Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Remarkable Lady

During the research into my family's history, which stretches from 1776 to the present day and is still on-going, I have always been greatly impressed by the contribution that one couple in particular made to the family's history, especially the strength of the wife. This is my attempt at a brief account of their story. (Apologies for repeating bits of a previous posting.)

Martha Thomas was born in a farm cottage at Parsonage Farm, Minster, Sheppey on 11th October 1851, the second of five children born to Isaiah and Margaret Thomas. Her father was a farm labourer, born on Sheppey and her mother, formerly Margaret McKey, had been born in Ballarmoney, Ireland. The only photos that I have of her are those above, the first in older life, looking quite formidable and the second, looking even more severe in black, in 1927 at a family wedding a few years before her eventual death.
Farm labourers in those days tended to move round the area quite regularly with their families as work opportunities came and went, usually living in pretty primitive cottages on the farm where they were working.
Therefore by the time that Martha had reached her tenth birthday in 1861 her family had moved and were living in a cottage just along the Harty Road, Sheppey, from Elliots Farm. This doesn't appear to have been exactly the case for young Martha though because in the 1861 Census that year, she was recorded as living in Elliotts farmhouse itself, with her status noted as Housemaid to the family there. Presumably she received some small payment for that but it was a very young age to be working, although not uncommon, and certainly would have restricted any schooling that was available to her.

In 1871 the family had once again moved and were now living at Newhouse Farm on the higher ground between Leysdown and the Harty Road and in clear sight of their previous cottage a couple of miles away. They were living in a small terrace of cottages at the farm, known as Till's Cottages after the owner, No.3 to be exact and this time, the soon to be 20 year old Martha was living at home with the remainder of the family. At No. 5 in the terrace, along with a family of seven and two other lodgers, my 22 year old great grandfather Adey Faulkner was living and clearly both he and Martha had been courting because on the 8th October that same year, they were married at nearby Leysdown Church.  A rather rushed affair it would seem because just six weeks later on the 20th December 1871 their first son Adey jnr was born!
Not only that, he was born at Wyburns Farm, part way down Wards Hill Road, Minster, the same road where ironically I now live.
Minster in the 1870's, was still the dominant parish on the Island and pretty much controlled what went on in the whole of Sheppey. It's hub was the tiny High Street by the Abbey, flanked on both sides by old wooden houses and a few pubs but the surrounding area was a big improvement on the conditions that existed out on the marshes of the eastern end of Sheppey, where Adey and Martha had just moved from. There at Wyburns, they had a farm cottage and a new son and Adey was employed as a Waggoner on the farm. According to some accounts of that time Waggoner on a farm was a fairly secure job with a few perks and so they appear to have begun married life perhaps better than others.

At first, all appears to have gone well for the two of them and as was generally the norm in those days, children began to follow at almost yearly intervals. William was born in 1873 and then James John in 1874 but the next child, George, born in 1876, was born at Black Cottages along the Minster Road. An explanation for the birth site is pretty much impossible to find now, perhaps Martha was staying with friends or family or perhaps Adey had moved to another place of work. If it was the latter then it must of only been temporary because the next child, Thomas Alfred, was born back at Wyburns cottages in 1877, as were the subsequent children, but he became the first of the couple's tragedies. He was born on the 9th June 1877 but survived just three months before dying on the 24th September 1877, the cause on his death certificate being given as Marasmus.
Googling Marasmus I found that it is a severe form of malnutrition brought about by poor protein-energy intake and is most frequently associated with acute infections such as measles, gastroenteritis, etc. Given the poor health conditions and food supply in those times it was a fairly common cause of death in infants and still is in Third World countries today. It was a harrowing time for Adey and Martha and Martha signed the death certificate as witness to her son's death - she signed with an X, testament to the education that she lost in her youth.
The sadness however was not to go away because their first daughter, Alice Emily, was next born, on the 28th August 1878. Just eight months later on the 24th May 1879 she died at home, once again Martha had to witness the death of a child and this time the death certificate recorded the death as from convulsions. Once again a Google search found the answer, convulsions appear to be another name for epilepsy, tragic in one so young and presumably an illness with little understanding in those days.
My granddad Albert was the next and seventh child to be born, on the 24th March 1880 and fortunately for his parents, did not succumb to any fatal illness in infancy, going on to live a full and healthy life. I guess that it would of been easy for the parents to forgo having any more children after that but Martha was still only 29 and there was still the spur of having a surviving daughter. That prayer was answered twice over eighteen months later when on the 30th August 1881 Martha gave birth to twin girls, Elizabeth Francis at 14.00 and Catherine Rosa at 14.05. Despite this raising the number of surviving children in the cottage to seven, Adey and Martha were hopefully over-joyed at having two girls at last, but perhaps the struggle to feed all the children once again caught up with them. Eighteen months later the twins both died, just fifteen days apart. On the 10th February 1883 Elisabeth Francis died and its hard to imagine the heartbreak that Martha must have gone through, first with that death and then struggling to keep Catherine Rosa alive until she eventually died on the 25th February 1883 - both had died from the same cause, the dreadful Marasmus. On both their death certificates Martha was recorded as the witness to their deaths and having experienced this for a fourth time she must have been in an emotionally awful state but unfortunately it was not the end of her suffering.
In October 1884, Frederick Charles, their tenth and final child was born, but sadly he also died, just three months later on the 28th January 1885 - he died of convulsions. Interestingly, granddad Albert, the last of Martha's children to survive to old age, also had a daughter, my auntie, who suffered with epilepsy the whole of her life.

Martha was still only 33 years old and yet had given birth to ten children and witnessed five of then die in infancy, it was a sad reflection on the hardships endured in parenthood in those times and she probably looked and felt very much older than she actually was. After Frederick there is no record that they had anymore children and who could blame them,  it was time to move on!
How soon that the couple did that is not recorded but by the time of the 1891 Census the whole family were living in a cottage at nearby Ripney Hill Farm, with both Adey and his four eldest sons all recorded as working as farm labourers. It was important that the family stayed in employment because Minster Workhouse was never far away at the top of Wards Hill Road and it was always full with the poor of Minster. To their credit, the family never succumbed to this fate, they always stayed in employment by moving around but it must of been hard. Local farm records for around that time show that people who did manage to remain in farm work struggled by on an average wage of less than three shillings a day. In an attempt to improve conditions for both themselves and their workers, in 1894 the majority of Sheppey's farmers formed local branches of the National Agricultural Union, a large number of farm workers joined in the hope that it would bring better security but there's little evidence to suggest that it did.

The turn of the new Century came and went and 1901 found the Faulkner family now living in Minster High Street. The short High Street was not as grand as it may sound, a couple of pubs and shops but mostly old, wooden houses in poor condition, many of which eventually burnt down in a fire that broke out in the 1920's.
Basics such as water and oil for lamps still often had to be bought from the daily horse and cart rounds, although water could sometimes be carried from local wells. Adey and the three youngest sons continued to work in the area as farm labourers but the two oldest had by now left home. Interestingly one of them, George, was now lodging in Queenborough and working locally as a railway plate-layer, a new century, a new type of occupation!

By 1907 Adey and Martha, now on their own, were living in Back Lane, a short road running parallel with the High Street. They were living in Swale View Terrace, an old terrace of cottages that once stood at the top of Scocles Road and here sadly, the 57 year old Adey died. His death certificate records his death as being caused by malignant disease of the stomach and exhaustion, the exhaustion being particularly relevant in those hard times I imagine.
Despite witnessing yet another death in her family, the dauntless Martha was not to be held back from life and just eighteen months later, herself then 57, she re-married. On the 9th December 1908, at Minster Abbey, she married a 60yr old widower by the name of Edward Kennett. Although he been born in Sheppey, at the time of their marriage Edward was employed as a scavenger (possibly street cleaner) by Bermondsey Council in London and also living in Bermondsey. I wonder how the two of them found each other, an interesting story never to be discovered. Anyway, Martha now starts an entirely new and unlikely episode in her life and spends a number of years living in Bermondsey with her council worker husband and his elderly brother William.

Her story goes cold then until 1922 when Edward and her were clearly back on Sheppey, possibly in retirement, because during that year Edward died on Sheppey, aged 73. Martha appears to have continued to live on her own in the Halfway, Sheppey and in 1927 appears in the wedding photograph of her granddaughter.

Finally, on the 3rd January 1934, Martha died of Cerebral Haemorrhage, arthritis and senility in Cliff House, Minster, the name under which the Minster Workhouse was known by. Given that her home address on the death certificate was still in the Halfway, I rather imagine and hope, that she was only in the Workhouse being treated in it's Infirmary. The Infirmary there had been for many years the nearest thing that Sheppey had to a hospital and medical treatment for both inmates and outsiders and over the next couple of years the Workhouse did close down and the buildings became the old Sheppey General Hospital.
Martha was 82 years old when she died and despite being badly saddened by death and pretty much worn out at 33, she went on to live a long life that was the bedrock of the Faulkner family that came after. I am proud of her.


  1. My husband has been tracing his family history and found stories like this in his family background. We really don't appreciate how lucky we are in this day and age do we?

    Thanks for sharing .... small wonder you are proud of Martha she was obviously an amazing person

  2. Wow, that was quick Sue, thanks for your comments.
    Ancestry is a fascinating hobby and as you say, it makes you value the standard of life that we now have and also those that got us this far.

  3. Enthralling post Derek. It makes you realise how fast life has changed.

  4. It does Tony, and in many ways we have a lot to be thankful for.