Sarah Mingings (1796 – 1864) & Lancelot Bird (1792 - )
The parish of Great Orton sits five miles south of Carlisle and, if you climb to Parson’s Thorn, its highest point, it is possible to see no fewer than fifteen Cumberland churches, as well as several across the border in Scotland. Scotland’s proximity had played a major part in the area’s history: in 1788, when Thomas Mingings married Lucy Wilkinson, there were many who could still remember Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, capturing Carlisle thirty years earlier without a fight and proclaiming himself King of England from the marketplace. There were clearly local sympathisers to the Jacobite cause – most of whose leaders suffered terrible deaths a few months later – but Orton also suffered from Scottish raiders. To defend itself, the whole village was surrounded by a ditch and embankment, and the roads going North and West were protected by double ditches which, at night, had large chains locked across the roads to make the road impassable.
Although Thomas’ family had moved from Scotland only a few generations earlier, by the time of his marriage he would have seen himself as English as his wife Lucy felt. Where there may have been a difference, however, was in the social standing of the two families. Thomas was described as a labourer throughout his life, whereas Lucy’s brother John had moved to London and was soon to become a Doctor of Divinity and a wealthy man. It would have been unusual to have done that without some support and encouragement from his family.
Thomas and Lucy were married for fewer than ten years, as Lucy died in 1798 when only thirty-three, leaving five children under ten, the youngest of whom, Sarah, was not yet two. Lucy wasn’t buried in Orton where she had been living, but was taken the few miles back to where she was born. If her father had never approved of the original marriage, now he was reclaiming her; but the truth was probably less interesting.
Thomas didn’t remarry for five years, so it is not clear who brought the five children up, but his second marriage to Ruth Steele, followed by a short move across the parish to the neighbouring hamlet of Baldwinholme, added five more surviving children to the family. Some of the children may have attended the local school in Orton, where Thomas Pattinson was the teacher for nearly fifty years until his death in 1811. In 1795 money had been left to educate ten local poor children and, in a village of only about 200 people, it would seem likely that some of the Mingens children might have benefited from this gift. Certainly a few of the Mingens went on to become clerks in their own villages and towns, so had either been educated at school or by their mother.
During the first part of the 19th century Cumberland had the highest illegitimacy rate in the country. Farmers across the country, especially those with small acreages that they worked by themselves, would often wait to marry until their future wife was pregnant; the farm needed helpers to survive and it wouldn’t do to marry and then find that you couldn’t have children. In Cumberland, though, it seemed that they often took things a stage further, and waited until the first child was born before marrying. At least four of Thomas’ daughters, including Sarah, went beyond that and had several illegitimate children, often by different fathers. Were their morals different from others? Had the Napoleonic War made it harder to find a husband? Were the Mingings girls particularly attractive to men or particularly hot-headed? Were relationships between the children and their stepmother strained? Whatever the reason, it seemed that Thomas did not disapprove because he spent some years living with one of his daughters and her (illegitimate) son.
At the start of the 19th century, weaving was the largest industry for twenty miles around Carlisle. The average wage of an agricultural labourer, such as Thomas, was only 8s a week, but weavers, particularly if their family helped, could earn 20s a week by setting up a loom in one of their rooms. Despite this, none of the Mingings appears to have become weavers, which may be as well, because it could also be a precarious living. 1815, as the Napoleonic War ended, was a particularly bad year, as the downturn in demand for cotton was coupled with the introduction of the Corn Laws. One writer said about Carlisle that:
The cry of discontent and the wail of famishing women and helpless children were heard in every street. How little the legislators cared for the unmerited sufferings of the multitude may be read in the records of the times .... and the trials of men sent to prison for nothing worse than asking for bread for their little ones. It was truly heart-rending to hear the stories my mother used to tell of the hunger and hardship they endured from 1814 until 1820.
It was at the end of this period, when she was twenty, that Sarah had her first child, Ann (or ‘Nanny’). She named the father in the Bastardy Recognizances as Lancelot Bird, the son of a local farmer, who was three or four years older than her. Lancelot’s father, Adam, was ordered to pay £100 to the parish, so that Ann would not be a burden on Great Orton; a great deal of money for a farmer, and equivalent to several years’ wages for a farmhand. A few years later, William Hetherington from a nearby village was named as the father of Sarah’s second child, his father suffering the same fate as Adam Bird; and shortly afterwards Sarah had her third child. The father is not recorded, but the child was called Lancelot (‘Lanty’), so either an old love had returned to the scene, or Sarah was recalling some happy times when she named him.
Sarah was probably still living at home. With no partner to support her, and times still difficult, it would have been the sensible way to survive. Life in and around Carlisle continued to be very hard. William Farish, a weaver in Caldewgate, wrote that: "The winter following the hot summer of 1826 was a terrible one for the working people everywhere, and the hardships fell with unwonted severity upon the North-country weavers. The benevolence of the gentry was taxed to the uttermost to preserve their poorer neighbours from actual starvation. To utilise these gifts in Carlisle, the weavers were employed to construct the walk - the Weavers' Bank leading from the Castle to Eden Bridges - which still remains as memorial to the honour of some, and a reproach to those others who wickedly helped to maintain the iniquitous bread tax in the face of a starving community. Unsound barley meal that year sold for as much as four shillings a stone" - half the week's wage of a common labourer - "while wheat flour and butcher's meat were wholly beyond the reach of the ordinary workman." "It was no uncommon thing for our house to be without bread for weeks together: and I cannot remember to have ever seen, in my very early years, a joint of meat of any kind on my father's table; oatmeal porridge and potatoes, with an occasional taste of bacon, being our principal food. Once, for six long and weary weeks at a spell, no bread entered the door; that extreme restraint being needed to enable my father to pay a few shillings of rent in arrears..... I well remember the 'love-feast' that ended that period of semi-fast, and the happiness with which my father filled my little hand with the first crust of bread."
In 1827, when Ann was nearly ten years old, Sarah had her fourth child (each probably by a different father) and called her Sarah. As before, the father was named - Alexander Kirk - but this time Sarah married the father shortly after the baby was born, and his name appears in the baptismal records. Alexander was only a labourer himself, but it is again interesting to speculate on what the families thought. Both Sarah and Alexander were living on the southern edges of Carlisle at the time, but they didn’t marry in Carlisle, or in Orton. Instead they travelled to Gretna, a favourite place for couples marrying without their parents’ permission, and married there. A week later, their marriage was announced in the Carlisle Journal. Who paid for the notice, and why was it put there? Were the couple rubbing salt in the wounds or were parents accepting what had happened? Alexander may have been married before - there is an Alexander Kirk from Carlisle who had married at Gretna in 1819 - but, if so, he doesn’t appear to have had any children from that marriage.
Over the next ten years Alexander and Sarah had five children, some born in Carlisle, and others in Cummersdale, a small village just south of Carlisle; but by 1839 they were living in Caldewgate, just south of the old city walls. Twenty years earlier this area had been fields, but now it was the industrial centre for Carlisle, and not a pleasant place to live. Dixons already employed thousands in their mill (and were soon to build a tower, which at over 300’, was the tallest such tower in Europe), and Fergusons built their first factory there in 1825.
Caldewgate, although part of the industrial area, was not quite as depressing as the next door Shaddongate, about which one writer said: Such was the state of lawlessness in Shaddongate in 1826, the Carlisle Patriot despaired: “This is a most woeful state of society.” There had been a riot there that year with loss of life and the Patriot said it had been declared a “free city”, where “no constable dare execute a warrant”. One inhabitant said “he and his family have scarcely had any sleep for four or five nights; that they live in continual terror and dare not quit the house after a certain hour at night and are not safe in it for stones”.
Sarah cannot have viewed her future with much optimism, yet possible good fortune was about to arrive. Sarah’s uncle, the Rev John Fletcher Wilkinson, had died in 1828. After a career that had taken him to, amongst other places, St Helena, he had died a Doctor of Divinity in London. He was clearly a wealthy man: in 1812, when living in Cavendish Square, he had been robbed of £15 by a servant, and during the trial he stated that his pocket book had contained £275 at the time (worth about £3,500 in 2009). Having no children, he had left everything to be divided between the children of his five siblings, one of which was Lucy, Sarah’s mother. Sarah’s share of the will may only have been about a £100, but that was a very significant amount to her. Touchingly, her uncle will stated that he did not expect his family to come down from Cumberland to London for his funeral, but there appears to have been some problems in passing on the money because, in 1835, Alexander and Sarah took John Wilkinson’s executors to court for non-payment of what was due. The details of the case rival Jarndyce v Jarndyce for their complexity and involve other beneficiaries who had died before the will was proved, and were also beneficiaries from third wills. Sarah, who could not even sign her name, must have found the complexities difficult to understand, and one assumes that Alexander was heavily involved with the lawyers. As the case progressed, they must have felt that their financial prospects appeared good; but any thoughts that their lives had turned a corner were premature. Later that year Alexander was knocked down by a cart that overturned in the road in Shaddongate, and he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Once again, Sarah was a single mother with five young children at home, and two older ones that had probably left home. In 1841 she was described as ‘independent’ which suggests that her bequest had finally come through, and her two older children were working as servants in nearby villages.
Ann (Nanny), the eldest, was living in Castle Carrock, where she had met Matthew Ridley a local farmer’s son. Most local farms were small, large enough to keep a family, but little more. The Ridleys, however, had run larger farms for generations, and employed several workers beyond their immediate family. Ann made no attempt to hide to hide her illegitimacy from her future husband; it was not uncommon for people to invent father’s names when asked to fill in their marriage certificate, but Ann left the relevant space blank. Her mother’s new found status may have helped; but perhaps illegitimacy was simply not an issue. Later in the year, Sarah herself married again. Her husband, John Gibson, was several years younger than she was, and also widowed, but not, it seems, with any children of his own to support.
Where did Sarah now stand in society? She was illiterate – she couldn’t even sign her own name – and yet at least two of her brothers were clerks: one earned his living through being one in a local business, while another, although an agricultural labourer, was also the parish clerk. Sarah’s uncle was an educated man, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that her mother might also have been literate. Her mother’s early death may have meant that Ann didn’t have the opportunity to learn what her siblings may have done (although at least one younger sister was also illiterate). Despite her lack of learning, she now had some money, and was respectably married, although she continued to live on the industrial part of Carlisle which, with a tall chimney belching out fumes from eight mills cannot have been healthy. An outbreak of cholera had hit Carlisle in 1832 (and another would follow in 1848) and no doubt the area where Sarah lived had more than its share of the victims. The writer quoted earlier says that: On an early morning visit to Shaddongate in 1844, an observer said: “We sauntered slowly along watching the long clouds of smoke shoot forth from Dixon’s Chimney and inclined to ponder over the conditions and habits of the men who crowded past us in increasing numbers; for presently the bells of the various factories were heard and a stream of workmen almost instantaneously poured along the streets.” He questioned a woman “why she would never go in that direction”. She replied: “There’s so many vulgar children” and added “so many weavers, that one can’t get past”.
Sarah had lost touch with Lanty, but the rest of her family remained nearby. Most of her siblings and half-siblings had families of their own, and lived locally, although the youngest, Thomas, took the decision to emigrate to Australia, where gold had recently been discovered in New South Wales. In 1852, with his young family and 800 other emigrants, he set sail from Birkenhead aboard the Ticeronderoga. The voyage was a disaster. The double deck nature of the ship meant that ventilation was poor, damp was rife, and over 300 of the passengers caught typhoid. Thomas arrived in Australia alive, but died in quarantine shortly afterwards, and one of his sons had died on the journey. His widow and two other children were left to look after themselves (oddly, the official records state that both Sarah and Henry, her eight year-old son were literate). A contemporary report said:
How long this news took to get back to Cumberland is not known, but questions were asked in parliament over the ship’s design, so it would probably have been in the local papers as most of the emigrants were from nearby in Scotland.
By 1861 Sarah, her first child with Alexander, was already widowed and had come back to live with her mother, but the other children prospered. Ann, in particular, was taking her place in the middle classes and it would have given Sarah enormous pleasure - had she known - that Ann’s son, who was seven when Sarah died in 1864, would go on to become mayor of Carlisle, the city where Sarah had lived all her life in rather different circumstances to that in which her grandson would live.