Priscilla P’s story

Much was made of Priscilla’s husband’s ability to father a cricket team, with newspapers describing his eleven sons as fine, healthy, energetic young men. However, what is never mentioned is that it was Priscilla who had to carry and give birth to each of them – and their three sisters too – and she spent 10 and a half years of her life pregnant.

She grew up in the 1820s in the London and Home Counties areas, the daughter of an excise officer – a relatively stable position, and one that would have led to a comfortable but not overly wealthy lifestyle for his family. She was one of the younger children in the family. There were at least four sisters, and three brothers who all went on to undertake skilled trades.

At 20 she married an excavator who had come from “humble beginnings” and was on the rise in the railway business under Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Three children, two boys and a girl, followed quickly afterwards, and the family moved to Wiltshire where her husband was employed as a contractor in the Great Western Railway.

Over the next sixteen years, Priscilla gave birth to another ten children – nine boys, one girl, at a rate of about one every two years – which meant that she exceeded Queen Victoria’s output of the same period. At this time it was considered to be a way of being a good woman in the eyes of God to breed and bring up as many children as possible, and this was believed to be a woman’s priority in life. Another reason for having a large family is that often a couple of the children would not survive until adulthood – but all of Priscilla’s did, which perhaps gave rise to the fuss made over her husband’s cricket team of fine healthy sons, as this proved his strong breeding stock. The fact that it was Priscilla who had actually done the hard work in carrying all these children to term, giving birth to them, and breastfeeding them until they weaned (bottle feeding wasn’t necessarily an option for her earliest children, since the earliest bottles started to be developed in the 1850s, and wet-nurses were only employed by royalty/nobility or in cases where the mother had died) appears not to have mattered a jot.

Her husband’s memoirs refer to them having done their duty to Queen and Country by having so many children, and further say:

“And I must here say that if I had not been blessed with one of the very best of wives I never could have gone through all I have nor carried out the works I have done without her help. She acted as my cashier, throughout nearly all the works, sometimes drawing the money from the Banks, and collecting silver from other sources, and often had to sit up until midnight, counting and tying up many hundreds of pounds in small bags for me to throw out of the trains to the gangs on the maintenance and other works along the line. This she continued to do until the family got too large and the works so increased, when her brother came down and took it out of her hands.

And I am bound to say that if there was any credit due in carrying out work or bringing up our family, the greater share belonged to my devoted WIFE.”

In modern times, anyone handling the money and books in this way would at very least have been credited as having the job of a cashier, if not a book keeper or even an accountant. But because Priscilla was a woman and his wife, her job and skills here are not credited and by the standards of the day she was expected to do this as a wife of a businessman.

Priscilla Penton

Her husband’s eventual obituary described her as “an admirable woman … a thorough helpmeet to him in life, and who had considerable share of her husband’s force of character”, which indicates she epitomised all was thought good about Victorian womanhood. She clearly ran their household, located next to the railway in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and brought up her children in the manner that was expected of a woman of her station in life – an upper middle-class family with aspirations and a fair amount of money. The boys were educated at a boarding school in the next town over once they’d reached nine years old, and were encouraged to follow in their father’s footsteps, while the girls were also educated in a smaller village establishment run by an ex-governess. Until the age of nine the boys all remained at home and were under Priscilla’s care. Her house was grand for the town, with a large garden, and a newspaper of the time reports a large party was held there when an external new drawing room was added to the property. Her younger brother also lived with the family for a time, taking on the book keeping work that had previously been Priscilla’s.

Religiously, the family were non-conformists, attending Chippenham’s Tabernacle chapel as members of the congregation.

Priscilla’s family were well known in the town – her sons and her husband formed a cricket team who took on the town club and other prominent families and businesses, and built houses and other philanthropic projects. Her position in the town would have been at the top of the women’s social ladder locally, and it’s likely her daily life was full of social engagements. She had domestic staff to help her run her house.

This all changed when her husband’s business faltered in the mid-1860s. His engineering and iron works lost a considerable amount of money. The grand house was sold, and the lifestyle disappeared. However, the family moved to South Wales and took up residence in a smaller but still sizeable property in the centre of Cardiff. Here in the 1870s Priscilla was housekeeper and brought up her younger children while her husband was employed as general manager of an ironworks. This was a step down from the prestige of a big business owner, but probably more financially stable for his family. Their reduced circumstances are reflected in the fact that they did not employ any domestic servants at this time, and Priscilla herself kept the house going alone.

After a few years here, their finances were on better terms so the family moved to a larger property in the fashionable Clifton area of Bristol. Their second son took on the mantle of the family profession, while Priscilla and her husband – whose health had deteriorated – enjoyed a retirement with their second daughter – who never married – and occasionally other children. She was widowed in the early part of the 1880s, and spent her remaining years as matriarch and grandmother to her increasing family. She died in the later 1880s, and is buried alongside her husband in Bristol’s picturesque Arnos Vale cemetery.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

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