- Louisa Paget
All throughout her life, Louisa Paget had been the source of other people’s disbelief. The family that she married into, the Fleetwoods, would whisper their doubts behind Louisa’s back. Nobody was brave enough to challenge the feisty Louisa to her face, but she knew what they were saying. And as far as she was concerned, they could all do a flying jump off London’s tallest building. A formidable, successful business woman, Louisa refused to be cowed by the lack of imagination of those naysayers who couldn’t begin to comprehend the type of world that Louisa was born into in 1811. More fool them, she often thought to herself. She knew where she came from and was proud of it. She remembered the story that her parents had told her many times and was keen that her vast family would learn about Louisa’s first days in the world. It would take more than the raised eyebrow of a nuisance census taker, to dissuade her from her belief in her history.
It was early 1811 and Moses and Anne Paget were returning to England from an arduous, and frankly, unrewarding trip to Southern Europe. The journey had been meant to boost the trade that Moses and Anne had committed themselves to, since the early days of their marriage. Mr Paget knew that the trip had carried grave risks, not only financially. The passage had necessitated leaving his three small children with Anne’s family for four months. There was also the additional hinderance of the imminent arrival of their fourth child and the inherent problems of a heavily pregnant woman taking part in such a hazardous sea passage.
Not that Anne Paget would have expected, or wanted mollycoddling. Both she and Moses Paget were fortunate to be instilled with a self-belief that saw mainly positives, in a fragile, unequal world. Moses was no Icarus however, and was acutely aware of the value his wife brought to the opening stages in a blossoming trading relationship. In other times, Anne Paget would have been lauded for her astute business brain. She was a numbers woman. Moses relied on his charisma and his admirable work ethic, but he was humble enough to acknowledge, privately that Anne was the power behind the throne. On a purely pragmatic level, if your trade is in silk stockings, the input of a wise woman, should not be dismissed.
And so it was, during the blistering hot, Mediterranean Spring of 1811, the Pagets found themselves on a commercial boat, along with sixty of their trading contemporaries, exhausted from their individual excursions, but relieved that their journey was on its last leg and home beckoned. Anne supressed a growing disquiet about the risk of so many passengers being packed like sardines onto such a small boat.
At this same time, the British Naval ship, HMS Warspite was stationed at the neck of the Strait of Gibraltar. For once, the crew were not centrally involved in any battles. Their presence in Gibraltar, amounted to nothing more than providing assistance to the Spanish and Portuguese fleets, as they tried to repel the invasion of the French Empire. It was a novel role for the officers and crew of the Warspite and, if truth be told, they were all silently relishing their supporting role in this bloodiest of conflicts. The Peninsular War was now in its fourth year and the English bystander might have believed that the war’s conclusion was as far away today, as it was the day hostilities started. Historians would later describe these hostilities as one of the first wars of large scale guerilla warfare, but from their position at the outside of the Strait, this analysis would have been lost on the English. To many of them, this mission was viewed as nothing more than an unexpected, extended holiday.
Rounding the bend, with the aim of entering the Gibraltar Strait, the small commercial boat, at first, missed the imposing French galleon that loomed menacingly, not many furlongs away. Moses and Anne Paget emerged from their afternoon slumbers, out onto the poop deck. They were both looking forward to dining well later, on the rich seafood that the men had caught that morning. The couple shared their plans for the future, revisiting their decision to move home to Wiltshire. Moses had heard good stories of this upcoming county and was feeling hopeful of the prosperity that Sherston Magna promised. As they shared an early evening rum, the Pagets felt satisfied that their decision had been a wise one and that they would soon be in an area of England that offered more opportunities of good fortune and health for their three children and the baby whose arrival was imminent.
Anne Paget awoke. She was in unfamiliar surroundings. Unfamiliar faces stared back at her, from her bedside. It took several minutes for Anne to rouse herself enough to collect her bearings. She became aware of the bandages, covering her arms and upper regions. She felt her stomach and an awful realisation brought herself to a scream:
“Where am I? Where is my husband? What has happened to my child?”
A tall man, dressed in high ranking English naval uniform, stepped forward from the observing throng and took hold of Anne’s hand.
“Do not distress yourself Madam. You took a formidable battering. You are being treated for your multiple injuries on the English warship, Warspite. Your boat was attacked by Napoleon’s ungallant peasants. We believe that only eleven people survived, although we have no idea how many passengers the boat was carr….”
“Moses. My husband. And…… I was with child. God, help me.”
“Madam. Your husband survived. With narily a graze on him. He is helping my crew to clean the Hold, as way of earning his passage back to England. I will ask one of my officers to bring him to us.”
Anne could feel her countenance becoming disarranged. She didn’t expect to keep her tremors at bay.
“And my child? I cannot bear to ask.”
“That, Madam, is truly a miracle. You have been drifting in and out of consciousness for three days and nights. Late into the first night, the sailor in your attendance, noticed a change in your condition. Inexperienced and unfamiliar with the nature of womanhood, it was not in his mind that your baby’s arrival into the world was imminent. And then he noticed her head….”
“Her head! I had a daughter?” Anne’s emotions collapsed.
“Madam. Please stop interrupting me. I am a senior officer on this ship. Please respect my rank. You have a daughter, Madam. She is a bonny one…..
“I have no recollection of any of this….”
“I believe that the shock of, firstly, the bombing of the boat, and then the incredible fortitude you showed in giving birth despite your injuries, took away all your resources for the past 48 hours…..”
“I have been unconscious for 48 hours?…”
“43 hours and 45 minutes to be precise. You were awake for as long as it took for your daughter to arrive in this world. Your bravery in the face of such pain was highly commendable. Forgive my presumptions, Madam, but fearful of your demise, I urged your husband to name your daughter. Madam, you have a daughter by the name of Louisa. We are all very taken with her.”
The crew parted, and through an almost ceremonial opening, Anne saw her beloved husband, Moses, walking towards her. He was carrying a small bundle, wrapped in the finest silk stockings. Anne finally succumbed to her emotional state. A few men cheered. The tall, commanding officer patted his eye.
Sixty-two years later, in 1873, a woman stood proudly in her newly opened tailor’s shop. She surveyed the fruits of her long, successful career. She remembered how her blissful childhood in Wiltshire ended so abruptly on that fateful day when her father fell from the roof. She remembered the abject poverty and the humiliation of those several spells in the workhouse with her proud mother and invalid father. She remembered her vow to never inflict the same shame on her children, if she should be so blessed. She remembered the early days of her marriage to the giant, Reuben, and how blasted history repeated itself and they were forced to throw themselves on the mercy of the Parish workhouse. From the workhouse, there followed many years of travelling the country, in search of work; from London to Ireland, and from Nottingham to Lancashire. It was only when they arrived in Brentford, that their luck started to change.
Louisa Paget’s bosom swelled with pride. She was standing in the third, yes, the third tailor’s and outfitters shop in Brentford that she and Reuben had opened over the past twenty years. Never truly satisfied with her lot, Louisa had ambitions that before long, Brentford High Street would be resplendent with a whole chain of Fleetwood stores. This latest one was managed by herself and her sturdy daughter-in-law, Emma. Abandoned by Louisa’s feckless son, Reuben Junior and with five young children to raise, the fortitude of Emma was greatly admired by Louisa. And although, not a blood Fleetwood, Louisa held no qualms in entrusting this latest part of her empire to her reliable daughter-in-law.
Louisa settled her pride aside, satisfied that she had raised a family of shrewd survivors, in her own image.
Louisa Fleetwood/Paget allowed herself a throaty chuckle. It was a laugh that was familiar to all her family and customers, as was the story that Louisa had told, many times about how she had inherited such a deep, rasping laugh. She claimed, and nobody over a yard of ale would dare challenge her, that her vocal chords had been damaged by breathing in an excess of salty sea air in the first, four weeks of her life.
“Scoff all you like, my little deerios. What an introduction to this wonderful world.”