Rags, rugs and recyling

I can’t resist showing off my latest project; the rag rug as shown here.  It only took me ten

rag rug © Adèle Emm

years to finish. Mind you, for nine of those years, it was stashed under the sofa in my study due to my running out of rags and stamina.

Rag rugs were a practical solution to flag floors in an age when every penny was the buffer between survival and the workhouse.   These unique works of art protected toes against icy floors and cheered up homes with few comforts and fewer luxuries.

Made out of any old rags, cotton, wool and whatever was to hand, the whole  family contributed to their manufacture; tearing up rags and knotting them into the hessian, jute or potato sacks which formed the backing. They were virtually indestructible, easily washed and easily replaced. All it took was a little effort and, with few other diversions available to working class families during the nineteenth century, plenty of time.

Originally, paper was made from rags.  Rag and bone merchants made their living sorting rags and selling them on.  Clothing had an economic value and was sold second/third hand. Once too shabby even for the destitute, rags were destined  to be ground down and processed into paper at a paper factory.    ‘Good Mrs Brown’ in Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son (1848) made her living as a rag woman (the colloquial term for a female rag merchant was bunter). Her room was described thus: ‘there was a great heap of rags lying on the floor; a heap of bones, and a heap of sifted dust or cinders; but there was no furniture at all , and the walls and ceilings were quite black’.

Rags had to be dry before they could be sold.  White rags made more money fetching between 2-3d a lb with coloured rags at about 2d a lb.  Grease extracted from rags (the mind boggles!) went into making soap.

There was tax to be paid on newspaper.   in 1815, the government raised the Stamp Duty (the official name for the tax) to 4d which meant the average cost for one newspaper was 6-7d (there were 12 old pence in a shilling) a huge amount for the working class to trump up – so they didn’t.  After the Peterloo Massacre, 1819 (see my previous blog), the Stamp Duty was extended to include leaflets and pamphlets thus, the government hoped, suppressing ‘seditious’ anti-government proselytisation.  The Stamp Tax was repealed in 1855.

Towards the end of Victoria’s reign, paper was more commonly made from wood pulp  and the price of rags slumped.  With rags more readily available, rag rugs became more common beside the bed, in the kitchen, in front of the fire. When they got really dirty, they were thrown out; they had, after all, cost virtually nothing.

The National Trust occasionally runs rag rug making workshops.


Washday Blues

Whitecap Washer Wringer from Beatty Bros. Turn of the century. © Adèle Emm

Borax, cuckoo-pint (arum), urine, soda, animal fats and wood ash!  This toxic list of ingredients is why great grandmama’s hands were constantly red, sore and chapped. Why? From the weekly wash.

Women on the brink of the shame and ignominy of entering the workhouse might have taken in other people’s washing.  Each halfpenny perhaps postponed another day from becoming a pauper.   So how, I wonder, did they manage to pay for fuel the heat the washtub water, candles to light their dark cottage or cellar (condensation from the steam oozing down the walls!) and soap towhich, as my old physics teacher insisted, makes ‘water wetter.’   And the essentials of a washtub, dolly (posser in some dialects), washboard and mangle?  How could she afford them?

Answer; many women didn’t.  For those on the brink of penury, she might specialise in the laundry – heavy duty fabrics only; such women certainly weren’t trusted with fine linen or silks.  Others, who, in a previous wealthier existence had a mangle, took in wet clothes, manoeuvred through the mangle and handed them back for drying.  Some ironed  whilst others starched.    Whatever they did, hands were raw.

The social history of washerwomen and laundresses is the topic of my next lecture.  There are still a few places left at the Society of Genealogists, London, on Wednesday 13th February.  For further details and to book your place click here.


Happy New Year

Edmund Dawson, Peterloo victim. Commemorative light in Manchester Town Hall annexe

Firstly, apologies for the gap in blogs; life got in the way.  And life consisted of?   Christmas and New Year of course.  Plus proof reading and indexing my latest book due for publication in May this year interspersed with a lengthy and ongoing grapple with an article about the Peterloo Massacre due for an August publication, the bicentenary of that appalling atrocity.

The Peterloo Massacre took place in the centre of Manchester (not then a city) on the 16 August 1818.  What started out as an open air meeting ended with the slaughter of a number of men, women and children. To this day, nobody actually knows how many. Why not?  It has been a contentious issue for 200 years….   The then establishment justified their actions, initially citing a death toll of 5, claiming these people had attended an illegal meeting.   To use a modern expression; it was collateral damage…

Recently checking out an armful of books in Manchester Central Library, I was approached by a distinguished gentleman who, commenting on my choice of literature, introduced himself as a history professor at Manchester University. As he left, he said, ‘You need to question why Peterloo was suppressed for over forty years.’

It’s been suppressed for longer than that.   Manchester born and bred Mike Leigh, director of the recent film Peterloo, had never heard of it when he was growing up!   However, various agencies have been pushing for its recognition as amongst the worst infringements of human rights in England  A commemorative sculpture is being erected near the site of the massacre and the annex at Manchester Town Hall has red lights built into the floor recognising the names of those known to have been killed.

Harry Turner, boy soldier, World War 1 Casualty

Yesterday, I discovered that a boy who lived in my house in the 1911 census died 13 August 1915.  In 1911, 13 year old schoolboy Harry Turner was living with his parents and cousin.  Four years later, he was a casualty of the World War One Gallipoli offensive.   He was 17.

Harry was in the 2nd/1st East Lancashire Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, regimental number 553, so was responsible for dressing wounds.  Whilst on the way to Gallipoli for the second wave assault, his troopship, HMS Royal Edward was torpedoed and he drowned in the Aegean Sea.

I’d always understood boys under eighteen were not permitted to fight so Harry must have slipped through as he was a pre-war territorial soldier. Certainly in 1914, the legal limit was 19 for armed services overseas.   A BBC webpage explains how so many underage boys joined the army –  a large number were accepted i 1915.

When Harry died, his next of kin was his mother Emma.  The 1911 census recorded Harry Turner’s parents had had another child who’d died before the census was taken so there is clearly no one left today to mourn this boy.  He is commemorated on the Helles Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial in current day Turkey. His body was never found.

Three older boys from the other end of my street all survived to receive their victory medals…

More can be read about Harry at 


Port Sunlight war memorial for employees of Port Sunlight soap and munitions factory © Adèle Emm

On the eve of the centenary commemorations of Armistice Day 1918, I am returning to the rarity of women’s names inscribed on WW1 memorials (August 2018).  I was recently at Port Sunlight in the Wirral, a model town built  for workers at Lord Lever’s soap factory which, during both world wars, also made munitions. A by-product of soap manufacture is glycerine, used in bomb making… As is my wont, I checked names on the war memorial and was astonished to see a number of women’s names engraved around the base: Mary A Jones sharing a tablet with Florence McGrath; Mary C Harrison and Muriel Jennings on another; Olive M Ellis; Doreen Smart; Florence Williamson; Florence R Robins and Beryl J Sennett.  Nine in all although I may have missed some.

Who were they and why were they on this war memorial?  They were civilian casualties of World War 2 who had been employed at the Lever soap/munitions factory.  Their names were engraved on the war memorial from 1948.

They had all died in the Liverpool and Merseyside Blitz.  Because of the proliferation of docks and factories around Liverpool  and the River Mersey (which included the Wirral and Birkenhead) Liverpool and its suburbs were ruthlessly targeted especially between August 1940 and January 1942.   when over  4,000 people in the area including 2,736 in Liverpool, 454 in Birkenhead and 424 in Bootle were killed.   Seven nights in May 1941 were the most devastating.

Here follows more information about the female names on the war memorial. The most shocking is their age and, in some cases, how many died with them.  On the nights of 12 and 13 March 1941, over 174 people were killed in the Wallasey area including:-

Olive May Ellis

  • Olive May Ellis was 22 when she died in the blitz on 12 March 1941 at 16 Well Lane. In 1939, she was living with her family in Birkenhead with her father, an Air Raid Warden and drains tester, working for the council. Olive is recorded as pursuing ‘unpaid domestic duties’ presumably helping mum with the housework.   Also killed that same night at the same address were the Robins family…

    Florence Robinson and Beryl Sennett

  • Soap packer Florence Ruby Robins, born 1924, lived with her parents in Birkenhead. Three members of her family, parents John Henry (51), mother Elsie (48), and Florence’s older brother John Henry jnr (23, a member of the Home Guard) died on 12 March 1941 at 16 Well Lane. She was 16.
  • Muriel Jennings died aged 17. Printing machinist at a soap works in 1939 (aka Port Sunlight factory), she lived with her parents and siblings at 22 Medway Road, Birkenhead. On 12 March 1941 she and her entire family (eight people altogether) were wiped out in the house next door to the Ellis’ and Robins at 14 Well Lane.  Ranging in age from 49 (her father Charles, a member of the Civil Defence Service), the youngest person to die was a sister aged 7.
  • Mary Alice Jones was 41 when she died on the 17th October 1940 at Pool Bank, Birkenhead. Her father, 65 year old John James Jones and her mother Alice (also 65) were also killed.  Mary and her father both worked at the soap/glycerine factory in 1939 and his name isalso recorded on Port Sunlight war memorial.  Mary Carr Harrison died on the 24 July 1941, aged 29, at 17 Holt Hill, Birkenhead. This was also her address in 1939 when she was a housewife living with husband Frank, Frank, a bus cleaner for the Corporation Transport bus service.   For her name to be on the Port Sunlight war memorial, she must have got a job at the soap factory later on in the war.
  • Florence McGrath is amongst the eldest women on this war memorial. She was born in 1897 and died 1 June 1941 in the ambulance on the way to hospital from Telegraph Hill, Heswall. Unmarried, she worked as a ‘shorthand writer at a soap and glycerine factory’ in 1939.

    Mary A Jones and Florence McGrath


  • Beryl Jean Sennett was 17 at her death on 25 June 1941. Ancestry (subscription) has a photo of her in school uniform. Her ‘sudden death’ (under the name Betty) is reported in the personal columns of the Liverpool Post on Saturday 28 June 1941. She and her mother died at 46 Southdale Road, Rock Ferry. In 1939, ‘soap worker’ Beryl is living with her parents (including her mother who was to die with her), an ‘incapacitated’ older brother James and younger brother, schoolboy Ernest.

    Doreen Smart

  • Doreen Smart and her mother Ruby died at Rowson Street, Wallasey on 21 December 1940. She was 19. More than 119 people were to die in Wallasey between 6.30pm on 20th December and the 21st For some photos of that night’s devastation see.   The names of Doreen and her mother are also recorded on Wallasey war memorial alongside the names of 324 other residents who died in the blitz.
  • Also killed the same day, 21 December 1940, was Florence Alice Williamson aged 19. She, alongside several others, was sheltering from falling bombs at the Ritz Cinema in Claughton Road, Birkenhead.

The above information was obtained from the 1939 register via Ancestry and Civilian Casualty list for WW2 – also on Ancestry.

Other websites you might find useful are;

Liverpool Museums Munitions Factories and the blitz 

War Memorials Online

Port Sunlight is at  




Trump Street is trumped

Trump Street (640x201)Indeed!  And the origins?  A quick Google reveals that 18th century Trump Street was Trumpadere Street and one gentleman who lived there was a William Trompeor , a trumpet maker supplying horns for local watchmen.

Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,

The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.

But where is the boy, who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? No, not I,
For if I do, he’s sure to cry.                                            sprang to mind

For those of you with a less whimsical turn of mind, the original City of London was rebuilt following the disastrous Great Fire of London 1666 (see my previous blog).  In 1720, Trump Street may have been known as Duke Street.  The City was devastated again in World War 2, and largely rebuilt. Trump Street included.

Trump Street leads into Russia Row….


Masters for the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers,  St Margaret Pattens Guild Church, Eastcheap

St Margaret Pattens is in Eastcheap, the City of London and is the Guild Church for the Worshipful Companies of Patten and Basketmakers.

St Margaret Pattens, Cheapside, exterior (480x640)

Guild Church of St Margaret Pattens © Adèle Emm

Pattens? Wooden ‘over shoes’ worn from at least the twelfth century to elevate and protect shoes and skirts from the ravages of mud and muck in streets and roads.  Jane Austen (1775-1817) wore them in Steventon, Hampshire.  Why don’t we wear them? Because the state of our roads is now so good (?) they haven’t been worn since the early twentieth century.

St Margaret Pattens, pattens display (640x480)

Wooden patten in display case at St Margaret Pattens

Founded in 1067, St Margaret Pattens was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666, and rebuilt to Sir Christopher Wren’s design between 1686-1688. It’s one of the few City churches to survive the devastation of both World War One and Two so, not only have Christopher Wren’s original features remained, but so have the wooden notice boards listing Guild Masters from 1670 (earlier records were lost in that pesky 1666 fire..)  If you have a member of the Pattenmakers’ guild in your family tree, this is the place to come.  The church entrance also holds a small display of artefacts from both Worshipful Companies.

St Margaret Pattens, Worshipful Masters' names (640x480)

The Masters’ noticeboard in St Margaret Pattens Guild Church

I heartily approve of the  Worshipful Company of Patternmakers.  Why? Because their motto recipiunt fœminæ sustentacula nobis  translates as ‘women receive support from us’.   Good on them!

For more information on guilds, refer to my Tracing Your Trade and Craftsman Ancestors.






Elizabeth Raffald, superwoman

Let’s start with a short CV.  What would you think of a person who:-Elizabeth Raffald.jpg

  • set up and ran the first employment agency
  • ran two local newspapers, a shop and at least two pubs
  • published a trade directory
  • wrote a book on cookery and housekeeping?

Highly employable eh? Would you give them a job?  The bad news is, you can’t.  She died in 1781 aged just 48.

Elizabeth Raffald, born in Doncaster in 1733, worked as housekeeper for the Warburton family at Arley Hall, Cheshire, later dedicating her cookery book to the Hon Lady Elizabeth Warburton. It was here she met her future husband, their head gardener John Raffald/Rafford.  The couple moved to Manchester circa 1763 to run a confectionery shop and seed business.  She founded a register for servants (the job agency), published Manchester’s first trade directory in 1772, and wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper for the use and ease of Ladies, Housekeepers and Cooks & Co. She sold the copyright for £1,400 – an absolute fortune in those days.   The 10th edition, published posthumously in 1786 can be found online.  She even squeezed in giving  birth to sixteen children, all  girls, although only three were to survive.

Arden Arms, Stockport. St Mary’s Parish church can be seen in the background. © Adèle Emm

Her brother in law ran a pub in Stockport, the Arden Arms.  It was here she died in 1781 – were they visiting relatives?  Buried in the Raffald family plot of St Mary’s graveyard, the parish register records her as a Manchester resident.  The Arden Arms is still overshadowed by St Mary’s.

History is unkind to John; it seemed he liked his liquor and, after Elizabeth’s untimely death, his second wife was described by all and sundry as, um,  stupid…

Elizabeth’s blue plaque on the wall of the Arden Arms. © Adèle Emm

Rosa Leo Grindon, another forgotten suffragist

Rosa Leo Grindon 1848-1923, plaque in Manchester Central Library foyer

Back to my theme of forgotten suffragists.  In the foyer of Manchester Central Library is a bronze plaque to

Rosa Leo Grindon, 1848-1923    A tribute to a devoted citizen 

Rosa Leo Grindon?  Who she? Even Google was vague though it rustled up the plaque designer, John Cassidy.

Ancestry reveals the bare bones of Derbyshire-born Rosa née Elverson. Her father was a labourer in 1851; by 1861 he had risen to grocer/draper – i.e. in  much maligned ‘trade.’ Somehow, somewhere between 1891, (when she is a ‘lady housekeeper’ to a Lichfield brewer) and the September quarter of 1893, she meets and marries 75 year old widower, Leopold Grindon, her senior by 29 years. They are living together in the 1901 census.  He died in 1904 and in the 1911 census Rosa is ‘lecturer and suffragette’.   Yes!

I’m always reiterating not everything is on the internet… finding more about Rosa required a trip to Manchester Central Library to view correspondence collected by Mr Cummings Walters, editor of Manchester City News.  Bingo!  Rosa LLA, FRMS, was Chairman, Honorary Secretary for Prizes and Assistant Treasurer of the Manchester Shakespeare Tercentenary Association, an organisation which she founded.  Also included were her letters re; new-found interest, spiritualism. Further evidence of this  was provided by a newspaper clipping for a meeting held by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes’ fame.  Winding through microfilm of City News I found her obituary  including photographs (P6, 12 May 1923).  Superwoman Rosa had attended Cheltenham College sitting her examinations (remember, many universities didn’t permit women to matriculate) at St Andrews University in ‘English literature, Anglo Saxon, botany and geology, a first class in physiology and a second class in economics’.  As a girl, she’d been ‘a fearless rider to hounds’ (fox hunting).  She’d visited  ‘America as a suffragist’ but ‘was not aggressive in the women’s movement’.  This intrigues me. Why had she classed herself in 1911 as suffragette not the less militant ‘suffragist?’  We may never know.

 Manchester Town Hall is currently closed for renovation until at least 2024. The statues, plaques, memorials etc have been moved for safekeeping.  Is our Rosa’s plaque one of these? If so, she has risen from the obscure….   Good on you!



Women and WW1 War Memorials

Heaton Moor War Memorial outside St Paul’s Church © Adèle Emm

700,000 British men were killed in World War 1, their names inscribed on War Memorials in hamlets, villages, towns and cities all around the country.  I’ve also seen plaques in post offices, hospitals, foyers of old  buildings, outside funeral directors, on church lychgates… but the names are invariably those of men – but women did die in the First World War!  Some nurses lost their lives on torpedoed hospital ships (e.g. Miss Kate Beaufoy on HMHS Glenart Castle February1918), some from military action, many from illnesses – Spanish flu (with a higher mortality rate than the War itself) and pneumonia.

On the back of Heaton Moor’s war memorial outside St Paul’s Church, Stockport, the name Gertude M Powicke is found, the plaque clearly placed retrospectively.   Who was Gertrude? Following a degree in languages from Manchester Victoria University, Gertrude was teaching at Manchester High School for Girls  when war was declared. Her skills in languages being invaluable, she joined French Quaker nurses in France to help with refugees and her letters home are at held Manchester University.  After the war, she travelled to Poland to assist those affected by a typhus epidemic and there, on the 20th December 1919, she too succumbed; news of her death reached British newspapers by January 1920. She was 31.

Memorial to Gertrude M Powicke © Adèle Emm

I haven’t discovered the date when her name (with six others) was added to the memorial. Your suggestions appreciated… From at least 1923 until his death in 1935, her father, congregational minister Frederick Powicke, lived about a quarter of a mile away at 4 Langford Road, Heaton Chapel.

I know of no other women commemorated for their ultimate sacrifice in WW1 apart from Edith Cavell and Kitty Trevelyan.  In 1915, Cavell was shot by the Germans for harbouring allied soldiers; one monument (there are others) stands outside London’s National Portrait Gallery. Nineteen year old Kitty Trevelyan’s name was added to Meavy war memorial, Devon, in February 2017. Serving with the Army Service Corps, she died of measles and pneumonia in France. Like Gertrude, never returned home.