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Week 10: Strong Woman

Catherine Grey Whitehill

I have been fascinated by the story of my great x2 grandmother, Catherine Whitehill, born in Glasgow on the 31st May 1847. She had a tough life judging by where she lived, yet she raised 9 children to adulthood in 3 cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, at a time when infant mortality was high.

For a long time, we weren’t sure who her parents were as they are given at her marriage as John Whitehill lithographic printer journeyman decorator (deceased) and Elizabeth Whitehill M.S. Christie (deceased) but she grew up with the mother and children of Catherine Grey and Alexander Whitehill and was known as Catherine Grey Whitehill. Alex had died in the cholera epidemic in December 1848 when she was less than two years old and her mother had died ten years before the marriage, so maybe they didn’t know or maybe there was an error recording the parents’ details … maybe confusion as her brother John was a printer … then the appearance online of the Old Parish Registers showed up her birth registration.

Catherine grew up in Rottenrow, her father was a weaver and her mother a yarn winder. Catherine is listed as a muslin warehouse girl aged 13 in 1861, was a steam loom weaver in 1871, and when she married James Simpson in 1873, she gave her occupation as a woollen power loom weaver. Her address in 1871, where she was a boarder, was 174 Main Street in Calton. There are several textile factories close by as well as several potteries.

Power loom workers were usually girls and young women. They had the security of fixed hours, and except in times of hardship, such as in the cotton famine, regular income. They were paid a wage and a piece work bonus. Even when working in a combined mill, weavers stuck together and enjoyed a tight-knit community. The women usually minded the four machines and kept the looms oiled and clean. They were assisted by ‘little tenters’, children on a fixed wage who ran errands and did small tasks. They learnt the job of the weaver by watching. Often they would be half timers, carrying a green card which teacher and overlookers would sign to say they had turned up at the mill in the morning and in the afternoon at the school.

 

At fourteen or so they come full-time into the mill, and started by sharing looms with an experienced worker where it was important to learn quickly as they would both be on piece work. The mill had its health and safety issues, there was a reason why the women tied their hair back with scarves. Inhaling cotton dust caused lung problems, and the noise was causing total hearing loss. Weavers would mee-maw as normal conversation was impossible. Weavers used to ‘kiss the shuttle’, that is, suck thread through the eye of the shuttle. This left a foul taste in the mouth due to the oil, which was also carcinogenic.

Tarbet Street

James married Catherine Gray Whitehill at 116 Rottenrow Street after banns – according to the rites of the United Presbyterian Church. This is the same address as that of her older brother John in 1871 and 1881 so maybe the source of the possible confusion over her father’s name. Both bride and groom gave the same address – 24 Bluevale Street. One of the witnesses had the same name as James’s first wife. I found the marriage fairly early in my research and it was the first time I had found a widower among my ancestors. When I found James’s first marriage to Isabella Chalmers, I was very sad as she had died in childbirth aged 21 just four months after their marriage but then it struck me quite forcefully that had Isabella not died, I would not be here!

Two months later, the first of their 9 children was born – my great grandmother Catherine Grey Simpson. They were living in David Street in Bridgeton at the time, very close to Annfield Pottery. James and Catherine moved around every couple of years but more or less stayed in the same area of Glasgow until they appear in Edinburgh and then later in Clerkenwell.

While writing this article, I wanted to check something, so randomly wandered around google and came across Scottish Indexes, and put Catherine’s name into the search box – and found she had twice been in the City Poorhouse Asylum, Glasgow. Admission Records will be sent for to find out more detail when it is possible to get them, but her first admission was on 9 July 1869 while still single, aged 20, and her second was ten years later, six months after the birth of her fourth child. At the time, Catherine, the oldest was 5 years old and they were living close by in Tarbet Street.

Move to Edinburgh

Sometime between the summer of 1883 and the summer of 1887, when her son John was born, the family uprooted themselves and went to Edinburgh.

Annfield Pottery was founded by John Thomson in the East End of Glasgow sometime between 1816 and 1826, and managed by himself and his three sons. John Thompson died in 1873 and the sons continued the pottery until it closed down between 1883 and 1887. 

This would fit in with the dates of them moving to Edinburgh. Hugh, Catherine’s older brother was already living in Edinburgh. When John was born they were living at 51 Arthur Street, Canongate and James was recorded as working as a printer (glassworks). They were not far from the Holyrood Glassworks.

Moving on again ….

Corner of Rottenrow and Taylor Street c.1891

By April 1890, the family had moved on again and were in Clerkenwell, where they had two more sons, Andrew and William. Travelling south with 7 children, the youngest was 3 and the oldest about 15 years old, would be pretty daunting these days, but then? How did they travel? Did they walk? Or were they able to afford to take the train? The route between Edinburgh Waverley and London King’s Cross was well established by then. The journey took about 8 and a half hours by then, travelling at around 50 mph. This was the time when the Flying Scotchman offered travel for 3rd class passengers, as until 1887, there was only 1st and 2nd class available.

Railway rugs were needed by train travellers, usually on their legs or shoulders, to protect them from draughts in the carriages. While first class passengers rode in enclosed carriages, second and third class passengers could have no such assurance. Indeed, most third class carriages were completely open to the elements, save for the carriage roof.

In April 1890, they were living at Dundee Buildings in Clerkenwell where Andrew was born. The Survey of London describes the buildings as ‘rough’ at that time, quoting Booth’s notebooks. The buildings were on the south corner of Berkley Street and St John’s Lane, just south of St John’s gate. (I was in the vicinity in January 2020 and had no idea how close I was to where they lived – unfortunately I was late for where I was going in one direction and then rushing to get a train when I returned later that day, so didn’t even stop to take a picture of St John’s Gate.)

…. and the building of private model dwellings (Dundee Buildings, described as ‘rough’ in the 1890s) on the south corner [of St John’s Lane] with Berkley Street. Contrasting with the small shopkeepers in the lane were the denizens of the increasingly run-down and crowded backland: by the 1890s typically costermongers and unskilled labourers. In the summer of 1898 Charles Booth’s investigators found it rather squalid, noting a ‘fearful stench’ from a Gorgonzola factory as they walked up the lane, and a man in Francis Court toting a bloody bag of sheep’s necks, which he was off to hawk at twopence a pound.

Compton Buildings, Goswell Road, c. 1910 Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell

Model dwellings were “buildings or estates constructed, mostly during the Victorian era, along philanthropic lines to provide decent living accommodation for the working class. They were typically erected by private model dwellings companies and usually with the aim of making a return on investment hence the description of the movement as “five per cent philanthropy.

In July 1893, when their youngest child, William was born, they were living in the newly built Bartholomew Buildings and by 1901, the family had moved to another model dwelling in the area, 343 Compton Buildings, on the corner of Compton Street and Goswell Road. They were still living in the buildings in 1911, at number 306, along with the 3 youngest boys, Elizabeth and Margaret. The others were all married by this time. Booth’s maps at the time show that the area was probably less “rough”.

James died in 1st February 1918 aged 71 from bronchitis and a cerebral embolism at 305 Compton Buildings, his son David, who was living at 190 Compton Buildings, being the informant.  Catherine died on 20th May in Archway House, Archway Road, Upper Holloway of arteriosclerosis. Her usual address was 188 Compton Buildings. Again, David was the informant. Archway House was the hospital which was previously known as The Holborn Union Infirmary.

 

TIMELINE

DATE EVENT ADDRESS  
7 June 1872 Marriage 24 Bluevale Street (both) 116 Rottenrow Street, Central
6 September 1872 Catherine 10 David Street, Bridgeton near Annfield Pottery
24 April 1874 David 10 David Street, Bridgeton  
3 May 1876 Alexander 102 Rottenrow, Blackfriars  
8 May 1878 Elizabeth 5 Tarbet Street, Blackfriars  
4 January 1880 Margaret 5 Tarbet Street, Blackfriars  
26 July 1883 James 76 Rottenrow, Blackfriars  
2 June 1887 John 51 Arthur Street, Canongate, Edinburgh  
1890 Andrew 11 Dundee Buildings, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, England  
April 1891 Census 10 Dundee Buildings, Clerkenwell  
1893 William 216 Bartholomews Buildings, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, England  
March 1901 Census 343 Compton Buildings, Clerkenwell  
April 1911 Census 306 Compton Buildings, Clerkenwell  
February 1918 Death of James 305 Compton Buildings, Clerkenwell  
May 1927 Death of Catherine 188 Compton Buildings, Clerkenwell  

SOURCES

British History Online – London Survey:

Charles Booth’s London

Wikipedia: Model buildings companies

Wikipedia: List of existing model dwellings

Wikipedia: Race to the North

Mee-mawing was a form of speech with exaggerated movements to allow lip-reading employed by workers in weaving sheds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The noise in a weaving shed rendered hearing impossible so workers communicated by mee-mawing which was a cross between mime and lip-reading. To have a private conversation when there were other weavers present, the speaker would cup their hand over their mouth to obscure vision. This was very necessary as a mee-mawer would be able to communicate over distances of tens of yards. It was said that each mill had its own dialect.

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