Philobiblon: A family of strong women

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A family of strong women

I've been a bit quiet lately - rough couple of days - so I decided to find a nice positive tale.

So to the story of Eleanor Bennett of Lyme Regis, who was left a widow with six children, three boys and three girls, the oldest 11 and the youngest just one, on 17 May 1837, when her husband John and his friend Henry Jefferd, proprietor of a baths in Lyme Regis, were drowned in a sailing accident. (Stay with me; it gets more cheerful.)

Luckily, Eleanor, who was aged 37 or 38, already had a well-established business in straw bonnet-making. The census of 1841 shows her living with five of her six children as well as a lodger, a servant and two employees. Probably after the town's big 1844 fire she moved to Malabar House (a still-surviving substantial dwelling).

Twice a year she would travel to London, after which she would invite her customers in the seaside resort to view the "newest and most fashionable assortment of goods" that she had brought back. "An author of 1895 wrote: "On one occasion Mrs Bennett brought back from London grasses with little dewdrops at the point of each! was there ever anything so pretty? and next Sunday at Church there were the grasses shedding their little dewdrops over every bonnet in all the pews".(pp. 77-78) Well I guess tastes change - luckily.

Her first daughter Ellen Kate married a solicitor's clerk and they eventually moved from Norfolk to London, her second, Maria, a London cheesemonger (now if anything could tempt me into marriage that might be it!), and Rose a Lyme ironmonger's son - and they too moved to London. One of Eleanor's sons, Joseph, became an apothecary, another, Charles, emigrated to Australia in 1852 but was killed in a shooting incident on Christmas Day 1860, while the third John, who became a coal merchant in Devizes, was married in Hackney in 1870.

Maria was widowed by TB, bearing her fourth child, like her mother did, after his father had died. She returned to her mother's home and also worked in the business. By 1866 she had taken over, but she died of typhoid in 1868, leaving four orphans aged from five and eleven - Eleanor had got herself a whole new family (and she gave up her business, presumably to care for them). In 1871 her eight years-younger sister Elizabeth joined the household.

Eleanor died in Malabar House on 28 April 1873, aged 74. The orphans went to her daughter Kate in London, who already had four children of her own. Her two daughters never married but lived together in London, Rosalie to the age of 94.

What strikes me about this account is how a family of strong women seems to have got along extremely well with the men making generally minimal contributions, carried off by mishap or illness.

(Take from The Bennetts of Lyme Regis 1762-1911, by Jill Warner and Pam Bennett Gupta, 1997, Dovecote Press, Stanbridge. I was unable to resist this while visiting the excellent Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis - since I have very little family history I might need to adopt someone else's.)


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