The Sewells of Hitcham Suffolk, Their Lives and Times - Part 2
By Gabrielle Stevens
This article was published in the April 2017 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Continuing on from Part 1 of this story in the last (December 2016) edition of Sole Search, this part will look at Harriet Sewell, the last child of Edward and Mary Sewell, as well as the impact of a forward thinking rector of Hitcham, Professor Henslow.
Harriet was born in 1842 in Hitcham, and the 1851 census shows her at home aged 8. In 1861 she is shown as a pupil-teacher, still living at home. I presume she would have both attended and then taught at the recently established school at Hitcham. This school had been set up in 1841 by the then rector of Hitcham, the Revd. John Stevens Henslow, and I will digress at this point and say a little about his influence on Hitcham.
Henslow was a professor of botany from Cambridge as well as being an ordained priest. He is of some national importance in that it was he who recommended Charles Darwin join the expedition to survey South American waters during which Darwin began the work culminating in the publication of The Origin of Species. Henslow came to Hitcham in 1837 and was appalled by the conditions that he found there. So, over a period of years, and against much opposition from the local farmers who were afraid that he would give their workers ideas above their station, he introduced various initiatives intended to increase self respect, raise educational levels and improve the management of the people’s spending, which was too often on beer in the village pub. These initiatives included:
1. Establishing a school to teach basic skills like reading and writing, plus also botany which he taught himself. This included field trips, and also reading classes for the adults so they would not feel excluded.
2. Establishing ploughing matches and flower shows.
3. Establishing a coal club, a children’s clothing club, a medical club and a ploughing club to help to manage spending better.
4. Establishing allotments where people could grow produce for themselves to eat and sell.
5. Organising excursions to places such as Cambridge, Norwich and to the Great Exhibition in London (1851). On one trip to Cambridge 283 people went including farmers and local gentry.
Henslow hoped that farmers and landowners would help out financially with these initiatives, but to begin with he had to fund it all himself. In time however, contributions were forthcoming as the benefits of these improvements became apparent, and the lives of the inhabitants of Hitcham slowly began to improve.
There is no doubt that Harriet met Henslow. I have a scrapbook maintained by Harriet in which he is mentioned and it includes a photo of him with a note to the effect that it was given to her personally. I do not know however if she ever met Darwin, as it is not known if Darwin ever visited Hitcham. After 1861 it would seem Harriet left Hitcham and travelled abroad. She is likely to have been the first in her family to have done so, and I would like to think she was inspired to do so by Henslow. Her scrapbook does not give much indication of where she went unfortunately. However there are references to a convent in Italy, and to friends in France, with a note that she often stayed with them, so it is very likely that her travels included parts of France and Italy.
In 1881 she reappears in Battersea, London. Her occupation is indicated as a superintendent of homes. In 1891 she is still in Battersea, and her occupation is shown as lady superintendent of houses. In 1901 she is again in Battersea with the same job as superintendent of homes (Royal Homes for Ladies). This is a charity, the full title of which then was the Royal Homes for Ladies of Limited Income. In 1895 the charity operated 4 houses in Wandsworth and Wimbledon looking after a total of 27 ladies. More details of her life are revealed in a newspaper report of her funeral, held at Hitcham All Saints in 1936 as follows:
The funeral took place at the Parish church on Thursday of Miss Harriet Sewell, fifth daughter of the late Edward and Mary Sewell, aged 93. She was born at Hitcham on May 4th 1842, and in early life was a pupil of the late Professor Henslow, then rector of Hitcham. Afterwards she was assistant teacher at the Old School. After leaving Hitcham she travelled a great deal on the Continent, and, late on, was for 43 years Lady Superintendent, then Secretary and finally Universal Advisor to the Incorporated Homes for Ladies with Limited Incomes. She retired in 1922. A report of the Committee stated that only those who had been closely associated with Miss Sewell could realise how much of their success was due to her. Her long experience, her intimate knowledge of the inner working, her strict adherence to rules and discipline and her personal interest in each lady made her an ideal working head; her tact and sympathy won for her the love and respect of all. The rest of her life was spent at “Elmwood” Eastbourne, at the residence of her niece.
The list of mourners included Mrs G Gosling (nee Sarah Kate Sewell – see part 3), Miss Joyce Sewell (my mother), Mr J Sewell (likely to be Jack Harry Sewell – see part 3), Mr L Sewell (likely to be Leonard Sewell – see part 3), Mrs J H Sewell (likely to be Jack’s wife – nee Margaret Emily Hopkin – see part 3). It seems her niece was unable to attend, perhaps due to ill health. This article confirms that Harriet attended the local school and taught there, as suggested by the 1861 census record.
The charity that Harriet worked for would not appear to exist today – indeed the records held on it by the Government Records Office are closed to public access for years to come for some reason – but there is sufficient information available within the scrapbook to enable an article to be written about the work of the charity, Harriet’s role within it and to give an idea of life for the residents of the homes involved. This article will be included in a later edition of the journal.
From her scrapbook, and from the epitaph, it would seem she led a long and fulfilling life and was much loved, but never forgot her origins and family in Hitcham, finally returning there at the end. Her will showed an estate of £3,286 5s 7d (£210,651 at current prices – an amazing sum given that she was born into poverty). Her will left her a third of her estate to the descendants of Lavinia Eliza Sewell (a niece), a third to Sarah Kate Sewell (a niece), and a third to Eleanor Marchant nee Sewell (a niece, daughter of Robert Sewell).
Harriet Sewell, taken in 1920 at the age of 77
In the next issue of Sole Search, I will conclude the story of the Sewells of Hitcham, Suffolk with John Sewell and his descendants.
Parish register transcripts, Suffolk Family History Society
The Hitcham Village Web site: www.hitchamsuffolk.org.uk/history/
Census data 1841 to 1911, Ancestry.co.uk
Birth, death and marriage certificates, Government Records Office
Wills admitted to probate, Government Records Office
Facts and church information The Hitcham Church Guide, and the Discovering Historical Hitcham series of booklets, the latter by David Turner, a local historian