The women of Chippenham

While I love the research and writing of these blogs and articles, mass written content doesn’t always work for every user.

Therefore, I present a video on a bakers’ dozen women from Chippenham, produced for local history month and commissioned by Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre.

“How do you find your stories?”

I was asked recently how I manage to find all these interesting stories about women of the past who haven’t been profiled before.

The short answer is because they are out there. Another short answer is because I look with a different lens, and don’t assume that because there’s nothing written there’s nothing there. Yet another short answer is that they’re happy accidents.

A longer, more considered, answer would be that I am – and always have been – extremely curious about people’s lives and what drives people and makes them tick. I worked as a journalist for many years, and therefore like to dig deep to find a story. Combined with an all-consuming drive to prove that women’s history is so much more than just suffrage and a fight for equal rights, and you’ve got the right conditions for turning up real and interesting stories.

However, I’m sure that my questioner wanted actual details about how I found people rather than technical musings on the drive behind the project, so let’s explain a bit further about how I’ve found people…

If you’ve been to one of my talks, you’ll have heard all about serial criminal Mary Ann Fairlie, as we build her story together through newspaper reports and other documents. Mary was found in the prison records for Gloucestershire, when she’d been arrested for breaking a window while drunk and assaulting a police constable. I happened upon her because I was in those records researching someone in a friend’s maternal genealogy line, she was on the next page (adjacent to a man who’d been had up for “interfering sexually with a sheep”) and I wondered what sort of woman would beat up a police officer in the 1890s and looked her up. And what a tale she had.

She in turn led me to two other women. One of the newspaper reports mentioned that she’d beaten up a female prison warden, “Mrs M Redding” in 1883, and I wondered about women becoming prison wardens at that time – so tried to find her. I found a child in the area called Maud Redding, who was far too young to have been the warden, but discovered that she and many of her siblings had been born in India – so had a look at why that had happened, and what the reality of that was for her mother Helena. And then I discovered the great tragedy at the heart of Helena’s family. Later on I did find the female prison warden – Marion – and she turned out to have come through the workhouse system.

Marion wasn’t a matron of a workhouse though, and through that I wondered what background might lead someone to take that role on, and what the duties were. So I duly looked up the various matrons (and masters – they were usually a married couple) of my local workhouse in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and happened across Martha who held that role for nearly 30 years. In one of the newspaper articles I used to research her, I came across a mention of a “crippled” woman giving birth to triplets while in that workhouse – Rosanna – so researched her too.

Public buildings in Chippenham have been a source of lots of women in the project, mostly as I am surrounded by the places that they lived and worked and can’t help but wonder who lived there. I’ve done research into one of the local primary schools, and looked at several teachers from there – Ruby (who was divorced in 1930) and Marion (who was part of a new epoch in art teaching in the 1920s alongside Robin Tanner, but didn’t get any credit for it) – as well as teachers and university lecturers from elsewhere. I’ve also researched the chain of barkeepers at a couple of local pubs, and have looked for the most interesting landladies from those lists – as invariably it was the husband who officially held the alcohol sale license but his wife ran the pub, so Lilian and Sarah are a couple of stories from that haul. I also went and looked up the woman who gave a set of almshouses to the town – Elizabeth – because I realised I walked past regularly and saw her name but knew nothing about her and why she gave the properties to the town – and in a local history book found a reference to Priscilla, wife of a local industrialist, whose husband was given endless credit for having produced a cricket team of sons but the woman who carried and birthed them was barely mentioned.

Marion Young

Marion Young, teacher of Chippenham, who was part of a new epoch in art teaching in the 1930s

On another tack, sometimes I hit upon an important part of women’s history that is barely talked about in personal terms, and try to find someone to help me illustrate it. For example, the unfairness in standards for divorce law between men and women in the mid-19th century, which is often generalised, didn’t really have a face to it so I found Diana by going through the UK Civil Divorce Records and her political connections came to light later. Female anti-suffragists boggle my brain, so I researched Gwladys to try to find out what drove her (actual conviction, economic necessity or familial revenge – you decide). The profession of a monthly nurse went out with the ark, and no-one these days knows what one did (she came into a woman’s home after the birth of a baby to do her chores and feed her other children), so I looked up Elizabeth. Ballet’s association with prostitution turned up Susannah. Abortion and what you did with an unwanted pregnancy – before the advent of Levonelle or mifepristone and misoprostol – is another issue that I wanted to highlight. I had one credit left on the British Newspaper Archive before having to top them up, so searched “Wiltshire abortion” and found the tale of Harriet and Mary Ann.


Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, later Cowper

Other women I turn up in books – Amy Bell, the first UK female stockbroker – came from Jane Duffus’ book The Women Who Built Bristol, while Hannah Young I found in a BBC book to accompany a series on the Victorian kitchen, and turned up more than gas cookery when I discovered her husband had taken her name when they married, and she recommended do-it-yourself enemas.

Amy Elizabeth Bell

Amy Bell, first UK female stockbroker

Enquiries also turn up interesting stories. A friend’s father suggested that I look for a nun, which turned up both Sister Josephine and Mother Superior Amy, and in turn a penitent woman – Cecelia – who was being reformed in a convent, because I wondered what she’d done to earn her place there. An enquiry from the Women’s Engineering Society’s centenary project turned up the wonderful Maysie – actress-cum-socialite-cum-pilot-cum-engineer – and in turn also Lillian Haskins, wife of the director of civil aviation in the 1930s.

And then there’s just plain curiosity that a stray record brings on: what on earth did a woman called Hephzibah get up to? Running a home for fallen women, it appears. And how did a white woman born in Sierra Leone end up in Victorian Chippenham? (Annie’s dad was a missionary in Freetown at the time of her birth).

Then the final part of the answer is YOU, gentle reader. I am genuinely interested in what your grandmother (and your mother, and your maiden aunt, and your second cousin three times removed) got up to, because oral history is the dog’s bollocks and adds so much more colour and life to women’s stories than bare records and salacious newspaper reports ever could. So please, #tellmeaboutyourgranny, ask your great aunt what she did in the war, write down your mother’s experiences for posterity, and tell your daughters just what women’s history is all about – more than just suffrage and women’s lib: it’s endless housework and varicose veins, back street abortions and fiddling with a knitting needle, doing a great amount of your husband’s work and never getting the credit for it, balancing books but never being called an accountant, not being able to marry and keep a job you love, swearing in front of a police station in order to be arrested and therefore get a bed for the night, being stoic when your infant dies of an illness we could easily prevent now, finding a way to keep an income when your husband dies, and many many more things besides.

So that’s how I find my stories, and populate my project. It’s for you, and it’s for everyone. Help me to find more.

Women’s genealogy talks

The Women Who Made Me project is currently touring Wiltshire, UK, speaking in libraries about women’s genealogy. This is against a background of the 100 year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK.

Talks are currently taking place at Salisbury Library on Tuesdays at 11.30am, Chippenham Library on Thursdays at 5.30pm, and Trowbridge Library on Fridays at 5.30pm.

Yesterday, project founder Lucy Whitfield was interviewed by That’s TV in Salisbury, ahead of the first talk of the series.

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.

International Women’s Day 2017


The Women Who Made Me seeks to revisit women of the past and celebrate their achievements in a modern light. For too long our female ancestors and relatives have been dismissed as “just” a mother or housewife. The Women Who Made Me project ( researches and profiles real women’s stories and brings this oft-ignored side of social history into sharp focus. #BeBoldForChange #changethenarrative

For International Women’s Day 2017, The Women Who Made Me – together with our genealogical partner Once Upon A Family Tree ( – is offering the chance to win £55 worth of expert genealogy research on a woman from your family, telling her story and celebrating her achievements.

To enter, either follow and retweet on Twitter or like and share on Facebook, with a comment on who you want researched and why her achievements should be celebrated. Perhaps she faced the stigma of raising an illegitimate child, kept her family out of the workhouse, buried eight out of thirteen children, or was the first female in her family to go to university.

The random draw will be held on March 8 2017, International Women’s Day, and the winner notified soon thereafter.

Why do we need women’s genealogy?

After all, women are included in family trees, aren’t they? They get married and they’re on the records and certificates. They give birth to children, and are included on the birth certificates and baptismal records. They appear on census records alongside men. We trace their families back to find their origins in the past. Don’t we?

Well, they’re there certainly, but how much do we know about these women and their lives compared to their menfolk? What’s their story?

This question isn’t intending to do down the traditional approach, as there are obvious benefits in looking at our male ancestors and how they make us who we are, and the binary approach to gender we get from history should carry equal weight on both sides. But what can taking a look at women’s lives specifically bring to our understanding of family lineage?

When our families are traced, and we start our genealogical journey, the first place we might look to go back through generations is almost certainly our name.


What’s in a name?

Family name – or surname – is the obvious key to tracing lineage back through the records. It’s an identifier, as well as being a moniker, and collectively links us both to our living and loving relatives and our ancestry. However, in the West, our family name is a patronym – it is inherited from our father, and then if a woman marries she may well take her husband’s name in time-honoured tradition. Today we might make a choice to preserve a woman’s maiden name as a child’s middle name, or double-barrel it, but this was rare in history. And if a traditional Western naming pattern is followed, at no point does that name come from a woman, or reflect her female ancestry. When we think about our personal identity, often both parents play an equal part in that – but yet our mothers’ identity is often buried or not marked, reflecting the old idea that women were property first of their father and then their husband.

The dearth of women’s family names – and let’s not forget that a mother’s name is still not required for UK marriage certificates here in the 21st century – makes women harder to trace. Not impossible, but certainly harder. And if you can’t identify who she married, or even if she married, the trail goes cold. To go back via the matrilineal line – looking at someone’s mother, then her mother, and then her mother – rather than going to the distaff line, which invariably looks at a mother’s family through her patronym, should be an equally valid view of lineage and one that can open and validate another wider view of history.


Women weren’t as interesting as the men though…

“There’s a misconception that women were much weaker in those times”

Caitriona Balfe, actor, Outlander


Well, if you believe what’s written – or left out – on the census forms, then of course they weren’t interesting. They might have a job in early adulthood, but once married their profession is invariably left blank or sometimes crossed out, and all we get from them is their age and where they were born, and eventually an increasing line of children. But the blankness of their records doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t interesting, just that society at that time considered their lives to be inferior to those of their menfolk.

A woman married to a farmer would undoubtedly have worked on the farm too, and had her own jobs on the land. But would not have been considered a farmer in her own right until widowhood – if it occurred – as she was property of her husband until that point and the profession was his. A woman whose husband made shoes would probably at the very least have helped out with lasts and leather if not stitching footwear alongside him, but this would not have been acknowledged on an official record. Middle class women would sometimes keep the books for their husband’s business – today that would be called a bookkeeper and recorded as a profession, but back then it was ignored. Upper class women would live on their own means, on inherited money or investments. On many census returns, if a wife has said that her profession is a coachbuilder’s wife or a shopkeeper’s wife to the enumerator, some higher authority has come along and crossed this out. Those who did not marry often have a more varied and nuanced tale to tell, much more than being “a spinster left on the shelf”.

So, it’s not necessarily that they weren’t interesting, it’s that the society they resided within considered them to be of less value than their menfolk, and treated them accordingly. And because there is often nothing written about them we perceive that they had nothing to give us.


But most of them are permanently pregnant and attached to the house. That isn’t very inspiring…

Or is it? Imagine that exact idea – permanently having a bun in the oven, another baby on the hip, more crawling or running around your feet, for year after year. No chance to leave and go out to work because married women didn’t. No birth control to stop it happening. No bottles of formula to enable you to outsource the feeding. No labour-saving devices to make housework easier. And the constant threat of childhood illness that might carry one or more of your children off, or that you might yourself pass away during another childbirth. A life like that puts our 2.4 children with a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner and a 4×4 on the driveway into stark contrast. These women had it tough, and they were tough. The traditional women’s role of raising children and keeping house – perhaps because so many women did it and it was therefore commonplace – was undervalued then and is still undervalued now. The fact that they kept going, year after year, is inspiring.

And if a woman breaks this mould and achieves more than the pathway expected for her, all the better.


So, what can women’s history teach us about times past that we can’t get elsewhere?

Lots. The very fact that the bulk of women didn’t go out to work puts them at the heart of the family structure, and their stories can be more personal and tell more of the human condition. This can be endless births, the stigma attached to illegitimate children and the lengths gone to to avoid it, not-talked-about children lost to miscarriage or stillbirth or childhood illness, a maiden aunt bringing up a clutch of children after her sister had died. Unwed sisters tend to live together in a way that bachelors do not.

Female nurturers – be they our mother, aunt, older sister, or godmother – are often our first teachers, from using a tool to feed ourselves to tying shoelaces, and, from a certain point in history, learning to read and write. That early nurturing care and unconditional love sets the foundation for both adult personality and how we treat each other within the home and in wider society – and that’s just as true in the Victorian era, or earlier, as it is today.

Women will often pass on family legends and stories that a more stoic father might not, thus preserving the oral history of a generation that goes beyond official documents. That oral history can add colour and humanity to someone’s story, and is therefore extremely valuable to a genealogist.

There tends to be more movement from women too, both geographically and socially. Whereas men in the past would often follow in their father’s footsteps, learning his skills and taking on his business when he retired or died, women invariably do not marry a man in the same profession as their father. A weaver’s daughter might marry a shoe maker, or a needle maker’s daughter might take up with the son of a coach builder who eventually will inherit his father’s business. Women navigate the subtleties and fluidity of the class system, far more marked in the past than it is today, in a way that men often did not as it was rare for a man to take on the profession of his in-laws. The professional experience learned in childhood – it was common for a whole family to be involved in a man’s profession in a myriad of small ways – would be combined with experiences gleaned from working alongside a woman’s husband and therefore add to the skill set she used every day. And if she’s able to use that skill set to successfully take over a business once she’s widowed, all the better.

And let’s not forget that before the advent of the science and technology that brought us the DNA test, the one piece of definite genealogical knowledge we had was whose womb we sprang from. That said though, whether we were brought up by our birth mother, grandmother, adoptive mother, aunt, sister, step-mother, nurture plays an equal part to genetics, perhaps more so in some cases, in terms of who we are, what we value and how we behave – and in the past this role would more often than not have fallen to a woman.


Who are The Women Who Made Me?

This project seeks to bring the lives of real women from the past into focus, against a genealogical background traditionally populated by their male contemporaries, teasing their stories out from the records left to us and validating a swathe of history that otherwise could be lost to us. Their stories are brought to a modern audience to give a record of ordinary women’s experiences at different times through history.

Some stories come from my genealogy research at while others are submitted. All are true.

To include the life of a woman in The Women Who Made Me, there has to be a story to tell beyond the bare details that she was born, she married, she died. The barest oral details of her life, or facts identified from records, can flesh out her story and bring her life into focus, be she your mother, aunt, sister, daughter, second cousin once removed, godmother or family friend.

Exact identifying details are blurred (no surnames, exact addresses, exact years of birth or death) to protect the data of living family.