Some of our group have been researching the lives of children who appeared in our report ‘York waifs and strays: from workhouse to boarding out, 1879-83’. Ada Jane Simpson was eight when she was fostered from the York Workhouse in 1881, and here her great-granddaughter Kathleen Richardson reveals Ada's remarkable story.
Ada - Grandma, or Grandma McGrail - lived with my family in Newcastle from 1951 until 1969, and then died in Hexham in 1972, aged 97. Ada experienced huge loss and bereavement as a child and as an adult. By the age of eight she had lost her parents and was separated from her siblings and grandparents. This story demonstrates her independence, and determination to make a life for herself.
Ada was born in 1874, youngest of three children of George Simpson and his second wife Mary Aygar. Ada had two older half-brothers, John and Arthur from George’s first marriage to Catherine Manning, and an older brother Alfred (born 1871) and sister Cecilia (born 1873). George and Mary married in December 1867 at St Mary’s, Castlegate, York and in 1871 lived in Hallfield Road. George’s parents Andrew and Jane Paylor were in the same street, having moved from nearby Redeness Street. George was a joiner/carpenter, and Andrew a labourer. The Simpsons were from Yorkshire. While Mary Aygar was born in London, her father Elijah - a soldier and shoemaker – was from Haverhill, Suffolk. Mary's husband, George, died in January 1880, aged 43. The family were still living at Hallfield Road when his death notice was published in the Yorkshire Gazette.
The following year, 1881, Ada is in York workhouse with her siblings Alfred and Cecilia. I was told her mother had ‘run away’, possibly daunted by the prospect of sole responsibility for maintaining a family of five.
In 1882 Ada was fostered by Jacob Potter, a railway labourer at Haxby Cottages, York. Her sister Cecilia had been fostered in 1881 to William Ewebank and, subsequently, to Rebecca Druce, a school mistress in Kexby. By 1901 Cecilia was a cook at Kenilworth Place, York and the following year married George Reynolds, a tramway inspector. In 1911 they lived in Dale Street, off Nunnery Lane, York, where Cecilia died in 1917. The sisters had stayed in touch, and I recall references to Auntie Ciss during my childhood.
In the 1891 census Ada is recorded as a servant with the ship-owning Hutchinson family in King Street, Cottingham, East Yorkshire, and ten years later as a cook with Robert Duncan Rose and his wife Mary in St Leonard's Place, York. The two employers may have known each other as Mary Rose’s father and stepfather were both Tyneside ship-owners. Robert Duncan Rose was from Dumbarton, and had trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh. There were five adult children in the household, the two eldest - Robert Donald and Anthony – were Edinburgh-trained doctors.
Ada and Robert Donald became emotionally involved and my grandmother Ethel Campbell Rose Simpson was born in 1901. Her birth certificate shows they had moved to Pickup Street in Leeds. A family story was that Robert Donald wanted to marry Ada, but his family would not allow it. His name is recorded on both Ethel’s birth and baptism certificates, suggesting he did want to be involved with Ada and his daughter.
I was told that the Rose family gave money for Ethel’s upbringing. George Reynolds was involved in ‘negotiations’, and it was suspected that he did not pass all the money to Ada. Whatever the truth, Ada ‘detested’ George. The year after Ethel’s birth, her father Robert Donald died suddenly. Newspapers reported a heart attack, though Ada believed that enforced separation from her and Ethel had resulted in his death.
Ada had a second child - Frederick Arthur Simpson - in Newcastle in 1907 and the following year married Robert McGrail, a miner from Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham. Her third child, Alfred McGrail, was born in the village of Grange Villa, County Durham, in 1909. Her marriage certificate, and Alfred’s birth certificate, cite her foster parent's name - Potter.
Arthur, Alfred and Ethel at Pine Street
In childhood Ethel had measles and lost her hearing due, she believed, to hot oil poured into her ears. She was a bright and outgoing woman with a keen sense of humour that she shared with her brother Arthur. 1911 and 1921 censuses show Ada, Robert and the three children in Pine Street, Grange Villa.
Ada with Alfred and Arthur
Ethel moved to live and work at Wooley Sanatorium, a TB hospital at Slaley, near Hexham, and met and married Harry Jewitt, a boilerman from Hexhamshire, in 1924. Harry’s parents rented a small farm, Ethel and Harry farming it after his father’s death. Ethel and Harry’s first child, Edith - my mother - was born in 1925 and her brother, Billy, in 1931. Alfred married Mary Crawford in 1932 and had a child, also Alfred, in 1933. Alfred (senior) contracted TB and died in 1934, aged just 25 and Ada took care of Alfred (junior) until his mother remarried. It was a source of great sadness that she lost touch with her grandson, Alfred. Arthur married Lucy Knox in 1934, and had two children, Arthur (junior) and Marion. Arthur died in 1956, aged 49. Ethel in 1985, aged 84.
Ada separated from Robert McGrail and, in 1939, was employed as a cook by the Southern family in Corbridge, remaining there until 1951, when she moved in with my parents who had married in 1949 but, due to post-war housing shortages, had been unable to find somewhere to live together.
Ada in late middle age
My mother was very close to Ada, having spent a lot of time together at Grange Villa as a child, and had told Ada that if she ever needed a home she could live with them. When my parents found a flat to rent, Ada resigned her job and moved in, intending to be their housekeeper. She was not entirely happy to learn that her plans were not going to work because my mother was pregnant with me and had resigned as a nurse.
Edith, Kathleen, Ada and Ethel at Hexham in 1952
Ada also spent a lot of time with Billy in Hexham and, in the days before most had a telephone, often turned up unexpectedly on his doorstep with her suitcase. Billy’s wife Mary told me that she would guess how long Ada would stay by the size of the suitcase she brought with her. Mrs Southern would visit Ada when she was in Hexham, Mary describing how she ‘held court’.
Ethel and Ada in a nostalgic visit to York with Edith
When Ada was 90 there was a family party for her, with only her grandson Alfred and his family missing. She travelled independently by train to Hexham into her 90s and had to be persuaded to take a taxi. She fell and broke her hip in her 90s and recovered well, though not at all happy when the surgeon told her she would continue to limp!
Ethel and Ada outside Hexham Abbey at the wedding of Mrs Southern’s daughter
Ada in her 90s