Forgotten Lives: Emma (Part 4)

When I was a little girl, the second world war never really seemed that long ago. These days, it seems a lifetime ago – more than a lifetime in fact. Time has a funny way of doing that, doesn’t it? Not just pages on the calendar but leaps in technology, fashions, architecture, music; new decades, new centuries, that panic around the millennium computer bug that never happened. It seems almost surreal that Emma’s life started when Queen Victoria was on the throne, and by the end of this final instalment we will have seen her navigate her way through a bleak childhood, the promise of a new century, and the dark days of Britain at war – twice.

If you need to catch up on Emma’s story so far you can read Part One here.

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

Emma married my great uncle in 1905 when she was 32. They were neighbours, from Burlington Street, in the impoverished Vauxhall area of Liverpool that very few people ever seemed to escape. By this point Emma became known – if she wasn’t already – to both sides of my family. My great grandparents knew her as my uncle’s new bride, and another set of great grandparents lived close by in Burlington Street. I’ve seen this time and time again researching my family history, where families who wouldn’t be joined together for years, lived side by side in the terraces, courts and cellars of Vauxhall and Scotland Road.

Court housing at no.26 Burlington St, Vauxhall. Emma lived at no.25. Each room was occupied by an entire family, even the damp cellars. With a pair of shared outside toilets for the surrounding buildings through the central entry.

You could say it’s a small world, but when you think about it: thousands of Irish Catholics marrying their own kind all crammed into a tiny housing in a relatively small area (bordered by docks on one side, a city centre on the other, and literal and perceived boundaries of major roads and Protestant areas too) it’s not much of a coincidence that they’d all exist in such close quarters and maybe even have known each other to talk to. It’s a good job the Catholic Church has rules on consanguinity (not marrying your kin) otherwise we’d all have been thoroughly inbred by the turn of the century.

And it’s also at this point that Emma – who was born in an era so alien to me, that I can only imagine it  from reading newspaper clippings and history books and looking at a few scarce images – and my life begin to overlap; that we shared our lives with some of the same people. That these same people started their lives together in Vauxhall and Scotland Road, and by the middle of the last century had scattered across Liverpool, across the country, and in some cases across the world. The unhealthy overcrowded slums were bulldozed, new housing estates sprang up, extended families became untangled from one another, and access to better healthcare and education resulted in smaller, healthier, and more independent family units in streets where they didn’t know everyone else, with things like driveways and indoor toilets.

When Emma was growing up, the women around her wore long dresses, corsets, and shawls. When I was growing up, they had curly perms, stone washed jeans, pearlescent lipstick and blue mascara. And yet some of these women overlapped both of our lives.

Mixed Messages

Before I researched Emma I always felt quite proud of my great uncle, marrying a non-white woman in ‘the olden days’ when I imagine it would have been a big deal (and not in a positive way). I also, mistakenly, thought that she would have been in a much smaller minority in Victorian Liverpool.

As I’ve looked through censuses and read contemporary news reports researching Emma’s life, I’ve learned about mariners from former British colonies (The West Indies, Barbadoes, Nassau all regular birthplaces in census records) living in Liverpool, of mixed marriages in Victorian England, of the fate of Black and biracial children left in the care of Barnardos and other orphan associations. Emma was not alone in her experience, and yet without her Father’s family in her life I wonder whether she herself had any understanding of her own heritage, or whether she’d been left to grow up with an obvious physical legacy yet none of the identity of self which we all deserve. I also wondered whether in those days sense of self was something anyone had time to give a second thought, or whether there were more pressing concerns just getting by day to day.

Emma’s marriage certificate cited her father as James – but I wondered whether this was true, or something she’d included to save face in front of the priest. You see, I’ve spent months searching for any James who could be connected to her and there is no evidence of a father or stepfather at all. I will always be left wondering where she got the name James from. Perhaps it’s one of the few things her mother knew about him.

Behind Closed Doors

The more I found about about my great uncle though, the more I began to wonder if all was as it seemed with his marriage to Emma. Not just the potential criminal records that I’d found for someone matching his age and name. She wasn’t an angel herself in her younger years so I’m sure she wouldn’t have held that against him. And certainly not the unflattering description of his “crippled arm” and numerous tattoos that went with those records. But other stuff, passed down through the family.

One thing you can’t establish from historical records, or censuses, or even marriage certificates, is whether two people loved each other.

Emma was 32 when she married my great uncle, and he was about 33. That’s quite old for a first marriage by the standards of the day. She hadn’t been married before and neither had he, but I started to wonder whether theirs was a marriage of convenience and if so, which of them benefited from it? What would the basis of a loveless marriage between the two of them be? To secure citizenship? That didn’t apply with this couple; they were both born in Liverpool. A financial situation perhaps? Or as some sort of cover – and if so, a cover for what? Perhaps it was just companionship. Perhaps it was love.

Jobs for the boys (and girls)

By 1911 the couple were shown on the census living together on Eldon Street. He was a ‘general labourer’ – a potentially unreliable source of income especially during the transport strikes of that year, which effected business coming in and out of the port of Liverpool. However, despite steep competition with other locals (who’d wait at the docks hoping to be chosen for a day or week’s worth of casual work), it remained sometimes the only option for men with little or no education who lived nearby.

Emma meanwhile, was a fruit hawker. This, along with sewing jobs and factory work, was a popular career choice amongst women in the local area. But it wasn’t easy. Not only did you have to pay for a license from the Corporation (local authority) but you had to go and collect your wares from the wholesaler every day on foot and then find a place to sell to the public which didn’t get you into a scrap with other hawkers or draw attention from the police for ‘obstructing the walkway’. Hawkers could sell from baskets or handcarts, and I know from family oral history that Emma had a heavy wooden handcart, filled it up with fruit every morning, and then got the ferry to Birkenhead to work out in the open all day in whatever the weather.

The handcart itself would have cost money, and the physical aspect of the job is more than I think I’d be prepared to do full stop let alone day in day out. However, Emma and many women of that time and place were hardier than we could probably ever imagine. Not only were hawkers hardy, they were also hard; as a sort of side hustle, hawkers were noted for being informal money lenders.

Women were often in charge of the household finances and would take money from their working husbands for rent and food (if he was forthcoming) and if he was lucky he might have some left over for the pub to escape the din or squalor of a family home in the slums. If wives and mothers were short of housekeeping money, or had drunk it away themselves, then they could borrow from a moneylending hawker without their husbands finding out.

However, this wasn’t without a price. Hawkers, like any money lenders, could charge steep interest – they were shrewd businesswomen not charities, after all. And woe betide anyone who got behind with repayments: you wouldn’t want seven bells knocked out of you by someone who could single handedly wheel a cart full of fruit across the Mersey, nor have your business shouted through the streets by a fishwife who’d let your neighbours know you’re in debt.

With this in mind, it appears that Emma would have had, as my Mum said, ‘her own money‘. So if this was a marriage of convenience, I can’t see how it would have benefited either of them financially. I started thinking that perhaps it wasn’t the money – perhaps it was genuine companionship. I’d never truly know, but I would soon piece together some facts and family accounts to get a bigger picture of the man that Emma married.

Happy Families

On that 1911 census, the one where they’re living together on Eldon Street, I spotted a few mistakes. It says that they’d been married for 10 years, but their marriage certificate definitely says 1905, which would make it six years. So we can take from this that whoever was answering questions when the census taker knocked on the front door was either confused, had a poor memory, or was just not interested enough to remember the dates. You sometimes see lots of errors in a household with lots of kids – presumably where the parents have lost track of their ages – but in this case there are only two people living in the house so how hard can it be to get right?

The census also shows Emma as being 30 years old, and her husband being 35. In fact, in 1911 she was 38 and he was just a year older. We know these to be facts because the bonus of coming from a Catholic family is being able to rely on wonderful baptismal registers detailing the exact date of birth and baptism of a child, their parents’ names, their godparents (which can be handy if it’s a family member) and sometimes addresses. These inaccuracies on the census about their dates of birth and length of marriage therefore make me wonder how true the answers were for another question that was posed on the 1911 census… whether they had any children, living or dead.

Throughout history there are uncomfortable truths and one of them for me has always been hearing that, on the topic of whether Emma and her husband had had children, relatives had apparently remarked that it “was a blessing they didn’t have any children”. I found this remarkable. That women who’d had children, lost children – or some who’d wanted children themselves – would pontificate on someone else’s private life. Not only that, but the undercurrent of racism that perhaps they thought in some way that the couple shouldn’t procreate, or that their not having children nipped some kind of problem in the bud.

It might seem like conjecture, but as an adult (thankfully I never grew up hearing such things) I learned that extended family members used to say things like “you’ll wind up buried next to Emma L” – meant as some sort of ‘funny’ threat. I’ve never been able to understand it, never found it funny, and there’s nobody around now that I can ask to translate it. It seems such a peculiar thing to say and yet they never said it about anybody else. Was there something specific about Emma that was so objectionable to them? Or was it some kind of off the cuff remark in the same vein as ‘running off with a black man’ (something which, again, I never heard in my own family but I know was a supposedly a ‘hilarious’ quip in many other white families) – that wasn’t so much attempting to poke fun at Emma herself as an individual, but at an entire people?

Either way it doesn’t sound good, and my earlier pride at the thought of coming from a diverse and open minded family was replaced by acute embarrassment and sadness.

I tried to figure it out. Why wouldn’t you want to be buried next to someone? Was there something offputting? It wasn’t even as if she was even a fish hawker (which admittedly would be quite smelly); Emma sold fruit. Also, my entire family lived in the shadows of factories, docks, incinerators, waste depots, grain silos and railways. Their local pub was nicknamed the Fly House on account of the workers from the sugar refinery all congregating there.

I might be wrong, I might be barking up the wrong tree. I might be applying a 2018 lens to something which makes it look like something it wasn’t. Maybe she had an annoying laugh, maybe she never shut up, maybe she had missing teeth which scared little children, or some other trivial idiosyncrasy which was enough for people to make light of. Maybe the comment was an innocent coincidence. I don’t know. What I do know is that the only thing about Emma which made her stand out from the others was that she was bi-racial. With that at the back of my mind it seemed as though the comments about them not having children surely must have been a slight on Emma based on her skin colour.

However, when I found out about another layer of life in the 20th century for Emma it brought mixed emotions: relief that perhaps these comments about not having children being a ‘blessing’ weren’t actually an aspersion on Emma at all, but also the feeling that after having survived the Workhouse, the streets, the cells, the elements, and life as a woman of colour in poverty-stricken Liverpool, that really this woman – who really deserved to catch a break by now – was in for yet another dose of tribulation.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

Emma’s husband, my great uncle, was rumoured to have fathered a child with another woman. This kind of thing happens all the time, in all walks of live, but the scandal of this happening in a tight knit Catholic community where two, three, four or more houses in the same street might all be close relations, makes it very awkward indeed.

Knowing what I know about Emma, that she had her own money, that she didn’t marry until her 30s, and that she had no children to support – not to mention that she was probably hard as nails – made me wonder why she stayed with him. Surely she’d have known? If I know, all these years later, passed down from word of mouth within the family, then she definitely must have known. After all, no matter how discrete he might have thought he was being, I know many of the women in my family had mouths like the Mersey tunnel and would’ve let slip.

I wondered how it must have made Emma feel, him allegedly fathering a child, and her having none of her own. I wondered whether she wanted any children, or whether she had been content with just his companionship, and how things might have changed when she found out about the other woman and the baby. But whatever her reasons, Emma never left him and, crucially, he never left Emma for the other woman – and there’s an unsavoury reason why.

The woman that Emma’s husband was supposedly in a sexual relationship with, was his own sister’s daughter. His niece.

Keeping it in the Family

Long before the incest laws in England & Wales were formally set out in the Marriage Act 1949, the Catholic Church prohibited marriage between any two persons closer than the 4th degree of consanguinity – and by marriage, they obviously meant sex too.

Having an affair was bad enough, but for it to be a blood relation who had grown up around you was unthinkable.

I couldn’t understand it: how could the family have allowed this to happen? To continue? If not for Emma’s sake then for the sake of respectability or of the young woman involved. Emma’s husband was only five years younger than his sister – so still a generation older than his niece. They weren’t star-crossed lovers, he was a grown man – her uncle – who should never have looked at his sister’s daughter in that way (even though she too was an adult), regardless of any willingness on her part.

I wondered whether it could just be a vicious rumour, aimed at man who was open minded enough to marry a woman of colour when others wouldn’t – maybe their twisted assumption was that if he could do that then he was capable of anything. Or maybe it was a joke that had gone too far. But by the post-war years my mother was told that she was not to play out with her second cousin (the offspring of the ill fated union) in part because my grandmother didn’t approve of her keeping company with the child on account of her mother, and also because she thought the child ‘wasn’t quite right’ – an indication that the family believed there had been an unhealthy degree of consanguinity.

Knowing the strong women in my family, I couldn’t believe that they would blindly accept this state of affairs. Knowing the men in my family, I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t have given Emma’s husband a good kicking or sent him away. Maybe they couldn’t prove it, or were too ashamed to admit it. Maybe, like Emma’s marriage, it was all about saving face in front of the neighbours.

No wonder he wouldn’t leave Emma – he couldn’t exactly shack up with his niece. But why didn’t Emma leave him? Maybe she had no alternative; maybe she took her marriage vows seriously (more seriously than he did, apparently); maybe she just wasn’t that bothered.

The 1921 census might have given me some clues as to the rest of their living arrangements but won’t be released until 2021 under the 100 year rule, and the entire country’s records that were taken in the 1931 census were later destroyed in a warehouse fire without ever being released to the public. Meanwhile the electoral registers from the 20s and 30s showed that Emma and her husband remained together in Eldon Street, hinting at the fact that thr house was in his name rather than hers which perhaps goes some way to illustrating the situation she was in.

She won’t have been the first woman to stay in an unhappy or unhealthy relationship and she won’t be the last.

Britain at War

Emma’s husband died before the outbreak of war. The cause of death was a combination of stroke and heart problems, possibly as a result of a life of poor environment, drinking, smoking, and poor diet. The death certificate shows that he died at home, and that Emma was with him when he passed away.

When the 1939 Survey was taken (a sort of interim Census, to see who was who and who was where before all hell broke loose in Europe) Emma was shown as living alone in the Eldon Street house. No longer hawking fruit, her occupation was given as ‘unpaid domestic duties’ – the term given to describe housewives and stay at home mothers. Meanwhile on a nearby street lived her late husband’s niece and child.

I wondered how often they crossed paths. I wondered how it felt to be embarrassed like that by someone, and whether my family showed her any kindness or solidarity after his death. It doesn’t seem to me like they’d made much an effort with her thus far.

Emma survived the bombs that dropped all across Liverpool, with an especially fierce concentration by the industry-heavy area around the docks. The May Blitz of 1941 killed my great grandmother who lived in the same street as Emma and her grandsons aged 4 & 5 in the local air raid shelter, on the most severe ‘night of terror’ to hit Merseyside when Liverpool was subjected to 7 hours of sustained bombing by waves of 500 enemy aircraft, every night for the first week of May.

The May Blitz: Vauxhall, Liverpool

The Blitz devastated the city and beyond, without discrimination. The port, the railways, the churches, the shops, the homes, the prison, the post offices, the fire stations, the schools, the maternity hospital. My other grandmother (my mum’s mum) would pack blankets and sandwiches, and walk the children in a large pram, north out of Liverpool and sleep in a field to escape the worst of the bombing. That’s how I’m here to tell the tale. But what Emma did on those nights, or how she survived, I’ll never know.

Peace time?

Before Emma could enjoy the Second World War coming to an end, she was admitted to Newsham Hospital at 42 Belmont Road, with a chest complaint. The hospital itself is a grade II listed building, opened in the year Emma was born. Many years prior to Emma’s admission it had been a Seamen’s Orphanage, and in the 20th century it became a psychiatric hospital before closure. In recent years it has been host to ‘lunatic asylum’ themed scare attractions, and ghost hunts.

One week after her admission, in the winter of 1943, Emma died of acute bronchitis in Newsham Hospital, a few weeks before her 71st birthday.

I was relieved to see in the records that Emma was listed as buried ‘by friends and family’ – although I knew that really all that meant was that the authorities didn’t have to pick up the tab. I wondered who, from my family, would be willing or bothered to organise it. I hoped that their Catholic sense of propriety would make sure she was given a proper funeral. But being Catholic doesn’t make you a good person. I’d heard stories about my Grandad going to clear out one of his sisters’ flats after her death – only to find other, more distant, relatives had got there first and were searching the place for money.

I wondered if any of my family even made the trip to Belmont Road to visit Emma while she was in hospital. I was fairly confident some of them would have made the short trip to Eldon Road to see where her money was, though. A probate notice was put in the paper some weeks later inviting next of kin to claim a sum of money left behind by her. Not enough to buy a house, but enough to pay for a funeral. It is anyone’s guess how many extended family suddenly claimed a close relationship with her once she’d died. It’s not know who, if anyone, laid claim to the money she left behind although there was some fuss over who should take on responsibility for her pet dog (which, incidentally, didn’t have a name – it was only known as ‘Emma L‘s Dog‘).

Perpetual Light

The Newsham Hospital records indicate that Emma was buried in Anfield cemetery but I knew that this wasn’t the case. By this point I was exhausted at how many inconsistencies there were in her life: her name, her age, who her parents were and where they disappeared to, and now which part of the city she was buried in. I can only imagine how hard her life must have been. It was about time she got some rest.

I sought out the information on the grave deeds and found her where I expected her: Ford RC Cemetery on the outskirts of Liverpool; a large 19th century burial ground reserved for the city’s Catholics – the location of which incurred further travel costs and added inconvenience for the poor of Vauxhall and the resting place of the many young children who had never survived past infancy, unlike our robust Emma. The deed indicated she was buried in same grave as her late husband who’d died just five years before her, and later another distant relative (rather insultingly, thought to be from the niece’s family), who died ten years after Emma.

I was pleased to see she was buried in a family plot, not in the unmarked section where people without family or enough money are buried when they die. I looked on a map of the cemetery and found that her grave was just a few steps from family members whose graves I’ve often visited: grandparents, great-grandparents, great uncles and aunts and their children. It seems they tempted fate: they were, more or less, ‘buried next to Emma L–‘ after all. In death, at any rate, we are all the same.

I would love to show you a beautifully tended grave, with a touching epithet or two, and Emma’s name in decorative lead or gilt lettering on marble, with flowers left by a dutiful descendant. Instead, much as she lived her life – unwanted, inconsequential, never quite important enough – Emma’s grave was never marked.

This would have cost someone a lot of money, and clearly no remaining family members wanted to take this on. I think about other relatives who’ve died: cherished uncles and aunties both married and single who never had children of their own but whose deaths prompted columns of grief stricken prayers in the Echo, whose funerals had people queueing out the door, and whose headstones rightfully acknowledged them as loved and important individuals; as missed as any parent.

I visited Emma’s grave and reflected on what I’d learnt. She was strong, she was hardy. They all were. They had to be. Maybe Emma more so. I didn’t think she would want my pity. She will have experienced things I could never fathom, but I still remember my family from the past two generations and wondered how different could she really be from them? The women who raised me, with their sharp wit and their hardfaceness and their fierce protectiveness and their capacity for fun, kindness, and storytelling, and the uncanny ability to ‘start a fight in an empty house’.

But as I add it all up, I feel tired for Emma and crestfallen that right until the end I hoped for some kind of happy ending that never came.

As I’ve tried my best to bring to life the story of an unknown woman of colour from Victorian Liverpool – her challenging life of lawlessness and love, wartime and work, heartbreak and hardship – it occurs to me that I am the only person alive today who knows where Emma is buried.

Eternal rest grant unto her O Lord, and may Perpetual Light Shine Upon Her.

May she rest in peace.


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