Introducing Charlotte, Countess of Bridgewater
For International Women’s Day on 8 March this year, Archivist Sara Downs considers the life of Countess Charlotte Catherine Anne Egerton….
Whilst researching the Bridgewater family for the talk to the Friends of Shropshire Archives and the Shropshire Archaeology Society in November, I became acquainted with Countess Charlotte Catherine Anne Egerton, wife of the 7th Earl of Bridgewater and sister-in-law to the eccentric 8th Earl. I learned that the Countess continued to live at Ashridge, the family mansion of the Bridgewaters, but had not realised that she also continued to have a strong connection with the Shropshire estates following her husband’s death in 1827.
Now that I’ve started cataloguing the Bridgewater collection, I have found many references to the Countess in the records.
I consulted Bagshaw’s History Gazetteer and Directory of Shropshire, 1851 to try and discover a little more about the Countess. Bagshaw stated that the Countess had donated £3,300 towards the restoration of Ellesmere church and paid for the building of the Ellesmere National School, situated on the Wharf. The school provided education for 160 pupils. The Countess left £200 to the school in her will, which states that it was a school for both boys and girls (TNA PROB 11/2092/205) The Ellesmere town hall that provided space for the market, offices for the magistrates and a meeting place for the Mechanics Society was also paid for by the Countess.
In the Whitchurch estates there was a similar story. In 1835 the Countess paid for the church at Tilstock costing £2,000. A year later she paid for the construction of the church in Dodington costing upwards of £8,000.
A good place to find out on what terms the Countess had a continued interest in the Shropshire estates is the seventh Earl’s will, a copy of which is part of the collection. (SA 543/Box 461). The will states that for the term of her natural life (not just widowhood) the Countess would receive the yearly sum of £12,000 charged on the Earl’s Shropshire and Chester estates. In the fourth codicil to the will, the Earl left his wife tenant for life of all his real estates under the uses of the trust that was set out in his will. The trust would ensure that the estates would not fall under the control of the Countess’ new husband if she decided to remarry. Until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 that ended coverture, the income from, and upkeep of married women’s land would go to her spouse unless there was a trust set up preventing this. Under coverture a woman would transfer her movable property and control of her land to her husband for the assurance of subsistence when she became a widow. She was unable to make contracts or be sued for debt. The Earl when he died was childless and apart from the life interests of his wife and brother, the estate was due to descend to Lord Alford, a relation through the Earl’s sister’s line.
It transpires from the records that the Countess did not leave the running of the estates to the trustees. The Countess not only engaged in the spiritual and educational needs of her estates as highlighted by Bagshaw, she was also involved in estate management and improvement activities. In Victorian England, accepted roles for elite women in the public sphere included setting up charities and schools. The maintenance and improvement of land was seen as a male role, but some widows were involved in these activities once they were no longer constrained by coverture.
In 1837, the Countess is recorded renewing the fishing rights of White Mere to the Kenyons (SA 212/Box 465). In 1846 there are records relating to the new railways including notices and schedules of land affecting the Countess’ lands (SA 212/ Box 366). In 1842, a survey was made with accompanying maps that show the Countess’ lands (SA 212/Box 350-1). There is a report from 1840 detailing the drainage of the Bridgewater lands addressed to the Countess (SA 4122/1/1/70). It can be argued that the Countess had an agent working for her to manage her land, but the legacies left to her Ellesmere agent and accountant in her will of £200 and £150 respectively suggests more than a remote working relationship between employer and employees (TNA PROB 11/2092/205).
On first inspection it appears that Countess Charlotte did not just take an income from her Shropshire estates for her twenty-two years of tenure, (she died in 1849), she was also active in their management and improvement. Hopefully more information about the Countess and her interaction with her Shropshire estates will appear as the cataloguing of the collection progresses.