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.
The first and second articles in this series are available here.
Women as property
Justifying the marriage of 47-year-old Charles Waterton to 18-year-old Anne-Mary Edmonstone is hard to do in any century. However, until the 1870 Property Act was passed, women were the property of men. First of their fathers, then of their husbands.
Anne-Mary, from the outset, never had any choice but to marry her father’s friend Charles Waterton. Anne-Mary’s father, Charles Edmonstone, one of Scotland’s most prolific and successful slave traders, made sure Waterton got £5,000 when he wrote in his will that Anne-Mary’s inheritance would be placed “entirely at [Waterton’s] disposal”.
When Charles, in financial difficulties, married Anne-Mary in 1829, over £600,000 in today’s money went straight to him. It was no love match. Romanticising Waterton’s life is just one way of covering up the real reason for his marriage to a mixed heritage woman. But after his death, gossiping about it became particularly profitable.
Gossip about Waterton’s marriage
According to Mrs William Pitt Byrne, who was the author of ‘Gossip of the Century and Social Hours with Celebrities’ one of numerous posthumous publications about Waterton, Charles recounted to her (in one of their many cosy fire side chats) that he had the idea of marrying Anne-Mary when he attended her baptism in 1810 on one of his visits to see her father, slave trader and plantation owner in Demerara.
“In the course of his early Wanderings he visited the West Indies and there ‘met his matrimonial fate’. He formed a long and lasting friendship with a Scottish family of ancient descent – the Edmonstone’s of Cardross and a third daughter being born to Mr Edmonstone during the squires visit, the singular idea entered his head of asking the child in marriage, should she attain the age of 18 and give willing consent to accept him as a husband.”
This publication is, however, hugely unreliable as the original text was edited, before it was published in 1898, by Mrs Byrne’s sister, Rachel H Busk and after Mrs Pitt Byrne’s own death. These journals, unashamedly rooted in gossip, were published 33 years after Waterton’s death, 68 years after Anne-Mary’s death and 28 years after the Women’s Property Act had been passed. According to birth registrations Anne-Mary was the second daughter of Charles Edmonstone and Helen Reid, not the third.
Waterton marriage myths
Research based on Charles Edmonstone’s will, suggests that the first daughter was possibly Mary Edmonstone, a “mulatto” woman whose mother is not known. If Mary was the first daughter, then that would make Anne-Mary the third. Mary is named in Charles Edmonstone’s will and inherited £500. She was married to Archibald McCallum and had settled in Canada.
A further “mulatto” child, Jeanie, whose mother is also not known is estimated to be just a few years older than the youngest daughter by the “body of Helen Reid” and is also living with the family. Jeannie is named several times and provided for extensively in Charles Edmonstone’s will.
When Anne-Mary died of puerperal fever, 21 days after the birth of her son Edmund, Charles, it is claimed, was so devastated that he, according to other populist authors of the time, “slept on the floor with a block of wood for a pillow, ‘as self-inflicted penance for her soul!’”. As the romantic story about his marriage is continued, the unbearable grief he suffered at her death is amplified and so the myths surrounding their marriage perpetuate. In fact, Waterton had slept on the floor with a block of wood for a pillow long before he married Anne-Mary and continued to do so until the end of his life. It was a habit he picked up from his ‘Wanderings’ according to Hobson’s publication (1867) ‘Charles Waterton, his home, habits and handiwork’ however, this information has been recycled and used out of context ever since.
Charles Waterton the romantic hero and noble explorer?
The indomitable Mrs Bryne tells of her own encounter with Waterton’s explanation of his sleeping habits.
“’Bed!’ said he, ‘aye, aye, that’s always a puzzle to the few confidential friends I bring in here; but it’s very simple; I’ll soon show ye how I manage. Life in the wild woods,’ he continued, ‘teaches us to dispense with many things which encumber us in civilized life, though we get to consider them necessary, but I’ve long learnt that a bed is an absolutely useless luxury.’ [He] pulled down the striped blanket I mentioned before, rolled it round him and lay down on the bare boards, for carpet there was none, resting his head on the block by way of illustrating his nightly practice.
“’There,’ said he, ‘it’s soon done and very simple, and I’ll answer for it none of you sleep more soundly than I’.”
The notion of Charles Waterton as a romantic hero goes hand in hand with the notion of him as the noble explorer, an image he created for himself in the books and essays he published about his Wanderings in British Guiana. After Anne-Mary died, this myth was perpetuated and has existed to this day.
By the time Social Hours with Celebrities was reporting about how their marriage was “fated” in 1898 it was being used both as a way of titillating the readers of this Victorian gossip publication and as a way of pushing back against the rising tide of feminism and rational thought which, by the turn of the 19th century was upsetting and unsettling the status quo. If their love was destined then no age gap between them would matter. If her fate was to die after providing Waterton with a son, then his life must be dedicated to the mourning the loss of her.
It’s important to understand the context of the origin myth around Charles and Anne-Mary and its purpose in order to challenge it. Not challenging it accepts the patriarchal version of HER story written by Waterton himself, his friends and subsequent biographers whilst simultaneously perpetuating the idea that this is the only perspective available and therefore the ‘truth’.
Responding to the inappropriateness of the age difference between them with neutral comments such, ‘That’s just the way it was’ oversimplifies matters, particularly in this case, as so many layers of rewriting of history have taken place to minimise and excuse the patrimony of which Anne-Mary was a victim. It also ignores contemporary writers of the time such as Mary Wollstonecraft who in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792, was challenging the patrimony assumed by men over women.
Wollstonecraft was not the only one. Ann Peart’s collection of notable Unitarian women highlighted that Wollstonecraft’s work was extended by The Langham Place Group and the Kensington Society who were actively campaigning for women’s rights (both financial and social) from 1856 onwards with petitions in support of the Married Women’s Property Act, rights for women and equal suffrage.
Indeed, in Wakefield, ten women, including Clara and her cousin Ann Clarkson, both prominent Unitarian educationalists, signed the first Suffragist Petition in 1866 which was presented by John Stuart Mills to Parliament demanding mass votes for women. This was something upon which the Wakefield and wider Victorian society was very much divided.
Reclaiming Anne-Mary’s heritage and story
The Charles and Anne-Mary marriage myth was deliberately presented as a form of romantic escapism in the late 19th century, to counterbalance a growing awareness of women’s rights by those who felt threatened by change. The women’s working-class suffrage movement was gaining more momentum and threatening the existing class system, highlighting race issues, and challenging the gender status quo.
It is within this social and political upheaval that the lives of many women were written out or refashioned to suit a particular narrative and Anne-Mary Edmonstone’s life and her heritage, has been, and continues to be, a victim of that. Until now.
This is the third 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. Part four is available here.