Sunday, 1 March 2015

Priscilla’s choices

This is a story of how a family dealt with some fairly typical problems that arose before the advent of modern social security.  The solutions, also typical, pose some challenges for family history researchers.

Priscilla Goodyear was born around 1800 in Stokenham, Devon.  Stokenham is located in a very remote rural corner on the Devonshire coast; a place that looks like prime territory for smugglers.  The Goodyear family lived in the area back to mediaeval times.  The eleventh of thirteen children of Richard Goodyear and Elizabeth Norris, Priscilla was baptised in the parish church on 25th January 1801.

It seems that Priscilla’s family were poor and her father’s probable death in 1806 wouldn’t have helped matters.  Because she would have been a burden on the parish, Priscilla, aged nine or ten, was apprenticed to a Joseph Randall by the Overseers of the Poor in 1810.  Some of her siblings were also apprenticed at young ages, including her sister Susannah, who played an important part in Priscilla’s story.  At the time, the church was responsible for looking after the poor and the church parishes tried their best to get someone else to take financial responsibility for the poor person, hence the apprenticeships.

Susannah Goodyear married John Camp Shephard* in 1813.  He was a labourer from Charleton, which is next to Stokenham.  In case you were wondering, “Camp” was his mother’s maiden name.  They had five children, the first two dying in infancy, before Susannah died in November 1821 leaving John with three toddlers to look after.  It may be that Priscilla, as a convenient single female relative, took on the duty of looking after the children.  This was a common solution for the circumstances. 

On Christmas Eve 1822, just over a year after Susannah died, John Camp Shephard and Priscilla Goodyear were married in Stoke Damerel.  Stoke Damerel is about 20 km from Stokenham, on the outskirts of Plymouth.

So, why did they marry so far from home?  At the time, and until the early twentieth century, it was illegal for brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law to marry. Presumably the local parish priest refused to perform the wedding, so they went to the nearest big town.  There, they could get away with pretending they were locals for a few weeks so that they could get married by banns before returning home.  They would not have been able to afford a marriage licence to speed up the process.  I have come across other ancestors who married under similar circumstances, so I think it was not that unusual even though the marriage wasn’t legal.  I assume that for most people, having a wedding was more important than worrying about the intricacies of marriage law.  Nor was it unusual for a widower with young children to marry so soon after the death of his wife, needing someone to look after the children while he went out to work.

With Priscilla and John, there was an additional reason for them to marry.  Jane Shephard was born early in 1823 and was baptised on 2 March that year, in Charleton, just over two months after the wedding.  Given how late in her pregnancy they married, I do wonder whether John was Jane’s father or whether he was the nearest eligible man who was willing to look after Priscilla.   Perhaps they and their families saw the marriage as a good way to solve a few problems and to ensure that the young children had two parents.  Alternatively, it may be that it just took them a while to work out how they could get married outside of their parish.

John and Priscilla had 6 children.  One son, George, died young, so they recycled his name and called their next son George too.  Again, it was not unusual to name a child after a dead sibling.  The second George is my ancestor.  He migrated to Australia as a young man.

In the 1851 Census, the family included Uriah Shephard aged one, listed as their son.  This would have meant Priscilla having a child at 49.  I know from many years of family history research that most women had their last child by the age of about 45, so 49 is a little old, which made me a bit suspicious.  Further research revealed that Uriah was actually their grandson, the illegitimate child of their daughter Susan.  Once again, a grandmother taking on an illegitimate grandchild as her own child was not unusual.  If the grandmother already had a household full of children, one more didn’t make much difference and it allowed the daughter to earn a living.

Priscilla died in 1867.

It took me a while to untangle this family and work out which children belonged to which parents.  Gaining an understanding of British marriage law and social history helped me understand some of the choices they made.


*Shephard is a surname with many varied spellings; I have chosen this spelling as it is the one used by more recent generations.


NOTE ON LINEAGE: Me > Mum > John Macdonald Charley > Walter George Charley > Mary Priscilla Shephard > George Shephard > Priscilla Goodyear

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your research. My ancestor was one of Priscilla's siblings, Robert Goodyear. I would be grateful for any more information you have on the Goodyear family. Many thanks Emma x