Meet Jane Griswood

by Dr Marianne M Gilchrist
Jane Griswood coffin plate
Jane Griswood's name studded into her coffin lid

Jane Griswood's name is picked out in studs on the lid of her coffin, identifying her still after almost 200 years. When new, the brass letters would have shone like gold against the polished wood. But who was she?

Jane's story is typical of the country people who moved into towns and cities at the end of the eighteenth century. By then she was already a middle-aged woman.

Jane Akit was born in the spring of 1755 at Bellasize, a small township about 4 miles east of Howden in Eastrington parish. She was a daughter of William Akit and his wife Dorothy Agar, who had married at Everingham in 1747 and had lived in Harswell until c.1752. She was baptised in Eastrington on 4 May 1755. By the time she was in her late teens, the family lived at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor. There, she took up with a young man called Matthew Griswood, three years her senior.

By the time they married on 15 May 1774, Jane was already pregnant. This was not uncommon, especially in the countryside. Their first child, Hannah, was baptised on 27 November. Other children followed: John (b. Jan 1777), Jane (b. Jan 1780), Elizabeth (b. March 1783), Ruth (who died in Jul 1786, aged twenty weeks), a second Ruth (b. July 1787), Matthew (b. December 1789), James (b. October 1791), and Mary (b. March 1794), all christened at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor.

The Griswoods probably moved to Hull c. 1795. Matthew found work as a gardener: it is unclear if this was already his profession, or if he had previously been an agricultural labourer. He may have worked for wealthy people, tending the gardens at their houses, or at some of the Botanic Gardens that were being developed in Hull at this time. The family initially lived in Sculcoates Parish, but we do not have an address for them.

An engraving by Thomas Bewick of a countrywoman hanging out washing, with pigs and chickens in the garden (1797).
Thomas Bewick, 'Countrywoman Hanging Out Washing', tailpiece from 'British Birds' (1797). This shows how someone like Jane would have dressed when she moved to Hull. (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Jane was already over forty when she gave birth to her last child in April or May 1796, baptised on 14 May. There is a scribal error in the Sculcoates Parish Register: the name has been written initially as "Matthew S. of Matt. and Jane Griswood, Gardener."; then the "S." has been corrected to "D." but the name left unchanged – a slip of the pen repeating her father's name. The baby was actually named Martha: she appears under her own name in the Sculcoates Burial Register for 19 October that same year, having died at the age of 6 months.

The older Griswood children were already adults. Indeed, the eldest, Hannah, married Thomas Cartwright, a brewer, at Holy Trinity in Hull on 28 May 1796 – just two weeks after Martha's baptism. They lived in Patrington/Keyingham area for some years, where they had several children, including twins who died just days after birth in May 1806. They seem to have moved back to Hull, but Hannah died young.

John Griswood's profession was given as "mariner" when he married Ann Powdger or Poudger there on 18 September 1803. Later, he became a marble sawyer, and by 1808 was living in Bootham, York.

Jane jnr – perhaps in service – married at St Mary's, Beverley, on 23 May 1809. Her husband was an Oxfordshire-born soldier, Corporal Thomas Bowden of the 15th Foot. He was 5' 6½", with dark brown hair, grey eyes and dark complexion. He was discharged from the army in 1816 as "old and worn out" at forty-three. In November 1825, he applied successfully for a pension of 6 d. a day as an out-pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital: again, he was described as "worn out". After his death, Jane married a brazier, James Robinson, on 8 October 1832, at Holy Trinity, Hull. (Her sister Ruth and her husband were witnesses.) They lived at Garden Court, which seems to have been off Posterngate. She was widowed again in October 1847, however, as her second husband was some fifteen years her senior.

Ruth had a short-lived child out of wedlock: John, buried at Holy Trinity on 22 March 1809, when she was 22. She did not marry until she was 30. Her husband, Henry Starkey, was a 57 year old widower. They married at Sculcoates on 19 January 1818. His first wife, Ann, had died the previous year.

Mary Griswood married a Danish sailor called Hans Axellson, Axells or Saxton (probably really Axelssen) at Holy Trinity on 5 September 1816. One of her children, b. 10 October 1827, was named Matthew Griswood Axellson (baptised 12 Oct 1848; blacksmith, bur. Drypool, 4 April 1877) after her father. She also had a daughter, Mary, who was in service. They lived in Ropery Street, at one point running a lodging house. According to the 1851 Census, Hans was from a town or village called Gammelby: there are several places of that name, including one in Schleswig-Holstein, now in Germany. He died in November 1854. Mary died at St James Street, and was buried on 8 October 1868.

What is interesting, in looking at the marriage entries for all the Griswood children, is that they were illiterate – they make their mark rather than write their names. When Jane died on 2 November 1834, and was buried on 6 November, who decided to pick out her name in studs on the coffin lid? The brass studs may suggest the handiwork of her son-in-law James Robinson, the brazier. It was an old-fashioned style of commemoration – in keeping with Jane's own age, and perhaps with James Robinson's tastes, as he was only ten years younger than his mother-in-law.

Jane's widower, Matthew, died in 1837, aged 85, and was buried on 24 April at Castle Street.

Ruth had been widowed a few months before her mother died. In 1838, she married again: her second husband was another widower, an agricultural labourer named Thomas Story. They lived in what was then called 'Somerstown', one of the new residential areas growing up to the east of the River Hull, along Holderness Road, joining up what had been small, separate settlements. The 1841 Census shows their address as in Marfleet Lane. Ruth died in March 1853, aged 55, and was buried on 19 March in the parish of St Andrew, Drypool.

John had returned to Hull by this time. The 1851 Census shows him as a widowed pauper, living with his daughter Mary, her confectioner husband John Storrer, and their children at 5 Duncan's Place, off Manor Street.

Matthew jnr, a bachelor, was a master mariner. His name surfaces in a dispute (reported in the press) over the validity of his vote in the 1838 election because he had been in receipt of Poor Relief, and thus not entitled to vote as Freeman. The Griswoods do not appear in the 1835 List of Electors, so this may have been recent. In the 1861 Census, he was living at the Kingston Alms House (formerly Kingston College, now Kingston Youth Centre) on Beverley Road. He died the following year.

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