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.

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Priscilla P’s story

Much was made of Priscilla’s husband’s ability to father a cricket team, with newspapers describing his eleven sons as fine, healthy, energetic young men. However, what is never mentioned is that it was Priscilla who had to carry and give birth to each of them – and their three sisters too – and she spent 10 and a half years of her life pregnant.

She grew up in the 1820s in the London and Home Counties areas, the daughter of an excise officer – a relatively stable position, and one that would have led to a comfortable but not overly wealthy lifestyle for his family. She was one of the younger children in the family. There were at least four sisters, and three brothers who all went on to undertake skilled trades.

At 20 she married an excavator who had come from “humble beginnings” and was on the rise in the railway business under Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Three children, two boys and a girl, followed quickly afterwards, and the family moved to Wiltshire where her husband was employed as a contractor in the Great Western Railway.

Over the next sixteen years, Priscilla gave birth to another ten children – nine boys, one girl, at a rate of about one every two years – which meant that she exceeded Queen Victoria’s output of the same period. At this time it was considered to be a way of being a good woman in the eyes of God to breed and bring up as many children as possible, and this was believed to be a woman’s priority in life. Another reason for having a large family is that often a couple of the children would not survive until adulthood – but all of Priscilla’s did, which perhaps gave rise to the fuss made over her husband’s cricket team of fine healthy sons, as this proved his strong breeding stock. The fact that it was Priscilla who had actually done the hard work in carrying all these children to term, giving birth to them, and breastfeeding them until they weaned (bottle feeding wasn’t necessarily an option for her earliest children, since the earliest bottles started to be developed in the 1850s, and wet-nurses were only employed by royalty/nobility or in cases where the mother had died) appears not to have mattered a jot.

Her husband’s memoirs refer to them having done their duty to Queen and Country by having so many children, and further say:

“And I must here say that if I had not been blessed with one of the very best of wives I never could have gone through all I have nor carried out the works I have done without her help. She acted as my cashier, throughout nearly all the works, sometimes drawing the money from the Banks, and collecting silver from other sources, and often had to sit up until midnight, counting and tying up many hundreds of pounds in small bags for me to throw out of the trains to the gangs on the maintenance and other works along the line. This she continued to do until the family got too large and the works so increased, when her brother came down and took it out of her hands.

And I am bound to say that if there was any credit due in carrying out work or bringing up our family, the greater share belonged to my devoted WIFE.”

In modern times, anyone handling the money and books in this way would at very least have been credited as having the job of a cashier, if not a book keeper or even an accountant. But because Priscilla was a woman and his wife, her job and skills here are not credited and by the standards of the day she was expected to do this as a wife of a businessman.

Her husband’s eventual obituary described her as “an admirable woman … a thorough helpmeet to him in life, and who had considerable share of her husband’s force of character”, which indicates she epitomised all was thought good about Victorian womanhood. She clearly ran their household, located next to the railway in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and brought up her children in the manner that was expected of a woman of her station in life – an upper middle-class family with aspirations and a fair amount of money. The boys were educated at a boarding school in the next town over once they’d reached nine years old, and were encouraged to follow in their father’s footsteps, while the girls were also educated in a smaller village establishment run by an ex-governess. Until the age of nine the boys all remained at home and were under Priscilla’s care. Her house was grand for the town, with a large garden, and a newspaper of the time reports a large party was held there when an external new drawing room was added to the property. Her younger brother also lived with the family for a time, taking on the book keeping work that had previously been Priscilla’s.

Religiously, the family were non-conformists, attending Chippenham’s Tabernacle chapel as members of the congregation.

Priscilla’s family were well known in the town – her sons and her husband formed a cricket team who took on the town club and other prominent families and businesses, and built houses and other philanthropic projects. Her position in the town would have been at the top of the women’s social ladder locally, and it’s likely her daily life was full of social engagements. She had domestic staff to help her run her house.

This all changed when her husband’s business faltered in the mid-1860s. His engineering and iron works lost a considerable amount of money. The grand house was sold, and the lifestyle disappeared. However, the family moved to South Wales and took up residence in a smaller but still sizeable property in the centre of Cardiff. Here in the 1870s Priscilla was housekeeper and brought up her younger children while her husband was employed as general manager of an ironworks. This was a step down from the prestige of a big business owner, but probably more financially stable for his family. Their reduced circumstances are reflected in the fact that they did not employ any domestic servants at this time, and Priscilla herself kept the house going alone.

After a few years here, their finances were on better terms so the family moved to a larger property in the fashionable Clifton area of Bristol. Their second son took on the mantle of the family profession, while Priscilla and her husband – whose health had deteriorated – enjoyed a retirement with their second daughter – who never married – and occasionally other children. She was widowed in the early part of the 1880s, and spent her remaining years as matriarch and grandmother to her increasing family. She died in the later 1880s, and is buried alongside her husband in Bristol’s picturesque Arnos Vale cemetery.

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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.

Sarah W’s story

Born at the tail end of the 18th century Sarah W was the daughter of a reverend, and made a good match with a metal merchant from Birmingham. His business was successful, and she might have expected to comfortably live out her life in the city, until they made the decision to emigrate to South Australia in 1840.

South Australia was never a penal colony, instead offering land and living to those willing to travel to take it. Many men who took up this offer later called themselves “gentlemen” as they now owned land.  She, her husband, and their four sons all underwent the months-long voyage to the other side of the world, and settled in Adelaide. They were among the first settlers there, as the city had been founded just three years earlier in 1837.

The family thrived in their new country, with one of her sons becoming the premier of South Australia on several occasions.

Sarah returned to the UK in the 1850s when her husband was seriously ill and advised to come home for an operation – medical care being sparse compared to that available in Britain during the earlier years of the settlement. He died in London, and she subsequently went to live out her final years in Scotland with her second son, who had also returned from Australia and settled in Edinburgh.

Her passion was collecting silver teapots. She bought them with the help of her sons, who she owed money for various vessels after her death.

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