In the days before online genealogy research was so easy, we researchers had to leave our homes and travel – by horse and carriage – to local (and not so local) archives and trawl through reels and reels of microfilm for little snippets of information to add to our family and other trees.
You had to scribble everything down in pencil, if you were lucky you could photocopy a page from the microfilm reader to save time. No laptops, tablets or cameras allowed then. And I’m not talking decades ago either.
My mum and I visited archives all over London and the southeast of England to track down baptisms and burials, and sometimes we got lucky and found them and sometimes we didn’t (yes Francis Shearley I’m talking about you! Again!)
As a consequence of all that scribbling I have quite a few bits of paper covered in partially illegible writing. Well it was probably 5 minutes to closing time and I would have been frantically getting as much information down as I could. It would have been weeks until my next visit!
So… I was browsing through one of my old notebooks recently and found an odd burial that I had made a note of, alongside a burial I had been looking for (and managed to find!). The burial was for a little girl, no forename had been added and it had obviously intrigued me at the time.
The entry in the burial register reads…
The daughter of Hubert and MaryAnn Wilkins. 8 hours. Buried 31st March 1899. Uckfield, East Sussex.
It mentions that the burial was certified under the Burial Laws amendment Act 1880. We’ll look at that in more detail later.
With a little bit of research using freebmd.uk.org I found that the most likely child was Mary Wilkins whose birth and death were registered in Uckfield during the first quarter (January to March) of 1899. So now we have a name for this little girl.
MaryAnn was born in Uckfield and was the daughter of local coal merchant Arthur Jeffrey. Before her marriage she had been a live-in domestic servant to a family living close to the Palace in Brighton.
Hubert had been born some distance away in Westbourne, West Sussex. After Hubert left school he worked as a carter, transporting goods.
I checked the 1901 census for Hubert and his wife MaryAnn and found them living in Uckfield. The couple had married in early in 1897, shortly after Hubert had taken up the post of luggage porter at Uckfield railway station, he obviously liked working with wheels. They had a house close to Hubert’s work and were parents to 10 month old Hubert Jr.
At this point I thought it would be nice to go and visit Marys grave in Uckfield, so I made contact with the civic centre who hold the cemetery records and located the grave. I also learnt that Hubert and MaryAnn had already lost a child before their daughter Mary.
Edith Annie was buried on the 12th of September 1898 aged just 19 days. She was probably named after MaryAnn’s sister Edith. Now by my reckoning that means that daughter Mary must have been a couple of months premature. How sad for the couple to have lost their first children. MaryAnn would have been just 21.
Childbirth could be a dangerous time, and a perfectly healthy mother could suddenly become ill and die leaving a husband to cope with older children and perhaps a new baby. There was of course no way of knowing how healthy the growing bump was or any real way of foreseeing any difficulties during labour until the moment arrived. A child born days or weeks early had very little, if any, chance of survival.
This was the reality of the life our ancestors lived.
However happier times lay ahead, three healthy babies born in quick succession, followed by another death – a son this time who died aged 6 weeks. Finally a last daughter for the couple in 1906.
The baby girls were buried together and their tiny brother was laid to rest beside them in 1906. None of the graves are marked.
When I checked the 1911 census I noticed that Hubert had written that he and MaryAnn had only 6 children, with 4 of them surviving. I wonder which one he had forgotten.
Lets go back to the Burial Laws amendment Act of 1880. I’ll be honest this made my head hurt. I think I have it right…
This law was added to allow ‘dissenter’ burials to lawfully take place in a Church of England churchyard. This meant that people practicing other religions (Baptists and Methodists for example) were able to be buried in their parish church with a service performed by the leader of their own religion, or a few words said over the grave by a family member. A certificate had to be presented to the Vicar stating that such a burial was going to take place, and the ceremony was performed at the graveside.
Shortly after the law was implemented there were all kinds of demonstrations at funerals by parishioners who were horrified by it. Meetings were held at the graveside about who was allowed to do what while mourners stood by waiting to bury a loved one.
In Marys case we don’t know why she didn’t have a Church of England ceremony. It may have been because of her parents beliefs or it may have been because she had died unbaptised. She was only 8 hours old so perhaps the family were unable to have a christening performed at such short notice.
One last thought, these children would not have appeared on a census and would have remained unknown except by chance – which reminds us to search for the births and deaths of other offspring a couple of years either side of known children when researching our family trees. Just in case.
Many thanks to Linda for her help in finding the Wilkins burials.