Mary E’s story

The Women Who Made Me recently ran an exhibition at Chippenham‘s Yelde Hall, as part of the British Heritage Open Days celebration, in conjunction with Chippenham Civic Society.

Mary, who sits rather sulkily at the centre of the featured photograph, was one of the women featured.

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It is a misnomer that women rarely worked during Victorian times, and they were often fairly active in the workforce – at least until they married, and were expected to then fulfil their womanly duty by caring for their house, husband and children. Once such role that was often undertaken by women was that of postmistress, the person responsible for organising communications within a town or district.

This role in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham was the preserve of Mary from the mid-1850s onwards, one of six women to have held that job in the town since the late 17th century.

When she was born, in the later part of the 1820s, her paternal aunt held the role. Her father, whose family lived at the post office on the town’s high street, served as the chief clerk. Another of his unmarried sisters lived with them too, as did lodgers and a domestic servant.

Like many in Chippenham at the time, the family were non-conformists and regularly attended the Tabernacle chapel. Mary and five of her siblings were all baptised into this religion.

The family appears to have been deeply involved in local life. The post office sat between a chemist and a drapers, two of her sisters worked as milliners and dress makers, and another married the local saddler.

Mary initially served in the post office as an assistant under her aunt, but became postmistress herself when her aunt retired in 1857. She hadn’t married, which meant that she was able to take up the role. One of her younger sisters became the assistant, and her aunt and widowed father continued to live with them. Her younger brother emigrated to Michigan in America. She and her aunt remained the only members of the family to be counted within the Tabernacle congregation.

Her working hours were extremely long. The post office was open from 7am until 10pm every day, except for Sundays when it was only open from 7am until 10am, and letters to particular places were dispatched at different times of the day. They also offered money orders and savings, and insurance.

Mary took in a nephew after his parents died, and both educated him and raised him to be a carpenter. Later on, she took in a niece too. After her parents died, several post office workers also lodged at their house.

Her aunt died in the early 1870s, and Mary had sole control of the post office. She oversaw the office move in 1874 from the High Street to new bigger premises in the market place, and her staff expand to fourteen – including letter carriers, telegraph boys, postmen, stampers and auxiliary workers – who kept the business and communications of the market town working.

She died early and suddenly one morning in bed, at the tail end of the 1870s, aged 51, and was buried alongside her parents and aunt in the non-conformist burial ground in the town – which now no longer operates as a cemetery. She had given up her role very recently, on account of her health (which was stated as weak throughout her life), and was marking out her time until her replacement came.

Once she had gone, there was no named postmistress or master in the town directories and the family business had ended.

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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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