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Time to remember those remarkable Victorian women …

This week, let me introduce you to Harriet. Every time I follow the life story of Victorian women I am amazed at their stamina and adaptability.

Only seven years younger than Queen Victoria, Harriet knew little about the reign of Kings George IV or that of William IV and lived her life knowing only Victorian’s reign.

She was born in a little village near Bath where her father was a shopkeeper. Although, she was the fourth daughter, only her eldest sister Mary, already fourteen years older than her, lived to adulthood. There were more children and more deaths, but only one other sister, eight years her junior would grow up – but not with her.

She relied on Mary. When her parents moved to find work and a new life away from the heartache of buried children, Harriett would remain living with Mary and her family. But clearly life was lonely. By the age of seventeen she is pregnant, living in Bristol, and about to marry a man who would lead her a merry dance. He would change his occupation and where they lived depending on his financial position – or lack of it, as he went bankrupt more than once.

However, they stayed together as he went from being a licensed victualler to a dealer in jewellery, (it seems he was a trained silversmith but couldn’t make a go of it), to a cheese and bacon factor, to sugar boiler. They were to have seven children in all, ranging in age from 12 to 6 months before he died. She was 31 still breast-feeding and without a son old enough to take over his father’s role.

Fortunately, they had a man working for them as a cheese factor, whose daughter, only two years older than her oldest child, was their domestic servant. Within the year, she had married this man, twenty-three years her senior, and took his daughter to be her step-daughter, elevating them both to being confectioners ‘on own account’ as opposed to ‘workers’. The household was full, and busy, but secure. Or was it?

She would bear four more children to this man. Losing two of them, and become a widow for the second time months before her youngest daughter was born. She was still only 40. Her second son, single and still living at home became the Head of the household at the tender age of 20. Within a decade, he too would pass away.

For the next twenty years, Harriet was the Head of the Household and the force to reckon with. Her youngest daughters stepped up and helped her run the confectionery business, learning how to be bakers, pastry chefs and sugar boilers and becoming businesswomen in their own right. Harriet never remarried and died at the age of 75.

I found her story remarkable. I haven’t touched on the difficulties of living a Victorian lifestyle, with cooking, washing and caring for a large family without the modern appliances we have today. Nor have I mentioned the social mores that drove her to marry a second time to a man so much her senior.

When you think about these aspects, her life becomes more remarkable.

You can read about characters inspired by these women in any one of my books, but especially about sugar boiling in Gwenna the Welsh Confectioner.

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