The Orlebar sisters, three maiden ladies, Mary, Elizabeth (affectionately known within the family as Eliza) and Constantia, lived for more than forty years at The Cot, having moved to Ecton after their father's death in 1765.They were comfortably off, and lead an active life. They travelled extensively in England and on the Continent, hunting in the winter and frequently visiting London where the family had a town house. Incidentally, their correspondence suggests that their dressmakers' bills were quite considerable.
Mary wrote in verse at, it seems, any opportunity. For instance, when asked why she did not write a poem on a particular event, she composed a poem about not writing a poem!
In 1777 she wrote some lines of verse on the Lottery:
O! Magic Paper, who can tell
Whether by thy powerful spell, Kind Fortune in a pleasant mood,
may mean her Favor should be shewd;
And to her ministers of State,
The Blue-Coat Dealers forth Fate,
assign it as her kind Decree
to Draw the First Grand Prize for me!
Constantia's "Weather Book"
Constantia, the youngest sister, kept a 'Weather Book' in which she recorded an accurate description of the weather throughout the day and night. These observations were continued until only a few days before her death at the age of 69 in 1808. Her detailed journals have been of great value for reference at the Meteorological Office. There are no other records of such value for this period. Her 'Weather Book' begins in 1786, by which time she was spending most of the year in or about Northamptonshire. She clearly resolved to enter, in ink, generally in two lines of her very charming and elegant script, a description of the weather each day, in a series of note- or exercise-books bound in contemporary wrapping paper. Entries are made very systematically with fifteen or sixteen days to each page, two or three years in each note-book. She had access to a barometer and thermometer, but rarely records their behaviour. She quite seldom mentions the wind direction, although she has a great deal to say about its characteristics. Some typical entries are:
Some of Constantia"s entries in her "Weather Book"
Feb. 27 1786 A misty sprinkling rain early - but soon cleared to a spring-like pleasant day - wind rose, and was a Blustering cloudy night.
June 30 1786 Fine sunshine morn - and not unpleasant clouds.
July 24 1786 Fair serene morning - terrific clouds at noon but only a little rain - fine evening but weather not looking settled.
May 27 1793 Early fine but soon arose clouds became very close and must have occasion'd distant Thunder - fine setting sun.
July 12 1794 Early again very fine and hot - quite oppressing all Day - at night scarcely cooler.
Aug 25 1794 Early a hasty shower of rain, soon after the Sun shone hot, but interrupted by clouds and some showers - a fine setting sun.
Sept. 30 1794 early very hasty rain, changed to be fine - cloudy sunset - wind arose and was a turbulent wet night.
Feb. 15 1795 Early Foggy morn - cleared and was fine; thickish sky, yet much sunshine and barometer rising high - Frost at night red clouds at sunset.
Feb. 20 1795 Early Dark and thick clouds - frequent flights of snow - enough to cover the ground - hollow wind, very cold - some snow at night.
Feb. 24 1795 Early wettish morning - clearer coolish hollow wind - not unpleasant and much less cold - still night.
Very occasionally, an additional comment is made; for example, in June 1804 a note ‘the size of bread lessened’ reminds one of the rising prices during the Napoleonic wars. Crops and the flowers receive little mention, although one October day was ‘fine for the apple gathering’. She very generally notes the day near the end of September when fires are first lit.
The nature of Constantia Orlebar's entries tells us a good deal. They provide a remarkably interesting sidelight on the make-up of an eighteenth century Englishwoman of considerable social standing, education and accomplishment. She was particularly observant of high-piled cumulus. ‘Terrific clouds’ often gain mention. The 15th of August 1802 is described as ‘free of cloud to have apprehensions from’. It becomes very evident that she was particularly sensitive with regard to thunder. She notes with evident pleasure how many of the storms avoid Ecton. She did not relish great heat. On April 10th 1792 ‘in a walk we were overpowered by heat’ - this was certainly the first warm day of the year, but at pm.. only gave 64º on a shaded wall in London - and on August 28th 1795, ‘autumnal cool evening, very charming to me’. The extracts show her evident interest in the wind, which she disliked when it became too strong and ‘tempestous’ (sic) or ‘turbulent’. She was at pains to note any occurrence far into the night and in the early morning, and has many entries such as ‘flying snowflakes’, ‘a flying sleet’ or ‘sleety rains’ that go much further than the majority of the journals of that period. Her specific mention of ‘a considerable flight of snow following rain’ on June 12th 1791 appears to be one of the very rare instances of snow falling so far south after the end of May.
Many letters were written, (in beautiful and perfect script) and are preserved, between members of the family and between their acquaintances. For example, one written in 1767 expresses the great sorrow at the felling of the big trees in Earls Barton Hill in consequence of the Enclosure Act of 1765.
The following text is an extract of a letter from Constantia (in Brington) to Elizabeth on July 14th 1767, with some description of The Cot, or Ecton Cot, to which it was usually referred. She writes to say that she will visit on horseback from Kimbolton to Hinwick in time for breakfast. She writes:
‘We are all obliged to you for wishing us to pass some time at Hinwick before we fix in our little Cottage, my sister. Mary will not forget her ingagement (sic) in September, and we at the expiration of that Month shall be glad in person to offer our congratulations! We propose visits near our Villa about that time; as it is fit to see a little toward the furnishing. The repairs go on prosporously (sic). Mr and Mrs Isted are very kind in not listening to some objections we made that seemed necessary guarding against. My brother I find has lately given the small abode a look! we shall be happy in being so near to you as one of us when you want a bit of company to be able in two hours to fill a Blank place in your Parlor’ (sic).
The family history records enough to indicate that in later years she became an invaluable maiden aunt, coming to the rescue when other members of the family were ill, providing a home for convalescents, and maintaining a lively interest, by correspondence and otherwise, in affairs great and small.
The sisters' last resting places
Constantia died on July 6th 1808 at the age of sixty-nine and was buried at St Mary Magdalen Church at her particular request; a memorial tablet remains in the floor of the Church.
Mary and Elizabeth were buried at Podington in Bedfordshire.
written for the Ecton Book by Brian & Isabel Day,
The Cot, Ecton.