ID: MIS_1968_IRD / Alan Dawson

TitleAn old lady remembers - Isabella Rosa Dawson
AbstractMore than 150 years ago [ in 1968 ], Professor Horace Hayman Wilson sent his six year old son home to England in the care of the ship's captain from Calcutta. The voyage took nearly six months. Some years later the boy married a lady from North Farm, East Mersea. A marquee was put up for the nuptials and the festivities lasted a week. "Their son was my father and that was how I came to be in Mersea" says Mrs Isabella "Rose" Dawson of High Street North, who will be 89 this month.

She has many bitter-sweet memories of her carefree childhood and is busy compiling these under the title ...


The Mersea Island she knew was steeped in drama. The sparsly populated communities were full of real people. Characters who inspired Baring-Gould to write Mehalah.

For six months of the year her mother, Mrs Wilson, would live in East Mersea, while her husband would join the family at weekends and for his holidays.

This practice enabled the children to have the best of two worlds. The complete freedom of a summer in the country; and the social whirl of the Victorian London season. The Wilson retinue - eight children and a governess - would arrive at Brightlingsea from London. They would be met by two boats who would take them on to East Mersea, where they rented a cottage.

But the moment they landed they cast aside all Victorian conventionalism. Little heed was paid to the governess and they spent most of their time on the water. They formed themselves into a crew called the "Pirates"; and under the guidance of their mother (the "Captain") they became expert at rowing and sailing.

They were unconventional in a strictly conventional world. The girls rowed and sailed and enjoyed complete freedom at a time when a young lady's upbringing was heavily chaperoned.

Dress for sailing was little different from town clothes. In those days young ladies went on the water wearing nearly the same number of petticoats as they would for a dance.

The only nautical uniform they wore were red stocking caps that hung down to the shoulder. For the girls these caps became a symbol and they were rarely seen without them. The children won many races at East Coast regattas. And they became so successful that rules were changed to exclude "outsiders".

At one particular Brightlingsea regatta the local ladies refused to compete when they heard that two of the notorious "Pirates" from East Mersea had entered. Harassed officials asked the girls if they would provide a race just between themselves. This they did.

Because of this "closed-shop" attitude the Wilson girls concentrated on sailing and were among the first women to race at Brightlingsea.

Mrs Dawson remembers many adventures. Once they sailed to St. Osyth and walked to Clacton, "such a pretty little place then". On their way back to Mersea thick yellow fog forced them to drop anchor. They spent six hours in an open boat with nothing to eat but radishes!

When they eventually arrived back they humorously chided the water police for not rescuing them. Back came the answer, "We knew you were alright, we could hear you singing".

With no communication from the outside world, the family relied on "do-it-yourself" entertainment and organised many concerts and musical evenings. And somewhat naturally in an area such as this, tales of ghosts and spirits were believed, and the marshlands, shrouded in mists and stillness, provided an ideal occult setting.

The cottage, which is still standing, was and is reputed to be haunted, shares the ghost with the Queen Anne house next door.

Apparently there were two ghosts: an old man and a weeping girl. There were also, says Mrs Dawson, unaccountable footsteps, which her father would sometimes try to "follow". Mrs Dawson said that her mother spoke of "a girl" and that on one occasion even plucked up courage to speak to it.

At the turn of the century, two characters stood out. One was William Baker, the ferryman; and the other was Myron Bayard Brown, an eccentric millionaire from America, who lived on his yacht the VALFREYIA.

A news item from the Daily Express dated 7 May 1902 told of the American's strange generosity:

"Since 1889 the huge amount he has given away cannot be called charity because some of the recipients of the American millionnaire's bounty are noted 'wastrels'. Mr Brown gives for the pleasure of giving".

The news item went on to say that all the year round he received shoals of begging letters which arrived at the rate a sack a day. Mr Brown read all these letters carefully and sent money to the writers of one in every ten. The amounts he gave varied between a guinea and a thousand pounds.

"It was an extraordinary sight to see the number of boats laden with beggars rowing round his yacht, waiting for hours until he signified by a nod that he would see one or two applicants.

Mr Brown was a man of many moods. For days he would shut himself up in his cabin and refuse to even see the steward who waits upon him. In the words of one boatman, "When the moon is full he never gives away a halfpenny, but when it gets on well to the half he throws money away right and left." The article went on to say that Brown refused to support local charities, and refused to listen to the local parson.

William Baker - an enigmatic character - lived with his second wife on a barge moored at East Mersea Stone. He worked as a ferryman between East Mersea and Brightlingsea, and his wife sold fish from door to door pushing her wares on a barrow.

When Mehalah was first published Baker was angry because he could not recognise himself in the novel. No-one had the courage to tell him he was the villainous Rebow.

One day Mr Wilson caught Baker ill treating a little girl. Being a stalwart Victorian gentleman, he commanded Baker to raise his fists. This he did - and was promptly knocked to the ground. After the fisticuffs Baker bore no grudge against he adversary. Indeed, he often said "Mr Wilson is a gentleman. He didn't kick me when I lay on the ground."

Mrs Dawson remembers East Mersea Church with its high pews and unsafe gallery. She also remembers the installation of the organ. How it has all changed, she says. Even the bowling green has disappeared.

Isabella Rosa 'Smudge' Wilson was born 23 Jan 1880 and died 3 Jan 1972. She married Geoffrey Hugh Campion Dawson. This article was written by her grandson Alan Dawson for Mersea Island Society Mistral magazine in 1968.

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Grace Edenborough - a Victorian orphan

AuthorAlan Dawson
SourceMersea Museum