We left Maria in November 1857 recently married to James Feltham, with their 10 month old son, William James Cockrell Feltham, known as Jimmy. Two more mis-matched people it would be hard to find, but I will let Maria tell you her story in her own words mostly, so you may need to sit down, it will take some time.
Putting a date to Maria’s letters has been tricky as she rarely gives us the year, but they appear to start in late 1860 or early 1861. From comments in these letters we know that Maria obtained a position working for Walter Long’s wife Lady Bisshopp until 1860. On 11th April 1862 Maria wrote:
“Just two years ago today I parted with kind Lady B to go to my birthplace and thence to this place of trial.”
Walter Long owned much of Chitterne and lived at Rood Ashton House, near Trowbridge. Lady Bisshopp turned out to be a very good friend to Maria and wrote to her often. We don’t know what happened to James from 1857 to 1860. He does not appear to be with Maria, perhaps he was back in Chitterne with his parents. In later letters Maria mentions having left him once before, maybe it was during this time. Maria’s mother Euphemia looked after Jimmy while Maria was at Rood Ashton.
However, by early 1861 Maria, James and Jimmy are living together as a family at Compton, near Enford, Wiltshire, 10 miles east across the Salisbury Plain from Chitterne. James has a coal hauling business, they have two horses, a cart, some pigs and chickens and grow cereal crops. James is illiterate and relies on Maria to keep the business accounts. Maria is also a needlewoman and nurses the elderly.
Maria’s early letters are all addressed to her mother back in Chitterne. At first all appears to go well:
“I am happy to say our business is steadily on the increase and sometimes I seem to have more than I can do, for I have no one to put a helping hand or go on an errand or anything.”
Her troubles start in April 1861 after she has been home to Chitterne for her brother William’s wedding to Maria Coles on the 4th April:
“James has such a very bad place on his thigh and really his temper is like that, that I am almost at my wit’s end. He almost gnaws me to death.”
In May 1861 we get an inkling of earlier trouble:
“James has two more boils coming on his behind. I am happy to say he has not given me the least trouble since he last took money.”
The death of James’s father is the catalyst for yet more trouble, on 3rd September 1861, Maria writes:
“James has been so very rough lately. He served me worse since his fathers’ death than he did before, and last Tuesday, a week ago today, he went out drinking in the morning and returned home at 11 o’clock and went to mowing and I got the dinner ready and went and called him, and he sent the child in to tell me to bring it up to him. I did so and spread it out before him, when he began throwing the knives and forks about and ordered me indoors with it. And then he began throwing it at me and broke everything there was on the table, 2 dishes, 3 plates, vinegar bottle and salt cellar. Fortunately only one piece of one of the dishes caught me and that did not hurt me, as my stays prevented it. The child went up to Mr Martin’s (farmer at Compton Farm) and told them and I ran and hid in a garden. Jane (servant friend at Compton Farm) came down and shamed him and told him she would give me any money I like to name to leave him and go in and help me pack my traps. He said he would help too but it would be a job to part us. Mr Martin and the Reverend have both given the policeman orders to be about there, and the next time he is found ill using me, to take him up. He will be at Chitterne next Saturday but pray don’t say that I have written to you as you value my life.”
Following this episode Maria’s cousin Dorcas came to Compton as live-in help, and Maria received a letter from Lady Bisshopp dated 23rd September 1861 saying she was deeply grieved to hear that Maria had been ill-used again. Lady B offered Maria the situation of 3rd housemaid at Rood Ashton, which was vacant if Maria would like it, and send Jimmy back to her parents again. Maria read the letter to James and told him if he did not continue to be good to her she would take up the offer.
Over the next year, as his behaviour worsens, Maria is frequently torn between staying with James, or leaving him. On 19th October 1861 she tells her mother:
“…a week ago last Monday he went to Honeystreet and afterwards to the Swan (Swan Inn, a mile from Compton) as usual and after the turn out, got up to a fight with another man and some say James kicked, but James denies it. However, the other man’s ankle bone is completely smashed and it is in such a state that it can’t be set yet, and they are taking him to the Infirmary this morning. He has 4 children and is unable to work. James was also very abusive to Mr Baden, Lord of the manor at Enford, that was passing at the time and told him to go home. So how it will be settled, God only knows, but it is generally thought here the parish will county court James and make him pay all expenses, and if they do, I don’t know what will become of us.”
Maria took up an offer to go and stay with Lady Bisshopp for a week in November with young Jimmy, a favourite of the Rood Ashton servants. But on returning home she found:
“…two summonses, one for fighting at Upavon a week ago last Saturday and the other for allowing the horse to stand exposed to the severity of the weather so many hours. James came home a week ago with two black eyes, as the men of Upavon served him dreadfully. Lady Bisshopp begged me if I found at any time it was more than I could bear, to come and take it as a home, as she could always find me employment. It seems good to know that even in this world there is someone caring for me, and I feel that I have not driven my husband from his home, but he is a slave to drink.”
Maria’s letters are full of thankfulness despite her troubles, which she blames on herself for much of the time:
“The Lord has given me friends and mercies. May he give me a thankful heart, that I may be kept from despairing at my lot, for I know full well that the path of sorrow and that path alone, leads to that land where sorrow is unknown.”
But no peace yet for Maria. On 11th April 1862 she reports her latest trouble to her mother:
“And now my dear Mother, I must tell you of events of last Thursday. I went up in the morning to go for coals, and I did my washing, and as I was coming in about 3 o’clock I saw the house was cracking opposite the wall and something seemed to tell me I would make a late job of it if I started towards Upavon, thinking I would meet him with his load. But I soon heard he had been drinking at Upavon all the morning, and was just started on, so I overtook him about halfway to Honeystreet with the empty cart stopped at the Woodbridge Inn. The landlord and him had been quarreling and James attempted to kick the landlord’s behind, and the landlord threw James down but did not hurt him much. I called him out and told him what I thought of the house and begged him to turn around and come back with me, but he would not, but began fisting at the window and at last smashed it with his fist.
I could not get him away. It was about 5 o’clock and then took the empty cart and horse home and left him there. It was the kicking one so I got William Eyre to unharness it and then put the poor child to bed, and Dorcas and me got all the things out of our bedroom, except the bedstead and chest, but we did not take anything downstairs. Then we sat up till a little past 12 listening to the whitewash dropping, in horrible suspense, when James came in, one eye quite closed, his clothes torn and covered with blood. After I left him he came back to Upavon and insulted the landlord there, till it provoked him to take the law into his own hands and serve him as he did.”
James had been home about 20 minutes when the whole side wall of the house fell down filling the well, which meant they had to use the river water. Thanks to Maria’s earlier actions no furniture was damaged.
“We have no place to be in. James sleeps in the straw. I and Dorcas and child sleep at Chisenbury. Our things are in the barn. Pray for us.”
Next is a letter from Maria’s friend Jane Hobbs of Compton Farm to Maria’s mother who had just paid a visit to Maria’s home. Jane wrote on 7th May 1862:
“Dear Friend, I take the liberty to write to you. I am very sorry to tell you the sad accident of your dear daughter Maria for she come tonight and drink tea with me and very much wished me to write and tell you of her husband’s ill treatment to her Sunday night. Before you was gone out of sight, he began abusing her most awfully and on Monday morning he held the gun to her head and swore he would shoot her and she fainted from the fright and today he has been fighting and has got his face cut open dreadfully and what the end of it will be we can’t tell. We hope the almighty will be with her and preserve her from such a brute of a husband, for we feel very much for the dear innocent creature. Poor Maria I think she is very bad and you need not be surprised to see her at any time.”
James calms down again for a bit and on 22nd May 1862 Maria tells her mother she is much better than when Jane Hobbs wrote her letter, but also adds:
“People seem to blame me very much for staying here, but what am I to do? I have a friend in Lady B as she offered to get me a situation now in London and receive me into her own family again in July. But what am I to do with my dear boy? He is not near well and if I was to leave him with you, it is uncertain how long they (presumably James’ family in Chitterne) would let him stay with you, so I must stay as long as please God.
Maria’s respite from trouble is not long, for in June 1862 James is summoned to Pewsey for driving and whipping his two horses whilst riding on the shafts in a drunken state. Maria writes the following day of what happened to her when he returned home:
“As soon as he came home and I went out to him, he horsewhipped me with a large whalebone whip and almost fetched the blood on the fleshy part of my arm. It is all colours now, as well as my shoulders and back.
In the same letter dated 14th June 1862 she tells her mother what happened at the court:
“At Pewsey yesterday he was fined £10 or one month’s imprisonment and he told the bench he should not pay the money. He should go to prison for he had been before and he knew where to hang his hat. So he was locked up with the prisoners about 2 hours, till the business of the day was settled and then I went and paid the magistrates the fine, and had him released.
For what could I do? A month here at this time of year with the two horses and haymaking all about, and I know he could earn that over and over again if he liked, but instead of being any better for it, he began spending again and got drunk before he got home. I got him as far as Chisenbury (The Red Lion) and then left him and went home and cried myself to sleep.”
Maria soon regrets she had paid James’ fine when James takes exception to her new things. Little Jimmy, now 5 years old, had been to stay with his grandmother. As Maria writes on 8th July 1862:
“We have been as rough as possible since we went to Pewsey. I have regretted ever since that he was not sent to prison. I only had my clothes off one night, and I had a new bonnet and cap, trimmed with white, and he burnt the lot, box and all. He was mad drunk and came home about 7 o’clock in the evening, and locked himself in and took the key out of the door and burnt it. And we were outside, we smelled it, and Dorcas saw the blaze, but we did not know what it was.
He then the same night stuffed all his clothes into a sack and put it into the cart and swore he would go to London, and off he went. This was before the dear boy got home, and he went off somewhere till about 9 o’clock in the morning, and then he came back and tried the door, and we were afraid to come down, so he climbed up the trigger that supported the roof and flew through the room where we were standing, and downstairs and took the loaded gun off the nail and shot it up the chimney. I thought it was at the boards as it shook the place so, but I found when I came downstairs that the soot was all over the place.
He then came upstairs and began talking to the child and asking him what you did say about him. The child said nothing that I can mind.
Last week it was rather better, but Tuesday he threw a butter tub at me and knocked me down under the white horse, but the poor thing looked at me and never moved. Had it been the black one, I might not now be in the land of the living. It bruised my hip, thigh and arm on the left side, but not of much consequence, and he has begun this week the same, for he went for a load of faggots yesterday, Monday, and returned this morning after daylight, without horse or wagon, and we went up the field and left him in bed, and now when we came down he is fled. When he will come again I know not for I am out of patience with him. But I shall try and rub it (put up with it) till Christmas and I don’t think we shall hold out much longer.”
On 25th October 1862 their house is still in a damaged state as the landlord has refused to rebuild the wall. Since the wall fell down Maria sleeps at the house of an elderly couple, and helps them until about 10 o’clock in the morning, before going to Compton. Dorcas and Jimmy sleep at Mr Eyre’s house. Maria supposes they will winter at Chitterne. Mr Martin, the farmer at Compton Farm, helps by looking after Maria’a hens and little chickens, and by offering to ask a lawyer if James will be sent to prison again or not. He has also recommended Maria for a situation at Lake Farm near Salisbury where they need a trustworthy person to supervise the other servants in the morning and do needlework in the afternoon. Mr Martin is very keen for Maria to take it in preference to a situation at Chitterne:
“as he thinks I should always be an eyesore to James’ family, and no doubt that they would do all in their power to annoy one.”
Maria has also heard from Lady B who would be pleased to take Maria as a laundry maid in July, but advises her to take another situation for the present.
“I hope I shall be able to come home for a week and I should be so glad if Isaac (Maria’s stepfather) would consent for the child to stay with you. If not, I must try to place him somewhere else, as I should have so much better opportunity of supporting him.”
Maria also writes to her aunt and uncle, Dorcas’ parents, on the 25th October 1862 and this letter seems to herald the end Maria’s time at Compton as she speaks of items being sold. We get no inkling of what has happened to James, is he in prison? Maria says:
“I don’t know how long I may be here but I do hope not more than another week, and I am much obliged to you for letting Dorcas stay with me. I shall come to Chitterne, and Dorcas with me. (Maria planned to attend the opening of the new Church, Chitterne All Saints with St Mary’s, on 4th November 1862).
I expect it will all be sold off by auction. I will write again when I know how it’s going to be.”
That is the last letter we have of Maria’s sent from Compton, ‘this place of trial’ as she once described it. Soon her fortunes will change, as we shall see in the next blog….