Elizabeth B’s story

A widowed mother managing a severely disabled son is a hard-enough prospect today, but in the mid-19th century Elizabeth B would have found it especially tough – given both practicalities around daily life and attitudes towards disability in general society.

She was born at the turn of the 19th century in Wiltshire, and the first record we have of her is her marriage to a carpenter at around the age of 20 – she needed her parents’ permission for this as she was under the age of 21.

Her husband appears to have been well off – a carpenter at this time was quite skilled and would have made anything from carts to wheels to furniture. He appears to have been attached to a great estate, which would have improved his prospects and fortunes, and through this Elizabeth would have lived quite a comfortable life for the early 19th century. It appears he owned a fair amount of land, much of it with dwellings upon, which was rented out to other families in their tiny rural community.

A son followed a year after the marriage, and then two more. However, seven years after her marriage, when she was again pregnant, Elizabeth’s husband died at the age of 31. She gave birth to her fourth and final son in the early months of the following year, and is recorded as a widow in the baptismal records. At this stage she has no profession.

Her sons were all underage, so her husband’s lands and rents all passed to Elizabeth. Tithe maps from the early 1840s record her as the owner of six pieces of land, and living on one of them herself. This may have been in trust until her eldest son hit the age of majority, but the family appears to have shared and lived on the lands in various different permutations for the next few decades.

By 1841 Elizabeth describes herself as a school teacher, teaching the youngsters of her tiny community, and is living in one of her houses with three of her sons. Two of them at least are above school age, and working as carpenters which would have helped the family’s finances.

The youngest son, however, does not have a profession given. But it is not until the 1851 census that the reason for this becomes clear. That document describes the man as “deaf and dumb”, and “incapable of anything”. Details are sketchy in this time period – it may be that he was born with a disability, perhaps having suffered in utero as the result of his father’s death before his birth – or it may be that he suffered some childhood trauma or disease that resulted in him being deaf and dumb (encephalitis due to measles is one possibility). Until the middle of the 20th century it was common for babies with obvious physical disabilities to be killed at birth – but Elizabeth’s son lived to adulthood. This may be an indication that his challenges were not immediately visible, or perhaps that he was allowed to live to provide Elizabeth with comfort after the death of her husband.

Whatever the circumstances, the judgement that someone who is deaf and dumb is “incapable of anything” is quite a harsh one to our modern ears, but says a great deal about pervading attitudes at the time. Elizabeth would have faced this judgement and perhaps stigma on a daily basis.

By the middle of the 19th century, she was living in and running the village post office – one of the properties she owned – and called herself a “letter receiver”. This indicates she was an educated woman – as one might expect of a former school teacher – as this role would have required a high degree of literacy. Another of her sons was living with her and her youngest son around this time, and the family also employed a domestic servant, showing that the family were fairly comfortably off.

Elizabeth continued to hold the post of sub-post mistress for the village for a further sixteen years, taking in occasional boarders and continuing to care for the daily needs of her youngest son.

She died at the end of the 1860s, aged 71, and is buried in the village church. Her youngest son was then cared for by one of his brothers, and died himself ten years later at the age of 52.


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.


Mary L’s story

If you happened to come into some money, enough for you to live on for many years without having to work, would you keep that wealth for your own benefit or give some of it towards helping under-privileged relatives?

Mary L faced that choice. It’s unknown exactly where her inheritance came from, as she came from a fairly working-class family in Hull, Yorkshire, in the 1840s, where her father worked as a labourer and an older sister helped the family finances by making dresses.

On the surface, this would not seem the type of family to have produced an annuitant, and indeed when Mary’s father died in 1860 her mother made ends meet by becoming a laundress – not a particularly lucrative profession, but an obvious one for an unskilled widow to pick up. However, Mary – who at this stage was living at home – had come into some money and referred to herself on the 1861 census as an annuitant.

It’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There was no lottery for Mary to win in those days, and she does not appear in any UK will or probate record of the time. However, her maternal grandfather, who had emigrated to the mid-western United States in the 1830s and had done well for himself, died in 1858 – and it is possible that this is the source of her money, although it is uncertain that they ever met.

Whatever the source, Mary had enough of a cushion to support herself comfortably and become of a class somewhat above others in her family. She could afford a household of her own, and a domestic servant to help her look after it.

Later on, she occasionally took in a boarder, but still could afford domestic help. She also helped to raise two of her sister’s children. One, an older girl, seems to have lived with her for a little while. The other, a five-year-old boy, came to her when his mother died. It would seem to be the obvious choice, for relatives in insecure circumstances to send their child to a wealthy aunt to be looked after and have a better life.

This nephew lived with her for many years, and helped her to run the boarding house she eventually ran. He had an apprenticeship to a monumental sculptor, which Mary supported him through, and he married from her household in the years just before the first world war.

Mary lived to see the end of the first world war, dying in 1919. However, significantly, her money that remained was left to neither niece nor nephew, nor any other family member, going instead to a local architect.


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.

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.


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.

Amy A’s story

Music ran in Amy A’s blood, body and soul. So much so that her musician father actually named her after his favourite piano manufacturer.

The youngest of seven, and the fourth daughter, she experienced an extremely musical childhood in South Wiltshire in the 1850s. Her father made a living teaching piano and selling music, excelling at playing the flute and operating as a church organist and bandsman. All of Amy’s siblings took up music, and are referred to as “professor of music” from an early age, indicating that talent was rife within the family.

The family were well to do, with servants in the household, and her father employed an organ tuner on his staff. This comfortable background enabled Amy and her siblings to have the space and time to excel in their musical talent, as they did not have to work to survive.

Amy herself specialised in singing. She possessed a high soprano voice, which became a distinguishing feature. Like her next oldest sister, she travelled to Germany in early adulthood to study at the Stuttgart Conservatoire, and then afterwards at the Royal Academy of Music in London – where she became an Associate.

She had a performing career, often appearing in public, but suffered periods of ill-health which forced her to retire from the stage.

Instead, she made her living by teaching. By the early 1890s she was well established as a singing teacher and a professor of music in London, living alongside another unmarried sister who also describes herself as a professor of music on the 1891 census return.

Later on, this sister moved back to the family home to teach alongside her father, so Amy went to live with her next oldest sister. This sister, it was claimed, was the most musically talented of them all – but had had to retire from the profession when she married a doctor, as women of her station in life did not make their own living, however prodigiously talented they were. Amy herself never married, so was able to keep her talent and teaching career.

Amy lived until the early 1920s, leaving her assets to her by-now-widowed sister. Her namesake niece, the daughter of one of her brothers, had her own singing and teaching career.


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.

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.


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


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.