Norfolk Memoir 1

The following is taken from Helen Calvert Maxwell Read's memoir. Admire Nelly's father's adroit handling of her choice of suitors. See how she deals with Lord Dunmore. Feel her passion for the Revolution and her sorrow for the British Captain Fordyce at the Battle of Great Bridge. See how she and her teenaged brother fare with the foragers and refugees as they spend the war years on a farm after the destruction of Norfolk.

At the time these events took place, our Ballentine, Brown, and Creekmore ancestors lived in Norfolk County, Virginia.

Click here to go directly to the part about the Revolution.

Published 1898 in the Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary

I was born in Norfolk, on the 20th day of June A.D. 1750. My first recollection is of the death of my little brother Cornelius, who must have died when I was four years old, and I remember as well as if it was yesterday, how I cried on the occasion. "O, hush, my dear little Miss Nellie," said the nurse rachel to me "and don't cry so, or you will make your self sick and die, and then Master and Mistress will have more trouble" Still, I cried and cried, and that very night according to my nurses word, I was taken with a nervous fever which was nigh carrying me off, but at the end of forty days, I recollect, they put split pigeons to my feet (to draw the fever down, it was said,) and I grew better--and after a while, got well.

When I grew a little older I was put to school to a poor old dame by the name of Mrs Drudge, and, to be sure, she did drudge to teach me my letters--spelling and reading after a fashion. Poor old woman, she thought me a nonsuch, and I thought her the greatest woman in the world. She taught me, good soul, to read the Bible and the stories in it pleased me greatly...After I had learned out here, I was sent to a Mrs Johnson--a very large fat woman, who died one day in her fat, and perhaps because of it--for she was a monstrous woman, indeed. She taught me needle-work, and marking on the sampler. After this as I was shooting up, my father, who thought me a very fine smart girl (for I was always his favorite,) wished to send me to a boarding school in Williamsburg, but my mother would not consent, saying, she could not part with me, for she loved me dearly, too.

Shortly afterward, Donald Campbell imported a school master from Scotland, by the name of Buchan, who opened a select school, and I was sent to him to learn the higher branches of English, French or Spanish or any outlandish language, for in that day it was thought that one tongue was enough for a girl. Here, perhaps, I might have learned something, but I was in my teens, and too fond of talking and doing nothing to get my lessons, and my teacher used to humour me and spoil me. So, my education was very imperfect, and I have always regretted that my opportunities for learning were so poor--though I must confess that I might have improved them better than I did. At the same time, my good mother taught me some useful things out of school.

She was always setting me to read the Bible, which I always loved better than any other book. She took me, too, to church along with her every Sunday, and I got some good, I suppose, from the sermons I heard, though I cannot say that I remember any of them, particularly except one. This was a sermon which I had the happiness to hear from the great Mr Whitefield, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. He preached in Portsmouth and stood out, I remember, on the steps of a house not far from the Ferry wharf, for such crowds of people had come in from all quarters to hear him, that no house could hold them all. And there he held his white handkerchief in his hand and talked away with a loud sweet voice, that I shall never cease to be hearing...

As I grew on my mother taught me something of the mysteries of housewifery--in which she was very expert--how to make pies, puddings, jellies and all sorts of niceties, in which I was an apt scholar--for I loved to learn to make such things and, you know, could eat as well as make them.

I enjoyed, too, the conversation of all the company who used to come to my father's house, and which was the best the town afforded--tales of war, tales of the sea--and the gossiping stories of the day, which I could tell again with a lively relish. I was indeed a gay, lively girl, fond of talking and laughing--but always in an innocent, good humoured way--for I never liked to give anybody pain, but always tried and generally contrived to please every one. My father was very hospitable and used to entertain all the strangers of any note that came among us, and especially the Captains and officers of the British Navy that used to visit our waters before the war. Among these, I remember particularly Capt. Gell, a fine old man, afterwards Admiral Gell. He commanded at this time, a fifty gun ship, called the Lanneston, with one of the officers of which, as you will see in the sequel, I was determined to unite my fortune for life. He had thirty-two midshipmen on board, mostly boys and lads of good families and several of them sprigs of nobility. These used to come to my fathers house at all hours, and frequently dined with us. Sometimes, too, they would go into the kitchen to get a little something to stay their appetites; when old Quashabee would assert her authority, and threaten to pin a dish--something, to their young lordships, if they did not get out of her way. Nay, she would now and then carry her threat into execution and actually fasten one of these badges of a cook's wrath upon one or other of them, to the great diversion of all the rest of these boys and lads. I remember particularly a young stripling by the name of Lord George Gordon, afterwards so famous as the leader of the riots in London, whom I have seen begging old Quashabee for a piece of the skin she had just taken off the ham which she was about to send into the house for dinner, and eating it with great relish.

Of course I had many beaux who flattered me and danced with me, and one or two, who loved me and would have married me if I would have said yes. Among these last there was a young Mr. Smith, a Lieutenant in the British Navy, with a fine florid face and auburn hair, who came here in a merchant vessel, on his way to join his ship in the West Indies, who would have given his eyes for me if I would have taken them. At least he warmly urged me to say I would wait for him, for he was then very young--hardly more than eighteen or nineteen--saying that he had great connexions, who would soon have him promoted--when he could come and claim my hand. He said, too, that if I would not have him, he would live single for my sake. This, indeed, though I thought it very pretty, I did not quite believe at the time--though it turned out to be true enough. Still, however, I did not fancy Mr. Smith well enough to engage myself to him, and though he wrote to me from Hampton Roads and pressed me to send him and answer, I let him go away without any. By the way, I might as well add here, at once, while I think of it, that when I was travelling in the stage many years afterwards in 1798, after I had married Dr Read, on my way to Richmond, a gentleman passenger finding out from my conversation who I was, said to me, "Pray ma'am will you allow me to ask, were you not formerly Mrs. Maxwell, the wife of Capt James Maxwell of Norfolk." "Yes, Sir," said I, "I was" "Then ma'am," said he, "I have to tell you that on leaving England some time ago, to come to this country, I was particularly desired by an old friend of yours, Admiral Smith (for the young Lieutenant was now no less) to present his best regards to you, if I ever saw you and to tell you that he had kept his word and was still a batchelor for your sake" There was romance for you. And you will say, perhaps, that I ought to have rewarded such a swain. But the truth is, at the time when he paid me his address, I was rather partial to another young man, named B__ M__, who loved me dearly and wanted to marry me, but my father and mother, who saw further into him than I did, would neither of them consent for me to have him.

At this juncture Capt Gell arrived here in the frigate Launceston, with a number of fine young officers under his command, and among the rest, Mr. Maxwell, who was the sailing master of the ship, a smart active man, a good seaman, and a great favorite with the captain and all who knew him. They all came often to our house, but Mr. M. oftener than any, and I soon suspected, and, indeed, saw plainly now, that he was after me. He was not handsome, at least not like Smith or B__ M__, but he was a good looking man, sensible, agreeable, and full of chat. Indeed, he had so much to say about his voyages and travels--his adventures on the coast of Norway, at the siege of Quebec, General Wolfe and all the rest, that, he soon won my fathers heart and even made some impression on mine. At least, if I did not listen to his tales with as much interest as Desdemona did to those of Othello, I certainly was easily persuaded to admit that he would make a very agreeable companion for one.

At length my father said to me one day, "Well, Nelly, I suppose your friend B__ still wants you, but he is indolent and good for nothing, and I cannot favor his suit. Still, I do not say that you shall not have him. On the contrary, I say you may take him if you choose, and I will give you five hundred pounds for your portion, but that is all you must expect me to do for you. For, as you make your bed, you know, you must lie in it. But, here now, is Mr Maxwell, an honest sensible and industrious man, who your mother and I both think will make you an excellent husband, if you can fancy him, and if you will take him, I will give you 1000 pounds to begin with, (for is worth at least two of the other) and I will, moreover, continue to do what I can for you both afterwards, for I am sure it will not be money thrown away. Reflect upon what I say, and decide for yourself. I reflected accordingly, and soon made up my mind to take Mr Maxwell with my parents favor, rather than poor B__ without, and all being arranged for it, we were married in 1767. I was not quite 17 years old at the time, and Mr. Maxwell was about 32, nearly twice my age, but at the same time he was so hearty and lively, that there was no real disparity between us. Indeed I soon found that he was all I ought to wish in a husband. "The guide of my youth," the father of my children, and the friend of my heart till death. I may add here, that from my own experience in the case, I cannot help thinking that if young girls would follow their parents advice instead of their own foolish fancies, in the choice of their partners for life, it would often, if not always, be much better for them.

After our wedding, we went to a number of parties that were made for us by the officers. and the town people, for we were both favorites with all. At one of these, which was a dance, I saw my old beau, who came up to me, when I was sitting by myself for a moment, and said to me with a deep sigh, which I am sure he drew from the bottom of his heart: "And so you are married and to a stranger, too. What a risk you run, though I must do him the justice to say that every body speaks well of him, and I sincerely hope, for your sake, that he will make you a good husband." "No doubt he will," said I, "but for you, B__, what do you intend to do with yourself now" "Oh, as to that," said he, "I shall neither hang nor drown myself, but to be even with you, shall marry some pretty girl or other, as soon as I can, that I think will be the best way to spite you." "The best in the world," said I, "and I am really glad to hear you make so sensible a speech. Get you a wife, as soon as you can, and whoever she may be, I promise you, I shall sincerely wish you much joy with her." Just then, I was called up to take another dance, and giving my hand to the young officer who took me out, I left my quondam friend to himself. He married not long afterwards a young lady in the country, and though we met no more in the road of life, I have always remembered his fond attachment to me with pleasure and can not help suspecting that I love his daughter, who afterwards married my nephew, a little better for her fathers sake.

Upon my marriage with Mr. Maxwell, my father was even better than his word, and made him a present of one half of a new vessel called the Two Sisters (after sister Polly and myself) and the house and lot next door to his own, in which he went to live. Soon afterwards, the ship being now ready for sea, Mr. M. anxious to have my company, and, perhaps, willing to shew me abroad (as he was very proud of our country) persuaded me to go with him in her to the islands of Barbadoes, and though I was always a great coward by water, I consented to go. We set sail accordingly, and for a while I was highly amused in spite of my sea sickness, with the wonders and novelties of the great deep. For there, among other things, the fish came playing about our vessel,--the dolphins with their many colours more changeable than a lute string gown, and the sharks with their ravenous jaws. ...

By the way, however, I had been so sick and frightened again on the voyage back, that I told Mr. M. that I would never go another trip with him while I lived. "And indeed, my dear," said he laughing, "after the specimen I have had of your seamanship, I promise you I shall never ask you to go along with me again. So we were agreed on this point. After this we continued to live in Norfolk in a calm, domestic way, but very agreeably for some years. Mr. Maxwell indeed, still went to sea, to different places, owning several vessels in partnership with my father, and making money on every voyage. After a while, too, my elder sister had got married to a Mr. Marsden, a Scotchman, who was thereupon taken into the firm which continued to prosper. In the meantime, when I had passed my twentieth year, I had my first child, a daughter which we called Sarah after my husband's aunt in London. About a year afterwards, I had another, a son, whom we called Maximilian, after my father. Then I had another daughter called Helen, after myself. So, we were going on, as usual, and enjoying much domestic happiness when the Revolutionary War came on to disturb our quiet and drive us from our peaceful home.

Click here to read of her experiences during the Revolution.