06 Mar 2023
by Dr. Claire Harris

An illustration of a women from the neck up, the outline of her head is traced by a chain, either side are blue flames.
Illustration of Celeste from A Thames Lark zine. (© Anja Schwegler)

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.

Crazy’ labels

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!

A map illustration of the Thames, the cover of A Thames Lark.
The beautiful zine produced for A Thames Lark. (© Linnea Maertens. Instagram: @linmae_art)

Celeste’s story

Written by… Ann Dingsdale, Thames Discovery Programme volunteer

Aristocratic beginnings

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.

An illustration of a women working on a iron anvil, with drawn tools either side of her.
Celeste at the forge. (© Anja Schwegle. Instagram: @anja.schwegler)
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.

A black and white photo of 5 blacksmiths working on a gigantic chain - big enough for a cruise anchor.
These men are hand forging the Titanic's anchor chain. Machines to make chains revolutionised the industry. (© WikiCommons / Public Domain)

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,

A postcard showing the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace - the exhibition area overshadowed in the glass structured building.
Celeste's unconquerable spirit took her to exhibit her work at the Crystal Palace. (© Wellcome Images / wood engraving by W. E. Hodgkin)

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:

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