The story of Eliza Seymour
Eliza Seymour was born in the old York workhouse in Marygate on 11th June 1841. Her birth was registered by John Grimshaw, the Workhouse Master, a week later and a few days after that she was carried across the road to be baptised in St Olave’s Church. Her mother was Jane Seymour, her father unknown.
Jane Seymour had a short life and a hard one. Her father John was the son of a farmer in Skipwith, who moved to York around 1816 and married Isabella Gilbank in Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate. From the neat, clear signature on his marriage registration, he seems to have had some education, but for many years he worked as a labourer in the Mount area. Jane was born in August 1816, followed over the next eight years by four brothers, two of whom died in infancy. Their mother Isabella also died young in 1825, when Jane was only eight years old. As the oldest child and only daughter, it is likely that Jane had to take over her role of mother in bringing up her surviving brothers, Thomas and George.
Eventually Jane left home to become a servant, lodging in Nunnery Lane, but fell pregnant in 1840. Towards the end of her confinement when she was no longer able to work, she sought relief from the York Poor Law Union. Because of her residence in Nunnery Lane, the parish of St Mary Bishophill Junior was responsible for her. The Admissions & Report book noted her pregnancy, enquired about the baby’s father and sent her to the workhouse. Someone pencilled in the name of the baby’s putative father as Henry Holmes. The New Poor Law 1834 originally put responsibility for illegitimate children firmly on to the mother. However, many people, including the Guardians of York Poor Law Union, felt that the father ought to pay his share, and the minute book for this period shows the Relieving Officers being allowed to apply for orders of Maintenance in Bastardy within their various areas, probably with little success. On 19 August 1841 the Board of Guardians minuted a proposed petition to Parliament asking for power to imprison fathers of bastard children who did not contribute. They named seven defaulters. None of them was Henry Holmes and it seems the matter was not pursued.
Jane was sent to the old Workhouse in Marygate, which was desperately overcrowded and insanitary. New arrivals “whether labouring under fever or otherwise” were first sent to the cleansing room, but this was not isolated from the main workhouse so they brought their infections in with them. Jane died of typhus, most probably caught in the workhouse, within three weeks of giving birth, and was buried with nine others in an unmarked grave in York Cemetery. At five weeks old, baby Eliza was now a “bastard orphan.”
Fortunately, the family stepped in. Some time in the Quarter ending September 1841, as noted in the Admissions & Report Book, “the grandfather applies to take it [sic] out.” John Seymour was now a brickmaker in Dringhouses, not far from the Mount. One of the surviving sons, Thomas, was far away, married and working as a tailor in London, but the other, George was still living at home with his new wife Mary (nee Harwood). Since brickmakers worked very long hours during the summer, the “making season”, it was probably Mary and George who looked after their little niece. John Seymour received 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) per week for Eliza. Although she was now living in Dringhouses, the parish of St Mary Bishophill Junior was still responsible for her keep.
The 1841 Census does not give an occupation for George, but by the 1851 Census, he had found work as a confectioner’s porter, and had moved within the walls of York to 26 Hope Street, off Walmgate, in the parish of St George’s. This was the house of his widowed mother-in-law, also named Mary Harwood. The move probably happened around June 1842 and it is clear that they took Eliza with them, as that is the date when the Outdoor Relief book shows St George’s taking over responsibility for her. Presumably the 2/6 for her keep was still on the books as being paid to her grandfather, but eventually, in the quarter ending September 1844, Mary Harwood [the mother-in-law] became the official recipient of the money.
In the 1851 Census, the Harwood household consisted of: Mary Harwood; George and Mary Seymour; Eliza, described as a nurse-child; Mary’s younger son David, a glass-blower; and Mary Anne Steel, the child of Mary’s daughter Annie Jane. Mary Anne’s mother had died in 1842, and her father Thomas was a footman in Darlington so was not well placed to look after a small child. Grandmother stepped in. Mary Anne was only a year younger than Eliza so the two may have been brought up almost as sisters.
Hope Street, in the parish of St George, was not a salubrious area. The houses were mean little back-to-back terraces of two or three rooms, opening directly on to the street. Water came, intermittently, from standpipes or was pumped from the river. Sanitation consisted of privies, frequently shared, less frequently emptied, sometimes annually, with the contents having to be brought through the house if there was no rear access. The filth was piled up until there was enough to warrant its removal – there was a notorious heap nearby at St Margaret’s Church. The rooms could be surprisingly neat and clean, but the “back place” often saw privy, soil-hole and sink together in an area only 4 feet wide. Drains, where they existed, were frequently blocked so the walls became saturated. The area was also grossly overcrowded, especially after the Irish immigrants began to arrive in the 1840s.
However, there was a reasonable amount of money coming into the Harwood household. There were two working men bringing in possibly 17 or 18 shillings each per week. Mary Seymour was most likely also earning – in 1854 when her husband George applied for relief she was being paid 6/- per week, though no details of her work were given. There was 2/6 a week for Eliza, and Mary Anne may have had some money sent by her father. In the 1841 Census, Mary Harwood had been a washerwoman, so presumably could have taken in washing again in an emergency. In his book Stability and change in an English county town, Alan Armstrong estimates that a household of this size would have needed £1.13.4 per week to survive. They actually had £2.3.6, possibly even a little bit more.
The two little girls were described as Scholars on the 1851 Census. There was no shortage of schools in York at this time. White’s Directory for 1851 lists 25 charity and partly free schools, though not all were open to poor girls. Some did not take girls at all; some did not take illegitimate children; some had limited free places; some had geographical limitations; and for some, you had to be recommended by a governor or churchman. However, Mary Anne Steel definitely had some education, so very possibly Eliza did as well. When Mary Ann applied for admission to the York Penitentiary, she told them that: she was for more than four years a scholar in one of the Church Schools.
Eliza had a stable childhood, living in Hope Street until she was 15 and possibly beyond, though in later years her residence was given only as St George’s so it is difficult to be sure. Unfortunately, the household earnings took a dive in 1854 when George Seymour, now a glass-blower like his brother-in-law, applied for medical relief because of unspecified Infirmity. He was receiving 2/- from the Club and his wife was earning 6/-, but he was turned down and sent to the workhouse. Around this period Eliza’s money was increased to 3/- per week.
Eliza continued to receive her 3/- per week, along with 2 pairs of shoes a year in 1853, 1854 and 1855. This is slightly unusual. Although the Guardians’ Minute Books for York Poor Law Union show bills received for both shoes and shoe repairs, only one other named person in St George’s Parish was given shoes during the 1850s. He was a blind boy called M. A. Gallimor, which raises the possibility that Eliza had some sort of special needs.
Towards the end of September 1855 she also received two payments for clothing of 20/- and 8/5. She was now 14 years old and probably about to start work. Strictly speaking, the Poor Law Union looked after orphans until they were 16, but no doubt they were happy to let them start earning sooner. The transition into work was difficult for these unskilled girls. Their options were few and unattractive: servant, charwoman or washerwoman. The Ladies who effectively ran the Grey Coat School in York tried to address this problem with their own charges by offering inducements to the leavers – a day trip to Scarborough, or £1 to girls who stayed in their positions for 2 or 3 years. There would be no such sweeteners for Eliza. She vanished for a while, presumably keeping out of trouble, as the newspapers do not show her appearing before the Magistrates’ Court. However, things obviously did not go well, as she reappeared in the Application and Relief Book for 1857, back in Hope Street and totally destitute. She was sent to the workhouse and a month later refitted with another set of clothing at 40/-.
Her childhood companion Mary Anne Steel did little better. She started off well as a general servant for William Leak, the well-known draper and milliner, in what must have been a lively household, as the 1861 Census lists 27 other young servants and sales staff. However, she moved soon after the Census to a disreputable house in Fetter Lane. By September of the same year, she was driven to seek admission to the York Penitentiary in Bishophill, a refuge which took young women off the streets, kept them for two years, taught them a skill, generally laundry work, and tried to place them back into respectable society. Mary Anne was in such a state that she had to be sent to the Hospital before she could be admitted. The Ladies who ran the Penitentiary called her a giddy girl, and the following year she and some friends were forced to leave the house for plotting an escape to the Races. (There was much abusive language and refusal to work when they were found out.)
Did Eliza go a similar way? She vanished from York, and in the 1861 Census turned up in Sunderland down by the docks, boarding with Elizabeth Reay, who was Head of the household, and her three young children. There was no father to bring in any money (and none on the birth registrations of the children either), so Elizabeth was probably taking in boarders to keep herself afloat. There were two – Eliza and 21-year-old Elizabeth Hall. Both girls are young, both boarders and both without any means of employment or support shown. I don’t know how they were making a living, but prostitution does seem to suggest itself.
The other question is: Was this actually our Eliza? The date and place of birth certainly fit. David Harwood’s glass-making skills took him from York, to Leeds (1861) and then to Winlaton, Durham (1871), so there is a tenuous family connection with the North East.
Later records are equally unhelpful. I cannot find Eliza uncontrovertibly on later censuses, and the possible deaths and marriages in both England and Scotland also do not provide conclusive evidence. So on this very unsatisfactory note, this is where Eliza’s story has to end.
Sources in Explore York, Libraries and Archives:
Armstrong, Alan. Stability and change in an English county town: a social study of York 1801-1851. CUP, 1997.
Finnegan, Frances. Poverty and prostitution : a study of Victorian prostitutes in York. pbk London: CUP, 2006
Finnegan, Frances. Poverty and prejudice : a study of Irish immigrants in York. Cork : Cork University Press, 1982 [NB 2nd ed. Published by Borthwick Institute in 2019]
Smith, James. Report to the General Board of Health … London: HMSO, 1850. YorkEXPLORE, in Yorkshire Pamphlets Y040
Taylor, W. B. Blue coat, grey coat : the Blue and Grey Coat schools and St Stephen’s House of York, 1705-1983. York: Sessions, 1997
White’s directory of York, 1851
York Penitentiary Society. Minute book 1845-1864 PEN/4/1/2
York Poor Law Union records
PLU1 Guardians’ minute books
PLU3/1 Application and relief books
PLU3/2 Outdoor relief books
British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk Accessed various dates in 2019
Find My Past www.findmypast.co.uk
Laycock Report In: 'Modern York: Public health in the nineteenth century', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott (London, 1961), pp. 281-286. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp 281-286 [accessed 25 July 2019].
Yorkshire BMD www.yorkshirebmd.org.uk
Borthwick Institute for Archives – Parish records
Friends of York Cemetery genealogical team