Mystery number one: Nan (part 1)

Nan was my father’s mother and the only grandparent I can remember. I knew her as a child in the early 1960s, but she died when I was eleven. One of my first memories was being surprised on my first day at primary school to find Nan serving mashed potato at lunchtime. A cousin used to say we could not complain about the school dinners because Nan was serving, but as it turned out she was just filling in and that was the last time I saw her in that role.

harrietJ_and_me (440x616)

Nan and me

Her bungalow had no fridge. Instead, a marble slab served to keep the butter cool. As a treat for my sister and me she would place a large, round boiled sweet on a chopping board and then bring down a cleaver with such force you would expect the pieces to fly off at supersonic speed, causing damage and injury, but, as if by magic, the two perfectly equal halves remained unmoved. She never missed.

Scroll forward thirty-odd years and poor old Dad was recuperating in hospital. Time to start the detective work. I knew a number of things about Nan. Her name was Harriet Jane. I knew Dad had a copy of the entry of death, but an extensive search of places both likely and improbable, yielded nothing. Dad had told me she was illegitimate and family rumour was that the father was named Challoner. When asked she would say that she “lived with a family called Evans”, which Dad and I thought rather odd. Still, ordinary working folk of her generation generally did not discuss genealogy.

Dad thought she met his father, Sam Dennis, at Lichfield. He also told me that he only remembered his mother crying once when he was about 10 or 11 (that would be 1936-37) and thought it was probably when her mother died, but couldn’t be sure.

This reminded me of a day when we visited Shugborough as a family when I was about seven or eight. Shugborough, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, is the ancestral home of the Anson family, the last incumbent being the late Patrick (Earl of) Lichfield, cousin to the Queen, and famous photographer. In the museum was a large wooden tub with a dolly, and Nan said: “I used one of those”. She probably used one with her mother at home, too, but that was only a sort of apprenticeship for going into service. It didn’t occur to me back then to ask whether she had worked there and perhaps used that very tub and dolly. As it turned out she worked elsewhere.

As luck would have it I was looking for some books for Dad to read when I found a bundle of papers including the entry of death (EOD). I already knew that she had died at St Michael’s Hospital for geriatrics, in Lichfield (by pure coincidence where I was born) in about 1971, when she was eighty-odd. The EOD confirmed 1971 and gave her date of birth as 6 August 1887, Wombourn, Seisdon (Staffordshire, south west of Wolverhampton). Her full name was Harriet Jane Dennis. She was the widow of Samuel Dennis, a colliery surface worker.

Now that I had something concrete to go on I searched the online 1901 census. There were several young women named Harriet Jane Evans, or similar, of thirteen or fourteen years, but, although I thought she could have been in service and away from family, none of the records looked right. It would be a long time before I cracked this enigma.
My next step was to obtain a copy of the entry of birth (EOB) from the General Register Office. This was easily ordered online and it arrived after about a week or so. There was a surprise.

On my next visit to hospital, after the usual opening routine of how he was getting on, what we had been up to, the food, here are some books and a clean pullover, I handed over the document. Dad read, just about audibly: “Name Harriet Jane, girl, father none, mother Harriet Jane Evans of Tettenhall, oh yes, they did live over that way, the mark of Harriet Jane Evans mother Seisdon Union Workhouse, Trysull. Good Lord!” He had missed the first bit which gave date of birth as 6 August 1887: “born in the workhouse”, in fact Seisdon Union Workhouse, Trysull (pronounced Tree-sull).

According to the online index of admissions for Seisdon Union Workhouse there were admissions and discharges of people named Evans, but none that could be attributed to Harriet Jane, mother or child. From this it is safe to assume that the Workhouse acted simply as a maternity ward in the later stages of Harriet’s pregnancy.

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