An investigation into our hidden histories. This week: model Lily Cole
At the age of 18, Lily Cole is one of Britain’s top models. She is also one the slimmest and was sharply criticised this week for being too thin. (“I’m fine,” she countered. “I eat.”) Having already earned £10 million from her work, Lily recently gained straight As in her A-levels and secured a place at King’s College, Cambridge, to read social and political science. She was talent-spotted four years ago while in Soho, London, and snapped up by Storm Models. In 2004 she was named “Model of the Year” at the British Fashion Awards. Despite the fame and fortune, Lily remains level-headed. Is there anything in her family background that keeps her feet so firmly on the ground?
Who is she related to?
Lily Luahana Cole was born in Torbay, Devon, in 1987, the daughter of Christopher James Cole and his wife Patience Sandra Cole, formerly Owen, an artist from Wales. Christopher was 43 and Patience 36 when they married in 1985. Christopher, who was working in Torbay as a fisherman, came originally from Nether Compton in Dorset. There is no immediately identifiable “family profession” in the Cole lineage. Christopher was the son of an estate agent and auctioneer, Frederick Harry Cole, who married Maud Louise Farley in 1925. Her father was in the same profession, but this was not the original line of work for the family. Frederick’s father, George Richard Cole, was first a butcher and then a farmer, and was successful enough to ensure that his son received the education that enabled him to become an estate agent.
George Richard’s father, George Owen Cole, was an innkeeper in Montacute, near Yeovil in Somerset, having previously run a butcher’s shop. Another of his sons, Michael, followed him into the inn trade, and remained living with his parents and six other siblings at the time of the 1901 census. Clearly this was a crowded inn – aside from the family, a further two visitors and a couple of lodgers were also resident there on the night of the census.
George Cole senior played an important part in the local community. Before starting out as a butcher, he had worked as a dairyman – a key retailer in days before refrigeration, when people bought their milk, cream and cheese on a daily basis. Each local community would therefore have separate retail outlets within easy walking distance for a variety of fresh produce — dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables — a fact we often take for granted in today’s world of supermarkets, with everything under one roof.
Even George’s father would have been well known in Montacute: he also ran a pub, the King’s Arms.
Lily’s maternal line is equally fascinating in terms of revealing how people and communities changed over time. Her mother, Patience Sandra Owen, was the daughter of a labourer in a brickworks, David Wyndham Owen. He had started out as a miner in Wales, like his father, Thomas John Owen. David married a girl from Sussex, Kathleen Sylvia Young, whose mother was a bit of a mystery. Born Doris Benttell Leeves in 1896, when there was no record of her father, in 1901 she was living with her grandparents, Jabez and Frances Leeves and their daughter, Florence, who worked as a general servant.
There are classic signs of illegitimacy here, and it is likely that Doris’s unusual middle name might provide a clue to the surname of her natural father.
The family was hardly well off and in 1881 Jabez and his children earned a living in poultry, fattening up chickens for slaughter. Once again, this appears to be a family profession: several generations of Leeves also worked either collecting or gathering up chickens.
It’s clearly a far cry from the glamorous world that Lily now inhabits.
Next week: actor Rupert Everett.