March is Women’s History Month, and a few weeks ago I planned to write about mon my research about Elizabeth Appleton, a highly independent young woman of the Regency era, who I’ve previously blogged about. Of course a lot has happened since the beginning of March, as the world has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Record Office staff are all now working from home and we’ve had a lot to do to make sure our staff remain safe whilst also trying to get on with some useful work . It’s now the end of March and we’ve largely organised ourselves, so there’s just time to slip in a post before Women’s History Month comes to an end.
I first came across Elizabeth Appleton when she was mentioned in architect William Porden‘s diary of a journey he and his daughter Eleanor took to France in 1816. Elizabeth Appleton was extremely seasick on the crossing and she drew my attention because she was a young woman in her mid-twenties going to France as a tourist all on her own. In an age where we imagine well brought up women being hidebound by chaperones and restricted in what they can do, this seemed highly unusual.
She’s got no connections with Derbyshire (I don’t have any reason to think she ever stepped foot in the county) but my fascination with her continued long after reading about her travels with the Pordens in 1816. With the wonders of the internet and a bit of archival research, I now know so much more about her.
A search on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue uncovered a small cache of letters by Elizabeth Appleton at Lancashire Archives, written when she was a governess at Castlemere, Rochdale, to the Baylis family in London: her uncle, a printer, aunt and cousin. Lancashire Archives kindly scanned the letters for me – they cover the period 1814 to 1820 and mention the Pordens, the publication of her books (she was an author of several educational works) and her plans to escape the life of a governess. She clearly wanted to leave the provincial backwater of Rochdale and wrote of her longing to move to London and set up a school.
I already knew from an 1822 newspaper advertisement that she did establish a school in Upper Portland Place, London:
A visit to Westminster Archives enabled me to pin down the number of the house from the rate books, and a helpful map showed the house numbering when they were first built. The numbers have since changed, but that original map led me to the house, which I was excited to see was still there, very near to Regent’s Park:
It’s a substantial house in a select neighbourhood and her neighbours included a duchess and a General – very much as she would have wished! She ran her school here for ten years before financial problems required her to leave.
Elizabeth’s books, published under her maiden name and her married name, Elizabeth Lachlan, are of the ‘Governess Literature’ type – educational and moral works for children from an era when imaginative children’s literature didn’t really exist outside fairy tales. They can be found on Google Books but don’t make for exciting reading!
She maintained her friendship with the Pordens long after she met them on the way to France; after William Porden’s death in 1822, Eleanor Porden stayed with Elizabeth at Portland Place for a few months before she married the polar explorer John Franklin. Eleanor died a couple of years later at the age of only 29 whilst her husband was away on an expedition, but her friend Elizabeth was a witness to her will and so, we know, was close to her at the end.
Elizabeth’s letters at Lancashire Archives show what a determined woman she was. The options for a genteel young woman to earn her own money at that time were extremely limited, but she combined being a governess with writing books in order to save enough money to establish a successful school which gave her the lifestyle she yearned for. Even whilst she worked as a governess she managed to take time away from her busy teaching and writing to travel on the continent and pursue an active social life with friends and family in London.
Through her letters, and the glimpses we get of her in William Porden’s diaries, we gain a picture of a woman of high intelligence with a sense of humour and a streak of snobbery, who is occasionally a bit difficult and sometimes prone to depression. Her anxieties about how to support herself and her wish to obtain financial security in a world which severely limited her options would have been common concerns for many women at the time.
In the 1830s Elizabeth became an ardent Evangelical Christian and her religious views, which were considered subversive at the time, contributed to the demise of her reputation and her school. It’s been suggested that some women may have joined the Evangelical movement because it gave them an opportunity for self expression which they couldn’t find elsewhere, and I can believe that of Elizabeth.
She is one of countless women who struggled to achieve financial security, public recognition and self expression during their lives. Like many, she has since been forgotten but Women’s History Month gives us a chance to remember them all.