Thursday, June 7, 2012

Oliver Twist and My Third Great Uncle Henry.

Using Nineteenth Century Novels as Genealogy Resources

Oliver Twist Image Creative Commons

Recently, on a trip to the USA to visit my new grand daughter, I was reminded of the importance of an often undervalued genealogical resource. As a genealogist, I am never content to simply add names and dates to a family tree. It is important for me to understand the historical context in which my ancestors lived. Researching the the social, economic and political circumstances in which our forebears lived is an extraordinary path to understanding what their lives were like.

There exists a wide and varied range of historical resources available for such research. Most of these resources are written by historians looking back on the past. They are extremely valuable secondary sources of information. Primary documents such as census records and land valuations, military records,  occupational records , court and criminal records, school records, asylum records, ships passenger records  and so many more, also help us to build up a picture of our ancestors' lives.

Importantly, a sometimes overlooked  and first hand glimpse into the past and the real world in which our ancestors lived can be found in the writings of novelists whose roles as authors was that of social commentators. Social commentary was one of the most significant themes of the influential novelists of  the nineteenth century and cannot be overlooked as a valuable resource for genealogists. Social discourse was not restricted to the nineteenth century nor to America and England, however I am focusing on this period since most of us can trace our family trees at least to the 1800's. This period of history is particularly relevant for many family historians, and most recently, I was reminded of the vital role which nineteenth century novelists can play in understanding the historical context of my own English ancestors.

 The writings, opinions and first hand commentaries of authors such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Anne Bronte, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Henry James and George Elliot allow us to relate to the lives of our ancestors in a way which is explicit but more importantly, easily understood. Nineteenth century novels  are possibly a significantly  under appreciated primary source of historical information for genealogists.

Whilst in New York only a few weeks ago, I planned a trip to Hyde Park which is a town located in the north west area of Duchess County, NY, north of the city of Poughkeepsie.

My trip involved a three hour bus ride leaving from the Port of Authority Terminal near Times Square in New York.
[ That I left on the wrong bus, one which terminated at the Woodbury Shopping Outlet an hour out of New York( a place which I am certain would have been a most pleasant, if not expensive day, had I not an had exceptional reason to visit Hyde Park) and have another Bus radioed to come out of its way to pick me up and take me ( a big thank you to Shortline Coaches) to Hyde Park, is a story for another time! Our genealogical journeys are often fraught with detours although, usually my detours are of the internet kind and do not leave me stranded in a strange place on my own. But, I did make it safely, in the end, to Hyde Park.] 

Hyde Park is best known as the home town of President Franklin D Roosevelt and began its life known as Stoutenburgh. My journey to this destination was for the purpose of visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion, built by Frederick Vanderbilt (1856-1938) on the bank of the Hudson River, as a 'summer retreat'. The mansion was built between the years 1895 and 1898 in what has become known in American history, as the Gilded Age. I have no family connections with the wealthy Vanderbilt family, however, my great Uncle Rex Morley Hoyes, purchased  a large steam yacht in the mid 1930's, which Frederick Vanderbilt had commissioned to be built at Troon in 1901. Somewhere, I had read that there was a marble model of the yacht in the vestibule of the Vanderbilt home at Hyde Park and I was eager to see it.  I had been researching the Warrior's history for some years alongside several researchers in England. During WW11, the Warrior had been recommissioned by the Royal British Navy whilst under the ownership of my great uncle, renamed Warrior 11, and was subsequently sunk in the English Channel, off Portsmouth, on July 11, 1940 by German bombers.

 One of the people researching the grand yacht was Alan Dunster, a professional diver who had discovered the wreck of the Warrior lying at a depth of about 57 metres beneath the Channel. For several years Alan and I researched Warrior's history together with a regular exchange of information. Sadly, last year Alan passed away diving on the wreck of the Warrior. I felt that to visit the place where the opulent steam yacht began its journey was a fitting tribute to my friend Alan.

Warrior Image Flickr Commons project
The Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park Image S White ©
Prior to my visit to the Vanderbilt mansion, I had only a scant knowledge of  nineteenth century American history. I knew a little of  the Civil War and some history of migration through Ellis Island. Whilst in the gift shop awaiting my group tour of the house, I came across a copy of Mark Twain's novel "The Gilded Age".  Reading the forward of this book, I discovered that Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner were the creators of the term "Gilded Age', referring to the years after the Civil War in America (1861-1865) when America's economy flourished. This flourish generated  unparalleled wealth and a divided society in which existed a distinct contrast between a wealthy industrial and financial aristocracy and the poor. The wealthy built palatial homes such as the 'small' holiday home belonging to Frederick Vanderbilt, pictured above, and indulged in opulent amusements.  The Warrior, one of the largest steam yachts of its kind ever built, was one such amusement being the plaything of the Vanderbilts when they took long pleasure cruises. Mark Twain's 1873 novel, gave me an unrivalled insight into the way in which the Vanderbilt family lived and although this family was not my own, they were the builders and first owners of the large and very opulent yacht which later belonged to my great uncle Rex. 

Image S White ©©

As I sat reading, a National Parks Ranger, named Mike, to whom I had been earlier chatting about the model of the Warrior, came to me and invited me on an unprecedented private visit to the bedroom of Frederick Vanderbilt. The public is never permitted inside the rooms of this mansion, all of which which are roped off from the hallways,  however there was considerable interest in my knowledge of the the yacht and where it had gone after Frederick Vanderbilt's cousin, who inherited it, sold it. I was escorted into the room and allowed to take photographs of the model by torchlight. (There was no electricity in the room as it was undergoing renovations.)

A room in the Vanderbilt's mansion - The Gilded Age   Image S White©

Even after reading only several chapters of Mark Twain's novel, 'The Gilded Age', my breath was taken away by the sheer opulence inside the house. When I entered Frederick's bedroom, I was amazed to find that the model was not made of marble as I had read. It was a skilfully crafted timber replica of the Warrior. It sat in pride of place, in a large glass case, at the foot of Frederick Vanderbilt's bed.

Model of the Warrior Image S White ©

I intend to write in more detail about the Warrior in another blog, however, I must add that Mark Twain's first hand insightful commentary on the period of American history known as the Gilded Age permitted me a glimpse into the opulent world of the Vanderbilts and handed me the first chapter of the Warrior's story.

Charles Dickens Image Wikimedia Creative Commons Licence

I have mentioned other novelists of the nineteenth century whose writing focused on social commentary. If one wishes to understand the way in which nineteenth century English aristocracy lived, one only needs to read the literary works of Jane Austen, although they are perhaps a touch romantically enhanced.  Perhaps one of the most widely read of these authors who possessed a deep social conscience was Charles Dickens. Dickens' novels  "Hard Times" and "Oliver Twist" amongst many others are well known and well loved. Dickens was not the first novelist to attempt to provoke a public social conscience through his writing but perhaps one of the most successful.  His abhorrence of the terrible living conditions of the poor in Victorian England was vividly apparent through his descriptions of  poverty, cruelty, madness, the injustices of the legal system, poor laws and deeply flawed health and mental institutions.

I have read, over the years, quite a number of novels written by Charles Dickens, the most recent, a re read of "Great Expectations". Just this week, while researching the life of my third great uncle Henry Charles Weston I discovered an unexpected connection to Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist" and was once again reminded of the great value in reading nineteenth century novels as a source of information about the lives of ancestors.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens Image S White ©©
Henry Charles Weston was born in Venezuela, South America in 1838 to English parents Edward Manton Weston and Harriet Leach. Edward Weston was a surgeon and I have yet to discover what took him and his family to South America where he died some time before 1851. On the 1851 English census,  Harriet was a widow living back in England in St Clement Danes, Middlesex, with young 13 year old son Henry Charles Weston, son Edward aged 20, ( my three times great grandfather) and son Manton, 24 years. Daughter Harriet Bella was married and also living in Middlesex. The 1871 census shows Henry Charles Weston to be 'out of work'. At this time he was living with his mother  harriet and older sister Ann, a dressmaker. By 1881 Henry Charles Weston had lost his mother and both brothers Edward and Manton. Edward's wife Mary Ann had left England for Maryborough, Queensland, in Australia in 1871 along with her son, my two times great grandfather Edward Joseph Weston. Henry's only other living relative, his sister Harriet Bella had emigrated with her husband to Paraguay in South America as part of the Lincolnshire Farmers Scheme. Henry Charles Weston was alone in the world, save for his sister Ann Manton Weston. At the age of 42 years was unemployed and forced to live and work as a general labourer in the St Marylebone Workhouse. He appears on both the 1881 and 1891 censuses living at this workhouse. At some time after 1891, Henry moved to the Strand Union Workhouse where he lived as an inmate until he died in 1902.

As I traced the sad life of poverty of my third great uncle Henry Charles Weston I researched the history of  the workhouses in which he resided. I felt saddened that the son of a surgeon  had spent so many years of  their lives living and working in workhouses for the poor. I set out to discover as much as possible about what his life would have been like.  As I gathered information about workhouses - daily routines, work, medical help,  punishment,  rules, and clothing worn by inmates, I began to build up a sad picture of great Uncle Henry's life.

The workshop in a London Workhouse Image Wikimedia Commons

Whilst researching the Strand Union Workhouse where great (x3) uncle Henry Charles Weston died, I discovered several interesting facts. This workhouse, also known as the Cleveland Street Workhouse was originally built in 1778 for the care of London's sick and poor under the Old Poor Law. When I googled the Strand Union, or Cleveland Street Workhouse, I came upon a BBC news item dated March 14, 2011, entitled  "Oliver Twist" Strand Union Workhouse gets listing. The Georgian building had been saved from demolition and given a grade 11 heritage listing because of a super sleuth historian's research. The next item of interest I found was a book entitled, "Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor" written by Ruth Richardson. From this I learned that as a young man, Charles Dickens had lived but a few doors from the Strand Union Workhouse. This fact when discovered,  fuelled speculation and then determination that Oliver Twist's workhouse had been discovered. Ruth Richardson was the historian who began the campaign to save the workhouse which inspired Charles Dickens famous novel "Oliver Twist".  The building was saved from destruction for its social and cultural heritage more than for its architectural heritage.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse where Henry Weston Died in 1902 Image Wikimedia Commons

What was exciting for me was that although Charles Dickens published his novel "Oliver Twist" in 1838, and although it was a comment on the 1834 New Poor Law which Dickens believed failed to alleviate the depraved living conditions of London's poor, the novel still represented the system of workhouses designed to deal with London's problems of unemployment and poverty. Both of these factors had forced my great uncle Henry Charles Weston into residing for more than two decades  in workhouses for the poor.  That he died in the Strand Union Workhouse was for me at the same time, both sad and exciting. Because of  this particular workhouses' connection to Charles Dickens I have at my disposal a wealth of information both from historians and from Charles Dickens' own first hand social commentary  in his novel "Oliver Twist". The unforgettable images which Dickens painted in his novel " Oliver Twist" have offered me a window into my own family's past and enabled me to reconstruct a realistic picture of my third great uncle Henry Charles Weston's  life.


After writing this blog I discovered that Henry Charles Weston's older sister, Ann Manton Weston was also living and working at the St Marylebone Workhouse at the time of the 1891 census. Sadly, both sister and brother were there at the same time. The 1901 census shows my third great aunt to be an inmate at the St Joseph's House for the aged and poor in Portabello Road, Nottinghill.  She died at St Joseph's workhouse in 1916. I cannot help but wonder why Henry and Ann did not emigrate with their sister in law Mary Ann Weston on board the Flying Cloud which took her to a new and better life in Australia in 1871.

The Flying Cloud  Image Creative Commons


London Metropolitan Archives

1881 census:residents of St Marylebone Union Workhouse, Middlesex.

"Oliver Twist" Charles Dickens

"The Gilded Age" Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner