Our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, began his working life with a shop of his own, an oil and colourman in a time when paints and pigments were mixed by hand and people bought lamp oil, stove polish, waxes and soap from their neighbourhood trader. The entrepreneurial spirit could be said to have been in his blood: his mother had tried her hand with a toy shop selling rag dolls and tin soldiers and wooden puzzles, and his father had gone bankrupt as a grocer only scant years after such a situation would have landed him in debtor’s prison. Harry too eventually moved on to take a regular job, but above them in the family tree was Harry’s grandmother, Mary Anna Bell Taylor, whose efforts, with odds stacked against her, proved somewhat more successful.
She and William Walker Taylor married in 1836 at St. Alphege Church, Greenwich, and she signed with a bold press of the pen on the line beneath his in the parish register. For the first two years of their married life they lived in Greenwich, but by the time their third child was born in 1839 they had moved to Lambeth, and in the handful of records that mention William Walker Taylor, he is consistently listed as an “engineer,” although in the merchant service rather than the navy. The family lived first in a “barge house” home where the sparkle of the sun on the Thames might have made up for the sucking mud at low tide and the stink of fish and raw sewage.
Within a year or so they’d moved back a few yards from the river into a curving street called Bishop’s Walk, across from the high walls that blocked the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace and garden. Like most couples just beginning married life, Mary Anna and William surely anticipated several decades together, and had plans. If William’s work took him from home now and again, Mary Anna was a capable young woman who could read and write, and could easily manage the household while he was gone.
Then in the chill days of autumn, 1846, 30-year-old Mary Anna became a widow with five children under the age of 10 dependent upon her. Unlike her Southwark counterpart in our family tree, the so-called Lazy Mary, Mary Anna did not succumb to the barriers in front of her, or end up in a workhouse, a “pauper charwoman.” Instead, she took stock of her situation and began a new chapter of her life. Twenty years later when Belle Otis wrote her book, Diary of a Milliner, she penned words that might have come from Mary Anna’s lips. “I am left a widow with the necessity upon me of getting my own living, and an abundance of vitality and energy wherewith to accomplish it. There is a something telling me it is for my good to be doing something. Doing! that is the word, – let the action be suited to it.”
Mary Anna did take action. She applied to send her oldest boy, George, to the Greenwich Royal Hospital School, where, according to Lloyd’s Illustrated News, “the candidates must be free from impediment of speech, or other infirmity. They derive their claims of admission from the comparative merits, services, and sufferings, of the father in the Royal Navy; regard being also had to the number and destitution of the family. The vacancies are filled up strictly on this principle; the admissions being carefully selected from the list of candidates by three of the principal officers of the Hospital, subject to the approval of the Governor.” The school must also have considered boys like George whose fathers served as merchant seamen, as many like George appear on the roles, or perhaps William Walker Taylor was seconded to the Royal Navy at some point, although no record exists to confirm.
Upon acceptance by the school of the eldest, Mary Anna promptly applied to send her second son, Charles, but for some unknown reason that application was denied. Instead, Charles went to live with his grandmother, and with her three youngest children Mary Anna returned to Greenwich where her brother had a tailor’s shop. Their father Isaiah had been a tailor, a member of both the Freemasons and the Associated Tailors’ Benefit Society, and when he died in 1831 he’d left Mary Anna and her brother his collection of books, and admonished them to “share and share alike.” That her father had left a will and goods to bequeath suggests he had at least small means, and in this, certainly, Mary Anna was already a step up the ladder from poor “Lazy Mary” in Southwark. No doubt Mary Anna did as Belle Otis would do, and considered her options, given that “woman in her present status is not fitted to undertake all kinds of business. Her manner of dress, and other habits, would make it rather inconvenient for her to go to the mast-head in a gale, or handle goods in a wholesale grocery establishment. She has as much as she can attend to out-of-doors to hold up her trailing garments, adjust her sun-shade, and make a graceful appearance…” And, like Belle, Mary Anna must have come to the conclusion that while she alone could not “change the social condition of woman,” she could instead “make the best of it.” So next door to her brother’s tailor shop in Turnpin Lane, she set up as a milliner, crafting tidy bonnets trimmed with lace and pleated fabric and fastened to the head with ribbons, as well as the more fashionable hats with narrow brims that dipped down in front and in back, and were secured by pins instead of ties. She soon had enough business that she employed an assistant, and took in her younger sister to help as a domestic.
According to the 1843 pamphlet The Guide to Trade: The Dress-Maker and The Milliner, such success was unusual without prior training. Most would have had to serve an apprenticeship, so maybe Mary Anna, daughter and sister of a tailor, had had that advantage prior to setting up on her own. If not, then perhaps she was simply what the Guide described as “an uncommon sort … clever, dexterous, observant, extremely earnest to learn, and so useful…” Mary Anna was lucky to have such a craft. Except for the very poor – those like our Lazy Mary – who worked as chars or fur-pullers or jam girls, and for whom so-called sweated labour was the norm, young women, widowed or not, were mostly unwelcome in the working world of men in the mid-Victorian era. Milliner was one of the few occupations a woman could undertake without tarnishing her respectability.
Yet such a concern does not seem to have troubled our Mary Anna. By the time she married her second husband, James Batten, she’d already borne him two children. Her new man was a “linen draper” from Whitechapel, so it’s not hard to imagine how they might have met, he flogging his fabric wares and she, as a milliner, and her brother, as a tailor, his ready customers. But James Batten seemed anxious to try new things, and while he changed careers several times, her name appeared regularly in the postal directories: “Batten, Mary (Mrs), milliner.”
Then finally, by 1871, Mr Batten fashioned himself into a neck-tie manufacturer, and this time the entrepreneurial Mary Anna became his business partner. Whether they were successful finding customers for their bat-wing bow ties, silk Ascots, and puffy cravats isn’t known, but James Batten didn’t live out the decade, and his death seems also to have spelled the end of Mary Anna’s commercial endeavours. In 1891 she made her final census appearance, listed on the schedule as a 74-year-old widow living in her daughter’s home. Under the heading “Occupation” the census-taker wrote “Dependent on Children,” and while the statement was no doubt correct, it remains a somewhat sad and inadequate notation about a woman who worked hard to make her own way in a difficult world.
- The Guide to Trade: The Dress-Maker and The Milliner. Charles Knight and Company, Ludgate Street, London, 1843.
- The Diary of A Milliner, by Belle Otis. Hurd and Houghton, New York, 1867
- Greenwich Royal Hospital School registers, National Archives at Kew.
- London Illustrated News, February 19, 1848
7 thoughts on ““I am left a widow…””
Lovely story of this entrepreneurial woman. Maybe I inherited my love of fabrics and sewing from her although I’m glad I never had to rely on my talents to earn a living from that craft.
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Maybe you did! It might be fun to try to make a hat, though, don’t you think?
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“Clever, dextrous, observant, extremely earnest to learn, and so useful” so aptly describes the ladies descended from this resourceful woman! Always a pleasure to read “Tales from the Tree”.
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thanks Nancy! What a lovely comment. So glad you are enjoying these stories.
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Mary Anna certainly took the attitude of a glass half full instead of one half empty. Inspiring all these years later!
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Yes, she did. She must have been a woman of some determination. And I agree, inspiring!
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