As accolades and memorials go, a street and five houses named after you is fairly high ranking. Elizabeth Utterson, who has these to her memory in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham, is remembered for her generous gift to the elderly women of the town towards the end of the 19th century – but actually only bore that surname for a few years at the end of her life.
For someone to make a charitable gift to the poor and impoverished at that time, there generally has to be no living descendants to pass any monetary gift to – and this was exactly the case with Elizabeth. The generous gift of money and land to the women of the town was in part because both her child and her step-children had not lived long enough to inherit it, and instead the needy received the benefit.
She had been born in Peterborough – then in Northamptonshire – in the mid-1820s, the younger daughter of two from a greengrocer and his wife. Her father was dead before the 1840s, and her mother made her living by selling sweetmeats. Elizabeth was sent to Chippenham to be under the charge of her father’s brother, who kept an inn in the town marketplace, and became a barmaid. Her older sister Susannah remained at home to assist her mother.
It was in Chippenham, a few doors away from her uncle’s inn, that Elizabeth met her first husband. William was a master shoemaker, employing several staff, and they returned to her family home in Peterborough to get married in the mid-1850s, then settled in Chippenham. Their son William followed a year or so after the marriage, and he lived for twelve years before dying suddenly. Within a year or two, Elizabeth’s husband William was dead too, at the age of 36.
Elizabeth, suddenly with no dependents, became an annuitant. William’s business had been relatively successful, and she inherited a fair amount of money for the era. She took a servant from the Chippenham area and moved to the Somerset coast, setting up home in a house by the seafront, which was terribly fashionable in the 1870s.
By the beginning of the 1880s, however, Chippenham had drawn her back in. She had almost certainly been acquainted with the local registrar of births and deaths, a gentleman named James Utterson, during her earlier life and on the 1881 census can be found visiting him at his house on the town’s Causeway. James was a widower, born in southern Scotland, and had been living in Chippenham for many decades. He’d married his first wife Sarah in London during the 1850s, and they’d had two children – a son who lived to the age of 20, and a daughter who had died shortly after birth. James had raised his son on his own for many years after his first wife’s death, and after his son’s death he was suddenly left alone for his final years.
James, at this point aged 75 (which was a very good age at this time), and Elizabeth married at Chippenham’s St Andrew’s church in the summer of 1881. She was 59. They had no dependents and were well-placed in town society with a fair amount of money behind them. In addition to registering births and deaths for the town, James had also acted as agent for a mining company in Devon.
James only lived for another three years, dying in 1884 and leaving Elizabeth a considerable amount of money. Rather than living the high life, Elizabeth instead decided to found a charity and build some almshouses on Chippenham’s Lowden – a street community just outside the main auspices of the town, which at that point was home to around 1,000 people. The street was undergoing a major change in the 1880s, having previously been quite impoverished and home to many receiving poor relief, a programme of building to raise the social condition of the area was undergoing at this time. New houses were being built to house workers on the Great Western Railway, an embankment of which ran parallel to the street, and new retail premises were included. The almshouses were a continuation of the social improvement of the road.
There were four almshouses, with a fifth dwelling in the middle to be occupied by the custodians of the project. These caretakers were allowed to be a married couple, but Elizabeth’s bequest stipulated specifically that the four houses were for women – elderly and infirm, and in need of a bit of looking after. James’s will had left over £2,000, so Elizabeth invested the excess after the houses were built to continue the upkeep of the cottages and provide a small sum of money each week to the inhabitants. This was 3 shillings and six pence in the winter, and 3 shillings in the summer.
Two years after the almshouses, in 1886, a church was built next to them. This helped the elderly, sick and infirm attend church more regularly, since the next nearest church – St Paul’s, on Malmesbury Road – was a considerable walk away. The custodian role of the almshouses also took on the upkeep of the church, which was named St Peter’s Mission Church.
Elizabeth died in the 1890s, but her charity lives on. The almshouses still exist, and house Chippenham’s elderly female residents. The church has become the New Testament Church of God, after St Peter’s moved to the outskirts of the town. A street – Utterson View, named after Elizabeth and her almshouses – was built alongside her bequest.