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.

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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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Sophia C’s story

Born into a seafaring family, Sophia C’s life reflects the Victorian globe-trotting that was possible for women with access to a great deal of money and good connections.

She was born in the 1820s in Valparaiso, a seaside port not too far from Santiago in Chile. Her father was a captain and a mariner, and came from a well-established long-heritage community in Massachusetts, while her mother was Irish. It’s likely that her mother accompanied her father on certain journeys, hence Sophia’s American citizen status but exotic birth, as the rest of her siblings were born in Massachusetts. The family were back in Massachusetts by the end of the 1820s, as her younger brother was born there, but the voyage back to the northern part of the USA from Chile would have been long and involved traveling through the Strait of Magellan.

In the 1840s, Sophia married another seafaring man – one who had started his career on the whaling boats of Massachusetts and was gradually working his way up the mariner ranks. Several years her senior, he came from another well-established Massachusetts family, and had ancestry from the Mayflower.

They settled in the state for a time, but her husband’s career grew in a different direction. He became a shipping agent, and the couple moved across the Atlantic to be based in Glasgow, Scotland. He commanded packet ships for an American company, and ran a large shipping and commission business. They rented a house in a fashionable area of the city for a few years, and were well known in local society – her husband also held a fair amount of property in the area. A female student from Prussia (now Germany) lived with them for a while, as she studied in the city, and Sophia’s brothers and their wives appeared to be frequent visitors.

There appear not to have been any children from her marriage, and Sophia was provided well for by servants, so her life would have been comfortable with a degree of leisure, and probably centred around functions and good works.

Later on, when her husband retired, they moved down the country to London. They lived in a smaller but-no-less-fashionable property with Sophia’s widowed mother, and a servant.

Her husband died on a visit to coastal France, at the age of 64, leaving Sophia a widow at the age of 51. She remained in the UK for a few years, having settled her husband’s affairs and inherited a great deal of money, living on her own on a private income. She then returned to the US.

In later life, she went travelling for pleasure – firstly to Berlin and Leipzig, coming back through the UK, and then on to Switzerland. She describes her role in life as a “matron and housewife”. She eventually went home to Massachusetts “for my health”.

She died back at home in Massachusetts at the end of the first world war, aged 94.

Eliza D’s story

A woman who leaves her children to be brought up by someone else gets short enough shrift in society in the 21st century – but perhaps can be reasoned by career, circumstances, and so on. However, for this to have happened in the 1840s was practically unheard of and would have carried considerable social stigma – and it’s likely that Eliza D would have experienced this.

Born at the turn of the 19th century in Somerset, she married a surgeon at the age of 22. As a physician, invariably referred to as a gentleman in records, he would have been able to give Eliza a comfortable life in their small village community. Five children followed – a girl, then four boys – and her marriage appears to have continued along normal Victorian lines for many years.

However, by the mid-1840s things were starting to change. Her youngest son died aged just over a year, and although her husband’s business continued to be successful, Eliza disappears from the records for a time. On the 1851 census she is clearly absent from the family home, and her sons are being brought up by their father and their housekeeper. What happened to Eliza at this time is open to conjecture – it may be that she is elsewhere being supported by her husband despite not living with him, or it could be that she came into some money of her own, although under Victorian marriage this would probably have been surrendered to her husband. Later records of her would support either of these theories. Whatever happened, she appears not to have lived at the family home again.

Her second youngest son also died young, at the age of 23. Another went into the navy, and the final son married and moved to London.

The 1861 census sees her living with and supporting her daughter, who had a job in a Wiltshire school. She gives herself as a surgeon’s wife, so it’s possible that he was still giving her some support. Her husband continued to live in Somerset, alongside the housekeeper.

The key to the split between Eliza and her husband becomes clear when he died in the mid-1860s. All his money, which by this stage is not particularly considerable, was left to the housekeeper. She acted as the sole executor, and while Eliza, her daughter and two remaining sons were very definitely alive, they did not see a penny.

In later life, Eliza acknowledges that she is a widow, but gives herself as an annuitant and independent – so had some financial means of support of her own. Her daughter married and went to live in London, and Eliza initially lived with them in Hammersmith. Later on, she lodged elsewhere in that borough, clearly supporting herself in her own room in a bigger house.

She died in London at the turn of the 1880s, but left no legacy for her children.

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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.

Rachel T’s story

Rachel Ann Thomas was the headmistress at St Mary’s Board School, at Maestir – about two miles outside Lampeter in Carmarthenshire – for 11 years. The school is notable for now being located at Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagan’s, just outside Cardiff. It was moved and reconstructed there in 1984, but has been furnished as it would have appeared in Rachel’s heyday, in 1900.

Maestir School

Rachel was born at the turn of the 1870s, the second daughter and third child of an accountant and his wife living in Lampeter. Her father’s profession, and the fact that he was clearly an educated man, meant that the family would have been comfortably off. In addition to an older brother and sister, Rachel also had two surviving younger sisters.

Her brother took up carpentry as a profession, got married and moved away. However, Rachel and her sisters continued to be educated well into their late teens and early twenties. This was rare at the time, particularly for girls, and it may be that her parents – with their own educated background – were supportive of continued education for girls. Rachel continues to be described as a scholar on census returns until she is 21, but this is likely to have been private education as the University of Wales, Lampeter, did not admit women students until the 1960s.

In 1894, Rachel became the headmistress of St Mary’s Board School, at Maestir. It had been built in 1880, by Sir Charles Harford – a local squire – primarily to educate his workers’ children. These would have been the offspring of servants, labourers and estate workers. Many would often be taken out of school to help with farm work, and during the harvest the school would often close altogether.

By 1900, Rachel had 36 children on the register. The younger children would have been taught by a pupil-teacher (one of the brighter older girls), while Rachel would have instructed the rest of the class. They were taught the three Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic), with the girls learning some sewing and the boys learning some science – which Rachel would have had to learn herself to pass on.

Most of the pupils would have spoken Welsh as a first language, but their teaching was done through English. Rachel almost certainly spoke both languages, and one half-hour lesson a week was given through Welsh by 1905, contrary to popular belief.

While teaching at the school, Rachel continued to live in Lampeter. This was initially as a boarder, and then later with all her unmarried sisters in her family home – which was headed by her eldest sister who was “of independent means”, and had probably been left money by her parents. Rachel’s next youngest sister also became a school teacher.

Rachel’s appointment as headteacher at Maestir came to an end in 1905. She probably married, by this stage in her mid-30s, which was very late for the time. This would have meant having to leave her job.

With Thomas a common surname in Wales, it is difficult to pinpoint a marriage for her exactly, but the likely man was a Reverend. If this is the case, she would have become a vicar’s wife. However, this couple are elusive on the 1911 census – due to her husband’s surname being even more common than hers – so it is hard to know for sure.

This husband remarries at the beginning of the 1930s, so if this was Rachel, it’s likely that she died at some point in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Maestir school shut in 1916 after pupil numbers dwindled to just 15. The building had several different uses before being moved to St Fagan’s.

 

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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.

Sarah B’s story

Stealing nine feather boas in Leeds landed Sarah B in the clink for nine months in the last year of the 19th century. This was not by far her only crime, but was in fair keeping with her misdemeanours – which all appeared to involve fabric or garments of some description. She may have found these items readily available to steal, but it may also have been that she had a “thing” for nice fabrics.

Over the course of her extensive criminal career, which took place over various communities in the north of England, she was landed in jail no less than 16 times. Each time she admitted her guilt, and each time she was sent down.

Born into a ship-building family, she initially worked as a servant in her teens. Prison records purport that her education was “improper”. Her lengthy list of thefts and penances seems to have begun at around the age of 30, when she stole a tablecloth and was jailed for fourteen days with hard labour.

This experience – hard labour was exactly as described, exhausting and unproductive – doesn’t appear to have affected her behaviour in the slightest. Two years later she stole 12 yards of linen, which got her four months in jail, and within a month of that release she stole a dress – which got her a further five months.

Upon release, she appears to get married. However, a definitive record of this marriage does not come to light in the records – it may be that it did not take place, or that one party did not use a name that they were later known by (Sarah at one point calls herself Emily Lacey, on one court appearance), but her surname now changes to a married one in court appearances.

For several years thereafter, her life continues in a pattern of theft, arrest, incarceration, and release. Next, she stole a jacket (14 days), stockings (one month), and a pair of boots (one month). The courts then appear to step up their punishments, but this does not stop her thievery. She got six months for a pair of trousers, another six months for stealing two pairs of boots, and another six months for having made off with a roll of shirting fabric.

In between sentences, it appears she was able to find some work on occasion. Court records sometimes say that she was married without a job, but others say that she was a servant or a housekeeper. This implies that she may have had a veneer of trustworthiness for prospective employers. However, since many of her crimes took place in different northern cities, it’s probable that she moved around a great deal to avoid her reputation following her.

Court appearances give us a description of what Sarah looked like. She was just four foot nine inches tall – short even in an era where nobody grew particularly tall – and had light brown curly hair. She also had a scar on her right forehead.

The punishments increased again. She was incarcerated for nine months for stealing both a pair of trousers and ten pocket knives. Then she got a year for stealing four black lead brushes – used for cleaning out fire grates. She then got another nine months for stealing two shawls.

She also has a few minor appearances in court for drunkenness and “frequenting” – presumably places where she was not supposed to be – but these are not offences that were given jail time.

Jail time was reduced for her next offense – stealing another pair of boots – as she merely received 28 days hard labour, but almost immediately on release she half-inched a skirt from a shop in Leeds and was given a full year sentence.

Again, practically on release, she stole again. This time was a pair of boots and a skirt, and she received 18 months in jail. The feather boas followed, for which she got nine months (one per boa), followed by another pair of boots (18 months).

The three years penal servitude she received for the umbrella she stole next put her in jail at the time of the 1901 census. For this crime, she was sent to a women’s prison unit about 160 miles from home. Most of Sarah’s companions were also doing time for theft and larceny.

On release, she received three months for stealing a dress lining (she gave her name as Emily Lacey for this crime), and then a further three months for stealing spoons.

It was at this point that her husband, who until now had remained elusive in the records, made an appearance. They were both convicted of stealing a bottle containing whisky from an acquaintance. Her husband pleaded guilty to larceny and received two months hard labour. Sarah, however, got a further three years of penal servitude.

It is unknown whether this slice of justice finally did the trick for Sarah, but she does not appear in prison records again. However, since the available records stop only a few years later it may just be that any further theft details are inaccessible. However, by this stage she was in her early sixties and was possibly too elderly and infirm to cope with the hard labour consequences of any more prison terms and decided to go straight. Her husband – who prison records identified as better educated – also appears to be more present at this time, and its possible that they supported each other more.

By the 1911 census they are back in the ship-building community in which Sarah grew up, and calling themselves travellers – perhaps a necessity due to the sheer number of communities that would have recognised Sarah as a bit of a bad egg.

Sadly, her married name and some discrepancies around her year of birth, and the fact that she moved around a great deal mean that pinpointing a year of death is a tricky task. It’s unlikely that she lasted much past the First World War, however.

 

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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.