Margaretta ("Meta") Riley

4th May 1804 – 16th July 1899
A local philanthropist

“In her the poor had a constant helper and the sick a kind-hearted friend”

Margaretta Riley, known to her family and friends as Meta, was born on 4th May 1804 in a fine Georgian house at Castle Gate, Nottingham. Her parents, Richard and Margaretta Hopper (née Lowe) were married at St Werburgh’s Church, Derby on 23rd May 1803. It was in Derby, many years earlier, that Meta’s grandfather had entertained Bonnie Prince Charlie on his march south at the time of “the forty-five”.

Meta’s childhood was spent in Nottingham during the lively Regency period. She was baptised at St Nicholas’ Church, Maid Marian Way, Nottingham. Her father was engaged in the family hosiery business in the town, but later took over the cotton mills on the River Leen. She first saw Papplewick, her adopted village, in 1821. Three years later she wrote an eye-witness account of the funeral procession of the poet, Lord Byron, as it passed from Nottingham through the villages of Papplewick and Linby on its way to the church at Hucknall Torkard, on 16th July 1824.

In 1826 Meta married John Riley, land-agent to the Montagues, and they went to live at Papplewick Lodge, the former dower house to Papplewick Hall.

One of the interests which Meta shared with her husband was the collecting, cultivating and classifying of ferns. In May 1838 John Riley was elected to the Botanical Society of London. By December 1839 Meta had donated to the Botanical Society of London a complete dried collection of every species and variety of fern represented in the British Flora, but although she had the honour of being elected to membership she probably never attended any of the meetings. In August 1840 she submitted a further paper to the Society “On Growing Ferns From Seed, With Suggestions Upon Their Cultivation and Preparing the Specimens”.

John Riley was elected to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh in 1840 and in 1843 he was elected to the Linnean. He died on 14th December 1846, during a visit to York. He and Meta had no children.

After John’s death, Meta had the harrowing task of deciding how to dispose of his herbarium of some 2,200 sheets, mostly foreign sets and his unique collection of living ferns, allegedly comprising 250 species. According to one source, the collection passed into the hands of James Forbes Young, a general practitioner in London who was a keen botanist, but what happened to it after his death is unclear. Meanwhile, a few months after John Riley’s death the Botanical Society of London managed to persuade Meta to renew her membership. She was a woman of considerable literary ability, and as well as writing poetry she contributed articles on social and religious themes to periodicals such as the English Womans Magazine. She remained devoted to natural history and gardening, and also took a deep interest in history, philosophy and politics.

At the age of fifty she took up water colour painting and pursued this with a considerable amount of success until abandoning the hobby in 1872. She adored flowers and tried to inculcate an interest in gardening in the people around her in Papplewick, by awarding a prize for the best cultivated garden in the village. She wrote a book entitled “The Duties of Women” and also formed a club to encourage thrift.

The chapter she wrote on the history of Papplewick was included in J. B. Briscoe’s book “Old Nottinghamshire” second series, published 1884.

Favoured with a wonderful memory Meta could speak with a personal knowledge of events which to nearly everyone else were known only through the pages of history. She often recalled the famous battle of Waterloo and the celebrations that followed. Another of her memories was the death of Princess Charlotte, and the bad effect it had on the trade of the country. She was accustomed to speak intimately of the time when bread reached famine prices and when the quatern loaf cost half a crown. She remembered HRH the Duke of Sussex coming to stay with his friend, Colonel Thomas Wildman at nearby Newstead Abbey every year for six weeks holiday. The Duke always brought with him his own chaplain, Mr. Brown. Yet another memory was the visit of the famous missionary-explorer, Dr David Livingstone, to Newstead Abbey from September 1864 to April 1865 as the guest of Mr. & Mrs. William Frederick Webb.

In her later years, two of her close friends were the well known Nottingham solicitor Jesse Hind, and his son Oliver, who lived at Papplewick Grange before moving to Edwalton Hall. Oliver Hind, a partner in the old-established family firm of solicitors at 16 Fletcher Gate, Nottingham was for thirty years Captain of the 2nd Nottingham Company of the Boys Brigade. He also formed a Boys Club in DaKeyne Street, Sneinton.

Throughout her long life Meta Riley possessed a strong social conscience, and there were general manifestations of sorrow when she died of bronchitis at her Papplewick home on 16th July 1899. Her funeral took place at St James’s Church, Papplewick, where she had been churchwarden for a number of years. She was one of the first women churchwardens to be appointed in England.

In accordance with her wishes, the funeral was of the simplest kind, only relatives and close friends being present. Afterwards she was buried in a vault close to the west wall of the church, her husband John Riley and her mother-in-law having been interred in the same vault. Also buried in Papplewick Churchyard are Meta’s parents, Richard and Margaretta Hopper.

At the time of her death in 1899 Meta left just over the sum of two thousand pounds, which was regarded as quite a considerable amount of money in those days. Among those to receive legacies were the Nottingham General Hospital, the Nottingham Children’s Hospital, the Nottingham Eye Hospital and the Governess’s Benevolent Institution, London.

Mavis Ellis
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd May 2004