Martha W’s story typifies the experience of poverty and scraping a living on the breadline in small market towns around the turn of the 20th century.
Born at the tail end of the 1860s in North Wiltshire, her father was a general labourer, and would have taken work as it was available. Martha was at least the fourth child, and by the time the eighth arrived both parents were working to make ends meet – her father as a carter and her mother was a charwoman. Neither profession would have brought in a great deal of money, but it was at least something to live on.
When she was 20, Martha gave birth to her first child – a son. Two years later, while pregnant with her next child, she married the father, who was a labourer living with his parents on one of the main routes into the town. She was able to sign her name on the wedding certificate, but he was not.
They lived with his father for a while, and her husband and father-in-law worked as gardeners for a time. By the turn of the 20th century there were at least four more children – they had ten in all, but not all survived childhood – and the family had moved to a four-room property on a street that was later deemed as slums and demolished. Her husband at this time was working as a stone haulier, which again would not have brought in a great deal of money to the household.
At this time, Martha’s children were regularly attending the local primary or elementary school. The younger members of the family were continually excluded from school on the grounds that they were “verminous” – almost certainly riddled with headlice, but possibly scabies too. They were allowed back when they had been cleaned, but were usually excluded again at the next inspection – indicating that there was little time and money in Martha’s household for personal grooming. The girls were excluded more than the boys, on account of having long hair which made lice easier to pass around.
In 1910 Martha lied to the school, stating that her youngest child – a girl – was three years old when in fact she was at least three months short of that milestone. At three children were admitted to the “babies” class at the school, which enabled Martha to gain employment. She was far from the only parent that did this at the school, and despite repeated asking failed to produce her daughter’s birth certificate until her third birthday. With all her children being educated, Martha gained a job in the steam laundry next to the school, and was therefore able to help with family finances. The condition of the children remained poor, however, with many of them being sent home for being verminous during the next decade. On the 1911 census her husband had clearly changed job again, and was working as a hay trusser in local fields. He states on the census that he will work for “anyone”, alongside one of their eldest daughters who was also doing the same job, so family finances were still incredible tight.
In 1913 one of Martha’s sons died. There had been an epidemic of diphtheria, scarlet fever and measles doing the rounds, and its possible that he succumbed to one of these. A decade later her husband died.
Martha did not remain a widow for very long, however. Within a year she had remarried to another local man. She died in the 1950s, aged 86.
To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.