Genealogical Women’s Lore

Back in October 2019 I reviewed two books about researching female ancestors.  Both were useful and interesting.  However, neither was particularly what I had anticipated.  We all know that women are far less likely to feature in records than their husbands, fathers and sons.  Having gone to all the trouble of producing a living human being many mothers were not even given a mention in the parish register; and in some parishes this exclusion of women was so extreme that a married woman was not even really mentioned when she died, her burial record referring merely to ‘Wife of John Smith’ or ‘Widow Brown’.  The whole point of these two books therefore was to highlight specific record sets that might include our women ancestors, together with an understanding of developments in social history and general themes that might be of interest even though we won’t find specific records – like fashion.

What wasn’t included was what we might learn about her life *because* she is a woman, or because ‘this was the way things were done’: things that women ‘know’ and ‘understand’, and might sometimes have been talked about in hushed tones in the kitchen away from the men.

I’ve been thinking about all this for a long time, and have now put together three posts (this one and the next two) to try to read between the lines and ‘decode’ every last bit of information from entries about our foremothers.  There are no guarantees to what follows, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures!  So if you have a brick wall and you’re prepared to think outside the box, perhaps one of these ideas might help.

Our foremothers changed their surname on marriage
Okaaay… obvious!  We all know our female ancestors changed their names when they married.  And yet… how many times have you been tripped up by this?  I know I have.  The fact is that even a very young woman could have been widowed already, and an older widow might remarry.  This is easier to trace post-1837, when the civil certificates give more information: marital status plus the bride’s father’s surname.  But prior to that we have to work harder.  So if a baptism doesn’t seem to exist for her, look instead for an earlier marriage, using just her first name and the known surname for the spouse.  If a likely looking marriage shows up, now look for a burial for the husband.  Similarly, if you can’t find a burial for your female ancestor, look for a remarriage, and then a later burial with the new name.

Childbirth as a guide to the mother’s age
According to the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) a woman’s childbearing years are assumed to start at age 15 and end at age 45 (the day before her 46th birthday).  Let’s put that to the test.  Look at women in your tree who had large families and long lives.  How old was each one when she had her last child?

Here’s a random sample from different branches (and time periods) of my tree:

  • Annie Elizabeth, b.1850; d.1926. Last child born 1888 when Annie Elizabeth was 38*
  • Jane, b.1857; d.1940. Last child born 1900 when Jane was 43
  • Mary, b. c.1801; d.1863. Last child born 1846 when Mary was c.45**
  • Rachel, b.1828; d.1884. Last child born 1869 when Rachel was 41
  • Elizabeth, b.1792; d.1848. Last child born 1833 when Elizabeth was 41.
  • Lucy, b.1802; d.1885. Last child born 1846 when Lucy was 44.
  • Sarah, b.1784; d.1860. Last child born 1828 when Sarah was 44.
  • Dorothy, b.1763; d.1843. Last child born 1803 when Dorothy was 40.

*younger than the others listed, but by this time Annie Elizabeth had already had 13 children, one divorce and one judicial separation with second husband on grounds of domestic violence.
**consistent with two census returns, although the final census gives a younger age.

These examples from my tree suggest the ONS general assumption of childbearing years was as valid 200 years ago as it is today.  For a woman who gave birth regularly throughout her marriage and lived on for some years after this, the end of childbearing is a reasonable guide to her age and therefore for the search of her baptism.  It could help to narrow down the search to within five years.

A named woman is (almost) certainly the mother
Here’s something that becomes important if DNA matches are not adding up: the named father on a child’s birth certificate or on the parish baptismal register might sometimes turn out not to be the biological father, but the named woman is almost certainly the mother.  To recap from my earlier post on unexpected DNA results: FTDNA, one of the main DNA testing companies, assess the NPE (‘Non-Paternity Event’ or ‘Not Parent Expected’) rate at about 1-2% per generation. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki page on NPEs cites a number of studies, some of which have concluded that historical NPE rates were much higher than more recent times.
There are a few exceptions to this assumption about the mother.  The child may have been given away at birth and brought up as the child of another family – although in the one known example of this in my ancestry (Annie Elizabeth’s firstborn) the baby was originally registered and baptised as the child of the biological parents.  Another possibility is that the mother was very young and the baby was registered as the child of its grandmother. (I can recommend watching re-runs of ‘Call The Midwife’ to encourage lateral thinking on the lengths desperate women might go to.)  Although these possibilities must be borne in mind, though, we might generally assume that the named mother at least is the biological parent.

Untimely deaths
The death of a woman of childbearing years may have been connected to a birth
If a female ancestor of childbearing years dies it’s always worth looking for a baptism or birth record around the same time. Equally, a woman known to have died from childbirth complications has definitely given birth, even if there is no birth certificate: there was definitely a baby but it may not not have survived. Before 1939, if the baby was stillborn there will not be a record.
Example: My 2xG grandfather Marcus’s first wife, Ann, was only twenty when she died. It was only when I bought the death certificate and read the cause of death: ‘Milk Fever’, that I realised I needed to look for a baby. Little Ann was born on 16th January 1850 and was only one week old when her mother died. The baby also died, five days later.

The birth of a baby indicates that the mother was alive on the day the child was born (even if she died shortly afterwards).  By contrast, the best we can conclude for a missing (presumed dead) father is to say he was alive nine months earlier.
Example: After Ann’s death the aforementioned Marcus married Harriet. They had four children, of which the last one is my great grandfather. He was born in September 1859, and Marcus is registered as the father, yet by the time of the 1861 census Harriet is described as a widow. There is no death certificate and no known burial. Did Marcus really die, or did he just move away? All we can really say is that his last known presence was nine months before the baby’s birth (… although I have been desperately seeking a DNA match for Marcus for several years. Without this I can’t even say for sure that he was my great grandfather’s father.)

Other indications of pregnancy: An interesting example came up a couple of weeks ago in Series 4, episode 2 of A House Through Time: Leeds (BBC). In the following household, the presence of the ‘Monthly Nurse’ indicates that Mary H Mellish is in the very last stages of pregnancy, preparing for the birth. However, no birth is ever registered. The only way we have of knowing Mary was pregnant and her baby was stillborn is this entry on the census, and the presence of Margaret Towns, Monthly Nurse. The census is of course a decennial snapshot of the population. There would have been many more Monthly Nurses and mothers whose labours ended in stillbirths, and it would be a significant event in each mother’s life, but there is no official record of them. Even here, we understand it only by joining the dots.

Entry on census return showing presence of 'Monthly Nurse' at residential property.
TNA Class: RG11; Piece: 4538; Folio: 34; Page: 62; GSU roll: 1342092. Source: Ancestry.com

Did she die and did he re-marry? Naming traditions can make distinguishing between generations difficult. How do we know if a marriage record on an old parish register relates to an older man or his adult son of the same name? Here’s an example where I was able to use the wife’s burial record together with DNA as proof that my ancestor is the older man.
Example: My 4xG grandfather George Gamble married my 4xG grandmother (Hannah) in 1790, when she was 20 years old.  I couldn’t find a baptism but working on the assumption he would be about the same age as Hannah, I had been looking for a baptism between around 1760 and 1770.  It was a DNA ThruLine suggestion on Ancestry that alerted me to the true facts.  At first the ‘Common Ancestor’ didn’t seem to be to my George at all: it led to an older George Gamble, born 1749, whose wife was Susanna. Then I noticed that they stopped having children in 1789, the year before my George married Hannah.  Might Susanna have died in that year, perhaps in childbirth?  I checked for a burial for a Susanna Gamble, and there it was, about 14 weeks after the last birth – another case of milk fever perhaps?  I then checked all the occupation references for this other George.  He was a clothier, the same as my George.  The 1790 marriage entry for my 4xG grandparents refers to ‘George Gamble of this parish, clothier, and Hannah Brook of this parish, spinster’, but makes no reference to George’s own widowed marital status.  This was, however, undoubtedly the same person.  It was the final birth combined with Susanna’s untimely death that solved the case.

Regular as clockwork
If records indicate a very regular pattern of childbirth for a woman, such as every 2 to 3 years, but with one longer gap this may point to a stillbirth or miscarriages, an illness, a child being born away from the normal residence or for some other reason an additional child that you haven’t found.
Example: Annie Elizabeth, in the above list of my foremothers, had a good standard of living yet gave birth to a lot of sickly babies, generally with a very short gap between pregnancies – in one case an eleven month gap followed by a nine month gap.  I had already found eleven babies but it wasn’t until I saw her entry on the 1911 census for number of babies born alive and number of babies since died that I realised two more were missing.  I noticed that in the midst of all these pregnancies there were two 3-year gaps – not a long time between pregnancies for most other women, but within the context of Annie Elizabeth’s childbirth patterns, three years was a long gap. I found one of the missing babies born and baptised in a quiet rural area away from Leeds.  I assume that in view of all the infant deaths, Annie Elizabeth had gone there to see through the last months of that pregnancy and the birth in a calmer environment away from the family business.  The final missing baby, however, has never been identified but I suspect may have been born (perhaps stillborn) during the other 3-year gap between babies 2 and 3.  

Extract from 1911 census showing number of children born to female householder.
TNA Class: RG78; Piece: 1548. Source: Ancestry.com

It’s important to note that this part of the 1911 census was directed at married women, and that the question relates to children born of ‘this marriage’.  Widowed for thirteen years, Annie Elizabeth should have left it blank, and we can see that the enumerator crossed through her responses in red ink – but luckily for us many widows and stepmothers completed this section, and it’s always lucky for us if they did.  I also strongly suspect that some women included stillborn babies in their numbers.  As mentioned above, at this time stillbirths were not even registered.  The apparent inclusion of them by their mothers in this census response is perhaps their way of giving legitimacy to the little ones who were never counted.

*****

So these are my thoughts on ‘women’s issues’ for genealogists – or gynecology for genealogy. They may just help in untangling a brick wall. If you can add anything along these lines I’d love to know.  Next time I’ll be sticking with our foremothers, and focusing on maiden names.

Our female ancestors

Sometime in the early 1970s my mum decided she wanted a sewing machine.  I went with her to one of the big department stores, where a very knowledgeable woman showed us a few models and demonstrated the features.  Having decided on a particular machine, my mum went over to the cash desk.  She wanted to pay on HP (‘Hire Purchase’) over several months.  That was when the fun started.  My mum, aged fortysomething and in full-time employment, was not allowed to sign the HP contract.  Since she was married, only her husband could sign.  I was too young to understand the implications of all this, or of course to know the long history of women’s place in society, but I could tell from the combination of frustration, anger and embarrassment writ large across my mother’s features that it wasn’t a good thing.  There was nothing to be done though.  We had to go home, and my dad had to go into town later that afternoon to sign the documents and bring home the machine.

Yet only a hundred years earlier the lot of a married woman had been much worse.  It was only during the lifetime of my mother’s grandmother that women started to make gains.  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.  Before the 1882 Act, the only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.  Even then she didn’t necessarily have the final say in decisions relating to her children, and of course she didn’t have the right to vote.

I’ve traced approaching 240 direct ancestors in my family tree.  Almost half of these are women.  And yet I know far less about these grandmothers of mine than I do about their husbands.  Even if the mother is named on the baptism record, it’s the father’s occupation that is recorded, while census records list the occupation of most women as ‘Unpaid domestic duties’.

I’d been thinking about this for a while.  It seemed the only way I might ever know more about my female lines was to read about social history, and to apply what I learned to my ancestors, based on what I knew of the occupation and social status of their husbands.  So I was interested to find two books dedicated to female ancestors:
Margaret Ward’s The Female Line (2003) focuses on women’s lives 1800 to 1950.
Adèle Emm’s Tracing Your Female Ancestors (2019) deals with the period 1815 to 1914.

Both, then, cover the perfect period for the genealogist who has used census and civil registration records to trace their ancestors back to the beginning of the 19th century, and would now like to get to know these ancestors a bit better, before perhaps taking the plunge and learning about the earlier records needed for the Georgian period and beyond.

The Female Line has information arranged over eight chapters, each ending with a ‘finding out more’ section with ideas for further research, including the whereabouts of records, further reading and other ideas.  Chapters include photographs and fashion; marriage; widowhood and remaining single; politics and the vote; charitable work; crime; work and war.

Tracing Your Female Ancestors has information arranged over six chapters, including birth, marriage and death; education (for all classes of society); crime; daily life (including housing, recreation, illness); work and emancipation (including the general opening up of options for women).  Links to various sources are found throughout the text, and each chapter ends with a bibliography.

Both books end with a very useful timeline of key events impacting on women’s lives.

Clearly there’s a lot of overlap in topics covered, and inevitably much of what is written is about the generalities.  For example regarding fashion and dress, even without photos of your ancestor you can still get an idea of what a woman of her time, class and occupation might have worn by looking at books and photos.  Similarly, unless your ancestor’s marital relations were recorded in newspapers, court records and the like, then the best you can hope for is an understanding of what being married meant for her in terms of autonomy, finances, etc.

There is also the issue that ‘woman’ is not, and never was, a homogenous group.  There was a world of difference between the life and expectations of a wealthy woman, a middle class woman, the wife/daughter of a skilled tradesman and a pauper.  Equally, some of the facts of a woman’s life applied equally to her husband, father and male children – living accommodation, the penal process, Education Acts and Factory Acts, for example.  So what both writers try to do is to highlight the issues and then to draw out of these the particular impact upon women and their daughters.  Some crimes, for example, are more likely to be committed by a woman, whilst others that are more likely to be committed by a man will nevertheless impact greatly on his wife and family if he is imprisoned or transported.

Regarding work, the point is made by both authors that our female ancestors were unlikely to be described in the censuses with reference to any paid employment, even if they were enormously successful, or if the household depended on their contribution.  A gentleman ought to be able to provide for his wife and family.  Hence Elizabeth Gaskell, by then a successful and accomplished author for two decades, was described in the 1861 census as ‘Wife’.  Lower down the social scale, our foremothers may have been written off on successive censuses with the term ‘Unpaid domestic duties’, but unless she was middle class or had a private income, chances are that she would have done some work alongside that, either full or part time, and either within or outside the home.  Prior to the industrial revolution, women and children would all have a part to play in supporting the husband-father in his cottage trade.  A husband might be a fully trained weaver but his children might card the fleece, and his wife might spin the yarn.  Later, women might be employed in the local mill or factory – so location will be an important factor – cotton mills in Lancashire, lace in Nottingham, mining in Wakefield, agricultural work in rural areas, and so on.  And of course there is always cleaning to be done in a wealthier person’s house.  Sometimes wives whose husbands had a family business, like a draper’s shop or a grocers would be listed on the census as Assistants or ‘Helps out in family business’.  Women might take years out to raise children, or work fewer hours when the children went on to school, but the idea that our great grandmothers only ever took care of home and family in the form of ‘Unpaid domestic duties’ is inaccurate.  Whatever they did, though, they would never earn as much as men doing the same work.  These are the kinds of issues raised in the chapters of these two books.

These are not intended to be books that will answer all our questions.  As family researchers, we might find some of the topics irrelevant to our own research.  However, both books are a good introduction to a lot of topics, and packed with ideas for general reading and sourcing original documents.  Both provide an overview of the various topics, including the kind of records you might want to explore, where to find them, and further reading.  It may still be that you won’t find any specific records naming your female ancestors, but you will have a lot more idea about how she lived.  In my own case, I have both found and better understood some records as a direct result of reading these two books.

So which of these books might be best for you?  In what ways do they differ?

The most obvious differences are in dates of publication, size and price.  With a publication date of 2003, Margaret Ward’s book could be considered out of date.  Of course, the records and events haven’t changed since then, but certainly the online availability of records has.  Published in 2019, Adèle Emm’s work is bang up to date.  (In fact it was published as I was reading Margaret Ward’s.)  It’s also much longer, with 220 pages including index, as opposed to 112.  On the other hand, it costs almost twice as much, with a RRP of £14.99 as compared with £7.95.  As a result it contains much more information, both in terms of scope and also in the inclusion of far more examples taken from actual records in various parts of the country.

My recommendation is that, despite the comparative age of The Female Line, if you’re still very much a beginner at family history, you might prefer her shorter, gentler book.  If you are confident and enjoy social history then like me, you’ll get a lot more out of Tracing Your Female Ancestors.

Click on either image to find that book on Amazon.co.uk.
(Affiliate link)