Portrait of a Couple: The Wills of the Silvesters of Foxham

Written by Louise Ryland-Epton

In 1851 Henry Silvester, a basket maker by trade was living in Foxham. He was seventy, still working but as an owner of a number of properties, a man of some means. He was married to Maria. The couple had married late when Henry was about forty-three and Maria (then a Vines) in her fifties. Maria’s age is somewhat ambiguous. According to the census she was either five years or eleven years older than her husband. Her age, at her death in 1851, was different again but her likely baptism record shows she was born in 1770 and it is probable, therefore, she was fifty-four when she married. Unsurprisingly they had no children.

Their marriage may have been motivated for economic reasons rather than romantic sentiment (these were different times). It seems that Maria was able to sign her name whilst Henry was not. Possibly Maria, with some education, could support her husband’s business interests. As Maria’s own family were reasonably well off and the scant evidence suggests Henry’s origins were more humble, it is conceivable Maria may have originally owned the property which Henry later bequeathed at his death. On marriage a single woman with property would automatically surrender it to her husband. Reason enough perhaps for a woman not to marry or at least take her time in choosing a spouse. This may account for the reason Henry left his entire estate to his wife in her life- time, although Henry’s will also suggests an affection for his wife.

Maria is likely to have been inclined towards religious non-conformity. Neither Silvester will contained supplications to god and but Maria left money to both the Moravians in Tytherton and Wesleyans in Christian Malford, although these were small compared to the rest of her estate. Henry’s will reveals nothing about his feelings.

On his death, Henry owned four properties which included one in Foxham occupied by his great niece, Harriet Reeves. After Maria’s death his will directed that Harriet should be given the property she lived in. Another cottage in Foxham was inhabited (and I assume rented) by an agricultural labourer and his family. This was to go to Henry’s great nephew at Maria’s demise.

In her own will Maria also left bequests to her family, including £40 to her sister and £130 to a Jane Hughes, probably her unmarried niece. The bequest to Jane is interesting as Maria directed her to ‘pay and apply the same according to her discretion for the equal benefit and advantage of the children of the late Joseph Hughes of Warminster.’ The most likely ‘Joseph Hughes’ was buried in April in 1851 aged just 44 with a young family. Given an implied familial link, a near relative. Maria also left substantial bequests to William Reeves (husband of Henry’s niece Harriet) and a William Matthews. These were working men, a sawyer and agricultural labourer, and the gifts would have been a huge boon to these men’s families. As near neighbours to the Silvester’s I wonder if Matthews and his wife, to whom Maria left a silver cup, may have supported them in old age. Maria was probably eighty-one when she died.

Maria’s will was made five days after Henry’s death in 1851 only a short time before her own demise. They were buried exactly two weeks apart at Foxham in October 1851. The cause of death is unrecorded. A tender picture could be painted of a devoted couple. Perhaps Henry’s widow was unable to cope without him. However, the reality may have been very different.

Notes: The wills of Maria & Henry are on Ancestry (Ref: WSA, P1/1851/66 and P1/1851/63).