“I am left a widow…”

Our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, began his working life with a shop of his own, an oil and colourman in a time when paints and pigments were mixed by hand and people bought lamp oil, stove polish, waxes and soap from their neighbourhood trader. The entrepreneurial spirit could be said to have been in his blood: his mother had tried her hand with a toy shop selling rag dolls and tin soldiers and wooden puzzles, and his father had gone bankrupt as a grocer only scant years after such a situation would have landed him in debtor’s prison. Harry too eventually moved on to take a regular job, but above them in the family tree was Harry’s grandmother, Mary Anna Bell Taylor, whose efforts, with odds stacked against her, proved somewhat more successful.

She and William Walker Taylor married in 1836 at St. Alphege Church, Greenwich, and she signed with a bold press of the pen on the line beneath his in the parish register. For the first two years of their married life they lived in Greenwich, but by the time their third child was born in 1839 they had moved to Lambeth, and in the handful of records that mention William Walker Taylor, he is consistently listed as an “engineer,” although in the merchant service rather than the navy. The family lived first in a “barge house” home where the sparkle of the sun on the Thames might have made up for the sucking mud at low tide and the stink of fish and raw sewage.

Bishops Walk
Bishop’s Walk in Lambeth. Photo courtesy of http://www.victorianlondon.org

Within a year or so they’d moved back a few yards from the river into a curving street called Bishop’s Walk, across from the high walls that blocked the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace and garden. Like most couples just beginning married life, Mary Anna and William surely anticipated several decades together, and had plans. If William’s work took him from home now and again, Mary Anna was a capable young woman who could read and write, and could easily manage the household while he was gone.

Then in the chill days of autumn, 1846, 30-year-old Mary Anna became a widow with five children under the age of 10 dependent upon her. Unlike her Southwark counterpart in our family tree, the so-called Lazy Mary, Mary Anna did not succumb to the barriers in front of her, or end up in a workhouse, a “pauper charwoman.” Instead, she took stock of her situation and began a new chapter of her life. Twenty years later when Belle Otis wrote her book, Diary of a Milliner, she penned words that might have come from Mary Anna’s lips. “I am left a widow with the necessity upon me of getting my own living, and an abundance of vitality and energy wherewith to accomplish it. There is a something telling me it is for my good to be doing something. Doing! that is the word, – let the action be suited to it.”

Mary Anna did take action. She applied to send her oldest boy, George, to the Greenwich Royal Hospital School, where, according to Lloyd’s Illustrated News, “the candidates must be free from impediment of speech, or other infirmity. They derive their claims of admission from the comparative merits, services, and sufferings, of the father in the Royal Navy; regard being also had to the number and destitution of the family. The vacancies are filled up strictly on this principle; the admissions being carefully selected from the list of candidates by three of the principal officers of the Hospital, subject to the approval of the Governor.” The school must also have considered boys like George whose fathers served as merchant seamen, as many like George appear on the roles, or perhaps William Walker Taylor was seconded to the Royal Navy at some point, although no record exists to confirm.

Entrance to the Greenwich Royal Hospital School
Greenwich Royal Hospital School, where George Taylor became a student. Photo courtesy National Maritime Museum.

Upon acceptance by the school of the eldest, Mary Anna promptly applied to send her second son, Charles, but for some unknown reason that application was denied. Instead, Charles went to live with his grandmother, and with her three youngest children Mary Anna returned to Greenwich where her brother had a tailor’s shop. Their father Isaiah had been a tailor, a member of both the Freemasons and the Associated Tailors’ Benefit Society, and when he died in 1831 he’d left Mary Anna and her brother his collection of books, and admonished them to “share and share alike.” That her father had left a will and goods to bequeath suggests he had at least small means, and in this, certainly, Mary Anna was already a step up the ladder from poor “Lazy Mary” in Southwark. No doubt Mary Anna did as Belle Otis would do, and considered her options, given that “woman in her present status is not fitted to undertake all kinds of business. Her manner of dress, and other habits, would make it rather inconvenient for her to go to the mast-head in a gale, or handle goods in a wholesale grocery establishment. She has as much as she can attend to out-of-doors to hold up her trailing garments, adjust her sun-shade, and make a graceful appearance…” And, like Belle, Mary Anna must have come to the conclusion that while she alone could not “change the social condition of woman,” she could instead “make the best of it.” So next door to her brother’s tailor shop in Turnpin Lane, she set up as a milliner, crafting tidy bonnets trimmed with lace and pleated fabric and fastened to the head with ribbons, as well as the more fashionable hats with narrow brims that dipped down in front and in back, and were secured by pins instead of ties. She soon had enough business that she employed an assistant, and took in her younger sister to help as a domestic.

Milliner's card
Mary Anna might have used a trade card like this one to advertise her business, and show off the kinds of hats she could create for her customers.

According to the 1843 pamphlet The Guide to Trade: The Dress-Maker and The Milliner, such success was unusual without prior training. Most would have had to serve an apprenticeship, so maybe Mary Anna, daughter and sister of a tailor, had had that advantage prior to setting up on her own. If not, then perhaps she was simply what the Guide described as “an uncommon sort … clever, dexterous, observant, extremely earnest to learn, and so useful…” Mary Anna was lucky to have such a craft. Except for the very poor – those like our Lazy Mary – who worked as chars or fur-pullers or jam girls, and for whom so-called sweated labour was the norm, young women, widowed or not, were mostly unwelcome in the working world of men in the mid-Victorian era. Milliner was one of the few occupations a woman could undertake without tarnishing her respectability.

Yet such a concern does not seem to have troubled our Mary Anna. By the time she married her second husband, James Batten, she’d already borne him two children. Her new man was a “linen draper” from Whitechapel, so it’s not hard to imagine how they might have met, he flogging his fabric wares and she, as a milliner, and her brother, as a tailor, his ready customers. But James Batten seemed anxious to try new things, and while he changed careers several times, her name appeared regularly in the postal directories: “Batten, Mary (Mrs), milliner.”

Cravat necktie
The long fashionable cravat necktie. Sketch by David Ring for Europeana Fashions.

Then finally, by 1871, Mr Batten fashioned himself into a neck-tie manufacturer, and this time the entrepreneurial Mary Anna became his business partner. Whether they were successful finding customers for their bat-wing bow ties, silk Ascots, and puffy cravats isn’t known, but James Batten didn’t live out the decade, and his death seems also to have spelled the end of Mary Anna’s commercial endeavours. In 1891 she made her final census appearance, listed on the schedule as a 74-year-old widow living in her daughter’s home. Under the heading “Occupation” the census-taker wrote “Dependent on Children,” and while the statement was no doubt correct, it remains a somewhat sad and inadequate notation about a woman who worked hard to make her own way in a difficult world.

Sources

Shell Shock, Unrequited Love, and Murder

The Last Message by William Hatherell, 1918. (Art.IWM ART 5234), Imperial War Museum.

While writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we spent quite a bit of time researching mental illness, since in 1917, our great grandmother was admitted to a Surrey asylum called Cane Hill. The asylum had been in place since the 1880s, but by the time our Mary Anne Deverill arrived, some of its patients were soldiers suffering from what was termed “shell shock.” As so often happens during the twisty-turny path of research, we went down plenty of rabbit holes reading about such men. One of the many tragic stories we’ve come across took us to Liverpool in 1919, and involved a soldier serving with the Canadian forces, and a nurse with whom he fell in love.

Roy Joseph Hutty enlisted in 1916, and by fall of 1917 found himself in the mud-soaked fields of Passchendaele on the Western Front. His record tells us that on November 6, he was buried following a shell explosion, and invalided to England. He was unconscious for a month, and “on coming to had profound disturbance of speech and gait, loss of sleep, severe headaches and tremors.” He stuttered badly whenever he tried to say anything, and so spoke rarely. “Keeps himself buried under the bed clothes,” the staff noted. His hands, head, eyelids and arms twitched continually while he was awake. The movements intensified when people spoke to him, but he was “quite still” when he slept.

It was here in Liverpool that he met Alice Kate Jones, known as Kitty, a tall, attractive nurse who had worked at the David Lewis Northern Hospital since the war began. They developed a friendship, and slowly Joe began to improve. Right around the end of the war, in November 1918, Kitty went home to visit her family for a few weeks, and mentioned Joe to her father; she seemed very interested in his case, and said he had no friends in England. Her father agreed she should invite him to their home for a visit, and within a few days he arrived and spent a week with Kitty’s family. While there, Hutty brought up the subject of he and Kitty marrying. The articles don’t say how Kitty felt about this idea, but her father apparently suggested it would be best if Hutty returned home and “establish[ed] himself in some business or work,” and if Kitty completed her nursing training before any such plans were discussed.

A page from Hutty’s service record shows his shaky signature, and notes his nervousness and stammering, caused by a “shell concussion” at Passchendaele. Library & Archives Canada.

Soon after, Hutty returned to Canada. Staff at a military hospital in Toronto made note of “neurasthenia (hysteria)” in his record, and said that his tremors had improved but his right leg still shook and he was “easily startled.” He was discharged “on account of medical (emotional) unfitness” in February 1919, and from then, it seems, he was on his own. He wrote to Kitty about returning to England and resuming their relationship, but Kitty refused. “About the end of February … she had written to Hutty and told him that nothing could go on between them, and they could not be anything more than friends in the future.”

And then in July, Kitty’s sister Elsie received a letter from Joe, which showed a Liverpool address. “As you can see by this, I am once again in Liverpool to see if I cannot make it up with Kitty. So far I have not seen her. I have tried to get her on the ’phone but nothing doing, so I wrote to her. I am wondering if Kitty is on her holidays. Of course, this coming over here might not be of any use, but then, I am trying to do my best to come to an understanding. As I have not heard from you for two months, I am wondering why. . . . I hope to hear from you soon. If not, I shall take a run to London.”

Elsie called Kitty, and shortly afterwards, on July 17th, received a letter saying: “Dear Elsie, I was not a bit surprised when I heard your voice on the telephone this morning. Somehow I thought he would write you and say he was in Liverpool. To think that he should come back over here on a wild goose chase. What he thinks he’s going to do I can’t imagine. Surely my decision is quite sufficient. There is nothing in the wide world would make me change it.”

On July 23rd, Kitty came home from Liverpool on short leave, and seemed well and happy. She had written to Hutty and been clear and firm about her feelings: “To be as we were before can never be. I do not love you, and it is far better we should not see each other again. If you really love me — well, I am sorry, Joe. It will be hard for you, but time is a wonderful healer, and I give you credit for making good and not going to the dogs.” He seemed to accept this, for he responded to say he was returning home by the next boat.

She likely didn’t know that Joe had been hanging around the hospital for several days. Wearing civilian clothes, he’d called in and asked for her, but his behaviour was not strange enough to cause alarm. The landlady at the rooming house where he was staying later said he behaved oddly during those days; but she’d felt sorry for him, guessing he was afflicted by shell shock. When Kitty returned to Liverpool on the 24th, she went to the hospital at about 11 pm to begin her shift, and was standing on the steps of the building with another man who’d also been a patient there, when Joe approached her and shot her seven times. He ran off, then, and threw the revolver in a side street — but later he turned himself in and told police, “I have shot a nurse. I want you to arrest me.”

The letters were read aloud in court. Joe was sentenced to death for his crime, but the jury recommended mercy given his condition. The British Journal of Nursing, reporting Kitty’s death to her fellow nurses, expressed dismay over the tragedy, and sympathy for Kitty’s family, but added, too, that “The writer well remembers, when visiting the hospital last year, seeing the shellshock patients, one of the saddest sights of the war. It would seem difficult to fix responsibility for any action on one of these poor men shattered in mind, and perhaps in body, by the ruthless machine of war.”

Hutty’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, but the life thereafter was short: in January 1922, he hanged himself in his cell. The war’s casualties continued to grow long after it was over.

lone man passchendaele
A lone Canadian soldier navigates the mud-soaked battlefield at Passchendaele, Belgium, in November 1917. William Rider-Rider / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165

Sources

Many articles at the British Newspaper Archive report on Alice Kate Jones’s murder and Roy Joseph Hutty’s trial. These and other sources have been listed on their individual pages at the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful online archive, Lives of the First World War.

Roy Joseph Hutty’s service record has been digitized by Library and Archives Canada.

Suicide of a Workhouse Midwife

hubert von herkomer eventide
This 1878 painting, Eventide, by Hubert von Herkomer, depicts elderly women residents of the Westminster Union Workhouse.

Much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish takes place in Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, in what was then a poor neighbourhood in London, England, just south of the Thames. Our family lived in the street from the 1840s to the early 1900s, and was well acquainted with the workhouse nearby. Our great-great grandmother, Mary Jones Evans, moved in after her husband died, ostensibly because she was too lazy to take care of herself now that he was gone.

That’s the story that has filtered down over the years, but surely the true reason was more complicated. The anecdote nonetheless reveals the disdain people often felt — feel! — for those in need of a helping hand. Many so-called “inmates” of the workhouse were women much like Mary: poor, aging, and widowed, with few options for bettering their lives.

St George the Martyr workhouse is visible in the lower left corner of Charles Booth’s map, which coloured areas according their poverty levels. Black was the lowest class — “vicious and semi-criminal” — and dark blue indicated the very poor, “in chronic want.”

She was there in March of 1897 when Elizabeth Legge, a Scottish woman in her mid-forties, committed suicide. Elizabeth was employed as a workhouse midwife, and was also a widow, though of better means than our Mary, it would seem. Her husband had been a doctor, according to inquest testimony, and since his death she’d worked at a number of Scottish hospitals, and come to the workhouse late in 1896. She’d paid to have a uniform made, and had been engaged for some four months as a midwifery nurse, but didn’t enjoy the job and complained to her friend, a clerk named Arthur French, that not only was she herself treated shoddily, she abhorred the way her co-workers treated the inmates.

“She said she did not like the conversation … which was always about sending inmates to prison who did not behave themselves. She did not like to hear that sort of thing and she very often left the table in consequence of such conversation going on.”

The workhouse master wasn’t happy with her either, and in March she was given her notice, and asked to return her uniform. This she thought grossly unfair, according to French, since she had paid to have the uniform made.

Another witness — an inmate named Mary Ann Prater, who like the midwife and our great-great grandmother was a mid-forties widow — testified that she brought a cup of tea to Elizabeth’s room at about 7:25 one morning, and when she turned to fetch a spoon and some sugar, Elizabeth called out “Goodbye, Prater!” and began to swig from a bottle of carbolic acid she’d had hidden in her bed.

The workhouse porter was called, and tried to administer mustard water. He could hear “a gurgling noise” in her throat, and “sent messengers in all directions for doctors.” Two came immediately that morning, and pumped her stomach. But it was not until 5 o’clock that evening that she was sent to nearby Guy’s Hospital, and the article doesn’t specify how she fared during the day, or why there was such a delay in admitting her.

The use of carbolic acid for suicide was prevalent in the 1890s, especially among women, since the substance was easily obtainable “from any huscksterer, oilman or druggist,” according to the Lancet medical journal. It had been used as an antiseptic since the 1860s, and the role it played in “self murders” had steadily risen. By now, doctors had seen so many of these types of “painful and cruel” deaths that there were calls to label carbolic acid a poison “put aside from general use and only employed by skilled hands or under professional direction.” Of course, with those stipulations, midwife Elizabeth Legge would still have had access.

calvert's
An ad for Calvert’s Carbolic Fluid Powder, showing various uses for carbolic acid. Courtesy the Wellcome Library.

“I am house physician at Guy’s Hospital,” Dr. Wilson Tyson testified. “I saw deceased directly after her admission. … She was conscious, but in a state of collapse. The limbs were curled, the pulse was rapid and feeble, and she was breathing rapidly. She said she had taken carbolic acid. An antidote was given her, but it had no visible effect. Deceased died at 7:15 in the evening” — no doubt a distressing 12 hours from the time she first swallowed the acid. “I asked her why she took the poison, and she said she did not know.”

Mary Ann Prater said that Elizabeth had been “very strange in her manner for the last five or six weeks. I and the other women noticed it. We thought she was not altogether in a sound state of mind the last week. She seemed to ‘give way’ and to be overexcited.” In answer to Arthur French’s suggestion that Elizabeth had been upset about the way she and others were treated at the workhouse, Prater said she’d never heard her complain, and that she hadn’t cared at all about giving up the uniform.

So what was true? Why would French say she had cared if she hadn’t? Would Prater have been instructed, or even just urged, by the workhouse master to downplay the reason for Elizabeth’s unhappiness? There’s no way to know the real story now, but all of the articles about Elizabeth’s death mention the uniform, and the fact that she was out of work. Did she fear what would become of her now that she’d lost her job and had no uniform to bring to the next potential place of employment? Did she have so little money that the cost of having a new uniform made was beyond her reach? Far from Scotland, with no relatives, no husband, and few friends, did she fear the workhouse would be home from now on, into her old age, as it was for Mary Jones Evans and Mary Ann Prater? The South London Chronicle hints that there was more to the story, but it is long gone now.

1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog
From Webster’s Academic Dictionary, 1895

“The Coroner said he would like to mention publicly that there were witnesses present who could show that the deceased was in difficulties, which was one additional reason why she committed the act; but no purpose would be served by going into that.” A strange decision — though technically a coroner’s inquest was held to determine the cause of death, and the reason (if infinitely more interesting) was perhaps less important.

At least one of the jurymen, however, was curious about reason, and offered up his own theory. He was familiar with phrenology, which linked specific areas of the brain with character and mental ability. It had been a popular concept in Britain in the early Victorian years, and though it had long been discredited as a scientific theory, it still had pockets of followers in the 1890s. The “phrenological juror” had seen Elizabeth’s body in the mortuary, and noticed that the “organ of sensitiveness” was well developed; such people, he believed, would be sensitive to things ordinary people would not observe. “People ought to be very careful what they say to such persons.” In his opinion, Elizabeth Legge’s “vitativeness” was entirely absent, which meant she had no “want of life.” His comments evoked nothing more than laughter, and a mocking “Oh! Ah! Yes!” from the coroner, an educated man who likely had no time for pseudomedicine.

The jury returned the vague but all too common verdict of “Suicide whilst temporarily insane,” and Elizabeth Legge, compassionate widowed midwife, was heard of no more.

Sources

  • “Southwark Nurse’s Sad Suicide.” South London Chronicle,  27 March, 1897.
  • “The Fatal Record of Carbolic Acid.” Alfred Edwin Harris, The Lancet, 28 November, 1896.
  • “Suicide of a Dundee Doctor’s Widow.” Dundee Courier, 25 March, 1897.

The Fur-Puller’s Child

aesop's fables
A Victorian edition of Aesop’s Fables.

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we first came upon the term “fur-puller” as we combed through the notebooks of Charles Booth, who sent his social investigators out to document London poverty in the late 1800s. Booth and his workers inevitably visited Red Cross Street in the Borough, where our family lived, and where the people had jobs like bottle washer, rag sorter, seed packer and collar stitcher. There was “fur-puller” too — when Booth’s man spotted such a  woman engaged in her work, he jotted in his notebook: “one middle-aged woman pulling fur at her open window, air full of fluff and herself covered with it. Spoke in shaky husky voice, ‘Must do it to live you know!’”

She must have gone to the window for a much-needed breath of air, for according to the 1889 publication Toilers in London, fur-pulling was horrible, hazardous work. Many girls and women earned a living this way, working at home, where they could also look after little ones. They sat on low stools and held hare and rabbit skins between their knees, rubbing the down off with a knife, and then collecting it and returning it to the furrier for use in beds, sofas and pillows; the skins became cloaks and jackets. “The work is very unpleasant. … The down gets into [the fur-puller’s] nose and mouth. Her hair and clothes are white with it. She generally suffers from what she calls ‘breathlessness,’ for her lungs are filled with the fine down, and she is always more or less choked.”

The slightest draft caused the down to fly everywhere, and so windows and doors were usually kept closed, even in the stifling summer months. But the fluff nevertheless found its way into eyes, mouths, and noses, and clung to surfaces in the dank rooms where the work was done. The greasy skins, piled on beds and tables, reeked as they decayed. If the work was tucked away at the end of the day, evidence of it surely remained. In her 1906 work The Soul Market, Olive Christian Malvery called fur-pulling “a wretched, ill-paid, unhealthy trade,” but admitted the fur-pullers themselves didn’t seem bothered. “‘Dust? lor, we don’t mind that! We eats it, drinks it, and sleeps on it!'”

From the popular Victorian manual Chavasse’s Advice to a Wife by Pye Henry Chavasse, who also penned Advice to a Mother

In March of 1888, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of a baby boy named Frederick Spinks Phillips, just nine months old. His mother was a fur-puller, and worked at home. “The fluffs from the skins being considered as detrimental to the child’s health,” she sent the boy out to be cared for each day by the widowed Elizabeth Nash, who had also worked in fur-pulling but had recently given up the job due to health problems. Nash had been caring for Frederick for about five weeks by the time he died, but she’d found him “troublesome,” according to an account in the London Daily News, and didn’t want to take him anymore. But day after day, Frederick’s mother continued to bring her baby boy so that she could carry on with her trade at home.

Nash testified that on the day of his death, Frederick had seemed ill. She’d put him to bed and gone out to the pub for some rum, though not enough to make her drunk. “On returning home, she saw the child was in a fit. She dashed some cold water in his face, but as that did not bring him to, she put him into a pail of cold water with his clothes on to see if that would revive him.” If she had done wrong she was sorry, she told the jury; she did not intend to drown the child, though she admitted, upon further questioning, that the baby had been “dipped in head-first.”

The constable called to the scene deduced she had been drinking. Two other witnesses said yes, she had drunk, but she was not intoxicated until much later that day, hours after the death had occurred. A doctor testified that little Frederick had died from “dentition convulsion” — yes, teething — rather than drowning, but that “the plunging of the child into cold water” had certainly accelerated his death. In the end, the jury returned a verdict of “death by misadventure,” and the coroner severely censured Elizabeth Nash.

Did she go on to care for other children? And did Frederick’s mother continue with her work? The article doesn’t say. But it does tell us that the coroner found this “one of the most extraordinary cases he ever remembered.”

Sources