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.

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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.

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Troy’s story

In the sixth of our grandmother pieces, Marina’s Romanian granny was officially a war widow, but the political situation meant she was always waiting for her husband to return.

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My grandmother Dumitra (known throughout her life by her nickname Troy) was born in 1913 in a small village in the hilly sub-Carpathian region of Romania, in a fertile valley full of orchards. The area is particularly well-known for its plums, with many different varieties, some used to produce the local brandy.
Mamaie Troy (mamaie is an affection term for grandmother in Romanian, rather like Nana in English) was a bit of a tomboy, the youngest in a family of mainly boys. Not only was she a daredevil, riding horses bareback, walking through the forest by herself, but she was also very bright. She only went to school for a few years, her father didn’t have the money or the conviction for education for girls, but she was able to read and write and enjoyed reading throughout her life. This was by no means common for women of her generation who grew up in the countryside. My grandmother on my father’s side, for instance, was illiterate and had to have the letters from my father read out to her by the village priest.
Troy married in the late 1930s, when she was 25-26, quite late for the standards of the time. (Perhaps her tomboyish nature put men off? That, and the lack of dowry.) She married the village shoemaker and had, in quick succession, two sons and a daughter (my mother). The second son died as an infant, but we only know him from a picture, she never talked about him.
Unfortunately, the war came and Romania was originally allied to the Germans. My grandfather got sent to the Russian front in 1940. He did come back at least once, as my mother vaguely remembers him making a pair of red shoes for her when she was about 2, and how proud she was of them. She was the only girl in the village who had shoes at the time.
Then the military dictatorship was replaced and Romania switched allegiance in 1944, but my grandfather never returned. He was officially missing in action, although soldiers who later returned from the war to the village said he had been taken to a Siberian labour camp during the period when the Romanians were fighting the Soviets.
Mamaie Troy waited for him all her life. She didn’t believe he was dead and thought that he might be released one day. Indeed, after Stalin’s death, in the 1950s, some POWs were released, but not him.
Although she was officially a war widow, her husband had died on the ‘wrong front’, and after Romania became Communist in 1947, she was never given any widow’s pension. She tried to keep the farm going single-handedly, with two small children to feed and clothe, but the land was forcibly nationalised and she had to work on the state farms instead.
She was left with just a small patch of land, enough for 3-4 sheep, a pig, chicken, a goat or two and a cow, a tiny orchard and a vegetable patch. She looked after all of these on top of a full day’s work at the state farm, and while looking after the two children.
She spoilt her animals rotten – I remember the pig would follow her everywhere like a dog, even resting at her feet when she was sewing or knitting. Yet she had no qualms whatsoever about slaughtering him for Christmas (traditionally, we have fresh pork for Christmas in Romania).
She had her share of marriage proposals, but she never wanted to bring in a ‘strange man’ into the house, to mistreat her children, potentially. Or so she said. Perhaps she was still hoping for my grandfather to return. Or maybe she’d had enough of men telling her what she could or couldn’t do.
The son (my uncle) was a bit of a troublemaker, so she was constantly having to sort him out, but my mother inherited Troy’s brains and was sent off to secondary school in a neighbouring town. (One good thing about Communism: education was free, and she was given a merit scholarship for her accommodation and food.) But that did mean that Mamaie Troy was left alone from the mid-1950s to tend to her land.
She never complained and never wanted to move to the city, even after my mother went to university, married a diplomat and lived abroad for a while and offered to take her in.
However, she did once visit us in Vienna, where we were living at the time, and struck up friendships with the elderly Austrian caretaker of our block of flats, although neither of them could speak each other’s language. She also learnt a lot about agriculture and vineyards in the area surrounding the Vienna woods – she was always open and curious about other cultures.
I spent many a happy summer at her house with my cousins. She made us work hard – the animals needed to be looked after, we had to bring buckets of water from the well which was 200 metres down the path from the house – but there were still moments when we could go wandering through the forest, eat fruit directly from the trees and read books in the summer breeze.
I distinctly remember reading Anna Karenina up in the cherry tree, stopping every now and then to pick some cherries and coming down with a stained mouth and T shirt. The conditions were primitive – the toilet was in the outhouse, there was no electricity or running water, but Mamaie Troy was very house-proud and was endlessly sweeping and tidying.
Alas, as she grew older, her eyesight started failing (glaucoma) and her limbs stiffening and she was no longer able to keep things clean. It was difficult to convince her to allow us to do a thorough clean though, so we started avoiding eating in her house.
She didn’t want to leave the countryside until she was bedridden. Then she had to move to Bucharest into my parents’ flat and allow herself to be looked after by my mother. It was very hard on them both.
My grandmother couldn’t read anymore, couldn’t even go to the toilet by herself without help, all she could do was lie in bed and listen to the radio. After a while, her hearing got worse as well, so all she wanted to do was talk, but my mother was not able to sit with her all day to listen. Her mind was sharp right until the end and she hated herself being so helpless. She would complain that ‘God had forgotten her on this earth.’
She was always radiant when she saw me, however, and worried about how I was settling in when I went to the UK to study. ‘Isn’t the weather horrible there, my love? Are they treating you well?’
She was the one who consoled my mother when I decided not to return to Romania after completing my studies. ‘She’s got to make her own way in life, she’s not going to hang around for us.’
She was so modern and indomitable in spirit, so ahead of her time. We had a very special bond and I was happy that she lived long enough to know that her great-grandchild was going to be born soon.
Grandmother Troy
Goats bring sticks to the porch.
Her hair harbours leaves.
Brother Pig snouts at the damp patch
beneath the hearth
where she – once more –  spilled the ciorba,
bread chunks softened for three remaining teeth.
She warms her swollen knuckles
against the earthen pot:
all she can hear are the mild-greedy snuffles
of her companion sheep.
Soot caresses the damp wool
of jumpers hung to dry.
Grey hair in its plait, she doesn’t care
if mulberries stain her thumbs or clothes,
fingers in knots, eyes milky clouds,
she no longer mops the muck she cannot see.
Go for a visit: she can still slash her way
through nonsense with a crackle of joints.

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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.

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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Sarah W’s story

Born at the tail end of the 18th century Sarah W was the daughter of a reverend, and made a good match with a metal merchant from Birmingham. His business was successful, and she might have expected to comfortably live out her life in the city, until they made the decision to emigrate to South Australia in 1840.

South Australia was never a penal colony, instead offering land and living to those willing to travel to take it. Many men who took up this offer later called themselves “gentlemen” as they now owned land.  She, her husband, and their four sons all underwent the months-long voyage to the other side of the world, and settled in Adelaide. They were among the first settlers there, as the city had been founded just three years earlier in 1837.

The family thrived in their new country, with one of her sons becoming the premier of South Australia on several occasions.

Sarah returned to the UK in the 1850s when her husband was seriously ill and advised to come home for an operation – medical care being sparse compared to that available in Britain during the earlier years of the settlement. He died in London, and she subsequently went to live out her final years in Scotland with her second son, who had also returned from Australia and settled in Edinburgh.

Her passion was collecting silver teapots. She bought them with the help of her sons, who she owed money for various vessels after her death.

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Dinah R’s story

Dinah R would have needed parental permission to marry, as she wished to do so before the age of 21 and that was the law in the mid 19th century. The object of her affection was a lead miner from North Wales, and they had a son together a year later. Eight further children followed, but the death of her husband’s father meant a change of prospects – and they inherited farm land.

Rather than leaving her profession blank on subsequent census records, Dinah called herself a farmer’s wife – and unusually no enumerator crossed this out considering it irrelevant.

The farm grew, from 14 acres to 46 1/2 acres, and Dinah continued to work on the land, gradually including their children in the workforce as the size increased.
She was bi-lingual, speaking both English and Welsh fluently.

When her husband died she was left the farm in its entirety, providing that she remained a widow. This she did, running the business and working on the land for a further 32 years, and in each census record it is her that is credited as farmer and head of the household though her sons and daughters remain.

 

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