29th October 2019
A hand to mouth existence: the story of Eliza Seymour
Elaine Bradshaw, a member of our poverty project, has been researching the hard lives of some local people in the mid-19th century
We’ve been examining the role of 19th century outdoor relief - publicly-financed poor relief - given in kind and/or in money, to allow poor people to remain in their own homes. Records allow us to follow some of the threads of Eliza Seymour’s sad life
Eliza Seymour was born in 1841, just after her mother, Jane Seymour, died of typhus in the workhouse. As she had been a servant lodging in Nunnery Lane her ‘bastard orphan’ became the responsibility of the parish of St Mary Bishophill Junior. Fortunately there was a willing grandfather, John Seymour, to ‘take it [sic] out’. St Mary Bishophill Junior paid weekly for her keep – 2/6 (2 shillings and 6 pence). Her care probably fell to her uncle George Seymour and his wife Mary, as John was a brickmaker in Dringhouses who worked long hours.
York Poor Law Union : Admissions and Relief Book - PLU3/1/1/10, Q ending Sept 1841, p 20 (York Explore)
York Architectural Workshop. [Extract from] Plan of Albert Street and Hope Street YAW/2/5 York Explore Harwood house, no. 26, in red, opposite the Brown Cow (York City Archives)
By the 1851 Census, George was working as a confectioner’s porter, and he and Mary had moved to 26 Hope Street, off Walmgate, in the parish of St George’s, to live with Mary’s widowed mother, Mary Harwood. Eliza went with them, continuing to receive weekly payments from St Mary Bishophill Junior. In June 1842 St George’s took over payments, and in 1844 Mary Harwood officially received the money.
Mary headed a household consisting of: George and Mary Seymour; Eliza, described as a nurse-child; Mary’s younger son David, a glass-blower; and Mary Anne Steel, her orphaned grand-daughter, a year younger than Eliza.
Hope Street was miserably poor, overcrowded and insanitary. However, the household was not destitute. There were two working men earning possibly 18 shillings each per week. Mary Seymour earned another 6 shillings and there was Eliza’s 2/6, and maybe payment for Mary Anne. So they had enough to live on, and a little bit to spare.
Photo of Hope Street from 1933, showing the Brown Cow and the houses opposite No. 10113020 (York City Archives)
The two little girls were described as Scholars and Mary Anne definitely had ‘four years of education in a Church School’ so perhaps Eliza did as well. Unfortunately, disaster struck again in 1854 when George Seymour, now a glass-blower, succumbed to an unspecified ‘infirmity’ and was sent to the workhouse. Eliza’s money was increased to 3/- per week, and she got regular pairs of shoes. In September 1855 she also got two large payments for clothing, possibly because she was ready to start work.
Eliza vanished from the Poor Law Union records for a few years, but reappeared in Hope Street in 1857, totally destitute. She was sent to the workhouse and given another set of clothing.
Her childhood companion Mary Anne Steel did little better. On the 1861 Census she was a general servant for William Leak, draper in St Saviourgate, but moved to ‘a disreputable house in Fetter Lane’. By September 1861 she was begging for admission to the York Penitentiary in Bishophill, a refuge which took young women off the streets and taught them a trade - laundry work. She did not last long there, being forced to leave the Penitentiary for plotting an escape to the Races.
Eliza had now moved to Sunderland. In the 1861 Census she was boarding with Elizabeth Reay, her three young children and another young female boarder. No occupation or means of support is shown for any of them, so sadly prostitution suggests itself.
After that, she vanishes from the records so her story ends here.