Monday, 13 August 2018

The context behind a family story ............... discovering the dark secret of Eliza Boot

Sooner or later most of us engaged in family history switch from collecting names and dates to probing behind the lives of those we encounter.

Union Street, Borough Walk, Derby circa 1950
It starts with that census return which offers up not only details of your family but also those of the neighbours and then by extension the surrounding streets which almost at a stroke allows you to place your family in the bigger context.

Bit by bit that delightfully named cottage is revealed to be a one up one down in a terraced street occupied by a mix of people who worked in factories, warehouses and breweries.

Add in the odd map and a few directories and you discover that the house was surrounded by mills, timber yards and an iron foundry and bounded by a canal and railway line.

Living room, one up one down cottage, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, 1930
Nor will it be any different for those of us who stumble across a farm worker in the family tree which can be equally revealing and presents a picture far removed from that of a rural idyll.

For all sorts of reasons there continues to be a belief that life in the countryside was somehow more pleasant than making a living in the new industrial towns and cities.

But not so, for rural poverty was in places as bad if not worse.

Employment was seasonal, and those idyllic looking rose fronted cottages with their picture book cottage gardens were often wattle and daub properties built directly on to beaten earth with a thatched roof rife with all manner of vermin.

Added to which however awful city life was it did offer some an opportunity for social movement with the chance of betterment.

Whiteman;s Yard, 1882, home of Eliza Boot
Now all this I say because like most of us I can track my family back through the warren of streets in a Midland town where they worked as handloom weavers, silk spinners and railway workers back to the farming communities of Derbyshire and the east Highlands.

Great grandmother Eliza was born in Whiteman's Yard a court off Chapel Street in Derby.

Hers was a  one up one down house where 15 families shared 3 outside lavatories.

And the bigger picture, whether it is the hardships of an agricultural labourer or the plight of a handloom weaver locked into an industry in decline help add to the stories of these family members.

Moreover it also offers up that simple realization that the stigma of poverty, illegitimacy and illiteracy were ones that my relatives shared with countless others.

Look back at an official document and pretty soon at some point in the 19th century one of them will be adding their mark rather than a signature and likewise one if not more of them will have spent time in the workhouse.

In 1851 according to the Census of Great Britain on Education 38% of those getting married used a mark as opposed to a signature,* and many saw the workhouse as just one of a number of options to be considered during a period of hardship.**

Not that any of this diminishes the struggles, indignities, or waste of potential which was the lot of thousands of working people a century and a more ago.

Montague Hall, my great grandfather, circa 1914
Nor does it take away those natural emotions of sadness and anger at being confronted with the plight of one of your own and while it is just an objective historical fact sitting beside all those others their suffering leaves its mark and just occasionally it explains a family silence.

I grew up never knowing about my maternal great grandparents.  They were never mentioned and I doubt their lives would have been shared with me if I had asked.

They had met sometime around 1893, lived a tempestuous life, and had five children across the country from Birmingham to Kent and finally Derby.

They never married and in 1902 separated leaving great grandmother to have her last child in the Derby Workhouse and great grandfather to marry in 1906 and raise another five children in Kent.

He had died in 1916 but she was still alive while I was growing up.

And yet despite visiting my grandparents in Derby I have no recollection of meeting her.

Traffic Street School entrance, 1990
Over the years I have tried but the documentary evidence is sparse.  I have her birth and death certificate, references to her on several census returns, one newspaper report, a comment in the admission register of the Poor Law Union and two letters about her along with one entry on a street directory.

All of which is not much for a life that began in 1872 and ended in 1963.

But just this week I turned up a reference to her as a patient in the Borough Mental Hospital Derby in 1939 where she died twenty-four years later.

Of course she may not have been in there for the entire time but I rather think she might given that she was described as “Incapacitated” on the hospital register in 1939 and the judgement of the Poor Law Guardians back in 1913 when three of her children were admitted into care was that “mother was unfit to have control.”

One of my cousins reflecting on the news commented that given the life she had lived including the loss of one child and the suicide of her brother there is a context here.

Traffic Street School, 1990
And that brings me full circle leaving me only to finish with this picture of Traffic Street school in 1990.

It was built in 1879 for 1000 students and was a Board School

Given that my great grandmother Eliza was born in 1872 it is just possible that she would have attended it and just 46 years later it was where my mother and uncle Roger were taught.

As Board Schools go it was one of the bigger ones but resembles the I went to in London in 1954. Such are the twists and turns of family history.

Location; Derby

Pictures; Union Street, Derby, circa 1950 and Traffic Street School, 1990, from the collection of Cythinia Wigley, Whiteman’s Yard,1883 from the OS map of Derby, 1882-3, and Montague Hall from the collection of Andrew Simpson

*The 1851 Census of Great Britain on Education was carried out at the same time as the general census and sat beside a similar exercise into religious worship.


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