The Baroness De T'serclaes (Elsie Knocker)
Part 1 - The Early Years
The Baroness de T'Serclaes, better known as Elsie Knocker, was born Elizabeth Blackall Shapter in Exeter on 29 July 1884, the daughter of Lewis Shapter and Charlotte Bayly, who had married in 1877. Lewis was a doctor, Exeter born and bred, and Charlotte was born in Jersey in about 1850; she died of meningitis on 2 May 1888. Lewis was already suffering from tuberculosis and he succumbed to it on 13 November 1890, leaving five children, who were separated and farmed out with various relatives. Elizabeth (known as Elsie) was informally adopted when her solicitor saw a newspaper advertisement from Lewis and Emily Upcott, who wanted a child (preferably a boy, but Elsie was what they got). In her memoirs4 Elsie describes them as 'elderly', but in fact Lewis was barely 40 at the time and Emily was still in her thirties. Lewis Upcott was a Greek classicist, a master at Marlborough College, and the family lived in nearby Preshute, Wiltshire.
Elsie's printed recollections of the Upcotts are fairly cursory and less than warm, considering that they not only brought her up but also looked after her son for long periods at a later stage: however, it was almost certainly the case that they did not suit her character. Indeed, she said, 'I must have been an extraordinary creature'. Additionally, she had four siblings, whom she regarded as her real family, and did not see a great deal of them. She never referred to Lewis and Emily as her parents - they were always foster-parents or aunt and uncle. Throughout this passage in her book one gets the impression that she regarded her life with the Upcotts as a straitjacket from which she yearned to break free: they were determined to make her a conventional 'young lady' (finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, cookery school at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, nursing training at a children's hospital in Sevenoaks, Kent). All of this stood her in good stead later, but she did not appreciate it at the time. She just was not a conventional young lady.
When Elsie did cast off the Preshute straitjacket it turned out badly. She was flattered by the attentions of an older man, Leslie Duke Knocker (1875-1921), and, before she knew it, they were engaged. Leslie was in a fairly low-paid accountancy job and it was suggested that he should join his elder brother in Singapore, where he could earn more money. He and Elsie were married in 1906 and off they went to Singapore.
The marriage was a disaster, probably on both sides. It is obvious with hindsight that she had huge drive and craved both excitement and a purpose in life: neither Leslie nor the British colonial life in Singapore fulfilled those needs. Elsie was pregnant by the time they arrived and their new home was with Leslie's brother and sister-in-law, who seem to have resented her presence. She found the life boring and was often ill. Apparently Leslie drank heavily and did not treat her well, so she went home to England to have her baby. On her return to Singapore with young Kenneth Duke Knocker Leslie had taken a flat, but after six months she became ill again and was advised to go home, which she did, weighing just five stones. She had already contemplated a divorce but was persuaded to give the marriage another try. Once recovered, she left Kenneth with the Upcotts and returned to her husband, who was now in Java. She spent a year there, but things did not improve and she finally sailed home to obtain the divorce.
At that time there was a huge stigma attached to divorced women (albeit that they may have been the petitioner rather than the respondent) and, therefore, Elsie let it be known that she was a widow. She still had the remains of a legacy from her father, but realised that she needed to work and, in particular, to give Kenneth a good education. Once more she left him with the Upcotts and went to London to qualify as a midwife at Queen Charlotte's Hospital, which was then in Central London; the training was unpaid, hard and often menial. She endured this for two years, qualified well and went back to Wiltshire, intending to be a midwife. However, her eldest brother, John, had been badly injured and needed someone to look after him, so she took Kenneth off to his cottage, which was near Fordingbridge, Hampshire.
Transport being a problem in the New Forest, Elsie bought herself a Chater Lea motorcycle with a sidecar; she also learned how to dismantle, reassemble, service and repair such machines. This was pioneering stuff for a woman in those days and motorcycling soon became a passion with her. She joined an organisation called 'The Gypsy Club' and took part in trials on a Scott bike; she even experimented with a three-wheeler car, which in that era was a cross between a motorcycle and a car.
1913 Scott motorcycle
Photograph by Midnight bird. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Elsie said that life was peaceful and enjoyable during this period - then, war was declared. The next phase of her existence would not be at all peaceful, but her various skills and experiences would equip her for it perfectly.
Linda Jackson © January 2012
Note: The material for these articles has been distilled from Elsie's memoirs, Diane Atkinson's excellent book and various other sources. The accounts do not always tally and, quite often, Elsie's recollections are inaccurate; she also glosses over certain episodes and gives woefully inadequate credit to others (particularly Mairi Chisholm) who were involved in nursing on the Western Front in the First World War. However, Elsie is the subject-matter of the story on this website because of her local connections, but Mairi Chisholm's part in World War 1 should not be underestimated - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mairi_Chisholm for a brief account of her life.
4. Flanders And Other Fields', published by George G Harrap & Co Ltd 1964