Posts Tagged ‘Isabella Clavering’

After sixteen years researching my families on three sides – mother, father and stepfather – there’s no doubt the folk I enjoy discovering the most are the naughty ones. Those who broke society’s rules, willingly or not.

Many of my researcher friends say the same, but there are plenty of others who find ancestral transgressions hard to think about. It’s interesting to consider why there’s such a need for rosey specs when we build the lives and characters of our relatives beyond the bare bones of BMDs.

I guess we all prefer to feel proud of our kin and often that means being able to tell positive stories of work success, personal achievement, happy marriages, warm homes and plenty to eat, much like the Christmas Round Robin.

For people my age, born in the fifties, and particularly for the next generation back, there’s still a powerful fear of social shame even though society has changed so much since our childhoods. The old stigmas that tainted so many lives in the past can still hold sway: being ‘illegitimate’, an unmarried mother, divorcee, deserted wife, on the dole – or simply poor. Not to mention gay. Or criminal – lugged to court or serving time. Women who ‘slept around’ or left their husbands were scandalous, even when escaping violence (which of course was never spoken of).

All these pulls of shame can still operate when we discover an ancestor was one of the above – there can be an anxious urge to tug a curtain over vintage shame. But I’ve found myself becoming increasingly proud and happy with my family transgressors. Maybe that’s because I’ve found so many of them, especially on my father’s side. First in the league is my great-granny Isabella Clavering, whose life was so eventful I’m currently writing a novel based on her life.

As a taster (far from the complete story), I now know that Isabella’s second husband, William Danforth (a south Yorkshire steelworker) married her bigamously, that his first wife Elizabeth Ellen had run off with another man, steelworker Richard Price, and lived with him ‘as married’ until his death. I’ve found that Isabella’s sister Dora ran off to Scotland with another steelworker, Charles White and also lived with him ‘as married’ until her death, while he stayed in contact with his legal wife and three children in Sheffield.

Effectively triple bigamy in one family. Maybe it was part of a steelworker’s job description.

To add to that, Elizabeth Ellen returned with ‘husband’ Richard to her birthplace Hoyland Nether in Yorkshire, and he died there (what?). Her legal husband Bigamous Bill Danforth returned there too from Glasgow after Isabella’s death, to live with his son from his first marriage (what?). For the last few years of his life, Bill and Ellen were living within a few doors of each other in Hoyland (what?). As for Charlie White, after Dora died, he married twice more in Glasgow, the last one, Annie, being only 22 when he was 62. And Annie went to visit Charlie’s Sheffield family in the 1930s, probably at the time of his death in 1938 (what?).

All those whats relate to the fact that bigamists and family-deserters never normally returned to their old haunts or kept contact with those left behind. My family seem to have made a habit of it.

I’m delighting in all this non-conformity, and it certainly makes for good plot-lines in the novel, but I do wonder how other descendants of Bella, Bill, Richard, Ellen, Dora and Charlie might feel about their ancestors’ transgressions being laid bare with scant rosiness applied. It comes down to a question all family researchers have to face – how much truth to tell.



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Since I moved to Sheffield in March, I’ve started to write a novel. It’s based on the life of my favourite ancestor, already mentioned several times on this blog – great-granny Isabella Clavering (1845-1906).

The facts about Bella that I’ve collected work well as a ready-made chapter list and there’s a consistent theme in her life that can be woven in : secrets and lies. She also experienced a dreadful amount of bereavement, so much it’s a challenge to think how I can introduce humour and positive notes. No-one will fight their way through to the end if it’s unceasing tragedy. We don’t relish death and melodrama in the way the Victorians did.

Now that I’m picturing her as a real person and not a set of dry facts, I see an incredibly resolute and strong woman, to have survived what she did.

But of course, she was not alone with these challenges in the late 19th century. At that time, the majority of people in Britain were in the ‘working classes’ or, even worse, among the destitute. The dividing line between those two states was fine and porous. A drop to the very bottom was easy for anyone. I can still remember how that felt in my own time, when my father was too ill to work, reliant on a ‘sick club’ that paid him a few shillings a week for only a short period. And how the older generation in the sixties, who’d grown up in the pre-welfare-state, worried mightily about how their children would pay for a burial. Many took out small insurance policies just for that, doing without essentials to cover the cost. It accompanied the terrible prospect of a ‘pauper’s grave’ if no provision was made during life.

So, in trying to picture great-granny Bella’s life in 1870s Manchester, I’m trying to see the ordinary details of every poor city-woman’s life back then, not just hers. I’ve discovered quickly how little I know. Questions fill my head. She had babies – were there nappies? How did baby poo get disposed of? Where was the nearest drinkable water? How was food prepared – was it just bought, as pies and fish-and-chips perhaps? Or was their only food bread? How did she do her hair? Did she have a mirror, or brush? What clothes did she possess? Maybe just one dress?

I haven’t considered a work-life for her yet because in the 1870s she appears to have helped out at her brother-in-law’s pub, the Crown and Anchor in Lever Street, Manchester. But it might be easier for me as a writer if she’d had occupations – servant, mill-worker, dressmaker, charwoman, etc. – because books have been written about 19th century female occupations, providing helpful details (though any or all could have been euphemisms for the oldest job in the world. It’s not beyond possibility that Isabella did as so many other women, turning to the street for income when she had no other option).

But, from a first look around, it doesn’t appear that many books have been written about the lives that most poor and working-class women had in their own domestic environments. Those mundane, ordinary details, even as basic as the location of a loo, or a sink, seem barely documented. Go up a step to middle-class and much more was written about women’s lives (or how they were supposed to live), both at the time and since. Newspapers at that period are full of stories and adverts we can use as guides, but not for writing the life of a poor woman, unless she got hauled before magistrates for soliciting, thieving, drunkenness or fighting.

I’ll gladly hear of suggestions from readers for books and articles that throw light on poor city-women’s lives during the full onslaught of industrialisation, in the last quarter of the 19th century up to the first war. Otherwise, I’ll have to rely on my own imagination to conjure up the missing details. But how can any of us know, from our present-day experience, how our ancestors lived 150 years ago? That question leads me to the sad thought that no matter how many ‘facts’ we dig up, we can never pay our foremothers the full respect they’re due, of really ‘knowing’ them.

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