A chance purchase in a second hand shop sent journalist Alan Roby on a decades long odyssey piecing together the fascinating tale of life in Lancashire during the early1800s.
When Alan Roby bought a second-hand book in the 1970s, little did he realise its subject would preoccupy him for the next 40 years. It was a biography with the not very inspirational title of: Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess.
It was a 1960s reprint of a title first printed in the 1930s, based on the letters, diary entries and other autobiographical writings of an ordinary Lancashire woman who had both an exceptional ability for the written word combined with the stamina for walking which defied her diet.
Nelly Weeton was born during the reign of George III and lived to see the Coronation of Victoria. Born in Lancaster in 1776, to a Lancaster slave ship captain and the daughter of a Preston butcher, Nelly and her younger brother, Thomas, were brought up by their widowed mother. Nelly’s father had been mortally wounded in an engagement with an American ship, during the American War of Independence, and was buried in Jamaica in 1782.
After her husband’s death at sea, destitute Mrs Mary Weeton and her two children moved from Lancaster to the village of Up Holland, near Wigan, in May 1784. It was to be the place where Nelly knew only hardship and drudgery for the next 24 years, in part due to the early death of her mother in 1797.
Consequently sewing, cleaning and washing dishes, became Nelly’s lot. But it was to reading and writing that she showed a natural aptitude, having learned the complete alphabet in three hours at little more than the age of two. From an early age she was a voracious reader, ‘chalk, slate and quill’ rather than a doll was her great love.
Miss Nelly Weeton began to correspond with friends and family in 1807 and continued to do so for some 30 years. During which time she not only wrote letters but also wrote extensively in her journal, plus writing other autobiographical material.
Such was her methodical approach that every time she wrote a letter, she also wrote an exact copy into a memorandum book for reference at a later date. Each letter was numbered and indexed.
Her journal entries record her innermost thoughts and reveal a woman who was not only highly intelligent and transparently honest but also determined and disciplined. She was a committed Christian and a non-conformist by inclination at a time when there was deep dissent concerning church doctrine, holding nothing back when it came to the personal strengths and weaknesses of individual clergymen.
She was particularly disdainful of those she considered haughty, pompous and arrogant. Miss Weeton was a contemporary of the alleged Up Holland highwayman George Lyon, of whom she said that ‘two houses near together in Up Holland, there have been in each, a mother and daughter lying in nearly at the same time and George Lyon was reputed to be responsible.’
One hundred years later, Nelly’s writings came to light in a second-hand book dealer’s shop in Wigan. They were discovered by Edward Hall, a collector of manuscripts and diaries in the 1920s. Hall edited the material and during the 1930s a book was published in two volumes by Oxford University Press. Both editions are long out of print.
Nelly’s writings take readers into the grim reality of life in early 19th century North West England, as it affected both those who were destitute and those with too much. She had remarkable observation and descriptive qualities and wrote with candour. She reveals the sources of her protracted pain, often the result of those closest to her, and a life that was most unusual for a woman of her class. Despite grinding poverty, Mrs Weeton’s disposition was one of high personal moral rectitude. In a village that was notoriously licentious she inculcated her own high moral standards into her children. At the age of 31 Nelly finally broke free from the village, to seek her fortune in Liverpool.
There an anonymous newspaper advertisement caught her eye, it was to be her first employment as governess for a member of a wealthy banking family. His name was Edward Pedder, Esq., who lived at the ‘charming seat’ known as Dove’s Nest, Ambleside, overlooking Windermere (pictured, inset). For the next 14 months Nelly experienced both joyful and harrowing experiences in the employment of a man who had a propensity towards his ‘bottle,’ and whose personality would eventually deteriorate from being ‘good natured and liberal’ to an ‘unpredictable and violent brute’.
Nelly Weeton travelled extensively throughout Lancashire and daily walked an average of 12 miles. She was a regular visitor to Preston, where her mother was born, also to Liverpool and Southport, which was an up-and-coming fashionable resort, brought about by the new sea-bathing craze.
Easy access to Southport at economical rates became available via the Wigan to Liverpool canal packet, which Nelly caught at Appley Bridge and disembarked at Scarisbrick Bridge.
With a latent penchant for adventure, before taking up another position near Huddersfield for Joseph Armitage, a woollen manufacturer, Nelly decided to take a six-weeks tour of the Isle of Man. There she walked more than 200 miles in and around the island, and records that on June 5, 1812, she walked 35 miles, fortified by just three boiled eggs, and a crust of bread.
She also made a lone
ascent of Snaefell, where she had to crawl against a strong wind, to place ‘her mite on the heap of stones’ on the summit. At a later date she undertook a further arduous tour of North Wales to include a lone ascent of Snowdon.
Miss Weeton’s adventurous spirit also took her on a dangerous stagecoach journey ‘outside’ to London in the summer of 1824. It was a time when stagecoaches regularly turned over due to deeply rutted roads. For a period of some 10 weeks she toured the city, detailing many unusual and interesting experiences, even commenting on the absence of urinals for women, noting that ‘p***** g places are in many a snug corner’ for men only, and her journey to and from the metropolis makes riveting reading.
Life changed dramatically for Nelly after she married Aaron Stock in 1814. Stock was a Wigan man and a widower, who was also the near bankrupt owner of a cotton spinning business in the town. On marriage, at a stroke, her personality was lawfully incorporated into that of her husband, to include all her shrewd investments and savings.
Over the next ten years Nelly suffered physical and mental abuse, culminating in Stock ejecting his wife from their home in Wigan on a bitterly cold January day in 1818; at the same time obtaining a legal agreement barring his wife from within two-an-a-half miles of the town.
Its sole purpose being to ensure their only child, a daughter, could have no further contact with her mother. The alternative to signing the document, which was read to her once only, was incarceration into a lunatic asylum. The couple finally separated through a Deed of Separation, in 1822, but on the condition of Nelly accepting severely limited access to her daughter.
Life did eventually turn around for the better. Mother and daughter became reunited to live together in Standishgate, Wigan, until 1844, after Aaron Stock eventually became bankrupt and was later was incarcerated into Lancaster Lunatic Asylum in 1828.
Alan’s skilful editing is based on Miss Weeton’s original writings which are held by Wigan Council Archives and offer the interested reader a more rounded picture than previously of this remarkable woman, against the harsh society in which she lived. This new edition, commissioned at the request of Wigan Archivist, Alex Miller, who recognised Alan as the acknowledged expert on Miss Weeton, also includes the end of Miss Weeton’s life, unknown until the 1990s.
* Miss Weeton, Governess and Traveller. Published by Wigan Archives, 448 pages plus 16 pages of illustrations, hardback. £20. Find out where to buy at www.missweetonbook.wordpress.com