In a society of sexual equality, I often think to the past and wonder what stories lie behind others. In childhood, I was always regaled with tales of my Great Great Great Grandfather, an interesting character who had, apparently, owned an Italian Fruit Warehouse in Bath during the 1840s and 50s. As a man he intrigued me, there were tales of Plantations in the West Indies, of his being butler to Lord Aberdare; there were rumours of Covent Garden premises and a pineapple presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ first birthday. He always struck me as being interesting, with an obvious passion for food and I wondered whether I inherited my love of food from him. A few years ago, after I had my son, I fell into one of those “I need to discover my true heritage” moments and 6 years later I now have a story quite different to the one offered to me as a child.
Lewis Evans called himself ‘A Gentleman’ when he was married, in Bath in 1837. His address was Milsom Street, now the extremely busy high street. He lived with his cousin and her husband, another Gentleman, in this fashionably city. He had no profession. I cannot even conclusively find evidence of his father or mother (in fact his father was listed as a shoemaker, an odd profession for the parent of a Gentleman). So he was a bit of an enigma. I delved into the census records and found him, four years later, no longer a gentleman but a Fruiterer. How did this come about? Well, are you sitting comfortably? I’ll begin.
In the 1830’s two sisters from Cheltenham went into business. Their mother had been a Fruiterer and their father an Innkeeper. The sisters were called Louisa and Eliza Clayton-Bourne and as partners they opened a delicatessen on the Promenade, in the centre of town. Nether being much over 20, these two woman worked hard for their living and it proved successful. So successful, in fact that by 1836 the younger sister, Eliza aged about 18, left her sister to set up a second ‘branch’ of the business in Bath, Somerset. The address was also prestigious. It was located in the York Buildings, a few steps from Milsom Street. This shop stocked all manner of wonderfully exotic foods, supplying the gentry and aristocracy of the City with out-of-season fruits from hot-houses in the country; Italian oils, cheeses, Westphalian Hams, and many of the other unusual and fashionable foods which graced the tables of Britain’s elite in a time of foodie enlightenment. So, Victoria is about to ascend to the throne and we have two, very young and successful business women. What happens next?
The arrows of love strike. As a young woman in fashionable Bath surrounded with frock-coated, stove-pipe hatted gentleman, Eliza Clayton-Bourne meets and marries Lewis Evans; a few days before which, she breaks partnership with her sister. The sisters have not fallen out, Eliza’s business has simply ‘gone’ to her husband. She is now his possession, as is her business. Now, whether or not he had an active role in the day-to-day running of the business is uncertain. I have invoices which he has signed, his name appears in the newspapers of the day advertising the wonderful array of produce in store. In 1842 he is thanked for the gift of a pineapple to the royal household but Eliza just disappears into thin air. By the early 1850s, and several children later, the business at York Buildings is sold and the newspaper which advertises the new proprietor unwittingly gives us a wonderful clue to the true nature of the business. The first is a letter from Mrs Lewis Evans, thanking her customers for their business over the previous years and inviting them to continue to purchase from the shop which is quite safe in the hands of the new owner – a man. Just below this letter is another letter from the new proprietor. He kindly thanks the previous owner whom he names as Mr Lewis Evans, and respectably invites previous customers to continue their accounts. Not once does it even mention Eliza, not even a Mr and Mrs Evans.
This makes me wonder how many businesses run by women in the Victorian era and beforehand, have lost these crucial details under the name of their husband. Louisa, the elder sister, did not marry until well into her 30s, by which time she had sold her Cheltenham business and moved to Bath where she owned and ran a boarding house for those taking the waters. An independent woman for as long as she could be, Louisa eventually ran a successful restaurant in Cardiff with her new husband.
In one final interesting note; I have seen the marriage certificate of Lewis Evans and in the space below his trade and next to the name of his wife somebody has started to write something, only a few dots of ink, but I do wonder whether she was overruled in her insistency to put her own trade down, she was of course literate and her handwriting was far better than her husband’s.
Oh, how I wish I could have been a fly on their wall. My gut feeling is that Eliza was the driving force behind the business throughout it’s existence; something she fitted around having five or six children. Yes, they lived comfortably…until something happened, something I’ve yet to find out, and the family scattered throughout the country.
Perhaps she did ultimately resolve to hand the business to her husband and maybe he just wasn’t as good at it as she was.