Mary Ann Horton

With Maggie Chaplin Mary Ann Horton wasn’t a looker. She acknowledged as much herself, and a woman in 19th century London was married if not for her looks, then...

With Maggie Chaplin

Mary Ann Horton wasn’t a looker. She acknowledged as much herself, and a woman in 19th century London was married if not for her looks, then for her money, and Mary Ann had plenty of that. She was a wealthy heiress and was astute enough to realise that she’d be a potential magnet for ne’er do well fortune hunters. She resolved never to marry anyone who wanted her for her riches, and turned her attention to helping good causes instead. Centuries later we can indirectly enjoy the benefits of that decision. One of Mary Ann’s projects was to set up a hospital so serve Banbury and villages within a ten mile radius. It was named after her and we still know it as The Horton.

What connection did Mary Ann have with the Banbury area and where did her wealth come from? It was all down to her father William, who came to here to escape the consequences of his mis-spent youth, and who, because of his ingenuity and dogged determination had amassed a vast fortune by the time he was forty.

William Horton was born in Leicestershire and baptised in April 1744. After leaving school he probably worked for a number of years for his father who was a brewer. It appears that when he turned twenty one he had a change of heart and took a seven year blacksmith’s apprenticeship, and it was this decision that provided him with the skills that would later serve him in such good stead. One of the conditions imposed on apprentices, who usually started their training at the younger age of fourteen, was that they were not allowed to marry. This presented William with a dilemma. As a result of his amorous attentions a young woman of his acquaintance became pregnant and he had a choice to make.

The legal options were: abandon his apprenticeship and marry his lover; continue his training and support the child financially until it was of an age to go to work, or, failing either of those, face imprisonment. He decided instead to flee and left Leicestershire and went to Chacombe (known as Chalcam at that time). Why there? Probably because his younger brother Joseph had already settled in the village and because there was work available in nearby Middleton Cheney, which had a flourishing trade in framework knitting of silk stockings.

William started work as a frame repairer and setter-up and he gained a detailed knowledge of how the knitting machines worked. He was convinced he could do better and was determined to design and build a frame that would work faster. There was another problem he sought to address too – that of keeping one’s socks up.

Today we’re used to self-supporting hosiery, thanks largely to the incorporation of elastic yarn, although in some quarters stockings and even occasionally socks are still held up by suspenders. In William Horton’s day neither elastic nor suspenders had been invented. You relied on garters to stop your leg wear finishing up round your ankles and of course the garters weren’t elasticated either. They were often just a ribbon tied above or below the knee.

Silk has little or no clinging power and nobody likes wrinkly knees and ankles.

“If only,” William must have thought, “I could devise a way to incorporate a stretchy quality into the knit.”

Eventually he succeeded. He worked hard in his spare time to design and build a new type of frame that would be capable of producing the improvements he sought to achieve. Then financial disaster struck. A standard model stocking frame that he was delivering to a client by packhorse became dislodged from the animal’s back, fell to the ground and was damaged to the tune of what today would be around £800 – an £800 that William didn’t have. Did he consider another clandestine flight to escape trouble? Perhaps, but fortunately a wealthy friend came to his rescue.

Back on track, he moved to London, where an established hosier, Richard Marsh, was impressed by his invention, and they set up a partnership in premises near St Paul’s cathedral. The business went from strength to strength, and by 1776 Horton, Marsh & Co was renowned amongst the gentry for the superior quality of their goods.  The partners prospered.        

William clearly thought it was then appropriate to marry and settle down. He chose for his wife the heiress of a wealthy merchant, thereby cementing his position in society. His fortune grew and William bought properties in various parts of the country, including the Chetwode estate near Banbury.

His family also expanded. He and his wife Elizabeth, had eight children, one of whom died in infancy. Mary Ann was born in 1790.

The business continued to flourish for many years, in London and in branches elsewhere, including in Middleton Cheney, but the whole enterprise ceased when William died in 1833. Sadly, most of his children had predeceased him, his sons never married and his wife, Elizabeth, survived him by only 2 days, so his estate eventually passed to Mary Ann.

There’s no evidence that William Horton ever lived in the Banbury area after he bought his estate there, but although Mary Ann retained a house in Highbury in London, it seems she preferred the country. She became Lady of the Manor of Middleton Cheney, inheriting the title from her father and built herself a large manor house. This has long since been demolished.

Mary Ann did a great deal to help the inhabitants of the village and was well respected. She funded the building of a row of almshouses, originally for estate employees, and gave generously to the extensive restoration of the parish church in 1865. Donations of clothing to needy children at the school were frequent, but of course, her most memorable gift to the locality was the Horton hospital.

It wasn’t until she was in her late 70s that she decided to build a hospital for the inhabitants of Banbury and adjacent villages. She bought an 8 acre plot that had only a barn and a hovel on site for £3,000, and set aside a further £7,000 for construction. There were to be two wards: one for men and one for women – a proviso being that there should always be a bed available for any inhabitant of Middleton Cheney that needed it, and a dispensary was also part of the plan. For a penny per individual or threepence per family the working class could access advice, receive medicine, or if seriously ill be visited by a doctor.

Building work began in 1869, but sadly Mary Ann didn’t live to see the completion of her most ambitious project. She died in July of that year, but she had added a codicil to her will with detailed instructions regarding the hospital, which was opened in July 1872 by the Bishop of Oxford.

Mary Ann was greatly respected by the community she served so generously, but it would seem that her wealth didn’t bring her contentment. She had a title, a manor house, a home in London and could afford whatever wordly goods she might fancy, but she was probably, despite all her social contacts, lonely. As a child she’d lived in a bustling household surrounded by brothers and sisters. By 1846 her parents and siblings were all dead – Mary Ann was the sole survivor.

She clearly mourned her family deeply, perhaps more so as she aged. Although she still spent some of her time in London, Middleton Cheney was her home and in November 1865, around the time that restorations were being carried out at the church there, Mary Ann made an extraordinary decision. By this time she was 75 and probably becoming aware of her own mortality. Perhaps she’d decided that she wanted to be buried with her close relatives, but didn’t want to finish up in London in the family tomb in Holloway. So instead she had them all brought to her. She arranged for her parents and siblings to be disinterred and the coffins transported to Middleton Cheney to be reburied in a specially designed Gothic tomb she had built for the purpose.

It was an unusual event that most of the village turned out to attend and it’s also recorded that many of the children were absent from school on the afternoon of 17th November 1865 to attend the ceremony. If you stand near the ornate Horton tomb in the quiet churchyard of All Saints today it’s hard to imagine what it was like with a crowd of people, probably muttering in subdued tones, and eight or ten coffins that were decades old being lugged across the grass and lowered into the vault in front of them.

Mary Ann had her wish. When she died five years later, ironically in Holloway, she was brought back and buried with her family. Her memorial plaque is on the tomb beneath that of her parents.Perhaps we should be grateful that Mary Ann wasn’t a beauty. A social butterfly might have squandered her wealth on admirers and frippery and we wouldn’t have had The Horton today, so maybe when you’re on your way to Outpatients, pause in front of the Victorian frontage and spare a thought for Mary Ann who founded the hospital that we take for granted today.