Mary Wilkins.


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 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.

… with best love from Esther

Esther Childs

I spotted this small bible and the common prayer book laying side by side on the table, obviously trying to get my attention by flapping their pages about in the breeze. And (as much as I tried to resist) of course I ended up picking one up. Inside it read  ‘To Mother with best love from Esther. Christmas 1910.’

Not much to go on there so I put it back down.

Then I picked up the bible. ‘To Esther A E Childs from her sister Belinda. Christmas 1903. The Lord bless Thee and keep Thee.’

So now I had given myself a dilemma. Do I buy the book with the inscription? and if so do I leave the other book behind which Esther has given to her mother? Arghhh!

So I asked the stallholder how much he wanted for the bible. He took a quick look at it and told me he thought it once belonged to someone in his family. And then asked a couple of quid for it.  And then even though the other book had no other information to give me I bought that too because I just couldn’t bear to split them up.

It took me a while to find out about ‘Mother’ and her two daughters – their surname is sometimes spelt with an s on the end and Belinda isn’t really her first name – she was baptised Clara. But eventually I tracked them down and here is a little peek into their lives.

The Autumn of 1888 is remembered for its connection to the Whitechapel Murders, and at the same time Jack was finishing off the last of the Canonical Five, a little girl was being born in the small parish of Penshurst in rural Kent, about 30 miles south of London. The little girl was named Esther after her paternal aunt.

The village grew up around the medieval manor house Penshurst Place which today is partially open to the public. And apart from seeing many a royal visit and being owned by kings and earls  some of that film The Other Boleyn Girl was filmed there (but maybe we will forget about that last ‘claim to fame’…! )

Esther’s father Edgar worked on one of the many farms within the parish as a carter and her mother Harriet tried to keep the household running smoothly with three growing sons at school, a small daughter and now a newborn baby to contend with. Another daughter would follow a couple of years later to complete the family. The couple were luckier than many – all six of their children survived childhood.

Both Harriet and Edgar were born in the village. They were married in the parish church, just a few minutes walk from the family’s cottage, where their children would later be baptised. The children all attended the small village school and Edgar remained at the farm for his entire working life. All in all they were just an ordinary hardworking family.

Belinda was the first child to leave home, in the 1901 census she is living with a family in the village working as a maid. Also in the household is 16 year old Mary Mortlock who is the family’s cook! I’m not sure I have ever seen a cook as young as her. If I had been Mary the whole family would have dined on scrambled egg on burnt toast frequently.  That and burnt tinned soup.

Belinda was married in 1906 (maybe the food drove her away?) to Frederick, a signalman on the main line to London,  and moved away from the village to a workers cottage near the railway in the local town. Belinda and Frederick had several children.

The three sons of the household remained at home until they married, Henry was a builders labourer, Archibald a gardeners assistant and the youngest, Alfred helped with the horses his dad used on the farm.

Esther went to work as a domestic servant for a family in the village. She would have had a great many duties including perhaps making beds, cleaning carpets, laying and lighting the fires, emptying chamber pots, washing up, laundering, ironing and mending  clothing, cleaning floors and windows, helping to prepare and serve meals. The list of jobs is endless. Add to this that the family ran a grocer and draper shop and we might find that Esther sometimes had to work in the shop too.

But I suspect she must have had a little time to herself occasionally because on Saturday the 12th of April 1914 Esther Annie Elizabeth got married to Frederick, a local bricklayer.  She wore a cream taffeta dress with white lace and silk,   her sister Grace was the chief bridesmaid and wore blue and her two young nieces (complete with silk bonnets) carried white flowers tied with pretty blue ribbons behind the bride into church.

The three sons of the family joined up during the First World War and Archibald was badly injured twice whilst serving in France before going missing in April 1918.  A small article about him, along with his photograph, appeared in the local paper with his distressed wife Hannah asking for news of him from his comrades. She was later was informed he had been killed in action and she received the  £19 17s 4d back pay owed to him, followed by his service medals.

Archibald may not have known about the death of his father, Edgar died aged 65 in January 1918 following an operation in hospital. His funeral was attended by a great many people, he was obviously a very well thought of man.

Grace was now the last of the siblings remaining at home, and I can’t imagine she had an easy life – perhaps she helped keep house for her widowed mother, spent caring for relatives in the village or helping around the farm if she was able to get some work there. With her siblings all supporting families of their own, money would have been tight. Harriet and Grace remained in the family home until Harriet’s death in 1920 and shortly after this Grace was married.

Both Clara and Esther survived their husbands by many years and lived well into their nineties.

I don’t know how the books remained together for such a long time, someone obviously looked after them. And now they are sitting next to each other on my book shelf. But should they be on yours?