Elizabeth W’s story

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

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

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

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

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

Ship Inn Swindon

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

Railway village

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

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

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

the_birth_of_swindon

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

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

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

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

monthly nurse bill

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

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

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

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

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

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Marion R’s story

Marion was a prison warden, who came off worst under the flying fists of serial offender and prostitute Mary Ann Fairlie in Hull Gaol in the 1880s. But 60 years earlier she probably wouldn’t have been in the job at all, and Mary and the other female prisoners would have been under the charge of a man.

The 19th century saw considerable prison reform across the board, with the reforms of Elizabeth Fry being realised in 1823 when women prisoners were granted the right to be guarded by women themselves. By the 1840s new thinking about prison accommodation separated men and women for much of the day – initialised by London’s Pentonville Prison new design, which had spokes and designate areas – and women were housed and guarded separately, with separate tasks to accomplish during the day. It was to this world that Marion came when she began work as a prison warden, alongside other women in every sizeable gaol in Britain.

She came from the Welsh island of Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, from a tiny community about seven miles inland from Holyhead, and was born to a farming family at the beginning of the 1840s. The only girl in the family, her parents lost two of her five siblings in infancy, and Marion’s father was dead himself before Marion was eight. Her mother, having lost her source of income as well as her husband, became a pauper. Marion’s remaining three brothers were brought up by their mother, while she appears to have spent the rest of her childhood elsewhere. She probably would have spoken Welsh in addition to English, at least at home with family – her brother, on a later census return, is Welsh speaking and it is highly likely that all the rest of the family were too.

By the early 1870s she had left Wales behind, and was working as an assistant matron in the Liverpool workhouse. Liverpool, with a big port as part of the city, was growing rapidly at the time, and many from North Wales moved there to take advantage of the economic opportunities that weren’t available in their mostly-rural communities. Like many big towns – it was not declared a city until 1880 – there was great wealth and great deprivation, and it was those suffering poverty that Marion would have helped on a daily basis.

In the workhouse system, the care of women inmates usually fell to the matron – often the wife of the workhouse master – and as her assistant Marion would have been quite high up in the administration of the institution. The Liverpool workhouse had a large hospital attached, with many nurses, and other supporting staff – wardmistresses, clothing store keepers, sewing mistresses, laundresses. She may have applied for a license to marry in Liverpool in the later part of the 1860s, but it appears that this marriage did not take place in the end.

It was through the workhouse system that Marion met her eventual husband William. He had been born in Dublin, and had grown up in the Birkenhead workhouse, across the river Mersey from Liverpool – but as the son of the workhouse master and not an inmate. He gave various jobs as his occupation around this time – including being a clerk and a groom – but these were probably attached to his workhouse duties. They were married in Liverpool in the summer of 1872, when she was in her mid-twenties.

Soon afterwards, however, William decided to take up a commission in the army. He joined the 7th Hussars, a cavalry regiment. It appears that Marion did not accompany her husband to the barracks as a dutiful army wife, despite the fact that he was deployed in England for eight years after signing up.

Instead, she appears to have continued working – despite the social stigma of a married woman going out to work. By the turn of the 1880s she was working as a prison matron at a gaol in Derby, and calling herself a widow – perhaps an indication that all was not happy in her marriage, or a way of protecting her reputation since she continued to work, as many of the women in this employ were older and single.

The prison regime for women was aimed at reforming criminals’ bad character – using domestic labour (for example a washhouse or a bakery), religious instruction and moral guidance. Matrons were expected to oversee all of this activity, under the direction of the prison governor – who, by this time, after a ruling in 1878, was employed by the government. In this role Marion would have lived at the prison, and been part of the strict regime for female prisoners. She would have enforced the rules, visited each of the prisoners daily, overseen the hard labour given as punishment, and inspected the food, clothing and bedding of her charges. She also would have had charge of other women workers in the prison.

tothill_women_640

By 1883 Marion had moved to the prison at Hull. And the altercation with Mary Ann Fairlie occurred. Mary, who was serving a six-month term with hard labour, had been found in the prison washhouse talking to another prisoner – both breaches of the prison rules. Marion told her to go to her work, but Mary refused and another female warder came to help. Between Marion and the other warder they escorted Mary down the corridor to her cell. However, when Marion let go of Mary’s arm to unlock the cell Mary gave her a violent blow to the eye. Marion dropped her keys, and when she stooped to pick them up Mary continued to punch and hit her around the head and face.

The injuries were so severe that Marion had to be attended by the prison surgeon, and she needed a full two weeks to recover. Mary received a further prison sentence for this beating.

Whether it was this incident or something else, by the beginning of the 1890s Marion had given up her job in the prison and had settled into the army barracks as a military wife with her husband. In the intervening time he’d been sent to Natal – in modern-day South Africa – with his regiment, but had mainly been based in the UK. This cavalry depot was based in Canterbury, Kent, many miles away from where she’d grown up and worked, and full of wives and children alongside the consigned soldiers. Marion and William never had any children.

Unusually, there’s a second marriage record for Marion and William. Twenty one years after they first married, they appear to have married again – at least in the eyes of the British Army, who record their marriage (in Liverpool, not Canterbury) in 1893. This may be a peculiarity of army records, but equally may be an indication of their long separation.

William was posted on duty to India in 1893, but was pensioned out of the army in 1894 after suffering from dysentery and dyspepsia and returned to Marion in Canterbury.

In retirement, their income was William’s army pension. They moved to a farm on the English side of the lower Wye valley, and ran it as a going concern.

They remained there, with Marion taking the role of farmer’s wife – like her mother before her – for more than 20 years.

Marion died in February 1921, in her late 70s. But there is a sting in the tail/tale. By the following July, William had married again – his new wife having taken up residence in their house a while before the wedding.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Mary Ann Fairlie’s story (v2.0)

Mary Ann Fairlie’s two favourite pastimes appear to have been drinking and breaking windows – and if she was denied the first the second would often follow. Newspapers and prison records from all over Britain recount her breaking windows of pub after pub when the landlord refused to serve her, often on account of her foul language – which was considered unseemly in a woman and therefore reported with gusto. These feisty and colourful brushes with the law give an impression of a woman who flew in the face of mid-Victorian propriety, and went through life on her own path. Drinking and window smashing are only a drop in the ocean of her career through the British courts, and her other charges were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.

She appears in available court records on numerous occasions – and in her native Yorkshire an account towards the end of her life says she was up in front of the judge there nearly 90 times (and more elsewhere) – on a variety of offences including larceny, obscene language, wilful damage, drunk and disorderly, stealing a weight, pilfering money, malicious wounding, pawning furniture that did not belong to her, spending war relief funds on drink, fighting in the workhouse, throwing pot bowls at men, and assaulting a police officer. She was also the victim in several cases, being wounded and assaulted herself, and occasionally deliberately committed offences to get a bed for the night. This chequered career takes place across several UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and although clearly painting her as a character of strength and spirit it 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 – although she is charged with stealing money from clients in brothels on a couple of occasions. The copious newspaper reports add colour to the rigid language of the official court documents, and Victorian reporters loved to add embellished language and sensationalised detail. She was often drunk and disorderly – at one time threatening to break the windows of a pub in Mansfield who refused to serve her, and being dragged through the streets on her back afterwards, only showing regret that she’d not finished the job when charged in court and swearing that she’d finish it when she was released – or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder in Hull gaol 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 with her elder brother 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. The first newspaper report has her drunk in Basingstoke at the age of 16 while of no fixed address. This distance from family may have led to her choice of lifestyle, 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 also working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Cardiff and Newport – 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. She does not appear on the 1881 census, probably on account of sleeping in a hedge while on the move and not being picked up by the enumerators.

As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter Rose was born in the mid-1890s, the pregnancy coinciding with an 8-month stay in Wormwood Scrubs for breaking yet more windows, which appears to have reduced 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 Rose 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.

She went north again, and having briefly reappeared in Hull next surfaces in Manchester jail, having got a further six month’s imprisonment while working as a factory hand in Dewsbury. Presumably Rose was left with family during this period. This prison record reports that she was quite tall for a woman of the time, dark haired, with a damaged right elbow and a previously broken jaw. She also had old boyfriend’s names tattooed on her arm and chest, along with a heart and a sailor’s symbol. Tattoos were not uncommon among the Victorian working classes, particularly in the communities surrounding the sea-faring industry, but may also have marked her out as property of these men, who may have acted as her pimps.

A couple of years later, after another court appearance for fighting in Hull workhouse, she had two further children (David and Lillian), 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 spending time in the workhouse too. Around 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 Lillian 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.

A newspaper article from 1905 has her charged with being drunk in charge of a child under seven years, while hawking flowers at a station just outside London. She says her husband is a sailor who has not paid maintenance to the children for two years, but this would appear to be a lie as there is no record of a marriage. She pleads her case and apologises profusely, and says that she will make up her debt to society providing that she is not separated from her children. However, that is exactly what happened as she was jailed for one calendar month.

By the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in Hull again. She had no children in her care – after she was jailed they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life, with Rose ending up in Canada with the British Home Children Scheme and David in an industrial school in Dartford – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

The removal of her children appears to have been detrimental, and the court appearances continue. She was found guilty of spending war relief money on drink not long after the outbreak of the First World War.

Rather surprisingly, in 1915 she got married. This was to a dock labourer called Thomas, who was at least a decade younger than her if not more. This may have been more of necessity than love, however, as she spent most of the next three years in and out of hospital suffering from catarrh and a heart complaint and probably needed the help and extra support.

She died in late 1919, while sewing one Friday night in bed. Apparently she fell backwards and expired immediately – as dramatic an end to her life as it had been lived. She was buried in Hull.

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This post originally appeared in 2017, but has been further researched and updated.

Susannah T’s story

One of the ways women who had an illegitimate child could attempt to get support in Victorian times was to pursue the father of the child through the bastardy courts, and ask for him to pay regularly for the child’s upkeep.

However, if the woman involved was felt not to have been repentant or was perceived as completely fallen, that same court could decide that she deserved no support from the father whatsoever. This was the case with Susannah, who pursued Simon – the father of her child – and petitioned for financial support in 1864. The court refused this request because Susannah had been the mother of six illegitimate children, and therefore was of poor moral fibre. They dismissed the case.

Six illegitimate children would appear to be going it some, for the period, but Susannah appears to have lived a rather unconventional life with regards sexual and marital morals for the period. Simon – who at the time was caught up in the courts for other reasons too (poaching, trespass, and general roughhousing) – was apparently heard to say that if he wasn’t standing on these charges he would not mind paying for the child. This child was his and Susannah’s son George, but he does not appear to have been the father of her other five children. Most of these were little boys, several also named George, who did not live very long.

Susannah was born in a small community just outside Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. She was one of at least nine children, and her parents were agricultural labourers. In early adulthood she left home and found work as a servant – sometimes in Bath, and sometimes in the small communities surrounding that city.

Her first son was born in 1853, when she was around 18, and three subsequent boys named George followed in 1857, 1858 and 1859. A daughter – Elizabeth – who appears to have survived infancy, was born in 1861, and then the fifth boy – also George – in 1864. This would appear to be the child that she attempted to take the father to court over.

She does not appear to have been the only member of her family who indulged in relationships that were against the public perception of decency for the time. Her brother also had a partner he wasn’t married to, who had two illegitimate children.

Having failed to convince the courts of her entitlement to support for her son, and her relationship with Simon having waned, Susannah took up with someone else. This time her paramour was a married man, Samuel, whose relationship had run its course. However, divorce in the 1860s was very difficult to obtain so dissatisfied couples would often live apart. Samuel had taken up with Susannah, and by 1867 they were cohabiting, or certainly seeing each other most evenings. The inevitable happened, and Susannah ended up pregnant again. Or as a newspaper put it, “she found herself in a fair way to increase the pauper population.”

Some months into the pregnancy, Susannah was suffering from pleurisy – an inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and the ribcage. Her partner, according to her sister, mixed her some pepper and water to ease the pain.

Around six months into the pregnancy, after an evening that involved her brother, her lover, her brother’s lover and a bottle of gin, Susannah went into premature labour. The result was premature twins, a boy and a girl, who were too under-developed to survive, but were still born alive.

Susannah asked her neighbour, Ann, to bury the new-born boy and girl in the garden, but her neighbour struggled with this instruction – despite the reward that Susannah promised her – given the children were still alive. Susannah’s sister, who was around at the time, urged her to complete the job, but Ann immediately went back to Susannah, and refused to bury the babies. She began to wash them, but both died during this process as they were too premature.

Shortly after this, Susannah died, after the physical strains involved in giving birth to the twins. Local rumour suspected that Samuel had poisoned her in order to abort the babies, and a court case followed.

It was discovered that Susannah had no trace of any abortifacient in her system, and the cause of death was double pleurisy. And that the twins were too immature to have survived, at least with the medical care available at the time. A death from natural causes was recorded.

About five years later Samuel also died, by drowning in the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes. He slipped while crossing a lock across the water, near Prisoner and Foxhanger bridges, and struck his head against the stonework as he fell. He and his wife appear to have separated after the relationship with Susannah, and the child from his marriage was being brought up elsewhere.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

 

No more suffragettes please!

This week contains the 100th anniversary of another important point in women’s history. On 14 December 1918 the general election called by Prime Minister Lloyd George saw the first women in the UK to cast their votes, after the passing of the Representation of the People Act the previous February.

It’s been a great year for women’s history, on the back of these anniversaries.

But I’m going to say something that may rile some people.

I am PIGSICK of the flipping suffragettes.

I have had a gutful of Millicent, Emmeline, Christabel et al. Sorry, and all that, but it’s true.

Does this make me anti-feminist? Does it make me not worthy of calling myself a women’s historian?

I believe not. I believe it’s a very feminist standpoint, and one that shows my commitment to the wider cause and depth of women’s history.

Of course those women were amazing, inspirational and changed lives. I am not arguing with that in the slightest, and they’ll always have my utmost respect. But they’re not the be all and end all of women’s history by a long way.

My view point comes from the suffrage cause being ALL that anyone wants to talk about when women’s history is mentioned. Talk to a history teacher about women’s history and the general response is “Oh yes, we include women’s suffrage in our curriculum now”, with possibly a footnote on women’s rights in the 20th century. Talk a museum curator about women’s history, and one of the responses I’ve received is an apology of “Oh, we’ve not found a suffragist from our collecting area.”

For the past two years I’ve been running The Women Who Made Me project, which has looked at discovering extraordinary women’s history among the ordinary – we’ve profiled nuns, penitents, criminals, divorcees, landladies, social pariahs, farmer’s wives, cooks, women’s officers, prostitutes, social workers, gentry, workhouse inmates, mothers of fourteen, mothers of none, mothers of illegitimate children, artists, musicians, manageresses, matrons, highway women, confectioners, travellers, teachers, factory workers, and someone who recommended do-it-yourself enemas. All important and diverse parts of women’s history. The idea behind the project is to get people to connect with and value their female ancestry, and not dismiss it as not interesting or relevant. Grassroots women’s history research, if you will.

Recently I’ve looked at an 1880s case where a botched abortion led to a pregnant woman’s death and a herbalist locked up for the crime (which it was at the time) was incarcerated for 23 years past the duration of her original sentence because she insisted upon her innocence and was declared insane.

I’ve also looked at female anti-suffragists, many of whom were articulate and intelligent women, as I was fascinated these women could oppose the idea of expanding rights and roles. One of such was Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, who intrigued me greatly, as even when many other opposers had given up in the face of seeing what women were capable of during WW1, she kept up the fight. And she was so vociferous that she didn’t appear on the electoral roll until she’d changed her surname in 1938. There’s loads more to Gwladys, and I urge you to go and read the rest of her story on The Women Who Made Me.

Why would I want to talk about Emmeline Pankhurst again, when I could talk about some of these women instead?

The rule of thumb is if someone has a Wikipedia page then people know about them, and I tend not to touch them. It’s about uncovering and discovering history that hasn’t really been recorded, for whatever reason – because it wasn’t known about, because it wasn’t considered important, because it was disregarded, because history as taught in schools for decades was believed to be about kings and queens and empire and foreign policy and nothing else, because it sits behind a blank box on a census return, because the woman herself didn’t think it was up to much so didn’t talk about it.

Occasionally, rather than talking about the suffragettes, someone will tell me about their grandmother. Invariably she was a “strong woman”, but when pressed on exactly what that means the answer is “Er… she wasn’t a suffragette or anything but she raised us all her children really well and kept going.”

Strong woman is right. What people usually don’t mention is what granny did before she was married, after she left school. What her childhood was like. Who she was as a person rather than someone based around the house and in a nurturing role. When I asked listeners to BBC Wiltshire to tell me about their grannies there were dozens of stories of warm older women who would make great apple crumble and always be on hand to dispense a cuddle when needed. Which is great – the world needs more people like that – but really doesn’t give the full picture of a person and their life.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a grandmother too. But I’m willing to bet that Helen Pankhurst doesn’t get asked about the quality of her apple crumble, because it might be considered insulting and denigrating everything else she achieved. But she may well have been a good cook. It’s about seeing the whole woman, not just part of her life.

It’s really a question of value when it comes to historical women – what we can find out about them, and looking at what we consider as history or an achievement. There’s been an upsurge in publishing of inspiring books for kids over the past couple of years – the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Women in Science are prime examples. They focus on some exceptional women – of the past and the present. However, the reality is, these women are few and far between, and we’d be really lucky to find someone like them in our ancestry.

And, really, are these women’s achievements being judged by ‘male’ parameters – they are making discoveries and achievements in areas that have been traditionally male: politics, science, medicine, engineering.

Therefore, are we valuing and judging them and their achievements against a male-based scale, rather than valuing them as whole women?

Is that too feminist, or too divisionist, or not the case at all?

Maybe, but it’s definitely something to consider as we look at the women in our ancestry and attempt to find out their stories.

Do we disregard them out of hand if it looks like they “just” had children, and didn’t do something that little bit different or out of the ordinary? There’s the “blank box” syndrome, whereby a married woman’s details weren’t recorded on many census returns because she had no identity past that of her husband and children. Even the jobs she did do – for example helping with home-based manufacture, or farming, or running a pub or shop – were attributed to her husband if she was married.

The point is, these women – those who exceeded society expectations, challenged perceptions and broke molds – are few and far between. We’re lucky if we find one in our ancestry, but most of us haven’t got that. The quite frankly excellent recent Back In Time For The Factory on the BBC looked at this – the story of ordinary working class women in garment factories, and ascribing value to their experiences.

What we need to do is re-evaluate the women we do have in our ancestry, and find value in their stories.

The nature of humanity often means that we think ourselves better than those who came before us, because we’ve built on their achievements. But this often means we’ve not experienced what those of the past did – for example multiple pregnancies (unless your name happens to be Helena de Chair), or high infant mortality rates, or domestic work without modern appliances – so our judgement on what to value comes from a blinkered perspective. Margaret Llewelyn Davies’ Maternity, published in 1915, features very frank accounts of working-class motherhood and domestic work from the late Victorian era that are completely alien today.

By its very nature, our family history comes down to us from married people, women who had achieved the “ultimate” and envied position for a woman – that of wife and mother. Society taught people to pity the unmarried woman as she had not achieved this position (look at words like spinster, old maid, dried up, etc, as opposed to bachelor) – but actually the unmarried women are often the most interesting, if you seek them out. But because they have no descendants they tend to be an afterthought in our family history, if they feature at all. It’s all about the lens we see women of the past through – because of how it was recorded.

The question is, should we perpetuate that viewpoint and that lens in how we view our female ancestry?

Or should we challenge it?

The ending of the year of important suffrage anniversaries means that women’s history has quite justifiably had a lot of focus over the last 12 months. What needs to happen now is that interest to be sustained, and to go beyond those obvious figures – looking at more than just the suffragettes.

Harriet and Mary Ann’s story

Abortion was illegal in the UK until 1967, so unfortunately when we hear about it publicly before this date it is likely because it has gone disastrously wrong. This is the case in Harriet and Mary Ann’s story from 1883, which may also feature elements of injustice in the British legal system of the time. It’s up to the reader to decide based on the evidence.

Wherever your politics, moral and religious beliefs take you on the subject of abortion, a crisis pregnancy is exactly that – one that a woman feels that she cannot continue with, whether for health, mental health, society factors, or any other myriad of reasons. And until a woman faces that situation, it is a real unknown as to how she will react and then choose to act. In most countries around the world abortion has been illegal at some point – and in some it still is, or is verging on being again – and therefore making a choice to end a pregnancy puts a woman into a particularly murky place morally, religiously and societally. But wherever you personally fall on these matters, some women will still want abortions.

Abortion is, therefore, very much part of women’s history. Particularly in an era when “good” girls were supposed to be chaste until marriage, sexual desire on the part of women was barely even known about much less discussed, and illegitimate children carried a huge societal stigma. However, men who did engage in sexual intercourse outside marriage – although perhaps frowned upon – were not subject to the same stigma, and male desire was an acknowledged concept throughout all walks of life.

Therefore, when Mary Ann – a single Wiltshire woman not in her first flush of youth – discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1883, she had to decide whether to keep the baby and face the wrath of society, or undergo an illegal abortion.

She’d been born in Chippenham in the early 1850s, the oldest child of a gardener and his wife, and lived in a small cottage to the east of the town. After some schooling she lived at home with her parents and siblings, and contributed to the family income as a dressmaker. However, unmarried and staring her thirties in the face, she left the confines of a Wiltshire market town and went to London, gaining a position as a cook in an affluent townhouse. She was there for six years. She worked for a chemist and his family, as one of several servants with the family, and her employer had several unmarried sons living at home and working in his business.

It’s unknown exactly who fathered Mary Ann’s child, it could have been one of her employers’ sons or someone else entirely, but during the spring of 1883 she lost her job and returned home to Chippenham, to her recently widowed mother’s care. About this time she began to complain of “indigestion”.

Most women at this time were kept ignorant of the mechanics of sexual intercourse until they were married – when it was therefore considered necessary for them to know – but even then information (usually lying back and thinking of England) was not passed on easily between mother and daughter, and men were often ignorant too. The attitude of many doctors was that women had no sexual feelings apart from the urge to have children. So, it may be that Mary Ann did not know exactly what had happened to her.

Her lover may also have been uninformed to a degree – unmarried men were often not given the full picture either, and contraceptives at this time were very much in their infancy. There were leather condoms for men, but these were expensive and had to be asked for directly at the chemists as they weren’t displayed. Women could use an inserted piece of sponge on a string that was coated with a spermicide substance, but only if they knew about it, which Mary Ann probably didn’t.

Therefore, when Mary Ann complained of indigestion, her mother took her to see a herbalist in Calne, the next town over, for a remedy as this would have been cheaper than seeing a doctor.

This herbalist was Harriet, who at this time was in her early 40s. She’d been born in Herefordshire, had married her husband Isaac in Wolverhampton, and they’d had six children together. Isaac had come to Wiltshire to run a pub near Malmesbury, making Harriet a landlady for a time, but by the early 1880s he was settled in Calne as a gardener and Harriet ran a herbalism business alongside him.

On Mary Ann’s first visit to Harriet, she was supplied with some liquid and 16 powders to take to cure her indigestion. This, obviously, didn’t work, and Mary Ann made several subsequent visits for further treatments, accompanied on occasion by relatives and friends of her mother. Whether the true nature of Mary Ann’s condition became obvious to Harriet during these visits is unknown. Harriet insisted, later, that she did not know at all, and certainly outwardly she was still treating Mary Ann for digestion-based complaints.

Since Mary Ann was still not cured and had taken to her bed, Harriet came to visit her in Chippenham, and they spent some time alone talking. Mary Ann then, four days later, went again to visit Harriet in Calne. Upon her return she felt unwell, vomited, and went to bed. Then a further three days later Harriet again came to see Mary Ann and her mother, and this time – according to witnesses – made it clear that something had happened to Mary Ann. Her mother stated that Harriet had said: “If anyone asks what is the matter you say it is a tumour, but it has burst now, and she will soon be all right.” And another witness said that she’d said it was a bloody tumour and she would soon be all right and up in two or three days. These witnesses also say that Harriet took something away in her basket. The following day a doctor was called, who said that Mary Ann was suffering from inflammation of the womb and peritonitis, and sadly Mary Ann died later that day.

Given the now serious nature of the matter, a post-mortem was performed on her the following day by the doctor. The opinion was that she had died either from the effects of the noxious drugs (fennel and rue were found), from the effects of an instrument used upon her, or from both. Harriet was subsequently arrested.

Information about how to administer an abortion was well known in whispers among married women at this time, for occasions when they felt they could not afford another mouth to feed. Some doctors at the time reckoned that one in four pregnancies ended this way. There were many dangerous methods: pints of gin, hot baths, knitting needles inserted into the womb, falling downstairs. Alternatively, there were dangerous drugs, which brought on an abortion as a side-effect: adhesive plasters contained diachylon, which was made from lead and could be bought from the chemist, and would then be eaten. There was also a mixture called ‘hickey-pickey’, which was bitter apple, bitter aloes and white lead, which could all be purchased from the chemist. Infusions of rue were a known irritant, and had abortifacient properties, and was sometimes combined with other herbal infusions to increase potency.

It is likely that at least two of these methods – inserting an instrument, and a rue and fennel infusion – were used in Mary Ann’s case. But whether they were administered by Harriet the herbalist – as the subsequent murder court case claimed – or by Mary Ann’s mother and friends, is open to question.

The prosecution alleged that Mary Ann’s mother claimed Harriet said to her that she had “instruments”, but they were never to be seen. Harriet apparently carried away something from the house in a bag. And the post-mortem, having found no trace of any noxious drugs in Mary Ann’s stomach, concluded that the cause of death was the instrument used to expel the pregnancy, which was used with enough force to cause the internal bruises and that Mary Ann could not have administered that herself. This was the case against Harriet.

Her defence argued that Harriet had not been seen to possess one single noxious drug in this case, and that a single piece of “rue” might not actually be the plant. And that the instruments described were not to be seen, much less obviously used. They also felt that the day the instruments were used was the day that Mary Ann had travelled to Calne and back on the train, and that if she’d suffered the amount of bruising and wounding that day she would not have been able to walk properly. The defence suggested that Mary Ann had suffered a miscarriage, and that Harriet perhaps had attempted to help her evacuate the womb to both improve her health and save her reputation. Or that Mary Ann’s friends and relations may have attempted to do the same, and subsequently accidentally caused her death.

The summing up of the case by the judge was as follows:

His Lordship, addressing the jury, said it was the law of England that a person who, pursuing a felonious intent, brought about the death of another person was guilty of murder. Thus, if this woman endeavoured to procure abortion and in doing so produced Mary Ann’s death, it was murder. But if treating Mary Ann for an innocent purpose and not to procure abortion and death – through her unskilfulness – followed it was not murder but manslaughter. It was important to consider whether drugs and instruments had been used. The doctor had said that an instrument must have been used. Then who used it? Could the poor woman herself or her friends? No suspicion was associated with the friends; and it must be remembered that the deceased and the prisoner were in frequent association.

Whatever actually happened to Mary Ann, and the role of her mother and Harriet in the case, in the end, Harriet was found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Her words on hearing the verdict were:

I am not guilty. I am entirely innocent. It is only a vile conspiracy on the part of (Mary Ann’s mother) and her friends. Oh, my lord, I knew no more of her true condition than you did. Oh, my poor children, don’t take me away from them.

It is hard, from a modern perspective, to read this case and not wonder if details were missed, and conclusions drawn on the part of each of the women involved that related to society and women’s expected role within the social structure. Modern investigation and medical practices might also have had a bearing on the case. It may be that Harriet – reportedly a devout Baptist – was entirely innocent, and suffered a miscarriage of justice, or it may be that as a married woman with six children of her own she knew how not have another and applied that knowledge to Mary Ann. What is certain though is that Mary Ann’s death was entirely accidental, and the villain of the piece is neither party, nor the man who made Mary Ann pregnant, but the society that they lived in that both denied women’s sexuality and desire, and vilified women for acting upon them in an entirely natural manner.

Harriet was jailed for ten years for the manslaughter, and sent to Woking prison, many miles away in Surrey. Her husband remained local to Calne and Chippenham, bringing up their children. However, seven years into her sentence Harriet was declared insane and taken to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum until a further order or the expiration of her sentence.

In 1893, when her original sentence ran out, Harriet was taken to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Devizes where she remained indefinitely. It is from their records that we can decipher what had happened to her.

Her insistence of her innocence in the case that had convicted her had by this time become an obsession, and she had been therefore diagnosed of chronic mania with delusions of persecution.

The doctor reports:

Says she is the victim of a conspiracy to deprive her of her liberty – that she is cruelly and shamefully treated by those in authority, preventing her husband and friends communicating with her or to make any effort to alleviate her sufferings: that her trial, sentence and consequent confinement are illegal.

Her confinement and treatment in prison, not surprisingly, appears to have had an extremely detrimental effect on her mental health. Harriet is the only patient at the time not to have a photograph included in the records – she apparently believed that if they took one they might use it against her to persecute her. Reports are that she believed the staff were against her, and that she was a force of good and others were wicked. She read and quoted from the Bible continually, and wrote to committees and asked to be released – which was denied. Victorian psychiatric care being what it was, there is no treatment recorded for Harriet and it appears that their plan was to lock her up until she gave up this insistence of her innocence. She never did.

She somehow collected money while in the asylum, which she intended to use to aid her escape, but it’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There are three incidences of her being caught with money that she should not have had, once while bathing a sovereign disguised as a button was found in her clothes, and another time she was found to have bought epsom salts while out shopping with other inmates in Devizes.

Aside from her mental health, she apparently was a great sportswoman who had a real affinity with animals. She acted as the hospital rat catcher. She was also described as an ardent naturalist – which fits with her plant knowledge as a herbalist.

She was kept in the Wiltshire Asylum for 23 years past the end of her original sentence, and does not ever appear to have given up her claim of innocence. Release, when it occurred, appears to have been unremarkable. She had had some physical health issues and was quietly allowed to return to her husband in the summer of 1915, at the age of 75.

He had been living with his sister and her husband in Oxfordshire, working as a jobbing gardener. They had six years together before he died leaving his assets to her. It’s unknown whether she remained in Oxfordshire for her final years, or lived with one of her children in Bristol, but she died some years after her husband.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Phillis Dowson’s story

While the internet is full of references – and even the text of – an American version of a Women’s Suffrage Cookbook, published to aid the cause in the States in 1915, the earlier British version is less known and considerably hard to get hold of.

The Women’s Suffrage Cookbook was compiled and edited by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who held up the British tradition of resigning her own name to that of her husband despite her political views, in the early years of the 20th Century. One reference gives its publication as 1908, but several others say 1912, so whichever is right the book was in existence at the height of the women’s suffrage campaign.

The project had two real objectives – to raise funds for the suffrage cause, and to provide quick easy dishes for women to prepare for their family so that they’d have more time for campaigning.

Whether it was her brainchild or not, the book was put together by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who was born Phillis Ellen Heaton Atkinson in 1876 in Frimley, Surrey.

She was one of six children of Edmund Atkinson, an author and professor of physics at one of the Oxford colleges, and his wife Mary—the daughter of Bristol-based soap magnate Christopher J Thomas.

She grew up in Surrey, with a full complement of servants in the household, also spending time in Bristol with her grandfather. Educated well into her teens, she didn’t work afterwards, indicating that the family finances were solid enough for her to devote herself to other pursuits. Her father died in 1900, leaving a considerable amount of money to Phillis’ mother. At the age of 27 — in 1903 — Phillis married Aubrey Osler Dowson.

Aubrey had been a prominent rugby player in his youth—he played forward for New College Oxford and Leicester, and later for Moseley. He also played in the starting XV for England versus Scotland in 1899. By the time he married Phillis he had settled into a career as a glass manufacturer, but perhaps his prominent name was a factor in her choosing to be known by it rather than her own.

Aubrey’s aunt, Catherine Osler, was also well-known suffragist, who was perhaps part of influencing Phillis’s political leanings. Aubrey worked for the Osler family glass manufacturing business, and they probably had close ties with the firm.

Phillis and Aubrey had no children.

By the 1911 census Phillis was fully involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and declared herself as a women’s suffrage philanthropic worker. Her mother also expressed support for the suffrage campaign on her census return.

Many of the recipes in Phillis’s cookbook were drawn from suffrage campaigners working in the Midlands, around the Warwick and Birmingham area where she and Aubrey were living at that time. However, some well-known figures appear in the pages – Millicent Fawcett contributes some recipes, as does Helena Swanwick. She appears to have published nothing else following this cookbook. Phillis became secretary for the Midland Federation for the NUWSS.

Despite being almost 40, Aubrey signed up for military service during the Great War, leaving Phillis alone at home. He survived, but his record is one that was destroyed in a fire.

In later life, Phillis and Aubrey travelled to exotic places—Morocco and Indonesia.

They moved to a farmhouse at Hanging Langford, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, for their last years.

Aubrey died in 1940, but Phillis was not an executor of his will—he left a considerable amount of money to a solicitor and a civil servant.

Phillis outlived her husband by four years. When she died, in 1944, she left £70k to her bank.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.