I am in two minds about family history research. There are certainly positive aspects. One of these is that it gives non-historians an opportunity to handle or interpret original documents and primary sources. Also I am glad that family history reduces the likelihood that any human being should be forgotten utterly and completely:
‘And some there be, which have no memorial;
Who are perished, as though they had never been;
And are become as though they had never been born;
And their children after them.‘
Three negatives are fairly obvious. Is it of any value to search relentlessly for earlier and earlier ancestors about whom you know nothing whatever, except names and dates? Is your own life in some way granted extra validation if you can prove descent from king Richard III or Charlemagne? Even if you know a great deal about your ancestors writing an account of their lives which is of the slightest interest to those outside the immediate family can be a real struggle.
Well, be that as it may, I have been given an opportunity to study a quite unexpected literary survival; it is a survival of a type that family historians dream about, an opportunity to understand how people thought five generations ago. The life of a young woman from my wife’s family has been suddenly illuminated. Martha Richards, the woman in question, died before she was twenty-five years old, never married, and left no descendants. Can I make her brief existence of any interest to a wider readership?
Martha’s father, Harry Lord Richards (1785-1863), was a commander in the early nineteenth century Royal Navy. He was born in Stoke Damerel, a parish in Plymouth closely associated with the family and with the navy which Harry entered in 1798. His elder brother John Richards (1779 – 1846) became a Royal Navy purser. As a junior officer Harry saw a great deal of the world, serving in both the West & East Indies. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1809. After various appointments at this rank he eventually commanded a gun brig, HMS Fearless, which (after capturing a privateer) was wrecked off Cadiz in 1812 with no loss of life. His promotion may have been held back by the loss of an eye during the largely forgotten Anglo-American Naval War of 1812-14, when he served in Canada as part of a Royal Naval squadron on the Great Lakes. He remained on ‘half-pay’ for many years after this but in August 1840 Commander Richards was the second in command of the wooden battleship San Josef, which was then a gunnery training ship. In 1843 he was serving on HMS Semiramis. The only other hard information I have about him is a single press report from 1840 recording a speech he gave advocating repeal of the Corn Laws, which would have made him popular in Bradford had it become known.
Captain Richards and his wife Eliza had several children. These included a daughter, Emma Yolland Richards, from whom my wife and our children descend, and a son, William. William seems to have first been a temporary clerk in the Civil Service and then, rather ominously, there is an account from 1860 (Morning Chronicle 10 March) of the defalcations of a man of this name when employed as a clerk working for the Royal Naval Annuitant Society. I can find nothing further until his death. Was he involved in a banking scandal of some kind? Harry and Eliza’s second child, and fourth daughter, was referred to as ‘Martin’ when her death, after a short illness, was recorded in contemporary newspapers. I am now certain that Martin was a typographical error for Martha and that her full baptismal name was Mary Martha Richards (1824-1847).
The ‘survival’ that transformed my view of the Richards family was an exercise book loaned to us by WS, a fellow family historian and distinguished photographer, who has been most generous with his knowledge. Physically the volume is a worn, brown, cardboard covered book with about 140 pages. Three pages include little illustrations. The dedicatory inscription on the first (unnumbered) page reads:
Emma Yolland Richards
from her affectionate Father, H L Richards
HMS Semiramis, Jan 1st 1843
At first sight I assumed that the volume was a commonplace book, a place for the owner to record events, verse, recipes and interesting thoughts. But on reading it carefully is clear that it contains no prose and that the tone of the included verse is rather weighted towards religion, duty, and death. The obvious explanation of the book is that on New Year’s Day 1843 Harry Lord Richards presented his daughter with a thick, blank, exercise book as a present. Emma had been born in 1823, which would suggest an age of 19 or 20 at the time of the gift. The dates fit well, and some of the subsequent entries have their own dates in the period 1843-48. Despite the inscription the book’s subsequent ownership is slightly doubtful since the collection is dominated by entries written by, or after her death written about, Emma’s sister Martha Richards. But the fact that Emma preserved the anthology, given to her 15 years earlier, after her marriage indicates the importance it had for her. Was the book retained at least partly as a memorial to a long dead sister?
The entries are in a number of different hand-writing styles. Possibly Emma originally intended her family and friends to make their own contributions to her collection. So far I have only definitely identified one candidate in this connection. A man called Fleetwood John Richards contributed and signed one item in the anthology. He was Martha’s exact contemporary but survived her by 40 years, rising to become a general in the Royal Marines. He had an older brother Charles Richards who became ‘Comptroller of Victualling’ to the Navy. A distinguished naval family then.
After the dedication already described, and on the third unnumbered page, is written:
A party [sic] coloured year woven of mingled joy and sadness.
This seems to be same hand-writing as the dedication – presumably that of Harry Lord Richards. I’m not sure if he was making a general observation about all years, or a prediction about 1843 in particular. What follows is essentially a anthology of verse written by various Victorian poets, some still famous but others almost forgotten. Among the famous are Thomas Hood’s ”The Song of the Shirt’. Another noted contribution is ‘The Narrow Way‘ by Acton Bell. Anne Bronte’s poems were published using that pseudonym, along with those of her sisters, in 1846. It is interesting to note that, many miles from Haworth, her genius was so quickly recognised. Other famous poets collected, and who have no obvious direct family connection were: John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Coleridge, Percy B Shelley, Lord Byron and Thomas Moore, author of The Minstrel Boy. Among these recognised poets PB Shelley is the most popular. His contributions are headed ‘Shelley’s miscellaneous poems’ and the hand-writing seems to be Martha’s.
Less well-known now are: Felicia Dorothea Hemans: The Bride’s Farewell, Charles Swain: Old Friends Together, Bernard Barton: To Felicia Hemans On the Death of a Friend, Mary Howitt, Charlotte Smith, Samuel Blanchard: Love Seeking a Lodging, and Ebenezer Elliott: Hymn. Most interesting is Death’s Chill Between signed ‘CGR’. This is, of course, Christina Rossetti. The poem was published in the Athenaeum magazine when she was only seventeen, after Martha’s death, in the year 1848. Is it even faintly possible we have Rossetti’s first published work in her own hand? No. sadly the capital R of her initials is exactly in the form that other Richards family members created them, but it does at least suggest the compiler of the anthology kept in touch with the latest poetical publications.
Mary Martha Richards had been born in Devon in 1823 and Emma’s book has recalled her to life from utter obscurity. It looks as if Martha wrote several poems of her own, and had more than one written in her memory after her death. Do I know anything else about her? She certainly read Blackwood’s Magazine and probably Punch as well. If she read Hood’s The Song of the Shirt so I imagine she would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn. She states that Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith is her favourite poem. Another poem seemingly written in Martha’s own hand-writing was devoted to the great Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. I cannot yet trace the author’s name who appears to be something like C. Crouch.
There is no difficulty in finding the family in the 1851 census, after the death of Martha, when they are living at 3 Stopford Place, Stoke Damerel. The best chance of observing the entire family together would seem to be in the 1841 census but I have totally failed in this. A loose insert in the anthology of verse is the text of an undated letter which I believe to be from Martha to Emma. The text is difficult to read but its begins To Emma with Martha’s love and continues:
Emma I wish thee happiness
More than mortals find
May heaven grant thee peace
As thou are that in minds.
An inserted letter hints that there may have been difficulties between the two sisters since it ends: Emma, for all blunders done, I entreat your pardon
Martha Richards is in fact the biggest contributor to the whole anthology with five signed entries and her contribution is much greater still if I have correctly recognised unsigned verses written in her hand-writing, perhaps another fifteen entries. Martha’s penmanship has two peculiarities. She elongates the cross-bar on the initial ‘t’ of a word, so that a single elongated bar provides for both letters t in ‘that’ and on one occasion all the letters t in ‘attempted’. Also between verses she almost always uses a divider, such as a horizontal line. Her writing is angular and often looks hurried.
The question that has interested me most is do we have any original material written by Martha? For example in March 1845 Mary Martha Richards signed a poem entitled ‘Wilt thou remember me when I am gone’. It was unfamiliar and I thought it might well be her own work. With the power of the internet I traced it to ‘Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine‘ for 1842 where it is published and signed MM. It would appear that Martha was actually a published poet by the age of eighteen.
Two female members of the family died before the age of twenty-five. Although she survived we have a letter of Emma’s reporting a troublesome cough. It is plausible that, like the Bronte sisters, the young women all suffered from tuberculosis. Memorials may exaggerate but it is hard to believe that Martha wasn’t cherished by her friends. After her death two contributors incorporated commemorative poems for her. Modern sensibilities may find the following words difficult although I imagine they would be unexceptional to the Victorian mind:
And a happy foretaste to her was given,
On the bed of death, of the joys of heaven
Where souls from earth’s dull clod set free
Find endless bliss in eternity.
Yet oh! Would friendship could affection keep
That gentle one from death’s long sleep
Her lovely eyes would still be beaming
But her closed alas! His slow long gleaming
Her youth and beauty and the gifted mind
With many virtues in her combined
But proved her to be, a star too bright
To bless by its day our mortal night
The final poem I shall mention is by Martha herself and dated 1846. It is worth quoting in full:
If you could fetter time, Right willingly I’d stay
And sing or dance or rhyme, E’en for another day
But as his wings still fly,Through pleasure and delight
Why, to you all I must, Bid a very kind ‘good night’
And when I’m gone pray don’t, Grieve, my singing or my song
I’ve tried to please you all, So to grieve me would be wrong
I now must really go, I wish your hearts as light
When we meet another day, As those you’ve now, ‘good night’.
What more can one say? When she wrote these words Martha was 22 years old, clever, thoughtful and brave; she knew her death was approaching and faced the inevitable with great courage.