19 November 1798

Letter 7. Eliza Gould at Kempston to Mrs. Elizabeth Gurney, Richmond Place, Walworth, Surrey, Monday, 19 November 1798.[1]

Kempston Novr 19 1798

My dear Mamma Gurney

tho she has not misconstrued my silence will hardly suppose it possible that in all this time no opportunities have occur’d no moments of leisure been afforded me, at least to enquire after the health of so dear a friend.

My friends for the most part think I neglect them and so I fear do you; but my heart does not reproach me, for my thoughts & wishes are with you daily & I have long indulged a hope that Betsey[2] would favor me with a letter.

I am quite distress’d when I think how long (tho not willingly) I have delay’d to thank you for one [letter] the kind affection of which it was a proof, I shall (together with all your tender affections) ever remember with the liveliest gratit­ude but I was desirous when I wrote to make my letter a long one, having a great deal to tell you, & from the nature of my situation in more respects than one, it has been entirely out of my power. I don’t think I have been alone for half an hour together except when I went to Bedford, since I heard from you; I have written but one letter since I think which was to Sarah Hawes & took me more than a fortnight to complete except 3 of four hasty lines to convince my dear parents that the fears they entertained in consequence of my silence were unfounded.

I believe there is not a menial servant in any well regulated family but enjoys more of the common comforts of life than I have done since the winter set in.

In as cold and exposed a situation as you can conceive of I have for a fire been at the mercy of the wind, which has not favord us a week together since the cold weather came in & often when we have had a fire in the morning we have been under the necessity of putting it out before noon & have sat the remainder of the day without any. We keep school now in my bedroom at the top of the House where the air that comes in at the skirting boards (for it is wainscotted) and down the chimney will often put out a candle—we have neither curtains nor shutters to our windows which admit such a current of air as to keep the curtains of the bed in constant motion. I never suffered so much from cold in so short in my life, tho I wrap up a great deal wear a flannel waistcoat, 2 pr stockings, & a shawl whenever we are obliged to sit & start a fire.

Mrs Squire[3] tho perfectly affable & conversant by the easiness of her disposition subjects me to many inconveniences for when I state to her as I have frequently done any disagreeables that she might easily rectify—she very coolly replies “Why sure!” and thus it drops.

I have for some time passed (but now am better) been very unwell with a kind of rheumatic or spasmodic complaint it affected my head, back, one side & down one arm, in the latter it left after the pain was gone a numbness which is now quite gone off. I attribute it to cold, for till within a week, it has in wet weather rain’d into my bed room at 4 or five different places, & often in the night I have been obliged to get out & place things to receive it & sometimes I have got myself wet for in one place it pour’d down in such a stream as to splash a considerable part of the room. When the stone masons were here they got the mason to examine it, but he said the work belonged to a plumber & thus it rested, till about a week ago, it was the same with the chimney, they have known it to smoke ever since we began fires all the chimneys at the top of the house do, from their having taken them down so low cause their height above the roof had such an awkward appearance.

I know too well the nature of dependent situations to form any undue expectations concerning them, & have in my life time experienced too many painful realities to conjure up imaginary disagreeables—but I fag very hard, & I do think I have a right to many more comforts than I enjoy. It would be very pleasant to have a bed and room to myself, more especially as Miss Squire is so restless a Bedfellow. I told her Mother of it very pointedly—she replied with a good humour & smile “Yes I know by experience she is & I have often told her she should not sleep with me again” however on a night her father being out she persuaded her mother to let her & the next morn’g Mrs S told me with the utmost coolness that Sally had disturbed her so much that she must not think to sleep with her anymore—but she has had no considerations on me. I believe this conduct to proceed from want of energy & reflection, principally, tho selfishness does sometimes interfere, & takes from me many things that would make me more comfortable.

I wish I could see more consideration & a greater decision of character, but the easiest way is the best with Mrs S throughout every department of her family.

Sally and I made our own Bed, swept the room, & when we could keep a fire laid & lighted it ourselves, because from living in our Bedroom we wanted it ready before Molly[4] had time, (it being washing week)—we did it more than a week, & Mrs S knew it, & actually employ’d Molly after the washing & ironing was over, about something else, & most likely would have suffer’d us to have continue[d] to do it till this time if I had not spoken about it.

She never interferes with my management of the children—I could wish she would make it more her concern & satisfy herself they improve. It would be very gratifying to me to hear her say she thought they were but she knows nothing about them, neither what books they read, nor how their time is fill’d up. If they make no noise about the House nor tear, or dirty their clothes she appears perfectly satisfied.

I last Sunday evening desired the children to repeat some of their pieces—& among the rest the youngest boy who barely knew the Alphabet when I came here said some of Docr Watts Hymns,[5] which he learnt without my reading or repeating a single line to him, I thought she would have been struck with the improvement of a child, whom she told me from the first, I would have a great deal of trouble with, from his being both dull & idle. I find him the latter, possessing also a considerable degree of obstinacy—tho he scarcely knew his letters when I took him, he is going the second time through Dykes Spelling book[6] & learns in five separate lessons, 100 words in a day—he has twice gone thro the letter book that Betsey recommended to me First principles of religion[7] & reads it with the greatest ease & fluency. I never witness’d in any child so great a degree of improvement—but it did not strike her & she took no notice of it—tho if she thought at all she must be well convinced of the trouble I have had with him—he is encouraged by no reward, nor afraid of any correction but that of the rod. I never make any addition to his lesson (be it ever so small) which I think his abilities are capable of bearing but he always resolves to withstand me, & he does most firmly & will sit for hours without looking at his book till I am obliged to take him to his father for the benefit of a flagellation which settles the affair for a time.

How pleased my dear Mamma Gurney will be when I inform her of the wonderful success that is likely to attend our Sunday School[8]—(I should not have thrown it thus in the background of my letter) We began with 10 only—increased the next Sunday to 28—the following to 36, the Sunday after to 42, & yesterday (the 25 Novr) to 52.[9] We meet at nine in the morn’g & so very punctual hitherto have the children been to time, that in crossing a field, on my way to the workhouse I generally meet the same children on the same spot, & see numbers flocking over the fields at the precise time I saw them in the same place the Sunday before. What a beautiful sight! Nearly 40 of them are volunteers which is a very pleasing circumstance as I have a better opportunity of ascertaining the character both of parents & children & greater reason to hope that they will continue to attend with the same willing mind to be instructed as they have began with. I cannot convey any Idea to you of the thankfulness of the serious parents of some of the children for the opportunity they have of learning to read—it is impossible to pourtray those feelings which from a sense of the loss they have sustain’d—contrasted with the advantages wholy to accrue to their children. It was my intention at first to have devoted the whole of the Sunday morning to the children of dissenting parents but as I have received assistance from the Sunday School Society, I consider myself bound to respect their rules—Which says that the children shall regularly attend some place of worship, but such place as their parents or themselves shall appoint. The children all go to church twice a day, but from having only prayers in a morning they do not go in till eleven & are out again at 12—I am with them from 9 to 11—from one oclock to nearly half passed two unless I go to Bedford & again after evening service untill they go home (which to those who live near is about an hour & half)[10]—my three girls[11] generally go with me but as our folks breakfast late, I get one of the maids to bring me up a bason of tea in my own room or take it in the Kitchen—the children stay to breakfast with their parents, & follow me—I have 3 very clever girls among the Sunday School who assist me,[12] they can read very well & are quite steady & managing—the children all behave with the greatest order & regularity—& except when they are reading you might hear of a pin dropt in the room—each of those three who assist me, sit at the head of a bench & hear the others in rotation. Miss Squires take each a certain number of little ones which they call their own—besides all those assistants there is a Morley and myself. I have some great girls under my own care almost as tall as I am—that knew not a letter in the Alphabet two of them learnt it the first day which is very extraordinary & are got into spelling (the Sunday School spelling books are very clever little things). We are quite short of Testaments having only 12—because the children should perfect their lesson before they read & say what the subject they have been reading. I am quite distressed for Books but should suppose that another application to the S S Society would be attended to—had I better write or would Betsey be so good to speak again to Mr Towle.[13] I should prefer the latter & think it would have some weight. I could also write for some Bibles because there are some few of them that read well enough for it. Mr Hill­yard an Independent Minister of Bedford is Secretary to the Union[14]—the last time the committee met they voted the Kempston Sunday School an ample supply of Watts Hymns & scripture catechisms[15] & some books written for children by George Burder[16]—they are order’d to be printed as soon as possible—but we are in immediate want of bibles & Testaments Betsey I know will do all that she can for us. There is also an article in the Sunday School rules which restricts the children from reading in any other books but the Bible Testaments or Spelling Books. I am not to infer from hence am I, that they are forbidden to learn Watt’s Hymns & Catechism?[17]

I have form’d a pleasing acquaintance with Mr and Mrs Hillyard—he is a sensible & benevolent man, & an able preacher—there are points we differ on but I have heard many sermons of his with much satisfaction. I have been to meeting of an afternoon—I staid the lecture & slept there which Mrs Hillyard has requested me to do as often as I can. I last Sunday made the experiment of walking to Bedford after leaving the Sunday School at eleven, to return to it after Church in the evening this I did as we came out of meeting in winter at 1/2 past 3—but it was late, & the children were all going. I was much pleased to find that my young folk had overcome the very great objections they had to going without me to the workhouse—the 2 elder girls feel an interest in the School which I am happy to see—they possess a great deal of spontaneous benevolence —the soil is kindly & favorable to virtuous cultivation & I wish it had been more improved—there are many unpleasant habits to correct in them & a number of false Ideas to eradicate but this must be a work of time.

I would not have Mrs Revoult[18] know that I am dissatisfied with any thing. Perhaps she will think me capricious but my dear Mamma has I hope better thoughts of me. I wish I had more time to write—I have a great deal to say on a subject on which I feel my self much interested—the case of the Kempston poor—from all the accounts I have collected it appears that they are entitled to receive annually upwards of 30 pounds. The affair was taken in hand by a worthy man 8 or 9 years since & those Gentlemen (as they stile themselves) who hold from their ancestors the trusteeship overcome by their fears paid the poor people a pretty considerable sum—but Mr Maynard dying the week after, his charitable act was never executed & nothing has been paid since—the Kempston estate which Mr Squire has is subject to an incumbrance of more than [£]20 per annm of annuity belonging to the poor—the owners cannot sell the estate without it, this I am certain of—but there is not a farthing paid to them objects for whom the charity was design’d. I have made memorandums of all the particulars that have come to my knowledge. I will beg you at some future time to state them to Mr J Gurney[19]—perhaps it might not be too late to render to poverty its humble pittance & rescue it from the devouring jaws of avarice & oblivion—at least I cannot rest satisfied without stating all I know of this act of flagrant injustice.[20]

I must intreat the favor of a line or two either from you or Betsey as soon as you can conveniently write me. I have all this time been talking a great deal about myself—but you kindly stile me your adopted child & therefore are entitled to my confidence—my dear mother knows not but I am very comfortable. I always told her everything that concerned me—but dreading as she does my being out of a situation at so great a distance from her she would be unhappy at the probability of what is not likely to take place. I sometimes think I shall not tell her. Mrs S- & I shall always be on easy terms I dare say. I have been obliged to bear with & suffer a great deal at different periods of my life & this is not the worst. If I weather but the winter thus I shall be much more comfortable in summer—but now I have no where to send the children—another thing I think Mrs S- has used me very unkindly in. When I came here there was but one pair of drawers for myself & the children—but she told me there was another pair coming from the other house. I gave 3 of the deepest reserving only 2 shallow ones for myself & to my very great inconvenience kept the principle part of my clothes in an old worm eaten closet out of which it was impossible to stop the dust—but our blustering cook sat her mind upon these drawers before they came down (tho she has more Bedroom than will contain her clothes—besides a very neat closet within her bedroom) & Mrs Squire has given them to her. I am quite uncomfortable indeed to see the condition my things are in—the 2 drawers I have will but barely hold my muslin things & the Box I brought with me is the only place I have to keep my paper & what things I like to lock up (for neither of the drawers have locks) & can you conceive of anything so selfish she has to herself & keeps nothing of [what] she cherishes but her baby linen, a wardrobe 2 pair of double chests of drawers & 4 pr of single

do—besides lock up closets in abundance—I am my dear Mamma’s affectionate

Eliza G—

My duty to Papa I hope soon to make a return of what he so kindly favor’d me with but they have not settled with me yet.


Text: Timothy Whelan, ed., Politics, Religion, and Romance: The Letters of Benjamin Flower and Eliza Gould, 1794-1808 (Aberystywth: National Library of Wales, 2008), pp. 31-39.

[1] Eliza began this letter on 19 November but, due to the time constraints imposed upon her as governess, did not finish it until two weeks later (the letter is postmarked 3 December 1798).

[2]Elizabeth Gurney, Eliza’s closest friend.

[3] Eliza contracted for a year as governess for the Squires, a well-to-do family in Kempston, a village not far from Bedford. Squires are found in the Kempston parish registers dating back to the early 1600s. The fact that the Squire girls assisted Eliza in the Kempston Sunday School, organized by Eliza with the assistance of local Dissenting congregations, suggests that the Squires may have been Dissenters.

[4] One of Mrs. Squire’s servants.

[5] Watts, along with Charles Wesley, dominated hymn writing throughout the eighteenth century. His Divine and moral songs went through 125 editions between 1715 and 1800. The use of Watts’s Songs came to represent one of the more striking features of the Sunday school movement in the late 1780s and 1790s-a combination of piety, social awareness, philanthropy, and a romantic sensibility that glorified childhood.

[6] A guide to the English tongue. In two parts … To which is added, an appendix, containing many additional lessons in prose and verse … 101st ed. (1796), by Thomas Dyche.

[7] The first principles of religion, and the existence of a deity explained in a series of dialogues adapted to the cap­acity of the infant mind: in two parts, by M. P. [Dorothy Kilner] (1780).

[8] The Sunday school movement flourished in the 1780s and ’90s, among Anglicans and Dissenters alike, largely inspired by the work of William Fox (1736-1826) and Robert Raikes (1735-1811). Fox, originally from Gloucestershire, was a wealthy London businessman who served for many years as a deacon in the Baptist church at Little Prescot Street, Goodman’s Fields, London. In the 1770s he presented a plan for universal free education to several members of Parliament. Though a system of free public schools would not materialize for another century, Fox proceeded to build his own free schools, opening his first school at Clapton in Gloucestershire in 1784. After hearing of Robert Raikes’ efforts with educating children by means of Sunday schools, Fox arranged a meeting with Raikes at the Poultry in London in August 1785, at which time they both agreed to circulate a letter recommending the formation of Sunday schools throughout Great Britain. This led to the founding of the Sunday School Society the following month, with a board comprised equally of members from Anglican and Dissenting denominations. Thirty schools were established the first year, and over 147 by January 1787. By 1796, the Sunday School Society had helped establish nearly 1100 Sunday schools, educated 70,000 scholars, and distributed over 5700 Bibles, 26,000 Testaments, and 110,000 spelling books. By 1805, those numbers would more than double (Ivimey, Memoir 35-49; 106). Rebecca Gurney’s son, William Brodie Gurney (1777-1855), was already a leader in the Sunday school movement in London at the time of the above letter. Between 1796 and 1799, he was involved in the formation of several Sunday schools in and around Walworth; in 1801 he helped found a Sunday school for the Baptist congregation at Maze Pond, where the Gurneys attended. In 1803 he was instrumental in the formation of the Sunday School Union, of which he was at various times secretary, treasurer, and president, remaining a part of that organization until his death.

[9] According to Mrs. Trimmer, schoolmistresses and governesses were excellent choices for directing Sunday schools. Normally, each teacher would have about thirty scholars (the sudden growth of Eliza’s school to fifty-two must have put tremendous strain upon her had she not had the assist­ance of her visitors), with teachers being paid one shilling per Sunday (138, 165).

[10] Eliza’s schedule of Sunday activities is similar to that at Brentford described by Mrs. Trimmer, which began at 8 am. and ended at 6 pm. The children would attend school until time for the morning service, after which they would go home for lunch, then return for afternoon service and instruction in the catechism and more reading lessons (135-48).

[11] Mrs. Squire’s three daughters.

[12] Mrs. Trimmer believed that young girls from the middling and upper classes of the community assisting as “visitors” in the Sunday school, much like the Squire girls and Eliza’s other helpers mentioned above, were essential to the success of Sunday schools, not only for what these girls brought to the students but also for what they gained by the experience. Trimmer posited that while these young girls are “inculcating religious principles [in their students], sentiments of piety will spring up in their hearts, and virtue and goodness will strike deep root” (34-35).

[13] Thomas Towle (1724-1806) was an Independent minister in Ropemakers’ Alley and Aldermanbury, London, 1747-1806. An excellent scholar and an unyielding defender of orthodoxy, he was much involved with charitable work (including the Maze Pond Charity School) and was considered by many as the “chamber-counsellor” of the Dissenters in London. He published several funeral sermons, including the graveside oration at Bunhill Cemetery in London in 1774 for Edward Hitchin, Benjamin Flower’s childhood pastor. See Jones, Bunhill 282.

[14] Samuel Hillyard (1770-1839) was one of the founders of the Bedfordshire Union of Christians in September 1797. The son of Thomas Hillyard, Independent minister at Olney, Samuel began his ministry at the Old Meeting at Bedford, a mixed congregation of Baptists and Independents once pastored by John Bunyan, in 1790. Ironically, the youthful Hillyard was chosen as minister by the Bedford church over Eliza Gould’s former pastor, William Clarke, who had left Bampton in 1790 due to the financial crisis created by Eliza’s father. John Brown, in The history of the Bedfordshire Union of Christians (1896), considered Hillyard, often called the “Nonconformist Bishop of Bedfordshire,” to be “the animating spirit of the [Bedfordshire Sunday school] movement” (77, 78). In 1802, membership in Hillyard’s Bedford church stood at 168, but it grew steadily thereafter, partially due to the emergence of the Sunday school. H. G. Tibbutt writes, “It was during Hillyard’s ministry that the Sunday School [at the Old Meeting] was started, probably in 1800, but possibly earlier” (Bunyan Meeting 43). Given the date of the above letter, we can say for certain that, at least in Kempston, the Sunday school movement had begun by the fall of 1798, primarily through the efforts of Eliza Gould.

[15] Besides his hymns, Isaac Watts was also instrumental in transforming the Westminster Catechism (1648) into language a child could memorize. Watts’s The Assembly's catechism with notes (1748) was revised and republished numerous times during the eighteenth century, becoming an important tool in the early years of the Sunday school movement in England and America. Eliza’s reference is probably to two later versions of Watt’s work: Dr. Watts's Divine and moral songs for children revised and altered so as to render them of general use: to which are added, a short catechism and prayers (1787), or The Assembly's catechism abridged: for the use of children, particularly in the Sunday schools: with select proofs and short explanatory notes (1791).

[16] George Burder (1752-1832), Independent minister at Coventry, 1783-1803, was an early leader in the Sunday school movement; he was also a founding member of the London Missionary Society in 1795, the Religious Tract Society in 1799, and the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. He removed to Islington in 1803 to become secretary of the London Missionary Society, a post he held until 1827. During this time he ministered at the Independent chapel at Fetter Lane, London. He authored several works of note during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, including the one referred to above, Early piety, or, Memoirs of children eminently serious interspersed with familiar dialogues, emblematical pictures, prayers, graces, and hymns: recommended by the Rev. Mr. Peckwell (1776). He was also widely known for his Village sermons; or ... plain and short discourses on the principal doctrines of the Gospel; intended for the use of families, Sunday schools, or companies assembled for religious instruction in country villages (7 vols., 1798).

[17] At a meeting of the newly formed committee of the Sunday School Society in London on 21 September 1785, a printed “Plan” for the governance and objectives of the Society was distributed, along with a copy of “Rules for the Sunday Schools.” The Society agreed to provide Bibles, Testaments, and spelling books for the students, provided the students attended “some place of public worship every Sunday.” The Society placed certain restraints upon the teachers of these Sunday (or “Sabbath” schools). Rule 4 required that “the exercises of the scholars on that day shall be restricted to reading in the Old and New Testaments, and to spelling as a preparative for it” (Ivimey, Memoir 42, 43). From the beginning of the Society, Dissenters were keen on using Watts’s Divine and moral songs and his Catechisms. Daniel Turner, Baptist minister at Abingdon, wrote to William Fox in December 1785, complaining that the only “defect” in the Society’s “Plan” was the “confining the children’s reading and attention to the spelling-book, Bible, and Testament” (Memoir 59). Turner decided that his Sunday school would use Watts, and many Dissenting churches followed suit. Eliza, having been raised a Particular Baptist, would have had a similar proclivity to Watts. The policy of the Society, however, would not have allowed them to furnish her with either catechisms or hymns by Watts.

[18] In 1799, John Revoult was listed as an academician residing in Dean’s Row, Walworth (Holden’s [1799]: 595). The Revoults do not show up on the membership rolls of the Baptist meeting at Maze Pond, where Eliza attended when she was living with the Gurneys in 1797-98, but they most likely attended one of the Dissenting churches in Walworth. Given the reference in the above letter to Mrs. Revoult in relation to Eliza’s work as a governess, it is likely that Mrs. Revoult was a teacher as well (possibly at the Maze Pond Charity School or in Mr. Revoult’s school) and may have been instrumental in getting Eliza her position with the Squires. She may also have been originally from Devon, for she was a friend and correspondent of Eliza’s mother.

[19] John Gurney, Mrs. Gurney’s eldest son.

[20] According to the parish overseers’ accounts for Kempston, the burden on the property owners in caring for the poor, sick, disabled, orphans, widows, and indigents of various sorts increased considerably during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from £33.10s.4d. in 1635 to £425.7s.6d. in 1774. That same year the overseers were supporting over 40 individuals, including a number of orphaned and illegitimate children who were often quartered at the workhouse (established 1719); as soon as they were able, these children were put to work, usually spinning hemp and flax or making lace. The overseers were also accountable for medical care as well as burial expenses for the poor. As a result of her work with the children in her Sunday school, Eliza witnessed first hand the necessity of the poor tax; her indignation at Mr. Squire for not paying his “fair share” would leave its mark on her. Not long after her arrival in Cambridge in 1800, Eliza was instrument­al in forming the Cambridge Benevolent Society, convinced that the poor tax was not sufficient to meet all the needs of the poor.