"Mrs. Phoebe Wright’s Celebrated Establishment"

And so it had been known for many years. Though, sadly, Mrs. Wright had passed away before the Prince of Wales became Regent, her "celebrated establishment" for young ladies was managed and maintained by one of her nieces, through most of the Regency. But before you get any untoward ideas, I must assure you this was a most respectable establishment, patronized, not by the Regent, but by his mother, Queen Charlotte. For, you see, Mrs. Wright had established a school where young ladies were taught all the intricate secrets  …  of the fine art of embroidery.

The origins and history of the first, if unofficial, english royal school of embroidery …

Sometime in the year 1772, Queen Charlotte, who had always been a proponent of the education of women, learned of several young girls who were in dire circumstances. These teenage girls were all the respectable daughters of professional men who had some association with the Court, but these men had either recently died or had become severely impoverished. In the late eighteenth century there were few options available to such girls, and as a mother of several young children herself, Queen Charlotte was very concerned for the welfare of these vulnerable young girls. The Queen wished to provide for the girls’ immediate care, but she also wanted to ensure that they would have the opportunity for a respectable future.

Queen Charlotte made arrangements with one of the more talented and respected women who served her Court in the capacity of a professional embroiderer. Mrs. Phoebe Wright had premises in Great Newport Street, just off Long Acre, in central London, where she managed a well-known and well-respected embroidery shop. This shop provided embroidered furnishings for the various royal residences, as well as the homes of many among the aristocracy. Mrs. Wright, who was an older woman and a widow without children of her own, agreed to take in the indigent young girls. She would provide them with a clean, safe, respectable home and ensure they acquired proper manners as well as basic skills in reading, writing and ciphering. But more importantly, she would also train them to become professional embroiderers, thus giving them the means to earn their own living in a manner which was considered appropriate to their birth and background. Queen Charlotte, in return, subscribed £500 a year to Mrs. Wright’s new embroidery school.

Though Queen Charlotte believed very much in the importance of education and had had her own daughters well-educated, she was no reformer and certainly no feminist. It would never have even crossed her mind to have had these young girls educated in the law or the classics or any other form of education which at the time would have been considered appropriate only for men. Nor would she have allowed the girls to have been educated in any way which was either above or beneath their current station in life. Since their fathers had all been professional men, Queen Charlotte had their daughters educated in a skill by which they could maintain themselves in a similar station, and which was appropriate for respectable women in Georgian England.

The first significant commission which Queen Charlotte gave to Mrs. Wright’s new school was for the suite of furnishing fabrics and bed hangings for the Queen’s new state bed at Windsor Castle. The work was begun in 1772, probably in the fall. The valence and side curtains were of pink and green silk while the back-cloth and the counterpane were of white silk, all richly embroidered with an elaborate and colorful realistic floral pattern. Those bed-hangings still exist, though the bed is now at Hampton Court Palace. Several needlework scholars who have examined these bed hangings have described them as a graceful composition with a high finish, executed in a pictorial realism which rivals that of the finest French tapestries of the time. In addition to the bed hangings, the girls at the school embroidered additional fabric en suite to cover two armchairs and eight stools. It took six years to complete all bed hangings and the upholstery fabrics, they were finally installed in the Queen’s bedchamber in 1778.

It must be noted that Queen Charlotte did not just send her annual subscription to Mrs. Wright and forget about the girls. The Queen regularly visited the embroidery school, where she spoke with all her protégeés, and knew each of them by name. She was so pleased with the school that, throughout her life, she continued to provide an annual subscription and to send deserving girls there whenever she heard of one who was in need. The Queen was so impressed with the level of embroidery skills attained by the girls at the school that over the years she commissioned several additional of sets of embroidered bed hangings, draperies and upholstery fabrics for various royal residences from Mrs. Wright’s establishment. The Queen’s patronage also brought that of other members of the aristocracy and Mrs. Wright and the girls who worked in her celebrated establishment did not lack for work. In fact, the demand was so steady that many of the girls stayed on to work full-time for Mrs. Wright, once they had completed their training.

Not only was Mrs. Wright a talented needlewoman in her own right, she was a very good teacher. Her pupils first learned the simple, basic embroidery stitches which most young girls were taught by their mothers. But at the school, the girls went on to learn the full range of complex and intricate Continental stitches, particularly the elegant French stitches, which were required to produce the finest fashionable furnishing fabrics. They learned to work with all types of threads, from the thinnest silks to the thick crewel wools and the many specialty threads available at that time, such as the costly gold or silver wrapped threads which added sparkle and richness to their work. Over time, they progressed from embroidering on the basic even-weave fabrics of linen, and later, cotton, to the fine silks and lush velvets which had become the preferred furnishing fabrics in aristocratic homes. Though Mrs. Wright had no children of her own, she did have two nieces, (Anne) Nancy and Sarah Wilton, whom she had also taught to embroider. Nancy, in particular, was the most skilled of all the girls at the school. So much so, that in August of 1776, Queen Charlotte requested that Nancy do the primary embroidery on the head-cloth of the bed hangings for her bed at Windsor Castle, because it was the most visible part of the set. As she got older and had taken in more students, Mrs. Wright employed both of her nieces as teachers at her school.

In 1776, Nancy Wilton had married Joseph Pawsey, who was then steward of Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, the country estate of the Marchioness Grey. She was twenty-nine and he was thirty-two. Though she was now a married woman, Mrs. Pawsey continued to work at her aunt’s embroidery establishment in London, in part at the request of Queen Charlotte. When her aunt, Mrs. Phoebe Wright, died, in 1778, Mrs. Pawsey took over management of her aunt’s business. The embroidery establishment retained the same fashionable cachet it had enjoyed under Mrs. Wright’s management. Mrs. Pawsey, just as her aunt had done, took in several girls a year, most on the recommendation of Queen Charlotte, providing them homes and teaching them the fine art of embroidery. The orphaned or indigent daughters of respectable professional men, as well as clergymen and military officers of all services, might find a place at Mrs. Pawsey’s school, along with a subsidy for their care and instruction from Queen Charlotte. But it seems that Mrs. Pawsey expanded upon her aunt’s arrangement with the Queen and also took in paying students from among the daughters of successful men of those same professional classes, the clergy and the military, from across England. Another change which she made was that each summer she moved the school to the small village of Silsoe in Bedfordshire. Silsoe was the village closest to Wrest Park, where her husband was the steward.

As with Mrs. Wright, some of the indigent students, once they had completed their studies, remained with Mrs. Pawsey as regular embroiderers, some even going on to become teachers themselves. But it appears that most of the paying students returned to their home towns and cities where, with support from their families, they set themselves up as professional embroiderers. Though embroidering new suites of furnishing fabrics remained the most lucrative type of embroidery right through the end of the eighteenth century, some of these women also often contracted to repair and restore aging and damaged furnishing fabrics in the homes of the local aristocracy and gentry as part of their services. As the heavily embroidered furnishing fabrics of the eighteenth century began to fall out of favor at the turn of the nineteenth, some of these professional embroiderers also began to provide embroidery services for garment fabrics to help sustain their businesses. Though they would typically be paid less, the embroidery work on garment fabrics was usually less complex and intricate, thus it could be finished more quickly than that required for furnishing fabrics.

In 1808, Mrs. Pawsey’s husband, Joseph, passed away. The next year, she moved her embroidery works from the Newport Street premises in London to Dunstable Street in the small town of Ampthill, in Bedfordshire. Ampthill was not far from Silsoe, but offered larger accommodations for a year-round school, and was more accessible than was the small village where the school had summered. The demand for extensive sets of embroidered furnishings was beginning to dwindle, the cost of maintaining premises in central London was increasing, and Mrs. Pawsey was in her sixty-second year. There was also the consideration that providing a home for her pupils in the country would be less costly and much more healthful. Whatever her reasons, though Mrs. Pawsey did move the school to Bedfordshire, Queen Charlotte continued her annual subscription payment. She also continued to send deserving young girls to the embroidery school up until the year of her death. In addition, it seems more professional and clergy men sent their daughters to the school, since these young girls would not be exposed to what many among that class considered the perils of life in London.

After her move to Ampthill, Mrs. Pawsey continued to receive commissions for various furnishing fabrics from the Queen, as well as other members of the royal family and the aristocracy. However, most of the work was less ornate and elaborate than had been the work the embroiderers of the school had executed for furnishing fabrics in the previous century. It seems that the school also began to do repair and restoration work, often for furnishing fabrics which had been embroidered by girls at the school in previous decades. It is not clear whether any garment fabrics were embroidered at Mrs. Pawsey’s establishment, though it is likely that many of the young women who graduated from her school went on to do such work.

By the time the Regency began, Mrs. Pawsey had found yet another source of income. There were a number of ladies of the gentry and the aristocracy who were interested in fine embroidery beyond that which they had learned from their governesses. To these women, intricate embroidery was their art form, their primary means of creative expression, and they wished to develop and expand their needlework skills. Gradually, Mrs. Pawsey began to offer a selection of lessons at her school to these determined ladies, in whichever type of embroidery most attracted them. Some were only interested in working with the delicate silk threads, and perhaps the new, fine cottons, while others wanted to learn the techniques of working the heavier wools for crewel embroidery. Some wanted only to learn the refined French stitches, while others wanted to master the historic stitches of old English embroidery work. Since not all of these high-born ladies were willing, or able, to travel to Ampthill, it appears that Mrs. Pawsey decided to train some of the women of her establishment as private instructors who would travel to the homes of these ladies and provide them with lessons at their convenience.

Mrs. Nancy Pawsey died on 27 September 1814, at the age of sixty-seven. Records show that her only daughter, and youngest child, Harriet, took over the running of the embroidery school in Ampthill. However, there are no records of Mrs. Pawsey’s embroidery school after the accession of George IV. Queen Charlotte died in November of 1818 and it is likely that her subsidy of the school ended that year. In addition, Mrs. Pawsey’s daughter, Harriet, was married to Richard Machill of Broughton Grove in Lancashire and had a family of her own. Without the support and encouragement of Queen Charlotte and with the demands of her own family, it seems that Harriet closed the embroidery school in Ampthill, probably in the last year of the Regency.

It is interesting to note that it was in the 1820s that many needlework historians feel that the quality of embroidery in England began to slowly decline. There were, of course, other teachers of embroidery throughout England, even as late as the reign of William IV, some of them taught by Mrs. Pawsey herself. But by the time Victoria had succeeded her uncle, there were few professional embroiderers left, and most women of the upper and middle classes who did still ply their needles in embroidery work had access to a narrower range of supplies and most used published patterns, rather than designing their own. In the Victorian age, embroidery was no longer the intricate and exquisite original art it had become in the Georgian age, particularly under the direction of both Phoebe Wright and Nancy Pawsey.

During the Regency, what had been Mrs. Phoebe Wright’s celebrated embroidery establishment in London was then under the direction of her niece, Mrs. Nancy Pawsey, and later, her daughter, Mrs. Harriet Machill. It was no longer located in London, but on Dunstable Street in the small town of Ampthill, in Bedfordshire. Yet it was just as successful as it had ever been, was still receiving royal commissions and was still teaching the fine art of embroidery to a number of deserving young women each year, with the financial support of Queen Charlotte. But during the Regency, Mrs. Pawsey was also taking in paying students. Initially she had added full-time students who were the daughters of men of the professional class who wished to make a career for themselves with their skill with a needle. But early in the decade, Mrs. Pawsey was also providing private lessons to avid needlewomen of the upper classes who wanted to develop and refine their own needlework skills. Soon she also trained teachers who would travel to provide private instruction to high-born ladies, either at their London homes or their country estates. Her daughter, Mrs. Machill, seems to have continued that practice when she took over the school late in 1814.

There are various ways by which Mrs. Pawsey’s embroidery school might figure in a Regency novel. Maybe a heroine was trained at the school and has set up her own embroidery establishment in her home town, or perhaps she has joined an embroidery shop set up by a previous student, maybe a family-member, who has been successful. Realistically, most of those teachers which Mrs. Pawsey sent to her noble students were probably older, matronly women who had a lot of experience. But there is no reason, at least fictitiously, why one of those teachers could not be an attractive young woman who arrives at a grand country house to teach the hero’s mother or sisters advanced embroidery stitches. Mayhap a long missing young noblewoman has been hidden away for years as a destitute orphan in Mrs. Pawsey’s school, perhaps at the request of Queen Charlotte herself. A graduate of Mrs. Pawsey’s embroidery school might have a thriving business travelling to important aristocratic homes, where she plies her needle repairing and restoring valuable family furnishing fabrics. Might she, in fact, also be spying, for the Crown? Or is she the villainess, spying for the French? Maybe she has never attended Mrs. Pawsey’s school at all, but has forged documents to show she has, due to its highly respected status among the beau monde. Dear Regency authors, might Mrs. Pawsey’s school or one of her graduates have a place in one of your upcoming novels?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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16 Responses to "Mrs. Phoebe Wright’s Celebrated Establishment"

  1. You just gave me a plot bunny for a Regency murder mystery! thank you!

  2. Judy Shields says:

    I have a sampler needlepoint by Phebe Wright age 9, dated 1839. Can you give me any insight to this. I know she was English and that is really all I know. Thank you.

    Judy

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If it is dated 1839, it certainly cannot have been embroidered by the Phoebe Wright of whom I wrote in this article, since she had been dead for more than sixty years at that point. I am also not sure if your Phebe was a relation, as Mrs. Wright had no children. She did have two nieces who worked with her at her school. But both of them acquired new last names when they married, so none of their children would have had the last name of Wright.

      However, I do not know if Mrs. Wright had any brothers or other male relatives who might have married and had children. If so, it is entirely possible that one of them might have named a child after their successful relative. The name may have then descended in the Wright family.

      Since your Phebe was born in 1830, that would make her a grand-daughter or great grand-daughter of one of the original Phoebe’s male relatives. That is, of course, assuming she was born into that specific Wright family.

      There is also the possibility that she was a daughter of a family named Wright and they simply chose to name her Phebe. Or, maybe they did know of the earlier Mrs. Wright, and named their child in honor of her.

      If you have any idea where she might have been born, since you know her birth year, you might be able to search the birth records of that area for more information. The only other thing which might work is to use one of those online genealogy sites to see if you can find any Phebe Wrights born in England in 1830. It is possible you might get a lead there. I am sorry to say that beyond that, I would have no idea how to advise you in finding more information about the maker of your sampler.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Olivia Fryman says:

    Dear Kat,

    I am a curator at Hampton Court Palace and was intrigued to read your post on Phoebe Wright and the embroidery school. We did some research Queen Charlotte’s bed a few years ago but didn’t manage to find out as much as you have about the embroidery school. Could I ask if you have published this information anywhere? Or if not could I cheekily ask what your sources are?

    Many thanks,
    Olivia

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have only published this article here, and have no plans to publish it anywhere else. I used to be an historic house curator myself, and now have the luxury of researching and writing about those things which interest me.

      As to my sources, they are not currently to hand, but from memory I can tell you that one of the more useful sources was Olwen Hedley’s biography of Queen Charlotte. Mrs. Wright and her school are both mentioned in the text and in several lengthy footnotes.

      As soon as I can get to my research notes, I will send you the full list of sources.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Olivia Fryman says:

        Dear Kat,

        Thank you for your reply. We are certainly very familiar with Olwen Hedley’s book on Queen Charlotte but if you have any lesser known sources I would be very grateful if you could let me know.

        Many thanks again,
        Olivia

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I rather thought you would know about Hedley’s book, but it was the only one that came to mind when I saw your comment. I am working on a full source list for you and will send it along as soon as it is complete.

          Regards,

          Kat

  4. Olivia Fryman says:

    Many thanks, that is very kind of you. I look forward to it!

    best wishes,
    Olivia

  5. YES! got in a reference to the school in a book!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Very cool!

      You are welcome to post the title and other details about your book here, for those who would like to read it.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Thank you kindly, Kat, I appreciate that!
        The book is ‘Vanities and Vexations’ and I couldn’t resist writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice in the bicentenniel year!

        Mr and Mrs Darcy launch Georgiana and Kitty on a London season; and Kitty and Mary not only learn more understanding of each other, but manage to strike up an unlikely but productive friendship with the lonely and sick Anne de Bourgh. With so many females in the house, Mr Darcy must survive importunate suitors for his charges’ hands, a scandal rising from a gothic novel written by one of his household, and the problems arising from the Wickham family. Add to that the philanthropic endeavours of Darcy’s cousin, the older brother of Colonel Fitzwilliam, and the antics of some of his foundlings and you will see that Mr and Mrs Darcy are in for a busy time.

        I wrote it for fun but decided to buff it up and publish.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          It sounds quite enjoyable! I always wondered what happened to the other two Bennett sisters, and it would be nice if poor Anne de Bourgh could get out from under her mother’s thumb and have a life of her own.

          Once your book is published, please do post the details here so that those who would like to read it can find it easily.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • I will, thank you! real life has been shoving its oar in over the weekend and I;m only edited up to chapter 13 of 31 – I have to remove the references I made too to some of Heyer’s characters that I included as it was originally just a whimsy, as I didn’t receive permission to use them. I think you’ll like what I’ve done with Anne… and the frisky charades

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