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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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.