I’ve been catching up on Call the Midwife this weekend and, in usual BBC style, it has been haunting my thoughts all week. Following the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House, Poplar, it’s an extraordinary series that highlights the perils and challenges faced by pregnant women over the decades. We’re up to 1961 now but elements of the storyline still seem archaic. Fathers were excluded from the births of their children, outbreaks of devastating diseases such as typhoid still made unwelcome appearances, and contraception and formula milk were only just becoming available to young women. In the last episode I watched, a young female teacher became pregnant following an affair with a married man and, because of the judgmental attitudes that prevailed at the time, ended up losing her home, her job and almost her life, as she attempted to terminate the pregnancy herself.
The family histories I research are filled with similar stories, and today I found myself working on one that got more and more tragic as I traced each generation back. It began with my client’s great-grandmother, Isabella Connor Brown, born 1879 in Paisley, Renfrewshire. The family believed that Isabella had been adopted by the Brown family, which always raises a red flag for me, as more often than not in those days, the idea of adoption was introduced in order to cover up another story.
As suspected, little Isabella Brown was found, aged 2, living in a lodging house on Back Sneddon Street in Paisley. In the same property there were several other lodgers including a baby called James Brown and a single woman aged 24 called Mary Ann Connor who was a hawker. This was the only time little Isabella could be found living with her mother. Ten years later she was a 12-year-old boarder with a family in Paisley. The words ‘No Relation’ were written next to her name.
Having found Isabella and her mother on the census together, the next job was to piece together Mary Ann’s story. It was even more tragic than her daughter’s, as you will see.
Mary Ann Connor was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire to parents Daniel Connor, a general dealer from Glasgow and Isabella McFarlane, who had been born in Ireland. At the time of the 1861 census the family was living in Abbey Burgh, Renfrewshire and Daniel was a furniture broker. Mary Ann was 7 and had two sisters – Ann, 3, and Catherine, who was only 3 months old. This is the only snapshot we have of the family living together. Four years later, at the age of only 37, Daniel Connor died of alcoholic poisoning, leaving Isabella to look after their young family.
Ten years later there was no trace of daughters, Ann and Catherine, who would have been 13 and 10. Mother, Isabella, was working as a washerwoman on Quay Lane in Paisley. Her 17-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, was a wincey weaver, working on a steam-powered loom with string cotton thread. The hours would have been long and it was dusty, dangerous work. Within another five years, Isabella had also died from bronchitis, aged only 42. Her daughter, Mary Ann, registered the death.
So Mary Ann, in her early twenties, was seemingly all alone in the world. An orphan without siblings she found work as a lithographer’s hand and moved into a boarding house on Back Sneddon Street. At some time in January 1877 Mary Ann allegedly met James Brown, a fitter’s labourer, and she became pregnant. We know very little else about James, if he existed at all. Mary Ann may have fabricated his name, and their marriage, in order to cover-up her illegitimate pregnancy, in any case no marriage record has ever been found.
Mary Ann’s daughter, Isabella, was registered under Mary Ann’s maiden name of Connor and the word ‘Illegitimate’ was added to the record, just in case there was any doubt. Even if Mary Ann had definitely known the identity of her baby’s father, she would not have been able to add his name to the certificate without producing a marriage certificate or the man himself. James Brown, it seems, was not willing to claim the baby as his own. The most likely match we have found for James was a single distillery labourer who was about 10 years older than Mary Ann and living on Castle Street, Paisley.
Nevertheless, it seems that Mary Ann and James continued their relationship after Isabella was born, because in December 1880 another illegitimate child was born to Mary Ann, this time a little boy called James Connor.
The following April, at the time of the 1881 census Mary Ann Connor, still single, was living at 57 Back Sneddon Street and working as a hawker. Perhaps the lithographer had let her go after finding out that she wasn’t married. Her two children were with her: Isabella Brown, 2, and James Brown who was less than a year old. There was no sign of partner, James, but Mary Ann had obviously used his surname on the census for her children. Perhaps she’d been holding out hope that one day James would marry her. However, in another tragic blow, Mary Ann died on October 11 that year, from ‘brain disease’ and a high fever. Her death was registered by ‘an acquaintance’.
There being no social services at all at the time, Mary Ann’s two children, Isabella, 2, and James, 9 months, were completely defenceless and alone. Baby James died two months later of marasmus – malnutrition due to starvation. We don’t know if Mary Ann’s partner, James Brown, had tried to look after their children after Mary Ann died, but we do know that he also drank himself into an early grave and was dead from alcoholism by 1885 when Isabella would have been just 6 years old.
We will probably never know how Isabella was cared for during the rest of her childhood or how she ended up living with a family of strangers by the time of the 1891 census. Perhaps she forgot herself. She remembered the names of her parents when she was asked on her marriage day, so must have known something of her story but to say that she was ‘adopted’ was probably the simplest answer to give.
I wonder if my client is ready to hear all this heartbreak. It certainly rivals any fictional story for plot-twists and tragic irony.