20th Century female mapmakers: Cecily Peele [1892-1984]

20th Century female mapmakers: Cecily Peele [1892-1984]

Our blog post today takes in a hidden Alleyway where beads & charms, dragons, prehistoric beasts and carved medieval figurines were once offered for sale.

Where the Alley’s shop owner designed local maps featuring squealing mandrakes….

…and authored an encyclopaedia cataloguing a mysterious & magical world of boggarts, banshees, dragons, elves, ghosts, giants & trolls:

One might be forgiven for thinking we had unwittingly strayed from the land of Muggledom into Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets or, earmuffs at the ready, joined one of Professor Pomona Sprout’s Herbology classes, for instruction in the potting of young mandrakes!

But it is in fact the pre-war University City of Oxford which provides the setting & context for today’s post.

Following on from our previous post featuring American pictorial mapmaker Alva Scott Garfield [1902-1993], we continue our focus on undeservedly little-known 20th Century female mapmakers & cartographers. We hope to run a series of blog posts on this theme.

Shropshire-born Cecily Peele [1892-1984] was an illustrator & engraver, author, pictorial mapmaker and co-founder, in 1922, of Oxford’s Alley Workshops.

St.Giles, c1915 

The Victorian building immediately to the left of the tree & directly behind the motor car is 65 St.Giles.

Originally tucked away down a narrow snicketway – Blackfriars Alley, abutting the grounds of the former medieval Priory – and accessed through the Victorian facade of No 65 St.Giles’, opposite St John’s College, the Alley Workshops (“right down the alley the blue door on the left”) are sadly long gone. The premises were apparently demolished during redevelopment several years ago, but not before archaeologists had undertaken a thorough survey of the entire site, 65-67 St.Giles’.

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s this unique & delightful retail emporium offered an eclectic & eccentric mix of books, hand-crafted gifts, jewellery & historical mementos. From advertisements published in the early 1920’s, it is clear that the Workshops’ principal target audience was the University’s growing number of financially independent female students.

Cecily Peele was in fact born Beatrice Cecilia Peele on May 8th 1892 at Shrewsbury in Shropshire. She was the eldest child of local solicitor, William Charles Clement Peele [1865-1943] and his wife Beatrice (née Bayley) [1870-1933]. The couple had married in Shrewsbury in March 1891. Two younger sisters followed, Diane Maude Peele [b.1894] and Evelyn Joane Peele [b.1900] as well as two brothers, Geoffrey De Courcy Peele [b.1898] and Michael De Courcy Peele [1903-1983]. The latter would follow his father into the law, becoming senior partner in Shrewsbury solicitors, Peele & Aris. He also became a respected local author, best known for his Shropshire in Poem & Legend [1923].

We know little of Cecily’s early education or interests. Her diaries & those of her brother Michael are preserved in the Shropshire County archives in Shrewsbury and certainly warrant further research & investigation.

Cecily’s maternal family had roots in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and in 1914 she and her mother are recorded as the licence holders of two private asylums, Bishopstone House & Springfield House, in Bedford. The explanation behind this unusual family association lies in the fact that Cecily’s mother was one of ten siblings, the children of the renowned Dr Joseph Bayley [1836-1913], Superintendent of the St.Andrew’s Asylum in Northampton between 1865 and 1913. He had previously served in the Crimean War and later worked as Assistant Medical Officer at the Leicester City Asylum and the Salop County Asylum, which perhaps further explains the family connections with Shrewsbury.

It seems that Cecily was involved in the Bedford asylums’ management throughout the second and third decades of the 20th Century and continued in this role, with the help of one of her sisters, after her mother’s death in 1933.

By 1922 Cecily evidently had the financial wherewithal to establish the Alley Workshops at No.65/65a St.Giles’, Oxford, in partnership with one Sally Ward, about whom we have been unable to discover any significant information.

In The Fritillary No.87, December 1922 (a niche monthly paper issued for female students of the University), a prominent advertisement for the Alley Workshops appears on its first page, beside one for the famous Foyles bookshop in the Charing Cross Road :

For Christmas gifts you’d better try,                   

The Alley Workshops in St.Giles’,              

They’ve heaps of things you’ll want to buy,

You’ll find no better place for mileses.  

Three months later, the March 1923 issue of The Fritillary again advertises the Alley Workshops, who offer this somewhat random list of gifts for sale:

Wild and Tame Toys. Jewels and Beads. Prints, Pottery and Hand-woven scarves. Dragons. Jumpers and Embroidered Frocks. Cigarette Boxes and Mirrors. Knights. Plaited felt slippers. Prehistoric Beasts.

A year later, the June 1924 issue of The Fritillary includes another advert, a bold woodblock engraving highlighting the smiling features of a “Satisfied Customer”. The accompanying text notes that: These Workshops have a collection of useful and beautiful things made by artists and designers which you are invited to come and see.

One of the Workshops best-sellers appears to have been a series of historical figurines “specially suited to young children”. These hand-carved hand-coloured wooden figures, between 3 and 6 inches tall, were designed from original historical sources. They included King Harold (2 shillings) and William the Conqueror (3 shillings) taken from the illustrations on The Bayeux Tapestry and a charming set of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims – including the Oxford Clerk & Scribe – copied from Corpus Christi College’s Ellesmere Manuscript.

Artist and novelist, Evelyn Waugh, who came up to Oxford as a scholar at Hertford College in 1922 (and left two years later, heavily indebted and without a degree) was clearly aware of the Alley Workshops. It seems Peele’s emporium, within only a short time of its establishment in 1922, had attracted a popular following amongst the local student population.

Already a talented artist with a fascination for medieval illumination, Waugh threw himself wholeheartedly into Oxford literary and artistic life, adopting the pseudonym Scaramel, and becoming well-known for his sketches and caricatures which appeared in several University magazines, including the Oxford Broom, Isis and Cherwell.

Many of Waugh’s caricatures and sketches from this period are now in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Interestingly they include two items – an ink & wash collage and slightly larger reproductive print taken from the former collage – which clearly demonstrate Waugh’s familiarity with Peele’s Alley Workshops and with its popular series of wooden figurines. The  collage, which dates from January 1923 and features the profile of a man holding an umbrella, was designed as an illustration for Isis. It & the accompanying print (Acc. Nos 94.14.2 & 94.14.3) are both entitled:

Suggestion for Alley Workshops Toy. Mr Pares, Editor of “The New Oxford”

Pares, was of course, Balliol scholar, Richard Pares, Waugh’s first “homosexual love” (according to Nancy Mitford) with whom he is said to have conducted an intense affair during his first two terms at Oxford, before the pair’s relationship faltered. Pares would go on to become a highly regarded Oxford history don. Waugh’s literary career would eventually take off four years after leaving Oxford, in 1928, with the publication of his first novel, Decline and Fall.

In 1924/5, The Alley Workshops published Cecily Peele’s wonderful Encyclopaedia of British Bogies, a striking collection of 24 black and white plates, engraved by her own hand, and describing malevolent monsters, evil spirits and magical creatures of popular folklore and legend. One is reminded of the engraved woodblock designs of Peele’s contemporary, Bernard Sleigh.

Several of the plates bear Peele’s initials “BCP” in a rectangular box with an accompanying pictogram of an ammonite.

And it is Peele’s unusual artistic background & eccentric Alley Workshops back story which explain the entertaining & engaging historical designs and attractive original artwork that embellish her two rarely-seen pictorial maps of Oxford which were published between 1934 and 1936.

The first is a Map of Oxford’s History: With Some of Her Worthies. Drawn by Cecily Peele, published by The Alley Workshops, Oxford. 

The decorative upper and lower borders represent a gallery of Oxford “worthies” extending from Stone Age Man (upper left) to Lord Nuffield (lower right). The latter’s youthful features suggest a publication date soon after he was elevated to the Peerage as Baron Nuffield in 1934, at the same time as he purchased the site of the Radcliffe Observatory. The line-up includes the founders of several of Oxford’s Colleges, including John de Balliol; Elias de Hertford; William de Merton; William of Wykeham; Dorothy & Nicholas Wadham and John Keble.

Amongst other recent notables & alumni Peele includes Cecil Rhodes, Lewis Carroll (with attendant Alice), William Morris and Lawrence of Arabia.

The side borders incorporate the arms of the Oxford Colleges. Curious scenes include Oxford’s own dinosaur, ceteosaurus oxoniensis, a Hairy Mammoth (uncovered in the grounds of Magdalen College), a medieval gardener gathering screaming mandrakes in the Botanic Gardens, Richard Coeur de Lion (born in Beaumont St); and William Shakespeare and his godson William Davenant (son of the proprietor of Oxford’s Crown Tavern, where the Bard is said to have frequently stayed en route to London or Stratford). Peele also includes Chaucer’s Oxford scribe from The Canterbury Tales, previously portrayed as one of the Alley Workshop’s historical wooden figurines. The figures of St. Frideswide and St. Scholastica (with mortarboard) – provide a distinctly feminine emphasis:

In 1936, Peele designed a second smaller Map of Oxford’s Medical & Scientific History, which illustrated The Book of Oxford, printed for the 104th Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association in Oxford.

On a larger scale but more limited in its coverage – only central Oxford – it nonetheless includes many of the same vignette illustrations as featured on Peele’s earlier map.

This time we have the Magdalen Hairy Mammoth, the recently discovered British bear, ursus anglicanus, and the Mauritius Dodo, originally from the Tradescant collection, long preserved in the Ashmolean Museum until partially destroyed in the mid 18th Century, leaving only its head & a claw. It is held on a leash by the former Keeper of the Ashmolean, John Shute Duncan, who took casts of the original head and distributed them to other museums.

Mandrakes again appear in the Physic Garden:

Interestingly the map includes the new Nuffield Institute of Clinical Research, set up in 1935 on the Radcliffe Observatory site, which had been purchased the previous year by Lord Nuffield and donated to the City’s hospital. A detailed key to the topical allusions in the map is provided on the final two pages of the Book of Oxford.

Two manuscript examples of this latter map appear to exist.

One is preserved in Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science.

A second copy, seemingly presented as a gift from Oxford medic, Frederick G Hobson [1891-1961] to Lord Nuffield, currently hangs in his former residence, Nuffield Place, now owned by the National Trust. It was probably presented by Hobson to Nuffield after the 1936 meeting of the BMA in Oxford. Hobson was the Association’s local general secretary and played a key role is organizing what turned out to be one of the most successful meetings on record.

We know little of Peele after the publication of these two maps. Local directories indicate the Alley Workshops were still in business in 1939.

In later life Cecily and her brother Michael were both active members of the Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Cecily Peele passed away in Petersfield, Hampshire in June 1984, aged 92.

Refs: David Rumsey Collection



I am very grateful to two recent correspondents who have shed further light on the life & work of Cecily Peele.

The first correspondent, whose mother was a cousin of Cecily Peele, brought to my attention to family connection with Dr Joseph Bayley, Supetintendent of St.Andrew’s Asylum in Northampton. A family anecdote passed down through the family also recounts how Cecily was frequently to be seen by the residents of Bedford (and perhaps also of Oxford) proudly walking the streets of the City accompanied by her pet goat (on a leash)!

The second correspondent, the well-known academic and art scholar, Professor Pamela Gerrish Nunn, author of several works on Victorian art, including A Pre-Raphaelite Journey: The Art of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale [Liverpool University Press, 2012], contacted me to draw attention to the fact that both Cecily and her mother, Beatrice Peele, formed a close friendship with the renowned late Victorian and Edwardian artist and illustrator, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale [1872-1945], sometimes called “the last Pre-Raphaelite”. An important Exhibition of Fortescue-Brickdale’s work, curated by Nunn, was held at Liverpool’s Lady Lever Gallery in 2012. It seems Cecily Peele’s own artistic style & mindset was considerably influenced by her connection with Fortescue-Brickdale and her art.


During recent researches, a previously unknown & seemingly coincidental connection has come to light between Cecily and fellow artist and designer, Hester Wagstaff [1892-1953], who authored two scarce pictorial maps of Petersfield [1922] and Eton College [1937]. Hester was for many years a partner & co-director of the Petersfield Bookshop and is probably best-known today as the author of a series of popular 1940s children’s books, which she illustrated herself. Evidently close contemporaries, it is possible that Cecily & Hester studied together as young art students at the London Polytechnic in the years just prior to World War One and subsequently became close friends. What is known is that Cecily Peele moved into Hester’s former home, No.2 Sheep Street in Petersfield, at some point in the mid 1950’s. It is possible Hester bequeathed the property to Cecily in her will, following her death in January 1953. Cecily is certainly listed there in 1960. It would remain Cecily’s home until she eventually moved into a Liss nursing home shortly prior to her death in June 1984, aged 92.