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Reflecting On The Past

Some more writing news, this time a pro bono historical commission. I wrote this back in the Autumn, back when the world seemed just that little bit kinder. Here is the article I have written for the local parish mag, not only about a historically important stained glass church window, but also a female pioneer of her day, back when the law and her own husband were not on her side….

Reflecting On The Past

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Living in the village of an old estate, it is easy to spot the influences of the Sheridan family everywhere in Frampton. From the surviving servants’ and stable wing of the old manor house in the park, to the Reading Rooms and Almshouses.

Some of them aren’t always so easy to find.  How many times have I walked past the church where I was married, and had our child baptised, and not thought twice about the windows which cast such beautiful kaleidoscopes of colour onto the walls and floor within?

One particular window, to the right of the main church door, was installed at the request of Caroline Norton, granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in memory of her eldest son Fletcher, after he died from TB.

While the window itself is said to be of importance, I will explain first a little about why Caroline was a pioneer, back in the days before women could vote, and when women and children were believed to be the husband’s property, by law.

Caroline Sheridan was born in 1808, and became a campaigner of women’s and children’s rights, following her unhappy and abusive first marriage to MP George Norton. She married at age nineteen, after the death of her father Thomas Sheridan had left the family in financial trouble.

They had three children together, Fletcher, Brinsley and William, but she was later denied access to her children when the marriage broke up amid rumours of a relationship between Caroline and Home Secretary Lord Melbourne. The laws of the time saw the children as the husband’s property, and if the wife left the family home, he had the power to deny access, whatever the behaviour of the husband.

A novelist, poet, and friend of Mary Shelley and Benjamin Disraeli, she became editor of La Belle Assemble and Court Magazine. She wrote several essays on this discrimination and campaigned to get the law changed.  Sir Thomas Talfourd, MP for Reading introduced the bill which allowed mothers, where adultery had not been proved, to have custody of children under seven, with a right to access of older children. This became the Custody of Children Act 1839, the first piece of feminist legislation passed into law.

George Norton maintained his power over her, refusing her a divorce and sent the children to school in Scotland, out of the jurisdiction of the English courts. It was only when her son William died from injuries after a fall from a horse, that George Norton let the two remaining children live with their mother.

Despite that, he attempted to take the proceeds from her writing, and legacies given to her following the deaths of Lord Melbourne, and her mother, as it legally belonged to him. Her subsequent campaigning to ensure women were supported after a divorce, were influential in the passing of the Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857.

Using her writing skills, she also campaigned for factory reforms and exploitation of the poor. She was unable to marry life-long friend Sir William Stirling-Maxwell until Norton’s death in 1877. She remarried at the age of sixty nine, but died three months later. Her last remaining son, Brinsley, died only a few weeks later at the age of 45.

I am ashamed to admit I knew nothing of this remarkable woman’s achievements, neither of the village connection she had nor the window, made in memory of one of her children who she fought so hard for, which bears even more poignancy since I learned about Caroline’s tale.

A survey of the window was undertaken in 2012 by John Callun, a locally respected stained glass window expert. He reported that the window was possibly of continental origin, totally different from windows of the same period of domestic origin, and as such might be described as being of national importance. Yet, the lasting memory Caroline created in the church of St Mary the Virgin, is in dire need of repair. The lead work of the window has started to rip apart, this being the result of movement in the masonry, with holes appearing in the glass.  None of the window work could be started until repairs to the interior walls and the roof were completed in March 2014. Refurbishment is likely to cost between £2-3,000 and while a grant of £1,000 is available, this will only be given once the PCC has raised the same balance. The church is looking for fundraising ideas and help to move forward with the window’s restoration.   Maybe you are embarking on a fun run or even next year’s London Marathon and were wondering which good cause to support? It’s fair to say there will always be issues with old buildings. The church has suffered with stolen roof lead, and requires regular maintenance. It’s easy to forget the past in a busy age of phones, the internet, cars and TV.  But when we consider the plight of women such as Caroline, maybe it’s time we remembered who shaped the past and helped change the future for all our sakes.

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