Savagery and Sadness part 10: Afterwards
What happened to the Ettrick family after their troubled family life came into the public eye?
This post is devoted to the ill-matched spouses Catherine and William. Read on to discover that William’s obituary was published in the local newspaper 20 years before he died!
William and Catherine remained separated. Catherine returned to live in her father’s home in Durham City. I haven’t traced the final decision of the courts following the various appeals, but there are clues that Catherine did not have a particularly happy life after she left High Barnes manor. At this time custody of children automatically went to a father, regardless of his behaviour. So her two children remained under William’s care and he made sure she only saw them irregularly. Indeed she told the court that he continued in his cruelty by refusing to let her see her children. It is perhaps not surprising to read that the act of leaving them with William made her dangerously ill. Her son’s journal and writings as an adult offer another glimpse of Catherine’s heartache in his account of her heart-rending parting from her daughter and son; walking down the avenue with them, and kissing them goodbye at the gate. It seems William did not financially support Catherine, as was his responsibility, and William junior was proud to state that he contributed to his mother’s maintenance from his stipend when he became a rector in Dorset. In 1794 Catherine died at her family home at the age of 64. She was buried in St Mary-le-Bow in Durham City, a church nestled under the shadow of the cathedral.
William appears to have carried on in his inimitable eccentric and antagonistic ways. It doesn’t seem that the public attention harmed him; indeed he was known as a good magistrate, admired for his uprightness in carrying out his professional duties. But his reputation was nonetheless ambivalent.
There is a remarkable piece of evidence for this. In 1782, many years after the separation and twenty six years before he died, the Newcastle Courant published an announcement of his death:
Died last week at High Barnes near Sunderland, William Ettrick Esq deeply regretted by all who had the singular happiness of his friendship. In the paternal and conjugal character he was eminently remarkable; his pretensions to hospitality and all the social virtues are too well known to require any eulogium.
For the reader who didn’t know William, this ‘obituary’ was conventional (apart from the fact that he wasn’t dead!). But it takes on a much more subversive tone when we know William. Clearly his peculiarities were part of local lore. So this fantastic lampoon mocks his lack of sociability and ridicules his poor qualities as husband and father: all done in such a way that the author avoided libel. It is really interesting that in the 1780s a man’s inadequacies as a father and a husband were considered crucial in judging his public character and reputation.
William survived this ‘obituary’ by many decades. He finally succumbed to death in 1808 at the advanced age of 82. Determined to be as bizarre after death as in life, William’s will demanded that his body be buried in a plain coffin at midnight, and carried to the grave in his own dung cart! Then it was to be put into the grave by four paupers – with no mourning of any kind. No doubt to revenge his mother’s and his own suffering, William junior ensured that his father’s last wishes were not met and buried him in the normal way at Bishopwearmouth Church. He was carried to his grave during the day in a mourning coach.
William had also included in his will a bequest of the huge sum of £1000 to construct and erect an Ettrick family monument. Here, the son did his father’s bidding. He commissioned a grand structure in Piccadilly, London. Unfortunately, at 16 feet high, it seems to have been too large for its intended place in Bishopwearmouth Church and despite several fights with the clergyman, William junior had to submit and set up the monument in the hall at the family manor. He won in one way, however, as he managed to hammer the price down to just over £500!
In the next post I will introduce the younger generation as adults. You’ll meet William junior who was as peculiar as his father: a clergyman whose marriage was probably illegitimate, who recorded in his journals that one of his housekeepers was a witch, and who heard the ‘wailing of the Banshees’ at the death of his favourite of ten children in 1836!