Felicia Mary Frances Skene was one of Oxford’s great social reformers.
She was born in May 1821 in Aix-en-Provence in France, the youngest of the seven children of a Scottish lawyer, James Skene, and his wife Jane, who was the daughter of a baronet. Felicia spent much of her early childhood in Paris and was taught the piano by Liszt, whom she described as “a wild-looking, long-haired excitable man”. When the family moved to Edinburgh she played with the grandchildren of the exiled Charles X of France at Holyrood Palace. She was also the preferred companion of her father’s great friend the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whom she consoled in his bankruptcy by telling him fairy tales.
Felicia’s family lived in Athens between 1838 and 1845, where she got to know Greece’s Bavarian king, Otho (and was entertained by his use of ‘broad Scotticisms’). After 1845 the family divided their time between Scotland and Leamington Spa, where they settled after several years. There Felicia met Thomas Chamberlain, vicar of St Thomas’s in Oxford, a working-class parish just to the west of the city centre. Chamberlain introduced her to his cousin, Marian Hughes, an Anglican nun who, with Chamberlain, founded the Community (or Convent) of St Thomas the Martyr in 1847. Felicia became drawn to the religious and intellectual life of Oxford and influenced her family to move there in 1849, when she was 28; they lived initially at 28 Beaumont Street and then moved to Frewin Hall in New Inn Hall Street in the early 1860s.
In Oxford Felicia soon became a regular worshipper at St Thomas’s church, befriended Edward Bouverie Pusey and was a sympathetic proponent of the High Church Oxford Movement. She did not want to become a nun, and instead devoted herself to what we would now call social work, teaching at Marian Hughes’s school in St Thomas’s and visiting the poor and the sick of the parish, one of the most deprived areas of Oxford. She won the support and admiration of the Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir Henry Acland, and the Vice Chancellor of the University, Benjamin Jowett, when, during the cholera and small pox epidemics of 1854, she was actively involved in caring for the sick. Sir Henry Acland said of her:
[She] visited daily every house (within a certain area) to instruct the Nurses, to comfort the sick, to cheer the disconsolate; and where need was, herself to supply a sudden emergency, or to relieve a wearied attendant. By day and by night she plied this task, and when she rested, or where – as long at least as she knew of a house where disease had entered – is known to herself alone.
Some of the nurses who Felicia trained and organised were later sent to the Crimea to work with Florence Nightingale, with whom Felicia maintained a correspondence throughout the Crimean War.
Felicia took a great interest in rescuing tramps and vagrants from their “eminently unsatisfactory existence” and girls from prostitution (often exposing herself to considerable danger from their pimps). As historian Richard Symonds said, she wrote with sympathy about tramps and vagrants, understanding their desire for a life unfettered by settled habitation or work, though she said that you could no more expect them to tell the truth than a crocodile.
Felicia began to visit prisoners at Oxford’s city gaol on Gloucester Green and, when that closed in 1878, at the county gaol in the former Oxford Castle on New Road. Here she became the first woman in England to be officially appointed as a prison visitor. She went twice a week, often accompanied by her Skye terrier, Tatters, providing comfort and advice to inmates, and played the harmonium and organ in the prison chapel on Sundays. She met newly-released female prisoners at the prison gates at 6am and gave them breakfast and other practical assistance, including finding them employment. She encouraged former inmates to marry and provided the wedding breakfast which always included plentiful gin and buns. In 1886 the Governor of Oxford Prison said of Felicia: “No woman who requires assistance has ever left these gates friendless, or without knowing there was a helping hand held out to her by this lady.”
Independently of any political movement Felicia became a strong advocate of prison reform, campaigning for prisons to be used for rehabilitation rather than for punishment; for the abolition of the death penalty; and for the decriminalisation of suicide. She wrote about her experiences of prison in a series of articles and pamphlets and in a novel, Hidden Depths (1866, reprinted 1886), a fictional exposure of prostitution in Oxford. She published numerous other works, some under the pseudonyms of Erskine Moir and Francis Scougal. She used most of the money she earned from writing, and from translating (she was an accomplished linguist), to finance her philanthropic work.
Felicia remained a spinster all her life but she had many admirers. One devoted suitor apparently proposed to her annually for eighteen years. She had a rare gift for befriending members of both town and gown communities, and whilst enjoying the company of eminent university figures and undergraduates, she also kept open house for the destitute at her home at 34 St Michael Street. Sir Henry Acland, in the mistaken impression that she could ever be lonely, gave her two free roaming parrots, which often accompanied her on her visits around the city.
Felicia was regarded as a local saint by Oxford people of all kinds. Historian Richard Symonds said of her “She shunned publicity and her help was given so simply that those receiving it felt they were conferring a favour.” In old age she said of herself “I am like the Martyrs’ Memorial: everyone knows me and no-one is interested in me.”
Felicia died at home of bronchitis in October 1899, aged 78. She was buried in St Thomas’s churchyard, immediately to the left of the main door of the church, beneath a window dedicated to her brother. A brass tablet in the Cathedral at Christ Church commemorates her life and virtues. There is also a memorial window to her in the chapel of St Edward’s School (which was founded by her friend Thomas Chamberlain). She was actively involved with the school for many years, and to pupils and staff she was affectionately known as the “School Godmother”.
Skene Close in Headington was named after Felicia in 1992.
Liz Woolley is an Oxfordshire local historian.
Sources and Further Reading
Helen Talbot & Pauline Donders, Felicia Skene, https://feliciaskene.wordpress.com
Sir Henry Acland, Memoir on the cholera at Oxford in the year 1854 (London, 1856). Available online at: https://archive.org/details/memoironcholera01aclagoog
Edith Rickards, Felicia Skene of Oxford: a Memoir (John Murray, 1902). Available online at: https://archive.org/stream/feliciaskeneofox00rickuoft#page/n9/mode/2up
Entry on Felicia Skene in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25666
Text accompanying Blue Plaque to Felicia Skene at 34 St Michael’s Street, Oxford: http://www.oxfordshireblueplaques.org.uk/plaques/skene.html
Felicia Skene, Hidden Depths (Edinburgh, 1856). Available online at: https://archive.org/details/hiddendepths01sken