Charles Dickens and Charity: The most perplexing female I have ever encountered…
In the research for my novels featuring Dickens as an amateur detective, I frequently turn to the Pilgrim Edition of the letters. The footnotes provide all kinds of fascinating detail for the novelist who must provide authentic and accurate background information. Dickens’s domestic life provides the hinterland of the murder story: I know who his milkman was and where the dairy was; I know his wine-merchant, his bootmaker, his grocer.
Sometimes, however, a footnote creates a particular frisson of excitement as was the case when I was deep in Volume 7, reading a letter from Dickens to Miss Burdett Coutts. The date is 16 January 1853.
As I scanned the footnote, two words leapt out at me. The two words were: ‘Near Sedbergh.’ Could it be that Charles Dickens was writing about someone who lived near my home town?
That someone, according to the footnote, was Mrs Antonina Matthews, wife of the perpetual curate of Cowgill. The letter says: ‘I have not received Mrs Matthews’s references, but have told her to get one direct from Professor Sedgwick.’
I don’t know if Dickens had met Adam Sedgwick, Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge. Sedgwick had seen Dickens perform in Not So Bad As We Seen in 1851 at Devonshire House, London home of the Duke and thought Dickens’s acting ‘admirable’. Dickens obviously knew his name and, presumably, that Sedgwick came from Dent which is very near Cowgill from where Mrs Matthews had written to Dickens asking for help for her invalid husband and daughter. And this was the first of many appeals.
The letters are packed with instances of Dickens’s charitable work. Thomas Carlyle and Dickens raised money for an impoverished descendant of Daniel Defoe: ‘he has had many children – they are poor – very clean and industrious.’ There were two god-daughters of Doctor Johnson, Ann and Frances Lowe, in their seventies and living in poverty in Deptford – Dickens raised a subscription for them. There are letters to Miss Coutts discussing admittance to the home for fallen women of two sisters, the daughters of an old naval lieutenant, earning five shillings a week between them at the ‘commonest needlework.’ Mrs Matthews’s letter is one of many. Dickens wrote: ‘I get these letters by the hundred.’
On 1 February 1853, Dickens sent Mrs Antonina Matthews £10.00 on behalf of Miss Coutts. In a letter written on his birthday, 7 February, he writes to Miss Coutts: ‘Mrs Matthews seems a case like Mrs Goldsmith’s – quite genuine and not at all open to abuse.’ Mrs Goldsmith was the wife of Oliver Goldsmith’s grand-nephew. Miss Coutts, on Dickens’s advice, had sent her money to help with her large family in 1852.
Poverty seemed to have haunted the perpetual curates of the nineteenth century. Trollope’s Reverend Quiverful and George Eliot’s Amos Barton come to mind. The average stipend seems to have been £100 a year, though the least, according to Taine’s Notes on England, might only be £80.00. And yet, perhaps, it wasn’t so bad, given that the Governor of the bank of England earned £400 per year. In 1853, £100 per annum is equivalent to about £9, 411 in today’s money though it is always hard to calculate living expenses in another era. H. Byerley Thomson, writing in 1859, observes that ‘in pecuniary matters a clergyman is as well off as members of other professions, his income is more certain; his expenditure can be regulated according to his means.’ However, if William Matthews’s stipend was £80 then George Eliot’s comment on Amos Barton in Scenes from Clerical Life is instructive: ‘By what process of division can the sum of £80 per annum be made to yield a quotient which will cover that man’s expenses?’ H. Bylerley Thomson was a lawyer. I would be inclined to favour the novelist’s sensitive analysis of the curate’s difficulties.
The ten pounds received by Mrs Matthews was worth about £900. But they had nine children – perhaps it was difficult to regulate expenditure. On the 18th of February Dickens writes to Miss Coutts again: ‘What shall I do in reference to this other enclosed from Mrs Matthews? – send her how much?’
On 24 February, Dickens sent Mrs Matthews another £10.00
By May, Mrs Matthews seems to have been in further difficulties. Dickens asked her for more details of the help she required. Another letter outlines the expenses for her invalid husband and daughter to have a fortnight’s change of air, and she adds, ‘for the sake of our little large family, the youngest only a year old.’
Dickens sent a further £15.00 from Miss Coutts with a promise of a further £5.00 if urgently needed.
So, Mrs Matthews had £35.00, possibly £40.00 – worth about three and a half thousand. Possibly half her husband’s salary.
The letters to Charles Dickens raise all sorts of questions, not least the desperate need for money. Were there no influential friends to assist? The Reverend William Matthews was the first curate of St John’s Cowgill, appointed in 1839 by Professor Sedgwick of Cambridge University, who was born in Dent. His brother, John, was Vicar of Dent. Professor Sedgwick was in communication with the Reverend Matthews who undertook research into the history of Cowgill and its church. An Anglican Vicar earned about £140 per year and at Cambridge, of the 25 professors in 1850, only 8 had incomes above £400 per annum.
Professor Sedgwick might have been as well off as the Governor of the Bank of England, and from Dickens’s reference to him in the first letter, he must have known about Mrs Matthews’s appeal to Dickens who must have received the reference. One can only wonder why the Professor did not offer assistance. And the Vicar of Dent, John Sedgwick, was known as ‘the poor man’s friend.’
In the 1830s, Cowgill was a hamlet of about 300 persons with 73 houses. The foundation stone of St John’s church was laid in 1837 by Adam Sedgwick, a trustee along with Reverend William Carus Wilson of the Clergy Daughters’ School so vividly described by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre. The church was what is called a chapel of ease therefore there were no tithes or other income to increase William Matthews’s stipend. And Adam Sedgwick knew well that it was a poor living as he observes in his Memorial to Dent: ‘The curate who derived so small an income for his ministrations in Cowgill…’
And what about family? Were there no comfortably off relatives to assist this large family in its hour of need?
William Matthews was born in Norwich. He was educated at Queen’s College Cambridge. He had studied law at first and had married at St Anne’s Church in Soho in 1829 at the early age of 22. The first child of the ten, William Bredel Matthews was born on 25 December 1829. By the time his wife was writing to Charles Dickens. William, the eldest, was twenty-four and the baby, Norman Henry was one year old. Mrs Matthews had a child every two years from 1833 to 1852.
Mrs Antonina Matthews has an extraordinary pedigree. She was born Constantia Antonina Maria Teresa de Ramos Castille on 4 November 1808 in Holborn, London. Her mother was Rebecca Cooke from Norwich so there’s the connection with William Matthews. And the first two children of the marriage of William and Constantia Antonina were born in Norwich, the third and fourth in Cambridge. Adam Sedgwick was a Canon of Norwich Cathedral and resided there frequently. Presumably, he met William Matthews there.
It is to the antecedents of Constantia Antonina that we must turn for a necessarily brief glance at the history of South America, in particular the struggle for independence. It’s a story within a story – a mystery within a mystery.
The story of the revolution is a potent mix of uprisings, suppressions, rivalries, successes for the revolutionaries, reverses when the Spanish got the upper hand again, more rivalries, betrayals, extraordinary love affairs, bloody battles, long marches over impossible mountain ranges, foreign legionaries, spies and secret agents.
I came across a book entitled Eagles of the Andes by Carlexon Beals. It begins: ‘This book is an epic story of the 15-year-old struggle for the liberation of South America from Spanish Rule’. The wealth of detail was nearly overwhelming, but, persevering, I found a treasure.
I discovered the name of Senor Mariano de Ramos Castille. He was Senor, or Count, according to some sources, Mariano Jose de Ramos Castille who was born in Brazil in 1781. In 1807, aged 26, he married the 17-year-old Rebecca Cooke of Norwich in Buenos Aires, according to the rites of the Holy Catholic Church – what was she doing in South America? Senor Mariano was an agent of the revolutionary junta in Buenos Aires and an agent for the British, and, of course, the father of Constantia Antonina.
The British were interested in limiting Spain’s power and they were certainly keen on the commercial and industrial opportunities in a South America freed from Spanish rule. However, at the same time, they were worried about the idea of revolution: the American war of Independence had ended in 1783 and there had been the French revolution in 1789. It was a former general in the French Revolutionary Army, Francisco de Miranda, who was the prime mover in the South American Revolution. The British dithered. Lord Castlereagh, with whom Senor Mariano was in touch, urged the British Government to make up its mind – to support the rebels or not.
They decided to support Miranda and in 1806, British warships entered the River Plate and British soldiers took possession of Buenos Aires – home town of Senor Mariano. However, Miranda and his British supporters were overthrown, and Francisco de Miranda returned to England by the end of 1807.
Since the Spanish forces had retaken Buenos Aires, it reasonable to suppose that the place was too hot for Senor Mariano as well. He was back in England in March 1808, having stayed long enough in Buenos Aires to marry his teenage bride. Constantia Antonina was born in the November of that year; Charles was also born in 1808. Twin children, I assume, as a second pair of twins was born in 1813. There were to be 14 children in all. Emilia and Matilda were born in 1810 and 1811.
But the senor – or the count – crops up again in South America. By 1812 a British ship was back in the River Plate to set ashore General Jose de San Martin, a key player in the eventual success of the revolution. A revolutionary junta ruled Brazil by now and juntas were springing up all over the place. However, in Quito, Ecuador, the Spanish overthrew the junta there and the revolutionaries were imprisoned. An attempt was made by the people to free the prisoners, but this uprising was violently suppressed, and the prisoners were slaughtered. Except one.
Senor Mariano was one of those imprisoned. However, he saved himself by pretending to be dead and not moving, even when he received several bayonet jabs.
We may presume that Senor Mariano went back to London. The twins born in 1813, died in the same year – at birth, perhaps, but a fifth daughter, Eliza was born in 1814. The senor was still shuttling back to South America – a somewhat precarious lifestyle for his wife and children. There’s a gap between Eliza in 1814 and Rebecca who was born in 1817 and she was followed in 1819 by Frederick Mariano.
In 1818, Senor Mariano was in Lima in Peru on diplomatic business. After this he seems to have settled to a more peaceful life. Mary Anne was born in 1820, Henry in 1821, Emma in 1823, John in 1824 and finally, Georgina in 1827 – two years before Constantia married. Though they lived in Harrow where Senor Mariano became a churchwarden, they went back frequently to Norwich – where, you will remember, William Matthews was born. Rebecca Cooke had property there. Her father had left his estate to her as the sole beneficiary.
The last sighting of Senor Mariano is in Lima again in 1837. It seems he was on another diplomatic mission and died in Lima of a fever. By 1837, Constantia Antonina had been married to William Matthews for eight years, by which time she had three children, William aged 8, Nina aged 4, John aged 2. Mary was born in 1837 but died in the same year. Six more children were born: Sophia Ellen in 1838; Emma Sedgwick in 1841; Mary Constantia in 1843, Alfred Edward in 1845; Frederick William in 1847 and lastly in 1852, Norman Henry, the baby of one year whom she had mentioned in her letter to Dickens.
In 1853, eight of the Matthews children were living at home. William, the eldest had emigrated to Australia where he became a teacher. On 13 January 1854, Dickens writes to Miss Coutts again on the subject of Mrs Matthews: ‘I wrote to Mrs Matthews as we agreed and begged to enquire what she wanted towards the outfit and passage for her son.’
This son referred to appears to be John Richard Simpson Matthews, aged 18, who did go to Australia and like his brother, William, became a teacher. On 18 January 1854, Dickens writes again to Miss Coutts: ‘I send £35 to Mrs Matthews, with an intimation that this closes the correspondence.’ On 23 January, he writes again: ‘Here is a letter of acknowledgement from Mrs Matthews.’
Mrs Matthews had written to Dickens on 20 January expressing her fervent thanks to Dickens’s friend (he did not tell her it was Miss Coutts) for the £35 for her son’s passage. She ends her letter: ‘To you, Sir, we are indebted more than any other being on earth.’
‘More than any other being on earth’ – yet her mother still lived and seven of her siblings. Rebecca Cooke had inherited her father’s estate and it seems that she and Senor Mariano had lived in some comfort at Harrow and made many visits to Norwich. Her sister Matilda had married a Major General in India; sister Eliza had married a Lieutenant Colonel and was living in India; sister Rebecca married another Lieutenant Colonel and lived in Australia; sisters Mary Anne and Georgina were also married comfortably in India. Brother Frederick was in Australia and Henry in Hong Kong. Sister Emma became a nun.
But none of them, it seems, could be of assistance to their eldest sister – the twin brother, Charles, had died in Canada in 1832.
In May 1854, Mrs Matthews wrote again – twice, begging for more help. Dickens was not pleased. On 30 May, he writes to Miss Coutts: ‘You remember Mrs Matthews, the curate’s wife to whom you were so kind? She has written twice within this last fortnight, for more money – with a pertinacity that does not give me a high opinion of her. I have replied that I can undertake to make no further statements to my friend, and that she must consider the correspondence finally closed.’
Perhaps he thought that they had done all they could for the ‘little, large family’ – the seventy pounds given might have been almost a year’s salary for William Matthews and worth over six thousand pounds today. And Miss Coutts and Dickens had other charitable concerns. In the same letter as the one concerning Mrs Matthews, Dickens refers to contributions made to two poor sisters, Maria and Louisa Goodluck who were trying to earn a precarious living as poets.
In October 1854 Dickens refers to two more letters from Mrs Matthews and writes to Miss Coutts saying that Mrs Matthews ‘is very persevering indeed.’ Two more letters come in November, another from Mrs Matthews and one from the rural dean, John Mariner, Vicar of Clapham, who seems to have supported Mrs Matthews’s application to Dickens. ‘What shall I do now?’ Dickens asks of Miss Coutts.
I could not find an answer, but on 7 July 1855, Dickens writes to Miss Coutts that ‘I have lately had two more excessively urgent letters from that Mrs Matthews, the wife of the clergyman near Kendal.’
At this time Dickens was raging about the 10,000 deaths from cholera in London and writing letters about the Crimean War which he thought was being handled incompetently by the government; he was busy with the Home for fallen Women; he produced and acted in Wilkie Collins’s play To The Lighthouse, and he was writing Little Dorrit. Perhaps he simply passed Mrs Matthews’s letters to Miss Coutts to deal with.
Of Dickens at this time Claire Tomalin says in her biography: ‘How could anyone do all this and at the same time be gearing himself up to write a long novel? Dickens kept going by taking on too much. He knew no other way to live.’
The 1855 references are the last in Volume seven of the Pilgrim letters. Volume 7 covers the years 1853 to 55. It was time to tackle Volume 8.
She’s there. In the index there are six more entries for Constantia Antonina. On 22 May 1856, Dickens writes to Miss Coutts, enclosing another appeal from Mrs Matthews. On 1 June, there is another letter: ‘Mrs Matthews (who has assuredly a deadly perseverance), has written again.’ In the same letter to Miss Coutts Dickens says: ‘I have been so incessantly worked … by Little Dorrit, Household Words and other business.’ He refers to someone who wants a loan of fifty pounds, and the death of a girl, Harriet Tanner, who had been at the home for fallen women. He says that ‘a poor mother … enquired after her’, and he recommends an article he has written for Household Words on the subject of William Palmer, the poisoner. And he adds: ‘I am writing in a great coat and a fur cap.’ On 3 June, he is writing about a girl named Mason who is to be transferred from the Elizabeth Fry refuge to the Home in Shepherd’s Bush.
On 28 September 1857, from Hull, Dickens encloses another letter to Miss Coutts with a note to his sub-editor Henry Wills: ‘she (Miss Coutts) will remember the writer well – and ask her from me what answer I am to return.’ On 4 October, directly to Miss Coutts, Dickens writes: ‘I sent Mrs Matthews £20 on receipt of your letter.’
I can’t find any further reference to the Rural Dean, John Mariner, Vicar of Clapham, who supported Constantia’s appeal in 1854, and there are no references –YET – to anyone else who might have lent a hand if she was so desperate. Where were the Vicar of Dent and Professor Sedgwick? Emma, the daughter born in 1841, was named Emma Sedgwick, indicating a closeness with the Sedgwick family. In a later letter, Adam Sedgwick refers to his ‘old and valued friend, the Reverend William Matthews’. Perhaps she thought she had uncovered a gold mine in Mr Dickens and they simply did not know about any of this.
However, in 1858 matters take a somewhat darker turn. On 28 October, Dickens writes to Miss Coutts from Hull that ‘Mrs Matthews is by far the most perplexing female I have ever encountered in that way. She has certainly become hardened in begging … I suppose her statements are correct … I was so bothered and bewildered by (the letter) that I felt strongly disposed to quarrel with the postman for not having lost it …’
Now, what had produced this irritation in Dickens, the man whom Peter Ackroyd says ‘was known to the begging letter writers as a soft touch’? (6)
Dickens had received a letter from Constantia Antonina on 14 October saying that she had that day received £5.00 from Henry Wills, presumably on Dickens’s orders, and she continues: ‘It is nearly two months since I addressed you, Sir, and ever since I may safely say, I have not had one peaceful moment. I owe £17.00 to the flour man and £24.00 to the butcher, and these are two of my torments …’
£41.00 – possibly half of the Reverend Matthews’s stipend. £24.00 to the butcher? According to Liza Pickard in her book, Victorian London, the cheapest cuts of meat were cow’s cheek, sheep’s head, liver, ox heart, pig’s head – all at about 7d to 7 1/2d per pound. In this light, Constantia Antonina’s bill seems rather large.
Furthermore, she writes to Dickens that she is much distressed at the receipt of the five pounds as last year, 1857, she had had £20, and in 1856, £40. She begs him to intercede for her with his friend, ‘as you well know how to do – to further assist us …’
Two of her children, she writes, ‘were in urgent need of nourishment’. According to Eliza Acton, a nourishing soup could be made from two sets of pigs’ ears and feet – ‘with the hair carefully removed’. One wonders how thrifty a housekeeper Constantia Antonina was – not very, perhaps. Perhaps her father, the count, had taught her to expect a very different kind of life?
Constantia Antonina was 50 years old by now; it is hard to say how many children were still at home. The two eldest boys were in Australia. That leaves a possible seven. Nina was 25, Sophia-Ellen 20, Emma 17, and Mary 15 – and the youngest, Norman Henry, was six. One wonders what these girls were doing. Were not the two eldest, like the Misses Bronte a little earlier, able to earn some sort of living as teachers or governesses? In the 1861 census, Sophia-Ellen is 23, Emma 19, and Mary 18 – all are described as ‘without occupation’. Incidentally, in the 1851 and 61 censuses, there appears a servant girl residing with the family.
The last reference to Mrs Matthews in Volume eight is in a letter dated 13 December 1858 from Tavistock House. To Miss Coutts: ‘Mrs Matthews case is clearly hopeless. I have had another letter this morning, which I have put in the fire.’
Dickens was at the end of his patience – which had been considerable. Yet, I can’t help feeling sorry for Constantia, thinking of her in her cottage in Cowgill, writing her desperate letters to Charles Dickens – all those children and their futures to worry about and what about those two ‘in urgent need of nourishment’?
However, it seems that it was not only Dickens who had given up on Mrs Matthews. He sends to Miss Coutts a letter from the Bishop of Ripon. The Bishop writes that Mrs Matthews had applied widely for help and that he had relived her. He addresses Miss Coutts: ‘Your generosity to her has been far beyond what one Diocesan Society could afford to any one case.’ He ends that he cannot strongly recommend her appeal.
So that explains why the letter went into the fire, and it does show that Constantia Antonina was not averse to writing her begging letters far and wide, though not, perhaps too near. Maybe John Sedgwick, Vicar of Dent, knew nothing.
And there is another mystery to be fathomed: what part did the Reverend Mr Matthews play in these years of such penury that his wife was obliged to write begging letters to Charles Dickens about her debts and her undernourished children? In his memorial, Adam Sedgwick refers often to Mr Matthews, but it is always in the context of research and scholarship: ‘Mr Matthews, when first consulted by the Gentlemen of the Ordnance Survey, advised them to adopt the name Kirkthwaite in the engraving of their map; but after studying the question further, he withdrew his first instructions …
‘My friend, the Reverend Matthews, sends me the following conjecture: I would suggest, he writes, that Kir in Kirthwaite is the old Norse Kyr – vacca, juvenca – that is, in plain English, a cow pasture.’ (6)
You can see it, can’t you, the scholarly curate in his study, poring over dusty parchment, worrying over the etymology of a name, and his wife at the kitchen table kneading the dough from the flour she couldn’t pay for, and worrying about the nine children and where the money was to come from to get John to Australia, and like Mrs Bennet, probably much exercised about the marriage prospects of her daughters.
Needless to say, there is no reference by Adam Sedgwick to my poor friends Mr and Mrs Matthews who have such a struggle to make ends meet. Yet the Vicar of Dent, John Sedgwick was renowned as the poor man’s friend.
But matters did improve: the census of 1861 shows that they still lived at Dee Cottage, but there were only 4 children at home. William and John were in Australia; Nina, the eldest daughter had married the Reverend Henry Miller in 1860 and lived in Ashbury. Two of the younger boys, Alfred, aged 16, and Frederick, aged 14, were at school.
In 1863, William became Vicar of Hawes. Presumably his health had improved. He was highly thought of in Cowgill. His parishioners presented him with a silver snuff box. But poor Sophia Ellen – I imagine her to be the invalid daughter – died in 1862, aged 24. Emma, the third daughter married in 1863. Mary Constantia married in 1866.
Rebecca Cooke, Constantia Antonina’s mother, wife of the revolutionary Senor Mariano de Ramos, died in 1861 at Ypres in Belgium where her daughter, Emma, Constantia’s sister, was a nun in the order of St Benedict. About two miles away in the cemetery of Sanctuary Wood the site of one of the battles of World War 1 is the grave of Rebecca’s great grandson and Constantia’s grandson, Major Harold Carey Matthews, killed 25 April 1915.
A mile or so further on at Polygon Wood another of Constantia’s grandsons, John Bredel Matthews, was killed on 2 October 1917. He was the son of Norman Henry Matthews, the baby, ‘the youngest only a year old’ as Constantia had written to Charles Dickens in 1853. Norman Henry’s eldest son was also killed in France in August 1918 – he was named William Matthews after his grandfather. Yet another of Constantia’s grandsons, Arthur William Platt, had been killed in action a month earlier in September 1917 – his mother was the Emma whose middle name was Sedgwick. And Constantia’s son, John Richard Simpson, for whose Australian passage Dickens sent the money, had a grandson, Roderick Norman Matthews, who was killed in France at Pozieres on the Somme in July 1916. A little further east is the village of Guillemont, site of another Somme battle. Here, near Leuze Wood where he was killed two months later on 9 September 1916, there is a cross commemorating Major Cedric Charles Dickens – Charles Dickens’s grandson.
William Matthews died in 1870 as did Charles Dickens. I wonder if Constantia Antonina gave any thought to the man to whom she had written: ‘To you, Sir, we are indebted more than any other being on earth.’ She would have known – the whole world knew that Charles Dickens had died.
In America, the poet Longfellow wrote: ‘I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning.’
An elegy in Punch magazine read:
‘He sleeps as he should sleep – among the great
In the old Abbey: sleeps amid the few
Of England’s famous thousands whose high state
Is to lie with her monarchs – monarchs too.’
The death of William Matthews did not make such a stir– not a famous man, nor a great one, but a good man in his way. Adam Sedgwick has this to say: ‘I heard with very deep sorrow of the sudden death of my old and much valued friend, Mr Matthews, to whose generous help I owed a great deal of gratitude while I was writing the Memorial … He served the chapel to the great spiritual and temporal benefit of the people.’
Generous help in the writing of the memorial? Temporal benefit to his parishioners? Distributing money and food? Old and valued friend? Did William not know of those bills for the flour man and the butcher? Did Adam Sedgwick not know? Probably not.
Constantia Antonina Matthews died in 1887 at the age of 78 at Ashbury where her daughter Nina had lived. She was buried with William in the churchyard of St Mary. Only one of her 10 children outlived her – only Norman Henry lived longer than she, dying at the age of 83 in 1935, and she had a very long widowhood. Nina had died in 1877. A strange, rather sad life, I think, and we wouldn’t have known about her if it were not for the Dickens connection.
I found a little grave in the churchyard of St John’s, Cowgill. I thought of Senor Mariano, buried far away in Peru, an exile from his family, and of his daughter, Constantia Antonina, an exile in the remote Yorkshire Dales, and those grandsons buried on the battlefields of France. I thought most of all of Charles Dickens whose charity had reached to so lonely a place to touch the life of Sophia Ellen Matthews, dead at 24, lost to history, had it not been for an intriguing footnote in one of those over 14,000 letters.
Jean Briggs is the author of Summons to Murder, part 5 of the Charles Dickens Investigations.