Welcome back to Victorian Liverpool and the story of Emma, where in Part One we saw baby Emma born in the imposing Brownlow Hill Workhouse, lost track of any family she might have had, and found her living in a boarding house in the most hardened and impoverished part of the city at just 8 years old.
Having found out where Emma was living from the 1881 census as an 8 year old, the natural assumption would be that she wouldn’t show up again until the next census was taken ten years later. But in this chapter we will learn that you can never assume anything – even what’s passed down through word of mouth.
What’s in a name?
What has become apparent so far is that by the age of 8 Emma had already had her surname spelt three different ways in official records – something which would continue well into her adult life. Remember in Part One when I said women were informally known by their maiden names? Well we’d better make it four different names for Emma then, because my family called her something slightly different still.
We also found out on the birth certificate that Emma’s mother couldn’t write her own name, so whoever was filling out the certificate would have had to rely on what they heard her say. This left me wondering which of these early Victorian documents showed Emma’s true surname – even just a tiny misspelling changing something subtle about your whole identity. I couldn’t help thinking how offended we get these days when someone spells our name wrong on a Starbucks cup; imagine not being important enough to anyone to even have your name spelled consistently (even on official paperwork) through your entire life.
These inconsistencies are the kind of curveballs that get thrown at you when you’re researching someone from the past that force you to really think creatively when you’re searching births, deaths and marriages or census records. And believe me, I searched…
• I searched for Emmas born in 1873 across Liverpool, across the country, and across the world (take a second to think how many results that would throw up and how square my eyes went).
• I widened the scope of the birth year because even though we had proof of her birth you can’t assume that later records were kept correctly and sometimes people didn’t even know their true age.
• I searched under her surname – the many variations thereof – and on her initials; on street names; I changed Ls to Zs in case the old fashioned handwriting had been transcribed wrong in recent years when documents were digitalised.
• I changed vowels around, swapping Os for As and tried outlandish misspellings like ‘Fmma’. It’s easy to assume that anyone transcribing a handwritten document would know it was Emma and not Fmma but, you see, at one point many records were outsourced to India, where transcribers were told to type what they see and not what they think they see. That instruction, along with a natural unfamiliarity with old fashioned British words and place names making it easier for these discrepancies to occur.
Whatever happened to Emma Senior?
I searched entire decades that might give me a clue to what happened to our Emma’s mother or where young Emma went next after 1881. There was no trace of her mother, Emma Sr, anywhere, not even death records. Perhaps she’d given a false or inaccurate (maiden or married) name at the Workhouse? I wondered how easy that might have been to do. Could she had left little Emma in Liverpool and sailed to America to make a new life for herself? I couldn’t imagine leaving my child behind although I knew things were very different in those days. But I certainly couldn’t imagine suddenly going from relying on the Workhouse to conjuring up enough money for transatlantic passage. Eventually, I conceded, I’d probably never know. How easy it was to go off the grid in those days.
I went back to the Records Office at Liverpool’s Central Library to look for Emma’s mother again, and this time I found her.
Emma senior was just 21 when she entered Liverpool Workhouse on Brownlow Hill on the day she gave birth to our Emma. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in the Workhouse either; the records show she’d been ‘in receipt of parish relief’ before. What they did detail though was that she was Irish, Unmarried, Roman Catholic, lived at Ford Street (where the census takers would later find our young Emma in Mrs Singleton’s boarding house in 1881 without her mother) and that her occupation was listed as an ‘Unfortunate’.
An ‘Unfortunate’ was a Victorian euphemism for prostitute. Prostitution was illegal, but Liverpool had such a booming trade – being a wealthy city with a bustling port – that the authorities couldn’t effectively police the brothels, known as ‘houses of ill fame’ or ‘disorderly houses’.
I wasn’t surprised or disappointed or in any way ashamed that Emma senior was a sex worker. I always knew it was a possibility. I felt a lot of things; sadness that she probably lived a very difficult life, admiration and amazement at how strong she must have been both mentally and physically to have survived life as a sex worker in Victorian Liverpool, and pity for baby Emma who might have at best been a surprise or at worst been unwanted.
Mouths to feed were a burden to anyone living in poverty, but I wondered whether the further social stigma of the time – being unmarried, and having a baby of non-white heritage – was too much for her, or for the often cruel society of the times. I can’t help thinking that she was already the lowest of the low – an IrishCatholic sex worker in Victorian England. What else did she have to lose?
The truth is, it could have cost the lives of one or both of them. I’ve read numerous contemporary reports of children and mothers dying through ‘want of food’. Maybe she wouldn’t have been able to work or rent a room as a sex worker with a child in tow. I don’t know how long they stayed together as mother and child, and although we don’t know what happened next to Emma senior, we do know at least that our Emma survived.
More than anything I was just disappointed that I didn’t know more about Emma senior but one thing I could take away – and this is a fair assumption but not fact – is that she was probably white (Ireland not being known for its black population in the same way that Victorian London and Liverpool were) and I wondered what difference this would make to our Emma’s life.
I was also crestfallen to realise that Emma senior having been a sex worker meant that I would probably never find out who the father was. Was he a sailor from the ‘West Indies’ as so many transient residents at that time were? Was he a Scouser? I would have loved to have known a bit more about her heritage about her father but if he was a client of Emma senior’s, rather than a live-in partner, then I’d never know. Censuses only record the names of individuals who had stayed at an address overnight before the day the census was taken, and I was unable to find Emma senior herself anywhere, let alone a brief encounter.
Despite extensive searching I never found any clues as to where either Emma senior nor junior had been living until the little girl showed up living with Mrs Singleton on the 1881 census on Ford Street. I went back to the other, apparently unrelated woman, also living at the address at the same time: someone called Mary. She’d be the same age as Emma Sr, but could it be her with a total change of name? Could Emma Sr have given her baby to someone else to look after?
It was beyond frustrating not to have the final piece of the puzzle of our Emma’s mother. After all, however we arrive in the world and however long they stick around for, our mothers are the very essence of where we come from.
A further challenge trying to trace our Emma’s story was her ‘double’, Well, not quite a double (as she was born in 1876, three years after our Emma) but someone with the same – quite unusual – surname, born and living in Liverpool. Now, the good thing about searching through these records was that it was a great deal easier than, say, looking for a Smith or Jones. I know I’d have to do an awful lot more careful sifting if I was checking records of very popular names. But Emma and the Double’s lives were so close to overlapping at all times in my research I had to be careful not to mix them up. So, in order to tell them apart, I had to get an adequate picture of the Double’s life too.
The Double was born into a family which on paper at any rate looked fairly stable. Two married parents at home, from Ireland, with three daughters including their Emma (the Double) who would go on to have their own dramatic events which I won’t disclose because it’s not my story to tell and also because I’m really not in any position to judge given some of the things I found out about my own family later.
So Near and yet so far
Crucially, although the censuses show the Double’s family living in Liverpool, they’re not in the midst of the Vauxhall slums that our Emma was raised in. They lived slightly further out, in Kirkdale, then in Everton and then in Kensington. But never slap bang in the middle of Vauxhall. These addresses are far enough away to make me doubt a particularly close familial link (and it takes a certain amount of prior knowledge of the layout of Victorian Liverpool to make that judgment) but certainly their residences particularly aren’t that far from some of the places our Emma would have known as a girl. And as the two Emmas grew up I’d have more difficulty separating the two.
I started to wonder whether the Double and our Emma were cousins – it’d be entirely feasible for a man (Henry, the Double’s dad) to name one of his children after his sister (Emma Sr). As plausible as this was, I scoured the records for links (grandparents, shared Aunts, arrival in Liverpool from Ireland), but to no avail. The dead ends were driving me mad. I felt like I was going round in circles and not getting any definite answers.
I thought I found a clue: Henry was from Monaghan, and I found an Emma – also from Monaghan – living in the Little Hell area (Liverpool’s notorious Victorian red light district) born in the same year as Emma senior, albeit with a different and apparently unrelated name. I did all the usual checks but met another dead end. This was just clutching at straws; it was getting ridiculous.
The geographic overlap was something that would crop up time and time again as I explored the next ten years of our Emma’s life. For instance, I was able to trace a single record of the Catholic sacrament of confirmation from St Joseph’s – a church that could easily have been attributed to either Emma. I was excited to think it could’ve been our Emma – it would have been a tiny fragment in piecing her life together and would’ve had the added benefit of naming a ‘sponsor’ (a sort of godparent) whose name I could have researched further (and in fact I did research the Sponsor and yes you’ve guess it; it yielded no useful results).
However, the Confirmation was in 1889 which would have made our Emma 16 and the Double 13. It seemed to me that it would more likely be the younger Emma; Confirmation is a sacrament that is usually received by children between the ages of 10-14 but I still couldn’t entirely discount it being our Emma.
Except for one thing… later that summer, instead of standing at the altar facing the priest, our Emma would be standing at the dock facing the magistrate. Join me next time in Part 3 as we find out what happened to our Emma as a grown up.