‘Goodbye Ada!’

Pond

Imagine, for a moment if you will, that you are walking along a quiet, leafy country lane on the outskirts of a small English village. The road is dry and dusty underfoot, the air is filled with the ‘perfume’ of a nearby farm.  The evening is drawing in and the warmth of the June day is beginning to fade. It’s a time before cars were common and planes were just used by carpenters, so there is no modern noise to interrupt your thoughts as you make your way home. Unless we include the baa-ing of the sheep on that farm, if that is that a modern noise?

Sorry, I have spoilt your concentration. Lets get baa-ack to the quiet leafy lane.

Suddenly, as you round a bend, a young boy appears and runs unseeingly past you. He is the first person you have seen for a while and, in this fading light, he has quite unnerved you.  Take a moment to catch your breath and then please continue on your way .

Just a little way ahead, you can see a small crowd of people gathered around the edge of a large pond just to the side of the road.  As you draw closer you can tell something is very wrong.

Lying beside the pond is the lifeless body of a young woman, her dishevelled hair is soaked and full of weeds and mud.  Someone is lifting her arms above her head and then bringing them back to her chest in an attempt to revive her.  More people arrive breathlessly from behind you. Maybe they are her family, perhaps the boy who ran past you was going to fetch them.  Whoever they are, they are too late…

June 2nd 1881

Martha Styles was just 17 when she left her parents home for the last time. She told them she was going to catch the evening train from the station a mile or so away, back to the townhouse where she worked a few miles away. She said her goodbyes to her parents and siblings and made her way out of the house.

She took her youngest sister, 3 year old Ada, out to the garden gate and asked her to walk a little way with her, but their mother overheard and called out that it was far too late for the little girl to be out. Martha said goodbye to Ada and walked away. It was just after 8pm

But she didn’t go to the station. She walked the opposite way, towards a large pond about half a mile away. She stood by the water, took her hat and scarf off and then laid them on the grass nearby.

At about half past 8, Martha was discovered struggling in the pond by a couple of small boys who tried to help her. They fetched help and eventually she was dragged from the deep muddy water. When it became obvious there was nothing more to be done, her body was removed to a nearby  pub, where it was stored in an outbuilding until the inquest could be arranged a couple of days later.

This was quite common for the time. Public houses usually had room for a large table where the body could be viewed, plenty of space for the Coroner, and any other interested parties and of course it would be able to provide refreshments.  Hopefully not served from that large table during proceedings though.

At the inquest her mother, Ann, told the coroner that Martha had returned home from the local town in the hope of getting a position closer to her family but had missed out on it. She had moved away a couple of months earlier, telling her family she had employment in the household of a family a few miles away.

Ann had no explanation for her daughters actions, and was only able to add that Martha had suffered from fits as a child, ‘dropping down as if she was dead’ and the doctor had often been called to attend to her.

One of the boys who had tried to get Martha out of the pond said that she seemed to just struggle and take no notice of their pleas for her to grab the stick they held out for her to grab. The doctor who performed the ‘mechanical breathing’ to try and revive her said her face was discoloured as if she had been fitting in the water.

The court was told that she had worn some boots belonging to her mistress and had been caught with them, the mistress demanded 18 shillings for said boots of which poor Martha had only managed to pay 2.

Being unable to find the money to pay for the boots, she had been sacked a week or so before her death. Her parents had been unaware of this and thought their girl was still at her place, but looking for another one. Her father only learned of her dismissal when he had gone to the employers house to ask for his daughters things back. They were being kept, he was told by a servant there, until the rest of the shillings were paid.

Her father, Stephen, said he had been told by another servant at the house that Martha may have been with child, but he didn’t know if this was true. Martha hadn’t told them she was on her last visit home.

Her mother then told the court that when Martha had returned home she appeared to be as happy and cheerful as ever, only noticing her daughter seemed unable to enjoy reading as she used to. There was no unpleasantness at home at all, both of her parents would have been happy for her to remain at home.

So what had happened to Martha? Did she kill herself or was it a tragic accident? Why had she decided to walk to the pond instead of going to catch her train? She had no job to return to at that point but she had felt unable to speak to her family about her troubles. Had she simply gone for a walk to think over what to do and decided to paddle in the pond, taking her hat and scarf off first before becoming ill and falling in?

Whatever had happened, the verdict at the inquest was suicide. Martha was buried on the 6th of June, which oddly enough was exactly 135 years ago as I write this.

But that is not the end.

Martha was the 6th of 13 children, and at the time of her death only her younger siblings remained at home. The family probably lived in a small ‘two up two down’ type cottage, close to the farm where her father worked.

These cottages were so called because they had 2 bedrooms upstairs and a large kitchen and small sitting or ‘best’ room downstairs. The toilet would have been outside. It would have been a squeeze to fit everyone in and this is why children tended to leave home at a young age (especially girls) and live and work at the home of the employer.

One of the problems of having a large family in a small home was how rapidly illness could spread. In the days before many effective medications had been discovered even a minor cut could cause blood poisoning and death.

At the end of July, 9 year old Emma Ann Styles became ill. At first it was just a sore throat, but then a rash and a high temperature followed. It must have been quite serious as the doctor was called from his home just across the road.

It was Scarlet Fever. With no antibiotics and little in the way of painkillers there wasn’t much to be done except hope and pray for a quick recovery. Complications were common – kidney failure, septicemia, heart problems and secondary fever amongst other things were all killers –  a family could lose several children to an illness like this in a very short period of time. And there was nothing to be done but hope the patient got better.

Emma died on the 7th of august and was buried on the 9th close to Martha.

But this is still not the end.

Shortly before she died Emma passed the illness on to her sister 11 year old Phoebe.

Phoebe to succumbed to the terrible illness and was buried alongside Emma on the 13th of August.

With 5 children still in the home, including a young baby, Ann and Stephen must have been at their wits end.

On the 10th of August as Phoebe lay breathing her last, the doctor again called at the house, and confirmed to the grieving couple that their youngest daughter, little Ada, had also become infected.

Ada was very poorly but held on for 2 weeks. She died on the 24th of August and  was buried swiftly the next day close, to her sisters.

Four daughters dead and buried in the space of 3 months. How quiet that once crowded, noisy house must have been.

It could all be rubbish.

I can only apologise to anyone who has been waiting for a new post. I have an excuse or 2 though. I have several new and exciting projects on the go… a couple don’t even have anything to do with dead people!

One of the projects is de-cluttering the house and doing a bit of decorating.

Soooo last Sunday I packed the car full of old junk and headed over to the local tip. I had a lot of old boxes to put in the cardboard recycling skip, so I climbed up the horrible metal steps in my sensible shoes (I have been known to get a boot heel stuck in the grills of those steps before…) and threw them in to the almost full bin. Then I spotted a pile of books sitting  near the edge of the container. Books! In the skip!!

One of the books looked quite old and I just couldn’t resist flicking the cover open to have a little nosy…

Edith Price

The inscription inside was almost illegible but the  year was still clearly visible, written in ink it said 1878.  I was pretty confident I could find something out about the Victorian owner of the book so I asked one of the staff if I could take the book home.

Printed in 1833, the book has the rather grand title ‘The Students Manual, An Etymological And Explanatory Vocabulary Of Words Derived From The Greek’ by R. Harrison Black, LL.D. According to its author it was originally compiled for the use of a young female relative and was then ‘published with the hope of it being generally useful more especially to young ladies – whose mode of education precludes them from an acquaintance with Greek.’ Thoughtful chap.

Now I won’t fib, this one has been a toughie. But I do not give up on dead people easily. Unless they specifically ask me to.

So I began by studying the inscription.  I have it as ‘from M.Blackstone to Edith M K Price. 1878’.  We can tell from the photo that the M.Blackstone has been written long before the rest of the dedication, it is in a steadier hand and the ink is of a slightly different colour. The book has been given to Edith by M long after M initially owned it.

I can only find one likely recipient, Edith Mary Karslake Price born in Scotland circa 1857, making her 21 when she was given the book.

Next job was to find Edith as close to 1878 as possible. In both 1871 and 1881 she was living in Rottingdean, on the outskirts of Brighton, with her mother and siblings including  younger brother Salisbury who later in life would become a Vicar.

Now I had to try and locate an M Blackstone.

A mile away in Ovingdean, living a quiet life next door to the local Vicar was an elderly spinster, Miss Margaret Blackstone. Born in 1799 in Wymering, Hampshire, Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Bigg-Withers and the Rev. Charles Blackstone. The ‘Materials for a history of the Wither family’ located on archive.org has some great information on the Bigg-Wither family including some letters written by them.

The Bigg-Withers family owned Manydown Park, Hampshire and were neighbours of the famous Austens and one of them, Harris, proposed to Jane. She apparently accepted his proposal briefly, changing her mind the next day.

Charles Blackstone died in 1804 and his widow Margaret spent much of her time at her childhood home with her also widowed sister and their combined collection of  small children.

Margaret the younger lived with her mother until Margaret Snr died in 1842. Then she gradually moved her way towards Brighton during the next few decades.

Could Margaret have been the mysterious M? We have no real way of telling. I think M was probably a woman, and had a love of learning. Both owners of the book came from families of wealth and property, were fortunate to be in a position where they could have a good education, and both had Clergymen in their immediate family.

Perhaps the women met socially as they only lived a few minutes walk apart, Margaret discovering their shared love of learning giving her book to Edith for her birthday. Could it have been a gesture to show the shared frustration felt by women who were limited in their studies by the age they lived in?

Maybe Margaret isn’t the correct M.Blackstone after all.  We’ll never know.

Margaret and Edith lived on their private incomes during their lifetimes and remained  unmarried. They died in 1885 and 1943 respectively.

Now I am sure I must have one project that doesn’t involve the dearly departed somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So where were we….

Like many people I like a quiet walk through a churchyard, I like to explore the old stones and sometimes take note of a name or two and see what I can find out about them. About 15 years ago I was walking around a Sussex churchyard with my mum and the thought occurred to us …why not record some of these stones? many of the memorials were from the early 1800s and were rapidly falling victim to weather – the soft sandstone losing the lettering once carved into it. So we began to spend our spare time there, on hands and knees with paper and pens (yes it was in the days before Tablets!) and in all weathers, desperately trying to read inscriptions that were terribly faint and almost illegible.

In the end we recorded well over a thousand headstones. It was a very difficult project, we didn’t get it right in some cases but we tried our best, visiting local archives to try and get as many names and dates right as possible.  We purchased death certificates, read obituaries in local papers dating back to Victorian times. But it was great, and we had fun doing it. When complete we felt we had achieved something, and many people who had long since gone were remembered and now have become like old friends to us, albeit some of them probably have the odd chuckle at my expense about that ant incident.

One nice part of our project was the people we met, both in person and online. We received photos of Edwardians now residing in our churchyard whose families had since emigrated, we were able to help people find long lost ancestors buried in a church miles away from where they should have been and we learnt a lot about the history of the area and its people.

So back to the name of the blog…. One of the oldest headstones we recorded had the rather sad inscription ‘Seized by death and prisoners made, three infant children’ and I was intrigued……..