In the next local history series, Jill Kashi of Westwood Heath History Group shares research on the history of letters written by William Hewitt to Louisa Mills in 1875. Look out for more local history stories in future editions of our community newsletter.
Amongst the substantial collection of documents held by the Modern Records Centre is material of interest to local and family historians. On a recent visit, I discovered a small bundle of letters, written in 1875 by William Hewitt, a 20 year-old student teacher at Saltley College, Birmingham. These were donated by Sir Arthur Vick, Pro-Chancellor of Warwick from 1977-1992. His uncle, also named Arthur Vick, married Dorothy Lenton, whose mother, Sarah Louisa Mills, was the recipient of the letters.
Sarah Louisa (known as Louisa) had clearly kept these few letters safe for many years. They provide a glimpse into a brief courtship which was thwarted by parental intervention; rather disappointing to me as I read through them, longing for a happy ending. I was keen to know more about the lives of these young people, and this prompted further research.
William was born in Birmingham in 1855, to John and Sarah. His father was gardener at Orgreave Gardens, Lichfield and all the family lived there. His father died in 1873, whereupon his eldest brother became head gardener at Orgreave.
Louisa was born in 1858 and baptised at the old cathedral of St Michael, Coventry; her parents, Henry and Ellen, then living in Much Park Street. By 1861, the family was residing at Canley Hill, Westwood Heath, an area that lies between Bockendon Road and Westwood Heath Road’s junction with Cromwell Lane. Louisa’s father was an agricultural labourer, working on the large estate belonging to Lord Leigh, of Stoneleigh Abbey. Her mother was a dressmaker and there is reference in the letters to Louisa perhaps working in this trade as well.
Their first – and only – meeting
According to the letters, the couple met in June, 1875 at a camp held at Stoneleigh. Not much can be discovered about this camp, except that it seems to have run over several days and been primarily for young people, involving sports and social events. William walked Louisa part of the way home, apparently sorry that he had not accompanied her to her door:
“I was sorry I had to leave you so soon last Wednesday evening, as I had hoped to enjoy a pleasant walk with you as far as your home: I should have gone some of the distance back with you as it was but I thought it might cause you some trouble if I did.”
However, they managed to exchange addresses – if not first names – and so the short correspondence began. William confessed himself to be a rather socially awkward young man, somewhat diffident and unsure of himself in female company. He explained to Louisa,
“When I met you at Camp you would think me very shy and ill – mannered and am when I am introduced to anyone and it generally takes some time to wear off and I am very dull too till I know them well.”
In this first letter, William tries to establish whether they may use first names, telling Louisa, “Mine is Will and hope I shall always be Will to you.” In this period, the practice of “companionate marriage” was well-established, so although William and Louisa could have expected to have freedom of choice in their romantic partner, it is clear from these letters that William wanted Louisa’s parents to be aware of the correspondence and to consent to it. He told her,
“I should be very sorry indeed if I got you into any trouble through writing to me and if you would like it I will write to your parents and ask their permission to correspond with you…I should not like you myself to keep any secrets from your mother, and would not wish it.”
William breaks his promise
On 16thJune, William promised Louisa that he would “write to your parents either Friday or Saturday so that they will get my letter before you go back on Monday, and I hope I shall meet with success.” However, the summer passed and William did not write. It can only be imagined how Louisa must have felt over that three months – and her embarrassment, especially if she had prepared her parents to receive William’s letter!
In September, William wrote again, very much abashed, apologising for his “long silence and neglect” with this excuse:
“The Friday night I ought to have written I was unavoidably detained in town till I was too late for the post and I will not attempt to make an excuse for not writing since. Believe me, Louisa, I am extremely sorry for what I have done & if you will give me your permission again I will write at once to your parents for their permission to correspond with you.”
Unfortunately, William did not obtain the permission he sought from Louisa’s parents and he decided it was better to stop their correspondence. Her mother had been concerned that they were too young: Louisa was 17 at the time. William did not wish to persist and to cause Louisa “unpleasantness at home”, signing off “I must now say good bye but still beg to remain Ever Your Friend and Well-wisher W.Hewitt”
Life at Saltley College
In fairness to William, he was perhaps a little ambitious to attempt to woo Louisa whilst still a student at Saltley. The regime there was a hard one, as William describes,
“We are tied here every day except Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Saturday evenings we have not above two hours to ourselves, and Sunday afternoons I generally do not care to go out so set that aside for writing home and elsewhere…… we have had an examination in Music which lasted two days and I have been in the Practising School this last week so that I have had no time for myself till now.”
He was not exaggerating. Records from the period show that their days began at 5.30am in the morning, with every hour accounted for until lights out at 10pm – even the recreation periods were designated for sports. The college had opened in 1850, with the aim of educating teachers who would work in Church of England schools, primarily with the poor. This grand Gothic Revival-style building must have seemed impressive and rather daunting to the young William.
William completed his studies and spent some time engaged as a school master, living with his mother and younger brother. In 1884, he married Frances Mary Barker; and the couple settled in Smethwick. William’s teaching career proved to be relatively short-lived. By the turn of the 20th Century, he was working as a grocer and beer retailer in Smethwick before relocating to Wales, where he became the landlord of the Cayley Arms Hotel, Rhos-on-Sea, near Colwyn Bay. This was a family affair, with his wife Frances, daughter Elsie and son-in-law, John, all joining him in the running of the business.
Louisa continued living with her family at Westwood Heath becoming an assistant teacher at the age of 22, perhaps at the new school in Westwood Heath (now the Greek Orthodox Church). In 1888, she married William Lenton, a market gardener, and they had 2 daughters, Eleanor and Dorothy. The family moved to live in Handsworth, Birmingham, where they remained until her husband’s death in 1923. Although the date of Louisa’s death is uncertain, she was still alive in 1939, at the age of 81, living in the same family home.
Although they met only once, Louisa clearly cherished the memory of William and the brief correspondence they shared; the letters being important enough to be kept and passed on to her daughter, Dorothy.
Jill Kashi, Westwood Heath History Group
Letters from William Hewitt to Louisa Mills, June to October 1875 Held at MRC Ref MSS.21/1627
Ginger S. Frost, Promises Broken: Courtship, Class and Gender in Victorian England (Charlottesville & London: The University Press of Virginia, 1995, 58).
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