Explore the Symonds, Gwillim and Ramsden families, and learn more about some of the figures who appear in Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds’ letters.
Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Ramsden came from an enterprising family. Their father, Thomas Symonds (1730-1791), was a stonemason, draughtsman, architect, and monumental mason in Hereford. He was sworn a Freemen of the City of Hereford on December 10, 1753, and he was appointed surveyor of Hereford Cathedral in 1777. He also acted as the clerk of works at Downton Castle for the Herefordshire landowner and art collector, Richard Payne Knight—a well-known proponent of the picturesque. He retired as surveyor of Hereford Cathedral in 1786 following the collapse of its tower. It must be noted, however, that he was not dismissed from his post. Indeed, he had attempted to persuade the cathedral dean and chapter to take steps to prevent this event from occurring, without effect. He worked on several projects throughout the surrounding countryside, including work on the country houses of Allensmore and Castle Lodge, Ludlow.
Following Thomas’ death in 1791, his wife, Esther Symonds (1734-1806), took over his business and ran it herself until her death in 1806. Esther and Thomas had six children: Frances (1758), Ann (1759-1834), Elizabeth (1763-1807), Thomas (1766), Hester (1768-1828), and Mary (1772-1854). However, Frances and Thomas died before reaching adulthood. Esther’s daughter, Ann “Nancy,” and her family resided in Tupsley near Esther until late 1804. Elizabeth and Mary often wrote to their mother while in Madras, along with their sister Hester. Elizabeth and Mary learned the news of their mother’s death in the summer of 1806, having received word from Hester.
My chief grief is that I was not near her [their mother] in the last hour, on this account I consider the distance that separated us as a dreadful calamity, formerly I thought I fancied, that it was productive of some little pleasure to her & I had therefore infinite pleasure in collecting all sorts of information that I conceived wou’d please her. I trust in God that our absense [sic] has neither shortened her existence by depriving us of the power of aiding to watch over her, nor by giving her extraordinary anxiety upon account of us.Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, September/October 1806
Elizabeth and Mary refer to their elder sister, Ann, as “Nancy” throughout their letters. Ann “Nancy” Symonds (1759-1834) married Edward “Ned” James in 1791, and resided in Tupsley near Ann’s mother, Esther, until 1804 when it appears the family fell on some financial difficulties. As Elizabeth wrote her mother in March 1805, “I was truly sorry for Nancy’s misfortunes but losses will happen in all business.” Nancy and Ned had at least four children. Their oldest was Tom, and they had a daughter born in 1804. While one child died in 1802, Elizabeth and Mary often make reference to “the boys” after that period. Ann died in 1834 and was listed in the Symonds’ monumental inscription in Hereford Cathedral.
I hope Ned and Nancy do not take it amiss that I do not write to them but I consider these letters as much to one as the other.Mary Symonds to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, February 7 1803
Hester “Hetty” Symonds (1768-1828) was Elizabeth and Mary’s main correspondent during their stay in Madras. Hester married Richard H. James in 1796, and they lived in London next to St. Helen’s Bishopsgate at 39 Bishopsgate Within. Richard was a cloth draper and later ran a warehouse business with his nephews. Richard, belonging to a Hereford family, was likely related to Ann’s husband, Edward “Ned” James. The couple had two sons, who died in infancy, and a daughter named Mary, born in 1804. Prior to Mary Symonds’ voyage to Madras, she spent considerable time with both Hetty and Elizabeth who both resided in London at that time. Hester died in 1828 in London.
The Gwillims were a family of Welsh origins residing in Hereford. Henry Gwillim’s father was John Gwillim (1723-1813), an apothecary and surgeon in Hereford. He married Elizabeth Cam (1733-1816) in 1755. John was elected and sworn Mayor of the City of Hereford in 1766, and he was elected Alderman in 1777. John appears to have had a variety of interests, as a certain John Gwillim was listed as a subscriber to the Brompton Botanical Gardens in 1803, which would have allowed him to walk the gardens and use the library. Elizabeth and John had seven children. However, two of their daughters did not reach adulthood.
Thomas Gwillim (b. 1766) was Henry’s younger brother, and he served in the Royal Navy. Mary Symonds and Elizabeth received news in 1802 that he had been promoted to Post-Captain— a now obsolete rank in the Royal Navy. However, a letter from John Gwillim Sr. in 1803 to Madras stated otherwise. Thomas must have predeceased his younger brother John, and perhaps his parents, as their father’s estate went to John Jr.
John Gwillim (b. 1769) was Henry’s youngest brother, and he was also an apothecary in Hereford. He inherited his father’s property in Hereford upon his death. John married Sarah Sirrell in 1813, and they had one son together. Upon Henry’s death in 1837, John was a trustee of his will, selling off most of Henry’s goods, which likely included Elizabeth’s paintings. While in Madras, Mary corresponded with John. While she often complained of his lack of response and wrote teasing descriptions of him, as she wrote to her sister Hetty in February 1803, she considered him like a brother.
I wrote to John Gwillim my foolish warmth of heart must needs set me, to waste time & paper, & obtrude myself upon him, who has never had the manners to to [sic] acknowledge my attention & therfore [sic] I suppose thought it impertinent; what these, my disappointment is not very great, I have lived long enough to know that all flesh is dust, & not to expect perfection in human nature John is one of those lucky pleasant people who will always have friends tho he should never do any thing to deserve them & he is not the only instance of that sort that has come under my observation.Mary Symonds to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, October 14, 1804
Mary’s husband, John Ramsden’s, father was Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800), born near Halifax, Yorkshire. He moved to London in 1755 and married Sarah Dollond (1740-1796) in 1766. Sarah was the daughter of John Dollond (1707-1761), a prosperous maker of optical instruments. Jesse himself became well-known as a mathematician and scientific instrument maker. Indeed, his design, the Ramsden eyepiece, is named after him. Sarah and John had four children, but only John made it past infancy. Upon his father’s death in 1800, John inherited his estate.
John Ramsden (1768-1841) joined the East India Company Navy in 1780, and he became a Commander in 1795. John was the captain of the ship on which Mary sailed back to England from Madras. Mary and John married in 1809 at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and settled in Bishopsgate until 1818. Mary, no doubt, wanted to remain near her sister Hetty who also lived there. They moved to Twickenham in 1818. Their first son died in infancy, while their second son, John George Ramsden, was born in 1815. Mary resided with her son, and his wife, Sarah Burdett, in Twickenham until her death in 1854.
Information courtesy of Rosemary Ruddell, Anna Winterbottom, and Victoria Dickenson.