Born in the 1770s in Buckinghamshire as the third daughter of a landed family, Essex – who was named after her grandmother, an heiress from a prominent banking family – grew up in a large house with many servants in the late 18th and early 19th century. There were several daughters born after Essex. This was the Pride and Prejudice era, full of genteel society and strict governance of manners, with daughters encouraged to make good and advantageous matches with upstanding gentlemen.
Her father – who had changed his name from William Lowndes to William Selby in order to inherit a property called Whaddon Hall – had been MP for Buckinghamshire, as had his father before him, and her brother also held this job from 1810 to 1820. His children often used the name Selby-Lowndes to reflect their heritage and their inherited property. They lived at Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire, another inherited property. Her mother died when she was a child, and she and her siblings were brought up by her father and servants.
It was under the name Lowndes that Essex married Robert Humphrys, the son of the Chippenham clothier Matthew Humphrys, who owned Chippenham’s central Ivy House. The marriage took place, as all best society weddings did at the time, in London in 1811. Robert’s father had died the year before, so he owned the house, and Essex came into some inherited money from a spinster aunt at the same time, so the marriage would have been considered a good prospect from both sides.
However, she was 38 when she married, and by the standards of the time this was very late – she would have been viewed as a confirmed spinster in the eyes of the society that she moved in. As an adult she had lived at home with her father and several unmarried sisters, and would have lived a sheltered and gentle life with the help of their servants.
After she married she came to live at the Ivy House with Robert, and was thus mistress of the property. Her father-in-law had acquired the house from the Northey family in 1791 after using portions of the land from the 1770s onwards, and had adapted the grounds to suit his business. There were outbuildings and cottages on the land which housed dyeing and weaving works and workers – and it was into this busy world that Essex arrived. Spinning, carding, weaving, and warping all took place on a small scale in homes, whereas cloth works would have done the finishing. The cloth and textile trade was still Chippenham’s main industry at the time, and to maintain the Ivy House Robert would have been successful in this business – although it was still a far cry from being a fully mechanised industry in the early part of the 19th century, and already was under threat from the power looms being installed in factories in the north of England.
Three years after the marriage, Essex’s sister Elizabeth Selby Lowdnes married Rev Robert Ashe – part of a prominent Chippenham landowning family, as his second wife. This meant that she had her sister close by, as she lived at Langley House, and they were probably introduced by Essex as they would have moved in the same social circles – with balls and hunts and card parties. Elizabeth died in in 1829, childless.
Essex and Robert also appear to have had no children – they lived in the era before civil birth registration, but there are no christenings recorded in local churches. This is supported by the fact that when Robert died in 1838 he left everything to Essex.
Her inheritance included the house, farms, cottages, aqueducts (presumably providing water for the cloth works), and all of his land. However, all his mortgages and debts were passed to her as part of this inheritance, so she would have had to manage much of his remaining business in her widowhood. His works did not fall apart, so she appears to have been successful at this.
Shortly after this, her eldest brother died and another brother sold her childhood home for it to become a school. Finances may also have been eased by more inheritance from another childless aunt. A trade directory of Chippenham from the early 1840s lists Essex among the local gentry.
Essex continued to live at Ivy House throughout her long widowhood, supported by servants. There are five in the house with her in 1841, and ten years later she only has one less. These were a cook, a lady’s maid, a housemaid and a butler. The property was vast for just these five people, and probably took a lot of work on their behalf to maintain. There appears to have been no shortage of money though – she refers to herself on census records as a “land and funded proprietor”, meaning that she drew income from tenants and other funds.
Essex died in 1868, aged 96. Her executors were a nephew based in Buckinghamshire and the local MP Gabriel Goldney. She left nearly £25,000 – a vast sum for the time. The Ivy House, with no children to inherit it, was auctioned and acquired by the Rooke family, who lived there until 1973.
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