Catherine Conley: A Life of Loss

Catherine Conley was born in the July quarter of 1873 in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland in County Durham. She was the eldest daughter of James Conley, a coal miner, and Bridget Cook. Bridget had another child from a previous marriage named Charles McIlroy, but her husband sadly passed away around the time of his birth. Bridget’s loss caused Catherine’s life in many ways and loss was to follow her for the rest of her transient life.

Baptisms and burials were the main events for the Conley family over the next few years. George Conley, born 1875, survived infancy but the next brother, James, died aged only one in 1878. Peter was born in 1879 and managed to survive infancy. The family resided in cramped conditions, at 38 Brooke Street, in 1881, with the house holding two families totalling eighteen people.

John Street, Monkwearmouth (where the Conley family lived during the 1870s) circa 1850. Courtesy of Brian Dunn.

The new decade that the 1880s brought seemed to stop the relentless losses for the Conley family. Mary Ann, the second daughter of James and Bridget, was born in 1882, followed by the birth of John in 1885. Another daughter called Julia was born two years after John in 1887. Sadly, this happiness was a cruel mirage because death creeped around the corner.

Tuberculosis was the killer.

The silent plague that swept the slums killed Bridget, aged only 42 years, on 13 January 1891 just shortly after the birth of her daughter Martha Conley. Martha would survive for about 2 months before dying in March 1891. A small snapshot can be seen of the family after these two losses on the 1891 census which was taken a mere 26 days after the death of Martha. James resides with his children at 18 Stobart in Monkwearmouth and continues to work as a Coal Miner. Catherine’s responsibilities would have skyrocketed after her mother’s premature death as she was the eldest child. It Is likely she would have filled a large portion of the domestic work Bridget used to complete.

Death Certificate of Bridget Conley

More deaths occurred in the shattered remains of the Conley family during the early 1890s. John Conley died aged 7 years in 1892 and was followed to the grave by his sister Mary Ann, in 1894, aged 12 years. James and Bridget had eight kids in total; half of them died in their childhoods. Catherine was only twenty years old and had seen the death of her mother and all these siblings. More was to follow.

Catherine married John William Jobling in the first quarter of 1895, aged 21 years. They probably got married at the local catholic church or registration office. Their first child was a girl who was born in January at home. She was named Bridget, most likely after her maternal grandmother Bridget Cook, and like her grandmother would suffer a premature death, at the age of two years, in 1898. The couple had moved to 1 Back Dundas Street, not that far from James Conley, by the burial of their daughter Bridget on 17 Aug 1898.

The death notice of John Jobling in the Sunderland Echo

Possibly the worst of Catherine’s losses was to follow with death of her husband, John Jobling. 21 May 1899 was an unremarkable day for the Jobling’s, apart from the fact that John got a piece of broken glass from a vase stuck in his heel. He did not bother about it much until he fetched a doctor on 29 May 1899 to treat him. Despite their best efforts, it was all in vain, and Jobling perished on 6 June 1899 at roughly half past seven in the evening.  

Tragically, Catherine was pregnant when John died. She gave birth to a boy in mid July 1899 at home which would be named John, presumably after his late father. 6 weeks was all it took for John to join his father and sister in death.

Catherine was abruptly alone.

She seems to disappear after the death of her son John Jobling, as she is not present on the 1901 census as far as I have searched. It is likely she stayed local though as she moves to Whitburn Street by 1904.

Catherine married Luke McGinty, a 44-year-old widower, on 12 July 1905. He had an equally as tragic background and lost all but one of his ten kids to his first wife Sarah Hannon. The couple moved into 20 Whitburn Street by 1906 where my Great Grandfather James “Jim” McGinty was born on 14 November of that year.

Jim McGinty (Catherine’s son) in later life

Catherine was only 34 years old when Tuberculosis prised her from her family on 28 February 1909. My Great Grandfather had barely turned two years old when he lost his mother. She was buried at Mere Knolls Cemetery, like the rest of the family, on 3 Mar 1909.

My grandma did not even know her grandmother’s name until 2017. Her story remained a mystery even after that as the records were unclear and conflicting for a long time. Once her story was discovered, it was apparent it was clearly one of loss. Not just merely loss of life but a much deeper loss; a loss of memories, a place in history and the loss of being a mother.

Catherine’s courageous story will be remembered now as it should have been years ago.

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2 responses to “Catherine Conley: A Life of Loss”

  1. This is saucy a tragic story George, but you tell it so beautifully. Thank you for sharing Catherine’s story. She will be remembered.


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