Celeste - The unconquered blacksmith
Born to french aristocracy, scammed into poverty, and bouncing back to face all critics, including the British Admiralty – Celeste Sinibaldi was clearly an enterprising, charismatic woman. Her extraordinary tale is one of the stories that surfaced from a special project run as part of our New Wave cohort last year. We’re delighted not only to share this story with you now, but also to congratulate the Thames Discovery Team for their recent special commendation in the Heritage Alliance’s Heritage Storyteller Awards.
Written by… Dr. Claire Harris, Senior Community Archaeologist, Thames Discovery Programme
Voices from the river
Thames Discovery Programme are passionate about sharing stories from the Thames and we were delighted to be part of New Wave for Heritage Open Days 2022, working directly with 18-25 year olds to produce an exciting Thames-inspired event. ‘A Thames Lark’ aimed to amplify unheard voices from the past, unwrap hidden stories, and allow participants to explore an alternative history of the River Thames. Event participants followed a self-guided trail along the river, collecting pages from a special edition zine that had been designed and created by the group.
One of the stories the group wanted to share was that of Madame Marie Celeste De Casteras. Celeste’s story had been discovered and researched by one of the Thames Discovery Programme’s long-term volunteers, Ann Dingsdale. Ann’s research uncovered a fascinating tale of a passionate and determined woman who refused to be constrained by expectations of her time. Although Celeste was born over two hundred years ago the words used by men in power to describe and denigrate her are familiar today. Celeste was dismissed as “excitable”, “not in her right mind” and told by lawyers that she was mad; her noncompliance portrayed as insanity. The trope of the crazy woman has been used to silence women for generations, but Celeste refused to be conquered!
Written by… Ann Dingsdale, Thames Discovery Programme volunteer
Madame Marie Celeste De Casteras was born to a French aristocratic family in 1808. In 1841 she came to London and married Luigi Sinibaldi. He taught Italian and Celeste became a milliner. One of her customers was the Duchess of Buccleuch who kindly gave financial help to the young Sinibaldi family when they, like so many, lost their savings in the railway shares stock market scam.
Around 1851 Celeste met the inventor Jean Sisco. She was so fascinated by his ideas that she became his passionate advocate, and also his apprentice, learning blacksmithing, brazing, and other metalworking skills. The Duke of Buccleuch became interested in Sisco’s machine for making chains and purchased the patent for it. Celeste wanted to assist Sisco in the manufacture of anchor chains, a much more expensive proposition. The duke’s solicitor advised caution and considered Celeste unreliable. He wrote:
“… no confidence can be placed in her. She is so excitable and easily led that you never could feel sure that any money placed at her disposal would be applied to the objects intended …. I think in fact that at times Madame Sinibaldi is not in her right mind…"
Breaking the chain (of command)
Nevertheless, that same year a chain made with Sisco’s machine was tested by the Admiralty. The chain nearly broke the testing machine. Unfortunately, the “excitable” Celeste rushed to the press with a glowing account. Peeved, the Admiralty refused to publish the report because she had not observed protocol.
In 1855 Luigi, her husband, disappeared. Undeterred, Celeste moved to London with her three children and continued blacksmithing. Eleven years later, in 1862, Celeste went with Sisco’s invention to the International Exhibition. An article of the time mentioned Mdm. Sinibaldi and the successful chain test, commenting that despite the Admiralty’s rejection, “Madame Sinibaldi toiled on, hoping against hope, and now she sits at her table in the Exhibition with her chains and links and samples before her, explaining them to all, like the brave woman she is. And she insists on the applicability of the system, not merely to chains but to armour plates…”
She experimented with laminating iron and copper plates for battleship armour. In 1862 she took out her own patents and defying prejudice, Celeste aimed to set up her own company needing to raise £5,000 capital. At this point, she really came up against the full force of male disapproval. Negotiating with lawyers, they told her she was mad.
Several navy men were interested in giving support. However, Celeste had assumed that the Duke of Buccleuch would be Chairman of her ‘British Navies Conservation Company’. When he refused, the investors melted away. In one of her last letters to the duke, dated 1866, Celeste wrote that she believed in the “real value of women” by contrast to the “moneyed men” of England who wouldn’t follow through on projects they started. That letter was signed:
the unconquered blacksmith
C. Sinibaldi née de Casteras
Find out more
- Discover more stories from A Thames Lark
- Thames Discovery Programme
- Upcoming event: Women at Work - a Thames Discovery Programme event to uncover forgotten stories from the River Thames.
- Read more stories of Extraordinary Women on our previous posts
- Learn more about the New Wave programme
- The Heritage Alliance's Heritage Heroes awards