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Clapham [née McVitie], Emily Mariafree

  • Susan Capes

Clapham [née McVitie], Emily Maria (1857–1952), couturier, was born at 59 St Paul Street North, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 22 December 1857, the eldest daughter in the family of at least two daughters and one son of Walter McVitie (1829–1874), a painter and house decorator, and his wife, Rhoda Hannah, née Glover (1834–1912). She left school at an early age and served as a domestic nurse in Cheltenham, before leaving for Scarborough in north Yorkshire to undertake a dressmaking apprenticeship at the Marshall and Snelgrove department store. On 6 April 1886, at All Saints Church in Scarborough, she married Haigh Clapham (1854–1950), a clerk from Wakefield, who was the son of William Clapham, a corn factor. They had no children.

In 1887 Emily and Haigh Clapham opened a dressmaking salon together at 1 Kingston Square, a respectable address in Hull. Just across the square, dances and social gatherings took place at the city's Assembly Rooms. Within a few years she assumed the title ‘Madame Clapham’ and the salon developed a reputation for producing dresses of exquisite quality, attracting high society ladies mainly from Hull and east Yorkshire but also from further afield. She became noted for her exclusive designs, attention to detail, and business acumen. Her real talent was in instinctively knowing which style and colour would suit a client. She rarely created designs from scratch but instead selected elements from gowns produced by London and Paris fashion houses and used these to piece together her own designs. Her team of dressmakers then crafted her designs into stunning garments.

The salon quickly became so successful that by 1891 the premises were expanded to include no. 2 Kingston Square, and then no. 3 about 1912. Madame Clapham did not undertake formal advertising but relied on personal recommendations from her clients. By the turn of the century she was designing dresses for Hilda Grotrian, who was the daughter-in-law of Sir James Reckitt, first baronet (of the Hull-based company Reckitt & Sons Ltd); Gwendolen, duchess of Norfolk (second wife of the fifteenth duke of Norfolk); Lady Ida Sitwell (wife of Sir George Sitwell, fourth baronet); Sybil, countess of Westmorland (wife of the thirteenth earl of Westmorland); and Grace, countess of Londesborough (wife of the second earl of Londesborough). She also supplied a robe and mantle worn by the eighth Viscount Chetwynd to attend King George V's coronation in 1911. One of her most loyal and influential customers was Muriel Wilson of Tranby Croft, a large country house in Anlaby on the outskirts of Hull. Muriel was the daughter of Arthur Wilson, who in the Edwardian period, with his brother Charles, ran the largest privately owned shipping company in the world. Muriel's attire was admired in social circles as far afield as London and New York. She purchased various gowns from Madame Clapham, including her wedding dress and bridesmaids' dresses in 1917.

By 1897 Madame Clapham was also using the title ‘Court Dresser’, designing dresses for débutantes to be presented at court. In 1904 she supplied a theatrical outfit for Princess Daisy of Pless, wife of Prince Hans Heinrich, fifteenth prince of Pless, head of one of the wealthiest royal families in Europe. Madame Clapham also achieved royal patronage through King Edward VII's daughter Queen Maud of Norway, who was by far her most famous client. From the 1920s she was visiting Sandringham twice a year to show selections of gowns to Queen Maud. The salon windows were emblazoned, 'By appointment to Her Majesty Queen Maud of Norway'.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Emily Clapham employed about 150 women in a variety of roles from dressmaking in the sparse workrooms to modelling gowns in the luxurious showrooms. She herself was a strict authority figure within the salon, where a rigid staff hierarchy operated. Apprentices were expected to call themselves ‘young ladies’ and were generally not allowed to talk when working. Each employee was given a brass ticket with their personal number stamped into it, which they had to place into a box on the top floor on arrival to prove that they had started work on time. If they arrived a minute late their wages were cut. In 1896 she was fined for a breach of the Factory Acts as a result of numerous complaints of young girls being asked to work late into the evening without breaks for food. Clapham rarely visited the workrooms and instead focused her attention on meeting clients in the showrooms. In her later years she barely visited the salon at all. When she did, employees were not allowed to address her unless spoken to and were expected to remain busy at work. Despite this, her employees felt great pride and prestige in creating clothing for the salon's high status clients. She was known for presenting her workers with generous presents when they married.

Emily Clapham had blue eyes and blonde hair, which she styled on top of her head. She always wore elegant floor-length dresses in black or navy. She was a Christian Scientist. She and her husband (who was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society) were well travelled, their visits including Montreal, Quebec, New York, Chicago, and Monaco. Once the business was established they did not always reside in Hull, although they always retained living quarters in Kingston Square. In the early twentieth century they were living in Bridlington, Swanland, and from about 1907 to the end of the First World War they had a home in Langley Avenue, Surbiton, Surrey. She is known to have visited London regularly, and an address near the city perhaps helped her to keep up to date with the latest styles, promote the business among the country's most fashionable clientele, and travel to customers more easily. She also visited Paris three or four times a year to view the collections of various fashion houses and purchase model gowns. By 1918 the business was so successful that the Claphams were able to acquire a large house on South Street in Cottingham, near Hull.

Madame Clapham struggled to adapt her elaborate designs to the simplified post-war fashions of the 1920s. Department stores began to create off the peg designs at more affordable prices. The salon began to function on a smaller scale, and was severely affected again in the Second World War when fabric was rationed. By then she was very elderly, and used an ear trumpet to assist her hearing. Haigh, who had always been committed to the business yet remained very much behind the scenes, died in 1950. Emily Clapham died on 10 January 1952 at her home, Southwood, South Street, Cottingham, Yorkshire, and was buried in Cottingham cemetery. The salon continued to operate under the direction of her niece, Miss Emily Wall, until its final closure in 1967, though its name remains visible in the ironwork above the door of 1 Kingston Square. A collection of dresses and ephemera from Madame Clapham's salon are in the collections of the Hands on History Museum in Hull. Emily Clapham possessed a rare spirit and determination which not only enabled her provincial business to flourish but identified Hull as a leading fashion centre.


  • A. Crowther, Madame Clapham: the celebrated dressmaker (1976)
  • J. Tyler and C. Parsons, Madame Clapham: Hull's celebrated dressmaker (1999)
  • A. Kjellberg and S. North, Style and splendour: the wardrobe of Queen Maud of Norway, 1896–1938 (2005)
  • R. Braithwaite, A Yorkshire trilogy: the house in Kingston Square (1985)
  • Swanland Heritage Trail, 2015,, 4 April 2016
  • passenger lists, TNA: PRO
  • census returns, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • photograph, Hull Museums; repro. in Tyler and Parsons, Madame Clapham (1999), cover

Wealth at Death

£34,624 5s. 6d.: probate, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London