Talking about Tavistock: Mary Maria Colling; A C19 Maid-Servant Poet

 A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Tavistock canal

Talking about Tavistock:
Mary Maria Colling
a C19 Maid-Servant Poet

...Green as an ivy you may be,
Though not to be compared with me
If I'm admired as thus I'm seen,
Tis not because my dress is green:
Know then, I'm more admired than you,
Because I'm green and fragrant too'.
('The Ivy and the Myrtle', Mary Maria Colling).

Mary Maria Colling
frontspiece from Fables

     Performance Poetry is not just a C21 phenomenon. Back in the early/mid C19, a woman poet (who we'd now consider obscure and obsolete) regularly drew a crowd of admirers to the town of Tavistock, some of whom had travelled for miles to see and hear her pronounce her poems. Mary Maria Colling was a maid-servant who became protégé of the more well-known Anna Eliza Bray, wife of the then vicar of Tavistock. 

The Old Vicarage in Tavistock

      In a Literary Christmas 1836, Ann Pulsford relates that Anna recorded in her Autobiography (published posthumously in 1884), that she had first noticed Mary Colling at church; she was intelligent, of neat appearance and had written some poetry. Mary, then 25, was employed as a domestic servant in a house near the river not far from the vicarage, owned by the Hughes family. Bray collected and published Colling’s poems in 1831 as Fables and other Pieces in Verse, which according to one recent commentator ‘comprises a series of Aesop-style fables’. (See Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent": (Romantic Mentorship and Mary Colling's "Fables", in Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 59 (2010).

Title Page of Fables

In her piece Pulsford notes that Colling was buried in Tavistock church graveyard and that the headstone remains in the churchyard in front of St Eustachius Church in Tavistock, but does not mark the original grave. (Photo alongside: taken from the contents list of Fables)
     I’ve not studied Colling's work or looked too deeply into the circumstances of her quirky writings as they interconnect with Anna Eliza Bray and the meeting points of their lives in Tavistock (and I might have missed other commentaries already written), but thought I’d jot down a few of my own observations about the two women. I’ve taken as my starting-point a passage from a paper by Meagan Timney, Mary Hutton and the Development of a Working-Class Women's Political Poetics, in which she comments:
What do we know about the working-class women who wrote poetry in the Victorian period? As so often happens in the study of non-canonical writers, their biographies exist in fragments, a miscellany of facts with very little cohesion. We may know that a writer was a "factory girl" or a "domestic servant"; however, we often know little of the circumstances in which she wrote, her family history, or the particularities of her work. It seems that the lack of extant working-class women's poetry lies in the historical (de)valuations surrounding their lives; the difficulties in recovering their texts is, in part, linked to the unavailability of biographical information. Perhaps deemed too unimportant by the establishment for a record of their lives to be kept, nineteenth-century working-class women poets all but disappeared from historical record, and we are only now in the process of rediscovering them.

       Taking into consideration the spirit of our age, when there is common consensus that we need to dig deep and look out for forgotten women from all fields, with Mary Maria Colling there’s an opportunity to take a closer look at the poet’s Devon background. I thought I’d do a little probing into the circumstances of the brief spell of Colling's intense celebrity in the popular Devon town which lies in the heart of Dartmoor

Photo: Tavistock abbey ruins
        Historically, since the time that its abbey was first founded, many centuries ago, Tavistock has been a central Devon site of learning and culture. I wonder if an intangible Genius Loci has drawn literary people there ever since, for as well as the C19 Anna Eliza Bray and her protégé, Mary Maria Colling, there are a number of women writers linked with the parish and its surroundings. I've already written about Elfrida daughter of Ordgar and brother of the abbey’s founder Ordwulf, in Writing Women on the Devon Land (see this extract from Royal Women; Devon Lands) and a poem about her titled 'On Whitehorse Hill', appears on Poethead website. No, I don't think there are any written documents connecting this important cultured early queen with Tavistock, but given her close family associations with the place it is feasible to consider such links. 

      Elfrida was one of the earliest of a chain of literary Tavistock women. Much more recently during the C19, a little band of women-who-wrote have clustered in the town. Journalist and poet Sophie Dixon gets more than a mention in the blogger post On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads around Okehampton. Although sources say Dixon was from Plymouth, I’m not sure; her journals often feature Tavistock. More research is needed regarding this important C19 journalist and poet. Then there was Rachel Evans, school-teacher and author who also lived in the town during the mid C19. She also appears in On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads. Elizabeth Rundle Charles was another of this mid C19 group of not to be forgotten C19 Tavistock born authors. She was mentioned briefly in an old blog post in Scrapblog a Writer from the South West. One day I hope to return to revisit her old haunts and textual contributions to our Devon literary heritage.   
                                                                              Tavistock Abbey ruins

      But here I must return to the focus of this post, Tavistock's C19 maid-poet. For me, though missing the religious slant, the public furore which accumulated round Mary Maria Colling is reminiscent of the public acclaim prompted by another Devon woman, self-proclaimed prophetess Joanna Southcott, whose texts and rhymed prophecies and public proclamations quickly hooked in over one hundred thousand followers (the equivalent of today’s million Twitter followers). Southcott (whose family were from the east of the county) died in 1814, when over in Tavistock the budding poet was about ten years old. But there is something about the commonality of the women’s eccentric texts and their similar rural backgrounds – they were both from the lower social class and both worked in domestic service. Perhaps there is also a parallel in the dark ending of these two women’s lives: Colling the poet died in obscurity after apparently succumbing to some kind of mental break-down, possibly Tourettes; Southcott, the prophetess, died in bizarre circumstances, after having self-identified as pregnant at the age of 64. However, whereas Southcott’s life and religious texts have left their mark, those of the servant-poet from Tavistock have more or less disappeared into the vacuum of non-entities. For the most part, if she or her poems appear in any literary forum, it is in connection with Anna Eliza Bray, the woman who took her on, mentored her, then it would seem as quickly, dumped her. However, I know you can find a bit about Colling via google searches and there is at least one significant paper written about her. 

      Maybe I’m being unfair here. Certainly, without Bray’s influence we would never have read Colling’s poems, let alone heard about her life. But from our more egalitarian C21 stance, the barely concealed social superior condescension evident in the appraisals Bray penned about her protégé are hard to stomach. 

Get an idea of the flavour of Bray's assessments from the extract in the photo, a short passage taken from Bray’s extensive letter (introduction to Colling's Fables and Other Pieces in Verse), which Bray wrote in the form of letters to her own literary mentor, the poet laureate Robert Southey.

  The volume of published poems within Fables is ordered so that Bray’s letters seem to take precedence to the poet’s ‘Poems Inserted in the Letters’, thus ensuring that any reader - and indeed the poet herself – is/was reminded of the default hierarchy, of mentor and protégé. Some of the poems appear as insets in the main narrative, rather than as stand-alone lyrics in their own right. There are also intercepted annotations to the letters, which have the effect of lessening the impact of poems themselves. From the preamble to the very first letter Colling, the ‘poor girl’, is presented as a social outsider, ‘agitated’ and ‘artless’, ‘of the humbler class’, whose literary talents can only come to the fore after the kind and older, established author Mrs Bray has reached out across the social order networks and extended the hand of patronage to the girl of lesser social-standing. You can read more about how Bray’s preface to the text ‘textually subjects Colling to her patrons’, thus ensuring the social/literary pecking-order, in Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent": (Romantic Mentorship and Mary Colling's "Fables", in Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 59 (2010). Collings ‘knows her place in society … her talent is couched as attractive naivete’ (Obey - see note). Bray also takes it on herself to assess the ‘errors of her [protégé’s] poetry - (though ‘not many’, they ‘consist mainly in bad rhymes, such “morn” and “storm”) – thus dismissively undermining her apparent and initial approval of them as worthy of publication.

         Colling’s moment of performance-poet fame was probably instigated by Bray herself after the latter persuaded poet laureate Robert Southey to write up a review of Maria’s work, which was, I guess, followed up with newspaper accounts (though I have not yet had a chance to research these properly), thus drawing attention to the young girl, as though she were freak object to be ogled at.

     Bourgeois tourists congregated at the local inn to hear Colling recite from her prodigious memory or extemporise verses after she had completed her household duties. (Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent").

         Putting aside the problems which the differences in the two women’s social position lead into when assessing the younger poet’s work, one of the threads that probably drew them together in the first place was their common interest in local gossip. Mrs Bray is known for her fictional and historical reinventions of a number of stories based on legends, folk-tale and local history and it seems that the young Mary was a fount of wisdom concerning local wives tales and of ghostly hauntings; she is said to have told her literary mentor the story about the infamous Lady Howard. 

Even to this day the legend about the ghost of this notorious Tavistock lady can send chills down peoples’ backs and you’ll find all sorts of accounts of her story out there on the web; they usually mention a ‘phantom carriage’ and a ‘black dog’.
Lady Howard was presumably a person of strong will and imperious temper, who left a deep and lasting impression on the people of Tavistock: 
(Photo: Remains of Gatehouse of Fitzford, in Tavistock)

She bore the reputation of having been hard-hearted in her lifetime. For some crime she had committed (nobody knew what), she was said to be doomed to run in the shape of a hound from the gateway of Fitzford to Okehampton Park, between the hours of midnight and cock-crowing, and to return with a single blade of grass in her mouth to the place whence she had started; and this she was to do till every blade was picked, when the world would be at an end. (Baring Gould)

     Incidentally, I think sometimes the creepy goings-on of the ghost-story mean that the facts about this iconic Devon woman, a flesh and blood C16 aristocrat, related to the highest of the land, become side-lined. Lady Howard was not just a ghostly phenomenon; she was born into the midst of a complex network of prominent aristocratic families, some of whom are still remembered for their involvements in literary activities of the period. This is not the time and space for me to get diverted away from the C19 poet but just to note that the real woman was Mary Howard daughter of Sir John Fitz and his wife Bridget. Bridget was daughter of William Courtenay 3rd Earl of Devon and his wife Elizabeth Manners. 

          But ... to return to the main subjects of this post, Mary Colling and Anna Bray. To be fair on the latter, some passages in her report on her protégé in the preface to her poems do somewhat redress the balance and lessen the impact of her apparently condescending approach to the younger poet; though on the other hand, the general effect is to just emphasise the patron’s own preoccupation with social status and prestige. For example, Bray mentions that Mary Maria Colling’s paternal father was a ‘highly respectable yeoman’ from a long-established comfortable farming family, who had come up against some misfortune, thus leaving them to a ‘state of distress’. Her grandfather had had ‘all the bells tolled at his funeral’, which indicated ‘he’d been a person of some note’, whilst her father ‘is a very worthy honest man’. 

     There are suggestions however that Bray was rather in awe of the younger woman; one or two of the prefacing letters, indicate she was almost mesmerised by her protégé’s naive charms: 

 ‘I should never have guessed the animating interesting being she could become in conversation … when I looked on the beautiful expression of her countenance … I could not help entertaining for her a degree of admiration that was not unmixed with reverence and regard'. (Letter in Fables)

     Indeed, the intense focus of detailed commentary, which the older writer has provided in her letter-prefaces to the poems per se, indicate a degree of obsessive preoccupation, an emotional identification with the younger woman (see note ii).

         The intricate detail of Anna Bray’s account, albeit patronising in tone does reveal much about her protégé’s background. In other words, without the intervention of Bray, whose own literary reputation was soon to make her one of the C19 most acclaimed writers, not only would the writing of the servant-woman from the lower rungs of the C19 social pecking-order never have surfaced, but her life-story would, like most others of her status, have been obliterated. Ultimately, Mary Maria Collings is quite fortunate in having left us more than a memory trace.

        The first letter in Bray’s account of Colling begins by relating how she first noticed the young woman in Tavistock church, where Bray’s husband was vicar. 

Photo: taken from one of the letters in Fables

Bray evokes the young poet’s presence quite vividly: she was ‘dressed exceedingly neat, and remarkable on account of the intellectual character of her countenance, who used to sit amongst several poor women immediately under the reading desk of Tavistock church’. Later in another letter Bray remarks that Colling, a ‘perfect country girl’, wore a ‘straw bonnet‘ and her ‘features are regularly handsome, especially the forehead, eyebrows and eyes’. We are informed that on 4th March 1831 Colling posted a sample of her poems to the vicarage and asked Bray to give an opinion on her work. We find Colling’s friends’ names, Mary Beauford and Charlotte Bedford. We learn about her prestigious memory and about her marvellous spelling feats. We are told that the young girl had often to skip school to stay home and nurse her mother and care for her siblings. At the age of 13 she had to leave school and a year later went into service with Mrs General Hughes, a ‘kind protectress’, who she stayed with until the end of Hughes’ life – and whose son later was kind to the young servant (she may even have remained in his service, Bray is not clear about this). There are hints in Bray’s account that even in these early days the young girl began to suffer from some kind of ‘severe illness’ herself. We find she was fond of flowers and that the garden of the house where she worked lay beside the river Tavy. 

          In the midst of her letter prefaces Bray also provides a long drawn out imaginative re-telling of Colling’s family background, a mysteriously romantic tale, which Bray had absorbed first-hand from her protégé (though, given Bray’s own propensity for richly embroidered historical reinventions, how much of the story is an exact reproduction of what the poet had told her is open to question, so we cannot be sure that this a true rendition of the young woman’s early life). However, much of the biography is related as though in the voice of the subject, ie as though we hear Mary Maria speaking to Bray, which apparently provides confirmation that this is the ‘real-deal’, not ‘fake-news’.

      Bray’s elaborated version printed in one or two national papers must have hooked in a few of the poet’s followers to go to Tavistock to gape first-hand at Devon’s new literary wonder-woman. The letters relate the mysterious background concerning Mary Maria’s maternal grandmother, wife of her grandfather George Philp - who had left Tavistock to join the navy; she had been focus of her granddaughter’s intense love (and possibly had instigated the girl's poetic gifts) until her death, when the child was only five. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

Photo: excerpt from one of Bray's Letters in Fables

Mrs Philp’s origins (we are told her maiden name was Mary Domville) contrary to the other immediate ancestors of the poet, were not local; she came from some unnamed place away from Devon and the implication is she was ‘well-bred’, ‘gentlewoman’, that her background was from another higher social class than that of her granddaughter – perhaps even aristocratic: she ‘did not talk like Devonshire people’ and according to Bray’s account, left a trail of mystery, sparking intrigue within the Tavistock community.

     I thought I’d dabble in the archives and see if I could fish out anything else about Mary Maria Colling to fill out gaps in her life-story or/and contradict anything of the biography as written by Anna Eliza Bray. I soon found Colling’s baptism record courtesy of one of the online family-history websites. Mary Maria Colling was born August 20th, 1804 some say 1805 and baptised on September 30th that year.

Baptism record of Mary Maria Colling

    Mary Maria appears in the 1841 census at St Matthew Street, in the home of her probable employer, Francis Hughes (he is 70, she is 36). And she is in the 1851 census, living at 87 Ford Street in Tavistock, with her father Edmund Colling, 84, a labourer, her mother Ann, 76, Mary is then 45. It seems she died some three years later, on August 11th, in 1853, at the age of 49. 
                                   Photo: Death record of Mary Maria Colling        
     The death record says at the time of her death she was at Bannawell Street, which may be the site of what was once the Tavistock Union Workhouse, which first opened in that street in 1837. That fact fits the story that Colling’s last years were spent in an asylum: 

Before public mental asylums were established in the mid-nineteenth century (and sometimes even after that), poor persons who were mentally ill and mentally handicapped were often sent to be cared for in the workhouse. (Tavistock Workhouse Deaths)

     However, one account says that Colling was taken to an asylum in 1945, some years before her death; perhaps she was only visiting her parents at the time of the 1851 census. 

    Going back a few years, there is the banns/marriage record of the poet’s parents, Edmund Colling and Ann Philp. I think I might even have found the marriage record of Colling’s maternal grandmother. The names, dates and circumstances seem as though they may fit with the details as provided by Bray. A George Philp, Mariner, mariner, from the HMS Thunderer, married a Mary Dumbrell on 3rd March 1763. Dumbrell is not the same as Domville but in her letters Bray says that Colling was not sure of the spelling of her grandmother's name. She was resident in the parish of Alverstoke.

     The passage below is from an account about HMS Thunderer (taken from Kent History Forum). The date matches that of the marriage of George and perhaps suggests he met his mysterious bride after the ship returned to Portsmouth at the end of the Seven Years War

      The British maintained a close bloackade of the French Atlantic coast and after their defeats at the Battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay 1759, the French had been reluctant to attempt breaking it. On March 9th 1760, two French ships, L'Achille of 64 guns and the frigate La Boufonne of 32 guns escaped from Brest and despite being chased and engaged by HMS Rippon (60), the two ships escaped and made it to Cadiz. HMS Thunderer in company with the ex-French HMS Modeste (64), HMS Thetis (44) amd HMS Favourite (16) were sent to prevent the two French ships leaving Cadiz. On the 14th July 1761, the two French ships got out of Cadiz and were chased by the British squadron. On the 17th July, HMS Thunderer finally caught up with L'Achille and the two ships exchanged broadside fire until HMS Thunderer came alongside L'Achille and the French ship was taken. During the engagement, one of HMS Thunderer's aftermost upper gundeck guns exploded and destroyed part of the stern, causing most of the 17 killed and 114 men wounded during the action. Captain Proby was amongst the wounded. The Bouffonne surrendered to HMS Thetis and both enemy ships were taken into Gibraltar.
    On the 10th February 1763, the Seven Years War was ended by the Treaty of Paris and in March, HMS Thunderer returned to Portsmouth and was paid off. The ship was recommissioned as a Guardship at Portsmouth and in September, received a new commander, Captain Samuel Hood. He remained in command until the ship paid off in July 1766 to be fitted as a troop ship, to carry troops to North America to try to restore order with the increasingly rebellios colonists, who were protesting about the imposition of new taxes intended to help pay off the mountain of debt arising from the Seven Years War. Captain Hood left the ship in North America and was appointed Commodore and Commander-in-Chief of the North America Station, flying his command broad pendant in the 50-gun ship HMS Romney. HMS Thunderer returned to Woolwich and paid off into the Woolwich Ordinary.

      The Philp's couple’s daughter Ann, Mary Maria Colling’s mother, was baptised in Tavistock in October 1776. There were other siblings, born before her, including George, whose baptism is recorded in the year 1764. There are a variety of other records about the Philp family in Tavistock available, indicating that they were well and truly established in the town. 

           I can’t help but wonder if the downturn in fortune and health of Mary Maria Colling’s last years, which have received scant attention by those who have written about her and her life, may have been helped on their way by the attentions of her patron Anna Eliza Bray and the consequent sensationalism of the brief period of public attention showered on the young woman. Perhaps this Devon poet was an early C19 victim of the phenomenon we consider to be a C21 manifestation – celebrities who’ve ‘lost it all’. Bray labelled her protégé as ‘mazed’ (Devon, ‘mad’) from their earliest encounters’; she is called thus in the Fables’ Preface. Obey does hint at such, when she comments that Bray’s suggestion that the young poet’s gift stems from ‘aberration’ or ‘disease’ may have been ‘foreshadowing Colling’s death in an insane asylum’. And in Dennis Low’s The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets, the author includes part of a letter sent by Southey to Bray in which the poet laureate recommends a tempering of the outpouring over Colling. In other words (other perhaps than Mrs Bray herself) people at the time must have sensed the fragility of the young poet.

        I guess from the sensibilities of our modern age, our contemporary assessment of the poetry of this Devon C19 working-class female poet would not be too positive. We might agree with the conclusion of one of the reviews of the time – (published in the Monthly Review, vol 126), which noted that ‘there is scarcely a large village or town in the kingdom, in which one or more than one person might not be found capable of writing verses quite as good as those of Miss Colling, if not a great deal better’. 

     That may be so, but from the standpoint of feminist reassessments of forgotten women’s literature of the past (and especially from a local point of view, those originating in Devon),  it is doubly brilliant that these inventive and eccentric poems have lasted the test of time AND that they were ‘saved’ for posterity due to the keen interest of another Devon woman writer (albeit partly due to her own condescension and self-benefiting reasons). And additionally, it is fascinating to consider, as the critic Odey suggests in her paper on Bray and Colling, that left to her own devices Mary Maria Colling’s writing may have developed in other directions than the fables, which have defined her minor long-lasting inclusion in Devon’s women literary chronology. Apparently, in her original notebooks, Colling used a number of self-invented names (including Meary, Marianne, and Marinna) pre-empting a strategy of modernist women writers, suggesting that she viewed herself as having several different identities. The young poet may have preferred to write about biblical themes and abstractions and perhaps, without intervention from her persuasive mentor, might have gone on to pen other more sophisticated poems. But then, if so, these imagined 'preferable' poems would probably would not have been published. I guess we should be proud we can quote the name and place of origin and even maybe recite a few lines of our Devon 'maid-poet', whose eccentric lyrics, like Devon landscapes and people, are idiosyncratic and unique.  

    You reading this might complain I have not included more from the original poems as written by Mary Maria Colling. I'd love to write another post one day and take a look at them in more depth but meanwhile if you head over to Google books you can read the collection of Fables and Other Poems at leisure. And please feel free to say what you think of them in a post comment.
i As far as I am aware at the time of writing Obey’s fascinating paper is the only one that has been written about this forgotten Devon poet.
ii In her paper Obey reflects that Bray was perhaps fascinated with the similarity between her own past as woman who’d lost her significant male and identified with the situation of Mary Maria’s abandoned grandmother – seeing her granddaughter’s work as redemption of family tragedy.

Tavistock from path on old viaduct


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