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Going back in time to Georgian Newbury

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N2 talks to Hamstead Marshall local historian Penelope Stokes, who has just published her ninth book – this time looking at the everyday lives of people working in Newbury from 1714 to 1837.

MANY writers pen their memoirs. Others write about harrowing experiences. Penelope Stokes has written about Georgian Newbury – an illustrated social history of Newbury from 1714 to 1837 describing the everyday lives of people working in Newbury.

She has lived in Hamstead Marshall for more than 40 years and took up writing after having her first child.

Penny Stokes, pic Niki Hinman (53320260)
Penny Stokes, pic Niki Hinman (53320260)

“You didn’t always go back to work in the 70s,” she explained. “Maternity rights and the right to go back to work had just come in. The company I worked for were appalled that I might come back, so I sold my maternity rights for a fund that was supposed to start me up in business once I had done with the children.

“The business never materialised, but I did start writing. I also taught myself picture framing, so my first book was about that as there were no DIY guides back then. It did quite well and has only just gone out of print.”

She then migrated into journalism, contributing to the Newbury Weekly News in the 1980s.

Georgian Newbury, Penelope Stokes
Georgian Newbury, Penelope Stokes

She has a masters’ degree in English local history from the University of Oxford, and was editor of the Berkshire Family Historian from 2006 to 2016.

Georgian Newbury is her ninth book. “I started researching this in 2015. Newbury is a Georgian town par excellence – or could have been if it hadn’t been mucked up by successive administrations,” she said.

“I realised pretty quickly that I didn’t know anything about architecture, but I was interested in the people who lived in the buildings and how they lived, what they ate, social life and the status of women. So that’s how it changed into a book about social history.”

Bartholomew Street north end looking south 2020
Bartholomew Street north end looking south 2020

She spent hours digging through museum archives looking for letters which would tell the story of the people in the town.

“I wanted to find out from personal testimonies, diaries, letters and so on. Unfortunately, nearly all of them were written by men.

“But there were two women who wrote and left a lot of records.

One of those was Elizabeth Berkeley, who became Lady Craven. The younger daughter of the Earl of Berkeley, she was married in 1767 at the tender age of 16 to Lord Craven. She had little choice in the matter.

Broadway north
Broadway north

She had seven children before parting from her husband rather traumatically in 1782 and going to live in France, to escape the scandal and gossip that accompanied aristocratic divorces.

The other was Elizabeth Montague – the queen of the blue stocking brigade.

“They were elite women, very wealthy, so you don’t find out much about working women in the era,” she said.

Market Place, White Hart
Market Place, White Hart

“Accounts can tell you all sorts of things. For example, the overseers disapproved of illegitimate children. In fact you could be publicly whipped for having one. But they were a primitive sort of child support agency and they preferred those involved to get married.

“There was an entry in some accounts that said an amount of money was set aside for ‘fetching George Bowles back’ and then a few weeks later it said ‘beers at Bowles’ wedding’. So that tells a story, doesn’t it!”

Penny began her story search in the Berkshire Record Office, taking notes by hand.

Bridge Street Globe (Gray)
Bridge Street Globe (Gray)

“Newbury Museum has a library upstairs and I came across script of a Scottish doctor called Robert Scott who was constantly writing home for money as he had to maintain appearances. He was quite snooty about Newbury people and thought them rather narrow minded. He dropped dead at the age of 32.”

She also read through house deeds. “They didn’t have house numbers as everybody knew where everybody lived. Even the title deeds say who you lived next door to rather than a number of a house because everyone knew who lived where.”

The hero of Georgian Newbury is, according to Penny, Dr John Collett. “He supervised the fostering of London foundlings in Newbury. He was also a practising physician in the town. He married and wrote letters to the Foundling Hospital and looked after about 200 children. He really worried about them.

Penelope Stokes book signing at West Berkshire Museum Ref: 48-2121
Penelope Stokes book signing at West Berkshire Museum Ref: 48-2121

“Children were nursed until they were five and then sent back to London, which must have been awful if you think about that. He used to try to keep them here with the foster families to be apprenticed by the families who were often tradesmen.”

The book is available for £15 on direct sale from the author who has self published.

“No one really publishes local history books,” she added. “Unless they are about murders or sex scandals or whatever. So I have self-published this book. If I had focussed it on sex scandals of the 18th century in Berkshire I might have been in with a chance with a publisher.”

The author can be contacted at pennystokes@hamsteadmarshall.net


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