Nova – The History of the Nova Espero

In 1949, two brothers from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, Stan and Colin Smith, built a 20-ft sloop, ‘Nova Espero’, in Canada, and sailed her from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to Dartmouth, Devon, in 43 days. Arriving in England expecting a quiet welcome from a few friends and family, they found instead that they were national heroes. That, however, was just the beginning of the saga of Nova Espero.

Part history, part sourcebook, part biography, this book tells the story of the boat, and the extraordinary characters involved with her, from the yachts her design was based upon, to her final fate, and the brothers’ audacious plans for peace colonies across the world.

Featuring news stories and published works from the time, and many previously-unpublished letters and photographs, the book provides a long-awaited explanation of precisely why the brothers chose to cross the Atlantic in an unfeasibly small boat, and a history of her other, equally remarkable, journeys with Stan Smith and Charles Violet.

The book is available in e-book and (very soon…) paperback formats from my online shop.

Poor Edith…

The first in a rather long series of Poor Ediths, Poor Agneses, Poor Amys, and others.

Edith Agnes Elizabeth Piper was my first cousin twice removed; the daughter of Arthur Henry Piper and his wife Agnes (née Draper). Arthur was the brother of my great-grandmother, Mary Piper.

Edith was born in Oxford in September 1888, the eldest of three siblings; she was around a year younger than her cousin Evie Smith, my grandmother. The two were very close, and kept up a correspondence. I had never seen a picture of her, until I found these images in my collection of family papers and photographs. They show a very beautiful young woman, with striking almond-shaped eyes.

In 1915 she married Joe Venables, a printer’s machinist, and private in the 1st Batallion of the Rifle Brigade. On May 4th 1918, the couple had a son, Eddie (seen in the final image below, with his cousin May Dolling – whom I remember meeting in the early 1970s).

Sadly, Edith died on May 27th 1918, around 3 weeks after Eddie was born, from post-partum meningitis; she is buried in the same plot as her grandparents, William and Elizabeth Piper, in Rose Hill Cemetery, Oxford.






Edith’s death was not the first tragedy to visit the family, nor the last. Her mother, Agnes, fell ill 3 weeks after the birth of her third child, in August 1893, with post-partum psychosis, or puerperal mania as it was called then, and was admitted to Littlemore Pauper Lunatic Asylum:

“A pale and anaemic woman who looks weak and ill. Is under the delusion that Angels haunt her room, also that a man had been standing at the window of her room with a big stick in his hand, & waving it in a threatening manner at her. Her Nurse informs me she is at times violent, refuses food, that she fancies men are about the house. Patient seated and incoherent on admission – talked about being put asleep & an illegal operation being performed”.

Apart from a couple of home visits, from which she was promptly recalled, Agnes remained in Littlemore for the next four years. In 1897, she was discharged, “at the request of her mother, who undertook all responsibility”. In 1898, she was hurriedly readmitted.

“Her countenance expresses mental pain. Memory markedly defective, not able to sustain a conversation. Language obscene. Bursts of laughter alternating with crying. States that she hates her mother. Her mother states that she has threatened to beat out her (mother’s) brains; that she wanders about at night without any cause”.

There Agnes stayed, in one asylum or another, for the rest of her life. She died on March 22nd 1922 in Buckinghamshire County Lunatic Asylum at Stone, from Lupus and TB. Her husband Arthur died just three days later from a stroke. His sister wrote: “Poor Agnes. They had been married 36 years, and had only spent six years together when she was taken away”.

So much pain, within just one family.


Theo Osborn Smith and Viscount Nuffield

Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard a story in my family that Theo Smith knew William Morris, of Morris Motors, in Oxford. It was said that Theo knew how to do brazing, and Morris (who was about 15 years younger than Theo) didn’t, so he used to send various jobs to Theo for brazing. The more I looked for some kind of evidence, the less I found, so eventually I dismissed the idea as wishful thinking. A little while ago, I found a letter my grandmother Evie Somes wrote to Morris in 1956 – by then he was William Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield – asking if he remembered Theo, when he ran his little cycle shop on the Cowley Road in Oxford. There it is, proof positive. It really happened.

299 Fulham Road, Chelsea

142 Fulham Road
The shops of J. Somes (no. 299, far left) and W. A. Dolling (opposite, at no. 142) in Fulham Road, Chelsea, around 1906. The belligerent-looking shopkeeper outside no. 142 may be W. A. Dolling himself. Photo courtesy of Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Local Studies.

In around 1910, my grandfather, Jo Somes, took over running the family jewellery and pawnbroking business at 299 Fulham Road, with his brother, George Francis Somes. The business had been left in trust by Jo’s father when he died, to support his widow, Alice Somes, Jo’s mother. The trust had been administered by Jo’s uncle, but when he too died in 1910, the business was landed upon the reluctant shoulders of Jo himself.  However, through the shop, he met, by chance, the woman who would become his wife, Evie Smith.

On the opposite side of the street from 299, at no. 142, was the shop of William Arthur Dolling, glass and china merchant. Arthur Dolling himself had become badly ill, with a brain tumour, and his wife Rose, struggling to cope with their young daughter, May, had enlisted Evie, her niece, to help with running the business. Evie’s family were originally from Oxford, but were at that point living on the Isle of Wight, where her father was a well-known boat-builder and inventor. While Evie adored her parents, the family was far from well-off, and one suspects that life on the Island was a little quiet for her, so the chance to live and work in London for a while must have been welcome. With a fast train from Portsmouth to the capital, it was not a hard journey to return home when needed.

It was not long before Evie caught Jo’s eye, and a romance soon developed. Evie, too, was musical, and with her father and siblings was an accomplished choral singer. As well as the usual womanly skills of needlework and the like, she also practised miniature painting, and pokerwork. When in London, they carried on their romance, playing tennis, going for rides on Jo’s motorcycle and sidecar, and in musical activities. When Evie’s own familial duties kept her away, they kept in touch, almost daily, by postcard; he called her, tenderly, “Girlie” or “my darling girl”, and she called him “my own dear boy”.

Their relationship was not without opposition from Alice Somes, who didn’t want her son seeing ‘a mere shop-girl’, or ‘that woman that cleans the windows’, as she put it. By return, Evie was deeply suspicious of Alice’s housemaid-companion, Maud Snook, who she suspected had eyes for Jo (or maybe vice versa). Though after their marriage the relationship became more civilised, at heart, the enmity between Alice and Evie continued the rest of their days.

Arthur Dolling died in January 1911, aged only 33.  As Jo and Evie’s relationship deepened, and he and George settled in as best they could to running the business, so the troubles looming in Europe overshadowed them, and everyone else. Jo had enlisted with the Westminster Dragoons in 1908, and later, the Royal Army Medical Corps. Soon after the outbreak of the war, Jo signed up as a Special Constable for the Metropolitan Police, while continuing his duties with the RAMC. Realising that his experience with motorcycle engines qualified him eminently as an aircraft mechanic – since the propulsion for the early planes consisted of essentially the same engines – he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

In August 1915, he and Evie were married in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight – although there was no time for a honeymoon – and the couple moved into a house in East Sheen. Soon, though, Jo was called up for active service, and served on the front line, repairing plane and motorcycle engines. His active service continued throughout the war, and eventually he ended up with the RAF, as the RFC was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918. Though physically uninjured, he was more than a little traumatised by his experiences. Despite all this, he and Evie had their first child, Theo, in March 1917.

There, we’ll leave the tale of the Somes family for the moment – but it’s continued in more detail in The Somes family and Fulham Road, on

Published research

Here is a collection of links to other useful resources, including some of my own research.

First of all, a paper titled “The Somes Family and Fulham Road”, published on This paper relates the development of the Somes family’s pawnbroking and jewellery businesses in London, from the early 19th century onwards. Some of the information is now superseded by fresh research, but the story remains essentially the same:
The Somes Family and Fulham Road

Next is a history of my great-grandfather Theo Osborn Smith, boatbuilder, designer, inventor, and all-round polymath. The tale starts with his grandfather, John Smith, born in the village of Arlingham, on the banks of the Severn, and follows the family’s progress through Oxford, Fawley, and the Isle of Wight:
Dear Papa: a History of Theo Smith



The front page…

Welcome to yet another genealogical blog. Here I plan to share discoveries from my family tree research as I go along, in the faint hope that it might have some relevance to someone other than me.

The main family names which interest me are:

  • Somes (from east London, 1680s onwards, then Kensington & Chelsea, then southern Hampshire),
  • Smith and Osborn-Smith (from Gloucestershire in the early 1800s, via Oxford, to southern Hampshire, and finally the Isle of Wight), and
  • Spedding (from Morpeth, Northumberland, in the late 18th century, to Lepe and Exbury in Hampshire).

Other names connected along the way are Hallier, Jones, Thomas, Saxton, Layard, Pusey, Morley, Piper, Kitcher, Parsons, Charlton, Cohen, Cowan, Colyer-Fergusson, Wyatt, and many others I may get around to mentioning.

Who am I?
I’m Robin Somes, writer, photographer, musician and marine biologist, as well as rank amateur genealogist. I’ve been researching my family for around 20 years now; I expect to get the hang of it any day now.