Florence May, Edwardian Teenage Runaway

Here is the start of an occasional series about some of the people I’ve uncovered in my research so far. Florence May Chappell seems like a good starting point for this series as she appears to have been strong-willed and lived a remarkable life.

Background: Florence May Chappell was born in Battersea in 1892, her parents had been married for eight years. Both her mother and father were from Brighton but had moved to London soon after marrying. On the 1891 census (the year before Florence’s birth) they had two little boys, Herbert James and Arthur Walter, who had both been born in London and the family of four were living in 2 rooms in Battersea. Florence’s father was a boiler maker and it appears he and his wife had come to London for work. By the 1901 census the family are back in Brighton, again living somewhere very small with their three young children.

The story: On the 1911 census Florence is listed as a pianoforte teacher, 18 and single. She appears to have really loved music and it is apparently through her love of music that she met Reuben Stenning, an event that changed her life. Reuben was a coach builder in his mid-thirties; he was also married and had six children – the youngest of whom had been born the year before he met Florence. Reuben and Florence fell in love despite all of this. In the spring of 1912 Florence was pregnant. Reuben’s solution seems to have been fairly drastic. In June he travelled to Liverpool and boarded the SS Tunisian – destination Quebec. He lists himself as a joiner/painter, married and Church of England.

In September a very pregnant Florence, travelling as Florence Stenning and listing herself as married, made her way to Liverpool and caught the SS Tunisian to join Reuben in Quebec.

While this had obviously been arranged in advance Florence must have been a brave, somewhat foolhardy lass. At 20 years old she was walking away from family and friends to join a man who was just ever so slightly untrustworthy, halfway round the world in a place she probably knew little about. It was less than six months since the sinking of the Titantic and the summer’s newspapers had been full of stories about the subsequent investigations and the testimony of witnesses. She was also nearly 8 months pregnant.

On arrival she and Reuben set themselves up as a married couple in Ontario and their first child was born at the end of October. Reuben used the name Robert R Stenning presumably to be less traceable and Florence lived as his wife although no marriage was possible – his first wife was still very much alive. They went on to have another child a couple of years later and appear to have been happy together in their new life. Unfortunately Florence died of septicaemia in 1922 just a month before her thirtieth birthday leaving forty five year old Reuben with two young children to care for.

Although Florence isn’t a direct ancestor of mine I find her story fascinating. I also find Reuben’s story jaw-dropping, you see he didn’t stay single after Florence died. On the contrary he did something I find remarkably brazen. But this post is about Florence so I’ll write a separate post all about Reuben’s antics.

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