In the family album there is a photograph of two elderly people, my great-great-grandparents William and Mary Ann UNDERWOOD. The gentleman is standing, looking the very picture of the era with his white beard and serious expression. In his posture I can trace the resemblance to his son, my great-grandfather Walter UNDERWOOD, Sr. The woman is seated, her clawlike hands docilely resting in her lap. Her face bespeaks a life of suffering, which has long intrigued me. She looks so much older than her husband, as though she were his mother rather than his wife. [Note: now that I say that, I am questioning whether this might not actually be a photograph of William and his mother, whose married name was also Mary UNDERWOOD...]
Actually, she was three years younger than William. She was baptized on 2 June 1834, the third surviving child of Charles VALENTINE and Mary Ann REEVE. Her brother William was four years older than she; her sister Sarah scarcely over a year older. And she was soon to have a younger brother Charles about a year and a half later. They were raised in White Notley, in the Braintree district of Essex county, England.
Their childhood seems to have been a bit rocky. Judging from the records, they seem to have lived in poverty, and in what might very well have been a broken home.
In 1841, the first census available, the children are found in a household headed by their mother, but the man who seems to be generally accepted as their father (none of the evidence I have found contradicts his relationship, but none of it proves it, either) is found in the household of his own parents. Granted, he could have been just visiting his parents on the day the census was taken, but the next census increases the mystery.
But before we examine that census, let’s finish looking at the 1841 census. Mary Ann the mother is working as a plaiter, a common occupation at that time for the rural poor. Women could still run a household while straw plaiting, and the children could help with the task. William, the oldest boy, is working as an agricultural laborer, that vague occupation of so many men—and even some women—in British censuses. The age of 11 may seem quite young to begin earning one’s keep, but these were truly the days of Dickensian child labor, and to be an 11-year-old agricultural laborer was probably much more pleasant than it was to be an 11-year-old (or younger) factory worker. With that in mind, it is almost surprising that 9-year-old Sarah has no listed occupation, but she and her sister Mary Ann, and perhaps even little Charles, likely helped their mother with the plaiting.
In 1851, the supposed father Charles is again found in his parents’ household, and is recorded as unmarried. Mary Ann the mother is again heading the household in White Notley, and she is recorded as a widow. This could simply mean that we have the wrong Charles VALENTINE. Or it could imply that there has been some sort of separation or divorce. Charles could have easily resumed his single status, but Mary Ann had a house full of children to account for. “Widow” would certainly have sounded much more respectable to the Victorian ear than “single” with five children.
Yes, five children. That is the second intriguing circumstance. Eight years after the birth of young Charles, another little bundle of joy—or perhaps it felt more like another mouth to feed—arrived. This one was named Harriet VALENTINE, and she is the only one of the family for whom I have been unable to find a baptismal record in the index.
Eight years is a substantial amount of time between children in the Victorian age, particularly when the others had all come one right after another. Mary Ann the mother would have been—and here I’m relying on her own baptismal certificate, not her impossibly slow aging on the census returns—37 years old. If we are going with the theory that the Charles VALENTINE, son of James and Sarah, is indeed her husband, it would seem that they were separated for quite a period of time, and then effected a temporary reconciliation. Either that or Mary Ann had a little—ahem—outside help. (A remarkable thing to find oneself saying about one’s own 3rd great-grandmother!)
The two boys are still living with their mother, and both working in agricultural labor. Harriet, I am glad to say, is apparently attending school; her occupation is “Scholar (first day).” I say apparently because I do not understand what that parenthetical “first day” means. I wonder if it perhaps refers to a Sunday school?
The other two girls, Sarah and my 2nd great-grandmother Mary Ann, are in that most fearful of Victorian institutions, the workhouse. The Braintree Union Workhouse in Bocking, to be exact. Although a workhouse was not quite as bleak a place as depicted in Oliver Twist, it wasn’t what you would call cozy, either. In fact, workhouses were designed to be as forbidding as possible so as to deter all but the most desperate. Therefore, Sarah and Mary Ann must have been pretty desperate. It does seem rather curious, though, to see the two of them in the workhouse when their mother and siblings were still alive and living together.
|The former Braintree Union Workhouse, now St. Michael's Hospital. |
Robert Edwards [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
They are both listed as straw plaiters, a skill they probably learned from their mother.
There is today a common misconception that a workhouse was like a prison in that a person was “put into” one, and was not allowed to come out. Instead, entering a workhouse was generally a choice. The workhouse system was the welfare system of the times: if an able-bodied poor person wanted relief, that person had to enter a workhouse. The idea was to prevent abuses of the system, to make sure that everyone who received relief did their part in working for it. And, although many who entered a workhouse did so for life, an inmate such as Sarah or Mary Ann could leave at almost any time, provided they gave (usually) three hours’ notice. However, the workhouse provided no assistance in starting a new life: no new clothes, no money, nothing but what had been brought in when a person entered.
I would love to get my hands on Mary Ann’s workhouse records, if they still exist. It is not known at this time when she entered the workhouse or when she left, only that she was there in the census year 1851. By the next census in 1861, she was again living with her mother in White Notley. Her mother’s occupation that year was very vague indeed: “Out door Labourer,” whatever that meant. Mary Ann the younger and her sister Harriet were the only two of the children still living at home, both of them silk winders. They likely worked at the silk mill either in Braintree or Bocking.
Within a few years, Mary Ann had met William UNDERWOOD, who would become my great-great-grandfather. They were married in 1865. Their marriage was recorded in the General Register Office in the Apr-May-Jun quarter, so they were probably married in the spring. I have yet to order a certificate from the GRO, so I cannot vouch for an actual date, but I should admit that the date 13 May 1865 has somehow mysteriously crept into my tree unsourced. I will be curious to discover how accurate the date turns out to be.
By 1871, they were settled in Hawkwell, with three children: Mary Ann, Sarah, and Charles. Fortunately, this third generation of Mary Ann was known—at least according to Aunt Elsie’s typescript—as Mary. Sarah is, of course, “Aunt Sadie,” and Charles, sadly, did not survive. Both the parents were recorded as farm laborers. All three children were born in Hawkwell, so the family must have been living there since at least 1866.
The cottage of the UNDERWOOD family appeared on the census just one entry after the location called “Clements Cottage,” so it would seem that they lived more or less near Clements Hall, one of the two local manors.
The years followed their ordinary course, and the census records reveal that the family moved at least twice in the first twenty years, but stayed in the same general area: 1881 found them in Hockley; 1891 in Hazeleigh. They lost little Charles, but had my great-grandfather Walter. The parents’ occupations remained some variation of agricultural laborer, while the children grew, attended school, took up occupations of their own, married, and moved away. By 1901 William and Mary Ann were empty nesters in Hazeleigh. William still was described as an agricultural laborer, though 68 years of age.
The last census in which they appear is 1911, still together after 46 years. They had moved to 92 Spital Rd in Maldon, and had become old age pensioners.
Clarke, Andrew. “Strawplaiting.” Web log post. The Hysterical Hystorian. The Foxearth and District Local History Society, 12 June 2005. Web. Accessed 1 Apr. 2011. <http://www.foxearth.org.uk/blog/2005/06/strawplaiting.html>.
“Hawkwell - From 1066!” Hawkwell History. Hawkwell Parish Council, 2012. Web. Accessed 22 Jan 2015. <http://www.hawkwellparishcouncil.gov.uk/history.asp>.
Higginbotham, Peter. The History of the Workhouse. Web. Accessed 20 Jan 2015. <http://www.workhouses.org.uk/>.
Warner, Sir Frank. The Silk Industry of the United Kingdom: Its Origin and Development. London: Drane’s Danegeld House, 1921. Internet Archive. MSN, 17 Mar 2010. Web. Accessed 22 Jan 2015. <https://archive.org/details/cu31924030128825>. Book contributor: Cornell University Library.
1841 census of England, Essex, Fairsted parish, Witham registration district, folio 7, page 8, household of James Valentine; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Mar 2011); citing PRO HO 107/343/6.
1841 census of England, Essex, White Notley parish, folio 19, page 9, household of Mary Valentine; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 21 Oct 2007); citing PRO HO 107/343/12.
1851 census of England, Essex, Braintree Union Workhouse, Bocking parish, Braintree registration district, folio 330, page 12, Sarah Valentine; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015); citing PRO HO 107/1785.
1851 census of England, Essex, Fairsted parish, Witham registration district, folio 377, page 13, household of James Valentine; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Mar 2011); citing PRO HO 107/1783.
1851 census of England, Essex, White Notley parish, village of White Notley, Braintree registration district, folio 426, page 10, household of Mary Ann Valentine; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 Feb 2010); citing PRO HO 107/1785.
1861 census of England, Essex, White Notley parish, Braintree registration district, folio 157A, page 14, household of Mary Ann Valentine; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 Feb 2010); citing PRO RG 9/1115.
1871 census of England, Essex, village of Hawkwell, ecclesiastical district of Rochester, folio 56, page 3-4, household (cottage) of William Underwood; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Mar 2007); citing PRO RG 10/1669.
1881 census of England, Essex, Hockley parish, rural sanitary district of Rochford, folio 100, page 7, household of William Underwood; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Mar 2007); citing PRO RG 11/1768.
1891 census of England, Essex, folio 66, page 4, household of William Underwood; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 Mar 2007); citing PRO RG 12/1397.
1901 census of England, Essex, Hazeleigh parish, rural district of Maldon, parliamentary borough or division of South East Essex, folio 57, page 1, household of William Underwood; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 Oct 2007); citing PRO RG 13/1690.
1911 census of England, Essex, 92 Spital Rd Maldon Essex, household of William Underwood; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015); citing RG 78, RG 14 PN 10194, registration district (RD) 196, sub district (SD) 2, enumeration district (ED) 1, schedule number (SN) 160.
Ancestry, “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015), entry for Charles Valentine’s 1836 baptism; citing FHL Film Number 560909.
Ancestry, “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015), entry for Mary Ann Reeve’s 1807 baptism; citing Boreham, Essex, England, reference; FHL microfilm 1,702,171.
Ancestry, “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015), entry for Mary Ann Valentine’s 1834 baptism; citing FHL Film Number 560909.
Ancestry, “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015), entry for Sarah Valentine’s 1833 baptism; citing FHL Film Number 560909.
Ancestry, “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, Ancestry, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 Jan 2015), entry for William Valentine’s 1830 baptism; citing FHL Film Number 1702171.
Crocker, Elsie. unpublished typescript.
Graham Hart, Ben Laurie, Camilla von Massenbach and David Mayall, “England & Wales, FreeBMD Marriage Index, 1837-1915,” database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 21 Jan 2015), entry for William Underwood’s Apr-May-Jun 1865 marriage; citing General Register Office.