A “cripple” could really mean anything in Victorian terms, but was likely to refer to a person with a physical disability, whether resulting from an accident or something that someone was born with. Rosanna, who came from the small Wiltshire community of Colerne, was described as a cripple in a newspaper article that trumpeted the birth of her triplet daughters while she was an inmate at Chippenham workhouse in 1890. Her physical problem is put in as an after-thought, inserted to make a multiple birth sound more amazing.
She was a twin herself, born in the late 1850s as one of at least 11 children of an agricultural labouring family who worked the Wiltshire fields. She and her twin brother Ambrose were nearly the youngest in the family. She grew up in the rural community, but while her able-bodied siblings were able to find work in the area it appears that Rosanna could not work as easily, and she was often housed in the Chippenham workhouse.
It’s known that Rosanna had several illegitimate children. The triplets were born out of wedlock, and on a previous census return she is in the workhouse with another illegitimate daughter. In addition to these four, there are two other illegitimate girls in the area that bore her surname and might well be her children.
The earliest of these was born when Rosanna would have been around 13 – not impossible, but extremely rare for the time, as 13-year-olds were mostly still considered children and the onset of menses was generally later back then. If so, her disability may have made her unable to remove herself from a situation that resulted in intercourse – with a diagnosis of “cripple” it’s hard to know. This girl, who was named Georgina, died shortly after birth.
The first definite child that Rosanna bore was Lucy, born in 1880 when she was around 20. The 1881 census finds them together in the Chippenham workhouse, with no former profession given for Rosanna – so it’s possible that she was dependent on her parents for income, and their money would have be stretched with another mouth to feed. Sadly, Lucy died at the age of 3.
Another possible child for Rosanna was Minnie, born in 1888, but again she died very young – aged less than a year. This could mean that Rosanna had had three illegitimate daughters by her late 20s. Victorian attitudes towards disability being what they were, she may have been viewed as not a full person and therefore subject to sexual abuse, or it may also mean that the workhouse was perhaps a safer and more stable environment for her than her home, so she repeated the pattern that had her placed there.
The triplets were born in 1890, and named Lily, Violet and Rose. They were all baptised in Chippenham’s central St Andrew’s Church. Sadly, since children from multiple births are usually smaller and weaker than their singleton counterparts, and the care available in the 1890s was a far cry from today, Lily died shortly after birth.
The 1891 census finds Rosanna still in the workhouse, with Violet and Rose both aged 9 months. Rose died shortly afterwards, aged 1, while Violet survived until the following winter. Both were buried alongside their sister in Chippenham’s London Road cemetery. Rosanna was now still destitute, and childless again.
Three years later, however, her fortunes took an upturn. Somehow, she’d met a man – William –who appeared to be in steady employment and decided he would marry her. They wed in the Tabernacle church, where he appeared to be a member of the congregation but not her, in the mid 1890s. They had set up home together before marriage, living in a small dwelling where the town’s job centre modernly sits.
Rosanna had another baby, Maud, a year after the marriage. Sadly this daughter again died shortly after birth. Another daughter (Mabel) and a son (Percy) followed, and these children were the first of Rosanna’s progeny to live past toddlerhood. Percy in fact lived until his 90s, and produced four children of his own, but sadly his younger brother Ernest also died while very young.
Rosanna’ connections at the workhouse enabled William to gain a better job there as the boiler house stoker, which he held for many years. She herself became a dressmaker, and was able to contribute to the family finances while bringing up her remaining children. Later on they ran a boarding house together in the town’s picturesque St Mary Street, a business that her daughter later continued.
William died in his 70s, in the early 1930s, but Rosanna’s death remains elusive. It’s probable that she did not see the beginning of the second world war, however.
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. 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.