Elizabeth W’s story

With the advent of the NHS, and better social care, and many labour-saving devices for housework, the role of a monthly nurse has become quite lost in obscurity. However, back in the days where women had a lying in period – of at least ten days if not longer – after having a baby, a monthly nurse was an extremely desirable person to employ. She was paid to assist a woman and her family in the post-partum period. Household jobs still needed to be done, and men would generally not do them – so they’d either get a female relative to help out, or pay a monthly nurse for a period of time if they could afford it. This woman would also assist with some of the body effluent after a birth, and look after the new mother. Sometimes they would also assist with laying out the dead. Often they’d live with the family.

Invariably, the monthly nurse was a slightly older woman, who had had all her children and raised them to a reasonable degree of independence – so therefore could leave their own family and jobs to a young adult daughter while she went out and earned money for the family. This was the case for Elizabeth, a monthly nurse from New Swindon – as it was called in the later 19th century.

Elizabeth really had grown up alongside the town of Swindon. She’d been born into a rural community to the west of the modern town, to a single mother in the late 1840s. On her christening record she’s given as the base-born daughter of Martha, who appears on the 1851 census as an agricultural labourer living with her sister Mary and various children – some of which are hers. Elizabeth had a sister called Maria, and a much younger brother called Thomas. She was brought up with Mary’s daughter Harriett, who was very close in age. All the children were illegitimate.

The arrangement where unwed siblings would bring up their illegitimate children together does not seem to be uncommon in rural communities in the Victorian era. Much of the moralising tone attributed to Victorian society really stems from an educated class who sought to differentiate from and rise above the illiterate working classes and were able to write that stigma down, and it is possible that the stigma for children out of wedlock was slightly less sharp in the rural and agricultural communities.

By the time she was 14, Elizabeth had left home and moved into Swindon – which was growing rapidly on the back of the Great Western Railway. The original settlement, now known as Old Town, was on the hill while the newer development was separate and on the flatter land next to the railway works. In the 1860s Elizabeth got a job as a servant at the Ship Inn on Westcott Street, part of this new town, while her siblings remained with their mother.

Ship Inn Swindon

In 1866, around the age of 20, she married Edward – a grinder for the GWR – and settled in the purpose-built railway village, to the south of the train tracks. They had ten children: four boys initially (although the second of these died aged less than a year), then two girls, another three boys, and finally another girl. The cottages were two storey and quite cramped, so Elizabeth’s growing family would have been all on top of each other. The young men of those streets at the time also had a bit of a reputation for wild behaviour.

Railway village

Eventually they moved a few streets away from the railway village to a slightly bigger house. It’s likely that Edward’s job probably didn’t bring in a great deal of money for such a large family, so Elizabeth supplemented the family finances by taking in washing and called herself a laundress. Her eldest son had also started at the railway works himself by the age of 13, which helped support the family.

Edward died in the autumn of 1887, leaving Elizabeth a widow at the age of 40. She would have relied on her laundry earnings and that of her children to support the family. Particularly as her youngest daughter was barely a year old.

By the 1891 census several of Elizabeth’s sons were employed at the railway works. However, both of her elder daughters had not found employment in Swindon – whether that was for a lack of opportunity for young women in the area at the time (there were cloth works employing women at the time, but the steam laundry was not set up until that year), or Elizabeth encouraging them to spread their wings and go elsewhere.

the_birth_of_swindon

Lizzy, the older, ended up in the workhouse in London for three weeks at the beginning of the 1890s, with a tiny illegitimate baby of her own. Elizabeth took Lizzy’s daughter Dorothy in, and raised her with the others, while Lizzy went off to become a cook in a private girls’ school. After that, she emigrated to Wisconsin, USA, to become a nurse. Dorothy remained in Swindon with her grandmother and grew up there.

In the late 1890s one of her daughters became ill, and the family participated in an advert for “Dr Williams’ Pink Pills For Pale People” in the newspapers, claiming that she was near death but the pills saved her. While outlandish, in an era where the general understanding of medical science was poor and advertising was unregulated, this probably helped Elizabeth’s standing in the community.

Most of Elizabeth’s boys married, and kept stable jobs at the railway works, and lived very close to their mother – either in the same street or a neighbouring one. One son appears to have been in regular trouble with the police over disorderly behaviour. Her daughter Martha also married, but moved back home with her husband to keep house with her mother. They never had any children. Her son George’s toddler twin daughters died of a terrible burning accident in 1896, after playing with matches, and Elizabeth was involved in caring for them, showing that she had a trusted degree of medical skill.

By this time most of Elizabeth’s children had grown up enough to either take care of themselves day-to-day or be looked after by Martha – which meant Elizabeth was freed from her home to be able to take on the more lucrative work of a monthly nurse. The fact that she was able to make a living from this profession – which relied on local families having enough income to take a monthly nurse in, rather than calling in a female relative.

monthly nurse bill

Elizabeth’s choice of profession may also have been influenced by a deep love of children. She appeared to collect them. Alternatively, she may have been religiously atoning for her own illegitimate start in life – or perhaps a bit of both. In 1908 her youngest daughter Amy followed the path of her sister Lizzy, and went over to the USA to work as a nurse. This did not work out so well for her though, and she came back and presented Elizabeth with another illegitimate grandchild – Walter – in 1910.

Again, Elizabeth seems to have taken care of the child and let her daughter go off elsewhere while she brought up the child. Amy went to be a parlour-maid on the Isle of Wight, and married there a couple of years later. However, she returned to Swindon in the middle of 1916, and died young. Elder daughter Lizzy died in Chicago in 1913.

So, by 1911 Elizabeth had acquired two grandchildren to bring up, and had adopted another, Ruby – who was born illegitimately in her house to an Agnes, who then disappears – so it’s probable that Elizabeth had volunteered to bring up Ruby too and let Agnes go off to a different life.

Her monthly nurse work will have undoubtedly brought her into contact with many women struggling after having a baby, whether married or not, and it is possible that her two grandchildren and adopted daughter were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the children she took in. We are lucky enough to know about these three from census records, but there may well have been others. Adoption and fostering processes were not formalised at this time, and relied upon good will – which Elizabeth clearly had in abundance.

She died in 1924, having outlived many of her children.

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Caroline B’s story

International traveller, politician’s wife, member of the aristocracy, and divorcee are all fairly important things to have achieved in the later 19th and early 20th century, but to have been all four was the preserve of Caroline.

She spent her childhood travelling between South America and the UK, which sounds fairly exotic now, but in the later part of the 19th century it was the preserve of all but the very monied. She was born to Americans living in Lima, Peru, in the early 1870s. Her father had set up an artificial ice company in Peru which grew to become a thriving brewery and took him back and forth across the Atlantic between South America and the UK. The family (Caroline was the oldest of 11) went with him – one of her brothers was born in the UK, while the rest all had Peru as a birthplace – but while her brothers were educated at British boarding schools Caroline and her sisters remained with the family and received their education closer to home.

As a wealthy white woman at this time in South America, Caroline would have socially mixed with others reckoned to be of equal standing, and it was from this pool of society that she met her husband – a man of British parentage but South American birth, who was also engaged going back and forth across the Atlantic running an importing business. They married in Lima in the mid-1890s, and Caroline became a British citizen by marriage.

Three children followed over the next few years, two born in Chile and one in the UK, and Caroline and the children still supported her husband by travelling back and forth across the Atlantic as his business demanded. As her sons grew, they were sent to British boarding schools like their uncles before them, but Caroline’s daughter remained with her parents.

On her father’s death, at the tail end of the 19th century, Caroline’s mother moved from Peru to London, bringing her younger siblings with her.

Her husband saw service during the First World War, but Caroline still appears to have spent that period travelling back and forth between the UK and South America, even at a point when shipping in the Atlantic could be risky due to U-Boat activity. Her sons also served in the armed forces, while her daughter remained with her parents.

It was as the Great War came to an end that things started to change. Caroline’s husband left his business ambitions behind him, and developed political ambitions. He stood as an independent Liberal candidate – in full support of the Coalition government but without being given a coupon – for a Wiltshire constituency in the 1918 general election. This catapulted Caroline from the wife of a company director to a political wife – which would have involved supporting not only his political views but appearing at various political meetings and rallies in her own right as his wife. The Representation of the People Act 1918 had enfranchised almost all men over the age of 21, and in this era many politicians were drawn from the higher echelons of society. A loyal and supportive wife and family background – as displayed by Caroline and her husband and children – helped politicians draw parallels with themselves in the minds of the electorate.

The Act also gave the vote to women over 30, who were householders or part of a university constituency, and another act just before this election enabled women over 21 to stand as candidates. However, with only 17 women standing over the entire country, most candidates were still traditional politicians, and the candidate’s wife was expected to appeal to the newly enfranchised women by endorsing her husband. Campaigning at this time, with no television or radio, was done through the newspapers and frequent political meetings – where the candidate’s wife would also address the assembled crowd. Caroline would have stood up and made speeches at these meetings to endorse her husband’s candidacy and political views.

Her husband failed to gain the seat in Wiltshire, where he faced the coalition-backed existing Conservative candidate, and by the next election had moved on to a new constituency in Nottinghamshire. The family, who retained a great deal of money from his successful business, had purchased a large stately home, and Caroline became mistress of this. Her home included a library, a billiards room, seven ‘best’ bedrooms, provision for many servants and ornamental gardens. Hunting parties and other pursuits befitting stately homes at this time also became part of her life. This would have befitted her status as the MP’s wife, as her husband won the seat in the 1922 election, only to lose it again in the snap election held in 1923 when Prime Minister Bonar Law fell ill and resigned. She was returned to her status as MP’s wife at the following election in 1924, and retained that role until 1930.

Her husband was also invested as a Baronet in the late 1920s, in addition to being an MP – although by this time he’d switched allegiance to the Conservative Party. Caroline became Lady Caroline.

Financial problems had led to the couple becoming bankrupt, and Caroline had to leave her large house behind as it was sold to pay debts. As a consequence of this, her husband also resigned as an MP in 1930, and Caroline could retire from that public role.

Their marriage started to disintegrate in the 1930s, and by 1938 she had become a divorcee – easier at this point in the century on account of new divorce legislation brought in in the later 1920s, but no less stigma-laden in an era where couples were societally expected to stay together and work through difficulties.

Her ex-husband remarried quickly, but Caroline remained single for the remaining six years of her life. She died just after the end of the Second World War, leaving a considerable amount of money to her eldest son and a solicitor.

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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.