Women of Runnymede
Just some of the famous women of Runnymede!
1750 - 1842
Elizabeth, or Mrs Armistead, was one of a number of 18th century women selling their favours to high society, including at one time, the Prince of Wales. It was he who, in 1782, introduced Mrs Armistead to Charles James Fox, Britain’s first Foreign Secretary, and a year later they began their relationship which would last 24 years until the death of Fox.
Elizabeth Bridget Cane was born on 11th July 1750, but little else is known about her parentage or where she grew up. In fact, there is practically no information about her until she reached her mid-thirties. Neither are there any clues as to why she chose to be called Mrs. Armistead. Some historians suggest that she chose the name because she liked the sound of it, others suggest it is because she made her first entry into her profession by being kept by a man called Armistead. “Keeping” was common practice in the 18th century for a young man who was unable or unwilling to marry, as it was less frowned upon than frequenting brothels.
It is not known which London brothel she originally worked in, but she came in to contact with some very high powered clients, and it was Lord Bollingbroke who released her from this tie and set her on her new and very lucrative career path as a courtesan. He set her up in lodgings, introduced her to his influential friends, and even encouraged her to appear on stage at Covent Garden, financing a new play so that she could take the lead role. Her success in this and her later appearance as Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale” resulted in her rising in status until by the end of 1775 she had become the most courted harlot in London.
From 1781 until 1785 Elizabeth leased the house on St. Ann’s Hill from the Duke of Marlborough, and it was she who introduced Fox to the joys of Surrey life when he and Lord Holland were invited to join her at St. Ann’s Hill for the spring of 1783. The house itself was considered quite modest for the times, and the layout has been described as dark and poky, but it benefited from a charming location. The house sat in 90 acres of land of which 2/3 of the pasture and arable slopes were sub-let to a local farmer. The area around the house was maintained as a garden and woodland, although much of the planting was done when the house was inherited by Lord and Lady Holland.
By 1784 St. Ann’s Hill had become Mrs. Armistead’s primary residence, and she loved to spend the spring and summer months in Chertsey studying the bird life and flowers that inhabited the hill. The daily routine of life at St. Ann’s Hill was documented by John Bernard Trotter, Fox’s secretary from 1798 until his death in 1806. In the summer months, the Foxes would rise in the morning between six and seven, and in winter they were always up by 8 am. At breakfast, Fox would read the newspaper aloud, and when finished he would spend the rest of the morning studying literature, reading Italian authors and Greek poetry in particular.
At 2.30 pm or 3 pm (or 4 pm in winter) Charles and Elizabeth would have a “frugal but plentiful dinner” with a few glasses of wine followed by coffee and a long walk if weather permitted. Then at tea time Fox would read aloud, in history, continuing until nearly 10pm when they would dine on a supper of fruit, pastry or something similarly light before retiring to bed at 10.30pm.
In 1802 Fox shocked his family, friends and London society by announcing that he and Mrs. Armistead had married in September 1795. No explanation was ever given as to why they waited so long before telling people. It may seem strange to us today, living with post-Victorian morals, but in Georgian times it was embarrassing enough to live with your mistress, but to then marry her was even more scandalous to London Society! In reality they probably made their marriage public because of growing fears over Charles’s health.
After Fox’s death in September 1806, his widow continued to live on the hill, and was a regular sight in the town as she took extended walks over to Laleham and back. The announcement of her marriage legitimised her status, and so Mrs Fox was able to receive aristocratic friends who would not otherwise have been able to visit the widow. She financed a small school in Roxbury Road, and every May Day the pupils would visit the house bringing with them garlands of flowers. With only a modest fixed income, Mrs. Fox struggled financially and was forced to sell off parcels of land, but she continued to support the school and other local charities.
In the later years of her life Mrs Fox continued to entertain as “the Lady of the Hill”, as Fox called her, but was increasingly fragile. She died on 8th July 1842, and is buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard. The people of Chertsey turned out in force as a mark of respect for their benefactress and neighbour. On her last journey in to Chertsey, Elizabeth Fox’s coffin was met at the foot of St. Ann’s Hill by some forty tradesmen from the town, dressed in deep mourning, who walked behind the coffin through the town to the church.
Mary Ann Blaker
1869 - c.1940
Mary Ann was born in Lyne and lived in the district all her life. She married Mr. Albert Blaker and took over his job as Chertsey Town Crier in 1914, when he was called up for service in the First World War.
Albert Blaker was the son of shoemaker Henry Blaker, town crier from 1895 to 1906 when his son took up the role. In 1914 Albert went to India to serve as a sergeant in the 6th Battalion East Surrey, and their son, Albert junior, enlisted with the 20th Hussars, leaving the position of town crier vacant. Mary Ann took up the role in November 1914 and in doing so became England’s first female town crier. To capitalise on her fame she sold photographs of herself and gave the proceeds to aid the families of those fighting the War.
When the War ended in 1918 Albert returned home to Chertsey, but Mary Ann did not give up her role as town crier. She was a familiar figure in Chertsey, particularly at public events when she was often seen at the head of processions, wearing her Georgian style uniform. Part of her duty as town crier was to collect the fees from Chertsey Market for the Feofees (trustees). Mary Ann was also required to call `order’ for the announcement of the poll at parliamentary elections, and was amongst the first to congratulate the winning candidate.
Mrs. Blaker died in 1940 and the role of town crier was vacant until it was revived by the Chertsey Society in 1993.
Lady Mary Jane Brabazon, Countess of Meath
Lord and Lady Brabazon (later Meath) leased Ottershaw Park in 1882. They enjoyed their time in the area so much they acquired a cottage, opposite the Anningsley Park gates, two years later, which they proceeded to improve and enlarge. Upon the death of his father in 1887, Lord Barabazon became the 12th Earl of Meath. Around 1900 they bought Ottermead and about ten years later built Chaworth House where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Lord and Lady Meath were active supporters of various charities. The Earl carried out ‘good works’ concerned with his strong belief in the British Empire and founded Empire Day in 1903 on the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday. He was also a founder of The Open Spaces Society, which worked to retain open spaces in towns for recreation and health.
The Countess of Meath, daughter of the 11th Earl of Lauderdale, was one of the most remarkable and successful philanthropists of her age. She worked tirelessly for her mission to help the less fortunate and to relieve poverty. She founded the Ministering Children’s League in 1885, which built the Meath Home, one of several world-wide orphanages helping children gain employment and settle into the world. After the Second World War it was used to help children suffering with lung complaints and asthma. From 1982 it became Meath School specialising in teaching children with speech and language difficulties.
Lady Meath suffered ill health for most of her life and travelled overseas extensively with her husband supposedly to aid her health. However, even abroad she continued setting up Ministering Children’s League homes wherever she visited. When she died in 1918 she left her property to the League to continue her work.
Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She became Queen in 1558 and reigned for 44 years. She was the last of the Tudors; having entertained many marriage proposals she never married or had children.
At the town of Chertsey’s request, Elizabeth gave approximately one acre of wasteland on the north side of the town for a market house to be built. A market charter was drawn up in Latin dated 8 February 1599 authorising a weekly market. In it the Queen stated that:
‘it would be very convenient and useful to my village of Chertsey in Surrey and a great relief to my tenants and other inhabitants of the said village, if a market on Wednesdays every week and a fair and market (over and above the ancient fairs held in the said village)…for the relief of the poor inhabitants of Chertsey’.
The original 1599 building in front of St Peter’s Church was taken down in 1809 as it impeded traffic. Another was built in 1819, which was again replaced in 1851 in a new location. A weekly market continued to be held there until at least 1870. The building survives and is known as the Old Town Hall. The Feoffees of Chertsey Market finally sold the building in 1999.
Market day has since changed to Saturday and from the proceeds of the stall rents the Feoffees support local good causes instead of distributing bread and blankets each year to the needy inhabitants, as had been Elizabeth I’s original aim.
Elizabeth I often visited this area staying at Oatlands Palace near Weybridge and at her father’s hunting lodge at Great Fosters. Local legend tells of her picnicking under the Crouch Oak tree at Addlestone.
Anna Maria Hall
Anna Maria Fielding was born in Dublin in 1800. She moved with her widowed mother to London in 1815 and married the journalist and art critic Samuel Carter Hall in 1824. Her mother lived with the couple until her death in 1856, aged 83 years.
Anna and Samuel purchased Firfield House in Addlestone in about 1851. Both were celebrated writers and entertained many of the literary personalities of their day, including Charles Dickens who planted a tree in their garden. Samuel had long been friends with Dickens and was present at the christening of his first child.
Anna produced an immense quantity of novels and plays, directing her literary energies in all directions. Together with her husband, she wrote the well known ‘Book of the Thames’. Her ‘Stories of Irish Life and Character’ are regarded as some of her finest work, although they were never popular in Ireland itself. As well as containing fine rural descriptions, they were animated with moral feeling, which failed to please either Orangemen or Catholics.
Samuel befriended and helped the young artist, Daniel Maclise, when he came to London from Ireland in 1827. Maclise’s first portrait drawing of Anna was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830, and he went on to produce a series of illustrations for Samuel and Anna’s books.
Throughout her life she and her husband were believers in spiritualism and she was also instrumental in founding the Hospital for Consumption at Bompton, the Governesses’ Institute and The Home for Decayed Gentlewomen. She worked for the temperance movement and for women’s rights. She also supported local charities, publishing the booklet ‘Chertsey and its Neighbourhood’, which was sold to raise funds for the building of an infants school in Addlestone. In 1868 she was granted a civil list pension of £100 a year.
Anna died at Devon Lodge, East Molesey, in 1881. She is buried in St Paul’s Churchyard in Addlestone, together with her husband and mother, where there is also a memorial plaque.
Queen Henrietta Maria: 1609-1669
Queen Catherine of Braganza: 1638 - 1705
In May 1625 Henrietta Maria, youngest daughter of the French King, married Charles, Prince of Wales, in a political alliance against Spain. When Charles was crowned King Charles I in 1626 Henrietta Maria was not crowned Queen amidst concerns about the excesses of her Catholic faith. During the 1630s the Court of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria was the talk of Europe staging lavish plays, dances and masques balls; much to the horror of many Puritans.
With the outbreak of civil war inevitable, Henrietta Maria left England for the Netherlands, where she lived for almost a year raising money for the Royalist cause by recruiting troops and selling or pawning her jewellery. It was rumoured at the time that she raised almost £2 million. Returning to England in 1643 she was reunited with her King at Oxford. Political events meant that she had to move ever further west, eventually leaving Charles behind to escape to France. News of the execution of her beloved King took two weeks to reach Henrietta Maria, and she never recovered from the shock, choosing to dress in mourning black for the rest of her life.
With the Restoration in 1660, Henrietta Maria was free to returned to England, and for a while held Court at Hardwick Court Farm, Chertsey, which had been given to her son Charles II. On her death in 1669 the property was given to her daughter-in-law, Queen Catherine of Braganza.
Catherine was the daughter of King John IV of Portugal, Duke of Braganza. Once again, hers was a political marriage with Portugal seeking an alliance with England after the breakdown of their friendship with France. In return for the alliance, England took control of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Tangiers as part of her dowry. As with her mother-in-law, Catherine was never fully trusted by the politicians and people of England who were suspicious of her Catholic faith, and as such she too was never crowned Queen.
Her relationship with the King was not an easy one as, despite several miscarriages and stillbirths, she did not provide an heir, whilst her husband publicly acknowledged numerous children by a long list of mistresses. Charles, however, demanded that she be treated with respect and refused to divorce her. On his death in 1685 Catherine remained in England although she returned to Portugal shortly before her death. It is Queen Catherine we have to thank for introducing the Continental custom of using a fork at the dining table, as well as introducing the nation’s favourite drink, tea.
Blanche Heriot is probably one of Chertsey’s most famous women, with a statute to commemorate her on the south side of the river at Chertsey Bridge. However, Blanche is nothing more than a literary creation of the Chertsey author Albert Smith.
The legend of Blanche Heriot was published in the “Chertsey Almanac” in 1842 and from these humble beginnings the story has spread. A play based on the poem was first produced at the Royal Surrey Theatre on 26th September 1842, and later at the Lyceum Theatre in London, however, albeit with the historical setting altered to the Wars of the Roses.
The legend has it that in 1471, following the Battle of Tewkesbury, Neville Audley, nephew of the 16th Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker), fled to Chertsey where his lover Blanche Heriot lived. Intending to go abroad, he sought sanctuary at Chertsey Abbey but was taken prisoner by the Yorkists, who planned to execute him as soon as the curfew bell was rung. The town had suffered much damage from a serious fire in 1235 and since then a bell was rung every evening as a warning to the inhabitants to extinguish all fires before retiring to bed.
Neville sent his ring to the King at Windsor, begging for mercy, but the messenger was still crossing Laleham Ferry as the bell was due to ring. Blanche rushed to the bell-tower, and clung onto the clapper of the bell to stop it ringing, managing to hold on until the messenger arrived in Chertsey with the King’s pardon. Blanche Heriot and Neville Audley were married in Chertsey Church a short time afterwards.
As well as Albert Smith’s play, the story has been told in two poems and a song, however, it simply is not known whether any of this story is true.
1848 – 1931
Emily Loch was the third daughter of Catherine and George Loch, a QC and an MP, and until his retirement estate commissioner for the Duke of Sutherland. On his retirement the Loch family moved to The Cottage, Englefield Green, where Emily lived for the rest of her life.
At the age of 38 Emily became lady-in-waiting to Princess Christian, the fifth of Queen Victoria’s children. She began writing a diary of her life with the Princess and the other members of the Royal family she encountered. Her relationship with the Princess and her family was not just that of an employee, the diaries tell of a real friendship between Emily and the Royals, in particular the young children, all of whom were immensely fond of her.
For many years Emily would holiday with the Queen’s children and grandchildren in Germany, accompanying Princess Christian and later her daughter Helena Victoria (Thora). It was on her visit to Germany in late 1889 that Emily first went with Princess Christian to Darmstadt, the family home of the Grand Duke of Hesse. The Duke was married to Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, who had five children: Victoria, Ernest, Elizabeth, Alix (Alexandra) and Irene. Perhaps the most famous of these is Alix who, in 1894 married Nicholas II to become the last Tsarina of Russia.
The diaries tell of shopping trips and grand balls, weeks spent at health spas and orchestral recitals. It is clear that Emily was treated as part of the family, exchanging gifts at birthdays and Christmases, and corresponding regularly.
During late 1897 and in to early 1898 Emily accompanied Thora to Russia to stay with the Romanovs, further strengthening her bonds with the Tsarina and her young family, but this was the first and last time Emily would travel to Moscow. However, they would continue to meet in Germany each summer, at the Tsarina’s family home, DarmstadtIn January 1918 Emily received the following note:
Affectionate thanks dear Emily for yr. Sweet smelling Xmas present wh. it was most dear of you to have sent me. A loving kiss from the children and I send many kisses. Fr. Alix.
This was the last time Emily heard from the Tsarina.
Olive Mary Matthews was born in London, the only child of John Thomas Francis Matthews, a master saddler, and Rachel Butler Cottrell. Olive’s mother died in 1889 when Olive was only two. As a middle class child, Olive was well brought up, educated at home by a governess and enjoyed riding, roller and ice-skating.
Around the beginning of the Second World War, Olive moved to Virginia Water. She never married, and it was here that she cared for her father and cousin until they died.
Olive started collecting small fashion accessories as a child, using the few shillings allowance she was given by her father. She mainly bought items from the Caledonian and Camden markets in North London where she developed her bargain-hunting skills.
Olive continued to collect as an adult, when dress and textiles could be found for reasonable prices. Over the next forty years or so, Olive developed a critical and informed eye, creating an important and extensive collection of dress and accessories. She particularly liked shoe buckles, beadwork purses, pieces of lace and embroidery.
In the late 1960s, a trust was established to care for Olive’s nationally important collection. The Trust purchased The Cedars in 1972 as a museum, working together with the local authority. The collection has continued to grow since Olive’s death in 1979 aged 92, with over 6,000 items, many of which are on display in the Museum.
1809 – 1874
Caroline May was a botanist and a skilled illustrator who painted many of the flowers and plants of the local area.
Caroline’s grandfather Joseph and his wife Mary had eleven children and they lived in Hale Park, Hampshire. Joseph was known to the family as “Good Joseph” to distinguish him from his son, “Weak Joseph” and his grandson, “Wicked Joseph”. Their second son, Thomas (known as “Handsome Thomas”) was born in 1772 and became a vicar at the age of 24. Thomas married Mary Mawbey, daughter of Sir Joesph Mawbey of Botleys Park, but she died two years later leaving Thomas a widower. Seven years later Thomas married Rebecca Gibbons, daughter of Sir William Gibbons of Stanwell Place.
In 1809 Rebecca gave birth the first of her five children, Caroline. During Caroline’s childhood in Braemore Parsonage the family was faced with financial ruin as her cousin, “Wicked Joseph”, secretly mortgaged the family home to pay gambling debts. With the death of Caroline’s father in 1837 the family had to leave the family home and moved to a rented property in Chertsey. Ruxbury House on St. Ann’s Hill was a much smaller house than Rebecca, Caroline and her three sisters were used to, and their financial situation limited their position in society.
From an early age Caroline had enjoyed painting the flowers that grew at Braemore, and became a talented artist with a great eye for detail. By the time she moved to Chertsey she was 30 years old and resigned to being a spinster. Looking for a challenge to keep her busy she decided that she was going to paint a complete flora of England.
On her death Caroline left behind five great volumes of paintings totalling nearly a thousand watercolours.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
1797 - 1851
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was destined to be a literary great, born, as she was, the second daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author and one of the first feminists, and William Godwin, the philosophical anarchist and author. Mary senior died shortly after her daughter’s birth leaving Mary with her father, her half sister Fanny and, when William married Mary Jane Clairmont, a step sister, Claire. Although Claire and Mary became good friends, the two Marys did not have a close relationship. Mary Shelley was educated at home where she studied literature and poetry, as well as learning Latin, French, and Italian. She also read the works of the Enlightenment literary figures such as her parents, and William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb.
Mary was only sixteen when she met her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) who became a friend of her father, spending much time with Godwin and Mary. At the time Percy was married to Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816) but despite this, and much to her father’s displeasure, Mary and Percy eloped to France in 1814 with Claire. The three returned six weeks later and lived in London where, in February 1815 Mary and Percy’s daughter Clara was born. Sadly she was only to survive a few weeks.
In the summer of 1815 Mary and Shelley moved to Bishopsgate in Englefield Green. It was whilst at the cottage there that Shelley wrote his poem, Alastor. He is said to have written it whilst out in the fields and forest of Windsor Great Park, and the local scenery is reflected in this poem.
The following year, shortly after their son William was born at Bishopsgate, Mary, Percy, William and Claire travelled to Switzerland and stayed in Geneva where Claire and Lord Byron met and had a scandalous affair resulting in the birth of Allegra Byron. Mary had hoped, at some point in the future, to return to Bishopsgate, but soon after they departed for the continent bailiffs entered and seized all property remaining, in settlement of outstanding debts. At the end of 1816 the party returned to London where Mary and Percy married. It was now that Mary was to complete and publish her most famous novel, Frankenstein, which she had started writing in Switzerland, inspired by ghost stories they told each other at night.
In 1817 Mary gave birth to a second daughter, also named Clara, who sadly died before her first birthday. Percy, Mary, William and Claire once again escaped to the continent and settled in Italy where, in 1819, Percy Florence Shelley was born. Their joy at the birth of their second son was shattered later that year when William died of an infection, aged three. Tragedy was never far away, and in 1822, a miscarriage almost took Mary’s life. She recovered well, but later the same year a shipwreck claimed the life of Percy. Mary devoted her time to compiling a volume of Percy’s poetry, returning to London with her son in 1823.
Mary continued work on her own novels, short stories, essays, poems, and reviews that appeared in various journals and magazines. In 1835 she published her second most popular novel, The Last Man, which was a science fiction novel that used Englefield Green as a location and had a heroine called Perdita – references to her time spent in the Borough with her father’s friend Mary Robinson.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley died in London on 1 February 1851, and is buried in St. Peter’s churchyard in Bournemouth, Dorset.