My ancestry has many stories of true tragedy, unimaginable loss and difficult and, to some extent, traumatic childhoods. But there are also remarkable stories of love, survival, and unimaginable perseverance. Sometimes, these stories come hand in hand, and my Great Great Great Grandmother, Mary Jane Fell’s story is perhaps the epitome.
Mary Jane Fell was born into what is quite a complex and quite fascinating family. Depending upon the day, she was either Mary Jane ‘Fell’ or ‘Turner’ or even both. This is owing to the illegitimate birth of her grandfather but then his mother’s quick marriage to his biological father. What about her mother’s unclear origins before her move to York? And what about the fact mother changes her maiden name record to record, either being a ‘Ward’ or ‘Wedgewood’?
As these questions remain unanswered or have quite perplexing answers, let us focus on what we know. Mary Jane was baptised on 12 October 1856 at the now-demolished St Maurice, Monkgate. Her father was Alfred Fell, a comb maker and Freeman of the City and her mother was called Fanny. The couple married a few years previously and had already had one child, Alfred, before the birth of Mary Jane.
On this 1856 baptism record, the family is recorded as living on Lord Mayor’s Walk and, by 1861, had moved to Mason’s Buildings, Coppergate. Another brother, James, had joined the family by that point, and two more would follow over the next decade – John and Frederick. By 1871 the family had moved again to 9 King Street, Castlegate. These addresses may ostensibly appear to be dotted all over the city, but the last two are relatively close to each other and even moving from Lord Mayor’s Walk wasn’t the end of the world for young Mary Jane. In 1872 or so, the family welcomed its youngest and final member – Rose.
There was a problem about to materialise for young Mary Jane, her father and her siblings – her mother’s drinking habits and loose fingers.
Fanny spent nearly seven years in the confines of York Prison over the next twenty years or so. Years she should have raised her youngest daughter Rose, grown old with Alfred and simply just lived life. I am not claiming that life would have been easy, but certainly easier than the life spent in York Castle. The first conviction occurred in 1872, and from snippets of information, it is apparent that she tended to steal things after drinking but was ‘a good wife’ according to her husband when she was sober.
This is clearly relevant to Mary Jane’s story, but it is worth discussing why. Firstly, there was the unfortunate fact that her mother had become a ‘notorious’ character well-known for her offences. Holding that burden as her daughter in Victorian society must have been a lot to deal with. Furthermore, Mary Jane was about 16 or so when her mother was first sent down and will likely have had lots of responsibility thrust upon her very quickly. Her sister Rose was still very young and needed looking after her. Additionally, who was to do the housework? Poor Mary Jane not only had to deal with the temporary loss of her mother but also her mother’s workload.
It is not all doom or gloom, however.
She fell lucky and married Alfred Dale in the final quarter of 1879. Alfred’s family was somewhat more prestigious. He was the son of a Printer, nephew of John Dale, the Sword Bearer of York, and grandson of the well-known late hairdresser William Dale. Yet, Alfred’s occupation was not as glamorous as he was a glassblower, but prestige isn’t that important.
What mattered was the birth of the newly wedded couple’s first child, a daughter called Frances Lily, in 1880. By 1881 they had moved to 14 Willow Street, Walmgate, and that year’s census also reveals some unique circumstances about Mary Jane’s day-to-day life – the fact she worked – specifically as a comb maker’s labourer. There is a link here to her father and his occupation, but I find it unlikely that Mary Jane would have been working for him directly. Both Alfred and Fanny (with some of their younger kids) had made a temporary move to Hackney in London by 1881 and would be back in less than a year.
More children followed Mary Jane in 1882 and Edward in 1885. Edward sadly passed away, aged only five hours, and it is unimaginable what pain Mary Jane and Alfred must have felt in grieving for their child. Perhaps comforting to some extent was the births of more children – Ada in 1886, Albert Victor in 1888 and Florence Edith in 1890.
By 1890, the family still lived in Walmgate but now at 33 Duke of York Place. Nothing much had changed in the family apart from the loss of Edward and its continuing growth. Mary Jane’s life was perhaps as stable as it had ever been; despite her mother continuing to be imprisoned, she had her beloved husband and plenty of children to fall back upon.
Sadly, despite this newfound stability, she wasn’t protected from reality as her father Alfred Fell died in 1895 and was buried at York Cemetery a few days after his passing in an unmarked public grave (18875). What probably made the loss sting, even more, was that her mother was imprisoned for trying to steal a shawl, so I find it unlikely she would have been present at the funeral. Alfred never gave up on Fanny and always came to her defence and was willing to admit her faults, which makes the prior fact even more painful.
By 1901, the final Dale children had been born – Arthur in 1893 and George Alfred in 1898. That year’s census showed that the family remained living at 33 Duke of York Place but indicated that they lived in four rooms. Furthermore, Alfred Dale is recorded as working as a glassblower for bottles and the two eldest sisters (barring Frances Lily, who had left home), Mary Jane and Ada, as working confectionary makers. Life wasn’t easy for the family, but they were getting along with it and doing their bit to help.
Despite the stability of 1901, Mary Jane was to face her two most considerable losses yet.
First came the loss of her mother on 26 June 1905, which was likely a tough loss to deal with. Perhaps there was a feeling that her parents were reunited again by death, and her mother was no longer beset by her life’s problems on this earth. A few days after her death and perhaps some contemplation by those that knew her, Fanny Fell was buried in a different public grave (19402) to her husband, a sad irony reflecting that they were divided by bars in life and also divided in death.
What followed was worse, however – Alfred Dale became ill with tongue cancer and died, aged just 47, at home on 30 August 1906. His death, only from the description on his death certificate, appears to have been unpleasant, and it must have been excruciatingly distressing for Mary Jane to deal with. The death, however, was only just the beginning of her problems. How was she to feed five or so children? How would she keep her house? What work was available for her, a nearly fifty-year-old widow?
As Alfred was buried on 1 August 1906 in a public grave at York Cemetery like her parents, perhaps some of these questions subsided. However, we have a unique way to see Mary Jane’s feelings for her late husband, mainly via a kerb erected on his grave. Disappointedly it has since sunken, but its inscription appears to be words of Mary Jane herself: “In Loving Memory of my beloved husband Alfred Dale, who died 30 August 1906”. The fact he even had a marker on his grave is quite unique and testimony to his memory and life as well as those around him.
Linking back to the problems Mary Jane faced now she was a widow, she finally concluded that the family were to pack up and go to the prosperous Heavy Wollen area. There would be plenty of work available in the mills, and if everything went well, the family could cope easier with its added pressures now the main breadwinner was dead. I think they likely moved via train and can only imagine how they all felt as they boarded the train at York Railway Station and said goodbye to their home.
The gamble appeared to work well, and by 1908 the family lived at 4 Leeds Road, Dewsbury. We know this as Mary Jane (or Jenny as her marriage certificate refers to her) gets married to a 44-year-old Bachelor, George Marshall. He lived nearby at 8 Leeds Road and worked with the Coke Ovens as a labourer.
By 1911 the family, now consisting of the three youngest boys (Albert Victor, Arthur and George Alfred) and Mary Jane and George Marshall, ended up living at 40 Primrose Hill, Soothill. This began a long tradition of Dale residency on Primrose Hill that lasted up until the mid-1960s. Arthur was a labourer at a woollen mill, while George Marshall and Albert Victor Dale worked in a Coke Plant. Arguably, Mary Jane had returned to the stability of before, and this was not an easy feat to achieve. It was truly indicative of a robust and decisive character that loved her family deeply.
1914 came around, and everything changed.
The war affected every aspect of life, especially as it dragged on in its later years. Cuts and austerity measures were necessary, and propaganda and war news was plastered all over the local newspapers. Goods may have been harder to come by, and prices may have also altered. Not only this but Mary Jane’s youngest, George Alfred Dale, was serving in the war.
It appears that he joined up pretty much at the start of the war and took the liberty, like many others, of rounding up his age in order to serve. He was a Private in the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) 2/5th Battalion which was originally formed as a home service unit. George travelled the whole country before he arrived in France in early 1917 and served in a variety of battles, including the Battle of Bullecourt (May 1917), The Cambrai Operations (November 1917) and the first stages of the First Battles of the Somme (1918).
Quite tragically, he was wounded in combat on 28 March 1918 and was sent to a hospital in Rouen the following day. He gallantly fought his injuries until 31 March 1918, when he passed away at age 20.
Mary Jane had lost her youngest boy.
George Alfred Dale wrote and signed an informal will on 12 May 1917, where he left his entire estate to his mother. Perhaps I read too much into it, but I always find it quite moving that he left all his estate to his mother, maybe a final nod to how much Mary Jane had done for him and his family.
We know a lot about Mary Jane’s further experience of 1918, and it doesn’t appear to have treated her well. Her son’s death had deeply affected her as she was described as ‘fretting a lot’ over his death. I resent that term because it almost trivialises her grief. Regardless, she was described as able to function and “carry out her work” despite the loss.
Adding to an already emotionally exhaustive year, she even caught influenza in November 1918 but luckily recovered.
Her death is one we know quite a great deal about owing to the inquest into it.
Her husband described Mary Jane as being a ‘stout’ lady who was sometimes short of breath. The previously mentioned period of influenza in November 1918 didn’t help Mary Jane. Still, she appeared to be in alright health after it, with her daughter-in-law Hannah (who also happens to be my Great Great Grandmother) stating that “she seemed the same to me”.
On Monday 20 January 1919, Mary Jane had a light supper, removed herself to bed at about 8.45 and was in her normal state. However, this all changed when she awakened her husband at about 3 am, complaining of chest pains. George Marshall then made his wife a cup of tea, and she managed to drink about half of it. George remained downstairs, and Mary Jane later came downstairs at around 4.30 and collapsed onto the hearthrug.
George placed his wife in a chair and quickly rushed for his stepson’s wife, Hannah, and they both put Mary Jane back to bed. Quite heartbreakingly, Mary Jane remarked, “I am going to die” when put back to bed, and George Marshall replied to his wife, saying, “Don’t talk like that”.
George then rushed for a doctor while Hannah remained with her mother-in-law. She made Mary Jane’s bed after her mother-in-law told her she wasn’t well. Mary Jane reportedly continued to complain of pain in the chest and was “fighting” for breath.
George managed to return just in time, and at about 5.30 am Mary Jane passed away, aged 62 or so, on 21 January 1919.
An inquest found she died of heart failure caused by the fatty degeneration of the heart. She was buried at Batley Cemetery in the following days.
I would say that Mary Jane Fell, or Dale, or Marshall led a remarkable life. It had many ups and downs – every win was paired with an equal loss and vice versa. She fought hard from her mother’s first conviction right up until the end and those final pivotal hours. She moved her family across Yorkshire as a widow and lost a son soon after birth and one to war. She had also managed to find love again and, most importantly, guaranteed her and her family’s survival.
There is not too much else to say, just what a woman and a legacy.
I aspire to have an ounce of her courage and perseverance and can proudly claim her as my Great Great Great Grandmother.