Charlotte Marvelous’ story

Charlotte Marvelous sounds like a rather fantastic stage name for a Victorian circus performer. Or possibly a burlesque dancer.

In reality, however, she was the faithful housekeeper to a Sheffield bookseller, and almost certainly never saw as much as a prancing pony or a nipple tassel. But Marvelous wasn’t her real surname, and was probably a mark of deep affection given to her by her employer.

She’d been born in Eydon, a rurally-set village in Northamptonshire, towards the end of the 18th century. She was her parents’ seventh child of at least eleven, and not the first to have the name Charlotte – there’d been an older sister called Charlotte who’d died at a year old a few years earlier. While calling a child after one who’d died might seem a little morbid, this was relatively common at this time, with a far higher rate of infant mortality than today. Charlotte was not even the only child in the family for this to happen to – she had two brothers named John, one being born just over a month after the first one died at the age of seven.

Her parents, William and Maria Hunt, don’t appear to have been anyone particularly of note in the village – which mostly had a mixture of agricultural workers and house-based weavers – although towards the more well-to-do end of the scale given the professions of the men their daughters married and the fact that many of them were able to write their names on their wedding records so were at least partially literate. Charlotte was a witness to her sister Lavinia’s wedding in 1808, and was able to write her name.

In 1812, at around the age of 23, Charlotte married James, an agricultural labourer, in her home village of Eydon. James’ surname was Marvesley, so she became Charlotte Marvesley. There are no children in the baptismal records that fit, so it’s likely that their marriage was childless. As a farm labourer’s wife, it’s likely that Charlotte stayed at home doing domestic duties – which would have been considerable at the time – but it’s possible that she may have had some duties on the farm too.

However, after 13 years of marriage, her husband James died and was buried in their home village. With no children, and no visible means of support, Charlotte would have had to find work of some kind. Her mother died a year later, so she may have supported her father until his death in 1833. Her sisters Lavinia and Maria had married, as had her sister Diana, and her surviving brother John was living in Oxfordshire with his wife. What exactly happened to Charlotte next is unclear until she appears on the 1841 census in Sheffield, in her forties and in the employ of a bookseller.

What is likely is that she somehow came across George Brown, the book seller, through her brother in law Thomas. Thomas, also a book seller although formerly a tailor, had married Charlotte’s sister Diana. They’d moved around Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire, after leaving Eydon and the clothes business behind, and it’s probably that Thomas came across George through his work, and knew that George needed a housekeeper as much as Charlotte needed a comfortable position.

George had never married, it appears, so as a 19th century bachelor would have needed some help around the house – both in terms of housework and food preparation. A Victorian housekeeper would also have run the financial aspects of the household, so Charlotte would have had some financial nous and book-keeping skills. It’s also likely that she would have kept the books for his business, a role that many wives took on in small businesses at this time. So, to many intents and purposes Charlotte was George’s wife, without the benefits.

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In 1841 they are living in Arundel Street, in the centre of Sheffield. Her sister Diana and her husband and children are nearby. Both men are working as booksellers. Diana died in 1847. By 1849, Charlotte and George had moved to Eyre Street, and it’s there they can be found on the 1851 census. On this record George claims to be married, but there’s no sign of a wife.

It appears to have been George that coined the name Charlotte Marvelous, as she’s not referred to as Marvesley after she enters his employ. It would almost certainly have been George that provided the information for the census enumerators, so using the name Marvelous perhaps speaks of the great esteem he held Charlotte in. So, rather than a stage name, the moniker refers to her personal traits and how well she supported him in his life, and speaks volumes for their relationship. The first use of Marvelous occurs when she witnesses her niece’s wedding in Eydon in 1830.

In 1851 one of Charlotte’s sisters, Maria, left the UK with her husband and children to join the Latter Day Saints in America, settling initially in Missouri and then in Illinois. Another sister, Lavinia (by this stage a widowed lacemaker still based in Eydon) did the same in 1854, and was eventually claimed by the LDS. Her sister Diana, while she was alive, had been a member of the Moravian church – so it appears that many of the family, despite being baptised into the Church of England, questioned the traditional way of faith. Whether this was Charlotte’s way is open to question, but like most people of the time it’s probable that she had deep Christian faith.

By 1857, trade directories show that George – and therefore Charlotte – had moved to Bridge Street, and he had taken up bookbinding in addition to selling tomes. However, both of them are elusive on the 1861 census – it’s always possible that they’d gone to visit her family in America, as shipping records are unavailable that early. Their Bridge Street premises has a brewer in residence instead.

Later that decade Charlotte and George were living at Park Wood Springs, a piece of woodland and open space just outside central Sheffield at that time. This may have been a deliberate move on George’s part to help Charlotte’s health – as she was now in her mid-70s, considerably aged for the time – which was starting to fail. By 1863 she was suffering from a liver complaint, which was recorded as hepatitis, but is unlikely to have been the sort of hepatitis we would recognise as such today. It’s possible that Charlotte could have been an excessive drinker, but it seems unlikely that she’d have lasted to a ripe old age if she had, so it is more likely that she had a viral type of hepatitis that was passed on somehow – possibly infected blood – which would have led to jaundice.

Charlotte died at Park Wood Springs in early October 1864, aged 78. George registered her death, and said that she’d suffered chronic hepatitis for a year, which had led to anasarca – a liver-based problem associated with the condition that finished her off. Very telling is that he registered her as “widow of ________ Marvelous, farm labourer”, which indicates that she never referred to James by name to George and instead called him “my late husband”. This may indicate that the relationship between Charlotte and George, who were around 12 years apart in age, was very proper and more like mother and son than anything else.

George buried her in Sheffield’s Burngreave cemetery, at the time a new and extensive facility outside the rapidly growing town, and marked her grave with her place of birth to tie her forever to the place she grew up. In many ways he was the only family she had left, particularly locally. He also had “she was faithful in all her dealings” carved on the stone, which again speaks of the affectionate partnership they must have had for many years.

George continued to run his book business in Sheffield’s Orchard Street for a few more years, but died himself in 1868 and was buried alongside Charlotte. Dear friends of his, John and Elizabeth Parr, also took the same grave when their time came, leading to a rather disparately related monument in the cemetery that shows the ties and bonds that were made as the industrial nature of the 19th century took hold and many – like Charlotte Marvelous – came to the big city for work leaving family behind.

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Essex L’s story

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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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.