The Young Widows
WITH THE EXCEPTION of her circumstance being caused by war, the young widow is often regarded in that supernatural realm of being cursed and unlucky for any future beau. It is not a coincidence that one of the more feared arachnids is known by the name the Black Widow. The general consensus (however incorrect) is not only that this spider is poisonous, but she is truly frightening because she eats the male after mating with him.
Eliza DORLING married actor John PRITCHARD on March 26th, 1867. On December 24th, 1868, John Pritchard died from typhoid, leaving Eliza a widow and with child. Nine days later, on January 2nd of 1869, she gave birth to a son and named him John Nightingale Cooke Pritchard.
In John’s obituary, published in 1900, it is written that she was “left a widow before she was 20 years of age” ; however, most legal documents found on ancestry.co.uk, including a marriage registration with her signature, put Eliza’s year of birth at 1847 – making her 21 when she becomes a widow.
Far from having any spoils to enjoy with the passing of her husband, we find Eliza, in an 1871 census, boarding at the Dickinson house in Sunderland, Northern England; and working as a dance teacher to pay her way. A single mother, she has her two-year-old son John boarding with her.
If you have been reading the updates to this site, none of this will be news to you. What you might have guessed but not had confirmed is that Eliza came from a far larger family than that of second husband Oscar’s,
Given the facts, the obvious question is where is this family during Eliza’s hour of need?
Perhaps the answer lies in the profession of Eliza’s father, Robert Dorling, who was a Tallow Chandler (look it up; it’ll do you a world of good.) It required that his wife, Eliza senior, also worked. She was a “Bonnete Milliner.” We learn this from an 1861 Census, when the Dorlings were living at 18 William Street, Shoreditch, Hackney.
This census also shows that the Dorlings have six children: Eliza, then 14; Robert, 12; William, 10; Emma, 7; Thomas, 3; and Walter, 1.
In 1864 the Dorlings had another girl, Florence. I suppose, given this, and the fact that 20 years later two of the boys and Florence were still living with Robert Dorling at 202 Finnis Street in Bethnal Green, not much help could be forthcoming to Eliza.
Given her experience, Eliza, one imagines, would have had much empathy and sympathy for Clara Lydia, who became a relatively young widow at the age of 32, with the death of her husband John Pritchard in 1900 – that’s right, Eliza’s son.
Almost mirroring Eliza’s experience, Clara Lydia gives birth to Michael Stanley Pritchard Barrett two weeks after his Father’s death.
What happens to a family when their son dies relatively young? What happens to the family he leaves behind?
THIS is what we know: from John Pritchard’s Obituary, he was living with his parents Oscar and Eliza Barrett when he died. The assumption at this point is that Clara Lydia lived there too, with their son John Oscar Pritchard; however, England’s 1901 Census has Clara Lydia back home with her father, at 19 Nelgarde Road in Lewisham, along with newborn Stanley Michael.
The Census does not list John Oscar Pritchard as part of this household. A cross-refence with Oscar’s household does not find the young boy there either. From an original search of ancestry.co.uk, a John Oscar Barrett had turned up in 48-year-old widow Elizabeth Dowling’s household in Wandsworth, but I assumed he was not related because he was listed as aged 6, a “boarder” and very obviously from the other names provided in the household not with any Barrett’s. With the information we now have on hand, this John Oscar Barrett is undoubtedly Clara Lydia’s son... Eliza and Oscar’s grandson. Why he is in the Dowling household, we can only guess; although a partial reason may be Mrs Dowling’s 22-year-old daughter, Sarah, also an inhouse resident, who is listed as a “school mistress” working from home. It still has all the feel of a Dickens novel, as the only other “boarder”/student is 14-year-old Gladys Mc Kespime from Plymouth.
How at odds did things get?
From the dots we have been provided of another life and time, we do know that Clara Lydia remarried in November of 1902, Sir Nevill Gunter, Bart.,; that this relationship likely found its roots in the trip first husband John Pritchard took to the West Coast of Africa to seek a cure from his ills in 1899.
In fact and fiction the woman does not seem to have a secure place in society unless she is married in this era. This is reflected in what is registered about the marriage of each couple: the Father’s name and occupation are required but there is no interest or space for information about the Mother – this, inspite of England having a Queen who ruled for 45 years without a husband by her side 300 years earlier.
The upside is that despite the handicap of having fatherless children and the innate superstition that people hold for those who have the young die around them, the young widow seems to always end up with another husband, who, one might argue, at his own folly dares to laugh at Death.
Here is where Eliza and Clara Lydia’s stories part ways: Eliza predeceases Oscar by some 30 years. Clara Lydia, on the other hand, survives son John Oscar Pritchard and second husband, Sir Nevill, who both die in France in World War I. No longer a young widow, but without a doubt feeling cursed, she herself dies shortly after “from a broken heart”, leaving two sons behind.
THERE is no moral to this story. There is the question of whether Oscar and/or Eliza were long term carriers of typhoid from their association with the original John Pritchard. There is the question of how John Pritchard junior got tuberculosis given his socioeconomic status. There is the question of whether we, in the 21st century, are better representatives of ‘family’ than those in the 19th century; or whether we, like our predecessors, would fail an “Eliza” or “Clara Lydia” in this time because –whatever century– our only interest is in ourselves.