Harriet Blackford – Leaving Swindon

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July 26, 2014 by auntkatefirmin

There are a multitude of stories just waiting to be researched and told about the Blackford family stretching back in time.  For now, I’ll start with Harriet and continue to ask questions about what her world was like and what events or circumstances might have led her to leave Swindon and find a home in London as the wife of a cow keeper.

Church of the Holy Rood in Swindon a century after the baptism of Harriet Blackford. As depicted in the book Jeffries' Land.

Church of the Holy Rood in Swindon a century after the baptism of Harriet Blackford. As depicted in the book Jeffries’ Land.

We know much more about the life of Harriet, her parents, and her brothers and sisters than we do of her husband Thomas Hall.  I’ll start with the factors that made Barby a difficult place to live and compare them to Harriet’s situation..

Here’s a short recap of the factors mentioned for Thomas:
-The industrial revolution was adversely affecting the local craftsmen – people like weavers and shoemakers. Swindon was not noted for weavers, at the time a mainstay of the local economy seems to have been the quarrying of Swindon stone for building and paving. As far as I can tell, conditions in Swindon were nowhere near as desperate as around Barby.
– Taxes and “rates” were increasing, food prices were rising, and wages were generally low. The war was on until 1815, and I think these trends held true in Wiltshire but were not sufficient in themselves to cause the Blackfords to seek employment in a more urban area.
-The enclosure movement impoverished an unknown number individuals whose customary privileges on the “common” were lost or whose occupation was no longer relevant.  Much of the enclosure around Swindon had occurred in the late 17th century so the economic and social fallout was less current for Harriet.  I’ll also venture, though I haven’t seen it mentioned, that the multiplicity of manors and smaller properties in the Swindon area meant that the effects weren’t as wide-reaching in the sense that smaller parcels were converted over longer periods of time making a less abrupt transition.

What is interesting is that everything I have read tends to imply, or even state outright, that Swindon was a place where people stayed. If I had to pick a single word, I would say it was comfortable. I hope to write a post about Harriet’s mother, Rebecca Wayt, and take more time to analyze the characteristics that made Swindon attractive in the pre-railway years.

Harriet’s father, Robert Blackford, was a butcher. I plan to go into more detail about his ability to provide for his large family as specific evidence exists that is on one hand amusing, though sobering in the long run as it leads to the conclusion that supporting his family was a struggle. In addition, Robert Blackford was a Wiltshire celebrity as a “back-sword player“; Robert’s exploits and back-sword playing as a popular local sport are interesting on their own and also as a reflection of the attitudes of later writers on “proper”conduct as opposed to let us say “rustic” entertainments that were seen as marking a provincial society. (At this rate, I think I have enough post topics to last until at least Christmas!)

In particular, for Harriet, I think leaving Swindon comes down to the purely personal.  Because we know more of the detail of Harriet’s circumstances we can make the presumption that the death of Robert Blackford in 1802, when Harriet was ten and the youngest child in the family was just over a year old, was what tipped the balance in her case. However the factors came together, the end result was that eight of the ten living Blackford children are known to have left Swindon and seven of the ten, plus their mother, came to reside in London.

I’d like to spend more time on research to find out about the status and location of any of Harriet’s possible aunts and uncles who might have been living at the time of Robert Blackford’s death as well as the value of his estate. If things had been really desperate, the children would have been farmed out to relatives, sent out to work, or in the worst case supported by the poor funds of the parish vestry. While the Wayt and Blackford families likely assisted the widow Rebecca Blackford, if only as part of a web of connections to resources, it seems likely she would have been most dependent on her eldest children. In 1802, five of the children were over twelve and would have been considered to be of working age; the eldest son John Blackford would have been 24.

As I mentioned earlier, Robert Blackford was a butcher, as were many individuals in Harriet’s family. I haven’t found a record of a formal apprenticeship for Robert or his son John – outside major cities apprenticeship could be replaced by a local licensing system documented in the Quarter Sessions or other civic records. Rebecca’s father was also a butcher in Swindon and there is a record from 1749 of one apprentice that he took on – evidence that even a small market town was part of the larger web of formal trade and the prominent position of Rebecca’s father. On the list to be investigated is just what the role of a butcher in a small market town might entail. Then there’s period knives, and any number of other topics such as why there are no illustrations of 18th century English butcher’s stalls anywhere on the internet.

As far as we know, John was the only one of the ten children to remain in Swindon and he felt confident enough in his finances to marry in 1804, shortly after his father’s death. Did his new bride the former Sarah Woodham move into the family home and help her mother-in-law?

Most of the other Blackford children can be found in London in the years shortly after their father’s death. Here is the very abbreviated list:  Robert married in Shoreditch in 1806 at age 24, Lucy married at age 26 in Piccadilly in 1811, Thomas cannot be firmly placed in London (or anywhere) until his death in 1845 at age 58, William was married and a “post boy” or postilion in London by 1822 when he was 33, Harriet was a witness at Lucy’s wedding in 1811 and her first known child was baptized in Marylebone in 1817 when she was 25, Dorothy married in Shoreditch in 1812 when she was 17, Henry spent at least four years before 1815 on various sailing vessels and married in Chelsea in 1822 at age 21 before removing to Australia, and Jane married at age 23 in Paddington in 1824.

Thus by 1812, of the ten children at least Robert, Lucy, Harriet, and Dorothy lived in or had visited London and by 1824 William, Henry and Jane were living, or had lived in London. Thomas and his mother may well have been in London but left fewer traces, and young Rebecca (born in 1780) remains elusive for the moment.

I have strayed a bit from Harriet personally in order to set out the background for her move. There are many avenues yet to explore related to the Blackfords in particular:
-Was there a Shoreditch connection with extended family from an earlier generation?
-Was Robert the London pioneer in the Blackford family?
-To what degree did the Blackfords live near each other in the early years in London?
-To what extent did they travel back and forth to Swindon?
-What training or inheritance did each of the children bring?
-When did Harriet’s mother Rebecca leave Swindon?

Some questions have existing answers that just need to be located:
-How did one travel from Swindon to London circa 1806-1811, how long did it take and what did it cost? (Lots of fun here – lots of pictures!)

Other aspects of the situation are less concrete or would require quite a bit of research:
-Superficially Robert (and the other Blackfords) could have been lured by the thought that they had a better chance of bringing up a family in London than in Swindon but surely there were other factors in their choices like personality or scale. For example, it’s possible Swindon couldn’t support five more butchers and their families in 1806 when Robert married in London.
-What role did Robert, or the other boys, play in arranging suitable marriages for their sisters?
-At this distance in time, both socially and culturally, the web of connections that we might term “networking” leaves few traces unless one is fortunate enough to have family letters or papers. Answers to questions like “why Marylebone?” will always probably remain an educated guess.
-Robert & Rebecca were fortunate that ten of their eleven children lived well past infancy in an age of high infant (and general) mortality.  Are there any studies of infant (or adult) mortality more specific to Wiltshire around 1800?

I’d like to think Aunt Kate would have been fascinated to learn more about the generation of her great-grandmother Harriet Blackford Hall and even earlier Wiltshire ancestors.

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