Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eliza's Letters; Eliza Pierce of Yendacott in mid C18 Devon

The Letters of Eliza Pierce 1751-1775;
with letters from her son Pierce Joseph Taylor, a schoolboy at Eton
The Letters of Eliza Pierce 

Raddon Hills north of Yendacott

          The phenomenon of the stressed carer is not just a C21 cultural problem. Way back in the C18 unmarried women were expected to stay home to care for parents, or sometimes for other ageing or ailing relatives, in the case I'm writing about today, an uncle and aunt ...

Near Yendacott

              ... It's 1752 and we must cast our minds back to the depths of the very rural mid-Devon countryside, where along rambling lanes, at Yendacott, in the parish of Shobrooke, just north east of Crediton, a young heiress called Eliza Pierce (born circa 1730) is writing about her present dilemma to her fiancee; the couple had become engaged in 1750:

'I really do begin to Lose al Hopes of seeing my Aunt and Uncle well both together' I wish I could give you a good [account] of my Aunt but she has been excessive ill ever since you left us and has at last been prevailed on to send for Dr Glass who had her blooded to day and advises her to drink Asses Milk and we not knowing who to apply to better then your self have taken the Liberty to send to you for one. It will be a great satisfaction to us all if you can supply us as by that means my Aunt will be able to begin imediately to drink it. My Uncle desires his compliments and he begs you to send one with a foal not above a Month or six weeks old if you have one of that Age if not as young as you can.

Road at bottom of Yendacott lane, looking west

            Eliza was not in a position to desert her aunt and uncle, for she was an orphan and her uncle was her guardian and financial adviser; his niece was  a wealthy young woman.

Entrance to Yendacott Manor

            Another letter Eliza sent quotes from Milton’s L’Allegro – “These delights if thou canst give/Mirth with thee I mean to live”. The letter continues:
'I really think I don’t show my Wisdom by this Choice for I believe the Wisest Men for the most part are the most sedate but however that does not prove they are most happy and that I think is the most Material point we have to look after. More wou’d find it then [than] there do if they wou’d but seek for it. It is what I am determined to try for & make no doubt of attaining, if you don’t take care to hinder it, but you had best be cautious, for I may without any Vanity say that by destroying my quiet you will ruin your own. I may Venture also to Affirm that there can be no true happiness in a Married life unless both partake of it. I fancy you are pretty much of the same Opinion, but people often act against their principles.'
           Eliza shows herself to be not only educated but having an independent and opinionated mind, well able to stand up for herself. She continues:
'As you don’t like the usual Begining of my letters [Sir,] I am determined to leave a Blank which you may fill up with what pleases you best, T’will be altogether as well as if I had done it and; as to the conclusion (which you begin to be affraid will never come) I shall use the same method you see I will take care not to be found fault with twice therefore expect to be told no more then that this Letter comes from Eliza Pierce of Yendacott in the Country of Devon Spinster which is good information.'
            It seems that uncle and aunt did recover sufficiently (at least for a short time) for Eliza was fairly soon able to leave them and to marry her suitor, Thomas Taylor, born 1727, who was son of Joseph Taylor MP of Ashburton; the latter's father, another Thomas, had served in the navy under Queen Anne and after leaving had settled in Denbury, at Ogwell House, where the newly married couple eventually made their home.You can read about the history of Ogwell house here and this portrait shows Thomas Taylor Esquire, of Denbury and Ogwell House. In 1735 Taylor inherited the Ogwell estates from the Reynell family through his marriage to Rebecca Whitrow:

'Richard Reynell came of an old Devonshire family, owning the manors of East and West Ogwell and Denbury, with property in Ashburton, which he represented for 33 years. Though he was classed as a Whig in 1715, all his recorded votes were against the Government. Defeated in 1734, he died next year (buried 14 June). In his will he directed that his estates should be sold to pay his debts and legacies, and to purchase ‘lands in South Britain’ for his niece [Rebecca Whitrow] the wife of Joseph Taylor and her son, his godson.'
            Taylor may have begun to restore and improve the house after his marriage and in September 1754 the Taylors had a son, whose birth was announced in the London Evening Post:
'l Extrae' of a Lrit, rfrohi Exeter, 2 T. - On Thtirfday laft the Lady of Thomas Taylor, of Denbury, Eyfqj was brought to bed of a-Son and Heir, 'to the'.great joy of that Rainily. 'Yefterday.'
            The baby boy was named Pierce Joseph Taylor, and reading between the lines of his mother's letters, it was after her son's birth in 1754 that Eliza began to find that her situation had taken her from frying pan to fire. Perhaps she had had doubts about Thomas before her marriage; if so she must certainly have had them proved to be correct, for gradually she found that her husband showed more interest in filtering her money for the benefit of his own blood relations, rather than employing it to purchase an estate for their own son, as he had evidently promised:
'... my duty to your Son obliges me to speak sometimes of things I know you don't like to hear and yet in fact your own interest is concern'd as much as his. I mean in regard to the payment of your Sisters fortune - I never think about it but leaves a dead weight on my Heart, and I can't help saying that it is a most cruel thing in you to keep runing up the interest as you do - I have heard that your Mother is very fond of her Grandson, therefore wonder she as Trustee will suffer such as injury to be done him'.   
            Eliza further accuses her husband of appropriating and controlling her own fortune; she alludes to his considerable Scrooge-like tendencies. Her comments highlight the cruelties of a law in which a man upon marriage could take control of his wife's considerable fortune, thereby easily abusing his rights by restricting her own allowance:
 'I would not accept of it - and yet the heart in spite of Religion and Phylosophy does sometimes rebel at the thoughts of living for ever, on fourscore pd: a Year - I say for ever - you best know whether you design it to be so, or not - at least while you live you are master of my fate ... I am got into the net of Matrimony ... and the more I flounce, the more Bruises and Blows shall I have'
               It is a shame that only a handful of Eliza's letters from after her marriage appear in the collection; perhaps they are the only ones which have survived; the extant correspondence is apparently dated from 1751-1775. However, the very existence of these letters from a woman from C18 Devon is unusual and so they are to be treasured.

Raddon Hill landscape

             My first direct encounter with Eliza and her writings came, as often nowadays, via a circuitous route, from another parallel thread of research, that of my search into Devon's past, for family history. Trying to find another elusive Devon woman a great grandmother x 5 or 6, the interlinked names and places on google search strings, collided, ('Mary Hall', a common name, turned up both a fore-mother and a grandmother of Eliza, different women but not so easy to un-thread their life-journeys from a time distance of some 250 years) an entanglement, of  various lines of families and references to Eliza's Letters kept popping up; so much so that in the end I found myself deserting my own long ancestor for the satisfaction of finding yet another abandoned literary female figure from my home county; a woman whose words I could begin to resurrect; a restitution probably not to be repeated apropos my own fore-mother - unless I am eventually very lucky to stumble upon and retrieve a long buried archival detail.

             My first direct insight into Eliza and her life came through the lens of another, more recent woman writer - who it turned out was herself a direct genetic descendant of Eliza (although, ironically, there seems less readily obtained information about ,Violet M Macdonald, the author in question, than about her long forgotten predecessor).
'Among a heterogeneous collection of family correspondence, deeds, account-books and documents of all sorts, the bulk of the letters here published were found tied together, endorsed and numbered with especial care. They were written before and after her marriage Elizabeth Pierce heriess of Yendacott, a property of some importance in the parish of Shobrroke, near Crediton, who about the year 1750 became engaged to my mother's great-great-grandfather, Thomas Taylor. Esq., of Denbury near Ashburton.'
Eliza's letters were embedded within the text of her own great granddaughter x three. Actually, I discovered that Violet M Macdonald's edition of The Letters of Eliza Pierce, though reclaiming her foremother and ensuring some kind of posterity and recognition for her ancestor's work, had rather a strange, distorted narrative approach. For, although the book purports to be on the subject of Eliza, as Violet says, HER emphasis is on putting together a 'portrait of Thomas Taylor' [her great grandfather x 3]; she seems to suggest that Eliza's own personality is so vibrantly alive within the letters that SHE does not need any kind of explication. In other words, Violet MacDonald's work, though ostensibly backing the female writer, is actually taking a more traditional, patriarchal approach, which uses the woman's text as a way of boosting an important male figure.

             Nevertheless, Eliza's descendant's preface to the letters does provide an outline of some of the circumstances and events of her life, indicating  that this C18 Devon woman perhaps made the best out of what she found after marriage - and more than likely typical for a woman of that class and period - was a much more narrowly restrictive existence than she had imagined. The newly married Eliza, for instance, did not find herself carried her away to a romantic honeymooners' idyll, or even to her new husband's smart home, at Ogwell, but rather she was taken to his mother's and sister's home in neighbouring Denbury, where she had to help keep house with her in-laws. Again, typically for the age, Thomas seems often to have absented himself from the married household in favour of travelling round the country seeking more stimulating social company than could be provided in the depths of the Devon countryside. At some point Eliza apparently suffered some kind of carriage accident (though, unfortunately her descendant does not give details) and it wasn't too long before she began to return home to Yendacott, on longer and longer visits. During her last years she was evidently there most of the time, which perhaps - as MacDonald suggests - allowed her to safeguard her own estate for her son's future, in light of her realisation that own fortune was now in the hands of her husband, whose financial acumen seems to have been much in doubt.
           It was whilst she was at Yendacott that Eliza died in 1776. The entry in the parish church of Shobrooke reads:
Mrs Taylor of Yendacott, Mar: 22nd was buried in Linnen, of which notice was given to me ye 29th inst: and the same day £2 10 0 was given by my daughter Lydia to be distributed according to Act of Parliament to the Poor of the Parish. Witness Hen..ry Manning. Minister.'
Shobrooke Church; I have not found any tombstone with Eliza's memorial.
              As I became more familiar with the letters and Eliza's  own voice grew louder I was more and more drawn in; her correspondence is strongly suggestive of a lively woman with considerable wit and lively intelligence. Gradually, pieces from various other research sources concerning some of the lost pieces of jigsaw of her and her family's lives started to surface. I learnt about Pierce Taylor, Eliza's son:

'Attended Eton 1766-71 where took drawing lessons from Alexander Cozens; not apparently related to the amateur artist John Taylor of Bath (1735-1806). Destined originally for the law, he persuaded his father in 1774 to buy him a cornetcy in the 3rd Dragoons. In 1784, the 3rd Dragoons having been disbanded, by then Major Pierce retired on half pay and settled down to farming at Combe Royal, which he rented for some years. He had married Charlotte, daughter of Dr William Cooke, Dean of Ely, and they had several children. In 1794 Pierce's father handed over the estate of Ogwell, Thomas Taylor removing to Denbury. Pierce Taylor died on 14 Aug 1832 [Morning Chronicle, 18 Aug 1832]. His widow Charlotte died in 1837.'
            Then I happened upon the provenance of the preserved and published Letters of Eliza Pierce. It appeared that it was the behaviour of her perhaps rather wayward son that initiated their initial preservation.Writing to her husband again Eliza tells him that for this twelvemonth past Pierce has always

'wrote a story of a Cock and Bull, and never given an answer to any thing I mention’d in my Letter – for this reason the last time I wrote to him, I told him that as he never wou’d give an answer to any thing I wrote, I thought for the future, it would be full as well for me to send him a Blank paper, as he wou’d see by the directions it came from me; and that if he pleas’d he might answer them in the same manner – that after we had carried on this curious correspondence for some time, we would publish a Book under the title, of Letters between a Mother and her Son; in which should not be one wrong expression, one word of bad English, nor one false narration and I added to be sure the World would be in vast admiration at our Genius’es – after this I wrote him a Story of my own invention, applicable to the affair, his answer was as follows – “Dear Mama – I receiv’d your kind Letter last Monday in which was a Story I like exceedingly, I intend to publish it in the Magazine, as I am willing other people should have the pleasure of reading your Epistle as well as myself – When shall we publish these Letters between A Mother and her Son? when we do I hope to get a little Money, for I am sure I want some much” Do you think I cou’d help sending him some? no I am too silly a Mother'

            By now I'd started to look further back into the familial background of Eliza's life-story; her father, Adam Pierce had died circa 1732. He left a will, which for a small fee is accessible online.

Will of Adam Pierce Esquire Yendacott, Devonshire 4 December 1732 February 1733 The last Will of Adam Pierce of Yendacott, Co. Devon, his wife Ann ... and to her father John Gibbs, Esquire, JJ and to his brother Samuel Pierce (whom he makes his Executors) he leaves all his freeholds, in trust, to pay his debts, and then to his sons, if any, in tail male; remainder to his daughters as tenants in common; remainder to his brother Samuel Pierce for life, with remainder to his son in tail male; remainder to his brother Thomas Pierce for life, and then to his sons in tail male; remainder to his brother John Pierce for life, and then to his sons in tail...the manor and lands at Thorowton to his brother Samuel, absolutely, and the rest of the leaseholds to his own daughters ... On the Original is endorsed " Nuper de Yarrenton in parochia de Shobrooke." 
            As I read I understand that Eliza was Adam Pierce's only daughter, which tells us why she became the sole beneficent of  this legacy. It also tells us that it was her father's brother Samuel who became her guardian; however her mother Ann's part in her story is more or less hidden within the labyrinths of archival data and even teasing out a tiny thread of it proved difficult. Perhaps the main reason for that is that she apparently died in 1748, which must be why Eliza was left an orphan. Eventually I found Ann's will, which confirmed my thought:

'1748. The last Will of Ann Gregson* of Exeter. Leaves her husband William Gregson* the manors in of Shute and Satch-field in Cheriton Fitzpayne, and lands in Shobrooke (which she thinks were entailed by her aunt Prideaux's willf on Ann Maria Heath for life) for his life ; remainder to Samuel Pierce of Gendacott her brother-in-law, and to Stephen Weston, Esqre., of Exeter, in trust for her daughter Elizabeth Pierce.J To the same persons also she devises her manors of Cross, and all other her manors in Devonshire, and the rest of the estates which came to her from her father.'

           After Adam Pierce's death Ann had re married secondly a Dr. Baliyman and thirdly, William Gregson. Presumably her daughter was in her household with her mother's respective husbands until Ann's death. Eliza's mother was a daughter of John Gibbs by Mary his wife, who was daughter of Nicholas Hall, Esq., a Treasurer of Exeter Cathedral; Mary Hall, Eliza's maternal grandmother, was possibly descended, or at least related to the extended family of Exeter Cathedral's C17 Bishop Joseph Hall, whose large family of sons inherited not only various prominent positions at the Cathedral, but also large acreages of his Devon land. It is unfortunately not easy to establish these family connections with real certainty because key details about blood-lines are, at worst, missing, or at best, languishing in an archival deposit somewhere, waiting for some passionate future researcher to discover. The cultural ambiance of Eliza's recent ancestral family might provide explanation for the high level of education which she had evidently received. Eliza, though slightly diffident about her own educational ability, could quote from Milton's and Young's poetry and argue about the 'relative merits of Sir John Denham's Sophy and Cooper's Hill and Henry Fielding's novels', whilst one of her correspondents was the well-known academic and contemporary writer Catherine Talbot. One or two letters in The Letters of Eliza Pierce are those exchanged between the two women. Catherine endorses her younger friend's talents for writing: 'Lady who has the talent of writing for writing read scrawling - well, why if I may believe your good Man you have that talent in perfection, so pray do not wrap it up in a Napkin but let me hear from you as often as it is good for you to write.'

Cover of 'The Letters'
Eliza, the letter writer, was a cultured and intelligent woman, who had strong opinions of her own concerning not only the running of her life but also on the subjects of books and literature. Eliza may have become acquainted with a few other literary contacts through her male relatives. As more and more material accumulated about Eliza and her family I found that there are several examples indicating that the men in this family had strong literary links and interests. The C15 Process of the Passion; The Gospel of Nicodemus, was at one time owned by Eliza's husband Thomas Taylor whilst her father in law Thomas Taylor was a friend of Edward Talbot, Catherine Talbot's father, so presumably that contact was kept up with the families of the following generation; the two women must have met each other through their husbands and/or fathers:
'his friend and fellow collegian, Joseph Taylor, esq. (father of Thomas Taylor, of Denbury, esq.) introduced him to Mr. Edward Talbot, of Oriel college, the second son of Dr. William Talbot, at that time bishop of Oxford. This event was of great importance in his future life, as it secured him the friendship and patronage of the Talbot family, to whom he                                                                    owed all his promotion.'
'TALBOT, CATHERINE (1721–1770), author, born in May 1721, was the posthumous and only child of Edward Talbot, second son of William Talbot (1659?–1730) [q. v.], bishop of Durham, and his wife Mary (d. 1784), daughter of George Martyn, prebendary of Lincoln.'
           It appears that the Taylor family were part of a C18 literary inclined local network for there are several other indications that Thomas Taylor of Denbury was influential in the determination of several contemporary male writer's careers. For example he'd helped to promote his friend, the eventual critic and writer William Gifford:
 'It had been intended that Gifford should open a writing school, but that plan having been given up, Mr. Cookesley proceeded with his efforts to obtain some employment for him. He looked round for some one who had interest enough to procure for his protégé some office at Oxford. This friend was eventually found in Thomas Taylor, of Denbury, a gentleman to whom Gifford had already been indebted for much kind and liberal support. The situation Mr. Taylor secured for him,  GIFFORD AT OXFORD. 131 was that of Bible Reader for Exeter College. Gifford proceeded thither in February 1779'.
           Eliza's own legacy, as well as the letters includes a collections of recipes, but apparently nothing else. Given that not only are her letters some of the most important written by a woman still extant from the mid to late C18, from Devon, whilst little fragments about her life can start to show a way into what I believe is an almost forgotten literary heritage apropos the county's women, I find this writer and her correspondence tantalising; how much more is there out there to be found and re-assembled? And Eliza and her writings take on particular significance when I begin to consider her story in light of my dual research. Not only was I looking for women who wrote from Devon; when it came to Eliza it seemed that I had stumbled upon someone who might link up with my own familial ancestry. Her life writings might even begin to fill out the lost puzzles from several women from a past lineage. When I have time to return to my search for Eliza Pierce I shall start to look at her life and her writings from a new perspective ...

Entrance Porch-gate to Shobrooke Church

Correspondence is taken from extracts of Elizabeth Pierce, heiress of Yendacott, parish of Shobrooke, This information about Pierce Joseph Taylor is taken from (ed) Violet MacDonald: The Letters of Eliza Pierce, 1751-1775 (London, 1927), which also included Pierce's letters from Eton that were published by the school a couple of years later. The frontispiece was a reproduction of a 1781 portrait of Pierce Joseph Taylor as a Captain in the 21st Light Dragoons, by John Downman.
Other quotations from various sources available on the internet.

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