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)

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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.

Sarah W’s story

Born at the tail end of the 18th century Sarah W was the daughter of a reverend, and made a good match with a metal merchant from Birmingham. His business was successful, and she might have expected to comfortably live out her life in the city, until they made the decision to emigrate to South Australia in 1840.

South Australia was never a penal colony, instead offering land and living to those willing to travel to take it. Many men who took up this offer later called themselves “gentlemen” as they now owned land.  She, her husband, and their four sons all underwent the months-long voyage to the other side of the world, and settled in Adelaide. They were among the first settlers there, as the city had been founded just three years earlier in 1837.

The family thrived in their new country, with one of her sons becoming the premier of South Australia on several occasions.

Sarah returned to the UK in the 1850s when her husband was seriously ill and advised to come home for an operation – medical care being sparse compared to that available in Britain during the earlier years of the settlement. He died in London, and she subsequently went to live out her final years in Scotland with her second son, who had also returned from Australia and settled in Edinburgh.

Her passion was collecting silver teapots. She bought them with the help of her sons, who she owed money for various vessels after her death.

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Phoebe B’s story

The daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant, unlike her three sisters Phoebe B did not marry into the moneyed society that surrounded her. Instead, she became an educator, with a wide circle of pupils drawn from all over Edinburgh in the mid-Victorian era, and engaged in benevolent works to improve the lives of the city’s people. This was drawn from a deep Christian faith. She lived with her bachelor brother, also an educator and teacher, but worked alongside him rather than keeping the house. He spent periods of time away working teaching in India, attempting to promote the work of the church in the country, while she stayed home and continued to work with the young people of the area – both educating the daughters of wealthy families and providing instruction for the poorer children of the district.

On her death at the age of 81, she left a trust of three hundred pounds a year to the support of “such indigent and infirm gentlewomen”, the recipients to be decided upon by female members of her extensive family. A portion of her estate was to be donated to hospitals, missions, asylums and sick societies in Edinburgh.

An obituary says that:

“More than half a century ago she was one of a chosen band of territorial visitors whom the late Dr William Robertson of New Greyfriars enlisted for service in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh.

“Her social and philanthropic work, both public and private, rested on the missionary basis of helping men and women to a higher as well as a happier life; while her educational zeal, alike in the communication of culture to the daughters of the well-to-do, and in the provision of elementary instruction and industrial training for the children of the poor, was ever hallowed by the desire to prepare the young at once for usefulness in this world and for citizenship in heaven.

“By the congregation of New Greyfriars’ and by its successive ministers and missionaries, Miss B was equally venerated and beloved. She held in that church a unique position of unobtrusive yet all-pervading influence – the outcome of a character in which there was a remarkable combination of strength and sweetness, decision and gentleness, righteousness and mercy, wisdom and zeal.”

Hannah C’s story

Having given birth to an illegitimate daughter at 18, while resident in a workhouse, Hannah C might have been considered to be a scandalous fallen woman by Victorian society, and condemned to a life of poverty and shunning.

However, within a few years she’d fallen in love with a steady man, had two further daughters, and was making a living for herself as a milliner. The only trouble with this arrangement was that he was already married to someone else, with children – so on the 1851 census she and her daughters are recorded as visitors to the household, and his wife is nowhere to be seen.

They were able to formalise their relationship when his first wife died a couple of years later. Her first daughter had an illegitimate child herself, and Hannah brought up her grandson in addition to her three daughters.

When her husband, who had worked as both a gardener and a “private wheelchairman” died, Hannah lived with her youngest daughter and family, and again supported herself by taking in sewing.