A Wayward Ward

Although much has changed in the last 200 years, some things remain constant, and the troubles of teenagers is one of them. I recently found a wonderful set of letters within the Miller Mundy family archive that tell the tale of a ward of Edward Miller Mundy, whose transition into adulthood didn’t go very smoothly! As I was going through a box of correspondence, a sentence in a letter dated 1805 caught my eye:

The Girl says she has told Mr P- that she will either pay the ten guineas at the end of a week or leave his family, in which case she must go on the stage.

Ref no D517/BOX/12/9/4/23

In threatening to ‘go on the stage’, by the way, ‘the Girl’ is not saying that she will get on a stagecoach, but that she is going to become an actress – a particularly scandalous profession at the time.  I didn’t think young women threatened to go on the stage in real life (it seems more of a cliché of romantic fiction) so I was immediately intrigued as to who this outrageous ‘Girl’ was.

Thankfully within the group of over 60 letters from and about the ‘Girl’, she signed one with her full name, written with a flourish:


If she’d just been a Mary Feilding I would have struggled to trace her, but her unusual middle name, Victorine, made life much easier and I found her baptism in France in 1787 on Ancestry.com. It transpires she was the youngest of the three illegitimate children of Viscount Feilding (1760-1799) and Maria Magdalena Huntley, also known as Maria Magdalena Groeschner.  Despite their illegitimate status, all the children were given suitably aristocratic names: her brothers were William George Augustus Feilding and Louis Victor William Feilding. Illegitimate children can’t inherit titles, though, so Viscount Feilding married the respectable Anne Powys in 1791 and produced two more sons and a daughter.  In his will, however, he provided for his illegitimate children as well as the legitimate ones, and Edward Miller Mundy (1750-1822) became guardian to young Mary.

The fact that there are over 60 letters and bills for a two year period, just about Mary, are a good clue that she caused quite a bit of trouble! In 1804, when Mary was 17, she was placed in Bath to learn a respectable trade as a milliner and dressmaker. She was, however, clearly more interested in spending money than earning it, paid little attention to her work and constantly ran up debts. One bill for £11 9s 6d (the equivalent to around £500 in today’s money) lists 30 purchases between May and August 1804 from the Miss Hoblyn’s, with whom she had been placed to learn the business. Her purchases included a split straw bonnet, fabric (net and buff gingham, etc.), gloves, buttons, ribbons and trimmings, and a few made-up garments such as a muslin dress and a cambric spencer.

Ref no D517/BOX/12/9/4/13

In September 1804, she was placed with another milliner and dressmaker in Bath, Miss Edgell, but at Christmas Mary left Miss Edgell’s and moved in with some haberdashers, Mr and Mrs Percival. She hadn’t obtained her guardian’s permission for the move, and although she implied that she moved because of Miss Edgell’s treatment of her, Miss Edgell wrote to one of Mr Mundy’s sisters:

I… treated her with all the kind attention in my power, in return for which I have received the greatest neglect of my business, my advice, & such a general mark’d contempt that it was impossible I could submit to having such an example before the rest of my family.

It was when she moved to the Percivals that she threatened to go on the stage if her guardian wouldn’t agree to her staying there. She certainly seems to have had a flair for the dramatic. In a letter dated 2 February 1805, Edward Miller Mundy’s sister, Mrs Oliver, described a visit to Mary in which Mrs Oliver suggested that going into service with a lady of good character would be a much more creditable way of earning her living than going on the stage.  Like the persecuted heroine of a popular novel, Mary declaimed:

‘Do you think Lord Feilding’s Daughter will condescend to go to service? No, I have too much pride for that & since you will not assist me in the only way which is in your power, I can truly say it shall be the last favour I will ever ask of you or any of the Mundys, who have all used me cruelly.

Eventually Mary was persuaded to return to her mother, now called Mrs Williams, who was living in Turnham Green in London. Mrs Williams intended to travel to India, and a letter from Harriet Bowdler (a cousin of the Feildings) to Edward’s sister Nelly Mundy on 30 September 1805 said that Mary was anxious to travel to India with Mrs Williams but needed money to do so.  She wrote about Mary and her mother in less than flattering terms (Mrs Williams’ ‘trade’, which Mrs Bowdler mentions, refers to her being a man’s mistress, rather than a respectable wife):

I hope the whole of this troublesome business will now be settled.  If poor Mary escapes mischief during the voyage, (for which ugliness seems to be her only security), & makes an honest marriage, I shall be truly glad of it; but I cannot think that Mrs W- can teach her anything but her own trade, & for that, luckily, she has not the qualification of beauty.’ 

Unfortunately for the Mundys, they were not so easily able to get rid of Mary, as she and her mother had a falling out. In November 1805, Mrs Williams wrote a couple of letters to the Mundys complaining of her daughter’s behaviour. She had thrown Mary out and now refused to have anything to do with her. Her laments might be familiar to some other mothers of teenagers:

‘When after some time, I desired her to attend to our small domestic concerns… & learn a little Housekeeping, she caused me so much vexation, that I was obliged to give up that point…. In the morning she will not get up, her carelessness & behaviour all together is such that I could not endure it any longer… When she is severely rebuked then she gets sulky.’

Mary’s lack of money sense was also an enduring problem, as was her propensity for telling tall stories to cover up her spending. Mrs Williams wrote:

‘I had sent her a two pound note for her journey from Bath to Turnham Green, Mrs Mundy had given her from you ten pounds, & more than half of that money she had spend in perfumes, Rouge, punch, cider & all sorts of cakes,… to hide her extravagance she told me story after story till I threatened to write to you.

Ref no D517/BOX/12/9/4/36

That double underlined ‘Rouge’ speaks volumes about Mary’s wickedness! It wasn’t only Mrs Williams who threatened to cast off Mary. Nelly Mundy wrote to Mrs Chaffer of Hammersmith, who had taken in Mary when she left her mother’s house, that Mary had been:

totally given up, both by my Brother & myself … she has been dishonestly making use of my Brother’s name for the purpose of Absolute Swindling … & whenever it is known where she can be found they will probably throw her into jail. The kindest thing you can do is to advise her to seek shelter with some honest farmer or cottager where she may exist & repent.  Nothing else can keep her from perdition.

This is strong language! I can’t deny, however, that Mary did behave badly. Her letters are masterpieces of duplicity – sometimes she is the wronged party, sometimes she is very sorry and promises to behave better (repeatedly!) and she almost always needs some money. The kindly Mrs Chaffer is less harsh than Nelly Mundy but has to admit that :

‘I do not think Miss F possesses much gratitude. I have advised her to take care of herself & keep from bad company which she promises to do. I believe her abilities for the stage are very great, If she succeeds I shall be very glad as she never will attend to Business.’

Despite everything, the Mundys didn’t totally cast Mary off and Nelly Mundy continued to help her, although to one request for £20, Nelly pointed out that over just three months, Mary had gone through £240 – that’s the equivalent of over £11,000 today. To be fair to Mary, it must have been difficult to have the status of a Viscount’s daughter, which I suspect she had been taught to be proud of, but without the advantages of legitimacy. If she had been a legitimate daughter, she would have had plenty of spending money and would never have needed to work for her living. No doubt her relations would have still complained of her irresponsible ways (and the fact that she bought rouge!), but she wouldn’t have been thrown out of the house.

So what happened to Mary?  She did give up her aspirations to become an actress, beg forgiveness and appear to knuckle down to becoming a milliner, although in the last letter, dated June 1806, Mary confesses that she has had to leave her situation in Lichfield, not due to bad conduct but because ‘it is the cry of everyone that my experience is not sufficient to manage a Business’. I’m guessing that although she might have been genuinely penitent, Mary had been somewhat overconfident when she applied for this job and imagined that her millinery skills were much greater than they were. What came of her after that I don’t know, but she did eventually make that ‘honest marriage’. Her eldest brother, William, bequeathed his house and possessions to his sister Mary Victorine Pollock, wife of Hugh Pollock, and their daughter Isabella in his will dated 1864.

Reading through these letters is reminiscent of reading a novel full of fascinating characters. There’s the deceitful and irresponsible young Mary with shades of Lydia Bennet and Becky Sharp about her. Mrs Williams, whose German accent comes out in her spelling (which I’ve tidied up for this blog), and whose temperament doesn’t help her to cope with a trying teenager – not to mention the references to her relationship with Viscount Feilding and her wish for his widow, Lady Feilding, to read the letters he wrote to her, which I can’t imagine she would have been keen to do! Mrs Chaffer’s letters include misspellings with dropped and extra ‘h’s that are in themselves worthy of a character from Dickens. And then there are Nelly Mundy, Mrs Oliver and Mrs Bowdler, trying to deal with all of Mary’s missteps with the air of disapproving matrons from an Austen novel.

The letters are all now individually listed on our online catalogue and some of the catalogue records include full transcriptions. You can read the transcribed letters yourself and see where your sympathies lie.

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