Betty Totton: The Lost Grandmother

One hundred forty-eight years ago, on 12 April 1874, probably at home, the tenth child of Benjamin and Hannah Smith was born. It was a girl, the couple’s fourth and final daughter, and she was named Betty, probably after her father’s sister. Unfortunately, out of four girls, two had passed away in their infancy, and I suspect that both Benjamin and Hannah had slight worries for Betty’s health in light of this.

Betty’s ancestry was quite complex, with young death, dissenting religion and illegitimacy greatly defining it. Her ancestry also represented profound change in local and national history, following the gradual industrial revolution and political and religious changes throughout the 17th to early to mid 19th centuries.

Croppers in the early 19th Century

Following her ancestor’s footsteps, she grew up in the Kew Hill area, a region bordering Blackley and Longwood in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. Her father seemed to work in a variety of cloth related jobs, following most men in his wider area. In 1861 he worked in the quite skilled job of a cloth dresser (or cropper) as did many of his ancestors, but as new technologies developed, croppers found work harder and harder to find. This perhaps explains Benjamin working as a cloth miller a few years before Betty’s birth and then as a cloth fuller for most of her childhood.

The instability surrounding Benjamin’s work perhaps only furthered both his and Hannah’s worries. By 1881 they had a family of ten to provide for, and if Benjamin lost his regular income, the entire family would be threatened. They had to make Benjamin’s wage stretch far, especially before Betty’s older brothers went to work – likely after leaving school aged thirteen – and it is hard not to understate the worry that must have haunted the family.

Another aspect of Betty’s childhood, apart from the worry and threat of starvation, is the sheer size of the household. Fair enough, the number of children couples had was typically much greater than the modern-day but also sadly was infant mortality. I find the fact that Betty grew up with her parents and also nine other siblings, making a household of twelve people, as absolutely striking, especially because the 1891 census describes the Smith household as living in just two rooms. There were no specific instructions relayed to enumerators regarding what counted as a room. Still, even if we were to consider the fact that the number may have been understated – the family must have been absolutely cramped.

The size of the Smith family

Although things had been difficult for the Smith family, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. They laughed, cried, smiled and got up to mischief just as much as anybody nowadays. We actually have an interesting insight into this as Betty’s older brother Brearley and some other local young lads were fined for “gaming at toss for money” in an open shed on Kew Hill. It is noted that a fair few of those present managed to run off, and I suspect there could have been one or two more Smiths in and amongst them. Nevertheless, the laughter, shouting and lecturing that followed all indicate that although times and conditions were hard and, in many ways, horrific, people still lived their lives like we do this day.

Richard Totton

Betty’s choice of husband, Richard Totton, was quite interesting due to his history – his family was typical, and his occupation was fine too – but in the mid-1890s, he had had a little bit of trouble with the law. He was caught doing some probably illegal poaching with his brother and some friends and only just narrowly avoided being sent to jail. Regardless, his name and the fact he basically laughed in a police officer’s face when been accused of the crime was plastered all over the news in West Yorkshire.

Ultimately this didn’t deter Betty, who married him in November 1897 at the local Baptist chapel in Blackley. After their marriage, they didn’t move too far from their respective families, living on Lindley Moor in 1901, and Richard took up work as a coal miner. It wasn’t too long until on a Friday evening, at around half past five in May 1898, that the couple’s first child, a boy called George, was born. After 1901 and at the latest by 1904, the family had moved from the areas Richard and Betty grew up in to the Hightown Heights area of Liversedge.

The couple’s next child was Wilfred, born in 1907, but why was there a nine-year gap between him and George? We cannot be sure of the exact reason, but perhaps both Richard and Betty wanted to settle properly before having more kids. On the other hand, the cramped nature of Betty’s childhood with nine siblings made her hesitant about having a big family? Or was it simply down to fate? Either way, it is impossible to know the exact reasoning, but it is important to acknowledge it.

The Totton and Smith families, circa 1918?

There were a few baptisms in between, but apart from that, nothing major happened until the birth of the couple’s first daughter Lucille in the early hours of 13 February 1911. The family not long after appeared on the 1911 census, where Richard worked as a Deputy in a Coal Mine, and George Totton worked in a mill part-time alongside his education. Betty stayed at home looking after the infant Wilf and Lucille.

Sadly, taking after her two aunts who died in infancy, Lucille died aged only fifteen months in May 1912. Her tragic passing was due to a form of tuberculosis, which she bravely fought against for an impressive two months. She was buried in a plot at Liversedge Cemetery in the following few days. Lucille’s death was tragic and cruel and likely inflicted unimaginable pain and grief upon the Totton household.

My Great Grandmother Doris

In June 1914, my Great Grandmother, Doris, was born. Her birth likely came as a blessing to all the family, allowing them time to grieve Lucille but also then to move on in her name.

By 1920, the family moved into the quite impressive Highfield House in Hartshead and in the Tax Records of the same year, it is clear this was quite the jump for the family. Firstly, the record indicates not only did they have such a lovely house but also the fact that it came with some land and stables but also the fact it had a rent of £18, not a small amount of money at the time.

Even more intriguingly is the fact that both Richard and George Totton were “out of work” in 1921. They both worked in the Hartshead/Clifton pit of the Low Moor Coal and Steel Company as a getter/hewer and trammer, respectively. I suspect that this was down to ongoing industrial disputes, but it is still important to note. Betty remains at home, performing “home duties” whilst Wilf works part-time, and Doris is going to school on a full-time basis.

Area surrounding Highfield House and Park View

George Totton married in 1923, and not too long after, in about 1927, the Totton family moved into one of the less impressive but still comfortable Park View terrace houses. Three years later, Wilf married his wife Minnie, and they moved not too far away to Hartshead and later Roberttown. The same applied to George Totton, who moved out not long after his marriage to Walker’s Terrace nearby. Betty became a grandmother in the aforementioned period also, first came Edith and then Jack in the mid-20s, followed by Barbara in 1931.

Perhaps down to age or even the Great Depression that was now engulfing the world, Richard took up work as a Highway Labourer for the West Riding County Council. Betty had gone from a family of twelve in her early years to now living with just her daughter and husband in the lovely village of Hartshead.

Betty and Doris

Not so long after turning sixty, on 10 May 1934, Betty passed away due to pernicious anaemia, which during the 1930s was almost always fatal. Treatment was tough, and Betty bravely put up with the worst until the end.

She was buried with Lucille two days later, on 12 May 1934. The plot remained unmarked until 24 February 2022, around eighty-eight years later, when the whole family played their part in making sure that both her and Lucille were remembered properly.

Marked finally

Betty will always remain special to me for a variety of reasons. The main one is simply the fact that I see her as such a warm, grandmotherly soul, especially through her pictures. The existence of so many pictures alongside so many other unique family heirlooms and facts also drew me into the Totton family and Betty’s story. Her story is unique but also of its time, and I am so privileged to tell it – alongside Ernest Hall, she is easily one of my “favourite” ancestors.

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