Saturday, 16 August 2014

A spinster lady in 19th century Boroughbridge

A glimpse of the life of Alice Stubbs:

Alice Stubbs lived all her life in Boroughbridge.  She was born at 6 o'clock in the morning on 2 August 1844 at Bridge Foot, where her father, a grocer and wine merchant, was the third generation to run the family business.

Alice was the youngest of the six children.  When she was thirteen years old, she went to school at Miss Adcock's in Ilkley with her elder sister Lizzy and her cousin Mary Redmayne of Stainforth.  The following year, in August 1859, she and Mary went to school in Blackheath near London, while Lizzy, aged seventeen, had left education and was making lengthy stays with family and friends.

When Alice's father Thomas died in 1867 Alice was the only child left at home.  Her eldest sister Jane and her growing family had moved to Knaresborough, while Lizzy lived in Doncaster with her husband and new baby.  John was establishing himself as a solicitor in Middlesbrough, and the family must barely have recovered from the loss of Tom, who had died suddenly in London the previous year when aged only thirty-two.  Alice and her mother moved out of the Bridge Foot, leaving it to her eldest brother Joe and his wife, and set up home in St James's Square.  She was twenty-three years old and it was to be her home for the rest of her days

We do not know whether Alice chose spinsterhood.  There is no hint in the family papers that she suffered any disappointment in love – unlike her cousin Fanny Stubbs, the Bishop of Oxford's sister.  Fanny had told John of "her smash with George Robinson" as they walked together to the Castleberg in Settle in August 1856; when she died at the age of forty-one she was still unmarried.  Alice, like Fanny, was the mainstay and companion of her widowed mother Mary.

We can glimpse her daily life through family letters. 

She had local duties and obligations to fulfil.  This included visiting the poor ("districting" as her mother called it), teaching in the Sunday School and helping at the National School.  There were calls to be paid and shopping – or, as her mother still said, "marketing" – to be done.  Alice played tennis, went for walks, and of course attended church.  There were frequent visitors to stay and people called on them and were entertained at meals.  Alice and her mother very much enjoyed "romping" with the little children who were brought to the house. 

Alice herself went to stay with friends and family, for amusement and to be useful.  She went to Redcar, visited Cambridge for the May Bumps “and had great gaiety” when a young relative Charlie Stubbs was rowing in the races, to Hychin Hall near Bury St Edmonds with her cousin Mary Redmayne, to Scarborough with Aunt Henlock.  Aunt Henlock was clearly very fond of Alice –
"We had such a pleasant day at Ouseburn yesterday  Aunt sent for us in the morng   paid the bar [tollbar] and sent us home in the eveng, then I felt overpowered with her presents to me it was so exceedingly kind in fact she did not know how to make sufficient of us"
wrote Alice to John in Feb 1869.

Aunt Henlock's generosity, though it made Alice a little embarrassed, was very welcome.  Finances were a constraint, as although their lives were comfortable their incomes were fixed.  Alice was unable to get to Redcar to see her new nephew soon after the birth because of
"lowness in the purses, the sealskin has never been quite recovered   Alice felt she had not sufficient dress to come with and nothing quarter day"
wrote Mary in March 1872.
"Transferring money does not suit those who have only a limited income   payment deferred for a few months is very inconvenient"
she wrote in April 1872. 

Keeping the balance between the necessity for careful housekeeping and the level of hospitality that she had been accustomed to offer guests – and perhaps felt was expected of her – must have required care.

Alice took her share of the work in the house – and it is clear that they enjoyed their garden:
"Alice is taking in her geraniums"
wrote Mary, and
"... tell dear Ellis our Hyacinths and Narcissus’s are all nicely in flower and though not remarkably fine are very pretty, are yours flowering?"
Mary had run a large household, entertaining customers and family for days in succession during the Fair, and was clearly an excellent manager.  The housekeeping skills possessed by Mary and Alice were valued by the rest of the family:
"I have got a ham if you like to have it weighing 21 pounds for twenty one shillings, would you like another one or not if so we will look out and they could both come together"
Mary wrote in September 1875. 
"I have only been able yet to get you the small ham but if Ellis still wishes for a large I have no doubt we can get one and then shall be sent off by luggage train when we hear from you."
Alice made marmalade for the family, and thereby earned a little more income:
"she has put it into bottles to travel best and altogether has cost 6/-"
wrote her mother to John.

For all housekeepers in Boroughbridge, the seasonal house-cleaning was a major undertaking.  Social life came to a temporary halt while the house was turned out, scrubbed, dusted and whitewashed.  Gas had come to the town in about 1860, but even if the house in St James's Square had replaced oil lamps and candles with gas lighting, the light afforded was dim by comparison with the electricity of the 20th century.  When spring brought brighter sunshine into the darker corners and shadier passages, the grime of a winter of coal fires and smoky wicks would have been all too visible.
"We very much wished to be cleaning"
wrote Mary in March 1872 when it became clear visitors would prevent them, and they were forced to put it off until the beginning of May.  It must have been a trying time, and that year they were unfortunate in the weather.  They were assisted as usual by Bessy (who had been the children's nurse) while her husband Henry Carass the butcher was their whitewasher.  By dint of their combined efforts they were nearly finished by 18 May, but the unseasonable coldness – "it is like Christmas" – made it rather unpleasant.  And it was all to be done again in late autumn, ready for winter.
 "We have had a busy day cleaning the dining room putting down the old carpet etc"
wrote Mary at the end of October, and again on 7 November,
"I do not think we have anything more to tell you everybody is cleaning for Martinmas." 
The stone passages were not easy to keep clean and warm: 
"I am rather anxious to have a new oilcloth for one passage … I cannot have it to cover entirely as no one here could properly fit it so it must only be a certain width … the flags are very rough ones that they may be better not covered altogether, and we always roll it up when we go from home"
wrote Mary in April 1873. 

Another comment by Mary in May 1873 shows how consuming an occupation cleaning was for the whole community:
"Everybody is cleaning so we are very quiet.  Alice will be doing all her drawers &c I cannot persuade her to take them quietly I tell her she will be worn out before her time"
Unsurprisingly, Mary grew increasingly reluctant to take on the burden without Alice.  In 1874, when she and John were attempting to fix a date for Alice to visit him at Coatham, Mary wrote
"We must have house cleaning and I do not feel equal to undertaking it alone."
 The house was turned upside down in the process.  When in May 1874 her daughter Jane Capes wrote in the middle of cleaning
"to say she and Henry would come for the night, today was the Audit [probably of the Workhouse Union, which Henry would have to attend] we had not a carpet down up stairs but we took them they slept in the nursery bed (rather small you will say) but they seemed content."
In spring 1875 Mary was 72 years old – that year she found
"the extra work of dusting &c has made my sight rather more dim for we have had a very busy week and thankful it is over."
John and his wife Ellis made Alice the fine present of a sewing machine.  Isaac Singer improved on earlier machines and patented his own design in 1851, achieving such success that by 1860 Singers were the market leaders.  When Ellis prepared her own trousseau in March 1871 she had the use of a sewing machine, remarking to John in a letter from her mother's house in Helensburgh
"10 bodies.  No easy task"
as she sewed her underwear.  She must have realised how very useful Alice would find one.

The machine was set up on the table that Mary used for writing letters.  On 22 February 1872, she wrote to John
"Alice is machining beside me and makes me very shaky but she says to tell them every time I use it I feel more inwardly grateful to them both for it and her best love to Ellis and thanks for her letter."
and the following month
"Alice is machining by me petticoat bottoms &c   she does prize her valuable gift it has done a great deal this week bed curtains &c &c"
It enabled Alice to earn a little money by carrying out commissions for the family.  She did some sewing for Ellis and the children: 
"tell Ellis the frock was sent off to her on Monday"
wrote Mary in February 1874. 

The sisters-in-law both evidently enjoyed discussing clothes and Ellis must have been a useful source of information for Alice.   Boroughbridge had become a much quieter town since the railways came, while Coatham and Redcar were popular seaside resorts, giving Ellis the opportunity to see the lady visitors in their best holiday attire.  The sewing machine must have been particularly valuable in the 1870s, when dresses were decorated with a uantity of elaborate trimmings:
"Am I to have Pekay [piqué] dress or what else can you recommend for I have 6 yards of embroidery to trim it with?"
wrote Alice to Ellis in April 1872.
"Alice begs I will tell Ellis she wore her blue dress"
Mary wrote in July 1873.

Ellis went to visit John’s family for the first time on 28 December 1870. She had met John in late November when they were fellow guests of Thomas Vaughan, the ironmaster.  Tom was a friend of John's, and his wife Kate Macfarlane was Ellis's cousin.  Ten days after their first meeting, John and Ellis were engaged to be married.  Ellis's first visit to Boroughbridge was naturally a matter of great importance, and as he was unable to accompany her, he depended on the post for news.

Her letters give us a glimpse of life in St James's Square.  She wrote to him of sitting in her room beside such a cosy fire, watching old Bessie in the kitchen preparing a turkey, coming in
"from such a nice dinner – and as Alice insisted in me taking some port you must excuse bad writing!?!"
coming home from church and
"taking a nice warm cup of coffee to lunch."
 A few months later, when he was staying at Boroughbridge, she wrote,
"I imagine when you receive this you will be just dressing in the nice comfortable room I slept in perhaps just out of your bath as I was when I received yours." 
Alice died on 23 July 1921.  A loving soul, she was much loved herself.  In a letter to his mother on 15 February 1885 John wrote,
"Don’t please trouble about Alice.  So long as I am able, she shall never want a home, but she will have enough to make her independent of any of us"
 In 1909 Alice wrote to Ellis,
"words will never express what you have been to me throughout the whole of your married life and it was one of dear Granny’s great causes of thankfulness that John had chosen such a wife.  Also that I had gained such a true and loving sister."

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