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.

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Martha W’s story

Martha W’s story typifies the experience of poverty and scraping a living on the breadline in small market towns around the turn of the 20th century.

Born at the tail end of the 1860s in North Wiltshire, her father was a general labourer, and would have taken work as it was available. Martha was at least the fourth child, and by the time the eighth arrived both parents were working to make ends meet – her father as a carter and her mother was a charwoman. Neither profession would have brought in a great deal of money, but it was at least something to live on.

When she was 20, Martha gave birth to her first child – a son. Two years later, while pregnant with her next child, she married the father, who was a labourer living with his parents on one of the main routes into the town. She was able to sign her name on the wedding certificate, but he was not.

They lived with his father for a while, and her husband and father-in-law worked as gardeners for a time. By the turn of the 20th century there were at least four more children – they had ten in all, but not all survived childhood – and the family had moved to a four-room property on a street that was later deemed as slums and demolished. Her husband at this time was working as a stone haulier, which again would not have brought in a great deal of money to the household.

At this time, Martha’s children were regularly attending the local primary or elementary school. The younger members of the family were continually excluded from school on the grounds that they were “verminous” – almost certainly riddled with headlice, but possibly scabies too. They were allowed back when they had been cleaned, but were usually excluded again at the next inspection – indicating that there was little time and money in Martha’s household for personal grooming. The girls were excluded more than the boys, on account of having long hair which made lice easier to pass around.

In 1910 Martha lied to the school, stating that her youngest child – a girl – was three years old when in fact she was at least three months short of that milestone. At three children were admitted to the “babies” class at the school, which enabled Martha to gain employment. She was far from the only parent that did this at the school, and despite repeated asking failed to produce her daughter’s birth certificate until her third birthday. With all her children being educated, Martha gained a job in the steam laundry next to the school, and was therefore able to help with family finances. The condition of the children remained poor, however, with many of them being sent home for being verminous during the next decade. On the 1911 census her husband had clearly changed job again, and was working as a hay trusser in local fields. He states on the census that he will work for “anyone”, alongside one of their eldest daughters who was also doing the same job, so family finances were still incredible tight.

In 1913 one of Martha’s sons died. There had been an epidemic of diphtheria, scarlet fever and measles doing the rounds, and its possible that he succumbed to one of these. A decade later her husband died.

Martha did not remain a widow for very long, however. Within a year she had remarried to another local man. She died in the 1950s, aged 86.

 

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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.

Kate C’s story

The business of educating children has a tendency to run in families – teachers will often marry teachers, and their children regularly grow up to become teachers themselves.

Kate C, born in the late 1860s, shows that educators in Victorian Britain often made no exception to this rule.

The third of four sisters, she was born in the home counties while her school teacher father was head of a small rural elementary school. Later on, she moved to South London when her father took up a new head teacher position of a boys’ school. Her mother taught the corresponding girls’ school and Kate and her sisters received their early education there. They lived in the school house, next to the premises.

At the age of eight, however, life began to change for her family. Her father became seriously ill and stepped down from his position for a time. He never recovered, eventually resigning, and later died. Her mother continued to support Kate and her sisters in her teaching position, but resigned herself six months later.

The family went to live a few miles away in a different part of South London, close to Kate’s father’s brother – who was also a school teacher. He may have helped her mother support the family, alongside her mother’s brother who was also close by.

However, when Kate was 14 her mother died too, leaving just over one hundred pounds. At this point, Kate and her sisters needed to find employment to support themselves. Her eldest sister trained as a school teacher herself, as did the youngest sister when she was old enough. Kate and her remaining sister both became children’s nurses for richer families – her sister for a commercial clerk, and Kate herself for a vicar in Dorset who had two small children. Kate was one of several domestic staff in the household.

She does not appear to have trained as a teacher herself, although she would have had the opportunity to do so. With two sisters working as teachers, alongside the teacher uncle who appears to have cared for them, and the fact that her parents also taught, she almost certainly would have possessed a good body of knowledge about passing on knowledge and educational theory – but chose a different path.

By the mid-1890s, however, Kate had met her husband – another school headteacher, who was teaching at a small village school in south Wiltshire. They married in London, close to where several of her sisters were living, and returned to live in the school house in Wiltshire.

Unlike her mother, Kate does not appear to have taken up teaching in her husband’s school – it may have been that later Victorian attitudes prohibited her from doing this, or it may be that she herself wanted to build her family. She had four children – first two girls, although the eldest died aged 18 months, and then two boys.

The youngest boy was born shortly arriving in a north Wiltshire market town, where her husband took a new position as headteacher of a newly-built council elementary school. Their house was close to a railway viaduct, and steam trains would have noisily passed Kate’s front door day and night. Her children attended her husband’s school – but she again did not take up official teaching involvement there. All but one of his female staff were unmarried, and the one exception was a widow without children – Kate may have been prohibited in societal terms from taking up work as a married woman, but equally the family had domestic help so a second wage may not have been needed.

When the First World War broke out, train loads of wounded soldiers were taken to her hometown to be nursed and cared for. Kate volunteered for the Voluntary Aid Division of the local Red Cross, and was involved in nursing these soldiers back to health at the town’s main assembly hall – which had been converted to a temporary hospital for the duration of the war.

By the early 1930s, Kate’s husband retired and they moved to Cheshire – where their elder son was working for a chemicals company. She died there, aged 56. Her husband later remarried, and moved back to Wiltshire.

 

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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.

Maud R’s story

Born in India, to an English family, Maud R spent her earliest years in a military camp and then underwent a long sea voyage back home before she was three. She was her parents’ fourth daughter, but only three survived to adulthood.

Settling in Yorkshire during the 1880s, initially both parents were involved in her upbringing, but when she was three her father committed a serious crime and was sent away. Her mother subsequently moved the family, and started taking in boarders to make ends meet. Maud and her siblings went into work when they had finished school, in order to help family finances – Maud went into domestic service, and her two surviving sisters became elementary school teachers.

During the first years of the 20th century, Maud travelled across the Atlantic Ocean. She was initially bound for New York, but ended up in French-speaking Québec, Canada. There, a year or so later, she met and married a soldier of Irish descent, and settled in Québec City, on the banks of the St Lawrence River.

A month later, their first son was born. Two further sons followed over the next five years.

Her husband gave up his job as a soldier, and became a labourer, which would have meant a difference in family finances.

Maud died in Québec, in the months before the start of the First World War. She was 27 years old.

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.

Rose F’s story

Rose F spent the first months of her life, at the tail end of the 19th century, going in and out of workhouses. Her single mother, who had moved from Yorkshire to London, had no family around to support her, and struggled to survive and find work.

After the first year of her life, these workhouse admissions stop, as her mother’s life clearly became more stable. However, they begin again in when Rose was around 5, when she was joined by a younger brother and sister. Another brief period of stability was shattered when her sister died at the age of two, and again she and her brother bounced in and out of workhouses, both in Yorkshire and London. They were usually accompanied by their mother, who sometimes had work as a charwoman or a spinner or a hawker, but sometimes they were placed in the institutions alone.

Rose was often released from the workhouse “to school”, indicating that despite this instability she was being educated.

At some point in the first decade of the 20th century, Rose ceased to be cared for by her mother. It is probable that her brother did too, but there is no further record of him. She appears on the list of a ship known to regularly transport children to Canada as part of the British Home Children scheme, sending under-privileged children abroad to work as migrant and domestic labour to give them purpose and a better life. Several years were shaved off Rose’s age when she travelled, perhaps indicating that she was small enough to pass for a child of 11 and therefore eligible for the scheme.

Just three years later, she married a Canadian machinist in Ontario, claiming to be 20 years old. She also denied all knowledge of who her mother was on the marriage certificate, which suggests that she had not been in her mother’s care for a good long while.

By the 1921 census of Canada, Rose and her husband had a daughter of their own and were still living in Ontario. There is no further available record of the family.

Ellen J’s story

Ellen J was the middle of three daughters, brought up in Gloucestershire in the second half of the 19th century.

Her childhood appears to have been relatively stable, but as an adult she struggled to find work and raise herself from poverty. She appears to have worked as a charwoman when she could find the employment, but spent periods living in the workhouse when work was scarce.

At the age of 43 she was charged with stealing a gold broach, probably from an employer. She was found guilty, and sentenced to 21 days hard labour in jail. It is unknown what form this labour took, but it probably would have been a treadmill or crank, or something equally unconstructive.

On release, she continues to work as a charwoman and spends periods in and out of the workhouse as before.

Seven years later, however, she was again brought before the court – this time for being drunk and disorderly. She was given the choice of a fine of five shillings and threepence, or seven further days hard labour. Her finances clearly being the way they were, it comes as no surprise that she served the sentence.

On release, she returned to the workhouse and occasional charring work. She never married, and died single aged 68.