The Alphington Ponies
During the 1840s the residents of and visitors to Torquay noticed two young ladies of 'a very unique appearance'. They lived with their mother at Lavender Cottage in Avenue Road, they did not have a servant so the three of them did all the housework. At about 3pm each day the sisters took a walk and bad weather was the only thing that stopped them. They mainly walked along The Strand and Victoria Parade and sometimes in the other parts of town. They were always arm in arm, kept perfectly in step and only spoke to each other.
They had been pretty young girls and it is recorded that the sisters had a look of intelligence and the expression of their faces was most amiable and pleasing. Now they were so heavily made up that they looked like painted dolls. Their dress was most peculiar and the style only varied in 'tone and colour', their shoes were generally green but occasionally they were red. Their brown curly hair was fastened with blue ribbon and they wore straw or felt hats, which usually had tall crowns and the sides curled up. Around their necks they wore broad frilled or lace collars that fell down over their backs and chests for quite some way. In the summer their necks were bare except for numerous coral or bead chains. Their gowns were so short and they showed so much of their ankles that certain heavily frilled cotton under garments could be seen. In the winter they wore checked jackets in a 'loud' pattern that reached their knees. These jackets had lace cuffs and were different colours to that of their gowns. The only things that they wore in place of the jackets were grey-coloured shawls that crossed over their fronts and tied behind at their waists. They were never without their parasols either in summer or winter. The sisters dressed exactly the same and looked so much alike that everyone suspected they were twins.
The visitors to Torquay looked upon them were some contempt because they were not in society and did not wear fashionable clothes. Some of the residents felt sorry for them because they were so solitary. Their brother, a major in the army, was so annoyed about their dress that he offered to increase their allowance if they changed but they refused.
They were not well off and occasionally got into debt. A record published in the London Gazette on 30th May 1834 stated the two sisters had appeared in The Court for Insolvent Debtors. They were recorded as spinsters late of Tormoham in the County of Devon.
Once when they were brought before a judge one of them said, 'Oh Mr Praed, we cannot pay now, but my sister is about to be married to the Duke of Wellington, and then we shall be in funds and be able to pay for all we have had and likely to want'. The Torquay shop keepers soon became wise to them and insisted on receiving full payment before handing over any goods they ordered.
The girls made no acquaintances in Torquay or received any visitors, also they received very few letters. They use to go into the grounds of The Braddons, when the house was up for let, to pick flowers. They told the gardener that they were related to the owner and had permission. The gardener informed the gentleman who was handling the leasing and when he confronted the sisters they told him stories and added they were cousins of the Duke of Wellington. The gentleman 'swallowed' their tales and allowed them to continue picking the garden flowers.
When two young gentlemen from Oxford University attended a fancy dress ball they decided to go as the two sisters and copied their dress right down to the last detail including their parasols. While many people thought it was a wonderful joke a few that thought it might offend the sisters. Actually, the two sisters were very pleased and felt extremely flattered.
Their mother died in January 1851 and the sisters moved to St. Sidwell's Exeter. In about 1858 they inherited some money from their father who died on the 16th July 1858, and even though their circumstances and social status improved accordingly, they still continued to dress in a weird fashion. At one ball they attended Lady Rolle offered to give Mr Palk, the son of Sir Lawrence Palk, a set of gold and diamond shirt studs if he could persuade one of the sisters to dance with him. He agreed to the wager and requested a dance with both of the sisters in turn. He was given the same reply 'I never dance except my sister be also dancing', he answered, 'Well then, I will dance with the two of you at once or with each in turn'. He won his wager but there is no record of which offer was accepted by the sisters.
The sisters continued to live in Exeter until one day only one sister appeared and she was described as a solitary bereaved and lonesome soul, the other sister had died. The remaining sister passed away not long afterwards.
The two sisters were twins born on 30th December 1800 and named Arabella and Eliza. They were the daughters of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Montague Isaacson Durnford and Barbara Ann (Nancy) Blake Shea. Barbara Ann was the illegitimate daughter of Sir Patrick Blake by Peggy Shea a Mulatto woman on Patrick's plantation in the West Indies. Andrew Durnford and Barbara Ann married on 17th February 1796 at Saint Clement Danes, Westminster, London. They had three other children: Andrew Montague Isaacson born in 1797; Jermima Margaret and Edward Philip born in 1803 died at sea in 1824. For a time they lived at Laural Cottage, Alphington, then their father ran off with their governess, Harriett. Arabella and Eliza were engaged to be married to two brothers but one of them accidentally shot the other one dead. The remaining brother died very shortly after wards from grief.
When the two sisters first arrived in Torquay they drove a pair of pretty ponies that they had brought with them from Alphington. Because their allowance was reduced they had to sell the ponies and trap, the name 'Alphington Ponies' transferred from the animals to Arabella and Eliza.
Eliza died at the end of 1866 and Isabella in the middle of 1871.
Copyright © Rowena Kirkpatrick