COWES, ISLE OF WIGHT
When Cowes was the Centre of World Fashion
Shaded by the Eastern boundary hedge, this tall imposing Celtic Cross marks the Redfern Vault, the final resting place of John Redfern, his wife Harriette, three of their sons, their daughter, a daughter-in–law and two grandchildren.
John Redfern set up his tailoring business in Cowes High Street following his marriage to Harriet Beazley, the daughter of a Ryde baker, in 1846; she became Harriette during their move up the social ladder. Between 1847 and 1856 they had four sons and a daughter.
Their premises (41-42 High Street and 1, 2 and 3 Sun Hill) developed into what might, perhaps unfairly, be described as a “Sweat Shop”; seventy three mostly single woman lived, slept and worked on the premises (1891 census) producing high class haute couture for wealthy patrons. Maybe the working conditions were acceptable at the time and they were certainly respectable girls, known for reasons unknown as “Bunny Girls” – nothing like the image the name conjures up today. A visit to the IW Family History Society’s BMD Index (of Births, Marriages and Deaths) website indicates that some “Bunny Girls” married local men. Possibly someone reading this has an ancestor who worked for Redfern’s?
An early commission (in 1869) was to design the Bride’s and Bridesmaids’ dresses for Eliza the daughter of Dr (later Sir) William Carter Hoffmeister; their family vault is just opposite, across the path (see the November 2012 Newsletter.)
When John Redfern & Sons became a Limited company in November 1892 they had branches in London (Redfern Gallery in Old Bond Street is a legacy of their success), Paris, Nice, Cannes, Aix le Bains, New York, Chicago, Newport Rhode Island, Edinburgh, Manchester and, of course, Cowes. In their heyday Redfern was possibly the best known fashion house in the world with a clientele that include Queen Victoria and her daughters, Lily Langtry, Empresses of Germany and Russia – and the wealthy socialites of Europe and America. Three of John’s sons (his eldest son, John, died in Nice aged 37 in 1887) became directors.
In the Paris branch, probably the most important and innovative, one Charles Poynter became principle designer and a director. His adoption of the Redfern name has led to much confusion as to his relationship to the family. Some sources say that this was John Redfern’s real name, others that he was John Redfern’s son, but I’m confident that he just added Redfern to his name as did Frederick Mims, a Managing Director in London who also became known as Redfern. Life becomes even more confusing for researchers as the Redfern sons adopted the surname Russell, keeping Redfern as a given name.
The influential Institut Français de la Mode places John Redfern firmly in the forefront of fashion:
“The legacy of John Redfern may actually define clothing in the 20th Century. The intellectual lineage of Redfern is monumental and exemplary of the entire history of 20th century clothing. John Redfern mentored Charles Poynter Redfern who, in turn, mentored Robert Piguet, who mentored Christian Dior – who led the line to Yves Saint Laurent”.
The first person listed as being interred in the triple plot 19-21 was Harriette Maud Scott, the daughter of Annie Pike Scott & granddaughter of John & Harriette Redfern. She was just 6 days old when she died in 1879. Harriette died in 1883, John the founder of the dynasty followed in 1895. Stanley, one of the sons, now calling himself Russell, had married Emma (Nem) Cooper, a dressmaker working at the Cowes premises in 1885. They were both listed as 37. Tragically Nem died a year later during childbirth and she is buried in the family vault where this touching tribute is inscribed “In tender reverent memory of Nem Russell of Comforts (Farm ed.) A wife of unfailing love and happy sweet content. Who after a year of perfect wedded happiness died on October 8th 1886 loving and trusting God, truly loved and honoured by her husband”. Stanley, listed as Redfern in burial records, Russell on the vault died in 1905. His brother Frank Redfern Russell had died in 1897. The other family members buried here are Franklyn Redfern Scott, Annie & George Scott’s son who was a brewer, he died in London in 1909. His mother died aged 72 at 1 Harley St London in 1927. The youngest son Ernest Arthur Redfern Russell died in the bitter winter of 1947 aged 91 and is the last to be buried in the Vault.