1 December 2022

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Married masters were a rarity at Emma before the mid-eighteenth century. Several masters are known to have been married men at some point in their lives, but not, for certain, during their term of office. Establishing reliable facts about their elusive wives is extremely difficult.

A recent inspection of the Bishops’ Transcripts of the baptism, marriage and burial rolls for the parish of St Andrew the Great, Cambridge, has revealed another hitherto unsuspected, or at any rate unremembered, master’s wife: Elizabeth, consort of Dr John Balderston, Emma’s tenth head of house. Mrs Balderston’s obscurity is unsurprising, given that her husband is generally regarded as one of the most forgettable masters Emma has ever had, despite his long tenure. A search through some of the farther reaches of the college archives reveals that Mrs Balderston does, in fact, make a few appearances in a tenants’ rent-book, but these entries are easily overlooked.


                     Dr John Balderston, by Thomas Frye, 1732 (posthumously, after an engraving by David Loggan, 1684)

A graduate of Emma, John Balderston was elected Fellow in 1665 and Master in November 1680, at which point matrimony became an option. He may already have had a candidate in mind, as improvements to the master’s lodgings and garden were put in hand soon afterwards, including the new-furnishing of the gallery (then part of the master’s private domain) and the construction of a summer-house. The gallery purchases, costing £17, comprised a set of 30 turkey-work chairs, two Spanish tables and two ‘wrought carpets’. The date of the Balderstons’ wedding is not known, but the St Andrew’s church records show that ‘Elizabeth Balderstone daughter of John, Doc. of Divinity’ was baptised on 14 October 1683. She was very probably the first child born to a serving Master of the college. A second daughter, Susanna, was christened on 15 December 1685.

We get a glimpse of what we may presume to be Mrs B’s taste in soft furnishings, in the accounts for October 1684-April 1685. These record payments of £1.13s for ‘3 yards of Damask for 3 cushions in the lodgings’, and 3s for ‘covering them’. A year later £8 was laid out on ‘dressing the Tapestry Hangings in the Master’s lodgings’ (possibly the ‘8 pieces of hangings’ bought by the college in 1649), followed by purchases of ‘Callico Curtains’ at a cost of £1 13s 4d and a ‘leather Carpet’, priced at 10s. This beautification of the lodgings was approved without any dissent among the fellowship, unlike the 1681 gallery purchases, which had been put to a vote.

                                           Entries for Mrs Balderston in the college tenants’ rent book, October 1719

Dr Balderston died in August 1719. Two months later a college rent book records that his widow handed over the sum of £157 15s, due from the Dixie, Sudbury and Whichcote estates, that had been in her husband’s hands at the time of his death. It appears that she was able to remain in the lodgings for another year, presumably because the new master, William Savage, was frequently absent on college business (possibly sorting out muddles left by the elderly Balderston). From Michaelmas 1720, however, Mrs Balderston paid an annual rent of £11 for an unidentified, but evidently respectable, college-owned property in Cambridge, which she and Susanna occupied for several years. Her elder daughter, Elizabeth, is not mentioned, so had presumably either died or married during the years 1696-1711, a period for which the Bishops’ Transcripts are defective. On 26 December 1725, ‘Mrs Elizabeth Balderstone widow’ was buried in St Andrew’s parish, but ‘Mrs Sus. Balderston’ remained on the college tenant roll until Michaelmas 1726. At that point she vanishes from sight and, with her mother and sister, from collegiate memory, for nearly three centuries.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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