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.

Elizabeth B’s story

A widowed mother managing a severely disabled son is a hard-enough prospect today, but in the mid-19th century Elizabeth B would have found it especially tough – given both practicalities around daily life and attitudes towards disability in general society.

She was born at the turn of the 19th century in Wiltshire, and the first record we have of her is her marriage to a carpenter at around the age of 20 – she needed her parents’ permission for this as she was under the age of 21.

Her husband appears to have been well off – a carpenter at this time was quite skilled and would have made anything from carts to wheels to furniture. He appears to have been attached to a great estate, which would have improved his prospects and fortunes, and through this Elizabeth would have lived quite a comfortable life for the early 19th century. It appears he owned a fair amount of land, much of it with dwellings upon, which was rented out to other families in their tiny rural community.

A son followed a year after the marriage, and then two more. However, seven years after her marriage, when she was again pregnant, Elizabeth’s husband died at the age of 31. She gave birth to her fourth and final son in the early months of the following year, and is recorded as a widow in the baptismal records. At this stage she has no profession.

Her sons were all underage, so her husband’s lands and rents all passed to Elizabeth. Tithe maps from the early 1840s record her as the owner of six pieces of land, and living on one of them herself. This may have been in trust until her eldest son hit the age of majority, but the family appears to have shared and lived on the lands in various different permutations for the next few decades.

By 1841 Elizabeth describes herself as a school teacher, teaching the youngsters of her tiny community, and is living in one of her houses with three of her sons. Two of them at least are above school age, and working as carpenters which would have helped the family’s finances.

The youngest son, however, does not have a profession given. But it is not until the 1851 census that the reason for this becomes clear. That document describes the man as “deaf and dumb”, and “incapable of anything”. Details are sketchy in this time period – it may be that he was born with a disability, perhaps having suffered in utero as the result of his father’s death before his birth – or it may be that he suffered some childhood trauma or disease that resulted in him being deaf and dumb (encephalitis due to measles is one possibility). Until the middle of the 20th century it was common for babies with obvious physical disabilities to be killed at birth – but Elizabeth’s son lived to adulthood. This may be an indication that his challenges were not immediately visible, or perhaps that he was allowed to live to provide Elizabeth with comfort after the death of her husband.

Whatever the circumstances, the judgement that someone who is deaf and dumb is “incapable of anything” is quite a harsh one to our modern ears, but says a great deal about pervading attitudes at the time. Elizabeth would have faced this judgement and perhaps stigma on a daily basis.

By the middle of the 19th century, she was living in and running the village post office – one of the properties she owned – and called herself a “letter receiver”. This indicates she was an educated woman – as one might expect of a former school teacher – as this role would have required a high degree of literacy. Another of her sons was living with her and her youngest son around this time, and the family also employed a domestic servant, showing that the family were fairly comfortably off.

Elizabeth continued to hold the post of sub-post mistress for the village for a further sixteen years, taking in occasional boarders and continuing to care for the daily needs of her youngest son.

She died at the end of the 1860s, aged 71, and is buried in the village church. Her youngest son was then cared for by one of his brothers, and died himself ten years later at the age of 52.

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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.

Sophia C’s story

Born into a seafaring family, Sophia C’s life reflects the Victorian globe-trotting that was possible for women with access to a great deal of money and good connections.

She was born in the 1820s in Valparaiso, a seaside port not too far from Santiago in Chile. Her father was a captain and a mariner, and came from a well-established long-heritage community in Massachusetts, while her mother was Irish. It’s likely that her mother accompanied her father on certain journeys, hence Sophia’s American citizen status but exotic birth, as the rest of her siblings were born in Massachusetts. The family were back in Massachusetts by the end of the 1820s, as her younger brother was born there, but the voyage back to the northern part of the USA from Chile would have been long and involved traveling through the Strait of Magellan.

In the 1840s, Sophia married another seafaring man – one who had started his career on the whaling boats of Massachusetts and was gradually working his way up the mariner ranks. Several years her senior, he came from another well-established Massachusetts family, and had ancestry from the Mayflower.

They settled in the state for a time, but her husband’s career grew in a different direction. He became a shipping agent, and the couple moved across the Atlantic to be based in Glasgow, Scotland. He commanded packet ships for an American company, and ran a large shipping and commission business. They rented a house in a fashionable area of the city for a few years, and were well known in local society – her husband also held a fair amount of property in the area. A female student from Prussia (now Germany) lived with them for a while, as she studied in the city, and Sophia’s brothers and their wives appeared to be frequent visitors.

There appear not to have been any children from her marriage, and Sophia was provided well for by servants, so her life would have been comfortable with a degree of leisure, and probably centred around functions and good works.

Later on, when her husband retired, they moved down the country to London. They lived in a smaller but-no-less-fashionable property with Sophia’s widowed mother, and a servant.

Her husband died on a visit to coastal France, at the age of 64, leaving Sophia a widow at the age of 51. She remained in the UK for a few years, having settled her husband’s affairs and inherited a great deal of money, living on her own on a private income. She then returned to the US.

In later life, she went travelling for pleasure – firstly to Berlin and Leipzig, coming back through the UK, and then on to Switzerland. She describes her role in life as a “matron and housewife”. She eventually went home to Massachusetts “for my health”.

She died back at home in Massachusetts at the end of the first world war, aged 94.

Eliza D’s story

A woman who leaves her children to be brought up by someone else gets short enough shrift in society in the 21st century – but perhaps can be reasoned by career, circumstances, and so on. However, for this to have happened in the 1840s was practically unheard of and would have carried considerable social stigma – and it’s likely that Eliza D would have experienced this.

Born at the turn of the 19th century in Somerset, she married a surgeon at the age of 22. As a physician, invariably referred to as a gentleman in records, he would have been able to give Eliza a comfortable life in their small village community. Five children followed – a girl, then four boys – and her marriage appears to have continued along normal Victorian lines for many years.

However, by the mid-1840s things were starting to change. Her youngest son died aged just over a year, and although her husband’s business continued to be successful, Eliza disappears from the records for a time. On the 1851 census she is clearly absent from the family home, and her sons are being brought up by their father and their housekeeper. What happened to Eliza at this time is open to conjecture – it may be that she is elsewhere being supported by her husband despite not living with him, or it could be that she came into some money of her own, although under Victorian marriage this would probably have been surrendered to her husband. Later records of her would support either of these theories. Whatever happened, she appears not to have lived at the family home again.

Her second youngest son also died young, at the age of 23. Another went into the navy, and the final son married and moved to London.

The 1861 census sees her living with and supporting her daughter, who had a job in a Wiltshire school. She gives herself as a surgeon’s wife, so it’s possible that he was still giving her some support. Her husband continued to live in Somerset, alongside the housekeeper.

The key to the split between Eliza and her husband becomes clear when he died in the mid-1860s. All his money, which by this stage is not particularly considerable, was left to the housekeeper. She acted as the sole executor, and while Eliza, her daughter and two remaining sons were very definitely alive, they did not see a penny.

In later life, Eliza acknowledges that she is a widow, but gives herself as an annuitant and independent – so had some financial means of support of her own. Her daughter married and went to live in London, and Eliza initially lived with them in Hammersmith. Later on, she lodged elsewhere in that borough, clearly supporting herself in her own room in a bigger house.

She died in London at the turn of the 1880s, but left no legacy for her children.

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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.

Mary W’s story

A merchant’s daughter from Edinburgh, and the second child in a family of 11, Mary W was comfortably brought up as her father’s business did well. She kept it in the family by marrying a merchant’s son. This is perhaps how they met, as their parents’ paths may have crossed, but her father’s interest was in fine arts, and her father in law’s in metal.

Her husband did not continue in mercantile pursuits, however, being renowned as a mathematical genius and preferring to train and work as a civil engineer. Mary was clearly no slouch at mathematics herself though, as in the early years of her husband’s company she kept and balanced the books, and took on other clerical duties. Today she would have been acknowledged as a book-keeper, but her profession remains blank on census returns.

Together she and her husband had nine children, seven boys and two girls, and led a life focused on work, family and Christian religion. They lived in a large, purpose-built house in a wealthy part of Edinburgh, and had several servants to help with running the house and bringing up the children. Her husband’s successful business enabled the family to own this large town house, and a holiday house on the Scottish Coast where they spent the entirety of August every year.

In the mid-1860s, her husband – who was known for being a workaholic – contracted diabetes which led to his early death, leaving her a wealthy widow with a very young family. Sadly, her health broke down just two years later and she passed away from meningitis and several forms of cancer, leaving the care of her children to her younger maiden sister.

Elizabeth W’s story

Born into the family of a prosperous Scottish fine art merchant in the earlier part of the 19th century, Elizabeth W did not marry, unlike many of her siblings. While referred to as a spinster by the age of 25, there was enough money in the family for her to continue a life of leisure with her parents in their large Edinburgh property, supported by several servants.

At the age of 43, however, her life changed entirely. Her older widowed sister died, quite suddenly, and left her nine children in her care. These children, two girls and seven boys, ranged in age from six to nineteen – with the eldest at university, and the youngest almost certainly needing a great amount of support. All required loving care and a stable environment. While their parents had left more than enough money to support their children, Elizabeth was suddenly a single parent – albeit one who could afford servants to take on the hard work of the day-to-day care with such a large family.

For the early part of her guardianship, Elizabeth remained in Edinburgh with the children – one became an engineer, another a lawyer. A religious family, it was left to her to continue to instil the values and beliefs of the parents in their children.

Once the older of the girls was married, and the rest of the boys were growing up, several of them took up financial jobs in London. As they initially remained unmarried, and the family wished to remain together, it became pertinent for Elizabeth and the younger children to take up residence in Kent, 400 miles to the south.

The family was based in a large house in the London suburbs, close to the residences of some of the boys. This again had several servants to support their lifestyle. But their comfortable life did not lead to immunity from problems. At least two of Elizabeth’s charges suffered from alcoholism, which in some cases led to family rifts and ostracisms.

In her later years, Elizabeth lived with the younger of her nieces and her husband, in the suburbs of London. This niece did not have children of her own, so the family gently aged together. On dying in Kent in the first decade of the 20th century, Elizabeth left her remaining money to her niece.