Found in the attic – Part 2
“Now my boy, since Nellie went what you need to help you look after that little granddaughter of mine is a house-keeper. And I’ve got just the person for you. My Lois has a niece, just back from London to be with her widowed mother and older sister. She’s not in work at the moment. Doing a bit of cooking in the village but living at home. She’s had plenty of experience as a domestic over the years so she’d make you a good house-keeper.”
The story behind the postcard album
Maybe this is how the conversation went that began the mystery of the stepmothers in my husband’s family tree. As I wrote in an earlier article (Found in the attic – Part 1), my husband and I found an album of postcards, birthday and Christmas cards when we cleaned out my mother-in-law’s attic.
They had been sent in the early 1900s to a Miss Gertie Cracknell. We did not know who this lady was or how she fitted into my mother-in-law’s family history or if, in fact, she even belonged.
Recent research into the Willers’s family history has unravelled the tangled mystery of Gertie Cracknell. It is a tale worth telling.
My Mother-in-law was Edna Grace Clark, née Willers. She was the only child of Robert Willers and his beautiful young wife Ellen Harriett, née Fordham, from the village of Hadstock in Essex, England.
Little Edna Grace, known to her family as “Gracie”, was born on 2 November 1908.
That she was much loved, was reflected in the way she always spoke of her parents when she herself was an adult with a grown son.
Sadly Gracie’s mother, Ellen, died on 18th April 1917 when Grace was only eight years old. Ellen’s death had a profound effect on her small daughter, who had adored her mother. Grace always said her mother died in the post war influenza epidemic but her mother’s death certificate – another discovery in the attic – tells a different story.
Ellen died of phthisis pulmonalis which was the medical name given to tuberculosis or consumption in the early twentieth century.i
This finding is unexpected as the photograph (above) of Ellen with her husband and daughter taken about a year before she died does not resonate with the traditional picture of a woman suffering the ravages of consumption. It appears that there was a form of tuberculosis that, once contracted, “progressed rapidly towards a fatal conclusion, hence the term “galloping” consumption”ii. Ellen probably had this form of the disease.
Life must have been very difficult for Robert Willers, trying to bring up his small daughter whilst holding down the responsible job of railway engine driver on the Great Eastern Railway. His situation may well have led to a conversation with his father-in-law like the imaginary one that began this article.
We know that some-time between Ellen’s death and 1920, Robert employed Lois Gertrude Cracknell as a domestic servant, presumably to look after the house as well as to care for Gracie.
On 29 April 1920, Robert Willers an engine driver of 3 Mill Street, Cambridge married Lois Cracknell, domestic servant of 3 Mill Street, Cambridgeiii. Lois Cracknell, known as Gertie, became Gracie’s step-mother and it was to Gertie Cracknell that the postcards in the album had been addressed.
Clearly it was Gracie’s stepmother who had lovingly assembled these beautiful postcards in her album, together with birthday and Christmas cards from her family and friends.
Before she became Robert Willers’s housekeeper and, later, his wife, it seems that Gertie spent time in London at several different addresses.
Certainly there are several different London addresses on the postcards suggesting that she had moved several times.
Messages on the cards also suggest that she may have found work as a servant or lady’s maid, a suggestion that is supported by the 1911 Census.
On the night of 2 April 1911, Census night, Gertie stayed with Alfred Whiffen, his wife Minnie, their two sons and a nephew at 47, Bond Street, Vauxhall, London. She is described as a visitor as well as a kitchen maid in domestic service.iv
Research into Gertie’s family showed that it was full of relationships complicated by death and re-marriage. Gertie’s parents were Jephunehv Cracknell and Elizabeth Alice Stock of Linton, Cambridgeshire.
Gertie, baptised Lois Gertrude on 5 February 1886, may have been Elizabeth and Jephuneh’s first child in a family of, at least, five children.
The children suffered the sad loss of their mother, Elizabeth, in January 1894, so Gertie understood from her own experience what it was like to lose a mother.
When her father married again in 1901 she was 15 and she learnt what it was like to have a step-mother at a young age. Gertie’s step-mother was Alice Whiffen, also of Linton, the widow of Arthur Whiffen. It was the family of Alice’s brother-in-law, Alfred Whiffen, with whom Gertie spent Census night 1911.
The story does not end there.
Jephuneh had a twin sister, Lois Bathsheba, who in 1881 aged 18, was working as a domestic servant with a large family in Linton. Lois Gertrude was probably named after her father’s twin sister but called Gertie to avoid confusion.
Lois Bathsheba remained in Linton for twenty years, working as a general servant for several different families over the yearsvi. By 1901 she was living at home with her widowed mother and older sister but working as a cook. She was 38 years old and still single.
A year later, some-time in the first quarter of 1902, Lois Bathsheba Cracknell married Frederick William Fordham at Linton, Cambridgeshirevii.
Frederick Fordham was a widower of 44 years who lived at Hadstock in Essex with his four daughters and three sons. He was a coal merchant.viii Frederick’s children ranged in age from his daughter Florence, who was 29 at the time of his marriage to Lois, to George who was six.
The children’s mother was Lucy Hill from Linton, whom Frederick had married in 1877ix. She had died in the autumn of 1899, when young George was only threex.
Maybe Frederick met Lois when visiting his late wife’s family in Linton or perhaps the Hill family knew that Lois was living with her widowed mother and was looking for work. Irrespective of how they met, Frederick and Lois married and Lois became step-mother to Frederick’s children, the second of whom was Nellie, the family’s name for Ellen Harriett Fordham, later Willers.
The story comes full circle: Lois Bathsheba Cracknell became step-mother to the young woman, Ellen Fordham. Eighteen years later her niece Gertie became step-mother to Ellen’s daughter, Gracie Willers. It seems that the Willers’s family photograph does not show Ellen and her family with her father and mother as we always supposed but with her father and her stepmother.
When we place the photographs of Gertie and Lois side by side the family likeness between aunt and niece is very strong.
Finding the place of Gertie Cracknell in my mother-in-law’s family has been satisfying but, with the resolution of the ownership of the postcard album, came the need to discover more about Gertie’s family history.
This in turn led to a tangle of stepmothers which unravelled in quite a surprising way.
The family tree below is included to help readers follow this complex but fascinating family story (click on the chart to enlarge it).
If you are related to any of these families, please do get in touch by leaving a comment below.
i. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis, accessed 11 June 2015.
ii. http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/galloping: accessed 25 June 2015
iii. Cambridge Marriages Transcription, Cambridgeshire Family History Society, accessed through findmypast.co.uk
iv. 1911 England, Wales & Scotland Census records.
v. Sometimes spelt Jeppunah, 1871 England, Wales & Scotland Census.
vi. 1881 and 1891 England, Wales and Scotland Census records.
vii. England &Wales marriages 1837-2008, District of Linton, County of Cambridgeshire, vol 3b, p. 859.
viii. 1901 England, Wales and Scotland Census records
ix. England &Wales marriages 1837-2008, District of Linton, County of Cambridgeshire, vol 3b, p. 1124.
x. England & Wales Deaths 1837-2007, registered 3rd quarter 1899 in the District of Linton, vol, 3b, p 319.