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Ann Watson

This article first appeared in the January 2004 Chronicle.

Its funny how you set out to write an Abbey article with one idea in mind, and by the time it comes to put pen to paper – or in this instance fingers to keyboard – it has magically transformed itself into something completely different. It doesn’t take a huge leap of understanding to realise that this is exactly what happened here.

I was looking through Ruth’s article in Chronicle 18 where she discusses the problem of Ann Watson also being known as Clarke or Ellerton. It caught my eye and I wondered if there was in fact some other explanation which covered all the facts. Well I quickly discovered that there wasn’t – at least nothing that leapt to my mind – but by this time I was fairly caught by the woman herself, her life and her background, and decided to investigate further. After all this is a character who appears almost throughout the Abbey series – certainly for a considerable number of years – and yet she is still regarded as a minor player.

The following article is the result of this research and although in some instances I have arbitrarily chosen a particular date, there has always been a reason for my choice. However, I am VERY sure that not everyone will agree with my choices – but let me know why….

Basically I have included my “life” for Ann Watson and the article is my attempt to explain this table further.


Estimated Time Line for Ann Watson



Sarah Ellerton born


Rachel Ellerton born


Ann Ellerton born


Ralph Ellerton born


Mary Damaris Ellerton born


At some point during these years, Ann’s father dies and the farm appears to pass to Sarah and her husband. For some reason Ann’s mother decides not to remain on the farm. She remarries Mr Clarke and moves to Wycombe.


Ann is working in London as a children’s nurse.


Mary Damaris joins Ann in the London household as a housemaid. She meets her husband who is Italian and a guest of the household. They marry in secret and in best Abbey tradition Mary is soon pregnant. She turns to Ann for help and advice and Ann escorts her back to the farm – to the care of her sister rather than her mother, hence the reason for assuming Ann’s father must have died by this point.


Mary dies after giving birth to Maidlin. Maid is therefore left with Sarah and her “well-to-do” husband who are childless and may therefore have welcomed the chance to bring up their niece.


Ralph decides he can no longer live in England now that his favourite sister Mary is dead and he leaves for America. He is able to run his own business there, so either at this time the family were reasonably well off, or the money to establish the business came via his wife. He must have married around about 1910 or 1911 at the latest as ….


Rachel is born


Damaris is born


Ann stops working for Lady Jessop as nurse to Dick and Della


Ann starts work at the Abbey as caretaker.


Maidlin comes to stay with Ann at the Abbey as Aunt Sarah ill. Maid’s father – who dies in this year also – has left Maidlin’s future in Ann’s hands – perhaps remembering her help at the time of his marriage?


Sarah Ellerton dies following a stroke. Rachel now inherits the farm and her and her husband Robert Douglas move from Scotland to take it over. The farm must have been worth giving up their life in Scotland for, suggesting at this stage it was still making a profit. The assumption is also that the farm is left to the various Ellerton siblings in order of age and regardless of gender – as otherwise Ralph would have inherited straightaway. It is not a condition as Rachel feels free to bypass Ann – the third oldest – and instead leave the farm to the offspring of the fourth born child – Ralph.


Rachel and Damaris return to England from America with their father sometime (not long?) after their mother’s death. He leaves the girls with Rachel and her husband. At this stage Rachel is 10 and Damaris 9.


Rachel and Damaris go to Dorothy’s.


At some stage around about here the farm is no longer prosperous enough to support two sets of school fees for the girls (Until his death Ralph had been sending the money over).


Rachel (the elder) falls ill and dies. She has heart problems and has written to Ann to ask for help from the newly prosperous Maidlin.

Rachel and Damaris leave school when they realise that there is no money to pay for them to stay there and run away to the Lake District. This is where Maid finds them and all of them – and her beloved Joy and Jen as well – break Ann’s heart by blaming her for everything.

Ralph dies in hospital after his business fails.


Ann Watson dies, described as frail and with no strength.


The first definite date we have for Ann Watson comes in Girls of the Abbey School – publication date 1921, abbey time 1916. At this point Joan explains that they have employed a “widow with no children” who is described by EJO as “pleasant-faced” and “middle-aged” (p.36). Here also is the first indication of a previous existence as Joan goes on to say “I think she must have been a servant in some London family before she married; nurse or lady’s maid perhaps” (p.37 GAS). Indeed this rather nebulous belief (references obviously not checked very thoroughly by Joan which is somewhat surprising in view of the treasures to be found in the Abbey!) is confirmed with the arrival on the scene of Lady Jessop with Dick and Della in tow. She apparently has no qualms about leaving them with Ann for an extended period as she had “had charge of them already for some years” (p.37 GAS) and her exact position in the household is confirmed later as “she has been their nurse until a couple of years ago” (p.50 GAS), a fact repeated in New Abbey Girls where it is explained that “about twenty years ago, Ann was a nurse in a swank family in London”.

Given this information it does not seem unreasonable to assume that Lady Jessop was the “swank family” and hence in 1901 Ann was working in London for Lady Jessop as a children’s nurse.

Ann was evidently in a responsible position – she had charge of the children, rather than being employed as an assistant. In such an exalted household, it is unlikely that Ann would have been given such authority over the children without having gained suitable qualifications. Certainly Ros would not have considered employing any but the most highly qualified for her little lordships and ladyships. As I have pointed out in an earlier Chronicle, such training took money to fund the course in the first place and also impacted upon the family purse in another way – as whilst in training the family member was not adding to the household income. Hence I have assumed that at this stage on Ann’s life, the farm in the north was doing at least reasonably well and the family in general was not desperately hard up – unlike in MTR when we find that the farm is struggling and indeed Aunt Rachel has nearly beggared herself by continuing to pay the school fees for Rachel and Damaris after the money from their father has stopped coming. I think it is also relevant that Sarah and her husband are prepared to move from Scotland to take over the farm, so presumably it at least offers a decent living. However, the family is evidently not that well off as the various children all have to work for their living.

A delve (yes via the internet) into the Ambleside Oral History Group’s archives – they very kindly sent me transcripts as I couldn’t get to see the originals given the distances involved! – has raised several points about Ann’s background.

 - Having been brought up on the farm, Ann – as well as all her siblings – would have worked on the farm as soon as she was capable of doing something remotely useful. Usually this continued until either the child married and moved away or got themselves a different job.

 - The various transcripts relating to the farming community in the Lake District in latter part of the 1800s noted that the limits of personal travel were effectively as far as the horse and carriage could take you. Even post First World War it took four days to go from Windermere to Newcastle and back. Interestingly it was also noted that for the young people of this region the city life that beckoned was Liverpool or Manchester rather than London. So how and why did Ann go to London? Did the Jessop’s – or a similarly aristocratic family – live somewhere close to Ann’s family farm and suggest that Ann might come to London with them and train as a children’s nurse? Or if Ann did train closer to home, why did she decide to go to London?

Whatever the reason  - and I could speculate all day! - this is where Ann ended up and the other point I think that emerges about Ann’s employment with Lady Jessop is that she must have been highly valued. This conclusion is inevitable when you consider that her much younger sister Mary Damaris is taken on in the household as a servant. If Ann had proved unsatisfactory it is highly unlikely that the Jessop’s would have risked another member of her family. Secondly not only does Ann continue in their employment after her sister has met and run off with a guest in their house, but Ann is also obviously granted time off to escort her sister north to put her in the charge of her sister Sarah (who we are told is married but childless) and I think this is a significant concession for a servant at that time.

In around 1913/14 Ann gives up her job in London and moves to Wycombe. This really did open up a whole barrel of questions and ideas!

Firstly why does she give up her job? She is evidently still on good terms with her employers, otherwise Lady Jessop would not have later considered leaving the children with her. Additionally there is at least one younger child in the household – Sheila – so presumably Ann could have continued working there had she so desired. If not, surely a qualified and experienced children’s nurse would have had no trouble in finding a new place in London had she so desired.

Secondly why Wycombe? The last thing we knew, her home was in the North as this is where she takes Mary when Mary needs help. At this stage she is presumably still on good terms with her sister so why not simply go home? However, we now discover that her mother has married again – to a Mr Clarke – and is living in Wycombe.

So again I ask why does Ann move, and why to Wycombe and not the farm? I can think of two plausible reasons for her leaving the Jessop’s and her job whilst remaining on good terms with them. Firstly there is the possibility that Ann married at this time in her life. After all she has to have been married at some stage to be described as a widow and she is now Ann Watson rather than Ellerton. Given the time she moves to Wycombe is 1913/14 it is not without the bounds of possibility that she married a soldier who was killed during the early years of the First World War. It would also not be strange then that Ann should go to her mother to recover from her loss.

The other explanation that presents itself was that her mother had fallen ill at that time and was in need of nursing. Both her other surviving sisters, Sarah and Rachel, were married – Sarah also with the care of Maidlin – and Ann as a single person would have seen it (as would the other members of her family) as her duty to go to her mother. If this is the case she has evidently recovered by the time Ann takes up her role as caretaker at the Abbey, as Ann evidently feels no compunction about palming the “rather difficult” Dick and Della off onto her mother and stepfather’s care.

If Ann does not marry in 19913/14 – the occasion of her leaving London – the best scenario for me is that she had married much earlier in life. She may have followed the pattern followed by so many children of Lake District farmers – as outlined above – by working on the farm until she married. For some reason both moved down to London and following the death of her husband she has needed to earn her living and at that point decided to train as a children’s nurse – possibly feeling at that stage that they would provide a substitute for the children she was never now likely to have.

The timeline outlined above, perhaps needs some explanation – as it shows some definite dates for the Ellerton children. Although I am convinced that the general concept is sound, I admit that the actual dates – particularly of their birth dates – could vary enormously.

Firstly there are three elder sisters – Sarah, Rachel and Ann. Although we are never told in which order they are born, I think it is relevant that the farm is owned first by Sarah, then willed by her to Rachel. Ann – as Jen remarks in MTR – is passed over and the farm is then left to Rachel and Damaris in lieu of their father.

Ralph is a year or two older than Mary Damaris – his favourite sister – so much so that after her death – in 1906 which is Maid’s birth date – he cannot bear to stay in the same country and takes off for America. Although Rachel and Damaris’ mother is not really mentioned much we do learn in MTR that she is dark like Rachel and conclude that she died in 1922 as it is because of her death that Ralph brings his children back to England and their Aunt Rachel. Neither Mary or Ralph is given an age in the Abbey series, but Mary Damaris is likely to be around 17/18 when she goes to start work in London with Ann as the marriage and birth of her child follow soon after. Thus I have fixed on her being 18 at the time of Maid’s birth and her death. This would mean that she was born in 1888 and Ralph a year or two earlier.

All three sisters are considered to be much older than Ralph or Mary Damaris “heaps younger” (NAG). The only other indication of Ann’s age is that middle-aged comment in Girls of the Abbey School mentioned earlier. Whilst neither statement can really be regarded as qualitative, both Lady Marchwood and Mrs Shirley were regarded as – and certainly represented as – old at the age of around 60. In these circumstances I cannot put Ann at any more than 45 which would – by making her birth date 1871 – make her 17 years older than Mary Damaris, a sufficient gap to be called “heaps”. A suggestion in an earlier Chronicle – sorry I can’t recall which one offhand or who made it! – puts Ann’s age at 40, which is possibly a bit young? At 45 in GAS this would make her 64 when she dies in 1935 – at that stage of her life described as old, frail, with no strength and really past her job – descriptions which would fit in with the description of women of that age in EJO’s Abbey books.


Fiona Dyer