Sunday, July 12, 2015
IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT ... writing Sarah Ann Elliott.
Umm, hang on, Sarah Ann Elliott's story begins on a dark and stormy night. Oh dear. Can't get around that because it's a fact. I could have chosen another night to begin the story. "It was a clear, moonlit night" or "the night sky was filled with stars". Or clouds. Or rain. Or a once-in-a-lifetime snowstorm that devestated the whole of northern England in February 1823. Sounds a bit Dickensian, but then Dickens wrote about those times as they were, not as they were imagined, and bad weather meant terrible hardship for many. It still does if you don't live in a civilised part of the world with good infrastructure, a comfortable income and central heating.
It could be a romantic lead in to a great love story - the heroine born into tragic circumstances, overcoming all odds to find her Mr Darcy. Oh come now, that's been done to death, and surely we all know in these times of social media and 24 hour news broadcasts that life isn't really like that. Although some naive souls still cling to that myth.
But Sarah Ann Elliott's story is indeed a love story, just not particularly romantic. It starts off badly, continues uncertainly and sometimes perilously, but endures despite the harsh realities of working class Victorian England. But back to that dark and stormy night beginning...
Sarah Ann Elliott was born AFTER the Great Snow Storm of 9 February 1823, three months later in fact, but her mother was pregnant with her and twin sister Jane when that blizzard raged across northern England, leaving towns and countryside buried under eight to twelve feet of snow. Sarah Ann's Irish-born mother, Nancy, her father, John and her older siblings would have endured that frightening storm along with their neighbours and friends in Stockport. It was indeed a dark and stormy night - and day - for them and most probably a time filled with terror, for when it was over Stockport was under so much snow that the populace had to tunnel their way through the frozen drifts to reach neighbours in distress, to tend to livestock and property, to seek out food and fuel to keep their fires burning and prevent them from freezing to death, to make their way to the textiles mills to work, and simply to get out of their cottages and houses. It was an infamous event at the time, but long forgotten now. And for no better reason than Nancy Elliott was about five months pregnant at the time, I've chosen that night as the first time Sarah Ann Elliott makes her presence felt in the world.
Did I hear you say "Stockport?" Oh, you don't know where that is? Well, these days it's a southern suburb of Manchester in Northern England with a population of over 280,000 people. It has seen better days, or so my Stockport-born researcher told me, but it is currently undergoing regeneration, part of the cycle of many of those post-industrial towns around Lancashire and Cheshire. And locals are known as Stopfordians, not Stockportians. Now here's another thing you should know about Stockport. It may be seen as a suburb of Manchester in Lancashire now, but it is actually south of the Mersey River and therefore in Cheshire, a whole different county. And don't you go getting that wrong if you find yourself in the company of a Stopfordian or you'll be smartly corrected. If you're a Stockport born and bred Stopfordian, then you're a proud Cestrian, not a Lancastrian! (If I am wrong and you are Stockport born and bred, please feel free to correct me.)
When Sarah Ann's parents came to Stockport as a young married couple around 1802, fleeing the poverty and hardship of Ireland to look for work and a better future for their family, the once small thriving rural market town had already grown into a substantial centre for spinning and weaving with an impressive population of over 18,000 people. It had been the site of the first powered textile mill and therefore saw the very beginning of the industrial revolution that was to come. In 1802 Stockport was still spoken of in glowing terms by those who passed through it. A pleasant town with a good market place and fine cobbled streets, albeit those streets were often narrow and steep as Stockport lies in a deep river valley.
However, by 1844 Stockport was home to over 50,000 and was described in the most horrific terms in Friedrich Engels book, "The Condition of the Working Class in England": 'Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill.' A grim picture indeed.
When Sarah Ann Elliott was born in 1823, Stockport already had a population of over 30,000 and was somewhere between that pleasant town and the grim industrial wasteland it was to become. It was her home, her turf, her environment. Until she was forced to flee, it was all she knew. The changes which happened in the first decades of her life were to shape her into the woman she became and equip her to survive situations which seem unimaginable to some of us in our comfortable first world lives, although most of the world still experiences now what she accepted as normal in those hard times.
Writing about my great-great-great grandmother Sarah Ann Elliott is proving to be a remarkable journey for me. I'm learning things about my family, my heritage, my genes and why I am who I am in a way I've never experienced before. Her life story has at times been alarmingly like my own. They say history repeats itself in families and it's certainly true in my case. But to find out why that is, you'll have to wait for the book to be finished - and I'm only into the second draft.
So that is the beginning of Sarah Ann Elliott.
It was a dark and stormy night...