Ada W’s story

Former dairy worker Ada became the victim of an age-old idea that a husband could control his wife’s finances, when her bankrupt husband ran her name into the mud too.

The daughter of a butcher and farmer, she was born in the late 1880s and grew up on the farm on the east outskirts of Bristol. She was the sixth of eight children, and she and all of her siblings had their own jobs working on aspects of the farm.

The farm appears to have specialised in cattle products, both beef and dairy produce, and was of a reasonable size.

In 1911, at the age of 20, she was working in the farm dairy alongside her younger sister Elsie, producing milk and probably butter and cheese too. Yoghurt would not have been on their produce list, however, as it was not introduced into the UK until the 1960s.

Milking cows in the first decade of the 20th century was unlikely to have be mechanised, at least not to any great extent. Milking machines had been invented in the 1860s and 1870s, but were often flawed in design which caused pain and damage to the cows’ udders, and many producers would have stuck with more traditional methods until the surge milker was invented in the early 1920s. Similarly, the pasteurisation process had been invented in the 1860s, but was not mandatory or commonplace in a dairy at that time – most people, if they were aware of milk-borne diseases, would boil the fresh milk at home rather than relying on the dairy to do it.

The reality for Ada and Elsie would therefore probably have been milking the cows by hand from a stool, a tiresome and hard job, and then placing the milk they collected into churns for sale. At this time, fresh milk was often delivered on carts around the district, and households would buy what they needed directly from the seller.

It’s likely that Ada and Elsie would also have made butter to sell alongside the milk – churning it in a barrel churn, over and over. This would have been made into pats, and sold wrapped in greaseproof paper. Again, with the lack of cooling facilities available in houses, households would only purchase the amount they would need for that day and buy more the following day from the cart when it next did its rounds. It may have been that Ada and Elsie made the rounds with the cart, but this job could also have fallen to other siblings.

Cheese, which kept slightly better in a larder, may also have been made in the farm dairy. This would have involved heating the milk, and adding a form of acid to separate the curds and whey, then straining and curing.

In the autumn of 1914, right at the beginning of the first world war, Ada married Tom. He was also from a farming family, which had initially been based at Jacksoms Lane on the edge of Chippenham, and then had moved to the Wiltshire village of Christian Malford.

Tom’s family were cattle dealers, which probably explains how Ada met him. Ada was 25, whereas he was five years younger – but on all official documents thereafter she pretended she was three years younger than she was. This would have meant a touch more respectability in terms of the match, as society approved of wives being younger than their husbands.

Ada and Tom had no children together.

Tom was of prime age, since he was in his early 20s, to fight in the First World War. He does not appear to have gone, however. Farming was a reserved occupation during that conflict, so he was not drafted to go. Therefore, he stayed at home with Ada and ran his cattle dealing business.

Within a few months of the marriage, Tom was in trouble with the law. He was accused of assault in March 1915, and had to attend court (he didn’t bother, and sent a solicitor instead), after an altercation with a clerk at Chippenham railway station where he had become extremely cross, threatened and swore at him and thrown a pen at him which scratched his face. He was fined, and imprisoned for a month.

This display of temper was not an isolated incident, as he was fined by the Gloucester and West Gloucestershire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (a precursor to the RSPCA) for viciously striking a heifer in his care in May 1917. For this he received a fine of £1 (a considerable amount of money in 1917), or imprisonment for seven days.

Somewhere along the line – whether his temper extended to his treatment of Ada, or as a result of the societal embarrassment at her husband being charged and imprisoned – Ada stopped living with him.

She moved in with one of her sisters in Shirehampton. Two of them lived there, so it was either with Rosa – who had lost her husband in the war and needed help with her two tiny children – or with Birdie that Ada made her home.

In 1917, whether she was living with him or not at the time, Tom’s cattle dealing business was declared bankrupt. He then proceeded to continue buying and selling cows, but running the business through Ada’s name. She later claimed that she knew nothing about this as they were not living together at the time.

Tom, using Ada’s name, moved into a large three storey house in Chippenham, which was close to the Three Crowns pub and on the direct market route for many people bringing their animals into town. Early electoral registers do not show Ada living there with him.

He eventually bankrupted Ada too. The case came to court in November of 1921, where Ada was said to owe over £2,300 but only had assets of £16 5s. Neither Ada nor Tom attended the court – both were said to be unwell – but Tom was said to have been in the pink of health at the previous market day.

When the case came back to court a month or so later, Ada said that she had opened a bank account in 1917 with the help of her sister, and she had allowed Tom access to continue trading – but he had bled it completely dry and she was not aware that the account was short to the extent that it now was. The court also questioned her about her household expenses, perhaps implying that she would spend money on fripperies. However, she said that Tom paid them all, they were not extravagant, and that she often wore an outfit for three or four years – which was fairly thrifty living.

There is then nothing about Tom or Ada in the newspapers until the 1930s, in respect to missed bill payments in May 1935. There is no sign of them having their bankruptcy revoked. However, in trade directories of the town they appear to have still been operating as cattle dealers so would have found some way to keep the business afloat.

After these court cases, Ada returned to live with Tom at the big house in Chippenham. Whether they had resolved their dispute or the court case against her meant that they were both as disreputable as each other, there seems to have been some sort of reconciliation.

Her parents both died in the 1920s, and significantly Ada was not named as executor on either of their wills, with finance being left to her other siblings.

She then lost three of her siblings in the 1930s.

By 1935, she and Tom decided to leave Chippenham and moved to Keynsham, which was relatively close to where she’d grown up. 1939 sees Tom still operating as a cattle salesman, albeit from a property that did not have land attached. Ada is tersely credited with unpaid domestic duties on that document, and they have a boarder living with them, a mechanic from a local garage.

One of Ada’s brothers, who had operated her family’s farm after her father’s death, died in 1938 but Tom and Ada did not go into partnership on that property. It’s possible that the bankruptcy had soured some family relationships.

Tom died in Keynsham in 1954, and was buried locally. Ada survived him by more than 20 years, and was buried alongside her parents and siblings at her family’s local church.

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