Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/"Peg Pennyworth"


Margaret Wharton, an unmarried lady of great wealth and ancient family, was one of the Yorkshire oddities of last century.

She belonged to the family of the Whartons of Skelton Castle, in Cleveland, and possessed a fortune of £200,000, of which, with rare liberality, she made her nephew a present of £100,000. Her charities were liberal, but always private, and if she heard that a recipient of her bounty had disclosed the good deed, that person never received another penny from her.

She was a short, stout lady, dressed fashionably, had an aristocratic air, and liked to be respected as rich and of good family.

For some time she resided at York, and visited Scarborough in the season, where she was well known on account of her eccentricities. She used to send for "a pennyworth of strawberries" or "a pennyworth of cream" at a time, and pay down her penny, as she had an aversion to tradesmen's bills. From this she obtained the name of "Peg Pennyworth," which stuck to her through life. An incident occurred at Scarborough in which she displayed her dislike to public charities. She was solicited by some gentlemen to give a subscription to a charity on behalf of which they were making a collection. Peg pulled out her purse with an ominous frown, and turned out its contents into her palm. This was in or about 1774, when light guineas were in disgrace. She deliberately selected from among the coins the lightest guinea she could find, and handed it to the gentlemen.

The celebrated Foote is said to have drawn her character in a farce. When informed of this she exclaimed, with a smile, "I will see it acted, as I live." She did, and expressed her satisfaction that the character in the play did her justice.

She frequently catered for herself, making her own purchases, and taking them home in her carriage. Once, having purchased some eels, she put them in her pocket, entered her coach, and called on a lady friend and invited her to come out with her for an airing.

The warmth of Peg's pocket revived the seemingly dead eels, and they began to wriggle out to enjoy a little fresh air. The lady who was sitting beside Peg, happening to look down, saw what she thought was a serpent writhing into her lap, and several hideous heads breaking out of the side of Mistress Margaret Wharton. She uttered an awful shriek, bounded to her feet, pulled the checkstring, and cried, "Madam! madam! you are swarming with adders! Coachman, stop! Let me out! let me out!"

Mistress Wharton coolly looked at the eels, now escaping rapidly from her pocket, gathered them up, and shoved them into her reticule, saying, "I protest, madam, it is only my eels come to life. Sit you down again, and don't be frightened."

One day at Scarborough she had ordered a large meat-pie to be baked for dinner. It was a very large one—to serve for herself, some visitors, and all the servants. When it was made she ordered the footman to take it to the bakehouse, but he declined, saying that it was not his place, neither did it comport with his dignity, to be seen in Scarborough stalking through the streets in plush and tags, bearing a huge meat-pie.

Mistress Margaret then ordered the coachman to take it, but he declined.

"Bring out the carriage, then!" said Peg Pennyworth. The horses were harnessed; the coachman put on his powdered wig and mounted the box; the footman took his place behind; and Mistress Margaret Wharton, bearing the meat-pie, sat in state in the carriage. "Drive to the bakehouse."

So the coachman whipped his horses, and the meat-pie was carried thus to the baker's. An hour or two later the carriage was ordered out again, the coachman remounted the box, the footman took his stand behind, and the lady drove to the bakehouse to fetch her pie, which she carried back thus to her house. "Now," said she to the coachman, "you have kept your place, which is to drive; and you," turning to the footman, "have kept yours, which is to wait; and now we shall all have some of the pie."

Mistress Wharton had a visiting acquaintance with a lady, a clergyman's wife, in York. On the death of her husband, the widow retired with her four daughters to Thirsk, and she invited Peg Pennyworth to visit her.

To her dismay, one day up drove Mistress Wharton in her carriage, with coachman, footman, and lady's maid. The widow, whose means were not very ample, endured having all these people quartered on her for a month, but at the expiration of that time she was obliged to hint to the nephew of her guest that "the pressure on her means was rather greater than she could bear."

"Let my aunt have her way," said Mr. Wharton. "I will pay you two hundred a year during her life, and one hundred during your own, should you survive her."

Mistress Margaret Wharton never left the house of the widow, but died there after some years, in the one hundred and third year of her age, in 1791. The annuity was regularly paid to the widow lady to the day of her death.