Very poor and respectable

Sarah Martin’s sitting room. New Year’s Eve, 1839

Eleanor Simmonds looks tired but chatters away as Miss Martin bounces her baby daughter on her knees, trying to coax a smile. She’s left the Factory and gone back to binding shoes. The money’s not so good but she can work at home while she minds the little one. Her husband? He’s a kind father. Away at sea.

Little Georgiana has her mother’s blue-grey eyes, says Miss Martin. Eleanor brightens into a smile. All these years, she has treasured the Bible from Miss Martin, waiting to give it to her first-born child. Now it belongs to Georgiana, she tells the teacher. She wrote her daughter’s name inside the cover, underneath the verse Miss Martin had written. They will be the first lines she teaches Georgiana to write. She reads to her baby every day, though she’s just a year old, and whispers her prayers each morning and evening.

Opening the box of clothing for the poor, Sarah Martin picks out a set of baby clothes, neatly made by one of the more careful prison seamstresses, and offers them to her former pupil. Remembering the long days spent stitching in the gaol, Eleanor thanks Miss Martin for the gift and asks the teacher to pass on her gratitude to the prisoner.

After the mother and baby disappear into the cold winter day, Sarah Martin takes out the Liberated Prisoners Book. Eleanor could only read imperfectly when she arrived at the gaol six years ago, aged twenty. Not of the worst kind, the teacher remembers the girl’s character then. She always behaved well in prison. Since her discharge, up to this period she has conducted herself well. She is married, and conducts her family as she ought. Thinking of Eleanor preserving the Testament for her child, the teacher smiles and adds, She is very poor and respectable.[1]


But Georgiana, born in October 1838, was not Eleanor’s first child.[2] In October 1832, Eleanor had taken her daughter, also Eleanor, to be baptized at St Nicholas Church. Base born, wrote the vicar, of the fatherless infant. Two weeks later, the baby was buried in the workhouse cemetery.[3] Eleanor returned to work at Grout’s silk mill that, poignantly, specialized in mourning crepe the grieving mother could not afford to wear. Within a fortnight, Eleanor was arrested for robbing a six-years-old child.

I was going down to the Factory, the silkweaver swore before the Mayor. I see a little girl. She told me she had lost her silk handkerchief and coral beads and I found them.[4]

But Eleanor could not answer why she had stopped the girl on her way to school, led her round the back of a Row, and pocketed her pretty things. Neither could she explain why she stamped on the gold snap that tied the three strings of coral, nor why she gave the pawnbroker a false name when she tried to pass on the stolen trinkets.[5]

Robbing clothing from a child—or ‘child-stripping’ as it was known—was generally considered a heinous crime.[6] Yet Eleanor’s friends saw the theft as out of character and rallied to her support. No doubt, they understood the circumstances. When called to testify at the trial, six months later, Charlotte Edwards—the child’s mother who instigated the prosecution—refused to identify the beads and handkerchief as her own. She denied that she had taken money from the prisoners’ friends not to swear the articles. The Recorder threatened to prosecute the witness for perjury but Charlotte stuck to her story. She was in a passion when she first said she knew the items.[7]

Who were the friends who leant on Charlotte? Did they pay her to retract the accusation or was the plight of a bereaved mother enough to soften the prosecutor’s heart? Almost certainly they were Eleanor’s workmates at the factory. Perhaps they appealed to their masters to help since George Bayliss, co-owner of the silk mill, wrote to the Mayor on the day of the trial to plead on Eleanor’s behalf. In the seven years she had worked for Grouts, her conduct and character always stood high with usand we were very much surprised when we heard of the serious charges. Hoping his testimony might mitigate the girl’s punishment, Mr Bayliss added we have no objection to employ her again as soon as we have a vacancy & hope this will be a warning to her and that she will never incriminate herself again.[8]

Despite the severity of the offence, Eleanor was sentenced to just two months for stealing the coral beads and gold snap, both valued at nine shillings, and the silk handkerchief worth three shillings. It seems George Bayliss succeeded in persuading the magistrates to look kindly on the young woman, despite the accusations of intimidation levelled against her friends. Was Mr Baylis aware that Eleanor had lost her child when he implied her crime was out of character?

Baylis on Eleanor Simmonds

Letter from George Baylis to the Mayor, pleading for Eleanor Simmonds. Norfolk Record Office

It is highly unlikely the court was told of Eleanor’s pregnancy or bereavement for neither was mentioned in the pre-trial examinations or in the brief newspaper report of the case. Though medical science was just beginning to use the term puerperal insanity to refer to symptoms we now associate with post-natal depression, the law made no provision for mitigation in cases involving the condition.[9] However, both lawyers and juries were often reluctant to convict mothers charged with infanticide, preferring to see their crime as a moment of temporary madness, especially if they showed contrition and appeared to be innocent victims of seduction and desertion.[10] The intervention of Eleanor’s friends hints similarly at popular belief that mania or melancholy could afflict women after giving birth and affect their behaviour, even though it was not legally recognized.

Occasionally instances of women successfully concealing pregnancy came to light, often through infanticide cases. But it is far more likely that Eleanor’s fellow workers knew of her pregnancy. Certainly they will have known of the hardships of raising a child single-handedly. It was common for girls at the factory to conceive outside of marriage. Illegitimacy rates in Norfolk were among the highest in the country and sexual intercourse was widely accepted as part of the rituals of courtship among the labouring poor. At Yarmouth, where girls seeking work from the surrounding villages boosted the female population to 57% of the total population, unmarried mothers were at high risk of desertion.[11]

Eleanor’s friends rallied around her at a time when single mothers were facing growing stigmatization. The Poor Law Amendment legislation was working its way through Parliament and many of the measures enacted in 1834 were already in operation in Norfolk parishes. To deter pre-marital sex and reduce the burden illegitimate families placed on the ratepayers, the Bastardy Clauses of the New Poor Law abolished unmarried women’s right to appeal to the parish to pursue allowances from the father. Though the legal sanction that lewd women could be whipped and imprisoned was removed, the architects of the New Poor Law insisted that the cost of illegitimacy should fall exclusively on the mother, so that Providence appears to have ordained that it—the child—should be, a burthen on its mother, and, where she cannot maintain it, on her parents. Mothers incapable of maintaining their children would only find relief by entering the workhouse. As the vociferous critics of this unnatural and iniquitous treatment of women pointed out, in many areas—including Norfolk—the legislation increased rates of illegitimacy, as men were freed of responsibility for unwanted children.[12]

But Eleanor Simmonds chose self-reliance over dependence on the parish or a man. Rather than staying in the poorhouse, where fallen women were made to wear a distinctive dress to mark their shame, she left the workhouse lying-in ward after giving birth and returned to the factory.[13] Nor would she be shamed when Georgiana was born out of wedlock in 1838. Though Eleanor named the father as the labourer, George Thompson, when she registered her daughter’s birth, she gave Georgiana her own surname—the name she would always give to the census enumerator. It is unlikely George was living with his daughter and her mother. Certainly he was not with them at the 1841 Census.

Grout's Silk Mill

Grout’s Silk Mill, Artist’s drawing for Great Yarmouth Museum. Click here for more on Grout’s

Eleanor moved with her daughter back to her mother’s home in Caister, where they were living in 1841. An elderly agricultural labourer lodged with them to help cover the rent.[14] When Eleanor was working as a shoebinder in 1851, her widowed sister-in-law—a weaver with two young children—had joined the female household. But even with the wages of two daughters and lodging paid by two farm labourers, Eleanor’s mother needed to claim pauper assistance to make ends meet.[15] By the 1861 Census, Eleanor and Georgiana had returned to Yarmouth and were sharing their home with a female lodger. All three women worked at the factory as silk-winders. This time, Eleanor told the census enumerator she was widowed.[16] Was it easier to pass as a widow than admit she was an unmarried mother? She would never marry and nor would her daughter.

When she had visited the prison teacher in 1839, Eleanor Simmonds would not be judged. She took care to let Sarah Martin think her daughter had a father. Was she afraid of losing the teacher’s support if she admitted she was unmarried? Or could she not bear to see disappointment cloud Miss Martin’s earnest face?

The teacher had thought her former scholar very poor and respectable. Eleanor Simmonds remained poor and respectable but she was independent, too.

[1] Based on excerpts from Sarah Martin’s Liberated Prisoners Book, in 1840 [258] Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, Fifth Report, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online (Proquest, 2005), pp. 128–9; and Gaol Register, 20 October 1832.

[2] Georgina Symonds, born 26 October 1838, Caister. Registered 10 November 1838. General Register Office, BXCG 974922.

[3] Eleanor Symonds baptism, 1 October 1832, England, Norfolk Bishop’s Transcripts, 1685-1941 (, citing Christening, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, Record Office, Central Library, Norwich; FHL microfilm 1,470,863. Eleanor Symonds burial, 15 October 1832, England, Norfolk Bishop’s Transcripts, 1685-1941 (, citing Burial, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, Record Office, Central Library, Norwich; FHL microfilm 1,470,863.

[4] Examination of Eleanor Simmonds, and examination of Joseph Morley, police constable, 29 October 1832, Great Yarmouth Borough Sessions Papers, April 1833, Norfolk Record Office, Y/S 3/140/81 and 80.

[5] Examination of Mary Hastings, 29 October 1832, Y/S 3/140/78

[6] Donald M.Macraild and Frank Neal, ‘Child-stripping in the Victorian City, Urban History’, 39:3 (2012), 431-452

[7] Examination of Charlotte Edwards, 29 October 1832, Y/S 3/140; Bury and Norwich Post, 10 April 1833, p. 3.

[8] Letter to the Mayor from George Bayliss, 6 April 1833, Great Yarmouth Sessions Papers, Y/S 3/140/3.

[9] Hilary Marland, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[10] Mark Jackson (ed) Infanticide: historical perspectives on child murder and concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); Daniel Grey,  ‘“The Agony of Despair”: Pain and the Cultural Script of Infanticide in England and Wales, 1860-1960’ in Rob Boddice (ed.) Pain and Emotion in Modern History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) pp. 204-219.

[11] Anne Digby, Pauper Palaces (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 152-6. In Yarmouth, at the 1851 and 1861 Censuses, there were 3 females for every 2 males in the age range 15-29. See Alan Armstrong, The Population of Victorian and Edwardian Norfolk, Table 2.8, Centre for East Anglian Studies, University of East Anglia, 2000), p. 36.

[12] Ben Harvey, ‘The Putative Fathers of Swinton, England: Illegitimate Behavior under the Old Poor Laws, 1797-1835’, Journal of Family History, 40.3 (2015), pp. 373-98; Nigel Goose, ‘How Saucy did it Make the Poor? The Straw Plait and Hat Trades, Illegitimate Fertility and the Family in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire’, History, 91: 4 (304) (2006), pp. 530-56; Ursula Henriques, ‘Bastardy and the New Poor Law’, Past and Present 37 (1967), pp. 103-29; Thomas Nutt, ‘Illegitimacy, Paternal Financial Responsibility, and the 1834 Poor Law Commission Report: The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New, Economic History Review, New Series, 63:2 (2010), pp. 335-361.

[13] Anne Digby, Pauper Palaces (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 152.

[14] 1841 Census, Class: HO107; Piece: 765; Book: 1; Civil Parish: Caistor Next Yarmouth; County: Norfolk; Enumeration District: 1; Folio: 11; Page: 15; Line: 16; GSU roll: 438855.

[15] 1851 Census, HO 107/1807.

[16] 1861 Census, RG 9/1192.

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