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A murder most historical! A detailed look at the deposit file of Constance Louisa Maynard personal papers, the first principal of Westfield College, and what it revealed about what is missing from the collection.

12 December 2019

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Constance Maynard, 1897 in her office at Westfield College [Ref. WFD/25/1/1].

Miss Gray, the original convener of the literary executors, judged it proper (despite the strongest remonstrances!) to destroy several Green-books (and to tear out pages of the autobiography) so bereaving the value of a series of intimate records which came from 1886 to 1935, a historical crime indeed!

It is, of course, obvious to anyone who reads carefully, especially to anyone who has also personal knowledge of the people concerned (or most of them) for what reasons the murder was done – rather particularly obvious in regard to the most important point.

Catherine B. Firth, letter to Westfield College Archives, 16 February 1948 [Ref. CLM deposit file] 

Constance Louisa Maynard, Westfield College’s first “Mistress” (i.e. principal), left behind a rich collection of diaries, an unpublished autobiography, papers and published pamphlets. This collection came to Queen Mary College in 1989 in the merger with Westfield College and is now accessible to researchers at the Queen Mary Archive.

Maynard's papers give insight into the life of a complicated Victorian woman who lived outside Victorian societies social norms in her professional life as a pioneer of women’s education and in her personal life as an unmarried woman who developed a series of close relationships with other women. The nature of these relationships has intrigued researchers with their romantic undertones. The papers frustrate clear categorisation perhaps due to the lack of terminology available to Maynard in her own time and is exacerbated by gaps in the "Green-books" Maynard's personal and intimately detailed diaries, 1887-1901, and missing pages of Maynard’s unfinished autobiography.

The physical gaps in the archive are addressed in the deposit file but it raises as many questions as it answers. In the above passage Catherine B. Firth,who donated the papers to Westfield, explained the incompleteness of the series and accuses Francis Ralph Gray who inherited the papers from Maynard of “a historical crime". Even more intriguingly she assumes that why it was done will be “particularly obvious” to those who knew her and to later careful readers.

To find the “murderer” and consider what is missing from the archive we must trace the ownership of these papers and undertake some detective work. We are lucky to have ownership documented by the deposit file. Deposit files usually record agreements made about what will be kept of a collection by the archive and any restrictions stipulated on access. In this case it includes an array of documents from 1934-1949 recording the history of ownership of Constance Maynard’s papers.

The Suspects

Constance Maynard

The first custodian of Maynard’s papers, and therefore suspect, is Maynard herself. She had first access to everything she created between 1849-1935 and could have decided to make drastic editing decisions. The diary of 1896, which has gaps of months between entries, have a despondent tone after Frances "Ralph" Gray a Westfield College teacher and friend of Maynard left to teach elsewhere. They had a close relationship and the parting left Maynard feeling rejected. The diaries 1897-1900 are missing, presumed destroyed, but it could be that she didn’t write a diary in this period at all or later destroyed the diaries herself because of the bad memories contained within. However the mid-flow restart of the diary of 1901 does not support this theory as it does not acknowledge any intentional gap. Maynard wrote candidly about her personal life up until her death in 1935 in diaries which remained intact and explicitly asked her executors to make her life public through a biography. 

Constance Maynard (standing, middle) and Frances Ralph Gray (front, right) in 1888 with the rest of Westfield's original teaching staff [Ref. WFD/25/3/1]

Frances Ralph Gray

The second suspect is Frances "Ralph" Gray who was the first to receive the diaries and autobiography after Maynard’s death. Five women were named by Maynard in her will to receive “all my diaries and manuscripts and writings of whatever nature” (paragraph 5). These were Gray, Hilda Mary Smith, Catherine Beatrice Firth and Ruby Cameron Inglis all former Westfield students except Gray who was a former staff member. According to Firth's accusation Gray had physical possession of the papers as convener of the literary executors. She claims Gray destroyed the missing diaries and tore out pages of autobiography some time between 10 May when the will was probated and 10 November 1935 when Gray herself died.

If Gray did indeed commit the “historical crime” of which she is accused the question of motive must be considered. One possibility is that Maynard had given her instruction to do so, whether by note or verbally, as the will stipulates that her executors should carry out any wishes communicated with them in her lifetime regarding their disposal.

We know that Gray pursued Maynard's wish that a biography should be published. 10 April 1935 she approached Eleanora Carus-Wilson the economic historian who had never met Maynard writing “my colleagues [the literary executors] may think that we must have someone who knew the mistress (I don’t).” "The Mistress" was Maynard's title as Principal of Westfield College. Was she trying to avoid the “personal knowledge” that would reveal the “reasons the murder was done”? Did she intend to send the biographer an edited version of Maynard’s papers?

Extract of Maynard's Will naming literary executors [Ref. CLM deposit file]

It is possible that Gray objected to their content, whatever this was, which of course can only be speculated. The diaries record the period after Gray and Maynard parted and it is possible that Maynard depicted Gray in a negative light. It is also possible that her continued affection for Gray in these diaries was what Gray objected to, she declined to accept the verses Maynard wrote about her in 1934.

Firth theorised “The kindest thing to say, I think, is that Gray’s own mental illness was upon her at the time.” This cryptic statement could imply anything from Firth believing there was a genuine mental health concern with Gray at the time or an implication that Gray was acting irrationally as mental illness was used colloquially at that time. The curious stress on “own” could indicate that what Gray removed was evidence of Maynard’s mental health struggles, she was known to suffer from depression and may have been during 1897-1900. It could even imply it was a crime of passion and that Gray was destroying evidence of same-sex desire as during this period same-sex desire was still considered a mental health issue (not declassified by the APA until 1973).

Catherine Beatrice Firth

The final suspect is Firth simply because she was the last to have custody of the papers before she donated them and had the longest window of oppurtunity. She became the convener of the literary executors after Gray’s death and carried out Maynard’s wishes for a biography using the papers and published the biography in 1949. When she donated the papers on behalf of the literary executors in February of 1948 she imposed a ten year restriction on general access so was clearly concerned about privacy or sensitive content. It was at this time she accused Gray, who died fourteen years earlier. Is it possible she just misplaced parts of the papers in fourteen years and made an assumption about Gray?




Catherine Beatrice Firth c 1908 [Ref. CS/CS/1/6/2]


No suspect can be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in this murder. This mystery will never be definitively solved. Despite having more correspondence for a deposit made at this time than many collections the mystery of what was not archived remains and the gaps merit speculation. We can only hope that Maynard’s papers, now preserved at Queen Mary Archives, will continue to be carefully read in the future and maybe the “most important point” will finally become clear. 

This case draws attention to the editing and appraisal decisions that take place unrecorded in most collections before they ever reach the archive. Once a collection reaches the archive every decision regarding what is kept and what it not and most crucially why should be recorded and will be visible in the appraisal field of catalogue records. But staying aware of the decisions that occur before an archive is involved is important to stay aware of what is not in a collection, and why, and which stories are not archived and why. 

Further Reading

Queen Mary, University of London Archives: Constance Louisa Maynard; CLM & Personal Papers of Constance Maynard; WFD/8/1.

“Constance Maynard,” Digitised Records, Archives. Queen Mary University of London.

Constance Louisa Maynard Mistress of Westfield College a Family Portrait. C. B. Firth. London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1949.

Constance Maynard’s Passions: Religion, Sexuality and an English Education Pioneer, 1849-1935. Pauline A. Phipps. London, University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Castle Adamant in Hampstead a History of Westfield College: 1882-1982. Janet Sondheimer. London, Westfield College, 1983.

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