Part 4: Ellen Shelley and the power of women

alexandra day
In 1912, the country was looking for a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Queen Alexandra’s arrival from Denmark, and launched Alexandra Rose Day, which would raise funds for her favourite charities (the Lying-In Hospital included) through the sale of artificial roses.  © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6050)

This is the fourth instalment in a series of posts about looking beyond the obvious records in order to bring a genealogical story to life. Part 1 of the search to find out more about the randomly chosen Ellen Shelley revealed basic facts through birth, marriage, and census documents; Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job; and Part 3 explored the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where Ellen gave birth in 1906 as a single mother.

One of the readers of this blog wrote in to say that her mother was born at the hospital in 1918, ten years after Ellen Shelley gave birth there. In this case, the pregnant woman was in her early 30s. She had met a man six years her junior, and they “had to get married.”

“It was a wartime encounter. My grandfather was from the East End of London & was from a large working class family, with no money of his own. She married ‘beneath her’!! as they said in those days, so I imagine the Lying In Hospital was the only option, other than a home birth which would have been impossible under the circumstances!”

Still another reader of this blog — a dear friend who is a midwife here in Canada — suggested that those who registered with the hospital would have been those of greatest need, who were living in cramped or dire housing situations. “Home was still the standard for birth so it would have been exceptional to plan something else.”

Most of the people registered with the hospital actually did have home births. When Maud Pember Reeves began her investigation of poverty and its effect on family life in 1908, she selected her participants from the hospital’s ledger. In the finished work, Round About A Pound A Week, she writes:

Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying-in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue.  … A doctor interviewed each woman before the visits began, in order to ascertain if her health and her family history were such that a normal baby might be expected. It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal.

Among a relatively poor population, the committee chose people from the middle ground, since families who had the best wages were likely to already have sufficient nourishment, while families with the most meagre earnings were likely to be living in such poverty that they’d be too tempted to share the mother’s and baby’s extra nourishment among the rest.

The women selected were from the area where Ellen Shelley had lived since birth, in streets branching off Kennington Lane, Vauxhall Walk, and Lambeth Road. Their husbands had jobs like potters’ labourer, fish-fryer, and tailor’s presser. Many of them were illiterate, so the task of meticulously recording all of their expenses for the purpose of the study was daunting, and they had their husbands or children help them. Others muddled through on their own and “Great care had to be taken not to hurt their feelings as they sat anxiously watching the visitor wrestling with the ungainly collection of words and figures. … Seeing the visitor hesitate over the item ‘yearn 1d,’ the offended mother wrote next week ‘yearn is for mending sokes.'”

Most of the women were good at arithmetic, though, and could calculate in their heads, because managing money was such an important part of their everyday lives. Those who had worked before they were married — one, like Ellen, had been a tea-shop waitress — often became “interested and competent accountants” as the project went on.

A pamphlet based on the study can be read here, and a bit of background on the book appears here.

The book is wonderfully informative, and written in a surprisingly non-judgmental fashion, given the era. It goes into great detail about the difficulties these women had making ends meet when a paltry income had to cover rent, burial insurance, coal and light, cleaning materials, clothing and food.

Though the women are often lovingly described (Mrs. K. was happy-go-lucky, but her skirts had been chewed by rats; Mrs. P. was pretty and practical and bought cracked eggs because you could smell them when they’d gone off), Reeves believed most of them “seemed to have lost any spark of humour or desire for different surroundings. The same surroundings with a little more money, a little more security, and a little less to do, was about the best their imaginations could grasp.”

The descriptions bring us just a little closer to Ellen Shelley, who lived among these women and came from a similar background. They had husbands, however, and Ellen Shelley did not; they gave birth at home, while Ellen gave birth at the hospital. Did she enter the hospital just because she was unmarried? Or because the place she was living was unsuitable for giving birth? In 1901, when the family resided at 62 Westminster Bridge Road, there were 11 people in the house: Ellen, her father, her siblings, and some of her mother’s family. Was it still this crowded in 1906, when Ellen’s baby was due? The 1911 census shows her living with her father at Canterbury Place, so the pregnancy does not seem to have caused a rift within the family, or at least not one that lasted. But why does the hospital ledger show the first address — Westminster Bridge Road — stroked through, and the second written beneath it? Did the move happen right around this time, and did it have anything to do with Ellen’s pregnancy? Remember also that Ellen’s mother had died in the late 1890s, and that she was the eldest of the girls in her family — so as a woman she may have felt rather alone at this profound time in her life.

For women in general, big changes were brewing. In February 1906, the Women’s Social and Political Union held its first march in London to demand voting rights for women. According to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, they marched to the House of Commons in the pouring rain. “I think there were three or four hundred women in that procession, poor working-women from the East End, for the most part, leading the way in which numberless women of every rank were afterward to follow. … They were awake at last. … Our militant movement was established.”

Emmeline-Pankhurst-addressing-a-crowd-in-Trafalgar-Square
Emmeline Pankhurst addresses the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Central Press, October 1908, NPG x131784. © National Portrait Gallery, London

If I were writing Ellen’s story, I would order three records at this point: the mother’s death certificate (1899), the father’s death certificate (1912), and the child’s birth certificate to see if any of them held more clues. Death certificates will state the cause and place of death, and also the name of a person present at the death. If no one was present, there was usually a coroner’s inquest, the results of which might appear in newspapers.

As for the birth record, the father’s name may well be recorded. In our own family research, we came across the very interesting story of a married woman who’d had several children with her husband, but left him, and had a child with a new man. The birth certificate revealed that she’d first registered the child with her husband’s surname, but the box for father’s name remained empty, with a line stroked through it. A baptism record and subsequent census records showed the child with her birth father’s surname.

So far no baptism record for Priscilla Shelley has turned up in my searches. I also checked for the name Priscilla Smith, since Ellen marries George Henry Smith in 1916, and little Priscilla is a visitor in George’s household in 1911. But that search also yielded no further clues.

What was it like to have a child out of wedlock in 1906? The obvious concerns were shame and money, and searches through the British Newspaper Archive for the terms “illegitimate child” and “paternity case” turn up plenty of mentions of women looking for support from the men they claimed had fathered their babies. In most of the articles I read, the men were made to pay. Nevertheless, it must have been a daunting process for a woman to go through, for in some cases, explicit personal details were made public, whether true or not, and printed in the papers for all to read.

A woman from Portsea claimed a soldier was the father of her child. The baby had been born in the workhouse, which suggests the woman was in dire financial straits. A man appeared in defence of the accused and stated that he’d seen the woman on several occasions with other soldiers, so the case was dismissed.

Another woman — a cats’ meat dealer’s daughter — claimed to have been seduced by the coach builder next door. The coach builder promised to pay for the child’s support, but then rescinded, because “it was alleged that men were constantly in the habit of going to the cats’ meat shop, and … through a small hole which was drilled by an auger in the wooden partition dividing the two shops, the girl was seen more than once in a compromising position with men.” Since the judge didn’t know who to believe, the case was dismissed.

A third woman — just 16 — was assaulted by a family friend, but by the time she worked up the courage to tell her parents who the father of her child was, “the period for taking proceedings against defendant … had elapsed.”

Then as now, one can see why women were reluctant to tell their stories in a court of law. Ellen, at least, seems to have remained close with her family, but there are too many gaps in her story to really be certain:

  • Priscilla was born in 1906, but there is no baptism record so far, and no school record, which might also include a father’s name or an address
  • Priscilla is a “visitor” with George’s family in 1911, and Ellen is living with her father and siblings
  • Ellen and George marry in 1916
  • Ellen, George and Priscilla are living together in 1939

So the question is, what was the link between Ellen and George’s families? Why — if George was not her father — was little Priscilla with him in 1911, and not with her mother? “Visitor” suggests she just happened to be at George’s home when the census was taken, so did she actually live with her mother? Why — if George was her father — didn’t George and Ellen marry earlier, with Priscilla taking her father’s name? To explore these questions, I’ll dip into George’s family history in the next post.

 

Part 2: Ellen Shelley, the undertaker’s daughter

This is the second instalment in a series of posts that will examine how to look beyond birth, marriage, death and census records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the following:

  • she was an undertaker’s daughter, born in Lambeth in 1882
  • she had at least 7 siblings, and her mother died when she was 17
  • she had a child out of wedlock at the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth in 1906, when she was in her early twenties
  • she was working as a waitress in a coffee shop when the 1911 census was taken
  • she was still living with her father and four of her siblings at this time, but the record offers no detail about her child

The next record that turns up for Ellen Shelley confirms her Christmas Eve marriage in 1916 to a man named George Henry Smith, an electrician. Digitized records for London Church of England unions often give extra clues, and here we can see that 34-year-old Ellen, a “spinster” with middle names Priscilla Sarah, was working as a cook; that her father, by now, was deceased, and that she was living at 141 Lambeth Road at the time of her wedding. Her brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley, signed as witnesses, and the ceremony took place in St Mary’s parish church, Lambeth. Curiously, her 30-year-old groom was living at 13 Canterbury Place, the same address recorded as Ellen’s in the Lying-In ledger in 1906, and the address she lived at in 1911 with her father and siblings. So why, in 1916, is Ellen no longer there, and her groom George is?

Next I looked for George on the 1911 census, and despite the surname “Smith,” he was fairly easy to find, since the marriage record had given me his age, his occupation, and his father’s name. Cross-referencing a few different bits of information, I found him living at 20 Temple Street with his mother, four siblings, and a four-year-old girl named Priscilla Shelley, listed not as a member of the household, but as a “visitor.” Was this Ellen’s mystery child? And was she George’s daughter too? If so, why did they wait until 1916 — ten years after the baby’s birth — to marry?

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Charles Booth’s poverty map shows Canterbury Place at the far left, under the St Mary Lambeth text, and Temple Street at the far right of the map, running north-south in the bottom corner. Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum is in between. Visit Charles Booth’s London for a larger view.

I leaped ahead, then, to the 1939 census, and found George and Ellen, nearing 60 now, living with George’s mother Jane, and also Priscilla Shelley, an assistant in a glass and china shop. Their address is 20 Pastor Street, Southwark, and the overlay of Booth’s map shows me that this is the same location as 20 Temple Street, though the name has changed. (The names Pastor and Temple must come from the street’s proximity to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.)

This particular census doesn’t state people’s relationships to the head of the household, so it still doesn’t tell us whose child Priscilla was. And it’s interesting that she goes by the name of Shelley. If George was her father, wouldn’t she have carried his name after her parents married? The census does tell us she was born on July 15, 1906, a date that matches the entry in the Lying-In ledger.

So with all this added up, we can be fairly certain that, in 1906, Ellen was an unwed mother who gave birth to a baby she named Priscilla, a name that turns up often in Ellen’s ancestry. It was Ellen’s middle name, but it was also her great grandmother’s name, her grandmother’s name, and her aunt’s.

Now that we have some of the facts in place regarding Ellen Shelley, I’ll go back to her early years to try to fill things in a bit, and see if we can get a better picture of who she was.

In 1891, she is living at 62 Westminster Bridge Road with her family. The Muckells — her maternal grandmother and some of her mother’s siblings — are here with them. Next door is an actress, and a few doors down are a couple of “theatre property makers,” so perhaps there is some connection with the nearby Surrey Theatre, which put on melodramas and pantomimes during this period. Ellen’s father John, the undertaker’s assistant, probably works nearby as well, assisting in coffin-making, or taking bodies to cemeteries, or to mortuaries for coroner’s inquests.

Undertakers had a bad name in Victorian times. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the undertaker’s assistant is an unsavoury creature who snatches some of Scrooge’s belongings after his death — “a seal or two, a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value” — and sells them to old Joe, who runs a scavenger shop in a London slum, where:

The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.

A Christmas Carol illustrated by Arthur Rackham
A 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol shows the pawning of Scrooge’s bed curtains. The undertaker’s man  stands “in faded black” at the back of the group, looking greedily on.

No employer is mentioned in the documents I’ve found for Ellen’s father John, but he may have worked for the parish undertaker, who would have handled so-called “pauper funerals,” the most basic variety for the poorest of the poor, and the kind everyone strove to avoid.

At great expense, people bought burial insurance to avoid the indignity of a pauper funeral paid for by the parish; many contributed weekly to “funeral clubs” in order to save enough for decent trappings: black garments for the family, the use of a hearse and coachman, and the coffin itself – black for an adult, white for a child. Displays in undertakers’ windows advertised myriad choices available to the bereaved: elaborate funeral cards to announce deaths, plumes of black ostrich feathers for the horses pulling the hearse, stone markers carved with doves or broken lilies.

In her 1913 work Round About a Pound a Week, Maud Pember Reeves wrote that paying burial insurance was a “calamitous blunder” on the part of poor families, but understood, too, that the alternative was to settle for a pauper’s funeral paid for by poor law funds. The women Reeves interviewed as part of her indepth poverty study were from the vicinity where the Shelleys lived, and they were adamant that “the pauper funeral carries with it the pauperization of the father of the child – a humiliation which adds disgrace to the natural grief of the parents.” One woman even said she’d prefer to have the dustcart call to collect her child’s body.

A search through the British Newspaper Archive for parish undertakers turns up several pathetic stories, including mention of an ongoing problem with cheap coffins that fell apart as they were being taken to the grave. There are also stories of undertakers fined for stuffing more than one body into a coffin, or charged with not burying the bodies at all, and pocketing the fees. In my very first post on this blog, I wrote about an undertaker who claimed to have been cheated by a deceased woman’s family: he’d picked up their dead mother from the workhouse, as requested, and had intended to take her to the cemetery for burial, but the family didn’t pay him, and he claimed he couldn’t afford to pay the cemetery’s fee himself. The body was discovered on his premises when neighbours complained of an “intolerable effluvium.”

No such gruesome stories have turned up about John Shelley, but we do know that he was an undertaker in a very poor part of London, and that he would have regularly encountered grief compounded by poverty. He started working in the industry some time between 1871, when he was a boy at home with his parents, and 1878, when his occupation is listed on his marriage record. He was still working as an undertaker in 1911, a year before his death, and two of Ellen’s brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley (the same ones who witnessed her marriage to George Smith) were also undertaker’s assistants in 1911. So death, so to speak, was very much a part of Ellen Shelley’s life.

Next up, I’ll move ahead to Ellen’s time at the Lying-In Hospital, and the birth of Priscilla.