I recently spent a lovely afternoon (yes, of course it rained) at Michelham Priory near Eastbourne in Sussex. It really is a lovely tranquil place, sitting in the middle of seven acres of land. In fact I would almost go as far as saying rain only adds to its loveliness. Almost.
After wandering round the gardens, the playground and feeding the ducks (3 times, my daughter thought they were the best bit of the day..) we explored the house. Its a fantastic old building, full of wooden panels and leaded windows. And there are even costumes to dress up in! (somewhat unsuccessfully if you get the wrong size and your mum takes a photo..)
The priory began life in 1229 as a monastery, but was disbanded as part of the dissolution during the reign of King Henry VIII. It then took on a new life as a country home passing through several families over the following centuries. Over the years some of the buildings and the church itself were destroyed, but as you walk around you still get a sense of its previous life.
So, in one of the rooms upstairs I noticed a couple of old samplers and some sepia photographs on one of the walls. I particularly liked the one above and, well obviously, that was it for me. I couldn’t wait to get home and start researching.
Samplers were just that, samples of sewing. They could be examples of patterns and colours to be shown to prospective customers, Domestically they were used to practice stitches, try out small sections of embroidery before attempting much bigger projects and, later on, girls would sew them at home or school perhaps with a poem, or long biblical verses on or like the one picture above the alphabet.
Catharine Child was eight years old when she completed her sampler.
Eight years old!
I couldn’t believe it either. She had in fact celebrated her 8th birthday just over a week before, hopefully not by sewing though.
Catharine was born on the 4th of March 1837, the seventh child of Thomas and Elizabeth. There would be a further three siblings born after her.
Three months after Catharine was born Victoria became Queen, and a month after that on the 1st of July (a date burnt into the memory of all genealogists) the General Register Office began to record births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales. Yay!
By the time Thomas and his growing family lived at Michelham it was a working farm with a watermill to grind flour. Thomas would have probably grown his own wheat to mill but would also have milled other peoples grain for a fee.
Thomas was also proud to have a huge herd of Sussex Bred cows and calves all descended from one particular cow called ‘Lilley’ since 1804. He frequently won prizes for his cows. Thomas regularly visited the big cattle market at Lewes to sell his surplus cattle, and in 1818 he was one of many farmers who signed a petition to change market day from a Saturday to a more convenient Tuesday.
Thomas passed away in 1854 at the relatively young age of 61. It seems that some effort was made to continue farming at Michelham but in September 1861 a great auction with no reserve was set up on the premises as the family were ‘wholly disinclined to farming’.
Travellers from far and wide were met by carriages at the local railway station to complete their journey to the farm and by the end of the day horses, ewes, cows and calves were all gone along with all the farm equipment.
Maybe the Child family knew what was to come, because in 1865 ‘cattle plague’ wiped out a great deal of cattle at Michelham Farm, much to the distress of the new farmer there.
The widowed Elizabeth (now of independent means) moved to Lewes with a handful of her adult children although her eldest son, Francis remained close to his childhood home and moved to another farm. He was also the local registrar of births, deaths and marriages as well as being a relieving officer.
It would have been his job to record hatches, matches and dispatches as well as visiting the homes of people in need of financial assistance due to illness, infirmity or unemployment and then report back his findings to the local board of guardians who would have decided whether or not to help. Some families would have received ‘out-relief’ a weekly sum of money to help with rent and food for a few weeks, some would have been sent to the workhouse and the rest would have had no help. At all.
I was surprised to learn that of the 6 Child daughters, despite all living beyond a marriageable age, only one married. Eldest daughter Susannah left the family in 1865, marrying Benjamin Morris and remaining in Lewes close to her mother.
But what about Catharine? Around about the time the family moved to Lewes, she found work as a housekeeper to the Hollis family. Her mother died in 1873 and some of the sisters stayed living together (again with a private income) until gradually they diminished in number. By 1881 Catharine had become the Hollis children’s governess and was living in London with the family. She stayed with them until the mid 1880s when death was to change her future again.
In 1884 brother Francis (who we had left farming up there ↑↑↑ ) lost his wife, Jane. She left behind three young children in want of a mother. So Catherine left her charges in London and returned to her family and in effect became a now unpaid housekeeper receiving board and lodging in exchange for running the household. Hopefully she enjoyed her new life.
Francis died in 1902 and Catharine became redundant, her nieces were in their 20’s and had moved away to pursue their own careers. Catharine needed to find new employment and a new home. She may have lived for a while with her last remaining sister, Caroline, but by 1911 she was living with a poorly cousin, Mary Lambe, and employed once again as a live-in housekeeper. She was 74 years old.
Mary died in December 1916 from complications of influenza and I can’t find Catharine again until her death in 1921.
After a life time of caring for others Catharine passed away aged 84.
Thank you to Michelham Priory for allowing me to photograph the sampler.