Elizabeth B’s story

A widowed mother managing a severely disabled son is a hard-enough prospect today, but in the mid-19th century Elizabeth B would have found it especially tough – given both practicalities around daily life and attitudes towards disability in general society.

She was born at the turn of the 19th century in Wiltshire, and the first record we have of her is her marriage to a carpenter at around the age of 20 – she needed her parents’ permission for this as she was under the age of 21.

Her husband appears to have been well off – a carpenter at this time was quite skilled and would have made anything from carts to wheels to furniture. He appears to have been attached to a great estate, which would have improved his prospects and fortunes, and through this Elizabeth would have lived quite a comfortable life for the early 19th century. It appears he owned a fair amount of land, much of it with dwellings upon, which was rented out to other families in their tiny rural community.

A son followed a year after the marriage, and then two more. However, seven years after her marriage, when she was again pregnant, Elizabeth’s husband died at the age of 31. She gave birth to her fourth and final son in the early months of the following year, and is recorded as a widow in the baptismal records. At this stage she has no profession.

Her sons were all underage, so her husband’s lands and rents all passed to Elizabeth. Tithe maps from the early 1840s record her as the owner of six pieces of land, and living on one of them herself. This may have been in trust until her eldest son hit the age of majority, but the family appears to have shared and lived on the lands in various different permutations for the next few decades.

By 1841 Elizabeth describes herself as a school teacher, teaching the youngsters of her tiny community, and is living in one of her houses with three of her sons. Two of them at least are above school age, and working as carpenters which would have helped the family’s finances.

The youngest son, however, does not have a profession given. But it is not until the 1851 census that the reason for this becomes clear. That document describes the man as “deaf and dumb”, and “incapable of anything”. Details are sketchy in this time period – it may be that he was born with a disability, perhaps having suffered in utero as the result of his father’s death before his birth – or it may be that he suffered some childhood trauma or disease that resulted in him being deaf and dumb (encephalitis due to measles is one possibility). Until the middle of the 20th century it was common for babies with obvious physical disabilities to be killed at birth – but Elizabeth’s son lived to adulthood. This may be an indication that his challenges were not immediately visible, or perhaps that he was allowed to live to provide Elizabeth with comfort after the death of her husband.

Whatever the circumstances, the judgement that someone who is deaf and dumb is “incapable of anything” is quite a harsh one to our modern ears, but says a great deal about pervading attitudes at the time. Elizabeth would have faced this judgement and perhaps stigma on a daily basis.

By the middle of the 19th century, she was living in and running the village post office – one of the properties she owned – and called herself a “letter receiver”. This indicates she was an educated woman – as one might expect of a former school teacher – as this role would have required a high degree of literacy. Another of her sons was living with her and her youngest son around this time, and the family also employed a domestic servant, showing that the family were fairly comfortably off.

Elizabeth continued to hold the post of sub-post mistress for the village for a further sixteen years, taking in occasional boarders and continuing to care for the daily needs of her youngest son.

She died at the end of the 1860s, aged 71, and is buried in the village church. Her youngest son was then cared for by one of his brothers, and died himself ten years later at the age of 52.


The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. 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.


Mary L’s story

If you happened to come into some money, enough for you to live on for many years without having to work, would you keep that wealth for your own benefit or give some of it towards helping under-privileged relatives?

Mary L faced that choice. It’s unknown exactly where her inheritance came from, as she came from a fairly working-class family in Hull, Yorkshire, in the 1840s, where her father worked as a labourer and an older sister helped the family finances by making dresses.

On the surface, this would not seem the type of family to have produced an annuitant, and indeed when Mary’s father died in 1860 her mother made ends meet by becoming a laundress – not a particularly lucrative profession, but an obvious one for an unskilled widow to pick up. However, Mary – who at this stage was living at home – had come into some money and referred to herself on the 1861 census as an annuitant.

It’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There was no lottery for Mary to win in those days, and she does not appear in any UK will or probate record of the time. However, her maternal grandfather, who had emigrated to the mid-western United States in the 1830s and had done well for himself, died in 1858 – and it is possible that this is the source of her money, although it is uncertain that they ever met.

Whatever the source, Mary had enough of a cushion to support herself comfortably and become of a class somewhat above others in her family. She could afford a household of her own, and a domestic servant to help her look after it.

Later on, she occasionally took in a boarder, but still could afford domestic help. She also helped to raise two of her sister’s children. One, an older girl, seems to have lived with her for a little while. The other, a five-year-old boy, came to her when his mother died. It would seem to be the obvious choice, for relatives in insecure circumstances to send their child to a wealthy aunt to be looked after and have a better life.

This nephew lived with her for many years, and helped her to run the boarding house she eventually ran. He had an apprenticeship to a monumental sculptor, which Mary supported him through, and he married from her household in the years just before the first world war.

Mary lived to see the end of the first world war, dying in 1919. However, significantly, her money that remained was left to neither niece nor nephew, nor any other family member, going instead to a local architect.


The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. 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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Emma M’s story

Nursing, like school teaching, was seen as a respectable profession for an unmarried woman in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. But if a nurse chose to marry she did not always admit to having been working on her marriage certificate, perhaps for respectability purposes – which was the case for Emma M, who had held a prestigious nursing position during a long career but chose to erase this and appear as an unemployed spinster when she married.

She appears to have had an unusual upbringing. The daughter of a Devon-based architect and master builder, and one of four children, her parents were also master and matron of the local workhouse. This would have surrounded Emma with the poor and needy during her formative years in the 1850s, perhaps a contribution to her choice of career. By the time she was 15 her parents had placed her in charge of a property that they owned, while they resided down the street with her younger brother and an adopted foster child.

Rather than remain at home in Devon, Emma relocated to London and began a nursing career in the later part of the 1860s. This was initially at St George’s Hospital, a teaching institution at that time located in Hyde Park. Her mother died, and her father remarried, bringing his new wife and other family members up to London where he ran a boarding house.

Emma’s career grew. In her early 30s, she rose to become matron in charge at the Wandsworth Royal District Hospital for Incurables. This institution, now named the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability, specialised in care for patients with brain injuries and other neurological disorders. As matron in charge of the hospital Emma would have been highly respected and good at her job, and held a great deal of prestige in her workplace.

Later on, she moved to being in charge of a smaller medical institution in Marylebone. Of this she was lady superintendent, and had many nurses and a house full of domestic staff underneath her. Her patients on the 1891 census included an American lady, an Austrian merchant, a Canadian Presbyterian minister, and a South African Judge.

The fact that she chose to completely erase this high-flying career when she married in the early 1890s seems odd to modern eyes. However, Emma would have been highly unusual for the time in that she was a woman with a prestigious and perhaps unprecedented career, and the fact that she was entering the traditional institution of matrimony – with all the trappings and expectations put upon women at that time – may have had some bearing on her choosing not to register her work. She also would have had to resign her job to marry, as married women did not work.

She may not have ever expected to marry, since this occurred at the age of 45 and at that time she would have been viewed as a lifelong spinster. Her husband was a doctor, presumably someone who she had met at work, who had been recently widowed. He was also 15 years older than her, with several grown-up children.

They never had any children together, and nine years later Emma was widowed. He left her a considerable amount of money to live on. She remained in London, and on the 1911 census refers to herself as a retired nurse – an acknowledgement of the considerable career she had had throughout her life. She died at the tail end of the First World War.


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.