Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by genealogy, and as soon as the internet became generally available, I took advantage of its potential for family history research. For five years, I spent my days doing little else but researching the lives of my British forebears. When I wasn’t at the computer, I was at the State Library, hunting down records. I managed to trace all my family lines back to the mid-1700s, and there were several that I was able to track back to medieval times.
In most cases, I know little of the people behind the names. I know when they were baptised, married and buried, but only in a few cases have I learnt enough about them to piece together some kind of biography. Sometimes, by looking at the social and political history of the times, it is possible to imagine what kind of lives our ancestors must have had, and all too often, it is obvious that they were not the favoured children of fortune.
Like everyone else, I have eight great-great grandmothers, and I name them here in love and reverence: Mary Gledhill, Edna Hemingway, Rebecca Mason, Eliza Wittington, Mary Ann Woodnorth, Mary Hartill, Susannah Jane Brookes and Raylee Bradley. That last name is something of a surprise – somehow, we don’t expect women born in 1815 to be called Raylee!
All these women were homemakers for much of their lives, but some did their home-making in more comfort than others. None of them was what you’d call well-off: their husbands all worked at semi-skilled trades or as manual labourers. On my father’s side (his forebears came from the Black Country of Staffordshire) the men were, without exception, coal miners, and some of their wives made nails at home, under contract to an iron-master. On my mother’s side, the men were employed in the woollen industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and their wives did not work outside the home. Mary and her Yorkshire-bred sisters would have enjoyed slightly better conditions than my Black Country foremothers, some of whom lived in two-roomed cottages with earthen floors.
Given that Mary Gledhill married at sixteen and had eleven children, including one mentally disabled daughter, and that she also brought up one of her grandchildren, it is saddening to know that when her husband, William Kilburn, died in 1854, she was obliged to go back to work as a labourer in a mill – at the age of sixty! No Widows Pension in those days, my friends, and very little charity. Even my mother, Mary’s great-granddaughter, spoke of ‘the workhouse’ in shuddering tones as being a fate worse than death.
Mary died in 1866 at the age of seventy-one. She would have lived her entire lived in cramped, possibly unsanitary conditions – flush toilets had existed before she was born in 1795, but only the very wealthy could afford them. She would have seen several outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever and no doubt seen neighbours die of those and other infectious diseases.
She lived in interesting times. As a child, she would have heard of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow occurred in the same year she was married. She was a young married woman when the first steam trains came into service. In middle age, she would have been amazed by reports of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and perhaps saddened by news of the war in Crimea. No doubt she would have heard of the work of Florence Nightingale, and praised her for it.
In the span of Mary’s lifetime, the lives of working people improved considerably. Her children were able to better themselves, thanks to the laws that forced mill owners to give their under-aged employees two hours of education a day. And of course, Mary’s grandchildren would have benefited from compulsory schooling and child labour laws that were passed in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
So ‘I dips me lid’ to Mary and the countless other women of that generation who spent their lives with few comforts, hardly any entertainment, and constant worry about money and health. I only wish they could have had the happy and comfortable old age that I’m enjoying now!