I became interested in the life of Sir William Paxton when I was researching the landscape at Middleton Hall for my dissertation as part of an MA in Landscape Management & Environmental Archaeology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I now work as a freelance historical researcher. As there are few personal records of Paxton’s still extant, it makes him a bit of a mysterious character. We have more questions about him than answers, but this only makes me more curious!
In 1785 William Paxton returned to Britain a wealthy man after many years in India.
Travelling with him was his six-year-old daughter Eliza. Her origins are obscure, there are no references to her mother or of a marriage in India for William. It has been assumed that her mother was Indian and that she was William’s mistress or ‘Bibi’ as the local term was. Other questions arise, why did she not accompany them back to England? Was she dead, or did William just take the child, leaving the mother distraught and heartbroken? He may have taken the view that she would never have been accepted in England and would have found it difficult to adjust to life there. Another alternative has been suggested, that it would have been a rational decision agreed upon by William and Eliza’s mother.
It was more common for male children of mixed parentage to be sent to England, probably because they were perceived to be of more value than girls. The fact that William brought Eliza with him when he left Calcutta suggests that he loved her. He had sold his goods and chattels, leaving India under an official cloud, he had no intention of going back. He married Anne Dawney a year or so after his return and went on to have a further 11 children with her but Eliza remained with them and was seen as part of the family for the rest of her life. Her step-mother and siblings left bequests to her, which suggests that they were fond of her and that they regarded her as a daughter and a sister.
Eliza was not married in London like some of her half-siblings were. She married Thomas Dawney, a ship’s commander for the East India Company and a relative of her stepmother’s at Llanarthne Church in 1817.
And what of Eliza’s relationship with her father?
He left her £2000 in a codicil to his will in 1824, but the bulk of his estate was shared equally between her brothers and sisters. In today’s money, Eliza’s legacy represents about £98,000. He does not identify her as his daughter but as Elizabeth Dawney, wife of Thomas Dawney. It is difficult to assess William’s motives; did he value her as much as his other children? It seems not. However, there is a slight clue to William’s feelings in that he releases Thomas Dawney from any debts at ‘the time of my decease’. Perhaps Eliza’s marriage estranged her from her father and it seems unlikely at this distance that the full truth will ever be known.
In an interesting postscript, Eliza identifies Sir William as ‘my late dear father’ in her will which was proved in 1853. This document reveals that as well as the £2000 bequest mentioned in his will, William also settled £8000 on Eliza prior to her marriage, (£335,000 in today’s money). So it appears that Sir William had made more generous provision for her than appears at first and that he was Eliza’s ‘dear father’ until the end.