The story begins with Sarah, as it must, because she was the first to go.
Pursuing ancestors previous to the Sarahs and Mary Annes, to Johanna and Henineh, or the numerous Johns, Peters, James, Samuels and Alfreds, is of no use. The records of their lives, if any, have largely disappeared, as have the unmarked graves in which they were buried.
Sarah’s mother, Dorothy Lacey, was born in Rearsby, Leicestershire, just as the eleven ships of the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth, departing for Botany Bay with their allotment of seven hundred and fifty convicts in 1787. Dorothy, an unrecorded class of person, was probably illegitimate: what is certain is that her daughter Sarah certainly was. Throughout her life Sarah whatever-her-name-was chose a series of fathers when documents required them. Shortly after Sarah’s birth in 1808, Dorothy provided Sarah with one of them by marrying Samuel Allen, a journeyman framework knitter and a widower with three young children.
In England Sarah was born on the cusp of the Regency, that period of English monarchy so exquisitely chronicled by Georgette Heyer. Her Regency England was a land of precise social gradations. The ten million human beings who inhabited England at that time formed strata of igneous rock, shaped, however, into a pyramid of human bodies: at the top a precious few, their lives a very heaven; at the bottom a heaving multitude, hell precariously kept at bay, if at all:
Artisans and tradespeople
My great-great-grandmother Sarah hovered between the last two categories. Although she spent fifty years in England trudging along the foot of the pyramid, she had two distinctions. She belonged to the largest class of human beings who lived in England at the time and she was emancipated, as the women above her were not to be for more than a century: she was a working woman from the day she was born.
Samuel Allen lived in Thurmaston, a village four miles north of Leicester. It was the kind of English village in which the blacksmith was always called Smith. Many of them were Allens, a common name in those parts, though it was often spelled Alin or Allin as most could neither read nor write. Some could, of course: the lord of the manor of Thurmaston was an Allen, always called Thomas, until the very last Thomas Allen was killed in action in 1915. In the long line of wealthy Allens there are no Samuels and no Alfreds. Dorothy and Sarah went to live in Samuel Allen’s cottage a stone’s throw from Thurmaston’s church of St Michael & All Angels. Many Allens are buried there, my ancestors in nameless graves, though grander Allens are duly recorded. My mother, Lorraine Allen, was very partial to the poetry of tombstones and would have loved the words with which Hannah Allen presented the death of her husband Thomas, who died at the age of thirty-one in 1753:
Stay, Reader, prepare; reflect, whilst this you view,
Who next shall die,—uncertain—why not you?
Families such as that of Samuel and Dorothy Allen could claim—but did not—a history of cottage framework knitting that went back to the seventeenth century. The knitting machine, first invented in 1589 by a country parson, was improved and tinkered with over the centuries. It became more flexible as the requirements of breeches and hose called for embroidery and decoration for the wealthier male leg, but essentially his invention was used in one form or another until the mid 1840s finally saw the timid advent of steam-powered machines. The men and women who worked on the narrow hand frames in their homes were called ‘stockingers’: they descended into pitiable poverty as industrialisation took over.
In Sarah’s time few knitters owned cottage or frame, but rented both, and there the whole family worked at, on and around the machine. They were large and very heavy, ‘crammed into basements, cellars or attics, with the family occupying at the most two rooms elsewhere in the house’. The frame would be placed in the living room, taking up the entire ground floor, with a winding machine inched in. Their cheap brick cottages were constructed around small communal yards, front door opening to the street, back door opening to the yard with its single pump, which froze in winter. They housed as many as ten or twelve human beings, all sleeping in one or two rooms. Overcrowding and contaminated water and yards often inches deep in sewage; cesspools too near human dwellings and wells brought death: puerperal fever, consumption, cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, small pox.
The children of framework knitters generally began winding and sewing between the ages of three or four and seven and the boys moved on to the frame itself at about ten or eleven years of age—by the age of twelve they could work the frame as well as a man—and be paid much less. Parliament could regulate child labour in factories, but this domestic industry meant that as late as 1862 Mary Thorpe described the treatment of children to the Children’s Employment Commission: ‘… Mother will pin them to her knee to keep them to their work and if they are sleepy give them a slap on the side of the head to keep them awake …’
Over the years Dorothy had many heads to slap. There were eight more children, seven sons: Henry, Samuel, John, William 1 (died at 6 months), William 2—the replacement—Joseph, Benjamin and one daughter, Mary Ann. The parish register records Samuel Allen’s family as being one of the largest in the village. Sarah lived with her parents and ten siblings, inside a cottage with air hazy with wool dust. The smell of human bodies and rank tallow candles wafted over the drone of the winding machine and the endless rattle of the frames. They made a clackety-clack sound as distinct as the clickety-clack of a train, but unlike a passing train, the sound was endless. It is clear the domestic stockingers were a wretched bunch physically, the damage inflicted on their lungs, in particular, handed on to a multitude of descendants, many of them also particularly deaf in the left ear.
Hose and stockings, fancy or plain, was the business of their village. By the time Sarah left to marry and live in Leicester, Thurmaston produced only children’s socks and gloves. Making hose also led to the making of shoes and boots for suitably hosed feet, and this was the occupation of my greatgrandfather as a child in Leicester, and later in Melbourne. If unemployed, as was so often the case, the parish found work for the destitute. The habit of putting the unemployed and impoverished to useful work, such as ‘reducing hills on roads’, is as British an institution as the monarchy. The descent of the majority of stockingers into destitution was matched by the rising fury of the rate-paying classes as, year after year, the population, and the poor rate they had to pay, rose alarmingly. If relief was begrudged, as was so often the case, the needy poached and stole, thus enabling shiploads of paupers and the labouring poor to be transported to Australia: all the Englishwomen in my family were despatched to Australia as domestic servants.
It must not be thought for one moment that persons of the class of the Allen family took to this life without a struggle. In truth, however, all they had to protect themselves with was their fists and the implements they could wield. By 1811 wages were often less than they had been a hundred years earlier. In nearby Nottingham, destitution gave rise to the Luddites, desperate gangs of men who destroyed new wide-frame machines and the frame shops that sprang up to house them. Their furies extended further than mere machine breaking; in all some thousand frames were broken, seventeen men were put to death and twenty-five men transported to Australia for robbery, larceny, assault and extortion, and the understandable criminal activity of rioting for food. A procession of useless rebellion and struggle for subsistence wound through Sarah’s English life. Agitation, legal or not, continued, as did death and transportation. Matters worsened particularly in 1819. In that year, more than a hundred miles (160 kilometres) to the north, some sixty thousand people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand parliamentary reform: a cavalry charge of local militia killed many, and injured hundreds. The Peterloo Massacre was a signpost for popular unrest, which was to mark the first half of the nineteenth century in Sarah’s England.
Unsurprisingly, in the years she lived in Thurmaston, Sarah was no better than she could bear to be, and what is known about her is measured by her womb, and whatever official documents survive to report her use of it. The fathers she claimed on such documents varied over the years, but her children were accurately reported, if only admitted to many years later when she was too far away from Poor Law guardians or church dignitaries for them to abuse her. Samuel Allen could not write his name, so Sarah’s unfortunate first-born Eliza was registered as ‘Allin, ill/e Dr. of Sarah Lacey’ on 12 August 1827. The law required that the putative father should support his illegitimate child; he could be imprisoned if he refused to do so. If no father made himself known, the parish provided relief for mother and child. Sarah would have received 1s 6d from the magistrates, most probably with a lecture. There was yet another depression in 1826: too much has been written about the fate of bastard children born into poverty in the nineteenth century for it to be any surprise that after her birth, nothing was heard of Eliza again until Sarah recorded her three children on her marriage to the ex-convict George Conquest, in Melbourne in 1868. Her report— Three children, two living, one dead—tells the story.
Also in 1827, the framework knitters of Leicester addressed a petition—a ‘Memorial’ as it was called—to the Privy Council for Trade in Whitehall, listing their grievances and describing how for so many years
they endured, with the greatest patience, the most intense sufferings
… sixteen hours a day many are compelled to labour, with only a
morsel of bread to support them through the day, and then go …
weary, hungry, and almost supperless to bed, destitute of necessities
to cover them.
The cheering reply from Whitehall came thus:
I am directed by their Lordships to inform you, that they are extremely
sorry to learn that the memorialists are suffering so greatly; and that
their Lordships regret very much that it is not in their power to point out
a remedy, nor to comply with the request conveyed in their memorial’.
Between 1814 and 1844 wages for the stockingers fell by 40 per cent: it was the decade of ‘half work and full charges’ or no work, full charges and then the poor house, or farthings spent in the beer house for solace. The Allens lived within a stone’s throw of most of the pubs and inns of Thurmaston and there is the reek of alcohol in the account of Sarah’s arrest, with her half-brother Samuel and three others, in June 1833, when she and her cohorts were tried for riotous assembly and breaking the peace, and charged accordingly. In 1836, an exceptionally bad year for the stockingers, Sarah had her second illegitimate child, a boy called John Dick. Allen is a common Leicestershire surname name but Dick is not: no father called Dick presented himself. The old English phrase ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ is all that comes to mind. Like her next child, my greatgrandfather Alfred, John called himself John Allen all his life. He pops up over the years, usually misbehaving; among his offences were the breaking of fences and the assault of a constable.
From all these inequities and disappointments, and more, arose the Chartists, who became a mass political movement in full force from 1838 until the 1850s. The six demands of their People’s Charter, proclaimed in May 1838, included votes for men over the age of twenty-one, secret ballots and other reforms. The first petition the Chartists presented to parliament was signed by more than a million people. The second petition was signed by more than three million—only a quarter of that number of men could vote at the time—but these mass petitions never achieved the support of more than fifty MPs. So Sarah’s early years in England saw few advances in any sphere for the labouring poor and none at all for women.
As ever, Chartists included only men in the demands of their People’s Charter, though women attended their meetings and fought alongside them. Also as usual, imprisonment and transportation was the reward for active objection to the status quo, not only for Chartists, of whom more than a hundred were transported to Australia, but also notably in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In 1834, in Dorset, six agricultural labourers were tried under an obscure eighteenth-century Act forbidding unlawful oaths, and immediately shipped off to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land. The injustice of the proceedings that condemned them caused uproar throughout the country: some thirty thousand marched down Whitehall and a quarter of a million people signed petitions. The men were pardoned in 1836. After some delay, the six were given a free passage home.
George Loveless was the first to return. As he was on the high seas for the sixmonth journey back to England, in March 1837 a small new settlement in Victoria was named after Lord Melbourne, the prime minister who had personally arranged the speed and harshness of the martyrs trial. His severity continued in his dealings with the Chartists. The family seat of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was the Hall in the knitting town of Melbourne, Derbyshire, some twenty miles from Thurmaston. Not a whiff of the lives of the people who surrounded him seems to have come his way: Chartists and Tolpuddle Martyrs heralded the end of civilisation as he and most Whig and Tory grandees knew it. The unfortunate name given to the city of Melbourne lives on.
This was ‘the Hungry 40s’. The winter of 1842 was grim but the summer was worse: there were men on the streets singing Chartist songs, there were riots throughout the country and Sarah was once again pregnant. In 1843, three months gone in this condition, ‘sary lacey’ left her son John behind for good—he was six at the time—and married a journeyman framework knitter in Leicester, William Grundy. Whether William Grundy was the father of the son, Alfred, is hard to say. Sarah was a rich fibber when it came to officialdom. For her marriage to William Grundy she chose Thomas Lacey, labourer, as her father. She moved on to claim Samuel Allen for this role when she married George Conquest. What is certain is that the child born in Leicester on 9 December 1843, my great-grandfather Alfred, was, if born in wedlock, a six-month-old baby most unlikely to survive at such an age in the condition and century into which he was born. It is also certain that Joseph Allen married three months after Sarah, both of them signed off at the altar by Samuel Allen with his ‘X’. Joseph was only twenty and Sarah thirty-five when she gave birth to my great-grandfather Alfred. However, on his arrival in Australia it was Joseph Allen, Sarah’s half-brother, whom Alfred called his father, and it was this name that was passed on to his numerous descendants in Melbourne.
Fornication between close relatives, blessed by the church or otherwise, was a regular event in the nineteenth century. Prince Albert was the first cousin of Queen Victoria. In fact all the Hanoverians had the habit of marrying cousins of one degree or another, as did many of their descendants. The novels of Jane Austen are studded with similar couplings. Emma Wedgewood married her first cousin Charles Darwin. And so on through the novels of Trollope and Hardy. In time Darwin himself became concerned with such marriages and asked his son George to find out ‘ by inquiry in asylums, whether the percentage of the offspring of consanguineous marriages among the diseased is greater than that in the healthy population’. His conclusion was that the rich suffered little from such consanguine arrangements, but that for the poor, ‘if the children were ill fed, badly housed and clothed, the evil might become very marked’.
Little has been written about incest in the congested family quarters of the labouring poor. What is noticeable is that in oral accounts such workers constantly refer to beds—dearth of beds, beds of straw, numbers that sleep in such beds, if beds there were. In 1845 a commission was appointed to inquire into the condition of the framework knitters and gave one of the many thousands of descriptions extant of how such families lived—and slept. Samuel Hurst, a stockinger, reported that he had six of his ten children at home: ‘The family slept in one room: he and his wife and two small children in one bed; three children in another, and two more in a crib-bed.’ Another, William Wyatt, reported, ‘we all of us lie on one bed’.
In 1843 Leicester had handsome merchants houses, a racecourse, a very popular cricket field, a theatre, gas lighting. The main streets were paved; it had a police force, penny post and rumbustious newspapers. Behind this industrial comfort lurked the narrow streets and overcrowded tenements of Leicester where Sarah lived, where the keeping of pigs and the presence of slaughterhouses in the vicinity added a final pestiferous touch, exacerbated by the nasty habit of collecting such filth and selling it as manure. This stench should be, but is not, represented in every historical drama that re-creates those times. It is not mud that dirtied the aristocratic boot when a person of consequence ventured out into the streets of the time. Dickens wrote of this world but most often of London. However, in the football league of death in the early nineteenth century it was Bristol 1, Manchester 2, Liverpool 3 and Leicester 4. But for the death of children Leicester led the field. From all these points of view it is surprising that Alfred Allen survived at all; that said he did not make old, or healthy bones. He died in Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum in Melbourne in 1908.
Sarah and her son Alfred left Liverpool on the SS Rising Sun in March 1858, and landed in Melbourne on 11 June. The ship was commissioned by the remarkable J.G. Bright, architect, administrator and special agent for selecting persons in distressed circumstances to be sent to Victoria as domestic servants. Sarah described herself as a nursemaid; officials wrote next to her name, ‘Gone to friends, Melbourne’.