Forgotten Lives: Emma

On the very periphery of my family tree is a leaf unlike the others. A leaf which seemed to sprout out of nowhere, on its own branch, which bore no buds, and which by its very nature was hardier than nearly all the other leaves on the tree. This is the story, albeit it a sparse and inadequate story, of Emma.

I’ve always known about Emma. She was my great great aunt, I suppose, but she was never called Aunty Emma. Women who married into my family and many others just like it were forever called by their maiden names. You can know someone for years and not know what their married name is, as the only time you’d ever be called by it would surely only be for a bad reason: usually something to do with the authorities.

There’s many other women in the family tree who I know by their maiden names, but as they had children, and their children had children, their place was cemented in the family and the status of Aunt was assumed regardless of title.

It was commonplace, coming from a Catholic family for couples to spawn a great litter of children, as the anti-Irish sentiment of the 19th century would probably describe it. For many of them to die and for the remaining children, who survived against all the odds, to grow up without the fuss that we today would make of a child who’d perhaps been the only one of five, six or more to make it past infancy. There were women both single and married who didn’t have any children, and yet were still part of this close knit family – often bringing up siblings’ kids as they were deemed to have that little bit extra space and income to do so.

Emma was one of these women, but nobody sent their children to live with her as far as I know. Unlike the other Aunts by blood or marriage who had remained ‘childless’ (a loaded word if ever there was one but I suppose in those days it was better than ‘barren’) Emma wasn’t quite in the ‘fold’ like the others and I have my suspicions as to why.

Because Emma, you see, was Black.

This is the story of a woman of colour in Victorian Liverpool who, to all intents and purposes, was something of an outcast in her own family. My family.

In the Beginning

I suppose Emma’s birth is as good a place as any to start. She was born in the winter of early 1873, and shares a birthday with me. Maybe that’s why I feel an affinity with her, but the similarities stop there. What a difference a century makes; I was wanted, loved, a complete surprise after quite a big age gap between me and my siblings but cherished nevertheless.

Emma, no middle name, was born in the Liverpool Workhouse, a huge network of imposing buildings for the poor, sick, and destitute that loomed large upon Brownlow Hill and whose memories are now bulldozed and buried beneath the modern Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

Whether Emma was loved or wanted we’ll never know, but giving birth in the Workhouse meant one thing: that her mother would receive at least some medical care and supervision during childbirth. Sadly there are more stories than are bearable from this time in history of desperate mothers delivering their (more often than not illegitimate) babies only to immediately suffocate them, strike them on the head with a hard object, drown them, or in one particularly sad story I read, toss the child over a wall whilst walking down the road.

My great Aunty Tessie, who was in service – i.e. a domestic servant in a residential household (and as a side note, being in service was quite an achievement and rarely achievable for anyone from a poor Irish Catholic family; job adverts at the time would specifically rule out Catholics from applying) – said that it was known that young women working as maids who were caught entirely by surprise going into labour (their corsets, hard work, and simple diets having concealed their being in the family way) would put the bodies of their dead babies “up the chimney” (which had ledges inside the flue).

Others would forge midwife certificates to indicate a stillbirth and pay an unsuspecting or crooked church sexton to bury them in a local graveyard, which – however fraudulently – at least seems a proper resting place compared to others.

We don’t know her mother’s state of mind or circumstances but for now at least, baby Emma was safe. My recent visit to the Records Office at Liverpool Central Library left me stumped as I tried to find evidence of Emma’s mother ever having entered the Workhouse – and its euphemistic address of ‘Mount Pleasant’.

I figured that if Emma was born in the new year of 1873 then her Mother couldn’t have entered the Workhouse any sooner than, say, March 1872 (9 months before) even if the baby was premature. Men and women were kept separate in the Workhouse (families who were admitted together were immediately torn apart on arrival, with only the youngest children allowed to stay with their mothers until they too grew old enough to be of use and receive some part time schooling) so she couldn’t have got pregnant as an inmate. Well, technically she could, but I can’t imagine a long hard shift of picking oakum with your bare hands and subsisting on little more than gruel and potatoes is going to put you in the mood for a quicky behind the laundry house.

After scrolling through microfilm packed with hundred odd year old cursive handwriting in faded ink, I couldn’t find Emma’s mother on the admittance register. Had there been a clerical error? Had I overlooked something? I wasn’t sure. I’ll go back, to the Records Office, and look for further clues in case I’ve missed something or there were separate records for women who entered just to have their babies, but in the meantime all I have pertaining to Emma’s arrival in this world is a birth certificate which shows her Mother’s name was also Emma.

For some reason this surprised me – not only because we are so unaccustomed to people naming their children after themselves these days – but because as far back as anyone can remember on any branch of my family tree, there has never been anyone called Emma. Unless you count the time I was in the newspaper as a child and they printed my name wrong and called me Emma so my parents never saved the clipping (thanks mum and dad). No, there’s dozens of Marys – even more if you include the Mary Anns and Mary Ellens – Bridgets to spare, and Teresas and Margarets all over the shop, repeated again and again through the tradition of naming patterns. But Emma, such a normal and popular name, was as conspicuous as it was ordinary.

Making Your Mark

I also noticed that Emma Sr had made ‘her mark’ on the certificate – which means she couldn’t write her own name. This isn’t surprising for the working classes in those days; schooling wasn’t compulsory until 1870 and wasn’t seen as necessary if you were destined to go into manual work. For women in that area of Liverpool, the census mostly shows them as unpaid domestic servants (‘housewives’), cotton pickers, hawkers (street vendors – often fruit and veg or fish), and bag/sack menders and makers. The area was dominated by shipping and industry, with local men mostly at sea, working on the docks, or in nearby factories.

Up until my lifetime the huge Tate & Lyle sugar factory employed hundreds of people from the surrounding streets including men and women from my own family in various manual jobs. Its refinery, producing fancy new sugar cubes (a German invention) opened the year before Emma was born. You can still see the 1950s sugar silo near Huskisson dock which is now an at risk Grade II listed building, while the homes that housed the local workers have long since been demolished for good.

If anything, the indication that Emma Sr couldn’t write her own name rather helpfully discounts her from being anything other than working class, and as we shall soon see that often makes for a greater wealth of recorded history.

Just three days after her birth, on a Thursday (which was the day that the Catholics were allowed out of the Workhouse), Emma was baptised at St Nicholas church a short walk away down Copperas Hill/Hawke Street behind where the Adelphi Hotel stands. Her Godmother was recorded as Mary Ann Monaghan whose son John was born just a few days before Emma and baptised the same day as her. Emma’s mother didn’t stand as Godmother for baby John in return though, so perhaps they weren’t friends (as I had begun to imagine, trying to find some happiness and solidarity for the women in rather bleak circumstances).

It may be that Emma Sr, still in her confinement and perhaps not up to the walk down the hill and back, wasn’t present at the Baptism at all, which up until the mid 20th century was completely common. My Nana often told me stories of “nipping down to the church with [someone’s] baby to have them Baptised” and how Nanny would often interfere and insist that the child was secretly given a traditional family name rather than whatever name the parents had actually had in mind. There is at least two James’s in the family who were known as Alan and George to their parents.

I searched through censuses and birth records, hoping for signs that perhaps Mary Ann, Emma Sr and their children had maybe been in each other’s lives after leaving the Workhouse – maybe as neighbours or lodging together. Perhaps they didn’t even know each other and the Priest asked Mary Ann to volunteer. Sadly there is no record of Emma anywhere, and Mary Ann’s little boy John died before he was even one year old.

It was common for women who didn’t have family or community support to go to the Workhouse Infirmary to give birth and then discharge themselves and their newborn child, but I don’t know if that’s what happened to Emma, or whether they were longer term residents in the Workhouse.

Mrs Singleton’s House

What I do know is that on the 1881 census when Emma is just 8 years old, she is living as a boarder in a lodging house on Ford Street in the Vauxhall/Scotland Road area of Liverpool (which is basically what the East End is to Londoners).

A study of the Liverpool Mercury newspaper from 1881 gave me a picture of Ford Street at the time – none of which surprised me having previously researched neighbouring streets where the rest of my family lived. The street frequently featured in the School Board fines lists, suggesting that kids were truanting with or without their parents’ knowledge; perhaps they couldn’t spare them and needed them to help at home or earn money, or perhaps they just weren’t arsed. There were further reports of smoke nuisance from the many industrial buildings in and around the street and even my mum says that growing up in the 1940s on the next street, the buildings were black from pollution and all the children had permanent coughs.

Many residents of Ford Street will have lived in court housing (a great example of which is reproduced at the Museum of Liverpool) in cramped, damp, overcrowded and noxious rooms and cellars without adequate ventilation, any indoor plumbing and certainly no electricity. Great swathes of slum housing had the poorest and most wretched inhabitants of the city, with a Smallpox epidemic sweeping through its unsanitary buildings only a year before Emma was born, and a succession of Cholera epidemics before that.

There were news reports of stabbings, riots, robberies, women throwing bricks at policemen from rooftops, and an ever present undercurrent of sectarian violence as a result of the mass influx of Irish immigration in the preceding decades.

The following excerpt that I found in the Liverpool Mercury also paints a worrying picture of racism in Ford Street just a few years before the 1881 census was taken. We don’t know if Emma lived in the street at the time of this incident but it’s a dangerous backdrop for anyone to live amongst, let alone a child without the care or protection of her parents.

The Ford Street household where Emma lived in 1881 was run by Mrs Singleton, a widow of a sailor from St Vincent, and accommodated three mariners from the Bahamas as lodgers, Mrs Singleton’s 14 year old daughter Elizabeth, and an adult woman with whom I can’t trace any connection to young Emma. There is no sign of Emma’s mother or father, whose name has discreetly been omitted from all certificates thus far. The fact that she is listed as a boarder rather than, say, niece or adopted daughter suggests than Emma isn’t any relation to Mrs Singleton. Even ‘visitor’ on a census would usually imply it’s a family friend staying with the household. However, it is possible that Mrs Singleton was acting as a foster parent through a practice known as ‘boarding out’ whereby the Parish sent orphans from the Workhouse to live with a family in the community but that would be virtually impossible for me to establish.

The only consolation to my mind at this point is that Emma has the company of Mrs Singleton’s teenage daughter Elizabeth, who I hope was like a big sister to her in what would otherwise seem to be a lonely start in life.

In Part Two I’d like to share with you what I found out next – and perhaps more importantly what I couldn’t find out – about Emma’s life.


  1. March 17, 2018 / 4:56 pm

    My stomach is in knots. Desperate to know more…

  2. March 27, 2018 / 12:40 pm

    So interesting! I told you that you have a gift! Hurry up with part 2! xx

  3. Ctaylor
    October 6, 2019 / 7:43 am

    I enjoyed reading that. Yes send part 2 soon please!

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