Rothbury and Coquetdale Local History Society heard a talk on Victorian Women and Their Money by Dr Winifred Stokes at their September meeting.
She became intrigued by the subject when she was researching the growth of the North East railways during the mid 19th century. To her surprise she came across three named women attending a shareholders’ meeting of the Clarence Railway, near Darlington.
Largely locally-funded railways were being built at great speed, in order to meet the needs of the growing mining industry and the demands of paying passengers.
Finding women in business at this level was very unusual indeed, and she wanted to know more about them.
Any information about two of the women could not be found. However, Anne Swinburne, a spinster, was a regular member of the committee who somehow owned a grocery shop.
Dr Stokes pointed out that if and when a women with any money married, her money and possessions would pass to her husband. If she was lucky a prenuptual agreement would be made and a trust created, generally administered by the husband. But it was not unknown for the husband to ‘borrow’ from the trust.
At that time of rapid industrial change and fluctuations in success or failure, bankruptcy seemed to be fairly common and the woman could find herself and family destitute.
Dr Stokes told of Mary Weddel, the unfortunate daughter of the owner of a linen bleaching works. Her father died and her brother inherited. At that time white cotton was being imported, which lead to the closure of the bleaching works and her brother’s bankruptcy.
She went to live with her uncle, a coal merchant who nearly became bankrupt, and who joined a coal mine on borrowed money, until he too, finally, did go bankrupt.
He married her to another colliery bankrupt. With three children they moved to the Isle of Man, a bankrupt’s haven, with relaxed laws. Her brother again became bankrupt and committed suicide.
They returned to the NE, to another railway and again went bankrupt (with seven children). They went to Ireland (11 children) and one child died. They then went to Canada, with 10 children, where her husband died. As a widow, she lived and thrived in Canada, for a further 30 years. Her church put up a memorial to her.
Women’s lives were very circumscribed, entirely dependent on the success or failure, character and ability of their men. But the tale of Mary Weddel gives a little sense of the insecurity and stresses in such an ‘I can do’ rapidly developing, industrial society, built on hope rather than experience. It was probably that, or fear of the workhouse.
The next meeting is on Friday, October 17, at 7.30pm in the Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, when Dr John Sadler will give a talk on Bannockburn – A Legacy of Savagery and Myth. Visitors welcome, £2.