The realities of life for working class women in the 19th century are often hard to envisage, but sometimes an individual story can bring things firmly into focus.
From The Illustrated London News 15 September 1900 British Newspaper Archive
Beatrice Goodacre was born on 28 April 1880 in Rock Ferry, an area on the Wirral Peninsular south of Birkenhead. Originally an place of genteel villas, Rock Ferry had expanded to house many of the workers from nearby Cammell Laird’s shipbuilders. Beatrice’s mother Mary Elizabeth Goodacre was 25 when her daughter was born. She was unmarried and had been working as a domestic servant. Beatrice was baptised at St Peter’s Church in Liverpool rather than the local church, which may say something about her illegitimate status, although it was not uncommon for families to have their children baptised ‘across the water’ in the parish church of Liverpool. There is no mention of Beatrice’s father on her baptism record or birth registration.
St Peter’s Church Liverpool from Henry Peet, ‘Reliquiae of St Peter's Church Liverpool’, Journal of The Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire Vol 74 (1922)
Baby Beatrice was left in the care of her maternal grandparents William and Ann Goodacre. The 1881 census enumerator failed to record that she was a granddaughter rather than a daughter. Mary Elizabeth had found employment as a domestic servant in the household of architect and surveyor James Murgatroyd - not on the Wirral, but in Didsbury, Manchester. In December 1884 she married George Davies, a carter, and in 1891 was living in Gothic Street, Rock Ferry, having had four babies in six years. It’s a five minute walk to where Beatrice was living with her widowed grandmother in Medway Road. The census is of course a snapshot and we can’t know whether Beatrice ever lived with her mother, step-father and half-siblings, or how she was treated as part of the family. She didn’t adopt the Davies name and remained a Goodacre.
In a story that mirrors her mother’s, 18-year-old Beatrice found herself pregnant. She was not abandoned and on 19 June 1898 married bricklayer’s labourer George Davenport, the marriage entry underlining the fact that Beatrice did not have a father to name. The marriage not only gave Beatrice legitimacy as a married woman, it cemented that of her expected child. The newly married Davenports set up home in (now demolished) Bold Street in nearby Tranmere, not far from her mother and grandmother and next door to her maternal aunt Alice Taylor.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending. Beatrice gave birth to daughter Fanny on 6 January 1899 and became ill days later. After an agonising twelve days suffering from puerperal peritonitis she died on 22 January, a few months shy of her nineteenth birthday. At that time, an estimated 4-6 women per thousand died in childbirth, almost half of those from sepsis like Beatrice. Daughter Fanny was baptised on 12 January in a private baptism, which often meant that the child was not expected to survive. In this case she outlived her mother by six short months, dying in July 1899. Fanny died of ‘malnutrition marasmus’ which seems horrifying, but perhaps this was not an unusual fate for motherless babies as families were forced into artificial feeding, with foodstuffs such as cow’s milk, condensed milk, and cereals.
Mary Elizabeth outlived her daughter Beatrice by over 40 years. She and husband George had five children, two girls and three boys. She was widowed in July 1936 but continued to live at 19 The Causeway, Port Sunlight, in company housing supplied by George’s employer Lever Brothers. She died in Port Sunlight on 23 May 1943.
Cataloguer, India Office Records
Irvine Loudon, Death in Childbirth: An International Study of Maternal Care and Maternal Mortality 1800-1950 (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1992)
Irvine Loudon, The tragedy of childbed fever (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
P J Atkins, 'Mother’s milk and infant death in Britain, circa 1900-1940' in Anthropology of food 2 September 2003 https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.310