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.

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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.

Joan T’s story

Joan T faced down nazi war criminals, and then was at the forefront of changing attitudes towards disability.

Born to a shop’s head buyer and his second wife at the turn of the roaring twenties, Joan T grew up as the elder of two daughters in suburban London.

Her mother had trained as a shorthand typist in the boom of that profession in the early years of the twentieth century, before her marriage, and as Joan came to adulthood during the Second World War she was encouraged into a similar profession. She attained the role of secretary during this time, working for the North West Civil Defence Authority. Her boss was Hartley Shawcross, who was made Attorney General in 1945.

She wrote to congratulate him on this appointment, and to see if there were any employment opportunities, and he suggested that she was posted to the Nuremberg Trials.

Joan became secretary to Airey Neave as he served with the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. She travelled to the city, and lived there for the duration of the trials, writing home to her parents regularly.

One such letter, from October 1945, said:

“…The Court House is a cosmopolitan place as you can guess… Americans – both Army and civilians predominate but we see plenty of French and Russians – all services – Army Navy and Air Force. The Russian Army wear brown uniforms and they would look perfectly at home standing outside the Odeon Cinema!

Nuremburg is practically flat – London is nothing to it – and the striking thing about it is that no attempt seems to have been made to clear away the rubble. The German Civilians must be in an awful plight; there is nothing for them to do in Nuremburg at any rate unless they are working for the Allies. As we waited outside the Opera House last night there were grown ups and children waiting to pounce on the cigarette stubs thrown away.”

Neave’s role in the trials was to investigate the firm Krupp, who had been involved in the Third Reich, and Joan provided him with secretarial support in this, often attending court house sessions and seeing prominent Third Reich members at close quarters.

In November 1945 she writes:

“It was worth going just to get a look at the Criminals. Unfortunately I had gone without my chart of where the Criminals were sitting so I could only pick out the obvious ones. Goering, of course, was quite unmistakable; he looked very interested in the proceedings and at the end, after the adjournment, was laughing and chatting with three American Guards as though they were the best of buddies. (Actually I thought it was very slack on the part of the guards the way they were ‘fratting’ with him.) Hess really looks quite potty and sits with his nose in a book most of the time. Streicher looked very well turned out in a navy blue suit.”

The trials concluded in the early autumn of 1946, and Joan returned to life in England.

She remarked:

“I feel I have made up a bit for the dreariness of the war years… You learn a lot about human nature living in a cosmopolitan atmosphere like this and you come out of it all with a tremendous respect for British people and the British way of life; I have realized what a tremendous advantage it is to be born an Englishman.”

She had several other secretarial jobs in the years that followed, but none as high profile as Nuremberg. In the late 1950s, at the age of 37, Joan married a man who worked for the Ferodo brakes firm, and settled in the north Midlands. Like much of society at the time, his family regarded her previous work as “just secretarial”.

Their first child followed in the summer of 1958. He was born with spina bifida, and until around this time most babies born with a disability were considered not to have a good quality of life and were killed soon after birth. However, her son’s birth occurring in the summer meant that she was attended by a younger locum rather than the family doctor – who was on holiday at the time – and traditional attitudes towards disability were starting to change. The locum did not hold these traditional views, and alongside Joan determined that her son would live.

Whereas now people born with spina bifida or any number of other differences are fully part of society, in the late 1950s and early 1960s most disability would have been as a result of injury – and Joan and her son were at the forefront of gradual changing attitudes, both positive and negative.

Despite having waited to start a family, a daughter followed less than 18 months later, and her husband was involved in setting up the Ferodo factory at Port Dinorwic near Caernarfon, so the family moved to the coast of North Wales.

Later on, Joan and her husband ran a shop together. She was known for her diplomatic skills in the family.

Widowed at the beginning of the 1990s, she enjoyed a long retirement, and was deeply involved in the community. She died in the early 2000s, in her eighties.

 

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.

AD’s story

A farm labourer’s daughter, AD had an illegitimate daughter at the age of 27, as the twentieth century began. Rather than being ostracised, her large family supported her and her child, and the illegitimate son that followed five years later.

Aged 36, she married a widower who had been working as a game keeper. He was much older than her, and does not appear to have been the father of either of her children. There had been five children of his first marriage, all of whom had grown up and left home, so AD brought her two children into this new family.

Her husband began a job working as a stockman on a farm, and together they had five further children, including two sets of twins. However, two of these children died at under a year old.

Eight years after her marriage, her husband died, leaving her with five children who still needed care. It is unknown what happened to AD at this time, but the three youngest did not continue in her care – two reached adulthood in Barnardos homes, and another was sent to Canada as part of the British Home Children scheme of child migration. It is likely that AD, who – from the fact that she made a mark instead of signing her name on her wedding certificate – was probably illiterate, and was unable to support her family after the death of her husband.

She lived on for several more years, however, possibly dying at the age of 55. It is unknown how she supported herself in her later years.

 

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Elsie W’s story

Born in rural Devon, Elsie W was the eldest of three children born to a former bootmaker who had taken to agricultural labouring.

In the 1880s, in her early teens, she lost her mother and her father remarried twice, producing more siblings. She spent a little time as a domestic servant in Devon, working for a naval engineer. She then followed her father and newest stepmother to the Bristol area, where he had established a shoemaking business.

At the age of 25 she married a man nearly fifty years her senior, who had been widowed by his first wife only two years previously. He was a Chelsea pensioner, and had run coffee shops among other professions in Bristol throughout the 19th century, but with a wife to support and a new clutch of children appearing, he took to working in a ropemaking establishment to provide money for his family.

Elsie’s first child, a daughter, followed well over a year after their wedding. The next, a boy, died within six months of birth. And a third, a daughter, was born a couple of years later, when her husband had reached the age of 79.

She was widowed at 36, with two daughters to support, and took to running a pub in central Bristol – with a boarder in the house to make ends meet. Her daughters helped run the pub. This pub also operated as an off licence, and she ran it until 1931, when her youngest daughter took over the business.

She died in 1941, at the height of the Bristol Blitz, but was not a victim of any of the bombing raids that destroyed the city at that time.