Mrs R. Ellis-Roberts

Harriet’s 1920 passport photograph

Mrs R. Ellis-Roberts, Harriet Ide Keen, 47, (1885-1971) was born in Philadelphia, tracing her heritage back both to early settlers and well as, she surmises, native Americans. By the time of the dinner she had been for a dozen years the wife of Richard Ellis-Roberts, now the newly appointed Literary Editor of Time and Tide. In 1908 she had moved to Europe with her parents (her father was an engineer) and in 1910 settled in London. In 1911 she married one Alfred Wenner, and they had a son, who died less than six months.  In 1919 she left for Paris and they were divorced. There she married the “publiciste” Richard Ellis Roberts in April 1920 and most probably moved then back to London. She contributed to Time and Tide [more to come]. Then in 1936, after Richard’s short-lived tenure at Time and Tide, Macmillan published Harriet’s charming book Nana: A Memory of an Old Nurse, on which we dwell some time in our story. In October 1939 she and Richard emigrated to her country of birth, the USA, to spend the rest of their days at Carmel-by-the Sea, Monterey, California, self-styled Exiles.


Possibly beside her husband, as he was relatively new at Time and Tide, and perhaps with Eleanor Farjeon discussing their own writings. Less “Time and Tide sensitive” and thus more relaxing, might have been a conversation with the young Barbara Hayes, the private assistant to Sir Norman Angell, who herself was soon off to the US accompanying Sir Norman on a speaking tour. I’m sure Harriet would have had some good tales to tell. But this is a four person table so much of the discussion may well have been collective.


Did she have any inkling that despite the trumpeted arrival of her husband at Time and Tide his tenure might be short? On the face of it all was going well and this may have been an evening to savour especially if she hadn’t spent much time with Eleanor – who herself had an American grandmother.


Harriet Ide Keen was born in Philadelphia on 15th September 1885, the daughter of Elizabeth Lyon Doebler and Herbert Ide Keen (an engineer working for Allis Chalmers of Milwaukee). Her mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, proud to claim descent from one William Hepburn, (1753 – 1821) commanding officer of Fort Muncy against the Indians (William was born in County Donegal and died in Pennsylvania).[1] We cannot resist including a picture of her great great grandmother, as well as one of her mother and other Doebler ladies.

Harriet’s great-great grandmother and the Doebler women.  Reproduced with the kind permission of Elizabeth Hepburn Anderson, great-great niece of Harriet’s mother and great-great granddaughter of Maggie Doebler Ball, back row, right. and bearing the Hepburn name. [2]

We will return to Harriet’s early years in the US later in our story. Meanwhile, from a 1920 Emergency US passport application (five feet six, green eyes, black hair, and a divorcee) taken out in Paris, we know that Harriet, with her father, left the US in March 1908, moving to Italy, England and France, through to September, and then living in England from 1909 (the time she sailed with Nana on the Lusitania) until 1919 and then back to France. By this time she was travelling on a British passport and was now seeking a US passport and planning to stay a US citizen and reside there within two years.

Harriet married Alfred Emile Wenner in 1911 in Hampstead, the Lancashire-born son of a Scottish shipping merchant. Harriet and Alfred had a son, Herbert Ide Keen Wenner, but he died less than six months old, on 12th March 1913.  In 1916 Alfred went to Flanders, a Captain with the Cheshire Regiment. The marriage ended in divorce on 4th November 1919, after she had left for France, where she then moved in with her parents Lizzie and Herbert at 9 Rue Bayard, 8th arrondissement, Paris. There in the 8th arrondissement Harriet married Richard Ellis Roberts, “publiciste”, on 5th April 1920, witnessed by her parents.


In 1928 innkeeper John Fothergill of the Spreadeagle, Thame, near Oxford recalled that “An American, living in Paris, came to lunch two days ago and suggested our going to Pasadena to run a restaurant, saying ‘If you have children leave this damned place – excuse my expression – and’, waving his hand down the dining room, ‘take your whole joint with you!” Today he, Mrs Keen and his pretty daughter, Mrs Ellis Roberts came for the night. Like the daughter he is a brimful of kindness”.[3] A rare compliment from someone who was better known for his putdowns and rudeness. He also got on well with Richard Ellis Roberts it would seem.

By 1930 Harriet and Richard were living in Hammersmith. H. Ide was most probably a pseudonym for her at Time and Tide but she also wrote under her full name.[4]

Harriet’s father Herbert Keen died on 12th July 1931 at the Pavillion de l’Ermitage, Chauvoires, beside Lake Annecy.  His ashes were inhumed at Golders Green Columbarium, North London.


On 29th September 1933 Harriet wrote to the Editor of The Spectator, from 11 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, to rebut the criticism that Lady Oxford (the former Mrs Asquith) had “given no lead” to working women during the War. We learn at the same time that Harriet nursed German prisoners during the war, and she defended Lady Oxford’s refusal to turn against her German former governess. Lady Oxford’s “deeds were a candle in ‘a naughty world’”. 11 New Square housed barristers’ chambers and at the time the offices of solicitors Rudram Braithwaite and Co., though perhaps there were other firms there too.


Harriet’s tribute to Nana. The portrait of Nana is by the Georgia based portrait painter Kate Fleuroy Edwards.

In 1936 Macmillan published Harriet’s Nana: A Memory of an Old Nurse, under her full name of Harriet Ide Keen Roberts. We share here the opening pages – you will see why:


“In October 1909 a little family, father, mother and just-grown-up daughter, were on board the S.S. Lusitania, leaving America to go and live in England. With them was an old woman with a beautiful, patient face covered with those deep wrinkles which make the faces of Irish and Breton peasants so much fuller of character and life than can be the most carefully lifted faces of fashionable women. She was dressed in a long, full, black dress; the skirt was gathered at the waist, the straight bodice with its row of buttons was covered by a cape on which were sewn innumerable black sequins, jet beads and dingle dangles. Her silvery hair was drawn straight back into a little knot surmounted by a small Victorian black bonnet with a tiny ostrich feather. The daughter and young man, evidently an old friend of the family, were spending the time before the vessel sailed, in showing this old woman over the ship, pointing out to her the cabin which she was to share with the daughter, the great stairways and dining saloon, the lounge, the sun-parlour, the huge smoke-stacks and ventilators. The young people appeared to be hanging on the old woman’s lips, but no words came from them. They were so anxious to learn the old woman’s impressions because, seventy-five years before, a half-starved girl of fifteen, she had crossed from Liverpool to America in the steerage of a sailing ship.

Those terrible seven weeks had given her a horror of the sea and of ships, and she had never been on the Atlantic until now, when she found herself a first class passenger on the Lusitania. The young man and girl wanted to know what she thought of it all. But she had nothing to say, only looked about her in a dazed fashion. No efforts of showmanship could coax a word from her. It was nearly time for visitors to leave the ship. And then the old woman spoke, in a wondering voice that was yet full of a gentle conviction. “Little Susy” (her pet name for the girl, her last nursling), “Little Susy, I know just how they made this boat.” That was what they were waiting for. “Yes, Nana, do you really?” “Yes, Susy – they copied it exactly from the Ark!” Then in a reverent tone she added, “I know no men could have thought of such a ship – they just took the Lord’s directions out of the Bible!”

So opens Harriet Ide Keen Roberts’ tribute biography of her beloved nanny, published by Macmillan in 1936. For all its sentimentality, I think it would be hard to better that passage, written in adulthood by “Little Susy” (Harriet) when she came over to England with her Irish born nanny.[5]  That little girl would later be at a dinner honouring the career of a woman (her husband’s new boss) who, six years after Nana sailed, was to travel on the final ill-fated voyage of the S.S. Lusitania, almost losing her life off the coast of Ireland.

The book is full of charming, poignant and humorous stories told by her Nana, of life in America, of the famine years in Ireland, and of her voyage on the three masted Johnnie Albert from Liverpool to Philadelphia with its three hundred passengers, plus horses, mules, chickens and pigs.

It is also one of the few sources we have on Harriet’s early years, to which we now return. She first lived in Philadelphia at first on the west toward the edge of the city, on Walnut Street between 42nd and 43rd Streets, (some period buildings still remain) then “in a big house near Rittenhouse square” which the family had to leave when she was 4, when her father’s cloth manufactory business failed (circa 1889)

An old house on Walnut Street, Philadelphia, between 42nd and 43rd Streets.

By 1900 the Keens had moved to Evanston, Chicago before they moved to Europe in March 1908.

“We began our London life in lodgings in (we called it “on”) Clarges Street, just off Piccadilly. I was in a state of wild delight at the beauties of old London. I tried to make Nana share my enthusiasm, but she would have none of it. When I pointed out Devonshire House, with its lovely old Georgian façade and great wrought-iron gates, Nana only sniffed. “I call it a miserable low-down kind of a building!” she said, evidently comparing it unfavourably with the Flat-Iron Building or some other American skyscraper. (p53 of Nana)

The Lord Mayor’s Show received a withering put down from Nana:

“I’ve lived in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and I’ve seen the Butchers’ Parade, and the Firemen’s’ Parade and Fourth of July Parade and England has nothing to show me!”

However Nana was rather impressed with the London Underground, mainly, in Harriet’s view, because it was built by an American engineer, Charles Tyson Yerkes, and partly because Chicago – where Harriet had been living for fourteen years (c1895 – 1909) – had to build overground railways because of its unsuitable sandy and marshy soil.

As for Ireland, when Nana was offered a trip back to her native land she replied that she never wanted to see “that mean beggarly country again”. (p17)

We learn that Harriet’s great uncle, and family physician, was the famous old Philadelphia surgeon W.W. Keen (p72) and that her “hair was as straight as the Red Indians who probably figured in my ancestry, as our earliest emigrant ancestor had grants of land along the Delaware before William Penn”. (p74) It shows in Harriet’s passport photograph I might suggest.

By 1911 Harriet and her parents were living at Cannon Lodge, Cannon Place, Hampstead, a Grade 2 listed, 18th c detached house, with Nana (Catherine Loftus, age 75, born County Sligo, her maiden name retaken after a tragic marriage in her younger days), another Irish born servant , from County Cork, and a Horsham born servant.[6]

Cannon Lodge, Cannon Place, Hampstead

We shall look for more of Harriet’s writings.[7]

In October 1939, shortly after WW2 had started, Harriet and Richard emigrated back to her country of birth, departing from Bordeaux, reapplying for her American nationality and moving this time to the West Coast, living in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey. Harriet outlived Richard by almost two decades, dying in 1971.

I think she would have got on well with Eleanor Farjeon.


[1] William Hepburn

[2] With many thanks to Elizabeth Hepburn Anderson for further information on Harriet’s family. 

[3] John Fothergill, An Innkeeper’s Diary, first published 1931,The Folio Society, 2000 p167

[4] As noted in Catherine Clay, British Women Writers 1914-1945: Professional Work and Friendship, Routledge, 20.9.2017, p58

[5] Though I think Nana would have been 75 in 1909 as Nana migrated to America in the late 1840s, more like 60 years earlier – a minor quibble.

[6] Cannon Lodge, Cannon Place, Hampstead 

[7] The Bodleian Library, Oxford, has papers of both Harriet and Richard.

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