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MARY KIRBY - 1817-1893

The House in the Park

Most people living in Melton Mowbray today remember an old house which until quite recently, stood unoccupied and rather forlorn at the side of Asfordby Road and abutting the local River Eye at the rear.  Known to locals within living memory of its later existence as ‘Six Elms’, they were also aware that amongst the previous and later residents were a Mr and Mrs Roper.  Balanced - quite precariously it was discovered quite recently - on the steep northern bank of the River Eye as it passes through the green fields which once formed part of the land known as Wilton Lodge, the house was once a popular attraction in the summer months when rowing boats could be hired for leisure purposes on the river and canal encircling the adjacent parkland. The old Victorian house, with its lovely gardens leading to the banks of the river is sadly no longer there and in its place, as I write, is the embryo of a 96 room modern care home which will very soon take its place. Six Elms - or more formerly, 55 Asfordby Road - was demolished some four or five years ago, returning the steep sloping ground to its former contours, but the secrets and stories with which the house was connected are retained and recorded today as an intrinsic part of Melton Mowbray’s rich and interesting past. It is fascinating to have delved a little further into the records to discover the story of the house, its origins and its first residents and many visitors. Certainly not a mansion, this modest sized home did originally bear the appellation ‘Rudbeck House’, which reportedly once related to a small stream - or beck - which ran into the River Eye and the name is now retained in Rudbeck Avenue, just across the road. 

"Six Elms' from the River Eye.

The construction and later existence of Six Elms, or Rudbeck House, retains an interesting enough history in itself but it is the original residents of almost a century and a half ago who are the main subject of my interest.  In particular, I intend to recall the story of the fascinating life and times of Mary Kirby who was to become the wife of the Rev. Henry Gregg, vicar of nearby Brooksby and her inseparable younger sister Elizabeth with whom she successfully wrote and published several small books. Recently published in the United States, Bernard Lightman's scholarly tome entitled, ‘Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences’, refers to the same Mary Kirby and her published literary contributions, which were used in the education of young people when he writes:

‘… Mary Kirby (1817-1893) began her career as a popularizer of science after the sudden death of her father, John Kirby, a devout Dissenter and Leicestershire businessman in 1848. Due to business losses in the 1840s, John Kirby was unable to leave as much as he had hoped for his daughters. Mary and her unmarried sisters were forced to find work. In her autobiography she recalled that she and her sister Elizabeth “soon began to plot and to plan for book-writing.” Their first effort, A Flora of Leicestershire (1850, Hamilton, Adams, and Company), came out of Mary’s botanical interests. It catalogued over nine hundred flowering plants and ferns from the Leicestershire region, grouping them according to the the orders of the natural system while discussing their habitats and location. Mary, listed as the author on the title page, was the driving force behind the project.  Elizabeth contributed the descriptive notes. Rather than writing more technical manuals, many of their subsequent works were more geared towards a juvenile audience. They adapted stories from the classics for children, wrote fiction and churned out a series of books on natural history. They became a writing team who worked from their home. In 1855 they moved to Norwich and hooked up with the publisher Jarrold, who invited them to write what would become Plants of Land and Water (1857) for his “Observing eye” series. Besides working with Jarrold on subsequent projects, their natural history books were published by T. Nelson and Sons and the Religious Tract Society. In 1860 Mary married the Reverend Henry Gregg. Elizabeth lived with the Greggs in Brooksby, Leicester, a small village in a rural parish. The sisters continued to write together until Elizabeth's death in 1873. Over the course of their careers they wrote over ten natural history books, many of them selling well enough to call for more than the first edition. Stories about Birds of Land and Water ([1873], Cassell), the last book they wrote together, sold 18,000 copies.’

Notwithstanding her twice widowed father's fears and dark premonitions as to what quality of future he might be able to provide for his children, it seems that his eventual demise in 1848 at the age of 67 would create fewer problems than he might have feared, as his daughters especially, had created their own provisions for the moment. Mary, as the second born sibling of six, was to emerge as the guiding and matriarchal figure in the family and without doubt she led a most interesting and varied life. Well travelled and self-educated at divers places of learning around the Leicester area and beyond, she was to be an early torch-bearer for the feminist agitators who awaited in the years ahead; indeed, in her autobiography and long before the arrival of Mrs Pankhurst et al, she was to write on the subject of making an independent living as a woman:  
' ... earned money seems always the sweetest and best of any; and we were glad to find a ready sale for our manuscripts, and also to put the profits into our pockets... we wrote a piece once of what would happen a hundred years hence; how the men would be thrust out from all the professions by the women, and even the government of the country would be carried on by women, and in the houses of parliament there would not be a man to be seen.'             

Her personal journey through life, which was destined to be truncated due to a lingering and debilitating illness which would plague her final years, was faithfully recorded in a journal which she had taken over from her father on his death and in which she continued to report the comings and goings of the family until the time of her own death, was published in 1888 as a public document and bears the title, ‘Leaflets From my Life: A Narrative Autobiography’. It is a fascinating discourse on local life in days gone by and is today easily found on the internet to download or read at leisure; a pursuit I would heartily recommend, especially to Meltonians,  as being a highly illustrative pastiche of domestic, country life in the heyday of Victorian England.


Mary Kirby (1817-1893)

Early Days

In a paper kept at the Leicester University, David L. Wykes has traced the early years of the Kirby family of Leicester via a personal journal maintained by a John Kirby who was born in 1781 and who was one of 15 children.  This large family was involved with both farming on the north side of Leicestershire and banking, but as a child of apparent ‘delicate health', and with a surfeit of available hands to assist on the land, his father - Thomas Kirby (1753-1826) - was to steer John into the hosiery business for which the prosperous borough of Leicester was then well recognised and established. Learning his trade in Cosby, Lincolnshire from the age of 16, he was wholly unsuccessful in his travails as he moved from place to place and so it was almost certainly a red-letter moment in his life when in the February of 1807 at the age of 27, he was to marry Mary Ellis whose family were also a part of the hosiery trade. It was conjectured that this union would enhance his future prospects in the world of business and soon the couple had set up a home in Cank Street, Leicester and although never actually affluent in the true sense of the word, their status in the Borough was said to be comfortable. Sadly though, this marriage was to end without warning after just four short years when Mary died at the age of 29.  A son, John, had been the only child born to this marriage in 1809, but he did not survive.  In October 1812, John Kirby would marry again.

Sarah Bentley was to be his second wife and five children were to be born. Sarah Bentley Kirby was the first in 1812 to be followed by Mary (1817), a boy, Thomas Bentley Kirby arrived in 1819, followed by Katherine (1822) an bringing up the rear, Elizabeth in 1823. Their father was however, almost permanently beleaguered mentally by a great personal fear of his ability - or inability - to provide sufficient income in his business to properly support and provide a decent social existence for his growing family and this angst seemed to have caused him to vacillate between bouts of good days and very bad ones.  His responsibilities to the distaff side of his family, the future of his four young girls, seemed to have weighed heavily on his mind, as this entry from his journal might suggest:

‘On a review of the state of my affairs I find that while my property is diminishing, my family is increasing, I am therefore making progress towards Bankruptcy which is a galling idea and calls imperiously on me for greater economy, and self denial in all the luxuries of life.  I am therefore most resolutely determined in the present year to retrench every avoidable expense, to study and practice the most frugal methods of housekeeping.’

This realisation was likely to have been expressly cogent in light of the fact that the reality of such impecunity amongst his charges might well hinder the girls' future selections of potential partners. As Bernard Lightman conjectures in his book, the situation would go some way to account for the later independent success of each of the girls, who would strive to seek remunerated occupations as a means of independent support, rather than to sit about the drawing rooms of the large houses, just looking pretty and hoping. 

In 1825, John Kirby purchased a house in nearby Friar Lane, in the large garden of which he would build a two-storey warehouse and this address was to become the family home until his death and beyond.  His financial anxieties turned out not to manifest themselves quite as severely as he had consistently feared as we learn that his only son, Thomas, did indeed become financially independent of the family and was to helpfully detach himself from inheritance of the hierarchy at an early stage in his life. In the meantime, his sisters would move about the country managing to secure suitable employment for themselves. John's second wife Sarah was to die in 1835 at the young age of just 45 years and the girls, all still young would hopefully have taken heed of what she had taught them thus far.  Her namesake and eldest daughter, notwithstanding brother John's declared disinterest in any family benefaction, was not to command the inheritance of the estate when their father did eventually die in 1848, when it was generally agreed that Mary Kirby would legally - or by arrangement - inherit the family home in Friar Lane which would be rented for future income. 

It was Mary, acting as matriarch and her youngest sister Elizabeth, who were to become the true entrepreneurs and leading lights of the Kirby family - although all four girls married well and led lives worthy of being retold in print - with their later production of literary works. Mary was to provide the wide scope of knowledge with Elizabeth providing much of the text and at the same time bringing in to service her undoubted talent as an artist in illustrating the mainly educational works.  Mary, in her travels about the country, had developed a life-long interest in and detailed study of the natural life of the flora and fauna, animals and birds which were common to the fields and gardens of everyday England, not to mention a later diversion on a discourse of the animal life in far off lands. Initially putting their stories together for personal use in the classrooms and nurseries of friends, the reportedly 'jolly little books' were soon to be taken up by hungry publishers,  ever keen in the early Victorian days to source new and interesting literature for an ever growing market of children who were by now attending the burgeoning new national schools in ever increasing numbers. To learn more of Mary Kirbys life, I have already suggested her extremely interesting and informative diary, published under the title, ‘Leaflets From my Life: A Narrative Autobiography’ (1888) and I can also point to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in which Canadian feminist writer Ann B. Shteir has contributed an entry.  On the subject of the literary efforts of the two women, Ms Shteir writes:

‘Mary and Elizabeth Kirby worked as a sisterly writing team for twenty-five years, and produced a steady stream of more than twenty-five publications that included illustrated books, serial tales for magazines, school books, and fiction of an improving kind. In The Discontented Children, and how they were Cured (1854), their first original story book, the children of a gentleman and a gamekeeper are given the opportunity to experience each other's lives; the rustic children, restored to their parents after adventures and hardships, were ‘only too happy to find themselves once more among their equals and in their proper station’. The second edition, in 1859, contains illustrations by Phiz. Their natural history books, written principally for young readers, were informational rather than moralizing. Plants of the Land and Water (1857), one of two of their books issued in the Observing Eye series, presents botanical information and ‘curious facts’ about the uses of plants, in the form of ‘Short and Entertaining Chapters on the Vegetable World’. Their books on insects were Caterpillars, Butterflies, and Moths (1857) and Sketches of Insect Life (1874). The Sea and its Wonders (1873), with short informational chapters on topics such as the Gulf Stream and the turtle, aimed to ‘allure’ the young reader to study ‘the great book of Nature, rather than to perplex him with a strictly scientific arrangement’. Chapters on Trees (1873), a ‘Popular Account of Their Nature and Uses’, aims for a general rather than juvenile readership, and is well stocked with botanical information as well as history and folklore about trees from around the world.’

Following the death of their father on the 28th October 1848 at the age of 67, Mary and Elizabeth were granted two years of rent-free living in the family home in Leicester at Friar Lane and following the decision by her now successful brother Thomas to waive his rights of inheritance, they later obtained the freehold to secure their roots for a few more years. With their successful and profitable venture into writing they were able to maintain at least a comfortable life style. Working as a competent team for more than 25 years they produced a steady average of one book per year, many of which are still available today with original copies ostensibly fetching a good price. During the 1850s Mary and Elizabeth Kirby travelled about the country more and more, living for spells of time in Norwich and Great Yarmouth, but it was also around this period that sister Elizabeth was to display her more obvious and frequent signs of delicate health to which the supporting and loving care of her sisters became more apparent. Through all of this the co-authors were able to maintain a regular writing schedule, but it was also about this time that Mary, seemingly passing beyond her best courting years, was to face a more serious personal distraction when Cupid came to call.

The Reverend Henry Gregg

During her time spent in Norfolk during the 1850s with Elizabeth, Mary Kirby was to renew acquaintances with a man of the cloth which had originated in her own county of Leicestershire.  The Reverend Henry Gregg was born in 1820 of a reportedly 'working-class family' in the village of Harby, which lies in the heart of the Leicestershire Vale of Belvoir ('Beever' as we locals strangely pronounce it!).  From the days of his early youth his simple faith and trust in his Lord had led him to work away from home in the very poorest parts of London including Hatton Park and Finsbury. Attending at Kings College, London, Henry passed the required examinations and soon took up his first curacy with the Rev. Robert Montgomery, incumbent of the Percy Chapel in Hatton Garden.  In the 1850's he worked as a scripture reader and for six years as such, he is said to have worked tirelessly with people of the lowest and deprived parts of the capital, but the working friendship came to a sad end after six eventful years with the untimely death of his protege.  Henry returned to the county of his birth to become curate of Hoby-cum-Rotherby.

Marriage ...

From Hoby in 1859, Henry was to transfer to the ancient city of Norwich where he took up a curacy at St Michaels and it was here, in the 40th year of his life, that his acquaintance with Mary Kirby took a more serious turn.  Of this period Mary writes in her autobiography:

 ‘On Friday we had an equal number of visitors, and Mr. Gregg came in, in good time for tea. I set Miss W. a chair beside him; thinking of course, as her uncle lived at Rotherby, she would have plenty to say about Hoby, and Rotherby and Frisby, and all the poor people and gentle-people those villages contained.
 But no such thing; she very soon come whispering up to me to say, she could not get on with Mr. Gregg, for she did not know what to talk about.  Of course, I had to change places with her and come to her assistance.
 We opened a conversation on the book he had borrowed “Lucy Neville”; and after a few compliments had been passed on it, he said he should like to send a copy to his sisters, if we could let him have one.
 And so he called the next day, and we had the pleasure of seeing him many times, without having any idea of an attachment.
 We know it to be a fact that marriages are made in Heaven; and so it is, when two persons intended by the “higher powers,” to come in to that sacred relationship to each other, meet in the social circle, they are drawn, as if by an invisible hand, or supernatural sympathy, together.
 And so it was - every time Mr. Gregg and I met, we felt that mysterious influence - call it what you like - I will call it love!
 On the highest authority we are told, that “Love is of God,” for “God is love”; and therefore we cannot estimate too highly the joy and happiness of loving and being beloved.
 One fine morning in May, Mr Gregg came in, to call at the cottage, and I had an instinctive feeling of what he was going to say, and that he was about to make me an offer of his heart and hand.
 And so it came to pass - and he had not been long with me before words were spoken, and vows exchanged, which were to bind us together for our lives, - or more correctly speaking “until death should us part.”
And later ...
 'On the first of August, 1860, as early as eight o'clock in the morning, we had a very quiet wedding in the little church of Higham, a hamlet of Norwich, and a half mile from the cottage, although I suppose we must have lived in the parish. I was taken by Dr. Holland, according to his promise, in his brougham, and with a pair of fine horses, while in the second carriage, came Elizabeth the bridesmaid, and Mr. Gregg. The incumbent the Rev. Hoste, was ready waiting for us; and he laid the ring upon the book, and everything was done, as Mr. Gregg observed, "properly and in order." As we stood at the alter, I felt an overpowering sense of gratitude to the Almighty, for having protected us from so many dangers, and guided us though so many difficulties, and now "He had set our feet in a large room."'

... And a Rectorship.

It was to be a short sojourn in Norfolk following the marriage and a joint - even three-way - yearning for a return to pastures best known to the three of them would soon see the newly-weds returning to Hoby along with Mary's younger sister Elizabeth, who was never to marry. Sadly, the early days of this marriage were not to be as wonderful as they might have wished, it being marred with problems encountered by Henry's many temporary and sometimes distant curacies causing Mary to become increasingly anxious, for him "... not to take another, but to find a living, and be his own master and enjoy a permanent home." Fine words and thoughts, but Rectorships were attainable then only to those who had the means and the money as well as an agreeable social situation.  Henry's own family were very low down in the social pecking order and the question of any family inheritance was but a pipe-dream and notwithstanding that Mary's father had not in fact died impecunious, the Kirby wealth, already divided, would not stretch this far.  But a minor miracle was about to occur when a letter was received in Norwich from the Squire of Brooksby, apprising Henry of the recent death of the Rector of Brooksby; a jovial postcript to the letter read to the effect that he might be advised, 'to look about for a young lady to come with him as his wife - and who knows? perhaps to buy the living for him!'

The arrival of this letter is said to have created much excitement within Mary's troubled mind and to her great surprise, no one was more excited at the prospect of a settled and stable living than her younger sister and partner-in-writing, Elizabeth, who was to set in train a financial plan to make the dream come true. As Mary further explains in her journal:
'... Meanwhile, Elizabeth had not been idle in making enquiries about the Brooksby living, and her letters to the lawyers had been flying through the post, like so many arrows flying through the air.  And she began to suggest the subject with Mr. Gregg himself, who felt delighted at so fair a prospect opening unexpectedly before him.  He was in ignorance of our resources, and never for a moment anticipated our being able to lay down the sum required for the living.  But Brooksby was the very parish in all England he would wish to have, and to be brought again amongst the people who were attached to him, and who he knew so well.  Like many clergymen, he understood little or nothing of business, and did not care to enter into the discussion of of pounds, shillings and pence; indeed after his marriage, the whole management of the money matters devolved upon me, and he never wished to know anything about them.  But Elizabeth was keen to get things settled and as soon as she thought it prudent to leave me, away she went to Leicester, to Samuel Stone, the family lawyer, and put the affair in his hands; telling him, that she held herself quite ready and willing to sign conjointly with me, any deed of mortgage that might be required on the Friar Lane property.  And then, she stayed at my brother's in West Street, until the arrangements had been made, and the important business successfully carried though.'
And so, pretty well in a nutshell and certainly in extremely fast time, a package was devised and arrangements were to become 'fait accompli'. With the estate inheritance - including the family home in Friar Lane - together with personal savings and a collection of 'family jewels' all brought together, the proceeds were utilised to purchase the living at Brooksby.  With all of the Kirby siblings apparently rising to the occasion in order to raise the social profile of Henry Gregg and his new wife, this amazing effort must rate as a very magnanimous gesture and such a situation could hardly be envisioned in modern-day ecclesiastical life. The upshot was that on the 20th August 1960, the Bishop of Peterborough (Bishop Davies) was to officially announce the institution of Henry Gregg as the new Rector of Brooksby - Rector! an almost impossible dream had surely come true - perhaps even a miracle?



We are sometimes told in life, to be 'careful what we wish for' and this might have been the case for the Kirby sisters and the Rev. Henry Gregg during those early days of their return 'home' to Leicestershire.  Mary writes profusely in her journal, along with gay descriptions of Brooksby, of a wonderful reception at the Hall, with parties, dances and receptions to welcome the return of the new rector and his lady wife.  Henry was soon to rekindle his relationships with most likely every person in the three parishes from whom he had not that long since waved his goodbyes. But within the reality of their grand achievement in settling in the area that they had coveted so much, lay the very awkward truth that the there was no rectory house to go with the living of the church.  The incumbent residents of Brooksby Hall, a Mr and Mrs Charlton had opened up their large house as a welcoming gesture and further to offer it as a temporary residence for the incomers. But this was not what any of them had visualised for their new life and very soon, a family residence, a trois, was eagerly being sought, as Mary records in her book:
"We had already driven over to Melton, and found there was no house to be had there, except in the Market Place, and that was out of the question.  And now, Mr. Charlton drove us over to Syston, in the waggonette; and though the village seemed to me a wild and uncouth place, I had to make the best of it, and consented to live there, in the house on the Barkby Road."

Mary's best however, was unfortunately not to be good enough, but in defiance of her instant aversion to the area, she explains the saving grace of Barkby Road as a home, in assuring that once more, at the least; "We were together as the 'threefold cord,' as Mr Gregg had more than once referred to them.  And it was enough, she said,  "since love spread our table, and presided at our board."  The writing continued and for a while, domestic bliss ruled the day with the ladies scratching out a living with their books and pamphlets and visiting local schools to address the children, whilst Henry carried out his parish duties with his usual loving zeal and his special attention to the less well-off, not to mention his added responsiblities as Chaplain to the Melton workhouse.

Syston - the Rev. Edward Morgan.

It was a serious set-back in Mary's organised life which was to pave the way for the family's eventual re-location to Melton Mowbray, an event which was related to her husband Henry in his new posting.  Within weeks of their arrival back in Leicestershire and their resettlement in lodgings at Syston,  Henry was persuaded by the incumbent vicar of that parish to fill in a few shifts for him to cover his occasional absences.  Under the heading, 'The Vicar and his Carpet Bag' she writes,
 'The first question asked by those who settle in a new place (particularly in a village) is this - what about the clergyman? - is he a good man? And then follows another query - is he a pleasant man?  For religion being crafted on a crab-stick, the two are not necessarily combined.  The Vicar of Syston was the Rev. Edward Morgan; and when we arrived, he was on the continent.
 A farmer in the village,  farmer Bennett, whose services with horse and cart, we had been glad to enlist, told us that when the vicar was first appointed, evangelical clergymen were scarce; and a crowd of the parishioners met him halfway on the road to Leicester, with flags, and a band of music, to give him a cordial reception.  But by this time, the people had become tired of him, for he was very old, and had been the Vicar nigh on fifty years. And then we heard about Mrs. Morgan, whose death, some few years back, had been felt as a great loss, both to rich and poor.

 Mr. Bennett went on to tell us, that whenever the Vicar found himself in any perplexity ("muddle" was the word) he always took up his carpet bag, and departed. At the present moment he had come to a deadlock with the Wesleyans. He had been conducting meetings, for united prayer, in the church school-room, and on his invitation, the Wesleyans had attended them; but when the return invitation came, and he was asked to join them in their meetings, conducted by their own ministers, in their own room, - here was the difficulty.

 What could he do? He could not go, and he could not refuse; so he had discreetly taken his carpet bag, and was off on the continent.'
The dissenters were not to be shaken off too easily though and even after long periods of absence, mobs, often unruly and occasionally violent, dogged the good reverend's fading years and took advantage of his increasing old age and weakness to press their Wesleyan views. In the meantime, Henry took in the slack and covered his ecclesiastical duties parallel with his own work and that of many others who were often happy to take advantage of his kind disposition. It was a situation that they could and would not, tolerate for long and the crunch time was to arrive in in the shape of a particularly frightening incident which she describes thus:
"Mr Gregg and I had been one Saturday, to Leicester; and walking home from the station, we saw before us, the Vicar and a common looking man, - I cannot mis-apply the term gentleman. They walked quicker than we did, and were evidently going on to the vicarage;  when Mr. Morgan turned round, and catching sight of us, left his companion, and came to meet us.
 I had a suspicion of who the 'man' might be, so I enquired, and was informed that he was no other than the curate! "That man! I exclaimed, he is no clergyman - he looks more like a ticket-of-leave man!"  And then I begged that he would not bring him to our house, as I would have nothing to do with him.  We very soon found out what sort of person had come to the village; for he began to frequent the public houses, and to associates with the lowest characters in the place.
Within a very short time of Henry having withdrawn his assistance, this new man took charge of the day-to-day running of the Syston church, at the same time drawing towards him some pretty rough people from all around.  Dear old Rev. Morgan was pretty ineffectual in maintaining his badge of office and Mary tells of the day when things were to come to a head when, about noon, her household equilibrium was disturbed by the sound of an unruly mob outside. From the secure confines of her room she describes the scene that confronted her:
"In another minute, we saw but too plainly what was the matter;  the poor old Vicar had been run down the street by the curate, who brandished a thick stick over his head and was followed by a crowd of rif-raf men and boys, shouting and whooping like whipping-Toms; I unbolted the door and there was Mr Morgan, in a most exhausted state, and literally hanging on the knocker for support;  I took hold of him and pulled him in;  and stared so hard in the curate's face, that he shrank back, and went away."
The mob persisted for quite a while and seemed intent on waiting for the vicar to return to the street, but he was of course in the custody of Mary and Henry who eventually got him to a safe place.  This rather savoury incident seemed to have proved sufficient for the couple to make their final and as rapid as possible, re-location.  She tells of hearing one of the mob complaining about Henry's spoiling tactics; - "Oh dear sir! how you have disappointed us! we really did mean to give the old man a good 'husting'!" In the meantime, although the trio were still not particularly wealthy in the accepted meaning of the word, the literary work was increasingly becoming a remunerative occupation and it was decided that, in the light of their present situation they would cut their losses and start all over and they chose to do so some ten miles distant in the nearby market town of Melton Mowbray.



Rudbeck House.

Following their hasty departure from the squalid problems of Syston parish, a temporary home was to be found back at the Hall in the relatively tranquil setting of Brooksby.  On their return to the fold they were welcomed with the usual warmth by the Charltons but the sister's thoughts and aspirations were focussed at the possible acquisition of what real-estate might then be available at Melton. Several return journeys in the carriage were made from Brooksby but it was soon apparent that nothing suitable was likely to be found in the existing housing stock just then.  In 1872,  the ladies chanced to meet up with Mr Wakerley, the highly respected and competent architect and house builder, with whom their desperate dreams of ownership saw some form of realisation.   Again, I borrow the words of Mary's own notes from her book at this so exciting stage of her life when she recollects the exhilarating moment.  For Melton Mowbray readers especially, her resonant description of the land and the prize of the home which she eventually acquired - which can still just be recognised today - evokes for the reader a special tingle of nostalgia of times long gone.
'When the architect's plan had been sufficiently corrected, and as soon as all the preliminaries were all settled, our new house was built for us, at a little distance out of Melton, on the Asfordby Road, in a field where the ground was very uneven, and which had a steep bank in it, and in the bank, a gravel pit.  This bank was of special interest to us, as the different lines of strata lay exposed to view, in such a slanting position, that the earth must have at some time been upheaved, to leave them in that oblique and tilted fashion.  We picked up a great many fossils there, many sorts of shells, and even large ammonites.  But when all the gravel that we wanted for the walks had been taken out, Mr. Gregg had the floor of the pit beaten flat, and made a large roomy arbour there, by lodging a roof on the top of the bank, and supporting it below on two thick posts.
 It was a very sheltered spot, screened from every wind; and here we used to sit and look down a winding river (the river Eye), bordered with with willows and fringed with reeds and rushes, and covered on the surface with yellow water-lilies, arrow heads, and many other flowers. Our little domain was bounded by the Earl of Wilton's Park, with its surroundings of fine old elms.  And as soon as our house was finished, and the rooks saw human beings were coming to live in it, they began to build, and formed a colony on the tops of the tallest trees.  As the river meandered through the park, and opportunity was afforded in the winter for skating; on one occasion the ice was very thick, when a number of persons, some of them ladies of the hunt, skated down as far as Sysonby and landed in Mrs Wright's Garden.  Whenever the frosts were severe, Mr Gregg would prepare some food for the birds and feed them himself at his study door.  There would come a flock of more than fifty at a time of all sizes and colours, and with the birds a large rat used to waddle up the steps, and as tame as a kitten, take his care of the provender. 

Now and then there would be a gathering of holiday makers in the park, and occasionally a flower show would be held there, or some other festive sight was to be seen.  I remember once a balloon (probably Mr. Green's) was the attraction for a great number of persons. It was probably filled on the ground, and a successful ascent was made, amid shouts and cheers, and the loudest applause.  How enjoyable was that summer time when we could have a row in the boat every afternoon, and gather the water lilies, or wile away an hour or two in quiet happiness; Elizabeth and Mr. Gregg managing the oars, and I being able to steer.

 When we were tired of the garden, we had only to open a wicket gate and wander away to a foot-road to Sysonby, where we could linger on one of Mr. Latham's seats, which he had placed under a group of trees for the benefit of passers by.  This tranquil scene is a thing of the past - I might say of bye-gone ages, for in these modern days of progress and improvement, there is scarcely a place to be found where peace and quietness are allowed to reign.  The seat and the trees are alike chopped up, and in their stead the Great Northern Railway Company has carried an embankment, and runs its trains along the top of every quarter of an hour; the steam whistle, and such like necessary evils, have long ago scared away our beautiful birds, and changed the whole aspect of the once secluded valley.'
Oh dear, those infernal railway people! The Great Northern line through the town was opened to the public in 1878, some 30 years after the Midland Railway had first arrived in the town and travelled to both Nottingham and Grantham.

Elizabeth Dies.

During the first half of 1873, less than two years after moving into their blissful new home in the park, Mary Kirby was to suffer possibly the most traumatic and distressing phase of her life thus far, when at Rudbeck House on the 23rd June 1873, she was to be cruelly parted from the life-long companionship and love of her dear and devoted youngest sister Elizabeth.  On returning from a trip to her dentist at Leicester, Mary reports having 'perceived a spot of inflammation on her sister's cheek conjoined with a perceptive loss of her strength.' Begging the indulgence of her readers she asked to be '... allowed to pass over as lightly as possible the events of the week which followed,' during which an existing condition of the eruptive skin disease known as phlegmonous erysipelas, [ an acute infection typically with a skin rash, usually on any of the legs and toes, face, arms, and fingers. ] into a fever which proved to be beyond the reach of contemporary medicine; as Mary recalls:
 'When one so closely bound by the ties of affection, as well as of blood, is taken from us, it seems that this world and the next were but separated by a curtain, a semi-transparent veil; and we feel as if we were drawn with them, half-way beneath that curtain, and could catch a vision of the light beyond, and hear the faint echo of their songs, and almost realise the joys of Heaven ...

... It was the last day in June (1873), when she was carried to her long home and laid to rest in the Brooksby churchyard.  And the stone, we had placed upon the tomb, records the fact of her having presented the living to Mr. Gregg.'   

(Note:- Elizabeth Kirby who died aged only 49 years, issued four books in her own right: Steps Up the Ladder, or, The Will and the Way (1862), Dame Buckle and her Pet Johnny (1867), Lost Cities Brought to Light (1871), and Margaret's Choice (1872) 

After Elizabeth ...

In the decade which followed the devastating death of Elizabeth, Mary's life seems to have moved into her own steady decline of general detachment and an almost complete termination to the producing of her works ensued. Elizabeth had been of undisputed importance to the duopoly and although today it is understood that Mary was indeed the main driving force, it can be surmised from reading between the lines of her 'Leaflets'  there are many grounds for believing that Elizabeth was indeed at least an equal contributor and without doubt a leading part of the trinity which had existed and worked hand-in-hand for so long and it is clear that she was equally loved by both Mary and her husband Henry as they got on with their lives being very much involved with Brooksby and the neighbouring parishes.

During the year following the sad separation, a lightning bolt was to strike the steeple of Brooksby Church, which problem was apparently to tax Mary and Henry's resolve somewhat, as the initial strike created a serious fracture which later resulted in a total collapse of the structure. With the couple's help, the church was restored to good order in 1874.  Read a detailed account of this event  here, along with the history of Brooksby Church     

As Mary did increase her social activities as a resident of Melton and within the parishes where her husband practised his living, but the decrease of her literary production becomes apparent once more within the pages of her journal, the contents of which would finally come to a stuttering halt upon the crushing and unexpected occasion of the death of her dear husband Henry.  Her final chapter describes with much pathos passing of the days in November of 1881, outlining her utter devastation on the sad episode of his sudden removal from her life and although she lived on alone as a widow for a further 12 years, with an escalating and extremely debilitating illness, Mary was not to publish another word.  Her autobiography, 'Leaflets of my Life',  was finally published in 1888.  It includes the following passage relating to Henry's death.

"He knew us no longer ..." 

"... and now I must claim to be forgiven if I linger with a melancholy pleasure over the last happy morning we spent together, and recall every one of the trivial events that happened, and which stand out before me like so many figures on the canvas.
 It was November (1881) but bright and sunny, and as Mr Gregg sat in his easy chair by the fire reading the paper and telling me the news, I was at work for him, and well do I remember the many little things he brought out for me to do. First of all his umbrella must be mended, and have a fresh elastic band put round it; and then his new slippers, that were not quite easy [and] must be cut down a little in the front, and the cut place have a rosette put on to hide it; and then a hole in his Sunday vest had to be mended, and a bit of cloth stitched on the back quite out of sight, but so as to prevent his little knife from getting through the the lining of the pocket.
 I went up the long walk to meet him, and in a moment perceived that something was the matter; he looked paler than I had ever seen him; and death seemed to be written on his face. But when he put his hand to his side and said the pain was there, I felt an alarm amounting to terror. We came in at once by the study door, and after Mr Gregg had taken some hot brandy and water, he lay down upon the sofa, and I began to rub his side; but alas! the pain was so severe he seemed hardly able to bear it, and in a moment was bathed in such perspiration, that it ran off his face like water.
 'We heard him breath my name, but in a few seconds he had lost consciousness, and knew us no longer.'

The Melton Times reported:

   The Rev. Henry Gregg - whose death took place so suddenly on the 9th inst. at his residence, Melton Mowbray, and cast a gloom over the whole neighbourhood - was born at Harby, in the Vale of Belvoir, in 1820. From his early youth he was distinguished and ennobled by his simple faith and trust in God. He devoted himself to His service, and passed the required examinations at King's College, London.  His first curacy was with the poet, the Rev. Robert Montgomery, then incumbent of Percy Chapel, Hatton Garden. Mr Montgomery fully appreciated his humble-mindedness and love for the poor, amongst who he laboured in the very lowest parts of London. After six years of happy friendship the tie was severed by Mr. Montgomery's untimely death. After a lapse of some few years Mr. Gregg returned to his native county, as curate of Hoby-cum-Rotherby. In these parishes he made himself beloved by every man, woman, and child, and when he left that sphere of duty the poor had saved their pence for the purpose of presenting him with a handsome writing desk, and this desk he valued to the last day of his life. From Hoby, in 1859, he removed to Norwich, and his last curacy was St. Michael. In 1860 he was united in marriage with the elder of two sisters and Elizabeth, the younger one, had the gratification of presenting him to the rectorship of Brooksby. It was his earnest wish to be near friends at Hoby and renew his former ties there
   The feelings of his parishioners and friends was well expressed by the homage paid him at his funeral on Monday, when all were filled with regret. The UnionWorkhouse sent up its quota of grief, and the children sang their sacred songs about his grave. He had been appointed chaplain in 1868, and the peaceableness of his character was very conspicuous in his dealings with the officials there. He was the friend of all, and old and young regarded him as their friend.'

All Good Things ...

Mary Gregg died on 15th October 1893 at Six Elms at the age of seventy six years. She was buried in the same grave as her husband and her sister Elizabeth near to the stone walls of  Brooksby church.  With the cessation of her fastidious note-keeping, little is known of her final years and life in Melton Mowbray after the passing of her husband and sister, but her social life was thought to be well fulfilled in the town in which she had finally made her home and in which she numbered many of its residents as her friends.

In the Melton Times of Friday, October 20th 1893, a modest public notice told of her passing thus:

Death of Mrs Gregg.


    It is with the deepest regret that we have to announce the death of Mrs. Gregg, of this town, which occurred at her residence, on the Asfordby Road early on Sunday morning. The deceased lady was the daughter of the late Mr. Kirby, of Leicester, and came from one of the oldest families in that town. She was married to the Rev. Henry Gregg, the late rector of Brooksby, and who resided at Melton for many years, having previously lived at Syston, there being no rectory at Brooksby. In conjunction with her sister, the late Miss Elizabeth Kirby, she was the authoress of several well-known works. Many of the tales in the Quiver, Cassell's magazine, and some years ago, the Family Herald, were the results of their joint labours, and they were also the joint authoresses of a series of very popular and instructive school books, entitled "The world at home," Published by Messrs. Nelson and Sons.  Mrs Gregg was a brilliant conversationalist and possessed a ready wit and a marvellous power of satire and repartee. Her 'Leaflets from my life" - the last production from her pen, were very fully reviewed in these columns at the time of their publication. She had been in failing health for a long time past, and of late her condition had been such as to cause the utmost anxiety to her friends. She leaves two sisters surviving her, one of them, Madame Coulin, having lived with her for some years and being well known and greatly respected in Melton. The other sister has been grievously afflicted for a great number of years. Mrs. Gregg's kindness of heart caused her to be highly esteemed by all with whom she came into contact. She was 76 years of age.

Relating to the above; 'Madame Coulin' refers to sister Katherine, then a widow and resident at Six Elms who was to remain as resident until 1896; the reference to the 'grievously afflicted' is the oldest sibling Sarah Uwins, also then a widow, but who would outlive them all having spent almost half a century in a Nottingham asylum detained under the Lunacy Act; she was to die in 1903 at the age of 86. Both of these Kirby sisters married well and have extremely interesting personal biographies of their own to relate which I might refer to at some time in the future.  As she aooroached the end of her life, Mary Gregg is reported to have encountered increasingly hard times with the loss of her husband and other incomes and her last Will and Testament, dated 27th January 1891, left an estate of a relatively meagre £730 to sister Katherine (about £70,000 today). The remains of Mary, Henry and Elizabeth, the threesome reunited, now lie together in a tomb at the side of Brooksby church.



    Formally named 'Rudbeck House' in 1872 when initially constructed - relating to a nearby brook which flowed from Welby village into the River Eye, the dwelling was to be renamed 'Six Elms' by its new owner.  In 1896, one of the best known and proficient horsewomen in Leicestershire, Miss Muir, whose brother Col. R B Muir JP was living at Kirby Bellars Hall, became the new owner.
    From the period between the two world wars and into more recent times when the old property was approaching the end its viably useful life, Six Elms was owned and occupied by the Roper family of Melton Mowbray who were to make it their residence for two or three more decades.  towards the end of the 20th Century, and after a period of occasional renting, structural problems became increasingly apparent and after a short period of standing unoccupied, the attractive riverside house and grounds was sold for commercial purposes. During the Spring of 2017, a large modern social amenity, officially opened its doors on the site as a care-home for the residents of Melton Mowbray.

Attending as a guest to officially open the 'Amwell Care Home' on 17th April, was Mrs Diana Twitchen - formerly Miss Diana Roper - who was to plant a magnolia tree in place of one she had known several years before and which had been lost within the considerable upheaval of construction.

© John McQuaid-Melton Mowbray-2017


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