Insignificant Women?


Many images and tales of the Industrial Revolution, and the period just beyond, describe the harsh lives of the womenfolk, slaving away in Lancashire cotton mills driven by the mill owners thirst for profit, or pounding then sieving rocks of copper and tin ore brought up from the bowels of the Cornish earth by their menfolk. But what about those women who stayed at home, raising the large broods of children, washing filthy clothes from their husband’s labour, tending a small vegetable garden or allotment if they were lucky, eking out the weekly income to ensure food was available ….. and preparing it day, after day, after day! They also played a significant role in that Revolution of 250 years ago …… didn’t they?

In researching my family history over the past 4 months I have followed mostly the male lines back from my mother and father for between 5 and 11 generations so it’s about time my female ancestors got a mention. So I am starting with my mother, Marian (1920-2011), and following back from her mother, Emily Sarah (1877-1941), and her grandmother Ann (1840-1934).

1. The Soldier’s Wife 1920-2011

My mum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Normandy, France

I don’t know how many young men and women married at the end of WW2, but my mum and dad were amongst them. Marian Waters was only 19 years old when she joined the ATS for the duration and was ultimately stationed at Catterick Camp in Richmond, North Yorkshire. She was the 13th and last child in a Cornish mining family who had migrated to the iron ore rich village of Haverigg in Cumbria in the 1880s. She grew up in a miners house, 10 Concrete Square, and attended the Girls School in Bankfield Rd until she was 15 before being “In Service” as a kitchen maid until she joined the army. I suppose it was logical that she would be in the catering corps at Catterick where she rose to the rank of lance corporal, and this was where she met my dad, Martin Metters, a Coldstream Guardsman survivor of Dunkirk. They married in 1945, were demobbed shortly after, and lived in Haverigg, a real working class village made up of miners, ironworkers, tannery workers, farmers and fishermen. All equal, down to earth, virtually all Methodists including my mum who went to chapel twice a week. By 1948 she was a cleaner of the chapel and we were living in a chapel house at 2 Bankfield Rd. She had no other job and only one child to raise, but we had a large garden growing lots of vegetables so she had something else to occupy her. A divorce in 1958 was an enormous shock to her, I remember the tears but didn’t understand them, I suppose it was the shame associated with it that must have reverberated around our tiny village. She took a few more cleaning jobs and we took in a lodger too, his name was Alan and he worked with horses. It was 10 years later that her life seemed to became more fulfilling when she got a job working in a Care Home at Kirksanton, a nearby village. Across the next 12 years she poured her heart and soul into care of the elderly, becoming a deputy matron then a matron in charge via two more care homes in Cumbria. She retired, reluctantly, and lived in a council bungalow close to where she was born for the next 15 years, everyone knew her, she walked miles each week, was a WI member, and still a regular chapel attender. She spent the last 13 years of her life in sheltered accommodation in our Cotswolds village, 200 miles away from Cumbria and everyone she grew up with ….. But only 1/4 mile away from her grandchildren, still walking every day, never missing chapel, and making brilliant stews, soups and, of course, Cornish Pasties!

2. The Miner’s Wife 1877-1941

Emily Sarah May travelled all over England for the first 23 years of her life living in “workers huts” with her father (and mother) who was a Navvie working on massive construction programmes such as canals, docks, shipyards and railways. She was from Kent and met my grandfather, William Waters from Cornwall, in Cumbria where they married and lived all their lives together, mostly at 10 Concrete Square, Haverigg ….. a miners house, the name says it all. I read in a recent edition of the BBC History Magazine that fertility and birth rates dropped in the late 1800s and into the 1900s; well nobody asked my gran about that because she had 13 children between 1902 and 1920 of whom only 7 survived beyond 2 years. My mother was 13th and the last, born on the same date in November as Emily Sarah.

Miners houses, Concrete Square, Haverigg, Cumbria

The Hodbarrow iron ore mine was less than a mile away from Concrete Square so Emily only had to get up at dawn to arrange breakfast and a “packed lunch” for William, usually porridge and bread and butter, both home made of course, plus the ubiquitous Cornish Pastie William favoured, not always a lot of meat in it though as my mother told me! Sometimes it would be just “bread and dripping” with two bottles of cold sweet tea, no milk! Emily’s day would then be the classic day of a miners wife: lighting the fire in the large black grate with side oven in the living room, emptying the chamber pots under the beds into the outside lavatory, getting children dressed and the older ones fed and ready for school in the village, the younger ones would now be looked after by Polly, Emily’s sister in law who lived with them all her life. Emily would now walk into the village across the old iron bridge over the River Lazy, first to the allotment to do a bit of weeding and pull out a few vegetables for the day, then up Main Street to the butchers for whatever scraps of meat she could afford, often “scrag end of mutton”. Across the afternoon there would be baking of bread and more pasties, preparing supper which would be soups with ham bones or thick stews and …. the constant washing of a miners clothes stained red by the iron ore from the mine.

I never met Emily, she died 6 years before I was born, but somehow I felt her presence in that house at 10 Concrete Square. I was born there, lived there for just a year, but apparently spent every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there for 5 years up until my grandad died too. It really was a big house, austere outside, but inside a classic late Victorian house with entrance hall, parlour to the right, stairs facing, living room to the left, through to kitchen, walk in pantry, wash room and out to a back yard with lavatory. I can’t remember how many bedrooms though. Furniture all solid dark wood, brass everywhere, oil table lamps, I can’t remember electricity as there were even gas lamps! Stone floors, thick carpets, and the smells of bread baking, wood and coal burning, soups and stews bubbling over the fire are all memories I associate with Emily, the Miners Wife and my grandmother.

3. The Navvie’s Wife 1850-1934

A Navvie was an itinerant labourer who mostly worked on large engineering projects during the 1800s and 1900s all over England. They built railways, docks, shipyards, canals and probably large cotton mills too. Ann Card was my great grandmother and married to Richard May who was a Navvie. Saying they were from Kent is almost meaningless because Ann is shown across 60 years as living in Aston, Warwickshire (1881), Tilbury, London (1886), Millom, Cumbria (1890), South Shields, Durham (1891), Barrow-in-Furness (1901), Mangotsfield, Somerset (1911). She had 8 children, all born in different towns and counties which is how I can track her movements so much.

A navvie’s wife’s journey of life!

Ann must have had the constitution of an ox as the saying goes because she clearly coped with being constantly on the move, “dropping” children as she went and living in semi communal navvie huts. How on earth do you “live” under such conditions, giving birth, cooking, caring for children, education, washing clothes, leaving friends behind? Ann had eight children, 3 girls and 5 boys, the first when she was 27 years old and the last when she was 41. For that era having a first child at 27 was a late start, many of my Victorian ancestors had 3-4 children by the time Ann started!

However, I’m pleased for her that between the 1911 Census and 1934 when she died, she lived in the same place, no longer a navvies wife ….. but still married to Richard and now the wife of an Innkeeper! And that must be left for another tale as I have now discovered THREE ancestors who were Innkeepers.

We hope you have enjoyed these three short tales of undoubtedly very strong women, physically and psychologically, each living through different times facing challenges of war and social upheaval in a country going through massive industrial change. On this side of my family originating in Kent however, agriculture and farming was the major “industry” ……. Was the agricultural upheaval as great as the industrial change in the 18th and 19th Century England? I need to find out …..

Next tales… “The Farmer’s Wives”

4 thoughts on “Insignificant Women?

  1. I made note recently of a comment that archives are male biased. I think that’s probably true to an extent. Not enough diaries and letters written by women are being saved, probably deemed “unimportant”. This is a sad fact: the jobs of homemaking and child-rearing are considered trivial historically. Thank you for taking time to document these women’s lives. Excellent work, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.