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.

Women-Mill-Workers

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.

JamesJamesEvanJamesMemorialPontypriddPark

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.

Samuel E. Harding and siblings 001

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.

The Robinson sisters’ story

“Four plucky Wetherby Postwomen” trumpets the Leeds Mercury in February 1916, in a masterstroke of propaganda. The Military Service Act had been passed a month earlier, specifying that single men aged 18-40 were liable to be called up for service unless they were widowed with children or religious ministers. Then in June that year married men were included. Articles like this served to reassure men that their jobs were being kept safe for them while they were at the front, and women that they could release their loved ones without risk of loss of income. However, it also served to empower the women’s workforce, showing that they were perfectly capable of doing many jobs that previously had been the preserve of men, and this hastened women’s suffrage in 1918.

“Four Wetherby sisters, who are acting as postwomen, and so releasing men for service,” says the article. “Two of them are soldiers’ wives, whilst a third is a soldier’s widow, her newly-married husband having fallen at Suvla Bay. The fourth is unmarried. From left to right:- Mrs Mary Adkins, whose husband is a prisoner in Germany; Mrs Grace Nicholson, whose husband is in France; Miss Emily Robinson, and Mrs Harriet Hobson, whose husband fell at Suvla. (Lamb)”

Robinson women postwomen

The four Robinson sisters – for that was their original surname – were in fact no strangers to post delivery. That had been their father James’ job for much of their early lives, although he had also worked as a foreman on roadbuilding works before dying young in 1900. At this point, Mary was 15, Grace was 13, Emily was 10, and Harriet was 8, and their mother Faith sent the older girls out to work, while working herself as a newsagent and shop keeper. They had brothers – Harry, Jim and Clarence – the older of whom worked as a letter carrier himself after his father’s death, and the youngest who died aged just 14.

Each of the sisters has their own tale to tell, the details of which are hinted at in the photo caption.

Mary

Mary Adkin

Mary was baptised in 1884, and was her parents’ second child. The death of her father in 1900, when she was 15, meant that the family was without a breadwinner – so as the oldest child she was expected to contribute to the family finances. She moved out of the family home and was apprenticed to a dressmaker elsewhere in Wetherby, to learn a good trade. However, she gave up work to get married to Edgar Adkin, a soldier who had served in the Boer War, at the tail end of 1905.

She had a son, also called Edgar, in the following summer. Sadly, he died aged not-quite 1. Another son, Reginald, arrived in 1908 and survived. Her husband came out of the army and into the reserves, and became a town postman in Wetherby. It’s likely that Mary, given her background in the postal service from her father, helped him out in this job.

At the outbreak of World War One in August 1914 Edgar was taken back on as a soldier, and was sent to France with his regiment. He was reported as missing in action on the 20th of September 1914, having been attacked near Reims in Northern France. Eventually Mary and Reginald were notified that he was alive and a prisoner of war in Germany – which would have been a relief, but they would not have known how long he would be held for.

At the time of the Leeds Mercury article, Mary was effectively a single parent caring for an eight-year-old son, with no other visible means of support. It’s probable that she happily took up duties as a postwoman, with her mother Faith and sisters’ help with childcare.

Definitive records for when Edgar was released aren’t publicly available, but this was probably in 1918. He would have received the war medals, gone into the reserves again in 1919, and then went back to Wetherby to work as a postman.

Mary, Edgar and Reginald moved to Bedale, where Edgar continued to work in the postal service and Reginald became a commercial traveller. Mary, according to the 1939 register, went back to unpaid duties at home. They appear not to have had any further children. Reginald married in 1930.

Edgar died in York in 1943, so did not see the end of the Second World War. Mary lived on until the early 1950s, dying in Northallerton, Yorkshire.

Grace

Grace Nicholson

The second sister in the newspaper picture, Grace, was only 13 when her father died. She appears to have continued at school, and helped her mother at home and in the newsagents’ business the family ran.

She married Bertie Nicholson, a Yorkshireman who had been both a soldier and a postman, in 1909. Bertie was a Methodist, and had served eight years in the army – including some time in India – in the early years of the 20th century. They moved to Boston Spa, a village just south of Wetherby, and set up a bakery business. While Bertie did the baking, Grace was responsible for the confectionary side of the operation – so would have made sweet treats and decorated cakes. Their first child, Laura, was born in late 1909, and a son – named Bertie after his father – in 1910. Army life beckoned again for Bertie, and he returned to the military in 1912. They had a second son, Clarence (named after Grace’s recently deceased brother), in 1913, and a third in mid-December 1914, who was named Edgar after his missing uncle. This fourth child was born a month or so after Bertie had been sent to France with the army – so by the time of the Leeds Mercury photograph Grace was coping alone with her four children, and now working as a postwoman to bring in income.

Bertie suffered injuries in the war – prominently a gunshot wound in his left shoulder, and an amputated finger – and was allowed home on leave occasionally. Grace gave birth to their fifth child – a daughter also named Grace – in the spring of 1918. Bertie was released from the army in 1919, and drew a pension from 1920.

Grace and Bertie and their family continued to live in Wetherby, and it’s likely that Grace returned to unpaid domestic life during peacetime, while Bertie worked as either a postman or a baker. However, this return to family life did not last as Bertie was taken ill and died in hospital in Leeds in February 1929, aged only 46. He left Grace just over £48 – which was not a considerable amount of money at that time – and she would have been left on her own with at least two dependent children.

It is perhaps no surprise, given the economic climate of 1929, that Grace married again quickly. This took place in the November of 1929 when she married George – who at that point was a widower insurance agent in Wetherby. By 1939 they had moved to Harrogate, where Grace was undertaking unpaid domestic work and George had found work as a kitchen porter in a hotel – a considerable step down the economic ladder from insurance work.

Both Grace and George died in 1956, in their late 60s.

Emily

Emily Robinson

The unmarried sister from the 1916 Leeds Mercury photograph was born in 1890 and grew up on North Street in Wetherby. Only nine when her father died, she would have continued at school and helping her mother in the newsagents business that she ran.

By the time she was 20, however, she had gone out to work as a charwoman – cleaning and skivvying in other people’s houses to help the family finances. Working as a postwoman in the First World War would have been a step up from this sort of employment, and it was this opportunity that the Military Service Act encouraged and ultimately was instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage.

Emily remained unmarried until well after the end of World War One. Aged 30 she married Fred – a former WW1 soldier turned chauffeur – in Wetherby. They had a daughter, Mona, a year later. Fred later became a newsagent, taking over Emily’s mother’s business, as she had died in 1918.

In 1936 Emily died, aged 46. This took place at Knaresborough, a few miles north of Wetherby – where they were still living. This indicates that she most likely had tuberculosis, as the local sanatorium – Scotton Banks – was located there.

Fred continued to run the newsagents that had previously belonged to Emily’s mother. He married again, and had a son who was brought up alongside Emily’s daughter Mona. Fred died in 1951.

Harriet

Harriet Hobman

The fourth sister in the photograph, Harriet, is the youngest of them. And possibly the unluckiest in the story as it is given.

She’d also gone to work as a charwoman to support the family after her father’s death – which occurred when she was just 8. She undoubtedly would also have helped her mother in the newsagents business, and appears to have been involved in the postal service in some way too – indicated by her take up of the postwoman job in 1916.

She married Arthur, a soldier seven years her senior, in the May of 1915. As a lance corporal, this would have been while he was on leave. He entered the war again in the Balkans on 11th July 1915, and was killed in action at Suvla Bay (now in modern-day Turkey) – as part of the Gallipoli campaign – slightly less than a month later. Harriet was paid his effects.

When the Leeds Mercury picture was taken, Harriet had been a widow longer than she had been married, and it is very unlikely that she spent much of that married life with her husband, and there was no child from the marriage. It’s probable that she helped her sisters with childcare while their husbands were away, alongside being a postwoman.

Two years later, however, she married again. This time her husband was Edward, a soldier three years her junior, who also had been serving in the war. In peacetime he had worked as a farmer, and it was to that profession he returned once the war was over. Harriet became a farmer’s wife, and would have had her own duties on the land.

Soon after the end of the war Harriet and Edward emigrated to Canada, intending to farm land and settle in the country. Their three children – Robert, Reginald and Faith – who were all born in Wetherby in very quick succession after the war, went with them. The British government paid their passage across the Atlantic. They settled in Saskatchewan, traveling there by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and farming there for many years.

Harriet died in 1945, aged only 53. Her husband Edward continued with the farm until he died in the early 1980s.

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And as for the brothers, Harry married Maggie in 1903 and had five children. He had various jobs – a grocer, a horsekeeper, and a railway porter. He also fought in World War 1 while his sisters were working as postwomen. Jim, the youngest surviving brother, became a baker. He married Elsie, and had several children.

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.

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.

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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.

Sarah T’s story

A plumber’s daughter, Sarah Tanner grew up relatively comfortably in the 1840s and 50s in the rapidly expanding Wiltshire market town of Chippenham. The youngest of at least seven siblings, her family did well after the railway came to the town and her father’s business grew big enough to support employees and keep daughters at home until they married rather than sending them out to work.

However, while two of her elder sisters chose to remain at home until they wed, Sarah did not choose this route. By the age of 18 she and her eldest sister Mary were running a seeds and food shop on Chippenham’s High Street, which – given the town was growing rapidly at this time – almost certainly saw good trade.

At the age of 30 her sister Mary married a widowed yeoman farmer turned publican, and presumably left Sarah to run the business herself. Her brother in law’s career may have led Sarah to meet her own husband – Joseph Buckle, the widower landlord of one of Chippenham’s biggest hostelries on the town’s market place – who she married at the age of 28.

This marriage gained her two step-children from her husband’s previous marriage – a girl aged 8 and a boy aged 4 – and her husband had a stepson of his own from his former wife’s marriage. It also gained Sarah a pub, a business that kick started a career that lasted over 30 years. Although her husband was named landlord, the 1871 census record has Sarah’s occupation as a licenced victualler’s wife – indicating that she was fairly active in the day to day life of the establishment – but the enumerator concerned has crossed this description out, as it was considered invalid.

Sarah had her own daughter a year or so after her marriage. She was heavily pregnant again with her son Joe when her husband died suddenly, leaving her the business, his money, and their combined children. Her son was born a month after his father’s death, and Sarah renewed the pub’s licence in her name within another month.

She ran the pub with the help of her step-children and a couple of domestic servants for another three years until she married again. The marriage took place at Chippenham’s parish church, and was witnessed by her stepdaughter. Her second husband was a former soldier who came from Nottinghamshire, and in accordance with the law of the time he took over the hotel and pub licence – if the woman was married, her property became her husband’s. The couple ran the pub together for another four years – with her eldest stepdaughter as barmaid –  and had a daughter together. They then gave up the business, and moved a few streets away. It’s unclear what they were surviving on – when their second daughter was baptised a couple of years later Sarah’s husband’s profession is given as a former soldier and a hotel business isn’t mentioned – but it’s possible that her inheritance from her first husband was enough to keep them comfortably.

However, this existence did not last. Sarah’s second husband died in 1887, aged 40, leaving her widowed for the second time. At this stage her stepchildren were adults, but she had four dependent children – a son aged 14 and daughters aged 15, 9, and 2 – and no visible means of support.

She went back into the pub trade to provide for her family, based on the many years of experience she’d had at the hotel. She founded a Wine and Spirits vaults in Chippenham’s market place, just a stone’s throw away from the original pub and ran that until 1892. At this point business was clearly booming, despite the growth of the temperance movement, and she was able to both found another pub/hotel in the market place and run a second one nearby for another ten years, taking her through to the early 20th century. She did not marry again, and therefore kept the income and status her businesses generated.

In the early 1900s, when she was getting on in years, she relinquished the pub trade and moved in with her unmarried son Joe Buckle as his housekeeper. He, and the husband of one of her daughters, ran a popular fishmongers and poultry shop on Chippenham’s high street in a timbered building that no longer exists, and it’s likely that Sarah helped out with this business as she aged too. Joe also became the town’s fire chief, and was a well-known local figure.

She died in her mid-70s, at the beginning of the 1920s. Her son eventually married four years after her demise.

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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.

Edith C’s story

Edith led a varied life as a prominent anti-suffragist, a mathematics book author, and the wife of a renowned British composer. In addition, she was a mother, and had a foreign upbringing.

India-born Edith was the daughter of a British engineer, who had been posted to the British Raj hillpost of Mussoorie – in the northern part of the country – in the early 1860s. He was employed by the East Indian Railway, and travelled around the country working and advising on the early establishment of track and engines, and Edith’s mother therefore gave birth to her children in various different places – including Mayapore and Allahabad – and then the more conventional Kent and London.

Edith spent her early childhood in the heat of India, and then returned to London for a while. Her father was posted back to India, so she and her siblings went to live in Hove – at the British seaside – with their mother. Her eldest sister married back in India in the mid-1870s, so it’s probable that the whole family returned to India for a time during that decade, and there is absolutely no sign of Edith and her siblings on the 1881 census so it’s probable that they remained there for several years.

By 1885 one of her brothers was admitted to Cambridge from Bromley, so the whole family had returned to the UK for good, and it was from Bromley that she married in 1890. Her husband was employed at the Royal School of Music in London, and from this point onwards Edith became outwardly known by his name.

They moved into Kensington, the fashionable part of London, and over the next few years Edith gave birth to four children – two girls, and then twin boys. They had a full complement of servants – including a nurse and nursery maids – to give them a very comfortable life.

In 1906 Edith published a book on rhythm in mathematics, perhaps taking on some background from the musical atmosphere in her home. The idea, which originated with Mary Everest Boole, was that children should be taught musical rhythmic patterns in mathematics first, before moving on to more intellectual concepts. The book came with a set of punched sewing cards that enabled children to create curves and designs that encouraged patterns and harmony. Edith’s introduction to the work said of the idea:

“Beautiful curves are produced by a process so simple and automatic that the most inartistic child can succeed in generating beauty by mere conscientious accuracy; and the habit of doing this tends to produce a keen feeling for line. It has also been noticed in 649 some cases, where clean, pure, and strong colour has been used, that a remarkable sensitiveness to colour relation has grown.

“The results obtained by a child, of exquisite curved and flower forms on the ‘back’ of his card, by faithful obedience to a dull little rule in making straight stitches on the ‘front’, is of the nature a miracle. It should, therefore, be hardly necessary to insist that the less said the better, when the little worker produces anything especially beautiful or unexpected.”

The book was still being reprinted, with no real modernisation, until the mid-1970s.

The next phase of Edith’s life began as the campaign for women’s suffrage began to escalate. She opposed women’s suffrage, and was involved in the early days of the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League. She attended a meeting hosted by the Countess of Jersey in London in November 1908, and by the spring of 1909 she was honourable secretary of the league. In this role she spoke at West Hampstead Town Hall:

“… the Suffragists made the mistake of being unduly influenced by special instances rather than considering the community as a whole. The statement that women paid for the vote and therefore they ought to have it was, she thought a very mean conception of citizenship. It had never been our principle in this country. There were two classes of qualification for the vote. The first was that the voter should be a man, and, secondly, he should give some good ground for believing that he would take a permanent and stable interest in the good government of the country. The cry of the Suffragists for the vote on the same terms as men was absurd, because the first term on which men were given the vote was that they were men. (She) then spoke briefly on the subject of the vastness of our Empire, and stated that in all the Suffragist literature there was none upon the subject of women’s franchise and the Empire. Suffragists proposed to alter the whole Constitution upon which that great Empire had been built up without showing its effects upon the Empire. She also referred briefly to certain Suffragist literature, the under-trend of which, she said, seemed to be the destruction of the thought of motherhood as the highest ideal for women.”

Edith Lance Collet

Edith in Manchester in 1909

She continued to be very involved in the work of the league, proving to be a well-known and rousing speaker for their ideals, and – like her rising counterpart Gwladys – believing that women had an important role in improving society by breeding and raising better people rather than influencing politics. Her platform was presented at various meetings around the country, often working with and speaking alongside with Mary Ward, better known as Mrs Humphry Ward, including at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in late October 1909:

“… (she) said Miss Robertson (Margaret Robinson, one of the speakers for the cause of women’s suffrage) made some good debating points without upsetting Mrs Ward’s argument. “We say (she said) that government depends on the consent of the majority, and that is one of the reasons we oppose the extension of the franchise”. Nobody seemed to know what she meant, and she passed on to consider Miss Robertson’s higher view of motherhood. Miss Robertson said this high ideal was only to be attained through the vote. But it is, and always has been, attained by making better men.

“Women are always in the foreground of reforms, not that men are more evil, but because women have the whole future of the world in their hands. Reforms have been won by women influencing the good men to help. She appealed to all the women to do the work which men have given them to do, and wait till they were invited to take their place in the foreground.”

She also toured Scotland for her cause, speaking at meetings of her league and also being present at a meeting in Edinburgh where Christabel Pankhurst was speaking for the cause of women’s suffrage, and proved to be a vociferous opposer and no shrinking violet:

“In the course of her address, Miss Pankhurst was interrupted by a lady, and she said if the interrupter had been at a Liberal meeting she would have been thrown out. The lady, who afterwards gave her name as (Edith), of the Anti-Suffrage League, said she was interrupting a meeting which had to do with women’s suffrage. Miss Pankhurst and her friends interrupted meetings where Cabinet Ministers talked about something else.

“Miss Pankhurst retorted that a Cabinet Minister could not talk on any political question which was not connected with votes for women. Miss Pankhurst was severely “heckled” for about half an hour. (Edith) was prominent at this part of the proceedings, and for some time she sustained a vigorous argument with Miss Pankhurst. (Edith) challenged directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration of women engaged in the textile industries, and gave as her authority the Board of Trade Blue-book on the subject, which she advised the audience to read. (Edith), in reply to Miss Pankhurst’s declaration that taxation without representation was tyranny, pointed out that citizenship was not a matter of paying money; and Miss Pankhurst replied that men had laid down that taxation and representation must go together. (Edith) then asked, if that was so, why only 6 ½ millions of the men who paid taxes had the vote? Miss Pankhurst said it was not their business to complain of the way men worked out the general principle they had laid down. They wanted for women the principle men had set up for themselves.”

However, despite the prominence of her role in the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League, whether she found the work incompatible with her family life, or changed her views, Edith stood down as secretary at the beginning of 1910. She made one more appearance on an anti-suffrage platform, and then disappeared from view.

Interestingly, however, she appears on the first electoral role that she could appear on, in 1918. This may indicate that she had changed her views, but there is no way of knowing whether she actually did vote or not.

She and her husband, once their children had grown and left home, appear to have lived quietly supported by domestic staff in their fairly grand townhouse in Kensington. They gradually downsized their properties as their needs grew less. Her husband was knighted for his work in music in 1929, and Edith became a Lady.

She was widowed a couple of years before the Second World War, and again downsized, living with a parlour maid and a cook/housekeeper until her own death at the tail end of the war.

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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.

Hannah F’s story

In the first of our grandmother pieces, Alison’s granny worked in codes and ciphers during WW2, but her involvement has never been officially acknowledged:

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My grandmother Hannah (known as Ciss) was born at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland, which was then a British colony. The youngest of four siblings, the family squeezed into a tiny terrace house in Queenstown, now Cobh, the port of the city of Cork. Her father and a brother were employed in shipbuilding, and the family home looked directly over the harbour. When the British passenger ship R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk in the First World War, Ciss watched from the dockside as the bedraggled survivors were brought to shore.

Fast forward five years when the war is over and another ship arrives in port, this time carrying my grandfather Eric (Don) Lambert, a Royal Marine. Don may have been English, but crucially, he was a Catholic. His relationship with Ciss had the full approval of her family as well as the Church. They were married in Cobh in the mid-1920s. Ciss left her homeland and moved to England to the South West where Don’s Royal Marines unit was based.

Their daughter Mary, known as Molly, was born two years later. When she was just a toddler, Don was sent away to sea for a year, leaving Ciss behind to cope on her own. When he was home on leave they made the most of their time together, taking to the road on the family motorbike, Ciss and Molly squeezing into the tiny sidecar. The Lamberts were then posted to Deal in Kent.

In the year that George VI was crowned King, my grandfather reached the end of his Royal Marines commission. His prospects looked bleak at a time of high unemployment. He was recruited for what would turn out to be a life-changing job in South East Asia, first in Hong Kong, then Singapore.

He and then Ciss worked for the Admiralty in a highly secretive job in codes and cyphers, listening in on Japanese naval communications. It was an exacting but monotonous job and involved shift work, including nights. After spending World War Two crisscrossing the oceans with the Eastern Fleet, to Ceylon, East Africa and back to Ceylon, my grandparents returned to their beloved Singapore. What they were doing there remains a mystery but I know that they still both worked for the Admiralty. While my grandfather is on the official veterans register at Bletchley Park and was awarded an OBE, Ciss and wives like her, never had their war work officially acknowledged, as she was employed as local staff.

In the early 1960s, Don was forced to retire and he and Ciss reluctantly returned to live in the UK after more than thirty years in South East Asia. They missed their life and the heat of Singapore. England was grey, wet and miserable. Don died not long after and Ciss was facing life alone as a widow. She was heartbroken. But despite this tragedy, she threw herself into her role of grandparent to we three children with gusto. Because our parents also lived and worked in South East Asia, Nan, as we called her, became our saviour, spoiling us rotten, giving us a much- needed respite from boarding school.

In her 70s, she moved house and country to live with our family in New Zealand. She was delighted to be recognised and greeted by name by the elderly doorman at her hotel when she stopped over in Singapore. Life in her new home wasn’t easy as not long after she arrived her son-in-law died in a family tragedy. Molly and Ciss had each other, but the two of them had opposite personalities and Ciss had always found her daughter to be a handful. Ciss made the best of her situation: she charmed everyone she met and when she died in her 80s, after complications from minor surgery, there were many who mourned her.

The girl from Cobh became one of the few Irish women who was permitted to work for British intelligence. She was a wife, a mother and our beloved grandmother. When we children asked her about what she did in the war, she would put a finger to her lips and say ‘codes and ciphers.’ The work that went on at Bletchley Park was still classified and Ciss was good at keeping secrets. It was only when I started researching my memoir, Castles in the Air: A Family Memoir of Love and Loss did I find out the true extent of what this work involved.

When Ireland became an independent country, because of the sensitive nature of her work, Ciss was not permitted to become a dual national. That baton has been passed to her descendants: I have recently become an Irish citizen. I plan to make a trip to Cork to say a silent thank you, and to take the opportunity to reflect upon an ordinary woman who lived through extraordinary times.

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Alison Ripley Cubitt is a multi-genre author.  Connect with her on Twitter @lambertnagle, on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alisonripleycubittwriter or visit her website: lambertnagle.com

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.