Monday, 19 September 2011

Roots 3: Dark satanic mills - John and Kitty

More family history: Frustratingly I know very little about the paternal line of my family - the bit whose surname I carry. My granddad died twenty years before I was born and the  records have proved very elusive.

Although actually  from the point of view of social history these gaps are every bit as telling as the certainties. Inevitably there's a bit of speculation here thrown into filling these gaps - but it is informed by a background knowledge of a particularly grim phase in England's  rise as the major industrial nation:

The pivotal couple in the family's story seem to be my great-grandparents,  John and Catherine (Kitty) who were both born in the middle of the nineteenth century and lived in Dewsbury West Yorkshire.

John was a whitesmith - a craftsman who made household objects in tin and lead - but his origins are confusing and there doesn't seem to be any record at all of his birth. He was apprenticed to his step-father who bore a different name - which he briefly used himself before adopting his mother Ann's maiden name. 

There seems to be no record of Ann being  previously married and she first appears in the records in her mid-twenties working as  a live-in domestic servant to a small middle class household. The illegitimate children of the poor were fairly invisible to the authorities in those days, and so it doesn't seem too great a stretch to conclude that she gave birth to John out of wedlock and  only married later in life. If so - that must have been quite a story.

Now days this part of my family are Catholic and I had assumed that, like the other Catholic side of my family, this was because  they belonged to one of the peculiar pockets of English Catholics in the north of England who managed to dodge the reformation. But in fact John's mother wasn't Catholic and it seems safe to assume that he simply  married an Irish Catholic woman and the family's religious tradition began when the children were consequently raised in their mother's church.

Catherine or Kitty as she was known,  is also difficult to pin down in the archives. There is even some confusion as to her surname  - possibly because of some mis-transcribing in the records or more likely because she was illiterate. We know this because she was only able to make her mark on a number of official documents and it looks as if the surname was mis-heard at various times.

She was a worsted spinner  - a fairly usual job in the mill towns of West Yorkshire - and was born in County Leitrim. The west of Ireland was one of the  regions worst affected by the famines of the 1840's - and consequently one of the most depopulated by mass emigration. Leitrim was also a textile producing area and it's not hard to imagine why the people from there would be drawn to the booming mill towns of the West Riding. These hell-holes were the engine rooms of the golden age of British capitalism - which needed the cheap  Irish labour as much as they needed relief from their own sufferings at home. As Engels said: 'The rapid extension of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command'.  

Of John and Kitty's six children, four would go on to work in the mills at alarmingly young ages. One of them, my grandfather, was taken on as an errand boy on a local newspaper. Later - just after the Great War - he would come south to work on Fleet Street. And a new family tradition - of which I'm now the third generation - of working in 'the print' would begin. 

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