This is very long, so I am splitting it in two.
Make sure you are sitting comfortably before you begin
I never knew my great-grandmother, but she caused me amazement at an early age when my father started reeling off the names of his mother’s brothers and sisters and their spouses. What a brood! Great-Grandma sounded like the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe.
She had 13 children, and raised them all, which was some feat in the nineteenth-century coalmining environment where infant mortality rates were high. They all married and produced offspring of their own. My father therefore had 24 aunts and uncles on his mother’s side alone, all raising their own little clans, so there was also a multitude of cousins, almost enough to rival the tribes of Israel.
When my genealogical research turned to my great-grandmother a few years ago, my amazement turned into admiration, and then grew into awe. Over time, I have pieced together a mental image of this extraordinary woman, of whom to my knowledge there exists no photograph or portrait. There are still gaps in her history that I can only speculate about.
She bore the proud name of Elizabeth Hardwick, and it is rumoured that she had the blood of the famous Bess of Hardwick in her veins. I take that rumour with a pinch of salt, but she was certainly a bright and resilient person. Building up a picture of her from the information available requires some detective work, part of the fascination of family research. There are still plenty of questions to be answered, as you will see.
Elizabeth’s father, John Houldsworth, was born the “spurious child of Mary Houldsworth” (note on his birth record) and “illegitimate son of Samuel Hardwick” (comment on his marriage certificate) on 6 May 1815 in the village of Heath near Chesterfield in Derbyshire. His mother and father eventually married 3 years after John’s birth and had eleven more children (6 of whom died young – another of my female ancestors whose story breaks my heart), but John used both his parents’ surnames seemingly at random during the rest of his life, making it quite difficult to trace him in the existing records. Luckily for us, his family Bible survives and someone who could write has entered basic information with dates of births and deaths.
John was a labourer. In 1851 at the age of 36, he married a young woman of 23 called Elizabeth Moody. They had a daughter, Frances, in June 1852 who died aged 9 months in March 1853, and then another little girl in November 1853. Sadly, the young mother died in childbirth. Her baby daughter was named Elizabeth after her.
– What happened to this baby?
– Who brought her up?
– What kind of childhood did she have?
– Did she stay with her father?
Her name – whether Hardwick or Houldsworth in all possible variations – doesn’t appear on any of the census records for 1861; neither does that of her father nor of her grandmother, Mary Hardwick, who died in Heath of “Decay of Nature” in August 1868 with her son John by her bedside. As an adult, Elizabeth couldn’t read and write, so she obviously didn’t attend school. We have ransacked public archives and registers in our efforts to find out something about her childhood, but in vain.
Nonetheless, on 19 December 1869, she turns up aged just 16 as a witness and presumably bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend Jane Probert to Isaiah Jones in the Parish Church of Heath. The other witness, or best man, was the brother of the bride, Joseph Probert.
Who were the bride and groom on this occasion? Well, it looks like a story of a girl marrying the boy next door (or next-door-but-one).
To be continued!