Zillah Brutnell's Victorian Needlework Sampler
In March 2021, Goadby Marwood History Group was contacted by Philip LeFevre who lives in the US state of Texas. Philip and his wife, Holly, collect examples of antique needlework and several years ago, on a trip to London, they acquired an early Victorian sampler which has the name of Goadby Marwood embroidered upon it together with the name of the young lady who stitched it, Zillah Brutnell, and the date, 1843. Philip was interested in finding out more about Zillah and so were we.
The English word 'sampler' derives from the Latin 'exemplum', or the old French term 'essamplaire', meaning 'an example'. A needlework sampler is a piece of embroidery or cross-stitching produced, usually by a young lady, in order to demonstrate a level of proficiency. Examples held at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum date from as early as 1400, but it was during the 17th Century that English samplers developed from personal reference works for embroiderers, into practice pieces for girls learning needlework, with most examples dating from the late 1700s onwards.
Typically, samplers include a verse, often with a religious theme, together with figures, motifs, decorative borders, and sometimes the name of the person who embroidered it and the date. Zillah’s sampler (pictured below) depicts a shepherdess with her sheep, country cottages and baskets of flowers all surrounded by a highly decorative border. The verse that Zillah chose for her work was well-known in Victorian times and was often used on samplers:
Christ On The Cross
Ye wandering travellers that pass this way,
Stand still a while, these agonies survey,
And the result of serious thoughts declare,
If ever sorrows might with mine compare,
But God in mercy hath decreed this cup,
Most willingly therefore I drink it up,
Nor only this but those that will rely,
On what I teach, shall never die.
Zillah Brutnell was born in New Radford, Nottingham, in 1826, the eldest child of carpenter, William Brutnell, and his wife, Sarah Bealey or Bailey. William was born and raised in the village of Goadby Marwood, and Sarah was from the neighbouring village of Waltham on the Wolds, the couple married in Waltham in September 1825. Zillah probably spent her early childhood at the family home on Gregory Street in Radford with her brother, William b. 1828, and her two sisters, Sarah b. 1830 and Mary b. 1833.
Sadly for Zillah, her mother died sometime in the mid-1830s, and it was probably at this time that she moved to Goadby Marwood to live with her paternal grandparents, Joel and Sarah Brutnell. The Poll Book of 1841 recorded Zillah’s grandfather as owning a freehold interest in land within Goadby village, and as such, he was one of just 12 resident men who were entitled to vote. It is not entirely clear from the census and tithe survey records exactly which house the family occupied, but it may have been Sundial House in the centre of the village.
Zillah Brutnell's embroidery sampler. Photograph courtesy of Philip Le Fevre.
Zillah’s uncle, John Brutnell, lived at First Farm on Main Street in the village with his wife, Hannah, and their children, Ann, Mary, Eliza, Elizabeth, Sarah, John, Joel and William, so Zillah would have had the company of lots of children her own age. Zillah’s aunt, Sarah, who lived in her parents’ household, was a dressmaker so it is likely that Zillah learnt her embroidery skills from her.
Zillah’s grandfather, Joel, died in the summer of 1847 and it may have been around this time that Zillah returned to Nottingham to live with her father, William, and his second wife, Ann. Lascelles & Hagar's Commercial Directory of Nottingham for 1848 recorded an entry for dressmaker and milliner, Zillah Brutnell, on Gregory Street, so it would seem that Zillah was making use of her needlework talents to earn a living.
Sometime before 1851, Zillah left Nottingham and moved to Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. The census returns of that year recorded her lodging at the home of sisters, Elizabeth and Sarah Terry. Zillah was employed as a mistress at the local National School so she must have had a reasonable standard of education.
It may have been in Whitby that Zillah met her future husband, John Potter, who was from the Yorkshire village of Westow; the couple married on March 17th, 1855. Following their marriage, John and Zillah lived in York where John, together with his older brother, Charles, ran a successful silk mercer business on Coney Street, one of the city’s major shopping thoroughfares. The couple had six children, John Charles b. 1860, Arthur b. 1862, Walter b. 1863, Florence b. 1865, Laura b. 1867 and Beatrice Mary b. 1868.
In September 1869, John, who was 13 years Zillah’s senior, died leaving her to raise their six children alone. Luckily John had left his family well provided for. Zillah and her children continued to live in York for more than 20 years, the census returns of 1881 recorded the family living on The Mount in the well-to-do Micklegate area of the city. Zillah was recorded as ‘living on her own means’ and she employed several household servants.
By the time the next census was taken in 1891, Zillah’s three sons had all left home. Eldest son, John Charles, had married and was living with his family in London, his brother, Walter, who was studying medicine, lived with him. Sometime before 1901, Zillah and her three daughters left York and also moved to London, where they purchased a house in the then affluent residential suburb of Streatham. Zillah Brutnell died in Streatham on December 1st, 1907; she was 81 years old. It is likely that her treasured sampler passed to her daughters, none of whom married, and it may have been that following their deaths in the 1940s, the sampler was disposed of as part of their estate.
The Brutnell family played an important role in the life of Goadby Marwood village during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Victorian pulpit in St. Denys’s Church was carved by Zillah’s cousin, Joel Brutnell, and nearby is a stained-glass window restored in 1976 with the aid of a gift in memory of Walter Brutnell, Zillah’s second cousin, who for many years was gamekeeper at Goadby Hall.
Coney Street, York, c. 1900, where John Potter had his silk mercer business and where the family lived in the 1860s.
The Victorian pulpit in St. Denys's Church, Goadby Marwood. Carved by Zillah's cousin, Joel Brutnell.
Streatham, a postcard c.1905. Zillah lived in the London suburb from the early 1900s until her death in 1907.
Mary Brutnell's Needlework Sampler
In August 2021, Goadby Marwood History Group was contacted by Rebecca Clayton of Hedgerow Stitching who specialises in producing patterns for original antique samplers so that they can be reproduced by embroidery enthusiasts. Rebecca had come across a sampler which she believed was created by Zillah Brutnell’s younger sister, Mary, and having seen Zillah’s story on our website, she kindly forwarded a photograph to us. Mary’s sampler was stitched in 1839 when she was just six years old and is a much simpler piece than the one created later by her sister.
Mary was born in 1833 and grew up in the Nottingham district of Radford with her sisters, Zillah and Sarah, and her brother, William. While Zillah lived with her grandparents in Goadby following her mother’s death, the census record indicates that Mary remained in Nottingham with her father and stepmother, although it is likely that she visited Goadby on occasion. In 1861, the census record shows that Mary was visiting her older sister, Zillah, and brother-in-law, John, at their home on Coney Street in York. Mary was five years younger than Zillah and may well have learned embroidery from her talented sister.
Like her sister, Mary used her needlework skills to make a living. By 1871, she was employed as a milliner by a large draper’s business on High Street in Grantham, and it was here that she met her future husband, draper’s assistant, Hill Brothwell, who was 13 years Mary’s junior. The couple married in the winter of 1875/76 and moved to Grimsby on the Lincolnshire coast where they set up their own business. Sadly, Mary and Hill only had a few years together and they had no children; Mary died on March 29th, 1883, from, according to her death certificate, ‘a disease of the bladder and kidneys’; she was just 49 years old.
Mary Brutnell’s sampler pictured together with a faithful reproduction created by Rebecca Clayton.