit his throat. Money wasn’t always the problem – Pattullo had a good job and his finances were said to be equally good – but emotions were harder to contain.

Ida in Tatler
Ida in Tatler, 24 July 1901 British Library Board

It wasn’t just men in Bloomsbury who killed themselves. It was where many of the capital’s actors and actresses took their lodgings, as it was within easy reach of the West End theatres, and in July 1901, two sisters, who both worked in the theatrical profession, killed themselves in another ‘double event’. Edith Yeoland, 26, and her younger sister Ida Yeoland, 23, had been on the stage a relatively short amount of time. Although they used the stage name of Yeoland, they were born Edith Kate and Ida Florence Bowyer, the daughters of a silk mercer. They had grown up in affluent surroundings in Ealing, the middle of four children, and the only girls.

There was no acting in their family: their grandfathers were a grocer and a coal merchant; their younger brother would become an estate agent. However, Edith and Ida were Londoners – born in Notting Hill and Brixton respectively – and grew up within easy reach of the capital’s theatres. They had both decided to go on the stage (Ida having started in 1897, Edith possibly around the same time), but had not reckoned on the precariousness of this life.

By 1901, they had become depressed about not being able to find suitable acting jobs; for nine months, the engagements had been fewer than they had hoped. Recently, a letter had arrived from America, stating that Ida – who had recently been poorly – would not be needed for an engagement she had hoped for; she had applied for a job with Daniel Frohman’s company at the Lyceum Theatre in New York. At 10 o’clock on the morning of their deaths, their father, Joseph, had turned up to visit them, only to find them still in bed. They talked with him for some time, but after he left they commented to their landlady, Sarah Callaghan, that he had been ‘somewhat upset’ at them not being out of bed when he arrived. Reading accounts of their father’s visit, the impression is given of two young women suffering from depression and anxiety, and being unable to get themselves out of bed and dressed – instead having to receive their father in their nightclothes, having lost the desire to look respectable or to give the impression of going to work, because they were despondent at their unemployment.

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Shortly after noon on that day, Tuesday 16 July, Ida, walking rather unsteadily, came down the stairs of her lodgings in Great Russell Street, and told her landlady, ‘Oh, come upstairs at once – Edith and I have taken poison.’ She then made her way to the ground floor, and promptly fell down dead in the passage. Mrs Callaghan raced upstairs, to find Edith lying on her bed in agony. The older sister explained, ‘We both thought we were better out of it as we have had so many disappointments in life. Goodbye, dear Mrs Callaghan, you have been a good friend to us both. I am sorry we have done this, but we were both beset with so many difficulties, and we could not stand it any longer.’ The landlady immediately called a cab for Edith, but by the time it reached the Middlesex Hospital, its customer was lying dead in it. Both girls had taken a substantial amount of cocaine.

Ironically, the sisters’ suicides helped to make them more popular and better known: there was a full-page photograph of Ida, in character, in Tatler, and the Penny Illustrated Paper wrote about Ida’s suicide, describing her as having a ‘beautiful face and winsome manner’, and having appeared under Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum. Edith, who was said to be less known than her sister, had only recently finished an engagement at the Globe Theatre. However, the paper’s list of the sisters’ successes did not, of course, have mention of their struggles or periods of unemployment.

One paper, though, published the year before the sisters’ deaths, did comment that Ida had been offered a tour overseas by Henry Irving, but, although reluctant to leave his service, she considered it ‘unwise to go abroad so early in her career, [so] declined his offer to continue her engagement for his American tour.’ Perhaps this ended as a perpetual regret to her. Certainly, Tatler recognised the struggles girls like the Yeolands faced; in the magazine published less than a week after Ida and Edith’s death, one writer commented,

‘I do not think the public have any idea of the heart-breaking struggle which goes on among actors. To me, it is a constant puzzle how some of them live. You see a new player who makes a genuine hit but he or she disappears for many months – it may be for years – and is seen only at intervals. How do they live meantime?’

Three years later, another actress, Beatrice McGuinness – known professionally as Mabel Oakley – killed herself, again with poison, at her Bloomsbury lodgings. She died for different reasons to the Yeoland sisters, for she left a note stating that she ‘preferred death to an immoral life’. There was a residual suspicion of actresses as being little better than prostitutes, performing perhaps half naked (or with less on than they would wear outdoors) and consorting with men. It seems that Beatrice was tormented by thoughts that acting was not the kind of life her parents had wanted for her, and killed herself out of guilt. Perhaps the Yeoland sisters similarly felt shame or embarrassment at their father seeing them in such a desperate state when he came to see them; yet their deaths were deeply mourned by their loving families, as their gravestone in Ealing cemetery attests. It is a loving memorial to two sisters from their parents and maternal grandmother that gives them the immortality they were scared that acting would never present them with.

Burial registers for Ealing cemetery
Burial registers for Ealing cemetery records that Edith and Ida were buried with their grandmother, Catherine Ladd. In 1908, their father was buried in this family plot too -London Borough of Ealing

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