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Gertrude Elizabeth Smith

In the Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford, you can see the monument to Joseph Smith, which is grade two listed. It is a huge 33ft obelisk, it stands at the end of the promenade and is testament to the important role he played in establishing Undercliffe Cemetery. The monument itself was designed by William Gay.

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Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg

Joseph Smith's Monument

Beneath the obelisk, the most imposing monument in the Undercliffe Cemetery lies buried a young woman whose tragic story is worth remembering, Gertrude Elizabeth Smith.

Gertrude Elizabeth Smith was among the earliest women students at Cambridge University. Originally from Bradford, she later moved with her family to Harrogate's Beech Grove. This article tells her tragic story. It was originally published in the Newsletter of the Undercliffe Cemetery Charity, Bradford.

Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg

Melbourne Place

She was the grand-daughter of Joseph Smith, the land agent for the Undercliffe Cemetery Company. Her father was George Smith, also a land agent and surveyor. She was born on the 1 December 1864 and baptised at All Saints Church, Little Horton. The family home was in Melbourne Place, a little further down Little Horton Lane, towards the town centre. Her brother, Harry, also followed the family profession and in the 1881 census he too is a land agent and surveyor. Gertrude was obviously an intelligent girl. She was privately educated, as was common for the children of middle-class families, including at a school called Les Ruches, at Fontainebleau, to the south of Paris. She then went on in 1889 to study History at Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the two women’s colleges that had recently been founded there. She was said to be particularly interested in constitutional history. She took the History Tripos in May, 1891, although women were still not permitted to take the degree. Indeed, they were not to be so allowed until 1948.

Sometime either during or after her time at Cambridge, she began to suffer physically and saw a specialist for back pain. She also began to experience headaches and sleeplessness, probably connected to the depression which also afflicted her from this time. This would seem to have been linked to the thwarting of her ambition to teach and pass on to others some of the knowledge she had gained. At the census of 1891, she is at Bournemouth with her mother and father in a boarding house, almost certainly there for her health.

By the New Year, 1892, she is living in the new family home of Rose Lea on Beech Grove, Harrogate, one of several mansions overlooking the town’s beautiful Stray, or common, of 200 acres. Harrogate had become a popular town for Bradford men, either to commute to work in the city or to retire, as George Smith had done, although his daughter’s health may also have been a consideration.

On the Sunday at the close of that month, she told her brother she was going out for a walk. This was in woods not far from their home, above the town’s Valley Gardens, and where she often walked. They were said to remind her of the woods at Fontainebleau, where she had walked with her sister. She did not return and was reported missing by her brother. A ladies’ hat was found in one of the sluices of a corporation reservoir, which was just adjacent to the woods and later that evening her body was recovered from the water. Her watch had stopped at 11.45. It was reported that she would have had to climb a wall to get to the reservoir.

An inquest was duly held into her death, at the Victoria Hotel, close to the family home on Cold Bath Road, which the local paper reported as ‘Distressing Suicide of a Harrogate Lady’. Giving evidence, her doctor confirmed that she had been suffering both physical and mental ailments and that she had consulted him as to whether she could stand up to a course of study necessary to her plans to teach. He had advised against study but that she might rather go to her planned destination of Germany just for some tuition in conversation. He later changed his mind and recommended instead no study, spa treatment and a healthy diet. He could find no trace of mental affliction. Nor should she, on her mother’s insistence, take up an offer from a friend who had a ladies’ school at Wimbledon. Neither the doctor nor the family had seen any hint that she might take her own life. There had been no love affairs, religious mania or intemperance.

The coroner voiced an opinion common in medical circles and used against the desire of young women to gain an education, that the strain of study was too much for them. She had drowned herself in ‘a fit of temporary insanity’. The jury made a vote of sympathy to her family and donated their fees to the Harrogate Cottage Hospital.

Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg

Gertrude Elizabeth Smith's inscription

She was brought back to Bradford to be buried in the family grave, along with her father, grandfather and brother and other family members. Her inscription reads:

Gertrude Elizabeth
youngest daughter of the above [George Belk Smith]
died January 31st 1892
aged 27 years

The reservoir has since been covered over, but the woods through which she walked remain and are still beautiful.

You can find Joseph Smith’s monument using the what3words App and website. If you are using the App on your phone type in in the search box.

This article has been contributed by Harrogate Civic Society & History group member Dr Paul Jennings.

More information on Joseph Smith (and indeed the above article) can be found on the Bradford Undercliffe Cemetery Charity website:

Acknowledgements for Paul's article:
Harrogate Advertiser, 6 February 1892;
National Census, 1881 and 1891;
Newnham College, Cambridge;
Felicity Jennings, photography.

Paul attended Bradford Grammar School, the University of Cambridge, and Bradford University where he was awarded a doctorate. Before retirement he was a tutor for both the University of Bradford and the Open University. He is an authority on the English public house, and has written extensively on the subject.
His books include:

The Public House in Bradford, 1770-1970. (1995)
Images of England: Bradford Pubs. (2004)
The Local: A History of the English Pub. (2007)
A History of Drink and the English, 1500-2000. (2016)
Working-Class Lives in Edwardian Harrogate. (2021)

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