Women of the Wharf – Matilda Woodhouse

Matilda was born in 1902 at Yelvertoft, the youngest of 6 children for Matilda Pearsall and Henry Woodhouse. Both families worked ‘on the cut’, running canal boats. Henry died from tuberculosis in 1904, and sadly his widow Matilda also suffered the same fate, dying in 1906. Most of the children were old enough to be working the boats, or go into service, apart from little Matilda. She was only 5 years old when she was orphaned.

Matilda, known as Mat to her family, went to live with her aunt Sarah Ann Pearsall and uncle James (Jim) Lovelock at the New Inn, Norton Locks. Sarah and Jim had no children of their own, and treated Mat as their daughter. She would have attended the local school before she moved to the Grammar School in Daventry. Jim had a little shop as well as the pub, so it is possible that Mat helped out in there. She had plenty of time to spend with friends too, and a little dog.

L-R: Kath Higgs, Muriel Cockerill, Mat, Sarah Ann Lovelock. Taken around 1930. Copyright of The Griffiths Family, shared with permission.

Kath Higgs can be found at the Flower Farm in Whilton on the 1939 Register, and Muriel Cockerill lived at Ryehill Farm, just over the canal from the New Inn. They’re both of a similar age to Mat, possibly went to school together. I don’t know who the dog belongs to, maybe it was a pub dog although Sarah doesn’t seem too keen on it in this photo!

When Jim built the new shop next to Top Locks Cottage, there was space beside it for an artist studio. Described as a caravan and a shepherds hut, it was a wooden building that overlooked the lock. This is where Mat painted the Buckby Cans that she became known for. Mat is the only female professional painter of canal ware that is recorded by name, and examples of her work would have been seen anywhere from London to Birmingham, Leicester, Stoke on Trent, to name but a few.

Mat was very close to her aunt Sarah, who in effect was the only mother that she would have really known. Sarah died in 1932 at a nursing home, and this hit Mat very hard. She wasn’t in the best of health herself, needing to have two major operations and apparently had a weak heart. She was also worried about Jim, who was suffering health issues as well, and starting to have problems with his vision that deteriorated and left him blind.

In 1924, aged just 22, Mat had written her Will that bequeathed her real and personal estate equally to Sarah and Jim “as a slight recompense for the many kindnesses which I have received and for the great affection which I have towards them…”. Tragically that Will was proved in the Probate Court in 1934.

On the morning of Tuesday 20 March 1934, Mat was found in bed, having died during the night. Next to her bed was an open bottle of lysol (disinfecting fluid) and a small pocket book. She had left a note, part of which was read at the inquest into her death – “Please grant me this one request. Will you please lay me to rest in the same grave as my dearest auntie. I cannot possibly live without her. She was my all.” Dr Alfred Harrison stated that he was satisfied that Mat had taken the lysol, and that he had seen her regularly over the previous few months. She was “a delicate woman”, and had been very agitated when she found out that Jim needed treatment for his eyes. Jim found Mat on that morning, and fetched a neighbour, Annie Elizabeth Leeson for help. They called the doctor but there was nothing to be done.

Jim fulfilled Mat’s request and she was laid to rest in Greenford Cemetery with her aunt. In his Will, he left money to the Rector and Church Wardens of the Holy Cross in Greenford for the upkeep of the Church, a memorial tablet, and the gravestones of Sarah and Mat.

Studio shot of Mat. Copyright The Griffiths Family and shared with permission.

With kind thanks to the Griffiths family for their memories and photographs.

  • Northampton Mercury 1934 23 March
  • Lewery, Tony. Flowers Afloat; folk artists of the canals. David & Charles, 1996.

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