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.

Eliza W’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harriet E’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

Annie K’s story

The eldest of 12 children born to English immigrants to South Africa in the 1860s, Annie K had a reputation in her family for “outrageous” behaviour.

This including loving dancing, soaking her dresses so that they clung to her figure, and flirting hard with a large number of men at once without any intention of pursuing a relationship.

A talented artist, she painted botanical florals in watercolours and in oils on crockery. Her parents sent her back to England for a season to help maintain her British accent – something that would have been felt to be vitally important in the higher echelons of society during the colonial era. However, she is known to have played truant from this idea, instead escaping to elsewhere in Europe to go painting and study art.

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One day her father, a newspaper proprietor, called her into his study and told her that they had supported her for long enough, and that she must marry the next man who asked her. Unsurprisingly, family remember that she was not happy with this arrangement, but accepted it.

The next man who asked was a Welshman a few years older than Annie, a career railwayman who had taken a position in the management of South African railways, and eventually rose to become the chief traffic manager. Although it was not what she wanted, their marriage produced two daughters and two sons.

Later on, she was involved in nursing soldiers during the Boer War, which hit South Africa from 1899 to 1902, a period of extremely hard work at De Aar that was supposed to have ruined her health, as she died only a few years later, aged 45.

 

Shared by Helen, Penny, Marion and Finian. Thank you.

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