Leaving Swindon Revisited

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February 5, 2015 by auntkatefirmin

With help again from “cousin” Liz, I return to the story of Harriet Blackford and why she might have left Swindon.

In my first musings, the only real clue and the most personal part of the story was the death of Harriet’s father, Robert Blackford, in 1802. Because Harriet’s oldest brother was 24 and she is known to have had at least one living maternal uncle (John Wayt) at the time of her father’s death, I had optimistically assumed that the extended family would have stepped in to help the widow Rebecca care for the youngest children. The absence of a will or probate proceedings for Robert was one clue that the family had very little in the way of an estate, and there are other clues about the family’s struggles that I hope to visit in future postings.

To cut right to the heart of the story, we now have proof that the Blackford children were on parish relief for a time. Below is an excerpt from the printed records of the Wiltshire Quarter Sessions:

Rebecca Blackford charged with being an idle and disorderly person.

Rebecca Blackford’s charge and sentence from the Marlborough Sessions.

From this I conclude that by 1805, Rebecca was desperate enough to desert the children so that they would at least receive whatever meager support was provided by the parish. Clearly the parish felt that Rebecca should have been capable of supporting the children herself and Rebecca felt differently. From this point on, until more research can be completed it’s back to guesswork. If any records still exist, they would be from what is known as the “parish chest” and might include the meeting minutes or accounts kept by the church related to the efforts to assist the “deserving poor” and disbursements to beneficiaries of local charitable funds which were often administered by the parish church.

It appears that Rebecca paid for her choice by spending six months in the Bridewell in Marlborough – though she did achieve what she set out to do, get parish support for the children. A Bridewell is a type of prison for petty offenses, which in that era might simply consist of being poor. Rebecca’s actions would not have been considered serious enough for her to be imprisoned in the Wiltshire county jail in Devizes. Still, the Marlborough Bridewell was not meant to be a pleasant place. A report published in 1812 provides details about the size and physical conditions:

Report on the conditions in the Marlborough Bridewell in 1805 and 1806.

Marlborough Bridewell conditions.

The present day Marlborough College stands on the site of the Bridewell and some remnants remain but I am not clear if it was the same building or a later one that was incorporated as a college museum block. This is where it would be helpful to have the team from some genealogy tv program whisk us away to the right archive and then to the site and have some local historian give us a tour!

We know, at least, that all the children lived – although the location of Rebecca, the oldest daughter, is unconfirmed after 1801. Harriet turned 13 while her mother was in the Bridewell. If Harriet was on parish relief rather than living with a relative, I’m guessing that she was placed in someone’s home and acted as a live-in servant in return for food and a roof over her head because as far as I’ve been able to determine there was no facility in Swindon to house orphans or those unable to support themselves. I don’t know what type of stipend was paid in Swindon to individuals providing such foster homes, but I believe there was usually some type of allowance given as an incentive. Presumably all the Blackford children considered too young to live on their own were also given similar placements until they found employment on their own, were taken in by family, or reached an age where the parish felt that as able-bodied individuals they should be independent and self-supporting. I’m not certain at what age the parish drew that line.

There was a workhouse facility about seven miles away in Highworth which housed the unemployed and disabled poor of that parish but as far as I can determine from internet sources it was not used for Swindon residents until Highworth & Swindon were combined into a single Poor Law Union in 1835, long after the Blackford children were off parish relief. Many others have written about the workhouse and the poor laws and I will not try to summarize everything in this post; there is much information available at http://www.workhouses.org.uk.

There will probably always be gaps in the record, but parts of the picture of the life of Harriet (Blackford) Hall and her siblings are coming into better focus, piece by piece. After experiencing life as a recipient of parish relief as a child in Swindon, the support of her family enabled her to make a life in London as the wife of prosperous tradesman. How much of this was due to her uncle John Wayt, her own initiative, or the support of her siblings remains a mystery.

While Harriet never again resided in Swindon, her daughter Emily (Hall) Firmin lived in and near Swindon for parts of her life. We know that Harriet’s sister Dorothy visited the Blackfords in Swindon because she is recorded there in the 1841 census.  I’d like to think that Harriet resided in Swindon not just because her husband, George Firmin, had a contract with the Great Western Railway (which had an extensive works in Swindon) but because there were still family ties. After all, if not for the Swindon connection in family correspondence I’d still be in the dark about the identity of Harriet.

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