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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 8.

Week 8 – Courting.

I’ve often found myself wondering how my ancestors met and chose their life partners. I don’t come from a line where dowries and strategic alliances played a part, or even from farming ancestors with an eye on enlarging their territory via marriage, so most of my family probably met their partners through the most obvious routes: they were neighbours, work colleagues (or siblings of work colleagues), attended the same church, or participated in the same leisure activities.

Amateur dramatics in the 1950s: my parents second and third from right.

My parents met in the 1950s at a Manchester youth club (the Wilbraham Road 18+ group), where they got to know each other through their shared interest in amateur dramatics and hiking. Dad’s (considerably older) parents met through the Manchester Methodist Missions when Granddad came with a group from the Central Manchester Mission to support an event in Grandma’s district and was immediately drawn to her – he wrote in his diary that evening “Wilmot Street Mission. Met Sarah Ellen Potts. What does this mean?” To my eternal regret his diaries were destroyed after he died and if he hadn’t shown this entry to my father, even this tantalising snippet would have been lost.

However, for the overwhelming majority of my ancestors I have no idea how they met, let alone how their courtship progressed. Yet if A hadn’t met B, if C hadn’t taken an unreasonable dislike to D, or if E had taken G to the harvest supper instead of F (etc, etc), I simply wouldn’t be here!

I’ve often speculated about possible scenarios, and for some couples in my tree I can make an educated guess based on the possibilities outlined above. For others, particularly those who came from different parts of the country, I have absolutely no idea. For this week’s blog I chose to look at a couple who really intrigue me and who definitely don’t fit into any of the obvious categories.

Edwyn Dowding was baptised at All Saints Church in Dodington, Gloucestershire on 28 April 1811 and was the youngest surviving child of John Dowding, a landholder, and his wife Sarah Chapman. The family was well-off, and the four sons who reached adulthood all entered suitable professions: Frederick, the oldest son, became a solicitor in Bath and in addition served as alderman for several years and for one term as mayor. John farmed nearly 500 acres in Dodington, while Charles entered the Church. Edwyn followed Frederick into the legal profession and went into partnership with him in Bath in the 1830s.

Harriet Louisa Jones was baptised in Bath Abbey on 2 July 17 and was the third child of John Jones, a saddler, and his wife Harriet Gibbs. She never married, but had a very discreet long-term relationship with Edwyn, resulting in the birth of five children. How discreet? The couple never lived openly together, and are not recorded together on any census, with Harriet adopting the pseudonym of Harriet James, a widow, by 1852. She went to London for the birth of their first child (and only son) in 1849: he was then placed as a nurse-child and later sent to boarding school in Bath, only appearing with his mother and sisters for the first time on the 1871 census. Harriet’s second child (my great-grandmother) was born in Clifton in 1852, even though a contemporary street directory shows that her home address was Bath, but the three youngest daughters were all born in Bath – perhaps by then there was less need for dissembling or the couple felt confident that their liaison was unknown?

Harriet registered the births of all the children as [Forename] Jones Dowding, with the father named as Edwyn Dowding, solicitor, and the mother as Harriet Dowding, “formerly Jones”. I strongly suspect that Edwyn was unaware of this (or pretended to be?), as even in his will he left money in trust for Harriet Jones aka James and “her” children, never publicly acknowledging them as his. (If circumstantial evidence wasn’t enough, I have DNA matches to the Dowding family, so he was definitely the father.) The children seem to have been equally unaware of the name on their birth registrations and used either James or Jones as their usual surname.

Harriet in about 1883 with her daughter Helen and grandson Charles.

So how did all this come about? It’s important to note that Edwyn and Harriet came from different social classes and would not normally have moved in the same circles. Although John Jones was a skilled craftsman, employing four men at one point and able to afford a live-in servant, Edwyn was a wealthy professional man from a landowning family. John and Edwyn died within two years of each other, and whereas John’s effects were listed as “under £1,500”, Edwyn’s were worth over five times as much at “under £8,000”. I tried therefore to imagine how Edwyn and Harriet might have met in the first place.

Church would be an obvious possibility, but whereas the Jones family lived in the parish of Bath Abbey, Edwyn was (technically at least) a parishioner of St Swithin’s, Walcot. He may possibly have attended the larger and more fashionable church, but even if he did, its size and status probably limited the chances of mingling between social classes. The theatre may have afforded a better opportunity: even if the Dowdings were wealthy enough to afford a box, the audience would mix during the intervals and after the performance. Then we have the Assembly Rooms, well-known to readers of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, but I doubt that Harriet’s status was elevated enough for her to form part of the “polite society” which met there.

I know from a newspaper article that the Jones family attended meetings at Bath racecourse, watching the races from an open carriage parked next to the track. I can easily imagine Edwyn at this kind of event and encountering Harriet perhaps in one of the refreshment booths. The Dowding brothers were also known as keen huntsmen, but although John Jones might have hunted, I don’t think he was wealthy enough to afford to keep horses for his daughters.

In the end, however, I concluded that the simplest solution was the most likely and that Edwyn probably met Harriet simply because he patronised John Jones’ saddler’s shop. (This is the scenario I would choose if I was writing a romantic novel called “The Saddler’s Daughter”.)

I would love to know how their courtship progressed after their initial meeting, and what powers of persuasion Edwyn used to convince Harriet to become his mistress. Their first child was born just after Harriet’s 32nd birthday, so although she was no longer in the first flush of youth, she was hardly on the shelf – her older sister married at the age of 30 and her younger sister at 35. He offered her financial security, but only on the condition of secrecy and with the ever-present threat of social ostracism if her status as a “kept woman” became known.

A newspaper article from 1851 gives a small glimpse of Edwyn’s character:

“But what is this approaching? “A trifle from Bath”. A phaeton and pair come dashing up to the spot. Mark the driver; there is no mistake about the curl of that hat, joviality is certainly depicted in its very outline, and the face beneath gives the impress of truth to the assumption; those carefully-curled and bushy bright-coloured whiskers, encircling a face beaming with good humour, proclaim the owner (Mr. Edwyn Dowding) in every sense a “jovial brother”; brother in point of joviality to all mankind, but in a closer sense to the party at his side (Mr. Frederick Dowding), who, with scarlet collar peeping above the drab paletot in which he is enveloped, shows a face scarcely less jovial than the other, perhaps with a little more the air of authority in his manner, for he has a public station to support, and is now fulfilling his duties for the second time as Mayor of the neighbouring city of Bath. And well deserving is he of the honour; a good magistrate, a kind and hearty companion, and as good a man across country as any in the field. He is now courteously doffing his hat to the fair occupants of a neighbouring britschka, while his jovial brother is addressing himself to the no slight job of hoisting himself into the saddle of that fine weight-carrying chestnut; and well he need be, for seventeen stone, even of joviality, is no joke to carry across country safely; and pleasure accrue to both in the incidents of the run!”

Edwyn never married and provided faithfully for his irregular family throughout his life, and even beyond. I’d like to think that Harriet was the love of his life (maybe I really should write that romantic novel?) and only their respective situations in life prevented them from marrying and living together openly, but the truth will probably never be known.

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