Emma – The Story of Ellen Preston

I am now officially a pupil at the Lancaster Girls’ Charity School! It is so modern! Not only girls, but poor girls, get a proper education! I am so very nervous though, as most of the girls I met yesterday seemed to have been there forever. Some of the older girls, like Mary and Ann, have been there so long they are nearly mistresses! They are all so talented too. I am glad I am able to sew, because if I could not I would be even further behind. I am most excited for it is not long till Christmastide and, though we have never had much to celebrate recently, this year I will be getting paid.

Everything we make is sold and a quarter of it goes to us! I shall finally be able to afford powder and hats like the rich girls in Lancaster! Of course most of that will go to Mama.

Father was not that keen on me going. He says that girls having an education is not right. Mama disagrees and says to Father that he should not be so traditionalist. He hates this because he is what he calls an abolitionist, which is apparently quite modern. Robert, my brother, thinks Father should stop talking about such things, especially as it is how he lost his job with Mr Rawlinson. Robert is becoming a worker in one of the ship yards on the quay soon, I think, so mama says we will not be poor for much longer. And according to Miss Townson, the headmistress, most of the girls get good paid jobs once they leave so I will earn some money too.

Tomorrow I will receive my new clothes and shoes. The uniform looks ever so smart. It’s the same as when my mother went to the charity school eighteen years ago, the year it opened. Because she was fifteen at the time, she was only there for a year or two but it was enough to get a position as a house maid at the Rawlinson’s house. It was there that she met my father, when he working as a clerk.

He only lost his position two years ago. Apparently, he lost his temper and shouted so loudly that people in the surrounding houses heard. Since, then it’s been quite hard. Our reputation has been dwindling away and although we are not as poor as many in the town, we do not really have much money for anything anymore.


It is nearly twelve of clock but I have only just stopped work.

Tomorrow, after the annual Hymn at The Parish Church and St John’s Chapel, the second that I have sung at, we must sell our products to the guests invited by the mistresses. I have been charged with the making of a quilt that until tonight was not finished. The quality of work must be high as all the board of trustees will be there! Today, we spent many hours singing and the same Hymn over and over again, too! I have never been much of a one for singing but I could have performed in London by the end!

Last Wednesday I went to Thomas Bell to pick up the programmes and hymn sheets and they had the wrong dates on! Instead of 13th May 1792, it said 1972. I had to get Miss Clark to come and sort it out but we collected the new ones yesterday, thankfully!

I am so tired my eyes are drooping and I have burnt through two candles already.  I can’t sleep though, my mind feels too full. Miss Townson keeps hinting that I’m her favourite and that I should continue as a mistress when I leave in a few years (I can’t believe I’m thinking about it already) but I don’t want to.

I am most grateful to the School but something inside of me wants to leave it all behind and make my way in the world.

How am I ever going to flourish as a young, independent woman if I stay at the Charity School? If I carry on as mistress, I will never struggle though, I will be treated kindly, I know, and I won’t be put through circumstances I know a lot of other women face. When the time comes, it seems rather selfish to refuse her offer, especially as she’s been so kind to me. For instance, when father drowned at sea last year, after taking a last minute job on a slaver, she stepped in and took Grace, my little sister on as a pupil three years earlier than expected and made sure we weren’t hungry. She even offered to find my mother a job. I really must sleep now!

14th Day of June in the year 1796 of our Lord

Dear Miss Townson,

I wish to inform you that I have succeed in gaining a position with one of the most respectable families in Lancaster. I am currently working with two young boys ages ten and seven to educate them in reading, writing and simple arithmetic. They are sweet young gentlemen, destined to be great men. The oldest will soon inherit, or so I hear, a substantial trade company, several West Indian plantations and a fair fortune. I am in an incredible position for which I must thank you.

The house is so beautiful. I have my own room in the eves of the roof up on the fourth floor. The children are below but hardly make a sound during the night. My own room has an iron bed with a comfy mattress as well as my own basin and writing desk. I have been provided with fabrics and shoes which are more than I ever expected.

I know it is customary to contact mistresses after finding a position but I truly do want to thank you most profusely. When applying for this job, I saw many young girls who did not have any skills such as writing and reading. Some of the young women could not even sew! I hope you are glad to hear of my position and will inform the other mistresses,

Yours sincerely,

Ellen Preston