Autumn Mayle is a fifth-year PhD candidate interested in nineteenth century British history and women’s and gender history. Her dissertation is titled, "Public Homes versus Public Houses: Gendered Conceptions of Power, Respectability, and Domesticity in Sheffield, 1820-1880.” She spent the summer in Sheffield, England interning and performing dissertation research at the Sheffield City Archives. Autumn received a Graduate Humanities Internship to fund this experience.
Readers of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and other prominent nineteenth-century female authors understand that while nineteenth-century womanhood often meant dependency, it did not necessarily mean subservience or weakness.It was this seemingly contradictory facet of women’s gender ideals in the nineteenth century which initially captivated my interest when reading Alison Twells’ work on women’s involvement in charity work and reform. Mary Anne Rawson (née Read) of Sheffield was renowned for her work in the women’s associations of the Anti-Slavery movement. Twells’ work demonstrated that though Mary Anne was not a radical demanding political equality with men, she proudly asserted the important role of the respectable middle-class woman whose domestic knowledge and talents primed her to reform and improve the world through charitable pursuits. This did not mean that Mary Anne unquestioningly submitted to male authority on matters in the public sphere. She championed the Female Anti-Slavery society’s autonomy to invite whomever they chose as speakers at the women’s society’s meetings regardless of the approval or disapproval of the men’s Anti-Slavery Society.It was this anecdote which peaked my interest in Mary Anne Rawson. To me, it was the perfect example of how women like Rawson engaged with and perhaps even manipulated the nineteenth-century conceptualization of middle-class womanhood in order to articulate and legitimize their position in the community.
While studying Mary Anne’s work in the anti-slavery movement, I also learned of her family’s involvement in other causes like the temperance movement and the British and Foreign Bible Society. This discovery led me to become interested in looking not only at Mary Anne, but the wider family structure which supportedthe Reads to take on these philanthropic works. I was principally interested in how their engagement in charity work enabled them to act as public figures in their community and the importance of family networks that the Reads established among non-conformists and philanthropists. To answer these questions, I needed access to the family papers of the Reads, housed at the Sheffield City Archives. I was fortunate to receive the Summer Humanities Internship fellowship through West Virginia University, where I am completing my doctoral work, which provided me with the resources necessary to take advantage of all of the materials held at the archives. The internship stipend provided for six weeks of archival research.
At the Sheffield City Archives, I examined the letters, journals, and documents in the Read family papers. I was able to look at a range of letters and journals in the collections from members of the Read family and the Wilson family, which addressed family issues like the health of the family and their involvement in local charities. These sources provided insight not only into the family interests, but also reflected national concerns, such as the abolitionist movement and class tensions. The family papers also featured documents that illustrated the Read’s resources and the economic trials they faced. Bills of sale, lease of property, probate, and executor’s records helped to demonstrate the family’s assets. These pieces also shed light on dark periods in the family history, such as the family’s bankruptcy in 1837. A flyer advertising the auction of the family home and furniture served as documentary evidence of this financial crisis. These records help us to understand the abilities and challenges that shaped the Read’s lives by leaving footprints of their achievements and struggles.
I was extremely fortunate to be in Sheffield for the 200 year anniversary celebration of the Read’s work at Wincobank Chapel. The Reads first converted their carriage house at Wincobank Hall into a chapel in 1817. In 1841, they built Wincobank Chapel, a structure which still stands today and is now known as the Upper Wincobank Undenominational Chapel. At the anniversary event, I met members of the church and learned more about their legacy and traditions. The highlights of this experience included hearing member’s recollections of the Sunday school whitwalks and seeing the Whitsun banner on display. It was also gratifying to see the memorials dedicated to Mary Anne Rawson and her sister Emily Read in thanks for their service to the Sunday school.
I also learned of a community effort to restore and beautify the Attercliffe Zion Chapel graveyard, which held the Read’s family gravestone. I was lucky enough to not only see the Read’s burial place, but also to take part in a work party to clean the graveyard from a dilapidated state of overgrowth. It was truly inspiring to not only visit the resting place of a family whose letters and documents I had been studying, but also to take part in an project which recognizes their roles as members of the community. The volunteer initiative is working to beautify the graveyard in order to acknowledge and spread awareness of the cultural importance of the Read family and the Attercliffe Zion Chapel. We hope through these efforts that the site may be restored and preserved as a testament to the work and legacies of families like the Reads. This project is very much in the spirit of the Reads’ dedication to their community in their voluntary work.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that I had while staying in Sheffield and my extreme good luck to be able to not only access the documents that tell the Reads’ story, but to also be able to visit these key sites which shaped the family’s lives. I would like to once again sincerely thank the staff at the Sheffield City Archives and Local History Library and the members of the Upper Wincobank Undenominational Chapel for welcoming me and supporting me during my research trip. I am indebted to them for their kindness and guidance, which transformed my placement from a mere extended research trip in Sheffield to an opportunity to interact with the legacy of the Reads and learn more about the nineteenth-century city as well as the culture of the town today. Those interested in the Wincobank Chapel and the Read family may also want to check out the blog, Upper Wincobank Undenomiational Chapel: A Gift to the Community, written by Penny Rea: https://upperwincobankchapel.wordpress.com/2013/02/.