Ossett - the history of a Yorkshire town

Eli Marsden Wilson A.R.A., A.R.C.A. 1877 - 1965

Ele Marsden WilsonOssett Artist

Eli Marsden Wilson was the only son of Alfred Wilson and Emma Marsden and was born on Midsummer’s Day in 1877 at Ossett.  Alfred Wilson was one of the sons of John Wilson (born 1819) who was part of the Wilson cloth making family who lived at West Wells, Ossett.

Alfred and Emma Wilson had six children, all born in Ossett - five girls and one boy.  Alfred worked in the textile industry as a foreman beamer (at the 1881 and 1891 census) and lived in Headlands.  The Wilson family was brought up in a supportive atmosphere of learning. The children were encouraged to take an interest in the arts and everyone played a musical instrument.  Alfred Wilson himself played the cello, which was an unusual choice for Victorian Ossett.  From this family background, the children would break out of the more traditional Ossett occupations of engineering and textile manufacture.  

Eli Marsden Wilson attended Wakefield College of Art before moving to the Royal College of Art in London where he became a pupil of Sir Frank Short, an eminent painter and etcher.  At the turn of the century, there was a revival in the art of etching, and by the early 1900s it was a profitable art form.  Eli Marsden Wilson returned to his roots for his first commercial etching, which was a scene showing Ossett Market, and a version of this etching can be seen today at Wakefield Art Gallery where it can be viewed by prior arrangement.

Below: The Market, Ossett an etching by Eli Marsden Wilson (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1905) and the first of seventeen pictures by Wilson exhibited at the R.A.

Ossett Market Place

Sir Frank Short: 1857 to 1945
Frank Short was a master etcher, engraver and lithographer who had a major influence on his contemporaries and pupils at the Royal College of Art. He revived the techniques of mezzotint and aquatint and it was his inspiration which was responsible for the technical excellence of British print-making between the first and second world wars. James McNeil Whistler was an admirer of Frank Short's etchings

Hilda Mary Pemberton: 1871-1957
Hilda Mary PembertonAfter his time at the Royal College of Art, Eli Marsden Wilson settled in London.  He lived at first in Chelsea but then moved to Acton, which was close to the thriving Bohemian art community in Ealing.

Eli married a lady called Hilda Mary Pemberton born on the 28th December 1871 in London. Hilda was the daughter of Frederick Blake Pemberton, a noted civil engineer and his wife Lucy.  Hilda was also the grand-daughter of a Major Pemberton who had served, with distinction, in India with the British Army. The couple were married in the June quarter of 1905 in the Wandsworth Registration District of London when Hilda was 33 and Eli was 28.  Sadly, the couple didn’t have children.  It is assumed that Eli met Hilda because she was also an artist with a strong interest in etching as an art form and she was very successful in her own right.

From his family roots in Ossett as a Wesleyan Methodist, Eli Marsden Wilson became a Quaker and a pacifist.  He was also a vegetarian, which must have been very rare in the early 1900s.  It is possible that his religious beliefs may have caused him to move to a vegetarian diet. 

The White Feather
The symbol of cowardice and failing one’s country was handed out scornfully, usually by young women, to those who refused to fight during the First World War. Eli Marsden Wilson became an absolutist conscientious objector during WW1, refusing to do anything at all to help the war effort. This stance his caused him to be imprisoned for two years between 1917 and 1919. 

The Military Service Act of January and May 1916 introduced conscription for the first time in WW1 and the extension to the act in May 1916 deemed that all men aged between 18 and 41 years were eligible to be called up for military service. There were four clauses in the Act for exemption, one being the conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service. A system of Local and Central Tribunals was arranged. Each registration district as would have a Local Tribunal or Tribunals, consisting of between 5 and 25 members each. Any person aggrieved by the decision of a Local Tribunal could make an appeal. Eli Marsden Wilson was married and aged 38 when the Military Service Act was introduced and no doubt to his horror, he was conscripted into the army in late 1916 when he was living in Acton. Although Wilson appealed to the local tribunal for exemption on the grounds that at some time he had converted to the Quaker religion and was a pacifist, he was refused and he then took the dangerous line of becoming an 'absolutist' conscientious objector.

Absolutists were opposed to conscription as well as war and refused to engage in any form of war work, regardless of the penalty. They would refuse to wear army uniform or even answer call-up papers and inevitably, they were court-martialled and imprisoned. The army created the Non-Combatant Corps to try and find an acceptable niche for the less hard-line conscientious objectors and about 3,500 COs accepted this concession. However, this still did not satisfy the conscience of absolutists like Wilson. He was arrested, taken to the local barracks and ordered to put on a uniform, which he refused to do. This led to his court martial and then imprisonment, first in Wormwood Scrubs and then at Dartmoor, where conditions were less harsh. He was to spend just over two years in prison from February 1917 to March 1919, when he was finally released.

About 50 'absolutists' were sent to France, where they all refused to accept military discipline. As a result between 30 and 34 of them were sentenced to death for failing to accept military orders in a theatre of war. Their death sentences were immediately commuted to 10 years imprisonment in a civilian gaol and at least one of these 'absolutists' was held at Wakefield Prison.

Conscientious Objectors (COs) were largely viewed with disdain by the general public. It is known that there were at least four Ossett-based conscientious objectors who appeared before tribunals: Joshua Fox Taylor who lived on Runtlings, a man called Ellis and a man called Clapham who lived in High Street, Gawthorpe were three of them. However, Eli Marsden Wilson had left his home town of Ossett some years before WW1 to live in London. Because of his stance as a conscientious objector, Wilson was not seen in a good light by his extended family back in Ossett, many of whom fought in WW1, but made no such moral distinction.

In all, during WW1 there were more than 16,000 recorded British conscientious objectors; 6,312 were arrested; 5,970 were court-martialled and sent to prison, where they endured privations both mental and physical (819 spent over two years in prison, including Eli Marsden Wilson). At least 73 COs died because of the harsh treatment they received; a number suffered long-term physical or mental illness.  1,330 “absolutists” refused to do any kind of alternative war work, but never won exemption for this principled stand. Some agreed to join the Home Office Scheme, which allowed COs out of prison to to take up places at Work Camps where they carried out menial tasks such as farm work, construction and forestry. Some of the COs found this kind of work not much to their liking, so changed their minds and went back to prison. A few 'absolutists' volunteered for the Home Office Scheme, but were kept separate from the other COs.

And after the Armistice?  No one was in a hurry to release the COs; certainly not until the surviving soldiers were brought back from the front, which took months. Some COs went on hunger strike in protest at their continued detention: 130 were forcibly fed through tubes (as suffragettes had been), so forcibly that many were injured by the treatment and had to be temporarily released. Others went on work strikes and were brutally punished for it. In May 1919 the longest-serving prisoners began to be released; the last CO left prison in August of 1919. Many found that no one wanted to employ them. Those who hadn't done alternative or non-combatant service were deprived of their votes for five years (though this wasn't always strictly enforced).

A surprising number of conscientious objectors subsequently went on to become Labour MPs after WW1. Herbert Morrison, Labour MP for South Hackney and later Lewisham, became the Home Secretary and a member of Churchill's War Cabinet in WWII, but was a conscientious objector in WWI. Fenner Brockway, a prominent conscientious objector during WW1, became the Labour MP for Slough in 1950, serving until 1964. Another CO, Ness Edwards was the Labour MP for Caerphilly between 1939 and 1968.

After being released from prison, Eli Marsden Wilson slowly began to rebuild his career and in 1922, HRH Princess Mary Louise commissioned him to produce an etching for Queen Mary's dolls house, which can be seen today at Windsor Castle.  Clearly, his stance as a pacifist during WW1 had been forgiven, by the Royals at least.

Margate Harbour

Above: Margate Harbour, an etching produced by Wilson for Queen Mary's Dolls House.

The 1920s
By the time of the Wall Street Crash in the 1920s, etchings had become almost like currency and people bought and sold them like they do stocks and shares or even gold.  Wilson had enjoyed the boom in the popularity of etchings as one of the British school of painter-etchers of the time.  However, the Wall Street Crash changed everything and the market disappeared completely for etchings.  The fashion was no longer fashionable.  Wilson had to adapt to the changing market and so concentrated more on painting rather than print making.  He went to Italy in the 1920s to develop his knowledge and devised some new painting methods.  Landscapes were his favourite - painted in the traditional way.  City scenes of places like Oxford or York, with dreaming spires or fine architecture were also much favoured.

Banks Street, Ossett

Above: Another view of Ossett by E.M. Wilson, believed to be Bank Street in the background as viewed from a side street.

Fortunately for Eli Marsden Wilson, he was commissioned in the late 1920s to paint four large wall panels at the Natural History Museum in London.  These were in the Geological Museum and depicted prehistoric Britain – ferns, trees and dinosaurs, like a predecessor to the scenes in Jurassic Park.  This was a very respectable piece of work for Wilson and he finally cast off the stigma of his enforced stay in prison as a result of his religious beliefs.  The panels that Wilson painted can still be seen at the Natural History Museum today. 

Natura History Museum

Above: Scene from the Wealden times, during the Cretacous period. Painting, oil on canvas, by Eli Marsden Wilson (1877-1965), before 1935. Original held at the Natural History Museum, London.

Eli and Hilda bought a cottage in a place called Blewbury in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire).  Here they enjoyed a rural, idyllic lifestyle, which was quite different to their time at Acton in London.  Set in the foothills of the Berkshire Downs, this beautiful village is full of attractive thatched and timber-framed houses. During the 19th century, Blewbury was popular with artists and writers seeking peace, quiet and inspiration. One of them was Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, and the Tudor-brick house in which he lived from 1910 to 1924 is still to be seen here. Eli was in good company among the other “Blewbury Artists”.  

During the early 1930’s Hilda Mary made an extensive tour of South Africa.  Her studies of The Cape are particularly memorable.  This was at a time when Wilson himself was supplementing his income by tutoring pupils and presumably he had now moved back to live in London full-time.  One of his pupils was Mary Cockburn, who was some 30 years younger than Wilson and like his wife, was from a well-to-do military background. After the death of Wilson's wife Hilda in 1957, Mary Cockburn became Wilson's live-in companion. She was a talented watercolour painter in her own right and had her work successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy.

E.M. Wilson with his companion Mary Cockburn

Above: Wilson in much older age with his companion and former pupil Mary Cockburn circa 1958.

Eli Marsden Wilson was a complex man with many interests and skills.  He died at the age of 88 on the 13th November 1965 at his home at 9 Faraday Road, Acton, London.  His long-term friend, Mary Cockburn passed on many of Wilson’s possessions, including letters and photographs to Andrew Wilson Clay the great-grandson of his sister, Annie Lois Wilson. 

Andrew Wilson Clay has provided much of the information in this chapter.  He has been researching the life and work  of Eli Marsden Wilson for over 20 years and is currently writing a comprehensive study of the artist.  Andrew is also a great great grandson of Mark Senior (1862-1927), another famous Ossett artist.  Senior’s work can been seen at Wakefield City Art Gallery and Leeds City Art Gallery.  Coincidentally, Senior acted for many years as an artistic advisor to the Ossett born worsted manufacturer, Sam Wilson, a cousin of Eli Marsden Wilson’s father - See also the Ossett Wilsons to Leeds for more details about Sam Wilson.

Dr Robin M. Pelteret, Cape Town, South Africa also kindly provided some of the information in this chapter about Hilda Mary Pemberton. 

Wilson's wife Hilda Mary Pemberton was a decorative designer, painter and etcher in her own right.  She was educated at Goldsmith’s College in London and as a student received silver and bronze medals from the Royal College of Art in recognition of her talents.  She was a skilful and prolific artist who attracted a wide audience of admirers.  Her favourite method of expression was “dry point” a form of etching.  She exhibited in the Royal Academy between 1897 and 1940 on 10 occasions as well as the Royal Cambrian Academy, Royal Scottish Academy and the Society of Women Artists. Wide public recognition resulted in her election as an Associate of the Royal Cambrian Society and the Society of Women Artists in 1922. 

She visited Cape Town in South Africa during 1931/32.  The “Cape Times” noted that her works, inspired by the beauty that is the Cape were to be exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1931.  Her last known works are dated 1955.

The subject of her art was diverse: scenic and vernacular architecture of the United Kingdom, Capetown and environs; portraits, in which indigenous South African people were to feature; flowers, bookplates, stained glass and tapestry works for the British market. Her work was always executed to the highest standards and persistently attracted a substantial clientele. There is today a strong collector's market for the work of Hilda Pemberton, especially her South African work.

Miclegate Bar

Above: "Micklegate Bar, York" an etching by Hilda Mary Pemberton.

In 1909, Hilda illustrated a children's book by Harvey Gaskell called "O'Kissme San" (about a Japanese doll). All of the black and white pictures in 'O'Kissme San' are done by Hilda Pemberton. The entire book (5.8MB PDF file) and all of Hilda's illustrations are viewable online here.

Cottage Garden by Hilda Mary Pemberton

Above: Another of Hilda Mary Pemberton's etchings "The Cottage Garden". This was sent to one of Eli Wilson's sisters - Hilda Garrett-Frost as a Christmas present in 1925. I am grateful to her grandson Stephen Garrett-Frost for a copy of this picture.

The Sentinel by H.M. Pemberton

Above: The Sentinels by Hilda Mary Pemberton, this copy kindly sent to me by Jill Thurston.

Hilda Mary Pemberton circa 1920

Above: Hilda Mary Pemberton circa 1920.

Obituary of Eli Marsden Wilson
The son of Ossett textile worker who became famous in the world of art, Mr. Eli Marsden Wilson, died at his home 9, Faraday Road, Acton, London, on Saturday, aged 88.

Son of Mr. Alfred Wilson, who was the foreman manager at Mark Oldroyd's mill, Dewsbury, Mr. Wilson went to seek fame and fortune in London during his early manhood and became a professional artist specialising in etchings and earning considerable repute.

He became an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters - Etchers and Engravers, and exhibited on many occasions in the Royal Academy and at international exhibitions. He executed many important works, one of which, a frieze depicting prehistoric England is in the Geological Museum at South Kensington.

One of his proudest achievements was a tiny etching, the size of a postage stamp, which he was specially invited to make for the late Queen Mary's Doll's House.

His wife, by whom he was predeceased about eight years ago, was an artist in water colours and had many of her works exhibited in art galleries throughout Britain. They celebrated their golden wedding in 1955.

One of Mr. Wilson's etchings that was exhibited by the Royal Academy, and which became famous, depicted Ossett Market Place 60 years ago with gas flares on the stalls and the women wearing shawls. A more recent commission was a number of scenes in Lundy Island, carried out at the request of the owner.

In the exhibition of the Royal Society of Painter - Etchers and Engravers held in London in 1933, Mr. Wilson had an etching of West Wells, Ossett with a pair of aproned housewives gossiping on the doorsteps.

One or two of his pictures are in Wakefield Museum, and in the recent exhibition of local art at Ossett Town Hall, a couple of his works were entered by his nephew, Mr. Edward Wilson Clay of Ossett, whom he had frequently visited in recent years.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson had no children. Mr. Wilson was an elder in the Quaker movement. He was cremated yesterday at Mortlake, London.

'Ossett Observer' dated 20th November 1965.