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 perception of Waterton, slavery, gender and racial stereotypes.
Previous articles in this series are available here.
The business of marriage
There was no romance between Charles Waterton (age 47) and Anne-Mary Edmonstone (age 18). Whilst the letter from Waterton to the girl’s father, Charles Edmonstone (dated 17 January 1827), has until now been used as evidence that their marriage was one that had been long arranged and frames Waterton as a romantic hero, it’s clear after extensive research that “the business” referred to in the letter is not one of marriage. That came later.
As Richard Hobson detailed in his 1886 book Charles Waterton, his home, habits and handiwork, in 1826, Waterton’s finances were depleted from his travels and the building of a boundary wall around his estate.
Therefore, when Charles Waterton was asked to become an executive and trustee of the will of his good friend Charles Edmonstone (one of Scotland’s most successful and slave traders on Demerara ), initially written 30 June 1827, he declined, thus removing any potential conflict of interest as a financial beneficiary of the will through his marriage to Anne-Mary. Rev Jon Gordon, a Catholic priest replaced Waterton as an executor and trustee and became Anne-Mary Edmonstone’s guardian on the death of her father late in 1827.
Charles Edmonstone’s will establishes that his estate was worth £44,368,1,9 (the equivalent of just shy of £6mn today) with the majority of his wealth being generated from the sale of plantations and enslaved people in Demerara.
Part of this evaluation of wealth included the sale of seven enslaved people. Three other enslaved women are named in the will, Catherine, Betty and Cecillia who are described as “belonging” to him and were to “be released from slavery” on the condition that:
“After my decease as they (the trustees) shall think proper but only on this condition that the said slaves find good and sufficient security to free and relieve my means and estate from any demand by the Colony for their after maintenance and support.”
Further information in the will tells us that Catherine and Betty were given their freedom, but Cecillia remained enslaved as she, it turns out, was the property of his wife, Helen (née Reid). The extent of the problems establishing this ‘fact’ is seen in the various codicils to the original will.
It delayed matters and, as Charles Edmonstone’s health deteriorated, sorting the sale of the Edmonstone slave plantations became a priority. To perpetuate the wealth within the family, on 14 August 1827, his nephew, Archibald Edmonstone (the son of his brother Archibald Edmonstone) and his nephew Archibald Lapslie (the son of his sister Jean Lapslie née Edmonstone) became the new owners of the Edmonstone lands, plantations and slaves. Securing the money from the sale of the estates ensured that should Charles marry Anne-Mary, he would be in immediate receipt of a fortune.
The ‘business’ to be arranged
Charles Edmonstone, faced with such a complicated legal situation and unable to oversee it himself from Scotland, was assisted by Charles Waterton who provided a solution by using his contacts and family connections in Demerara to ensure success. In his letter to Edmonstone dated 17 January 1827, Waterton informs his friend that he has heard from Robert, who our research suggests is Waterton’s cousin, who was in British Guiana residing at his father Christopher’s Waterton’s plantation now run by his widow, Anne Waterton (nee Waddell), La Jalousie.
“I heard from Robert about a couple of weeks ago and he informed me that he had commissioned a friend to arrange the business with you. I shall be rejoiced to hear that everything is settled to your liking and also that you have taken a serious look into your money matters and put all to rights, for I am sure when that is done your mind will be quite at ease and your charming family will reap infinite advantage from it.”
The letter comes from a 1955 first edition collection of letters with notes by R A Irwin Letters of Charles Waterton. Irwin, in his notes accompanying this section says:
“Robert Edmonstone was Charles Edmonstone’s senior’s second son and a brother of Waterton’s future wife, ANNE MARY. The ‘business’ seems to have been Waterton’s formal engagement to Anne.”
In search of a wife
Our research tells us that it is impossible that the Robert Edmonstone referred to by R A Irwin was Charles Edmonstone’s second son as he was too young and remained at Cardross Park. Research suggests that R A Irwin may have been referring to Charles Edmonstone’s nephew, the son of his brother Archibald Edmonstone who was in Demerara at that time. We also know Charles Edmonstone’s nephew, Robert Edmonstone was in Demerara in 1823 as Aide de Camp to Col. Goodman.
The question, however, that needs to be asked is this: why would Charles Waterton be in correspondence with Charles Edmonstone’s nephew and then report back to Edmonstone about it, when his own nephew Robert Waterton was also in Demerara at that time? The assumption about ‘the business’ being the marriage between Waterton and Anne-Mary comes from a sentence further down in the same letter:
“When I have done with them (the workmen at Walton Hall), which will be about the close of summer, I must be off again upon another adventure, probably to New Holland. I find I cannot live with any comfort at home unless I were married; and I have not courage enough to look out for a wife.”
Walton Hall Wall Photo credit Kate Taylor 2015
No evidence of a long-standing betrothal
If, as the gossip about the origins of Charles and Anne-Mary’s ‘romance’ from some 68 years after Anne-Mary’s death would have us to believe, that Anne-Mary had been pledged to Charles as an infant and he had wooed her through many letters until they married, he wouldn’t need the “courage enough to look out for a wife”.
There is clear evidence that prior to July 1827 there had been no correspondence between Waterton and Anne-Mary. When writing from Bruges to her father, soon after her arrival and at the beginning of her conversion to Catholicism, to enable her to marry Charles, Anne-Mary tells her father, how difficult it is to write to Mr Waterton.
“I once intended to have written to Mr Waterton by Mr Gordon, (Guardian of all Edmonstone sisters and named Executive of Charles Edmonstone’s will) but write I cannot, my handshakes so much, I never in my lifetime wrote a letter with so much difficulty as I do this one.”
Perhaps the constant work on Walton Hall, the upkeep of the enclosure wall, and his expensive travelling habits reminded Waterton of his own financial insecurity. His constant need to travel in order to continually establish himself as a notable scientific fellow seems to be his motivation to visit Scotland, not a proposal of marriage. Certainly, it’s back to business in the concluding line of his letter to Edmonstone.
“If I come to Scotland, I shall bring the old man’s head in order to astonish their weak minds in the museum at Glasgow”.
“‘IF’ I come to Scotland.”
Waterton the confirmed and Catholic bachelor
There were real obstacles to be overcome before Waterton could marry any of the daughters of his friend Charles. Firstly, contrary to the throwaway comment about his home being comfortable but him not being able to live there without a wife, he was a confirmed bachelor. At 47 he had had several chances of marriage, most notably, according to Brian W Edginton in the 1996 edition of Charles Waterton – A Biography to “Miss A Nondescript” who had written him a 67-line proposal of marriage in verse. Her “coffers” were, however, “empty” and he replied, in the negative, in verse, in The Morning Herald within days of receiving her proposal.
Secondly, he was Catholic, and the Edmonstone sisters were not. Anne-Mary needed to convert so both she and sister Eliza were sent to a convent in Bruges which was closely connected to Waterton’s female family relatives, to begin the process. Anne-Mary was only 16 and her letters home are full of schoolgirl news with minimal reference to Charles.
Waterton visited Scotland in February 1827. Charles Edmonstone’s will was produced in June 1827. A codicil to his will (dated 11 July) tells us that his daughters Anne-Mary and her elder sister, Eliza were already on the continent, beginning their journey to Catholicism.
Anne-Mary’s marriage to Charles Waterton
Anne-Mary’s father died on the 29 November 1827 and the inventory was entered into records in May 1828. Waterton married Anne-Mary on 18 May 1829 at 5.30am, immediately after his arrival in Bruges as is described in Eliza’s letter of 20 April 1829 to her younger sister Helen.
“Anne’s marriage will take place immediately after the gentlemen are arrived.”
Anne-Mary was 18.
‘The business of marriage’ benefited Charles Waterton’s purse enormously. He received an immediate payment of £5,000 (£625,000 in today’s money) raised from the sale of slave plantations and enslaved peoples. This enabled him to fill his dwindling coffers, pursue his chosen lifestyle, continue to travel, and so developed the first recognised nature reserve at Walton Hall, on the outskirts of Wakefield.
As David Attenborough said, Waterton was,
“One of the first people anywhere to recognise, not only that the natural world was of great importance, but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it”.
But funded by whom, and at what cost?
This is the fourth in 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. The fifth in this series is available here.