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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

A brush with the workhouse

I discovered last week that two of my great-uncles, Allen and Ernest, and their sister Maud, spent a brief time in the workhouse in 1886.

I'd always known that there'd been some disruption to the family circumstances having found that their father, Edward, had disappeared from the census somewhere between 1881 and 1891.

Secrets revealed... or not

Edward had always been branded the Black Sheep of the family, though no one seemed to know any more about him. Then I came across a letter from my great uncle Ernest written to his niece, my mum's sister. From the wording, it was obvious my aunt had asked Ernest about his father and wanted to know what he'd done to earn his black sheep status.

I scanned the letter excitedly to see what Ernest had written. It all looked very promising at first. He agreed to tell my aunt the story. But after describing his father's family as being fond of "high-life and parties" and that his father was "the playboy of them all", he refused to say any more, announcing, "this is where I close my book on him with no regrets."

Further research

So, having got nowhere with that source of information I did some digging in the records and discovered what had happened.

To cut a long story short, it seems that Edward had been living a parallel life for several years, with two "wives" and two families.

Edward's wife, Frances, my great-grandmother

My guess is that in 1886, the balloon went up. Whether his wife Frances, my great-grandmother, threw him out or whether things came to a head and he made his choice and walked out, I guess we'll never know. But as the bread-winner, his leaving would have had a huge impact on the family's circumstances.

Painful decision

My grandfather, as the eldest child, would have only been 15 years old and while he may have been in work, his wage wouldn't probably have been enough to support the whole family. Easy to imagine that Frances found herself having to make the painful decision to put her younger children - 7 year old Ernest, 11 year old Maud and 13 year old Allen - into the workhouse.

More on the story to follow next week, so watch this space!


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