By Haydn Brown.
Those so enthused can read much more about the life of Anna Gurney (1795–1857) from no end of sources directed towards the Gurney and Buxton families of Norfolk. They will soon discover that, at the very least, Anna was not only an English scholar, geologist and philanthropist who donated mammoth bones and teeth from the Cromer Forest Bed in Norfolk to museums, but in 1845 was the first woman to be accepted as a member of the British Archaeological Society. But clearly, there is much, much more about her; but in this little narrative I will simply keep to a handful of possibly little-known aspects of this lady. However, even this needs some sort of lead in, so what better than with the usual ancestral detail, and continue from there with my contribution which will be woven in at appropriate places.
A fairly obvious fact for those who are familiar with the Gurney’s, is that they, together with most of their connections, were Quakers – members of the Society of Friends; and many of these were involved with banking. My starting point however is with Richard Gurney (1742–1811), simply because he was the father of Anna Gurney. It was he who, amongst the wealth and wealthy of the Gurney’s, also attained part control of the Gurney Bank in Norwich, married twice and inherited the Northrepps estate on the North Norfolk coast. His first wife was Agatha, the only surviving child of the banker David Barclay of Youngsbury, (he whose name remains with the present-day Barclays Bank.); another Quaker merchant and banker of the 18th century who had brought his daughter, Agatha, up in:
“What may be termed the best aristocratic Quaker life of the middle of the eighteenth century”.
Richard sired at least six children, and Agatha’s final child was a daughter named after her, but with the family pet name of “Gatty”; she would be Anna Gurney’s half-sister and would, in later years, marry Samson Hanbury of Hanbury Manor. That particular family branch was connected to Truman’s Brewery, one of the largest brewers in the world in the 19th-century – what’s more, Samson himself was the brother of Anna’s mother, Rachel she to become Richard’s second wife. This would come about because Agatha, unfortunately, died just a few days after her daughter, young Agatha, was born. Thereafter, it was felt by the Barclay grandparents that Richard Gurney ‘now the widower’ was;
“Too much a typical country squire and too little a serious religious man”
So, they asked the above sixteen-year-old niece, Rachel, to live in with Richard ‘the widower’ and “instil some sterner Quaker spirit into his children”! Within a year, Richard and Rachel married, she the second daughter of Osgood Hanbury of Holfield Grange, near Coggeshall, Essex. Her first child was Richard Hanbury Gurney, “Dick” (1783-1854) to his friends; followed by Elizabeth, born in 1784. Then a gap of over a decade passed before the youngest child, Anna Gurney – the subject of this post, was born on 31 December 1795. The family seat at the time was Keswick Hall, about three miles south from Norwich in Norfolk, UK. Anna Gurney’s eldest half-sibling was Hudson Gurney, who was twenty years her senior; nevertheless, as adults, they were to share scholarly interests together.
At ten months of age, Anna Gurney became infected with poliomyelitis (polio), which paralysed her lower limbs and deprived her for ever of the use of her legs. Although needing a wheelchair for most of her life, Anna passed through it independent in thought, always busy, active and apparently happy, and without ever having been able to stand or move without mechanical aid. Probably because of her infirmity, she was educated at home by family members which may, arguably, have proved relatively easy for others since Anna demonstrated a prodigious talent, particularly in languages – learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Anglo-Saxon along the way. She began her professional career as a 22-year-old ‘mostly anonymous’ published scholar. In fact, in 1819 she brought out, anonymously and in a limited impression for private circulation, ‘A Literal Translation of the Saxon Chronicle. By a Lady in the Country’. This work, which went to a second edition, was commended by James Ingram, in his ‘Saxon Chronicle with Translations’ of 1823.
Throughout her infirmity, Anna Gurney had received the unwearied attention of her mother, Rachel, who took her annually to Hinkley in Leicestershire “to see some celebrated surgeon there”. She always wore “Irons”, but John Henry Gurney could remember her:
“Walking up the Norwich Meeting [at Gildencroft] on crutches, and at Northrepps Hall a second hand-rail was placed on the stairs for her to pull her-self-up by, but as she became very stout and apparently more helpless, she finally lived entirely in a wheel chairs, that she propelled with her hands which had become very strong.”
More to the point, Anna moved about in her self-propelling chair almost as rapidly as others on their feet, and seems to have kept pace with the active pursuits of her companions in a manner which would have appeared beforehand, well-nigh impossible. She actually learned to swim in her childhood, supporting herself by her hands alone, and she used to speak of accompanying her brother in his shooting excursions in her chair and even learning to fire a gun. However, Anna was educated chiefly by her sister Elizabeth, who was supported by other relations. Elizabeth was afterwards followed by a tutor, whose only complaint was that:
“He could not keep pace with her [Anna] eager desire for and rapid acquisition of knowledge.”
Northrepps Hall and its estate remains today near Cromer in Norfolk, and in the past was occupied by the same extended Gurney family for more than eight generations. It has been estimated that the family now has in excess of a thousand members, many of whom have made their mark on society. Notable amongst these have been Thomas Fowell Buxton, of slave emancipation fame, mentioned below, and Elizabeth Fry the social reformer. For the Buxton, Barclay and Gurney families, Northrepps Hall estate was a central focus for many years – and particularly for Anna Gurney.
It was John Ellis, Rector of Southrepps and his wife, Martha – nee’ Riches, who had sold Northrepps Hall in April 1790 for something over £5000, plus an annuity of £52 to Robert Barclay of Bury Hill, Surrey. Robert’s motives in buying a Norfolk property were never established – other than it may have been an investment. However, it was known that:
“The family had just discovered the charms of Cromer and its neighbourhood”.
It followed that a separate piece of land at Northrepps was also purchased by Bartlett Gurney in 1792, after which he employed Humphrey Repton, the celebrated landscape gardener, to lay out his new estate, with the help of William Wilkins, the architect of London University. Plans for both a mansion and a park by these two men were drawn up – and are said to be still in existence. The mansion was to have been built south of the Hill House; however, in 1793 Bartlett concentrated on first building “The Cottage”; this being ‘Northrepps Cottage’ alongside the Northrepps Road, which nestled within the heart of ancient woodland and within walking distance of Overstrand beach, also a mere two miles away from Cromer. It was a place destined to play a significant role in Anna Gurney’s later life and where she was to live for 30 years.
Northrepps Cottage was described in 1800 by E. Bartlett, in his “Observations upon the town of Cromer and its neighbourhood,” as a:
“House which is flinted and thatched, with a Gothic porch, also thatched, fitted up with the greatest neatness and simplicity, and the stained glass which occupies the upper parts of the arches of the windows throws a very pleasing light into the apartments. (Two of these, panes, of birds, were copied from Bartlett Gurney’s copy of Edwards’ History of Birds, now belonging to Edmund Backhouse). The parlour, which commands an elegant view of the sea, is decorated with coloured prints, extremely appropriate to the situation, such as “The Sailor-boy’s Return”, the ship-wrecked sailor-boy telling his tale at the cottage door, and on the chimney-piece are shells and pieces of Derbyshire marble. Planting has been done with a liberal hand, and the healthy appearance of the young trees, when the situation so near the sea is considered, promises hereafter, amply to reward the owner for his perseverance,” – For this purpose a hundred pounds worth of young trees had been used, between 1793 and 1794.
As events turned out, Robert Barclay sold his estate and Hall to his brother-in-law, Richard Gurney, the Quaker, banker and father to Anna Gurney. Richard, it was said, was a very mild and kind person, rather stout, florid, with dark hair and a prominent nose. He had very much the effect of being:
“The old-fashioned country squire, rather unusually well appointed. He used to ride a handsome grey horse, with a dapper groom behind him on a second grey horse. He was fond of sport, particularly coursing and shooting.”
Four years after Robert Barclay’s wife, Martha, had died, Bartlett Gurney followed, dying in February 1803. Because he had no children, he left his beautiful cottage and “Hill” estates at Northrepps, to the same Richard Gurney, who then became head of the family; the two estates of the Hall and the Cottage ‘thus becoming one fine property’. Interestly, it was later claimed by a descendent that Hannah Lady Buxton (his grandmother) had once said:
“It was a cruel one; that he [Bartlett] left nothing to two poor sisters, who needed help greatly – in order that he might enlarge the estate of a second cousin”.
At the time of Northrepps coming into the hands of Richard Gurney he was married to his second wife, Rachel, said to be “a sweet and gentle lady who wore a Quaker dress”. At that time, Richard had four children under his care; the handsome and lively Hudson, then aged twenty and Agatha “Gatty” of nineteen years of age; she was to marry her step-uncle, Sampson Hanbury of Poles, Hertfordshire, the following month. Richard’s other two children, born to Rachel, were Richard Hanbury and Elizabeth – of twelve and eleven years of age respectively. It was a further month, after Gatty’s wedding, that another little sister, Anna, was added to the family; she, just to remind the reader, was:
“the cripple from infancy, having it was supposed, fallen from her Nurse’s arms”.
Sometime around 1810, when Richard and Rachel were still enjoying the delights of Northrepps Cottage, they temporarily let the property to Sir George Hoste, who was to pay his annual autumn visit to Northrepps Hall as, it was said, he had done in former days. At this same time, another relative by the name of Catherine Gurney, wrote from the Hall:
“I am writing in Anna’s [Gurney] room at Northrepps, while she is busy on the floor as usual”.
Anna’s father, Richard Gurney died on 16 July 1811 when she was 15 years old. In his Will, Richard bequeathed Keswick and Northrepps estates to his widow Rachel. When she died in 1825, the family estates passed to Anna’s brother Richard Hanbury Gurney, who continued to live at Keswick. This was also the moment when Anna went to live permanently in Northrepps Cottage, along with her first cousin and Thomas Fowell’s younger sister, Sarah-Maria Buxton (1789 – 1839); she was to become, not only a long-term companion and partner of Anna, but also another social reformer and abolitionist. The coming together of Anna Gurney and Sarah-Maria at Northrepps Cottage was to be a happy union for the two cousins, henceforth to be known locally as the “Cottage Ladies” who openly spoke of themselves as “partners”.
Anna and Sarah-Maria’s life together became a busy and seemingly happy and satisfying partnership. However, it was Anna’s belief in the importance of education which led her, amongst many other pursuits, to also set up a school in Overstrand, initially using the Parish Church. Its construction was paid for by Anna, whilst continuing to teach the village children inside Northrepps Cottage. Anna’s love for learning and languages was said to be infectious, and according to the Gentleman’s Magazine’s obituary of Anna in September 1857:
‘When talking on her favourite subject – philology – she would suddenly and rapidly wheel away the chair in which she always sat and moved, to her well-stored bookshelves, take down a book, and return delighted to communicate some new thought or discovery.’
In 1830 Anna also began to instruct her friend and novelist, Amelia Opie, in German; apparently a “satisfactory arrangement for both women”. Every week Anna would send Amelia a story in German to be translated into English.
On the more leisurely side of their lives, both Anna Gurney and Sarah-Maria Buxton were also introduced to the artist, George Richmond; this was as the result of the artist being brought to the attention of the Gurneys, the Buxtons, the Frys and the Upchers of Norfolk by his friend, Sir Robert Harry Inglisall. Richmond made a pair of portraits of Anna and Sarah-Maria, the latter ending up at Colne House. The present existence of these two portraits is not known, but one can only hope that they still survive, either within the homes of their descendants, museums or other private collections. Amongst these may also be those of Mrs. Fry and Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, both painted in watercolour by George Richmond and dated 1845.
On the question of there being ‘abolitionists’ in the wider Gurney family, it was Thomas Buxton’s daughter, Priscilla, who following her own marriage, decided not to work with her father anymore. However, he soon enlisted the help and support of his sister, Sarah-Maria, and their cousin Anna; these two ‘Cottage Ladies’ being considered as an ideal pair to take his project forward. Much of his collection of papers, presented by him to the Colonial Office in support of the anti-slavery movement, was done by the two; but it was Anna’s 1835 ‘Compendium on the Cape’ which was considered to be:
“The most valuable and the only thing in use; [which] might save a nation of 100,000 beings and several flourishing missions”.
Nevertheless, the combined efforts of Thomas, Anna, Sarah-Maria, and Priscilla Buxton, together with her husband Andrew Johnston, an MP and member of the Aborigines Select Committee, enabled the Gurney and Buxton team to collect, collate and repackage large quantities of colonial information. Anna Gurney, by the way, also worked alongside her friend, Amelia Opie, to create an Anti-Slavery Society in Norwich – as if she wasn’t busy enough!
Sarah-Maria died on 18 August 1839, aged 50 years. Barely three years earlier, in 1836, she and Anna had visited the European continent, taking in Brussels, Dresden, Prague and Vienna; but this would be their last shared experience. Despite her physical limitations, Anna did, however, undertake a second excursion to the continent, but Sarah’s sudden death in 1839 continued to throw a dark shadow over her. The Buxton family had planned to spend the winter of 1839/40 in Italy, where Anna and Sarah were to join them before moving on to Greece. But, despite her grief, Anna was eventually persuaded to make the trip, but she was to be absent from her Northrepps Cottage home for many months.
Anna mourned her partner until the end of her life, but stayed on in the cottage, giving support to the Buxton family, continuing her involvement with the local community, welcoming friends and family members as house guests and maintaining her interest in languages. For the last 12 years of her life, she edited a modest periodical called ‘The Fisherman’s Friendly Visitor & Mariner’s Companion’. She also continued to write poetry. An illustration of her work was written by her for the Launch of the ‘Augusta’, Sheringham’s First Purpose Built Lifeboat, in 1838 – some 12 months before her partner Sarah-Maria died.
In 1835 Gurney wrote to geologist William Buckland at the University of Oxford, who had accepted some ‘bones’ from her, explaining how she obtained specimens with the aid of ‘one old woman in my employ who goes fossil gathering on the shore, in spectacles’. Gurney’s employment of ‘poor inhabitants of the coast’ as paid specimen-collectors was also noted approvingly by Richard Owen.
It was in 1845 when she became an associate of the British Archaeological Association, being the first lady member who joined the association. In its ‘Archæologia’ is a communication from her on The Discovery of a Gold Ornament near Mundesley in Norfolk. In her later life she studied Danish, Swedish, and Russian literature.
During all her years at Northrepps and all the activities undertaken be her, Anna not only taught children but also took a great interest in the well-being and safety of seafolk. When this particular interest began, we do not know, but at some early point she obtained and paid for the initial purchase of the ‘Manby’ life-saving apparatuses for local use. This ingenious contraption (shown above) was in fact a mortar which was fired from the shore carrying a line to a shipwrecked vessel. Its designer was a Captain George Manby, who had been a boyhood friend of Norfolk’s Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. His invention had first been used in February, 1808, when seven seamen were brought to safety from the Plymouth Brig ‘Elizabeth’ which had been stranded offshore at Great Yarmouth.
In reference to Anna Gurney, and her involvement in local sea rescues, the Gentleman’s Magazine of September, 1857 reported:
‘In cases of great urgency and peril, she caused herself to be carried down to the beach, and from the chair in which she was wheeled about, directed all the measures for the rescue and subsequent treatment of the half-drowned sailors.’
So, it was clear that Anna was not simply an advocate of this life-saving equipment, she actively involved herself in the training of fishermen in its use, as well as directing its deployment.
There have been references that the demonstration illustrated in the above Hannah Buxton drawing of 1828, came about when Anna actually invited Captain Manby to Northrepps to demonstrate his mortar. It is therefore not at all clear who was in charge in this particular drawing. However, it was a fact that Anna frequently directed operations from the cliff edge or beach during particularly challenging rescues. It remains a sobering thought that at this time, around 60 or 70 lives were being lost every year, and with over 20 ships being wrecked; so, the difference she, and the ‘Manby’ life-saving apparatuses, made to a great many people’s lives should not be under estimated. Furthermore, Anna also ensured that all rescued men were provided with food and clothing, and, if required, she acted as their interpreter, such was her flair for linguistics.
It was after a short illness Anna Gurney died; not at her home in Northrepps Cottage, but at the home of her brother, Hudson Gurney, at Keswick, near Norwich; it was on 6 June 1857. She was buried beneath the aisle of St Martins Church in Overstrand, because she had left the Society of Friends in 1826 to be baptised into the Church of England. Alongside her was her ‘partner-in-life’ Sarah-Maria Buxton, together with Thomas Fowell Buxton, his oldest son John Henry, and his wife Hannah. However, there is in the same church, a memorial stone to the ‘Cottage Ladies’ themselves; it is wall-mounted.
Northrepps History (gurney.co.uk)
Our History – Northrepps Cottage by Ann Farrant, 2009
An Artist’s View of Cromer – Part 2 (artworks 4-6) – Time and Tide Museum (wordpress.com)