May you live in interesting times

If you read my blog regularly you’ll know that I consider myself not just a researcher of the past, but also an ‘ancestor of the future’.  Mindful of how much I would love to be able to sit down with many of my ancestors and ask them questions over a cup of tea, I’m always thinking of ways to leave my descendants the answers to some of the questions they may one day have about me and my family.  I am in fact writing a collection of stories about the characters that leap out from my family tree as having a particular tale to tell, and in the past I’ve started to write down snippets of my own life and times – something I found difficult because ‘slice of life’ stories never appeal to me – I need the drama!  My lifetime has, thankfully, largely coincided with peace.  Yes there have been massive societal changes and developments, but these have been gradual, largely just happening in the background.  There have been exceptions of course: 9/11 and ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, for example.  Whenever I met young people from Ulster in the later years of that period I was always struck with how attuned they were to politics and current affairs.

But my goodness, this has changed over the past few years.  The saying ‘May you live in interesting times’ is often said to be an English translation of an ancient Chinese curse – the implication being that ‘uninteresting times’ are so because they are peaceful and unchallenging; ‘interesting times’ are difficult.  Apparently, though, no one knows of a Chinese phrase upon which this might be based.  Curse or not, we can at least now appreciate what ‘interesting times’, even ‘unprecedented times’, are like.

Over the last few days I’ve heard of a number of ‘Lockdown Diary’ projects around the country.  The Mass Observation unit at Sussex University, in operation since the 1930s, are inviting people to apply to contribute to their archives. You can read all about their Covid-19 project [here], and apply [here].  They say ‘Correspondents may email, type or write by hand, draw, send photographs, diagrams, cuttings from the press, poems, stories, letters and so on.  No stress is placed on “good grammar”, spelling or style.  The emphasis is on self-expression, candour and a willingness to be a vivid social commentator, and tell a good story.’  You can read more about what they’re looking for [here].  If you don’t want to be a regular contributor you can take part in their annual one-day mass observation project, coming up on 12th May.  This year is the tenth anniversary of that project.  You can read about it [here].

It may be that your local authority archives is operating a Lockdown Diaries project.  I heard about one on the local news a few evenings ago, and have seen more by doing a quick Internet search.

Or if none of that appeals, how about something more private that reflects you, your personality and interests?  At the beginning of Lockdown I started work on a reproduction panel of the Bayeux Tapestry!  It won’t be finished by the end of Lockdown, but when it finally is finished and framed I’ll label it as my ‘Lockdown Project’.  For as long as it exists it will be known that this was stitched in 2020 when much of the world came to a standstill and most of us were required to isolate ourselves in our homes.  It will be a piece of social history twice over – depicting the Battle of Hastings and commemorating the Coronavirus.

I’ve also written a short ‘history of my life through music’ – Number 1’s on key dates of my life, and pieces that bring back memories of a specific moment in time, particular events or even just a period of my life.  What would reflect you?  Would it be music, great reads, wonderful places you’ve visited, or something else?

I leave it with you to ponder on all of the above, but bear in mind that the 12th May Observation Day is fast approaching.  I hope you and your loved ones are happy and healthy, and that together we will continue to do all we can to beat this pandemic.

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.

The Acts of Enclosure

THE GOOSE AND THE COMMON

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

Authors unknown, circa 1700s

The first two verses of this rhyme popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook recently.  It was being circulated as a commentary on certain present-day events, but I recognised immediately its original meaning.

This is a seventeenth protest rhyme against enclosure of land in the English countryside.  A little googling resulted in this fuller version, although as with any such rhyme passed on by word of mouth, a number of versions have survived.

Although this ryhyme is thought to date from the 18th century, the process of enclosure started in England as long ago as the 13th century. The term ‘enclosure’ (or, to use the archaic spelling, ‘inclosure’) refers to two distinct practices: firstly, the consolidation of smallholdings into larger farms, and secondly, the fencing off of formerly ‘common land’, which would from that time be owned privately.  The rhyme refers to the latter.

The point about ‘common land’ is that it is for the use of all local folk.  They could perhaps graze animals there, or hunt the odd rabbit or goose as an addition to whatever they could grow on their own small plot of land.  Enclosure of the land meant all hunting, grazing, fishing and other rights would now be for the amusement and benefit of the landowner.  Henceforth, the shooting of a wild animal on that private land by someone whose ancestors had been doing this for centuries as a perfectly respectable way of supplementing mealtimes would be ‘poaching’, punishable by the law, and resulting in imprisonment or even transportation.  What land did remain for the common good was often of poor quality and unsuitable for grazing.

During the Georgian era this process of enclosure speeded up, and from 1773 enclosure was by Act of Parliament.

The process of enclosure had several consequences, not only for our countryside but also for the development of English society as a whole.  Understandably, the process of enclosure itself was met with resistance, resulting in bloodshed and criminalisation of individuals.  Larger farms opened the way for more efficient farming practices, resulting in a surplus of labour.  Life became harder and families became hungrier in the rural areas at exactly the same time as the great industrial northern towns and cities were starting to boom.  In this way we can see that enclosure contributed to the ‘push’ factors away from the rural lands at exactly the same time as the industrial revolution created the ‘pull’ factors.  This certainly is borne out by my own family history.

Most of us, I’m sure, will have agricultural labourers in our ancestry.  Some genealogists complain that ‘ag labs’, as they’re referred to, are pretty much all they have.  I can understand their frustration, because unless our ag labs had regular run-ins with the law there is often very little information to be found about them.  We might easily imagine they lived small, uninteresting lives.  But it’s little things like this rhyme that let us know this was not necessarily so.  Our ancestors were fully aware that their lands were being taken and their rights eroded.  They were aware of the unjustness of what was happening.  It might even be imagined that the chanting or singing of this rhyme would be considered seditious.  In any event, just this little bit of background information may help us to think differently about an ancestor with a history of poaching convictions.