Mary H’s story

It is a bit of a myth that married women didn’t work in Victorian times – they often did, whether it was acknowledged or not. Unacknowledged roles might be serving behind the bar in the family pub, having their own jobs on a farm, or doing the accounts for her husband’s business. All these would still leave the profession box blank on a census return – the job was their husband’s, and therefore the work was attributed to him.

When it came to acknowledged work, low pay on behalf of their husbands would often mean that married women had to juggle childcare alongside a job, whether it was taking in laundry to make ends meet, or having a more formal role in a factory. However, respectable married women were not supposed to work in polite society – but if you had faced stigma from various different sources all your life, this probably mattered less as to how you saw your place in the community, and you carried on regardless. And this work ethic could help inspire those who came after you.

Mary was a married worker, with 14 children under her belt by the time she’d reached her 40s, and continually worked as a cloth weaver throughout her life. But she probably had faced enough stigma through her earlier life that any censure for working was water off a duck’s back.

The fact that she was a cloth weaver came from her parentage. Her father William had worked as a cloth weaver himself since his early teens, and many of his nearest and dearest worked throughout their lives too, whether they were male or female.

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Mary was born in Rhydyfelin, South Wales – in modern day Rhondda Cynon Taff, not far from Pontypridd. The cloth industry at that time (late 1850s), in that area, was small. There was one mill, at Upper Boat and Rhydyfelin on the banks of the river Rhondda, which was run by Evan and James James. This had a small workforce, of which Mary’s father William, and possibly her mother Fanny, was part. Evan and James James, though cloth factory owners, are better known as the composers of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or Land of My Fathers, the Welsh National Anthem, and a statue commemorates them in Pontypridd.

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Fanny was William’s third wife. Mary had a living brother from his first marriage, no siblings from his second, and then an older brother – Edward – from his marriage to Fanny. They were joined by sisters – Frances and Sarah, who lived, and Ann, who didn’t. Though William came from Wiltshire and Fanny from Somerset, the family moved around a great deal, going where the work was. They spent time around Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Tiverton and Chard in Somerset, and Cam and Wootton Under Edge in Gloucestershire, but Mary was the only child born in Wales.

Fanny died in 1869, when Mary was around 10, and her father very quickly married a fourth time – to Caroline. Mary gained a step-brother near her own age, and four siblings, all but one who lived.

On the face of it, this appears to be a fairly normal working class childhood for the period, but William’s four wives and the speed with which he mostly married the next after the previous wife’s death could point to something a little out of the ordinary, or even sinister.

Clarity is gained when it becomes more obvious that the family were early converts to Mormonism. William’s brother Samuel had left the Trowbridge area for Utah and Salt Lake City in the early 1850s, and their father Edward and other siblings were also known to have been members of that church. Five years before Mary’s birth there were around 50,000 Mormons in the UK. The earliest establishment of Mormon worship in Wiltshire was in the mid-1840s at Steeple Ashton, just outside Trowbridge, which fits with where the family were based. Mormons, as it was a fairly new faith with different interpretations and customs from established Church of England practices or even non-conformist groups, met a fair amount of suspicion and stigma in their community. At that time the church had not yet renounced polygamy, so it is possible that William and his wives may have had arrangements that were not recognised in the law of the time.

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Growing up in this community, wherever you were based, could not have been easy for Mary and her siblings. Indeed, a great many Mormons emigrated to Utah from the Steeple Ashton area in the later part of the 19th century, having faced persecution. It is therefore no surprise that Mary’s choices in adulthood flew against society’s norms, whether the family needed the money or not.

The family settled at Drynham, to the south of Trowbridge – a town with many cloth mills – during Mary’s teens, and then into the town centre itself. She married Frederick, another weaver, in 1878 when she was around 19. Her father and stepmother and siblings were still in the area at the time, but they shortly emigrated to Utah themselves, leaving Mary behind. Her wedding doesn’t appear to have taken place in Mormon premises, however, as they married in a non-conformist chapel.

Frederick, a cloth worker who had been brought up purely in Wiltshire, does not appear to have either shared Mary’s faith or been particularly wedded to non-conformism. This is evident in that their first son, Thomas, who was well on the way by the time they married, had a Church of England baptism in Trowbridge.

Thomas, Mary’s first born, did not live very long. He was dead within a month of birth. The same fate awaited her second child, Rosa Augusta, who followed just over a year later – though she managed to last three months. Throughout, Mary worked at the clothmill, alongside Frederick.

Her third child, a daughter named Rose, was the first to survive babyhood. By the time of the 1881 census she was 3 months old and living with her parents in a two-up, two down property in the southern part of Trowbridge. Even this early in her babyhood, Mary was working as a woollen spinner, attached to one of the many nearby mills. The next two children, Laura and Frederick, also survived early childhood, but a third daughter – Florence – did not, dying in the winter of 1886 aged around 5 months.

Mary’s husband Frederick died shortly afterwards in early February, aged 32, leaving her cloth work as the only means of support for her and her three children. Another baby, Herbert, followed in the Spring of 1887. Mathematics would indicate that he was not Frederick’s child, since he was born 13 months after his father’s death, but he bore Frederick’s surname. In later life, when he signed up for the marines, he added a year to his age – but since this would put his birth at barely seven months after that of Florence, it does not work out. Exactly who Herbert’s father was is lost to time.

Around a year later, Mary’s daughters Rose and Laura enter the Union Workhouse at nearby Semington. Day books of entries have not survived, so their records of entry come from the workhouse school. It seems likely that Mary also entered, along with sons Frederick and Herbert, who were too young for schooling, but no record survives of this. To have at least some of the family in the workhouse means that she was struggling financially to keep going.

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Four years later though, Mary had come to Chippenham to work in the Waterford Cloth Mill there and can be found on the 1891 census. Her two surviving sons were with her, but her daughters were not. Both still remained in the workhouse, and had been baptised from there too. In addition, there was a new baby, Walter, from her second husband Jacob – another worker at the cloth mill. However, there is no formal record of their marriage evident. Jacob had also been married before – his first wife Elizabeth died in 1888 – and Mary inherited six step-children. Despite a new baby, she was still working in the cloth mill. The fact that both daughters were still in the workhouse meant that there was not enough money coming in to support their upkeep.

After Walter she had five more children, taking her personal total of pregnancies to fourteen and her combined total with Jacob’s first family included to twenty children. The first was Florence, then Wilfrid (named after her brother, and who only lived a few months) then Wilfred, Lily, Ernest and William. William, the youngest, born in 1902 when she was around 43, again did not survive early childhood. So, although Mary had given birth to fourteen children, she had only nine that lived past infancy.

Throughout all these pregnancies Mary continued to work in the cloth mill. One of her earlier daughters, Laura, came to live with the new family and worked at the nearby condensed milk factory. The other from the workhouse seems to disappear – but may have been known as Annie rather than Rose, so may be in records under a different name. Jacob, who was also a hard worker, also sometimes worked at the cloth mill, but in addition worked as a carter for a local coal merchant. He is known to have been quite politically active, taking his children to see future Prime Minister Lloyd George speak in around 1903. His father was also living on the same street, which was known for poor quality housing that would often flood on the ground floor when the river was high, so it is possible that he helped out with childcare for Mary and Jacob’s children. Most of the children worked in local industries as they grew up – the cloth mill, and the milk factory invariably.

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In 1910, at the age of 53, Mary died. Her daughters Florence and Laura therefore took on much of the household and care for the children, as Jacob continued to work for another three years until his own death. Two of her sons were killed in the First World War, and the rest of her children all worked hard throughout their lives – mostly around Chippenham. It’s her daughter Florence that is best remembered however, being extremely active around workers rights, and an eventual president of the TUC. She was later made a Dame.

Theodosia F’s story

The current special exhibition at Chippenham Museum, in Wiltshire (WWMM’s home town, if it wasn’t obvious) is:

What’s in Store: Behind the Scenes at Chippenham Museum

They have on display many objects that people have donated to the museum over the years, which reflect the history of the town but are not always the sort of object that you might associate with a display, alongside information on the history of the museum and how they care for its objects.

One of their objects is this lovely sampler:

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Beautifully stitched, it was made by Theodosia Faulkner, who was seven in 1788. This gives her a birth of around 1781, so WWMM couldn’t help but investigate.

It turns out that Theodosia wasn’t from Chippenham at all. She was born to John and Rebecca Faulkner in Birmingham – over 100 miles away – and baptised at St Phillip’s Church in the July of 1781.

She appears to have been their third child. There were brothers called John and Joseph born before her to the same parents, and a younger brother James followed a couple of years later.

At this date very little was recorded about jobs and economic conditions of the family, so it is unknown what her father did, but in later life one of her brothers was an accountant – which speaks of a fairly wealthy family. The fact that Theodosia made a sampler of this quality also indicates a fair amount of money in the family – rather than having to help with domestic work, wealthier girls at this age were taught decorative needlework, mostly cross stitch, and produced work like this as a test of their skill. They demonstrated the knowledge and accomplishment of the young girl – hence why her tender age is usually included – and were seen as a sign of virtue, achievement and industry. More history and information on samplers can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Without a visit to Birmingham records office, it’s hard to find out much more about Theodosia’s family. It’s possible that there may be further record of her father there. But what is possible to deduce is something of what happened to the family later through church records.

Theodosia’s brother James died in 1790, aged around six. He is one of many children on the burials page, often given with their parents’ names, showing that loss of a young child in this area at this date was far from a rare occurrence.

Her brothers John and Joseph grew up and married, and had children of their own. It was Joseph who became the accountant.

Theodosia herself died in May 1798, when she would have been nearly 17. As she was under the age of majority, her parents’ names are also given on her burial record. Her brother John had a daughter called Theodosia in 1808, probably named to remember his sister.

How did this young woman’s work happen to be in the stores of Chippenham Museum though? It would have been donated by someone local to Chippenham to be preserved – which they have done – and looked after, and it’s in the nature of all museums to care for any object they’ve had donated, regardless of where it originated from.

Birmingham to Chippenham at this time does seem a little bit far though, until you read some of the town’s street directories – published since 1877 by local printing firm Spinkes – and census records, and realise that there have been Faulkner families in the town for at least 150 years. Perhaps Theodosia and her family were relatives of these families, and her work and legacy was passed down through the generations, and now is cared for in the capable hands of Chippenham’s museum.

Martha S’s story

The view of a Victorian workhouse we carry today is often informed by Dickens’ Oliver Twist – brutal treatment, poor quality food, not-particularly sanitary living conditions – but rather than deliberately designed to de-humanise people, workhouses existed to provide relief for the poor and ostentatiously to get them back on their feet and a useful member of society again.

Chippenham’s Union workhouse, formalised after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, initially used a building at Lacock and several smaller buildings in The Butts which had been the workhouse provision for several decades, but in the 1850s the decision was made to build a purpose building – now Chippenham Community Hospital on Rowden Hill.

Workhouses were usually run by married couples, with the man being the master – in charge of the management of the institution and its inmates – and his wife being the matron, who was the deputy manager and looked after female inmates and children, and was in charge of the building’s domestic arrangements.

The matron of Chippenham’s workhouse from some point in the 1860s was Martha Elizabeth Gane, alongside her husband James.

She’d been born Martha Elizabeth Smith in Bath, one of two surviving children of an accountant and his wife, and spent her childhood living in grand Georgian houses in the heart of the city during the 1840s and 50s. She and her brother George were educated at home, and continued this education well into their teens – unusual in an era where most schooling finished around 12. Their household has a servant but no sign of a governess, indicating that it was their parents – probably their mother – who provided this education.

At the age of 21 she married James Gane at St Swithin’s Church in Bath. He was an accountant, living in Temple Cloud, so she had probably met him through her father. They married by special license rather than by banns, which meant that the marriage could happen quickly. In some cases this could have been marriage by necessity, but since their first daughter Rosetta was born the requisite nine months later perhaps a judgement of whirlwind romance might be the better one.

Although marrying an accountant sounds grand, and monied, for this age, James did not stick this profession out and did not provide the sort of lifestyle that Martha had grown up knowing. Their second daughter’s (Constance) birth, in East Brent, has him as a clerk, while their third (Georgina) sees them back in Bath with him working as a victualler – usually either a publican or keeper of a shop that sold alcohol. Martha would have assisted him in this by serving customers.

By 1861 the family were in Chippenham, on the Causeway. Martha was helping James to make ends meet by taking in work as a dressmaker and milliner (hat maker), alongside her sister and her sister in law, while he worked as a solicitors’ clerk. They also lived in Castle Combe for a while, as their son Percy was born there, but by the time their final child Claude appeared the family are back in Chippenham and Martha’s husband James is recorded as the master of Chippenham Union Workhouse.

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As Matron of the Workhouse Martha had jurisdiction over the whole complex. This included accommodation for vagrants in the entrance block, and a main block with an infirmary, a chapel, a dining hall and several service buildings. Her staff included a schoolmaster and schoolmistress – responsible for educating the inmates’ children and possibly Martha’s own too, a porter, and nurses. Later on the workhouse also had an industrial trainer – passing on new skills – and a bandmaster, who presumably ran a workhouse band with the inmates as a form of entertainment and rehabilitation. On the 1871 census the workhouse has 201 inmates, many of them women and children – who would have been looked after by Martha. Several of the inmates are given as “idiot from birth”, “lunatic” or “imbecile”, indicating long term learning difficulties and care needs, and probably had lived in the workhouse for most of their lives. Others were widows with no visible means of support once their husbands had passed away, and there was at least one unmarried woman with a tiny illegitimate baby.

All three of her daughters continued to be educated until their later teens, like Martha had. During the 1870s they all married from the workhouse: Rosetta to a schoolmaster, and she became a schoolmistress at Yatton Keynell; Constance to a Poor Law Officer from Newbury, and she went on to become matron of the workhouse herself; and Georgina to the church organist from St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham.

Martha’s sons, who were considerably younger, still lived at home at the Workhouse until they were grown, and then one of them ran his own workhouse for many years. She stayed at the Chippenham workhouse, alongside James, working as the matron until 1898. This meant she had served as matron for around thirty years. Towards the end of her tenure she took on an assistant matron to help her with the role.

On retirement, she and James moved back to Bath. He had a pension as a retired poor law officer, and this enabled them to afford a reasonable house and the services of a servant. A young married couple in their 20s, the Whittakers, took over the running of the Chippenham workhouse which had been their domain for so long.

Martha died in 1916 in Bath, aged 82, leaving around £300 to her husband James.

Several masters and matrons of the workhouse followed the Ganes. In 1911, Arthur Shirley Fussell and his wife Frances were in position, but by 1915 William Humphries was in charge. And by 1923 James Burnett Pierce and his wife Ethel were in situ. No-one stayed as long as the Ganes, however. In the 1930s the workhouse was known as Chippenham Institution, and it became St Andrew’s Hospital in 1948. When other hospitals in the town had closed, the building became Chippenham Community Hospital and still serves the town.