Was she the black sheep of the family? Her grandmother was the daughter of a yeoman who married into the Wedgwood family, and was herself a second cousin of the great Josiah Wedgwood.
Indeed, my ancestor Sarah, born in the potteries at the very end of the eighteenth century, came from a highly respectable family, but made the all too common mistake of falling in love with a married man. George was older than she was, and already father to three children, but their hearts ruled their heads and they had two little girls together. What happened then? Did her family disown her? Did George walk out? Did Sarah see sense? All I know is that they parted while the children were still small, and George went back to his wife.
Whatever her circumstances, she kept her daughters with her and stayed out of the workhouse; then she found Benjamin, a middle-aged widower in need of a wife, and transferred her affections to him. Benjamin was a collier with a young son, and when Sarah found herself pregnant again, Benjamin made an honest woman of her, though they sneaked off to a different parish across the border in Cheshire to tie the knot, seemingly to avoid incurring further gossip.
Sarah seems to have liked older men: Benjamin was about 20 years her senior, and it must have been a disaster for the family when he was killed in 1835 at the age of 60 in a pit accident, leaving her with eight children to care for. The 1841 census shows her stepson and his wife living next door, with their three children, so she would probably have had some moral support from there, but apart from the small wage her eldest daughter was earning as a potter, there would have been very little income. Did her brothers also support her? They all lived in the same village, so it is feasible.
Interestingly, by 1845 her old flame George was also a widower, and living quite near by. They don’t seem to have got back together – that would have been too romantic! But George certainly acknowledged paternity of Sarah’s eldest girls, and is named as father of the bride on my great-great-grandparents’ marriage certificate.
Somehow Sarah survived and so did her children, so that by 1851 the family appears relatively comfortable: Sarah was living next door to her eldest son on one side and her second daughter on the other, both of whom were married with little children. Five of her children were still at home and all employed. Her daughter-in-law was also working “in the potts” at this point, so Sarah was probably helping to look after her grandchildren. One by one over the next 10 years her children all married and moved out. By the time of the census in 1861, she was living with her youngest son and his family.
Her eldest son was widowed in 1860, and in 1871 we find Sarah, aged 77, housekeeper for him and his family. The address given on the census is very evocative: Shop Yard, near Tunnel Mouth. I was intrigued by this and discovered that the tunnel in question was the Harecastle Tunnel, which in fact was two tunnels, both remarkable engineering feats by Brindley and Telford.
Once again, my imagination is sparked: the Trent and Mersey canal ran through these tunnels, a very busy waterway. Brindley’s tunnel was the earlier one and had no towpath, so horses had to be led over the hill along Boathorse Lane (which still exists in parts). Fit young men congregated at the mouth of the tunnel offering their services as “leggers”, for which they could earn a small fee. They would lie on their backs on top of the barge and walk their feet along the roof of the tunnel, which was almost 3 kilometres long, “legging”, which is very hard work. You can still try this out today, as it’s one of the tourist attractions at the Dudley Black Country Museum, although Brindley’s tunnel was closed many years ago.
A shop near the tunnel mouth would have been an excellent trading location, as it was an obvious place for the barges to stop and the boatmen to have a rest before continuing on their way. I suppose that their house was at the back of the premises, since the address is Shop Yard, and no other family lives there. However, the men of Sarah’s family were engine drivers or horse drivers, and the women were potters: none of them is listed as a shopkeeper, nor are any of their neighbours. So who ran the shop? Did Sarah end her days behind the counter? She died at the ripe old age of 82 in June 1876, right next to the estate where her grandmother had been born.