The Clapham Sect and the Brontës: some links

The recent commemorations of the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth have led me to read Claire Harman’s excellent biography. There is a good review here. However, though Harman’s book opens up many new insights into Charlotte Brontë, her treatment of religion is sketchy and sometimes a little misleading. This has drawn me back to Juliet Barker’s magisterial The Brontës, to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ground-breaking Life of Charlotte Brontë (Penguin edition 1975), and to my own researches on the Clapham Sect.

In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë  memorably satirises the dark side of Evangelicalism – the Revd. Mr Brocklehurst’s hypocritical tyranny and the ghoulish religious tracts designed to terrify children into submission to a baleful and vindictive god. Her portrayal of another Evangelical clergyman, St John Rivers, is more nuanced – unlike Brocklehurst he is a good man – but we are left in no doubt that Jane was right to reject his harsh Calvinism and his cold determination to mould her into his own creature.

I here trace three connections between the Brontë family and the Clapham Sect. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the other Princess Charlotte

NPG 51; Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by George Dawe

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by George Dawe. Public domain

Princess Charlotte Augusta

The news of the birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge has been widely welcomed, especially by those of us who particularly wanted a girl. This little girl will be the first princess born under the revised rules which mean that she will not lose her place in the succession to a younger brother (should she have one). The birth has also aroused interest in former Princess Charlottes, most notably Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, later still, George IV) and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. They were probably the most unsuited couple in the whole long, and frequently troubled history of royal marriages, and Charlotte was the unfortunate product of this misalliance. For her short and troubled life see here, and here, and here.

Charlotte1806

Charlotte in 1806, aged eight; after Sir Thomas Lawrence. Public domain.

From the start the child was the focus of intense interest, particularly when the irrevocable breakdown of her parents’ marriage became public knowledge. This meant that unless the prince was able to divorce his wayward wife and marry again, there would be no more legitimate children, no son to displace Charlotte. From an early age therefore, the heiress presumptive to the throne was seen as a future queen.

Hannah More and the Princess

Perhaps Hannah More had Charlotte’s likely future in mind as early as the spring of 1799 when she and her friend, Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, called on the three-year-old princess, who was then in the care of her governess, Lady Elgin, at Carlton House, the London home of the Prince of Wales. Hannah More, who was always fond of children, was enchanted by the child. Charlotte, she wrote,

‘had great delight in opening drawers, uncovering the furniture, curtains, lustres &c to show me…For the Bishop of London’e entertainment and mine, the Princess was made to exhibit all her learning and accomplishments…Her understanding is so forward that they really might begin to teach her many things. It is perhaps the highest praise to say that she is exactly like the child of a private gentleman, wild and natural, but sensible, lively, and civil.’ (William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs Hannah More, 2nd end. 1834, p. 105.)

Five years later the picture had darkened, and the royal family was locked into a dispute about Charlotte’s education. Her grandfather, George III, was insisting that her education ‘cannot be that of a female, but she, being the presumptive heir of the Crown must have one of a more extended nature’. He proposed that she should live at Windsor with him rather than with her father. But to complicate matters, 1804 was the year in which the king experienced his third attack of madness, and, even without this disaster, his relationship with his son was poisonous. Charlotte’s father and grandfather were therefore locked into a dispute about her education. The dispute was resolved at the end of the year when it was agreed that Charlotte should spend half the year at Windsor with her grandfather, and the other half at Warwick House in London, a rather gloomy building that adjoined Carlton House. The great casualty of this arrangement was Lady Elgin, who was replaced by the more assertive Lady de Clifford, and poor Charlotte was deprived of the woman who had been her substitute mother. The Bishop of Exeter, John Fisher, was appointed preceptor, with overall responsibility for Charlotte’s education. Continue reading

‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs Man’ (updated)

Mrs William Wilberforce, née Mary Owen (John Linnell, 1824)

An article by the Cambridge historian, Amy Erickson [‘Mistress and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal (September 2014)] casts interesting light on the evolution of the  terms ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, both of them derived from ‘Mistress’. Dr Erickson points out that until the eighteenth century neither term was an indication of marital status. ‘Miss’ was only applied to girls, never to adult women, and upon adulthood a ‘Miss’ became a ‘Mrs’ regardless of her marital status. A ‘Mrs’ was a woman of some status who possessed capital, whether economic or social. However, during the nineteenth century the term ‘Mrs’ became (with a few exceptions) one that solely designated a married woman. Thus the unmarried bluestocking Elizabeth Carter was invariably known as ‘Mrs’ whereas her younger (also unmarried) contemporary Hannah More was described as ‘Miss’. Within a generation the usage had changed.

Erickson goes on to argue that at the end of the eighteenth century a married woman lost her identity and was only known by her husband’s name,a designation that has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ style. The earliest example she has found is the dreadful Mrs John Dashwood (née Fanny Ferrars) in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen fans will also be aware of a slightly later example: that of Emma Woodhouse’s sister, Isabella, who has married George Knightley’s brother and has thus become ‘Mrs John Knightley’.

A study of the usage of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ among the women of the Clapham Sect does not invalidate Erickson’s argument, but it slightly challenges the chronology. In March 1796 the Yorkshire merchant’s daughter, Marianne Sykes, married the Claphamite Henry Thornton, Wilberforce’s second cousin. A year later, when she was due to give birth, Hannah More wrote to Wilberforce that she was ‘anxiously watching every post in hopes it will bring me word that Mrs H. Thornton’s trial is safely over’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Oxford, 2012, p. 86) This suggests that the ‘Mrs Man’ designation was in force as early as 1797 and was common enough to be used without comment. Continue reading

Hannah More: the gaps in the early life

Hannah More's birthplace, Fishponds

Clifton Windsor Terrace, where Hannah More died in 1833

When I was researching for  Hannah More: the First Victorian (OUP, 2003), my biography of Wilberforce’s friend and the ‘honorary man’ of the Clapham Sect,  I was stumped, as her  other biographers have been, by the difficulty of filling in the gaps in her early life. A comparison of the humble schoolmaster’s cottage where she was born (left: Hannah, her parents and four sisters were squashed into the left-hand wing) and the elegant house in Clifton where she died (right) makes it clear that she was a remarkable example of late-Georgian social mobility. The later years are well-documented, but the early life far less so.

I looked at the parish records and local newspapers, Hannah More’s letters, and of course consulted earlier secondary works. However, thanks to a meticulously researched and ground-breaking article by William Evans of the University of the West of England, I now know that a lot of what I wrote was inaccurate.

For the full article see William Evans, ‘Hannah More’s Parents’, Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 124 (2006), 113-30. This is my summary.

Hannah More’s father Jacob may be the Jacob More who was baptised in Norwich on 17 March 1699. There is no evidence that he attended Norwich Grammar School, as has frequently been asserted, but he may have been educated at a similar institution. The story that he lost money because of litigation over a large estate at Wenhaston cannot be corroborated. There was probably no such estate.

It has not been possible to corroborate the statement of More’s early biographer Henry Thompson that Jacob More was a supervisor of excise in Bristol as the records for the relevant period have nor survived. He may have held a post of which there is no longer a documentary trace, or perhaps a lower post than that of surveyor.

There is no trace in the local records of a Jacob More marrying a Mary Grace, previously believed to have been Hannah More’s mother. However in the records of St Werbergh’s church there is an entry for the marriage by licence on 2 July 1735 of Jacob More and Mary Linch.

The Gloucestershire Archives show that Jacob More was appointed master of the Fishponds school in 1743. The records show that he supplemented his meagre income by land surveying and valuing. In October 1751 Silas Blandford, land steward of the principal landowner, Norborne Berkeley, paid him for drawing a map of Kingswood. He was engaged in similar tasks in subsequent years. Hannah More always retained warm memories of Silas Blandford, whom she seems to have seen as a benevolent guardian of her family.

Jacob More’s tenure of the schoolmaster’s post at Fishponds ended in recriminations. The trustees kept poor records of the payments they made. In 1782, a time when Jacob would have long finished teaching, he was still receiving a salary and he and his wife continued to live in the schoolhouse. Jacob was meant to be paying a shilling a week to each of the two widows who lived in the other wing of the building, but he was paying it to only one. On 26 April 1783, shortly after Jacob’s death, his eldest daughter, Mary, by then a respected schoolmistress, wrote to the trustees of the school to defend her father from the charge of misappropriating the trust money. Her letter contained several inaccuracies, either innocent or intentional.

Evans has unearthed some intriguing information about Hannah More’s mother’s family. Mary Linch (Lynch) was baptised on 29 January 1718 at Stoke Gifford. The Lynches were an established family in the parish. In 1747 Mary’s sister Susannah married as her second husband  a carpenter, John Grace (so this is where the name Grace comes in!)  at Olveston, a parish five miles from Stoke Gifford, and gave birth to eight children. I note in my book Hannah More’s reference to the death of her ‘poor afflicted aunt’ in 1794. It is possible that Hannah More commissioned her memorial stone, a gesture she did not accord her parents.

These findings raise the intriguing question of why Hannah More, whether intentionally or not, obfuscated the details about her family.  By the time she was middle-aged, she was mixing with the gentry, the aristocracy, and even royalty. Perhaps she did not wish to be reminded too much that she was the daughter of a poor schoolmaster, who could not keep accounts and might even have defrauded a poor widow of the meagre sum that was owing to her.

Wilberforce’s birthplace

Image

My photograph of Wilberforce’s birthplace, 25 High Street, Hull

Today – 25 August – is the anniversary of the birth of William Wilberforce in 1759. He was born at 25 High Street Hull (now an excellent museum) the son of a prosperous merchant, Robert Wilberforce, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bird, the daughter of a silk manufacturer. William was their third child, and first (and only) son. He had two elder sisters, Elizabeth and Sarah (Sally), and another sister, Ann, was to follow in 1768. Elizabeth and Ann both died in childhood. The two remaining siblings, Sally and William, remained extremely close, and Wilberforce was devastated when Sally died in 1816.

Wilberforce’s birthplace was a substantial seventeenth-century merchant’s house, built of red bricks in the Dutch style. It was a prime location at the heart of Hull’s commercial district. A narrow back garden ran down to the river Hull and to the family’s staith, a private wharf that was characteristic of the Hull mercantile community. Robert Wilberforce refurbished the interior, putting in a Venetian window and an elegant staircase, but the counting house was situated to the left of the main entrance. The house and its embellishments are excellent examples of the self-confidence of the Hull mercantile community, their aspirations to gentry status but also their lack of embarrassment about the sources of their wealth.

Wilberforce never forgot that he came of mercantile stock and was immensely proud when, in the general election of 1784, he was able to take on the local aristocrats and be elected Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, the largest constituency in the country. Yet, as I argue in my book, he was ambivalent about his origins. Towards the end of his life, he spent a great deal of money buying a house that would confirm his status as a landed gentleman. This proved a disastrous move and the collapse of his finances forced him to leave it in somewhat discreditable circumstances at the beginning of 1831.

Review in the ‘Journal of Ecclesiastical History’

The distinguished church historian, G. M. Ditchfield, has published a review of my book in the current issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2013), 64, pp. 652-654. He kindly describes it as an ‘excellent’ example of how family connections can illuminate the broader intellectual and political currents of an age. He has read the book very carefully (and picked up one mistake for which I’ve been kicking myself for a year – it will be corrected in the paperback!). He makes the interesting point that there is no mention of animals. The reason is that I didn’t find any cases of the Clapham children having pets, but it would be fascinating to learn more about their relationships, if any, with cats, dogs, rabbits and caged birds.

Ditchfield suggests that I might have exaggerated the gap between the lively, cheerful and cultivated Claphamites and their narrow-minded, exclusive and anti-Catholic successors. I have a feeling he may be right. The topic needs further exploration

The Jeremy Forrest story: an eighteenth-century parallel

So now it seems that the exploitative former teacher, Jeremy Forrest, plans to marry the schoolgirl he abducted, once he has served his sentence, and that has the approval of the poor child’s hitherto absentee father. There is an eighteenth-century parallel to this distressing story that I tell in both my Hannah More and my Wilberforce books. It concerns the Bristol schoolteacher, Selina Mills, her pupil, the teenage heiress, Clementina Clerke, and an unscrupulous surgeon, Richard Vining Perry. The full references to the quotations are found in my books.

At the beginning of 1790 the twenty-three year-old Selina Mills and her younger sister, Mary, took over the More sisters’ popular and successful school in Park Street, Bristol. Selina was the daughter of Thomas Mills, a Bristol bookseller, who was also a member of the Society of Friends, though she and her sisters remained in the Church of England. Thomas Mills was rising in the world but he was not wealthy enough to provide an independent income for his daughters. Teaching was the only possible career for genteel, educated young women and the Mills daughters were fortunate to have in the Mores the supreme role model of how a family of sisters could benefit from the expanding demand for girls’ schools.

On the night of 20 March 1791 the school was thrown into a panic; it had lost a pupil and was about to become the centre of a national scandal.

The story gripped public attention because it read like the plot of so many novels of the period.  It had a youthful heroine in the person of Clementina Clerke, aged fourteen years and eleven months, the heiress to a fabulous West Indian (and therefore slave-derived) fortune (more than £10,000 per annum according to the newspapers); and it had a dashing and plausible anti-hero, a Bristol surgeon, Richard Vining Perry, who came out of the same reckless, unscrupulous mould as Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace and Jane Austen’s Wickham. But there was another possible plot, one familiar to readers of the novel of sentiment, which was to be brilliantly exploited by Perry’s defence council.  According to this narrative, as a blameless young man he just happened to see Clementina on her walks with her schoolfellows;

‘their eyes met in attraction and with a kind of electric fire shook them to their souls’.

It was irresistible love, therefore, and not cold avarice that motivated the susceptible heart of the gallant surgeon.

With the connivance of a servant at the school, the pair began a clandestine correspondence and planned their elopement. This took place on 18 March when a convincing looking servant, wearing livery and driving a chaise, delivered a letter to Selina Mills, purporting to come from Clementina’s guardian and requesting that she go to see him immediately. The unsuspecting Selina and her sister Mary saw her into the carriage and within a short time she and Perry were in a fast chaise and four heading north for the famous blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green, where the relaxed Scots law allowed for the marriage of girls over the age of twelve without requiring parental consent.

By the end of the day, when Clementina had failed to return, the story of the elopement came out. Overwhelmed with guilt and terror Mary Mills and her brother set out in pursuit, guessing correctly that the couple must have gone to Gretna. They managed to encounter them in Cumberland, driving in the opposite direction, as the pair headed south on their way to London. As the coaches slowed down in order to negotiate the narrow road, Mary Mills recognized her pupil in the other carriage and called out,

‘Miss Clerke, for God’s sake, Miss Clerke, let me speak to you!’

At this Perry put his head out of the window and told her that Miss Clerke was not there – she was now Mrs Perry. He shouted at the coachmen to drive on, leaving Mary and her brother helpless, forced to trundle northwards until they could find a safe turning place.

The pursuit then moved to London where a reward of £1000 was offered for Clementina’s return. Hannah More made frantic enquiries among the thief-takers of the capital, tramping around lodging houses in search of the couple, all the time in dread of Perry, who was reputedly armed at all times with a loaded pistol.  In order to escape from the law, Clementina disguised herself as a boy and the couple fled abroad to what was then the Austrian Netherlands. Mary and James Mills caught up with them in Ghent and tried to persuade the magistrates to close the town gates to prevent their escape. But lacking authorization from Clementina’s mother, who plays an ambiguous role in this story, the authorities were unable to act. Brother and sister returned home empty-handed.

For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce the two caricatures in the British Museum collection that appeared at this time. One, shown at Holland’s Exhibition Room in Oxford Street from 25 March, displayed an engraving,

The Elopement from Bristol – or too many for the Bristol Bumbrusher’.

It depicts a chaise and four within which a young man is embracing a girl who is holding a pistol and throwing her doll out of the window, a sign that she has abandoned childhood for the frisson of sexual adventure.  In case anyone missed the double meaning, The Times published a nudge-wink paragraph:

‘A PISTOL in the hands of CLEMENTINA PERRY would be absolutely a very dreadful weapon – were that same PISTOL at all like the lady in its readiness to GO OFF!’

The second caricature

‘A Perry-lous Situation; or, the Doctor and his Friends keeping the Bumbrusher and her Myrmidons at Bay’

was published on 17 April and was also exhibited in Oxford Street.  It is a more expensive engraving as it is in colour, and shows two opposing groups confronting each other. The right hand group includes a tall young man who has his arm round the waist of a young woman. He and another man are both aiming pistols at the left-hand group, consisting of a constable, his timid assistant and a schoolmistress holding a birch rod. The schoolmistress is saying

‘Let me get her again into my hands and I’ll tickle her Toby nicely’.

The constable’s assistant says,

‘In the name of Mistress Sharp-look-out, the Schoolmistress, I command you to deliver up little Miss____’.

The girl is saying,

‘Dear Doctor, protect me from my governess’.

Poor Selina Mills, a respectable and devout young woman, had been transformed in the popular imagination into the dominatrix of a flagellant brothel.

But in the spring of 1793 the French occupation of the Austrian Netherlands forced the Perrys to return to England. Richard Perry was promptly imprisoned and was joined by his pregnant wife, their little daughter, and his mother-in-law: a touching display of family loyalty which was said to have so melted the heart of the keeper that he allowed them the free range of the prison.

With Perry’s incarceration, the novel of sentiment was about to become a court-room drama, to be played for the highest possible stakes; Selina Mills had indicted him under a statute of Henry VII for the forcible abduction of a minor (defined as someone under the age of sixteen) and for marrying her without her consent. These were capital crimes, judged to be on a par with rape. In retrospect, the charge was unwise as it could easily be refuted by a simple assertion on Clementina’s part that she had gone with Perry of her own free will. Hester Piozzi, the former Mrs Thrale, shrewdly summed up the situation. As a ‘Maiden Lady’, she noted to a friend, Miss Mills knew nothing about marriage but any married woman could have told her how unrealistic it was

‘to dream of a Woman’s bastardizing her own Babies, and hanging the Father who could scarcely have been so if there had not been some consent on her side’.

Clementina would stand by her man. She had no choice. However, Selina Mills was encouraged in her action by the More sisters and by William Wilberforce, who managed to secure a new prosecuting counsel in place of a lawyer believed to be a friend of Perry’s.

The wheels of justice rumbled on, and on Monday 14 April 1794 Perry stood trial in Bristol before the Recorder of the city, Sir Vicary Gibbs. The leading counsel for Perry was the Whig barrister Thomas Erskine, famous for his brilliant defences or radicals, most notably Thomas Paine. Perry’s trial was going to be one of his easier cases. Public opinion, or at least the noisy and masculine part of it, was on his side, and the chief prosecution witnesses were two nervous women, Selina Mills and her sister Mary, now Mrs Thatcher, both unused to the rough ways of a criminal trial. Erskine was determined to give Selina a hard time and his cross-examination, as reported in the booklet, The Trial of Richard Vining Perry, was brutal.

The case collapsed when a heavily pregnant Clementina Perry, called to give evidence at the Recorder’s insistence, asserted that she loved Perry and had gone with him willingly.  No-one suggested that she might be under pressure from her husband. Given Mrs Perry’s assertions, the Recorder instructed the jury to return a verdict of Not Guilty, and they promptly obliged. The hall resounded with the cheers of the spectators, the couple kissed, and when they entered their carriage, volunteers removed the horses from the traces and drew the couple through the streets as if they had been successful election candidates.

Selina was left bruised and shattered by her courtroom experience. Five years later she married Wilberforce’s friend, Zachary Macaulay, and in October 1800 she gave birth to the future historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay. By this time the  Perry trial had been forgotten and neither Selina’s children nor the biographers of her famous son seem to have been aware of her brief moment of notoriety.

I have been unable to trace the future fortunes of Clementina Perry née Clerke. What strikes any modern reader of her story is the lack of protection the law at the time offered to young girls. With the age of consent as low as twelve, there was no understanding that they might need protection, not merely from predators, but from their own immaturity. To us Richard Vining Perry was an obvious villain, though a fortune-hunter rather than a paedophile. To many of his contemporaries, he was a hero.