Saturday, 16 January 2016

#3 Louisa Sheaf - Great Aunt by name, great Aunt by nature.

Great Aunt Lou was something of a legend in the Sheaf family, both at Honeybourne in England and in Australia. Although having no husband or children of her own, she was firmly enmeshed in the daily lives of those around her and a personage of some importance!

Louisa Sheaf was the youngest child of William Harbidge Sheaf and Mary Tomes Holland, my 3 x great grandparents. She was born in 1835 and had 10 older siblings. Her father was a farmer at Bickmarsh in the parish of Welford on Avon. When Louisa was only 2 her father died suddenly. According to a distant family connection Ian Tomes in England, who has a large collection of Tomes family documents and memorabilia, he drowned at Weston Lock in the Avon river. I have not yet been able to confirm this from documentary sources, but he certainly died intestate, which does rather suggest a sudden death.

Louisa's mother Mary must have been an amazing woman as she carried on the family farming business until her death in 1846; as well as providing for her large family.

After her baptism at Welford on Avon in 1835, the next record I have for Louisa is in the 1841 census. At only 6 years of age, she was living with a cousin's family in Badsey. John Sheaf, his wife Sarah and their grown up daughter Margaret had three little children living with them, and it appears from the 1840 Bentley's History and Directory of the Borough of Evesham that Sarah and Margaret ran a small preparatory school for infant children.

In 1851, Louisa was living and working in Northampton as an apprentice to a distributor of religious tracts! Apparently, Northampton was considered fertile ground for the Baptist movement and prodigious amounts of tracts were distributed weekly in a well organized and systematic mission.

 I don't know how long Louisa remained with the Cooper family in Northampton, but by 1861 she had moved again and was working for a Jewish family, the Myers, in Edgbaston, Warwickshire. This was to be a long lasting relationship for Louisa who remained with the Myers family for at least 20 years as a domestic servant and then a nurse domestic. Maurice Myers, his wife Mathilda and their children must have come to greatly love Louisa, as in the 1901 census she is visiting Mathilda at the home of her daughter Lella Samuels in Hampstead and is described as "friend". Another Myers child, Leopold, was eventually the executor of Louisa's will after her death in 1932 at the age of 98.

Interestingly, Louisa's impact on the Myers family possibly had far reaching consequences for many people in the broader community. In 1913, Leopold Myers gifted a country house at Cleeve Prior for use as a convalescent home for women. The home was known as The Gertrude Myers Convalescent Home, in memory of his own wife. Both Gertrude and Leopold had been directors of the Birmingham Hospital for Women and realized that a convalescent home providing fresh air, good food and rest could make a huge difference to the recovery of patients, especially for working women who might otherwise not get an opportunity to recuperate in peace and quiet. I can only imagine that Leopold's many years of association with Louisa, a perfect example of a hard working women, were instrumental in his choice of Cleeve Prior as the site for his charitable project.

As an unmarried woman of limited means, it appears that Louisa didn't ever have a home of her own. Once she had finished working for the Myers family, she lived with various relatives. In 1891 she was living with her much older brother Thomas Holland Sheaf, my 2 x great-grandfather and then in the 1911 census, she was recorded as living with her niece by marriage Kate Sheaf (Careless) at Sunnyside, Cleeve Prior. She also featured in stories of life at Honeybourne as told to my father by his mother and grandmother, as she was an aunt to both my great grandfather George Cornelius Sheaf and my great grandmother Louisa Sheaf. It is in fact quite likely that great grandmother Louisa was named for her.

Once great grandma Louisa emigrated to Australia leaving her husband and step-children behind, she kept in touch with her dear Aunt Lou.
I have a very short letter from Great-Aunt Lou to her niece Louisa in which she says:

"Just a line to wish you may have a Happy Bday and that you may spend many others and under much more happy circumstances. I am giving you a purse with initials which was given to me but which I have never used and which I hope you will accept with my love and best wishes for the coming season. A very Happy Xmas and a much brighter New Year when it comes. Aunt Lou."

I think this photo, taken at Honeybourne in 1921 on the occasion of a family wedding encapsulates what was probably a delicate position for Great Aunt Lou: biological aunt to both Louisa Sheaf on her right and Louisa's husband George Cornelius Sheaf on her left - caught in the middle of a difficult marriage with family loyalty going both ways.

To my mind, Louisa was the ultimate great Aunt. She supported herself from a very young age through hard work; she had the ability to build positive relationships with those around her and she lived to a great old age, becoming something of a legend in the process. Her headstone in the churchyard of Cleeve Prior simply reads "Oh Rest in the Lord". And rest is what I think she deserved after such a long and busy life. Here's to Great Aunt Lou!


  1. Good story Elizabeth. It is lovely to think that people like Great Aunt Lou, who had no direct descendants, will continue to live on through the fond remembrances of Family Historians. You have truly joined the ranks of "The Storytellers".