Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Life of the Governess Continued: Agnes Porter

by Lauren Gilbert

The Governess
As we’ve already seen, governesses were a necessary feature in upper class households with children. The position came to be regarded as oppressive, socially ambiguous and somehow shameful. This is especially true of the Victorian era, when middle class and tradesman families who had acquired new wealth wanted governesses for their children as a sign of their new status (and to help their children move into a higher social sphere). In many ways, this created a new tension in that, at the same time, there was a plethora of unattached gentlewomen seeking employment who went to work for people whom they might never have considered a social equal. Within the household, a governess had the social strain of being kept “in her place” combined with the need to provide their female students with less intellectual stimulation and more accomplishments, creating a singularly isolated and intellectually arid situation. This is the situation from which JANE EYRE and her like was born. Miss Trimmer (see my previous post HERE.) and Miss Agnes Porter, today’s subject, had the advantage of being from an earlier generation. They grew up at a time when education for girls was not as restricted (even if only in their reading) and worked at a time when governesses were employed primarily by the aristocracy, so the issue of rank was already settled.

Fortunately, Agnes Porter left diaries and letters, which give us an opportunity to learn about her working life. However, we do not have as much personal detail as we could wish. Ann Agnes Porter was born on June 18, sometime around 1750-52 (exact year unknown) in Edinburgh, the oldest of 4 children (she had 2 sisters and a brother; her brother died young). Her father was Francis Porter, born about 1718. His parents having died when he was young, he was apprenticed at age 12 under his uncle, a woolendraper in Great Yarmouth. Although he completed his apprenticeship, he apparently had different ambitions; by 1750, he was an ordained Anglican clergyman living in Edinburgh and married to a woman named Elizabeth (maiden name unknown but of apparently better connections) and beginning his own family. It is important to note that, despite his beginnings in trade, by becoming a clergyman and marrying a woman of somewhat better status, he raised himself up to a higher social level. This allowed his daughters to be considered gentlewomen, an important consideration.

Although Mr. Porter does not seem to have held a permanent living for most of his career, he performed marriages and services and apparently continued his studies. Despite the fact he and his family seem to have relocated to Chelsea near London by about 1763, Francis Porter was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Edinburgh University in 1765. He had also benefited from a series of inheritances from aunts, first in 1757, again in 1764 and again in 1765, inheriting money and property in Great Yarmouth, among other benefits. The family remained in the Chelsea-London area until about 1770. In 1778, he was given his own living at Wroughton, Wiltshire, as vicar. He died March 28, 1782 at Wroughton, living his widow and 3 daughters.

We know nothing of the education of Agnes and her sisters. There is no indication that she or her sisters were sent away to school; there is a strong probability they were educated at home. We don’t know what benefits Mr. Porter’s inheritances may have afforded the family prior to his death. As a clergyman, particularly one pursuing his own education, one assumes there were books in the households in which they lived. There is an indication that Agnes and her youngest sister Fanny were in Boulogne, France, for some time as girls; certainly, Agnes spoke respectable French as an adult. At some point, she must have had music lessons, as she played the piano and the harpsichord and sang. It is apparent she read widely, had an inquiring mind, and acquired the usual skills: the use of the globes (celestial and terrestrial), drawing, geography, etc.

Agnes spent some time in the household of a wealthy family named Ramey in Great Yarmouth. John Ramey, head of the household, may have been a friend or acquaintance of her father. She may have been in the household for at least part of the time as Mrs. Ramey’s companion, and was there at the time her father died in 1782. There is no indication of what happened to the property Mr. Porter had inherited in Great Yarmouth; he left little to his surviving family and, as the widow of a clergyman, Mrs. Porter had to leave the house that had come with the living. From this point, it was apparent that Agnes was going to have to support herself and her mother. Her first known position as a governess was in the household of a family named Goddard with several daughters later in 1782, which was located in Swindon, not far from Wroughton. She stayed there a short time, before moving on to the household of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester in January of 1784. She was then in her early thirties. Her salary was 100 pounds per year and she was provided with comfortable rooms of her own, including the use of a parlour.

Lord Ilchester’s family was wealthy and related to Lord Holland and Charles James Fox, one of the strong Whig families. Despite this, his wife and children spent most of their time at Redlynch in Somerset, rather than in London or at other more imposing estates. Lady Ilchester was the daughter of an Irish gentleman, and apparently the marriage was a love match. At the time Agnes Porter joined their household, Lord and Lady Ilchester had 3 daughters, and her arrival occurred just before the birth of a 4th daughter. Lady Ilchester, by all accounts, was a warm-hearted person who preferred life in the country with her children, and Agnes Porter became very attached to her. It appears that Miss Porter and Lady Ilchester became friends. A son and 2 more daughters were born. Sadly, Lady Ilchester died in June of 1790, shortly after the birth of her 6th daughter. Agnes Porter had the teaching of and a great deal of the care of the children. Lord Ilchester was involved with his children, particularly the older ones, taking them on visits from home and to his London home during the season.

Miss Porter’s teaching style seems to have been less reliant on learning by rote than by experience, reward and making the lessons fun. She heard their prayers and their lessons, took them for walks, supervised their play and read with them. This could involve a day lasting up to 16 hours, and occurred every day. Having an affectionate relationship with their mother and fondness for the children must have made things much easier for Miss Porter and the family (unlike the periodic tensions between Selina Trimmer and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Elizabeth, the 2nd duchess). After the death of Lady Ilchester, Miss Porter was even more involved with the day-to-day care of the younger children. She genuinely liked teaching. She was also a sympathetic friend to the two older girls who were growing up and no longer required teaching as much as guidance.

During this time, Miss Porter was able to see friends, especially when in London. Her youngest sister Fanny Richards (who had married a clergyman) visited her at Redlynch. She sent money to her mother and younger sister Elizabeth, who lived with Mrs. Porter. She also corresponded with her sister Fanny. Agnes wrote and published a book of children’s stories in 1791. However, despite the many advantages of her position, she worried about her mother and wanted to spend more time with her which was difficult. She visited when she could, and was concerned about her mother’s health. Agnes was there multiple times in 1791, and again in July of 1792, when she paid her mother’s debts and arranged for more care for her (sister Elizabeth was apparently not a reliable caregiver, which added to Agnes’ worries). She was also anxious about an indigent old age, despite Lord Ilchester’s promise of an annuity of 30 pounds per year. She hoped for a marriage, and a home of her own, as that offered the most security.

In 1794, one of Lord Ilchester’s older daughters, Mary, married Thomas Talbot and moved with him to his home Penrice Castle in Wales. This was a wrench, as Lady Mary and Miss Porter were friends. They did however engage in correspondence. On June 8, 1794, Miss Porter’s beloved mother died. Then, in August of 1794, Lord Ilchester married again, to his cousin Maria Digby, a much younger woman. Although Miss Porter tried to be optimistic, the new Lady Ilchester did not warm to Miss Porter, apparently uncomfortable with Miss Porter’s affectionate relationship with her stepchildren. The birth of a son two years later to Lord and Lady Ilchester only exacerbated the tension, culminating in Miss Porter’s determination to leave the position in 1796, although restricted by her situation (where to go?). Fortunately, a friend, Mrs. Upchur, offered Miss Porter 100 pounds per year to come as companion, so Miss Porter was able to give her notice to Lord Ilchester, who was distressed to lose her. She moved in with Mrs. Upchur in September of 1797. She was in her mid forties and had been with them over a decade.

In March 1799, Mrs. Upchur died, leaving Agnes 100 pounds. Later in 1799, her friend and former pupil Lady Mary Talbot, now a mother herself, invited Miss Porter to come to Penrice to teach her children, also offering 100 pounds per year. This gave Miss Porter the opportunity to return to a country household with a congenial mistress and a second generation of children to teach. She remained with the family until she retired in 1806. Lord Ilchester had died in 1802, but he left many debts and an unclear will, so it took much time for the promised annuity to be paid. At some point in 1808, the payment of the annuity finally became reliable.

Fortunately, the Talbots continued to pay her 30 pounds per year after her retirement and she was able to go live with her married sister Fanny and her brother-in-law in Fairford, Gloucestershire. She periodically returned to Penrice to help out, and also visited London and Norfolk. At some point, she decided to leave her sister’s home (there is a suggestion that her brother-in-law’s evangelical beliefs were not compatible with her beliefs, and particularly her fondness for cards). Ultimately, she spent the last few years of her life comfortably in lodgings in Bruton, a happy situation near Redlynch where she had acquaintance and was able to enjoy a social life. Agnes maintained her correspondence with Lady Mary Talbot until she passed away in February 1814, in her early 60’s. She left approximately 2000 pounds, which she had settled with a will written in 1813, benefiting her sister Fanny and some cousins, and leaving a few other bequests.

Agnes Porter’s diaries give us many insights to her life and activities as a governess that we do not have with Selina Trimmer. She acknowledged herself as plain, but she retained her intellectual curiosity and strove to learn. She read books about education, tried to teach herself Latin, German and Italian, and continued to read widely during her life. She clearly had positions in the Ilchester and Talbot homes that allowed her privacy and a certain amount of freedom and paid her decently, allowing her to support her mother and to save something for herself. In spite of this, she was dogged by the uncertainty of her situation and the fear of being alone and poor in her old age. Throughout her career, as successful and satisfying as it was in many ways, Agnes Porter wanted to be married. She had her hopes raised and disappointed more than once well into her middle years. It’s no wonder that, after Lord Ilchester’s death, she pursued her annuity until it was resolved and paid regularly.

The information here is from the following sources:

Brandon, Ruth. GOVERNESS The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres. 2008: Walker Publishing Co., New York, NY.

Martin, Joanna, ed. A GOVERNESS IN THE AGE OF JANE AUSTEN The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter. 1998: The Hambledon Press, London, England.

I highly recommend both books. Unfortunately, I found no portrait of Miss Porter in the public domain.

Image: The Governess by Emily Mary Osborne, 1860. Wikimedia Commons. HERE

Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first published work, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was released in 2011.  Her second novel, working title A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT in in process.  Visit her website HERE for more information.


  1. Thank you for a fascinating article

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Mairi. Thank you for commenting.

  3. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Mairi. Thank you for commenting.

  4. I was glued to this real life story. At one stage I considered Agnes quite well paid when I recalled starting my working life in London in 1950 for pretty much the same wage/salary as she received (mine was £2/10/- pw £126 per annum), and Agnes did not have to pay tax or fares to work so she was financially much better off than I

    1. I was surprised by the fact that she left 2000 pounds in her estate. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Brian!


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