Today’s post is the last in a series of guest posts by David Turner from Turnip Rail. This post has always been one of my favourites by David because it reminds us all that history is, at it’s core, about people.
Originally posted: WEDNESDAY, 21 APRIL 2010 – by David Turner
Sometimes I come across some shocking and very sad stories when doing my research on the Victorian railway. I freely admit that it is easy for historians to view groups people in the past, particularly the poorer sections of society, as homogeneous faceless statistics. We can then use the statistics as evidence and can draw conclusions. When doing my work I rarely have need to move past this approach or acknowledge that every statistic I employ as evidence was a person with emotions, desires, highs and lows. This is why the case of Mary Ramsdale and her family particularly got to me this week. I feel the need to share it with everyone as it is probably the first time that she and her family have been acknowledged individually by anyone for 150 years. Also it just made me feel very sad.
A bit of background is required. When a railwayman was killed on the line railway companies, as an act of benevolence, would employ the widow so as to give support to the family. They were employed in such roles as Gatekeepers, Waiting Room Attendants or Charwomen. These jobs were unsurprisingly very poorly paid, and women in them would receive roughly between 10 and 15 shillings a week (£34 to £51 today).
Mary was employed as a Waiting Room attendant at Southampton station after the death of her husband. Evidence from the Parliamentary accidents return shows that a William Ramsdale, the Gatekeeper at Ashley Level crossing near Ringwood, was struck by a train in May 1859 while attempting to prevent a person from crossing in front of it. Given the proximity of Ringwood to Southampton, the unusual surname, and the time between the date of his death and the story I am about to recount, it is almost certain that this was Mary’s husband.
The first time that I came across Mary was in a Traffic Committee minute of January 1862 (RAIL 411/231), when Richard Beach, Superintendent of the Southampton Station, wrote to the Traffic Committee regarding a complaint made against her:
“23rd January 1862 – 1034) Mrs Ramsdale – Read letter from Mr Beach, Southampton, reporting a case against Mrs Ramsdale the Woman in the Waiting Room at Southampton. Mrs Ramsdale to be cautioned.”
Given her low wage, the ease with which railway companies dismissed their staff, the harsh rules and regulations of railway employment, and the difficulty a widow would have getting a job elsewhere, for Mary to be risk her employment would suggest that her mental health was not good. This was confirmed later in the year by the Traffic Committee (RAIL 411/233):
“13th November 1862 – 387) Mrs Ramsdale – Read letter from Mr Beach, as to the case of Mrs Ramsdale attendant in the Waiting Room at Southampton who has been placed in the Fareham Lunatic Asylum. Further inquiry to be made”
What Mary was suffering with is of course uncertain, however, it seems that given the circumstances of her life after her husband’s death it is quite possible that it was some form of depression. This conclusion is given further weight by her circumstances stated at the committee in later weeks.
“27th November 1862 – 422) Mrs Ramsdale – Read letter from Mr Beach, Southampton, with reference to the case of Mrs Ramsdale late Waiting Room attendant there now in the Fareham Asylum stating that the ages of the two children are one 8 years and the other 5 years. Mr Beach to inquire if Mrs Ramsdale’s friends will take the children and the company will give a gratuity of £10 per year for two years.” “11th December 1862 – 446) Mrs Ramsdale – Mr Scott reported further with respect to Mrs Ramsdale late Waiting Room attendant at Southampton. The Children to be placed in the Workhouse as there are no friends who will take charge of them.”
According to the 1861 census there were in fact three children and Beach got the ages of the two he mentioned wrong. They were Mary, aged 9, Emily, aged 6 and Hannah aged 3. Clearly Mary, with the loss of her husband, receiving a low wage, with three children and few friends around her, found her conditions insurmountable. The last part of the story compounded its highly tragic nature for me. The three girls would have gone into the Southampton Union Workhouse.
In 1865 a Poor Law Inspector described it as a place where there was the “mixing together of all classes, including old, infirm and idiots, in rooms in which it was almost impossible for human beings to live.” The girls would have been together in the workhouse, however it would have been a horrible, scary experience.
It is highly unlikely that they saw their mother again. I can’t tell you what happened to any of them, but at this point it just proves that Victorian Society was extremely harsh, replete with sad and tragic stories, and that perhaps I should stop quibbling when minor things go wrong in my life.