Amy W’s story

Entering a convent and becoming a nun, giving up your life to God and a regime of worship and good works, might have been done for several reasons in the 19th century. For poorer catholic girls, it was a way to achieve a more comfortable and stable life. For others, it was a way to avoid the institutions of marriage and children. The convent offered an opportunity for leadership and prominent positions unavailable to women outside the institution, and perhaps gave women a chance for creative expression or female education that would not otherwise be offered. Some may have felt a strong calling to devote their lives to God. More monied and prominent catholic families might have expected one or two of their daughters to enter the convent in time-honoured tradition, and a convent dowry was usually less than a marriage dowry so could have been seen as making economic sense.

Amy W and her twin sister were the youngest daughters in a prominent and landed Catholic family, born at the beginning of the 1830s in the south of England. They had six older siblings, including three older sisters. At least some of their childhood was spent in a convent in Taunton, although by the time they were 19 they had been brought home and possibly were in the market for husbands.

Two of their brothers married – one going on to have fourteen children of his own – but none of their older sisters married. They all, along with Amy and her twin, spent their lives in convents serving either as nuns or nuns who had a remit to teach children or penitents.

Amy, on re-entering the religious profession at some point in the 1860s, had the most prominent career of all her sisters. While her twin remained with the Franciscan sisters in Taunton, she became part of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an order that had first come to London in 1841 and gradually founded other convents throughout the UK.

She rose to become the superintendent of their Glazenwood convent in Essex, under a Belgian priest. This institution was effectively a refuge and reformatory for penitent women, and there were 31 inmates at the turn of the 1860s – a mixture of former laundresses, seamstresses, domestic servants, parlour maids, dairy maids, farmer workers and nursery maids. The nuns in this house, with Amy at their head, offered care and instruction to the inmates.

During the following decade, she moved to become the prioress of another Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in Bristol. This institution, set in a former great house, was again a reform school and refuge for penitent women but on a much larger scale than the one in Essex. In this position Amy had an assistant, a choir of 12 nuns, and 12 lay sisters underneath her. There were 127 penitent women and girls in the institution, all employed in laundry and needlework. In many cases these women would have been undergoing penance for loose behaviour with men or prostitution, but those who had undertaken other crimes were also admitted for correction and soul-cleansing.

By the mid-1880s, Amy had moved to the original Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent at Hammersmith in London, and by the turn of the 1890s she was serving at their convent in Blackley, near Manchester in Lancashire. By this stage she was 59, and possibly in less robust health as she did not serve as superioress or prioress, and was instead second in command. This was another institution for penitents, with 20 nuns and 128 inmates.

While one of her sisters had some small amount of money, which she left to Amy, when Amy died at the early part of the 1890s she had nothing to leave anyone. She passed away while serving at the Lancashire convent. Her twin sister continued to live and serve at the Taunton convent until she died in the run up to the First World War.

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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.

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Sophia C’s story

Born into a seafaring family, Sophia C’s life reflects the Victorian globe-trotting that was possible for women with access to a great deal of money and good connections.

She was born in the 1820s in Valparaiso, a seaside port not too far from Santiago in Chile. Her father was a captain and a mariner, and came from a well-established long-heritage community in Massachusetts, while her mother was Irish. It’s likely that her mother accompanied her father on certain journeys, hence Sophia’s American citizen status but exotic birth, as the rest of her siblings were born in Massachusetts. The family were back in Massachusetts by the end of the 1820s, as her younger brother was born there, but the voyage back to the northern part of the USA from Chile would have been long and involved traveling through the Strait of Magellan.

In the 1840s, Sophia married another seafaring man – one who had started his career on the whaling boats of Massachusetts and was gradually working his way up the mariner ranks. Several years her senior, he came from another well-established Massachusetts family, and had ancestry from the Mayflower.

They settled in the state for a time, but her husband’s career grew in a different direction. He became a shipping agent, and the couple moved across the Atlantic to be based in Glasgow, Scotland. He commanded packet ships for an American company, and ran a large shipping and commission business. They rented a house in a fashionable area of the city for a few years, and were well known in local society – her husband also held a fair amount of property in the area. A female student from Prussia (now Germany) lived with them for a while, as she studied in the city, and Sophia’s brothers and their wives appeared to be frequent visitors.

There appear not to have been any children from her marriage, and Sophia was provided well for by servants, so her life would have been comfortable with a degree of leisure, and probably centred around functions and good works.

Later on, when her husband retired, they moved down the country to London. They lived in a smaller but-no-less-fashionable property with Sophia’s widowed mother, and a servant.

Her husband died on a visit to coastal France, at the age of 64, leaving Sophia a widow at the age of 51. She remained in the UK for a few years, having settled her husband’s affairs and inherited a great deal of money, living on her own on a private income. She then returned to the US.

In later life, she went travelling for pleasure – firstly to Berlin and Leipzig, coming back through the UK, and then on to Switzerland. She describes her role in life as a “matron and housewife”. She eventually went home to Massachusetts “for my health”.

She died back at home in Massachusetts at the end of the first world war, aged 94.

Eliza D’s story

A woman who leaves her children to be brought up by someone else gets short enough shrift in society in the 21st century – but perhaps can be reasoned by career, circumstances, and so on. However, for this to have happened in the 1840s was practically unheard of and would have carried considerable social stigma – and it’s likely that Eliza D would have experienced this.

Born at the turn of the 19th century in Somerset, she married a surgeon at the age of 22. As a physician, invariably referred to as a gentleman in records, he would have been able to give Eliza a comfortable life in their small village community. Five children followed – a girl, then four boys – and her marriage appears to have continued along normal Victorian lines for many years.

However, by the mid-1840s things were starting to change. Her youngest son died aged just over a year, and although her husband’s business continued to be successful, Eliza disappears from the records for a time. On the 1851 census she is clearly absent from the family home, and her sons are being brought up by their father and their housekeeper. What happened to Eliza at this time is open to conjecture – it may be that she is elsewhere being supported by her husband despite not living with him, or it could be that she came into some money of her own, although under Victorian marriage this would probably have been surrendered to her husband. Later records of her would support either of these theories. Whatever happened, she appears not to have lived at the family home again.

Her second youngest son also died young, at the age of 23. Another went into the navy, and the final son married and moved to London.

The 1861 census sees her living with and supporting her daughter, who had a job in a Wiltshire school. She gives herself as a surgeon’s wife, so it’s possible that he was still giving her some support. Her husband continued to live in Somerset, alongside the housekeeper.

The key to the split between Eliza and her husband becomes clear when he died in the mid-1860s. All his money, which by this stage is not particularly considerable, was left to the housekeeper. She acted as the sole executor, and while Eliza, her daughter and two remaining sons were very definitely alive, they did not see a penny.

In later life, Eliza acknowledges that she is a widow, but gives herself as an annuitant and independent – so had some financial means of support of her own. Her daughter married and went to live in London, and Eliza initially lived with them in Hammersmith. Later on, she lodged elsewhere in that borough, clearly supporting herself in her own room in a bigger house.

She died in London at the turn of the 1880s, but left no legacy for her children.

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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.

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.

Ann O’s story

The daughter of a yeoman farmer, Ann O came from a Quaker family and therefore enjoyed a more equal standing with the men in her own community than other mid-Victorian women. Quaker women were allowed to speak in their worship meetings, and their opinions held weight. They were included as witnesses on Society of Friends birth records, and were allowed to publish and to travel alone.

She married a commercial traveller and chocolate manufacturer, another Quaker who had links to the Fry chocolate business in Bristol. In fact, one of the prominent Fry family members witnesses her marriage and later another acts as executor on her will – so they were almost certainly moving in well-connected Quaker circles, and perhaps working with the Fry family.

She travelled the country with her husband as he conducted his business, a long and arduous process even as the railway network boomed in the mid-19th century. They lived in a succession of grand houses in affluent areas of major cities. Sometimes she employed an unmarried sister as a servant, taking her with them perhaps as much for companionship as work. They never had any children.

When her husband died she was well provided for by dividends of his business, and joined two of her unmarried sisters back in the Somerset area where she’d grown up. Together they raised a young niece.

 

(Picture reproduced by kind permission of family)

If you are interested in women’s genealogy, why not contact Once Upon A Family Tree to have your female ancestry traced?

Elizabeth W’s story

Born into the family of a prosperous Scottish fine art merchant in the earlier part of the 19th century, Elizabeth W did not marry, unlike many of her siblings. While referred to as a spinster by the age of 25, there was enough money in the family for her to continue a life of leisure with her parents in their large Edinburgh property, supported by several servants.

At the age of 43, however, her life changed entirely. Her older widowed sister died, quite suddenly, and left her nine children in her care. These children, two girls and seven boys, ranged in age from six to nineteen – with the eldest at university, and the youngest almost certainly needing a great amount of support. All required loving care and a stable environment. While their parents had left more than enough money to support their children, Elizabeth was suddenly a single parent – albeit one who could afford servants to take on the hard work of the day-to-day care with such a large family.

For the early part of her guardianship, Elizabeth remained in Edinburgh with the children – one became an engineer, another a lawyer. A religious family, it was left to her to continue to instil the values and beliefs of the parents in their children.

Once the older of the girls was married, and the rest of the boys were growing up, several of them took up financial jobs in London. As they initially remained unmarried, and the family wished to remain together, it became pertinent for Elizabeth and the younger children to take up residence in Kent, 400 miles to the south.

The family was based in a large house in the London suburbs, close to the residences of some of the boys. This again had several servants to support their lifestyle. But their comfortable life did not lead to immunity from problems. At least two of Elizabeth’s charges suffered from alcoholism, which in some cases led to family rifts and ostracisms.

In her later years, Elizabeth lived with the younger of her nieces and her husband, in the suburbs of London. This niece did not have children of her own, so the family gently aged together. On dying in Kent in the first decade of the 20th century, Elizabeth left her remaining money to her niece.