Harriet's Story

Harriet Larkham is my great grandmother and her life illustrates how tough life could be in the past but also how the human spirit can prevail and strive for improvement.

Harriet was born in the town of Tipton, Staffordshire between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in what is now the West Midlands. Tipton was a key town in the Industrial Revolution and became heavily built up with numerous canals and the mining of coal and ironstone. 

Her birth, in approximately 1850, in such a highly-industrialised area, was the first part of a hard life which saw much sorrow and heartache but which was surprisingly long as she lived until the age of 82.

Harriet’s father was a labourer and his work took him around this country and beyond as shown by the birth places of his children recorded on the census.

Harriet  had 3 siblings, Thomas, Lancelot and Ann Maria, all born in different places. Lancelot was born in France where their parents, John Larkham and Elizabeth Staddon had married.

Harriet’s sister Ann Maria died at the age 8 and she is buried in Dudley, Staffordshire.

By the late 1860s Harriet was living in Birmingham and in 1868 she married George Walton who worked as a brass founder.  

In 1871 the family were still living in Birmingham with their infant children Clara Jane and George.The couple had 2 more sons, Thomas and Lancelot born in 1872 and 1874 respectively. George was still working as a brass founder.
They were living in the notorious back to back housing which was a feature particularly in northern cities and especially in Birmingham. 

As people flocked to the cities for work in an increasingly industrialised society the need for affordable housing was paramount. Speculative builders worked to get as much accommodation into the space available as possible. The back to backs were, as the name suggests, only one room deep, sharing a back wall with another row of houses. These formed courts  where toilet and laundry facilities were shared. By the end of the 19c there were 20,000 of these courts in Birmingham alone. Some were still inhabited as late as the 1960s; one court now remains and is in the care of the National Trust.
Very poor living conditions but cheap for the working man.  

Typical back to back housing

Tragically, George died in 1877 leaving Harriet to bring up the 4 young children.

In 1879, Harriet married Edward Williams. That year a daughter, Elizabeth, was born.

Living in the poorest parts of central Birmingham in the late 1880s must be impossible for us to imagine now and life for Harriet was about to become even worse. 

The 1881 census shows that Harriet was living with Edward and Elizabeth still in Birmingham. But bizarrely there are 3 other children living with them aged from 7 to 13 who are described as the children of Edward. This is a mystery as Edward declared himself to be a bachelor on his marriage certificate and at the age of 28 was unlikely to have a 13 year old child although legally possible. 

More concerning was the absence of Harriet’s 4 children from her marriage to George Walton.

After extensive census research, all 4 of them were found in the Union Workhouse, Dudley Road, Birmingham. The records for this workhouse have not survived so it is pretty much impossible to say when they were admitted and under what circumstances.

In that time and location it was not rare for families to find themselves in such dire straits that the workhouse was the only option.
Was this a condition of Edward agreeing to marry Harriet, or did the authorities step in for the safety of the children? There is no way of knowing what really happened.   

Life did not improve for Harriet. When Edward Williams disappeared from the scene is inconclusive but by 1883, she had entered a new relationship and was having children with another man. 

Sidman Nash was my great grandfather and was born in 1850 in Chew Magna, Somerset. He was the son of Richard Nash and Ann Green and had 6 older siblings and one younger

By the time of the 1861 census, Richard had died and Sidman and his younger brother Alfred were the only children still living at home with their widowed mother.

By 1871, Sidman had moved to Birmingham and was working as an ale brewer, which was to be his main occupation for the rest of his life.

George and Dragon pub where Sidman was living and working in 1871.

It’s unclear when Harriet and Sidman first met but by 1883 their first child, Sidman, was born. Four more children were born to the couple, who married in 1888.
The 1891 and 1901 census documents appear to suggest that they were able to establish a relatively stable home life for the children.

The 1891 census shows that George, who 10 years
previously had been in the workhouse, was now back with the family. 

Perhaps it is time now to reflect on the outcomes for this family who, like so many others, endured such hardship.


What happened to Harriet’s children who spent time in the workhouse? We know that George married and settled in Halesowen in the West Midlands. He called one of his daughters Harriet.

Lancelot spent at least 6 years in the workhouse. In July 1887 he arrived in Ontario Canada having been sent there as a home child. He initially lived in the Guthrie home for Immigrant Children, moved on to farm in Manitoba and eventually settled in British Columbia. He married Marion Jamieson from Scotland; they raised 8 children, one of whom was called Harriet. 

Thomas also went to Canada and his life and work ran parallel to Lancelot’s. He married Margaret Gillis who had been born in Nova Scotia, raised a family and settled in British Columbia.

Clara Jane married George Raynor in about 1891. They had a daughter that they named Harriet Elizabeth. George Raynor died in 1894. Clara married Arthur Evans in 1897and Sidman and Harriet were witnesses at their wedding. They gave one of their sons Sidman as a second name.

Elizabeth married John Leake in 1903 and they had a son Herbert in 1906.
John Leake served in WW1. His service record has survived but it was surprising to see that his young son was recorded as the next of kin with a note saying that the mother had deserted the family. Elizabeth is hard to pinpoint from then on although she was the informant when Sidman, her stepfather, died in 1908.

It is inconclusive what happened to Emily and Ellen.

Clifford died in 1913 at the age of 26. His occupation was given as master jeweller.

In 1911, Sidman junior was working in a cycle factory. He served throughout WW1 in both the Royal Warwickshire and Hampshire Regiments and was wounded on 2 occasions at Ypres and on the Somme. He was discharged from the army in 1919 and returned to Harriet’s home in Birmingham. He died in 1927 from pulmonary tuberculosis. 

Annie married Edward Power an Irishman from Kilkenny in 1926. They had 2 daughters before tragically, Annie died in 1927. One of those daughters was my mother.

I often think about Harriet’s life and what a struggle it must have been. How did Sidman feel about moving from rural Somerset to industrialised Birmingham? He died in 1908 from broncho pneumonia as his daughter, my grandmother would do 20 years later. 

I think Harriet must have been a strong woman, both physically and emotionally. She died in 1932 at the age of 82, having outlived at least 4 of her 10 children and lived in back to back housing for over 70 years.