The Engelbert Sisters: Young Artists

Karl ‘Charles’ Engelbert and Clara ‘Clare’ Katzenstein lived in London and had three children. Alice was born on 25 September 1901. Dorothy ‘Doris’ was born on 23 November 1904. The youngest, Reggie ‘Renny’, was born in 1911. The family were well off and the children had an affluent upbringing.

‘A cook, maids and nurses were employed to help Clare. The little girls, Alice and Doris often played with their nurse in Kensington and Charles was one of the first to own an electric car.

In 1910 he moved his family to the quiet village of Hildenborough in Kent and Reggie was born there in 1911. The house, Meopham Park, which he bought was large and set in 120 acres of land. Charles’ business was on the whole successful and he became a Freemason and was elected to the Worshipful Company of Musicians. The children were taught by a governess and Charles commuted to London each day.’

Dorothy was musically inclined, while Alice was particularly artistic.

Alice (left) and Dorothy (right). Image source

Tragedy struck on 6th June 1913, when their father was found dead.

‘Just four weeks short of his 42nd birthday, one Friday evening, Charles set off to drive to Tonbridge Station to meet a friend of the London train but never arrived. The next morning, he was found drowned in his car which had somehow crashed into the River Medway from the Ensfield bridge at Leigh. Clare was left with three children, Alice aged 11, Doris 8 and Reggie not quite 2.

Charles’ death meant a considerable family financial crisis, as it came at the time of heavy declines in stock market values. There is some suggestion that his partner, who was an executor of his will, may have incurred debts himself and decamped to South Africa with the money. At any rate, it appears although Charles left a large estate, after paying creditors there was little left for the bereaved family.

From being well off, the family found themselves in a state of comparative poverty. Within six weeks, the house was sold to pay outstanding debts, the car was sold, the furniture was put in store and the household staff were let go. Clara decided to move her family back to London. It was no longer financially possible to employ staff and during the next year the family moved four times to various rented furnished boarding houses in different parts of Hampstead.’

The sisters attended the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. The children and young people attending the Religious School at the synagogue created a plethora of work, from stories to drawings and poems. These documents from 1915-1916 were bound to create a record of childhood experiences in the First World War. After being hidden for decades, these sources were later discovered in the institution’s archives. Alice and Dorothy both contributed to the pieces in the books.

Such extensive documents recording the experiences of children in the war are rare, making these documents particularly special. The writings and artwork shows how the children were feeling, what they witnessed and how they coped with life during the war. 

‘Judgement Day’ by Alice. Source
Drawing by Alice. Source
Painting by Alice. Source
Drawing by Dorothy. Source
Story written by Dorothy. Source

In 1917, the family moved to Bexhill to escape the bombings in London. Reggie was sent to boarding school, while Alice and Doris went to a local school to finish their education.

‘They were undoubtedly affected by the war and Doris always remembered how she felt on hearing that the brother of one of her classmates had been killed in action.’

Despite their creative talent, after leaving school both sisters trained for jobs in which they could enjoy more financial security. Alice worked in the city for 9 years and hated it. Dorothy wanted to pursue music or medicine, but could not afford this. Instead, she became a secretary.

Alice later decided to follow her dreams and set up a business as an Interior Designer. Dorothy was persuaded by Dr Emmanuel Miller, a child psychiatrist, to enter the medical profession. She studied at London School of Economics to receive a diploma in social work. Subsequently, she became one of the first psychiatric social workers in the country.

he began working at the Child Guidance Clinic at Guys Hospital and in 1940 met Simon Behrman, a consultant physician. He was initially uncertain whether Doris was Jewish until one day he asked her out and she commented that it was the Day of Atonement.

They were engaged later that year and Simon’s parents were keen that the wedding should take place in the United Synagogue at Cricklewood, which they were founding members of. However, they were so delighted that he had found a Jewish bride that they agreed to attend a wedding at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS). 

Unfortunately, the night before the wedding in 1940 LJS was bombed. Although the Church across the road offered its building to hold services for the Synagogue, a church wedding was a step too far for Simon’s parents and they were consequently married at United Synagogue Cricklewood.

Quotes sourced from