Striking a chord in herstory

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If International Women’s Day is a time to recognise women’s achievements and the lasting effects they have had on the world, then what better time to remember a woman from Wentworth whose legacy has remained ingrained in the village that she devoted her whole life to.

Miss Agnes Bertram was the epitome of an independent woman. Self-sufficient, modest, respectful and always fearlessly herself.

A colourful character, she was the sunshine in the rain and people were attracted to her strength and growth. She was unshakeable in her faith, pursuing goals that didn’t just serve herself. 

She played a key role in Wentworth village life right up until she left this earth in her nineties, teaching piano, hosting charitable events and having a life-long commitment to the church.

Now, Miss Bertram’s ‘herstory’ of how she contributed to the fabric of society has been stitched together thanks to the textile-based Common Threads project run by Gemma Nemer, artist in residence for Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar.

Her-stories honour the women who have shaped humanity and history in all fields, recognising the achievements and contributions of extraordinary women who have made a significant difference.

Right from the off, it became clear to Gemma that Miss Bertram was a well-loved character thanks to the glowing snippets and anecdotes she was told by numerous different people at the drop-in sessions held at the Mechanics Institute in Wentworth, where a portrait of Miss Bertram also hangs.

She was then introduced to Jonathan Addy, a volunteer historian at Wentworth Woodhouse and a family friend of Miss Bertram, who had nothing but fond memories of her.

“She was a real powerhouse of a woman, so wonderful and kind. In this day and age we are so accepting of flaws but she always seemed flawless, especially to me as a child growing up. She was very avant-garde throughout her life and was perfectly turned out at every moment,” Jonathan says.

It is apparent from the photographs of her that she was never out of sorts, always with her pearls on and her hair neatly in place; it is hard to imagine she owned a single piece of loungewear.

Much of Jonathan’s childhood was spent in Miss Bertram’s garden or helping sell buns for her charity events – and stealing owl-shaped biscuits. In her teens, Jonathan’s mother, Gillian, became like a personal assistant to Miss Bertram, occupying Agnes’ mother while she taught her music students.

Over time, Gillian grew into a confidant and Miss Bertram’s right-hand woman, with the pair striking up an unbreakable bond despite their 40-year age gap.

When Agnes died in 2004 aged 92, her personal possessions were left to Gillian which she has slowly drip-fed through to Jonathan over the last ten years. The bulk of this, including precious photographs of her life, have been used by Gemma in the project to showcase what a remarkable woman she was.

“We are very lucky to have such special mementos and heirlooms from Miss Bertram’s estate. It’s fair to say she has had a massive effect on my life so now I want to share her story with others,” Jonathan says.

Miss Agnes Lucy Bertram was born on 30th August 1911, the first and only child of Frank and Amy Bertram. Her destiny to become a strong woman may have also been set as 1911 marked the first time International Women’s Day was celebrated.

The family lived at Longley Springs Farm in Harley where Frank was a farmer. He followed in his father John’s footsteps, who was farm bailiff for the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam and lived at Hood Hill Farm.

Agnes was educated at Hoyland Common before gaining a place at Barnsley Girls High School due to her academic ability. However, she contracted scarlet fever just two weeks in to her first year there and never returned.

From a young age, Agnes was taught piano by her mother from whom she had inherited her musical talents. Mrs Bertram had studied under Sheffield pianist and Bach expert, Claud Biggs.

In early adulthood, Miss Bertram began to teach piano and singing, coaching various people around the village – some of whom can still remember their lessons with her as a child.

Her students would come to Longley Springs Farm for lessons where she taught on two Bechstein pianos; a grand and an upright. She tutored all ages and abilities including the Canby children whose father was the agent for the Wentworth estate.

Secondary to this, Miss Bertram also taught the students of Lady Mabel College, and later Sheffield City Polytechnic, who were based at Wentworth Woodhouse.

She would host regular productions and recitals at the farm and was involved with Elsecar Festival at which she would enter her students into the music categories – which they generally won.

It is not known when, or even if, she ever retired from her career as a music teacher. Jonathan can remember her teaching well into her late eighties.

She just loved what she did with every ounce of her being and put her all into everything she did.

Overall, Miss Bertram was a very artistic person with reams of creative talents; in her bequeathed possessions were two books of poetry. She also did lace making, knitted soft toys, enjoyed sketching and painting and made embroidered screens – all that she would sell to raise money for charity.

Although she helped fundraise for various organisations, her charity of choice was the Guide Dogs for the Blind which she first came across during a visit to her two aunts who lived at St Annes-on-Sea.

Miss Bertram had two very loyal dogs called Amber and Verity, and raised money for Thornberry Animal Sanctuary, so must have been an avid animal lover. Through the sale of her estate, she left a large legacy to the Guide Dogs in her will.

She never married or had children of her own; she was, in effect, married to the church.

The Bertram family had religious roots within the village. Her grandfather John was a founder of Harley Mission Church. Her father Frank was church warden at Wentworth Church for many years, while Agnes was the secretary for over 20 years.

Mrs Bertram was actually the same age as Holy Trinity Church, born the same year it was built. A joint celebration was held at the church for their 100th birthdays in 1977.

Frank died the following year in 1978 and their family home became run down, garnering the nickname locally of Cold Comfort Farm. Not long after, Miss Bertram and her mother were moved to 6 & 8 Cortworth Lane which Agnes renamed Owl’s Nest cottage.

Mr Carr, who was the agent of the estate at that time, had the two cottages knocked through so that Miss Bertram, who would have been approaching her 70s by then, could care easily for her 100-year-old mother.

Jonathan remembers every day being like an event at their home, with Miss Bertram being quite the host. Be it embroidery classes followed by afternoon tea, coffee mornings with the ladies from Hoober Chapel, or garden parties for her friends in the village, she was open and welcoming to all.

“My mother adored Miss Bertram and so did everyone who met her. Her mother, Mrs Bertram, had a very different aura around her. I was petrified of her as a child, particularly as she was so frail. She died just before her 110th birthday,” Jonathan says.

Mrs Bertram was also a formidable character within the village, counting Lady Maud Fitzwilliam as her acquaintance. Due to their connections with the church, the Bertrams were invited to Wentworth Woodhouse for a ball to celebrate the Fitzwilliams’ only son and heir to the earldom’s 21st birthday.

In the records Jonathan holds, there is a handwritten letter from 1939 where the Countess invited Mrs Bertram and her family to an exhibition she hosted at Sheffield’s Grand Hotel to raise money for wounded veterans. On the night, Mary, Princess Royal was also in attendance.

After her mother’s death, Miss Bertram continued to live a very fulfilling life at Owl’s Nest where she became intertwined in many stories and organisations within Wentworth village.

The story of Miss Bertram, and indeed that of her mother too, proves how important people are to places – it is what connects villages together.

Common Threads has been a very successful and rewarding project for Gemma Nemer, inciting an interest in local ‘herstory’ and also encouraging people to take ownership of their heritage.

If you would like to find out more about how to get involved in the Common Threads project please contact Gemma on gemma.nemer@hotmail.co.uk