The Elder Years

John’s death in 1850 shaped the remainder of Amelia’s life. First and foremost, the death of her husband of 37 years was a great blow to her. Up until her death Amelia would mention John in her diaries, marking milestones including their anniversary and his death date. Amelia never fully recovered from the emotional toll of losing someone special.

A picture of the elderly Mrs. Harris. She is seated and wearing a black dress and a white bonnet tied under her chin. She is posed in a studio study circa 1876.
A tinted photo of Amelia Ryerse Harris circa 1876 from the Eldon House Collection.

On a practical level, widowhood presented a challenge to a mother with seven children still at home, her youngest being sixteen. Victorian women had few options in terms of employment. Many women relied on their husbands or sons for income, and after the loss of a breadwinner, economy became necessary. For Amelia, matters were further complicated by four of her daughters being unmarried and securing good matches and dowries for her girls was a priority.

Upon the death of his father, her eldest son John, took over financial obligations of the family, though found it a struggle to maintain Eldon House and family upkeep. John attempted to manage debts as best as possible, though occasionally it caused strain for him and the family.

Jun 1, 1859 John was making arrangements to get the money but could not do so until after the 31st as he had to put in a note at the bank for it, and has now paid Mr. Becher the whole sum of 174. I feel so sorry that he should all his life have a weight of debt upon his shoulders. It is true he will be compensated in the end, but now there is nothing but a sacrifice of property, which would fall on my sons, as my daughters get almost nothing, could enable me to meet even a small debt. I often feel that the mortification which I have to endure when I have to go to my sons for money is necessary to keep my proud heart humble.

Amelia often wrote about the financial difficulties of widowhood and fought to maintain independent income. She rented out a small piece of property close to her hometown for additional revenue. This too presented challenges when the potential loss of renters caused Amelia anxiety for fear that the loss of any funds would impact her and her unwed children.

“Jul 12, 1858 Today I have had a piece of very unpleasant information. Dr. Farrar talks of giving up my house. If he should continue on it will be at a reduction of £50 a year and £50 out of my small income is a very large item. Teresa and myself will be dependent on my three sons. I also discovered that my son John had paid Doctor Anderson’s bill for £47 which had given me much uneasiness as I could not sell any land to raise money and I could not pay it out of my small income. My God reward him for all his kindness.”

Despite the challenges with money, Amelia was able to work with her sons to keep Eldon House in the family, a great feat considering Amelia was widowed for over thirty years. Additionally, the death of her eldest son John, and the transfer of property to her younger two sons impacted the physical and fiscal state of the home.

As time progressed, Amelia noted her age in her diaries. She commented heavily on the changing society and customs, as well as how marriage of children, birth of grandchildren, and loss of family and friends made her feel old. Soon Amelia was one of the elder members in London society outliving several notable contemporaries, like London Free Press editor Josiah Blackburn, members of the Labatt Family and the members of the Cronyn Family. She became in many ways, a keeper of London’s early history and was often interviewed when members of society did something notable or passed away. ‘The Elder Mrs. Harris’ as she was often referred to, was always able to provide interesting insight into London life and maintained a sharp mind and wit until her death. Amelia passed away at the age of 84 on March 24, 1882, after a series of illnesses. Her funeral was attended by notable Londoners and by her extensive family.

Pencil drawing of Eldon House, a large building with shutters sitting on a lawn with trees and grasses on either side and in the foreground.
A drawing of Eldon House from a Harris relation. Image courtesy of Western Archives and Special Collections.