My 4 x great grandmother Mary Ann Thorpe was baptised on 4 August 1816 in Great Braxted, Essex. The daughter of Thomas Thorpe and Mary Ann Freeman, she married Henry Wheeler on 3 November 1844 in St Mary, Lambeth, Surrey.
Mary Ann was Henry’s second wife. He was a petty thief. Also, she was eighteen years younger than him. Why did a young woman marry a far older, disreputable man? We will explore that question later.
Mary Ann and Henry produced four children: Mary Ann, Charlotte, Joseph and Nancy, my direct ancestor, who when married at sixteen changed her name to Annie. There was a nine year gap between Mary Ann’s birth and Charlotte’s birth. This pattern replicated Henry’s first marriage to Elizabeth Mitchell where there was a nine year gap between their first two children, Henry and Eliza. That marriage produced five children in total. Why the nine year gaps? Henry’s wives were clearly fertile, but he was not around. Where was he? Read on…
After each marriage and the birth of the first child, Henry resorted to petty crime to make ends meet. The family endured great hardship, extreme poverty, and with new mothers and babies to feed Henry became ‘light-fingered’.
At other times, Henry was no saint. His name features frequently in the criminal records. However, on many occasions he was found ‘not guilty’. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Wheeler family lived their lives on the fringes of society and mixed with petty, and possibly, hardened criminals.
In 1845, after the birth of his daughter Mary Ann, Henry served a seven year prison sentence. The Victorians were keen on multiples of seven for their prison sentences, and this pattern extended to periods of transportation as well.
While Henry was in prison, his wife Mary Ann endured a difficult time. On 24 August 1849 it’s possible that she entered St Luke’s asylum. The records are sketchy, so it’s difficult to be certain, but the facts and circumstances fit so I am inclined to believe that she did spend some time in the asylum, maybe due to the burden of her circumstances.
Or maybe Mary Ann suffered from long-standing mental health issues. It’s possible that those issues made a match with a man her own age unlikely, hence her choice of Henry, the eighteen year older petty criminal. The psychological profile certainly fits. That said, maybe it was a love match. Love can still blossom even in the most dire of circumstances.
Earlier, on 20 September 1848, Mary Ann entered the workhouse, a foreboding institution that was more a place of punishment than support. The Victorian era through the Industrial Revolution generated great wealth, but that wealth was concentrated on a relatively small number of individuals. These people were extremely rich, but they treated the poor with contempt. We can see a parallel in our own times.
Mary Ann left the workhouse on 10 January 1849, but her troubles were far from over. She still had a baby to feed, no husband to call on, and a fight against the diseases poverty brings. For all her troubles Mary Ann was a strong woman and lived to be eighty-six.
Before exploring Mary Ann’s later years, first we must go back in time, to 3 February 1845 when she found herself following her husband’s well-trodden path to the Old Bailey.
Mary Ann was indicted for feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling-house of Susan Laws, on the 18 January 1845, and stealing two gowns, value 30s., the goods of Caroline Allen; and one shawl, 6s., the goods of Henry George Steer.
Caroline Allen, a dressmaker, gave evidence: she locked her door and went to bed late. In the morning, she discovered the door open and her possessions gone. She had no knowledge of Mary Ann. She also stated that two families and an old gentleman shared the dwelling-house.
John Robert Davis stated that he was a shopman to Mr. Folkard, a pawnbroker, in Blackfriars Road. On the 18 January, at half-past nine in the morning, Mary Ann pledged the stolen gown at the pawnbrokers and he gave her an inferior duplicate. He reckoned that Mary Ann made three shillings on the trade.
Police constable Michael Cregan stated that he visited Mary Ann’s lodging and found the gown and shawl hidden under bedclothes. The court also established that the main door was ‘broken open’ although there were no marks of violence. The conclusion was that someone had used a skeleton key.
Eliza Beale, a fellow lodger, stated that she knew Mary Ann and that she was ‘an unfortunate girl.’ – An observation on Mary Ann’s mental health? Crucially, Eliza added that she came home at four o’clock in the morning when a man and woman asked her if she knew where they could get a bed. She let them into her room. They had a bundle with them, but she did not see them the following morning.
Martha Winfield, the landlady, contradicted Eliza Beale. However, Martha did not live in the house and therefore she was not an eyewitness to the events that night. Her contradiction was based on opinion, not on fact.
Verdict: Not Guilty.
In her closing years, as a widow, Mary Ann lodged with other elderly people. Over her eight-six years she certainly witnessed the darker aspects of London life. She also witnessed a period of dramatic change. At no stage was Mary Ann’s life easy. But she battled through and her life stands as a testimony to the human spirit.
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The son of Zephaniah Thorpe and Margaret Entwistle, my direct ancestor Ralph Thorpe was baptised on 14 March 1753 in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire.
A warper, a common trade in Lancashire with its proliferation of cotton mills, Ralph moved south in the early 1780s and plied his trade in Essex and Norfolk.
A cotton warper oversaw the industrial process of winding threads from various bobbins on to a warp beam, which had one large bobbin at the back of the loom containing all the warp threads. These threads would gradually unwind during the weaving process, producing the cloth. Warping was the second stage of cotton cloth production, following winding.
On 9 December 1783, Ralph married Mary Wakefield in Wanstead, Essex. The couple produced six children including my direct ancestor Thomas Thorpe who, on 9 October 1814, married Mary Ann Freeman and settled in Essex.
Mary Wakefield died on 25 February 1796. A few months later Ralph spent some time in St Thomas’ Hospital, London. That the couple were ill at roughly the same time suggests that they were affected by a transmittable disease. One possibility was smallpox.
Ironically, that same year, 1796, Edward Jenner demonstrated that an infection with the relatively mild cowpox virus conferred immunity against the deadly smallpox virus. His research was crucial in the development of the smallpox vaccine, the first effective vaccine against a contagious disease.
St Thomas’ Hospital originated as an Augustinian infirmary in the twelfth century and was dissolved in 1540. In 1551 the hospital was refounded by royal charter and functioned as a general hospital for the sick-poor, including sufferers of venereal disease.
Endowments gave St Thomas’ a degree of financial security. Nevertheless, they still charged patients admission fees, a policy that was condemned by the hospital’s critics for limiting the ability of the very poor to access its services.
A central court of governors governed the hospital and they could number over two hundred. These governors were wealthy individuals who gifted £50 each to the hospital.
The original St Thomas’s Hospital survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. However, upgrades were needed and between 1693 and 1720 more than £37,000 was raised in order to create an elegant classical structure around three spacious courtyards. The rebuilt hospital had nineteen wards, including two foule wards for venereal patients and a cutting ward with room for more than 400 patients. Male and female patients were strictly segregated, as were the venereal patients.
The medical staff included physicians, surgeons and an apothecary, who was not allowed to marry or run a private practice. The nursing staff included a matron, sisters and nurses. The sisters and their nurses lived in the hospital and had to be single or widowed.
St Thomas’ catered for patients with a wide range of medical and surgical conditions although they did exclude people classed as ‘incurable’ or ‘insane’. Patients were not allowed to stay longer than three months, after which time they were deemed incurable. Ralph left St Thomas’ Hospital on 9 June 1796. Therefore, he must have entered a month or so after Mary died.
St Thomas’ Hospital treated large numbers of patients. In 1800 the total number of inpatients was more than 3,200 with a further 4,700 outpatients. In wartime the patients were often supplemented by large numbers of wounded soldiers and sailors.
The death rates at St Thomas’ were relatively low, although it must be remembered that the hospital did not admit ‘incurable’ patients. In 1726, 4,873 patients were cured while 392 died, a mortality rate of 7.4 percent. In 1735, 4,688 patients were cured while 307 died, a mortality rate of 6.1 per cent. This pattern of mortality rates continued throughout the century.
The patients could be disruptive with harassment, petty theft and ‘ward wandering’ reported. Some patients ran away before the completion of their treatment, especially venereal patients who were subjected to the deeply unpleasant and extremely painful mercury-based ‘salivation’ therapies.
Having recovered, but without his wife, Ralph returned to Bolton-le-Moors where, on 23 January 1803, he married Mary Holden. Ralph died on 28 August 1826 in Bolton-le-Moors.
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I reckon I should award the prize for my most exotically named ancestors to Zephaniah Thorpe and his wife Mary Discipline.
The son of Ralph Thorpe and Mary Wakefield, Zephaniah was baptised on 25 April 1790 in Lakenham, Norfolk. He was named after his grandfather, Zephaniah.
Mary Discipline was born on 25 January 1789 and baptised on 1 February 1789 in Heacham, Norfolk. Her parents were Thomas Discipline and Mary Smith.
Zephaniah Thorpe and Mary Discipline married on 22 August 1813 in St Dunstan, Stepney, which indicates that they had moved from Norfolk to London. However, this was a small step before they embarked on an even greater adventure. Before detailing that adventure it is worth noting that Zephaniah and Mary signed their names on their marriage certificate. For a well-to-do man this was common, but for a woman, even one from the middle classes, it was a rarity. Often, women of the age were not taught how to read or write for fear that it would ‘corrupt’ their minds.
In 1829, Zephaniah and Mary found themselves in New York. You would think that emigration was a ‘young man’s game’, but Zephaniah was 39 and Mary 40 when they embarked on their journey. What compelled them to leave? For settlers in earlier centuries religious persecution offered the main motivation, but in Zephaniah and Mary’s case it would seem that a better quality of life was the main factor.
Zephaniah had a skill – he was a sculptor specialising in marble. In the 1830s New York was a developing city with a need for artisans. Zephaniah and New York were made for each other, so he took the gamble and transferred his family across the Atlantic Ocean.
Using a chisel, sculptors would remove large portions of unwanted stone. During this roughing out phase they would work rhythmically ensuring that the stone was removed quickly and evenly. Some artists would carve directly on to the stone while others used a model formed from wax or clay.
An example of a sculpture created during Zephaniah’s era can be found in Green-Wood Cemetery. There is no evidence that Zephaniah worked on this sculpture, but he definitely saw it and maybe it offered him some inspiration.
The sculpture is called Charlotte Canda (3 February 1828 – 3 February 1845). It’s a memorial to a young debutant, Charlotte, who died in a horse carriage accident on her way home from her seventeenth birthday party.
On 11 April 1838 at the Common Pleas Court in New York, Zephaniah and Mary applied for naturalisation. The application, sponsored by James Bryson, was granted and Zephaniah settled his family in Brooklyn.
In 1855 Zephaniah was living at Number 59 Ward 7, New York with his wife, Mary, their son, Thomas aged 39, a lodger Bartu Durando a jeweller from New Jersey also aged 39, and granddaughter Josephine A Thorp aged 10.
The street contained families from Canada, Germany, Ireland and Prussia plying their trades as bookkeepers, carpenters, clerks and grocers. A cosmopolitan area. Zephaniah’s son Thomas was also a sculptor. What did father and son sculpt? Probably the great marble columns and artefacts in New York’s burgeoning churches and civic buildings. Certainly, there was plenty of work available because by this time they had been plying their trade for 26 years.
Ten years later, Zephaniah, Mary, Thomas and Josephine were living in Brooklyn, in a house valued at $800. In this census Josephine was described as a niece from Alabama. Ten years earlier the census had described her as a grandchild. Official records are not always accurate, sometimes through accident, other times through design – particularly when people wish to hide something. Often, you need to read between the lines. There is no record of Thomas’ wife, so I’m inclined to believe that she died young and that Josephine was Thomas’ daughter. Certainly, she lived with him throughout her childhood.
Zephaniah died in Kings, New York on 9 September 1868 aged 80. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.
A Brooklyn directory of 1877 listed Mary as the widow of Zephaniah. It also listed Thomas as a sculptor, living at the same address. Josephine was not listed so it’s fair to assume that she had married and started her own family.
Mary died on 3 September 1876 of pneumonia at 287 Jay Street, Kings, New York. She was buried with Zephaniah in Green-Wood. By this time she had lived amongst the tall buildings of New York for 47 years, a far cry from her birthplace in the flat Norfolk Broads.