Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Long Life and Terrible Death of My Ancestor Judith Harrison

For years I've had in my possession a copy of the diary of a relative of mine who lived in Victorian England. He was the first cousin of my mum's great-grandmother. Whilst his story is fascinating and detailed, his grandmother - our common ancestor - has her own tale. More than ten years before he began recording daily life on the farm, she had made headlines for her own reasons.

Farmer John records her very matter-of-factly: "Judeth Whalley of Rainford. Grandmother Whalley's maiden name was Harrison [from] near Liverpool. Had four children: Joseph, William, Anne and Thomas."  That was how she was remembered by him in 1878, so here is my 2011 attempt to evoke her era in more detail, and tell of her terrible fate.

Judith Harrison was born in the tiny rural village of Lidiate in Lancashire on 28th June 1780. It was a period of great unrest for Britain, and in the month she was born, our troops were in the midst of fighting rebellious American colonies abroad, whilst domestic affairs had included a week of violent riots culminated in the storming of Newgate Prison.

The modern world was just beginning to take shape when Judith was a little girl. A little before her 7th birthday, the first convict ship set sail for Botany Bay where they would land the following year and begin new lives in Australia.

Big social changes were taking place in England and new political and technological ideas were altering the way people worked. In 1793 a new government body was formed called The Board of Agriculture in response to Britain's booming farming industry. They believed there was money to be made through drainage and crop rotation. This would have been extremely relevant to the small community in which she lived as her family tried to make their living off the land.

Judith would have been brought up a God-fearing girl, attending chapel every Sunday and learning the Bible. She was growing up at a time when certain theological concepts were just starting to be challenged by scientific thinking and during her early teenage years two controversial publications caused religious outrage.

The first came when physician Dr Erasmus Darwin argued that all life forms evolved from one single source, and that developments in nature stemmed from competition. There would remain a lack of evidence for his "Laws of Organic Life" until his more famous grandson Charles Darwin set out to prove it decades later. Then in 1795, Tom Paine's book "The Age of Reason" also rejected the Biblical account of the creation as well as the story of the Virgin Birth. His book was banned and publicly burnt, and perhaps Judith's own parish was party to this religious condemnation.

A couple of days after her 16th birthday a 47-year-old doctor in Gloucestershire called Edward Jenner succeeded in inoculating an eight-year-old boy against smallpox. For the first time, the country had hopes of combating one of the worst diseases to threaten children.

In 1799, as war raged on with France and the financial burden on Britain increased, Prime Minister William Pitt (right) proposed a new "income tax" on anyone who eared more than £60 a year.

Moves were made to boost the struggling economy and it was hoped that growth would come via effective farming of enclosed lands which had formerly been open fields and wastelands. After the turn of the century, the General Enclosures Act sped up the process as governmental enthusiasm for the plan grew however in practise poverty sharply increased. There was a great surge in the number of labourers forced to work for very low wages and farming communities would have been seen significant shake-ups. The young men in Judith's village would have been hard pressed to feed themselves.

Not long after Richard Trevithick made history with his first viable his steam locomotive, Britain finally passed a bill to make the slave trade illegal in 1807. In international affairs, on 7th July in Russia, a victory for Napoleon further reduced Britain's available supply of goods.

Meanwhile, in her small village in Lancashire, Judith had met and fallen in love with a young man called Richard Whalley and on the 26th July they married. A few months later, Judith became pregnant and on 21st August 1808 she gave birth to a baby boy who they named Joseph. Two years later he was joined by a little brother, who they named William.

In 1811 as King George III's insanity grew worse, the flamboyant womaniser Price of Wales was appointed regent. His time in power began as Britain saw continued industrial development and a push towards education of the masses. Churches were making efforts to bring learning to the poor and promote literature.

Judith's husband was a farmer and his life would have seen the benefits of the road system which was being developed at the time. The country's old horse tracks were making way for new highways improved by John Macadam, the inventor of a better road surface (pictured left).

The long war with France finally drew to an end and three months before Napoleon's French army was  famously smashed by Wellington, Judith had given birth to baby Ann on 1st April 1815. She would one day grow up to have children of her own including the diarist, Farmer John.

The effects of the distant war reached home when property prices collapsed and by 1816 there were reports from many rural areas that poverty was rife. Judith and her family would have lived through extremely tough times bringing up three young children whilst they saw their farming friends go bankrupt and employment opportunities disappear. The population of the country had risen sharply and thousands were starving. Wages were so low and bread prices so high that many couldn't afford to eat, leaving hundreds of thousands hovering at near-starvation levels. High taxes had been imposed on everyday items such as soap, candles, paper, beer and tobacco, which hit the working classes very hard.

January 1817 saw the culmination of a long period of nationwide discontent. There had been protests and riots for months in almost every English county due to the high price of bread and the economy was in recession. When a demonstrator threw a stone at the Price Regent in London the cabinet held an emergency session to work out methods of stamping out unrest.

At the beginning of March 1817, parliament's fear over violent uprising lead to them suspending the right of habeas corpus, meaning that prisoners could be detained indefinitely. On 10th March 1817 a delegation of spinners and weavers set off from Manchester to present their grievances to the crown. Twenty five miles away and eleven days later on 21st March, Judith gave birth to her fourth surviving baby - my ancestor - who they named Thomas.

The following years saw Mary Shelly write Frankenstein and Elizabeth Fry campaign to reform prisons. During the 1820s the trade unions were created and the first passenger steam railway was started. A huge financial crisis resulted in 60 banks collapsing and the hot blast furnace was patented. By the time Judith's youngest Thomas had reached his teens, she was 50 years old, the Duke of Wellington had become Prime Ministers and Robert Peel had established the first police force.

In 1829 the town of Rainhill was the location of a series of steam trials to determine whether locomotives could deal with the gradients on a line between Liverpool and Manchester. An engine called Rocket passed the test and won the £500 prize (right). Seven miles north was the town of Rainford, which became home to Judith, her husband and her grown-up son Thomas.

The census image below shows the three of them in Rainford in 1841 whilst the other children were elsewhere in the town. Living in the same building is a pipe-maker called David Heyes and in the house next door is Thomas Heyes and his large family.

On 21st April 1848, Judith's husband Richard Whalley died aged 77 in Rainford. Three years later, the census showed her aged 69 as a "proprietor of houses", presumably meaning she was able to live off the rent of at least two buildings.

One of Judith's neighbours on this 1851 census (below) was her son Joseph, on whom she must have become increasingly dependent as she got older. This little cluster (which notably included a farm servant bearing Judith's maiden name) lived in the south west corner of the town, in a collection of farm buildings called Parson's Brow. Over in the north east part of Rainford lived her other two sons not far from each other: William and my ancestor Thomas Whalley.

In the centre of town, living next to another member of the Whalley family is a two-year-old boy called Edward Taylor and his father Samuel, a weaver. Edward is another important little person in the long run.

Moving on ten years and the 1861 census reveals that little Edward Taylor as a teenage apprentice shoe-maker, whilst his father Samuel Taylor was employed as a night watchman at the brewery. Also employed at the brewery as a carter was yet another Whalley.

Judith was aged 80 and described in the census only as a "farmer's widow". Her son Joseph remained in the house next door to her at Parson's Brow, and his large family included one of Judith's many grandchildren; John W. S. Whalley. A few months after this, the diarist Farmer John would see this cousin John W. S. Whalley for the last time in many years. When they eventually meet again, Farmer John would record that occasion as follows: "Feb 1st 1878 – I saw John Whalley first time for 16 years. He came to Legs of Man, Wigan."

In 1861 my ancestor Thomas Whalley was living with his family a little up town. He was a pipe manufacturer employing three men and one boy. His daughter Catherine Whalley had married Thomas Hayes who was the publican at the Nags Head in the south of Rainford (see map). But only a few months after the census forms had been collected in, Thomas Hayes died, leaving Catherine a widow. The following year she married again to William Lewis, a miner from the Wirral. Years later, their son would marry the daughter of Edward Taylor, the aforementioned shoe-maker, and that was the union of my great-grandparents.

But what of the enduring matriarch of this story; Judith - grandmother to my twice-married ancestor Catherine, and grandmother also to the diarist Farmer John? It is here we come to her sad final moments.

On Monday 12th September 1864, she was at home as usual amidst the farm buildings of Parson's Brow where her son Joseph lived next door (pictured right). Being 85 years old, she was frequently tended to by those around her including the numerous grandchildren.

That day, she was left alone in her house for a few minutes when she fell and pitched forward into the fire. Her clothes caught light and her cries of anguish brought folk running. She was found engulfed in flames on the hearth, in a state of terrible distress.

After putting out the fire, those that came to her aid did what they could and a doctor was soon called. She was dreadfully burned about the head and body and she barely clung to life in the hours thereafter. The extended Whalley family must have been extremely traumatised and no doubt Parson's Brow would have been a hub of activity as word spread. The poor old lady's trauma must have been harrowing for all involved.

Over the course of the next day she worsened in mind and body, and less than 24 hours later, she succumbed to her injuries. Death at least put an end to her sufferings.


  1. Really good article, excellent perspective on the social and industrial conditions of turd country during her life, but what a sad and unfortunate end to her life.

    I find it a little bit sad that our ancestors lived through times of great change and scientific and technological advancement, the like of which we can only wonder.
    I'd have loved to be one of the first people to ride on a train, bearing in mind the fastest any human would have travelled at the time would have been on a running horse.

  2. Considering both the past state of communications and human nature, probably most of the greater events would have been unknown or dismissed by those not in the middle of them. And the middle of events could be frightening and dangerous.