A Knight’s Tale (8: From The Good Life To Refugee Status)

My paternal grandfather, John Francis Cecil (Jack), and his siblings were part of the seventh generation descended from John Knight, first appearing in the seventeenth century. His three sisters Ethel, Mabel, and Evelyn, governesses to the aristocracy during the twentieth century, between them lived through all the major upheavals of that period.  In 1917 Ethel and Mabel fled the Russian Revolution; Evelyn was in Ireland during the crisis of 1926; and Mabel observed the Spanish Civil War at close hand ten years later.

With the aid of Mabel and Evelyn’s diaries, my brother Chris produced a lecture and slide presentation on these fascinating lives.

The dates shown on Chris’s header are those of the women’s births. Mabel died in 1962; Ethel on 8th February 1951; and Evelyn in 1975. Between those dates these three women travelled all over the world during a time when ladies rarely travelled unaccompanied.

I was nine when Ethel died, and have no recollection of ever having met her. She had, however, until her death, been joint owner with Mabel of

18 Bernard Gardens, Wimbledon, SW19, which the surviving sister left to my father in 1960.

As was a common pattern, Ethel began as a pupil/teacher without pay. She went on to a teaching post in St Austell, and then to St Petersburg, returning to England, two weeks before the armistice in 1918, via Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Aberdeen.

She found secretarial work at London’s Grand Hotel before returning to teaching and tutoring, and then caring for her own mother who died in 1936, aged 94, from a fall downstairs.

Ethel never fully recovered from the privations of months of semi-starvation in the St Petersburg of 1918.

The story of the descent from the good life in Tsarist Russia to refugee status post-revolution in the company of her younger sister will be revealed in extracts from Mabel’s diary.



  1. Wow–such fascinating lives, Derrick! You do have an interesting family.
    One of my grandfathers left Russia (now Belarus) just before WWI in 1913. I suppose if he had waited, he might not have made it out.

  2. Very interesting group of ladies. Are you sure they weren’t working for British Intelligence and attempting to engineer the downfall of foreign governments? I ask because there seems to be a developing pattern . . .

  3. That is a riveting account already. I look forward to Ethel’s revelation of life in Russia in the aftermath of Russian Revolution. Those photographs have been preserved perfectly.

  4. My heart leapt up as I beheld the title of this post, not least because my paternal grandmother was a governess on the Andaman Islands. It is thought that she probably met her husband (a tea planter somewhere in India) there. You will tell us, I am sure, but did any of these sisters marry? I ask because from what I have read of the times, it was common for young women with no foreseeable marriage prospects to become governesses. That Ethel interrupted her career to care for her mother reminds me too of my maternal Great Aunt Mary. As the only unmarried sister, it fell to her to look after her ailing mother … this lengthy task led to her engagement being called off … and her mother lived to be 101! The home they lived in in Colesberg has now been turned into a Bed and Breakfast and, even after all these years, bears the name Donald (my Great-Great grandmother’s surname).

  5. I can relate to the Russian experiences of this part of your family, Derrick, especially since my paternal grandmother and her siblings had first French, and then British governesses before the revolution.

  6. What amazing, strong, good-role-model women! I’m honored to read about them and to gain strength from them, Derrick. Thank you for sharing them with us! I look forward to learning more about them. So wonderful that diaries were kept.
    I can’t imagine they ever thought that some day a relative would share their lives so beautifully with people in the year 2021. πŸ™‚
    Those photos are treasures, for sure!

  7. What interesting lives! The way Mabel Hilda is holding that chair along with the expression on her face, leads me to suspect she was the most adventurous, at least at that moment.

  8. This will be very fascinating. Also interesting that there was still work for governesses so relatively late in the timeline of that occupation. It would definitely have been for upper-class families, rather than isolated station owners as in Australia around that time. I’m guessing none of the sisters married. There’s a book in there somewhere.

    1. Thanks very much, Gwen. None of the sisters did marry, but the next episode will perhaps explain why Mabel didn’t. When we get to Evelyn you will see she did have charges “in the bush”

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