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Paul Oppé Archive: Simone Belchamber

by Anthony Day

  • 23 August 2021

Reflections on the Paul Oppé Archive

Simone Belchamber: Women, Welfare and the Legacy of War

The Paul Oppé archive catalogue was recently completed and published online. Most of the collection focuses on Oppé’s work as an art historian and collector, but there is also a substantial amount of material relating to his personal life, and the life of his family. In this series of posts, Anthony Day, who catalogued the collection, shares some of the human stories he uncovered in the archive.

In my previous post, I shared a series of letters sent to Paul Oppé’s wife, Valentine, by her friend Norah Gribble and her daughter, Vivien, between 1917 and 1923. In this piece, I want to continue to explore Valentine’s correspondence, which extends from 1908 to 1950, and provides a fascinating insight into various aspects of the social history of the period. The present selection consists of a small file of six letters from an otherwise unknown correspondent, Simone Belchamber, and which tells a vivid story about the everyday lives of women and the ways in which they engaged with charitable causes in the early twentieth century. 

A file with handwritten letters splayed outwards.

Belchamber File, Archive file and letters from Simone Belchamber to Valentine Oppé, Ref: APO/12/2/1/5

Belchamber’s letters, which span the period from 11 January 1931 to 13 December 1933, start by describing how her sister, Claire, who had a degenerative illness, was being cared for by their elderly mother at the family home in Surrey. Simone would visit when she could with her baby, Mickey, but writes that his crying upset her sister. Aware that her mother was struggling, Simone wrote to Valentine Oppé for help. A month later, the Belchambers were paid a visit by ‘Mr Simon’, who offered them financial assistance that enabled them to hire a nurse for Claire.

A handwritten letter.

Letter from Simone Belchamber to Valentine Oppé, dated 11 January 1931, page 1, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/12/2/1/5

'Mr Simon’ was Andre Louis Simon, a celebrated wine merchant and writer, who had visited Simone’s mother and sister as a representative of the Société Française de Bienfaisance (the French Benevolent Society). In a letter to Valentine dated 19 February 1931, found elsewhere in the archive, Simon briefly recounts his visit to the Belchambers and confirms the Société’s desire to offer financial assistance to the family due to their French heritage. Valentine had evidently played some role in arranging Simon’s visit, as well as providing emotional support to Simone and her family.

Later in the correspondence, Simone seeks more assistance from Valentine, this time on behalf of her husband, Will. In a letter dated 13 December 1933, she describes her husband’s frustration with his role as ‘4th man in his office’ at the Westminster Bank (later National Westminster), his hopes for a promotion, and asks Valentine if she might help (though she is careful to point out that Will himself was unaware she was doing so). In her reply, Valentine mentions that Paul Oppé knew someone with ‘some influence’ at the bank. Interestingly, it is revealed that Will had a war wound (presumably from the First World War) and that Simone suspected this may be the reason for his lack of success at work. She writes, ‘he knows that his war wound does not help him, but really except for appearances it does not affect him in the least’. This is a vivid reminder of the long-term impact of war on those returning home to civilian life. Eventually, someone did contact them to offer assistance with Will’s employment, although it was evidently all very secretive. Simone confirms to Valentine that she has destroyed the letter from the individual in question. It is hard to tell whether their plan was successful, as the correspondence ends here.

Collectively, the Belchamber correspondence shines a light on the way women from different social classes related to one another in the early twentieth century. Simone was desperately seeking help for her sister, the burden of whose care had fallen on her and her mother. This assistance was acquired through informal charitable networks, which were often marshalled by wealthy women like Valentine Oppé and played a significant role in the provision of social welfare. The story of Simone’s husband, Will, shows the influence these same networks could also exert in the male working world, through informal networks of benevolence that often went undocumented, and of which Valentine’s archive provides us with a fascinating example.

If you are interested to learn more about the Paul Oppé Archive, the catalogue is available online.  If you have any queries or would like to make an appointment to view the material in person, please contact us.

About the author

  • Anthony Day is Archives Project Cataloguer at the Paul Mellon Centre