Stories from the Archives I. Discovering Ann Bowler Calton

The Fitzwilliam’s online catalogue provides this information about Ann Calton’s sampler:  the diameters (length, 56 cm/ width, 38.5 cm); the material and what stitches she used (wool ground, and cross and satin stitches in silk), a transcription of the verse (from a sermon by Rev Walter Blake Kirwan (1754-1805)), a rough date of when it was made (after 1800, before 1901), and the date the sampler was bequeathed to the museum (1939, by Lady St John Hope). Currently, there is no photograph of the sampler on the website.

But who was Ann Calton? What was ‘The Royal Free Mason’s School’ and when did she attend it? What did she learn at school? What date did she make the sampler? What does the sampler look like? What happened to her once she left school?

I was able to see and photograph Ann’s sampler, which is below:

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After many unsuccessful emails, google searches and phone calls to various places to find information about this school and its records, I came across- quite by accident- the website of the Freemasons’ Hall in London, which has a museum and library. By searching the online catalogues I was able to find several reference numbers for documents relating to the school for girls, including a register of all the girls who were admitted to the school since its foundation in 1788 by Bartholomew Ruspini (c.1728-1813), surgeon-dentist and philanthropist. I had to make a visit to the museum and library and see these records.

I only had an approximate date for Ann, and so I carefully checked through the register, which has 1350 girls listed and finishes in 1891. Unsurprisingly, this book is huge. I eventually found Ann and she is listed as girl number 404. She was born on 26 September 1820, Melcombe Regis, Dorset, and was admitted to the school on 22 April 1830. Her father was a Master Mason in Weymoth from 1805-1808.

The objective of this school was to provide an education, shelter and protection to girls of ‘reduced’ or ‘distressed’ circumstances. This might mean the death or illness of one parent or poverty or both. Girls normally entered between the ages of 8-10 and they left at 15 to find work. Her father had to be initiated into the Brotherhood, and proof of his acceptance into the movement had to be provided when a girl was presented to the school trustees for inspection. At this school the girls would be instructed in needlework, principles of the Christian religion, reading, writing and arithmetic.

In Ann’s case her father, Christopher Calton, was an old man. He was 64 when Ann went to the school, and it is possible that he was too ill or weak to continue working as an Innkeeper in Weymouth to support his wife and child.

But Ann’s story doesn’t stop here. The register notes that she left in 1840, aged 20. But girls didn’t stay on at the school in their late teens until the 20th Century. It would appear that Ann worked as a pupil teacher, assisting the matron and instructing the younger pupils. She was clearly skilled with the needle as she is recorded in the minute book of 1834 for receiving an award for her needlework. Like other schools, needlework featured prominently in the girls’ education. In addition to samplers, they would also make and mend their own school uniform, as well as selling items of clothing, table cloths, napkins at the charity sermons to raise money for the school and the maker. Unfortunately, no records survive informing us exactly how they were taught to sew and knit.

When Ann left in 1840, she went back to Weymouth living with a family friend. According to the census for this year, Ann worked as a governess and lived with several other women in Weymouth. Records do not tell us where she worked, but it is likely that she would have provided instructions in sewing and needlework to young girls. By 1860 she was working as a seamstress in Weymouth a career which she pursued until she died in 1881.  The needlework skills that Ann received at the school set her up for life, giving her a vocation and a purpose.

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2 responses to “Stories from the Archives I. Discovering Ann Bowler Calton”

  1. J. Robinson says :

    You may already know, but the girls at Christ’s Hospital were still darning, mending and making some of their school clothes right through the 1950s. Some form of needlework remained compulsory for every pupil including the 6th form.

  2. connectingwithcollections says :

    Many thanks for your comment. I wasn’t aware of needlework instruction at Christ’s Hospital as there aren’t any samplers from this school at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and my research also stops mid 19thC. It seems that for centuries needlework was extremely important for the education of young women and occured in all schools across the country. I wasn’t taught any form of needlework at school, but my project on samplers has made me keen to learn.

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University of Cambridge Museums

Archive of projects, events and news from 2012 to May 2017

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