Mystery solved!

Royal Crescent, Bath

Royal Crescent, Bath

Thanks to everyone who offered ideas for our mystery correspondent, who sent a letter to Charles Darwin from 81 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin on 9 March 1875! We’re thrilled to say that we now have a definite result.


Glenn Branch suggested Isabella Harriet Wolfe (1813-95), who was living in at 19 Upper Leeson Street from about 1850 until 1877. Isabella and her sister Charlotte (1815-95) were the only surviving children of William Standish Wolfe (1774-1869) of Baronrath, county Kildare, and his wife Jane. The death announcement of Jane, wife of William S. Wolfe, in Freeman’s Journal 8 April 1846, probably refers to her. This identification seems relatively unlikely: Isabella’s mother died when Isabella was 33, nearly thirty years before the letter was written and doesn’t fit well with the letter writer saying, “not long ago I was startled by an exclamation of surprise fr. my mother . . . I was nearly fifty when this seemingly forgotten tendency once more appeared.”


That side track was disappointing. So what did we try next?


If the writer were a woman, then the initial ‘A’ could be for ‘Anne’: a search on the internet produced Gould Anne Ruxton who married Charles Wolfe (1825-66; a third cousin of the Isabella and Charlotte Wolfe mentioned above) in 1849 and who died in 1885 aged 61. But the signature was not legible enough to be conclusive, so we looked for more evidence.


The Wolfe family is included in Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland 1899, which shows that Charles Wolfe was British chaplain at Havre. The Ruxtons are listed, too: Gould’s parents were Henry Upton Ruxton of Ardee and Isabella Carlisle, the daughter of James Carlile of Craddoxtown.


Thom’s Irish Almanac showed a Mrs Wolfe living in Dublin in the 1870’s, although not at 81 Upper Leeson Street. From 1867 to 1873 she was living at 30 Waterloo Road (off Upper Leeson Street) with Mrs Isabella Offley, who died in November 1873 aged 74. So was Mrs Isabella Offley previously Mrs Isabella Ruxton? It seemed possible, and all the information so far was tantalisingly appropriate: a comfortable family background; life on the continent; the writer aged about 50 in 1875; and her mother maybe alive until shortly before.


Gould had an older sister, Isabella, who married George Abraham Grierson, a barrister, in 1846: they were the parents of George Abraham Grierson, an expert on the languages of the Indian subcontinent, who has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is also the marriage of Julia, daughter of John Offley, gentleman, and Charles Cannon. An unusual surname . . . and George Abraham Grierson was a witness at the wedding.


When Isabella Offley died she was described as the wife of John Henry Offley. Someone of that name was listed in the census returns for England in 1851, 1861 and 1871; each time he was described as married but his wife was not with him. He was educated at Cambridge and had a private income. In the 1881 census there was a wife called Harriet, but they only married in 1875. We called in reinforcements, and asked the Offley Family Society for help. One of their members came up with a marriage in Florence (not too far from the Baths of Lucca, mentioned in the letter to Darwin) in January 1829 between John Henry Offley and Isabella Buxton. Too much of a coincidence! All this suggested that Isabella Ruxton travelled on the continent with two small daughters and while in Italy married a wealthy Englishman. Was Julia Cannon née Offley their daughter? She died in 1915, aged 84, in Dublin and appeared in the surviving Irish censuses for 1901 and 1911, giving her place of birth as Berne in Switzerland.


John Henry Offley was born in London in 1804; his parents were John and Julia Maria, and he had a sister who was also called Julia Maria. He died in Bath in 1883 with property worth £164, 500 (about £8m in today’s money). It seemed worth £6 to order a copy of his will. While we waited for it to arrive, we filled in some background on some of the relevant players, but the will was to prove the decisive piece of evidence. It bequeathed two thousand pounds to Gould Anne Wolfe of 81 Upper Leeson Street Dublin, the widow of the late Reverend Charles Wolfe of Feighcullen Glebe, Kildare. The will went on to confirm that Isabella had been John Henry Offley’s first wife, and that Julia Cannon was their daughter. And although everything we needed was laid out tidily in the will, we never would have looked at John Henry Offley without having gone through all the other steps! It is always important for us to be able to place Darwin’s correspondents in their social and geographical relationships, in order to be able to have a clear picture of the correspondence as a whole.


We were very surprised just how much we were able to find out about a woman who spent all of her life outside the United Kingdom.  But we are left so curious . . . Why did Isabella Ruxton take her daughters off to Europe? What was the relationship between John Henry Offley, his wife, their daughter, and his step-daughters? In the 1891 census Harriet Offley, John Henry Offley’s widow, was living in Royal Crescent, Bath. Isabella Grierson was staying with her daughters, Constantia, Charlotte and Julia Maria, in Park Street, less than half a mile away. Did they meet?

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