Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Growing up in Victorian England

Gloucestershire, Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge from the North

Clifton Bridge, Bristol

My great grandmother, Mabel Butler, and her sister Sarah were orphans. Sarah was 11 years older than Mabel. They lost their parents in unclear circumstances when Sarah was about 14 and Mabel was 3. Their parents, Ephraim and Jane Butler, lived in Bristol when they married in 1863 and Sarah was born 2 years later. Mabel was born in South Africa in 1876, but the circumstances of her birth are also uncertain.

In 1881 Mabel was 5 and Sarah 16. Mabel lived with an adult cousin, William Butler, and his family, in St George, Bristol (see the previous blog, The Butlers of Summerhill House), while Sarah lived about 50km away in Gloucester with an aunt and uncle, William and Louisa Hemmings and their son, William who like Sarah was 16 that year. Oddly, Mabel also lived with a cousin named William who was of the same age – William Butler, the first son of William and Esther.

As mentioned in the previous blog, Mabel as a five year old lived in a fairly well-to-do home. Her adopted family, the Butlers, had a successful family business in the manufacture of chemicals, chiefly tar. The Hemmings family were probably not as prosperous, but the fact that the census lists a domestic servant (Martha Monk, age 24) as part of the household, and that they had the means to take in not just Sarah who was 16 but also another cousin, Roberta Russell, who was 13 in 1881, suggests that they were reasonably well off. William Hemmings was a potato merchant and farmer according to the record, and both Sarah and her cousin William were assistants in the business, Their address, 79 Northgate Street, Gloucester, is however in town, so if William was a farmer he must have had property in the country too. I wonder how much contact Sarah had with her little sister in Bristol?

Sometime between 1881 and 1891 Sarah met and married Albert May, and moved back to Bristol. In 1891 she was 26, living with Albert at Staple Hill, Mangotsfield, which is in current day Bristol about 5km northeast of St George, where Mabel had lived with her relatives as a younger girl. But by 1891 Mabel, now 15, had moved in with Sarah and Albert, who had no children at that stage. Albert was a traveling salesman and Sarah is listed as a draper, a cloth merchant. Mabel worked as an assistant for her older sister.

Mabel then, despite her mysterious and rather exotic origins in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, grew up largely in Bristol in Victorian England in the 1880s and 90s. Bristol must have been an exciting place to live then, a thriving and growing industrial city. The engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was perhaps one of its most famous inhabitants, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864, the year before Sarah was born, stands today as a monument to his many achievements. Bristol was the home of Methodism after John Wesley had founded the first Methodist Chapel there in the 1700s, and during the 1800s this movement bore fruit with the growing middle class beginning to engage in charitable works: George Müller, for example, founded his orphanage in 1836.

Thomas Hardy was a well known novelist of the time: Tess of the D’Urbervilles came out in that census year of 1891, to a mixed reception. In fact, the Oxford Companion to English Literature says “the publication of the novel created a violent sensation” being seen by many reviewers as “immoral, pessimistic and extremely disagreeable.” I don’t imagine that Mabel read it, not at the age of 15 anyway, but perhaps Sarah was tempted to see just what all the fuss was about.


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