Mary Ann Grist

Below stairs in the houses in Pittville Lawn there was another world. The lives of the servants are of great interest not simply for the details of their own lives (which are often hard to reassemble as they lived much of the time below history’s radar) but because as a group they played a large part in major social movements that were sweeping through the British Isles in the nineteenth century. Mary Ann Grist is just such an example.

The basic facts

Mary Ann Grist was born in or around 1835 in Chapmansdale, a small village in the far west of Wiltshire. She was the daughter of William and Eliza Grist. At the time of the 1841 and 1851 censuses she lived with her family in Wiltshire, but by 1861 we find her – at the age of 25 – unmarried and living in the household of Lieutenant Colonel George Schreiber, of Roden House, 23 Pittville Lawn, Cheltenham, as a Parlour Maid.

Records of her life are scarce, and we next meet her in the 1871 census. She was still living in the Schreiber household, where she was still a Parlour Maid, as she was ten years later in 1881. But George Schreiber died in 1878. By 1891 the house had passed from his widow Anne to his son-in-law Hugh Pearson. But Mary Ann Grist was no longer living at this address. Sometime between 1881 and 1891 she moved up the road to take up employment as a Cook in the household of the widow of another retired military gentleman, Sarah Whinyates, of Dorset House, No 83 Pittville Lawn. (Click here to see her Pittville census records.)

Mary Ann seems to have left service by the time of the 1901 census, when she was boarding with Sydney and Cecile Paynter at Nelson Villa in Trafalgar Street, in central Cheltenham. She died on 22 January 1906, at No 63 Brighton Road, Cheltenham, back much nearer to Pittville, in the adjoining parish.

She left £356 12s 3d (worth perhaps £35,000 today), and probate was granted to James Grist Carr, a railway pointsman working for the Great Western Railway and living with his family at No 8 Alstone Place.

The presence of another member of the Wiltshire Grists in Cheltenham starts to throw new light on the social patterns which led to Mary Ann moving to the town in the first place.

The Grists: a typical Wiltshire village family

A broader picture of how Mary Ann Grist lived emerges if we look in closer detail at the life of the Grist family through the eyes of the national censuses and other documents. The Grists were a typical family living in an agricultural and farming community in the early nineteenth century, and many of these families had inhabited the region for years. William’s parents, Edward and Sarah Grist, attended the Independent Lower Meeting house in the village. They had their children baptised there over almost twenty years, from Edward in 1804 the eldest to John the youngest in 1820. There were three boys and five girls, at least.

At the start of the nineteenth century things may have seemed quite stable for the family. But there were forces of change afoot, and the following century saw a continuing shift of population from villages into towns, and from the countryside generally into the cities. Many families tended to gravitate towards large centres of population, and in particular towards London.

In 1841 Mary Ann’s father William Grist was a village carpenter in Chapmanslade. He had married Eliza Pope in 1829 in next-door Corsley. In 1841 the couple had four children living with them in their home in Chapmanslade: John, Mary Ann, Harriet, and William. There would have been five children, but Anna Maria – christened in September 1832 – had died in late 1834. Mary Ann must have been named in her memory. Albert was born after the 1841 census, in 1845. Sadly he did not develop normally, and was kept at home under his parents’ care for many years.

There were other family members living nearby in this close agricultural community. Mary Ann’s uncle Edward, married in 1828, listed himself as a Farmer” in the 1841 census, and also had four children living at home, with another relative (Eliza Grist, aged 14) helping out around the house. Her grandmother lived elsewhere in Chapmanslade, with another son and daughter. Doubtless other relatives lived in the surrounding villages and towns of Wiltshire and Somerset.

At some point this sense of stability was broken. We know that Mary Ann Grist was employed as a Parlour Maid in Cheltenham in 1861, but how did she arrive there, and what was happening to her family at the time she moved away from home? Her father remained as a village carpenter, and the family looked after their disabled son Albert. Her two brothers, John and William, followed their father and took up the trade of carpenter, living in Wiltshire and Hampshire respectively. They married and settled down.

But things were not so easy for the two girls. Marriage and service were the principal options. In the absence, it appears, of the first, Mary Ann’s younger sister Harriet worked as a live-in servant to a brushmaker Ralph Horsey, in Corsham, twenty miles north of Corsley in Wiltshire. In keeping with her options, Mary Ann too entered service, but she did not do so in her immediate community.

Mary Ann had three aunts, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Anna Maria, who had all moved to Cheltenham. They were part of a much larger drift of population from the West of England towards the centre and towards London over the nineteenth century. Sarah had married a Wiltshire boy, John Carr, and they had set themselves up in Cheltenham, at some time around 1840. John worked as a coachsmith and lived near Pittville, in Gloucester Place, parallel and just east of Winchcombe Street. The Carrs had had five children by the time of the 1861 census, all born in Cheltenham. In 1861 their household also included Mary Ann’s two aunts Elizabeth and Anna Maria, who worked as staymakers.

It is tempting to think that Mary Ann had come up to Cheltenham to live with them as part of the general eastward population drift, and that from a base in Cheltenham she entered service, perhaps not at first in Pittville but certainly in time for the 1861 census, when she was Parlour Maid to the Schreibers in Pittville Lawn. She may have been recruited directly from Wiltshire, but this seems less likely, especially as Parlour Maid was a position of some responsibility and would not normally be obtained without some previous experience.

One of the advantages of having census data on computer is that it is possible to interrogate it to look for trends. Data from Pittville Lawn shows that a number of the servants here, including Mary Ann, had been born in the West Country.

Here are the results of a search of the censuses from 1851 until 1901 for domestic servants working in Pittville Lawn who were born in the South West counties of England (click here to see the full results):

1851: 6 people (2.2% of the population of Pittville Lawn)   1861: 15 people (4.8%)
1871: 17 people (6.2%)   1881: 12 people (4.6%)   1891: 9 people (4.1%)
1901: 9 people (3.2%)

The results show that in the mid-century only a small number of servants had found their way to Cheltenham from counties further south and west (2.2%). Emigration from the West Country to Cheltenham contributed to the percentages rising to 4.8% and then 6.2% in 1861 and 1871 respectively, before a reduction – eventually back down to 3.2% at the century came to an end.

Domestic servants from the West County represent the second-largest regional group, behind the West Midlands, of people moving from their county of birth to work as servants in Pittville Lawn.

These figures contrast with much higher figures for servants born within Gloucestershire, which in addition show a tendency to increase in the latter part of the nineteenth century:

1841: 31 people (15.2% of the population of Pittville Lawn)   1851: 53 people (19.1%)  
1861: 55 people (17.7%)    1871: 59 people (21.5%)   1881: 60 people (23%)  
1891: 54 people (24.4%)   1901: 57 people (20.4%)

We might contrast this with the absence of a trend for servants born in the Eastern counties of England (Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk) to come over to Cheltenham to find work:

1851: 2 people (0.7% of the population of Pittville Lawn)   1861: 2 people (0.6%)
1871: 1 people (0.4%)   1881: 0 people (0%)   1891: 1 people (0.5%)
1901: 1 people (0.4%)

The Schreibers had lived in Roden House since the late 1830s. They had been its first occupants. In 1841 they had had four servants, and in 1851 five. Their household then had swelled to eighteen (though this number included the family of one servant). This level of service remained in 1861, when Mary Ann joined as one of five servants (Cook, House Maid, Parlour Maid, Groom, and Groom’s wife). But by 1871 the Schreibers were managing with only three servants, a Cook, Parlour Maid (Mary Ann Grist), and House Maid.

Later this decade old George Schreiber, one of the last surviving officers to fight at Waterloo in 1815, died, and his wife Ann took over the management of the house. When she died, Mary Ann decided to leave and moved up the road to Sarah Whinyates’s house, Dorset Villa.

The family of James Grist and his wife Sarah (née Grist) still lived in Cheltenham, so Mary Ann was by no means separated from her real family. Before she died in 1906 she had arranged for her estate to be handled by her younger cousin James Grist Carr, son of James and Sarah Carr, then an employee of the Great Western Railway and due to retire soon in his own right.

Further evidence of the dissolution of agricultural families in Wiltshire comes from the fact that after Mary Ann’s disabled uncle Albert had been placed in the Chippenham workhouse in 1881, as presumably by then it was too hard for his parents to look after him, his father – and Mary Ann’s grandfather – emigrated to Australia. He is said to have died in Hatfield, New South Wales in 1907.

This chart shows the number of servants in comparison with the total number of occupants of Pittville Lawn over the census years:

1841:103 (50.5% of the population of Pittville Lawn)    1851: 125 people (45.1%)
1861: 136 people (43.7%) 1871: 115 people (42%)   1881: 113 people (43.3%)
1891: 95 people (43%)    1901: 122 people (43.6%)

The figures underlying the graph need to be inspected in some detail. The early rise in the absolute figures stems from the influx of households as new houses are built in the road. Numbers reach a peak at the time of the 1861 census (data shows a number of military and naval officers retiring to Cheltenham after the wars in India and the Crimea, but dying or moving out in the following decades). The figures show a drop in the number of servants as the century draws to an end, but they also show that the percentage in comparison with the general population remains remarkably constant at around 43% (see the full individual database results here). Pittville Lawn was clearly a comfortable place for the gentry in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their needs were meet by a retinue of domestic servants including Mary Ann Grist. When the next census (1921) becomes available it will be instructive to see how these figures change as a result of the First World War and the extensive changes to British society that that brought in its wake.

John Simpson