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.


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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Priscilla H’s story

Against a background of lead mining in North Wales, Priscilla H fell for and married a widower with a young son. Together they had a daughter and three further sons.

They ran a grocery shop and bakery together, serving the local mining community in the mid 19th century, employing a nephew and then their children when they grew old enough to work.

Her husband left her the entire business in his will of the mid 1880s, and she ran the shop and bakery alone with the help of her children for a further twenty years.

When she died, the business was still successful enough to pass on to her son as a going concern.

Selina C’s story

Despite the existence of a clutch of brothers, it was Selina C who took on her father’s coach building business when he died in the 1870s. All of the children had been involved in the business since childhood – as painters and trimmers and later acknowledged as builders themselves – but it was she who ran the business after he had gone.

Selina was even called a coach builder herself on the 1871 census, but the enumerator has crossed this out – perhaps as her father was the business owner at that time, and women, particularly those who were not married, were not supposed to have acknowledged jobs like that. Once he had gone, though, it was her name that appears in trade directories as the business owner, and her brothers worked alongside her.

Later on, she owned a fancy repository shop, perhaps selling ornaments and fripperies to the denizens of the small town she resided in. This change in profession isn’t reflected in the profession of her brothers, who instead ran their own coach building businesses, but perhaps reflects that she may have found shop-keeping an easier way to be taken seriously in business – as most coach builders were men. She also ran a boarding house, but the shop remained a going concern until her death in the 1920s.

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Hannah C’s story

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

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

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

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

Dinah R’s story

Dinah R would have needed parental permission to marry, as she wished to do so before the age of 21 and that was the law in the mid 19th century. The object of her affection was a lead miner from North Wales, and they had a son together a year later. Eight further children followed, but the death of her husband’s father meant a change of prospects – and they inherited farm land.

Rather than leaving her profession blank on subsequent census records, Dinah called herself a farmer’s wife – and unusually no enumerator crossed this out considering it irrelevant.

The farm grew, from 14 acres to 46 1/2 acres, and Dinah continued to work on the land, gradually including their children in the workforce as the size increased.
She was bi-lingual, speaking both English and Welsh fluently.

When her husband died she was left the farm in its entirety, providing that she remained a widow. This she did, running the business and working on the land for a further 32 years, and in each census record it is her that is credited as farmer and head of the household though her sons and daughters remain.


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