A tale of two children

My 2x great, grand aunt; by 12 she was already in the workforce

My 2x great, grand aunt; at 12 she was already in the workforce

Last weekend I took advantage of Ancestry’s free holiday weekend access to UK census records. It was a fruitful exercise and one that has (as always) raised lots of questions that are now bubbling around in my head and need Scotland’s People credits to answer.

But one little piece of data really leapt out at me from those census returns. In 1871, my 2x great grand aunt Christian Black was twelve years old, living in Kinglassie, Fife and described on the census as a factory worker.

Those two little words, taken in conjunction with her age, just about broke my heart.

Last weekend too the boy-child had to choose his school subjects for next year. He’s half way through A Levels, so we’re talking about his longer-term plans. That these plans will involve tertiary study tends to be the starting point; debate is around what to study and where.

My son is fifteen; his life revolves around skateboards, film-making, friends and school. I’m trying to remember what he was like at 12, and all I can think is “my little boy.” The idea that he might have been going to work, six days a week, 10-12 hours a day, in a noisy, dirty, unregulated factory. I can hardly bear to think about it.

I’ve tried to find out exactly where Christian Black worked, but with no luck so far. I’m guessing it was probably a linen mill as that was a major industry in Fife at the time, and one that employed large numbers of women and children. I do know that in the 1881 census, she was described as a linen factory worker.

Until 1872, there was no legal requirement for children in Scotland to attend school – although free education, provided by the Church, had been available since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Historically, Scotland is widely regarded to have had quite an enlightened approach to education with resultant high levels of literacy. However, it is estimated that in Victorian times around twenty percent of children had no formal schooling at all. The 1872 Education Act made school free and compulsory for all children up to the age of 12.

Because census records only provide a 10-yearly snapshot of families, I will probably never know how much education Christian received. I do know that while she was working in the factory, and her fourteen year old brother Alexander (my 2 x great grandfather) was a labourer, their younger brother William, nine, and their sister Elizabeth, 6, were attending school. It seems then that James Black and Caroline Goodall tried to give their children at least some formal education.

James Black appears to have worked as a labourer all his life. His wife Caroline was a domestic servant before her marriage, and in the 1901 census – taken when she was 67 – she’s described as a farm field worker.

My son was born 140 years after his great, great, great, grand aunt Christian and his life could hardly be more different. And even where there are similarities there is also irony. Christian worked in the textile industry, and the boy-child has recently started a branded clothing business which is already profitable.

Every generation hopes for a better life for its children. I know that my parents’ belief in the importance of education and hard work were hugely influential in shaping my life’s path. I hope that I’m instilling good values in my son. And I hope most of all, that one day he can look back and feel the hopes and dreams of the ancestors upon whose shoulders we now stand.

A tee-shirt from the boy-child's Ink Skateboards clothing range http://www.printmighty.co.nz/browse?search=ink+skateboard

A tee-shirt from the boy-child’s Ink Skateboards clothing range

21 thoughts on “A tale of two children

  1. Poignant and beautifully written Su.
    My mum was born here in South Australia in 1925… a child of “the Great Depression.” Although passing the QC (Qualifying Certificate) enabling continuing education at Secondary School, she had no choice but to begin work to contribute to the family income. However, this never stopped her learning and my mum, right until her dying day, was amazing in her knowledge and thirst for information which she passed on and which has been beneficial to all of her descendants.
    Thanks for sharing this heart warming story of your own family.

    • Thanks Catherine. My parents too had to leave school early because their families needed the money. I think my dad was glad to leave anyway, but my mother wanted to be a teacher. Apparently her grandfather offered to help financially, but her dad insisted she go to work, saying more or less that education was wasted on women because they would just go and get married!!! My generation is the first in my family to ever go to university, and I know it makes my mother really proud that I have the tertiary education she was denied.
      Thanks for reading my blog, and for your lovely comments..

  2. The age at which children used to start working is heartbreaking. At one time, sons would go down the mines with their father from the age of 7. I have girls on my tree who had left home to work as domestic servants by age 12, and had no doubt done a lot of helping with housework and child care before then. Not a lot of childhood for them, was there?

    I’m of the first generation in our family to go to university. My parents were strong believers in the power of education, and they were right.

    • Thanks Judy. I’m also the first generation to go to university. Both my parents were at work by 15 and I’m conscious that they got more schooling than their parents and grandparents. I kind of knew about child labour and I’d got used to seeing 14 year old miners and weavers and factory hands in the census records. I guess it was just a fluke that the census happened to be taken when she was 12. My next step is to find out what/where the factory was. So far, I haven’t been able to find one in Kinglassie before 1873, but I’ll be able to do more over the next couple of weeks while I’m “in the ‘hood!”

  3. Sue, do you realise you are typing Christian instead of Christina?
    I suppose our research can really hold up a mirror to our lives and expectations now. I also was the first of my family to attend university and my daughter is there doing a double degree with no limits on what she plans to do….and I suppose we can thank the Christinas of this world for the wonderful opportunities we have. When I found out an ancestor of mine was working as a weaver at 15, I also cried. But 12? Yes, heart-breaking. Good luck in your searches in Scotland. Will you call into the Scotland’s People office in Edinburgh?

    • Hi Lynn. Thanks. The interesting thing about Christian / Christina is that I have found that name about five times in my tree, and they all appear in records (originals as well as transcripts) as Christian in the early-mid nineteenth century (and earlier) but as Christina later. In each case it’s the same person, but the name changes. I have several gg /ggg aunts, ggg grandmother and a step ggg grandmother like this.

      Christian Black becomes Christina Black in the 1881 census. The same seems to true of Susanna / Susan between the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. It really confused me at first because I thought Christian was the male form of the name, but it seems that – in Fife anyway – it was a female form.

      Perhaps I need to do some research and post about this!

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. I really feel like the most blessed generation when I look at my ancestors’ lives and then consider the world our children are inheriting.

      • Same on my tree, Su. I have several Christians on the tree but the name had evolved into Christina by the end of the 19th century. The same person is often called both versions on different records. My ggg grandmother Christian Hutcheon is Christian on everything, including her death cert in 1874. Her granddaughter born 1871 was baptised Christian but has Christina on her marriage cert. Her daughter is always Christina. With both versions, they were often known as Chrissie.

        Susannah is a common name on my tree but it also changes as time goes on and becomes Susan.

        • Thanks Judy. It’s nice to know that it does seem to have been the trend. I was so confused at first. My Christians / Christinas are mainly not direct ancestors, so I haven’t researched them too deeply, but it does seem that they all had very hard lives. One was an illegitimate child of a gg grandmother who appears to have been packed off to live with an aunt, and who I’ve had trouble finding later in her life. Then there is Christian Black, about whom I wrote, and my ggg grandfather Alexander Cruden seems to have married a woman called Christina Thom (his second wife) who mysteriously disappears from the records too. Maybe I should devote a post to my Christinas – once I’ve researched them a bit more.

  4. I was rummaging through the census that weekend too. I was trawling Hollinfare, a village just southwest of Manchester. It was brilliant to look through all the pages to see what all the neighbours were doing work-wise, thus discovering the existence of the trade of fustian cutting. After a bit I had the sense of a whole village rising out of the pages, which was a bit weird. But yes, children at work. They seem to have been considered adults at twelve.

  5. As if researching isn’t hard enough without them changing the spelling of all the names too! I have the same thing in my trees. I can see now Sue that it was a deliberate use of both names but when I read it I thought it was a typo 🙂
    Hope you are safe and sound in Scotland!

    • Thanks Lynn, the spelling variations do drive me nuts. And to compound it, they all seemed to,have diminutives as well, so my mum’s busy telling me about a great aunt and I have no idea who she is until we can work out what the name she was called is a diminutive of!

      Am safe and well, if a bit cold. The sun is shining this morning in Fife, but it’s very, very windy and cold. Might have to go and buy a woolly jumper. 🙂

    • Hi Gary. Thanks for that. I really like your FB page – just spent ages looking at old school photos instead of working!!! Funny how kids of about the same era all look the same. There are “types” that you find in every school photo. The Kinglassie pics from the 1960s could easily have been taken here in New Zealand. 🙂

      • Hello Su, Glad you enjoyed looking at my site,aye it’s true a lot of old school photo’s look the same in certain parts of the world!Even the Victorian school photo’s from the old school would be very similar! My ancestry roots are in Fife,the Highlands of Scotland and Ireland. Regards. Gary

        • Thanks Gary. So far my ancestors seem to come mainly from Fife with a wee smattering from Perthshire and Morayshire. I think I’m related to everyone in Dysart and I got really excited the other day when I discovered a gg granny from Dalgety Bay. It’s ironic that after generations of stay-at-homes we’ve suddenly (last two-three generations) started colonising the rest of the world. Have you done much research into your roots? I’ve heard Irish ancestry is quite difficult to trace.

        • Hello Su, My sister Janice done a lot of research a few years back,she got as far back as the 1700’s with the Lawrie’s and Thomson’s on my mum’s side who lived in Markinch and Leuchers in Fife,but she could not get far with the Hopton’s on Dad’s side as they seemed to appear at South Walkerton Kinglassie Parish in the early 1800’s or late 1700’s from nowhere.I found out through a distant relative in Kirkcaldy that 2 Brothers from County Mayo in Ireland emigrated here who were called Hopkins(perhaps during the potato famine)and changed their name to Hopton as Hopkins was Known as a catholic name and a lot of coal mines/work places here would not employ catholics,John Knox and his followers caused that a few hundred years earlier with the reformation and the anti-catholic feeling was still strong! I think it would be near impossible to follow the Hopkins line back as we are not even 100 percent sure it was County Mayo the brothers came from but it was Ireland. Regards. Gary

  6. Hi Gary, it’s great that you can trace one side of the family back so far. I can’t seem to get much further back than about 1790, mainly because there are fewer sources of records for the earlier periods, so it’s much more difficult to know if you’ve got the “right” person – especially with so many people having the same name. Frustrating, but i’m enjoying myself anyway. Cheers, Su.

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