In Keith Lemm’s words “we were flabbergasted” when the covers were removed and the full splendour of Mary Anne’s chair was revealed in its glory. Instead of the expected basic brown sedan chair, made in Sheffield, we were confronted with a glowing work of rare decorative art described as 18th century French, possibly from Paris. This means that Mary Anne had been carried through the mud in the equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz. We were rapidly reassessing this lace and velvet loving, sophisticated lady. Furthermore, the chair had not been donated to the museum, it had been purchased, underlining its value.
We held our breath as the white protective covering was very carefully removed from what we were sure was the right chair. We expected to see a brown leather chair embossed with a few flowers. We thought it would be plain and modest because Mary Anne had devoted her life to campaigning for others. We knew she was a teetotaller and a strict non-conformist. We knew that she had died virtually penniless having used up her fortune fighting to abolish slavery and to improve the lot of chimney sweping boys. She outlived her husband, her only daughter and her sister. There must have been great sadness in her life. We expected her mood to match that of Queen Victoria and her sedan chair to embody the spirit of this no-nonsense lady.
After a three hour journey down the M1, and another two hours through the London traffic, we were on the fourth floor of the V&A Furniture Store, finally looking at what we hope was the right sedan chair. When we first arrived we had been shown a plain brown functional box chair which had the correct reference number but didn’t quite match the photo. So was the number wrong or did we have the wrong photograph? The details on neither chair linked it back to Wincobank, but fortunately we had Gill with us, who had looked at a scale model of the chair every week until it was stolen and she was adamant that the photo told the truth. Somehow, many years ago, the chapel had been given the incorrect accession number. All the other chairs were under wraps and we had an invigilator to ensure we did not peep or touch anything else.
These are the two sisters who ran the little school at High Wincobank in what we now know as Upper Wincobank Chapel: Miss Emily Read and Mrs Mary Anne Rawson. Emily (on the left) was six years younger than Mary Anne. Their parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Read, had already established a Sunday school and in 1841 the sisters opened a day school for local children. It must have been a multi-purpose building as Sunday services were also held there. As she grew older, Mrs Rawson was carried from Wincobank Hall to the Chapel in a sedan chair. It’s always been a bit boggy round the chapel garden and so it must have been a trial to tramp through the mud carrying a heavy chair and a passenger, but it was considered an honour to be a bearer. There was once a scale model of the sedan chair kept in a glass cabinet beside the organ, but it was stolen in the 1980s. The congregation was devastated to lose this momento that connected them with the founder and they treasured the sepia photograph of the chair. It was said that the actual chair had been given to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and it had long been an ambition of the trustees to go and find it. So that was what we set out to London to do on Thursday 19th June 2013.
We had previously learned a lot about the philanthropic work of Mary Ann Rawson and other members of the Read family from a presentation by Sheffield Hallam University’s Dr Alison Twells, based on her book “The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850”. In particular, we were intrigued to discover that Mary Ann had been present at the first British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society Convention in London, 1840. This fact is evidenced by her appearance in this monumental painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon, painted in 1841. Mrs Rawson is one of only a handful of women in a sea of men. She can be seen in the second row on the very right hand edge of the painting. Her face, prettily framed in the white lace of her bonnet, shines with a strange luminosity. She is leaning forward in eagerness, listening to the speaker Thomas Clarkson, whose eyes are fixed on the solitary black man in the foreground, the liberated slave Henry Beckford.
We learned from the detailed notes on the touch screen computers that although thanks in part to the efforts of William Wilberforce the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act had been passed in 1807 and campaigners had achieved the emancipation of slaves in British colonies by 1833, this small, mainly Quaker group were determined to fight on for worldwide abolition.
The painting seems to have been created as a testimony to those who persisted in the campaign. The faces appear to have been painted afterwards and added in. Although to us Mary Anne Rawson is clearly recognisable from photographs in her later years, she is not identified in the NPG’s Who’s Who diagram although her name appears in the list of sitters on their website. We feel this ommission should be rectified so that she can take her proper place in history. We will be preparing a case to put to the NPG.
Thursday 19th June 2013 saw us gather outside the Chapel, board a brand new bus and skim swiftly down the M1, heading for The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the enticing mysteries of the V&A Furniture Stores at Olympia. Dr Kimberley Marlow from the University of Sheffield had played a vital part as co-ordinator and it had taken months of emailing and arranging to bring us to this day. Now, at last, our little contigent from a post-industrial backwater of North Sheffield was setting off to find traces of Wincobank in London and to understand why.