Spinsters

Full page of TitBits magazine dated April 1889, featuring responses to a competition for spinstersImage from Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian on Twitter.
Click the image for a slightly bigger version that will be a bit easier to read.

Dr Bob Nicholson, who shares stories from the Victorian era on Twitter, recently wrote about a competition in Tit-Bits magazine in 1889.  Single female readers were invited to answer the question: ‘Why Am I A Spinster?’, with a prize awarded to the lady providing the best response.  In the event, there were too many good responses to be able to choose just one, so on 27th April, 1889, the full page of responses pictured above was published. Some are witty, some poignant.

I’ve been meaning to write about spinsters for a while.  I’ve noticed a few in my ancestral lines and wondered why.  After all, society was not geared up for independent, single women.  Of course, as suggested in the Tit-Bits article, there could be any number of reasons.  Perhaps they were not interested in men/ marriage/ motherhood, or perhaps one daughter was expected to stay home to take care of ageing parents.  Perhaps they had lost their one true love in war?  Or maybe, despite the ‘old maid’ sniggers, they wanted to retain their independence, and this was the only way to achieve that?

To refer back to my previous post about researching female ancestors, before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 married women were not allowed to keep their own earnings, while prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married. The only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.

Most women, of course, would not need to trouble themseleves with the matter of how to hang on to their personal wealth.  It was more a matter of how would they survive.  This was not just a concern for spinsters.  Widows and abandoned wives, too, may have had difficulties in later life when left without a husband/ father bringing in the money.  Many had to rely on charity for accommodation (e.g. almshouses or living with a brother’s family) and for living expenses.  Some of our maiden great-aunts will of course have been sufficiently well provided-for, and others had worked all their lives and continued to do so.  I have examples of all of these in my tree, and perhaps you do too.

However, one of my own ancestral families particularly piqued my interest.  My 4x great grandparents, John and Sarah, had five sons and five daughters.  The family business (Woollen drapers to the people and gentry of York) was doing well, all five boys married after securing admission to the Freedom of the City of York, and the oldest son rose to the position of Lord Mayor of York in the 1860s.  And yet of the daughters, one died aged 25 and the others remained at the family home until the death of their parents in 1860, by which time the sisters were aged 48 to 32.

Some years ago I obtained their father, John’s, will.  At first sight I was quite upset by what I read.  John bequeathed all his money and the family business only to his sons.  The four daughters were not even mentioned.  Indeed by the census of the following year one of the sons had bought out the family business and although he and his wife remained in their former home, all four sisters had moved out of the rooms above the shop premises in Stonegate and were living together in a private house in York.

And yet the sisters did not seem to go without.  In the censuses of 1861-1901 they describe themselves as ‘Railway Annuitants (Railway Stock)’, living off the dividends from these investments.  I could also see from the Probate Calendar on Ancestry (England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995) that each of them would eventually leave a will, bequeathing what she had to her remaining sisters.

The Probate Calendar does not provide a copy of the actual will.  For that, you have to place an order via the Find A Will website.  Fascinated though I was by this story, I really couldn’t justify spending £40 on a series of wills just to satisfy my curiosity.  You may remember, though, that last July the price of wills was greatly reduced, from £10 to £1.50 each.  Now spending £6 to satisfy my curiosity was entirely reasonable….

It seems that each of the four sisters made a will in 1862, and on the basis of this, when the oldest, Maria, died in 1895 she left £1523 to her sisters.  Shortly afterwards, the remaining sisters, now aged 66 to 78, each made a new will, leaving her worldly possessions to whoever outlived her, and in the event of herself being the sole survivor, to three named charities.  I suspect each sister chose a charity dear to her own heart, and all had agreed to share the final funds equally between the three charities, regardless of which sister survived the other two.  Hence at her death in 1899 Louisa left £1983; and in 1900 Emma left £1956 to just one surviving sister, Sarah.  It’s interesting too, to note the circles the sisters moved in.  These were educated and knowledgeable women, able to take on the role of executrices for each other.  However, the executors for the will of whichever sister died last were to be the solicitors George and Frederick Crombie, both of whom described in the wills as ‘friends’, not merely professionals carrying out a service.  It was not until the death of Sarah at the age of 87 in 1904 that they were required to perform this role.  Her estate, totalling £6140, was left in equal shares to the York Branch of the RSPCA, the Royal Sailor Rest at Portsmouth and Devonport and the Sailors’ Orphan Home.  According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, this figure equates to around £750,000 in today’s terms.

How on earth did Sarah end up with so much money?!
I think the key is in the census entries: they lived in York, and they were living on dividends from investments in the railway.  Investing in the railways at this time must have been akin to buying shares in Microsoft in the late 1970s.  The sisters were very fortunate.

But this brings us to the question of who, exactly, made the investments.  Perhaps sometimes the sisters invested their own money, out of any wages or allowance they received from the family business, but almost certainly the bulk of the funds would have come from their father, John.  To understand why he would do this we need look no further than the financial arrangements prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, as outlined above.  What John was doing (and what many other fathers did) was to protect his daughters from the system.  Had he left 1/9 share of his business to each of his offspring, and had any of the daughters married, her capital would immediately have passed to her husband.  And not all husbands were kind, family-oriented men who were good with money…  This way, John was ensuring that each of his daughters would never be without an income of her own.

I was so glad to have worked all this out.  I’m no longer cross with my 4x great grandfather.  And as for his daughters, I would like to have known them too.

Just to clarify – this information wasn’t hard to find!
I found it all using just three types of document:

  • the census returns
  • the Probate Calendar
  • copies of the wills (this would currently cost £7.50 for all five)

… And then I sat back and thought about it all, drawing upon my wider reading and a bit of lateral thinking.

Perhaps there will be similar stories lurking in the wills of your ancestors.

Archiving photographs

I hope this finds you well and feeling positive.  I had planned to be spending this coming week and last with family, but it wasn’t to be, not for a few weeks yet.  I hope you’re finding things to do with your time, and that if the lockdown has left you with even more to do than usual (e.g. home schooling) that you’re finding some time for yourself too.

So as it’s Easter weekend I thought something light would be in order.  I’ve been sorting through my inherited family photos and I’m at the very early stages of archiving them properly.  It will take a long time to do it, but reading around the subject I’ve come up with a list of what I need to do, and I thought I would share that with you.

Organise:
Sort photos into families.  If possible, store these in acid free boxes until they are scanned.  The scanning is likely to take some time, and is best done in small batches.
I’ve sorted my photos into my mum’s side, my dad’s side, and the ones that were taken after my parents got together.  There are also some people I don’t know, plus others that I feel sure I will be able to put a name to when comparing with other images.

Scan:
I know from past attempts at archiving my photos that the scanning process will take considerable time, particularly as I like to digitally ‘clean up’ the images as I go.
Scan the front and if there is anything on the back, e.g. photographer’s studio, date, greeting, etc. scan the back too.
Store them as tiff files with caption and metadata.  (There’s something I didn’t do last time.)

Save:
Save to hard drive, pen drive, the Cloud, etc – as many places and options as you have.

Use and Share:
You can now attach copies of these photos to people in your trees as well as share them with others researching your family – preferably to receive more photos in return!  You could also use them in projects to scrapbook your family history, create albums, etc.

Label:
As you finish with each batch of scanned photos the originals can now be labelled.  There are two schools of thought on this:

  1. Label with a soft #2 pencil on the back of the image.   To do this, lay image face down on a clean, white sheet of paper.  Write gently close to edge of rear of image.  Do not press hard.  Here is a blogpost about the best writing materials to use.
  2. Alternatively… Do not label the actual photos!  Instead place in acid free envelopes or sleeves.  Label each sleeve.  Afterwards remove the photos from their sleeves as little as possible, but if you do remove them, be sure to return each one to the correct sleeve.  Apparently, polyester sleeves are acid free and recommended for archival quality.
  3. Ancestry have produced a blogpost on what information to include on the label when archiving photographs.  It’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Store:
The photos can now be stored in archival conditions.  Everything should be acid free.  Particularly fragile photos can be wrapped in acid free tissue paper instead of being placed in sleeves.  I’ve found archival photo storage boxes at a dedicated preservation equipment supplier that I’ll buy when they reopen after lockdown ends.  These boxes must then be stored in a living area of the house (not an attic, cellar, garage, where temperatures fluctuate).  Ideal conditions are well-ventilated, cool rather than warm, low humidity and dark.  In a box under the bed but not close to a radiator might be a good place.  My plan (at this stage) is to place the archival storage boxes in a plastic crate that will fit under a bed.

I have two large biscuit tins of precious photos (you might wonder why they are in buscuit tins if they are so precious – but even this is a step-up from how I received them) plus two large plastic crates of more recent albums, so I have my work cut out here.  This isn’t a weekend project!

Please do leave a comment if you can add anything to this.

On that note I wish you a Happy Easter, Chag Sameach or if neither apply I hope you have a very happy weekend.

English naming traditions

First of all, wherever you are in the world, I hope that you, your family and friends are well.

All that thinking about Irish, and possibly Scottish, naming traditions in my last post made we wonder if a similar tradition existed in England.  It turned out it did.  In fact it was exactly the same.

To recap:
1st son named after paternal grandfather (patGF)
2nd son named after maternal grandfather (matGF)
3rd son named after father (F)
4th son named after father’s eldest brother (patB)
5th son named after mother’s eldest brother (matB)

1st daughter named after maternal grandmother (matGM)
2nd daughter named after paternal grandmother (patGM)
3rd daughter named after mother (M)
4th daughter named after mother’s eldest sister (matS)
5th daughter named after father’s eldest sister (patS)

However, there were other traditions too, that might have varied the above rules:

  • Babies may have been named after powerful people, e.g. royalty, and these names were likely to have become fashionable, perhaps particularly in London and other fine towns and cities. Naming a child after a local wealthy landowner was also common.  Perhaps this was more likely in rural areas.
  • In addition to the grandparents, parents, and their eldest siblings, babies might have been named after another significant family member. In my last post there’s the example of Annabella, named for her great grandmother who had recently died.
  • In those days of high infant mortality, babies were often named after earlier siblings who had died in infancy. This often comes as a shock to beginner genealogists. Again, in my Irish family (see last post) there’s an example of this.  As late as 1888, Patrick’s second son John was named not only for his paternal grandfather but also to honour the memory of the first-born son.  Below, William and Jane lost seven of their children in infancy, among them three Thomases and two Edwins.
  • Biblical names were popular amongst Nonconformists, particularly for people belonging to a dissenting protestant church or meeting house. In my own dissenting lines I have Nathaniel, Benjamin, Isaac and Abraham, but in wider research I’ve come across Jonah, Zedekiah and Zillah.

Perhaps some of these variations on the regular traditional naming pattern were more likely in 18th or 19th century England than in Ireland.  My very small-scale study, outlined below, is nowhere near enough to be able to say whether this is so, but it’s a possibility.

As for my last post I’ve looked at several families, this time in my English lines.  The respective parents married in 1775, 1790, 1821, 1848 and 1886, and they are from three different lines of my ancestry.  I appreciate that the detail is of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I’ve put the tables showing my findings right at the end of this post.  All you need to notice is the peach highlights I’ve used to indicate adherence to the tradition.

Every single one of the tables shows adherence at some level to the same traditional naming pattern that existed in Ireland.  William and Jane (m.1848) are textbook examples; and even in 1886 George and Rose honoured most of the main family members alongside a couple of fashionable names.  Scanning other families in my tree, I see the tradition not in every case, but certainly generally used throughout.  I’ve even drawn upon it in my research, comparing names of an ancestor’s siblings and their own children.  I just never picked up the full extent of the pattern.  It was there all along though, hiding in full sight.

So this naming tradition, involving passing the same names down by all siblings to their own children, can be a good thing and a bad thing for us as genealogists.  Bad, in that if John and Mary have twelve children, there are potentially twelve first- or second-born grandsons called John and twelve first- or second-born granddaughters called Mary: all of them cousins for you to wade through when looking for your particular ancestor, John or Mary…

But there are benefits too:
Naming patterns can in fact help you to identify which John and which Mary is yours.  If we look wider at siblings’ names, and take into consideration the names of both spouses’ parents, we can separate out the distinct lines.  I talked about this in a previous post about Evidence – look at Case Study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents.  It can require a lot of concentration to do this, but you can achieve astonishing breakthroughs.

Varying from the standard rules to incorporate one of the other traditions might give us a little more info about our ancestors and what was important to them – could the name George or Victoria at a certain time be important because our ancestor was a royalist, or because of the appeal of a fashionable name, for example?

Can the passing on of the name of a family member that doesn’t really fit into the traditional pattern suggest the importance of a bond with an older family member, like a dear uncle, or in my Irish example, honouring father George’s great grandmother, Annabella.  In fact George is an interesting example for another reason: the grandparents’ names he passes on to his children are not his birth parents but those of the man and woman who brought him up.  I strongly suspect the reason George and his wife Bridget chose to honour both of his parents before hers was to show George’s gratitude.

Obviously, finding biblical names can be a huge clue that the family were dissenters – a fact that would impact on many areas of a person’s life and opportunities, and was not just about their religious beliefs.

And finally, naming patterns can be used in conjunction with DNA matching to identify families with likely connections.  This is particularly useful for ancestral lines where records are scarce (e.g. Irish and Jewish ancestry).  There is an example of this in my last post.  DNA matching proves only that another living individual and you have a common ancestor.  You have to work out where that match is for yourself.  Using naming patterns along with geographical locations to identify similarities can point to where that connection is, even if records have not yet come to light and possibly never will.

I hope there is something amongst all of this and my last post that will give you some ideas for using naming traditions to progress your research.  It would be great to read about any breakthroughs based on this in the comments.

*****

Here are the tables created while analysing application of the above rules in just five of my ancestral families.  The apricot highlights indicate that the rules were followed as expected.  Where the order of two consecutive expected names is reversed I’ve considered that as complying.

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children