An Extraordinary Life in Georgian England

22 Jul

By Paul Tomblin

People have always moved from the countryside to towns, but some periods saw more movement than others. The period from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century was one of these.

Some moved freely to better themselves, whilst others were forced to move, as many ‘cottage industries’, providing work for the whole family, were unable to compete with factory-produced goods. The population of Nottingham’s St. Mary’s parish, for example, grew rapidly at this time, and this brought social problems.

By 1813-14 St Mary’s workhouse contained over 500 people, with approximately 14,000 others dependent on the parish rates and charity. In 1821 the parish contained 32,712 people, 77%+ of Nottingham’s population, with most living in poverty in its slums.

Elizabeth Marrat was one of those who made the journey from rural Leicestershire to St. Mary’s, before being removed in 1817 to the village of Lowdham in Nottinghamshire.

During this time, she allegedly had eleven children of whom ten were illegitimate, with only one the subject of a Bastardy Order, suggesting that she, or the man she was living with at the time, were prepared to support the family, even though it might have children by different fathers, so that they were not a burden to the parish. Her story, or rather the story that can be told from those surviving documents used to tell that story, is about one of those ‘ordinary’ people whose life history would never have been told, were it not for the extraordinary way that she lived her life.

Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph, framework knitter, and Catharine Marrat, was baptised at Hathern, Leicestershire (1780) giving Elizabeth settlement there (meaning that this parish was responsible for her if she became poor). Catharine died (1784) and Joseph remarried (1785). Early on in life Elizabeth moved 25 miles to Lowdham, Nottinghamshire; probably hired as a servant for over a year and a day, thus gaining permanent settlement there. This is confirmed by a Bastardy Order (1812) for William Dalton and a Removal Order (June 1817) for Elizabeth and Ann (12), Esther (7), William (5), Joseph (2) from St. Mary’s, Nottingham to Lowdham; the children born in St. Mary’s under licence from Lowdham. On appeal by Lowdham, Ann, Esther and Elizabeth were removed, the boys remaining in Nottingham, but with no details of their fate. Another Bastardy order (1820) shows William’s father was in prison for not paying maintenance.

The girls were baptised as Ann Marriott and Esther Dalton, but William’s and Joseph’s baptism remain unknown. Another William Dalton, baptised August 1808, parents William Dalton and Elizabeth and buried in January 1809 is also recorded. Possibly Elizabeth moved to Nottingham sometime before Ann’s birth c.1804/5. Did William desert Elizabeth, after presumably co-habiting from 1807-1812, leading to the Bastardy Order (1812)? He married Elizabeth Lawton in December 1812. Did St. Mary’s lose patience with Elizabeth, leading to the Removal order? She was pregnant, giving birth to Sarah, at Lowdham in October 1817.

At this point it was known that Elizabeth had five known illegitimate children and, probably, William Dalton of 1808-1809. Presumably William had supported Elizabeth and children. After he left Elizabeth, why is there only the Bastardy order for William? Esther’s baptism entry suggested that William had acknowledged her as his child. Probably Ann, Joseph and Sarah had different fathers who supported Elizabeth – hence no Bastardy Orders. Family reconstitution is not always simple when it is noted that at least another four, local, Elizabeth Marriotts were having illegitimate children concurrently.
Elizabeth lived in Lowdham from 1817 until her death (1864). She became ‘respectable’, married William Harrison (1819), having one legitimate child Richard (1821). William died (1838) and Elizabeth became Joseph Walker’s housekeeper (1841 Census), married him (1842), before he died (1843).

This letter, from a series written between Richard, the Poor Law Commissioners and Southwell Workhouse Guardians from December 1848 to January 1849, when Elizabeth was threatened with the Workhouse, provided important information.

Elizabeth had another four illegitimate children for whom there were neither Bastardy Bonds nor relevant baptism entries. But she must have been deserted by or left the fathers of these children so why had the parish not pursued them?

This question had prompted this research: Esther Marriott, born Nottingham c.1810, married John Adams at Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, 1828 – who were her parents? This Southwell Workhouse letter (1856) showed that Elizabeth Walker was Esther Marriott’s (Dalton) mother.

Six Workhouse letters were needed to establish that John Adam’s wife, Esther was Elizabeth Walker’s daughter. The Relieving Officer, appointed, 1834, had regularly paid parish relief to Elizabeth’s husband, William and Elizabeth from 1837 to 1856. How well did this Relieving Officer know his parish paupers?

The facts posed many questions but so did the sources or lack of them.

Two Southwell Workhouse Minute Books, 1838-1840 and 1852-1855, Admission and Discharge Registers and Punishment Book pre 1852 were missing. Likewise the Lowdham Overseers’ of the Poor Accounts, which is perhaps understandable. However, I found it required considerable effort to lift one of the massive Minute Books. They’re not the sort of thing easily slipped into a pocket or under an overcoat. How could anything so large and heavy go missing?

Original documents are so much better than transcriptions that might have omissions or be mis-transcribed, but just how reliable are they? Elizabeth should appear on the 1851 and 1861 Censuses:

  • 1851: no Elizabeth Walker but Elizabeth Harrison, widow (63), born Hathern, Leicestershire, which is west of Loughborough. She had been William Harrison’s wife so had the enumerator filled in her surname incorrectly from memory?
  • 1861: a widow (76), born ‘W(est) Loughboro’, Leicestershire’: was Elizabeth’s memory failing? Only one Elizabeth Harrison or Elizabeth Walker is in Lowdham at this time. After William’s death (1838), Elizabeth Harris is allowed a winter coal allowance; in 1844 Elizabeth Watkin (60), is allowed 6d a week extra relief. There are no references to Elizabeth Harris or Watkin in any relevant documents so could these actually be Elizabeth Harrison / Walker respectively?

Of course, Esther Marriott in the marriage register was baptised Esther Dalton. Throughout Elizabeth’s life we only know the facts as recorded by the men who she had contact with, (and they were not without blemish), we never hear Elizabeth’s version.

In the scheme of things who was using who? Was it the men using Elizabeth or was it the other way round? I do think that she would have been a candidate for the Jeremy Kyle show.

Paul Tomblin completed the Advanced Diploma in Local History in 2013. He lives in Derbyshire.

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