A Culture Volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project has been exploring the local newspaper to discover what life was like in Poole during the war for the town and its residents. A headline, ‘The Astounding Record of a Poole Girl’, in the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper of June 21 1917 was intriguing and, using other records collected by Charlie Lord (Poole Researcher), the remarkable life of Poole girl, Ada Fricker has been pieced together. A warning – the story is very convoluted and the accuracy of some of the information is open to question!
The newspaper article of 1917 described Mary Rogers as ‘one of the cleverest adventuresses who has been about in recent years’ when she appeared in a West London court. But who was Mary Rogers and what was her connection with Poole?
Mary Rogers was actually Alice Ada Fricker. She was born on October 22 1871 in a cottage in Cinnamon Lane in Poole to Samuel Fricker, a Poole seaman, and Emily Fricker. Cinnamon Lane ran from New Street around the back of the Almshouses and on to Market Street.
A newspaper article of December 26 1889 reported that her father had been drowned at sea while working as a mate on board the vessel ‘Cross House’ which was sailing from Southampton to Sunderland. He was knocked overboard in a gale when the vessel was north of the Spurn Lightship off the Humber Estuary. The deceased’s wife and two daughters were reported to be living in Shaftesbury Cottages, Market Street. Samuel Fricker had been at sea all his working life and was aged about 45.
Nothing has been uncovered about Ada Fricker’s life in Poole. A later newspaper report noted the ‘when 14 years of age she was a tall and pretty girl and looked much older’. At the age of 19, Ida Alice Fricker married Maurice Rogers, a medical student, at Barton Regis, near Bristol, and so became Mrs Rogers. That her first name had changed from Ada to Ida and her married name is often recorded as Rodgers is a characteristic of her story. Also how did a Poole girl end up getting married in Bristol? One possible answer is that she may have gone into domestic service which was a typical outcome for single young women at the time. It is also from this point that the tale begins to take an unusual turn.
Two years after getting married she had become an actress and appeared as Lady Gipsy Rodgers in the play ‘Apartments to Let’ and also in several other plays. She played Lady Agatha Carlisle in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, a part she was apparently very good at, but none of her other performances were of note. However, she must have had a bewitching presence because, after meeting her, Stanley Napier Roberts, Edward Elgar’s brother-in-law, borrowed the considerable sum of nearly £2000 from London moneylenders to finance the theatrical companies in which she was involved. Unfortunately, the productions were a failure and instead of an easy retirement he found himself under pressure because of the debts he had incurred.
Three years later the self-styled Lady Gipsy Rogers and Lionel Rogers of the Trilby Theatrical Company were accused of assaulting John Roydon, an actor of the company, at Aberystwyth over a dispute about pay. Apparently he alleged that members of the company were close to starvation because they had not been paid. The defendants were each fined 5s (25p). The choice of name for the theatrical company is intriguing as George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, had written a gothic novel, ‘Trilby’, in 1894. It was an incredible success with the London stage production being first presented in 1895. The style of hat worn by the leading female character, Trilby O’Ferrall, became known as the ‘trilby’. It is interesting to speculate if Ada Fricker thought that touring a theatrical production using the name of Trilby would be a profitable exercise; the play also features in another of her court cases.
The 1901 Census records an actress ‘Gipsy Ro(d)gers’, 23, as living in Southall, Middlesex, having married Maurice Rodgers in 1891. An age of 23 is rather hopeful with a date of birth of 1871 and she was also apparently living with two brothers who were actors. Strangely, she did run, for a time, a riding school in the West End of London.
In 1907, after being fined £14 at Clacton, Essex for keeping a manservant and carriage without licence she promised only to use the name ‘Mrs Rodgers’. Mr H. Lionel Somerset stated during the court proceedings that he was her brother, although he had previously said they were married, while she, unhelpfully, said he was no relation. A copy of a marriage certificate presented in the court case showed her to be ‘Ida Alice Faulkner Fricker’, daughter of a deceased Army captain (!).
In 1910, she interviewed the infamous murderer, Dr Crippen, in Pentonville Prison. The prison governor believed the interviewer was Lady Henry Somerset with ‘her object to evangelise the famous prisoner’. In actual fact, it was Ada Fricker posing as ‘Lady Mercia Somerset’ and she hoped to sell the interview to a newspaper if Dr Crippen was not convicted. She promised to take him to her country house if he was released – at the time she was a tenant of Broom Lodge, Huntingdonshire. She also carried out a correspondence with Crippen while he was in jail and published some of his letters in order to make some money.
January 1911 saw her once again facing criminal proceedings – this time at Huntingdon Assizes. She was living in Herne Bay and claimed she could not attend the Assize because she was very ill, although it was noted in court that it was strange she became ill ‘so suddenly after being served with notice to appear’. Debts had been run up in the name of Reed, a groom, who was supposed to be an employee. She claimed he was her husband so the debts were his, not hers, and that she had married Reed when she was 14. Under cross examination, she admitted that Reed was Rogers. She received 4 months. The prosecutor believed she was the daughter of a medical officer in the Navy, had married at 19, and had lived as the Hon. Ida Faulkner in Bristol. According to some newspaper reports she apparently kept bulldogs and, occasionally, a wolf wherever she lived.
In a later appearance, at Cirencester Police Court, she bore ‘herself with dramatic dignity’. She was arrested in 1913 along with Cecil Roslyn (also known as Lionel Somerset) whom Mrs Rodgers described as her brother. They had toured ‘Trilby’, a theatrical production, and, on their travels across the country, it was alleged they had persuaded numerous traders and hoteliers to give them credit or paid them with cheques that were not honoured. It was also alleged that the defendants had used the name ‘Lady Somerset’s Theatrical Touring Company’ in their dealings with traders. However, Mrs Rodgers claimed she did not need credit as she received £500 per year. Lady Henry Somerset, a member of the Beaufort family, did appear in court and said she knew many members of the family but the accused was not one of them. The prisoner claimed she received an income on the assumption she did not use the Somerset name – apparently a firm of solicitors provided her with £18 to £25 every month. The two defendants were convicted and received three months hard labour.
Her story had, by now, become so famous that ‘The People’ newspaper published the ‘Life Story of Lady Mercia Somerset’ in February 1913.
In 1917, Mary Rogers (33) Ellen Taylor, Edna Gordon (19) and Cecil Rogers (18) were in court for having stayed at a London hotel and pawned a large quantity of its bedding and sheets. Oddly, they were charged with illegal pledging and not theft. She claimed she had an army allowance of 25s a week for herself and one child (her husband was believed to have served in the war) and, as before, a £23 per month allowance from a ‘person’. Mrs Edna Gordon and Cecil Rogers were apparently her children so giving her age as 33 was optimistic. Mary Rogers and Edna Gordon were fined with the alternative of prison if the fines were not paid – which they were.
The court case had little effect as a year after the First World War ended a headline announced ‘Lady Mercia Again’ with the article referring to the defrauding of clergymen at Eastbourne. Edna Gordon, her 18 yr (?) old widowed daughter, was also arrested. Mrs Rodgers received 6 months and Mrs Gordon three months.
In one report it was said ‘she was very fond of beautiful dresses and had a passion for jewellery’. She ‘impressed tradesmen’ with the use of titles and presumably benefited from having been an actress. Her success also appears to be due to the prevailing respect to titled people at the time and the seeming expectation that they would run up debts which would eventually be paid. The society of the First World War era was cash based so that someone who used cheques was considered unusual. Banks were not common and there was a certain mistrust of them because there was no protection if they went bankrupt. The absence of a welfare state also meant that people had to rely heavily on their own devices if they got into financial difficulties.
One newspaper headline referred to her as the ‘Woman of Many Names’. It is believed that she used on her travels around the south of England: Ida Alice Fricker, Lady Mercia Somerset, Avis Fitzroy, Mavis Redfern, Irene Rodgers, Jane Jones, Mary Cullam, Aris (possibly a misspelling of Avis) Fitzroy, Mrs Alice Rogers, Avis Fitzroy Somerset, Mrs Reed, Mrs Reeves, Mrs A. Bolingbroke, Ida Rogers, Melia Rogers, Mrs Rodgers, Ida Alice Faulkner Fricker.
Her choice of aliases is interesting. Lady Mercia Somerset was her favourite and people usually assumed she had links to the Beaufort family whose name was Somerset. Fitzroy was often the middle name of members of the Beaufort family. Bolingbroke was the name of landed gentry in Wiltshire and Henry IV was also known as Henry of Bolingbroke. Interestingly, Faulkner is a name associated with St James’ Church, Poole – ‘Fawconer’s Charity’ provided bread for elderly women. One wonders if this was why she used the name.
It is interesting to consider her frequent change of names, flexibility of age etc from the viewpoint of the First World War era. Accuracy of names and ages seems to have been of no real concern simply because they rarely mattered and spelling, in particular, was often flexible. An earlier classic example would be the father of the Bronte sisters who decided his original name of ‘Brunty’ was not interesting enough and simply changed it to ‘Bronte’. Payment for work was by cash, most people rented and many could not write – accuracy of date of birth and name was irrelevant.
Many young women of Ada Fricker’s age went into domestic service and in 1900 there were around 2,000,000 women working as servants. The work was very hard with long hours for little reward. A newspaper article of 1915, under the headline ‘Fewer Servants’, commented that ‘the pressure of war’ was making it difficult to hire servants. This was partly because the incomes of large houses had been seriously eroded and they needed fewer servants. The First World War also offered many new employment opportunities that a lot of women found more attractive because they were better paid and had more independence. Post-First World War many of these jobs disappeared but the large houses could no longer afford a large staff. The lack of this traditional work for single women, with no clear alternative, meant they were increasingly encouraged to emigrate to countries such as Australia and New Zealand – another reason, sadly, was the lack of men of marriageable age.
The Nottingham Evening Post reported in 1928 that male impostors are ‘careful’ in their choice of titles while women appear more able to get away with it. The newspaper used, as an example, Lady Mercia Somerset (Ada Fricker) who managed to get photographed and be reported as an ‘enthusiastic politician’ who might even stand for parliament. The newspaper commented that ‘when women become imposters they are to be feared’.
She was not beyond self-publicity. The Thompson Weekly News announced in 1923 that, as part of a series on the ‘The Scandals of Cinema Land’, the story of the ‘The Amazing Career of Lady Mercia Somerset’ would be ‘told by herself’. Unfortunately, neither a record of this article nor that in The People has so far been found.
A remarkable tale but there is one question that was never fully answered – did she actually receive a monthly allowance from solicitors and, if so, why? £20 a month was a significant sum given that the starting wage for a female munition worker at Holton Heath was £1 a week.