Chronicles: Marooned in Bonchurch

In 1877, the eleven-year-old American girl portrayed in the photograph below arrived in Bonchurch. She came reluctantly. Her name was Elizabeth Chanler, one of ten children who’d been left motherless two years previously. She and her siblings were heirs to the vast American Astor fortune. Her father, bereft over the loss of his wife and unable to deal with his large brood, decided Elizabeth should be educated abroad. He chose an elite boarding school for girls in Bonchurch run by Miss Elizabeth Missing Sewell, a well known educator and author, and her two unmarried sisters. [The school was in their home, Sea View in Bonchurch, which they renamed Ashcliff.]

The Sewell sisters preferred to call their enterprise a “family home,” rather than a school, but the atmosphere was forbidding: very High Church, very old-fashioned, the height of Victorian propriety. The young American, so out of her element and so far away from her family in New York, might have been on the other side of the moon. Homesick, she wrote to her father asking when he was coming to get her.

Instead, a telegram arrived. Her father was dead. He died unexpectedly of pneumonia after playing croquet on a soggy field. Elizabeth, now an orphan, assumed she would be able to go home to be with her family. But no. Despite the fact that the Astors had endless money, the guardians appointed to care for the children decided that Elizabeth could not return. She had to stay on, alone in her grief, at Miss Sewell’s.

Elizabeth endured a grim, stormy winter on the island, but during one of the first sunny days of spring, a beautiful Sunday afternoon in March, all the girls were outside enjoying the weather. Ellen Sewell, an artist who instructed the students in drawing, had her easel set up and was painting a magnificent scene: a three-masted ship as it sailed below in the English Channel. The ship, the Eurydice, then a training ship for young sailors, was nearing home after a successful trip to the West Indies. The captain allowed the seamen to enjoy the sunshine. Rum was passed about. What the captain didn’t see were the black clouds obscured by the eight-hundred-foot St. Boniface Down. Without warning, a ferocious blizzard enveloped the ship, filled the sails with heavy snow, and sucked the vessel into the sea. The storm only lasted forty-five minutes, but by the time the sun re-emerged the crewmen were almost all dead—drowned or frozen to death. Only two of the 360 men survived. It was an almost incomprehensible tragedy, witnessed firsthand by the girls at Miss Sewell’s.

More tragedy ensued for Elizabeth. She had begun to limp noticeably and Miss Sewell suggested that the guardians have her examined at the Orthopaedic Hospital in London.  Thus began a procession of specialists in both London and Paris – all of whom were baffled by the strange hip disease she had contracted. (It was probably tuberculosis of the hip, which can now be treated with antibiotics – a cure as yet undiscovered.) The doctors decided on a radical treatment: Elizabeth was to be strapped to a board, immobilized. For two years.

An invalid for much of her life, Elizabeth was painted by the high society artist John Singer Sargent. I spent years researching and writing the amazing story of her life for my book about four women who were painted by Sargent, and the Astor family shared with me hundreds of Elizabeth’s original letters, photographs and memorabilia.

For a full account of the loss of the Euridice see another article here: Chronicles: Shipwrecks 1 – HMS Euridice.

Donna M Lucey, for Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Donna Lucey provided the photographs here, and the full story of Elizabeth Chanler’s life is included in her book Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, 2017, W. W. Norton.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2017.