The Epitaph of Frances Unwin 1726–1814
News of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and heroic death on board his ship was slow to reach England. On Wednesday November 6 1805 the first reports were published of the dispatches received at the Admiralty in the small hours of that morning. A palpable sense of national mourning, mixed with the triumph of naval victory, immediately sprang up. That evening, in the theatres of Drury Lane, Rule Britannia was played as the curtain rose, and reiterated, with the audience joining in the chorus, with “the most enthusiastic ardour”. In one theatre a hastily-composed poem was read from the stage, reflecting public sentiment in the lines
“For, whilst Britannia’s flag victorious flies, Who can repress his grief when Nelson dies?
Intense public interest followed the journey of the naval commander’s body from Gibraltar to Greenwich, where a hundred thousand people filed past its lying in state in the Painted Hall, and then to the funeral and final resting place in the vault of St Paul’s Cathedral early in January 1806.
For Frances Unwin, then a widow in her eightieth year, the news must have evoked a sharp and painful memory of events over half a century earlier. Then, news of another English naval captain’s death on the quarter deck in the course of war at sea in the Mediterranean had brought the first adventure of her own life, and all its hopes of future happiness, to an end.
It’s improbable that an elderly woman in 1805–6 would have travelled from her home in Bath to London in midwinter to join the great crowds at Greenwich or at St Paul’s Cathedral. But the Bath Chronicle of the following week carried a full report of “this grand national solemnity”, and in Bath itself the day of Nelson’s funeral was marked by the tolling of church bells during the day, and muffled peals rung in the evening. The Pump-Room band played several dirges and funeral marches, and the room was more crowded than on any former occasion. Perhaps Frances, with her memories, accompanied by her daughter and son-in-law, with whom she lived at a house in the Crescent (modern Royal Crescent), one of the best addresses in Bath, was among those present in that crowd.
Frances was born and baptised in Newcastle on Tyne in 1726, the third of the eleven children of John Stephenson and Elizabeth Bell. Earlier generations of Stephensons had been yeomen farmers at Crosslands, near Alston, high in the Pennines. John and his brother William were more ambitious and conspicuously upwardly mobile in their lives, William becoming Lord Mayor of London in 1776, and John a successful wine merchant and alderman of Newcastle. John was elected mayor of Newcastle in 1750, but paid a fine rather than take on the burdens of office. He and his family lived, like other wealthy merchants of the town, in Westgate Street, in houses that stood in spacious gardens and orchards, a world away from the commerce of the quayside and its surrounding streets. In his 1759 will, John referred to its
several Courts Gardens Banksides Waste Grounds Coach house Stables and other Outhouses and Appurtenances
as well as hinting at the style in which his family lived, with a coach and four horses, table silver including a punch bowl and bread basket, and a household of servants including a butler and coachman. He had also acquired a country estate at Knaresdale Hall, Northumberland. Place and politics were significant in the background to Frances’s life. As a girl of 19 she would have lived through the great apprehension in Newcastle of the Jacobite rising which began in Scotland in 1745, and the preparations made for defence of the city. Aubone Surtees, who was later to marry Frances’ sister Elizabeth, was the first loyal citizen to sign a declaration volunteering to take up arms against the rebels.
A decade later, in early 1755, against a background of unofficial war against France in the New World which presaged the impending outbreak of the Seven Years War, the Royal Navy sent one of its rising captains, Edward Wheeler, to Newcastle, to act as Regulating Captain there. His task was to recruit seamen for naval service: both volunteers who willingly accepted the royal bounty, and men pressed into service, often in scenes of mob violence, against their will. The Newcastle Courant of 1 March 1755 reported that
“great Numbers daily repair to the Rendezvous at the Sun on the Key, where they are jovially entertained with RUM Punch, and Certificates given them to receive the Royal Bounty. Such is the true British Spirit shewn by our brave Tars to curb the Insolence of the haughty and faithless French”
Over the following weeks, the Courant published much else in the same fervent patriotic vein. “Our worthy” Captain Wheeler’s endeavours were strongly supported by the mayor and aldermen of Newcastle, who added their own contribution to the royal bounty, and by the local magistracy and constables under their control. The Newcastle Courant said less of the violent opposition to the press gang and the flight of Newcastle seamen to Sunderland and North Shields to avoid it. Wheeler later gave a more frank account to the Admiralty, describing how mobs had set on his lieutenants and repeatedly broken the windows of the Sun Inn:
“the Regulating & Press at [places other than London] was quite a New Thing to them, and at first very Disgustfull, and Disagreeable to the Inhabitants, and was not without the Utmost Difficulty”
It’s impossible not to conjecture that John Stephenson’s acquaintance with Captain Wheeler through his attendance at Newcastle’s Court of Aldermen led to a social invitation, and to Edward’s meeting with the Stephenson family — a large family in which women and girls greatly outnumbered men. The Stephensons had seven daughters, two of whom were by that date married, both to Newcastle men of rising prominence from long-established Northumberland families. Frances, known to her family as “Fanny”, the oldest of their unmarried daughters, was twenty-nine, relatively old for an unmarried woman of a wealthy family of the time. Edward was thirty-three, although he may well have looked older than his years. He was the sole heir of land and property in the Midlands left by a dynasty of iron masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. He had been sent to sea at the age of 14 in 1736, received his first naval commission as a lieutenant at the age of 20, in the West Indies in 1741, and in the autumn of 1754 had returned from three years as captain of a small ship of war, HMS Sphinx — the only officer to have survived a journey to West Africa and Jamaica. Even if physically marked by his years at sea and in Jamaica, Alderman and Mrs Stephenson would surely have considered him as a man of very good prospects and an eligible husband for one of their daughters. His extensive travels in the Navy would have enabled him to speak of experiences unknown to them — of crossing the Equator and of islands where alligators swam in rivers and pineapples grew on trees. But he must have taken care to conceal his own Jacobite sympathies when dining at their table, and elsewhere amongst the strongly Hanoverian Newcastle elite. He must also have taken care to avoid disparaging the family of Fanny’s other brother-in-law, Ogle Wallis. He was related to the late admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle, who had been in command of the British fleet in Jamaica in the early 1740s, and who had presided over the lowest point of Edward’s naval career: a court-martial in 1743 at which Edward, then a lieutenant, had been dismissed from his ship for disobeying his captain’s orders and speaking disrespectfully to him.
What happened between Edward and Fanny in Newcastle in the spring of 1755? Edward’s letters to the Admiralty deal solely with his duties as Regulating Captain and not with his personal life. No personal letters or journals either he or Fanny may have kept survive — Fanny no doubt anxious to keep any that she received out of the hands of inquisitive little sisters and domestic servants. Their meetings must largely have been in public, at dinners or balls, perhaps escaping into a quiet corner of a public room, or walking together in a garden or to church. It seems inconceivable that Fanny would have gone to the Quayside and set foot in the Sun Inn, jostled by the seamen drinking Captain Wheeler’s rum punch, or to the Turks Head where he was staying. He was recalled to London by the Admiralty at the end of May 1755, and at sea again by the end of the summer, newly commissioned captain of HMS Isis, a larger and more heavily armed ship of war than HMS Sphinx, and the ship of which he remained commander until his death. He never set foot in Newcastle again.
But Edward’s last will, made five years after leaving Newcastle, in the late spring of 1760, following an illness so severe that it had prevented him from going to sea as captain of HMS Isis, referred to Fanny with many affectionate words, the most unequivocal being “I love her beyond expression”. The will also puts it beyond a doubt that their relationship was both sexual and unmarried. In it, Edward set out his hope that Fanny would have a son, either in his lifetime, or within a year of his death, and that their son would ultimately inherit his estate and take both his Christian name and surname. He wrote defiantly to those who might mock or criticise him for having “bastardised” his estate
“I have ever been of Opinion that, the Children of Love, are more naturally and properly, the heirs of your Inheritance, than those of the Modern Smithfield [literally, a meat market] or Newmarket Matches or the unwish’d for consequence of Dull Conjugal Duty”
Edward made generous financial provision for Fanny in his will, but only in the form of income from his inherited estates. With characteristic outspokenness he explained that he would not leave her capital, because:
“it has ever been my fixt Opinion, that no Woman, not even the most sensible amongst them, should be intrusted with the Disposal of money, as they are Strangers to the ffatigue of acquiring it, so are they likewise Ignorant of its real use”
“… another Reason, why I have not done it is, her ffamilys conduct and most particularly her Mother’s has been such That I would not put it into the power of even Time or Chance, to give any of them a sixpence of Mine, if I could possible avoid it”
Just as Edward deprecated the “conduct” of Fanny’s family, her father, John Stephenson, had reproachful words about her “conduct” in his will, made in May 1759. His will is that of a rich man, providing for his sons, his many daughters and for charity, in a perpetual fund for sixteen poor widows in his native town of Alston. He took care to ensure his unmarried daughters were generously provided for — with the exception of Fanny, who received no more than an annuity of £50 a year, and, like all his daughters, £15 for mourning clothes. He said
“I give to my daughter Frances the sum of fifty pounds yearly during her life to be paid quarterly by equal portions from the day of my death and in case my said daughter Frances shall by her future conduct merit the regard of my dear wife and of my sons Henry and Matthew I do hereby recommend her to their favour respectively”
The word “conduct” carries all the force of parental disapproval. Eighteenth century books of “conduct” for young women were prolific and unequivocal on the subject of chastity. In the words of the 1751 edition of Reverend Wetenhall Wilkes’ Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady … to qualify the fair sex to be useful, and happy in every scene of life
“Chastity is a suppression of all irregular desires, voluntary pollutions, sinful concupiscence, and of an immoderate use of all sensual, or carnal pleasures…. If wanton dreams be remembered with pleasure, that, which before was involuntary, and therefore innocent, becomes a voluntary and sinful transgression of this virtue. Chastity is so essential and natural to your sex, that every declination from it is a proportionable receding from womanhood. An immodest woman is a kind of monster, distorted from its proper form.”
The words of both Edward Wheeler’s and John Stephenson’s wills reflect some great rupture in relations between the Stephensons and Fanny and Edward. John Stephenson’s words are surely not those of a man whose daughter is still living in his house, but of one who publicly acknowledges that her conduct has been reprehensible, however much he might personally regret that. For Fanny to have left her father’s home and lived with a man to whom she was not married was an extraordinary defiance of convention and put at risk both her financial security and her reputation. Life at sea was hazardous, as Edward and many other naval officers and seamen reflected in the opening words of their wills - “considering the vast uncertainty of this insignificant life”. Without the protection for her and any children in his will, Fanny would have faced the prospect of losing Edward and being left destitute with illegitimate children. It is unsurprising that her mother, both more deeply rooted in the landed gentry through her own background than her husband was, and with feminine consciousness of this taint not only to Fanny’s future reputation, but to that of her unmarried younger sisters, would have been strongest in her reproaches and recriminations against Edward. And perhaps she had read Richardson’s novel Clarissa, published a few years earlier, and saw in Edward Wheeler a man like Lovelace, a dangerous charmer who cared nothing for her daughter’s virtue.
Why was Edward himself so set against marriage? His will is a proclamation for love against duty — a less damaging choice for a man than for a woman. Perhaps it was his sincere belief. Ambition in the Navy and a settled family life were hard to reconcile. Edward was a convivial man, who enjoyed the company of his male friends, and the entertainment of the tavern and the playhouse. Although he excoriated the “dirty whores and stinking gin” his ship’s crew wasted their money on, there would have been other temptations and distractions for him in port. There is no evidence that he was already married, in a legal bond from which he could not escape, although he must have had many opportunities to marry, amongst his Midlands kinship or the plantation-owners’ daughters of Jamaica. And how and when did Fanny leave Newcastle? Did she announce her departure, or did she leave clandestinely with Edward when he was summoned by the Admiralty at a few days’ notice? A generation later, in 1772, Fanny’s eighteen year old niece, Bessie Surtees, “the prettiest girl in all Newcastle”, who was an infant in the cradle during Edward Wheeler’s time in Newcastle, secretly left her father’s house by climbing down a rope ladder from a first floor window in order to elope with John Scott, a coal merchant’s son, who later became the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon. Was Bessie’s escapade inspired by the whispered example of an aunt she was too young to remember?
Fanny can only have been persuaded to leave her father’s house for Edward out of love, coupled with a reckless spirit, although she was no foolish teenager like Jane Austen’s Lydia Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Nor can she and Edward have enjoyed much time together in the years ahead. He was commissioned captain of HMS Isis in the summer of 1755 and remained captain of that ship for the rest of his life, spending the time largely either at sea, escorting trade convoys, chasing French ships for prize money, serving in the siege of Le Havre in 1759; or in Portsmouth, or at anchorage in and around the south coast of England. It wasn’t unknown for women to go to sea in the 18th century Navy, although their names never appeared in the muster books or other official records of service, and a captain at least enjoyed more space and greater privacy in his cabin and more private and less horribly primitive lavatory arrangements than anyone else in the ship’s company. But did Fanny ever exchange “whole fine chambers and chimney corners”, as Edward once described the comforts of land, for the slanted wooden walls and creaking cabin of a warship? Or join him in lodgings in Portsmouth, where few questions can have been asked of an endlessly transient population of men connected with naval service and the women who came to meet and part from the men who went to sea? Whether or not they spent time together in port or at sea, their partings from each other must have been painful, and reunion eagerly looked forward to.
Apart from Portsmouth or London, the place where it is most likely that Edward and Fanny spent time together was Chalgrove in Oxfordshire, 275 miles distant from Newcastle, and a journey which would have taken several days by coach along rough roads. Chalgrove was then a rural village of some 60–80 houses in a long high street, with a few outlying manors and farms. Edward’s cousin, Peter Egerton, lived at Chalgrove, most probably as a tenant in one of those outlying manors, as he was a gentleman who would not have lived in a small house or cottage, but not a native, or landowner of whom any trace remains in Chalgrove. His family were from Lancashire, a family grown poorer rather than richer since the Civil War. A Mary Egerton had married Richard Wheeler, Edward’s father. In the 1750s this cousin, Peter Egerton, was steward to the Earl of Abingdon, and it must have been this role which brought him to Oxfordshire. A circle of kinship, professional activity, political affinity and friendship connected Edward Wheeler, Peter Egerton, Edward’s brother in law, Bertie Burgh, who had married his sister Mary, and Bertie Burgh’s partner attorney, James Unwin. Bertie Burgh had inherited both his father John Burgh’s role as steward to the Dukes of Beaufort, and his older brother James Burgh’s legal practice in Castle Yard (modern Furnival Street), Holborn. Peter Egerton and Bertie Burgh had leased property in Thame, in Oxfordshire to James Unwin in order for him to qualify as an elector in the 1754 general election, an intense contest, where the Oxfordshire poll was followed by legal proceedings. Both Peter Egerton and James Unwin had voted for the Tory and Jacobite candidates, Sir James Dashwood and Viscount Wenman. Just as in Newcastle, place and politics went together, for Oxford had been a city loyal to the Stuart kings since the Civil War. In the world of men at Chalgrove, the table talk must have been very different from what it had been at Fanny’s father’s home in Newcastle.
In late January 1761, Edward’s sailing orders took him to the Mediterranean, his duty to protect a trade convoy to Gibraltar. He and HMS Isis arrived in Gibraltar in early February, and sailed in and out of port there several times over the following weeks. Early in the evening of 1 April 1761, HMS Isis pursued a French ship, L’Oriflamme, sailing along the shore of north Africa towards Gibraltar on its voyage to the Caribbean. Isis was better armed and better and faster sailed than L’Oriflamme and both ships fired on each other at close quarters, the engagement ending with the capture of L’Oriflamme. But early in the skirmish, a single cannon shot from L’Oriflamme onto the quarter deck of HMS Isis killed two officers and mortally wounded Edward Wheeler, who died in his cabin a few hours later, it appears having had a premonition of his death and confided some last words for Fanny to one of the ship’s surgeons who attended him. He was not yet forty. He was buried in Gibraltar, apparently without ceremony or memorial. A decade later, in 1771, the man who became Admiral Earl St Vincent, but who had sailed with Edward Wheeler in 1751 on HMS Sphinx as midshipman John Jervis, had a memorial engraved with a poem he had written, praising Edward’s “unremitting cheerfulness”. Who knows where Edward’s career might have ended, if he had lived longer, into the wars of the American revolution, and against Napoleon? Or what life he might have led — retiring as an admiral, with a knighthood — with Fanny in the future?
News of Captain Wheeler’s death reached the Admiralty a few days later in April 1761, and by early May had been published in the press in Oxford. But Fanny may have heard it from James Unwin, who Edward had appointed his executor, and who would surely have brought the news from London to Chalgrove. By sad coincidence, Fanny’s father died in the same week as Edward, at his home in Newcastle.
Alone and in double mourning with the Egertons after Edward’s and her father’s deaths, Fanny’s future must have seemed hopelessly uncertain and unsafe. In early 1762 a man described as a gypsy was hanged at Oxford Assizes for stripping and robbing a woman in a lane in Chalgrove. In December 1762 she married at Chalgrove. Her husband was Edward’s friend, the busy, clever lawyer, James Unwin. In the chancel of the ancient church, the remarkable medieval wall-paintings now visible were then hidden beneath white paint, their presence unknown. James and Fanny married by licence, obtained from the Archdeacon of Oxford, and obviating the need to publish banns of marriage. Their witnesses were Stukeley Baynton, a friend of James Unwin, and Peter Egerton’s daughter, Jane. In their marriage certificate, Fanny is described as resident in the parish of Chalgrove, and she is also described as “Frances Wheeler” and as a “widow”. But there is no record of her ever having married Edward Wheeler. The words of his will do not suggest any intention to marry, and the will was admitted to probate. This would not have happened if Edward and Fanny had married, as the marriage would have revoked the will.
The record of the marriage reveals a historic untruth, but which was most likely to have been an untruth that Fanny lived by during her residence at Chalgrove. Probably only Edward, and James Unwin, a man who engaged people’s confidence and kept many secrets, knew that she and Edward were not married. Chalgrove was sufficiently far from Newcastle for it to be highly improbable that any rumour to the contrary would reach anyone there.
James and Fanny began married life at Great Baddow in Essex, from where James and his family originated. Between 1763 and 1767 they had four children, all baptised at Great Baddow, of whom three survived to adulthood: two sons and a daughter. Their older son, James, became a career soldier, fighting in the Peninsular war of the early 19th century, and their younger son, Edward, a vicar, who lived well into the reign of Queen Victoria. By marrying Fanny in an age before married women were entitled to their own separate property, James united the life interests she inherited from Edward with most of the rest of the estate of his “dear dead friend”, which James inherited because Fanny had no son with Edward. In the late 1760s the family moved from Great Baddow to rural Staffordshire, close to the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne. Amongst the estate which James Unwin had inherited from Edward Wheeler was the Jacobean mansion, Wootton Lodge, which Edward’s grandfather had bought in 1692. On the death of Edward’s aunt, it became James Unwin’s and his family’s home.
Amongst James Unwin’s circle of friends and associates was the painter, Thomas Gainsborough. Their original connection appears to have been Gainsborough’s wife, Margaret, who grew up in Great Baddow and who was an illegitimate daughter of the third Duke of Beaufort. Either James Unwin or his attorney partner Bertie Burgh, or both, were instrumental in negotiating an annuity from the Duke for Margaret, an important element in the financial security of the painter’s household. Gainsborough teased James Unwin about having become a gentleman through his inheritance. Gainsborough painted Fanny’s portrait, an impulsive gift offered at the time of her marriage to James, but not completed until Gainsborough delivered it himself on a visit to the Unwins at Wootton Lodge in 1771. His letters from Bath to James Unwin in the intervening years elevate procrastination itself into an art form, and reveal the particular intimacy of the friendship between the two men. This was not only an intimacy of confiding secrets to James, but most of Gainsborough’s excuses for not finishing the picture took the form of elaborate innuendo about the sexual pleasure that James must be enjoying with Fanny being more than sufficient compensation for having to wait for the portrait, as in this 1763 letter, written when Fanny was expecting their first child:
But My Dear Friend how shall I continue with you concerning Mrs. Unwin’s Picture I pray Sir, could not you divert yourself with the original for one week longer? I hope Mrs Unwin is not so round but that you can bring that about’
Although only Gainsborough’s side of the correspondence survives, it’s clear that the Unwins themselves went to Bath, perhaps for James’s health which was a cause of concern in the 1770s. He died in his late 50s, in 1774, leaving a will in which he expressed
a perfect and thorough Confidence that [Fanny] will take care of the Education and Maintenance of our Children and trusting that she will never give them a Stepfather
She did not. Fanny lived a long widowhood, surviving James by forty years. Towards the end of the eighteenth century she let Wootton Lodge and moved to Bath to live with her daughter Elizabeth, and her son-in-law, Thomas Smith Barwell. She died in London in January 1814, in her 88th year, just a year before Napoleon’s final defeat and a more durable peace in Europe than any she had known in her lifetime. In her will, made in 1807, she mentioned only her sons and daughter, and her daughter’s son, then a small child. There was no mention of any of her Stephenson sisters and brothers or their children, nor of the illegitimate grandchildren born to her son James and his “dear friend” Elizabeth Birch in London. Her family must have known something of the Stephensons, though, for when Fanny’s great-grand daughter Mary became notorious as a litigant in lunacy in the 1890s, her family connection to that of Lord Eldon was mentioned in newspaper articles about her. And Fanny’s marriage to James Unwin must have rehabilitated her in the eyes of some her family. Her younger brother Edward, who made his fortune in India and died there in 1784 left legacies to her children, and she appointed her cousin John as one of the trustees of her daughter’s marriage settlement.
Consistent with her wishes in her will, Fanny was buried with James in Ellastone, the village closest to Wootton Lodge. Her children must have arranged the chaste memorial to them both, which records for the world to read that she was
“Exemplary for her conduct as a wife and mother”
and that she and James Unwin “liv’d Happy”
Perhaps her sons chose the word “conduct” with the words of her dead lover’s and father’s wills in mind, deliberately creating a public memorial to obliterate any memory of the reproof of her “conduct” in her father’s will, and of the relationship she had had with Edward Wheeler. The surviving traces of Fanny’s life illustrate well how largely women of her age are invisible to posterity, other than in their conduct as wives and mothers. Even a man as capable of independent thought and expression as Edward Wheeler assumed that it was in the natural order of things that a woman would never earn her own living and that a daughter should be provided for by an annuity rather than by property or capital in her own right. And all that can be known for certain of the great circumstances of her life rests in those pointed, varied descriptions of her “conduct”.
Yet, should this virtuous epitaph be the last word on Fanny’s life? The modern historian has the freedom to say “no”. The lasting impression of her as a living woman is as a sexual being, given shape both in Gainsborough’s painting and in the frank eroticism of his letters to James Unwin. And from the language of Edward Wheeler’s and her father’s wills, a woman who risked all for a man who “loved her beyond expression”, and to whom, for a brief moment in a long life, she offered something far more satisfying than “Dull Conjugal Duty”.
© Barbara Rich 2019 all rights reserved