Sister Josephine’s story

Unlike her famous song namesake, Sister Josephine did not found a pontoon team in her convent nor sit with her boots up on the altar screen. Instead she was one of the first sisters from the English mission of the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, and went on to lead a prominent convent and well-respected school. But a holy life and fulfilling her God’s work did not mean that everyone respected her choices, and at one point she was stoned for her efforts.

She’d been born as Elizabeth (Josephine was a name she took later on in life, when she dedicated herself to the convent), in Loughrea, County Galway in Ireland. She was born a few years before the famine, which hit rural Ireland hard in 1845, and she had a sister – Maria – born three years later. It’s unknown exactly what her father did, but he appears to have moved the family into Galway city at some point during the next few years, probably due to the famine, as a land tax record finds the family there in 1857.

Therefore, the family did not leave Ireland during the famine, but arrived at some point later. Her parents did not live long over in England, and left Josephine alone to educate her sister, and she was placed in a convent. Maria later joined the Sisters of Charity. Josephine moved to Chippenham in Wiltshire. She was the first godmother mentioned in the baptisms of the original St Mary’s Church in St Mary’s Place, Chippenham, which start in 1857. The church was founded in 1855, and operated as a catholic school where Josephine – at this point still called Elizabeth – taught. it was there that she first met Father Larive, missionary of St Francis de Sales. The original church is now used as the modern-day church hall, a new building having been established in the early 20th century on Station Hill.

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The original St Mary’s catholic church in Chippenham, now used as the church hall

The first UK census to feature her is the 1861. She had become a teacher, and found a place at a convent school in Birmingham. Aged 22, she had gained the position of assistant school mistress, and was in charge of various teenage girls being educated at the convent.

Josephine, having worked in a convent for several years, decided to take the habit herself. She had been recommended by Father Larive. She went to the founding convent in Annecy, France, and became a novice in the congregation. She took the habit herself in September 1863. It was from there, in August of 1864, that the English mission of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy was founded. Two sisters – Sr Athanase (sometimes Antoinette) Novel, who was originally French, and Sr Stanislaus Bryan, who was of Irish extraction but had grown up with the sisters in India – travelled from the congregation’s Indian mission in Kamptee by ox cart to the coastal port of Yanam and thence on to France, in order to found the English mission.

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Mother Athanase

The impetus for founding the mission came from a British Army officer, Captain Dewell, who had seen the good work of the sisters in India and asked them to come to his home country of Wiltshire. Since Josephine had already been teaching in Chippenham, about ten miles away from the intended site in Devizes, she was perhaps the obvious choice to accompany Sisters Athanase and Stanislaus on their endeavour. They travelled across Europe to Devizes, took up residence in the town’s Wyndham Villas – a former priests’ residence by the Kennet and Avon Canal – and it was here that Josephine took her vows in November 1865. The three nuns founded a school in Monday Market Street, in a rented warehouse.

It was then that the trouble started. Despite the fact that the school, and the mission, were founded with the best of intentions, educated poor children for just a penny a week and gave out clothing to those in dire need, the three nuns were met with suspicion by the Devizes population. The struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism in the UK were nothing new at this point in the 19th century, and Devizes was no different though perhaps more vociferously anti-Rome than most, but Catholicism was starting to gain a foothold in England again after the Irish famine of the 1840s and the arrival of many destitute people in need of work. The moralising tone of the educated middle and upper classes, which was reported in the newspapers of the day, implies that the destitute Irish were an underclass and therefore somehow a scourge on the land and were bringing their unsavoury religion with them. And they were taking local jobs too.

A speaker at a Devizes function at the time warned of the new nuns, saying of the “necessity of avoiding the follies of Catholicism and of shunning the nuns who dappled (sic) in witchcraft.” The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette scathingly reported on the “opening” (inverted commas theirs, not mine) of the Catholic Church in 1865, describing it as plain and ugly, and that the nuns were, with one exception, foreigners. Feeling continued to run high, and in 1866 1,600 people in Devizes attended a talk on the evils of Catholicism, and how convents should be ended. Such was the hostility the three sisters – Josephine, Athanase and Stanislaus – were even stoned by local residents as they went about their work.

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Despite this, Josephine and the others persevered. They opened a school for middle- and upper-class children in Wyndham Villas, in addition to their work with the poor children, and walked the ten miles to Chippenham every Sunday to Josephine’s original church, to teach the Catechism and play harmonium for mass. They also undertook work in Westbury, several miles to the south of Devizes.

In 1866, however, the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy opened a new convent and school in Chippenham’s Marshfield Road, and needed a mother superior. Josephine came back to Chippenham from Devizes and took over that role. Situated in Suffolk Villas, apparently at 11 and 12 that road, the 1871 census has her with two female scholars, neither of whom were born locally, and two other nuns, running the convent and the education of the school, and providing space for a religious visitor to live. Stanislaus and Athanase remained in Devizes.

There does not appear to have been the local opposition to the establishment of the convent in Chippenham that was experienced in Devizes. There are no reports of witchcraft or stones being thrown. It is probable that the establishment of St Mary’s in the 1850s probably paved the way, and the townspeople were more accepting of the Catholics and foreigners. However, newspapers of the time have virtually nothing about Catholic activities in the town, so it’s likely that much of Josephine’s activity flew under the radar.

Ten years later, however, the convent did not have any pupils, and perhaps could not be called a school in the strictest sense of the word. Josephine was still mother superior, with four other nuns serving in the institution, and they had three other women boarders or visitors. Convents would often house Catholic widows as they were trying to get back on their feet after their husband’s death, and St Joseph’s Convent in Chippenham was clearly no exception. The convent would have offered a calm and serene atmosphere, with a structured timetable and considerable prayer.

The lack of pupils probably played a part in the ending of the Chippenham convent in 1884, when the community moved to a house made available by Captain Dewell in Malmesbury – about six miles to the north of Chippenham but still in Wiltshire. There was no further convent in Chippenham until the 1930s, when St Margaret’s established on Rowden Hill.

There had been a foundation in Malmesbury since 1867, when Father Larive – a missionary of St Francis de Sales – had left Devizes to establish a base there. Josephine, after her period as mother superior in Chippenham, also took on this role in Malmesbury. In 1881 there were four other nuns besides her, in addition to several boarders and three domestic staff – meaning that Josephine could devote herself to more spiritual matters than running a household. This would have been a new way to devote her to Jesus.

By 1897 Josephine had crossed the River Severn, and was established as mother superior at the Stow Hill Convent and School in Newport, South Wales. This establishment had been founded from Devizes in 1873 (using money from the dowry of Sister Mary Joseph, who had been educated there), and Mother Athanase had gone from there to be the first mother superior taking most of her community with her. Only two sisters and a postulant were then left in Devizes, Westbury’s work ended in 1875, and the focus of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy became this new school and convent in Newport. By 1901 Mother Athanase was getting on in years, and was no longer mother superior, leaving the UK for the Sisters’ base in Annecy, where she spent her dotage. Josephine, at this point in her early 60s, became mother superior in Newport.

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The Newport Convent

The Newport school was a huge undertaking. Josephine had fourteen teachers underneath her, teaching art, music, needlework, French, German and basic elementary subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. There was a full complement of domestic staff – including ladies’ maids – boarding pupils aged between 12 and 17, and a host of young women in their early twenties who are referred to on the census as resident students but are probably novices in training to become nuns. There is even a resident artist. Many of the teachers, like Josephine, are Irish-born, but the cooks are both French. The students, in contrast, are mostly drawn from the local area – except one who was born in India.

This convent and school appears to have thrived. Josephine was still mother superior in 1911, but by now in her early 70s she had taken a step backwards from the day-to-day life of the school. Her jurisdiction was over the novitiates and teachers, of which there were many, but only five boarding pupils were in her household. The convent and school, however, spread over four houses, and with many teachers employed most pupils would have attended just in the daytime. The school and convent eventually outgrew its premises in the 1940s, and was moved to Llantarnam Abbey a few miles north.

Josephine, as she was starting to age and lose her sight, went on to be mother superior at a much smaller community in Wincanton in 1912, and then on to a boarding school in Clifton, Bristol. She then moved back to the Newport convent to be a part of that community again, and served as a councillor in the town.

She lived to be 97, and in her last years was cared for by her community at the convent. She died in 1933, and is buried in Newport.

Hephzibah C’s story

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a “fallen woman”.

Today we’d probably think of that term applying to a sex worker, or perhaps someone involved in drug dealing or organised crime.

To educated and aspirational social climbing Victorians however, with their drive to live godly and moral lives, the term had many different connotations. Fallen women were not necessarily prostitutes, but those women who had been “ruined” in some way – those who had lost their innocence (whether by accident or design) or virtue, or extreme poverty, and had therefore fallen from the grace of God. Fallen women were considered to have stepped outside the boundaries of what was socially and morally acceptable – therefore rape victims and those engaging in extra-marital affairs would also be included in that bracket. Just the women though. Not men who engaged in visiting prostitutes or extramarital sex. Which is a damning double standard. Theatre types – dancers and actresses, who would often perform in clothing that was more revealing and/or were known for entertaining patrons – were also included in the fallen women bracket.

Hephzibah was involved in the mid-Victorian drive to try to improve the lives of fallen women – or indeed eradicate this scourge from society. She was the youngest of several children – mostly girls – being brought up by non-conformist parents on the outskirts of London. Born in the late 1820s, her labourer father died when she was 17, and her widowed mother moved the family to West Ham. Hephzibah and her next oldest sister Betsy kept the family solvent by making dresses and hats, while their mother continued with her domestic duties. Neither of them ever married. With their mother, Hephzibah and Betsy helped to bring up their widowed brother’s children.

After their mother died at the tail end of the 1860s, Hephzibah moved in with their brother to keep house for him and continue to raise her nieces and nephews, while Betsy took her dressmaking business to her sister’s house.

During the 1870s the movement to improve society by rehabilitating women deemed fallen was gaining traction, and in London Hephzibah and Betsy – as virtuous unmarried women in their 40s with deep Christian faith – were well placed to become part of the process.

The midnight meeting movement, known for carrying out its work at night when those it was attempting to save, would hold events for fallen women in the less salubrious London districts. Street women would be invited to a lecture hall and then given food. Afterwards they would addressed by various gentlemen present in the hall in order to get them to repent and change their ways. One newspaper article at the time said that great emotion was shown on the part of some of the women, who had evidently been trained by Sunday Schools or brought up by Christian parents. If they were willing to be rescued they were sent to live in a premises belonging to the Female Preventative and Reformatory Institution. For each woman saved, the secretary of that organisation received £5 from the midnight meeting movement.

By 1881 Hephzibah was a housekeeper in charge of one of these homes for fallen women on Euston Square in London, rehabilitating women and training them to be placed in domestic service or other gainful employment. Her sister Betsy was the matron of the same institution. This was not unlike the Catholic system of penitentiaries at convents for young women and girls who had strayed away from the path of “good morals”, but was accessed by those of all denominations, and were seen more as social reform than purging evil from the spirit.

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The homes for fallen women were part of this educated Victorian drive to improve society – whether religion-driven, or based on social reform principles – by returning these women to a moral life. Some were reportedly stricter than others, while at least some appeared understanding as to the factors and needs that had driven their inmates to the place they had found themselves.

This was usually by strict, structural measures for living, with a good dose of Christianity, and very little wriggle room for inmates. There were many such establishments in cities of the time, particularly in London, and the most famous of these was Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, set up and run by Charles Dickens and Lady Burdett-Coutts, and was set up in the 1840s.

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This particular home in Euston Square had been founded in 1857, as one of five by 1863, as the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution. By this point the homes were run under Reverend Edward W Thomas, alongside his wife Maria, and were dependent on voluntary contributions from the public to keep going. Euston Square received and dealt with all the applications for the whole suite of homes, so part of Hephzibah and Betsy’s jobs would have been welcoming new inmates into the system. They employed a female registrar to help with the paperwork and placing.

Inmates at Euston Square were given “womanly” tasks to undertake – domestic work, laundry and needlework – during the day, then in the evening they were also taught to read and write. Hephzibah and Betsy would have been at the forefront of this drive for a moral pathway, exhibiting deep faith and “proper” behaviour for women, but also would have been involved in the care of women who had lived at the sharp end of poverty and neglect – so would have seen and known a great deal of what went on in the less-documented reaches of Victorian society. Once the inmates had been reformed and were considered to be back on a moral pathway, they were found suitable situations – usually domestic servant positions in the houses of the wealthy.

Initially the Euston Square home had been intended for “the unfallen”, so poor rather than immoral women, whereas the other four were designated as reformatories. It’s possible that this distinction had gone by 1881, however. Adverts portrayed the homes as for the “Friendless and Fallen”. “Nearly 200 poor young females are fed, lodged, clothed, and instructed, and, after probation, are provided with suitable situations,” says one of the adverts appealing for donations. More about the home and the institution as a whole can be found here: http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonLFPRI/

Under Hephzibah and Betsy’s care on the 1881 census there are 29 women. Most are training to be general servants, though there is one ballet dancer there. By 1891 the situation is very similar, as the inmates include an actress, but Hephzibah and Betsy have left the home and a Sarah Hamer has taken over instead. At this time there were at least six homes in the scheme, plus an all-night refuge that anyone could wander into. An advert asking for donations at Christmas in 1884 says that they had 192 women and girls in the homes at that point, and 5000 meals needed to be provided each week.

Hephzibah, after leaving the employ of the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution, founded a lodging house in Lewisham – putting her considerable housekeeping skills to good use, but perhaps with less troublesome boarders. However, most of her residents were her sisters – Betsy, widowed Eliza, and Susannah who had worked as a servant and never married.

As she aged, Hephzibah’s deep faith and Christian good works meant that she was an ideal candidate for an alms house. She moved into the Bethel Asylum, a set of twelve dwellings intended for aged women, on Havil Street in Camberwell. Though called an asylum, it was actually just a more comfortable place for women like her to spend their final years. The building, now private housing, is two storeys high and grade II listed. She lived with a group of other elderly women together in the building.

Hephzibah died in 1918, aged 89. She was still living at the Bethel Asylum at the time. Betsy had predeceased her in 1912.

Annie P’s story

Annie’s father’s position – a reverend with the West African Mission supported by the Church Mission Society – led to her unusual place of birth for a British Victorian woman. Both she and her older sister Mary were born in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, as their parents had gone out to help educate and convert the local residents to Christianity.

Her father had been stationed in Sierra Leone since 1837, returning to the UK only rarely, and was responsible for setting up the Freetown Grammar School. He was the first principal, with Annie’s mother running the girls’ section of the school.

The idea of the grammar school was that by educating the people of Sierra Leone in a manner similar to that taught in “civilised” Western Europe, the boys would therefore serve as a beacon for the spread of Christianity in the country. To achieve this, pupils were taught all aspects of English grammar and composition, Greek and Roman history, Bible and English history, arithmetic, geography, classics and mathematics. They all had to convert to Christianity to receive this education.

The girls’ section of the school, opened slightly later, aimed at giving a higher degree of education to “those promising native girls, drawn from the village schools, who might afterwards be employed as teachers and school-mistresses.”

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Annie’s parents reputedly compared their students – who included sons of tribal chiefs – favourably to English students during a time when European racial prejudice against Africans was extremely high.

However, even their liberal-for-the-time views and their success with the school did not stretch to the education of their own children or them sharing in the instruction given to the Sierra Leone students. Rather than being brought up alongside them, Annie’s parents brought her and Mary back to London to be educated. The girls were housed at the Missionary Children’s Home in Islington, alongside children of others serving the Church Mission Society, and can be found there on the 1851 census. Annie was only four, so at an extremely young age would have been separated from her parents as they travelled many thousand miles away.

The missionary home was a temporary measure, founded in 1849, and provided accommodation for around 50 children – all from similar backgrounds and separated from their parents. It was run by a clergyman and his wife, who – although clearly competent in spiritual matters – must have been spread very thin in loco parentis. The society started work on a more permanent premises in later 1851, completed in 1853, and it’s likely that Annie and Mary were moved there with the rest of the children. This new premises housed around 100 children.

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In the summer of 1853, their father died in Sierra Leone, after a three-week fever, and their mother appears to have come home – although she did have business still in Africa and returned periodically over the next few years. She then took up the parental duties for Annie and Mary again, moving them to Gloucestershire and the rural life in which she herself had grown up. This was a far cry from the sultry climbs of Sierra Leone, where she had paid a worker from the local cotton gin a farthing for every cockroach he could catch in her house. In later life, Annie’s mother described her as a sharp and intelligent child.

Mary went to reside with relatives of her father for a while, while Annie appears to have lived with her mother. She also boarded at a private school in Weston-super-Mare for a time in her teens, spending further time away from home, which would have been intended to finish her education.

At some point in the 1870s, the family – Annie, Mary, and their mother Maria – moved to the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham. They took up residence in fashionable St Paul’s Street, which had an array of recently-built quite grand (for the time) houses, and lived off Maria’s inheritance from her husband and anything she earned from the Church Missionary Society.

Around 1874 Annie suffered a prolonged gastric fever herself, which was said to have left her mentally weak. The family moved from their original Chippenham house to another a street or two away. Two years later, while her mother was out of the country, she was sent to the care of her maternal aunt in London, while there, aged in her late 20s, she had a love affair that sadly ended, but was said to have “conducted herself well” for the duration, as might be expected from a good Christian girl from her background.

However, it was this experience – combined with the ill health that had plagued her since her fever, that seems to have exacerbated a mental health breakdown for Annie. She began writing letters filled with delusions that were sent to family and friends. She insisted that neighbours were passing evil thoughts to her by extra-sensory projection, and was afraid that someone was trying to injure her. Another delusion was that she had once died and came back to life again. She also wrote out texts of scriptures and would pass them to people in the street. She slept badly and lost weight.

Her aunt referred Annie to Bethlem Hospital in the July of 1876, where she was described as the “orphan daughter of a clergyman” and diagnosed with melancholia via unceasing debility. Melancholia, in Victorian terms, generally meant depression and low spirits. The hospital records describe her as a “small thin individual with very dry skin”, who spent most of the day sewing. Today there are many different treatments available for the illness Annie had, but back then very little was known about how to approach mental health.

Upon her mother’s return to the UK, Annie was released from Bethlem and put under her care. They returned to their life in Chippenham. However, Annie’s illness soon became too much for her mother to cope with, and she was admitted initially to the workhouse – where she threw things and attacked an attendant – and then to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Roundway, near Devizes.

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Here records show that Annie’s problems had exacerbated since her removal from Bethlem. She was exhibiting symptoms of pica – eating soap, pig swill and unmentionable things from wastebaskets – and having no concern for her personal hygiene. She would also become violent and begin breaking household objects. This was now classed as mania. Her delusions and melancholia continued, and she often did not eat properly or at all, resulting in extreme thinness and weight loss.

The asylum considered that she was in good physical health, had been well off and had led a moral and temperate life.

Her mother briefly attempted to remove her from the asylum again, insisting that she could cope and that her “darling Annie” would be better off at home, but it appeared that the burden on Maria and Mary was too great, and Annie returned to Roundway around three months after she left, with little change in her condition reported. She would often keep her eyes covered, and repeat the same phrases.

Her mother died in Chippenham in the early 1880s, and was buried locally. Mary left the area after her mother’s death. Annie remained in the asylum, with no reduction in symptoms and no successful treatment for a further 32 years. She died in her sixties of pneumonia, just before the First World War, and was reportedly severely underweight at that time.

Elizabeth Utterson’s story

As accolades and memorials go, a street and five houses named after you is fairly high ranking. Elizabeth Utterson, who has these to her memory in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham, is remembered for her generous gift to the elderly women of the town towards the end of the 19th century – but actually only bore that surname for a few years at the end of her life.

For someone to make a charitable gift to the poor and impoverished at that time, there generally has to be no living descendants to pass any monetary gift to – and this was exactly the case with Elizabeth. The generous gift of money and land to the women of the town was in part because both her child and her step-children had not lived long enough to inherit it, and instead the needy received the benefit.

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She had been born in Peterborough – then in Northamptonshire – in the mid-1820s, the younger daughter of two from a greengrocer and his wife. Her father was dead before the 1840s, and her mother made her living by selling sweetmeats. Elizabeth was sent to Chippenham to be under the charge of her father’s brother, who kept an inn in the town marketplace, and became a barmaid. Her older sister Susannah remained at home to assist her mother.

It was in Chippenham, a few doors away from her uncle’s inn, that Elizabeth met her first husband. William was a master shoemaker, employing several staff, and they returned to her family home in Peterborough to get married in the mid-1850s, then settled in Chippenham. Their son William followed a year or so after the marriage, and he lived for twelve years before dying suddenly. Within a year or two, Elizabeth’s husband William was dead too, at the age of 36.

Elizabeth, suddenly with no dependents, became an annuitant. William’s business had been relatively successful, and she inherited a fair amount of money for the era. She took a servant from the Chippenham area and moved to the Somerset coast, setting up home in a house by the seafront, which was terribly fashionable in the 1870s.

By the beginning of the 1880s, however, Chippenham had drawn her back in. She had almost certainly been acquainted with the local registrar of births and deaths, a gentleman named James Utterson, during her earlier life and on the 1881 census can be found visiting him at his house on the town’s Causeway. James was a widower, born in southern Scotland, and had been living in Chippenham for many decades. He’d married his first wife Sarah in London during the 1850s, and they’d had two children – a son who lived to the age of 20, and a daughter who had died shortly after birth. James had raised his son on his own for many years after his first wife’s death, and after his son’s death he was suddenly left alone for his final years.

James, at this point aged 75 (which was a very good age at this time), and Elizabeth married at Chippenham’s St Andrew’s church in the summer of 1881. She was 59. They had no dependents and were well-placed in town society with a fair amount of money behind them. In addition to registering births and deaths for the town, James had also acted as agent for a mining company in Devon.

James only lived for another three years, dying in 1884 and leaving Elizabeth a considerable amount of money. Rather than living the high life, Elizabeth instead decided to found a charity and build some almshouses on Chippenham’s Lowden – a street community just outside the main auspices of the town, which at that point was home to around 1,000 people. The street was undergoing a major change in the 1880s, having previously been quite impoverished and home to many receiving poor relief, a programme of building to raise the social condition of the area was undergoing at this time. New houses were being built to house workers on the Great Western Railway, an embankment of which ran parallel to the street, and new retail premises were included. The almshouses were a continuation of the social improvement of the road.

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There were four almshouses, with a fifth dwelling in the middle to be occupied by the custodians of the project. These caretakers were allowed to be a married couple, but Elizabeth’s bequest stipulated specifically that the four houses were for women – elderly and infirm, and in need of a bit of looking after. James’s will had left over £2,000, so Elizabeth invested the excess after the houses were built to continue the upkeep of the cottages and provide a small sum of money each week to the inhabitants. This was 3 shillings and six pence in the winter, and 3 shillings in the summer.

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Two years after the almshouses, in 1886, a church was built next to them. This helped the elderly, sick and infirm attend church more regularly, since the next nearest church – St Paul’s, on Malmesbury Road – was a considerable walk away. The custodian role of the almshouses also took on the upkeep of the church, which was named St Peter’s Mission Church.

Elizabeth died in the 1890s, but her charity lives on. The almshouses still exist, and house Chippenham’s elderly female residents. The church has become the New Testament Church of God, after St Peter’s moved to the outskirts of the town. A street – Utterson View, named after Elizabeth and her almshouses – was built alongside her bequest.

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Martha S’s story

The view of a Victorian workhouse we carry today is often informed by Dickens’ Oliver Twist – brutal treatment, poor quality food, not-particularly sanitary living conditions – but rather than deliberately designed to de-humanise people, workhouses existed to provide relief for the poor and ostentatiously to get them back on their feet and a useful member of society again.

Chippenham’s Union workhouse, formalised after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, initially used a building at Lacock and several smaller buildings in The Butts which had been the workhouse provision for several decades, but in the 1850s the decision was made to build a purpose building – now Chippenham Community Hospital on Rowden Hill.

Workhouses were usually run by married couples, with the man being the master – in charge of the management of the institution and its inmates – and his wife being the matron, who was the deputy manager and looked after female inmates and children, and was in charge of the building’s domestic arrangements.

The matron of Chippenham’s workhouse from some point in the 1860s was Martha Elizabeth Gane, alongside her husband James.

She’d been born Martha Elizabeth Smith in Bath, one of two surviving children of an accountant and his wife, and spent her childhood living in grand Georgian houses in the heart of the city during the 1840s and 50s. She and her brother George were educated at home, and continued this education well into their teens – unusual in an era where most schooling finished around 12. Their household has a servant but no sign of a governess, indicating that it was their parents – probably their mother – who provided this education.

At the age of 21 she married James Gane at St Swithin’s Church in Bath. He was an accountant, living in Temple Cloud, so she had probably met him through her father. They married by special license rather than by banns, which meant that the marriage could happen quickly. In some cases this could have been marriage by necessity, but since their first daughter Rosetta was born the requisite nine months later perhaps a judgement of whirlwind romance might be the better one.

Although marrying an accountant sounds grand, and monied, for this age, James did not stick this profession out and did not provide the sort of lifestyle that Martha had grown up knowing. Their second daughter’s (Constance) birth, in East Brent, has him as a clerk, while their third (Georgina) sees them back in Bath with him working as a victualler – usually either a publican or keeper of a shop that sold alcohol. Martha would have assisted him in this by serving customers.

By 1861 the family were in Chippenham, on the Causeway. Martha was helping James to make ends meet by taking in work as a dressmaker and milliner (hat maker), alongside her sister and her sister in law, while he worked as a solicitors’ clerk. They also lived in Castle Combe for a while, as their son Percy was born there, but by the time their final child Claude appeared the family are back in Chippenham and Martha’s husband James is recorded as the master of Chippenham Union Workhouse.

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As Matron of the Workhouse Martha had jurisdiction over the whole complex. This included accommodation for vagrants in the entrance block, and a main block with an infirmary, a chapel, a dining hall and several service buildings. Her staff included a schoolmaster and schoolmistress – responsible for educating the inmates’ children and possibly Martha’s own too, a porter, and nurses. Later on the workhouse also had an industrial trainer – passing on new skills – and a bandmaster, who presumably ran a workhouse band with the inmates as a form of entertainment and rehabilitation. On the 1871 census the workhouse has 201 inmates, many of them women and children – who would have been looked after by Martha. Several of the inmates are given as “idiot from birth”, “lunatic” or “imbecile”, indicating long term learning difficulties and care needs, and probably had lived in the workhouse for most of their lives. Others were widows with no visible means of support once their husbands had passed away, and there was at least one unmarried woman with a tiny illegitimate baby.

All three of her daughters continued to be educated until their later teens, like Martha had. During the 1870s they all married from the workhouse: Rosetta to a schoolmaster, and she became a schoolmistress at Yatton Keynell; Constance to a Poor Law Officer from Newbury, and she went on to become matron of the workhouse herself; and Georgina to the church organist from St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham.

Martha’s sons, who were considerably younger, still lived at home at the Workhouse until they were grown, and then one of them ran his own workhouse for many years. She stayed at the Chippenham workhouse, alongside James, working as the matron until 1898. This meant she had served as matron for around thirty years. Towards the end of her tenure she took on an assistant matron to help her with the role.

On retirement, she and James moved back to Bath. He had a pension as a retired poor law officer, and this enabled them to afford a reasonable house and the services of a servant. A young married couple in their 20s, the Whittakers, took over the running of the Chippenham workhouse which had been their domain for so long.

Martha died in 1916 in Bath, aged 82, leaving around £300 to her husband James.

Several masters and matrons of the workhouse followed the Ganes. In 1911, Arthur Shirley Fussell and his wife Frances were in position, but by 1915 William Humphries was in charge. And by 1923 James Burnett Pierce and his wife Ethel were in situ. No-one stayed as long as the Ganes, however. In the 1930s the workhouse was known as Chippenham Institution, and it became St Andrew’s Hospital in 1948. When other hospitals in the town had closed, the building became Chippenham Community Hospital and still serves the town.

Elizabeth W’s story

With the advent of the NHS, and better social care, and many labour-saving devices for housework, the role of a monthly nurse has become quite lost in obscurity. However, back in the days where women had a lying in period – of at least ten days if not longer – after having a baby, a monthly nurse was an extremely desirable person to employ. She was paid to assist a woman and her family in the post-partum period. Household jobs still needed to be done, and men would generally not do them – so they’d either get a female relative to help out, or pay a monthly nurse for a period of time if they could afford it. This woman would also assist with some of the body effluent after a birth, and look after the new mother. Sometimes they would also assist with laying out the dead. Often they’d live with the family.

Invariably, the monthly nurse was a slightly older woman, who had had all her children and raised them to a reasonable degree of independence – so therefore could leave their own family and jobs to a young adult daughter while she went out and earned money for the family. This was the case for Elizabeth, a monthly nurse from New Swindon – as it was called in the later 19th century.

Elizabeth really had grown up alongside the town of Swindon. She’d been born into a rural community to the west of the modern town, to a single mother in the late 1840s. On her christening record she’s given as the base-born daughter of Martha, who appears on the 1851 census as an agricultural labourer living with her sister Mary and various children – some of which are hers. Elizabeth had a sister called Maria, and a much younger brother called Thomas. She was brought up with Mary’s daughter Harriett, who was very close in age. All the children were illegitimate.

The arrangement where unwed siblings would bring up their illegitimate children together does not seem to be uncommon in rural communities in the Victorian era. Much of the moralising tone attributed to Victorian society really stems from an educated class who sought to differentiate from and rise above the illiterate working classes and were able to write that stigma down, and it is possible that the stigma for children out of wedlock was slightly less sharp in the rural and agricultural communities.

By the time she was 14, Elizabeth had left home and moved into Swindon – which was growing rapidly on the back of the Great Western Railway. The original settlement, now known as Old Town, was on the hill while the newer development was separate and on the flatter land next to the railway works. In the 1860s Elizabeth got a job as a servant at the Ship Inn on Westcott Street, part of this new town, while her siblings remained with their mother.

Ship Inn Swindon

In 1866, around the age of 20, she married Edward – a grinder for the GWR – and settled in the purpose-built railway village, to the south of the train tracks. They had ten children: four boys initially (although the second of these died aged less than a year), then two girls, another three boys, and finally another girl. The cottages were two storey and quite cramped, so Elizabeth’s growing family would have been all on top of each other. The young men of those streets at the time also had a bit of a reputation for wild behaviour.

Railway village

Eventually they moved a few streets away from the railway village to a slightly bigger house. It’s likely that Edward’s job probably didn’t bring in a great deal of money for such a large family, so Elizabeth supplemented the family finances by taking in washing and called herself a laundress. Her eldest son had also started at the railway works himself by the age of 13, which helped support the family.

Edward died in the autumn of 1887, leaving Elizabeth a widow at the age of 40. She would have relied on her laundry earnings and that of her children to support the family. Particularly as her youngest daughter was barely a year old.

By the 1891 census several of Elizabeth’s sons were employed at the railway works. However, both of her elder daughters had not found employment in Swindon – whether that was for a lack of opportunity for young women in the area at the time (there were cloth works employing women at the time, but the steam laundry was not set up until that year), or Elizabeth encouraging them to spread their wings and go elsewhere.

the_birth_of_swindon

Lizzy, the older, ended up in the workhouse in London for three weeks at the beginning of the 1890s, with a tiny illegitimate baby of her own. Elizabeth took Lizzy’s daughter Dorothy in, and raised her with the others, while Lizzy went off to become a cook in a private girls’ school. After that, she emigrated to Wisconsin, USA, to become a nurse. Dorothy remained in Swindon with her grandmother and grew up there.

In the late 1890s one of her daughters became ill, and the family participated in an advert for “Dr Williams’ Pink Pills For Pale People” in the newspapers, claiming that she was near death but the pills saved her. While outlandish, in an era where the general understanding of medical science was poor and advertising was unregulated, this probably helped Elizabeth’s standing in the community.

Most of Elizabeth’s boys married, and kept stable jobs at the railway works, and lived very close to their mother – either in the same street or a neighbouring one. One son appears to have been in regular trouble with the police over disorderly behaviour. Her daughter Martha also married, but moved back home with her husband to keep house with her mother. They never had any children. Her son George’s toddler twin daughters died of a terrible burning accident in 1896, after playing with matches, and Elizabeth was involved in caring for them, showing that she had a trusted degree of medical skill.

By this time most of Elizabeth’s children had grown up enough to either take care of themselves day-to-day or be looked after by Martha – which meant Elizabeth was freed from her home to be able to take on the more lucrative work of a monthly nurse. The fact that she was able to make a living from this profession – which relied on local families having enough income to take a monthly nurse in, rather than calling in a female relative.

monthly nurse bill

Elizabeth’s choice of profession may also have been influenced by a deep love of children. She appeared to collect them. Alternatively, she may have been religiously atoning for her own illegitimate start in life – or perhaps a bit of both. In 1908 her youngest daughter Amy followed the path of her sister Lizzy, and went over to the USA to work as a nurse. This did not work out so well for her though, and she came back and presented Elizabeth with another illegitimate grandchild – Walter – in 1910.

Again, Elizabeth seems to have taken care of the child and let her daughter go off elsewhere while she brought up the child. Amy went to be a parlour-maid on the Isle of Wight, and married there a couple of years later. However, she returned to Swindon in the middle of 1916, and died young. Elder daughter Lizzy died in Chicago in 1913.

So, by 1911 Elizabeth had acquired two grandchildren to bring up, and had adopted another, Ruby – who was born illegitimately in her house to an Agnes, who then disappears – so it’s probable that Elizabeth had volunteered to bring up Ruby too and let Agnes go off to a different life.

Her monthly nurse work will have undoubtedly brought her into contact with many women struggling after having a baby, whether married or not, and it is possible that her two grandchildren and adopted daughter were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the children she took in. We are lucky enough to know about these three from census records, but there may well have been others. Adoption and fostering processes were not formalised at this time, and relied upon good will – which Elizabeth clearly had in abundance.

She died in 1924, having outlived many of her children.

Marion R’s story

Marion was a prison warden, who came off worst under the flying fists of serial offender and prostitute Mary Ann Fairlie in Hull Gaol in the 1880s. But 60 years earlier she probably wouldn’t have been in the job at all, and Mary and the other female prisoners would have been under the charge of a man.

The 19th century saw considerable prison reform across the board, with the reforms of Elizabeth Fry being realised in 1823 when women prisoners were granted the right to be guarded by women themselves. By the 1840s new thinking about prison accommodation separated men and women for much of the day – initialised by London’s Pentonville Prison new design, which had spokes and designate areas – and women were housed and guarded separately, with separate tasks to accomplish during the day. It was to this world that Marion came when she began work as a prison warden, alongside other women in every sizeable gaol in Britain.

She came from the Welsh island of Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, from a tiny community about seven miles inland from Holyhead, and was born to a farming family at the beginning of the 1840s. The only girl in the family, her parents lost two of her five siblings in infancy, and Marion’s father was dead himself before Marion was eight. Her mother, having lost her source of income as well as her husband, became a pauper. Marion’s remaining three brothers were brought up by their mother, while she appears to have spent the rest of her childhood elsewhere. She probably would have spoken Welsh in addition to English, at least at home with family – her brother, on a later census return, is Welsh speaking and it is highly likely that all the rest of the family were too.

By the early 1870s she had left Wales behind, and was working as an assistant matron in the Liverpool workhouse. Liverpool, with a big port as part of the city, was growing rapidly at the time, and many from North Wales moved there to take advantage of the economic opportunities that weren’t available in their mostly-rural communities. Like many big towns – it was not declared a city until 1880 – there was great wealth and great deprivation, and it was those suffering poverty that Marion would have helped on a daily basis.

In the workhouse system, the care of women inmates usually fell to the matron – often the wife of the workhouse master – and as her assistant Marion would have been quite high up in the administration of the institution. The Liverpool workhouse had a large hospital attached, with many nurses, and other supporting staff – wardmistresses, clothing store keepers, sewing mistresses, laundresses. She may have applied for a license to marry in Liverpool in the later part of the 1860s, but it appears that this marriage did not take place in the end.

It was through the workhouse system that Marion met her eventual husband William. He had been born in Dublin, and had grown up in the Birkenhead workhouse, across the river Mersey from Liverpool – but as the son of the workhouse master and not an inmate. He gave various jobs as his occupation around this time – including being a clerk and a groom – but these were probably attached to his workhouse duties. They were married in Liverpool in the summer of 1872, when she was in her mid-twenties.

Soon afterwards, however, William decided to take up a commission in the army. He joined the 7th Hussars, a cavalry regiment. It appears that Marion did not accompany her husband to the barracks as a dutiful army wife, despite the fact that he was deployed in England for eight years after signing up.

Instead, she appears to have continued working – despite the social stigma of a married woman going out to work. By the turn of the 1880s she was working as a prison matron at a gaol in Derby, and calling herself a widow – perhaps an indication that all was not happy in her marriage, or a way of protecting her reputation since she continued to work, as many of the women in this employ were older and single.

The prison regime for women was aimed at reforming criminals’ bad character – using domestic labour (for example a washhouse or a bakery), religious instruction and moral guidance. Matrons were expected to oversee all of this activity, under the direction of the prison governor – who, by this time, after a ruling in 1878, was employed by the government. In this role Marion would have lived at the prison, and been part of the strict regime for female prisoners. She would have enforced the rules, visited each of the prisoners daily, overseen the hard labour given as punishment, and inspected the food, clothing and bedding of her charges. She also would have had charge of other women workers in the prison.

tothill_women_640

By 1883 Marion had moved to the prison at Hull. And the altercation with Mary Ann Fairlie occurred. Mary, who was serving a six-month term with hard labour, had been found in the prison washhouse talking to another prisoner – both breaches of the prison rules. Marion told her to go to her work, but Mary refused and another female warder came to help. Between Marion and the other warder they escorted Mary down the corridor to her cell. However, when Marion let go of Mary’s arm to unlock the cell Mary gave her a violent blow to the eye. Marion dropped her keys, and when she stooped to pick them up Mary continued to punch and hit her around the head and face.

The injuries were so severe that Marion had to be attended by the prison surgeon, and she needed a full two weeks to recover. Mary received a further prison sentence for this beating.

Whether it was this incident or something else, by the beginning of the 1890s Marion had given up her job in the prison and had settled into the army barracks as a military wife with her husband. In the intervening time he’d been sent to Natal – in modern-day South Africa – with his regiment, but had mainly been based in the UK. This cavalry depot was based in Canterbury, Kent, many miles away from where she’d grown up and worked, and full of wives and children alongside the consigned soldiers. Marion and William never had any children.

Unusually, there’s a second marriage record for Marion and William. Twenty one years after they first married, they appear to have married again – at least in the eyes of the British Army, who record their marriage (in Liverpool, not Canterbury) in 1893. This may be a peculiarity of army records, but equally may be an indication of their long separation.

William was posted on duty to India in 1893, but was pensioned out of the army in 1894 after suffering from dysentery and dyspepsia and returned to Marion in Canterbury.

In retirement, their income was William’s army pension. They moved to a farm on the English side of the lower Wye valley, and ran it as a going concern.

They remained there, with Marion taking the role of farmer’s wife – like her mother before her – for more than 20 years.

Marion died in February 1921, in her late 70s. But there is a sting in the tail/tale. By the following July, William had married again – his new wife having taken up residence in their house a while before the wedding.

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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.