Hannah More’s house and grave

Barley wood

Barley Wood as it is today – much altered from Hannah More’s time.

When I was researching my life of Wilberforce’s friend, Hannah More, it was impossible for me to visit Barley Wood, her home in Wrington, Somerset from 1801 to 1828, as it was owned by a charitable institution. But it is now being renovated and put on the market and the grounds are open to the public. Here is the English Heritage description of the house, and here is an account of the walled garden. Hannah More was a passionate gardener and she would surely have been delighted to know that the garden on which she took such pains was being renovated. The urn commemorating her hero, John Locke, given her by her bluestocking friend, Elizabeth Montagu, is still there, as is an urn to her great friend, Beilby Porteus (1731-1809), bishop of London.

Hannah More’s friend, Marianne Thornton, wrote down for her great-nephew, E. M. Forster, her childhood memories of Barley Wood: ‘There never was such a house, so full of intellect and piety and active benevolence’. She remembered being sent off with a village child to buy chickens at the next farm’, being fed with strawberries and cream ‘& told to lie down on the hay whilst Charles, the Coachman, Gardener, Bailiff & Carpenter, made us a syllabub under the cow’. [quoted Anne Stott, Hannah More: the First Victorian, Oxford, 2003, p. 291]

somerset, october 2013 026

The More sisters’ grave, Wrington, Somerset

Nearby is Wrington church, where Hannah More and her five sisters are buried. A friend took this photograph recently. The five sisters are Mary, 1738-1813; Elizabeth (Betty), 1740-1816; Sarah (Sally), 1743-1817; Hannah, 1745-1833; and Martha (Patty), Hannah’s best-beloved sister (1750-1819). As I write in my book (p. 332),

‘Five spinsters, born into circumstances of failure and near poverty, forced to earn their livings, and succeeding triumphantly in their vocations, they had shown what it was possible for women to achieve in an environment that was at best ambivalent, and at worst hostile to women on their own. Twenty-five years after Hannah’s death, Marianne Thornton stood by the quiet grave, remembered the golden childhood summers, the anecdotes of Garrick and Johnson, the schools and clubs, the inspiring teaching, the bustling kindness, and reflected, “God has given them a better name than that of sons and daughters”.’

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.

A Link with the French Revolution

Wilberforce’s friend Hannah More also had an intriguing personal connection with the French Revolution. As she told her friend Eva Garrick, widow of the great actor-manager, David Garrick, in the early years of the Revolution, two French sisters had been teachers at the school in Park Street, Bristol, run by More’s sisters. The young women were ardent revolutionaries. (See Anne Stott, Hannah More. The First Victorian, Oxford, 2004, p. 151.) When one of them, Félicité Dupont, left the school and returned to France, she married , Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Brissot subsequently became the leader of the moderate Girondin faction in the revolutionary Convention, and he was guillotined in October 1793 (the same month as Marie Antoinette).  I wonder if any French scholars are aware of the relevant letter in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC (W.b.487, fo. 87, Hannah More to Eva Garrick, 21 November 1793), which shows Félicité’s links with Bristol.

Wilberforce and Bath: two love stories

This is an amended version of a talk I gave in Bath in the spring of 2007, as part of the commemorations of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. For copyright reasons I have not quoted directly from Wilberforce’s journals or any other manuscripts. The full quotations and the references can be found in my book.

My photograph of the Georgian House, Bristol, home of Charles Pinney, the slave-owning merchant who became engaged to Elizabeth Wilberforce

I didn’t realize until I did a word search how often Bath crops up in Wilberforce’s correspondence! Because of his very indifferent health he was frequently in the town even though he complained on 20 April 1826 that Bath was one of the worst possible places for finding any leisure in the morning, because the door knocker was continuously going. That sociable city was not the place for quiet reflection or sustained reading.

The first record I have found dates from November 1786, when he was in his late twenties, where his diary records that when in Bath he gave way to what he called ‘intemperance’. I’m not sure that should mean that he was drunk! This was the period of his evangelical conversion and he was very hard on himself for any lapses from high standards. Two years later, he went to Bath again so sick that many thought he was dying. He recovered, but his illness meant that his parliamentary motion for the abolition of the slave trade had to be delayed for a year; it took place in May 1789 rather than in 1788 as had been planned.

In 1811 he bought an estate at West Wick between Bath and Bristol, though as an investment rather than a place of residence. By this time he was a married man, the father of six children. He had met his wife at Bath and they were married at Walcot church, the same church where Jane Austen’s parents had been married. So this is the first love story I am going to tell. The second – a less happy one – relates to his younger daughter, Elizabeth.

For most of the 1790s Wilberforce was urgently – at times frantically and often irrationally – looking for a wife. Yet to many observers he seemed the epitome of the confirmed bachelor. Certainly that is how Dorothy Wordsworth saw him. What woman would be expected to keep up with his frantic and disorganized life?

Wilberforce’s quest for a wife was inspired by two strong forces working within him: his sexual needs that could only be legitimately satisfied in marriage, and a wistful envy when he saw the happy marriages of his friends. Those who knew him well quickly picked up on his need for domestic companionship and were keen to offer advice. The clinching piece of advice was to be provided by his close friend, Thomas Babington, MP for Leicester and a fellow Evangelical.

Early in 1797 Wilberforce completed his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians … Contrasted with Real Christianity. On 12 April he set off for Bath and the following day a triumphant Babington told him he had found him a wife: a Miss Barbara Ann Spooner, twenty-five years old (not twenty as many of Wilberforce’s biographers state), and the eldest daughter of the Birmingham merchant, Isaac Spooner. The family spent a great deal of time in Bath because of Isaac’s health. The Spooners owned Elmdon Hall in Warwickshire (now in the suburb of Edgbaston). They were well-to-do but the family was large and Barbara’s fortune was the relatively modest one of £5,000. But money was never a consideration for Wilberforce. Nowhere in his journals does he show any particular interest in how much money his putative bride would bring him. He had two criteria, neither of them negotiable: she had to share his Evangelical convictions and she had to be ‘affectionate’. (This was a man who craved affection more than anything else.) As it happened Barbara Spooner was to pass on both counts. She was also, as her surviving portrait shows, extremely attractive with dark hair and expressive eyes. The couple met on Saturday 15 April (unfortunately we don’t know where), and at the end of the day Wilberforce felt he had been gauche and came away ‘irritated and sad’. The following day was Easter Sunday and during a not very impressive sermon his mind was distracted by Miss Spooner. He was, he recognized, in danger of falling in love with a creature of his own imagination. He dined with Babington and the Spooners in the evening and was convinced that he was in love.  So blatant were his attentions that the following evening he found Barbara ‘irritated’ as his attentions were now ‘public news’ in Bath.  The city, it seemed, was alive with gossip that Wilberforce was in love with a woman he had met two days previously. For this rest of the week the couple were seen in public at the Pump Room and by the Saturday Wilberforce could describe himself as ‘captivated’ by her’. True to his usual practice he consulted friends, this time Hannah More and his second cousin Henry Thornton, who understandably advised him to slow down. But he thought they were ‘imperfect judges’.  Of course they were both seriously alarmed. What was to become of the great causes of evangelicalism and abolition if their foremost proponent made a public fool of himself?

On Monday 24 April, nine days after meeting Barbara, Wilberforce had the necessary interview with Mr Spooner, and the following day he made his engagement public by escorting her to the Pump Room. He now had leisure to assess his fiancée’s character. He thought her ‘good’ and ‘natural’, but also ‘wild’, by which he seems to have meant  spontaneous.  On the Saturday he received a message from the Prime Minister William Pitt, that he was needed in London in order to give support to a controversial loan to enable Austria to continue her war against Revolutionary France. After they had breakfasted together, he  took leave of her.  Once in London, in the grip of another bout of illness, quite possibly psychosomatic, he had time to reflect on his rash action: had he yielded to his physical appetites and entered into an irrevocable commitment? Yet he trusted that Barbara really was a child of God.

At the end of May as the time approached for him to return to Bath and his marriage, he lamented how much of his time had been frittered away. The war was going badly, the country was in dire straits, and in his heart of hearts he did not care!

At the wedding service, which took place on 30 May at Walcot church (the same church where Jane Austen’s parents had married) , it was Barbara who was tearful and Wilberforce who felt no emotion. After a courtship of six weeks, he had worn himself out mentally. Their honeymoon was spent on a tour of Hannah More’s schools in the Mendips.

The couple returned to Bath later in the year and according to my calculations, their first child, William Wilberforce junior, was conceived in Bath around 20 October. Not all his friends thought Wilberforce had made the right choice of a wife. Dorothy Wordsworth was not alone in thinking Barbara good-hearted but whiney and sanctimonious.

The criticisms can be summed up as follows: far from being worthy of her great husband, Barbara was a trial to his patience; she was incapable of stimulating conversation and in her anxious protectiveness she stifled his conversation with his friends; she possessed to an uncomfortable degree the evangelical vice of speaking in cant religious phrases. She was also incapable of running a smooth, efficient household, and at the chaotic breakfasts in the Wilberforce household, guests were expected to fend for themselves and sometimes had to be prepared to go hungry – though one doubts whether any wife could have coped easily with such a constant stream of visitors. Her children, too, found her a trial because of the way she fussed over them. Her vivid imagination found it all too easy to picture them in all sorts of dire perils, both physical and moral. For example, when she heard that her youngest son, Henry, had written home from his brother’s alone and at night, she conjured up a picture of him falling from his horse and lying injured in a ditch, his life slowly ebbing away. The children either laughed it off or gritted their teeth. Yet Wilberforce never regretted his marriage.

As a married couple, the Wilberforces visited Bath frequently, most sadly in 1821 when their elder daughter was taking the waters to cure the tuberculosis that was to kill her early in 1822. They were celebrities in the city. In 1824 the surviving daughter Elizabeth reported that people were forking out considerable sums of money to buy Barbara’s drawings.

In Bath three years later, Elizabeth  presented the family with a major crisis when she announced her wish to marry Charles Pinney, third son of the Bristol merchant, John Pinney, who was the owner of a substantial slave estate in Nevis. His youngest son Charles had been born in 1793 in the house in Great George Street now open to the public as the Georgian House. Charles inherited his father’s business skills and when John Pinney died in 1818 he inherited the Bristol house and the Nevis property – and the slaves. Some time in the mid-1820s he met the Wilberforces probably through their common friend, John Scandrett Harford, I suspect either in Bath or at nearby Blaise Castle. Whatever the location, in April 1827 the family were at no 3 Queen Square where Wilberforce was approached by Pinney who asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

With what seems like astonishing naivety, Wilberforce responded sympathetically. In his letter to Pinney he discussed the possible marriage settlement but made not mention of his prospective son-in-law’s substantial interests in the West Indies or in the fact that he was also involved in granting mortgages to planters in need of funds. This was worse even than being a slave-holder as he was involved in slavery at a distance and had no control over the working conditions of the slaves.

The day after Wilberforce in effect agreed to the marriage, he received a blistering letter from his abolitionist brother-in-law, James Stephen which distressed him so much that he became ill.  Barbara suggested that the family travel to Leicestershire to consult the family oracle, Thomas Babington. A week later they set off. Of course in theory the choice rested with Elizabeth. At the age of 26 she had the legal right to make her own decision. But what could she do? After listening to Babington Elizabeth broke off the relationship. As her mother put it in an apologetic letter to Pinney’s sister, Mary Ames, she could not destroy her father’s peace of mind.  Wilberforce noted with relief in his diary that she did not seem too troubled by her decision, but the next day he had to report that she had been confined to her room all day with a headache. The crisis was over – but not without its casualties. Elizabeth’s thoughts on the subject have not survived, but it must have been an extremely depressing time for her.

I wish I could provide a happy ending for Elizabeth. In January 1831 she married a clergyman, the Rev John James of Lydney, and went to live in his poor Yorkshire parish at Rawmarsh. By this time she was already suffering from a hacking cough. In October she gave birth to a baby daughter, Barbara. She then went rapidly downhill and died in the Isle of Wight in March 1832.

By this time Wilberforce himself had not long to live. In May 1833 he was back in Bath and clearly dying. The waters seemed to be doing him good, and he was able to walk on the Parade for half an hour,  but this was a false hope. The Wilberforce family were very good at unrealistic optimism.

On 17 July Wilberforce left Bath for the last time to seek the advice of London doctors. On 26 July he heard that the Anti-Slavery bill had passed its third reading. He died at 3 am on 29 July a few weeks before his seventy-fourth birthday, and with him died most of the family’s connection with Bath. Barbara Wilberforce does not seem to have visited it often if at all after her husband’s death. But then perhaps Bath’s glory days were over?