A few months ago, I accompanied my family to watch the exciting soccer match between the Matildas and France and subsequently followed the final games of the Women’s World Cup. I discovered and read an article about the Danish player Nadia Nadim. What an extraordinary young woman! However, it’s not my purpose here to explain her story, you can seek it out if you enjoy reading about strong women. I will tell you that Nadia certainly grabbed at chances that came her way.
After reading Nadia’s story, I started to consider my family history and how my female ancestors handled adversity. Let’s start with my ancestor with a most unusual name, Zipporah Wootton. Zipporah lived in the Cambridgeshire village of Melbourn during the early 19th century. Her husband was a master tailor and employed apprentices. Tailors provided an essential service, supplying leather garments for workers. Financially Zipporah and her family were relatively well off until fate intercepted and in 1844, her five-year old daughter, Matilda died and less than two years later, Zipporah’s husband, William also died. As well as the enormous grief associated with her sad loss, Zipporah was faced with possible destitution. In the absence of a widow’s pension, she had three choices: beg for financial help from family, remarry or find employment. Zipporah opted for the latter and her independence. Her first position was at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire as a housekeeper for two young men who were wealthy wine merchants. Their stately home was situated at 1 Bonks Hill.
The 1861 England census revealed that Zipporah was no longer working for the Inkersole brothers but was employed as a housekeeper for Mr Joshua Housden, a widowed farmer of 80 acres. When Mr Housden remarried in 1862, Zipporah applied for a position as matron at a large workhouse (almost 200 inmates) in Saffron Walden in the County of Essex. Zipporah was interviewed by the Saffron Walden Union Committee and she was selected for the position over 29 other applicants. What a triumph! Makes me feel very proud of her. She retained this challenging and demanding role for nearly 20 years.
Another strong female ancestor, also with an unusual name was Emily Emptage. She hailed from Woolwich in Kent. After emigrating to Australia in 1886, Emily married Charles Figgis who started a successful building contracting business in Brisbane. Their future looked promising but sadly, Emily’s first two children died in early childhood. Located in the South Brisbane cemetery, there remains the headstone of her six-year-old daughter, Nellie, which reads, “I want to be an angel”. By the early 20th century, Charles’s business was thriving but often Charles left his family in Brisbane to travel to regional Queensland for tendered work, leaving Emily to manage her two growing sons alone. In 1913, Charles aged only 57, died suddenly. As Charles died intestate, his financial affairs were managed by the Union Trustee Company of Australia which I suspect would have been a protracted process.
In 1915, Emily’s eldest son, Jack, enlisted in the AIF at the commencement of WW1 and was discharged home from Gallipoli after sustaining a severe gunshot wound to his thigh. Her younger son, Ted, enlisted in 1916 and served in France from June 1916 until September 1919. After the tragic loss of her husband and two young children, Emily must have feared for the safety and well-being of her two sons during the war. Despite that, she served on a YMCA committee, responsible for setting up a ‘Soldier’s Hut’ at North Quay. It was here that returned service men could go for ongoing care, recuperation, and recreation. Emily was a deeply religious woman and so possibly her faith was the source of her ongoing strength during challenging times.
Finally, I should add the story of my convict ancestor, Martha Shaw. Some may judge Martha harshly as it appears that our Martha was a high-spirited girl. Her story begins in 1823 with a prank that went horribly wrong and resulted in Martha and her friend being found guilty of stealing a bonnet. For their misdemeanour they were sentenced to transportation for 14 years. During the voyage on the ship, the ‘Brothers’, a mutiny was staged by several of the ‘ladies’ on board. Although fifteen-year old Martha was not involved, she was described in the ship’s log as being ‘turbulent’. Perhaps she resented the patriarchal authority of the time.
Further evidence of her rebellious behaviour occurred in the Windsor district when she absconded from her master. Perhaps here too she refused to submit to male subjugation.
In 1826, Martha married another convict, Thomas Wells. Thomas had received his Ticket of Leave and was farming in the Windsor district. They had 7 children and so it seems that Martha had finally become “domesticated”, or had she? I have found a baptismal record for a James Crawley, son of James Crawley and Martha Wells. This event took place in a nearby locality, which is rather coincidental. To my knowledge, this is the last document regarding Martha. I am left with a non-validated family story that Martha ‘was taken by the blacks’. I would sincerely love to know of her fate but in the absence of documented evidence, it appears that this is to remain a mystery.
I could offer other fine examples of strong women within my family history. They are a source of inspiration as some faced hardship and hostility of early pioneer life whilst others made the dangerous voyage alone in rudimentary ships whilst feeling unsure of their future in an unknown land. Women of previous times laboured intensely in the absence of labour-saving devices and inventions that we enjoy today. They reared large families amidst the threat of disease and poverty. This reminds me of a favourite painting in the Queensland Art Gallery. An evocative work, entitled “Evicted’, it depicts a woman and her daughter being forced to leave their home, amidst the uncomfortable witness of uncaring onlookers. This is yet another difficult situation often experienced by women. Perhaps you have a strong woman in your family history who was subjected to eviction! I wonder how she coped.