Stephens, Ann Maria - I15247

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In the Days of Long Ago - Ninety Nine Years Experience

The following article, conducted by Elizabeth Leigh, was published in 'The Register', in Adelaide, Australia on Tuesday, August 21, 1923. It is a clebration of the 99th birthday of Ann Maria Bricknell (née Stephens).


The world outside was full of sunshine, and some of it seemed to have come into the room with the flowers. Roses and violets, iris and daphne, the glorious masses of colour, all bore birthday greetings for Mrs. A. M. Bricknell.

To look at the little, dainty lady, soft pink colour in her cheeks, and old-fashioned grace in every line of her cap and shawl, one could scarcely realise that the birthday was her ninety-ninth. In her one hundredth year, with a memory that goes back over four reigns, Mrs. Bricknell is a personality to be reckoned with; a conversationalist of wit and charm. She reads 'The Register' cover to cover, as she has been wont to read it for more than 50 years, commits to memory verses that please her, and takes the keenest interest in the affairs of the day. I have seen some of her needle-work — tiny stitches and wee circles of French knot embroidery — and it would do credit to a needle-loving girl of to-day. At 99, Mrs. Bricknell can see to thread the finest needle, despises diet restrictions (hot, new bread is her favourite fare), and hold her own in the warfare of wit with the younger and youngest generation. Old age has but brought a greater serenity of spirit, and though for eight years, ever since the war quenched temporarily her joy in life, she has lain bedridden, in all that time nobody in the house has heard from her a cross or petulant word. Mrs. Bricknell, who is the widow of the late Mr. John Bricknell, lives now with her daughter, Mrs. A. L. Calder, of Rose Park. Of her family of 10, all have died before her but three sons in Sydney, one in Western Australia, and her South Australian daughter.

As a colonist of 1859, Mrs. Bricknell is a pioneer on her own account, but the name is even more deeply in the colony's early history. Her mother, Mrs. William Stephens, came out to Adelaide in 1850 — a widow, with eight children to make a home for. She came to Adelaide when Rundle Street was parklands, and Mrs. Bricknell's uncle, Mr. William Crabb, built the first house in Hindley Street, a few doors from Miller Anderson's shop. Mrs. Bricknell herself came to Australia with her husband in the good ship Gilmore, which arrived at Melbourne in 1853, after a trifling voyage of six months and four days, and she came to Adelaide in 1860.

Old England

It is the story of Mrs. Bricknell's English girlhood however, that has the finest flavour of the past. Her family were Cornish stock, allied to the Quaker family of Paine, of which the famous Tom was such a strange offshoot. The Stephens', as 'bellmongers and leather dressers,' had founded a business that passed from father to son for generations, and Mrs. Bricknell remembers her grandfather when he was the principal. A sturdy old figure in corduroy knee breeches, flowing coat, and silver buckled shoes. 'Bellmongers and leather dressers' took, in those days, the whole process from leather fresh off an animal's back to its conversion into gauntlet gloves, tambourines, gaiters, leather aprons, and the wool mats which covered in those days the blue stone floors in the halls of the great. It tried gloves on fair fingers and fitted Mr. Pickwick for gaiters — alas, for this prosaic age, when things are ready made in separate factories! "The women of Cornwall were curiously independent", recalled Mrs. Bricknell. "My father's sister, Mrs. Chandler, had such a streak in her. Her husband, Capt. Chandler, died when his vessel was two weeks' sail from home, and she brought the ship right into Plymouth Harbour. She never left the helm. It was one of the boys of the Chandler family, by-the-way, who rode the first velocipede in England — the forerunner of the modern bicycle; He went 15 miles on the trial spin, and my mother was so annoyed about the publicity of it that she made him go round the back roads!"

Changing Ways

"Bodmin, in Cornwall, where I lived was what was called 'a county town'", said Mrs. Bricknell. "Assizes and sessions were held there, and there were plenty of reminders of the grimmer side of old English life, the gaol and the asylum, the Union for the young, and the workhouse for the old. A public market was held in the streets until I was grown up, and then a market hall was built. When the first letter came from my mother, the governor of one of the public institutions, mounted on horseback and rode down the main street of Bodmin, proclaiming to all the people, 'Mrs. William Stephens and her family have arrived' safely in Australia.' Russell's wagons used to take all the luggage and letters to Plymouth, and they were drawn by big teams of horses hung with bells, that made the prettiest sound in the world. Social conditions were altogether different. Manufacturers used to travel about, by coach and van, to the different towns and villages, selling their wares. It was the beginning of great things in industrial history. When I read the other day of the greatest factory in England, a clothing house, with a building five stories high, it took my mind back to the day I saw two brothers walking from Bodmin to catch the coach. They had just finished their apprenticeship, and were setting out for London; each was carrying a bundle under one arm, and on the other a kind of basket, something like a packing case with a handle. They founded then, the little shop, which grew into this vast business, and one of them became Lord Mayor of London. All they had to show in their first little shop in London, were samples of three materials, and they started on the road to fortune by making a vest and a tie for a grateful man who wanted them in a hurry for an evening party."

Old Superstitions

"In many ways the times were more romantic than they are now. There were wild deeds in that part of Cornwall, and strange dreams and omens. When I was a girl, people still believed in pixies — little dwarfs who made mischief. People wouldn't change a garment or put on wrong side out, because if they did they would be 'pixie ledder' and made to walk right round in a circle when they tried to find their way home. As for ghosts, I remember a house in Bodmin that stood empty year by year. It was a beautifully built house, two storied, and right in the heart of the town, and nobody would rent it, because it was haunted! There were terrible crimes in those days, and plenty of excuses for haunting. I remember how the Lightwood brothers waylaid Mr. Norway coming home from market, knocked him off his horse, and murdered him. The horse galloped home without a rider, and the poor wife who was sitting up for Mr. Norway went out to let him in. Mr. Navell Norway's brother was captain of a vessel and he dreamed three nights running that he saw the Lightwoods knock Mr. Norway off his horse. The third time he turned the ship. When he heard how his brother was found, he went straight for two constables, and had the two men arrested. Men, women and children went in hundreds to see the public execution.

Merrie England

"There were strange characters in Cornwall then. I remember a rich single woman, who had set her heart on marrying the vicar. When he wouldn't have any thing to say to her, she took the front pew, just in front of the pulpit, and made faces at him all through the sermon! She was sent to gaol for three months for annoying the vicar, and when she came out she built a three-story house overlooking the vicarage, just to give him the sensation of being watched. There were some pretty superstitions and customs and Valentine's Day was a great day with us. We pricked designs on coloured paper and folded them into different shapes, and these valentines were delivered by messengers (it cost 3d. to send a letter 15 miles or so.). That reminds me, by-the-way, of Rowland Hill who had such a lot to do with penny postage and who drafted the Adelaide Municipal Bill. Rowland Hill was a waysider preacher, and often came to Cornwall. He was a fine preacher, and I have known a woman stop her carriage to hear him, and then go over and kneel among the other hearers. Apart from valentines, there was Midsummer's Night. I remember lying in bed at midnight one June 21st, watching a friend sit in front of a lighted candle with pins all round it waiting to see the image of her future lover pass behind it. She was so sure of what she would see that when 12 o'clock struck she was frightened to look and hastily blew out the candle! When she was a girl, my mother and two of her friends were sitting round the fire on midsummer's eve, after setting the table with bread and cheese, in accordance with the superstition that the first ones who came in and partook of it would be married first. Three boys — my father was one — got from the tanner's, three bullock's hides with the horns still on and dressed up in them. When 12 o'clock struck they suddenly entered and sat down at the table, and the girls fled shrieking. We had no theatres and no picture theatres to go to then and these things amused us. A favourite game was to take the Bible and repeat the verse where Ruth says to Naomi, 'Entreat me not to leave thee'. Two girls would hold the key and they would utter a string of possible lovers' names. When the right one was mentioned, the key would move round."

The Coronation.

Mrs. Bricknell remembers clearly when Queen Victoria came to the throne. "On her coronation day there was a strange public tea in Bodmin. Every woman carried her table out into her front garden if she wished to be private, or on to the footpath if she didn't, and brought out her teapot and kettle and things. People came in from the country in hundreds, and town people shared tea tables with them. I think that must have been partly the reason for the festivity, because people weren't able to entertain such a multitude in their houses. Soon after Queen Victoria was married, she and Prince Albert drove down in a private carriage to the tin mines, a little distance from Bodmin. No body knew till afterwards. Prince Albert went down the mines, which he was very anxious to see. The Queen wanted to go too, but they wouldn't let her as they thought it wasn't safe, and she was in a great state about it."

Although a staunch church woman, Mrs. Bricknell attended some of John Wesley's first prayer meetings. "He often came down into Cornwall to preach, and it was standing on Land's End that he composed one of his beautiful verses, 'When on this narrow neck of land'" (I cannot quote it from memory, but Mrs. Bricknell could, and did). It was John Wesley, by-the-way, who composed the famous riddle, 'As I was going to St. lves.'

It would be a mistake to think of Mrs. Bricknell as living in the past. She lives in the present, takes an interest in all things, and looks forward to the future of those she loves. Perhaps that is why her heart is young.

Ed.: Ann Maria Bricknell passed away in her 103rd year on 22 January 1927 at the home of her daughter, Sarah (Mrs. A.L. Calder) of Seafield Avenue, Kingswood. Several obituaries were published in the press.

Visit the personal pages of people mentioned in this article.

Ann Maria Bricknell (née Stephens)
John Bricknell (Ann Maria's husband)
"Mrs A.L. Calder", aka Sarah Bricknell (daughter)