A Woman of Mystery!

05 September 2018

There's one photograph in our Sidney Francis exhibition that captured our imaginations more than any other - that of the mysterious and glamorous Madame Martinez de las Rivas. Pictured sitting elegantly on a bench in a Horsell garden, accompanied by her son, the pair are the very picture of 1930s elegance. What's the life story of this stylish Woking resident? Surrey History Centre's Jane Lewis investigates...

You really can’t always trust what your ancestors say on the census – or on other documents for that matter. My father’s maternal grandfather modestly describes himself as a ‘Cotton Spinner’ on the 1901 census when he was actually a partner in a very successful cotton mill employing over 250 people in the Wigan area. On the other hand, my mother’s paternal grandfather describes himself as a ‘Concert Hall Manager’ on the same census when he was actually a doorman of a public dance hall!

I had always thought the latter a master of re-invention and as someone who did not take to officialdom well (the census wasn’t the only document he treated with a somewhat cavalier attitude) he has been a challenge to research. However, I think I may have met someone who makes him seem like a rank amateur!!

Once again, I’m delving into the wonderful world of Sidney Francis, the Woking photographer whose collection of photographs have brought so much joy to so many since they were deposited here at the Surrey History Centre!

I am greatly indebted to Richard and Rosemary Christophers who were intrigued by the photograph of one Madame Martinez de las Rivas, of Villa Rivas, Woodham Road, Horsell, in her garden, taken sometime in the 1930s. They have done the bulk of the research into finding out more about this lady and I have added my ‘twopenn’orth’ for good measure.

Madame Martinez de las Rivas was not born with such a grand name – and nor was her husband!

Reginald Joseph Murray, a young engineering student on the 1911 census, married a Cecilie Gertrude Woods in 1908. Sometime later, Murray inherited some of the fortune of Don José Martinez de las Rivas, an industrialist and banker from Bilbao, perhaps his father, and by the time of his death in 1920 Reginald had adopted the Spanish name. He left his fortune of some 1,313,881 pesetas divided among 4 sons from his first marriage and 5 from his second, as well as Reginald Joseph Murray, who may have been an illegitimate son or perhaps a favoured and promising young business colleague

The 1911 census shows the Murray family living at 3 Devonshire Road, Birkenhead. Reginald Joseph states that he was born in Kensington and aged 24, making his year of birth around 1887. According the indexes of births, marriages and deaths, his birth was actually registered in the September quarter of 1885. Also present on the census is his wife Cecilie Gertrude, age 26 suggesting her year of birth at around 1885. This is where it starts to get interesting. Despite long and exhausting searches, we could find no reference to the birth of anyone named Cecilie Gertrude Woods, nor could we find her on any other census returns. The 1939 register (available on www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk) give a date of birth as 24 February 1889. Now, it’s not unusual for people to lie about their age (particularly, I’m distressed to say, women!) but this is a few years out! Hmmm.

At some point after 1913, Reginald starts to style himself Reginald Joseph Martinez de las Rivas, presumably after he received his inheritance. Sadly he did not enjoy his inheritance for long, as according to a piece in The Times dated 25 August 1920, he died on 12 August of that year.


Madame Cecilie Martinez de las Rivas (in lace dress and jacket) sitting on garden seat with her son John (in top hat, tails and spats)

Reginald’s obituary in The Times describes him as the managing director of an engineering works. His estate came to £8845.6.3., a pretty substantial sum and by 1923 Madame Cecilie de las Rivas is being described in The Tatler as “Well known in London society and is a familiar figure at Ascot every year” (Tatler 13 June 1923).

Reginald and Cecilie certainly had one son, John Gordon, and there is another reference in the newspaper report of Reginald’s death to a son named ‘Gillie’ but no more information is forthcoming about him. There is also a lovely photograph in The Sketch for 22 June 1932 showing a Miss de las Rivas at Ascot, perhaps suggesting that Cecilie and Reginald may have also had a daughter.

The widowed Cecilie came to Woodham Road in Woking about 1927. By this period she is styling herself ‘Madame’ Martinez de las Rivas and the above photograph shows her with her son dressed for a glamourous occasion! From 1936 to 1938 they are at 44 Colbrook Close, Putney, London and by 1939 Cecilie, along with the now divorced John Gordon are at Neguri, The Horseshoe, Poole, Dorset.

Cecilie died on 31 April 1951 at a nursing home in Bournemouth, allegedly aged 68, and leaving £3289.5s.4d.  Her entry of burial at Branksome gives her additional surname of Murray and the registration shows her as Murray, De Las Martinez and Martinez-de-las-Rivas, Cecile M G. 

This is rather a saga of misleading dates and names, and I really wanted to get to the bottom of it and see if Cecilie had was born to the good life – or not!

My first clue was found in the indexes to the probate records. Cecilie’s will is proved under the name of ‘Frances Gertrude Marion Cecile’. So, Cecilie (or variants) was not her first name – yippee! A clue!! I went back to the information gleaned on the 1911 census and looked for Frances Wood (rather than Cecilie) on the 1901 census and sure enough, I found a likely candidate:

1901 Census:  Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Ref:  RG13; Piece: 2540; Folio: 144; Page: 42

Name Relation to Head of Family Age Status Occupation Place of Birth
Charles William Wood Head 45 M Plasterer & Shopkeeper Birmingham
Fanny Wood Wife 36 M Shrewsbury, Shropshire
Frances G M Wood Dau 17 S Shop Assistant Barnes, Surrey
Albert W Wood Son 15 Plasterer Shrewsbury, Shropshire
Charles W Wood Son 9 Shrewsbury, Shropshire

The clues for me were the places of birth. Frances states she was born in Barnes and her brother ‘Wallace’ in Shrewsbury. 1901 census shows a Charles W Wood born in Shrewsbury along with an Albert Wood. We know from Reginald’s obituary that Albert attended the funeral and since the family seem to have been involved in the decorating trade it’s not much of a stretch to suppose that ‘Wallace’ became a house painter!

I was also able to find "Cecilie’s" birth. She was born Frances Gertrude Minnie Wood in the January quarter of 1884. Not sure how she got Marion from Minnie!

There is no doubt that Frances/Cecilie enjoyed the ‘Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous’ but did she purposely try and make her background seem a little more exotic? We shall probably never know – or will we? Does anyone out there know a little more about Frances/Cecilie? We’d love to know!


Delve into more mysteries of local history on Exploring Surrey's Past.

Sidney Francis: Photographs of Woking in the 1920s and 1930s is open till 7 October 2018.

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