Amy H’s story

Amy H was the youngest of seven children born to a Bristol-based currier – a leather working specialist – and his wife in the mid-19th century. She lost her mother around the age of five, and she and her siblings were brought up by relatives rather than her father, even after he remarried.

As a young woman she lived with her widowed aunt in the fashionable Clifton area of the city. Her aunt had no profession, and was instead an itinerant, and the household had one servant.

Her aunt died when she was 30, and Amy was the sole executor and heir of her will, inheriting a great deal of money. She never married, and with this money remained of independent means for the rest of her life.

Family legend holds that she was a suffragette in the early 20th century. There is no documentary evidence to support this – no prison or court records show her having been involved in civil action – but as an unmarried, independent woman of means in this period she would have been ideally placed to support this cause. She also had several different forms of her name, which may indicate that she was known by different groups of society in separate ways.

In the early part of the 20th century she lived with her widowed sister, supporting and helping her with her young family. Her sister registered no profession on the census records, perhaps an indication that Amy’s inherited money was helping to support the family.

As women gained the vote in 1918, Amy bought property on the outskirts of the city, thus enabling her to take her place on the first electoral roll that women were allowed to appear on. This action may also have labelled her as a suffragette – or at the very least a supporter of women’s rights – in the collective family memory.

She remained in that property until she died, a couple of years after the Second World War, leaving a still considerable amount of money to a builder’s merchant.

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.

Julia D’s story

Named after her mother, Julia D was the daughter of a survivor of the Birkenhead Disaster – which took place when she was very young. Born on the south coast of England, she was brought up in London when her father gave up his naval career, and then married a Yorkshire boatbuilder in the mid-1870s. Their marriage produced two sons, but one died at the age of one.

It was then that things started to unravel. Her husband disappeared – family legend says that he was lost at sea – and by 1881 she was back in London working as a housemaid in the Army and Navy Club in Pall Mall, under her maiden name.

She took up with the club’s house superintendent, and produced four further children who all bore his name. However, they never married, and on every relevant census record her second life partner claims to be single – perhaps an indication that Julia’s former husband may not have completely “disappeared”, although he remains elusive on census returns.

In 1899, around the time Julia’s mother died, something appears to have gone wrong in this newer relationship too, and she and three daughters are admitted to a London workhouse twice in a matter of months. She claimed to be a widow, but her erstwhile partner, however, continued to work at the club in which they met, and but did not appear to support the family. Julia made a basic living as a charwoman, supplemented by her elder daughter’s earnings from domestic service, and when he died in 1909 his inheritance went to his sister.

Somewhere along the line, her first husband re-appeared and again lived in Yorkshire. Family legend says that on the death of her second partner she discovered that he was alive, and they reaffirmed their marriage. Certainly, on the 1911 census, Julia had reverted to her first married name, and was living with him in Yorkshire, claiming to have been married to him for 35 years. Two of her daughters from her second relationship are living with them, but given as borders.

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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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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.

Ellen S’s story

Ellen S performed the amazing feat of only aging eight years for every ten that passed, if you believe her census records. She shaves four years off her age in 1881, and then adds eight by 1891 and another eight in 1901. It is only when the question of how long she’s been married comes in on the 1911 census, and she realises that if she continues in this vein the length of her marriage (44 years) would have her as a child bride, that she admits her true age.

A shoe maker’s daughter, she would have been involved in his profession as a young child – alongside all her siblings – and probably learnt to stitch neatly.

  “Shoemaker, leather-cracker,
                Balls of wax and stinking water,
                Three rows of rotten leather,
                Who would have a shoemaker. “

(Traditional song from Northumberland, United Kingdom, describing the conditions of shoe making in the 19th century)

Shoe making was not a particularly lucrative profession, so she would have been expected to earn money early in life. She followed her older sister into nursery nursing, working in a large household for an attorney at law at the age of 14, and helping to look after four children after the age of seven. She married a coach maker, someone who would have been several social class positions above a shoe maker in terms of Victorian social structure.

After she married she had three children, rather than the usual nine or so that Victorian women typically produced. This gave her more time than most other women, and she put her sewing skills to good use by running a dress making business.

Later on, her eldest daughter died young, leaving two very young children. Ellen and her husband brought up their grandsons, caring for them until they reached adulthood.

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