Death of a Factory Girl

Silk Winding Machine

On the morning of Wednesday 3rd August 1842, Sarah Parsons was standing above the winding room’s revolving engine shaft at Messrs Baylis’s Silk and Crape Manufactory, staring out of the window. She wore a handkerchief around her neck and shoulders and was carrying some waste silk over her arm.


At 15,1 she was one of the older girls at the factory,2 with a long day of work still ahead of her. Of what (or of whom) she was dreaming, we can only imagine. Somehow, the waste silk, then the fringe of her handkerchief got trapped in the shaft below. For five minutes she was observed quietly trying to untangle herself. No-one thought anything of it, until she let out a sudden cry for help.

The engine was pulling her down beneath it. Her head was being dragged between the iron shaft and the woodwork, lacerating her face, tearing at her jaw and bruising her neck. Continue reading

Berkshire’s Home Front 1915: Operation Gramophone

I first noticed the mysterious reference to ‘Operation Gramophone’ in the Berkshire Record Office catalogue a few years ago, when I was working on some Petty Sessions records for a client. Intrigued, I checked various local history sources but drew a complete blank!

On closer inspection, the scant surviving records for Operation Gramophone were initially a bit confusing. However, once put into the context of the Home Front in 1915, they started to make more sense.

Police Superintendent Charles Goddard

Police Superintendent  Charles Goddard

Zeppelin air attacks on the east coast of Britain began in January 1915. Not surprising then, that by 17th February, Police Superintendent Charles Goddard (1861-1946)1 of the Wokingham Division was requesting help from the Special Police Reserve and Special Constables, in the event of a ‘hostile air-craft invasion.’2 He wanted men, who on hearing the alarm, to be verified by a special code, would be prepared to ‘go direct to their post’ to carry out orders, as yet undefined. I believe that this was the beginning of what became known as Operation Gramophone.

Continue reading

Berkshire’s Home Front 1914: Emergency Defence

Appeal to Special Constables August 1914

In August 1914, the Chief Constable of Berkshire, Major Arthur Faulconer Poulton (1858-1935)made an appeal to Berkshire’s Special Constables to organise a guard on all vulnerable points liable to outrage. Suggested points included: rail and river bridges (especially over the Thames), ‘water works, reservoirs, lighting works, magazines, churches, town halls and other large buildings’.

In addition, Special Constables were expected to register and watch all aliens, specifically ‘alien enemies viz those of German nationality who are now under certain restrictions‘.

By December, the threat from the enemy within was compounded by a real fear of invasion. I have a copy of a confidential circular issued under the remit of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) instructing Berkshire’s Emergency Defence Committees in the event of ‘a landing of a hostile force in the South or South East coast’. It states that as soon as the order was issued to ‘denude’ Kent, Sussex and Surrey of all ‘cattle, sheep, horses, vehicles (both horse and motor), consumable stock, suitable for man or beast and all other commodities which may be considered of use to an invading force’, both people and resources were to be removed to special centres in Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. Continue reading

Berkshire and the Male Servants’ Tax Assessments of 1780

Lord North, the Georgian Prime Minster who ‘lost America’, didn’t just favour the famous tax on tea. In 1777 he proposed a levy on the luxury item of the moment: the non-essential male servant.

© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

Ostensibly aimed at the wealthy, the new Male Servants’ Tax attempted to make a distinction between “productive labour and conspicuous consumption, necessary work and idle luxury”.1  Employers of the liveried, bewigged and powdered were to pay one guinea a year per male servant, including all butlers, footmen, grooms, gamekeepers and coachmen.

© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

Employers of agricultural labourers, shop assistants, apprentices or factory workers were not liable as long as their male servants kept away from domestic duties.

In reality, the majority of taxpayers in Berkshire for the year 1780, employed just one ‘luxury’ manservant (rather than the large households envisaged by the government) and I doubt all of them wore livery. Continue reading

Was your Ancestor a ‘Comrade’?

Comrades of the Great War

The ex-servicemen’s group known as the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ was founded in 1917. Like me, you may be surprised to learn that even at that early date, it wasn’t the first association seeking to represent the hundreds of men being discharged from the Front.

Continue reading

Mary Russell Mitford & the Fatherless Boy

NPG D34532; Mary Russell Mitford after Daniel MacliseIn Vera Watson’s biography of Mary Russell Mitford, there is an intriguing reference to a ‘little fatherless boy’ who became such a favourite with everyone, that when he caught smallpox in 1849, the whole household went into a state of emotional turmoil, anxious for his survival.1

Mary Russell Mitford was once one of Berkshire’s most famous residents. Her descriptions of village life in Our Village’ and small town affairs in Belford Regisput Three Mile Cross and Reading firmly on the literary map! Continue reading

A Most Desirable Eighteenth Century Investment Opportunity

In the early 1770s the British government was (as ever) short of cash and facing problems at home and abroad. Their troubles only intensified in 1775, when war finally broke out in America.

                  Georgian Coin Scale                  

Against this backdrop, they decided to resurrect a previously less than successful money-making scheme called a tontine, loosely based on an issue of life annuities. Via the Irish Parliament, they established three state-run Irish Tontines: in 1773, 1775 and 1777, all heavily promoted by the national press in both England and Ireland.1

Continue reading

Agnes Maria Bowditch & the Cold Ash Children’s Hospital

This photograph of children in the grounds of Cold Ash Convalescent Home and Children’s Hospital was taken by my (Great) Aunt Nella on a trip to Cold Ash in May 1901. It is relaxed and joyful but also a bit frustrating as there are no names written underneath or on the back of the picture.

I would like to think that the smiling lady surrounded by happy children is the founder of the Home, Agnes Maria Bowditch. Continue reading

The Waifs of St Mary’s

My interest in St Mary’s Waifs and Strays Home in Cold Ash, near Thatcham in West Berkshire, was sparked when I found some photographs in an old family album. An image of the girls, sitting contentedly at their needlework on a sunny day in Matron’s garden, was not exactly what I expected of a certified ‘industrial school home’ for girls under magistrates’ orders of detention. Continue reading

Her Majesty’s Record Reign – The Diamond Jubilee of 1897

According to Kelly’s 1899 Directory of Berkshire, the main portion of the village of Theale formed one street along the (Bath) road from Reading to Newbury, lit by gas, with a population in 1891 of 909 people.1

Celebrating ‘Her Majesty’s Record Reign’ on Wednesday 30th June 1897,2 Theale was one of the last parishes in Berkshire to join in the Jubilee but by doing so it missed the violent storms which blighted some of the firework displays of the previous week.3

Continue reading