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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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.

 

Rosanna B’s story

A “cripple” could really mean anything in Victorian terms, but was likely to refer to a person with a physical disability, whether resulting from an accident or something that someone was born with. Rosanna, who came from the small Wiltshire community of Colerne, was described as a cripple in a newspaper article that trumpeted the birth of her triplet daughters while she was an inmate at Chippenham workhouse in 1890. Her physical problem is put in as an after-thought, inserted to make a multiple birth sound more amazing.

She was a twin herself, born in the late 1850s as one of at least 11 children of an agricultural labouring family who worked the Wiltshire fields. She and her twin brother Ambrose were nearly the youngest in the family. She grew up in the rural community, but while her able-bodied siblings were able to find work in the area it appears that Rosanna could not work as easily, and she was often housed in the Chippenham workhouse.

It’s known that Rosanna had several illegitimate children. The triplets were born out of wedlock, and on a previous census return she is in the workhouse with another illegitimate daughter. In addition to these four, there are two other illegitimate girls in the area that bore her surname and might well be her children.

The earliest of these was born when Rosanna would have been around 13 – not impossible, but extremely rare for the time, as 13-year-olds were mostly still considered children and the onset of menses was generally later back then. If so, her disability may have made her unable to remove herself from a situation that resulted in intercourse – with a diagnosis of “cripple” it’s hard to know. This girl, who was named Georgina, died shortly after birth.

The first definite child that Rosanna bore was Lucy, born in 1880 when she was around 20. The 1881 census finds them together in the Chippenham workhouse, with no former profession given for Rosanna – so it’s possible that she was dependent on her parents for income, and their money would have be stretched with another mouth to feed. Sadly, Lucy died at the age of 3.

Another possible child for Rosanna was Minnie, born in 1888, but again she died very young – aged less than a year. This could mean that Rosanna had had three illegitimate daughters by her late 20s. Victorian attitudes towards disability being what they were, she may have been viewed as not a full person and therefore subject to sexual abuse, or it may also mean that the workhouse was perhaps a safer and more stable environment for her than her home, so she repeated the pattern that had her placed there.

The triplets were born in 1890, and named Lily, Violet and Rose. They were all baptised in Chippenham’s central St Andrew’s Church. Sadly, since children from multiple births are usually smaller and weaker than their singleton counterparts, and the care available in the 1890s was a far cry from today, Lily died shortly after birth.

The 1891 census finds Rosanna still in the workhouse, with Violet and Rose both aged 9 months. Rose died shortly afterwards, aged 1, while Violet survived until the following winter. Both were buried alongside their sister in Chippenham’s London Road cemetery. Rosanna was now still destitute, and childless again.

Three years later, however, her fortunes took an upturn. Somehow, she’d met a man – William –who appeared to be in steady employment and decided he would marry her. They wed in the Tabernacle church, where he appeared to be a member of the congregation but not her, in the mid 1890s. They had set up home together before marriage, living in a small dwelling where the town’s job centre modernly sits.

Rosanna had another baby, Maud, a year after the marriage. Sadly this daughter again died shortly after birth. Another daughter (Mabel) and a son (Percy) followed, and these children were the first of Rosanna’s progeny to live past toddlerhood. Percy in fact lived until his 90s, and produced four children of his own, but sadly his younger brother Ernest also died while very young.

Rosanna’ connections at the workhouse enabled William to gain a better job there as the boiler house stoker, which he held for many years. She herself became a dressmaker, and was able to contribute to the family finances while bringing up her remaining children. Later on they ran a boarding house together in the town’s picturesque St Mary Street, a business that her daughter later continued.

William died in his 70s, in the early 1930s, but Rosanna’s death remains elusive. It’s probable that she did not see the beginning of the second world war, however.

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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.

 

Rose F’s story

Rose F spent the first months of her life, at the tail end of the 19th century, going in and out of workhouses. Her single mother, who had moved from Yorkshire to London, had no family around to support her, and struggled to survive and find work.

After the first year of her life, these workhouse admissions stop, as her mother’s life clearly became more stable. However, they begin again in when Rose was around 5, when she was joined by a younger brother and sister. Another brief period of stability was shattered when her sister died at the age of two, and again she and her brother bounced in and out of workhouses, both in Yorkshire and London. They were usually accompanied by their mother, who sometimes had work as a charwoman or a spinner or a hawker, but sometimes they were placed in the institutions alone.

Rose was often released from the workhouse “to school”, indicating that despite this instability she was being educated.

At some point in the first decade of the 20th century, Rose ceased to be cared for by her mother. It is probable that her brother did too, but there is no further record of him. She appears on the list of a ship known to regularly transport children to Canada as part of the British Home Children scheme, sending under-privileged children abroad to work as migrant and domestic labour to give them purpose and a better life. Several years were shaved off Rose’s age when she travelled, perhaps indicating that she was small enough to pass for a child of 11 and therefore eligible for the scheme.

Just three years later, she married a Canadian machinist in Ontario, claiming to be 20 years old. She also denied all knowledge of who her mother was on the marriage certificate, which suggests that she had not been in her mother’s care for a good long while.

By the 1921 census of Canada, Rose and her husband had a daughter of their own and were still living in Ontario. There is no further available record of the family.

Mary F’s story

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

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

A clue to what was going on for Mary can be found in the 1891 census, which coincided with one of her periods of imprisonment. She is described on the document as a prostitute, which perhaps puts the nature of some of her crimes into perspective, as working girls might often find themselves in difficult and violent situations. However, none of her criminal convictions are for soliciting. Copious newspaper reports have her often drunk and disorderly – at one time threatening to break the windows of a pub who refused to serve her, and only showing regret that she’d not finished the job when charged in court – or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder so badly that the woman needed a fortnight off work to recover.

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

During the time she was in and out of the justice system, Mary was working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Cardiff and Gwent – where she apparently threw herself into the River Usk under the influence of drink, and was escorted to the local workhouse. This was thought to be a suicide attempt. She does not appear on the 1881 census, probably as she was sleeping in a hedge while on the move and did not get picked up by the enumerators.

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

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

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

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. 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 the north again. She had no children in her care – it’s probable that after she was jailed they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

There is no further record of her. She may have married in later life, and been buried under another name. Or she may have died on the road while hawking, and her body and name went unidentified.

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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Hannah C’s story

Having given birth to an illegitimate daughter at 18, while resident in a workhouse, Hannah C might have been considered to be a scandalous fallen woman by Victorian society, and condemned to a life of poverty and shunning.

However, within a few years she’d fallen in love with a steady man, had two further daughters, and was making a living for herself as a milliner. The only trouble with this arrangement was that he was already married to someone else, with children – so on the 1851 census she and her daughters are recorded as visitors to the household, and his wife is nowhere to be seen.

They were able to formalise their relationship when his first wife died a couple of years later. Her first daughter had an illegitimate child herself, and Hannah brought up her grandson in addition to her three daughters.

When her husband, who had worked as both a gardener and a “private wheelchairman” died, Hannah lived with her youngest daughter and family, and again supported herself by taking in sewing.