Long before wedding gift lists at John Lewis became the norm, unmarried ladies would keep a ‘bottom drawer’. It was literally a drawer where they kept things they had either made or bought that would be useful when they married and had a home of their own.
In 1902 Ellen Blanche Epps, known as Nellie to her friends, was one of these ladies. Nellie worked as a teacher at Faversham’s District School and was engaged to Harry (Henry James) Steedman, a warehouseman at the local drapers who also happened to be the son of the Headmaster at the Boys District School. As well as preparing for her forthcoming marriage, Nellie was also involved in the making of calico garments for the British soldiers taking part in the ‘Anglo Boer War’ in South Africa. Nellie’s needlework pupils were also involved and, as a result, a huge amount of calico offcuts were produced – 271 of them in fact – and they were all given to Nellie to make something for her bottom drawer.
Deciding to turn the strips into a counterpane, Nellie asked all her friends, relations, colleagues and pupils to sign a piece of fabric. Some wrote loving or humorous messages while others drew pictures and Nellie stitched over them all with red cotton. Can you imagine how much time and patience it must have taken? She later joined them all together to create panels interspersed with lace and gave the completed counterpane to Harry as a wedding present.
The couple used it throughout their married life and it was eventually passed on to Olive Williams, Nellie’s niece. Although being just four when the couple were married in 1903, Olive’s signature was added to the counterpane by her mother and in 1983 she gave it to the Faversham Society.
The counterpane is now on permanent display at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre in Faversham and I personally love the thought that all these good wishes were one of the first, and last, things Harry and Nellie saw each day.
Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, 10-13 Preston Street, Faversham, Kent ME13 8NS
Tel: 01795 534 542, Web: www.favershamsociety.org