Janet Ashbee, a Comrade Wife

by Janice Fisher

A Russian connection: 

Janet Forbes was born on 28th December 1877. She was the daughter of Frank Forbes with a Scotts background and Jessie born of a Scots family living in St Petersburg.

Emergence as a statuesque beauty:

Aged fifteen, Janet spent a year in Berlin studying music, attending concerts, operas, visiting museums and art galleries and going to the gymnasium twice weekly. This was repeated in Paris the following year.

Janet Ashbee

Janet meets CRA: 

Her father, Frank Forbes was one of the benefactors of CRA’s School and Guild of Handicraft. On her sixteenth birthday she received a little bracelet made by CRA.

A comrade wife: 

She married CRA on 8th September 1898 in Seal Church close to Godden Green, Janet in her twentieth year, CRA in his thirty fifth year. During their courtship they wrote to each other frequently.  In one letter he wrote, “There are many comrade friends, there can only be one comrade wife. Do we sympathise enough to be man and wife.” She met CRA’s friends, Roger Fry, Lowes ‘Goldy’ Dickinson and Laurence Housman and was thus initiated into the idea of comradeship.  They were all gay and she accepted them as they were and they opened their hearts to her.

A house of her own with a view on the river: 

CRA and Janet settled into married life at 74 Cheyne Walk, their new home designed by CRA on land he owned and paid for by Janet’s father. Janet shared CRA’s life of the Guild and so on Wednesday afternoons, they would bicycle across London to Essex House where they joined the apprentices of the guild for supper. On Thursdays, Janet would visit the wives of the guildsmen, who plied her with cakes and celery, watercress and new bread  She got to know her East London pretty thoroughly. Often weekends were spent with the guildsmen in the country.

The first years in Chipping Campden are joyous: Throughout the year, there was a steady stream of people coming to check upon the Cockneys in Arcadia.

Visitors came from Europe and America, including John Masefield and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

The song book: 

The idea originated as a discouragement to Guildsmen, who got carried away in the excitement of the moment and started singing songs which CRA and Janet disapproved of.  Janet edited the song book and wrote many of the airs and lyrics.

Janet draws CRA to her: 

On 5th March 1911, their first child Mary Elizabeth was born to be followed by three more girls, never the boy CRA craved for.  The same year CRA and Janet moved to the Norman Chapel in Broad Campden.

Janet with four children

Jerusalem via Cairo: 

In April 1919, Janet and the girls set sail from Liverpool on Princess Juliana a Dutch liner carrying troops to the Middle East to join CRA in Jerusalem.  He was there at the invitation of the Military Governor to report and advise on the development of the City of Jerusalem following the Turkish occupation.

Retirement in rural Kent: 

In April 1923 CRA and Janet returned to Knole, Janet’s family home in Godden Green, Kent.

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