Elsa D'Esterre-Keeling and Her Sisters, Eleonore and Ada


Novelist, translator and educator Elizabeth Henrietta (Elsa) D’Esterre-Keeling was born in Dublin on Nov. 16, 1857. Between 1884 and 1902, she wrote nine novels, two plays and a biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Around the turn of the twentieth century, she wrote extensively for various British children’s magazines and literary journals.

Elsa and her two sisters completed their educations in Germany. Elsa began her multi-faceted career there as a young woman, working as a translator to the British Legation in Stuttgart and to the British Consulate General in Frankfurt. Her most successful novel, Three Sisters, or Sketches of a Highly Original Family, chronicles those early years. She completed a major work of translation, Friedrich von Bodenstedt's Songs of Mirza Schaffy, in 1880.

In the early 1880s, Elsa moved to London with her mother and Eleonore and served as a schoolmistress (Oxford; Kensington, London, 1884-1890) while writing her novels. After 1900, she dropped the “Keeling” from her name and adopted the uniform of a simple blue robe and sandals. Known to her friends as "Amica" and professionally as "Mme. D’Esterre,"* she founded her own school, “Danvers College,” on the Chelsea Embankment. As a preeminent teacher of elocution and literature, her clientele ranged from Members of Parliament and royalty to women of all ages. Among other educational ventures, she headed her own “School for Dames and Damsels,” “Simple Life School,” and special courses for curing shyness and blushing.

Elsa never married. She adopted twelve children, remaining close with at least three of them until her death. Two adopted children, Flora Mary D'Esterre (b. 1898, Aberdeen) and Jessamy D'Esterre (also used the surname Reynolds, b. 1897, London, d. 1966, Chelsea), lived with Elsa in Bedford at the time of the 1911 British census. A third child, Nona D'Esterre-Herbert, was adopted by Elsa at age nine and died in Chelsea in June 2003 at age 101. Other possible adopted children have only been identified by their given names: Sylvia, Katherine, Andrew, Jane, Joan, Helen and Ian.

Elsa died at age 77 of "senile decay" at 4 Catherine Villas in Wimbledon on January 13, 1935. Marian (or Marion) Harmer signed the death certificate. Dulcie Douglas and Evelyn Douglas were residents of that house. She is buried at Hanwell Cemetery, Kensington and Chelsea, London.

* Elsa D'Esterre-Keeling is not to be confused with actress Catherine D'Esterre, who used the stage name Mme. D'Esterre. In the 1920s, Catherine D'Esterre portrayed Mrs. Hudson in a series of Sherlock Holmes silent films produced by the Stoll Film Company.

Books by Elsa D’Esterre-Keeling

  • English translation of Bodenstedt, Friedrich, Lieder des Mirza Schaffy. (Hamburg: K. Gradener, 1880). 
  • Bib and Tucker: Being the Revelations of an Infant In Arms. An Absurdity. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1884).
  • Three Sisters; or Sketches of a Highly Original Family. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1884).
  • Laughing Philosopher, Being the Revelations of an Infant in Arms: An Absurdity, Together with Two Comic Plays: (The True Story of Catherine Parr, and How the First Queen of England Was Wooed and Won). (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1886).
  • The Professor's Wooing: Being the Courtships of Monsieur La Mie. (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1887).
  • In Thoughtland and in Dreamland. (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1890; London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1890).
  • Orchardscroft: the Story of an Artist. (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1892; London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892).
  • Appassionata. A Musician's Story. (London: William Heinemann, 1893; New York: R. Bonner's Sons, 1893; Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1894).
  • Old Maids and Young. (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1896).
  • A Return to Nature: A Kentish Idyll. (London: Jarrold & Sons, 1897).
  • The Queen's Serf; Being the Adventures of Ambrose Gwinett in England and Spanish America. (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898; Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1899).
  • Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. (London: W. Scott Pub. Co., 1902; New York, Scribner's, 1902).
Periodicals with contributions by Elsa D’Esterre-Keeling

AcademyCassell’s Family Magazine; Dublin ReviewGentleman’s MagazineGirls Own PaperParents’ Review; Temple BarWestminster Review.


Elsa's older sister, concert pianist, writer and lecturer Eleonore Jane D’Esterre-Keeling, was born in Dublin on June 8, 1856. In Germany, Eleonore studied music first at the Royal Conservatory at Stuttgart and then in Frankfurt. She moved to London in the 1880s with her mother and Elsa. In 1897 she compiled The Music of the Poets: A Musicians’ Birthday Book, a popular publication in diary format, published in multiple editions.

On September 28, 1903, Eleonore married widower William Carl Ferdinand Hermann Stahl of Lewisham (b. 1848, Dortmund, Germany, son of barrister Christoph Ludwig Hermann August Stahl). William Stahl’s first wife, Georgina Julia Britton Stahl (b. 1856), died in March of that year, leaving their son Hermann Carl Farrar Stahl (b. December, 1880) and daughter Sybil Stahl (b. December 9, 1892). William, Eleonore and Sybil moved from London to Jersey, Channel Islands, where William died in 1912. Hermann Stahl, Eleonore’s stepson, was employed by Jerantut Plantations, Ltd. of the Federated Malay States as manager of the company’s estate in Pahang. He died there of pneumonia on May 10, 1920.

Eleonore’s stepdaughter, Sybil Stahl, married James Patrick Gallinagh in Jersey in January 1915. The couple spent their first years of marriage in Singapore, where Gallinagh was employed by the Central Engine Works, Ltd. Around the time of her brother’s death in 1920, Sybil left for London and changed her name. As “Dolores Denison,” she became a costumer and appeared on stage in a revival of “The Beggar’s Opera.” James Gallinagh filed a petition for nullity of the marriage in 1924. Sybil moved with Eleonore to Bath, Somerset in the 1930s and died there on September 7, 1974. James Patrick Gallinagh died in Lewisham on January 28, 1963.

Dolores Denison (Sybil Stahl) was present at Eleonore's death on April 4, 1939 in Bath, Somerset.

An obituary for Eleonore Stahl in the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald (April 15, 1939) states: 

"...under the pen-name of 'A Daughter of Eve' [she] wrote an enchanting book 'A Woman’s Utopia,' published by Ernest Benn, Ltd., in 1931, at the age of 75!" (This book has been incorrectly attributed to American author Ellen Olney Kirk, who died in 1928. The error likely originated through confusion with Kirk's 1889 novel entitled A Daughter of Eve. Many details in A Woman's Utopia are consistent with Stahl's life history, but not with Kirk's.) Ernest Benn also published Eleonore's translation from German to English of Liesbit Dill's novel, The Boundary Post and her translations of several short stories from Italian to English for Decio Pettoello's collection, Great Italian Short Stories (1930).



The youngest of the sisters, Ada Churchill D'Esterre-Keeling, died tragically at age nineteen while serving as an "English companion" in Russia for the Savelieff family at their estate, Tritusna (near Ekaterinoslav, now Dnipro, Ukraine). In a failed attempt to rescue one of the Savelieff daughters, Ada, a governess and two maids all drowned in the Dnieper River.


Parents of the Three Sisters: ADELAIDE ELEANOR HUGHES and JOHN KEELING

The three D'Esterre-Keeling sisters were daughters of Adelaide Eleanor Hughes (1835-1900) and Dublin book merchant and publisher John Keeling. Adelaide and John were married in Dublin in 1855. John Keeling published the Dublin edition of the Dublin Hospital Gazette from 4 Leinster Street. John Churchill (for whom Ada most likely received her middle name) published the London edition of that journal. John and Adelaide first lived at 2 Coburgh Place and moved 13 De Grey Terrace in Dublin by 1857. Elsa might have believed that her father died when she was very young. In truth, John Keeling was first imprisoned for debts in 1860, then sentenced to ten years imprisonment for forgeries in 1862, serving the majority of that term in Australia. He died prior to Adelaide's death in 1900. 



Adelaide (Hughes) D'Esterre-Keeling was the daughter of sea captain Samuel Robert Hughes (b. 1807, d. 1853, illness) of 18 Coburgh Place, Dublin, where he owned several properties. Samuel was the son of Robert and Elizabeth Hughes of London. It appears that Adelaide’s mother was Eleanor Jane Johnson (possibly 1810-1862), who married Samuel Hughes in Dublin in 1834. 

Samuel Hughes and Eleanor Jane Johnson had three other known children, all born in Dublin: 

William R. Hughes appears to have been merchant in Dublin, although his identity as a sibling is unconfirmed. 

Samuel Robert Hughes (1841-1892) was naturalized as a US citizen in 1874. As a widower, he married Ellinor Josephine Nagle of San Francisco in 1876. Their children were: Catherine (Kate) Adelaide D'Esterre-Hughes*, Samuel Hazen Hughes, Edward Robert Hughes and Ellinor Josephine D'Esterre-Hughes. 

Known children of Samuel Hazen Hughes and his wife, Matilda Emily Lawson Nelson, (grandchildren of Samuel Robert Hughes) were: Samuel Edward Hughes, Ethel M. Hughes Percifull, Charles Robert Hughes, Daniel H. Hughes and Gladys D'Esterre Hughes Beck, all of New York.

Emma Elizabeth D'Esterre-Hughes (1844-1910) was a schoolmistress in England. She never married.

Catherine (Kate) D’Esterre-Hughes was born in 1876 in California. After the death of her father in 1892, she moved with her mother, brother Charles and sister Eleanor to London. In 1904 she worked as assistant to Claude Goodman Johnson, Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland. That year Johnson became managing director Rolls-Royce (in fact he was known as the “hyphen in Rolls-Royce”). The following year, an exclusive ladies’ version of the Automobile Club formed, and Kate became its secretary. No familial link has been established between Claude Goodman Johnson and Kate’s grandmother, Eleanor Jane Johnson Hughes (wife of Samuel Hughes of Dublin), but such a relationship might explain her association with the Automobile Club. She returned to the U.S. by 1920 and, after a stay in New York, became custodian of the Watt Branch of the Napa County Free Library in Napa, California. She died in Santa Clara in 1949, unmarried, with no children.

Engineer and noted astronomer Charles Robert D’Esterre filed patents with Claude Goodman Johnson. Born Charles Roberts, he changed his surname to D’Esterre as a young adult. His tie to the D’Esterre family (and in particular, to the D’Esterre-Hughes branch) has not yet been discovered. 

To contribute or correct information about the D’Esterre-Keeling family,
please email AboutElsa@gmail.com

Copyright Martha Burgin, 2013