The more research I do for my novels, the more respect I gain for the humble people about whom I write. They weren’t rich, indeed most struggled to put food in their children’s mouths and clothes over their backs, but they did it under the most difficult circumstances in a time when working like a dog from dawn to dusk until you dropped dead was an accepted way of life.
As readers of ‘For Their Country’s Good’ and ‘The Dandelion Clock’ will know, I’ve already researched my maternal side of the family and uncovered murderers who were transported in 1841 and men of courage who went to war in 1914. This time, I’m acquainting myself with life as it was in 1873 for my father’s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, Mary Ellen and Elizabeth Underwood of the Schoolhouse, Maidford in Northamptonshire. This isn’t an area I know well, and I knew few of my father’s relations, and have no photographs of them, so I’m digging deep and slow.
But I do remember Aunty Annie of Woodend, who was ancient in the fifties when I was a small child – according to my research, she was born in 1864, so she’d have been about ninety – but was always wheeled out for the family Boxing Day get together at Pytchley Vicarage. How I wish I’d known then that one day, she would be a key figure in one of my novels. How much she could have told me. But more of that when I get into writing ‘Kindred and Affinity’ a tale of a man who went against the law and the church to marry Annie in 1891.
Over the space of twenty-three years, Elizabeth raised ten children – Annie, Mary Ellen, and Edith were born within three years (a child a year wasn’t uncommon when the only contraception was abstinence) – and at a time when one in five children didn’t reach their first birthday, it’s possible she gave birth to some who didn’t reach an age to be baptised and registered.
I can’t begin to imagine the work involved in raising ten children especially without any mod-cons. A hill of washing, a mountain of food to prepare and cook, a mending pile that would stretch to infinity, and I can’t even think about the washing-up. How did they do it? How strong did you have to be to survive? With no welfare state and no health service, how did they survive widowhood, epidemics, childhood illnesses? The hard truth is that often they didn’t. The graveyards are full of headstones to those who died too young.
I’m looking forward to writing about Elizabeth, and Aunty Annie and her sister, Mary Ellen, who I never knew. About Edwin West who married two women he loved and doubtless paid the price of his conscience with God and the Methodist Church. And about Herbert Baker and why my paternal grandfather took the pledge and became tee-total. I wonder what else I’ll discover…
Do you have a family story? It really is worth doing a bit of digging; you never know what you might unearth and what will grow and bloom into a deeper respect for and understanding of those who came before us.