The Horsnell-Doe family


Studio photograph c.1919, probably taken in the same studio and with the same tent backdrop as the portrait photograph of Arthur

In this photograph Arthur is back row, left, and besides him is his elder brother, Fred. Both have single wound stripes on their lower left jacket sleeves (both are known to have been wounded). Overseas service chevrons are just visible on Fred's lower right sleeve. 

The two men in the front row are unidentified, but letters from Fred and Arthur refer to friends from Hatfield Peverel serving in the army, including brothers Arthur and Ralph Spooner – are these they? Overseas service chevrons for three years service are clearly visible on the right sleeve of the soldier seated left.

Horsnell family

Charles, Frederick and Arthur Horsnell were the sons of Alice (née Pennock) and Robert Horsnell. 

Alice (1869–1939) and Robert (1867–98) were married on 26th October 1889, at St Andrew’s Church, Hatfield Peverel, Essex. 

On their marriage certificate Robert, aged 21 from Faulkbourne, is described as a “labourer”, the son of Charles Horsnail (a variant spelling of the family surname). Alice, aged 20, is recorded as a “spinster” of Hatfield Peverel. The villages of Faulkbourne and Hatfield Peverel are about five miles apart.

In the 1891 census the family surname is again recorded as “Horsnail”.

In about 1896, Robert began working as a groom for Captain C.E. Morton, of Hoe Mill House, Woodham Walter (see photograph, right) about three miles south of the family home at Hatfield Peverel.

Alice and Robert had five children in eight years – three boys and two girls:

  1. Charles William Horsnell, born 1890 in Faulkbourne, near Witham;
  2. Lily May Horsnell, born 1892, in Hatfield Peverel;
  3. Frederick James Horsnell, born 1894, in Hatfield Peverel;
  4. Arthur Horsnellborn 1896, in Hatfield Peverel;
  5. Dorothy (“Dot”) Horsnell, born 1898, in Woodham Walter.

Family tragedy

At the end of August 1898, Robert Horsnell, aged 30, committed suicide at Hoe Mill House, “whilst of unsound mind”, leaving Alice with their five children, aged from 8 months to 8 years. A lengthy report appeared the following week in the Essex County Chronicle (see cutting, right; for the full report, click here).

Hard times

Three years later, in the census of March 1901, Alice, a widow aged 31, was listed as head of the household. Her occupation was given as “char woman” (cleaner) and the family was living in almshouses in Hatfield Peverel (accommodation for the poor, often provided by charity)

Hoe Mill House, known today as Hoe Mill, Woodham Walter, photographed in 2003. An early 19th century country house, its grounds slope down to the River Chelmer. (Photograph by courtesy of Savills, Chelmsford.)

Newspaper report, 2nd September 1898, of the tragic death of Robert Horsnell, father of the Horsnell children.


The Doe family, photographed at home in Hatfield Peverel, c.1916. The letters of Fred and Arthur Horsnell were written to their mother Alice and step-father Arthur, seen here with their six children. 

It is tempting to think this informal family photograph was taken especially to send to Fred and Arthur while they were away on active service, as Fred, writing on 10th January 1916, refers to it: "The children look alright except for little Percy moving his head."

Back row, left to right: Mercy (aged 15), Jim (13), Arthur (seated). 

Front row, left to right: Alice, Frank (2, on Alices knees), Percy (5, blurred face because he moved his head!), Annie (10), George (8). 

In that year's census the family surname is recorded as “Horswell" – another variant spelling.

Doe family

On 28th April 1901, Alice married Arthur Doe (1871–1924), a farm labourer from Hatfield Peverel. Alice and Arthur, and Alice’s five children, aged from 3 to 11, moved to School Lane, Hatfield Peverel. 

Alice and Arthur Doe had six children – four boys and two girls (see family photo, right): 

  1. Mercy May Doe, born 1901;
  2. Jim Doeborn 1903;
  3. Annie Doe, born 1906;
  4. George Doe, born 1908;
  5. Percy Doe, born 1911;
  6. Frank Doe, born 1914.

The Doe children were half-brothers and half-sisters to the Horsnell children. 

Despite the relationship and the age difference, Frederick and Arthur Horsnell were evidently close to their younger half-siblings (the greatest age difference being 20 years, between Frederick Horsnell and Frank Doe). 

In letters written home during the First World War, both Frederick and Arthur comment on letters they’ve received from the Doe children, often signing off with love and kisses to the “little ones”.

In letters written by Arthur in March and June 1916, he refers to himself affectionately as ”old bunny”, “your son bunny” and plain  “bunny”. 

Perhaps we’re seeing Arthur’s humour at work, playing on the Doe surname – a female rabbit being a “doe” and his mother (Mrs Doe), like a rabbit, having gone on to produce a second family of six children (bunnies), who were Arthur’s younger half-siblings

Selected sources

Essex County Chronicle, 2nd September 1898. “Suicide of a Groom at Woodham Walter,” report of the death of Robert Horsnell.

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