Isabella Maria Constantia, named perhaps for her father’s fascination with Italy and its people, was orphaned by the time she was three. Her mother – her clergyman and poet father’s second wife – had died giving birth to her in 1776, and her father died in 1779 aged only 45.
She had a brother, John, who was eight years her senior, but he had been brought up by an aunt since his own mother’s death in childbirth, so the orphaned toddler Isabella was alone in the world. She’d been born in Blagdon, Somerset, where her father had been the Reverend since 1766, but he’d really made a name for himself while working for several churches in London – and it was there that Isabella was sent. He’d become friendly, while living there, with the Gillman family. Thomas Gillman, who was involved in the law (although what sort of position he held is not clear), his wife Catherine and their daughter Catherina Elizabeta were named Isabella’s guardians and protectors in her father’s will.
She was removed to their house in Great Ormond Street – at this stage a street of important people living in smart sizable town houses that dated from the beginning of that century and not the site of a famous hospital for sick children (it wasn’t built until 1852) – and began a life in London as their ward. The Gillman’s daughter and only child Catherina was in her later teens, so the age gap between the two girls was vast, and it seems likely that they all lavished their attention on the young Isabella, who would have been brought up in considerable privilege for the time. This was a great time to be a privileged child, as the period brought in huge amounts of books, toys and games aimed at children, and began to value and educate their developing minds in a far more structured way. Isabella’s father had instructed that she would benefit from the sale of his goods and chattels to help fund her life with the Gillmans, all her mother’s clothes, and a further sum of £1,000 to be held in trust for her when she reached the age of 21. He also bequeathed her and her brother a diamond ring apiece.
When Catherina married in February 1783, Isabella was around the age of seven. Though Thomas Gilman was still in Great Ormond Street, Isabella went with Catherina to be the ward child in her new marriage. Catherina had married Esmead Edridge, the lord of the manor at Monkton House, in Chippenham in Wiltshire. The Edridge family, who were initially Quakers and had mostly been born in Bristol, had had the house since at least the 1740s. At this stage, Esmead was the eldest son, but there were many other siblings still associated with the house – his older sister Love Mary had recently married and moved to Bath, but younger brothers Thomas, John and Abraham were all unmarried and at the house, running a business as clothiers of the town. In addition to the four men, their widowed mother Love and unmarried sister Martha completed the large household that Catherina and Isabella joined.
Shortly after the marriage, Esmead had Monkton House renovated. This altered what had originally been a substantial farmhouse-style property into a grand Georgian mansion of many rooms. He appears to have made a reasonable living as a merchant, as well as being Lord of the Manor, but it may be that Catherina’s dowry brought in additional funds for the building project. Brother Abraham had a smaller house built in a similar style, possibly using the same architect and builders, in St Mary Street just across the river. The property is currently used as apartments, and has purpose-built sheltered accommodation on the land leading down to the river that may initially have been used for fulling and dyeing cloth.
Isabella, at just seven, now grew up in this great house full of people. Esmead and Catherina, who had no children of their own, considered her their daughter to all intents and purposes. They educated her, probably at home with a governess, and she was considered part of the wider Edridge family. There were no other children known to have lived at Monkton House at the time.
This position changed in 1798, when Isabella had just turned 22 and had come into her inheritance. She engaged in a clandestine marriage with Abraham Edridge, Esmead’s younger brother, who had been in the position of uncle to her throughout her childhood. Catherina and Esmead were said later to have been deeply offended by this act because of this prior relationship. Abraham was a good 15 years older than Isabella, and had also fathered an illegitimate child – John – in his late 20s who was regarded as his heir, and who became Isabella’s stepson. As an aside, Esmead and Abraham’s brother Thomas had also had an illegitimate son at around the same time, but he was not acknowledged, and John’s elevation appears to have been due to a lack of any legitimate male heir anywhere in the family.
Isabella then went to live with Abraham, probably at his house on St Mary Street and became mistress of that property. They are known to have paid hair powder tax around now, so would have been fashionable enough to wear wigs. They did not have any children together. Isabella’s marriage technically made her the social equal of Catherina and other gentry wives, but given the controversy surrounding the marriage it is unclear whether they were accepted in local society.
In the very early 1800s, Catherina – who was then in her early 50s – started to suffer mental health issues and in the parlance of the time was declared a “lunatic”. Descriptions of some of her behaviour put this as close to dementia. She was removed from Monkton House to Fisher House, which appears to have been a London residence. Isabella tried to work with the family to help Catherina be placed in environments that were comfortable, going through legal means if necessary.
Around the same time, Isabella and Abraham moved from Chippenham to Pockeridge House, on the edge of Corsham, which is now on Ministry of Defence land and was converted to an officers’ mess during the second world war. The property there was substantial, and Abraham’s son John lived with them there when he wasn’t serving with the Royal Navy. In this house she was able to be a gentry wife away from the house she’d grown up in, but still maintained her links with Chippenham.
Esmead, her adoptive father, died in 1812. At this stage Isabella’s care of Catherina seems to step up a gear, perhaps as he was not there to stand in the way. She goes through legal means to have access to Catherina despite the judgment of lunacy. This made the newspapers, and the scandal over Isabella’s marriage was raked over by the press. It was agreed, however, that Isabella could take Catherina out for drives in her carriage, and could look after her at Monkton House as she was more comfortable there and her symptoms reduced. Isabella argued that since Catherina had looked after her from childhood, it was now time for her to look after her guardian.
Catherina, despite her illness, managed to outlast Isabella by six years. Isabella died at Pockeridge in 1820, aged 44, and was buried close to where she’d grown up in Chippenham. Catherina died in 1826, and was buried with Esmead at Chippenham. Abraham continued to live at Pockeridge, with his son John and his first two wives (there were three in all), and died in Bath in the early 1840s. He is not buried with Isabella.