Close Bonds: The Unconventional Family of Cecilia Maw

Census records are often associated with family or house history research but they can be used to investigate the social history of Britain and reveal the diversity of households and family units that existed in the past. The release of the 1921 census opened many new avenues of research and has provided revelations about the lives of many historic individuals and their families, including the family of Cecilia Maw (1876-1942), a locally born artist, and Florence Amy Thursfield (1867-1948).

Cecilia was the daughter of Arthur Maw, co-owner of Maw & Co., a decorative tile company based in Jackfield. She grew up at Severn House, Ironbridge and was raised in a relatively luxurious upper middle-class household. From her teen years until her early twenties, she attended the Coalbrookdale School of Art, winning the Queens Prize in 1895 for her artwork and designs. She later went on to study as an art student in Watford before moving to London in c.1903 where she worked as an artist and exhibited several works in the Royal Academy of Art’s summer exhibition from 1903 until 1929. Despite living in London, Cecilia maintained her links to the Gorge through her family and as a shareholder of Maw & Co.

At the same time, across the Gorge in Broseley, lived Florence Amy Thursfield, the daughter of a doctor. She was born and raised in Broseley until the 1880s, when her family moved to London. It was there that her father died in 1894, and by 1911 Florence’s mother was running a boarding house in Kensington.

We don’t know if Florence and Cecilia knew each other whilst growing up, but their shared connection to the Ironbridge Gorge may have led to Cecilia choosing the Thursfield’s boarding house in London as her home by the time of the 1911 census. This is the first historical record that directly links Cecilia and Florence but was the beginning of a relationship that lasted more than thirty years.

Cecilia Maw aged about 18, c.1894.

Still life, Cecilia Maw (1876-1942), 1898.

We had previously researched Cecilia’s life due to her ties to Maw & Co. and her attendance at the Coalbrookdale School of Art, and through this research we knew that Florence and Cecilia lived together at 40 Rowan Road, Hammersmith from at least 1919. They were still living there when a register of all civilians was made in 1939 in preparation for the Second World War. By this time Cecilia was a retired artist and Florence was living on ‘independent means’. The household also included by Susette F. Morfield, a 28-year-old ‘ballet mistress and dancer’.

Their three decades of companionship already demonstrated that there was clearly a strong bond between Cecilia and Florence. However, in 2022 the 1921 census records were released and provided new insights into the lives and relationships of Cecilia, Florence and Susette.


The 1921 census records the three women living at 40 Rowan Road, Hammersmith. Florence had been the one to fill in the census and recorded herself as being 53 years old and her occupation as “home duties”. Cecilia was 45 years old and was employed as a “photographer’s artist”, whilst Susette was just 6 years old. This all appears as expected but it is how Florence has described their relationships which stands out. Florence is listed as the ‘Head’ of the household, and Cecilia is described as her ‘friend’ rather than being recorded as a boarder or lodger. To put this into context, from the 37.8 million census records, only 4109 ‘friends’ are recorded compared to nearly 1.5 million lodgers and boarders. The use of the term ‘friend’ places greater emphasis on the strength of the connection between these two women. It removes the distance, formality, and financial connotations of a boarder or lodger and instead signifies the importance of the personal connection between the two.

Florence and Cecilia’s relationship to Susette adds further depth to the connection between the two women as she is recorded as the ‘adopted child of both’. This was in a time before formal adoption records so we don't know how Susette came into their lives, but the census does record that both of her biological parents were deceased. Further research has also revealed that Susette’s middle name was Florence and that Cecilia had an aunt called Susette, indicating that the two women chose family names for their adopted child. It is also possible that Susette’s surname, Morfield, is a combination of Cecilia’s surname (Maw) and Florence’s surname (Thursfield). All of this taken together suggests that Florence and Cecilia had a close enough bond that they decided to adopt and name a young, orphaned child together. It also suggests that Florence and Cecilia expected to live together and remain close to each other in the long term.

Cecilia Maw wearing evening dress in her early twenties, c. 1896-1898. [Photograph courtesy of the Simpson family].

We know that Cecilia and Florence lived together at 40 Rowan Road for the remainder of Cecilia’s life. She died in November 1942 aged 65 and, following her death, Florence and Susette moved to Hove, where Florence died in April 1948 aged 80. During the Second World War Susette trained as a nurse and qualified in 1944. She later went on to work as a midwife and died in 2002.

It would be wrong to label a historic relationship when we have few intimate details, but it is clear that Florence and Cecilia had a very close bond and decided to create a family unit together. Records like the 1921 census reveal the diversity of living arrangements in the past and that even a hundred years ago, family units could be as diverse as they are today.