Mary E’s story

The Women Who Made Me recently ran an exhibition at Chippenham‘s Yelde Hall, as part of the British Heritage Open Days celebration, in conjunction with Chippenham Civic Society.

Mary, who sits rather sulkily at the centre of the featured photograph, was one of the women featured.

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It is a misnomer that women rarely worked during Victorian times, and they were often fairly active in the workforce – at least until they married, and were expected to then fulfil their womanly duty by caring for their house, husband and children. Once such role that was often undertaken by women was that of postmistress, the person responsible for organising communications within a town or district.

This role in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham was the preserve of Mary from the mid-1850s onwards, one of six women to have held that job in the town since the late 17th century.

When she was born, in the later part of the 1820s, her paternal aunt held the role. Her father, whose family lived at the post office on the town’s high street, served as the chief clerk. Another of his unmarried sisters lived with them too, as did lodgers and a domestic servant.

Like many in Chippenham at the time, the family were non-conformists and regularly attended the Tabernacle chapel. Mary and five of her siblings were all baptised into this religion.

The family appears to have been deeply involved in local life. The post office sat between a chemist and a drapers, two of her sisters worked as milliners and dress makers, and another married the local saddler.

Mary initially served in the post office as an assistant under her aunt, but became postmistress herself when her aunt retired in 1857. She hadn’t married, which meant that she was able to take up the role. One of her younger sisters became the assistant, and her aunt and widowed father continued to live with them. Her younger brother emigrated to Michigan in America. She and her aunt remained the only members of the family to be counted within the Tabernacle congregation.

Her working hours were extremely long. The post office was open from 7am until 10pm every day, except for Sundays when it was only open from 7am until 10am, and letters to particular places were dispatched at different times of the day. They also offered money orders and savings, and insurance.

Mary took in a nephew after his parents died, and both educated him and raised him to be a carpenter. Later on, she took in a niece too. After her parents died, several post office workers also lodged at their house.

Her aunt died in the early 1870s, and Mary had sole control of the post office. She oversaw the office move in 1874 from the High Street to new bigger premises in the market place, and her staff expand to fourteen – including letter carriers, telegraph boys, postmen, stampers and auxiliary workers – who kept the business and communications of the market town working.

She died early and suddenly one morning in bed, at the tail end of the 1870s, aged 51, and was buried alongside her parents and aunt in the non-conformist burial ground in the town – which now no longer operates as a cemetery. She had given up her role very recently, on account of her health (which was stated as weak throughout her life), and was marking out her time until her replacement came.

Once she had gone, there was no named postmistress or master in the town directories and the family business had ended.

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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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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.

Sarah T’s story

A plumber’s daughter, Sarah Tanner grew up relatively comfortably in the 1840s and 50s in the rapidly expanding Wiltshire market town of Chippenham. The youngest of at least seven siblings, her family did well after the railway came to the town and her father’s business grew big enough to support employees and keep daughters at home until they married rather than sending them out to work.

However, while two of her elder sisters chose to remain at home until they wed, Sarah did not choose this route. By the age of 18 she and her eldest sister Mary were running a seeds and food shop on Chippenham’s High Street, which – given the town was growing rapidly at this time – almost certainly saw good trade.

At the age of 30 her sister Mary married a widowed yeoman farmer turned publican, and presumably left Sarah to run the business herself. Her brother in law’s career may have led Sarah to meet her own husband – Joseph Buckle, the widower landlord of one of Chippenham’s biggest hostelries on the town’s market place – who she married at the age of 28.

This marriage gained her two step-children from her husband’s previous marriage – a girl aged 8 and a boy aged 4 – and her husband had a stepson of his own from his former wife’s marriage. It also gained Sarah a pub, a business that kick started a career that lasted over 30 years. Although her husband was named landlord, the 1871 census record has Sarah’s occupation as a licenced victualler’s wife – indicating that she was fairly active in the day to day life of the establishment – but the enumerator concerned has crossed this description out, as it was considered invalid.

Sarah had her own daughter a year or so after her marriage. She was heavily pregnant again with her son Joe when her husband died suddenly, leaving her the business, his money, and their combined children. Her son was born a month after his father’s death, and Sarah renewed the pub’s licence in her name within another month.

She ran the pub with the help of her step-children and a couple of domestic servants for another three years until she married again. The marriage took place at Chippenham’s parish church, and was witnessed by her stepdaughter. Her second husband was a former soldier who came from Nottinghamshire, and in accordance with the law of the time he took over the hotel and pub licence – if the woman was married, her property became her husband’s. The couple ran the pub together for another four years – with her eldest stepdaughter as barmaid –  and had a daughter together. They then gave up the business, and moved a few streets away. It’s unclear what they were surviving on – when their second daughter was baptised a couple of years later Sarah’s husband’s profession is given as a former soldier and a hotel business isn’t mentioned – but it’s possible that her inheritance from her first husband was enough to keep them comfortably.

However, this existence did not last. Sarah’s second husband died in 1887, aged 40, leaving her widowed for the second time. At this stage her stepchildren were adults, but she had four dependent children – a son aged 14 and daughters aged 15, 9, and 2 – and no visible means of support.

She went back into the pub trade to provide for her family, based on the many years of experience she’d had at the hotel. She founded a Wine and Spirits vaults in Chippenham’s market place, just a stone’s throw away from the original pub and ran that until 1892. At this point business was clearly booming, despite the growth of the temperance movement, and she was able to both found another pub/hotel in the market place and run a second one nearby for another ten years, taking her through to the early 20th century. She did not marry again, and therefore kept the income and status her businesses generated.

In the early 1900s, when she was getting on in years, she relinquished the pub trade and moved in with her unmarried son Joe Buckle as his housekeeper. He, and the husband of one of her daughters, ran a popular fishmongers and poultry shop on Chippenham’s high street in a timbered building that no longer exists, and it’s likely that Sarah helped out with this business as she aged too. Joe also became the town’s fire chief, and was a well-known local figure.

She died in her mid-70s, at the beginning of the 1920s. Her son eventually married four years after her demise.

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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.

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.

Mary L’s story

If you happened to come into some money, enough for you to live on for many years without having to work, would you keep that wealth for your own benefit or give some of it towards helping under-privileged relatives?

Mary L faced that choice. It’s unknown exactly where her inheritance came from, as she came from a fairly working-class family in Hull, Yorkshire, in the 1840s, where her father worked as a labourer and an older sister helped the family finances by making dresses.

On the surface, this would not seem the type of family to have produced an annuitant, and indeed when Mary’s father died in 1860 her mother made ends meet by becoming a laundress – not a particularly lucrative profession, but an obvious one for an unskilled widow to pick up. However, Mary – who at this stage was living at home – had come into some money and referred to herself on the 1861 census as an annuitant.

It’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There was no lottery for Mary to win in those days, and she does not appear in any UK will or probate record of the time. However, her maternal grandfather, who had emigrated to the mid-western United States in the 1830s and had done well for himself, died in 1858 – and it is possible that this is the source of her money, although it is uncertain that they ever met.

Whatever the source, Mary had enough of a cushion to support herself comfortably and become of a class somewhat above others in her family. She could afford a household of her own, and a domestic servant to help her look after it.

Later on, she occasionally took in a boarder, but still could afford domestic help. She also helped to raise two of her sister’s children. One, an older girl, seems to have lived with her for a little while. The other, a five-year-old boy, came to her when his mother died. It would seem to be the obvious choice, for relatives in insecure circumstances to send their child to a wealthy aunt to be looked after and have a better life.

This nephew lived with her for many years, and helped her to run the boarding house she eventually ran. He had an apprenticeship to a monumental sculptor, which Mary supported him through, and he married from her household in the years just before the first world war.

Mary lived to see the end of the first world war, dying in 1919. However, significantly, her money that remained was left to neither niece nor nephew, nor any other family member, going instead to a local architect.

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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.

Amy W’s story

Entering a convent and becoming a nun, giving up your life to God and a regime of worship and good works, might have been done for several reasons in the 19th century. For poorer catholic girls, it was a way to achieve a more comfortable and stable life. For others, it was a way to avoid the institutions of marriage and children. The convent offered an opportunity for leadership and prominent positions unavailable to women outside the institution, and perhaps gave women a chance for creative expression or female education that would not otherwise be offered. Some may have felt a strong calling to devote their lives to God. More monied and prominent catholic families might have expected one or two of their daughters to enter the convent in time-honoured tradition, and a convent dowry was usually less than a marriage dowry so could have been seen as making economic sense.

Amy W and her twin sister were the youngest daughters in a prominent and landed Catholic family, born at the beginning of the 1830s in the south of England. They had six older siblings, including three older sisters. At least some of their childhood was spent in a convent in Taunton, although by the time they were 19 they had been brought home and possibly were in the market for husbands.

Two of their brothers married – one going on to have fourteen children of his own – but none of their older sisters married. They all, along with Amy and her twin, spent their lives in convents serving either as nuns or nuns who had a remit to teach children or penitents.

Amy, on re-entering the religious profession at some point in the 1860s, had the most prominent career of all her sisters. While her twin remained with the Franciscan sisters in Taunton, she became part of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an order that had first come to London in 1841 and gradually founded other convents throughout the UK.

She rose to become the superintendent of their Glazenwood convent in Essex, under a Belgian priest. This institution was effectively a refuge and reformatory for penitent women, and there were 31 inmates at the turn of the 1860s – a mixture of former laundresses, seamstresses, domestic servants, parlour maids, dairy maids, farmer workers and nursery maids. The nuns in this house, with Amy at their head, offered care and instruction to the inmates.

During the following decade, she moved to become the prioress of another Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in Bristol. This institution, set in a former great house, was again a reform school and refuge for penitent women but on a much larger scale than the one in Essex. In this position Amy had an assistant, a choir of 12 nuns, and 12 lay sisters underneath her. There were 127 penitent women and girls in the institution, all employed in laundry and needlework. In many cases these women would have been undergoing penance for loose behaviour with men or prostitution, but those who had undertaken other crimes were also admitted for correction and soul-cleansing.

By the mid-1880s, Amy had moved to the original Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent at Hammersmith in London, and by the turn of the 1890s she was serving at their convent in Blackley, near Manchester in Lancashire. By this stage she was 59, and possibly in less robust health as she did not serve as superioress or prioress, and was instead second in command. This was another institution for penitents, with 20 nuns and 128 inmates.

While one of her sisters had some small amount of money, which she left to Amy, when Amy died at the early part of the 1890s she had nothing to leave anyone. She passed away while serving at the Lancashire convent. Her twin sister continued to live and serve at the Taunton convent until she died in the run up to the First World War.

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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.