Isobel Aitchison Honeyman was born in South Callenge, Ceres, Fife, Scotland, on 21 December 1883, the youngest known child of James Toddie Honeyman and Agnes (Pearson) Honeyman. Isobel was named after her paternal grandmother. James, who reported the birth, listed his residence as Portobello; at the time James and Agnes were living in the Portobello area of Edinburgh with their children, and Agnes’s parents were living in South Callenge, so Isobel was probably born at her maternal grandparents’ farm. Isobel’s father was a mechanical engineer specializing in paper mill machinery and he travelled a lot for work, but he reported that he was present at Isobel’s birth. Agnes and the children were living alone on some of the censuses as James travelled around the UK plying his engineering trade.
Isobel’s life appears to have started out ordinarily enough; she is listed as a scholar on the 1891 census. By 1900 the family had moved to 22 Parsons Green Terrace in the Canongate district of Edinburgh, and Agnes’s mother Catharine (Wilson) Philp Pearson died there that January. The following January Catharine’s much younger husband, David Pearson, died there as well. In April the family was enumerated as a full family unit for the only time: James, Agnes, and their four surviving children – Catharine Wilson Honeyman, William Pearson Honeyman, David Pearson Honeyman, and Isobel Aitchison Honeyman – were all enumerated at 22 Parsons Green Terrace. The children’s occupations are an interesting look at opportunities for young people at the turn of the last century in Edinburgh: Catharine was working as a dressmaker, William as a clerk, David as a porter, and 17-year-old Isobel had already begun her career as a “Costume-maker.”
The following year Isobel’s oldest siblings, Catharine and William, both married in Edinburgh and started families of their own. In 1911 Isobel and David were still living with James and Agnes. James, now 63, was still a practicing mechanical engineer, and David had found a career as a Blacksmith’s Striker. Isobel was now enumerated as a Dressmaker, as Catharine had been a decade earlier, but I suspect Isobel was doing costume work whenever she could, and making dresses to help with her income. In 1913 the family was irrevocably altered by James’s death. The death record reveals that a cerebral embolism was his immediate cause of death, but that he had been ill for six months, though he seems to have still been working as a mechanical engineer, as he is not listed as retired. Isobel’s brother William had returned from Fife, as he reported the death and that he was present at it. In 1915 and 1920 Agnes was listed on the valuation rolls at 22 Parsons Green Terrace, and in 1930 Agnes died of acute bronchitis, still listed as residing at 22 Parsons Green Terrace. Again, William returned for a parent’s death and then reported it to the government.
Isobel seems to have continued her costume-related occupations, though I have yet to locate any records that directly name her between 1911 and 1932. On 16 July 1932, 48-year-old Isobel (reporting her age as 49) married 49-year-old Matthew Waterson Gilbert at 11 Royal Terrace in Edinburgh. Isobel is listed as a “Costume Fitter” and a Spinster. Matthew is listed as a “Motor Mechanic” and a widower. Isobel’s address is listed as the familiar 22 Parsons Green Terrace, and Matthew’s as 5 High Street in Portobello. Had Isobel been living with and caring for her widowed mother until Agnes had died two years before Isobel’s late marriage? The records I have reviewed to date are silent on the subject. Their marriage occurred late enough in their lives that only one of their parents, Matthew’s father John, was still living at the time. The minister of Abbey Church in Edinburgh officiated, and their witnesses were James P. Honeyman of 6 Jubilee Terrace, Markinch, Fife, and Frances Stephen of 14 Hamilton Place, Edinburgh. The James P. Honeyman in question was almost surely Isobel’s nephew James Pearson Honeyman, one of the sons of her brother William, as William had listed his own address as 6 Jubilee Terrace when he reported his mother’s death two years prior to the wedding.
Assuming that the street numbering remains the same from 1932 to today, the wedding’s site of 11 Royal Terrace was, and remains, the Adria House in Edinburgh’s New Town, a building which is nearly 200 years old and is now a small hotel. Their website does not indicate how long it has been a hotel, but it does say, “The cobbled Royal Terrace is the longest continuous terrace in the New Town. The houses are only built on one side of the street and there is a generous amount of open space with private gardens to the rear of the property and a treelined park at the front.”
Costume fitter is an occupation that continues to the present day. It is the person in a production (be it theater or film) who fits costumes and, if needed, tailors them. Isobel was part of a changing production scene; as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s site puts it, “The idea of visual unity and a production as a total concept was established in the early 1900s, and the director evolved to fuse the disparate elements – text, concept, performance, design, lighting – into a seamless whole.” The Victoria and Albert Museum states in their page “Designing Stage Costumes,” “The 20th century saw the emergence of the career designer, and then the setting up of training courses. But stage design is still an uncertain job and even today, designers often combine theatre work with a career as a painter or teacher.” Isobel entered the world of costume early enough in the 20th century and early enough in her life that she probably never took a training course and may have learned by, for example, initially working with a more experienced costumer.
Isobel’s late marriage could be at least partly attributed to caring for her mother if she was doing so, but it also speaks to a deficit of younger single men in the UK which began in Victorian times and was accelerated after World War I killed so many young British men. Isobel would have been prime 19th-century marrying age while World War I raged, and she turned 33 at the end of 1918. Many British women died elderly and still single in the 20th century.
Matthew has been more difficult to locate in records than a typical turn-of-the-20th-century Scot. On censuses he was reported to have been born in Cowdenbeath, Fife, around 1883, yet I have thus far been unable to locate a record of his birth anywhere in Scotland on ScotlandsPeople, despite his younger sisters’ births being registered in Midlothian after Matthew and his parents John and Jane (Waterson) Gilbert moved there from Fife. Though Matthew reports being a widower upon his marriage to Isobel, so far I have also been unable to locate any prior marriage(s) for him in Scotland, and wonder if perhaps he married in England. It is possible he is the “M. W. Gilbert” who was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers in World War I, not least because he would have been about the right age to be in the War, but so far I don’t have enough evidence to say for sure one way or the other.
Isobel died on 11 April 1952 of acute pneumonia at “Hospital for Women, Whitehouse Loan, Edinburgh (Usual residence 22 Parsons Green Terrace, Edinburgh).” Matthew survived her and reported her death. He died in 1967, too recently for his death record to be digitized; he would have been about 84 years old when he died. Isobel and Matthew lived through two World Wars – one apart, one together – and saw their country change a tremendous amount in their long lives. I often wonder if they enjoyed going to the theater and/or films together and discussing the costumes afterwards.
I have searched in a number of digitized newspapers and city directories, as well as the general web, for Isobel, so far without success. I would like to know what types of productions she worked on and more about her life as an adult. Hopefully someday I will successfully locate records that can tell me more. The options for a costumer in the early 20th century were very wide, from old-fashioned shows all the way to elaborate fantasies where the main point of the show was to show off the elaborate costumes, not to have a coherent production.