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.
Concerns for Helen’s health
After the death of their father in 1827, 1828 continued to be traumatic for the Edmonstone women and, by 1829 with the marriage of Anne-Mary to Charles Waterton, the direction of all of their lives was sealed.
On 19 December 1828, 16-year-old Anne-Mary wrote to her sister Helen from The English Convent in Bruges where she had been sent to begin her conversion to Catholicism so she could marry Charles Waterton. From her letter we learn that Helen was “confined to bed” at the family home – Cardross Park in Dunbartonshire. Whilst not unusual if she was ill, it was worrying, especially as Helen seems to have been ill for some time. She had been expected to join her sisters in Bruges, but had been unable to travel.
“You cannot think how great our disappointment is at not having seen you long before this… Write soon my dearest sister Helen or ask someone to have the charity to let us know how you are, such a long silence on your part makes us very anxious about your health”, wrote Anne-Mary.
In the same letter Anne-Mary implores Helen to get someone to write for her as their brother Charles had written to tell his sisters just how poorly Helen was. So far away, Anne-Mary and Eliza had no idea that, whilst Helen lay in her sick bed, their mother was being poisoned.
Anne-Mary’s sudden nuptials
By April 1829, Anne-Mary and Eliza are very worried at the lack of regular correspondence from home. The content of their letters suggests their mother was also very ill, but with no detail as to why.
As the end of April drew near, they were also faced with an unexpected and seemingly hurriedly arranged event. The marriage between Anne-Mary and Charles Waterton, first mentioned in their father’s will, was to take place imminently.
On 20 April 1829, Anne-Mary wrote to her sister Helen: “Let me know when you write how my mother is which is I hope, Dearest Helen, will be immediately on receipt of this…. The time of my marriage approaches very quickly. I tremble when I think of it. One happiness is that it will be very private.”
Previous commentators on Waterton’s marriage have used this extract to suggest Anne-Mary “trembles” because of the love she has for Waterton. However, the next sentence – and indeed, the information given by Eliza in the same letter – suggests it’s much more likely that Anne-Mary is worried about the wedding, and is grateful that it will not take place in a public place. This is unsurprising, as she hardly knew him. In fact, she’d only heard of the impending marriage through her guardian Mr Gordon, by letter, a week before.
In the same letter, dated just seven days after Royal Assent was given to the Catholic Emancipation Act which meant Catholics could now own property under English law, Eliza also writes to Helen:
“I am afraid you will think of me very unmindful of my promises as I have been so long in the writing to you. This, however, has been caused by the state of uncertainties in which we were. Mr Gordon has written to Anne. She received his letter last week. He says that he and Charles Waterton will be here on the 4th of next month… Anne’s marriage will take place immediately after the gentlemen are arrived. Excuse my not writing more. My hand trembles and my head aches. Adieu. Love to my Mother and Bethia.”
A conveniently timed wedding
The timing of this wedding in relation to Catholics now being allowed to own property in their own right, is not insignificant. The girls’ father had put strict restrictions on what his daughters could spend their inheritance on. As non-Catholics they were limited to buying and investing in property, which was restrictive, but not impossible. But as newly converted Catholics, this was no longer an option due to this act of parliament.
Once Charles Waterton was married, he would have influence on where the Edmonstone women might choose to invest their money. Indeed, during the years she lived at Walton Hall after the death of her sister Anne-Mary, Eliza lent Charles Waterton large amounts of money to extend the estate, as well as becoming a property owner herself.
The state of uncertainty which seems to have occurred upon receipt of their guardian’s letter announcing Anne-Mary was to be married the following week, upset Eliza as well as her sister. Although they wrote numerous letters, there is no record of Waterton writing to the sisters himself during the two years that Anne-Mary and Eliza were at the English Convent.
Anne-Mary had been received into the Catholic Church on 15 November the year before. All barriers to Charles marrying her, and receiving a gift of £5,000 as a result, were therefore gone.
Was it the hastily arranged marriage that made Eliza’s hand tremble and her head ache? Or was it maybe the lack of direct communication from the husband to be? Perhaps it was the realisation that her future, like her sister’s, was now also tied to the intentions of a man they hardly knew – their father’s old friend from their days in Demerara. The other reason Eliza’s hand “trembled” may have been the fact that, with her sister now married, she was to return to Cardross Park in Scotland, where she feared something terrible was happening.
After their marriage, at 5.30am on 18 May 1829, Anne-Mary and Charles Waterton toured France and Belgium whilst Eliza made her way back to Cardross Park via Wakefield. She stayed with Charles Waterton’s sister who lived on Westgate. We know Eliza was in Scotland by mid-June because in a letter to Anne-May dated 23 June 1829, we find out about the terrible state of affairs facing the family. She writes:
“On arriving here, I found our poor dear mother in a most pitiful state. She is reduced to a mere skeleton unable to move without the assistance of someone. Mrs McKenzie has behaved in a most shameful manner towards her and the whole family. It has been quite clearly proved that she mixed a considerable quantity of Laudanum in the wine my mother drank and also that it was she who stole the jewels. How sincerely I pity her, poor wretch. Helen had nothing to do with her. She (Helen) was however summoned to appear as a witness. Doctor Buchanan was across and carried her to the Sheriff’s Office and being his brother in law, got her away after a very short examination. These people sure are much astonished at Cousin Archy’s behaviour; he appeared in Mrs McK’s favour and left poor Helen to fight for herself.”
A public tragedy and defiant spirit
It transpires that the lack of letters from home to Anne-Mary and Eliza whilst they were in Bruges, was because of the terrible events unfolding throughout 1829. Mrs Christine McKenzie (née Haywood), the wife of Arthur McKenzie, had been stealing jewellery and steadily poisoning the girls’ mother with laudanum. It was this that was making Helen so sick and skeletal.
Mrs McKenzie was charged with theft of jewellery and administering laudanum with the intent to murder. But when the case came to trial in September 1829, she didn’t turn up and was declared an outlaw by the High Court in Glasgow. The case was reported in The Edinburgh Evening Courant on 24 September 1829, with much more detail in the trial papers.
The entire family was therefore embroiled in a private tragedy that was played out in public. It led to Eliza telling Anne-Mary: “People stare most dreadfully at me” and that “I sometimes feel inclined to knock them down”.
This powerful glimpse into Eliza’s fiery personality and her strong sense of who she is comes out time and time again in letters throughout her life.
Eliza and her sister Helen were the two women described by Charles Darwin as “mulattresses”, who joined him for dinner when he visited Waterton in the autumn of 1845. Eliza’s darker skin drew attention to her as well, something which, combined with the scandal of the court case, may have added to her inclination to “knock” those that stared, “down”.
Family links to slavery
The 16-year-old sister Helen was also embroiled in the scandal, despite having “nothing to do with [Mrs McKenzie]”. However, by the time she had to appear as a witness, she was so unwell – due perhaps to the stress of the situation, or to having been slipped quantities of poison herself – that she had to be carried to the sherriff’s office by Doctor Buchanan. To add insult to injury, her testimony was contested by her own cousin, Archibald Edmonstone, approximately 27 years older, who appeared in court in “Mrs K’s favour”.
Archibald Edmonstone, the eldest son of their father’s brother, was deeply entrenched in the slave trade. In 1817 in Demerara, according to the Legacies of British Slavery, he registered 27 enslaved people (24 male and three female) as joint proprietor in the name of Charles Edmonstone & Co. At the same time, he registered 14 enslaved people (12 male and two female) in his own name as a proprietor. Simultaneously, he registered 65 enslaved people, (41 men and 24 women) acting as Charles Edmonstone’s attorney.
By 1832, just three years after he spoke in favour of Mrs McKenzie, he registered a further 122 enslaved people in his own name (77 male and 45 female), all working on a plantation belonging to him, with the name of ‘Spittal’.
The era of the legal slave trader was coming to an end
The Edmonstone links to slavery continued to be strong and extremely profitable. On 8 December 1832, when abolition was at the forefront of British politics, The Caledonian Mercury reported that Archibald attended an address by Mr Johnstone, a leading abolitionist, and asked whether or not compensation to the planters was something that was also being pursued.
“Mr Johnson remarked that it was a difficult question but he did not see how compensation ought to be allowed for possessing wrongfully the flesh and blood of fellow creatures.”
All this publicity would have continued Waterton’s and the two Edmonstone women’s very public association with slavery.
The era of the legal slave trader was coming to an end. But not before Archibald profited further through the sale of ‘Spittal’ on 9 July 1833 when he sold it to his chief, Sir Archibald Edmonstone of Dunreath, Baronet, in anticipation of the Slavery Abolition Act.
Meanwhile, 1829 continued to be traumatic for the sisters. Almost immediately after the trial they were separated: Helen was sent to Bruges to begin the process of Catholic conversion; Eliza remained at Cardross Park; and Anne-Mary returned to England and was “ill for several weeks”. This is the first suggestion of her pregnancy.
From the letters between the sisters throughout 1829 it’s clear that they are separated, lonely and suffering from trauma. Social scandal follows them. Stigmatised, fatherless and manipulated for financial gain and countries apart, they are more powerless than ever. They really are, at this point, pure victims of a cruel and ruthless patrimony.
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.