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Helen Rachel Mary Kerr
llustration: Eyewood House, Titley, Hereforshire - Courtesy lostheritage.org.uk
The sprawling three hundred and eight acre estate on the English Welsh border was a haven for wildlife and for Helen for whom it played an important part. Its lakes and ponds surrounded by shrubberies and manicured lawns with the mainly coniferous woodland edging the parklands that afforded local people views of a fine mansion. Originally built about 1705, the imposing house and its surrounding grounds were owned at once by the 5th Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimor and was the seat of the Harleys. In fact, Edward Harley, the 4th Earl, styled Lord Harley between 1741 and 1755, was a British Peer and Tory politician who was well known and widely connected. Byron and Capability Brown are said to have visited but are unlikely to have ventured far from the immediate house surrounds and certainly not as far as the mansion house cottage where the Earl's Land Agent, Robert Kerr (c. 1800 − 1855) and his family were granted living accommodation.
Robert's job was an important one and meant he was regularly away from home; supervising the estate; drawing up agreements with tenants as well as collecting rents; keeping accounts; supervising estate expenditure; overseeing improvements; carrying out evictions; and valuing property. It's a wonder he had any time at all for his wife Isabella (1908 − 1892) and their family of eleven children, born between 1827 and 1845, the youngest of whom was Helen Rachel Mary Kerr.
Fortunately Robert´s job meant a good salary, almost £800 a year, which was a huge sum when compared to the local farm workers who earned about £20.
At the beginning of a warm summer during the reign of Queen Victoria, the smell of roses and the sight of hollyhocks in their cottage garden pleased Robert's wife Isabella as she prepared to give birth to her latest child. Her oldest child, at eighteen and also Isabella, sat nearby and comforted her mother whilst her father, brothers and sisters waited patiently outside.
Helen´s birth record in 1845 notes the Registration District as Presteigne in Herefordshire which is variously described as there or in Wales but the Welsh border is three miles away from Titley, the families home.
Her early life was idyllic as the sprawling grounds of the mansion were a place full of adventure and wonder and her twin brothers George and Charles, at just a year older, were forever finding new games to play as well as places to explore. After working for the Earl for a number of years Helen´s Father Robert was also exploring and had decided to branch out on his own, eventually buying a farm of 240 acres in nearby Weobley parish where the family moved to live in the farm-house, twenty miles from Titley.
Employing up to five labourers at any one time, the farm took up most of Robert´s time. Arable farming was a difficult job at the best of times and although the rich red soil of Herefordshire that I imagine stuck to Helen´s boots as she walked the edges of the fields was an excellent crop base, Robert was already hearing rumours that prices were dropping and a price depression was on the cards. This news, the early mornings and late nights took their toll on the marriage and at some point, not long after buying the farm, Robert and Isabella separated; on the 1851 Census Helen´s father is noted as an ´Annuitant´ [a person who receives a guaranteed payment for life] and just visiting the house at Weobley. At just six years old, Helen lacked the understanding of adult ways and wondered why he no longer joined the family around the crowded breakfast table.
Education for Helen had begun and continued through the 1850´s and, although absent, father Robert was keen that the three R´s; reading, writing and arithmetic, be learned however he never had the opportunity as he died suddenly in 1855 aged just fifty-five. The family were distraught.
Oldest daughter Isabella was very capable and watched over by her mother quickly got to grips with managing the farm but even when they lived separately, Robert had continued to provide income for his family. When he died his annuity died with him.
Decisions needed to be made. Mother Isabella had never settled properly in England and although she had followed Robert when he gained his position with the Earl, she longed to return home and after a brief northern visit, decided that the family were going to return to settle in the place of her birth, five hundred miles distant in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Originally from Keith in Banffshire, Isabella missed the area she had grown up in and within weeks of advertising the Weobley farm on the market, a buyer had been found and she and the children, including ten year old Helen, packed-up the furniture and treasured possessions and readied them to be freighted to their new home. With some difficulty the family had agreed who was going where and whilst Helen, her mother and some of Helen´s siblings readied themselves for the journey to Aberdeen by train, Christine at twenty-six (c.1829); Edward twenty-four (c.1831); John twenty-one (c.1834); William twenty (c.1835) and Barbara Elizabeth at just eighteen (c.1837) decided that with friends, relatives and jobs locally, they would not make the journey but make a life for themselves in England.
Isabella had wasted no time on her trip north some weeks before and had visited a number of farms in Aberdeenshire with a view to purchasing. Eventually deciding on an arable farm of 95 acres at Old Maud, New Deer near Aberdeen, she agreed terms for them to move onto the land and into the house.
Daughter Isabella at twenty-eight (c1827) and the eldest child opted to move to Aberdeenshire with her mother and hoped they would be able to complete the train journey in less than a day. It would be a big change but a new challenge was always welcome. Helen and the twins thought it a great adventure.
With her family now split in half, Helen worried that she might never see some of her brothers and sisters again and that things in the new house would never be the same. She looked forward to seeing her Uncle John, Roberts brother, but this was not to be as before they could settle into the new home, he died too in the December of 1855, barely six months after his brother. John had never married and with no immediate family, left his farm and monies to his heirs. His niece Isabella was named Executor Dative and heirs were named as: Isabella, living at Old Maud; Christian (Christinna) − married to Joseph Barton, living at Derby; Barbara Elizabeth, also living at Derby; Flora McDonald, living at Reston, Lancashire; George Morrice, Charles Gordon and Helen Rachael Mary Kerr, all living at Old Maud, Aberdeen. The boys, Edward, Robert, John and William were not mentioned but Helen, now just ten, had money set aside for her.
With all this disruption, Helen also had to move schools and on arriving at the small school building not far from the farm, listened intently as the children in the playground spoke what sounded like a foreign language. The Aberdeenshire dialect Doric was not even understood by all Scots and Helen struggled with words like; mak fowk (make folk), loon (a boy), bosie (a hug) and footer (messing about) but children are resilient and within a short time she was interpreting for her sisters when they ventured to the local markets.
With everything going on at home, Helen was allowed freer reign than might have been possible when her father was alive. At twelve the twins were also becoming a handful and talked of finding local jobs and of course, as children do, Helen wanted to copy them but was still too young to follow their lead and even in the 1861 Census she is still noted, aged fifteen, as a scholar. In the same Census her oldest sister Isabella aged thirty-two is unmarried, Flora is a Schoolmistress and Charles and George have no employment noted. There are also two servants supporting the house; one a ploughman and the other a household servant, so the family still lived relatively well.
At fifteen, Helen considered herself a young woman but after school still needed to complete her chores or indeed work on the farm with the rest of the family until well into the evenings. The fields of oats and barley surrounding the house did not plant or reap themselves and whilst they had a ploughman he could not do everything. Horses needed to be fed and cleaned when not harnessed and when they were, Helen, if not driving the pair to plough or harrow, might find herself carting crops to the sheds. Farming was labour intensive and sleep for her usually came easily.
Little is known [currently] about the next few years and its not until October 1868, aged twenty-three, Helen is noted as a ´Farmers daughter´ on the birth certificate of her daughter, Mary Flora Kerr.
She had met James Still years before at his fathers farm, Pitfoskie, where he was the youngest of twelve. At only four hundred yards distance, the Stills were the Kerr families nearest neighbour. James was five years Helen´s senior, and they had begun seeing each other more and more as the couple matured. Whether the friendship was acknowledged by the families would be speculation but at some point the relationship moved to the next level and they became lovers, then Helen fell pregnant.
Perhaps the young couple, Helen was twenty-three and James twenty-eight, had hidden the romance from their families but in any event James took issue with the pregnancy and claimed the child was not his and as a result his name was not shown on the child´s birth certificate and I fear this would have been a scandal amongst the fairly robust but God-fearing local community.
This was devastating for the young woman and after giving birth to Mary Flora she did not wait long to take action. Made of stronger stuff (than James gave her credit for) and, taking after her mother with a show of determination, Helen took James to court in 1869 and had it acknowledged legally that James was indeed the father of her child. Daughter Mary´s paternity was agreed and the child's birth certificate amended indicating there was more information in the ´Register of Corrected Entries´.
Helen´s life had changed now but farming life continued with the seasons and the Kerr family lived on at Old Maud farm. Helen´s Sister Isabella had married the family ploughman and they also had a child, Charles, who by 1871 was nine years old. On the Census from that year the family are noted as; Isabella, Head of family and Farmer of ninety-five acres; Daughter Isabella as Farmers daughter; Helen as Farmers daughter; twins Charles and George as Farmer´s sons; and Grandson Charles as a Scholar. There was no sign of two year old Mary [on any Census] or John Eddie, young Isabella´s husband. James Still, his parents and siblings still lived at Pitfoskie farm but three years later in 1874, James died of typhoid fever aged thirty-three. He was noted on his death certificate as single.
Between then and 1881 the family; Isabella, young Isabella; Flora, Charles and Helen and Mary, took another major decision. Perhaps the death and nearness of James was a factor for them staying at Old Maud, perhaps not but after selling the farm where they had lived for twenty-odd years, they upped sticks with all their belongings and moved two hundred miles away to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Helen´s oldest Sister Isabella and her family remained farming in Aberdeenshire.
Their purchase on the island was a town-house mixed in amongst the previous cotton mill workers homes. There were no known local relatives and [currently] there is no more information as to why they moved to the island.
The three storey house became home to Mother Isabella, now seventy-four; Flora McDonald, forty-four and still a teacher and unmarried and Helen, an Assistant Domestic Servant. Of the twins and Helen´s daughter Mary, then thirteen, there is no sign although ten years later Charles re-appears at the same house and is noted as a retired Farmer.
Helen´s daughter Mary moved to Edinburgh and married James Connelly in 1891 but Mother Isabella at the ripe old age of eight-four succumbed to a brain haemorrhage and died in the winter of 1892. Sister Flora died unmarried in 1894 but Helen remained in Bute in the same house along with her Brother Charles.
Helen died of bronchitis on the seventh of September 1905 at home in Rothesay, Bute. She was noted as Fifty-four and single although she was closer to sixty. She had lived a busy life and enjoyed her retirement to the seaside.
Eyewood House, where she first ran through the woodland glades and swam with her brothers and sisters in the many ponds, was demolished in 1954.
Written by: Frank T Connelly, September 2021
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