Great-Great Aunt Winifred Margaret Atwell: Rising Star

Winifred Margaret Atwell was born October 7, 1885 in Providence, Providence County, RI.  She was the oldest daughter of William Atwell and Altie May Williams and the oldest of their children that lived to adulthood.

Winifred completed four years of high school, and it seems that she had a musical education as well. Perhaps William took it upon himself to teach her. I found at least two articles from 1902 and 1904 where Winifred accompanied her father to performances. At both she performed dramatic reading and at one even played a piano solo. Later in 1908 and 1909, she taught music alongside her father at the Atwell Music Studios.

Eventually, music seemed to fade away for Winifred as her performance expanded into acting; in the 1910 Census, she listed her occupation as “actress” in a “theatre”. It was hard to find her in the following years; however, I knew that she had taken a stage name: Margaret Armstrong. Although I think it’s a great sounding name, its so much more common than “Winifred Atwell”! The January 1917 edition of Providence Magazine stated that Margaret Armstrong was “an actress of exceptional ability”. It seems that her career was starting to take off. On January 2, 1917 she was in Manhattan, marrying Arthur Holzel. Perhaps she was beginning some work in New York’s theaters. Regardless, this was the last time that I saw her referred to as “Winifred M. Atwell”. Since she went by “Margaret” for the rest of her life, I will refer to her as such from now on.

Winifred Margaret Atwell on her wedding day, January 2, 1917.  Author's collection.

Winifred Margaret Atwell on her wedding day, January 2, 1917. Author’s collection.

The Holzels seemed to find themselves in Lynn, Essex County, MA, where their daughter Evelyn Atwell Holzel said she was born on March 27, 1918. (Although I have found no primary sources to support this yet.)

Now, if the name Arthur Holzel might sound vaguely familiar, it was because he was later known as Arthur Vinton, an actor on stage (in the 1920s), screen and radio (in the 1930s and 1940s). As Arthur’s and Margaret’s careers began to ramp up, their relationship started to break down. More on all of this in the next post!

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The Little-Known Atwell Siblings

Some of my great-grandfather’s siblings have quite a bit of information available, but three have barely anything. Even so, I feel that they deserve their own post.

Richard Williams

According to the book Randall and Allied Families… , Richard was born on May 11, 1883 and died on August 18, 1884. I assume his short life was entirely in Providence. According to his father William’s sister, Victoria Eugenia (who called herself “Genie” in a 1932 letter), Richard was named after William’s father and after the Williams family from whom Altie descended. She also confirmed that Richard was the first-born child; his death must have been so devastating to his parents.

“Little Altie Bernise”

I recently noticed that on the 1900 census, Altie May Atwell is listed as having seven children born, five children living. Prior to writing this post, I could only account for six of the children. As I was re-reading Aunt Genie’s typed account of Richard, she wrote this: “He was the one who died as a baby”, then in her own hand (which I’d totally overlooked!): “as did Little Altie Bernise”. (I have to say, I’m not 100% that this is little Altie’s middle name, but it’s the best that I can tell.) Little Altie, you are found and remembered!

Aunt Genie's notation about little Altie.  Author's collection.

Aunt Genie’s notation about little Altie. Author’s collection.

Augusta Eugenia

Augusta Eugenia was born on January 13, 1894 in Providence. She was the youngest of William and Altie’s children that lived to adulthood. I found her listed as a child in the 1900 Census and the 1905 Rhode Island Census. In the 1910 Census, she was sixteen and working as a clerk at a shoe store. Finally, in the 1912 City Directory, she is listed as “a clerk at B&S” (which I assume is Brown & Sharpe, a large manufacturer in Providence at the time). At that point, she was living at 45 Wilson Street, away from the family. After this record, I have no idea what happened to Augusta. She may have died, gotten married or moved away. (I tried checking her 1912 address in the 1913 City Directory, but the house was listed as vacant – just my luck!) Even my grandmother, who at least knew if one of her relatives was married or not, never said if Augusta married.

Great-Great Grandfather William Armstrong Atwell

This may seem like skipping around a little bit, but I feel the need to write about my great-grandfather’s father before I move on to his siblings. After all, William is what these diverse siblings have in common!

William Armstrong Atwell was the firstborn child and only son of Richard Atwell and Margaret Patterson. He was born at George Street in Lowell, Middlesex County, MA on June 11, 1860. The family moved to various places in Eastern Massachusetts (more on that when I write about his father at a later time), settling for a period in Taunton, Bristol County, MA. There in 1880, twenty-year-old William was working as a machinist at a foundry and machine company. One of the few things I remember my great-grandfather telling me was that his father had three fingers (on which hand, I’m not sure). I have to wonder if that condition may have been a result of this work.

In 1881, the Atwell family moved to Providence, Providence County, RI. Here, William met his future wife, Altie May Williams, daughter of John Williams and Mary Elizabeth Randall. Altie worked as a box-maker, so I’m not sure how the two would have met. Perhaps William was beginning his second career as a musician (specifically, a cornet player) and perhaps Altie saw him perform. In any case, the two were married in Providence on August 24, 1882.

William seemed to retain his job as a machinist in Providence at lease for a short while. In the 1885 Rhode Island census, he listed his occupation as both “machinist & musician”. According to the Providence City Directories that I could find, William was listed as a printer from at least 1895 to 1898 (what kind of printer, I wonder?). After this, he is listed as a musician in all the records I could find.

The city directories and some newspaper articles have given me the most clues about William’s musical career. He play cornet either on his own or with Atwells Orchestra at various local organizations, such as the Central Falls Fire Department and the National Association of Stationary Engineers. From 1907 to the end of his life, William set up the Atwell Entertainment Bureau, which also housed the “Atwell Society Orchestra” and “Atwell Studios” that featured teaching music. In fact, his daughter Winifred was listed as music teacher here from 1908 – 1909.

"Larboard Watch", a song William performed as part of a duet in 1898.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

“Larboard Watch”, a song William performed as part of a duet in 1898. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As I stated in my last post, William and Altie divorced sometime between 1900 (when they are together on the census) and 1905 (when William re-married). I’m not sure of the reason; perhaps William’s career ramping up was a contributing factor. I did find that Altie’s divorced (though listed as widowed) mother Mary had lived with the family throughout the 1890s. Perhaps her moving out was evidence of strain in the household? Their five living children remained in William’s custody and I have no written record of Altie after this time (more on her and her incredible ancestral line in future posts).

Ethel Emma Fane was born around 1879 in England. Her family immigrated to the USA in 1892 and lived in Providence on Pearl Street by 1900. She was the daughter of John and Alice Fane and had a sister Mary, who was only a year younger than Ethel. While Ethel was employed as a “pearl worker”, her sister was a music teacher. I’m sure that although Mary worked at a different location than William, their paths must have crossed in the course of business. Somehow William met Ethel and they were married on June 1, 1905.

Ethel apparently built a relationship with her stepchildren (or at the very least, my great-grandfather Thomas) and became a mother herself on May 14, 1906, when son Wallace John was born. Happiness in the Atwell household did not last a very long time, however. Eventually William’s health deteriorated to a point where he no longer played cornet. Finally, after a week-long illness, William died at home at 197 Longfellow Street on January 24, 1913. He was buried at Oakland Cemetery in nearby Cranston. Ethel made sure his gravestone was inscribed: “In Loving Memory of My Husband, William A. Atwell, 1860 – 1913”.

William and Altie’s children were all grown up and living on their own once William died, so Ethel and Wallace moved back to her parents’ home. Ethel lived with her son at least until he was married to Mildred G. Stubbs in the 1930s, then she appears as a housekeeper and companion to interior designer Ellen Dwinell in 1940. I don’t have any record of Ethel after this point; I’m not even sure where she is buried. In fact, there seems to be so much more to find out about William and his family that once again warrants a research trip to Rhode Island.

Great-Grandfather Thomas Francis Atwell I: Beyond the Navy

I’ve already touched on my great-grandfather’s life with respect to his time in the navy and partly through writing about his wife (my great-grandmother), Eva Christina Lipsett. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Thomas Francis Atwell I was born on October 4, 1891 in Providence, Providence County, RI. He was the fifth child and third son of William Armstrong Atwell and Altie May Williams. I don’t know much about his childhood, other than that his schooling ended with a ninth grade education and that his parents divorced sometime between 1900 and 1905. I’m told that Thomas’ father William could be difficult to get along with, but in spite of that, all the children seemed to remain with him as opposed to Altie after the divorce. When William re-married to Ethel Fane in 1905, Thomas got along well with her and later his half-brother Wallace.

There is a family story that says that things were so bad at home that Thomas lied about his age to join the navy. However, from what I can tell, he enlisted in 1909 when he was eighteen, so I don’t know about the part about lying about his age. Perhaps joining the navy was Thomas’ best option for leaving home once he turned eighteen? In any case, he seems to have begun his naval time at the academy in Newport, Newport County, RI.

We already know that Thomas married Eva on June 30, 1920 in Salem, Essex County, MA. I would love to know how they met; perhaps he had some shore leave in Boston and ran into her somehow? Whether he had any prior relationships, I do not know. I’m sure it would have been difficult to maintain a relationship for very long, being stationed on a ship for great lengths of time. In any case with Eva, it was love; this was obvious in the way my great-grandfather spoke of her even after her death.

Eva + Thomas Atwell in Swampscott, MA, 1959. Author's Collection.

Eva + Thomas Atwell in Swampscott, MA, 1959. Author’s Collection.

As I’ve written before, Thomas and Eva started their family in the 1920s. After a brief time out of the navy in the 1930s, he worked as a superintendent in an office building. Then after his time back in the navy during World War II, Thomas again returned to civilian life and began working for the Lynn Institute for Savings (a bank) in 1947 and continued there until retirement in 1967. Since Eva had died in 1963, the house on Timson Street in Lynn must have seemed too big for him, so he put the house on the market in November 1964 and bought the tiny home on Bulfinch Road that I remember. A few months later, the house on Timson Street was sold.

Although he was retired and downsized, Thomas in no way checked out of life. He still drove around town, and attended Christmas and other family parties that his daughter Eugenie threw. One thing that I discovered was that during the 1970s, he wrote a few letters to the editor of the Boston Herald-American. (I suppose that he also must have written to the Lynn Daily Item, but those archives are not yet online.) Many of the short, pointed letters had a political bent to them, such as properly addressing the President of the United States and anti-union sentiments. One outlined eight ways to “save the U.S.A.”, which would be seen as very conservative (and probably politically incorrect) today. He also wrote about his beloved Boston Red Sox, who he often watched on the TV set in his living room. Mind you, this was deep in the years during the “Curse of the Bambino”.

Thomas lived on his own for many years, but spent the very end of his life in a Lynn nursing home, passing away at the very respectful age of 96. He is buried with Eva at Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn.

Atwell-Pleau grave, Pine Grove Cemetery, Lynn, MA. Author's collection.

Atwell-Pleau grave, Pine Grove Cemetery, Lynn, MA. Author’s collection.