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.