Edith was born on 29 January 1845 at Vale Bank, a house on the Hollins estate, just outside Bolton, Lancashire. She had two sisters and two brothers. In the mid-1850s the family moved to Manchester and then to the Lake District in 1865. In 1873, they moved to the Croft, a substantial residence on the outskirts of Ambleside.
Not much is known about Edith’s early years. Rosalind Rawnsley suspects that, along with her sisters, she was educated at home. Edith travelled with her parents and sister Alice across Europe when she was twenty. By this time ‘Edith was already a mature, self-possessed and observant young woman. She was already a keen water-colourist. In 1876 she exhibited in London for the first time. Her diary of the period also shows that she was a keen observer of nature and scenery.
In the second half of 1875 Hardwicke fell ill. Octavia Hill arranged for him to spend some time recuperating with her friends, the Fletchers. It is known that he enjoyed the company of both Alice and Edith and spent some time with them exploring the Lake District and talking of their joint interests in nature, literature and art. Hardwicke kept in touch with Edith when he moved to Bristol the following year. He spent a month with the Fletchers during August-September 1877 and it is likely that this was not his only visit to them during this period. Subsequent events make it highly likely that Hardwicke and Edith discussed their future during this holiday.
On 28 September, on his twenty-seventh birthday, Hardwicke travelled to Westward Ho to see Edith. She was on holiday at Clovelly, a village about 12 miles away. During the day he asked Edith to marry him and she accepted. Hardwicke then travelled back to Bristol.
Hardwicke visited Edith again at Clovelly during the following week. He told Edith how much his parents were pleased for him, and as they had not met Edith, Hardwicke was asked to bring her to visit them as soon as possible. The visit was arranged for the end of October. The week spent in Halton Holgate was a turning point. In her diary for 30 October, Hardwicke’s mother, Catherine, wrote:
[Hardwicke] decided on Nov. 1st to give up his Bristol mission work where he cannot satisfy with his views all his masters on the committee tho’ he has done good work there most certainly. On the 2nd he had the offer of the small living of Wray Ambleside from Preston which he accepted on the 3rd so that is his destination for the next 2 years I suppose.
Events moved quickly and Hardwicke’s ‘Letters Testimonial’ to apply for ordination as a priest were signed on 17 November. His earlier thought that he would be ordained in Gloucester was abandoned. The ordination took place on 23 December in Carlisle Cathedral. Presumably Hardwicke spent Xmas with the Fletchers since there is no mention of a visit to Halton Holgate in Catherine’s diary for 1877. He was in Bristol in early January, leaving the city and his mission work on the 14 January 1878.
Hardwicke’s parents travelled to the wedding by train. They arrived at The Croft on 26 January for their first meeting with Mrs Fletcher, Edith’s father having died less than two years earlier. The next day, in a snowstorm, they went to Brathay church where Hardwicke gave a sermon on the ‘Healing of the Centurion’s Servant’. On the evening before the wedding the two families and their friends played charades.
The wedding took place at Holy Trinity Church, Brathay. The morning of the wedding, Tuesday 29 January, Edith’s birthday, was fine and bright but very cold and the ground was icy. Before the wedding Hardwicke and Edith went to lay a wreath on the grave of Edith’s father, John, who had been buried in Brathay Churchyard on 30 March 1876. After breakfast everyone assembled at 10.15 and walked to the church because of the slippery nature of the ground. The only exceptions were Edith and her brother, Herbert, who drove to the church, She entered:
[looking] radiantly happy as if she had stepped out of a Holbein picture, her creamy white brocaded silk trimmed after the manner of the Tudor times with white fur. She had real orange flowers and a tulle veil.
Edith had seven bridesmaids, including Frances and Ethel, two of Hardwicke’s sisters. The service was conducted by his father with assistance from Rev. Edward Thring and Canon Pooley. Edith and Hardwicke both exchanged rings. On leaving the church, Edith placed her wedding bouquet on her father’s grave. The wedding lunch and speeches were held at The Croft. The married couple left for their honeymoon which was spent at Herbert’s estate The Hollins.
Edith immersed herself into the life of a vicar’s wife. She made Wray Vicarage a place where people wanted to spend their time and visitors were numerous. She comes across as someone who enjoys herself in the company of others. In a letter to Willingham a few months after her marriage she apologises for not having been in contact ‘but there were so many Engagements of one kind and another’. She then tells Willingham that both she and Hardwicke have been to The Croft where Herbert had planned a series of social events:
We have been over twice – the last was on Friday night when he had 4 musicians from Manchester – all excellent 3 strings and 1 piano. They played beautifully & I never enjoyed dancing so much.
Everything that Hardwicke and Edith did they did as a couple. A few examples will suffice. They were both committee members of the local St. John’s Ambulance Association and organised first-aid classes especially for ladies. Both helped to organise a 3-day bazaar to raise funds to support the Stock Ghyll Falls campaign. The planning and running of the annual Harvest Festival was a joint affair. It was Edith who suggested the style of lettering to be used for the inscription on the ‘Brothers’ Parting Stone’, a rock that had been chosen by the Wordsworth Society to commemorate the parting of Wordsworth and his brother John, in 1800.
Edith also seems to have brought the best out in Hardwicke. After their return from a five month journey to the Holy Land in 1879 his mother wrote:
I think Hardie immensely improved by his excellent wife’s influence. We all take much to her & feel as if she really belonged to us.