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.

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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.

Charlotte M’s story

David Wiseman’s The Fate of Jeremy Visick, a great favourite of mine when I was a child, imagines an 1850s Cornish mining disaster from the bereaved wife’s point of view:Jeremy Visick

“The miner’s wife stood at the door of the cottage and said goodbye to her husband and three sons. They were going to work at the mine, Wheal Maid. It was not yet daylight and she sighed as she saw them disappear into the dark.

She turned back into her little house and went over to the truckle bed where her two youngest children, both girls, were sleeping. She thought, ‘Well, you won’t have to go down the mine, I hope,’ and sat at the table where she dozed until dawn.

When daylight came she got busy about the house. There was not much to do because it was so small. But there was always clothes to mend and water to be carried from the stream and wood to be collected for the fire.

When she had finished that and got the herring out of the brine to be ready for the men when they came back, she told her two daughters to come with her to meet their father and brothers.

‘They will be coming up to grass soon,’ she said. ‘It’s a nice day. We’ll walk to Sunny Corner to meet them.’

They set off slowly, because they had plenty of time and it was warm, being summer. The girls skipped ahead. Before they got to Sunny Corner they stopped as a man on horseback came riding toward them. He got down from his horse. His face was serious and he did not speak at once.

‘Mrs Visick,’ he said at last. ‘I think you should get back home.’

The miner’s wife looked hard at him.

‘They will be bringing your man and two sons home…’

He knew she understood. It was not the first time he had had to carry messages like this and he knew it would not be the last.

‘Two sons?’

‘Charles and John.’

‘And Jeremy?’

The man shook his head. ‘He’s still below. We cannot bring his body back. He’s buried there.”

David Wiseman, writing as 12yo Matthew Clemens, “The Fate of Jeremy Visick” pub. Puffin Books 1984.

 

While I’m fairly sure that this family are fictional, the tombstone that inspired and is mentioned in the novel does exist: the-martin-gravestone

https://mybeautfulthings.com/tag/the-fate-of-jeremy-visick/

While mining disasters were horrific, for both victims and those left behind, what is often not told is what happened to the women who had lost husbands and sons underground. Charlotte M is one such widow.

She was born near Truro, Cornwall, in the second decade of the 19th century, and appears to have been from a fairly humble family.

By the 1841 census she is married to her copper miner husband, with two small boys. Her widowed mother and brother, both agricultural workers, lived next door.

Two further children, a girl and a third boy, followed over the next few years. But life changed in July 1846 when her husband, and a relative who was probably his younger brother, drowned in the East Wheal Rose mine.

A heavy storm broke over the mine workings, rain lashed down, and a torrent of water entered the shafts. Thirty-nine men drowned, leaving seven widows and 33 fatherless children in Charlotte’s parish alone. A full account of the disaster can be found here: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~blanchec/eastwhealrose.htm

Charlotte never remarried, but managed to support both herself and her children. Initially her late husband’s brothers moved into the household – one still worked as a miner despite what had happened, while the other made shoes – which would have provided vital assistance and financial support for the family. Her elder sons also found work, on farms and in employment connected to the mines, which would also have helped. Her mother and brother also remained nearby. Charlotte calls herself a miner’s widow on several census returns, which may indicate that she was the recipient of some financial help – from either the mining company or the parish – or that this accounted for her status in the community.

Later on, after her oldest son had married, she was supported by the other three children. Her younger two sons worked as copper miners in local shafts – drainage had been improved upon by this stage, although there were still multiple dangers – and her daughter trained as a milliner and dressmaker. Her brother also came to live with them.

None of her younger three children married, instead preferring to live at home with their mother. Her second son briefly went to mine in California, but died out there in his early thirties, leaving all his effects to his mother. Her eldest son gave her four grandchildren, but went to mine in Devon.

Charlotte outlived all but one of her children – her daughter and eldest son both died in the latter part of the 19th century – and she eventually lived with her youngest son. He ran the local post office and grocery shop, which provided them both with financial support in the final years of the century. Charlotte died in her mid-eighties, at the turn of the 20th century.

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.

Mary W’s story

A merchant’s daughter from Edinburgh, and the second child in a family of 11, Mary W was comfortably brought up as her father’s business did well. She kept it in the family by marrying a merchant’s son. This is perhaps how they met, as their parents’ paths may have crossed, but her father’s interest was in fine arts, and her father in law’s in metal.

Her husband did not continue in mercantile pursuits, however, being renowned as a mathematical genius and preferring to train and work as a civil engineer. Mary was clearly no slouch at mathematics herself though, as in the early years of her husband’s company she kept and balanced the books, and took on other clerical duties. Today she would have been acknowledged as a book-keeper, but her profession remains blank on census returns.

Together she and her husband had nine children, seven boys and two girls, and led a life focused on work, family and Christian religion. They lived in a large, purpose-built house in a wealthy part of Edinburgh, and had several servants to help with running the house and bringing up the children. Her husband’s successful business enabled the family to own this large town house, and a holiday house on the Scottish Coast where they spent the entirety of August every year.

In the mid-1860s, her husband – who was known for being a workaholic – contracted diabetes which led to his early death, leaving her a wealthy widow with a very young family. Sadly, her health broke down just two years later and she passed away from meningitis and several forms of cancer, leaving the care of her children to her younger maiden sister.