SISTERS

Tea and scandal: The bond between sisters

The photographic archive that tandscandal takes as its subject documents four generations of a family and one recurrent theme is the bond between sisters. Images of the second generation dominate the archive. This is largely due to longevity as, within this group, three of the sisters lived more than ninety years. The story however begins a generation earlier with sisters Susan Jewubdar Bell Waldmeier and Mary Beletetch Bell Saalmüller.

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Susan and Mary were born in Ethiopia in the mid nineteenth century. Their mother Woisero Worknesh Asfa Yilma was from Debra Tabor and their father John Bell was an Englishman, born in Malta. Following the death of their father in 1860 it is uncertain what became of their mother. It is assumed that she was still alive and returned to live with her extended family in the province then known as Begemder. Due to their parents’ close relationship with Emperor Tewodros it seems Susan and Mary (and their brother John Aligas Bell) were well cared for and enjoyed a degree of privilege. It is tempting to romanticise their early lives as these years were filled with the stuff of historical novels – domestic warfare, royal connections, missionaries, pet lions, foreign captives, a liberating army and migration. Simply put, the sisters lived in interesting times, times often marked by uncertainty and isolation, but throughout they had the good fortune to experience both blessings and hardships with the support of one another.

In many ways Susan and Mary’s lives ran parallel. Whilst still in their early to mid teens, each sister was married to a European missionary-artisan in the service of Emperor Tewodros. Susan was wed to Theophilus Waldmeier and, some years later, Mary to Karl Saalmüller. The two men were colleagues and had travelled to Ethiopia in 1858 with the St Chrischona-Pilgermission. Following the Napier Expedition and death of Emperor Tewodros in 1868, the Waldmeier and Saalmüller families left Ethiopia via Egypt and Palestine. In Jerusalem the sisters parted, Susan settled in Lebanon while Mary remained in Jaffa. They kept in touch and apparently made visits to one another. In his autobiography, Susan’s husband records that in 1874 Mary’s eldest daughter, Dora, died while on a visit to her aunt and uncle in Brummana, Lebanon. This sad event may have acted as a catalyst for the Saalmüller’s move to Brummana in 1877 where, once again, Susan and Mary lived, worked and raised their families alongside one another. These sisters both died in Brummana; Susan in July 1893 and Mary on 1 October 1936.

Susan and Mary were rarely photographed, and to date no image depicting them together has been discovered. Although taken several years after Susan’s death, the two photographs below draw the sisters close. Mary is pictured relaxing in the garden of her hotel with Susan’s eldest daughter, Rosa, as well as two of her own daughters and grand-daughters.

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Adrien Bonfils (attributed to)
Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils, Marcelle and Lucienne Bonfils, Wega Saalmüller Little,
Mary Beletetch Bell Saalmüller and Rosa Waldmeier Manasseh
(c. 1912)
albumen print
11.3 x 15.1 cm (image and sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Adrien Bonfils (attributed to)
Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils, Lucienne and Marcelle Bonfils, Rosa Waldmeier Manasseh,
Mary Beletetch Bell Saalmüller and Wega Saalmüller Little

(c. 1912)
albumen print
11.2 x 15.8 cm (image and sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Mary’s daughters are the focus of the second generation of sisters represented in the archive. Due to the premature deaths of the two eldest girls, the stories of these sisters is unevenly weighted. For many years Stefana, Wega and Marielie lived in different countries. They sustained their relationship – and by association the relationships of their children and grandchildren – for over nine decades, sometimes with visits but more often by correspondence. Much tea and scandal was shared and along with news and reminiscences they exchanged snapshots, newspaper clippings, gardening tips, gifts and recipes. It is in large part due to their longevity and communication that so much of their family history is still remembered.

Of Dora’s short life little is recorded and no photograph of her seems to exist. It is thought that she was born in Ethiopia in 1868, before the Saalmüller’s departed from that country, and that she was named Theodora after Emperor Tewodros. In his autobiography, her uncle Theophilus Waldmeier describes the circumstances of Dora’s death. After a trip abroad, he returned to Brummana in September 1874 and was met with the sorrowful news that his family been ill in his absence. His own son, Theophilus, was still unwell whilst Dora had died and been laid to rest just one day earlier.

Sarona’s estimated year of birth is (c. 1871) and she was named for the same Plain of Sharon as the Temple Society settlement. The sisters’ father, Karl Saalmüller, was an experienced missionary, builder and craftsman and he worked with Christian Hoffmann’s Temple communities in Jaffa and Sarona until 1877 when he moved his family to Lebanon. Sarona Saalmüller survived childhood and appears in photographs as a devoted aunt. Sarona married, probably in Brummana, and there are photographic portraits of her, inscribed in a later hand, that record her husband’s name as Phillip Mishahani. Sarona died in Brummana in 1908 due to complications arising from the birth of their only child. The baby did not survive and it is not know what became of her husband.

Stefana was born on 26 December 1874 in Jerusalem. Every photograph of her is quietly beautiful and like Sarona she was a devoted sister and aunt. Stefana’s first marriage, to Fritz Knobel, is thought to have occurred in Brummana but it is unclear exactly when this marriage took place. It is equally unclear when and how the marriage ended. While it is thought they divorced, Stefana’s ‘condition’ is recorded as widow on her second marriage certificate so her first husband may have died. Either way, in 1905 Stefana Knobel appears on a passenger list, travelling alone from Port Said, Egypt to Southampton, England so it seems likely that she was again single by that year. On 29 June 1912 Stefana married Charles Hubert Armbruster in the Parish Church of St Marylebone, London. Due to Charles’ diplomatic work the pair spent several years in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. It was while travelling through North Africa that Stefana miscarried their only children; twins. The Armbrusters retired to the village of Puerto d’Andratx on the island of Majorca in 1926. There they built their house Marmacén and there they remained until their deaths. Charles died on 17 April 1957 and Stefana twenty-one years later on 6 December 1978, just a few weeks shy of her 104th birthday.

Wega (pronounced Vega) was born in Lebanon on 10 June 1877. On 17 November 1892 she married Thomas Little in Brummana. At that time he was employed as Assistant Master at the Boy’s School established by her uncle, Theophilus Waldmeier and later Thomas was appointed Head Master. By 1903 Wega was mother to two daughters, Sylvia and Vera, and a son, Charles. Following the death of her father, Karl, in 1906 Wega assisted her mother with running the Saalmüller family hotel; Hotel Libanon. When Thomas died suddenly on 14 April 1908 Wega and the children relocated from their accommodation at the school to her family’s hotel and soon after the three children were sent to England to completed their education. With the death of her mother, Mary, in 1936, Wega became sole proprietor of the hotel and at some stage renamed it Cedarhurst. Whilst Cedarhurst was Wega’s livelihood, under her custodianship, it always remained ‘home’; a place to return to for her sisters and their children, as well as her own. Wega refused to leave Brummana during both the First and Second World Wars and continued to run the hotel until her retirement in the 1950s. During these years she maintained close ties with Brummana High School and its staff, she offered hospitality to innumerable guests and visitors from all corners of the globe, supported the Brummana soup kitchen in wartime and staged the odd Easter egg hunt in the hotel’s garden for local children. Cedarhurst was eventually sold and Wega left Lebanon to join her sister Stefana at her home in Puerto d’Andratx. Wega lived with her sister until her death on 29 January 1963.

Marielie was born in Lebanon on 11 November 1878. On 1 June 1897 she was married to the French born photographer Adrien Bonfils and within a few years they left Beirut to join her family in Brummana where they also entered the hotelier industry. Marielie had three daughters, Renée, Marcelle, Lucienne and one son, Roger. Marielie and Adrien eventually relocated to France where they, and subsequently at least one of their children, remained hoteliers in Nice, Paris and later, Vichy. Marielie’s exact date of death is not known, however she was still in correspondence with family in 1975 as she approached her 97th birthday.

Adrien Bonfils (attributed to)
Stefana Saalmüller Knobel and Vera Little,
Sarona Saalmüller Mishahani and Sylvia Little

(1897/98)
albumen print
8.8 x 11.4 cm irreg. (image), 10.8 x 15.3 cm (sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Adrien Bonfils (attributed to)
Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils, Sarona Saalmüller Mishahani,
Wega Saalmüller Little,
Renée Bonfils, Stefana Saalmüller Knobel,
Vera Little, Sylvia Little, Charles Little

(1903/04)
albumen print
9.3 x 12.9 cm irreg. (image), 10.2 x 15.2 cm (sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Unknown photographer, Lebanon
Wega Saalmüller Little, Stefana Saalmüller Armbruster, Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils
and Ranger the dog

1936
gelatin silver print
9.9 x 7.7 cm (image), 11.1 x 8.7 cm (sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Lorstan, Spain
Wega Saalmüller Little, Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils, Stefana Saalmüller Armbruster
(1950s)
hand-coloured gelatin silver print
11.7 x 16.7 cm (image), 12.6 x 17.1 cm (sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Unknown photographer, Spain
Wega Saalmüller Little and Stefana Saalmüller Armbruster
(c. 1961)
gelatin silver print
12.2 x 8.1 cm (image), 13.0 x 9.0 cm irreg. (sheet)
Private collection, Australia

The third generation of sisters is represented by Wega and Marielie’s daughters.

Sylvia and Vera Little were both of a caring disposition – one growing up to be a nurse the other a teacher – and their closeness, especially as very little girls, is obvious in photographs that picture them together. Their full stories are to appear elsewhere on this site, so to summarise, the sisters were both born in Brummana, Lebanon – Sylvia in (1894/95), Vera in 1896. The greatest shock of their early lives was the unexpected death of their father just as they were entering their adolescence. In consequence they, along with their brother, were sent to boarding school in England, where their father’s family still lived. They each made the most of their education. Sylvia was a dedicated nurse and matron and after completing her training at the London Hospital she embarked on a career that eventually lead her to Omdurman in Sudan. It was here that she died unexpectedly in 1953. Sylvia was returned to her family in Brummana where her funeral took place. Vera followed in her father’s footsteps and embarked on a career in teaching. It took her from England to Cairo and finally to the United States. Vera married Ted Millar in Cairo on 18 April 1925 and they raised a son and daughter in the United States. Like her mother and aunts, Vera was a great storyteller and remained an avid correspondent until old age and deteriorating health prevented her from writing. Vera, the last of her sibling and final sister in this story, died in the United States in 1989.

Warwick Brookes, Manchester
Thomas Little, Sylvia Little, Vera Little and Wega Saalmüller Little, cabinet print
(1898)
albumen print
14.0 x 10.3 cm (image and sheet), 16.6 x 10.7 cm (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Unknown photographer
Sylvia and Vera Little, cabinet print
(1900)
albumen print
14.7 x 9.8 cm (image and sheet), 19.1 x 14.0 cm (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Debenham and Gould, Bournemouth
Sylvia and Vera Little, postcard
(c. 1915)
gelatin silver print
8.7 x 13.6 cm (image and sheet)
Private collection, Australia

The exact dates of birth of Marielie Bonfil’s children and grandchildren is uncertain due to light-damaged documents however it appears that just six years separate her three daughters. The eldest, Renée, was most probably born in 1900, Marcelle in 1905 and Lucienne in 1906. Renée married Wasey Sterry in Cairo on 3 April 1919. They later made their home in England and had no children. Marcelle married Pierre Pinnaton in France on 3 May 1939 and Lucienne married Jacques Louis Salles in 1934. They each had at least one son and one daughter. Like their cousins, these sisters remained close in spite of distance – through both the strength of their own relationship and the closeness of their mother’s relationship with her own sisters. In correspondence it is clear that news regularly passed between themselves, their aunts and cousins; thus transmitting from France to England, Spain, Lebanon, the United States, Sudan and in later years to Turkey, Kenya, South Africa and Australia.

Lind and Adrien Bonfils, Lebanon
Adrien Bonfils and Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils with three of their children:
Marcelle, Lucienne, and Reneé Bonfils, cabinet print
(1907)
albumen print
14.1 x 10.3 cm (image and sheet), 16.7 x 10.9 cm (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Unknown photographer, Lebanon
Lucienne Bonfils, Sylvia Little, Charles Little, Vera Little, Roger Bonfils,
Marielie Saalmüller Bonfils, Adrien Bonfils, Wega Saalmüller Little,
Renée Bonfils, Ranger and Spook

(c. 1920)
albumen silver photograph
14.3 x 20.0 cm (image), 16.6 x 22.3 cm irreg. (sheet), 16.6 x 22.3 cm irreg. (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Following the sale of the hotel, Cedarhurst, in Brummana, Stefana’s home, Marmacén, in Puerto d’Andratx, became the focal point for the Armbruster, Little and Bonfils sisters and consequently their descendents. Stefana outlived all of her sisters, yet, the tradition of visits and letters carried on as her extended family continued to be drawn to their beloved Auntie Fana. From sister Stefana became aunt, great-aunt and great-great aunt and she took each role seriously. The latest known full-length letter written in her hand dates from her 100th year. In it she remarks on her failing eyesight and yet, over the next three years – even with the availability of the telephone and after she was unable to compose complete pages – she continued to sign her name on cards and notes.
Decades on, her hand-written name, Auntie Fana, makes manifest the bond between sisters that kept a dispersed family connected for generations.

by Pat Little
1 January 2012

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