Skip to main content
James Gardner

The James Gardner business split

By 22 September 2023July 5th, 2024No Comments

The James Gardner business split after 1869


A Tragic Family Affair

The James Gardner business split was a tragic family affair

Much of the accepted narrative and accounts of the firm of James Gardner acknowledges that they had several branches and worked from different premises in Oxford Street and High Holborn. Having father and son with the same name during the same period also adds to the confusion.

However, studying the census records I can see there’s something else going on and it’s all to do with Victorian morals, because James Gardner Junior aged 42 left his wife Mary and his two children and ran off with a servant girl half his age, named Virginia Ellen Ball.

But the true story is even sadder than this. James Gardner and Virginia Ellen Ball had to leave behind their illegitimate child, Joseph James who was brought up as Mary’s son.

This alone is the reason that the James Gardner business split into two.


It all started in 1861

The disgrace of an extra marital affair

The census of 1861 shows that Virginia Ellen was listed in the home of James and his wife, Mary, and their two children Mary and Elizabeth at the time the census was taken at 52, High Holborn, St Andrew Holborn West Part, as a “Visitor” and her occupation was a “house servant” in another home.

There was a resident servant listed at James’ house, age 18 by the name of Esther Wallace. Obviously the two servant girls were friends and that’s the reason that Virginia Ellen was there.

At the time of this census Virginia was aged 17 yrs, and James was age 34. Oh, dear.

Fast forward ten years

The census of 1871

It’s more than just an affair

Ten years later, in 1871, James and Virginia Ellen are then seen on the census living together (very near James’ earlier family residence) at North Side in St. Andrew, Holborn (52 High Holborn) and Virginia Ellen is stated as age 23 (not accurate – she would have been 27 by that time) and is listed as the Housekeeper, while James is listed as age 44 at this time (accurate). Being listed as a Housekeeper was a common Victorian ploy to hide illicit relationships.

It’s also interesting to note that there is no baby listed living with James or Virginia,  nor on subsequent census records.

So this got me thinking about a living, illegitimate child, and I looked up the birth records and found that Joseph James Gardner, the baby that was born in 1868 in the household of James and Mary Gardner was in fact the child of James Gardner and Virginia Ellen Ball.

Joseph James Gardner was brought up by Mary, James wife, as later census records and probate records confirm.

These census records of 1871 match the date that James Junior started advertising a different address from his father, so it all fits and this is the reason for the James Gardner business split.

Meanwhile, in 1871 – three years after the birth of Joseph James Gardner Mary is listed as a Taxidermist’s wife on the census, living at 292 Oxford Street with three children – Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph James.

What is happening here is that James has premises at three places, his wife Mary and the three combined children move to one of them, and he lives in Holborn the established family home above the shop at 52 High Holborn with his mistress, Virginia.

Mary Gardner age 49 is in the West End at 292 Oxford Street 10 years later in 1881 and her daughter Mary is shown as a School Mistress. Mary Gardner is listed on the census records as an Elementary School Teacher, and so her daughter followed in her footsteps.

Meanwhile in 1881 James Gardner Junior and Virginia are still at North Side in St. Andrew (52 High Holborn), and James Gardner Junior is 54 years old, and marked as “deaf”, and there is still no mention of a child between them.

So, this is the reason that James Gardner Senior disowned his son and the reason for the James Gardner business split. It wasn’t a case of just having multiple shops or branches to advertise, as the accepted narrative usually goes. They did have multiple shops and branches – but Mr Gardner Senior distanced himself and worked only latterly from 371 Oxford Street.

Further, there was not a marriage between James and Virginia until after his wife Mary had died and census records in 1910 state they have been married “under one year”. Divorce was hard to obtain in those days, and it was probably easier for them to live together without the marriage certificate, although it must have been very difficult to live with due to social pressures. Newly available historical data, using recently digitised sources, clearly establishes that all but a tiny fraction of Victorian couples sharing a home had gone through a ceremony of marriage.

This would have caused a huge disgrace for the wider Gardner family.

However, outside of the disgrace, I cannot imagine the sheer sadness of Virginia and James’ situation.  They had to give up their son.  They had made their Victorian bed, and they had to lie in it.

I also wonder at what point did Joseph James know that Virginia was his mother?

How utterly devastating for everyone.

The census and birth records deliver the details

Will and Probate of James Gardner Senior

The family rift is a huge one, and it appears never to have been resolved.

But there’s even more to it! James Gardner Senior appears to have completely disowned his son and his will and the probate records reflect this.

In 1873 James Gardner Senior died. In 1880 an advert by James Gardner Junior in Bells Life in London on July 10th 1880 states Gardner at 426 Oxford Street “with branch elsewhere”. And he posts a special notice in this advert which says: “No other person in the firm or the trade has the right or title to use the name of Gardner”

Initially I found this curious – who was he trying to distance? It couldn’t be his father because he had died some 7 years earlier. After then further researching the death, the Will and the Probate of James Gardner Senior, it appears to relate to the executors of his father’s will.

In the probate record which showed a sum of £3,000 being left, there are two gentlemen by the name of Frederick Yearley and Edward William Wilson, both of 371 Oxford Street, both Bird Stuffers who are named as executors of James Gardner Senior. James Gardner Senior has cut his son off!

The record then states that the probate was “re-sworn in 1877” and the amount left is increased from £3,000 to £4,000.
This would suggest two things. Firstly, these two Executors clearly have mis-reported or mis-distributed the money that James Gardner Senior left and upon insistence and challenge of his son they had to re-administer the will and report the correct legacy.

Secondly, that since they are Bird Stuffers themselves (and very likely employees) at 371 Oxford Street, they had been trying to use the name of Gardner to sell their own work, and James Gardner Junior is having none of it!

We see adverts being placed between the date of the death of James Gardner Senior in 1873 right up to 1879 that state James Gardner Senior has moved from 426 Oxford Street to bigger premises at 371 Oxford Street. James Gardner Junior places adverts himself to counter this, but it’s not until 1880 that these adverts seem to have stopped and finally James Junior reclaims his heritage.

9 February 1920 – Death Notice, Westminster Gazette

Interview with Virginia Gardner in Daily Chronicle, 1926



Now legitimate after all those years

In 1926, six years after the death of James Gardner Junior, his second wife Virginia Ellen gives a commentary to the London Daily Chronicle.

She is now aged 81 and she is about to retire.  She shares memories of her husband the famous naturalist and how he used to shoot and sail.  The memories include references to stocking the museum of Queen Victoria at Osbourne which was set up for the Queen’s children and grandchildren, and also of the times that Virginia made ruffs with feathers specifically for her Majesty.  This is all a far cry from her humble beginnings as a housemaid in the home of James and his first wife, Mary Ann.

Virginia uses artistic license to describe her long marriage to James, describing her life living above the shop at 52 High Holborn, claiming over 60 years of living there.

The fact is that she had been officially married to James since 21 April 1910 – just 10 years before he died.  Their marriage certificate shows that they married in the Register Office at Holborn, and Virginia is stated as being a Spinster age 65, and James is stated as a Widower age 83. The address they gave was 52 High Holborn.

When she talks about the 60 years history of their business and relationship she is going right back to when she met him – at the tender age of 17.

We can forgive her for deliberately merging half and full truths. After all, she had to leave behind her child as a price for loving James…..


After being together for more than 40 years, Virginia Ellen Ball and James Gardner Junior are finally shown on the 1911 census as being married.  Since divorce was almost impossible, it is likely that James’ first wife, Mary, had died (sometime after 1901 deduced from the 1901 census which gives James status as “married” and Ellen’s status as “single”) paving the way for a marriage.

James Gardner Junior died nine years later in 1920 at the age of 93 yrs and was cremated at Golders Green on February 10th 1920.

Virginia Ellen Gardner died in 1934 and left the assets she had aquired from her husband James, to their son Joseph James.

Although James Senior would never have known about it all because he died in 1873, I wonder what he would have thought?

Was it all worth it? Was the price of Victorian morals simply just too high?


Share this