Sarah B’s story

Stealing nine feather boas in Leeds landed Sarah B in the clink for nine months in the last year of the 19th century. This was not by far her only crime, but was in fair keeping with her misdemeanours – which all appeared to involve fabric or garments of some description. She may have found these items readily available to steal, but it may also have been that she had a “thing” for nice fabrics.

Over the course of her extensive criminal career, which took place over various communities in the north of England, she was landed in jail no less than 16 times. Each time she admitted her guilt, and each time she was sent down.

Born into a ship-building family, she initially worked as a servant in her teens. Prison records purport that her education was “improper”. Her lengthy list of thefts and penances seems to have begun at around the age of 30, when she stole a tablecloth and was jailed for fourteen days with hard labour.

This experience – hard labour was exactly as described, exhausting and unproductive – doesn’t appear to have affected her behaviour in the slightest. Two years later she stole 12 yards of linen, which got her four months in jail, and within a month of that release she stole a dress – which got her a further five months.

Upon release, she appears to get married. However, a definitive record of this marriage does not come to light in the records – it may be that it did not take place, or that one party did not use a name that they were later known by (Sarah at one point calls herself Emily Lacey, on one court appearance), but her surname now changes to a married one in court appearances.

For several years thereafter, her life continues in a pattern of theft, arrest, incarceration, and release. Next, she stole a jacket (14 days), stockings (one month), and a pair of boots (one month). The courts then appear to step up their punishments, but this does not stop her thievery. She got six months for a pair of trousers, another six months for stealing two pairs of boots, and another six months for having made off with a roll of shirting fabric.

In between sentences, it appears she was able to find some work on occasion. Court records sometimes say that she was married without a job, but others say that she was a servant or a housekeeper. This implies that she may have had a veneer of trustworthiness for prospective employers. However, since many of her crimes took place in different northern cities, it’s probable that she moved around a great deal to avoid her reputation following her.

Court appearances give us a description of what Sarah looked like. She was just four foot nine inches tall – short even in an era where nobody grew particularly tall – and had light brown curly hair. She also had a scar on her right forehead.

The punishments increased again. She was incarcerated for nine months for stealing both a pair of trousers and ten pocket knives. Then she got a year for stealing four black lead brushes – used for cleaning out fire grates. She then got another nine months for stealing two shawls.

She also has a few minor appearances in court for drunkenness and “frequenting” – presumably places where she was not supposed to be – but these are not offences that were given jail time.

Jail time was reduced for her next offense – stealing another pair of boots – as she merely received 28 days hard labour, but almost immediately on release she half-inched a skirt from a shop in Leeds and was given a full year sentence.

Again, practically on release, she stole again. This time was a pair of boots and a skirt, and she received 18 months in jail. The feather boas followed, for which she got nine months (one per boa), followed by another pair of boots (18 months).

The three years penal servitude she received for the umbrella she stole next put her in jail at the time of the 1901 census. For this crime, she was sent to a women’s prison unit about 160 miles from home. Most of Sarah’s companions were also doing time for theft and larceny.

On release, she received three months for stealing a dress lining (she gave her name as Emily Lacey for this crime), and then a further three months for stealing spoons.

It was at this point that her husband, who until now had remained elusive in the records, made an appearance. They were both convicted of stealing a bottle containing whisky from an acquaintance. Her husband pleaded guilty to larceny and received two months hard labour. Sarah, however, got a further three years of penal servitude.

It is unknown whether this slice of justice finally did the trick for Sarah, but she does not appear in prison records again. However, since the available records stop only a few years later it may just be that any further theft details are inaccessible. However, by this stage she was in her early sixties and was possibly too elderly and infirm to cope with the hard labour consequences of any more prison terms and decided to go straight. Her husband – who prison records identified as better educated – also appears to be more present at this time, and its possible that they supported each other more.

By the 1911 census they are back in the ship-building community in which Sarah grew up, and calling themselves travellers – perhaps a necessity due to the sheer number of communities that would have recognised Sarah as a bit of a bad egg.

Sadly, her married name and some discrepancies around her year of birth, and the fact that she moved around a great deal mean that pinpointing a year of death is a tricky task. It’s unlikely that she lasted much past the First World War, however.

 

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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.

Charlotte M’s story

David Wiseman’s The Fate of Jeremy Visick, a great favourite of mine when I was a child, imagines an 1850s Cornish mining disaster from the bereaved wife’s point of view:Jeremy Visick

“The miner’s wife stood at the door of the cottage and said goodbye to her husband and three sons. They were going to work at the mine, Wheal Maid. It was not yet daylight and she sighed as she saw them disappear into the dark.

She turned back into her little house and went over to the truckle bed where her two youngest children, both girls, were sleeping. She thought, ‘Well, you won’t have to go down the mine, I hope,’ and sat at the table where she dozed until dawn.

When daylight came she got busy about the house. There was not much to do because it was so small. But there was always clothes to mend and water to be carried from the stream and wood to be collected for the fire.

When she had finished that and got the herring out of the brine to be ready for the men when they came back, she told her two daughters to come with her to meet their father and brothers.

‘They will be coming up to grass soon,’ she said. ‘It’s a nice day. We’ll walk to Sunny Corner to meet them.’

They set off slowly, because they had plenty of time and it was warm, being summer. The girls skipped ahead. Before they got to Sunny Corner they stopped as a man on horseback came riding toward them. He got down from his horse. His face was serious and he did not speak at once.

‘Mrs Visick,’ he said at last. ‘I think you should get back home.’

The miner’s wife looked hard at him.

‘They will be bringing your man and two sons home…’

He knew she understood. It was not the first time he had had to carry messages like this and he knew it would not be the last.

‘Two sons?’

‘Charles and John.’

‘And Jeremy?’

The man shook his head. ‘He’s still below. We cannot bring his body back. He’s buried there.”

David Wiseman, writing as 12yo Matthew Clemens, “The Fate of Jeremy Visick” pub. Puffin Books 1984.

 

While I’m fairly sure that this family are fictional, the tombstone that inspired and is mentioned in the novel does exist: the-martin-gravestone

https://mybeautfulthings.com/tag/the-fate-of-jeremy-visick/

While mining disasters were horrific, for both victims and those left behind, what is often not told is what happened to the women who had lost husbands and sons underground. Charlotte M is one such widow.

She was born near Truro, Cornwall, in the second decade of the 19th century, and appears to have been from a fairly humble family.

By the 1841 census she is married to her copper miner husband, with two small boys. Her widowed mother and brother, both agricultural workers, lived next door.

Two further children, a girl and a third boy, followed over the next few years. But life changed in July 1846 when her husband, and a relative who was probably his younger brother, drowned in the East Wheal Rose mine.

A heavy storm broke over the mine workings, rain lashed down, and a torrent of water entered the shafts. Thirty-nine men drowned, leaving seven widows and 33 fatherless children in Charlotte’s parish alone. A full account of the disaster can be found here: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~blanchec/eastwhealrose.htm

Charlotte never remarried, but managed to support both herself and her children. Initially her late husband’s brothers moved into the household – one still worked as a miner despite what had happened, while the other made shoes – which would have provided vital assistance and financial support for the family. Her elder sons also found work, on farms and in employment connected to the mines, which would also have helped. Her mother and brother also remained nearby. Charlotte calls herself a miner’s widow on several census returns, which may indicate that she was the recipient of some financial help – from either the mining company or the parish – or that this accounted for her status in the community.

Later on, after her oldest son had married, she was supported by the other three children. Her younger two sons worked as copper miners in local shafts – drainage had been improved upon by this stage, although there were still multiple dangers – and her daughter trained as a milliner and dressmaker. Her brother also came to live with them.

None of her younger three children married, instead preferring to live at home with their mother. Her second son briefly went to mine in California, but died out there in his early thirties, leaving all his effects to his mother. Her eldest son gave her four grandchildren, but went to mine in Devon.

Charlotte outlived all but one of her children – her daughter and eldest son both died in the latter part of the 19th century – and she eventually lived with her youngest son. He ran the local post office and grocery shop, which provided them both with financial support in the final years of the century. Charlotte died in her mid-eighties, at the turn of the 20th century.

Maud R’s story

Born in India, to an English family, Maud R spent her earliest years in a military camp and then underwent a long sea voyage back home before she was three. She was her parents’ fourth daughter, but only three survived to adulthood.

Settling in Yorkshire during the 1880s, initially both parents were involved in her upbringing, but when she was three her father committed a serious crime and was sent away. Her mother subsequently moved the family, and started taking in boarders to make ends meet. Maud and her siblings went into work when they had finished school, in order to help family finances – Maud went into domestic service, and her two surviving sisters became elementary school teachers.

During the first years of the 20th century, Maud travelled across the Atlantic Ocean. She was initially bound for New York, but ended up in French-speaking Québec, Canada. There, a year or so later, she met and married a soldier of Irish descent, and settled in Québec City, on the banks of the St Lawrence River.

A month later, their first son was born. Two further sons followed over the next five years.

Her husband gave up his job as a soldier, and became a labourer, which would have meant a difference in family finances.

Maud died in Québec, in the months before the start of the First World War. She was 27 years old.

Mary W’s story

A merchant’s daughter from Edinburgh, and the second child in a family of 11, Mary W was comfortably brought up as her father’s business did well. She kept it in the family by marrying a merchant’s son. This is perhaps how they met, as their parents’ paths may have crossed, but her father’s interest was in fine arts, and her father in law’s in metal.

Her husband did not continue in mercantile pursuits, however, being renowned as a mathematical genius and preferring to train and work as a civil engineer. Mary was clearly no slouch at mathematics herself though, as in the early years of her husband’s company she kept and balanced the books, and took on other clerical duties. Today she would have been acknowledged as a book-keeper, but her profession remains blank on census returns.

Together she and her husband had nine children, seven boys and two girls, and led a life focused on work, family and Christian religion. They lived in a large, purpose-built house in a wealthy part of Edinburgh, and had several servants to help with running the house and bringing up the children. Her husband’s successful business enabled the family to own this large town house, and a holiday house on the Scottish Coast where they spent the entirety of August every year.

In the mid-1860s, her husband – who was known for being a workaholic – contracted diabetes which led to his early death, leaving her a wealthy widow with a very young family. Sadly, her health broke down just two years later and she passed away from meningitis and several forms of cancer, leaving the care of her children to her younger maiden sister.

Eliza W’s story

Born in Brighton on the south coast of the UK, Eliza’s father died when she was in her teens. Her mother, a skilled dressmaker, went into clothes making to support the family and taught Eliza and her siblings supporting skills to enhance the business. Eliza learnt to be a milliner, and her elder sister became a fancy girdle maker – all items that a well-dressed woman of the 1850s would require, and between them the women were able to offer a full garments service.

At 19 she met and married a Londoner, who had been working in the printing industry. They had three daughters while living in Brighton, then moved to London. Her husband continued to work as a printer – sometimes lithographic, sometimes music – and Eliza continued to work as a milliner, even while caring for their family, which gradually expanded to ten children.

By the 1880s, their combined earnings had enabled the family to acquire extra property, and Eliza set up two boarding houses in new middle class areas. One of these was run in her family home, by her, and the other was run about a mile away by her second oldest daughter – who also took care of all of her younger sisters at the same time. Their boarders included actresses, German businessmen and travelling Americans, all of whom would have been part of London life at this time.

However, by the turn of the next decade, Eliza’s husband had been incarcerated as a lunatic in an asylum, and she and their children were left without his earnings. As her mother had done several forty years before, Eliza made sure that her children all contributed to the household finances. She stepped up her millinery, and expanded her skills to include dressmaking. One daughter became a milliner too, and others became saleswomen – probably for Eliza’s dresses – and her sons gained employment.

Her husband was never released from the asylum, dying there just before the turn of the century, and Eliza and several of her daughters then moved to the Kent coast to run a boarding house in the popular seaside resorts. This house had twenty rooms, and would have brought in a considerable income during high season. They lived under an assumed name, the reasons for which remain obscure.

The boarding house remained a going concern for at least a decade. Eliza died there, in Kent, in the run up to the First World War.

Rose F’s story

Rose F spent the first months of her life, at the tail end of the 19th century, going in and out of workhouses. Her single mother, who had moved from Yorkshire to London, had no family around to support her, and struggled to survive and find work.

After the first year of her life, these workhouse admissions stop, as her mother’s life clearly became more stable. However, they begin again in when Rose was around 5, when she was joined by a younger brother and sister. Another brief period of stability was shattered when her sister died at the age of two, and again she and her brother bounced in and out of workhouses, both in Yorkshire and London. They were usually accompanied by their mother, who sometimes had work as a charwoman or a spinner or a hawker, but sometimes they were placed in the institutions alone.

Rose was often released from the workhouse “to school”, indicating that despite this instability she was being educated.

At some point in the first decade of the 20th century, Rose ceased to be cared for by her mother. It is probable that her brother did too, but there is no further record of him. She appears on the list of a ship known to regularly transport children to Canada as part of the British Home Children scheme, sending under-privileged children abroad to work as migrant and domestic labour to give them purpose and a better life. Several years were shaved off Rose’s age when she travelled, perhaps indicating that she was small enough to pass for a child of 11 and therefore eligible for the scheme.

Just three years later, she married a Canadian machinist in Ontario, claiming to be 20 years old. She also denied all knowledge of who her mother was on the marriage certificate, which suggests that she had not been in her mother’s care for a good long while.

By the 1921 census of Canada, Rose and her husband had a daughter of their own and were still living in Ontario. There is no further available record of the family.

Harriet E’s story

After a life marked with tragedy, Harriet ended up washing bedclothes in a mental asylum.

Harriet grew up in Plymouth in the mid-19th century, which at that time – as today – was a busy shipping port. Indeed, her father was employed as an off-the-coast guard, so the maritime industry would have been a big part of her early life.

In early adulthood, she found her way to London, and married the man next door – who supported them both by working as a carter. A month after their wedding, their son was born. The family continued to live in London for another few years, until her husband died suddenly at the age of 28.

At this time, with one small child to care for already, Harriet was pregnant with their second child. Their daughter was born just a few months after her father had died. Sadly, like many Victorian children, she did not live, and passed away at the age of two.

Harriet’s son was given to his paternal grandparents to bring up, away from London, perhaps indicating that supporting a child on very little wages would have been a struggle for a woman on her own.

Harriet went to work as a laundress to make ends meet. She was an attendant at a lunatic asylum in Hampshire for a while, washing linens for the inmates and living among them. However, work as a washerwoman could often be fickle and dry up quickly, and it is no surprise that she found herself in the workhouse when work was scarce.

She also died young, albeit having twenty more years of life than her husband, in the early 1880s.

 

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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.