December 25, 2013 by auntkatefirmin
Cousin Fanny Hall was one of Kate’s long-term correspondents. The daughter of Kate’s uncle George Henry Berkeley Firmin, the younger brother of her father John Robert Firmin. Fanny was born in 1877, so she was about eight years older than Kate. Now that I’ve posted the full text of Fanny’s first letter I’ll set out what I’ve been able to discover about her life.
When the correspondence began, Fanny was 70 years old, widowed, and living in Witley. In 1912, when Fanny was 35, she married a dairyman, William Alfred Hall of Lynchford Farm in Farnborough. Mr. Hall was 14 years older than Fanny. He was a widower with a son who was about 12 at the time of their marriage. Fanny never provided any details about what she did in the years between leaving school at age 11 and marrying Mr. Hall, or about her life in Farnborough. By 1947, when Fanny first wrote Kate, she had been widowed for 12 years and most likely what income she had was an inheritance from her husband. Within five years after the death of her husband in 1935, Fanny had turned over the the family dairy to her step-son Alfred, and by 1940 she had left Farnborough for nearby Witley.
Stepping back to the 1901 census fills in part of the information gap. At the time, Fanny was 24 and a servant on a farm in South Mimms, a community to the north of London. Her occupation at the farm was given as dairymaid & buttermaker, which seems an unlikely job for a girl whose father was a clerk. It’s difficult to say how long she had been on her own by this time or when she chose to leave home.
In the 1911 census she was listed as a visitor in the home of her (future) husband on Lynchford Farm in Farnborough. That would be roughly 20 miles from her father & step-mother in Reading. Unless something else turns up, there’s no evidence that connects her adult life as the wife of a dairyman with her childhood.
Fanny’s father George was born in London and grew up in Bath and Wiltshire. Her mother, Sarah Hindon, was from a local Reading family and the couple married in Reading. How George came to Reading and met Sarah is another mystery. Fanny was the fourth child of five, although Fanny only grew up with three siblings as her older sister Emily had died as a infant.
Generally the census lists Fanny’s birthplace as Reading, but the 1881 census shows the Firmins living five miles to the east in nearby Sonning, in the Liberty of Early, which would have been more rural. Her father’s occupation is “clerk” but there is no evidence about where he is employed. By the 1891 census the family was listed in the town of Reading, parish of St Giles, where her father worked in a biscuit factory. (The factory is interesting enough for a future post).
From other sources we know that Fanny’s mother died in 1894, when Fanny was 17. Fanny’s maternal grandparents were most likely deceased by then and her letters do not mention her aunts & uncles on the Hindon side of the family. It’s possible she did not mention any Hindon cousins since she was corresponding with a Firmin cousin, but it does make me suspect she had lost touch with the cousins on her mother’s side of the family as she does generally try to keep up with her family ties and does mention members of her husband’s extended family.
In 1896 her father married Emily Wilson, who also worked at the biscuit factory. Fanny’s sister Kate and brother Arthur were living in the US by 1898, and her brother George moved to the US after his service in the Boer War. Her father continued to live in Reading with her step-mother, and as we have seen, Fanny was supporting herself by 1901. The economy did have an effect as jobs could be scarce in England around the turn of the century – at least both brothers claimed they emigrated because they could not find work.
Fanny states in the correspondence that she left school at 11. At the time school was only compulsory through age 10. She does not give a clear indication of what the circumstances were in the family at the time she left school. In 1891 her older brother and sister were working, but Fanny (age 14) and her younger brother have blanks for their occupation which seems to indicate that both had left school. While she had only a few years of formal education, she was able to run what appears to have been a successful a dairy business with her step-son. I suspect that any punctuation or wording errors in her letters have as much to do with poor eyesight as anything else. In a few letters Fanny does seem apologetic about her lack of formal schooling – perhaps she had regrets in her later life about lost opportunities.
Fanny’s home life clearly changed after the death of her mother. All of the children chose to leave Reading rather than stay close to home. I’m not certain whether there was a general trend for grown children to leave home before they married more often around the turn of the century than in the previous generation but since all four children left I suspect it was more than just adventurous natures or difficulty in finding employment in Reading. All four siblings did stay in contact with each other.
As mentioned before, her letters demonstrate that family connections were important to Fanny. She wrote that she turned to her Aunt Kate (Mrs. Baynham) and Kate’s daughters after her mother died and her sister Kate moved to Boston. Though her sister died not long after her return to England around 1903, Fanny stayed in touch with her sister’s children. Her Uncle Eddie spent his vacation with her every year. She did her best to keep up with her Aunt Emily & cousin Constance – it’s easy for forget that while they weren’t so very far away she had to rely on public transportation for her visits.
Fanny did not marry until she was 35 and had no children of her own. I think the years on her own meant that she treasured her family connections all the more.
One of the questions I would like to explore as I re-read the letters is: what kind of man was Fanny’s father, George? I suspect his personality was a contributing factor to the scattering of his family. His second wife died in 1915 after they had been married nearly 20 years. He married for the third time shortly after her death, however his third wife died in 1919 and he did not marry again. By 1947 when the correspondence between the cousins began, he had been dead over 20 years so memories had faded.
Fanny described herself as the mover in locating the scattered aunts and uncles after the death of cousin Constance – it was her name on the lawsuit to divide the estate between the Trotter and the Firmin heirs. It was Fanny who had kept the list of names and birth dates that simplified the search for the Firmin siblings. In her world, family was clearly important.
It’s helpful to remember when reading Fanny’s letters that she never met her Firmin grandparents – all her stories came from her father. When writing to Kate, she is re-telling the tale of events from over 80 years ago – before her birth. As the story unfolds, it will be clear that geography was not Fanny’s strong suit.
Fanny had weathered two world wars, and was 70 years old when she wrote her first letter to Kate. She was settled in to her own house in Witley, about fifteen miles from her husband’s family in Farnborough. From the correspondence, it will become evident that the deprivation of the war years had left its mark on her, as it most likely did on the others of her generation. She was certainly as pleased as Kate to connect with a new cousin and share family history.