Allison Scardino Belzer, Family Values: Tracing Ideas through the Generations

Allison Scardino Belzer is an assistant professor of History at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. Her earlier work focused on women in Italy during the Great War.  Currently she is working on a larger biography of the Ashurst family.

This post accompanies Allison Scardino Belzer’s Journal of Victorian Culture article published (2015). It can be read in full here.



Dear Elizabeth Neall

October, 1841

Emilie & I are going tonight to one of their meetings [to repeal of the Corn Laws] . . . We are most exceedingly interested in the subject. I employed myself some days since in giving my little niece, who is just 3 years old, her first political impressions. 

From Eliza

(Eliza Ashurst to Elizabeth Neall, October 1841[1])




It’s a ripe time, with memories of family holiday gatherings smoldering, to consider how we learn from our families.  Noting physical and personal similarities comes easily – the same smile, the same quick temper.  Charting choices may be more difficult.  Children face competing worldviews and must pick what to believe and what to do.

Perhaps because I come from a large family, I’ve become interested in tracking how families transmit their values, especially ones that clash with contemporary cultural norms. The nature vs. nurture debate will not end here, but the question of how to assign responsibility, as it were, to particular family influence vs. general cultural climate deserves attention.  When I discovered the Ashursts, a family of English radicals who spent three generations in the public eye, I became fascinated by their unflinching commitment to causes that consistently placed them on the right side of history: anti-slavery, repeal of the Corn Laws and Contagious Diseases Acts, women’s suffrage, and Italian and Polish unification, just to name a few. All of them worked for causes that fought for freedom and equality.

Scholars studying the Victorian era have to look closely at a variety of sources to see what influences molded young people’s identities.  Anecdotes in letters, memoirs, and obituaries show what experiences became part of the family lore, retold to inculcate the new members into the family cult.  In the excerpt above, the eldest sister Eliza brags about introducing her sister’s little daughter into civic activism, alongside her brother and future brother-in-law.  This brief comment reveals not only that the family backed a radical cause but also that they expected support from all members of the family – including the women and children.  This sentiment is typical of their approach to exerting a progressive influence on Victorian society.  Nine years later, in response to Eliza’s untimely death, her father William Henry Ashurst Senior wrote to thank George Jacob Holyoake for his sympathies:  ‘I feel sure of the sympathy of all who know my excellent and dear daughter. She ardently promoted in her sphere everything that she thought tended to promote truth and goodness.’[2]  Her ‘sphere’ was rather larger than one might expect; the Ashurst circle included an international cast of male and female notables who discussed (in person or via letters and newspaper articles) prominent political issues of the day.

Because they lacked the fame of some of their friends an organized archive of the Ashurst correspondence does not exist, but there is still much evidence of their activities.  In the early 1920s a family friend published an edited collection of about 1500 letters to the family from Giuseppe Mazzini.[3]  These clearly show a family devoted to Mazzini and to each other: the parents, the five siblings, and the five grandchildren. Luckily many of their letters survive because the other party’s correspondence was preserved. Archives scattered across the UK, Italy, and the US contain Ashurst letters to Giuseppe Mazzini, Charles Algernon Swinburne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dillon, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Taylor, and Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Family members lived next door to James MacNeill Whistler and his mother, painted Jane Welsh Carlyle’s portrait, served as pallbearer at Robert Owen’s funeral, and worked alongside Clementia Taylor for women’s suffrage. The namedropping could go on much longer.

This article introduces the Ashurst family on their own terms and uses them as a case study to examine how an older generation passed on their core beliefs to the next generation.  They were a remarkable force for domestic and international reform at the heart of Victorian Britain as they worked together and with likeminded others to sustain their political and social commitments.

[1] Eliza Ashurst to Elizabeth Neall, October 1841, Collection of S.H. Gay, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Box 2.

[2] William Henry Ashurst to George Jacob Holyoake, 4 December 1850, George Jacob Holyoake Collection, National Co-Operative Archive, #392.

[3] E.F. Richards, ed., Mazzini’s Letters to an English Family, 3 vols (New York: John Lane, 1920–22).



  1. I have written a manuscript about Clementia Taylor (1810-1908) who was a close friend of the Ashursts. At the moment I am looking for a publisher so the work is as complete as I can make it.

    You may want some details about Mentia for your book on the Ashursts and likewise I would be interested in any details that have not been made public that explain their relationships.

    I am living in Australia and access to letter sources are difficult. I am also a casual academic so I do not have the opportunity to apply for funds to travel to seek out possible sources.

    I would be interested in hearing from you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *