While becoming a widow is a tragedy at any time, an era when your husband was the main or only breadwinner could be particularly harsh on the woman left behind. Poorer women would have to take in work – often extra laundry or charwoman jobs – alongside bringing up their children, and if they couldn’t do that they’d end up on poor relief or in the workhouse. Widows with older children might have found factory or mill work, if their older children could look after the younger, but all this would have to be fitted around family life and other duties expected of women.
In contrast, if a woman from an upper-class background was widowed the tragedy was no less but the economic impact on her life was significantly different. This was the case for Louisa, who was able to fall back on family when she lost her husband at the age of 31.
She was born at the tail end of the 1820s, the penultimate child and third daughter of an extremely wealthy Surrey landowner. Her father, John Spicer, had made a considerable amount of money as a merchant and a stockbroker and had bought a large house – Esher Place, a little way south of Hampton Court Palace – from the descendants of former Prime Minister Henry Pelham in 1805. He knocked the entire property down and rebuilt it to suit his own tastes. Eleven years after acquiring the property he married Louisa’s mother, and gradually started producing his family. Louisa was the 7th of eight children, with four older brothers. One took up soldiering, another joined the navy, and the other two went into the church. There were then twin sisters four years her senior, and when she was around six her sister Sophia was born.
A year later, her second oldest brother, Phillip, who was then around 19, died at sea. He’d been midshipman aboard the HMS Wanderer, and died on passage home from Sierra Leone – at that point a British colony, with troops based in Freetown.
Around the age of nine Louisa was sent to be educated at a private girls’ school in nearby Richmond on Thames. Before then her education would have been at home under a governess and her mother, but as with most wealthy families children were sent to school at about the age of nine. It’s likely that her twin sisters, Anna and Mary, also went to this school, and her younger sister Sophia too when the time was right. The family’s boys would have been sent further afield for their education.
If Louisa followed the experience of Anna and Mary, once her education was finished she would have come home to be debuted into society and await her eventual husband. Anna did not manage to make a match, as she died in 1842 at the age of 18, but Mary married her cousin Julian – a reverend – in 1853.
Louisa’s husband, Edmund Clutterbuck, came along in 1851 a few days before her 22nd birthday. He was heir to a large house and estate at Chippenham, in Wiltshire, miles away from her home in Surrey. It’s likely that they met during a summer season in either London or Bath. His family had been landowners in Wiltshire for several generations, initially in Bradford-on-Avon and from the mid 1820s in Chippenham when his father had purchased Hardenhuish House. Thomas, Edmund’s father, had become Sheriff of Wiltshire for a year in 1826.
Thomas Clutterbuck, Louisa’s father in law
Hardenhuish House and grounds
Louisa moved into Hardenhuish House with Edmund and his family. As the heir, he lived there with both his parents and his shortly-to-be-married sister Fanny, as well as a cousin on his mother’s side and various visitors. The house, which was built in the later part of the 18th century, had ten live-in servants and had had various additions by Sir John Soane in 1829, at the behest of Edmund’s father Thomas. Although it had been enlarged considerably by the family, the number of servants in 1851 (ten) can be compared to those at Louisa’s father’s estate in Surrey (18) and show that the property was smaller than that which Louisa had been used to.
The following year, Thomas died and Edmund inherited the house and living, and became Sheriff of Wiltshire himself in 1854. Louisa also gave birth to her first child, a son named Edmund after his father. She would have taken on the duties of the squire’s wife, visiting the poor and sick at his side, supporting him through business, and appearing with him at church and other official functions. A second son, Walter, followed a year later.
Louisa’s sons Edmund Henry and Walter John Clutterbuck
In 1855 two of Louisa’s siblings moved to the area. Her eldest brother, John William Gooch Spicer, bought and renovated the house and estate at Spye Park, just to the south of Chippenham.
Her younger sister Sophia also married Edmund’s younger brother Daniel – a military officer who she had probably met through Louisa – and moved first to Chippenham and then to nearby Bath as they established their family.
Captain Daniel Hugh Clutterbuck, Louisa’s brother in law, who fought in the Crimea
Louisa had three more children in the following years – daughter Henrietta, son Newton (who died before he was two) and finally daughter Mary in 1860. However, Edmund’s health was in a decline by this point. His eventual obituaries say that his strength was on the wane, and he was gradually getting thinner and more emaciated over a long period of time, which perhaps points to cancer or diabetes. He spent time away from home for his health, as the Victorians believed spas and seaside environments would help those with health issues, but nothing helped him. He died aged 36, while on one of these health visits, in Torquay in February of 1861, and was buried at the church at Hardenhuish. Louisa became a widow, with four dependent children, at the age of not-quite-31. Eldest son Edmund was in his first year at boarding school (he and his brother Walter are known to have attended Eton), while youngest Mary was still a babe-in-arms.
The end of Edmund’s obituary reads:
“Who will forbear to hope but that another of his name will in future years worthily fill his, now vacant, position? Who will not offer a prayer that the bereaved wife and children may be supported in their grievous trial by ‘The Father of Mercies and the God of all comfort?’”
Practically, Hardenhuish needed another squire, and a nine-year-old boy away at school was not going to be able to fulfil that role. Louisa and her children needed somewhere else to go while her son Edmund grew up to inherit his title. The solution appears to have been solved by Louisa’s older brother. He seems to have arranged for the family to live at Whetham House, a smaller property between his estate at Spye Park and that of the Marquis of Lansdown at Bowood, with a few servants to meet their needs. Whether the house was tied to his property or he purchased it isn’t clear, but Louisa’s inheritance from Edmund and the £2,000 she received when her father died in 1862 would have helped the household. Her mother died in 1863, and she may well have inherited more money from her father’s estate then.
Meanwhile, a Reverend Benjamin Winthrop and his family lived at Hardenhuish House and took on the role of squire. He had come in from Wolverton, in Warwickshire, and he and his wife and children lived at the house until Louisa’s sons came of age.
Walter also went away to be educated, and Edmund studied at Oxford University to become a barrister. Louisa seems to have kept her daughters closer though, and instead of sending them away to school appears to have either educated them locally or at home. Her life would have been quieter than that she had when wife of the squire, as she would not have had many official duties and occasions to attend, and instead probably kept within an upper-class social sphere.
Once Edmund came of age in 1873, aged 21, he was able to take on his inherited squire title. Reverend Winthrop moved out of Hardenhuish House, and Edmund moved back in. Louisa stayed at Whetham House with the rest of the family, and did not take up residence at the house that had formerly been hers. He married Madeline Raikes at Chittoe near Spye Park in 1880, his youngest sister Mary was a bridesmaid and his brother Walter was groomsman. Curiously, Louisa is not mentioned in newspaper reports of the wedding – it may be that it was just assumed that people would know she attended, or that something prevented her being there. Her first grandchild, a girl named Henrietta, was born a year later.
Louisa’s son Edmund and wife Madeline in later life, at Hardenhuish
However, Louisa’s health was now failing too, which may also have prevented her from attending her son’s wedding. She died while still living at Whetham, aged 53, in the summer of 1882, and left over a thousand pounds to her beneficiaries.
Her son Edmund went on to have ten children in all. Her other three remaining children all married over the next few years, with Walter becoming a pioneering early photographer who travelled widely – including Japan and a trip on a sealing vessel to the Arctic. Hardenhuish House remained in the Clutterbuck family though, until her grandson – another Edmund – died in 1938 and the property was sold to the people of Chippenham to become part of the town’s grammar school. It still remains a school, and most of the administrative offices sit within the old walls.