Betty Beecroft (1811 – 1882) and Robert Houseman (1806 – 1865) – an illustration of the (lack of) Victorian women’s property rights

Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877) was almost Betty’s contemporary. Married young to an abusive & jealous husband, she left her husband in 1836. At first, she attempted to subsist on her own earnings. Then her husband went to court to claim this money as his leaving her penniless. He also, legally, took sole custody of her three sons. Caroline became a tireless political campaigner and is credited with doing much to ensure the introduction of the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870 which started to create the conditions for women to become legally separate people. Betty’s story is an illustration of why Caroline’s work was so necessary for women of Betty’s era were defined by her relationship to a man.

Betty Beecroft was likely the second of the two children of Faith Bell & Luke Beecroft. Betty’s elder brother, John, was born on 8 August 1808 almost exactly nine months after their parent’s wedding on 1 November 1807. He was promptly christened at Pateley Bridge. What date or even what year Betty arrived, however, is somewhat more difficult to determine…. What we know for sure is that Betty was baptised on 6 April 1817 at Thornthwaite. Ages in later documents would suggest a date of birth anywhere between 1809 & 1816. Was she already eight by the time she was baptised which would have meant having her last child at forty? Or was she still a baby at the time meaning she married at the tender age of nineteen to a man ten years her senior? My guess is closer to the former than the latter, but a guess is all it can be.

Robert Houseman’s date of birth on the other hand was clearly listed on his baptism record, also at Thornthwaite, as 2 March 1806. He was the twelfth child of fourteen, his parents, Mary Akers & Thomas Houseman being much more productive that Betty’s!

Childhood for Betty was likely largely uneventful or at least, as is often the case, any events went unrecorded. Until her elder brother John died, unmarried and childless, in 1832. This must have come as a shock to her parents. Betty’s father, Luke, was around 65 by now and seems to have amassed a reasonable bank balance from running the New Inn in Darley. Without a son to inherit the business the monies would come to Betty, the daughter whom he hadn’t even seen any hurry to get baptised.

Was this when Robert started to express an interest in Betty? As a twelfth child he would certainly need to have made his own way in the world and a daughter, who was now an only child, would have been an attractive prospect.

Whatever the intent, Luke was obviously determined to protect the interests of his daughter and any potential grandchildren. Luke wrote his last will and testament was written on 11 March 1835 six months before Betty & Robert married (8 September). Luke died before the year was out, buried at Hampsthwaite on 23 December. Whilst various assets were bequeathed directly to his nephew, Betty’s share would be held in trust to be managed by friends, Thomas Petty & Thomas Skaife. The “rents issues and profits” would be paid to Betty’s mother first and on her demise to Betty. But the assets themselves would only be divided between any lawful children on Betty’s death. In other words, Betty received the income and not the assets – important in this era where a woman’s property automatically became that of her husbands on marriage.

Luke Beecroft’s will, 1835.

The money wasn’t entirely free of Robert’s influence, for life in a small village is intimately connected. The above-named Thomas Skaife, trustor for Betty, had a sister, Tibby, who just happened to be married to Robert’s cousin John. Then there was Benson Skaife, cousin of Thomas Skaife, husband of Robert’s sister, Mary, and one of the witnesses at Betty & Robert’s wedding. Benson was sadly to die just a year after the marriage and his son, Joseph, came to live & work for the couple. Benson & Robert may simply have been good friends but another connection to the Skaife family can’t have harmed Robert’s case.

For there was money at stake. Luke’s estate was valued at something under £1,500 including £970 deposited in cash. The national archives currency convertor suggests that £970 was equivalent to approximately 4,850 days wages for a skilled labourer, which is more money than any skilled labourer on average wages could ever hope to amass.

Betty & Robert benefited from the “rents issues and profits” throughout their married life as Faith, Betty’s mother, came to live with the young couple and their growing family. Children arrived at regular intervals: John Beecroft (1837), Thomas (1838), William (1840), Michael (my great, great grandfather) (1842), Ann (1845), Joseph (1847) and Benjamin (1849). Faith would have likely helped her daughter deliver all seven of these healthy babies.

I believe that Betty & Robert would have been living at Red Syke Farm, Thornthwaite for much of their married life although the first actual evidence of address is not until 1871. This farm was to pass from father to son for at least two further generations. Luke had set his daughter & his grandchildren up well.

All seven children survived infancy, but four (William, Thomas, Ann & Joseph) were to die as young adults before marriage, three of them before Robert’s own death from consumption on 25 October 1865 at the age of 59.

Robert’s will was written just a month before he died. In it he sought to “give and bequeath unto my wife Betty Houseman the residue and remainder of my property the whole of my farming stock of whatsoever kind also the whole of my crops my hay corn straw and the [xx] of all the land also the household furniture and everything within and without that is the whole of my property whatsoever and wheresoever until my youngest son Benjamin attains the age of twenty one years and then my will is that the whole then remaining shall be sold and the money arising therefrom shall be equally divided amongst all my children.” The property was not left solely to the eldest son, but is instead split equally between all, perhaps reflecting the equality seen in the will of his father-in-law, Luke. Strangely too, it is his fourth (albeit second surviving son), Michael, who is appointed as executor and it takes nearly seven years for probate to be received. There’s a hint, perhaps, that the relationship between father and oldest son (John Beecroft) wasn’t entirely happy, and whilst John Beecroft was at his father’s side when he died, he may have been living some twenty-five miles away in a village called Aberford where he marries in 1869.

Whatever the family dynamics it is Betty who, in 1871, is named as head of the household and farmer of 37 acres in the 1871 census despite the return of John Beecroft and his new wife. By 1881 Betty has moved to Folly Gill with her youngest son Benjamin and is no longer the farmer. Instead she is an “Annuitant” benefiting still from the provisions in her father’s will.

Betty died on 19 August 1882 from an apoplexy fit. Aged 73 according to her death certificate, or 71, or maybe only 67 if you believe other records. She’s buried with Robert and four of her children at Thornthwaite, the exact same place as her story begins.

With much gratitude to Luke Beecroft, my great, great, great, great grandfather for leaving such a protective will and to his daughter Betty & her husband Robert Houseman, my great, great, great grandparents for continuing the tradition. Betty & Robert are the parents of Michael Houseman, father of Jesse Houseman, father of Mary Houseman, my paternal Grandma. I am also grateful to Betty & Robert for moving to Red Skye Farm, postcode HG3 2QS which made me smile as we grew up just a few miles away at Hill Top Cottage, Lindley, postcode LS21 2QS!

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