Caroline T’s story

Caroline was steeped in the cloth trade of the East End of London. Both her parents came from weaving stock, so had been around the manufacture of cloth since childhood, but by the time Caroline – their first daughter and oldest child – came along her father was making a living from making straps and dog collars. Since the neckwear of vicars in the 1880s was more usually referred to as a clerical collar at that time, it’s likely that Caroline’s parents’ income depended on fancy collars for pampered pooches.

Production of luxury, non-essential items, was far from unusual in Shoreditch in the last two decades of the 19th century, where Caroline and her seven siblings grew up. The households surrounding them housed tailors and other cloth workers, invariably of Jewish descent and having arrived in the UK from Russia or Poland, and from the census records of their occupations it is clear that their work involved non-essential clothing and fancy or decorative items.

edwardian embroidery 1

By 1901 Caroline – who by this stage was in her early 20s – and her whole family were working together to produce luxury fabric items. Her father still made dog collars, while her mother stitched shirts, two of her sisters were machinists while a brother worked with them. Caroline herself was an embroidery cutter, so would have be involved in fiddly and intricate work that put the gloss and style on the products the rest of her family made.

By this stage, Caroline might have been expected to get married, but instead she chose to continue her embroidery and stay working within the family business. This was also a choice made by several of her sisters – the entire family stayed working together for the next decade. The sister closest to Caroline in age died in 1910, in her early 30s, but had worked closely with the rest of the family until that point.

With seven active family members working, their fortunes went up. They were able to move from Shoreditch to Mile End, and Caroline’s father acted as the official salesperson for their products, as a hawker. Caroline herself, alongside one of her sisters, embroidered ladies’ jackets, while one brother made belts, a sister produced garments for horses, another produced hand lace, and the youngest sister was apprenticed to a dress maker.

edwardian embroidery 2
Walking suit ca. 1905. Hunter green wool in herringbone weave. Long jacket, trimmed with passementerie and faux buttons and with a faux vest in velvet with cream embroidery. Lined in cream silk satin; weighted hem. Pleated skirt with decorated front panel.

The difference in the economy caused by the First World War meant that luxury items were less in demand and the situation changed for Caroline’s family. She, alongside several of her younger sisters, married during the four years of the war.

The man of her choosing was a widower with three young children – who had relied on his younger unmarried sister for family support for five years after his wife’s death until Caroline came into the picture. She gained a new family, but at the age of 40 was probably getting past the age of child-bearing, so did not have any children of her own. They moved to Marylebone, where her husband worked as a French polisher and undertaker.

Caroline died ten years later, at the age of just fifty, making her husband twice widowed.

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Cecelia W’s story

Magdalene laundries are more usually associated with Ireland, but institutions for penitent women were found in many countries.

The more usual name for these institutions were reformatory schools or refuges for penitent women, and they were run by a collection of nuns with the aim to cleanse the souls of those accommodated within, and focus the mind on good work through useful industry.

The more usual view is that admittance was via loose behaviour – either bearing a child out of wedlock or engaging in prostitution – but young catholic women could also be placed there for other reasons, such as engaging in petty crimes.

It is unknown what Cecilia W did to end up in a convent reformatory, but there is a record from someone bearing her name in 1879 who was charged with two counts of fraud. This young woman admitted her guilt, and was released – but may have been placed in a reformatory by her parents to keep her on the straight and narrow.

She’d been born in Newport, South Wales, into a large catholic family of eleven children. Her father worked as a sawyer, while her mother ran a public house.

Whatever she did to end up as a penitent, by 1881 she was placed in a convent institution in Bristol, spending her time employed in laundry work and needlework.

She stayed there for at least the next twenty years. In 1891 the institution, which was run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd – who had other convents and reform schools elsewhere in the UK – had 67 penitent women on their books alongside 59 reformatory girls and 20 school children. By 1891 Cecilia’s needlework role appeared to have been dropped and she was merely working as a laundry maid. She was similarly employed in the same institution in 1901.

By 1911, however, she appears to have left the convent as she does not appear on the list of inmates – so perhaps her debt to society had been repaid in the eyes of the church. A woman bearing her name was living in a flat in Brighton, on the south coast of England, as the travelling companion to an American visitor of Irish descent. In the absence of an obvious death record it would be nice to think that, after many years hard laundry labour at the hands of the nuns, she had a nicer and more comfortable life in her later years. There is no further record of Cecelia, so she may have travelled back to America with her new-found companion.

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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.

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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.

Annie B’s story

Annie’s parents had emigrated from Russia to London during the later part of the 19th century, escaping from a part of the country that is now in modern-day Poland, and probably driven out by anti-Jewish pogroms. They resettled in the East End of London, in the heart of the Jewish community there, and Annie was perhaps the first of their nine children born in their new country.

Her father worked as a cabinet maker, which not only supported his family but enabled him to place two of his children, Annie and her brother, in a paying school in the 1890s.

Later on, Annie found work as a cigarette maker in the burgeoning tobacco industry in the early 20th century East End. Previously, cigars had been more popular, but by this time cigarettes – which were cheaper and more plentiful – were gaining in popularity.

Cigarette and cigar making was not government controlled in London, and was considered a “food industry”. Many Jewish people in the area became garment workers, boots and shoe makers, and cabinet makers – cigarette and cigar makers were initially a smaller part of Jewish industry but a significant one. At this time, tobacco smoking was still widely believed to have health benefits, a fiction that persisted until the middle of the 20th century. By 1911, East London had 76 factories manufacturing tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, snuff, but equally numerous small household manufacturers too – it’s unclear whether Annie’s work was in a factory, or as a smaller producer – however, her living circumstances point to the latter.

She lived with one of her sisters in a flat above a shop in Spitalfields, helping her sister – an embroiderer and tailoress – to run the shop, and it is likely that her cigarette making was another part of her income. This appears to have been a successful business partnership for many years, and one stable enough to accommodate the raising of two of her younger brother’s children during the Second World War, when they lost their mother.

At the tail end of the war, Annie’s sister married and their business appears to have hit hard times – they gave up the shop to a hat maker, and Annie went back to making cigarettes for a living. She eventually left their flat and moved into lodgings with another family. She kept this lifestyle going until she died in the mid-1950s.

The buildings the family occupied no longer exist, and have been replaced by modern flats.

 

For more information about the tobacco industry at the time, see:

http://eastlondonhistory.com/2014/04/28/cigar-makers-of-the-east-end-of-london/comment-page-1/

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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.

Ruby G’s story

Divorced in the 1920s, as marriage dissolution became more affordable for couples – if no less stigma-laden – Ruby G kept a successful teaching career alive in a marriage-bar era and raised a daughter too.

Born into the industries surrounding and supporting the fishing trade in the North East of England, Ruby grew up in a family of daughters with a father who had political ambitions. Clearly bright, she followed her older sister into school teaching – a respected position for unmarried women to hold at the beginning of the 20th century.

Teaching at this time was a profession open to both single and married men, but only single women – the exceptions being older women married to school teachers in predominantly rural areas who might teach the infants or the girls in a small school, or widows who had previously been teachers. Like many other skilled professions at the time, unmarried teachers were expected to give up their job at marriage and be supported by their husbands. In her second proper teaching position, at the beginning of the 1920s in Wiltshire, Ruby was no exception – despite four years’ service, school log books refer to her expected resignation throughout the year, indicating that she was stepping out with a beau, and her resignation occurred as the school year closed. Sure enough, marriage records show that she married that summer.

A daughter was born over the following few years, and by societal expectation she would have been based caring for family and home while her husband worked and earned. However, this marriage was clearly not a happy one, and a divorce happened at some point before 1930. Divorces, although still frowned upon by general society with the generations-held belief that marriages should be made work at whatever cost, were easier to obtain at this time. A private member’s bill introduced to the UK parliament in 1923 – which passed as the Matrimonial Causes Act – helped this process by making adultery by either wife or husband the sole grounds for divorce, where previously the wife had to provide extra evidence of faults against her husband. The Summary Jurisdiction (Separation and Maintenance) Act, passed in 1925, also extended the grounds on which either partner could obtain a separation.

Whatever the grounds for Ruby’s divorce, she found herself alone with a young daughter to support. The school she had resigned from took her back on temporarily, despite the fact that she had been married, when a member of their staff was sick and indisposed for a few weeks. She was then taken back on to that school’s staff permanently the following summer. Being divorced meant that she was not married, and therefore was not subject to any restrictions under the marriage bar. Therefore, the school could employ her without a problem, and did.

She taught at the school for another six years, during which the department of education approached her twice with a view to her taking on a headship of a school elsewhere – which is more likely an indication of her skill as a teacher than any lingering stigma about employing a divorcee. On both occasions she refused, and chose to remain in position at the Wiltshire school. A couple of years before the second world war began, she chose to resign of her own accord, and moved herself and her daughter to Shropshire. They lived with her father, now a widower, and spent the duration of the second world war there.

In 1935 the marriage bar for teachers was removed by London County Council, but that only applied in their area of jurisdiction. The National Union of Women Teachers had campaigned for this change for a long time. The marriage bar was removed for all teachers in 1944, meaning that Ruby’s unmarried colleagues could now keep their jobs if they chose to marry – many female teachers were life-long spinsters, as they loved their work too much to end it.

Ruby herself never remarried. She died in Somerset in the early 1960s, leaving her possessions and money to her unmarried daughter.

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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.

Lucy A’s story

A vicar’s daughter, Lucy A had a privileged childhood in a comfortable moneyed mid-Wales home during the mid 19th century.

She and her many siblings were initially educated by a governess at home, and then in her teens she was sent to a ladies school in Bristol with other girls from privileged backgrounds. Her father, who had been educated at Cambridge, believed in good education for all of his children and they were all sent to boarding schools. Many of Lucy’s fellow pupils at the school, located in a leafy and grand area of the city, had been born in the West Indies and India and other British colonies.

On leaving school, Lucy did not get married, and women of her class were not expected to work. Instead, she moved toLondon and became a lady’s companion for a rich widow who had an income from dividends. In the mid 1880s, when she was in her early 30s, both her parents died. This meant that she fell into the financial care of her brothers – one of whom was a surgeon, and two others had become vicars themselves.

It was through these clergymen that she met a widowed vicar from Somerset with a large young family. They were married when she was in her late 30s, and had a son together within a year. Her husband moved parish, although still withinSomerset, and they brought up their combined family. Her husband was considerably older than her, however, and died at the tail end of the 19th century. He left Lucy a good deal of money to live on, and she appears to have left the country for a time, and then settled in Wiltshire for a while.

Her son went out to South Australia, and Lucy accompanied him and settled there for a little while. She died in South Australia during the First World War, and her stepson and son settled her affairs.

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.

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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.