Eliza Jackson: Survival, Luck and Loss

I must preface this by saying that many aspects of Eliza’s life (especially her childhood) are unclear, and I cannot guarantee that as time goes on, things won’t change. There is lots of conflicting evidence that has been hard to wade through. Nevertheless, all research undertaken was to the best standard I can aspire to and backed up with DNA evidence.

As I said, Eliza’s early life is a little murky; however, she was probably born on 1 April 1852 to James and Sarah Jackson. The family resided on Grey Street (now Hunslet Road), and Eliza was raised in likely grim conditions. Her father worked as a dyer in a textile mill as their local Leeds, and also more generally Northern England, began to industrialise at an unprecedented rate. However, this progress didn’t necessarily flow down to the average worker who faced a hard and harsh existence labouring for their survival.

Growing up, it was a house of boys but also loss – at birth, she had a living brother and a sister. Sadly her eldest brother passed away a year before she was born. In the next decade or so, up until 1864, the Jackson family grew quickly, and Eliza had four new brothers and a sister. Tragically death struck repeatedly and mercilessly for the next decade of Eliza’s life.

First came the death of her brother George who died aged only eight months. He ironically shared the first name of Eliza’s eldest brother, who passed away in 1851 and was buried at Beckett Street Cemetery. This place would become too familiar to young Eliza in the coming years.

Beckett Street Cemetery – Taken from Flickr

December 1866 – two deaths within just a week or so shook the Jackson household. First came Eliza’s younger sister Caroline who passed away aged nine, Eliza’s younger brother James then passed away soon after, aged twelve. I don’t have death certificates to confirm their causes of death, but I think it is likely that perhaps disease plagued the household that month. They were both buried at the familiar Beckett Street Cemetery – Caroline on 7 December, James on 18 December.

Despite the fact that infant mortality rates were much higher, and the loss of children was much more common, the impact of these deaths upon the Jackson household and both James and Sarah cannot and must not be underestimated. We will never know how they coped or precisely what they felt, but I can only imagine that their feelings of loss and grief were profound and only more was to follow.

By 1870, aged about fifty, James Jackson, a husband and father of five living children, was dead. Again, I don’t have a death certificate with the exact cause, but we know he passed away on 2 July 1870 and was buried a few days later at Beckett Street Cemetery. I should stress that the family were not buried together in a plot – the family couldn’t afford that – instead, they were all buried in separate public plots across the cemetery.

Leeds Times – 7 July 1870 – James Jackson’s death notice

Now Eliza had lost her father and a vast chunk of her siblings, and she was only aged about nineteen. Losing a father is devastating, of course, but an overlooked aspect, perhaps from our modern eyes, is the loss of the family’s breadwinner. How was Sarah going to provide for her kids now? The threat of the dreaded workhouse loomed.
I suppose there was a blessing in the form that all members of the household, barring William, the youngest lad, were recorded as working in the 1871 census, including both Eliza and Sarah. This wasn’t great at all as conditions, as I said, were horrible, but they were surviving and banding together in the face of loss and grief – what an unbreakable bond must have been formed.

Grim conditions in Victorian Leeds – Taken from https://chrisnickson.co.uk/

In 1871 Eliza worked as a Tobacco Spinner, a rather interesting sounding occupation – what did that entail? Well, the Dictionary of Old Occupations defines the job as being an individual who made and sold tobacco products, e.g. cigars, snuff, etc., on the premises. It is unclear whether Eliza was making or selling the products or perhaps even doing both, but it was likely a tough job. Unfortunately, I did not find many sources on the working conditions of the job. Still, I came across a few limited and perhaps even outdated photos that imply the work was quite physical and clearly would have been grim for Eliza to undertake.

Eliza’s big sister, Mary, married Henry Redshaw in 1871, and although she seemed to have everything to look forward to, she would be dead mere months after her first wedding anniversary. Loss had struck the family again – Eliza was the only sister left.

Two years later, in October 1874, at Mirfield Parish Church, Eliza finally stuck some good luck and got married to Frank Butcher, a cloth dresser who faced a similarly traumatic childhood. His mother passed away when he was only about five or so, and his family split and migrated all the way from Frome to Leeds. His father worked away, and eventually, both Frank and his father ended up living in Ravensthorpe by 1874, so did Eliza, according to her marriage certificate.

Frank and Eliza’s marriage record

How both Frank and Eliza exactly met is very unclear, but I suspect the Leeds connection played a prominent role in it.

After their autumnal wedding at such a beautiful and near ancient church, they moved to Mirfield and its surrounding areas and lived on Crossley Lane by 1881. Eliza’s childhood of loss seemed a distant memory as, by that period, she had given birth to two healthy boys and two healthy girls.

More children would follow – three girls and one boy.

Emily in later life

The second to last child was called Emily, and was born on 3 May 1887 and was baptised not long after on 6 July 1887 at St. Saviour’s Church in Ravensthorpe. The family had moved to Dearnley Street in Ravensthorpe by this point, and little Emily was also probably born there. She is so important because she was my Great Great Grandmother, and her picture proudly stands staring back at me as I write.

Finally, in 1891, the Butcher family seemed complete. Miraculously, all children born alive had survived, and it looked like both Frank and Eliza had finally broken the cycle of viscous loss that had plagued their childhood. After all, within less than a decade, it was going to be a new century and surely watching their children and soon to be born grandchildren in it was something to look forward to.

Eliza didn’t reach the new century.

Her death was perhaps unnecessarily tragic and is even upsetting to me – her Great Great Great Grandson – born just over a century after it. Her exact cause of death was Placenta Presia Post-Partum, which is related to pregnancy in simple terms. It is unclear if this meant she died in childbirth itself, but no living child is recorded as being born.

Hanging Heaton Church – where she would be buried in 1893

She died on 13 October 1893, which was ironically a Friday. She was buried a few days later in an unmarked grave at Hanging Heaton Churchyard, in the same Churchyard as Emily and her husband. Frank, her husband, was probably buried in the same plot as her – in the end, at least they got to rest together.

In the end, Eliza didn’t break that cycle that cursed her childhood, but it was soon broken by her daughter Emily. However, we shouldn’t focus just on her tragic ending, as her story of grit, courage and survival in the face of so much loss and the plain cruelness of life is truly inspiring. It is a story that 170 years after her birth should always be remembered in its entirety. I aspire to take her grit and courage into my own life, and I am convinced that her daughter, my Great Great Grandmother, Emily, also inherited it.

One hundred and seventy years to the day of her birth, Eliza’s short life but important legacy remains strong.

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