Life on the canals – a biography of Elizabeth Schofield (1832 – 1911) & Thomas Moody (1833 – 1901)

Sunday Night, Knostop cut, Leeds by James Atkinson Grimshaw. 1893 (c) Bridgeman images via Painting owned by Leeds City Art Gallery.

Many years ago I bought a print of this painting. It’s Leeds, not Mirfield and painted a little late (1893) for our story but so evocative of industrial Yorkshire.

Unusually amongst our ancestors, Elizabeth Schofield & Thomas Moody’s lives did not focus on a single farm, house or even a village for their family was not built on land, but rather around water, specifically the Calder & Hebble Navigation. The journey along the canal from Mirfield to Horbury Bridge via Thornhill Lees is under seven miles. It takes a couple of hours to travel it by narrowboat and yet this short stretch of waterway spans Elizabeth & Thomas’s lives.

The canal also helped to obscure their beginnings, particularly those of Elizabeth. Watermen had a tendency not to complete census forms whilst on the move, which was often if they were to make a living. Elizabeth remains unaccounted for in the 1841 census (and I am uncertain about that of 1851) and Thomas in those for 1851 & 1871. Several of their children’s baptisms and burials remain missing and Elizabeth’s father, William, is currently without both parents and a date of death. Nonetheless I now feel sufficiently confident in the evidence to be able to tell the story of Elizabeth & Thomas, my 3xG grandparents through their son, Ernest William, father of Marion, Nana’s mother.

Elizabeth was born first, baptised on 9 December 1832, the likely first child of Margaret Robshaw & William Scho[le]field. The family were living at Ledgard Bridge at the time, quite possibly on the barge itself. At some point between the birth of Elizabeth’s siblings William (1834) & Sarah (1839), the family appear to have relocated to Thornhill Lees although the whole family was on the move and unrecorded on the night of the 1841 census.

Elizabeth is difficult to pin down in the 1851 census, but after eliminating all the other Elizabeth Scho[le]fields born in Mirfield the only one left is a visitor of a widow called Susan Wooler or Woller in Cleckheaton. If this is indeed our Elizabeth, there’s a potential familial & religious connection for further research and it also tells us she was working in a woollen mill a trade her sisters were also to follow.

Baptism record of Thomas Moody, 15 August 1833, Hopton Independent [Congregational] Chapel, Mirfield.

Thomas was also an eldest child, born on 30 June 1833 in the village of Horton. His parents, Elizabeth Lee & George Moody, went on to have six more children, all of whom survived into adulthood.  The Moody family were staunch Presbyterians and maintained an ongoing link with Hopton Independent Chapel where Thomas was baptised.

George Moody, Thomas’s father, was a woodsman and built up a successful timber business. His youngest son, William Henry, or Harry ran a joinery and undertaking business in Upper Hopton building on his father’s trade. His next youngest son, John, also, in a way, entered his father’s trade, apparently of stealing three loads of timber in 1899 and sentenced to 21 days imprisonment in HMP Wakefield (although I should note that there were other John Moodys in the area at the time).

Why, then, did Thomas take to the canals? It is rare, in my experience, for eldest sons not to follow their father’s trade. The charitable explanation is that George had set his son up in logistics as a useful compliment to the timber trade, but I just don’t buy that. In my view Thomas’s career choice was either the cause of a father/son falling out or a result of one as there is no evidence that Thomas had anything to do with Moodys of Hopton in later life, no marriage witnesses nor visitors on census returns, no presbyterian religion and certainly no evidence of financial support.

Thomas is nowhere to been found in 1851, so on a barge I would guess.

Elizabeth & Thomas were married at St Michael’s & All Angels at Thornhill on 7 September 1856. At the time both were living on Lees Moor which aligns with the 1861 census above. Children quickly followed, Mercy just a couple of months after they married, Jane in 1858, Emma in 1861, George in 1863 and Lee in 1866. Lots of little helpers.

1861 census for Thomas & Elizabeth Moody along with their two daughters, Mercy & Jane. Elizabeth’s father, William Schofield, is living two doors away.
Map from 1881 – 1913, showing the approximate location of where the boats were moored in 1861 based on the enumerator route described as starting at “Aldams Head on the south of Webster Hill.” There are several mills within easy walking distance where Elizabeth & her sisters may have worked.

In the mid-1800s a canal boat would absorb the whole family. Men, women and children worked them and those same men, women & children lived in them. When transporting a load, the seventeen-hour days would have required all those able to lead the horse, steer the tiller and unload the cargo. Those who were too young to manage the heavy work would be keeping a close watch over their younger, toddler, siblings to make sure they didn’t get in the way of the work or even fall overboard. Living accommodation was cramped and squalid with limited facilities to wash or even to cook. Educational opportunities were non-existent and although Thomas was literate, none of the older Moody children were. Canal boat people were often misrepresented by outsiders, a community in need of civilisation.

Family inside a canal boat cabin. Unknown source.

Disease was rife on the canals: it was even suspected that cholera flowed down the channels from cities out to smaller towns. When ten-year-old Mercy & six-year-old Emma died within four weeks of each other in the summer of 1867, it was time for the Moodies to make a change to their way of life. The family moved to Horbury Bridge and into an onshore home. Four more children followed: Mercy in 1869, Tom in 1872, William in 1874 and then finally, twenty years after her first child, Elizabeth gave birth to her last, Ernest William, in 1876 whose middle name gave away her next to last child, William, had not survived infancy.

George and Lee both followed their father onto the waterways and Jane, too, married a waterman but the younger boys, Tom & Ernest went into millwork. By the time they were of age the golden era of the canals was being supplanted by rail for valuable goods at least. Designed as they were, the canals still retained a critical role for transporting coal and other heavy goods direct from mine to factory gate. Perhaps though, their choice of career was influenced by what happened to their elder brother Lee. I’ve not been able to find out any details but by 1901 Lee, aged 34, was blind.

Working in a mill seems also to have helped the boys’ marriage prospects as both Tom & Ernest married whereas George & Lee did not. Mercy too, was to remain a spinster, seemingly destined to stay at home to look after her aging parents and blind brother.

Thomas died in March 1901 aged 67 and Elizabeth in December 1911, aged 79. With their burial in Thornhill churchyard our direct connection to the water came to an end although not our connection to Horbury for Ernest had stayed in Horbury when he married, as did his daughter, my Aunty Edie, whom we used to visit when I was a child. It was not until she died in 1984 that we lost our final connection to the Calder & Hebble Navigation.

Ernest Moody’s entry in Mary Booth’s autograph book from Sunny Dene in Horbury, August 27th 1939. Own collection.

With much gratitude to all those who worked on our canals transporting goods to enable industry and who were often misunderstood. Thanks too, to Elizabeth Schofield & Thomas Moody for providing me with an excuse to gain a deeper understanding of these lives.

The antithesis of fortune – three stories of pauper ancestors

Woman making oatcakes, The Costume of Yorkshire by George Walker published 1814 Haver Cake……is almost exclusively made in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and constitutes the principal food of the labouring classes in that district. It is a thin cake, composed of oatmeal and water only, and by no means unpalatable, particularly while it is new.”

My ancestors’ occupations were that of smallholder farmer, miner, weaver, charwoman, servant and other assorted rural labours. The occasional blacksmith or farmer of a few hundred acres hints at a steady income a step above the labouring poor, but we are not a family with a story of vast wealth. The rural poor leave little documentary trace. The daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, women in other words, don’t always even leave a record of their name. Yet without many of these women I would not exist.

Consequently, instead of using weeks #52ancestors theme of “fortune” as a prompt to tell the story of a fractionally wealthier (male) ancestor, I have taken it as an opportunity to document the lives of three women who were the exact opposite. It is a pleasure to introduce you to three of my maternal ancestors: Nanny Sidgewick, Martha Bottom and Widow Swinden.

Agnes (Nanny) Sidgewick

Litton is a remote village high up in Craven District in North Yorkshire. It’s a beautiful, fertile village which was apparently “notorious in the 18th century for its cockpit, situated between the village and the River Skirfare, where cock fighting and badger baiting took place.” It was here, c. 1773, that Agnes was born, the second child of Leonard Sidgewick & Dorothy Ashworth. Leonard died in 1778 leaving Dorothy to raise their four young children alone.

St.Oswald’s Church, Littondale cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Alan

Agnes was 25 and John Preston, 29, when they married in Litton on 21 April 1798. Together they had five children, my great, great, great grandmother, Isabella, being the youngest. In the children’s baptism records Agnes’s name is listed as Nanny – one of those tiny snippets of detail which has survived the years.

By 1841 Agnes & John were living in Conistone, a village about seven miles downriver from Litton. This one census tells a story of their poverty. Agnes was living in one house in the village, still working, at the age of 68, as a farm servant. John, by then an invalid, was living in a different property with their daughter Isabella and died later that year of “natural decay.”

The last eleven years of Agnes’ life would have been tough. Isabella married and moved away in 1843 and Agnes was left alone. In her seventies, she would have struggled to survive. As Ian H Waller (My ancestor was an agricultural labourer) puts it so succinctly “In any rural community, labourers had to work while they could. Age was no deterrent and there was a not a pension. No work, no pay, no food.”

1851 census – Agnes Preston (nee Sidgewick)

In 1851 we come across Agnes again living alone in Conistone, with her “rank, profession or occupation” listed simply as “pauper.” She died of consumption, aged almost 80, on 17 February 1852.

Martha Bottom

Moving fifty miles south to Thornhill, near Wakefield we meet Martha Bottom.

Martha’s earlier life is hard to evidence. Later documents (the 1841 & 1851 censuses & her death certificate) suggest she was born c. 1781 but I’ve been unable to trace a baptism record.

In contrast the banns of marriage between Martha & her husband, Joseph Hall, appear to have been recorded twice, the first time on 28 January, 4 February & 11 February 1798 and second time on 27 January, 3 February & 10 February 1799. Possibly there were two sets of Martha Bottoms & Joseph Halls marrying in Thornhill in quick succession. Possibly the banns were duplicated. However, my favourite theory is the inconvenient arrival of a new born right before the wedding was due to take place causing the actual ceremony to be postponed.

Pallots marriage record

Martha & Joseph went on to have eleven legitimate children between 1799 and 1820: that’s a twenty-year span of pregnancy and childbirth…. Rachel, their tenth child born in 1817, was my great, great, great, great grandmother. The family lived in the township of Shitlington with different documents referencing the specific villages of Netherton, Overton and Midgely.

All of Martha & Joseph’s surviving children had left home by the time Joseph died in early 1841. However, the 60 year old Martha’s child rearing days had not ended. Her daughter, Mary, had had four illegitimate children before dying in 1839. Three of those four children (Henry, Emma & Sarah) were living with Martha in Midgely in 1841, with one having also died.

1841 census for Midgely village, Shitlington showing Martha (nee Bottom) and her three grandchildren

The 1840s would have been tough for an older widow with three small children to support as this extract from a book by Philip Ahier vividly illustrates.  

“Conditions in Netherton, as well as elsewhere, during the “Hungry Forties” were very bad for the majority of the workers. Mr John Oldfield, in his “Recollections,” in a few terse sentences paints graphic word-pictures of these times:-

“Our food was nearly all porridge. Ebenezer Parkin made oatbread, and I have often sat by the back stone and eaten the shavings made. In 1845, my father played a whole winter and never earned a penny. When I was getting 4/6 weekly at Lord’s Mill, flour was 4/6 to 5/10 a stone, and I was nearly clammed to death. I used to take a meal dumpling for dinner and to eat it at breakfast time, and then walk and clam til I got home at night, when I had porridge. I have pined many a score of days after eating my dinner at breakfast time, and then having had to wait till night.””

Martha is still living in Midgely in 1851, at this point on her own, described as a pauper although several of her children were living in Midgely or nearby villages. She died aged 74 of apoplexy (or stroke) on 27 February 1855.

Widow Swinden

The evidence of my 7th great grandmother’s existence is slim and mostly circumstantial. Yet exist she must, less I wouldn’t.

Joseph Swinden married Ann Green on 27 December 1744 in St Michaels & All Angels church, Thornhill, Yorkshire. The following year, an Ann, wife of Joseph Swinden, was buried in the same church. Joseph went on to have had seven children baptised in the same church between 1748 and 1764, the eldest, Ann, being the mother of Martha Bottom described above. There is no evidence of a second marriage. Equally there is no evidence of any other Swindens whose wives could have died in Thornhill at the time and Joseph had to have had those seven children with someone. This leads me to believe that it was indeed Ann Green who died in 1745 and that at some point before 1748 Joseph married my 7th great grandmother, and, together with Joseph, had at least seven children.

In the baptism records, Joseph was described as being from Thornhill Edge. Joseph was buried on 14 May 1768, again at Thornhill, with his burial record describing him as “of the Lees, pauper” so we can assume this is also where my 7th great grandmother lived for the majority if not all of her life.

Finally, we come to the end of her life and the sole documentary evidence of my 7th great grandmother, a burial record from Thornhill in 1771 reading simply “Wid Swinden buried” – it’s not even possible to decipher the month in the copy of the record. Even in death she exists only in relation to another, her husband.

From Thornhill parish records, 1771

I’ve written this blog to give life to Widow Swinden, Martha and Agnes. I’ll never know what they looked like, what made them laugh or cry, whether they loved their husbands or merely tolerated them. Yet I do know that they were all daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers and that in itself is worth celebrating.

Later note: I shared Wid Swinden’s story on a podcast which then inspired a poem.

With much gratitude to Agnes Sidgewick, Martha Bottom and Widow Swinden without whom I wouldn’t exist. Thanks also for their incredible research into Wharfedale families and to Amy Johnson Crow whose 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge encouraged me to publish this series of stories.