Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 39 - T for Esther Maud Tuke

Silhouette of Esther Maud Tuke
Esther Maud was born in 1727 in Westscholes near Halifax, the eldest daughter of the five children of Timothy and Ann Maud. Esther's father was a respectable Friend who worked making plush (a kind of velvet) in Bingley. However his eldest son Joseph was a wastrel whose debts led to the financial ruin of his family. Joseph eventually disappeared to America but the third son, William, showed signs of the same profligate tendencies, and his father was so worried by this that his health broke down and he died in 1752 leaving the family penniless.

On his death bed her father urged Esther to try to resolve the family's problems, and though often in despair she bravely took on this responsibility. Esther started a shop and her brother Timothy kept up his father's plushmaking business so that they could make ends meet. At this time Esther had offers of marriage but felt that she had to stay at home and help her family. She scraped together enough money to send William after his brother to America but although he prospered there he died soon after his return and his business failed. In 1763, however, the family moved to Bradford and their fortunes changed.

Esther again set up a shop and her brother Timothy qualified as an apothecary which improved his
prospects. In 1764 William Tuke, a Quaker tea merchant from York who had been a widower for four years and had five children, asked Esther to marry him. They wrote frank letters to each other telling of their past troubles and spiritual struggles and although Esther hesitated she came to feel that they would be able to understand and help one another. They were married in Bradford Meeting House in 1765 when Esther was 38 and William 32 years old.

William Tuke in old age
Esther moved into William's house in Castlegate, York, over the shop at the Coppergate end of the street. She was soon accepted by her step children, Henry, Sarah (later Grubb), William, John and Elizabeth who were aged ten, nine, seven, six and five when she married their father. It was notable that she did not treat them any differently from her own children, Samuel, who died young, Mabel and Ann. It is a testament to their affection for her that the two step children who had daughters, Henry and Elizabeth, named them Esther.

Her grandson Samuel also remembered her with affection. 'She was lively and spirited, and had a natural facetiousness which made young persons greatly enjoy her society. There was at the same time a dignity of mien and almost awfulness of character, when serious, which gave her an invincible influence over the minds of young persons.'

The family home was often opened in hospitality to visiting Friends. One visitor commented, 'They have, I fancy, no outward dependence but trade and economy; but their liberal notions are not to be described; for they and their possessions are wholly their friends.' When a weary John Woolman visited York in 1772 Esther and William's hospitality extended to finding him a quieter place to stay than their busy home in the centre of the city. When he fell ill with smallpox Esther and her daughter Sarah also shared the burden of nursing him until he died, an experience neither of them ever forgot.

Esther's gift for ministry was recognised when she was 34 and she thereafter travelled extensively in Ireland and throughout the British Isles. She often lamented what she saw as a departure from traditional Quaker testimonies and together with William was forthright in her criticisms. These views did not make either Esther or William popular in their own meeting or supported in their concerns by York Friends.

They were both concerned about Friend's education. Esther supported William when he became involved in the foundation of Ackworth and he helped her when, in 1784, she established a school at York for girls (later re-established as The Mount) and took on the voluntary superintendance of it herself. A house was taken for the school in Trinity Lane, within the city walls and William and Esther moved into it with their remaining, unmarried, family.

Also in 1784, when at Yearly Meeting the Women Friends petitioned, not for the first time, to have their own meeting officially recognised by the Mens Meeting, it was Esther Tuke who headed a deputation from the women including Martha Routh, Rebecca Jones and Catherine Payton Phillips. The story goes that 'the Clerk of the Yearly Meeting felt strongly inclined to address to her the regal enquiry of old, "What wilt thou Queen Esther, and what is thy request? It shall be given thee to the half of the kingdom" '. But in fact there was considerable doubt about whether the request would be granted and even when it was it seemed to Esther 'but the shadow of a woman's meeting' although she hoped for better in the future.

As Esther grew older she became more frail, although for a long time she continued to travel. William had a new venture to pursue in the foundation of The Retreat, a hospital for the mentally afflicted run for Friends by Friends, and Esther supported him as always. She could not take an active part but her brother Timothy was the institution's first superintendent. Esther experienced increasing difficulty in walking and was eventually unable to leave her room. Her last illness lasted only a week and she died, aged 67, attended by her daughter Mabel. William outlived her by nearly thirty years and died in 1822 when he was 89.

Esther's first words in ministry were only few, 'The just shall live by faith', but as the testimony to her states, 'From this beginning, apparently small, she was enabled to increase; and as she grew in years she was thought also to grow in faithfulness and dedication and truly attained to the state of a mother in Israel'.

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