Helena M’s story

Losing a child under the age of five was a common occurrence in Victorian Britain, with high infant mortality rates, and virulent diseases that we can cure easily today. Helena M lost a daughter in this way, but the death of her young son was not normal for the times and had a shocking twist.

Helena possibly came from Yorkshire, or Ireland – her census records can’t agree on a birthplace. She was the daughter of a steward, so her upbringing would have been a good few steps above the base-poor level. At the age of 24 she married a carpenter’s son turned soldier. Their marriage was reportedly a happy and affectionate one, and several children followed – the first two in England while he was stationed in cavalry barracks – and then more in India when he was posted to the Bengal army at Muttra, now Mathura in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1870s.

Her husband’s military rank – that of sergeant and then sergeant major – meant that he was an enlisted grade soldier, not officer class, and therefore his family would have lived with the military rather than a settled house. Although it is hard to know for sure, his status, and wages, would have been above those of the privates and corporals, and he was certainly not at the level of the poorest white people in India. The fact that three of Helena’s children were born in Muttra suggests that she probably stayed at camp, even if her husband travelled elsewhere. Other accompanying wives and children – and there were restrictions on numbers of women allowed to travel with their menfolk  – would have been nearby.

Later on, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband – who at this stage was in the 10th Hussars – was moved on to train in the Muree Hills, now in Pakistan. The battle of Ali Masjid, where her husband saw action, took place six months after her daughter’s birth. He was also involved in other action during the second Anglo-Afghan War, at one point going to Jalalabad, but it is unknown how far wives like Helena followed their husbands.

Although the climate could have been slightly more temperate for British women used to the Yorkshire rain, the sun was no less strong. Her husband suffered severe sunstroke while here, alongside other ailments, and required care. His commission came to an end, and together with Helena and the children returned to Britain via a long sea voyage to survive on his military pension.

Helena gave birth to another child at the turn of the 1880s, and the family briefly moved to the Scilly Isles where her husband took up a short-lived position that didn’t suit him. Instead, they settled back in Yorkshire – where the experience in India served to increase the family’s social class standing, and her husband gained a stable job.

However, this state of affairs did not last long. Within a couple of years, Helena’s youngest son died – murdered by his father.

Newspaper reports of the crime say that her husband had suffered from “vertigo” since the incident of sunstroke, and this had led to depression. Helena stated in court that he was a temperate man, not given to drinking, and had said “very strange things” to her in the week leading up to the murder. She had been afraid that he would do himself an injury for some time, so she had moved all objects that might do him harm out of his reach. He had been attended by the doctor, who had told her to keep an eye on him, but she had not been advised that he might do any of the children harm so had left all but one with him while she went out on an errand. The boy, who wasn’t yet two, was found in the cellar with massive head injuries, which his father fully admitted to causing.

Reports of the trial indicate that her husband appeared confused, and not all there. It is possible that the diagnosis of vertigo with melancholia masked deeper health problems, possibly influenced by battle experiences. His children, as witnesses, reported that he was not a violent man and that he had always exhibited great kindness towards them and their siblings.

Helena’s husband, who called himself a “maniac” and a “lunatic” during the trial, was found insane by the jury. He was not detained in gaol, instead spending the remaining 26 years of his life in a prison asylum. Helena and her children are reported to have been tearful, but embraced him in the dock.

Within a few months of the murder, Helena gave birth to her final child – another son. She received a great deal of support and sympathy from the community. The increase in social standing and her husband’s former job enabled her to keep the family home and not fall into poverty. They moved away from the house the murder took place in. To make ends meet she took in boarders, and as her children grew up they contributed to the family finances.

In later life, Helena continued to live as a boarding house keeper, supported by her children – two of whom at least never married – which suggests she was making a reasonable living and the family were relatively comfortable. She called herself a widow from at least the turn of the 20th century, despite not actually being so for many years. She died in the mid-1920s.

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Mary F’s story

Mary F’s colourful brushes with the law were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.

She appears in court records on eight separate occasions, on offences including larceny (twice, one acquittal, one conviction), wilful damage (thrice, three convictions), drunk and disorderly (once, convicted) and assaulting a police officer (once, convicted). This chequered career takes place across three separate UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and seems at best chaotic, and at worst desperately sad that she – unlike many other women who only pop up in court reports once or twice (if at all, most court reports of the time pertain to men) – was living such an unsettled life.

A clue to what was going on for Mary can be found in the 1891 census, which coincided with one of her periods of imprisonment. She is described on the document as a prostitute, which perhaps puts the nature of some of her crimes into perspective, as working girls might often find themselves in difficult and violent situations. However, none of her criminal convictions are for soliciting. Newspaper reports have her often drunk and disorderly, or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder so badly that the woman needed a fortnight off work to recover.

Her life didn’t necessarily have to have taken that turn – she’d been born into a relatively stable, if clearly poor, family in the North of England, and had been brought up in the communities that supported the fishing trade on the coast. Her parents, both from Ireland, had emigrated at some point after the Great Famine. Around the time Mary reached early adulthood, a parental split occurred with her mother taking her younger sisters to Scotland – but not Mary – and her father remaining in the family home. He became a pauper, and spent time in and out of the workhouse, so Mary was almost certainly fending for herself. This may have led to her choice of career, but was not the only choice of employment open to her – her younger sister made a living making fishing nets, and did not bounce in and out of the courts.

During the time she was in and out of the justice system, Mary was working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Gwent – where she apparently threw herself into the River Usk under the influence of drink, and was escorted to the local workhouse. This was thought to be a suicide attempt.

As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter was born in the mid-1890s, which appears to have stopped the behaviour which led to spells in gaol. However, this did not stop the poverty which had led to Mary’s situation, and she and her daughter spent seven periods in a London workhouse during the first year of the child’s life. Mary gave her profession as a spinner on admission records, but finding work must have been difficult in a community away from home and family with a tiny baby to support.

A couple of years later she had two further children in the north of England, each of these also baring her surname so again out of respectable wedlock. She had clearly gone home, but around this time her mother died and her father was again in the workhouse, so in 1901 Mary and her three children were without support and ended up in the workhouse too. At this time she’d been working as a cotton stripper and grinder – a considerable step above prostitution, although possibly less lucrative.

Another profession is given a couple of years later again, after her youngest child – a girl – had passed away at the age of two, and Mary had brought her family back to London. Now working (when she could find employment) as a charwoman, she spent much of the mid-1900s in and out of three different London workhouses. Sometimes these admissions were just her children alone, as she would not have had the means to support them, but she often joined them. She also spent time in a workhouse hospital for rheumatism.

But by the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in the north again. She had no children in her care – it’s probable that they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

There is no further record of her. She may have married in later life, and been buried under another name.

Emma P’s story

A woman turning the air blue today is commonplace, and is rarely remarked upon past a tut or a raised eyebrow. Not so in the 1890s, as evidenced by the case of Emma P, who was jailed for seven days in 1894 for “using obscene language”.

A laundress by trade, with a husband and two dependent children (a third had died just two years before), she did not have the money to pay the alternative fine of seven shillings and nine pence. Therefore, she spent a week in the cells for daring to utter words that by today’s standards were probably quite tame.

This was her only jailed offence, but other members of her family also had brushes with the law – her 12-year-old son and his friend for obstruction in the street (five days imprisonment – they could not afford the alternative fine), and her husband served ten days hard labour for stealing a rabbit when their children were very young. He worked as a bricklayer and plasterer, and – as evidenced by the fact that Emma worked as a laundress throughout her life – keeping themselves above the breadline was clearly an issue.

Another grey area in her life is that she may not have technically married her husband. A marriage record for them does not come to light, although it’s possible that this was due to the fact that he was an army deserter who perhaps did not want to draw the authorities’ attention to himself, rather than anything more underhand. Claiming to be married when you were merely living with your partner was not unheard of at this time, particularly if you had moved away from your birthplace and were living surrounded by strangers. Much information was taken at face value, and there were few systems in place to check claims.

Towards the end of her life Emma was incarcerated again, but this time in a lunatic asylum rather than a prison cell. She was declared a lunatic, but by the standards of the day this illness could have been anything from depression to living a life regarded as immoral, for which use of obscene language and subsequent jail time may have been a factor. She may also have struggled to cope with the effort required to stay out of poverty as her children moved away and she entered her 60s. Outside the asylum, her husband was unable to support himself and ended up placed in the union workhouse.

Emma almost certainly died in the asylum, but was probably buried under her maiden name, which remains elusive.

 

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.

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.

Ellen J’s story

Ellen J was the middle of three daughters, brought up in Gloucestershire in the second half of the 19th century.

Her childhood appears to have been relatively stable, but as an adult she struggled to find work and raise herself from poverty. She appears to have worked as a charwoman when she could find the employment, but spent periods living in the workhouse when work was scarce.

At the age of 43 she was charged with stealing a gold broach, probably from an employer. She was found guilty, and sentenced to 21 days hard labour in jail. It is unknown what form this labour took, but it probably would have been a treadmill or crank, or something equally unconstructive.

On release, she continues to work as a charwoman and spends periods in and out of the workhouse as before.

Seven years later, however, she was again brought before the court – this time for being drunk and disorderly. She was given the choice of a fine of five shillings and threepence, or seven further days hard labour. Her finances clearly being the way they were, it comes as no surprise that she served the sentence.

On release, she returned to the workhouse and occasional charring work. She never married, and died single aged 68.

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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Amy H’s story

Amy H was the youngest of seven children born to a Bristol-based currier – a leather working specialist – and his wife in the mid-19th century. She lost her mother around the age of five, and she and her siblings were brought up by relatives rather than her father, even after he remarried.

As a young woman she lived with her widowed aunt in the fashionable Clifton area of the city. Her aunt had no profession, and was instead an itinerant, and the household had one servant.

Her aunt died when she was 30, and Amy was the sole executor and heir of her will, inheriting a great deal of money. She never married, and with this money remained of independent means for the rest of her life.

Family legend holds that she was a suffragette in the early 20th century. There is no documentary evidence to support this – no prison or court records show her having been involved in civil action – but as an unmarried, independent woman of means in this period she would have been ideally placed to support this cause. She also had several different forms of her name, which may indicate that she was known by different groups of society in separate ways.

In the early part of the 20th century she lived with her widowed sister, supporting and helping her with her young family. Her sister registered no profession on the census records, perhaps an indication that Amy’s inherited money was helping to support the family.

As women gained the vote in 1918, Amy bought property on the outskirts of the city, thus enabling her to take her place on the first electoral roll that women were allowed to appear on. This action may also have labelled her as a suffragette – or at the very least a supporter of women’s rights – in the collective family memory.

She remained in that property until she died, a couple of years after the Second World War, leaving a still considerable amount of money to a builder’s merchant.