Before she went to Russia – Lucy’s early life

The life of Lucy Atkinson (née Finley) prior to her marriage to Thomas Atkinson in Moscow in February 1848 is little known and only documented in part. Marianne Simpson, who is a direct descendant of Lucys brother, William York Finley, has spent several years tracking Lucys life. Here she provides a remarkably detailed picture of the young governessbackground, up until the point she left London for St Petersburg in Russia in 1839 or 1840.

Lucy Atkinson
The only known likeness of Lucy Atkinson

Lucy Sherrard Finley was born on 15 April 1817 at her parents’ home in Vine Street, Sunderland, Durham. She was the fourth child of her 24-year-old mother, Mary Ann (née York), who had already given birth to three sons. Her father was Matthew Smith Finley, who at 39 was 15 years older than his wife, having been born in 1778.

Mary Ann was actually a Londoner. Her parents were William York and Elizabeth Sherrard, who were married in St George’s, Hanover Square, in May 1792. William York was a perfumer. After his marriage, the couple lived on the south side of the Thames in King Street, Southwark.  Their daughter Mary Ann was baptised at St Saviour’s, Southwark in May 1793.

How Mary Ann and Matthew met is not certain but we may surmise. Matthew Finley was born in Monkwearmouth in County Durham in the north of England. His father, Robert Finley (1747-1806), was a master mariner who, following in the footsteps of his own father, another Robert Finley (1707-1778)[i], regularly plied the waters between Monkwearmouth and London to feed the rapidly growing metropolis’ seemingly inexhaustible need for coal. But Robert Finley did not confine himself to the coal trade. There is also evidence that he crossed the English Channel several times conveying French wines to the British market[ii] and made at least one trip to St. Petersburg (with a cargo of hemp) which is interesting in view of the subsequent career of his granddaughter Lucy.

Matthew Finley, the oldest in a family of five children, may himself have served time at sea and possibly have also been a master mariner. This would explain how he came to be in London and perhaps also his relatively late marriage. In terms of how Matthew and Mary Ann actually met, press advertisements reveal a ‘Mr Finley’ advertising not only his perfumery business in Piccadilly but also for a cook for the East-Indies![iii] It is very likely that he was a relation of Matthew.

Matthew and Mary Ann were married on 25 April 1810 at St Dunstan’s in the East (most probably Mary Ann’s parish church) near London Bridge.  It is possible that they may first have lived at Wapping because a Matthew Finley is recorded as living there in Sir William Warren’s Square in 1812.  In the seventeenth century, Sir William Warren was the leading timber merchant of his day who imported timber from the Baltic and supplied the navy with masts. Matthew Finley may have been employed by William Warren’s company both before and immediately after his marriage.[iv]

St Dunstans
St Dunstan’s in the East – now a ruin

The birth of his children at regular intervals suggests that Matthew Finley may have changed occupation not long after his marriage as in all the surviving documents concerning the births and marriages of his children he is described as a schoolmaster. This is further supported by the fact that Matthew and Mary Ann’s second son was born in 1813 at Somerstown, north of King’s Cross, which was not an area frequented by seafarers.

At some point between 1813 and 1815 Matthew, Mary Ann and their first two children moved from London, first to Monkwearmouth and thereafter to Sunderland, 250 miles north of London. The reason for the move is not clear, although it cannot have been to take over his father’s business, as Robert Finley had died in 1806. Once in the north the family was welcomed by Matthew’s remaining family. We know this because Matthew’s sister, Mrs. Barbara Benson, is recorded as having been present at the birth of Lucy’s brother, William York Finley, in Monkwearmouth in 1815.

Lucy was born two years later, in 1817. When she was either seven or eight years of age, the family, now expanded to include seven children, returned to London where they took up residence in Sidney Street, off the Commercial Road in an area known as Ratcliffe. Once known as “Sailor Town”, the area had since Elizabethan times drawn shipbuilders and owners, sailors and merchants and Matthew would have known it well, as this was where the coal vessels from Newcastle and Sunderland unloaded their cargoes.

Sometime after 29 June 1831, when the tenth and last child, Mary Ann, was born, the family relocated again. The move may have been prompted by financial distress because, just a few months before, on 9 February 1831, Matthew appears in a schedule of prisoners making petition before the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors. The date of Mary Ann’s birth indicates that he must have been apprehended after September 1830 but, whether his imprisonment was terminated after five months or not, it must have been a very difficult period for the family and, in particular, for Matthew’s wife.

She may, however, have been able to call on family help because the will of her childless uncle, Joseph Sherrard, shows that he was well established and also had a close relationship with his only niece. Joseph Sherrard, who was brother to Mary Ann’s mother, was a ship’s purser in the Royal Navy. Mary Ann was clearly very close to him as she called her second son – Joseph Sherrard Finley – after him and it was from Joseph’s wife that Lucy derived her first name – as well as receiving Sherrard as her second name.

In so naming her son and daughter, Mary Ann gave her uncle and aunt precedence over her own parents. In fact, it was only when she came to her third son, William York Finley, and third daughter, Elizabeth Harriet Finley, that she used her parents’ names and, even then, the Elizabeth could have been a reference to her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Smith. This clearly suggests a very close relationship with the Sherrard branch of her family.

This is despite the fact that Mary Ann would have been in her fifteenth year when Joseph Sherrard returned for good after spending several years in His Majesty’s Service in Australia.  Joseph Sherrard was one of the earliest British Naval officers to sail to Australia and he was also the beneficiary of significant “prize money” for ships captured at sea.  He first arrived at Sydney Cove in New South Wales on HMS Reliance in 1795.  Returning to England in 1800, he travelled out to Sydney again in 1802.  In 1804 he is recorded as leasing 58 rods of land in the township of Sydney and in 1807 he was granted 100 acres in the district of Cabramatta.[v]  He died in Kent, England in 1835, making Mary Ann – along with her first son, Matthew Smith Finley Jnr. and her first daughter, Lucy – a principal beneficiary of the will.  It is therefore also possible he may have helped the Finley family in 1831 when Lucy’s father was imprisoned for debt [vi].

In April 1832 when Matthew Smith Finley Jnr. was baptised as an adult at Deptford, he gave his place of abode as Rotherhithe.  Provided he was still living under his father’s roof – and there is no reason to suggest he was not – this would suggest that, after the financial collapse, the family moved to the south side of the Thames to cut down on expenses. But, before the end of the decade, they were back again on the north side of the Thames, now at 4 Waterloo Terrace, Commercial Road East, Ratcliffe.  We know that they were there by 1 March 1837 because that is when Matthew Finley took out fire insurance on the property.[viii]  It is indeed possible, however, that they were there as early as 1835, this being when Joseph Sherrard died, leaving his generous bequests (see below).

All that remains of Waterloo Terrace in Stepney, along the Commercial Road

The Commercial Road, which shaped the family’s life, both before and after their residence in Rotherhithe, had been constructed between 1802 and 1806 to take dock traffic from the West India Docks and East India Docks into the City of London. It conveyed so much traffic that in 1828-1830 the company that built the road constructed a stone tramway of Aberdeen granite along its entire length to reduce wear from heavy road wagons. During Lucy’s residence there, and until the 1860s, those using the road had to pay a toll. Industries and railways followed and Stepney railway station was opened, close by Waterloo Terrace, at around the time Lucy left London for Russia.

In contrast to some of the less salubrious areas between the Commercial Road and the Thames, Booth’s “Poverty Maps” describe the residents of the Commercial Road as “hardworking sober men of good character and intelligence.” This would appear to be borne out by a description of the residents/businesses in Waterloo Terrace as set out in the 1841 Post Office London Directory. Living at No. 4 Waterloo Terrace, the Finleys’ neighbours comprised linen drapers, a stationer and Post Office receiving house, a watch and clockmaker, a bookseller, a baker, a tailor, a pawnbroker and, significantly, the Seamen’s Registry and Pay Office.

Waterloo Terrace is just below the ‘RCIA’ of Commercial Road

Waterloo Terrace was located directly north of Ratcliffe Dock and Stanford’s 1864 map of London also shows a Sailors’ Institute and a Wesleyan Seamen’s Chapel in the area. Lucy did not just hear about the sea and what lay beyond the shores of England from her father, great-uncle and possibly oldest brother, but she was daily surrounded by the evidence of maritime trade and the impact of the sea on the social fabric of her community.

No information has come down as to where Matthew Finley may have been employed as a schoolmaster. Stanford’s map, compiled 17 years after his death, shows a number of schools in the area, in particular several “National Schools”, so called because they were set up by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales.  It is, however, known that the Finleys were “dissenters” and, as such, not members of the Established Church. Ratcliffe, in fact, was well known as a non-conformist area and there is tentative evidence to suggest that the Finleys may have come from a Presbyterian background. It is possible, however, that they did not attend any house of worship because there is no evidence that the children were presented for infant baptism.

Stanford’s map also shows a “Ragged School” (for destitute children of poor families) directly behind Waterloo Terrace which may have been in operation during Matthew’s time. However the Ragged School movement did not take off in a big way until after 1844, three years before Matthew’s death. While we can speculate, it is important to keep in mind that Londoners of the Victorian period were accustomed to trudge many miles to reach their place of work and it is entirely possible that Matthew worked out of his area of residence; this is perhaps even more likely when it is remembered that he continued to be recorded as a schoolmaster, while living at Rotherhithe.

It is equally not known where the children of the family received their education – quite possibly their father played a large part – but we do know that Lucy spoke French. Writing in 1916 towards the end of his life, Lucy’s nephew Francis George Finley wrote the following about his father, Matthew Smith Finley Jnr, who was Lucy’s oldest brother, born in 1811: “He was certainly one of the most highly cultured men that ever came to Australia. He could speak several languages and he must have been well educated. He was a polished gentleman.”[ix] It is perhaps significant that Matthew was a convert to Catholicism and between 1843 and 1846 was in partnership in Sydney with the French wine merchant Didier Joubert.

The 1841 census entry for the Finley family in Stepney is illuminating because it lists the children still living with their parents – namely Maria (21), Elizabeth (19), Mary (9) and Thomas (12). Besides Lucy, who was already in St Petersburg, two of the younger boys were missing – Horatio who would have been 17 and George who would have been 15. Does their absence mean that they were being educated away from home? The two boys are not found elsewhere in the census which raises the question whether they may have been at sea or were being educated on the Continent.

We know that both their parents had naval connections, that Lucy and Thomas Atkinson originally destined their son Alatau for the navy and that, when Matthew Smith Finley Jnr. arrived in Australia in 1833, it was as a seaman[x]. As for the possibility that the boys were educated abroad, we know from his will that Matthew Jnr. owned books written in French, German, Spanish and Italian which he left to his sister Maria on his death in 1861. Was he taught these languages on the Continent or just as a result of his travels as a seaman? Also, when he bequeathed the books to Maria, was it because, while still in London, she had been a book dealer or was it because she, herself, had knowledge of these languages? Maria’s nephew, Francis George Finley, knew his aunt Maria and wrote that she “was a particularly well educated woman.” For whatever we read about Maria, we can extrapolate to Lucy, her elder sister by two years.

As stated above, in 1813, when Matthew and Mary Ann’s second son was born, they were living at Somerstown near Kings Cross. The Gentlemans Magazine of 1813 published a letter about Somerstown which mentioned, inter alia, that a considerable number of French emigrés had settled there and a certain Abbé Carron from France was running four schools – two for boys and two for girls. Could Matthew have been teaching at one of Abbé Carron’s schools in 1813 and, given that Matthew Jnr. and Lucy certainly knew French, could Matthew have used these links to later provide his children with a French, or even European, oriented education?

Irrespective of her education, we know that, before she went to Russia and probably from her late teens, Lucy was running a business as a dealer in toys and jewellery from her family’s address at 4 Waterloo Terrace. We know this from the insurance records of the Sun Fire Office which reveal that Lucy Sherrard Finley took out a policy for the above named business on 14 June 1839.[xi]


Intriguingly, she is again listed at Waterloo Terrace as a toy dealer in the Commercial Directory of 1846. With Lucy, of course, in Russia by that time, the seeming anomaly is perhaps explained by the Post Office Directory of 1848 which also records a dealer in toys at the same address, but now the business is in the name of Mrs. Mary A. Finley. This would suggest that Mary Ann kept the business going in Lucy’s name in the hope that Lucy might return but when Lucy married at the beginning of 1848, Mary Ann realised that this would now not happen and transferred the business to her own name.

Another explanation may also have been the death of Matthew in February 1847, possibly requiring Mary Ann, now a widow, to invest more of her time and energy into the business as a means of maintaining a livelihood.

As pointed out by Nick Fielding, the word “toy” as used at this time does not necessarily have the same connotations as it has today. In the first half of the nineteenth century, a “toy” would generally mean what today we would call a knick-knack or ornament. In speaking of her son, Alatau, Lucy indeed said he had no toys. However, it is also clear from her book that she was an efficient needlewoman.

In 1835, shortly before his death, Mary Ann’s uncle, Joseph Sherrard, made his will. He had not forgotten the only close family he had. The three principal beneficiaries were:

  • His niece, Mary Ann, to whom he bequeathed £500 sterling.
  • His grandnephew, Matthew Smith Finley, Jnr. to whom he bequeathed £300 sterling, together with the whole of his herd of horned cattle in the charge of his agents in New South Wales, also the whole of any sums of money that might be owing to him in the colony.
  • His grandniece, Lucy Sherrard Finley, to whom he bequeathed £500 sterling to be paid on her attaining the age of twenty-one years – she was only 17 – with the interest of the said sum to be paid to her annually until she came of age.
The beginning of the will of Joseph Sherrard

One can imagine what a relief this very substantial legacy must have been to Mary Ann who had worked so hard caring for her large family, especially during the tough times when Matthew was unable to discharge his debts. Mary Ann’s death certificate in Australia states that she gave birth to ten children all of whom she raised to adulthood. In a time of high infant mortality, this stands as testimony to her wisdom, vigilance and care. Mary Ann lived a life dedicated to her children and, with her own raised, she was called upon yet again, as a grandmother, to care for another young family. In the words of her daughter, Maria, writing in 1867 to a niece:

I am sorry to say your grandmother is far from well…Every time she puts her head on the pillow such a ringing noise [comes] in her ears that she is ready to go mad. Tom [the second youngest of Mary Ann’s ten children] ought to think a great deal of his mother. I really don’t know what he would have done but for her. She is always on the look-out for all she can do for him and, when his first wife was sent away, she staid [sic] with him three years and did everything herself for them all – washing, cooking and cleaning and think only, she was then 70 years of age and little Maria was a baby in arms and fearfully ill…I stayed with them for five weeks and during that time I took charge. Poor Mother was sorry when I left.[xii]

Having received the £500 legacy from her uncle, Mary Ann Finley emigrated to New South Wales in 1850 with her three youngest children. Several of her older children were already there. However, in making the decision to leave England, she would have been painfully aware – as indeed proved to be the case -that she would never again see Lucy, who was in Russia with Thomas Atkinson, or either of the two other children who remained in England. She died in 1877 and is buried in Dubbo cemetery in New South Wales in a grave for which there is no surviving headstone. Her grandson Francis George Finley stated that she retained her faculties to the end. The influence of a mother is far-reaching and in some of Lucy’s best qualities we can surely see Mary Ann: sacrifice (there is no evidence that Lucy ever saw her son Alatau again after he left England), resolve, adaptability, resourcefulness, endurance and sound sense. Mary Ann was indeed an exemplary mother.

Before leaving the will, comment should be made about the generous legacies left by Joseph Sherrard to Matthew Finley Jnr. and to Lucy. In 1835 Matthew Jnr. is known to have been one of three masters supporting the Headmaster at The King’s School, Parramatta in New South Wales.  The legacy gave him the opportunity to leave this position and, having been issued with licence no. 133, he became part of the first cohort to be officially recognised to pasture the unsurveyed lands west of the Blue Mountains.  Matthew was to go on to have a successful career as a farmer and auctioneer in the Bathurst district, before qualifying as a surveyor and becoming one of the first to survey the Grafton area in northern New South Wales.

And it seems likely that the legacy from her great uncle Joseph allowed Lucy to set up the toy business that was registered in her name at Waterloo Terrace.

The other eight children are not mentioned in the will by name, which makes the identification of Matthew Jnr. and Lucy the more remarkable.[xiii] Again with respect to Matthew, given that he received an education which appears to be almost that of a gentleman, the question must be asked whether his great uncle financed some or all of it. While any such claim for Lucy must be more tenuous (given the excellent education that her next youngest sister is believed to have received), it is nevertheless pretty clear that Lucy, a bright and engaging little girl, named for his deceased wife, occupied a very warm spot in Joseph Sherrard’s heart.

In the preface to her book, Lucy stated that, before her marriage in February 1848, she had been eight years in the employ of General Mouraviev. This suggests that she went to St. Petersburg in 1839 or 1840. The date of the insurance policy indicates that she was still in London in June 1839, so it was presumably the late summer of 1839 or (perhaps more likely) the spring or summer of 1840. She also stated that, growing up in a large family, she was keenly aware of the need to make her own way in the world. The legacy that she received would surely have confirmed to her that this was her opportunity.

Lucy’s employer in Russia, Gen. Mikhail Nikolayevich Mouravyev-Vilensky

In choosing to become a governess, Lucy showed ambition but also she reflected her times. If (unlike those around her) she did not wish to stay in trade, the only other option available to her was to become a governess, which was the single respectable occupation open to a gentlewoman at that time.[xiv] The downside, however, was that the profession, at least from the 1830s, was greatly overcrowded, as well as being traditionally undervalued and poorly paid.

But Lucy had probably heard about Russia from her family connections and knew that the situation there was quite different, offering social and financial opportunities otherwise closed to her in England. In that country the English governess, to quote Harvey Pitcher, “enjoyed a much higher standard of living than she was likely to have experienced before… As soon as the children were old enough to sit at table, they had most of their meals with their parents, and their governess always accompanied them. Even on festive occasions, or when visitors were present, governess and children were never excluded from the sumptuous meals…At its best her position was that of an equal and member [sic] of the family, something that had not happened in England since the eighteenth century; and … English governesses [attended] important social functions on terms of complete equality with the other guests.”[xv]

In confirmation of this, we will remember Lucy writing that she was twice in the same room as the Tsar. The governess was also more liberally rewarded in Russia and in St. Petersburg and Moscow she could even enhance her income by giving private English lessons in her free time. Also, Russian families that employed a governess could be generous with gifts and legacies.

These were very real inducements to a young lady who had already proved herself to be enterprising and self-reliant. The only ties to hold her back were those of family affection and was not duty – honed over many years by her position as eldest daughter of the family – part of what she owed their love? Moreover, she had her uncle’s legacy which would give her some discretion in negotiating terms of employment, so where could the venture fail?  Whether she secured the appointment with General Mouraviev before she left England, or after her arrival in St Petersburg, is not known. One possibility is that she contacted a well-known “clearing-house” for governesses in Moscow run by a Mrs. Scott.

There is an interesting account of the experiences of prospective governesses arriving in Russia in the 1830s, which has been left to us by the German observer, J. G. Kohl, and quoted by Harvey Pitcher:

“…from the same ships that have brought out the new fashions and new books from London, Paris and Lubeck, many young ladies may be seen landing with torn veils and ruffled head-gear…These are the lovely and unlovely Swiss, German, French, and English women destined to officiate in Russia as priestesses of Minerva, in fanning the flame of mental cultivation. Exhausted by sea-sickness, saddened by homesickness, frightened by the bearded Russians who greet their eyes in Cronstadt, and pierced through and through by the chill breath of a St Petersburg May, they issue from their cabins, pale, timid, and slow, anxiety and white fear upon their lips, and despair in their eyes. …Their entrance into a rich and distinguished house is a new stage of suffering: and if the rude voices, long beards, and filthy clothing of the barbarous population of the harbour terrified them, here the glitter of unwonted luxury alarms their bashfulness. The loud tumultuous life of a great house in Russia, where no one comprehends their feelings in the slightest degree, is enough to overwhelm them; and, quartered in an apartment with the tribe of children entrusted to their care, they have scarcely a corner to themselves…”[xvi]

It is hard to imagine Lucy as “pale, timid, and slow” and “with despair in her eyes” but there is no doubt that, while her father’s house would have accustomed her to lack of privacy and the unending flow of traffic along the Commercial Road would likewise have exposed her to an unrelentingly noisy environment, she would nevertheless have had to make a considerable adjustment to her new life in a Russian noble household. When we next meet Lucy in 1848, we see how admirably she had risen to this challenge!


[i] Robert Finley is mentioned in the Shipping News of the Public Advertiser of 26 November 1767 and the Shipping News of the London Evening Post of September 17-19, 1778, which latter notice reveals that he died that year on a voyage to Jamaica.

[ii] Star, January 6, 1789; Newcastle Courant, 20 August 1803.

[iii] For example, from The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, August 5, 1786: “WANTED, for the East-Indies, a COOK.  If he has been at the sea the more agreeable…Enquire at Mr. Finley’s, perfumer, to His Royal Highness, the Duke of Gloucester, opposite Melbourne House, Piccadilly.”

[iv] I am indebted to Nick Fielding for this research.

[v]Land Grants 1788-1809 NSW, NI & VDL; Colonial Secretary’s In-letters Index 1788-1825 (cited in Biographical Database of Australia).

[vi] I am indebted to Sally Hayles for this information.

[viii] Record held by London Metropolitan Archives, reference MS 11936/556/1245759.

[ix] Recollections of Francis George Finley (from “Surveying New South Wales – the Pathfinders”, 2005.

[x] Crew list; SRNSW ref: Vol. 4/2178 No. 33/4872; Entry No. 25283 (cited by Biographical Database of Australia).

[xi] Record held by the London Metropolitan Archives, reference MS 11936/568/1304850.

[xii] Original, unpublished letter, held by her gt gt gt niece, Marianne Simpson.

[xiii] The others are covered by the provision, “whatever sums of money which may be remaining…to be equally divided among my grand nephews and nieces not named or otherwise provided for”.

[xiv]Interestingly, the career of Lucy’s sister Maria very much reflected her Waterloo Terrace background being, at various times, a tobacconist, stationer and bookseller, and (in Australia) Postmistress at Rouse Hill.

[xv] Pitcher, Harvey, “When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English governesses before, during and after the October Revolution”, (John Murray, 1977).

[xvi] Pitcher, Harvey, op. cit., p5.



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