The Petticoat Patrimony project in Wakefield looks at the hidden stories and legacy of Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen Edmonstone. The sisters were direct descendants of the indigenous peoples of Demerara and, as curators and enablers of Charles Waterton’s life, were victims of historical patrimony. Petticoat Patrimony seeks to redress this and challenge existing perceptions of Waterton, slavery, gender and racial stereotypes.
Previous articles in this series are available here.
Anne-Mary’s difficult pregnancy
If 1829 was a traumatic year for the Edmonstone sisters, 1830 was worse.
All three sisters were unwell at the turn of the year. Anne-Mary had been incredibly sick since early in her pregnancy. In October/November 1829 she wrote to Eliza with a detailed description, expressing her fears of miscarriage and shame around being pregnant:
“The truth is, I am between 3 and 4 months gone in the family way and I have been so ill till within the last fortnight that the doctor and all the married ladies with whom I am intimate strongly advise me to keep as quiet as possible and to take very gentle exercise, in case of a miscarriage… I beg you will not let any person know I am in that way. I am always ashamed when it is mentioned to me.”(Copy of letter held by American Philosophical Society no. 292 held in Wakefield Yorkshire Archives)
Anne-Mary also asks Eliza to look into the cost of Scottish baby linen as she feels sure it will be cheaper than in Wakefield: “I’m going to trouble you to enquire what sum it will cost to get all the things necessary for myself and the baby. I wish the baby’s clothes to be as handsome as possible.”
A second wedding ceremony
It’s difficult not to wonder why Anne-Mary is worried about the cost of linen for her baby and herself considering the substantial amount of money Charles Waterton received when they were married. Whilst her father’s will specifically bypassed her and gave £5,000 from the proceeds of his slave trade directly to Charles, it seems incredible to think that Waterton wouldn’t provide anything his young bride might need. Either way, it’s telling that Anne-Mary asks Eliza for help and confides in her as she does, whilst asking Eliza to keep quiet about the situation. On 20 December the same year, Anne-Mary and Waterton were married again, this time in the Protestant Church of St Helen’s in the parish of Sandal, Wakefield. Unlike the first union at the convent in Bruges, when Eliza was in attendance, this time Anne-Mary was alone.
Illness and isolation for the sisters
When Anne-Mary wrote to her sister Helen on 18 February 1830, she was clearly in considerable pain and distress:
“The doctor orders me to be kept quiet as possible… I have been, and still, am very much troubled with severe pain in my back which when I exert myself the least is attended with very unpleasant consequence and that alone has prevented me from answering your letter sooner.”
Anne-Mary is ordered to be kept quiet. It is clear from her letter to Helen – who has just been received into the Catholic Church in Bruges after a short period of instruction – that Anne-Mary is not the only one who is unwell. Eliza is also ill, and Helen’s health continues to be fragile (recall that she had been almost too ill to give evidence in the case against the woman who poisoned their mother). It’s not surprising Anne-Mary is anxious about both her sisters and the situation faced by them all.
“Eliza wrote to me about six weeks ago since which time I have not heard from Scotland. Mr Gordon has entirely forgotten me… when she is well she is very punctual in writing to me. I request when you answer this that you will mention particularly how you are, as Eliza stated in her last letter to me that you had been worse of late.”
Both Eliza and Anne-Mary write of their sense of abandonment by two of the men who were trustees of their father’s will: Mr Gordon the Catholic priest, and Solicitor Bruce, who had been appointed their guardian. Mr Gordon concerned himself solely with the sisters’ conversion to Catholicism, and Bruce likewise failed to look in on them.
“Solicitor Bruce, although a Guardian has not yet digressed to honour me with a visit. I know that he has passed this way several times and even been to Cardross Park.”
Tragic news arrives
As winter turned to early spring, Anne-Mary gave birth to her son Edmund, on 7 April 1830 at Walton Hall.
Waiting to hear from her sister Anne-Mary, Helen finally receives a letter from Gordon dated 1May 1830, reporting second-hand news from the Reverend N R Norris. The news was both terrible and tragic:
“[Anne-Mary] is no more… she died in consequence of childbirth on the morning of the 27th(of April 1830) A week after the birth of her child, a week spent in in the midst of the severest anguish and affliction. Every possible attention was paid to her by a skilful physician, an affectionate husband, a kind sister in law and especially by a zealous and loving clergyman, The Reverend NR Norris of Wakefield, who writes me that never did he witness in a dying person so much faith, resignation and devotion.”
Mr Gordon is wrong. It didn’t take Anne-Mary seven days to die but rather 20 days most of which would have been anything but quiet.
Anne-Mary was 19 when she died, without her sisters at her side, of puerperal fever, an entirely avoidable bacterial infection spread through dirty birthing instruments and unwashed hands. In 1830 there was no understanding of the importance of basic hygiene during childbirth and, as midwives had been replaced by ‘skilful physicians’ using unsterilised forceps, many women died of the fever as a dreadful consequence of childbirth.
Geri Walton, in her 2013 article about the disease, cites John Armstrong in 1823 saying “Great discrepancy of opinion still exists among writers of celebrity, respecting the … treatment of … puerperal”. Armstrong wrote of the symptoms:
“The disease was mostly ushered in by very slight shiverings, or rigors, by oppression at the precordia, by vomiting, retching, or nausea, and by considerable anxiety of mind. When shivering’s or rigors abated, which were often very short, the skin became universally hot and dry, and the thirst urgent. The tongue was much paler than usual, and appeared as if it had been recently rubbed, or dusted with a fine whitish powder … The matter thrown up consisted of the ingesta, mixed with mucus, and yellow or greenish bile. The pulse was seldom less than 120 in the minute, and mostly rather full, tense, and vibrating, or very small, sharp, or somewhat wirey, when the excitement had fully emerged.”
The reality of Anne-Mary’s death would have been a far cry from the narrative spun by Gordon and his fellow Catholic priest through their letters. Gordon writes to Helen and urges her to accept Anne-Mary’s death in the same way that her sister Eliza accepted it:
“But Religion will whisper to you as to her, it’s thousand consolations, and when you think of a hundred Angels in your house praying for a kindred Spirit, if perchance it needs their prayers, or that Spirit, if otherwise, praying that they may share that bliss to which she has attained, and after which she learned to aspire so fervently and so successfully within these walls, your sorrow will mellow into virtuous resignation and you will exclaim, oh may my soul die the death of the just and may my last end be like unto theirs.”
As quiet as possible
And so, as Anne-Mary was ‘kept as quiet as possible’ in the last months of her life and in her death, the unbearable pain and agony she suffered was unrecognised. Her sisters must likewise learn the virtue of suffering in silence and pray for the qualities that enable that.
Helen returns to Scotland and after no word from Eliza, writes to her on 15June 1830 at Walton Hall, although she did not know if Eliza was there or not. Helen was at that time desperate for some news and suffering headaches which incapacitated her.
“My dearest Eliza,
I fully expect to have received a letter from you before this, and by your silence I begin to fear you are unwell or something or other is the matter. Sister Alicia has just desired me to write you a few lines to request you to let her know what time you intend coming for me and also if she will get me a bonnet and frock here or if you will bring them. I hope you will upon reception of this answer it without delay.
I have lately been troubled with the pains in my back and head. I have a strengthening plaster on my back and a plaster today on the back of my neck, for my headaches. I think I will do me some good, at least for the present.
Have you heard lately of the Boys [their brothers Charles and Robert] and Bethia [their youngest sister] and are they any accounts of my mother. Dear Anne’s death will indeed be a great shock to her. I’m afraid she will be unwell after hearing of it.”
Buried alone, without ceremony, just as she lived
Anne-Mary Waterton of Walton Hall, a Roman Catholic, was buried 30 April 1830 at St Helen’s Church in the Parish of Sandal Magna, without service. She is given as being 21 when she died but was in fact 19. Baptism records show she was born 14 July 1810 in Demerara, and baptised 1 August 1811.
Whilst we would hope Anne-Mary had a Catholic funeral at Walton Hall, we cannot find any evidence of this. Anne-Mary was buried, as she died, without her sisters.
Anne-Mary’s entire life was built on secrets and surrounded by silence. Her mixed heritage was ignored, whilst the pain and suffering she endured during pregnancy and death was disregarded. Her ‘quiet’ story, along with that of her sisters has been sanitised, whitewashed and diminished – until now.
This is part of a series of articles on the Edmonstone sisters, on the run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March. It is based on research by Helga Fox, Sarah Cobham, Catherine Clarke, Abibat Olulode and Zainab Jode. Look out for the next in the series next Wednesday.