Matilda Caroline Gilchrist-Clark
According to Matilda Theresa Talbot, the last private owner of Lacock Abbey, her mother Matilda Caroline Gilchrist Clark (born Matilda Talbot) had "a breadth of outlook and a great love of liberty". Her memories include her mother painting well in oils and water colours; having pretty hair; being a good botanist, with a special interest in fungus and not worrying about tidiness.
Matilda Caroline, born in 1839, was the third child of William Henry Fox Talbot and Constance Mundy, and she was known as Tilly to the family. She had two older sisters, Ela and Rosamond (called Monie), and a younger brother Charles. The family lived at Lacock Abbey with their paternal grandmother Lady Elisabeth Feilding (died 1846) and a French companion/governess Amelina Petit de Billier (called Lalla by the children). The three girls were educated at home whilst Charles went to Harrow School and then Cambridge University. The evidence from their later correspondence is that they were given a good education, which included botany, literacy, French, science and art. Although the family were privileged they were very aware of the state of others and the children grew up with a feeling of responsibility to help others. This manifested in the charities that they supported, especially for the welfare of women.
Matilda Caroline was the only one of the four children to marry, which occurred on the 16th June 1859, in Scotland to John Gilchrist Clark who was employed as Chamberlain to the Duke of Buccleuch at Drumlanrig Castle. There is an albumen print of him in the National Portrait Gallery, by Camille Silvy done in 1862.
Trust funds were set up on her marriage, and on the death of her father she was to receive £5000 from the estate. They lived in Dabton House, Thornhill, Dumfrieshire where they had six children – two sons and four daughters. Another child was stillborn. The first child was a son John Henry, born in 1861, called Jack by the family. A letter survives whereby Matilda writes to her father explaining that Henry was not the first name as they preferred the sound of John Henry rather than Henry John. There was then Constance (b.1863), William (b.1865), Mary Emily (b.1867), Matilda Theresa (b.1871 – known as Maudie) and Grace Elinor Horatia (b. 1880). From this period survive several letters that Matilda Caroline wrote to Amelina abouther life, especially the years 1874 to 1876. These letters talk about the boys going to school; finding governesses for the girls; how cold it was and how John, her husband, was suffering from the cold; about the animals; visiting the Duchess and having a dress made and a lot about the garden.
In 1881, after many months of illness, her husband died, with John Henry months from reaching his majority at the age of twenty one and the many letters from this period are concerned with moving from Dabton House into a house they owned in Speddoch, Dumfries. The move had to take place quickly, as Dabton House was needed for the new Chamberlain to the Duke. There were many arrangements with the household goods as well as the pets to care for. As Grace was only one this must have been very difficult. Matilda Theresa remembers the time as being one of anxiety as there was little money.
Her eldest son, John Henry, had many spells of ill health, and this often figures in later letters to her brother. On one occasion he was bitten by his pet dog, and went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris to be treated as the dog died immediately, and Matilda was going but not sure whether her son wanted her to. There were also problems later on with paralysis. The letters tell of Jack’s difficulty in finding what he wanted to do, and trying many ventures. He died in 1902 without marrying.
Her second son William enjoyed education and was ordained a minister, when he was 27. He corresponded regularly with his Uncle Charles about architecture, especially with reference to Lacock Abbey. He married Harriet Alice Selwyn in 1896, and they had 3 children. The descendants of their daughter Katharine had the right to live at Lacock after Matilda Theresa had given it to the National Trust. He followed in the family’s tradition of public service, by donating in his will, after his death in 1935, Markeaton Hall and twenty acres of land to Derby Corporation. The park is still an important, well used leisure area in Derby.
Two of her daughters married, Constance in 1896 to Edward Hamilton Stewart. He also was an ordained minister after attending Trinity College Cambridge, the same as William. They had four children, three daughters and a son. Unfortunately one of the daughters died at the age of seven in 1906. Their marriage lasted for thirty five years before Edward died in 1931. Grace married James Hay in 1914, son of Lieutenant General Sir Robert John Hay and they were married for nearly forty years when Grace died in 1952. There were no children.
Mary Emily, who died in 1949, never married nor did her sister Matilda Theresa. They were a close family and in many of the letters written by Matilda Caroline to her brother Charles there are details of them visiting and trips they went on. She also mentions details of her grandchildren, giving details of what they are doing. When Matilda Theresa inherited Lacock Abbey, on the death of her Uncle Charles in 1916, Matilda Caroline went to help her. In the Abbey are water colour paintings of her surroundings from this time.
In the regular correspondence with her brother Charles, Matilda showed her wide range of interests as well as her opinions on the politics of the times. She felt there was a need for a more liberal newspaper, only approving of the Manchester Guardian, detesting many of the other papers. Her garden was also very important, and Charles often sent her bulbs from Lacock to plant. The family were great travellers, around Europe and Scandinavia, and had a system of writing letters to one member of the family whilst away, and that member was responsible for sending it on to others. In 1898, when she was 59, Matilda decided to learn to ride a bicycle, and gave details of her lessons. Other letters contained references to charities she supported, and the fact that she produced paintings for the charities to sell.
Matilda Caroline Gilchrist Clark died in 1927, at the age of 88. Her life which spanned the Victorian and Edwardian eras was varied and full. She kept a positive attitude, despite the early death of her husband, making the most of new experiences whilst following the principles she had learnt as a child.
Mary Backhouse, Lacock Unlocked volunteer
Lacock Unlocked archives
The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot – De Montfort University, Leicester
‘My Life and Lacock Abbey’ by Matilda Talbot