The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society. (Taken from The Library of Congress website for Women’s History Month)
Women’s History Month is not something generally celebrated in Britain – we are an apathetic sort by nature – and the idea of having a single month every year out of a whole twelve of them seems a little odd to celebrate 50 (or more) percent of the world’s population. Still, the country house and its relative subject areas are perfectly ripe for discussion on great female contribution. Not all wives and daughters were submissive creatures housing simple notions of motherhood and companionship, many could be forthright individuals who made life interesting for themselves and all around them. Furthermore, female servants were not always young delicate nymphs with idle streaks, as some were resilient country women who were proud hard-working people living away from their families and friends. There were women who grew up in a country house and made a difference to the wider world, but Women’s History Month has at its heart the celebration of female strength and diversity.
In all my research over the years, several of those I’ve written about require greater attention. Often there are insufficient records to allow for deeper exploration, and you have to imagine what these people were like without documented proof. A favourite example however, was a woman called Isabella Ingram nee Machell (c.1670-1764) an heiress from Sussex who lived at Temple Newsam in Leeds as wife to the third Viscount Irwin (1666-1702) and her personal maid Mildred Batchelor. Some of Isabella’s personal papers have survived to this day and reveal Isabella to have been a somewhat diplomatic character; an interventionist, as well as intelligent, earnest and pragmatic. Mildred was her female companion who she may have employed once established in her Leeds home. She too was earthy, diplomatic and intelligent.
Isabella, Viscountess Irwin, nee Machell (1670-1764) attributed to John Closterman.
Isabella was married to Arthur Ingram in about 1685, and although their families probably secured the match, their relationship was incredibly affectionate. Her portrait depicts her as fair and beautiful following not only the contemporary conventions of beauty, but even those of today. The portrait of Arthur shows him to have been a robust sportsman surrounded by his hounds and meaty game. These pictorial depictions are not far from the characters offered up by the surviving documentation. There was an air of refinement about Isabella which Arthur did not have, and their correspondence suggests their relationship was definitely based on opposites attract.
Isabella and Arthur had nine sons until Arthur’s premature death in 1702. As a trustee and executor of her husband’s estate she was able to live at Temple Newsam. She chose not to remarry, perhaps in order to keep a close eye on her sons’ affairs. Isabella kept meticulous accounts, and scrutinised the daily household account books, signing each yearly summary. Her own pocket book demonstrates a careful nature, but also highlights her small extravagances such as losses at the card table, the purchase of ribbons and lace, and fine shoes. On the other hand, she was charitable and generous with those around her and would assist in the payment of a servant’s funeral expenses, or the cost of nursing a sick servant using her own cash. Isabella was also typically practical for an elite housewife of the time, and she got involved in the general running of the house, as well as monitoring the estate activities.
Isabella had just become a mother again at the time of her husband’s death, and for a while she became very dependant upon her closest friends and most reliable servants. As well as the steward John Roades, Mildred Batchelor was one of these, and eagerly stepped up to help her mistress in household affairs. In particular, Mildred gave Isabella support when it came to the personal needs of the nine boys: arranging for their transport to school and ordering their clothing and laundry. There are surviving scraps of correspondence between the two women, and although they contain important notes concerning the health of Isabella’s sons or general household matters, there is a friendly tone to them. Their friendship was certainly strong, even when Mildred left service to marry John Roades in 1707. The following year she had a child for whom Isabella offered herself as godmother, and Mildred was never far away if her old mistress required some assistance.
By 1718, Isabella decided to give up her residency at Temple Newsam after the marriage of her second son to a daughter of the Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard. From her new home in Windsor, Isabella could manage the schooling of her younger boys but still remain in contact with her family in Yorkshire. Her sons held her in considerable awe and she could be extremely ill-tempered if crossed. Isabella even threatened the older boys with litigation in order to protect the interests of the younger ones. A quarrel with her second eldest son over payments of legacies to his younger siblings angered Isabella and she made her feelings clear in every which way possible. She even annotated a letter intended as a conciliatory device by the Temple Newsam steward with, ‘Friendly advice to give up my just writ from an ungrateful son wholly governed by ye proud house of ye Howards who never served anybody but for their own interest’.
Isabella lived to be 94 years old. Perhaps this longevity could be put down to plenty of tea drinking in her lifetime, as her accounts testify to her varied consumption of several types of tea. With the birth of nine children, she was certainly a strong woman though, and definitely a formidable character. If you were fortunate to find good footing with her, she was undoubtedly a friend for life. Mildred Batchelor remained in Yorkshire, but it is likely she stayed in contact with Isabella after the latter moved to Windsor. There is patchy correspondence after this date, and whilst Isabella maintained her personal accounts and left documentation behind, Mildred disappeared into obscurity. Her life was more conventional in that she worked, became a wife, and then a mother and supported her husband. It could be suggested that Isabella allowed Mildred a brief historical presence in her surviving records, but this is no bad thing. The two women supported each other for several years, indeed Mildred was Isabella’s ‘right-hand woman’, so perhaps Isabella has been able to repay her with a different kind of longevity.
Isabella was not a compliant submissive creature. Mildred was not a flighty servant girl. The women were great companions of similar ages who existed in each other’s lives when they needed each other the most; a country house enabled their partnership to evolve.