Elizabeth Anne Galton was a Victorian gentlewoman, the eldest of six daughters and three sons born to a wealthy Quaker banking family and related through her mother to the Darwin family. She was not a feisty high-achiever, explorer or philanthropist, but she played a significant role for future historians at least in recording her memories for her grandchildren to understand what life in the bustling town of Leamington was like long before they were born.
Samuel Tertius, Elizabeth’s father, brought the family to Leamington in the early 1830s, when the handful of shops in the town (three mercers, two fishmongers and two butchers) was such a novelty that they are given a mention. More shops were unnecessary when families such as theirs had a fleet of household servants, grooms and coachmen to cater for their every need.
Elizabeth enjoyed travel, usually with her father and a sister. She went to London to see the coronation procession of Queen Victoria, and again, as a very old lady, to her funeral procession. Once the railway came, she travelled to the seaside, crossed the Channel, where she saw the Belgian King and his family strolling on the beach. Back in Britain, she travelled a great deal visiting sisters and many cousins dotted about the country, and one year, completed a tour of Manchester ‘manufactories’, Chester and North Wales, where she admired the Telford bridge, and even tried her hand at learning Welsh. It was in Wales that Elizabeth and her sister first saw sea bathing, and were so enthralled that they too learned to swim, promising the attendants a pound of tea each if they would hold them up long enough for them to have the confidence to swim on their own.
Elizabeth’s memoir provides a commentary on the social life of the Spa at the height of its popularity. At balls and soirees and church events, she rubbed shoulders with the good and the great of the time, – lords, ladies, gentlemen, famous authors, artists and military men, Napoleon III, who came for the hunting, and William Gladstone, who dined with her family whenever he visited his parents who were neighbours of the Galtons in Lansdowne Place. She was full of praise for Dr Jephson, whom she termed ” the making of the Spa.”
Elizabeth also met her share of eccentrics, among them her own uncle, who was so terrified of catching cholera that he carried brandy with him at all times to ward off an attack. He was horrified to see Elizabeth and her sisters eating fruit on a visit to Bath in 1832, believing that it would leave them susceptible to the disease. In Leamington there was Mrs Chandos Pole who came to take the waters, and who went down to the Pump Rooms every morning on a donkey, and a neighbour in Lansdowne Place, Mrs Campbell, widow of the famous actor John Campbell, who had a very wide social circle and was the most wonderful needlewoman. She also had a fine line in language quite unbecoming a Victorian lady!
Elizabeth and her sisters were far from mere social butterflies. As was expected of women of their class, they engaged in charity work, such as support for the Provident Dispensary, but they took it further: having observed the lowly quality of education offered to the children of the poor in the town, they persuaded their father to build a schoolroom next to their stables in Guy Street. It was fitted out and forty girls were admitted, taught largely by Adèle, one of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, and given a thoroughly practical education in addition to the traditional Three Rs. The girls were taught sewing and cutting out, and how to make their own clothes, which were sold back to their parents at cost price. Before the girls left the school, Mrs Galton allowed them two weeks’ work experience in the house, trained by her own maids. When the cohort of girls left, the Misses Galton recruited boys, trained domestically this time with Galton valets, grooms and stable boys, with equal success. Their venture was not without its critics, particularly at the start: local clergymen were amongst those who vehemently opposed educating girls, on the grounds that they would only waste their new- found skills writing love-letters. Fortunately, the Misses Galton, all well-educated themselves, battled on!
Elizabeth Anne married Edward Wheler, of The Spring, Kenilworth in 1845. They lived first at Snitterfield, then returned to Leamington, to Bertie Terrace, where the widowed Mrs Galton also had her home. This was largely to enable their son to attend a day school, but it also renewed contact with Elizabeth’s mother and sisters, and the wider family.
Elizabeth, whose memory remained clear and strong throughout her exceptionally long life, was a true observer of her time: she recorded the coming of the penny postage in January 1840, and the floods across the bridge near the Pump Rooms a year later, the changing face of travel brought about by the railways, and sadly, the Irish potato famine. When in 1832 she was taken to pay her respects to her late 79 year old grandfather Galton, – a time when a quarter of Victorian children died before they were five, – she commented tellingly that it was ” the first time I had seen a dead person who was grown up“.
Sources: Leamington Spa Courier & Elizabeth Anne Galton, 1808-1906, A Well-Connected Gentlewoman, Andrew Moilliet, (Ed), Leonie Press, 2003;,