Fortunes could change quickly in Victorian England. In a single generation some men could leap beyond tradition. And some women could find power and independence.
It’s hardly a secret that most of my books are set in Leeds. But my family, on both sides, goes back generations here. Leeds and family are pretty much the same thing to me. But how did those ancestors of mine live?
Its turns out to be a question with a few surprising answers.
My great-great-great-great grandfather Isaac Nickson was born in 1785 and arrived in Leeds from Malton somewhere around 1826/7, with his wife Jane and six children (two more would be born here). In 1823 he’d been listed in the Malton trade directory as a butcher, with premises on Newbiggin, a trade he carried on in Leeds. How much he made of himself is debatable, at least from his shifting addresses: East Bar, a shop and house on Timble Bridge, 43, Marsh Lane, Garland’s Fold. By 1840, Jane had left him, moving to Rothwell with two of his daughters.
By Timble Bridge, late 19th century
But things grow more interesting with the next generation.
Of his five sons, four became painters and paper hangers. It was a theme that would continue for some of the men into the 20th century. Others had similarly unskilled occupations – heeler and boot repair, tailor’s cutter. Poor men, in other words. My father and his brother were the first to have secondary education, in the 1920s, purely because they won scholarships.
Isaac’s oldest son, also named Isaac (b.1815), and younger brother George (b.1820), were in business together, with premises in Birch’s Yard, 4, Lowerhead Row, advertising themselves as House and Sign Painters, Paper Hangers, Marble Painter Manufacturers.
George, who married Mary Caroline Hewson (known as Caroline) in 1839, was at Crimble Row, close to Camp Road.
Crimble Row, 20th century
Another brother, William Isaac (b.1824), was also a painter, as was youngest sibling, John (b.1827), who lived first on Lower Brunswick Street, then Vandyke Street, off Regent Street, and had his premises at Ship Inn Yard, off Briggate
Ship Inn Yard
George and Isaac seemed to go their separate ways before George’s death in 1867. Caroline took over George’s business, very rare for a woman in those days, and in the 1871 census she’s shown as employing seven men and two boys – obviously a successful woman. She was living at 200, North Street, and had one servant, 15-year-old Elizabeth Strafford. George was buried at Beckett Street Cemetery, plot 5932. In 1877, Caroline married George Heuthwaite, a widower of Hunslet Road who made his living as a dyer, and she died in Hunslet 20 years later.
Entrance to Birch’s Yard on left, past Dobson’s
Gravestone for George and Caroline’s son, Thomas. Beckett St. Cemetery
Caroline’s son, Robert Hewson Nickson, probably took over the business and made it pay well, with premises in Lonsdale Yard on the Lowerhead Row (later known as Bradley’s Yard).
On his death in 1893 he left £331 19s 5d over £40,000 in today’s money, a staggering figure for a working-class man. Yet they still lived in an ordinary terraced house on Stamford Street, although they had a servant, Edith K. Simmons, aged 12.
In 1901, Robert’s widow, Clara, is listed as a painter and decorator, so she took over the business, although two years later she’d sold it and had a boot making business on Roundhay Road.
Isaac obviously as well as his brother, because in 1868, still living on Wade Lane, he was on the electoral roll, owning property worth more than £50, a large amount. In these days of a universal franchise, it’s difficult to believe how restricted the vote was in the 19th century.
Wade Street, 20th Century
Isaac Jr.’s son William Robert was yet another painter. Born in 1837, he learned the trade properly, and the 1861 census lists him as a journeyman painter, so he’d obviously completed his apprenticeship. At that point he was living on Wade Street with his father (although in the census he’s shown as a servant, strangely, and his uncle William is also shown there, again as a servant, although he has his own census listing with his family on Elm Street). But by 1868, he, too, was on the electoral roll.
William Robert had his business premises in Wheatsheaf Yard, off Briggate.
Entrance to Wheatsheaf Yard
Grave of William Robert and three of his children, Beckett Street Cemetery
He died in 1890, but the 1891 census shows his widow Anna (or Hannah) Elizabeth living on the very respectable Ramsden Terrace and running the painting and decorating business – not bad for someone, it was noted, who could not write.
Ramsden Terrace at top of picture
Her son (yet another Isaac) lived with her, following in his father’s footsteps as a painter and decorator.
These are just a few instances, of course. But they show that in Victorian Leeds, it was possible for working men to make the leap across the class barrier to wealth and property. Yet what strikes me as remarkable is the fact that not once, but three times, women took over the businesses, and very male businesses at that. They didn’t give up, didn’t immediately sell them off. And they did it all successfully. In a time when that wasn’t a woman’s role, they showed that women could do it, and do it well. It was possible, for some, to transcend their origins and traditional roles.
Of course, not all the brothers did so well. William Isaac, my great-great-great grandfather, married Charlotte Berry in 1844. They had two children, John William and Martha, and lived on Elm Street, just off York Road in the Bank.
William died in 1883, with no money for a funeral, not even enough for a guinea grave. He’s buried in an unmarked plot at Beckett Street Cemetery. Charlotte moved in with Margaret and her husband in Louisa Street in Hunslet. She died in 1889, and is also buried in a pauper’s grave at Beckett Street.
So, to those who have occasionally expressed surprise that Annabelle Harper in my Victorian series of books would be able to run a business so well, all I can say is that the precedent is right there. No wonder I see it as natural; it’s in the family.
All street images from Leodis.