Elmes Family of Coleswood House

Coleswood House 1887. The boy is John Elmes

In 2007 a Ralph Elmes living in Bere Alston, Devon, sent a large file of family photographs to Les Casey, the curator of Harpenden History Society’s collection, because they were relevant to some of his family who had lived in Coleswood, a Victorian house on the edge of Harpenden’s East Common. Les Casey was able to compile a family tree from them and other information. It shows that the Elmes family resided in Harpenden for over a hundred years from about 1840 to the mid-20th century.

The Harpenden Elmes family tree

At the top of the tree is Joseph Elmes, of Hertford who was born about 1773. His son Thomas married Elizabeth Missenden and they named their son, born in 1824, Thomas.

The first record we have is a copy of the of the apprenticeship of young Thomas dated 1840. It is between his mother Elizabeth Elmes of Harpenden, who was a widow by then and Francis Sear, a grocer and chandler of Hertford. His apprenticeship was for six years which was quite normal for the time.

Thomas Elmes sr

Elizabeth Elmes (nee Missenden) 1800-1873


Thomas’s indenture

He/Thomas married Mary Robinson in 1849. The first three of their seven children were baptised in the Marylebone area. Mary died in 1863 and in 1866 Thomas married Caroline Boulden who bore him six children.

Caroline Maria Elmes (nee Boulden) Elmes 1834?-1925

Thomas Elmes of Coleswood House 1824-1892









The 1871 census records them as living in Marylebone but by 1881 they are shown as living at Coleswood. Thomas had thirteen children by his two wives and settled in Coleswood with the younger ones. It’s from this second family that the Harpenden Elmes were descended.

There are a series of studio photographs of the Elmes girls taken in Marylebone and later in Harpenden and Luton by professional photographers (see below). They show the enormous amount of floor length clothing they wore in those days with masses of embroidery, lace, frills and petticoats all enhancing tightly corseted figures. And their hats range from Victorian lace caps to huge cartwheels decorated with fruit and flowers popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Most of the Elmes girls of Coleswood gradually left Harpenden as they married. Their wedding photographs show groups of about sixty people all dressed in their best carrying enough flowers to stock Covent Garden.

Beatrice’s wedding to Maurice Clark 1895

Emily’s wedding to Ernest Lonsdale 1900. See comment below for a description of the wedding.

As they come forward in time the clothes get less cumbersome, the dresses are shorter and the children are in short dresses with long white socks.

The five Elmes young men who lived at Coleswood are pictured in high buttoned jackets and stiff collars. Ralph Elmes who donated the photographs is the grandson of John Elmes the elder son of Thomas and Caroline.

John was born in 1868. Aged twenty seven and by then a master mariner he married Sarah Sanderson in Hartlepool where they settled and raised seven children. Their son Basil was the father of Ralph Elmes who sent the collection of family photographs relating to the Harpenden Elmes to Harpenden History Society. He had not known about the photographs while his father was alive as they were kept by an uncle in Yorkshire.

Caroline Elmes – at Colewood for 50 years

The person who links the Harpenden Elmes together is  Caroline Elmes nee Boulden, Thomas Elmes’ second wife. She lived at Coleswood for over fifty years before dying in 1925 aged 90.

A cutting from the Herts Pictorial and Tuesday Times dated April 1924 features her as Harpenden’s oldest woman.

Caroline as an old lady; the picture used for the newspaper article


Caroline Elmes and grandaughter Madeline Clark. Her elder son John worked in shipping salvage and her other son George was well known as a veterinary surgeon in St.Albans. Of her four daughters the eldest, Caroline (Carrie) born in 1866, married John Bunyan Brooks and bore a daughter Kathleen. The second daughter Beatrice married Maurice Clark a naval officer. They had a daughter Madeline in 1896. Beatrice died in 1897. Maurice then ‘married’ her sister Gertrude. It was not legal to marry a dead spouse’s sibling but many such ‘marriages’ took place because there were so many motherless children to be cared for. The fourth sister Emily married Ernest Lonsdale Warren who was in the straw hat trade and appears from Kelly’s Directory to have lived in Tennyson Road and according to the probate notice  she died there (in a house named ‘Kenmore’) in May 1930.


On the mourning cards sent out by Caroline Elmes and family when her husband Thomas died in 1892 their address is given simply as Coleswood.  It is not known when it gained the suffix of House. Caroline died in 1925 and was buried in St.Nicholas Churchyard. An old gravestone commemorates Beatrice Clarke (nee Elmes) who died in 1897 together with her half sister Martha, the eldest daughter of Thomas Elmes, who died in 1896.

The two Elmes’ graves. The front one is the ‘modern’ gravestone the one behind the ‘old’ stone, see script

Next to it a modern polished gravestone commemorates four of the family. But whether they are actually buried under it and when it was put there is not known. The earliest date is of the death of Elizabeth Elmes in 1873, widow of Thomas Elmes of Hertford. Her son Thomas died 1892 and his wife Caroline who died in 1925 are also listed as is Clara Elmes, the fourth daughter of Thomas Elmes, who died unmarried in 1938 age 80.

Coleswood still stands in Little Lane off East Common. It was in the hands of Captain John Elmes in 1927, the year after his mother’s death, and appears to have been sold. It is in excellent hands at present as it is in very good order.

Thomas and Mary’s children

Martha 1851-1896

Elizabeth (Lizzie) and ? 1852-?


Louise 1854-1856 (no photo)

Thomas (Tom) jr jr 1856-?

Clara 1858-1938

Joseph 1861-

Arthur 1859-?

Thomas and Caroline’s children

John (Jack) 1868-1938

Caroline jr (Carrie) 1866 –



Beatrice Clark (nee Elmes) 1871-1897 with Madeline

Emily Warren (nee Elmes) 1873-?


Gertrude 1874-?

Comments about this page

  • Your article has been a great help to me. I was born in 1934, the only legitimate child of Cedric Thomas Elmes, who was the youngest son of John (AKA Jack) Elmes, who died in 1938. I remember meeting my grandfather when I was three years old. Captain John Elmes lived in Yorkshire on the Strays in Harrogate, but he also had property in the Whitby region of Yorkshire. He had seven children (4 boys and 3 girls, one of whom died in the 1918 Flu epidemic). His oldest brother was Ralph Elmes who lived in Yorkshire. Ralph worked as a History lecturer at Newcastle University. One of his brothers was Basil, a doctor whose only son was, I think, the man who donated the Coleswood history to Harpenden Local History Society.

    My father, Cedric, was born with a twin sister in 1906. He married my mother, Irene Helen Ellis of South Shields, Tyneside, in Prague where he was teaching English in a university there. A second marriage ceremony took place later in a church near Harrogate. By 1934, when I was born they were back in England, and living in Kent, where he was teaching English in a boys’ borstal school. In 1936 he asked my mother if she would like to take me to visit her parents in South Shields and she agreed to go there for a few days. We travelled by train and she had only me in a push chair and a small bag of clothes. While we were there the Elmes family told her that Cedric had sold all the contents of our home (my pram, cot, toys and clothes and all my mother’s things) and disappeared. We never saw him again.

    My mother did not know where he was until I was 14 years old. She had at the time of his disappearance nothing but me, a pushchair and a few clothes. I grew up in South Shields in my grand parents’ home. I met my Grandfather Captain John just before he died in 1938. There was very little contact with the Elmes family although I did meet Uncle Ralph and some cousins, children of Bernard, who lived in a village near Darlington. I never met my father’s twin sister.

    My mother never sought a divorce from Cedric so it was quite a surprise to learn that Cedric had died in Australia in 1955. Mother got a death certificate from Australia which named his next of kin as a Christina Vera Elmes and two daughters Beverley Joan and Sarah Ann Elmes. There had been a bigamous marriage in Sydney. We never followed this up, except to verify that it had taken place. I had little contact with any of them. They did little to help my mother or me. It was not until 1987, when my own daughter Andrea went to live in Australia, that I thought much about my two half sisters. Amazingly Andrea went to Melbourne and rented a property in the street next to the one where Cedric died! This made me start to wonder if my sisters were living near and I took the evidence I had to the big library in Melbourne where an archivist helped me to try to trace my sisters. It only took a few minutes to find a reference to a Christina Vera Elmes, living near Melbourne. I knew she was about 90 years old but I sent her a letter giving no details of who I was, and asked her to pass on two notes to her daughters. Within two days I had a phone call. It was Christina Vera and she said “You must be June”! I never was able to question her about what she knew about my mother and me because she was much too old, but she even had a photo of me as a baby. I met both my half sisters and one became a very special friend. We had very similar interests, mostly to do with wild life, and we often spent happy days looking for koalas and birds. I had about 10 years before she died a few years ago.

    My father remains a little known entity. He did little for any of us, but he was not evil. He was a con man who was good at using his excellent English to convince people he was more than he was. He also became addicted to alcohol and gambling. I was a child in the second World War and many children did not have their dads around. No one ever asked where he was. However my childhood was not something I remember with much pleasure. I was mostly with my gran who was almost 70 when I was born and it was a home with very little laughter and no men or boys after my grandfather died. The Elmes family were almost unknown to me but I have spent a great deal of time tracing my ancestry and your museum material was a great help when I was researching my great grandfather and all his children. Thank you for putting it on line with all the photographs. It seems my dad was the black sheep of an interesting family and in the end I have had an interesting and very pleasant life.

    By June Cleal ( nee Elmes) (19/07/2023)
  • A description of Emily’s wedding (see photo above) was in the September 1900 issue of the Parish Magazine – very much a Victorian style of reporting!
    ‘A very pretty wedding took place on August 15th when Mr E.L.Warren was united in holy matrimony to Miss Emily Elmes. The Church was filled with a large and orderly (?!) congregation, the Rector officiating. The choir sang two hymns and the psalm; and Mr Billingham discoursed sweet music in the intervals of waiting besides heralding the close of the ceremony with the Wedding March. The flag was displayed on the Church Tower and the Bells rang a merry peal. In fact aided by perfect weather, all went off as happily and pleasantly as possible.’
    Was the flag flown for every wedding or only for certain people I wonder?

    By Diana Parrott (28/03/2022)
  • In 1887 Thomas Elmes acquired properties at the corner of High Street and Church Green, now nos. 38 to 50 High Street and 1,2 and 3 Church Green, previously the site of Mr Longland’s Island Cottage (demolished). He was presumably instrumental in the building of this range of shops and flats – known at the time as “Elmes’s Folly”.  

    In September 1953, according to a report in the Harpenden Free Press, these properties (whose tenants included National Provincial Bank, W H Smiths, Home & Colonial Stores, Whitehouse’s newsagents, Buttons outfitters and Mandley & Sparrow, estate agents) were sold to a single purchaser for an undisclosed price – believed to the the highest price ever realised for any single property transaction in Harpenden. The sale was by direction of the trustees of George Elmes (1875-1948) who was the youngest son of Thomas Elmes of Coleswood. 

    By Rosemary Ross (15/06/2016)

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