Sweet Caroline

I’m back with the Chippenham Holbrows – and more precisely, the section of the family who lived in and around Derry Hill in Wiltshire. Even more precisely, looking at the life of one Caroline Holbrow and the incredible life she must have lived. From humble beginnings in rural Wiltshire, she found herself in some incredible grand houses during the 19th century, and somehow ended her days in quite an intriguing location …

Located mid-way between Chippenham and Calne and nowadays part of the parish of Calne Without (or Calne outside the town) Derry Hill coalesced out of settlement at the north-west corner of Bowood Park (namely, Rag Lane and Red Hill – with old Derry Hill being located at the bottom of the hill on the main road, and later being incorporated into Pewsham), home of the Marquesses of Lansdowne (the family later built a church in the village which they also used for weddings and funerals when their own private chapel was too small, as well as a reading room, village hall and primary school – it was at the building of this church around 1841 that laid to the renaming of this stretch of settlement as Derry Hill).

Church Road, Derry Hill c.1903. This was part of the main road between Calne and Chippenham before the current section of the A4 opened, known as ‘New Road’.

It was here that Caroline was born around 1823. I don’t have a baptism for her, but the first record I have of her and her family is of them in 1841 located in the “Extra parochial place of Bowood” or Bowood liberty as it was known. The Victoria County History for Bowood states:

Bowood liberty consisted of land imparked c. 1618 and formerly part of Chippenham forest. In 1709 the justices at quarter sessions found that the liberty included settlements on the edge of the park called Mannings Hill, Cuff’s Corner, and Buck Hill, and part of the settlement called Red Hill; the settlements probably included many squatters’ cottages.

‘Bowood’, in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 17, Calne, ed. D A Crowley (London, 2002), pp. 116-123. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol17/pp116-123 [accessed 10 June 2021].

Caroline’s father, Edward, was a farmer, and the household consisted of him, his wife Ann (nee Gay), and their children George, Edward (also known as Edwin), Caroline, William, John and Thomas. Another son, Abraham, had died aged six in 1833, and the family had also lost a previous William. On Edward/Edwin’s baptism in 1818 at St Andrews church in Chippenham, Edward is recorded as a labourer. On Thomas’ baptism a year later he is recorded as a farmer.

Ten years later, aged 26, Caroline appears as a domestic servant working in nearby Lacock – in fact, she is working for William Henry Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey. That’s the pioneer of early photography, member of parliament, High Sheriff of Wiltshire, author and Assyriologist. I wonder if Caroline was present in 1842 when Talbot took his famed photograph of his half-sister playing the harp. Or even several years previously in 1835 when he took the even more famous photograph of the lattice window, as can be seen in the image below.

Lacock Abbey from the south. By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33017591

It is not unusual at all for young women to go in to service. It seems that Caroline made very good headway and progressed rapidly through the domestic service ranks. Sadly, the census doesn’t record her exact position, only “servant”. Whether this was a laundry or housemaid I don’t know – which is a shame. Needless to say her hours would have been long and her work ceaseless and probably largely unthanked.

10 years later in 1861, she had become housekeeper for Lord and Lady Digby at Minterne House in Minterne Magna, Dorset. The original house – as Caroline would have known it – was demolished in 1900 as it was riddled with dry rot and replaced with the current version that still exists today. As a housekeeper her duties would have been underscored by more responsibility for the entire household, and she would have needed to have a head for figures as household accounts and the paying of suppliers and staff would have fallen to her. Where she obtained this education I don’t know.

The census records the head of the house as just Baron Digby, which isn’t a huge help when trying to decide which Baron Digby he is. Luckily, his wife is at home which makes him Edward St Vincent Digby, 9th Baron Digby (Ireland), 3rd Baron Digby (England). His wife was Theresa Anna Maria Fox-Strangways, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ilchester. The Fox name is a clue to a wider connection. Henry Fox Talbot’s mother was Elizabeth Theresa Fox-Strangways, who was the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester and therefore the aunt of Theresa. Did Elizabeth pave the way for Caroline to change mistresses ….? What I have enjoyed researching is the life of Edward’s sister, Jane Digby. Whilst Wikipedia does a good job of summarising her life, albeit in a fairly dry way, I thoroughly recommend checking out her entry at Scandalous Women. (For more on Minterne, this article from Dorset Life.)

Another 10 years and another employer: by 1871 Caroline has swapped the green valleys of Dorset for central London, and one peer for another. The census return records him simply as “Clanwilliam”, but he was Richard Meade, 3rd Earl of Clanwilliam, living at 32 Belgrave Square. Widowed in 1858, I can imagine that the household relied upon Caroline as housekeeper quite heavily. He died at home in Belgrave Square in 1879. It was perhaps after this point that Caroline moved employer yet again.

By 1881 she is resident at Moor Park House in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, again as housekeeper. I believe at this time the house was owned by Lord Ebury (Robert Wellesley Grosvenor, 2nd Baron Ebury), although he was not resident here at the time of the census. Caroline was still on the estate in 1891, although the address given is “Moor Park House over Stables”.

Moor Park 1825No 27 of R Akermann’s Repository of Arts &c, Pub, March 1, 1825

Caroline’s burial entry, however, contains a surprise. It gives her abode as “The Palace, Westminster”. However, the Probate Calendar states that she is of Rickmansworth (the location of Moor Park House) and died at the House of Commons. Strangely I couldn’t find anything on BNA about this (maybe people dying in Parliament is a regular thing…?!) so of course I had to purchase both her death certificate and her will – which produced more surprises!

Her cause of death was recorded as “astro sarcoma hip joint 4 months; exhaustion 1 month”. I believe that should be osteosarcoma. Which is “a type of cancer that produces immature bone. It is the most common type of cancer that arises in bones, and it is usually found at the end of long bones”. I have no doubt that Caroline would have been in a lot of pain (hence the exhaustion), and her only treatment would likely have been medication for the pain – whether this was laudanum, opium, or one of the other treatments I don’t know, but I’m sure given the fact she is listed as an “independent lady of means” I’m sure she could afford visits to top London chemists.

In her will, she makes her sister, Sarah Brown, and Sarah’s husband George, her executors. They are described as being “of House of Commons Westminster”, but at the time Probate was finally granted in 1901 Sarah had been widowed and was living back in Wiltshire, albeit in Salisbury where George was from originally.

Why and how were George and Sarah at the House of Commons….? Their marriage certificate of 1853 (the wedding took place in St Luke’s, Chelsea) stated George was a Licensed Victualler (ie ran a pub). By 1861 he was a cheesemonger, but in 1871 he appears as “trainbearer”, resident at Palace of Westminster with his wife Sarah and their daughter, Emily. The family (minus Emily) were still there in 1881 and 1891 with Sarah eventually being enumerated as “Char woman”. But I had to wonder what on earth a train bearer was/is. One option, according to Google, was someone who holds up the train on a dress or ceremonial outfit, so I got a lot of results for the Queen’s wedding, etc. This seemed unlikely for someone to have as a career for 30+ years.

The alternative, when combined with “House of Commons” in the search gave an altogether different (but not that unrelated once you start thinking about it) occupation. The Speaker’s Trainbearer position apparently grew from a bodyguard-type role into one that supports the speaker in a clerical role. If you ever see the Speakers Coach (one of three official coaches) used for a ceremony and there is a guy sat on a stool in the middle of the coach that carries the Speaker’s Mace – that’s the trainbearer. The government site (linked above) is also wonderfully vague at defining the position:

The trainbearer helps to manage various aspects of parliamentary business including urgent questions and adjournment debates and works closely with colleagues across the House service and government departments to help ensure the smooth running of the Commons Chamber.

I’d love to know where exactly they lived in the Palace of Westminster. Was it in rooms within the Speakers House, which is located at the northeast corner? (The ‘clock tower’ on the below plan is the Elizabeth Tower, erroneously referred to as Big Ben which is, as any pub quiz maestro will tell you, the name of the bell.)

Part of the plan of the principal floor of the Palace of Westminster in London, from the collection of architectural drawings formed by Frederick Crace (died 1859), now in the possession of the British Library.

It seems, then, that Caroline went to stay with her sister as she became ill and died there.

It is perhaps notable that one of the original witnesses to her will was an Abraham Holbrow, whose name was subsequently crossed out. This would have been the son of Caroline’s older brother, Henry. He had also gone into service – he was the Groom of Chambers for the Earl of Sefton at Croxteth Hall, Liverpool, and also at his London residence in Belgrave Square (known as Sefton House, later as Seaford House). Why he was removed as a witness (he certainly was still alive at this point) it is impossible to know – but presumably there was a falling out.

Image of neighbourhood around Westminster from Collins’ Illustrated Guide to London and Neighbourhood, 1873. Speaker’s House is on the left, near the river.

Another nephew, William, the son of Caroline’s brother Edward/Edwin, also worked for someone with a title. The details of which became clear upon the death of his son, Henry. (Which tickled me as Henry lived just a few doors down from where I live now.) William was the gardener on the Lansdowne Estate at Derreen, Ireland. As William wasn’t born until 1850, I assume this was the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne (yes, the same family who own Bowood, the estate that did much for Derry Hill!). Derreen House has over 60 acres of gardens, so I’m sure William was kept quite busy, especially as the 5th Marquess made many renovations and changes to both the house and the gardens.

From North Wilts Herald – Friday 26 January 1940, via BNA

William can be found in the 1911 and 1901 Ireland census, but died in 1912. His primary beneficiary was his youngest son, Robert John Holbrow. Henry, however, is found in the 1901 and 1911 censuses and the 1939 register as an accountant, in the latter two records directly stating “for Marquess of Lansdowne”. I guess he really wanted that oneupmanship over his neighbours.

So it seems that the family was no stranger to being in service (another cousin was a house steward, one of the key administrative roles). Was this due in part to growing up so close to the Lansdowne estate of Bowood? Did this give them an ‘in’ to prospective employers? Perhaps they started their careers at Bowood before moving to different estates? It certainly lead them to very different lives then their predecessors – Caroline’s father, Edward, being a farmer (depending on which record you look at – he was an ag lab on his death certificate).

Being described as a lady of independent means on her death certificate, did Caroline have ‘pretensions’ or think herself better than the remainder of her family back in Derry Hill? Did being around ‘society’ give her ‘airs’? Was this the cause of the supposed falling out with her nephew Abraham? It is useless to speculate, but whatever her thoughts and feelings, she was buried with her family in Derry Hill. The last of her siblings, her sister Sarah, was buried in Derry Hill in 1905. Sadly none of the Holbrow gravestones or markers remain today.

Cover image: The terraces at Bowood House before most of the property (the Big House) was demolished 65 years ago. What remains today consists of what was originally known as the Little House and the huge drawing room wing that used to connect the two houses.

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