Dave Annal’s talk, “Lying Bastards”: the impact of illegitimacy on the records that our ancestors leave behind at the Register of Qualified Genealogists conference last month (September 2021), has stimulated me to tell the story of Maria Lown’s illegitimate children.
1815. December 9
Betsey Makeman bastard daughter of Maria the Widow of William Lown, who was a Farmer living in the Fields below the Town. She lives in a small House in the low Fields. This woman’s moral depravity is so great, that she prefers living in a state of Adultery with one Wm Makeman, to a state of Matrimony with the same Man!!Baptism Register. Whaplode, Lincolnshire. Findmypast
1817 April 17th
William bastard son of Maria Lown a widow, A Prostitute. Town
VIDE Dec 29th 1815 [Dec 9th]. NB. This abandoned woman might be Married but will not ! The Banns of Marriage have been published, but she prefers a state of Prostitution! Remarking or having remarked, that She is already a Whore; & can be no worse. Therefore, will even remain as she is!!! Sic malimores pravalebunt!!! She submitted to be Married in August following
S Oliver curateBaptism Register. Whaplode, Lincolnshire. Findmypast
Given these comments what might you expect Maria’s background to be like? Do you think she was accurately described? Are you imagining her response was a potty mouthed torrent? Has pity for a poor widow stirred you? It is hard not to react to these entries, but let’s take a step back and look at the circumstances more closely.
Maria Copeland married William Lown in 1799. She was his second wife, so became stepmother to his two children, Ann, and William, from his first marriage with Sarah Watson. Maria and William Lown went on to have six children between 1800 and 1807, namely William, Moriah, Elizabeth, Snelson, Ann and Robert Snelson. William Lown died in 1812 and was buried at Holbeach, a neighbouring parish. There are no burials for any of the children indexed prior to his death, so I’m working on the basis that they had all survived to 1812.
So, at the time of becoming a widow, Maria had up to eight children to support.
Rapid remarriage, or the alternative of forming a joint household without marriage, is widely cited as an economic necessity for many widows. Does it apply to Maria?
The 1815 baptism above identifies William Lown as a farmer and residence at “Fields below the Town”. The occupation is a clue that William Lown may have owned or rented land. I have not investigated land holdings in Whaplode, but he is in the manorial property records in neighbouring Moulton.
William Lown bought a copyhold plot of 6 acres 36 perches, consisting of two fields with a messuage (house) and outbuildings, in 1805 in the Manor of Moulton Harrington, located on the former common near the hamlet of Seas End. It is about 3 miles north of Whaplode village centre. All records of the Lown family place their residence in Whaplode, which suggests that at least the house in Moulton and possibly the whole holding was rented out.
Why would a widow resist remarriage?
As a second wife, Maria was vulnerable to inheritance under primogenitor, which would have left real property to William Lown’s eldest son (aged 18). Furthermore, she was potentially vulnerable due to customs of local manors that removed dower rights. As a widow, Maria may have gained control of assets through guardianship of her children (eldest aged 12) and stepchildren (eldest aged 21).
William Lown did not leave Maria helpless. He made a will appointing her as executrix, so she had control of the Lown family property. I have not yet accessed the will at Lincolnshire Archives due to the pandemic, so don’t know the value of his estate. It does not seem that Maria would have needed to remarry through necessity straight away.
Social status is another possible reason for Maria Lown’s reluctance to re-marry. She had been a farmer’s wife. William Makeman was of lower status. The baptisms of William Makeman’s legitimate children display an advancement in his status from labourer (1818), to horseman (1819, 1822) and then cottager (1825, 1826).
What happened to the illegitimate children?
William died on 21 September 1817, just 5 months old and less than 2 months after his parents married. None-the-less curate Samuel Oliver continued his commentary in the same vein.
1817 Sept 21
William Bastard son of the Widow, Maria Lown, A prostituteBurial Register. Whaplode, Lincolnshire. Findmypast
Betsy was acknowledged by her father and was named Betsy Makeman when she married in 1839. She married James Cooley, schoolmaster of Moulton, son of John Cooley, a farmer. This was a good match as I know from my research of the Moulton manors that the Cooley family were significant landowners. The marriage was performed by the same curate, Samuel Oliver, but without any commentary.
Why were the curate’s comments so vitriolic?
Samuel Oliver did not comment on every illegitimate birth beyond use of the term ‘illegitimate’. In the 3 years between 1815 and 1817, there were 11 baptisms of illegitimate children out of a total of 170. Apart from Maria, one other person was the subject of vitriolic comment, this time a man who had child with another woman having abandoned his wife
Maria certainly answered back. Was there dose of misogyny in his reaction? Did he think a farmer’s wife should behave differently? Did he fear that Maria might become dependent on the parish if she did not remarry?
Having catalogued and scanned the Bill Lawrence collection, I now have a good idea of the contents, and loads of questions. So the next step is to analyse the contents further and decide which questions to investigate first.
An overview of the main events and themes revealed by the documents helps me identify and narrow down to priority questions. Main events documented include:
|1886||Birth of Edith May Spencer (Bill’s mother) in Surrey, England|
|1913||Marriage of William Henry Lawrence & Edith May Spencer (Bill’s parents) in New South Wales, Australia|
|1915||Birth of Gwendoline Dorothy Brown (Bill’s wife)|
|1919||Bill’s father sent a telegram from Liverpool, England to his wife in Australia, about to embark for America|
|1920||Death of Bill’s father|
|1922||Robert Spencer & Mary Ann Marsden Spencer nee Bentley (Bill’s grandparents) voyage to Australia|
|1925||Bill, his mother & grandparents return to England from Australia on the Largs Bay|
|1931||Funeral of Arthur Spencer|
|1940-1946||Bill’s WWII service|
|1946||Bill’s National Health insurance & ID card issued, resident at Russell Road|
|1953||Photo of Bill & his mother|
|1961||Marriage of William Henry Lawrence (Bill) & Gwendoline Dorothy Meacham (nee Brown)|
Both of Bill’s parents were born in England, but married in Australia. There is nothing in the collection that documents their emigration. For me, this is the big question, or rather series of questions.
Another question is what the enigmatic 1919 telegram from Bill’s father was about. I wonder if it is connected with what Bill’s father did in the First World War, of which there is also no record in this collection.
The lack of documents after Bill’s marriage makes me wonder why they aren’t included.
The rest of the collection reveals a somewhat different story than I had been told. Bill’s maternal grandparents spent considerably more time in Australia than is suggested by the received narrative that they went to collect their widowed daughter and grandson.
What questions do other family members have?
© Sue Adams 2016
When I acquired the Bill Lawrence collection on New Year’s Eve, I was taken by surprise. I wanted to ask questions, so I whipped out my phone and started recording to capture information. I find that when making notes with pen and paper, I always miss chunks of information, especially at family gatherings where there are many distractions.
Audio recording is not a quick short-cut. It takes a lot longer to make sense of a recording than of written notes. The environment in which this recording was made was less than ideal. There are multiple simultaneous conversations, and the conversation wandered off topic to take-away orders and gossip that might be libelous if repeated here. In a recording of 33 minutes, just over 7 minutes relate to Bill’s collection and life.
So, I needed to extract the relevant parts and transcribe them. Stories Matter is free open source software built for oral history. It includes audio clipping and basic transcription functions.
Listening to yourself asking questions can be revealing. I had not realized that I interrupted Gill a couple of times, which probably limited the information she was giving me. In the following clip, I was good and just listened:
How much of that did you get? I have the advantage of having been present and knowing the voices of my parents, aunts and uncle. Here is the transcript:
GILL: That school that Bill went to, Ron, d’you remember Gilbert Harding?
GILL: He was at the same school
VAL: At the same time?
DOROTHY: Uncle Harry was as well, wasn’t he?
[talking over one another]
DOROTHY: Not at the same time
GILL: Cuz I remember them talking..
DOROTHY: Oh, I thought it was called an orphanage, because it was for children who had lost a parent or..
GILL: Yeah, but it wasn’t in the sort of normal way, every kid had lost both parents
DOROTHY: No, no, it was a school, but it was a boarding school, and they took in children that had lost parents
GILL: Yeah, and err.. Cuz, apparently when she [Bill’s mother] came back here her brothers said, you know, you must find some work to do and that, so she put Bill in there. But he was telling us and showing us this book and he was saying it was that bloody cold at night in this dormitory. An, you know, they used to get out of the dormitory at night. And the headmaster used to grow vegetables, so they’d go and pinch some carrots and eat ’em straight out of the ground, unwashed, cuz they were so hungry.
In just 1 minute and 16 seconds, this conversation raises a number of questions:
- Who was Gilbert Harding, and why should Ron remember him?
- What was the name of Bill’s school?
- Was it a school or orphanage? Why the confusion?
- Who was the ‘Uncle Harry’ who also attended the school?
- What book did Bill show when talking about his school?
With a little digging I have made progress on the first three questions, but will need to ask Dorothy and Gill for clarification on Uncle Harry and the book.
Gilbert Harding (1907-1960) was a radio and TV personality in the 1950s, which is why Ron remembered him. Gilbert attended the Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton, also known as the Wolverhampton Orphan Asylum and the Royal Wolverhampton School at periods before and after his time there.
The school was open to children between the ages of 7 and 15 who had lost one or both parents. So, Bill, born in 1915, would have been an eligible age between 1922 and 1930, and Gilbert Harding between 1914 and 1922. So, Bill could only have been contemporary with Gilbert in 1922.
The Children’s Homes website gives insight into the social standing of children granted admission. Admission was granted to “orphans of professional men, principals engaged in agriculture, manufacture, commerce, or trade, or of mercantile or other clerks, or otherwise respectably descended”, but “orphans of journeymen, artisans, labourers, and domestic or agricultural servants, or child with a stepfather” were not eligible. The admission policy is not what we typically expect for an orphanage, which could account for the confusion over the status of the institution. It was both an orphanage and boarding school.
© Sue Adams 2016