Call her by her name

This is Helen Lenoir. At least, that is the name this woman used between 1875 and 1888. She was one of the leading businesswomen of her era, a theatrical producer who worked alongside Richard D’Oyly Carte and eventually married him. She had a fascinating life but researching it has certainly been made more challenging by the number of names by which Helen was known during her life and it is one reason why women’s stories can get lost.

Susan Black was born on 12th May 1852. Her father had a middle name, Couper, which he used in conjunction with his surname but was not part of his surname. In the 1861 census, his wife is registered as Ellen Black and his daughter is registered as Susan Black . By 1871, she has changed her name to Helen S Black but when she enrolled for the University of London that same year, it is under the name of Susan Helen Black.

In 1874, she completed her university studies and started to teach but clearly felt the lure of greasepaint because she enrolled in acting and singing classes and by 1876 had started calling herself something slightly more glamorous: Helen Lenoir.

This was the name by which she would generally be known until 1888, in newspaper reports, diaries, letters and ship manifests. It didn’t stop her travelling internationally: you could generally travel internationally without a passport until 1914.

‘The Acting Manager’ (1884) by Walter Sickert, Art Institute of Chicago

In 1888, she married Richard D’Oyly Carte. Like Susan / Helen’s father, Richard used a middle name in conjunction with his surname. This was a practical decision: his father was also called Richard Carte and there needed to be some way of telling them apart. Legally, when Helen got married she became Mrs Carte and Helen Carte is the name under which she is recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. But no-one ever called her Helen Carte: she was called Mrs Richard D’Oyly Carte. Or Mrs Helen D’Oyly Carte. Unless she was still called Helen Lenoir.

Helen D’Oyly Carte is the name Helen used in the parish records on the occasion of her second marriage to Stanley Boulter.

Yes, sadly Richard died in 1901 and a year later, Helen re-married. (Her new husband was slightly younger than her but as well as fudging her name in the parish records, Helen knocked seven years off her age). Helen kept the name of D’Oyly Carte for work but was called Mrs Stanley Boulter in newspaper coverage of social events. No wonder Helen looks so tired in this drawing: she’s probably trying to remember how to sign the letter she’s writing.

So: one woman, at least seven name variations. This is an extreme example but it is one important contributory factor to women’s stories getting lost and men’s surviving. Doing some research on the pilot and engineer Amy Johnson? Make sure you search for Amy Mollison, because that is the name she went under for most of the 1930s. Looking for information on the accountant Helen Cox? Make sure you search for Helen Clegg, because the most interesting archive material on her is only catalogued under her maiden name.

Women who marry today still have to make a choice about their surname: changing it, keeping it, blending it or adopting a split work / home approach all have different implications. Although 60% of women say they think about keeping their name, at the moment nearly 90% of British women adopt their husband’s surname. It is a choice relatively few men feel faced with: when was the last time you asked a man who was engaged if he was going to change his name?

Related post: Name games

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