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Heartbreak and dissent: one woman’s love story

Tuesday 7 March, is census day. For me, and every other genealogist a census a crucial link to the past and the way we trace our histories and discover those who are a part of us. As a case in point, I’d like you to meet Sarah.

Sarah lived during Queen Victoria’s reign and a bit beyond. She was the youngest of six girls and one boy, and the third Sarah in the family; the previous two had died young. Can you imagine what it must be like to lose a child?

In Sarah’s family, her mother lost four of her seven children, including their only son.  

How do I know this? Because every ten years from 1841 when census records began, I can trace where she lived, her married status and who she lived with.

Unfortunately, infant death wasn’t uncommon, and when I discover such truths the mothering instinct in me comes out and my heart breaks for these women of our past.

In those times, another child was inevitable.

In keeping with the traditions, the next daughter (or son as the case may be) was named after the deceased infant. Such a naming pattern is fraught with difficulties for a genealogist. Faced with names and dates that don’t quite fit, finding the birth and death certificate for each of the previous children is necessary to continue, and sometimes the records are hit and miss.

Sarah, as the youngest, would only have witnessed her mother’s grief once when she was about five. At seventeen, she was working in the public house managed by her parents near the docks. Mariners frequented the establishment and many lodged there when they were home from the sea. By nineteen she was married. We hope gaily in love and entering married life with enthusiasm and hope – but we don’t know for certain. Nor do we know why she chose a mariner nearly a decade older than her. Maybe she was pregnant – that wasn’t uncommon either, except the first child registered arrived two years later. Was there a miscarriage? That we will never discover. Let’s hope, for her sake, she lived those first two years enjoying life as best she could.

While there are search restrictions to protect the privacy of those still living, genealogy is about sleuthing, searching the available records for the true story behind the basic facts.

Sometimes, the sadness grows; other times there is hope and happiness to follow.

Sarah’s story brought more sadness.

By twenty-five she was a widow and had already buried her first-born daughter. Her infant son, not quite a year old was sent to live with her eldest sister, Mary, also a widow. Sarah has to work harder than ever. Two years later, her father dies and two years after that she loses her mother. The victualler’s license is transferred to her name. And this is when life gets interesting.

Between the deaths of her parents, a new daughter arrives. She names her deceased husband John, as the father. Five years later, a second son, followed by another daughter four years after, and another son a year later, all with John as the father. Clearly impossible, but this is Victorian times. A period where strict moral values are in force. When sexual propriety, charity, family values, and duty, founded on the religious beliefs of the day, are not only expected but enforced. But were they?

In reality, these codes often served to create severe austerity and repression for many and conflicted with the social tendencies of the time such as rampant prostitution, child labour, and the exploitation of the lower classes.

Sarah would have been one of those women.

But all is not lost.

Sarah is now forty. She has transferred her victualler’s licence to larger premises. Her first-born son is living with her again alongside his four new siblings. A year after the youngest son is born, those four children are baptised together under the name of Richard and Sarah and her deceased husband’s surname. Confusing, but it hints at a long and intense, if immoral relationship.

Finally, at the age of 53, she marries this Richard who she has known for twenty-five years, less than a year after his wife dies. His story is equally sad. Of his eight children, only two reach adulthood. His wife is in and out of an asylum – which in those days would not have been a kindly place in which to recover from trauma – but he stays true to her, while clearly loving Sarah at the same time.

Theirs is indeed a happy sad story.

Is it any wonder these stories inspire me? I choose to write about fictional characters to protect the real families, but I don’t change the history. I find it fascinating. Don’t you?

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