Of over 400 hundred costumes worn at the Leeds Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball in 1891, one in particular stood out from the rest. This was the costume of sixteen-year-old Miss Nora Passavant, who came dressed as ‘The Leeds Daily Papers’.
Reports of the event described Nora’s costume as ‘one of the most original in the room’. It is easy to see why: her white silk dress was printed with the titles of the Leeds Daily Press, she wore gloves tied with knots of the political colours of the conservatives and liberals, a newspaper printer’s cap adorned her head and in her hand she had a bunch of Leeds Daily papers to complete the effect.
The unusualness of her costume is easily explained: her mother, Louise Passavant, had begun a career as a freelance journalist just a few months before the Juvenile Ball. We know little about the nature of Louise’s writing, but she discussed ‘Chinese Opium-Eaters’ in London’s Daily News in 1890 and in 1894 she gave a lecture on “Women as Journalists” in Crossgates. It is tempting to imagine that the papers Nora held in her hand contained some of her mother’s work; perhaps Nora’s costume choice was an homage to her mother’s new career? Equally, Nora’s costume may have been Louise’s way of foregrounding her two passions in a public forum: writing and female agency.
Nora’s sister, seven-year-old Kathleen Passavant, wore a more traditional costume for the 1891 Juvenile Ball (‘Basket of Flowers’ was a very typical choice for a young girl). However, at a later Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball hosted in Leeds in 1895, Kathleen’s costume, just like her sister’s had been four years prior, was singled out as one of the “most original in attendance”; Kathleen went as a lampshade made entirely out of paper. This change from a popular costume designed to showcase the prettiness of young girls to one that demonstrated innovation and skill, signified Kathleen’s transition from infant to young adult. On two separate occasions therefore, the Passavants had secured the unofficial honour of best costume.
Delving into their family history, the secret of the Passavant’s fancy dress success may be revealed: Nora and Kathleen were the granddaughters of a Frankfurt yarn merchant, Phillip Passavant, who emigrated to Yorkshire in the early nineteenth century and quickly established himself as a prominent yarn and cloth trader (members of the family were consequently fluent in both English and German).
Access to, knowledge and mastery of beautiful fabrics was in the Passavant’s blood: one of the children’s aunts, Helena Camilla Passavant, produced art needlework, and another, Laura Maude Passavant, won a clothworkers scholarship worth £25 in 1880. Laura even lectured once on various cloth manufacturing processes for the Chemist Society in Leeds. The girls’ father, Herman Passavant, worked with his father as a yarn merchant too. It is therefore no surprise that both children wore such impressive costumes!
We do not know much about the lives of Kathleen and Nora themselves. Their father died at 43, leaving his wife with two young children to raise. It may have been Herman’s death that enabled Louise to pursue a career in journalism; it was not a typical female occupation at this time and she is simply described as a ‘yarn merchant’s wife’ in census data before she was widowed in 1886. Sometime after WW1, the family relocated to Somerset. Nora died in 1958 aged 83, her sister Kathleen in 1963 aged 80. It appears neither of them married nor had children; they are listed as ‘spinsters’ in probate records and both left their effects to friends and solicitors. Based on the value of their bequests (almost £4000 combined) they were not a poor family, but nor were they exceptionally well off, either.
What’s most striking about the Passavant family is the impressiveness of its women. It was a family of firsts and a family of female agency and empowerment. Louise Passavant was one of the earliest female journalists in Leeds and lectured on the advancement of women writers. Helena Camilla Passavant was a talented needleworker with her own business. Fanny Juliet Passavant was the first librarian of York College and later, Leeds University. She worked at the library for thirty-four years on a salary of £125 per annum; upon her retirement in 1919 she negotiated a pension of £100, which was a high figure for women at this time. Diaries she wrote that record her day-to day activities and the building developments of the University are available in the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections.
Laura Maude Passavant wasn’t just a skilled cloth-maker. She helped establish the Leeds’ branch of the Women’s Liberal Association in 1890 and was Treasurer during the 19890s. She gave various lectures to the WLA and, with the help of other women in the city, promoted various liberal causes. She was also the schoolmistress of Bradford High School. Helena, Fanny and Laura didn’t marry or have children: whether a conscious decision or not, it was undoubtedly this that enabled them to pursue such unusual and successful careers.
By Joshua King, WRoCAH funded researcher.