Jane Stephenson – A Victorian Single Mother of Six

Jane was born in 1832 in the tiny village of Bolton, Westmorland (now Cumbria) to Hugh Stephenson and his wife Jane (nee Bell). She was christened on the 9th of March that year in the parish church of All Saints.

All Saints Bolton Westmorland
All Saints, Bolton, Westmorland

Although her parents had married almost six years earlier in the same church on the 29th of May 1826, it seems Jane was their only child. She was still living in Bolton, Westmorland with her Father and Mother on the 1841 Census aged 9 years.

Despite extensive searching I have been unable to locate Jane in the 1851 census. She was not with her parents who were still living in Bolton. Her father Hugh was described as a riddle maker (a maker of sieves for grain.) He died of a hemorrhage on the 28th of April 1856 in the nearby village of Crackenthorpe, Westmorland.

It would seem likely that Jane, who would by now be aged 19, would have been earning her own living perhaps in domestic service or otherwise.

Jane gave birth to her first child William who was christened on the 28th of January 1852 at All Saints, Bolton and her daughter Elizabeth was christened on the 27th of July 1856 at St Michael’s Appleby, Westmorland (the county town about 4 miles away).

By 1861 29 year old Jane and her 67 year old widowed mother Jane were living in Albert Street in the market town of Penrith across the county border in Cumberland (also now Cumbria). Both were described as washerwomen and Jane stated that she was still unmarried despite the presence in the household of her two children.

Sandgate Methodist
Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Penrith. 2013. Copyright GW Oxley

The children were joined that same year by a brother James and in 1865 by a sister Mary Ann Reay who was christened in the Wesleyan Chapel just around the corner at the top of Sandgate, Penrith on the 13th of September 1865. (She is recorded as the alleged daughter of Robert Reay.)

In 1871 Jane was 39 years old and a charwoman living at nearby 20 Brook Street, Penrith with her three youngest children and her mother. She was still a single woman supporting her family and there were two more mouths to feed when her sons Joseph and John Alfred were born about 1872 and 1876 respectively. Both boys’ baptisms were recorded in the Wesleyan circuit records, noted as illegitimate, but unfortunately with no father’s name recorded for either of them .

Jane’s mother died at Brook Street, Penrith on the 12th of June 1872 aged 77 from cerebral softening, this may indicate she had suffered a stroke or hemorrhage. Her death was registered not by her daughter but by a neighbour, Frances Kirkbride (1871 census – 8 Brook Street) . Jane senior was buried in Penrith cemetery.

The younger Jane, by now 48 years old, was recorded as a Seamstress and dressmaker in the 1881 census of Penrith. She lived at 4 Thompson’s Yard with her youngest children: James (19) a Clogger; Mary A[nn] (15) a Domestic Servant; Joseph (8) and John A[lfred] (5) who were both described as scholars.

By 1891 Jane claimed to be only 56! (losing or gaining a few years across the censuses was fairly common because people may not actually have been sure of their true age). She had moved to Narrow Yard, Burrowgate, Penrith with her two youngest children. Joseph (18) was now working as a french polisher and John Alfred (15) as an errand boy.

In 1901 a 68 year old Jane and her family were living at Lynn Court, just off Albert Street, Penrith. In the household were her children; Mary Ann (34) a shirt seamstress; Joseph (28) a french polisher and John A[lfred] (25) an upholsterer. Jane also had two Granddaughters with her – Edith J[ane] Ousby (17) a shirt sewing machinist and Florence Ousby (8), these two girls were children of her own daughter Elizabeth who had married Joseph Ousby in 1878, but who died on the 3rd September 1899 aged just 41 whilst suffering from tuberculosis.

The 1911 census shows us Jane aged 77, a housekeeper at home at 42 Albert Street, Penrith. Her daughter Mary [Ann] (44) was described as a cook, domestic. Jane’s son John [Alfred] (33) was still working as an upholsterer and her granddaughter Rosa Ousby (24) was a dressmaker. Rosa was another of Elizabeth’s children.

Penrith Cemetery
Penrith Cemetery, Beacon Edge, Penrith

Jane Stephenson died aged 91 on the 20th of February 1924 at 42 Albert Street from senile decay. Her death was registered by her son John Alfred who wrongly records that she was the daughter of Michael Stephenson. (Michael was in fact her Uncle, the brother of her late father Hugh.) She was buried in the unconsecrated section of Penrith Cemetery, most likely because she was of a non-conformist (Wesleyan) faith rather than Church of England.


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