A Norfolk Woman’s Propensity for Social Status!

By Haydn Brown.

Anne Murry came into this world at Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk on 26 April 1755; she was the daughter of a respectable married couple by the names of Dr John Murray and Mary Boyles. Anne’s father was Scottish by birth and had qualified as physician before marrying and moving with his wife, to Wells – with whatever children they may have had at the time.

Wells was once one of North Norfolk’s major ports capable of handling bulk cargoes such as coal and grain. Its quay heading could accommodate many large vessels. Public Domain.

During her formative years, young Anne was first educated in Fakenham then in 1768, when her father moved both his practice and family to Norwich, Anne attended Mrs Palmer’s boarding-school in the city. However, when her father’s sister, Elizabeth Murray, visited Murry’s family home the following year from Boston in America, she thought young Anne’s education only prepared her for “the gay scenes of life.” Anne’s aunt was indeed an unusual woman for her time, for she believed in the importance of practical business training.

Norwich River by John Crome. Norfolk Museums Service.

Elizabeth Murray had emmigrated to North America in 1739 with her brother James and had become a successful shopkeeper in Boston. Her second husband, a wealthy Boston distiller, had only recently died so she was rich – but childless. On the other hand, her stay in Norwich coincided with the fact that her brother John, Anne’s father, was not; he was struggling to support “a large family”. Elizabeth offered to take responsibility for Dr Murray’s three eldest children, John, Mary, and Anne. The first two were sent to Boston almost immediately; but it was only when aunt Elizabeth returned to America in 1771, that she took Anne with her.

Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts in 1855

Aunt Elizabeth established Mary and Anne in a millinery shop in Boston where Mary looked after the shop and accounts while Anne, according to her aunt was “very industrious at her needle.” When Mary returned to England in 1774, a homesick Anne became the shop’s manager, a position for which she was totally unfitted. She was miserably aware of a milliner’s low social status, and this “loss of Caste” remained a bitter memory all her life. The need for a high social status may have been instilled into Anne by her early upbringing, but it was to stay with her for her lifetime. As an old woman she was to recall the “irreparable humiliation” of her earlier years.

“A Morning Ramble or the Milliner’s Shop.”

Despite her feelings of inferiority, Anne Murray moved freely in Boston mercantile society, where she met a William Dummer Powell, the son of a prominent merchant. William and Anne came to a ‘secret understanding’ which they maintained until the time when they felt able to broach the subject with Anne’s aunt; she reluctantly approving William and Anne’s marriage in 1775; however, her parents’ permission back in Norwich was not obtained. As for William Powell, he did not even ask his father because, as he later wrote, “there was little probability of consent.” William and Anne were married on 3 October 1775 before sailing immediately to England; Both those back in Boston, and by William himself, referred to the move as an ‘elopement’.

The young couple lived in Norfolk and London while William studied law. In 1779 he went to Quebec, leaving Anne and their three sons in Norwich; the following year she re-joined him in Montreal, where he had established his practice. According to the Canadian biographer, Edith G. Firth:

“Anne moved frequently in the next 18 years, following the vagaries of her husband’s career and ambitions. She lived in Montreal (1780–83), Boston (1783–84), North Yarmouth, Mass. (1784–85), Montreal (1785–89), Detroit (1789–91), England (1791–93), Detroit (1793-94), and Newark, later Niagara-on-the-Lake (1794–98). Finally, the Powells moved to York (Toronto), where Anne spent more than 50 years.”

During her travels Anne Powell (nee Murry) became even more preoccupied with the importance of social status and strict decorum, despite (or perhaps because of) her milliner’s past and the impropriety of her marriage. It was important for Anne to perpetuate her ‘principles’ for York, the capital of Upper Canada, had also nurtured early pretensions beyond its size and within a fixed social hierarchy. When Mrs Anne Powell arrived, her husband was a judge, so that her social position was high. Gradually the “vast propriety,” which Thomas Aston Coffin had ascribed to her, and her inflexible morals made her the town’s social arbiter. In 1807–8, for instance, she successfully challenged the Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore himself when he tried to rehabilitate an outcast; and she publicly accused Mrs John Small of adultery! In an age when social status strongly influenced a person’s chances of opportunity and success, Anne Powell’s power was very real.

The Town of York (now Toronto), looking east along Palace Street (now Front Street East), from today’s Jarvis Street at left, to the town’s blockhouse, with flag, at right. Arthur Cox painted this view of York from pencil sketches presumed to be based on a watercolour of York painted by Surgeon Edward Walsh in 1803. The Walsh painting is now in the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Like the society in which she existed, government was “aristocratical” according to her; she equated political opposition with low origins and unseemly behaviour. In her early years in Upper Canada, she had thought of herself as an American, but the War of 1812 made her vehemently British. She abhorred those who opposed the government, from Robert Thorpe, “an object of contempt & disgust,” to the “Arch fiend” William Lyon Mackenzie. Robert Baldwin was “a good moral character, but a decided Radical”; his cousin Robert Baldwin Sullivan, on the other hand, was “of low origin and . . . profligate habits.” As with other high Tories, her post-rebellion villains were the governors-in-chief themselves – “the false traitor Lord Durham [Lambton]” and “the little great Man,” Lord Sydenham [Thomson], with his “meanness and tyranny.” The “Arch enemy,” however, was John Strachan, whom she blamed for all her husband’s misfortunes in Upper Canada.

When William Powell became chief justice in 1816 Anne’s position was greatly enhanced; however, her hard fought-for social supremacy did not survive the scandal associated with her own daughter, Anne. The essence of her story is that in her girlhood, Anne Powell was much admired. With her mother’s approval she was courted by a “wealthy young Merchant Miller,” but after “a long & earnest suit” young Anne rejected him. Her mother in turn rejected another suitor, “that animal St. George [Laurent Quetton St George],” probably because of his reckless extravagance, wastefulness, and maybe licentious behaviour!

Anne and William Dummer Powell’s house at York St, Toronto.

After an abortive romantic involvement with John Beverley Robinson, the daughter’s behaviour became more and more eccentric. She had many violent arguments with her mother; these were often over the control of Mrs Powell’s two granddaughters who lived with them. By 1820 Mrs Anne Powell was convinced of her daughter’s insanity, and wanted to establish her somewhere away from home:

“but I have every reason to think she will not separate herself quietly from the family, and the Idea of compulsion sickens me.”

In 1822 Anne fled her parents’ house in pursuit of John Robinson and his wife! Young Anne Powell died in a shipwreck off Ireland. Her mother immediately withdrew from society, sickened by the facts, rumours, and innuendoes of a tragedy that had brought disgrace to the family.

In 1825, when William Powell’s political difficulties ended his career, both he and Anne wanted to leave the colonies altogether; she joining her husband in England in 1826, with no intention of returning to Canada. However, she became embroiled in controversy with some of her family over a legacy from her aunt Elizabeth, her former guardian, plus an indiscreet letter she had written to Upper Canada which created a lasting breach with most of her English relatives. Because of their “ebullitions of malevolence,” the Powell’s did return to York, Canada in 1829, where they lived quietly; while there, William Powell’s mental powers declined. After his death in 1834, Anne remained in her old home with her unmarried daughter, Elizabeth. Now deaf and crippled with rheumatism, she rarely went out, but various other members of her family lived with her for extended periods. Anne remained concerned with her charitable activities and with the welfare of her descendants, although “she was increasingly out of touch with their world.”

Right into her old age, Anne Powell faced “unalterable infamy and disgrace” within her own family. One of her granddaughters, Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Powell was divorced for adultery – the first divorce in Upper Canada. In the necessary preliminaries to divorce, her husband sued her lover, Lieutenant John Grogan, and in November 1839 was awarded more than £600 damages and costs. Grogan was thus forced to sell his commission. A Divorce Bill was passed by the Upper Canadian legislature in February 1840, shortly before Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Powell (Mrs Stuart) gave birth to “another victim to her depravity,” but was reserved for Royal Assent. When eventually the Bill became law in June 1841, the lovers married and left the province, but returning the following year. Mrs Anne Powell’s sympathies were entirely with the deserted husband and children; she never forgave her “wicked” granddaughter, and was furious when the Grogans attempted to re-enter society in Kingston!

Throughout her long life, Anne Powell was an inveterate writer of letters. More than 700 of them have survived. The early ones were to friends near Boston, but the bulk of her correspondence was with her brother George, of New York, and William, her husband, who was frequently absent on circuit and on trips to England. She wrote frankly about every detail of her life, family, and community. Never lukewarm in her opinions or their expression, she described such things as the seven-foot geraniums flanking the piano in her drawing-room; and the totally unexpected birth of a baby to an unmarried servant in her employers’ bed. Although she was an outstanding woman in early Toronto, she is equally important as a recorder of life among the élite of Upper Canada, now Ontario. Finally, during William and Anne’s long marriage, the couple had nine children of whom two survived her. Anne Powell, nee’ Anne Murry, formerly of Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk, died on 10 March 1849 in Toronto.


Included in Sources:
Biography – MURRAY, ANNE – Volume VII (1836-1850) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)

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