Ann O’s story

The daughter of a yeoman farmer, Ann O came from a Quaker family and therefore enjoyed a more equal standing with the men in her own community than other mid-Victorian women. Quaker women were allowed to speak in their worship meetings, and their opinions held weight. They were included as witnesses on Society of Friends birth records, and were allowed to publish and to travel alone.

She married a commercial traveller and chocolate manufacturer, another Quaker who had links to the Fry chocolate business in Bristol. In fact, one of the prominent Fry family members witnesses her marriage and later another acts as executor on her will – so they were almost certainly moving in well-connected Quaker circles, and perhaps working with the Fry family.

She travelled the country with her husband as he conducted his business, a long and arduous process even as the railway network boomed in the mid-19th century. They lived in a succession of grand houses in affluent areas of major cities. Sometimes she employed an unmarried sister as a servant, taking her with them perhaps as much for companionship as work. They never had any children.

When her husband died she was well provided for by dividends of his business, and joined two of her unmarried sisters back in the Somerset area where she’d grown up. Together they raised a young niece.


(Picture reproduced by kind permission of family)

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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.

Annie K’s story

The eldest of 12 children born to English immigrants to South Africa in the 1860s, Annie K had a reputation in her family for “outrageous” behaviour.

This including loving dancing, soaking her dresses so that they clung to her figure, and flirting hard with a large number of men at once without any intention of pursuing a relationship.

A talented artist, she painted botanical florals in watercolours and in oils on crockery. Her parents sent her back to England for a season to help maintain her British accent – something that would have been felt to be vitally important in the higher echelons of society during the colonial era. However, she is known to have played truant from this idea, instead escaping to elsewhere in Europe to go painting and study art.


One day her father, a newspaper proprietor, called her into his study and told her that they had supported her for long enough, and that she must marry the next man who asked her. Unsurprisingly, family remember that she was not happy with this arrangement, but accepted it.

The next man who asked was a Welshman a few years older than Annie, a career railwayman who had taken a position in the management of South African railways, and eventually rose to become the chief traffic manager. Although it was not what she wanted, their marriage produced two daughters and two sons.

Later on, she was involved in nursing soldiers during the Boer War, which hit South Africa from 1899 to 1902, a period of extremely hard work at De Aar that was supposed to have ruined her health, as she died only a few years later, aged 45.


Shared by Helen, Penny, Marion and Finian. Thank you.

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Selina C’s story

Despite the existence of a clutch of brothers, it was Selina C who took on her father’s coach building business when he died in the 1870s. All of the children had been involved in the business since childhood – as painters and trimmers and later acknowledged as builders themselves – but it was she who ran the business after he had gone.

Selina was even called a coach builder herself on the 1871 census, but the enumerator has crossed this out – perhaps as her father was the business owner at that time, and women, particularly those who were not married, were not supposed to have acknowledged jobs like that. Once he had gone, though, it was her name that appears in trade directories as the business owner, and her brothers worked alongside her.

Later on, she owned a fancy repository shop, perhaps selling ornaments and fripperies to the denizens of the small town she resided in. This change in profession isn’t reflected in the profession of her brothers, who instead ran their own coach building businesses, but perhaps reflects that she may have found shop-keeping an easier way to be taken seriously in business – as most coach builders were men. She also ran a boarding house, but the shop remained a going concern until her death in the 1920s.

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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.”

Hannah C’s story

Having given birth to an illegitimate daughter at 18, while resident in a workhouse, Hannah C might have been considered to be a scandalous fallen woman by Victorian society, and condemned to a life of poverty and shunning.

However, within a few years she’d fallen in love with a steady man, had two further daughters, and was making a living for herself as a milliner. The only trouble with this arrangement was that he was already married to someone else, with children – so on the 1851 census she and her daughters are recorded as visitors to the household, and his wife is nowhere to be seen.

They were able to formalise their relationship when his first wife died a couple of years later. Her first daughter had an illegitimate child herself, and Hannah brought up her grandson in addition to her three daughters.

When her husband, who had worked as both a gardener and a “private wheelchairman” died, Hannah lived with her youngest daughter and family, and again supported herself by taking in sewing.

Eliza O’s story

As a Quaker, Eliza O enjoyed a more equal standing with the men in her own community than other mid-Victorian women. From the outset Quaker women were allowed to speak in worship meetings, and their opinions held weight. They were included as witnesses on Society of Friends birth records, and were allowed to publish and to travel alone.
Of Somerset farming stock, Eliza chose not to marry and instead moved 130 miles away to London to be a housekeeper. By the age of 39 she was living in Nottingham, working as a housekeeper to a widowed grocer. She later was housekeeper to that grocer’s son when he struck out on his own, moving 20 miles closer to home.
On the death of her mother, who had been running the family farm since being widowed, Eliza travelled home to Somerset to take on the role of farmer. She was helped by several widowed and unmarried sisters, and ran the farm as a female concern until age eventually caught up with her and it was passed to a younger male relative.

In her later years, the money she had accrued through her life supported her as an annuitant, as she had not had to surrender her earnings to a husband. She lived comfortably on her own means with her sisters, and then with a niece, until dying at the grand old age of 96. She left a considerable amount of money to her nephews.

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