Barrow-in-Furness  Civic and Local History Society
History Society Home Page Contact Us Aims & Short History Programme Sponsors History of Barrow Memories/Oral History Local History Research Links

WITNESSES FROM THE PAST

Bill was very helpful to me and frequently provided tea and coffee in his home during my breaks from research in the Reference Library. It was on one of my visits Bill suggested that I should interview his Aunt Rose. This I did and found her to be a most remarkable woman with a huge and invaluable store of memories about life in Barrow at the turn of the last century. Normally I do not identify respondents, as we promised them anonymity but Rose Ashton went on to become something of a celebrity, being interviewed by the BBC, and appearing in the television series and accompanying book "Out of the Doll's House.


Melvyn Bragg also used the first story related below in his book "My Favourite Stories of Lakeland.”


Rose died aged 105 in 1999 and Bill in 2000. This is a small tribute to both of them as they are always connected in my mind and I am grateful to them both for helping so significantly with my work.


This story related to me by Rose in 1974 is quite well known as she repeated it in various interviews. I find that it is a very evocative account and somehow encompasses and represents so much which can be said about social life and attitudes in Barrow at the beginning of the twentieth century.


Rose was born in 1893, the third of nine children of whom seven survived. The family lived in Hindpool. This is how she related a childhood memory; "Now when the baby was born, we could hear . . . We realised to know how fat Mamma was getting but we didn't know anything. Then I heard a noise one night and I got up and I thought "M'mamma must be bad" "and I went in the room and said "Is me mamma bad?" Dad said "No go and get yourself back into bed m'lass, she'll be all right in the morning" When I got up in the morning and I went in and she'd had this little baby and it was still born. She said, "You're not going to school today Rose." I said, "Aren't I?" She said, "No. You'll have to stay at home. I want you to do something for me" i said "What's been the matter with you mamma?" She said, " Well I've got a baby" I said, "Where is it?" She said, "It's just there" And it was on the wash stand on a pillow with a cover over it. When I looked at it, it was like a little doll very small. She said, "I want you to go to a shop ask for a soap box." I said, "A soap box Mamma?" She said, "Yes." I said, "what is it for?" She said, "To put that

baby in" I brought this soapbox back and I called on the road to my friend, a young girl I went with, so I told her and she went with me. She said, "I'll come down to your house with you."


She came and we had a look at this little doll and my friend said "Let us line this little box with wadding" We lined this box with this bit of wadding and then m'mamma put this wee baby in it and the lid fastened down like the boxes do today, no nails.


She said; "There's a letter here" ... They didn't call them midwives then, just ladies and it used to be half a crown or five shillings to come and deliver a baby. She gave me a letter. "Now you've got to go up to the cemetery and give this letter the grave digger, any grave digger you see in." I said, "I can't take it wrapped up in paper." So I went in the back and saw an old coat of m'dads. I ripped the black lining out of this coat and we wrapped this little box in this lining and put some string round it, put it under our arms and off we went to the grave digger. I gave him this letter and he read it. He said, "Oh yes, just put it over in the church porch love You'll see a few parcels in that corner, just leave it there." Me being inquisitive said, "What are you going to do with it?" He said, "Well we have public graves, everybody don't buy graves, they haven't the money. When the public graves get nearly full up we put one in each grave" "Oh that's what you do," I said. He said, "Yes. Tell your mammy it'll be all right." And we turned back home.


"Did it upset you at the time?"


"Yes because we thought it was a little doll. It wasn't really developed, just small."


"How old would you be then?" "I'd be about twelve."


Although this story encapsulates many aspects of social life in early twentieth century Barrow, it is, like all oral testimony, an individual, and therefore unique, account. In all my interviews I did not find any other account of a child being asked to dispose of a stillborn baby. Usually the woman who delivered the child undertook this task.

Probably the first aspect of this account which is striking to a reader in the twenty first century is the ignorance of a twelve year old girl about her mother's pregnancy, which can be contrasted with her knowledge and understanding of the "proper" way to deal with a dead body. (The position today has been neatly reversed. It would be very unusual for a twelve-year old not to know about her mother's pregnancy but very few of that age group will have such an intimate acquaintance with death.) Boys and girls were not told what were referred to as "the facts of life". They relied on the information given by friends, who could be somewhat misleading; for example some girls speculated that somehow a mother's stomach opened up round the tummy button and the baby popped out. When girls began to menstruate their mothers told them about using a napkin but little else, apart from advice to stay away from boys, not to have a bath while bleeding and not to wash their hair. Some mothers were so embarrassed by the whole question that they told the eldest girl in the family and then expected her to relay the information down the family as and when the information was needed.


Children at the beginning of the twentieth century knew a lot about death. ^ Death was a familiar part of their lives from an early age. Among my respondents fourteen per cent of the children had lost a parent through death by the age of fourteen. (Rather bigger percentages were recorded in Lancaster and Preston: twenty three per cent in both towns.)


There were also the all too frequent deaths of siblings (about one fifth of all respondents experienced the death of a sibling when they were children) They witnessed the death of other relatives who often lived and died in the family home. This was especially true of grandparents who frequently shared the home of their adult children and grandchildren. It was unusual for people to die in hospital, and consequently children could witness a deathbed and the subsequent viewing of the body as it awaited burial.


This respondent was the youngest of a large family. Her father worked in the flour mill and she ascribed his premature death to getting flour on his chest.


"He died a very good death and when he was dying he called all of us around him and he said that if he’d ever done anything to hurt us or anything that was wrong would we forgive him and ask God to forgive him and to pray for him when he was dead. I remember Dadda."


Rose was confident in her handling of the dead body and was not afraid. She well understood the importance of treating a dead person with great respect and was able to create a coffin that had a certain dignity. She showed the same very practical approach which was characteristic of the neighbourhood "Layer out". (It is perhaps not surprising that as an adult Rose fulfilled this role.)



Dr Elizabeth Roberts is a former Director of the Centre for North-West Regional Studies in Lancaster University. She is a social/oral historian with a particular interest in women's and family history. Her tape recordings are unique and extracts from these are recorded in her books e.g. ' A Woman's Place: An oral history of Working Class Women, 1890-1940. Born in Barrow, she has spent most of her life in the North West and is involved in the local community as a magistrate and school governor.


Although Bill Rollinson and I attended the Barrow Grammar Schools at the same time we did not actually meet until the 1970s. By then Bill was a well-established historical geographer with the University of Liverpool. At that time he was living in Hawke Street, Hindpool, and was in charge of Liverpool University's Extra Mural programme for a wide area of the northwest. I was researching the social and economic history of working-class Barrow in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries using both official records and oral evidence.

Rose 100 years young

Rose as a child with her mother and sisters

There was no formal internment for the stillborn but for those who had lived before they died, funerals were very important. Indeed before the first World War it is true to say that funerals were more important than were weddings, as was evidenced by the greater numbers of people attending the former rather than the latter. Working-class people were very poor a hundred years ago with very small wages. There was little disposable income for anything above paying for the necessities of food clothing and shelter. Before the introduction of the first National Insurance scheme (under the provision of the Act of 191 I brought in by David Lloyd George Chancellor of the Exchequer) only a minority of people had any health insurance. I estimate from the annual returns of the various Friendly Societies that not more than one sixth of Barrovians were covered for free health care through contribution to one of the societies. (These included the Oddfellows the Free Gardeners and the Rechabites.) However such was the importance of having a dignified and respectable funeral that every one of the families interviewed had death insurance for every member. It is one of the paradoxes of the time that paying for a "good" funeral for the dead was seen to be a higher priority than investing in health care for the living. Of course, as is clear from the gravedigger's remarks, there were people who could not afford death insurance and they had the indignity of a pauper's grave, a fate dreaded by the vast majority of working-class people.


Robert Roberts writing of his childhood in Salford at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote, "To have a body put away on the parish was to bear a lifetime's stigma"

The still birth of the baby in Rose's story is a reminder of the terrible toll of infant deaths that was experienced at that time. Sadly, we do not know how many stillborn babies there were, as the number was not recorded until 1926. However we do know about the infant mortality rate, that is the number of children dying before their first birthday out of every 1000 born. For the years 1901 -05 the average rate for Barrow was 129. (9) The Medical Officer was proud of the fact that this rate was lower than the average for England and Wales (138 for the same period) and considerably less than that for a town like Preston, which had the very high rate of 179. (However to understand what a terrible toll of infant deaths these figures represent we should remember that today the Government is aiming for the average infant mortality rate for all areas to be less than 5.)

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend how parents felt about the death of their children a hundred years ago. Many more babies and children died than just those under one year. The most dreadful record in a Barrow family in my survey, was the one where I interviewed a woman who was the youngest of sixteen children. Of these only three survived into adulthood. The feelings of the parents are inconceivable but I reject the view, sometimes expressed to me, that somehow parents got used to premature deaths and somehow did not mind the loss of their children. I interviewed another woman who was one of sixteen children, of whom eleven grew up. "She buried some. She had them too often. I can remember her carrying that little coffin with the baby in . . . She said that every baby she saw she wanted to snatch. She would have stolen anybody's baby to fill that want. She had all those but she wouldn't spare one" .


An unqualified midwife apparently delivered Rose's mother's stillborn baby, as was usually the case. An Act had been passed in 1902 stating that all new midwives had to be qualified. It is frequently assumed that this meant that thereupon the old unqualified midwives ceased to practice. This was not the case, the law simply stated that the older midwives had to be registered. Many (2   of them continued to practice long after the 1902 Act. They remained popular with mothers, as they were cheaper than the qualified midwives and were also seen by many to be friendlier and less "starchy". There is little evidence from respondents that these unqualified midwives were at all like the infamous Sarah Gamp, created by Charles Dickens who was frequently drunk and who enjoyed a laying out as much as a lying in. Rose mentions four times the letter that her mother gave her to give to the gravedigger.  It is doubtful if Rose realised the significance of this letter. The midwife wrote it in compliance with a law of 1874 that stated that whoever delivered a stillborn baby had to affirm this in writing. This was an attempt to stop the crime of infanticide. We have no idea how widespread this practice was before that date but the Government were concerned enough to pass this law. The gravedigger would not have been able to bury the baby without this letter.


Neither Rose nor her mother had any doubts that Rose's first responsibility on that particular day was to the family and not to her education.  By 1900 working-class children and their parents had accepted the idea of compulsory elementary education, (i i) However families rarely saw education as providing more than training in the three basic subjects of reading writing and arithmetic.

There was a widespread attitude among working - class families that once these basic skills had been acquired then there was little point in continuing with schooling, family needs and concerns were of greater importance.


Therefore for older children earning money was thought to be more important than going to school and children left as soon as they were legally entitled to do so. Many children had part time jobs to supplement the family budgets long before they left school. It was more usually boys who did this as girls were expected to help at home. So this next respondent, recalling her Saturday job, is unusual in being a girl in part time work but her feeling of pride in her job is typical of the young workers of the time. They felt a sense of achievement and believed that they were making an important contribution to the family's finances.


"We didn't have much but we were quite happy with it, I remember my first job, it was in Barrow Market and I worked in Bowden's sweet and biscuit stall. I was thirteen at the time and I had to stand on a box to reach the sweets on the counter and I got a shilling for 9 o'clock in the morning until 8 at night."

"But I wasn't allowed to work until the market finished because of my age." "In fact it went on 'til about 11 didn't it?"


"Yes, well I had to finish at 8 and I know that my mum got ninepence out of my shilling. I got twopence and my brother and sister got a halfpenny each. And 1 was keeping the house with that shilling."


In the year following the incident with the stillborn baby, Rose decided that the family finances required her to leave school altogether and earn money as a full time worker. However she was not yet fourteen years old, which was the legal school leaving age at that time.


This is her account of going to the Hiring Fair in Ulverston. Again I have no other account of a child being hired, but Rose's attitude to both school and to the importance of earning money were very typical of the times.


"How old were you when you first went to the Hiring Fair?"


"I was thirteen and I told m'mother I was going to the Hiring Fair. She said, "You can't. You're not fourteen." I said, "Tell the teacher I've gone to m'grandmother's and she told her I'd gone to m'grandmother's me and m'friend, both of us."


"Where did you go?"


"Longridge in Preston"

 "Were you homesick at all?"


"We used to feel it, but what was the good? Then I went to Newlands Bottom corn mill near Ulverston and m'father used to come every Sunday, and it was very hard times then. It was the Durham strike that was on then, and he used to come to ask the old farmer if he could sub a pound off Rose's money, as they hadn't anything. He used to give him a pound. Probably when Martinmas come, time to come home I'd hardly owt to come home to."


"They paid you at the end of six months did they?" "Yes at the end of your six months."

"One Christmas I was at Longridge and Christmas Day come, and I was a bit homesick you know. And we had our Christmas dinner. I washed up and all that and she said, "Has thou finished now?" I said, "Yes madam" So she said "Well get all that paper there you'll see a lot of paper there and there's a big needle and a ball of string. If you go down to the paddock (that was the toilet) sit there and take the scissors and cut some paper up and thread it for the lavatory." And I sat there on Christmas Day and I think I cried nearly a bucketful of tears. Christmas afternoon and I was sat... sitting cutting bits of paper and getting this big needle threading them and tying knots in them hoops till about half past four, when I went in for m'tea. Sitting there on the lavatory seat."   


The contrast between Rose's experiences of Christmas and those of a modern child could hardly be greater. Judged by modern standards Rose had a hard and difficult childhood with too much responsibility, too little education and overshadowed by death, However, it was not an unusual childhood for Barrovians in the early twentieth century. Yet there was a positive aspect to Rose's experiences which should not be ignored ... She had a feeling of self-worth, of having fulfilled an important part in her family's life, of being, as indeed she was, of value.  Rose represents the many resilient Barrow children in the early twentieth century. Like them, she grew up to be a brave and resourceful Barrovian.