Gawthern [née Frost], Abigail Anna
- Adrian Henstock
Gawthern [née Frost], Abigail Anna (1757–1822), diarist and lead manufacturer, was born on 10 July 1757, probably in Nottingham, the second surviving child of Thomas Frost (1719–1798), a grocer and tallow chandler of Nottingham, and his first wife, Ann (1721–1761), daughter of the Revd John Abson, rector of St Nicholas's Church, Nottingham. She was named after her paternal grandmother, Abigail Anna Frost née Secker, sister of the Revd Thomas Secker, archbishop of Canterbury from 1758 to 1768. This relationship was a major influence on the younger Abigail's family, both in a social and a material sense, as most of the archbishop's fortune passed to Thomas Frost and his daughter; indeed following Secker's death in 1768 Frost, not content with a substantial bequest, contested the will and managed to lay claim to an additional £11,000 intended to be 'devised to charitable uses' (Dickinson, 170–71).
Abigail was educated in private academies in Nottingham and Surrey until she was thirteen. At the age of twenty-five she married her first cousin, Francis Gawthern (1750–1791), at St Peter's Church, Nottingham, on 6 March 1783. Her contribution to the marriage settlement was £6700. Her husband ran his family's white lead manufactory in Nottingham, which specialized in the production of high quality white paint. In 1763 the firm was supplying the Worcester Porcelain Company. Abigail moved into the Gawtherns' handsome town house, built in 1733 (subsequently 26 Low Pavement, Nottingham). However at the age of thirty-four she found herself a widow left with two children (two others had died young) and a considerable fortune.
Abigail Gawthern continued to conduct the family business, aided (and sometimes frustrated) by managing clerks, for a further sixteen years; she also engaged in considerable property transactions in and around her rapidly expanding home town, including the enclosure and redistribution of land in Basford parish. Her son Francis came of age in 1807 and, presumably receiving the legacy of £2000 mentioned in his father's will, he also assumed control of the leadworks. The following year, however, the works 'were discontinued, notwithstanding the Nottingham lead very deservedly continued to retain its reputation to the last', the process having been superseded by more economic forms of production using molasses and tanners' bark (Diary, 15).
From an early age Abigail had kept a record of notable local and personal events in a series of annual pocket books, but in the early 1800s she copied the entries into a folio volume. The diary, which covers the years 1751–1810, is thus a retrospective compilation, with some entries made with the benefit of hindsight. Although it has no literary merit it is a valuable record of life in upper middle-class society in an English provincial town during the late Georgian period. The author was herself engaged in trade but she possessed considerable landed property in the region and had numerous relatives in the Anglican church. Her circle of relatives and friends were typical of the urban (or ‘pseudo’) gentry, ranging from junior members of titled families, the county gentry, the clergy, and visiting army officers, to attorneys, physicians, and affluent tradesmen, all of whom constituted Nottingham county society at the time. However in one respect her family were atypical, for they supported the tory and Anglican causes during a period when the greater part of the influential Nottingham tradesmen, who controlled the closed corporation, were whigs and dissenters.
Abigail's main interests lay in the social round—in the local assemblies, plays, concerts, balls, race meetings, and private card parties—and in visits to fashionable resorts. She describes at length visits to London in 1802 and to Bath and Weymouth (where she saw the royal family) in 1805. Although many of her entries are taken up with social gossip, especially notices of births, marriages, and deaths, they give an insight into the social mores of the time, as well as into aspects such as the operation of the provincial marriage market and the short life expectancy even of the better off. She also records details of local events such as the hotly contested parliamentary elections, and the many riots prompted by a variety of economic and political causes for which Nottingham, with its economy based on a volatile domestic hosiery industry, became notorious in and around the 1790s.
Abigail Gawthern died at her home, Low Pavement, Nottingham, on 7 January 1822, aged sixty-four, 'after a long and painful illness, which she bore with Christian fortitude' (Diary, 16). She was buried in St Mary's Church, Nottingham, on 15 January.
- The diary of Abigail Gawthern of Nottingham, 1751–1810, ed. A. Henstock, Thoroton Society Record Series, 33 (1980)
- Nottingham Journal (12 Jan 1822)
- W. Dickinson, Antiquities … of Southwell (1817), 170–1
- parish register, Nottingham, St Mary's
- Notts. Arch., M. 23, 904–13
- LPL, Secker MSS, 1719, 1729, 2165 and Secker Sr 25
Wealth at Death
owned substantial property, but mostly in trust