Friday, January 15, 2016

The salvation of country life

I recently re-activated my subscription to and have once again been spending time with those who came before me. This time around I'm focusing on my U.K. ancestors, since I am a first generation American on that side and have a lot of family over there, past and present.

I came across a heartbreaking story of my third maternal great-grandmother, a lady named Elizabeth Aylward. Her whole branch of the family originally lived their lives in the rural hamlet of Suffolk, England, as well as Essex County. (I've actually been to Suffolk a few times and it's beautiful.) But when the Industrial Revolution began to gain traction, like thousands of others, Elizabeth made her way to London to live in the city and find work.

Over the years, through census documents, I saw her working as a boot-mender, a silk weaver, and as she grew older and presumably less dexterous, a laundress.

Her life went on in what must have been a dreary and difficult way, earning barely enough to survive and, along with her husband, supporting a family. But it was what happened after her children were gone and her husband died that really got me. 

Elizabeth's "Poor Law" removal and resettlement document.

1881 Census for her section of Bethnel Green Work House. The age of most women there was between 50 - 70.

Elizabeth Aylward ended up at age 70 in one of London's most notorious workhouses -- Bethnal Green -- where she lived out her days doing menial labor until she died.

As I read the sad story of her life, I couldn't help wondering if she ever regretted leaving the clean air and green fields of Suffolk. I can't help but feel that somehow, if she could just have stayed in the country, her life would have been far different. There would have been a community to care for her in her old age (no workhouses were needed in the farm communities, it was a city phenomenon) and life might not have been such a struggle.

But I could be wrong. It could be that she left Suffolk for London partly because she needed to find work that would support her.  In the end I will never know, of course, what choices could have changed her life. But I know when I lived in Los Angeles, I was very familiar with the sensation of how it felt to spend everything you have on rent to a point where you're broke at the end of each and every month with no emergency fund and no savings. And while there are no more work houses, there is certainly economic uncertainty for people who live their lives in cities and spend all of what they earn, month after month, year after year. The cities of the world are, in some spots, glamorous and cosmopolitan, but they extract a high price from those who want to live in them.

For me, my salvation came not from a journey into the city, but a journey out of it. And somehow, I feel that if Elizabeth could just have found her way back to the small town she started in, her life might have ended in a rocking chair by a window under a thatched roof somewhere instead of a brick factory work house, being fed crumbs and living in filth while working until the day she finally dropped dead. 

Elizabeth's greatest challenge, in my opinion, was something that was not her fault at all -- she was born into the era that valued the man-made and technological, the brick and the concrete, over a simple country life, considered by most to be antique and passé in the face of the Machine Era.  And it led her away from that country life to a hardscrabble existence in East London, where at the end of that life she had nothing to show for it -- no savings, no home, and no close-knit community to depend on.

I don't know where the soul of Elizabeth Aylward resides today but I only hope that there are a lot of green trees, fragrant flowers, soft breezes and most importantly, eternal and blissful rest. 

God knows she earned it.


  1. Very well written. I have always wanted to get on an Ancestry site to find out but haven't. My SIL did & found out that their favorite Aunt was actually their Grandmother! Oldest child (Aunt) & youngest child (my MIL, her Mother). MIL was born at home in the early 40s & her Mother took her to raise as her own. Aunt M. & Little Bit (my MIL) were very close over the years). Didn't find out until Aunt M. was very sick & told MIL the tale. But, by the time it was to be annouced to the immediate family (my FIL, my husband & his sister), my SIL had gotten on Ancestry & found out before my MIL could explain. Very awkward family meeting that was.

    1. WOW. Yes, I think skeletons in closets are definitely something to worry about on Ancestry! My husband found out that a relative who pretended to be Apache Indian was not, and DNA tests on the family confirmed her untruth. Some members still cannot accept that she lied. You just never know what you're going to turn up! But it is enlightening to find out both the good and the bad, I must say. Good luck if you decide to do it!

  2. How sad. It's astonishing to compare struggles just a few generations ago to the general standard of life we have now. Of course not everyone is so lucky, even now. I've always felt a sense of inprisoment in cities, so I think you're exactly right. My sister or best friend would argue that nowhere is more liberating than a large city. I wonder what forms those feelings in us?

    1. It may be as simple as longing to be someplace different than where you grew up, perhaps? Suburban kids can go either way I guess, but the city/country switch is easy for me to believe. It's also interesting that one of my mom's brothers (born in inner city London) returned to Suffolk to live the country life and raise his family. So the family came full circle, ultimately. Country to city, then back to country a couple of generations later.