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.

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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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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.

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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Phoebe B’s story

The daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant, unlike her three sisters Phoebe B did not marry into the moneyed society that surrounded her. Instead, she became an educator, with a wide circle of pupils drawn from all over Edinburgh in the mid-Victorian era, and engaged in benevolent works to improve the lives of the city’s people. This was drawn from a deep Christian faith. She lived with her bachelor brother, also an educator and teacher, but worked alongside him rather than keeping the house. He spent periods of time away working teaching in India, attempting to promote the work of the church in the country, while she stayed home and continued to work with the young people of the area – both educating the daughters of wealthy families and providing instruction for the poorer children of the district.

On her death at the age of 81, she left a trust of three hundred pounds a year to the support of “such indigent and infirm gentlewomen”, the recipients to be decided upon by female members of her extensive family. A portion of her estate was to be donated to hospitals, missions, asylums and sick societies in Edinburgh.

An obituary says that:

“More than half a century ago she was one of a chosen band of territorial visitors whom the late Dr William Robertson of New Greyfriars enlisted for service in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh.

“Her social and philanthropic work, both public and private, rested on the missionary basis of helping men and women to a higher as well as a happier life; while her educational zeal, alike in the communication of culture to the daughters of the well-to-do, and in the provision of elementary instruction and industrial training for the children of the poor, was ever hallowed by the desire to prepare the young at once for usefulness in this world and for citizenship in heaven.

“By the congregation of New Greyfriars’ and by its successive ministers and missionaries, Miss B was equally venerated and beloved. She held in that church a unique position of unobtrusive yet all-pervading influence – the outcome of a character in which there was a remarkable combination of strength and sweetness, decision and gentleness, righteousness and mercy, wisdom and zeal.”