Every time I read my English great-great-grandfather’s obituaries, I get mad all over again—not because of what they say but because of what they don’t say.
He died in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, in 1909. A lengthy notice was published when he died, and two different newspapers published reports of the funeral.
The opening paragraphs provide the basics—name (Joseph Spencer), date, place, status (“highly-esteemed tradesman”). Fine.
But here’s the biographical information in the death notice:
Mr. Spencer was a native of Wotton under Edge, where he was born on the 11th May, 1833. He was married in 1857, at King’s road Chapel, Reading, by the Rev. John Aldis, and carried on business in a general st res [sic] at Cambridge for some years. He came to Stroud about 40 years ago, and he took the boot and shoe business in High street which had been carried on by Mr. Bailey.
There’s more about his business and church activities. But wait—did you notice it gives the name of the reverend who married him 52 years earlier but not the name of the woman he married?
Well, it does mention her near the end: “He leaves a widow . . . ” That’s it—no name.
Let’s see whether his widow has a name in the funeral reports.
The Gloucester Echo says, ”
The family mourners were Messrs. Jacob Spencer (Reading) and T. Spencer (Luton) (sons), F. Avens (son-in-law), S. Spencer, B. Spencer, J. Avens, B. Avens, R. Avens (grandsons), E. Bryant, G. Spencer, and J. E. Ashmead (nephews).
Yes, his wife was still living. So was a daughter, married to Fred Avens. The sons, son-in-law, grandsons and nephews are listed but not the wife, daughter, granddaughters or nieces!
Their bare existence is hinted at in the list of flowers received:
Wreaths were sent by his sorrowing and loving widow; Jacob and Emma and the family at Reading, Annie and Fred and family, Mr. and Mrs. G. C. Spencer; from the officers and teachers of the Baptist Sunday School, Johnstreet; J. E. Bryant; Mr. and Mrs. E. J. Elliott and family; Musa and Addie; from the deacons of Jon-street Baptist Chapel, and from Mr. and Mrs. Hand, Bristol.
In another obituary (name of newspaper not identified), a woman’s name is actually used: the organist is identified as Miss Brinkworth.
I’ve learned that custom then and there prohibited my great-great-grandmother (or any women) from attending the funeral, and I assume the obituaries were written in the customary way. It’s the obituaries that really bother me—they do not acknowledge the existence of an individual who was the deceased’s partner for 52 years.
She wasn’t just his widow. She was Mary Ann White, born in January 1827 in Newbury, Berkshire. At age 15 she was a servant in the home of a solicitor in Reading, and at age 24 she was a house servant in another home (source: 1841 and 1851 censuses).
After she became Mrs. Joseph Spencer in 1857, she and her husband were in Cambridge village of the Slimbridge parish in Gloucestershire in the 1861 and 1871 censuses. Joseph had a shop there. Mary Ann gave birth to eight children, one of whom died at age 5. They moved to Stroud in 1877, where Joseph was a boot maker and I hope Mary Ann had a comfortable life.
Mary Ann died in 1919. So what does her obituary say? Well, at least it does provide her name, although it’s qualified by her husband’s status:
On Friday an old and respected inhabitant of Stroud passed away in the person of Mrs. Mary Ann Spencer, of Winchcombe Villas, Bisley Road, Stroud. The deceased has attained the great age of 92 years and was the widow of Mr. Joseph J. Spencer, who was for many years an esteemed tradesman in the town, having carried on the business of a boot and shoe manufacturer in High Street, Stroud. Like her husband, Mrs. Spencer was a faithful worker in connection with the John Street Baptist Chapel, of which she had been for many years a member, and her services at special meetings and bazaars were always willingly given and greatly appreciated.
A tiny bit of progress toward respecting women was made between 1909 and 1919. Mary Ann’s daughter and a granddaughter were mentioned as mourners, but only by their married last names.