Elizabeth Parker's Sampler
This embroidery, a confession by a young English woman, is unique in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection in its austerity and poignancy. We describe it as a sampler, which was usually a decorative schoolroom exercise in this period of the 19th century, but the laboriousness of Elizabeth Parker’s sampler reveals much more than just her skill in stitching.
Elizabeth recounts the story of her early life, and draws us in from the start, with the words 'As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully intrust myself.' We read that she was born in 1813 and lived with her parents, a labourer and a charity school teacher, and her ten brothers and sisters until the age of 13.
Her life then changed forever as she left home to enter service as a nurserymaid. She describes what she sees as her own weaknesses and sins, and the trials she had to face from employers who treated her 'with cruelty too horrible to mention', in this deeply personal confession of her temptation to suicide. As the text continues her desperation increases, '..which way can I turn oh whither must I flee to find the Lord wretch wretch that I am …what
will become of me ah me what will become of me'.
The poignancy of Elizabeth’s words is heightened by their painstaking depiction in letters formed of tiny cross stitches, in stark red on a plain linen ground, and by her breaking off mid sentence – what will become of my soul – followed by blank space.
In 1998 Nigel Llewellyn of the University of Sussex established Elizabeth Parker's identity, discovering details of her family but not her adult life. Now an American historian, Maureen Daly Goggin, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Arizona State University, has uncovered new information which reveals that Elizabeth's fate was not to die young and alone.
Like her mother, she became a schoolteacher at the Ashburnham charity school, in her home village, and at some point in the 1850s was allowed to move into the Ashburnham almshouses. She lived there until she died, on 10 April 1889, aged 76. Although Elizabeth never married, she raised her sister's daughter, who remained living with her aunt into her twenties. It seems that after such troubled years of young womanhood Elizabeth went on to live a moderately comfortable life, surrounded by family.