Jessie May Aldington, author of ‘Love Letters that caused a Divorce’ and ‘Meg of the Salt Pans’, was born in Hythe in 1872. She was the daughter of Charles Godfree, a Sergeant Major in the Army Hospital Corps, who was temporarily stationed at the Hythe School of Musketry, and Eliza Burden, the daughter of a Rolvenden shoemaker. According to The Sphere she was descended from the family of John Gay, who wrote The Beggar’s Opera.1 The family moved frequently due to Charles’s work, living at Hythe, Rolvenden, Bermuda and Portsea. Jessie remembers her parents being sent copies of the Kentish Express during their five years in Bermuda, which her mother read word for word.2

By 1881, the family had settled in Dover at 14, Liverpool St, which was in the St James area of the town. May, as she preferred to be known, lived here until her father retired from the army and took on the license of the Bell and Anchor Inn in Sandwich.

When her parents and younger siblings moved to London, May remained with her two aunts, Isabel and Catherine, at the Bell and Anchor,3 and it was here that she met her future husband Albert Aldington, a Dover solicitor, whom she married in a ‘shot gun wedding’ in 1891.4 The couple had two children, Edward (the poet Richard Aldington) and Margery.

Moving to a large yellow brick house, no. 5, Godwyne Road, Dover, the Aldingtons lived a comfortable life, sending their son to Mr Sweetman’s Seminary for Young Gentlemen at St Margaret’s Bay, where he learned French and Latin, before attending Dover College. Richard remembers passing the ‘sad housemaids’ whitening the steps on his way to school.5

Albert was a ‘gentle studious docile man’ with a library of around 2,000 books including Keats, Harrison Ainsworth, Sir Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde. He wrote two books, one of which was the Queen’s Preferment published in 1896.6 In contrast, May was outgoing and energetic, enjoying golf, cycling and watching cricket.7 However, beneath this vitality was a tempestous nature; her daughter Margery said: ‘she flourished and thrived on a first class “row” at least once a week, but it shattered the rest of us’.8

Albert, who was involved in the British Homes Assurance Company which allowed people to ‘secure a roof over their heads free from landlord’s control’, began buying and selling property,9 possibly with the involvement of May’s brother10 and the family moved to Warwick Lodge, Walmer, a larger and more modern house.11

In 1905, May published her first book, Love Letters that caused a Divorce, a series of letters detailing the temptations of Kitty Yorke, and convinced the local newspaper office to fill its windows with copies.12 Richard wrote: ‘This work was designed to extinguish Marie Corelli and Elinor Glyn, but unluckily failed to do so.’ 13 Reviews described it as ‘evidently written by a woman who thoroughly understands her own sex, for all the inconsistencies of the feminine character are clearly shown, as are the struggles of Kitty to stifle this illicit love’.14 Richard, wrote of his parents: ‘though literate, he wrote so badly. Mother’s novels, though hideously vulgar and illiterate, have much more vitality.’(3)15

In the summer of 1906, the Aldingtons bought Rothiemay at St Margaret’s of Cliffe, where Albert became Master of the Foreland Lodge of Freemasons.16 In Ursula Bloom’s memoir Holiday Mood she recalls ‘Aldington’s people were well off, and had a comfortable house in which they entertained quite a lot.’17 Their lifestyle was described both as Bohemian and modern.18 However, after making some poor business decisions, Rotheimay had to be sold and May and the children moved to Sandwich.19 Relations between the couple became strained. During this period, May wrote short stories for Cassell’s Magazine, The Story-teller, The English Illustrated Magazine and The Red Magazine, published by Alfred Harmsworth, as well as an anthology of poems Songs of Life published in 1907. A novel God’s Toys published in 1908 was criticised for ‘over-moralisation’.20

Meg of the Salt Pans which was described as her best work, was published in 1909.21 The story begins in a an East Kent inn where the villagers gather to discuss local and national affairs. Meg ‘a child of nature’ helps her grandmother, run the inn, attracting the attention of two beaux: a young scientific farmer educated at Wynne (Wye) College and a dashing Lance-Corporal Jones, of the Dragoon Guards, who is stationed at Canterbury. Meg, on her grandmother’s advice, makes an unhappy marriage with the Lance-Corporal.22 A review of the book praises the authoress who ‘has given us several excellent pen pictures of Kentish people — people that we seem to know without being able to actually recognise’.23 Although place names were obscured, it is likely that Sandport is Sandwich, and that the book draws on May’s own experiences living at the Bell and Anchor. In the same year, May’s second daughter Joan was christened at Sandwich. After the birth of Joan, the family moved to London and in 1911 Tony was born. May continued to write, with her novels The King called Love and A Man of Kent published in 1913.

During the war, Albert worked for the Ministry of Munitions whilst May ran the Mermaid Inn at Rye, where 40 army officers were billeted.24 She wrote Love Letters to a Soldier (1915), echoing the title of her earlier work, and sentimental jingoistic poetry about the war which was published in the Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer and The Sunday Mirror, later as Roll of Honour and Other Poems. Her poem In Proud Memory of May 9th 1915 ends with the lines ‘In dreams we share your battles too, and know your victories sweet’. The Battle of Aubers had been a military disaster for the British with huge casualties. May’s poetry was exactly the sort of mawkish poetry that her son, Richard, despised.25

After the war, Albert took on clerical work in Malcolm Hilbery’s Chambers in Holborn. May installed her lover, Vivian Watkins, at the Mermaid, as Albert had refused a divorce. Richard, commenting on his father, said ‘His refusal to divorce was surely Roman Catholic twaddle?’26 When Albert died in 1921, May refused to attend his funeral, marrying Watkins later that year. Albert left money to Richard and Margery, but not Joan or Tony.27 May and Vivian had shared business interests. She bought the Woolpack at Tenterden in 199228 and he was the licensee of the St. Margaret’s Bay Hotel, from 1925 and the Hotel Sanclu at Ramsgate from 1926.29

In the later years of her life, May was often strapped for cash and begged Richard for money. In 1938, she reported a theft of a mink coat, fox furs, squirrel coats and a diamond and platinum bracelet from her car30 and in 1939 she made an application to the Literary Fund for money.31 In 1946 Richard wrote to his brother Tony: ‘I have had a hideous grouse from Mother on the usual trouble. Netta who is probably sound, says she is just trying to get some dibs out of me to go pub-crawling behind your back. Well, old boy, I leave it to you. Take any money of mine you need to make the old girl comfortable, but protect yourself from the horrid results of her convivial habits.’32 She died on the 20th March, 1954. Her address was the Watchbell House, Rye, Sussex, temporarily of the Temperance Hotel, Tenterden. Kent.33


  1. “Mrs May Aldington.” The Sphere, Saturday 19 June 1909. 

  2. “Mrs Mary Adington.” Kentish Express, Saturday 19 July 1930. 

  3. Whelpton, Vivien. Richard Aldington: Poet, Soldier and Lover 1911-1929, p.21 

  4. Whelpton, p.20 

  5. Doyle, Charles. Richard Aldington : a biography Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press, p.3 

  6. Doyle, p.3 

  7. “A solicitor’s wife’s action for damages.” Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Saturday 25 July 1903. 

  8. Doyle, p.2. 

  9. Dover Express, Friday 19 April 1901; Dover Express, Friday 26 April 1901. 

  10. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald, Saturday 05 March 1904. 

  11. “A solicitor’s wife’s action for damages.” Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Saturday 25 July 1903. 

  12. Doyle, p.3. 

  13. Doyle, p.3. 

  14. “From the Publishers.” Kentish Express, Saturday 28 October 1905. 

  15. Doyle, p.3 

  16. Whelpton, p.24. 

  17. Whelpton, p.25. 

  18. Whelpton, p.25. 

  19. Whelpton, p.33 

  20. Graphic, Saturday 15 August 1908. 

  21. “An East Kent Novel: Meg of the Salt Pans.” Dover Express, Friday 11 June 1909. 

  22. “New Novels by Kent Authoresses.” Kentish Express - Saturday 20 November 1909 

  23. Dover Express, Friday 11 June 1909. 

  24. Whelpton, p.262. 

  25. Bristow, Gemma. May Aldington’s Roll of Honour as a Sidelight on Death of a Hero 

  26. Doyle, p.3. 

  27. Wills and Probate. 

  28. Pall Mall Gazette, Monday 30 January 1922. 

  29. Dover Express - Friday 17 November 1933 

  30. Daily Mirror, 15 March 1938. 

  31. Loan 96 RLF 1/3650/ 

  32. p.246. 

  33. Kentish Express, Friday 29 July 1955