The people in this story are ancestors of Mary Ann Lowe who married Samuel Gundry and emigrated to New Zealand in the mid-19th century.
Family historians love scandal. It’s the colour that can turn an ordinary, monochrome person into someone exciting. When researching your family, details about a person’s life (other than birth, death and marriage dates) can be few and far between, so you have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Finding information that puts ‘flesh on the bones’, especially a hint of scandal, feels like winning the lottery. While researching this particular branch of our family we found more than just ‘a breath of scandal’. It had everything – family rifts, broken marriages, love affairs – all wrapped up in one person’s will.
This is the story of the Lowe family in eighteenth century London. The Lowes included several generations of wealthy craftsmen. Most of the men became turners, but a few branched out as gold and silver smiths. Turners used a lathe to carve objects from wood or ivory. They made a lot of luxury goods as well as everyday items. Handles, spools, fans, and chess sets were all part of a turner’s repertoire.
Turning was a highly skilled occupation. It also seems to have been a prosperous one, as many members of the Lowe family owned property and left significant amounts of money in their wills. Wills are a great source of information about a family (if you’re lucky enough to have an ancestor who had money or property) but most wills don’t contain as much information as those in this story.
The main characters in this tale are all from the same generation of the Lowe family – two brothers, John and William Lowe, and William’s wife, Jane (William and Jane being my 7x great-grandparents). The will that is pivotal to the story is that of the elder brother, John, who died in 1787.
John was an unmarried, childless, wealthy man in his late 50’s. He made his final will less than a month before he died, and had to leave his estate to someone, but why did he leave most of it to someone else’s wife? And not just anyone’s wife, but the wife of his younger brother, William, who was still alive. This is intriguing, to say the least, and in order to better understand the way this story ends, we need to go back to the beginning.
In 1751, William Lowe married Jane Hesters in Bristol, when they were both teenagers. William had been apprenticed to his father at age 14 and apprentices bound to a master were not allowed to marry. An apprenticeship usually lasted till the apprentice was 21 (the legal age for marriage without parental permission), so most boys apprenticed in a trade wouldn’t marry till after that. William (for some reason) broke the rules. It’s possible his apprenticeship to his father had already been terminated, or maybe transferred to another master, because at the time of his marriage William was living in Bristol – a long way away from his family in London. He may have been living with and/or working for an uncle who was living there at the time. Either way, William and Jane met and married when William was 18 and Jane just 16. Teenage marriages were not unusual, but were certainly not encouraged. It is highly probable that Jane was pregnant when she married William, as this was often the reason a couple would marry so young. After their marriage the pair returned to London and had several children together.
Apart from the christening records of their five children, in the central London parishes of Holborn and Cripplegate, we have no records of William and Jane’s life for the next twenty years. On the christening records of his children, William’s occupation is given as ‘turner’.
The couple next appear in the records in 1772, twenty one years after their marriage. Jane was the keeper of “a broker’s shop in Whitecross Street”. She appears in a court case where a woman was charged with stealing a tea chest from Jane’s shop window. The only reference to William in the court proceedings is that the chest was his property, therefore he was the owner of the shop. It seems, however, that Jane was the one running the business. She is the one who appears in court, not William, which is strange since he was the owner of the stolen goods. Regardless of how much or little William was involved in their business, the fact that they owned a shop at all seems to indicate that they wanted – or needed – to supplement their income.
Jump forward fifteen years to 1787 and the will of William’s brother John. William and Jane are both still alive and, even with Jane’s curious shopkeeping, we would have assumed all was peaceful in the Lowe household – but the terms of John’s will blow that idea right out of the water.
John was a turner, like his father and brothers. Because he was single and childless, he leaves legacies to many different members of his family and some of his friends. He owned several properties in central London and also in the countryside. To give a sense of how wealthy John was, the total amount of money detailed in his will – £2,849 – was, at the time, more than a regular tradesman could earn in a lifetime, and this did not include the value of his properties.
To family historians, most wills follow a familiar pattern when it comes to the beneficiaries. Married women didn’t tend to have wills as, by law, everything they owned belonged to their husband. So the only people who had wills were men, and women who were unmarried or widowed. There would often be one main beneficiary who inherited most of the estate. It was usually a spouse or a child, or possibly some other close relation.
John divided his estate between several members of his family, including nieces and nephews, but his choice of main beneficiary is surprising.
It was not unusual for men to leave a small amount of money to a widowed sister-in-law, especially if they had not been particularly well provided for by their own husbands. But for John Lowe to name his sister-in-law as his main beneficiary while her husband, his brother, was still alive is quite extraordinary. Jane Lowe, the shopkeeping wife of John’s brother William, was the main beneficiary of John Lowe’s will. Jane inherited all of John’s household goods and money owed to him at the time of his death. She was also given an income in the form of rent from three properties (John left a fourth property to his other brother, Edward). All this meant that Jane was well provided for. When she died, ten years later, she was living at one of the addresses John Lowe mentioned in his will.
Whether John was simply fond of his sister-in-law and wanted to make sure she had security, or whether their relationship had become more than familial, we will never know. The way Jane is looked after in his will is the way you would expect him to treat his wife, if he’d had one. And the next part of John’s will adds another dimension to the family dynamic.
As well as leaving property to his brother Edward, John also leaves him £1000 and his “two best suits”. But his brother William is treated very differently. John leaves William the remainder of his apparel but the other ‘gifts’ are less than generous. He does leave £500 in trust with Jane for William, but with the following instructions – William is to receive twelve shillings of this money every week, on the condition that he moves “to some place not less than 50 miles” from Jane’s residence and that he does not “by any means molest or disturb” Jane “in her business or employment or in any other…manner howsoever”. John firmly states that if William fails to meet with these conditions the weekly payments are to permanently cease. In other words, William was being paid, by his brother, not to go near his own wife.
When reading these instructions, one cannot help the feeling that John didn’t think much of his brother. The word “molest” did not always have the sinister sexual connotations of today, but it would still have had the implication of hostile intent, so John’s use of this word has particular weight. It is not hard to imagine there could have been some domestic violence occurring in William and Jane’s marriage. Why else would John put into place what was, in effect, an eighteenth century ‘restraining order’ against his own brother?
There are many possibilities for what really was going on – perhaps William’s mental health was unstable or maybe he just had a taste for liquor. Jane married him when they were both so young, in a society where couples didn’t spend a lot of time together before marriage, so she could be forgiven for not knowing exactly what kind of man she was marrying.
We have no way of knowing if William stuck to his brother’s conditions, and received his twelve shillings a week, or not. Twelve shillings was less than a week’s wages for a carpenter or other similar job, so this allowance was not intended to be William’s sole income, but merely an incentive to stay away from his wife. We have not found a will for William, but when Jane died in 1797 her will indicates that she was a wealthy widow. Well provided for, but not by her husband.
An indication of Jane’s position in society, by the time of her death, can be found in some of the items she left to one of her granddaughters, which included her gold watch, miniature pictures, rings and gold trinkets. These were not the possessions of a woman struggling to ‘make do’, and in her will she also names her “maid servant” so it seems John’s legacy had kept her going well.
Jane left most of her estate to her two sons, Edward and John. She seems to have been concerned that her late husband, William, had wrongfully bequeathed to their youngest son, John, property which was legally hers. She states that, in order to receive her legacy, John must release all claims to such property. It looks as though the two sons may have taken sides in the separation of their parents. Jane left £100 to her eldest son, Edward, which she instructs to be paid to him no matter what he may owe her. But the money she left to her younger son, John, is conditional and the reference to his possible agreement with her late husband has a note of bitterness to it.
We will never know the details of William and Jane’s marriage. Whether William was violent or just irresponsible; whether Jane had an affair or even cohabited with her brother-in-law or not; and what impact the fracture of the family had on future generations is left for speculation.
One thing we can be sure of is that John Lowe used his last words to try to protect a woman he cared about, as a lover or simply as a brother. He also did a much better job of leaving her provided for than her husband did. In her old age, Jane did not have to worry about money or having a place to live, and she was also given a means by which she could achieve some independence from her husband.
Eighteenth century society did not allow many women the opportunity to be independently wealthy and, as divorce was incredibly rare, getting out of an unhappy or violent marriage was not an easy task. John Lowe not only recognized a woman in difficulty but he chose to use his resources to do something about it. A will, being a binding legal document, was the most effective way to achieve his goals, and his choice of this method meant the evidence is still there – 250 years later – for us to find!