The curious case of Mary Collingwood

Posted on 30th January 2015

Mary Collingwood was my great-great-great-aunt, the sister of my great-great-grandmother Agnes Eliza Phoebe Collingwood. Technically, she was only her half-sister, as Agnes and Mary’s mother Eliza was widowed in 1853 – 13 years before Mary was born. I do not know – and likely never will – who Mary’s father was. Eliza also had another illegitimate child, Harry, the year after Mary was born.

Mary was in all likeliness born at Beckside, the family home, in Ainstable in Cumberland. Beckside was built by Eliza’s paternal ancestors Rowland and Mary Smith in 1704 and had been in the family ever since. Mary was baptised on 28th October 1866 at St Michael’s Church in Ainstable.

Throughout the available UK censuses, Mary lived in Ainstable. Most of the time this was at Beckside, apart from in 1881 when the house was occupied by her great-aunt Elizabeth Watson and her husband. Mary lived with her maternal grandmother Agnes Smith (nee Atkinson) as a child, then with her mother until she passed away. During this time, her later sister Agnes’ children were also living with Mary and Eliza.

Mary originally worked as a farmer, but took over the role of village postmistress from her mother.

I have heard two stories about Mary. Firstly, when her nephew Harry Collingwood Mitton (my great-grandfather) was killed in action in the First World War, she commissioned a stonemason to carve Harry’s name into the church wall in Ainstable. Apparently the stonemason carved the name “Henry” instead of “Harry” and Mary refused to pay for the work. Ironically, although he was generally always known as Harry, my great-grandfather did refer to himself as Henry in the 1911 census.

The second story I have heard is from a cousin who visited Ainstable in 1985. They spoke to a village resident, a Mrs Clark, who was in her 90s at the time. Mrs Clark remembered Mary well. She was quite a character it seemed. During the Second World War, Mary would go door to door, demanding that people used their blackout curtains. I don’t think it was likely that the small village of Ainstable would have been bombed!

Mary died in 1949. She never married or had children. Consequently, she was last member of the family to live at Beckside – it had been in the family for nearly 250 years. At the time of her death, she was an inmate at the Wigton workhouse. With no immediate family living close by, perhaps this was her only option for support when she became too old to continue working. She left all her money – a sum of £1230 13s 10d, worth around £28,000 nowadays – to a Thomas Vivian Steele.

Why she would leave her effects to this man is something that confuses me. Although she outlived her parents, all her siblings, and most of her nieces and nephews, she did still have living family. Her late brother William had descendents in the USA, and her late sister Agnes had descendents around England (such as my grandfather and even my aunt).

I do not know who Thomas Vivian Steele is. He nor anyone by the surname of Steele has ever come up in my research. He is mentioned in a piece titled “Some interesting documents from Ainstable”, written by Kenneth Harper, who wrote the piece for the “Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, Vol 50”.

Harper writes about some documents that belonged to the late Mary Collingwood that he found in her personal effects. He says he “is indebted to Mr V Steele, Miss Collingwood’s executor, for permission to transcribe and print them”.

I decided to look into Mr Steele further. Searching BMD records, I found he was born in 1909, his birth registered in Brampton. This would mean he was born at least somewhere in the vicinity of Ainstable. Searching the 1911 census, I find him living with his parents John William Steele and Annie Walton Steele in Castle Carrock, Cumberland, his place of birth.

Further research of BMD records revealed that he married a Mary Smith, also known as Mary Elliot, in 1947 – 2 years before Mary died. Could the Smith name be a coincidence, or was Mary Smith a relative of Mary Collingwood? I also looked into Thomas Vivian Steele’s parents. In 1906, John William Steele married Annie Walton Smith. Another Smith! Another coincidence?

In the 1871 census, Annie Walton Smith can be found living in Ainstable, aged 2, just a few doors away from the similarly aged Mary Collingwood. Perhaps they were childhood friends. Perhaps they were also related.

Annie’s father was William Smith, born in 1823 in Scotland. A member’s tree on Ancestry.co.uk has his William Jamieson Smith, born in St Mungo (near Lockerbie) in Dumfriesshire in Scotland, the son of James Smith and Margaret Scott.

This family doesn’t fit into my Smith family tree that I know off. But for all I know, James Smith could have been a sibling (or cousin) of Mary’s great-grandfather Joseph Smith, meaning Mary Collingwood and Annie Walton Smith were distant cousins.

There is the possibility that there could be some completely different reason Mary left her money to Thomas Vivian Steele. Perhaps they were just close friends. Some more digging will have to be done…