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Tuesday, 8 September 2020

The sad and troubled life of Florence "Florrie" M. Cox

An extract from God's Triangle, my investigation into what happened to Florence Martha "Florrie" Cox of Melbourne, Australia, after she married the Baptist missionary, the Revd Frank Ernest Paice, who was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, but was brought up in Australia:

Florence Martha “Florrie” Cox (later Paice) 1887-1950 

Florrie Cox was born at home in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond on November 5, 1887, the third of six children born to Arthur and Amelia Cox. It was a very religious family—extremely so in the case of some members. 

Amelia was very strict, with church-going, hymns, prayers and reading the bible being the only activities permitted on Sundays. Even the meals were prepared the day before. There were complaints in the family about the time Amelia devoted to church activities, often to the detriment to her perceived responsibilities as a mother and housewife. It was as though she were acquiring credit points to ensure her place in Heaven. 

I have not been able to learn anything significant about Florrie’s father, Arthur, as he had died before any of his surviving descendants were old enough to absorb impressions of him. 

Florrie had two brothers, Arthur and Charles. Her sisters were, in order of birth, Amelia (known as “Minnie”, perhaps to differentiate her from her mother), Alice and Lois. 

The two brothers could hardly have been less alike. Arthur was my grandfather and was a forceful, intolerant, humourless, status-conscious, hypocritical and sometimes-violent man with few friends. His religious fervour led him into several bouts of insanity that required hospital treatment. During the Second World War, he was diagnosed with religious mania and dismissed as a major in the Australian Army after declaring to his men that he was Jesus Christ’s second-in-command. 

By contrast, his younger brother Charles—universally known as “Charlie”—was a polite and placid businessman who never forced his views on anyone. He had no interest in religion and attended church very rarely and only when pushed to do so by his wife. By all accounts, he was widely liked and admired. 

Florrie Cox’s sisters, Minnie and Alice, were both married with children, while her sister Lois battled tuberculosis throughout her teenage years before dying when just 22. Little else is known of the three sisters, nor has it been possible to establish exactly what Florrie Cox was like in her early years. She was, though, sufficiently religious to become a Sunday School teacher and later to take on the considerable burdens of a missionary wife in one of the more arduous and remote postings the Baptist Church could offer. 

Florrie was unusually tall for a woman in that era—about six feet or 183cms. She became engaged to Frank Paice when she was 24, which would have been considered rather late. In those days, women who weren’t “fixed up” to be married by their early twenties were usually fearful of being left “on the shelf”, and as spinsters, were often viewed as unfulfilled persons. 

On the other hand, men who did not marry would be referred to, often with affection and respect, as “confirmed bachelors”. The strong possibility that many of these men were closet homosexuals did not seem to be considered. 

In the light of what we know about Florrie’s mother and other conservative members of that family, there must have been great joy that she was to be married—and not just married to anyone, but married to a Man of God and a missionary. 

There is no precise record of when Frank and Florrie were engaged, but the indications are that it was not long before Frank sailed for India in October, 1912. 

Though society contained pockets of uninhibited licentiousness in the early 1900s, sexual attitudes for most people—particularly staunch Christians—were very rigid and oppressive. Married women could expect to have many pregnancies in their reproductive life, but they would be told little about the “facts of life”, as sexual knowledge was euphemistically called. 

The more liberal-minded families might offer a newly-married woman a book on “married women’s health”. These books touched on reproductive matters, but were usually very coy and often ill-informed. (One such book included the “fact” that the best way to avoid pregnancies was to engage in conjugal relations midway between the monthly periods.) 

It was widely felt that wives should simply follow the lead of their husbands in the marital bed, though in the majority of cases, their husbands were almost as anxious and sexually ignorant as their wives. The only truly effective form of contraception was abstinence. This was not seen by devout Christian women as a burden, as it was considered very unladylike to enjoy sex, or at least to admit to enjoying it. 

I remember overhearing elderly female relatives declaring that it was important for married women to “maintain Christian standards in the bedroom”. I took this to mean that any sexual activity should be confined to the so-called “missionary position” with the man always on top in the traditional manner. 

These standards would also require that any nudity be as discreet as possible. (One of my Cox family aunts once proudly declared that her husband had never seen her naked.) 

The accepted attitude of married women towards sex—not helped by the fear of yet another pregnancy—often had a discouraging impact on their husbands. Even in my youth in the 1950s, it was quite common for married men to scornfully dismiss sex as “an over-rated indoor sport”. 

To avoid being carried away by sexual desires, courting couples in the early 1900s were normally not allowed to be alone together until such time as they became engaged. When they went out together on a date, they would be required to do so with a chaperone. 

Keeping this in mind, Florrie and Frank would have had few opportunities for sexual encounters before Frank left Australia. Even when Florrie joined him in Calcutta two years later, she and her fiancĂ© would have been allowed little or no time together. Nor, as devout Christians, would they have wanted it any other way. 

If the social and sexual climate had been more relaxed—dare I say, enlightened—it is quite possible that the marriage between Frank and Florrie would never have taken place. However, given their status in the community and the laws of that time, breaking off an engagement was almost as difficult as a divorce is today. One or other of the parties could have sued for “breach of promise”. This was something not treated lightly by the courts and often ended up with public humiliation in the newspapers and the payment of financial compensation by the offending party. 

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Paperback, Kindle and eBook copies of God's Triangle are available HERE.  

Read the reviews HERE.

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