My husband Greg says he has a great number of great aunts.
One, a 3rd great, was Ellen Claxton nee Jackson, born in Fring, Norfolk in 1791 or 1792. In 1817 Ellen married William Claxton in Docking, a mile to the north, also a small and undistinguished village (which Wikipedia delicately notes ‘has experienced no noteworthy historical events peculiar to itself’).
William Claxton was a shepherd and agricultural labourer who, caught up in Wesleyan revivalism, became a Primitive Methodist preacher. Ellen was one of his converts. The Claxtons moved to Wolferton in 1820. William and Ellen Claxton had at least six children. She died in 1875, he in 1859. (One of Ellen’s sisters was Greg’s 3rd great grandmother, Sarah Ann Plowright nee Jackson (1797 – 1864).)
In 1806, and probably often enough in other years, for the craft generated a small cash income, Ellen Elizabeth Jackson embroidered a sampler, a piece of embroidery worked in various stitches as a specimen of skill, often decorated with letters of the alphabet and a motto or verse.
Some years ago a family historian from Georgia, USA, told me that information about a sampler by Ellen Elizabeth Jackson had been included in a 2013 book on samplers called Imitation & Improvement: The Norfolk Sampler Tradition, by the American textile historian Joanne Lukasher. There was further information about Ellen Jackson’s work in notes to a 2019 exhibition of samplers by the Lycoming County Historical Society [Pennsylvania]. Gary Parks, its curator, was the owner of the Jackson sampler. He kindly sent me a photograph of it, explaining that, “I purchased the sampler a number of years ago at an antique show. My justification for buying it was that my Mother’s name was ‘Ellen Elizabeth’. It is beautiful needlework.”
Most of the samplers included in Joanne Lushaker’s book were produced by girls “descended from the established middle class of skilled and hereditary craftsmen, merchants and entrepreneurs.” There were some examples from the working poor; “needlework, along with harvest work and poultry breeding, was a standard way in which women contributed to the family income”. (The Jacksons would certainly be classed as “working poor”. In the 1841 census Ellen’s father, then 81, was described as an agricultural labourer.)
In Norfolk poor and needy children were educated in charity schools. Part of the curriculum was vocational training, and girls learnt to embroider. Shawls, and other small craft items were sold to raise money for the schools.
The 1812 Annual Report of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church reported that the village of Fring had a Sunday school attended by 36 children. Ellen, recorded on the 1851 census as a schoolmistress, appears to have gained a broader education, possibly in a larger charity school in the district.
Ellen’s sampler is arranged as a stepped lozenge. The central framing element is common to many Norfolk samplers, with surrounding floral bouquets also a typical design element. The verse embroidered by Ellen, popular in 19th century books of religious verse and Sunday readers, was also used by some other embroiderers.
The verse was included in an Introduction to the English reader; or, A selection of pieces in prose and poetry … with rules and observations for assisting children to read with propriety. The second edition, enlarged and improved, published in 1803:
Love to God produces love to men.
Let gratitude in acts of goodness flow;
Our love to God, in love to man below.
Be this our joy—to calm the troubled breast,
Support the weak, and succour the distrest;
Direct the wand’rer, dry the widow’s tear;
The orphan guard, the sinking spirits cheer.
Tho’ small our pow’r to act, tho’ mean our skill,
God sees the heart;—he judges by the will.
These lines had previously appeared as part of a much longer poem “The Prospect” by C. Whithorne in the 1755 edition of The General Magazine of Arts and Sciences.
At the time of the 1841 census William and Ellen Claxton were living in Wolferton, near Sandringham, 10 miles to the south of Docking. William was a labourer. Five children were living in the household; the older two were a shoemaker and a labourer.
On the 1851 census Ellen is listed as a schoolmistress, her husband William as an agricultural labourer. They lived in Wolferton. Their children had left home.
William died in 1859. The Primitive Methodist Magazine published a long obituary.
In 1861 Ellen was living with her unmarried son Abraham. Her occupation was given as ‘formerly school mistress’. Abraham was described as shoemaker and local preacher. Abraham was a Primitive Methodist like his parents.
In 1871 Ellen was living in Wolferton with her son Abraham, now ‘a shoemaker and coal agent’, and Abraham’s wife. No occupation was given for Ellen on the census.
In 1875 Ellen Claxton died in Wolferton. She was eighty-three. For the times, hers had been a long life, a long struggle with poverty an hardship. Even so, Ellen’s embroidery is a reminder that prettiness can be found in strange places and small things; we can only hope that she was rewarded from time to time by the joy that comes of creating something beautiful.