Mary Russell Mitford & the Fatherless Boy

NPG D34532; Mary Russell Mitford after Daniel MacliseIn Vera Watson’s biography of Mary Russell Mitford, there is an intriguing reference to a ‘little fatherless boy’ who became such a favourite with everyone, that when he caught smallpox in 1849, the whole household went into a state of emotional turmoil, anxious for his survival.1

Mary Russell Mitford was once one of Berkshire’s most famous residents. Her descriptions of village life in Our Village’ and small town affairs in Belford Regisput Three Mile Cross and Reading firmly on the literary map!

Her life was both blessed and blighted by her beloved father George, who styled himself ‘Dr’ Mitford and went through money (first his wife’s inheritance, then a huge win on the lottery and finally even Mary’s meagre earnings) like water. His death in 18422 left her in such debt that there was a public appeal for funds in The Times newspaper.3 After a comfortable childhood, Mary came to know what it felt like to be in such financial hardship you were forced to ask friends for charity. As a result, I think she was a very atypical Victorian employer.

According to Mary’s posthumously published letters, the servant maid Kerenhappuck Taylor (referred to in the letters as K or K.K.) joined George Mitford’s household in the 1830’s.4 However, not long after the 1841 Census,5 she left the cottage, apparently to give birth to her illegitimate son, James Henry Taylor, around 1842.6 I haven’t been able to pin down where she went but James always claimed his place of birth was Three Mile Cross.7 Perhaps it was but he was baptised elsewhere.

Two or three years later, Kerenhappuck returned to Mary Russell Mitford’s employ as a Lady’s Maid, bringing with her the ‘little fatherless boy’ James. Kerenhappuck eventually married the groom, Samuel Sweetman in Reading St Laurence church in 1852.8 They had two children including a daughter they named Mary Russell Mitford Sweetman, born in 1853 and baptised in Swallowfield in 1854.9

Just a year later, Mary Russell Mitford (senior) died,10 leaving her servant Kerenhappuck Sweetman the bulk of her estate. Significantly, the will written in 1852, also left £500 to the young James Henry Taylor, who having happily survived the smallpox, was “now at school at Mr Coteser’s [?] of Reading“, no doubt at Mary’s expense.11

I haven’t confirmed it with other sources but from the census alone, I believe that by 186112 aged about 18, James was an apprentice bookseller and stationer in Newbury. According to the will, he was due to inherit his £500 at 21. Whether he got the full amount, I don’t know but by 1871 I think he may have been working as a tutor in a school in Brighton.13 At some point however, he decided to join the Anglican Mission in Africa, perhaps using his money to fund his training. Before he left in 1872, he married Margaret Ellen Jackson.14

Crockford’s Clerical Directory of 1898 confirms that James Henry Taylor was Curate then Vicar of St James, Isipingo in the Diocese of Maritzburg in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) between 1873 and1884. James, Margaret and their young son Arthur Henry Edmund returned home in 1885.15 According to census returns, James and Margaret spent at least ten years in Somerset before ending up in Canterbury. On Census night in 1911 their household included their son Arthur, now also a clergyman and one servant.16

James Henry Taylor’s humble beginnings could have meant he was outcast as the illegitimate offspring of a young servant maid. Instead, fortune and Mary Russell Mitford, a rather opinionated, childless gentlewoman on her uppers, smiled!

[1] ‘Mary Russell Mitford’ by Vera Watson. Evan Brothers Ltd (London) Chapter XIX p.274
[2] ‘Reading Mercury’ Newspaper Saturday 17th December Issue 1842 p.3 col.2
refers to the Death of Dr Mitford on Saturday 10th December 1842, at his residence, at Three Mile Cross.
He was buried in Shinfield on 15th December 1842 beside his wife, Mary.
Berkshire Record Office Shinfield St Mary Parish Register (Ref: D/P110/1/)
[3] ‘The Times’ Newspaper Wednesday 24th May 1843 p.7
[4] ‘Life in a Country Town: Reading and Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) Edited by Pamela Horn.
Beacon Publications 1984 p.12
[5] 1841 Census (TNA Ref: HO107/1165/13/5)
[6] 1891 Census (TNA Ref: RG12/237/109/24)
1901 Census (TNA Ref: RG13/2289/83/3)
[7] Ibid
[8] Berkshire Record Office Reading St Laurence Parish Register (Ref: D/P97/1/18)
[9] Berkshire Record Office Swallowfield All Saints Parish Register (Ref: D/P129/1/13)
[10] Berkshire Record Office Swallowfield All Saints Parish Register (Ref: D/P129/1/16)
Mary Russell Mitford died aged 68 on 10th January 1855 and was buried 18th January 1855
[11] PCC Will & Probate for Mary Russell Mitford 1855 (TNA Ref: PROB11/2206/375)
[12] 1861 Census (TNA Ref: RG9/720/24/1)
[13] 1871 Census (TNA Ref: RG10/1088/117)
[14] GRO Marriage Index: 1872 September Quarter
[15] Crockford’s Clerical Directory 1898 p.1327
[16] 1911 Census (TNA Ref: RG14 PN4333)

© Emmy Eustace


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