The Archive Spotlight series continues with a post by Elizabeth Spencer (PhD Candidate, History, University of York), on her findings after a research visit to Dorset History Centre in Dorchester. The papers of the Reverend William Ettrick (1757-1847), although not appropriate material for Elizabeth’s thesis, did however tell a rather intriguing tale, which she recounts here.
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“The Lady was to be young and of good Family also”: Finding a wife for the Reverend William Ettrick
By Elizabeth Spencer
Recent research into the Ettrick family of High Barnes in Sunderland led me, somewhat surprisingly, all the way to the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester in order to look at the papers of the Reverend William Ettrick (1757-1847). I have been researching the marriage of his parents William (1726-1808) and Catherine Ettrick (1726-1794), and so hoped that I might find some traces of them in their son’s papers. The Reverend William Ettrick had an extremely difficult relationship with his father, and so had left Sunderland ‘without a penny in [his] pocket’ as soon as he had turned 21 in order to take up a fellowship at University College Oxford; in 1787 he was offered two small livings in Dorset, where he lived until his father’s death in 1808, upon which he inherited the family estate at High Barnes. Unfortunately, his papers offered little in the way of material for my current doctoral research into women’s clothing in eighteenth-century England, but they do provide a fascinating account of one member of a family notorious for their eccentric behaviour.
The papers held by the Dorset History Centre were apparently found sealed in a glass bottle which had been passed down in the Ettrick family; it was finally opened in 1903, and was found to contain documents relating largely to the Reverend William Ettrick’s complicated marital affairs. As well as a personal account written by him in 1810 in an attempt to justify the legitimacy of his marriage, the papers contain correspondence between William and legal professionals, colleagues, and family members, as well as affidavits sworn by various witnesses to his first marriage. They allow us to piece together the somewhat bizarre story of his search for a wife, and his eventual marriage to Elizabeth Bishop (?-1837) in 1800.
Despite their acrimonious relationship, the Reverend Ettrick’s father apparently began making overtures of peace towards his son in 1794 in an attempt to secure the family name; they were the only two surviving male heirs, and in his old age the father was becoming increasingly concerned that he would never see his then 37-year-old son married. According to a later account written by the Reverend Ettrick, his father had offered him £10,000 and the possession of the High Barnes estate – as well as £5000 more on his death – if he would marry a ‘Lady of Fortune’ worth £10,000. His terms also stipulated that the lady was also ‘to be young and of good Family.’ These conditions did not prove agreeable to the Reverend Ettrick, however, who wrote to his University College colleague Dr Wetherell that he had ‘instantly rejected them’ in his own mind as ‘Such a prospect was not only an ideal impossibility to a man of my Constitution & years, and retired life & Habits, but the very thots: of it were Death to me.’ Significantly, the Reverend Ettrick also cited his parents’ own unhappy marriage – they had separated in 1765 – as evidence of the miseries caused by a match based on money alone.
Nevertheless, the Reverend Ettrick challenged his father that if he could find a lady ‘according to his wishes, and equally willing to venture the perilous experiment,’ he would agree to ‘sacrifice all my Expectations of domestic Happiness’ and marry her. Such a lady, however, was not to be found, and five years went by without a match being made. It is here that things become more complicated, and it is more than likely that the Reverend’s own account of these events written in 1810 glosses over or changes details in order to present his actions in a more favourable (and less bizarre) light. According to the Reverend, by 1799 he had decided to set his father’s scheme aside altogether and to marry a woman ‘agreeable to me, & of such Expectations (being of humble rank) and Habits of Life, as were in unison with my own.’ The woman he set his sights upon was Elizabeth Bishop, who was likely already his servant or housekeeper at this point. Rather than simply marrying her, however, the Reverend Ettrick apparently decided to set in motion an ‘experiment’ which would ‘work upon the feelings of my Father & put his Temper fully to the proof.’ He therefore published the banns of his own marriage in his own parish church in December 1799, and let it be widely believed that a marriage ceremony had taken place between him and the said Elizabeth; no such thing had happened, but the Reverend’s intentions were to gauge his father’s reaction to his rumoured nuptials. He had apparently determined to disregard any reconciliation with his father if his reaction proved to be a negative one, and was prepared to forfeit the fortune promised to him in order to marry a woman who satisfied his own needs. His father did not disappoint, and the Reverend’s brother-in-law soon wrote to tell him that the ‘Old Gentleman is much displeased with you’ as he had been told that he had ‘married a Woman that was a Bedd maker at Oxford & that she had befor two Bastards.’
If the Reverend Ettrick was pleased that his father had predictably proved himself to be intractable, he apparently had not foreseen that rumours of his marriage would have negative consequences for his fellowship at University College Oxford. Upon hearing of his apparent nuptials, the college bursar wrote to him to warn that an investigation loomed if he did not provide them with a reasonable explanation; his fellowship was no longer tenable if he was a married man, and he had failed to inform them of any change in his circumstances. ‘You may suppose that the College would not be disposed to give credit to a vague rumour,’ the bursar wrote, but ‘it is only since they have learnt that the report is very generally prevalent in your neighbourhood…that they have been induced to give it attention.’ The Reverend replied explaining the circumstances of the rumour and asking for a year of grace as, although he was not yet married, he intended to be in the near future.
Though he had been forced to deny his marriage to the college, according to the Reverend’s own account he was reluctant to allow these rumours to be contradicted in Dorset as he was ‘not willing to give any needless visitation to my father’; however, it is likely that he and Elizabeth were already living together as man and wife. Indeed, when the pair eventually did marry in April 1800 Elizabeth was already pregnant. Perhaps predictably given the Reverend’s previous record, the marriage ceremony was not a straightforward event; taking place very early in the morning with only two witnesses – Elizabeth’s mother and aunt – the ceremony was performed by the Reverend himself, in a bizarre move which would prove problematic for him later down the line.
Having heard doubts expressed to him over the validity of his marriage to Elizabeth on the grounds that he himself had performed the ceremony, the Reverend was eventually persuaded by his patron to be married again by another clergyman in 1806. Elizabeth had given birth to four children in this time – one of them a son and heir to the Reverend’s estate – and it was this more than anything that seems to have convinced him of the need to ensure the legitimacy of his marriage. Nevertheless, he continued to assert the validity of their first marriage, claiming that the second ceremony was only a ‘Measure of Precaution.’ Indeed, rather than simply including a clause in his will which would allow an illegitimate first son to inherit, the Reverend determined to prove that his 1800 marriage had been legally valid all along. This was complicated even further by the discovery in 1808 – the year of his father’s death – that the wrong date had been entered in the parish register for the banns of this first marriage; though the banns had been heard in December 1799 – and the Reverend and Elizabeth had been married in 1800 – he had incorrectly recorded the banns as being published in December 1800.
It is perhaps ironic that, despite wanting to avoid the unhappy fate suffered by parents who had been married for financial gain, the Reverend Ettrick himself became embroiled in an ongoing legal battle over the validity of his 1800 marriage. It also shows a streak of stubbornness as he continued to fight to assert its legitimacy, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. He and Elizabeth would go on to have ten children together, six of whom were born after their second marriage ceremony in 1806. Unfortunately, their first son – whose legitimacy the Reverend fought so hard to prove – died before his father, and so the uncertain status of his 1800 marriage would ultimately prove immaterial in matters of inheritance. The Reverend William Ettrick himself died aged 90 in 1847, and his second son Anthony would go on to inherit the estate at High Barnes.
 Dorset History Centre: ‘Correspondence and other documents of Rev. William Ettrick 1787-1810’ D.1854/1, and ‘Correspondence and account of William Ettrick’s life by Mrs Sherwood, 1980’ D.1854.
 Jeremiah William Summers, The History and Antiquities of Sunderland (Sunderland: Joseph Tate, 1858), pp. 186-196. ; William Brockie, Sunderland Notables: Natives, Residents, and Visitors (Sunderland: Hills and Company, 1894), pp. 46-52.
Elizabeth Spencer is a third-year doctoral candidate and postgraduate tutor in the Department of History at the University of York. Her research looks at women’s clothing in eighteenth-century England, and is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities.