Woman have regularly been written out of history. Any roles they had as child bearer (the most dangerous job, surely) and housekeeper have rarely been considered worthy of documenting or rewarding with words that survive the test of time.

Looking for the roles of women in railway history is even more challenging.

Despite being married to Edward Pease, Rachel Whitwell is elusive. Qualities of modesty, combined with being a woman overshadowed by a successful man, rarely leaves an impact on history.  I have been carrying out research into what is often referred to as Edward Pease’s house on Northgate in Darlington on behalf of Darlington Borough Council. Of course, it was Rachel’s house too. In fact, she ran the house with live-in servants, gave birth to eight children, five of them in this house, but who was she?

Rachel Pease (nee Whitwell) was the daughter of John Whitwell and Dorothy Whitwell (nee Wilson) of Kendal born in 1771 (her grave says 1770 so even that is not clear). She was the youngest amongst two sons and four daughters. Her mother died when she was two and her father when she was eleven and so she was brought up by an aunt (Sarah Abbot) and an uncle in Kendal.

She appears to have been a pious woman. She led a modest life contributing towards her upkeep and saving money to donate to charities while still living in Kendal. Some of her detailed accounts survive relating to her own dress materials between 1794-6 and these accounts show someone who spent little of her allowance on herself.[1]

Rachel and Edward were married on the 30th November 1796 when Rachel was 24 and together they had eight children, many of whom would have a beneficial impact on the region, the country and even internationally. She was absolutely central to Edward’s life and a huge influence on him.[2] His shift in later years towards spiritual piety appears to be largely due to her influence and his desire to re-join her in the afterlife. In fact Rachel was a Quaker ‘minister, and was much loved and respected’. [2a]

Typically for a woman of this time, there are few historic records associated with her. She did keep a journal but it appears not to have survived; perhaps deliberately destroyed by Edward after her death or another family member. There is no formal portrait of her and in any case, many Quakers, Edward included, saw portraiture as a vanity.

There is a modest description of her when she was young, describing her as ‘fair’, ‘beautiful in form’ and having the ‘very sweetest expression’. These accounts could just as easily be of the family puppy!   

Her letters that survive in the Durham Records Office[3] are mainly to other family members, cover mostly family matters but also some interest in business and banking matters (the extended family included bankers and the Peases also had a modest local bank) as well as local news. Some of the letters reproduced in Pease’s diaries were written on behalf of both Rachel and Edward.[4]

Her recipes, which also include remedies for ailments have been passed down through the Pease family and thanks to Matthew Pease, her great great great grandson, I have a list of her recipes. Not surprisingly they include many ways to use oranges, lemons, plums and gooseberries grown in their garden in Northgate as well as flummeries, custards and creams, calf’s foot pudding (2 versions) and brain cakes. Her remedies included ones for cancer, gallstones, and a pain in the face.

Rachel knew terrible loss and her belief in an afterlife must have been a great comfort. Not only did she lose her parents at an early age, but two of her grown up children Isaac and Mary both died in 1825, the year the Stockton & Darlington Railway opened (indeed Isaac died the very eve of the opening).

Rachel died unexpectedly young herself on 18 October 1833 aged 64 when visiting friends in Manchester. This is an extract of a letter from Edward Pease on the afternoon of her death in Manchester to his youngest son Henry who was visiting Leeds:

‘last night thy most precious mother retired to rest as usual well but getting into her bed from which she had risen in the course of the night & placing her knees on its side to raise herself again into it she slipped down upon her knees with much force & the shock to her system has been such as the drs fear has caused an alarming concussion on the brain – she only complained of her knees & said she had a violent shock when she returned to bed And she was soon asleep – but it was short, & when she awoke was slightly delirious, that in the course of the day has given way to a constant stupor & unconsciousness of all that is doing around her, has not recently opened her eyes, nor could I say there was a ray for hope to seize upon except in the goodness of the Pulse’ ‘but now the affecting end is come at about half past the peaceful and purified spirit took its flight – my belief is that after the 2 first hours it was granted her to be free from the knowledge of pain and she gradually sunk into the arms of everlasting mercy with all the peacefulness with the infant sinks into sleep – my spirit entertains no doubt but a mansion of the blessedness is hers’,…

Her body was brought back to Darlington, and she is buried in the Quaker burial ground there. Thousands attended her funeral. According to Francis Mewburn, the railway company’s first solicitor and responsible for seeing the Stockton & Darlington Railway Bill through Parliament, ‘She was kind and benevolent to the poor and of a sweet disposition’.[5]

Edward visited her grave every week for the rest of his life.  He regularly referred to his love for her:

“Ah! So sweet, so pure, was the affection which existed between my beloved Rachel and myself, that if a sense of it could be renewed in the interminable bliss of heaven, my joy would be full.” (The Edward Pease’s Diaries edited by Sir Alfred E. Pease 1907, p114)

So, Rachel Pease was fair in youth, had a sweet disposition, she was charitable and must have made a difference to the lives of the poor. She ran a household, had modest requirements and was mother to eight children. But this is a cardboard cut-out of the ideal 19th century woman. Rachel, I still don’t really know who you were.

[1] The Edward Pease’s Diaries edited by Sir Alfred E. Pease 1907, p363-4

[2] The Edward Pease’s Diaries edited by Sir Alfred E. Pease 1907, p52-3

[2a] Pease, M H 1897 Henry Pease. A Short Story of his Life p4

[3] D/Pe 2/4-7; D/Pe 2/77

[4] The Edward Pease’s Diaries edited by Sir Alfred E. Pease 1907, p57

[5] Mewburn 1876, 34