Born: Alice Ann Cornwell (sometimes spelt Cornwall); also known as Alice Stennard / Stannard Robinson
Sector: Mining & Metals
Alice Cornwell was a true phenomenon, a self-made Victorian woman who went from a terraced house in West Ham to mixing with the cream of London society. She was prepared to challenge conventions and while some of her risks paid off, others landed her in very hot water.
She travelled the world, made a mark in the men’s world of mining and business and became a media mogul but many of her business ventures ultimately failed. Her private life was as complicated as her public one and even now many questions about her remain unanswered but, for me at least, these mysteries add to the fascination.
Alice was born in Essex in on 1st January 1852, the eldest child in a large family. She grew up in West Ham and when she was five years old her parents emigrated to Melbourne. As her young mother, Jemima, had more children (eight more over the next 25 years, three of whom died in infancy) Alice took on a role as carer from an early age. Her father, George, was a ‘born gambler’ according to one grand-daughter, the best-selling romantic novelist, Denise Robins, ‘adventuresome but careless’ and was possibly attracted to Australia by its gold rush. He worked as a contractor on several major Melbourne building projects and in 1861 moved the family to Dunedin in New Zealand, then at the centre of another gold rush. The family lived in a spacious house, set in a half-acre site with a view of the ocean. George set up more construction firms and started to invest in gold-mining companies. In 1869 the family moved back to Melbourne, where Alice’s youngest surviving sister, Clarice, was born in 1872.
On 4th December 1875, Alice married John Whiteman, a poetry-writing blacksmith and aspiring politician thirty years her senior. Two years later they had a son, George Frederick Carl but the marriage was not a success. The couple formally separated in 1882 when Carl was five and he was forced to choose one of them to live with. He picked his genial, song-singing father over his distant mother. They had no more contact for over a decade and Alice left Australia for London. She was a talented musician who had already written and published a few compositions and her work was also performed in London. However, the death of her mother in November 1883 brought her stay to a sudden end and she returned to Australia to support her father and siblings, particularly Clarice who was just 11.
She arrived home to find her father in serious financial trouble. He had invested heavily in mining rights in Sulky Gully in Ballarat, which had been at the centre of the Victoria Gold Rush in the 1850s, but so far his drilling had yielded nothing. Alice was determined to turn the situation around. She moved to Ballarat, immersed herself in geological maps, borrowed some more money to sink a shaft and struck lucky. She then built a team of legal advisors and well-regarded mining managers and used her father’s network to create experienced boards for her mining companies. The first, Midas Gold Mining, was established in 1885 and two more quickly following – Midas Consols and Madame Midas. In June 1886, a large party assembled at the mine. Clarice christened a new machine, smashing a bottle of champagne on the flywheel, and then everyone sat down to a splendid lunch, waiting to see if gold would emerge from 1,000 truckloads of washdirt. The haul of 125 oz reassured the shareholders, who had travelled up from Melbourne, that they were on to a good thing.
What really made Alice’s name, however, was the discovery of two large nuggets of gold. She named the smaller one after Lady Brassey, the traveller and writer who was then in Australia. It was apparently she who encouraged Alice to go to London to float her company. When Alice finally set sail in the summer of 1887, she had with her the second and larger nugget, the Lady Loch, weighing in at 51 lbs.
Her other companion on the voyage was her new boyfriend, Phil Robinson. Born in India in 1847, Phil was a renowned journalist and war correspondent who had covered campaigns in Afghanistan, Sudan, Egypt and South Africa. He had travelled to Australia for a year-long lecturing tour in the summer of 1887 and cut a swathe through Melbourne society with his ‘squarely-built, vigorous and manly figure’ and his tales of derring-do. The one story he kept tightly under wraps was that he was married and estranged from his wife, who was bringing up their two children. This didn’t stop him from falling hard for Alice and he cut short his trip to return to London with her in September.
A journalist once damned Alice’s appearance with faint praise, describing her as ‘if not a pre-possessing woman, at least not unhandsome.’ However, she clearly had a lot of charm and throughout her life was able to win over a wide range of people and secure their support, from miners in Ballarat to society stalwarts, via investors and journalist. She was smart, lively, perceptive and a good conversationalist. Her direct gaze could be intimidating but also conveyed sincerity.
As a woman, Alice was banned from the floor of the London Stock Exchange (a state of affairs that would not change until 1973..). She therefore decided to drum up publicity for her upcoming flotation by taking an office nearby at 32 Queen Victoria Street, laying out her monster nugget of gold on a plush cloth of deep blue and inviting the public to admire it while downing a glass of champagne or a tumbler of whisky. Phil gave her another PR boost, writing a widely-quoted article under the pseudonym ‘Atlas’ where he lauded Alice as ‘one of the most skilful of mining geologists in Victoria’, where she was known as ‘the first lady of miners’ and ran a company employing ‘several hundreds of people’. Their teamwork continued when soon afterwards Alice bought The Sunday Times for £3,000 and gave Phil the Editor job. Phil was a member of the infamous Savage Club, founded in 1857 and beloved of artists, journalists and general reprobates ever since. He in turn gave jobs to fourteen of his Savage Club mates but his initial stint in charge was short. In February 1888, Alice successfully floated Midas Gold with a share capital of £180,000 and Joseph Hatton took over editorial responsibilities while Alice and Phil returned to Australia to explore new ventures.
Alice reviewed her gold mining operations, bought up 15,000 acres of land, where she hoped to mine coal, and invested in new scientific patents. She achieved new levels of fame later that year when the novel Madame Midas was published clearly inspired by Alice’s story and was turned into a play that toured the UK. ‘Of really successful professional lady speculators we have had none in this country’ remarked Truth in October 1888, ‘but Miss Cornwell can hardly be called a speculator; she is an able and energetic business woman and as such, fully deserves the success which has attended her operations.’
The toast of London
In March 1889 Alice and Phil sailed back to London where Alice planned to launch a new company, the British-Australian Gold Mining Investment Company. On her arrival she was ‘confined to her room’, struck down ‘a bad cold’, otherwise known as morning sickness. Once recovered, she embraced the social scene, flashing some serious cash. She rented a barge for Henley Regatta, decking it out in shades of gold and holding lavish lunches on board and threw huge evening parties at her rented house in South Kensington, clogging the surrounding streets with cabs. Over 200 guests, drawn from the fields of music, art, theatre and finance, had the most delicious time enjoying the ‘quite exceptional’ roses and strawberries (according to The Sunday Times..) surrounded by ‘a veritable museum of beautiful and valuable things from China, Japan and Morocco.’
Some sections of the press seized on Alice’s success to berate those women agitating for legal and political reform: why didn’t they take a leaf out of her book and simply prove themselves rather than talking about what might be possible if women had more legal and political clout? However, Alice was not interested in being drawn into a manufactured cat fight and invited many leading feminists to her parties. Guests included: Emily Faithfull, who established the first printing company run by women in 1860 and published Victoria magazine; Mary Elizabeth Braddon, founder of the magazine Belgravia and author of ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’; Florence Fenwick Miller, journalist, activist and working mother who co-founded the Women’s Franchise League with Emmeline Pankhurst in 1889; and Miriam Leslie, who had managed the turnaround of her late husband’s publishing business and later became one of the biggest funders of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
After three months of high-profile partying, Alice suddenly dropped out of sight, abandoning the social scene in London and retreating to a quiet hamlet near Dunmow in Essex. On 26th October she secretly gave birth to a daughter, Myrtle Dorothy Wentworth Robinson, whose birth was not registered for three months. In November reports started to circulate that Alice was recovering from a ‘long and severe illness’, which had caused her to abandon any new business ventures. At this point, Phil was equally keen to keep a low profile. His wife, Sarah, was suing him in a sensational divorce case. Representing herself, she alleged that he had forced her to take morphine, driven her into an asylum and denied her access to her children. Phil filed for bankruptcy and the battles over custody rights and alimony payments were still hitting the headlines in 1892.
Alice re-emerged in February 1890 for her sister Clarice’s wedding to the musician and Sunday Times critic Hermann Klein. That summer, The Sunday Times ran a series of columns on women’s clubs, sports, industries and Famous Women Workers but this is the last evidence of Alice’s behind-the-scenes influence. In March 1891, it was announced that paper had a new owner, the theatrical impresario Augustus Harris and two months later Phil was fired after running a story on the Prince of Wales’s finances.
Midas Gold continued to operate but there is no further news of Alice’s mining ventures. She and Phil kept a low profile down in Essex for the next three years and she turned her attention to another one of her interests, breeding and exhibiting dogs, specifically black pugs. When she returned to the public eye in 1894 she was sporting a new name, Mrs Stennard (sometimes spelt Stannard) Robinson. Several people met Alice both as Madame Midas and Mrs Stennard Robinson but nowhere is reference made to her earlier ventures. Any gossip must have been restricted to long-lost scandal sheets, personal diaries or private conversations.
On 2nd November 1894, a photograph of Myrtle and four of Alice’s dogs appeared on the front page of the Westminster Budget. Inside was a long feature on Alice’s kennel set up down in Essex and soon after this she launched a magazine, the Ladies’ Kennel Journal. Alice seems to have written most of the content including a regular column called ‘Bow Wow’ under yet another name, Betty Barkis. One of the first copies was sent to the royal dog-lovers living in Buckingham Palace (Queen Victoria once exhibited at Crufts) and the second edition included three pages of complimentary reviews from magazines and newspapers.
On 2nd November 1894 the front page of the Westminster Budget featured ‘Miss Mortivals’ (Myrtle) with four generations of dogs (there is a puppy centre bottom), bred by her mother. Inside was a long feature on Alice’s kennel set up down in Essex. Soon after this she launched a magazine, the Ladies’ Kennel Journal.
Alice seems to have written most of the content including a regular column called ‘Bow Wow’ under yet another name, Betty Barkis. One of the first copies was sent to the royal dog-lovers living in Buckingham Palace (Queen Victoria once exhibited at Crufts) and the second edition included three pages of complimentary reviews from magazines and newspapers.
Hot on its heels came the formation of the Ladies Kennel Association (LKA) with Alice as the Honorary Secretary. At that point only men could be full members of the Kennel Club, a situation that persisted until the 1970s until change was brought about by the redoubtable Florence Nagel, fresh from her campaign against the Jockey Club. Alice set out to run competitive dog shows for women owners only, aiming to turn this into a fashionable pastime and quickly scored a big coup by securing the Princess of Wales as its patron. The first LKA dog show at Barn Elms in the summer of 1895 was attended by over 2,000 people including the Princess of Wales. It was a publicity triumph, but a financial misfire, the entry fees failing to cover the cost of the operation including a huge number of high-value prizes.
Nevertheless, Alice pressed on. In 1896 a second show, larger in scope, was held at Holland House and by 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Platinum Jubilee, the venue had moved to the Botanic Gardens in Regent’s Park. However, questions were already been asked about the LKA’s finances. An internal investigation committee was set up and although there was no evidence of wrong-doing, the audit revealed that the revenue and costs of the LKA and Alice’s publishing business were being mixed up together. This bump in the road didn’t seem to slow Alice down. She launched several more magazines including Our Cats and The Lady Exhibitor as well as other clubs, the National Cat Club and the Country House Club. The LKA’s annual London shows continued to grow in scale and by 1898 it had also started to stage regional shows. When Queen Victoria died, the new Queen, Alexandra, chose to maintain her patronage.
Writing in his book ‘Doggy Shows and Doggy People’, published in 1902, C.H. Lane profiled over 100 people in the world of dogs and was full of admiration for Alice. He said she had shown ‘an amount of ability, perseverance and resource which are almost incredible and quite unexampled in the history of this country’. He admitted that ‘matters have not always run smoothly’ but the way in which Alice had overcome obstacles and opposition just added to his high regard and he credited her with turning dog shows into a social function in which now ‘the best people are not ashamed to take part.’ With a new, wealthy customer base, the dog breeding business had also received an economic boost.
However, even as this book was going to press, events were taking a decidedly rocky turn as the LKA went further and further into debt. 1902 was a terrible year for Alice. With the organisation now £3,000 in red (equivalent to c.£250,000 today) the Committee took action. The organisation was wound up so it could be reformed and relaunched on a more stable basis and Alice lost her position. In December Phil died, aged 55, leaving Alice to support thirteen-year old Myrtle on her own and without the income Phil had continued to generate through his writing.
Alice gave up the large Essex house along with the kennels and moved to Brighton where, now in her late 50s, she started to run a guest house in Kemp Town. The house was always full of people, both paying guests and family members. Even when in financial straits, Alice continued to be generous: her father had re-married and sometime after his death, his widow, Mary, moved in with Alice. She had reconciled with her son in around 1895 and he had joined her in her publishing enterprises. He was a frequent visitor, now fully immersed in the newspaper world and going by the name of Sydney Carroll. He became The Sunday Times drama critic and later founded the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. For stints of time her niece, Denise, also lived with Alice.
Alice had always been fascinated by astrology, using the stars to make all sorts of decisions, which might account in part for her erratic decision-making. Now she set up one final short-lived publication Mystic and took every opportunity to tell people their horoscopes. Her last years were lived out in circumstances similar to the ones into which she had been born, in a small Hove apartment with little money. She wore Victorian dress until her death in 1932, perhaps wanting to keep a last link to the glory days of what can only be described as an extraordinary life.
A shorter version of this article was published in The Sunday Times on 16th October 2022.
Sources include: The Melbourne Herald 1/8/1887; The Morning Post 29/10/1887; The Queen 5/11/1887; Aberdeen Evening Express 23/11/1887; The Toronto Mail 4/5/1889; Truth 25/10/1888; 28/3/1889; Pall Mall Gazette 3/5/1889; The Sunday Times 23/6/1889; Globe 8/1/1890; Southern Echo 11/3/1891; Ladies Kennel Journal
‘Doggy Shows and Doggy People’ by C.H. Lane (1902)
‘The Invention of the Modern Dog’ by Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange and Neil Pemberton (2018); ‘Stranger than Fiction’ by Denise Robins (1965)